The best legs in town

We take four of the best tripod systems in the market designed for small, professional electronic news gathering cameras and see how they compare.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  August 1, 2005

I|~|tripod1.jpg|~|The Panther T6|~|A tripod system is literally an extension of a cameraman’s limb on the field. Just as a good and stable tripod system could stand him in good stead, a bad one will be a major handicap on the field. Digital Studio, in its constant quest to feature some of the best tripod systems in the market, took the opportunity to trial four different brands this year with the help of ace cameraman and reviewer, Nicholas Davidson, who is also a partner at the production firm, Alchemy Films in Dubai. The Sachtler and Vinten tripod systems have been a given in our annual review of tripod systems. However, this year, we decided to bring the Manfrotto tripod system back into the fold after a disappointing review of the brand a few years ago. The fourth system is a brand new entrant — the Panther T6. We thought our test this year would be incomplete without the inclusion of the Panther tripod system, which was launched for the first time at IBC last year. The four tripod systems tested in this review are all designed for small, digital and ENG (electronic news gathering) cameras that weigh a maximum of 8-9 kgs. Typically, the cameras that would be used on these tripods are the Sony PD 150, PD 170 and the Panasonic DVX 100. All four tripods came with the features that would be expected of quality tripod systems. So, this time, we thought we’d skip talking about the common features, which we have spelt out in the boxes and instead focus on what’s different about each of them. We went in the order of price, looking at the most expensive system first. The Panther T6 at US $2,190 is the most expensive of the lot with the tripod system, the head, spreader and bag included. This system is deceptively simple looking and the lightest of the four. It’s easy to assume that it is a very basic system and, therefore, the cheapest. Davidson’s first remark when he saw the tripod system was that it looked like it was made in his dad’s workshop but on closer inspection, we were stunned by the simplicity of the design and the beauty of the whole system. The T6 turned out to be a very sophisticated tripod system that has been cleverly designed to provide maximum efficiency on the field while also not letting too many settings and knobs get in the way. The US $2,190 tripod system comes with just two settings for pan and tilt, unlike most of the others that come with five settings each, and carries a maximum of 6kgs. “It is so simple looking and very simple in operation,” says Davidson. “This is a big benefit and for a light camera, these settings are perhaps all you need.” The head of the T6 is much smaller than the others but it feels just as stable and fluid. “Although its head is tiny, it is remarkably fluid. It’s very good; panning and tilting is fine. It also tapers to a stop very easily. This can deal with most lens attachments. The sliding adjustment to move the camera forward and backward works very well and it also locks very nicely,” explains Davidson. The legs of the T6 again seemed to be the best of the four. One doesn’t realise how crucial locking mechanisms are until one is on the field. For Davidson, who has often struggled with knobs and locking mechanisms outdoors, the levers on the Panther legs were received with great joy. “They have made the locking and unlocking so simple on the T6. You don’t need to struggle and turn the locks around to get the legs up or down and that is so crucial when you are out shooting,” says Davidson. The Panther T6 is two-tiered. Its legs can be arranged to move up or down very quickly. At its tallest, the T6 is almost 6 foot tall and at its shortest, it is just about six inches above the ground. Davidson was very impressed with this feature. “There is such a short distance between the bottom of the ball and the floor that you can actually go really low. This is very impressive. This tripod, no doubt, has a very good range. It’s very easy to get your camera on this tripod and is great for ENG shooting,” he confirms. ||**||II|~|tripod2.jpg|~|Sachtler DV6 SB|~|Additionally, we also found that the spreader on the T6 is very cleverly designed. Since the tripod system goes down really low, we thought it might be difficult to push the spreaders back inwards and get the tripod up again. But again, the design stunned us. The sides of the tripod are designed to move up naturally as we move them in and this make it very easy for us to push the spreaders back in. To sum up, the T6 has a very impressive little head and cleverly designed legs. Great attention has been paid to detail to ensure maximum comfort and convenience to the user. As the lightest among the tripod systems, it will fit on your back perfectly as a hand luggage and is ideal for shooting sports, adventures and other outdoor events. The tripod also comes with a solid carry bag that has ample space to also carry a few clothes. The next in order of price was the Sachtler DV6 SB, which can carry upto 9 kgs. At US $2120, it comes with five horizontal and five vertical indexed positions for pan and tilt. From past experience with the Sachtler, Davidson’s first instinct was to check the pan mechanism on the vendor’s tripod. This was definitely an improvement over what we had seen last year with better grip teeth to enable the handle to offer clean stops as we panned or tilted. Also, this time, it had a larger handle to fix the camera on the head and was, therefore, less time consuming. In terms of leg range, the Sachtler, which is a single-tiered tripod system, goes all the way up like the Panther but stayed a good foot and a half above the ground at its lowest. This could be a small disadvantage if you want to shoot close to the ground. “I personally love getting the camera close to the ground and it makes a big difference to have shots close to the ground. This one can be a bit frustrating for me,” says Davidson. Also, the panning handle on the Sachtler seemed to get in the way of the lock but we noticed the same problem with the Vinten Pro 6 as well. We also couldn’t seem to get the camera to balance on the Sachtler with all the locks off. But as Davidson points out, it’s not a big issue with a light camera. Again, the locking mechanism on the Sacthler worked well but it paled in comparison to the Panther, which had an easier locking mechanism. Next on the list was the Vinten Pro-6, which at just US $805 is a great buy for those looking for a low-budget tripod for their small ENG cameras. This Pro-6DC system package includes a two-stage black aluminium pozi-loc tripod, floor spreader and soft case. This is not strictly the equivalent of the others but it has been designed to cater to the same needs. The ideal price and quality equivalent would be the Vision 3 pan & tilt head, which is designed specifically for the new digital age of smaller, lighter one-piece DV camcorders and offers many of the features found in the larger heads. ||**||III|~|tripod3.jpg|~|Vinten Protouch|~|The Protouch has very similar features but can only carry a maximum of 6kgs, unlike the Vision 3, which can carry 10kgs. Both the Vision 3 and the Protouch feature illuminated level bubbles, and both come with pozi loc tripod. But the Pro-6 tripod is a two-stage black aluminium only while the Vision 3 comes with the option of carbon fibre or aluminium in a single or two stage. The biggest difference between the two, however, is in the fluid technology. The drag system in the Vision 3 is said to be lubricated friction (LF), which gives a very fluid feel, while the drag system in the pro-6 is a continuously variable fluid drag. The latter is not seen to be as sophisticated as the LF. Also, the Vision 3 has interchangeable springs depending on the camera and batteries being loaded onto it and this enables more flexibility to use multiple cameras of up to 10kg. When we tested the Pro-6, it did feel slightly different from the Panther and the Sachtler but it did not come across as a substandard tripod system. In fact, it made as clean stops as the rest of the tripod systems. For the compromises, which are subtle and almost insignificant, Vinten has been able to provide a low-cost alternative for people with smaller budgets. The Pro-6 is about the same weight as the Sachtler and comes with sturdy legs. It comes with a standard pan bar but again, this gets in the way of the lock like the Sachtler. But the continuously variable fluid drag didn’t come in the way of smooth movement and it provided complete camera control. Designed to be simple to use, the Pro-6 incorporates easy to adjust drag knobs and come with an illuminated levelling bubble for quick and convenient set up in low light situations. Unlike other Vinten tripod systems, on the Pro-6 system, one lock is on the side and the other on the back. “They have moved the pan lock to the back probably to avoid confusing the end user,” says Davidson. The system seemed stable. Whatever setting it was on, the Pro-6 head seemed as fluid as the rest of the tripods; its pan and tilt locks worked fine and it tapered off well. There were no back balance issues. However, if you let the camera go, it just springs back on this tripod system. “Ideally, you need to lock it with the side lock. Otherwise, it will just spring back unlike the Panther and the Sachtler, where the camera will just stay put even if you don’t lock it,” Davidson points out. Also, the panning adjustment for the Vinten is in front just below the plate. The Pro-6, again two-tiered, went a notch higher than both the Sachtler and the Panther but couldn’t beat Panther at its lowest level. “You can buy three Vinten tripod systems for the price of one Panther or Sachtler,” says Davidson, “and if you did choose the Vinten over either of the other two because you had a much smaller budget, you wouldn’t be compromising all that much,” he adds. ||**||IV|~|tripod4.jpg|~|Manfrotto 503|~|The last of the lot in the test was the Manfrotto 503, which can carry a maximum weight of 8 kgs and seemed a wee bit heavier than the rest of the tripod systems. “This is very different from some of the other systems I have tried from this company in the past,” says Davidson. “This definitely feels just as fluid as the rest. In fact, it seems to look and feel just like the Vinten Pro-6,” he says, as he pans and tilts the handle. Again, this two-tier system goes as high as the Vinten and lower than even the Vinten although it couldn’t beat the Panther. Like the Vinten, this system also comes with a spare screw and the pan adjustment is under the plate. It also comes with a bigger handle, which means leveling the camera will be a lot easier. Also, it comes with a user-friendly quick lock system on the legs. The 503 is designed for payloads of up to 8kgs and is equipped with a built-in balance spring to maintain camera positioning during tilt movements. It also has a new fine-control drag device, which offers continuous adjustment from nearly 0 to maximum. The 503 has a quick release sliding plate with VHS pin and a telescopic pan handle. Perhaps one thing we liked most about the Manfrotto was its optional remote control handle. Called the 523PRO, this remote control works with both Sony and Canon LANC-enabled video cameras and costs only about US $275. This remote control features a record/stop button, a power on/standby button, three different zoom speeds control buttons and an auto focus button. The zoom wheel can be used to control one of the three preset, maximum zoom speeds. For all zoom speeds except the slowest preset speed, you can choose between progressive zoom speed or fixed zoom speed. The 523PRO also allows you to set left and right handed operation by changing zoom wheel direction. This remote control does not come with any parts to fit to the head, but instead utilises the pan bar clamp that comes with all Manfrotto heads. “Controlling the zoom is one of the most important parts of using a light-weight camera. This remote handle eliminates that pain. It comes with three different zoom speeds. All three are smooth. The number one speed is slow enough and the three is quick and it tapers off really nicely,” says Davidson. “This is a great accessory and some of the features like focusing and zooming that would be difficult to do manually on a small camera are a lot easier to do with this remote handle,” says Davidson. Another interesting feature of the Manfrotto is that it comes with an in-built Allen key. “The quick lock systems tend to get loose easily on most tripod systems and having easy access to an Allen key is a very thoughtful addition to the system. It means you have easy access to the tool that enables you to tighten your tripod’s legs if they get loose,” says Davidson. All in all, all the four systems were of high quality and comparable. But Davidson said that if he had the budget, he would, without doubt, go for the Panther. “If I was very budget conscious, I’d probably buy the Manfrotto or the Vinten. If I bought the Manfrotto system, I’d buy the remote handle as well. If you are going to be using small cameras on these tripods, the remote control will make life so much easier for you. If money were no object, I’d go with the Panther because it is so small and compact. Its legs go very low and nice and high as well. It’s just so small, lightweight and compact that you can easily sling it on your back and go. This is perfect for sports and adventure where you can just stick it on the back like a rucksack and run up the mountain with it. And for a small camera, these settings will suffice,” says Davidson. ||**||

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