Many, many moons ago in a college experience decades past, I wanted to do one of two things with my life: a) make music videos for a living or b) become a an international news videographer for CBS assigned to the Middle East. Well, neither of those things happened, my career went down a different path and I left that work behind. My aspirations to be a videographer/ filmmaker/ cinematographer were set aside for a different career and from a hobby perspective, I couldn’t find the means to do what I wanted to do.
I learned to build visual stories with quality tools and until about a half-decade ago doing such work on my own was simply out of reach — the gear I wanted to use was priced out-of-reach for a hobbyist cinematographer. I tried doing shooting on consumer HDV and I found it frustrating. I tried adding depth-of-field adapters to provide more creative flexibility, but that too became frustrating. Instead of video, I turned to photography for my visual outlet and invested in digital cameras until I hit upon an affordable “compromise” — the video-capable Panasonic Lumix GH1 micro 4/3 camera. Suddenly, quality video capture was within reach and the time seemed right to get back to what I left behind nearly 20 years ago.
In college, I and a couple of students unearthed an ancient Miller fluid head that sat atop a wooden tripod. Compared to any other head/tripod combination that we had, the Miller was above and beyond anything we’d used and for “experienced” students, we made it available for checkout. The Miller was our first experience with a true fluid head and frankly it spoiled me. Fluid-like and friction-based heads simply didn’t cut it anymore. Later in my career I needed to purchase tripod for a large ENG-style video camera. Knowing that a true fluid head was the way to go, I spent some time learning about tripods and discovered the joy of a bowl base. For those who don’t know, half-bowl tripod allows you to set up the tripod on uneven ground and rather than leveling the legs, the fluid head can be adjusted separately to achieve a level position. In other words, no fussing with adjusting legs up and down to get the tripod perfectly level — minor adjustments to leveling can be done at the head. About 10 years later, I mated my past experience with Miller fluid heads with a spreader-less bowl tripod, and invested in a Miller DS10 Solo DV tripod and head combination for work.
I have to say that working with the Miller DS10 was very nice, but the spreader-less Solo tripod was even better. The portability of the whole stick package made up for some shortcomings in the DS10 head. To me, it wasn’t as fluid as the old Miller used many, many years ago. The pan and tilt drag seemed a bit gritty to me — not butter smooth as the vintage head and I never could get the counterbalance to work quite right. For what we used it for at work, it was fine and in fact, better than many makes and models of sticks but for me, personally, it left me a little short.
Fast forward to present day and my video production interests exceed the ability (and capacity) of the small pile of Manfrotto heads in my production drawer. I started researching options — Manfrotto, Miller, Sachtler, Ronford-Baker, Vinten and O’Connor. I knew I didn’t want a stepped system, so that ruled out Sachtler. The demo Manfrotto heads I had access to didn’t seem to hold up to showroom abuse, so I had my doubts about sinking my own money into one. The fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the sticks as an investment, rather than a near-term solution. At that point, I started researching the big leagues and ran across an interesting post about a cinematographer who had an O’Connor 515 mated to a Gitzo compact tripod. Reading through is post, the combination sounded perfect — a quality head that should be smoother than the Miller DS10 and a tripod that is more compact than the Miller Solo. At that point I decided that a 75mm or 100mm bowl on a Gitzo tripod would be optimal for travel, which left me to find a fluid head.
Having ruled out Manfrotto and Sachtler (although the Ace did appear interesting), I concentrated on learning more about O’Connors, Millers, and Vintens (Ronford-Baker was just a bit exotic for my needs). I wanted something that had a good counterbalance system that didn’t require changing out springs, so that ruled out the highly rated Vinten Vision 5. Although my experience with the Miller DS10 was fine, it just wasn’t as smooth as I expected, so that introduced doubt about any of the entry-to-mid level Millers. And as far as O’Connor, well, I had never used nor even seen one, so I had to rely on the Internet for advice. I searched high and low, and read about any post I could find about the “entry-level” O’Connors. After a bit of research, I decided that the current generation of the O’Connor 1030 fluid head would be too much head for the weight of my present and envisioned rig, so in the end decided that a used 515 or Ultimate DV head (both discontinued) would be the ideal option — then I saw the prices in the used market. An O’Connor would definitely be an investment.
As luck would have it, a “tough love” O’Connor on carbon fiber sticks appeared on eBay. From the look of the photos and description provided by the seller, the head and tripod would need some serious elbow grease to bring them back to life so feeling the need for a mechanical challenge, I purchased what is arguably the most important long-term investment a videographer can make — a quality tripod and a fluid head. I am now the proud owner of an O’Connor 515 fluid head (pictured above), which can be mounted atop one of two tripods, either an O’Connor 35L (also pictured above) or a Gitzo GT3541LS.
I know this sounds like a fanboy, but I have never used a fluid head anywhere in the league of the O’Connor 515. It is so smooth, has such an amazing counterbalance that works extremely well with my compact DSLR rig. Yes, it still needs work but in my book, even needing more care and attention, it absolutely lives up to the legend. The 35L tripod, although a bit wonky in the quick-release department (a cable is broken, so I need to repair the ring mechanism), is absolutely rock solid, light, and a dream to use. I have never worked with a tripod of its caliber before and now I understand why it fetches a premium price. For compact work, I use the Gitzo GT3541LS tripod. As it is a Systemic model, I replaced the standard 3/8 center stud with a 100mm bowl, and now I can mount the 515 head to the tripod and set it so low that it effectively becomes a high hat. One thing that worried me about the 515 was whether or not it could be “portable.” I am happy to say that I’m able to tear down the 515 and Gitzo, place them in a regular backpack with a compact Zacuto rod system, and travel about Chicago looking more or less like an art student (the tripod just barely peeks out of main pocket of the backpack).
What I now have is a cinema-grade set of sticks that I can take nearly anywhere and shoot footage that will only be let down by the quality of the operator — me.