The tripod is likely the most simplest piece of gear in a filmmaker’s toolkit. It hasn’t changed in basic form and function since its invention thousands of years ago.
Wikipedia describes a tripod as “a portable three-legged frame, used as a platform for supporting the weight and maintaining the stability of some other object.”
So, you’d think today, buying a tripod would be an effortless task. But the tripod search is still one of the most challenging decisions for many videographers today.
TL;DR: we have spent years agonizing over the right tripod decision, so if you want to skip the heartache..
We believe the Miller Air Carbon is the best tripod for anyone shooting with a DSLR, mirrorless, or cinema camera and lens weighing 4-11 pounds.
Say you have a camera, a very popular type of camera even, like a DSLR, a Canon C100 or C300, or a Sony FS5 or FS7. Or even if you have a mirrorless A7S/A7R or GH4/GH5 with a standard lens on it. We’d dare to say, this describes a huge section of the documentary and corporate video shooters out there today.
So why is it so difficult to find a tripod for this market?
Camera Tripod Recommendations
Each day, somewhere on a forum or filmmaking community, someone asks the innocent question, “which tripod should I buy?” The replies are plenty, as there are hundreds if not thousands of combinations of tripod plus fluid head. And decades of experience with a certain combination gives some people a feeling that their tripod is the one.
But at the end of the day, most often you’ll see responses such as this: “Get the beefiest, most solid tripod you can afford, and you’ll have it for life.”
The problem with this response is, there’s such a thing as simply too much tripod. Fast paced wedding shooters with a C100 and a 5DmkIII have different needs than commercial DPs shooting on a huge variety of cameras, day in, day out. For those shooters, getting the biggest, most solid tripod makes sense (and Miller makes quite a few of them).
For the rest of us, it’s a more delicate decision. First, there’s the up front cost of getting the industry standard, beefy yet solid tripods. Many come in at several thousands of dollars. Worthy investment? Undoubtedly, but still a harrowing prospect for many emerging filmmakers.
And then there’s the weight of too many options, both for legs and the fluid head. From companies such as Benro, Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto, Sachtler, Miller, to entry level Cartoni and Vinten tripods.
Do you pick alloy or carbon, dual or triple stage, single, dual or triple section legs, bottom, mid-level, or no spreader, 75mm or 100mm bowl head? The list goes on. It’s easy to get research fatigue, especially if you’re also looking to kit out your camera with lenses, lights, audio, a gimbal, slider, shoulder rig, and so forth.
When we worked for PBS, we went with the popular Sachtler Ace system, made specifically for DSLR shooters. But over the span of a few years flying around Alaska on bush planes and hitching rides on snowmobiles, we grew tired of it.
Simply put, the Sachtler Ace M was a pain to use. The legs were flimsy, the spreaders were more hassle than helpful, and the fluid head - though quite smooth - had several grades of fluid drag that always needed adjustment. In addition to needing to adjust the fluid drag through 6 settings, any simple height adjustment required you to loosen and tighten 12 slow-locking knobs - 9 on the legs and 3 on the spreader, and you inevitably always forget one of the 12 locks. It just wasn’t fun to use.
So when we became freelance shooters, we went an entirely different direction and bought into solid Gitzo 2531LVL photography legs. We went everywhere with this setup, even shooting with jibs on long hikes on a glacier.
But while the portability of a Gitzo photo tripod has been remarkable, finding a good fluid head on a flat-based tripod has been a long - and costly - journey. (One day we’ll try out the Really Right Stuff fluid head for our flat based tripod, when we can afford it).
Miller Air Carbon Fiber Tripod System
Enter the Miller Air Carbon Fiber System. It has the build quality of their upper tier tripods, and yet it’s made for us DSLR/Mirrorless/Cinema shooters. And it’s $1175 for the whole system.
To be honest, we wish we could have skipped through all the ups and downs of using a photo tripod and just had a Miller Air all along, but it wasn’t available when we bought into our tripod system.
But it’s here now, so let’s rejoice and look at the Miller Air and what it has to offer. We’ll compare it with our Gitzo flathead tripod a little further down.
Miller Air Tripod Legs
The Miller Air Carbon system comes in two flavors, one with two-stage legs that can go up to 63 inches, and a three-stage system that goes up to a whopping 73 inches. We chose the two-stage system because it’s more affordable, quicker to get into position, and 63 inches (plus the height of the head) is plenty tall for most of our interviews where the subjects are standing.
There are three positions that you can lock the leg angles in, so if you don’t need the maximum height, the middle position can offer more stability in windy outdoor conditions, or if you’re adding a slider or jib to the setup.
The brilliant part of using a bowl head tripod like the Miller Air is you can spread the legs incredibly close to the ground surface, for low angle shots. It’s impossible to do this with our Gitzo photo tripod with a center column, because the column needs to be raised to avoid hitting the ground. With the Miller Air, you can get it down to 9 inches above the ground.
The Miller Air also has the option of using spikes for outdoor shooting. You simply rotate the rubber feet to allow the spikes to emerge. It’s one more way that you can ensure solid tripod shots when you’re outdoors, and it’s something we’ve missed with our Gitzo photo tripod. The only thing is you have to remember to hide the spikes when you’re shooting indoors, so you don’t scratch precious hardwood floors.
Miller Tripods Rapid Lock
The Miller Air features the Solo Rapid Lock twisting leg locks, which require only a 1/4th of a turn to lock and release the lock to adjust the leg height. The benefit to this type of locking system is that to unfold a tripod, you can grab both locks on a single leg, twist both of them to release both stages of the leg, all with just one hand.
To us, this kind of twist lock is the quickest and most secure way to adjust a tripod’s height. The flip locks that you often see on Manfrotto tripods are a little quicker to use, but they inevitably become loose, so you need to carry a special tool to tighten the flip locks. And most of the time when you need one, you don’t have one around.
There’s also simple locking knobs, like on Sachtler Ace, for example. But as mentioned earlier, these are slow to use, and when you add up all the knobs on a Sachtler Ace, a simple height adjustment needs 12 total knobs to be unscrewed, adjusted, and then tightened. It’s a long process and you almost always forget about one or two knobs, slowing you down even more. Daily use counts for something here, and there’s a reason why the world’s best portable tripods like Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, and Miller use twist knobs.
Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs
The Miller Air does come in a slightly more affordable alloy model. It has the same fluid head, but the legs are aluminum alloy, which adds up to a pound more weight.
But we feel it’s a better choice to go with the Carbon model, not only for the lower weight, but because Carbon is better for cold conditions. The legs won’t get too cold to the touch, whereas alloy definitely does. Sure, the Miller Air has neoprene covers around the top of the legs, but it’s still a better investment to go with Carbon for a couple hundred more dollars.
Miller DS10 Tripod Head
Before the Air came out, most often you would see lightweight rigs shooting on a Miller DS10 or DS5 fluid head, with a variety of legs. The DS5 is now discontinued, and it only supported up to 5.5lbs. But the DS10 is still available in the Solo DV10 Carbon Fiber System. The main difference is the DS10 head has several degrees of fluid drag. And it’s slightly more expensive.
If you plan to shoot a lot of telephoto nature shots on a tripod, having several steps of fluid drag might make sense. But for most shooters, the single speed of the Air fluid head is all you’ll need. And simplicity counts when you’re hustling to quickly get a variety of shots on a documentary or corporate shoot.
Miller Air Tripod Counterbalance
Counter Balance is where a true video fluid head like the Miller Air can make your life a lot easier than using a flat based photo tripod. The Miller Air features two selectable counterbalance positions, for different camera weights. We placed our Canon C300 Mark II with a 70-200mm on the Miller Air and released the tilt lock, and it stayed in position no matter if we pointed straight up or down.
With our Gitzo sticks and various fluid heads, we always had to lock down our tilt because the heads were never intended to counterbalance a camera such as the C100 or C300. While this worked fine for most situations like interviews, or when we locked the tilt to shoot a pan, it’s always been a point of frustration.
We weighed our C300 mark II and 70-200mm f/4 IS at slightly under 10lbs. The Miller Air counterbalance held tilt position perfectly, with the help of the 60mm quick release sliding range, to get the right balance. It only took a couple seconds, and it felt really, really good after not having a counterbalance for years of run and gun work.
The word on the street is you should pick a tripod that has a load capacity that is twice what your camera weighs, to ensure the counterbalance can handle the weight. The Miller Air 75mm Solo dual stage legs can handle up to 44lbs, but the head is rated for 4.4 to 11 lbs. In our experience, the Miller Air handled our 10-pound C300 Mark II rig without a sweat.
If you want to add an accessory like an external monitor or a light, without attaching it your camera, Miller sells the optional Miller Air Accessory Mounting Block. It screws on to the side of the fluid head, and provides a 1/4”-20 mounting point for anything up to 3.3lbs. This would be a great way to attach a monitor for those shots when you need one, without having to mess with your camera rig.
Miller Air Tripod Pan and Tilt Locks
After working with a wide variety of flat based fluid heads, we’ve searched for one that worked best with our Gitzo legs, and in the end we’ve been frustrated with a few heads that have over complicated the placement of the locks.
On the Miller Air, the fluid head is so simple and foolproof that there’s no mistaking where the pan or tilt lock is placed. You can do it blindly while focusing on your shots. The pan lock is in the front of the head, and the tilt lock is to the left side of the head. The simplicity of these two positions is one of the reasons why the Miller Air is a joy to use.
The Miller Air comes with a standard quick release plate that has 60mm of travel for balancing your camera. But like most shooters, you probably already have a quick release system that you place over your tripod and any other camera support kit.
We use the Manfrotto 394/RC4 system, and it fits easily onto the Miller Air. But of course it will take just about any quick release system you've already invested in.
75mm vs 100mm Bowl Mount
The Miller Air system has a 75mm bowl head, which is an industry standard for video tripods. Larger camera systems might require a 100mm bowl head, but for our purposes a 75mm is perfect.
One benefit to the bowl mount over a photo tripod is that you can avoid much of the slider flex that you get with a flat head tripod system. While it’s convenient to attach a quick release plate to your slider and click it into your flathead tripod system, the various mounts, including the quick release plates, all contribute to a flex as the slider moves from one end to the other, shifting the horizon.
With a 75mm bowl mount, you can get a half bowl or a half bowl mini and attach the slider directly to your Miller Air tripod, avoiding all the flex issues of a slider mounted to the top of a fluid head.
Adjusting the horizon level with the Miller Air bowl is quite easy. It’s literally a couple turns to untighten, get the bubble centered, and then tighten the bowl. If you want even quicker adjustment, you can get the Sachtler Speed Clamp that allows you to simply pull the bowl handle down to move the head to a level position.
Miller Air Carbon Fiber Tripod System - What's Included
Here’s everything included in the Miller Air Carbon Fiber Tripod System. You get the SOLO DV 2-stage tripod legs, the Air fluid head, pan handle, camera plate (that’s compatible with other Miller heads), a very comfortable Solo DV Strap, and a weatherproof padded carrying case.
At a little over a thousand dollars (the price varies), the package is a really great deal. If you were to buy the legs and fluid head separately, it would cost $1465, plus you’d be out of a carrying case and strap.
How To Choose a Tripod
With the Miller Air specs out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about the tripod compromise, and why up until now we have used lightweight photo tripods for our video work.
Initially when we got our first C100, we wanted the most portable solution on the planet. We wanted to be able to hike and shoot all over Alaska with nothing more than a backpack, so we put together the most absurdly lightweight tripod system for a C100.
We used the Gitzo GT1542T sticks, which fold down to about 16 inches, weigh 2 pounds, and are so thin we dubbed it the “Chicken Legs.” We added an Acratech leveling base, and a Manfrotto 701HDV head, along with our Manfrotto 394 Quick Release system.
It cost about $1000 for everything, so why didn’t we just get a real video tripod with a real fluid head? Well, our chicken legs system weighed less than 4 lbs, and was so tiny that we took it literally everywhere.
With IS lenses and keeping one hand on the C100 handgrip, the tripod worked, and we used it a ton. We packed away our shoulder rigs and ended up with so much more steady tripod shots on weekly documentary shoots around Alaska, in snow, in water, up mountains, everywhere.
And we still bring it as a backup on every shoot, just in case our main tripod disappears, or doesn’t arrive in luggage, or anything. Doesn’t matter, it’s just there, and it weighs nothing and takes no room.
But the chicken legs are severely limited in that you can’t take your hand off the camera. So while it can physically take a load capacity of 18-22lbs, once you add the leveling base and fluid head, and then the camera and lens, it becomes so top heavy that you really can’t walk away from the camera.
So then we upgraded our system to the Gitzo GT2531LVL, which has not only beefier legs, but is also one of only a handful of photo tripods out there that features a built-in leveler. So you get the leveling benefits of a bowl mount tripod, without having to add another leveler between the tripod and fluid head. It’s been a really great system, and we now have two of them.
One advantage of the Gitzo photo tripod setup is it packs down very tightly, whereas the 75mm bowl head always takes up more room in your luggage.
The other advantage with a photo tripod is the center column, which allows you to raise the camera up and down for height adjustment, without having to unlock and relock the tripod legs themselves.
Flat Base vs Bowl Mount Fluid Heads
While there are certainly limitations with the Gitzo GT2531LVL legs, as opposed to a beefier video tripod, the real problem is with the fluid head. The majority of quality fluid heads are made for professional video producers, the majority of whom use 75mm and 100mm bowl mount tripods, and so you just can’t find good fluid heads for a flat based photo tripod. Really Right Stuff makes the FH-350, but it’s $2000 and weighs 4.3 lbs by itself. (Still, it’s on our wishlist to try and review).
So without an obvious choice for a flat base fluid head, we’ve experimented with a number of Manfrotto heads, some cheap Amazon solutions, and even adapting a bowl-mount fluid head to a flat base tripod. It’s cost us a lot of time and money to try to make it work, and in the end the heads we have are still disappointing. They’re either too big and bulky for the size of the legs, or they are just not smooth, and don’t offer any counterbalance.
So for the most part we’ve lived with the compromise. We shoot mostly indoors with it, and when we’re outside collecting B-roll we’re either on a monopod or gimbal. And without a counterbalance on a fluid head, we’ve simply resigned to not using tilts in much of our work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because in general we pan through scenes a lot more often than tilt into a scene, but it’s still a compromise.
And in the end, a Gitzo GT2531 with any one of the heads we’ve used, such as the Manfrotto MVH500AH, is still a $1000 tripod system that’s not that effective.
This is why we say we wish a Miller Air Carbon system would have existed when we started our search for the perfect portable tripod for our DSLR and Cinema rigs. It would have saved us a lot of money and headaches over the years, not to mention a lot of throwaway shots due to subpar fluid heads.
But the Miller Air Carbon system exists now. So, spare yourself the grief of trying to adapt a photo tripod solution to your video needs, or getting a beefy and expensive tripod that is simply too much tripod. A Miller Air Carbon will simply do the job, so you can move on to making the real difficult decisions about your camera and lens choice, microphones, sliders, and gimbals.
As always, happy shooting! And if you've found a tripod solution that our readers would benefit from hearing about, email us.
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