The 6 Best Tripod Dollies
6. Neewer Photography Professional
5. Glide Gear SYL Tripod Track
4. Magnus DWF-2 Universal
3. Dolica LT-D100 Professional Lightweight
2. Ravelli ATD Professional
1. Manfrotto 114 Cine/Video Deluxe
Increase Your Production Value
If you compare the work of professional cinematographers in film and television to the litany of amateur short films that play at festivals around the world, you’re likely to notice one crucial difference about the camera movement. In amateur pieces, the camera is almost always either handheld or limited to a tripod with pans and tilts as moves. Rarely do you see a no-budget movie with long, smooth camera moves. Yet those moves are everywhere in cinema and TV.
It’s gotten a lot easier more recently to move a camera with some degree of smoothness. Back in the days of film, cameras were universally so big and heavy that they necessitated the kinds of professional dolly systems that are far outside the budget of independent filmmakers. Nowadays you can grab your iPhone and a handheld gimbal and create some stunningly smooth photography with enough resolution to get you into major festivals. And for shorter camera moves with small DSLRs that are capable of great video production, you can employ any of the relatively inexpensive sliders on the market.
But if your rig is big enough that it needs to be on a good tripod for stability, and if your move is long enough or complicated enough that you need something with more reach than a slider, then you have to have a dolly. Rails systems by companies like Keiser can run you in the neighborhood of $1,000 for their least impressive setup, and professional platform-boom dollies go for around $5,000 if you can find a deal. That’s why the tripod dolly is so useful: it’s a much less expensive way to achieve very comparable results.
Once you start employing dolly and tracking shots in your films or other productions, the perceived quality of what you see on that screen will skyrocket. Even if you’re using inferior camera equipment to the next filmmaker, smooth handling can make your work seem like it cost a lot more money to make than it really did.
How To Choose The Right Tripod Dolly For Your Setup
For the most part, tripod dollies are pretty universal. They consist of telescoping arms with wheels mounted on the underside, and a set of clamps at the end of each arm to secure your tripod's feet in place. Figuring out which model is right for you is mostly a balancing act between the quality of each of those features and the amount of money you want to spend.
In the case of the telescoping arms, the degree to which they can spread out will determine how easily your tripod will fit, and how stable it will be when the dolly is in motion. It’s important here that you set up your tripod at home and measure the distance from the ground beneath the center of the unit to its individual feet. That way, you’ll know whether a model is large enough to accommodate your tripod when it’s at its most stable configuration. If you have to bring the legs together a little to get it to fit, you’ll lose some stability.
Next, look at the quality of the clamps used to lock your tripod in place. They should seem as secure as possible, but they shouldn’t look like they might damage the legs of your tripod over time.
The quality and type of the wheels is important to check, as well. Some casters will provide smooth, quiet movement on indoor surfaces, but might not be able to stand up to exterior use on asphalt or concrete. If you need to use your dolly outdoors, look for a model with wheels that look like they came off a pair of inline skates; they should be rubbery and translucent.
The weight of a tripod dolly is also extremely important. If it’s too heavy, it’ll be tough to move and a pain to transport. If it’s too light, it won’t provide you with enough stability to keep your movements as smooth as they should be. Ideally, you can find something that’s light enough to carry around, and that also has a large enough center plate that you can easily lay a sandbag on it to add weight and stability to your shot.
Motivate Your Movement
Once you get your tripod dolly all set up and ready to roll, you’re going to be tempted to add a little bit of movement to pretty much every shot you compose. I’m here to warn you that that is not a good idea. If you dissect a lot of modern big budget movies and television, the camera does a lot of moving. Dollies, booms, cranes, jibs, and a dozen other tools are employed in the service of moving the camera, but often for the wrong reasons.
On television in particular, static shots are often avoided for fear of losing the attention span of viewers. In independent films, camera moves are often employed as a plea to the audience to accept their work as professional. Both of these approaches are rife with folly.
If you want your camera to dolly in, or track along with a character, you’d better have a good reason for doing so. For example, if your character is having a revelation of some kind, realizing something they needed to know all this time, you could dolly in on their face. Practically, this brings us closer to the actor so we can see that revelation more clearly, but it also causes more of the frame to disappear as the world would fall away in the character’s mind, their entire sensory experience wrapped up in this new thought. That’s motivated camera movement.
Too often the camera moves for the sake of moving. Two characters sit at a table having a relatively banal conversation that’s more setup for the next few scenes than anything else, and the camera spins around them. Sure, this does make the scene a little less visually boring, but it’s also the kind of thing that critics and festival judges hate.
In short, be disciplined with your dolly. Use it where you must use it to help tell your story, and you’ll be surprised how much more deeply your viewers will connect.