A decent tripod is a critical piece of your camera kit. It’s not something you should skimp on as a poor tripod is difficult to work with, will cause frustration and lead to inferior footage. Invest wisely and your tripod should last a decade, far longer than most cameras. I’ve got tripods that are as good today as they were when I purchased them in the 1990’s.
When choosing a tripod the range of models available is confusing and baffling. There are so many different tripod weights, payloads and heights to choose from, so it can be difficult. Also while there is such a thing as a good all round tripod (as we shall se in a bit) there is also no such thing as one tripod that will be perfect for every shoot. The most important thing to consider when choosing a tripod is the payload that it will need to carry. This is the total weight of the camera, lens, batteries as well as any support equipment like rods and rails or monitors attached to the camera. Don’t underestimate how heavy this lot can get. You will want a tripod that can comfortably carry the payload you have, you never want to be right on the upper limit. At the same time you don’t want too big a tripod. The pan and tilt resistance on an excessively big tripod may be too much for a very light camera. Overall I’m a big fan of heavier tripods. The extra mass of a heavy tripod tends to make it more stable, in particular it will help reduce vibration, but this comes at a price, a big tripod is hard to lug around and if you fly a lot will cost a lot in excess baggage fees.
I travel a lot, so I was looking for a lightweight tripod that could carry my PMW-F5 kit. The main use for this tripod was for my self funded storm chasing and natural extremes stock footage shoots as well as for the many film making workshops I run all over the world. A tripod I have had my eye on for a while is the Miller Solo – Compass 15 tripod package, so I decided to give one a try.
The Solo is unlike most professional video tripods as the legs are of the single tube, telescoping variety as opposed to the more traditional double tube variety.
They are constructed from Carbon Fiber, so they are very light, yet they can extend very heigh (1.87m for the legs alone), which is a great thing to have on news shoots or at an event or conference where you need to get the camera up above the heads of an audience. There is no mid level or floor spreader with this tripod, the spread of the legs is governed by latches at the tops of the legs that have 3 different positions, each one restricting the maximum leg spread by a different amount. At the same time as being able to go very tall by lifting a latch at the top of each tripod leg the legs extend outwards almost flat to the ground and this allows you to get very low down at a height similar to a Hi-Hat yet the tripod remains very stable and solid.
The Compass 15 head is a middle weight fluid head with a 75mm bowl for levelling. The drag for the pan and tilt is varied using click stop rings, each with 6 settings from zero to 5. The drag range is very good with position 5 giving considerable drag, something useful when you working with a long lens or trying to do very slow pans. For counterbalance there is another click stop ring, this time with 4 different counterbalance settings. The difference between the minimum and maximum counterbalance settings isn’t huge, but adequate provided you camera is within the heads payload range.
My first major project for this tripod was a bit of a baptism by fire. Every year I spend around 6 to 8 weeks shooting severe storms and tornadoes in the USA for stock footage. These shoots are always tough. You have to be extremely mobile. As I’m based in the UK, first of all there is the initial flights across the Atlantic to the USA. Once in the US I will typically drive between 400 to 600 miles a on an active storm day. In a month I’ll clock up around 10,000 miles. I don’t have an assistant on these shoots so have to do all the kit lugging myself. As well as the camera kit there is also 20kg of additional equipment needed to get real time weather data via satellite, two way radios, laptops, hard hats and safety gear. So anything I can do to save weight and bulk else where is welcome and the Solo tripod scores highly for portability.
Filming a tornado is challenging. Very often the only way to get a good view of a tornado is by being in it’s path. Lots of rain and hail falls behind a tornado obscuring it from view and a strong, sometimes deadly wind called the RFD occurs around the back of a tornado, so, you need to be in front of it. A tornado can travel across the ground at speeds of up to 70mph, so if your 2 miles from a fast moving tornado you have only got about 90 seconds to get out of the car, set up your tripod, get a couple of shots, jump back in the car and drive out of it’s way. For this the Miller Solo was fantastic. With no spreader to getting in the way but the leg spread limited by the adjustable stops I found it a very fast tripod to deploy and pack away.
At the same time it was also very stable. It is not as stable as a bigger, heavier tripod but still remarkably solid given it’s light weight. I’ve used bigger tripods in the past and it really helps having that extra bulk when shooting in the often strong winds that surround the storms I shoot. But because these took longer to deploy I wasn’t always able to use them, reverting to handheld when time was short. The Solo’s portability meant I was able to use it much often, so although some shots taken in high winds do suffer from a bit of wobble and buffeting, the more frequent tripod use means that I cam away with a lot more steady and stable shots from this assignment than I would have with a heavier conventional tripod. I guess really for me I will have to consider taking two tripods if I can. Something substantial and heavy for use when the wind is really strong and the Solo for everything else.
Talking of everything else” what about shots done when things are not so frantic? Well a big part of the storm shoot is to document the whole life cycle of the storms. This means shooting a lot of panoramas and landscapes, often with very slow pans. One of the things that really took me by surprise with the Compass 15 head was the smoothness of the pan and tilt drag. This really is one of the best tripod heads that I have ever owned. The pan and tilt drag really is silky smooth and there is no perceptible backlash. It really is a delight to use. It’s so good that I think I’m going to have to take a close look at some of Millers larger tripods for when I want a heavy weight option. Smooth, slow pans were easy to achieve, even at longer focal lengths. One small criticism of the tripod kit is that the single tube Solo legs twist a little more than most traditional double tube tripod legs, but then that’s the price you pay for going light weight.
So overall I thing this combination of Compass 15 head with Miller Solo legs is fantastic. I’ve used a lot of tripods over the years, and this one stands out from the crowd. But, as I said at the start there is no such thing as a tripod that works for every application. I would not recommend the Solo legs for long lens work, they just don’t quite have the stability that can be obtained with a larger set of legs. That said, for portability and great performance in most everyday applications the Miller Solo and Compass 15 is a delight and I highly recommend it.
You can see footage from this shoot by clicking here.
For information on the Miller Solo System click here.
Disclosure: I approached Miller and requested the loan of the tripod. Miller provided me with a Miller Solo and Compass 15 head on a loan basis for review and use at my workshops etc. The review is my own opinion and Miller did not have any input into the review content. I really like this tripod!
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