My last post was about video tripods and in that post, I had explained the fluid head briefly. I thought it might be a good idea to write a full-length article on fluid heads as these heads are very essential for filmmaking. Fluid heads are among the many heads which one can employ for capturing photos and videos but these are generally preferred over other heads for shooting videos.
In this post, I’ll be explaining in detail as why is it so and what is a fluid head basically. So put up with me a bit longer and in the next few minutes, you will have substantial knowledge of this piece of equipment.
Fluid Head – Definition and Meaning
Fluid heads are named so because they use fluid cartridges to give a nice smooth panning motion of the camera. Well, that’s how they should work but many heads including some very expensive ones do not have fluid cartridges. Instead, they are well-oiled plastic parts that move against each other. The oiling in them is bound to get dry and eventually the motion will get jerky and useless.
These days, instead of using actual oil, companies make use of gas cartridges like the Manfrotto Nitrotech N8 Fluid Head. Fluid heads dampen the movement of cameras and reduce vibrations which leads to steady videos. The fluid-filled chambers are used to adjust the amount of drag which you want in your shots. If you need to move your head quickly into position, set the drag to zero or if you need to shoot something moving like a car or a ship, up the drag a couple of notches.
Fluid head costs anywhere between $30 to more than $10,000! Yes, that’s right A fluid head can cost more than 10 grand. But I am neither experienced nor qualified to review those products. OConner tripods and their heads are often used by top experts in the filmmaking industry and you may even see one lying around on a film set. 90% of all videographers make do with other heads which work fabulously and don’t burn a hole in their pockets.
Features of A Good Fluid Head
A good fluid head is the one which gives you complete control over its functioning. The features of a good fluid head vary depending upon the model, make and price. Generally, a high-end fluid head gives more precise controls over the counterbalance, drag, and tension (lock). Let’s look at them one by one.
All the fluid heads including the entry level ones have locks! Locks are used to fix the axis so that you can pan or tilt your camera. Once locked, you cannot move the head along that axis. It might be tempting to use locks to adjust for drag but it isn’t appropriate.
Drag is adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of dampening in your head. In a fluid head (not the one with oiled plastic parts), the fluid chambers are used to adjust the drag by resisting the torque applied while panning. Note that friction does not come into play. The amount of drag depends on your need and preference. Some prefer no drag at all while others make full use of this feature.
Counterbalance as the name suggests helps in balancing the camera/camcorder on the tripod. In many fluid heads counterbalance if fixed and the user has no control over it which can be a pain sometimes but some have counterbalance adjustments which go up to 90lb (40kg). In simple terms, counterbalance stabilizes the camera when you fix it in a position where it is tilted at an angle. The concept of relative weight comes into play here. The relative weight shifts as you move the camera back and forth, the counterbalance nullifies that making the setup stable. Impressive, right!
The counterbalance works closely with the amount of drag and it is completely up to you how you use it.
Nifty Trick: To check if the counterbalance is properly set or not, set the drag to zero. The camera must stay in place even if you tilt a little. If it doesn’t you need to balance the camera properly.
A good fluid head will have multiple positions to screw the handle on. This again totally depends on your preference. Also, cheap fluid heads come with a manufacturer exclusive QR plate which is not very good since you want all your equipment to work perfectly with each other. I recommend the Manfrotto system as its QR plates are widely accepted by other makers.
How is it Different From Your Regular Head?
Regular pan/tilt heads are very different from the fluid heads. Although both are used to pan or move the camera, the difference is in their purpose. The 3-way pan/tilt tripod head used in photography is not meant to be used to capture video. The pan videos won’t be as smooth as with a fluid head. Photography heads are to be used in situations where you lock a camera in place and shoot still images.
There are many types of pan/tilt heads like the automated ones, geared heads, etc. One cannot expect to shoot video from these heads. Geared heads are for precise adjustments in frames because the gear mechanism pans the camera slightly for each turn on the knob. Fluid heads reduce the shake especially while starting and stopping the pan.
Unlike the gimbal head or ball heads, fluid heads are restricted to move along fixed axes. Gimbal and ball heads motion can be termed random but this is not acceptable in the case of videos. The horizontal level has to be maintained at all times in videography.
Look Out for These
The fluid head market is very big and there are tons of cheap ones out there in the market. The cheap ones will cost you somewhere around $30-$50 and you don’t have to do a lot of research before buying one. They have many disadvantages such as the built quality, functioning, etc. The parts are made of plastic, no fluid chambers, no advanced controls, etc but on the plus side, they are great for starting out.If you have just begun shooting videos, a cheap one will be a definite upgrade from your photography head. Be sure to read the maximum load capacity before mounting your camera, you don’t want your head to collapse!
FOR THE MORE SERIOUS ONES
People who are already familiar with shooting video and want to upgrade your cheap heads, I would recommend the all-time favorite Manfrotto 502. They make it with and without half bowls, it’s up to you to decide. These heads are excellent in terms of built and functioning. It is made of high-quality aluminum and has actual fluid compartments. The only downside is that there is no control over counterbalance. Though the 4kg fixed counterbalance is more than what you will require but then it would have been a nice addition.This head has separate drag controls for pan and tilt movements and the head can support up to 15.4lbs (7kgs).
PROFESSIONAL FLUID HEADS
The Sachtler Ace series fluid heads are some of the best which you can lay your hands on. These heads are quality products and are used by skilled professionals. They offer complete control over the countermeasure and drag. The maximum payload is just about 4kg. The snag is that they aren’t sold separately. Ace series is a part of their flowtech tripod range. Check out the Best Video Tripods here.Another great head is the Cartoni FOCUS 22. It has a maximum payload capacity of 49lbs (22kg) and is a great option to look for. It features the Sachtler’s touch and Go style QR plates which makes it compatible with a wide range of products.
The fluid head is bulky and delicate gadget and it is always wise to loosen the locks before packing up the shoot. Remember taking care of your equipment will reward you many times over. Fluid heads are a must for any videographer and one can start even with a $30 one from Amazon then as you master the nuances of videography you might feel the urge to upgrade your tripod/ head.
Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this article, feel free to drop in a question or some feedback below in the comments section and I’ll be more than happy to answer you.
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