I find one of the most over-looked pieces of camera equipment is the Fluid Head. There are several brands and levels to choose from and if you’re not a camera operator, you might not think there’s much of a difference. I mean, it’s just a device that holds the camera on the tripod (or dolly, slider, etc) and allows you to pan left or right, tilt up or down, right?
For me, a good fluid head allows me to be very precise about my camera moves and can be adjusted to balance the camera no matter how much we modify it throughout the day, changing lenses and accessories. Since I often operate and DP at the same time, I find I can be very distracted and have little time to rehearse a camera move, so it’s very important that the head be predictable and adjustable.
My favorite fluid head is the O’Connor 2575. They’ve made several updates to it over the years, so there’s the 2575-B, -C, and -D. It’s a heavy fluid head and is rated for cameras from 25 to 75 pounds, hence the name ‘2575’. O’Connor also makes a 2060 and a 1030, which are for lighter cameras, but the 2575 is the most flexible of those designs and I’ve even used it for smaller DSLR cameras very effectively.
Sachtler makes decent heads but I’ve often found their counterbalance designs to be lacking. There are also good heads from Miller, Cartoni and Vinten, but again, they lack the perfect balance I get with the O’Connor.
I’m going to walk you through the proper way to adjust an O’Connor head with a camera on it. A good operator will set up his head so the camera will stop in any position without having to apply the tilt lock. As you work with longer lenses that magnify the image (and any imprecise camera movement along with it), you need finer control of the camera.
Once you’ve got it on the tripod and the fully-built camera mounted on top, you need to balance the camera weight front to back. Best to do this with the Tilt and Pan Tensions dialed way down (or off) and the Counterbalance dial turned down as well. Never dial the Counterbalance to extremes (below 10 or above 90) as it can damage the internal threads.
Slide the camera back and forth on the sliding plates until it doesn’t fall forward or back. Usually you have two sliding plates underneath the camera: The O’Connor top plate and the Camera’s sliding base plate that holds the iris rods.
Once you’ve got it balanced front to back, the head will be really loose and unwieldy. Add just a little bit of Pan and Tilt Tension. You can start to adjust the Counterbalance dial by turning it up until the camera just wants to pull back up when you tilt it forward. Meaning, the point of the Counterbalance is to spring the head back to it’s neutral position, and you want just enough of it to overcome the momentum of the camera’s tendency to fall forward or back. Once the camera starts to return to neutral after you’ve tilted it up or down, just bring down the counterbalance a little bit.
Then set the Tilt and Pan tension dials where you like them. For me, it’s usually between 1 and 2 on the dial — not a lot.
The camera should be able to be tilted up or down to any position and stay there with no hands on it and no lock on. This is a perfectly balanced head, and it only takes 15-30 seconds to get it there.
If you want more information, here’s a good Operation Guide from O’Connor:
One last note, it’s always good form to store the head in the case with the Pan and Tilt locks turned off. This way the head won’t develop bumps if it gets jostled when transported.
And that’s more than you could ever want to know about Fluid Heads, a very important tool for camera operators and DP’s.
Graham Futerfas is a Los Angeles-based DP, and his website is www.GFuterfas.com