Let me just begin by saying that the process of buying an affordable fluid head tripod system is quite complex - probably unnecessarily so due to my habit of obsessive research of big purchases. Since I'm a DSLR filmmaker, I needed a tripod that can easily support both a little weight and, potentially, a decent sized rig with a monitor, loupe, follow focus, and audio equipment. Eventually, I settled on the Sachtler Ace L tripod system, a newly released model that sports a carbon fiber tripod (shiny!) and a fluid head capable of holding up to 13 pounds.
Concerns When Choosing a Fluid Head Tripod System
Price was a major concern when buying a fluid head tripod. After considerable
research, I came to the conclusion that spending just several hundred dollars would yield poor results. On the other hand, I didn't want to spend more than, say, $1,000 if I could help it, but professional tripods cost thousands of dollars. Still, a good tripod is a great investment in terms of gear, since it will be used frequently (unless you like handheld and handheld only shots) in most projects. Initially, I expected to buy the Manfrotto 504 HD tripod system. However, many professionals seemed unenthusiastic with the quality of Manfrotto's fluid heads. It was back to the proverbial drawing board.
The online filmmaking community trumpeted two major tripod manufacturers: Sachtler and Vinten (Miller also received some brownie points). Much has been said about Sachtler's Ace tripod, now called the Ace M, thanks to its relatively affordable price of about $500 dollars and recommendation by Philip Bloom. User reviews pointed out the quality and smoothness of motion provided by the Ace M's fluid head, but others complained of the tripod's cheap construction. Instead, DSLR filmmakers proposed the Vinten Vision Blue head and tripod system to have superior quality legs unmatched by any in its class. The catch, of course, is that this tripod system starts at just over $1,200 dollars and has a minimum weight requirement of just over four pounds, which might be too heavy for a basic DSLR setup with a light lens.
The Ideal Candidate for the Job
Once I became aware of the upcoming Sachtler Ace L, I knew it was the best choice I had available, particularly because of the improved carbon fiber tripod model and expanded weight capacity compared to its cheaper line member, the Ace M. Unlike the Vinten Vision Blue, the Ace L can balance as little as a pound of camera gear and as much as 13 pounds of gear, assuaging the balancing concerns I had about the Blue. After pre-ordering the tripod package months ago, it finally arrived last week. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to do a video demo. I also realized that I would need a second video camera, which I don't have, to film myself while testing the tripod. So, I settled on taking some pictures, which are displayed below.
I've practiced using the tripod and fluid head, and I have found them to be quite easy to use. The system is fairly light weight (8.4 pounds total) thanks to its carbon fiber construction, but feels sturdy with a Canon 5D Mark III and Tamron 24-70 2.8 VC mounted to it. While the tripod does not go exceptionally low or exceptionally high, I think it will be sufficient and did not warrant purchasing the TT 75/2 Carbon Fiber legs at an additional $300. The price, which I got on sale during NAB 2013 from Adorama.com, was just $915, a rate practically unheard of considering its performance and features.
The fluid head has seven steps of counterbalance (2 more than the Ace M), three pan and tilt grades each (vertical, horizontal, plus the 0 setting), an illuminated bubble level (not on the Ace M) and foot spikes that I haven't quite figured out how to use (I'm sure it's easy, but I can be a bit slow here and there). All in all, I think it works quite well so far, though I have not tested its weight capacity. Its construction is solid overall, though the flimsy-feeling mid-level spreader appears to be its weakest link. Despite its light-weight design, the tripod does not fold up to a small size, which might be a problem if traveling with it. The bag is nicely padded, but I didn't find any pockets to carry tripod parts in. Changing the pan and tilt grades also feels a bit chunky, though I'm sure the controls will loosen up a bit over time.
In conclusion, I think many DSLR and lightweight HD camera filmmakers will find the Sachtler Ace L tripod and fluid head to have real value for the money. Carbon fiber is definitely cool and helps its portability. I wasn't paid for this review, and I'm not a professional using high end gear, but I think many indie filmmakers will discover that this setup is more than adequate for their needs. Time will tell its durability, but I hope to begin working with it on projects soon. If it lives up to the Sachtler name, I could be using the Sachtler Ace L carbon fiber tripod system for a very long time. Finally, if you're interested in buying this product, please help me out by purchasing it via the affiliate link with Amazon.com.
Edit: The rubber feet are easily removed by pulling them off the tips of the legs, exposing the spiked feet. Also, because I was asked this question, the head is removable - all it takes is twisting loose the head leveler below the ball mount to remove the Ace L fluid head.