Sachtler Obsesses Over the Little Things with the New Activ Tripod Head

Rather than a radical redesign, the Aktiv head from Sachtler focuses on refining key design details to make your tripod more pleasant to use on a day-to-day basis.

The fundamental appearance of a Sachtler tripod head hasn't changed much over the last few decades. It's a familiar design that is simple and easy to understand; it's intuitively obvious what knobs do what and why.

You want to change the drag on the pan? You rotate the big knob that sits right where the tripod pans. Same for tilt.

With the beefier FSB line and the newer, lighter weight, and more affordable Ace line, Sachtler has a place in the market of high-quality tripod heads that you see underneath video cameras everywhere you look.

(DISCLOSURE: I currently own, and love, a Sachtler ACE tripod that I bought used from a "party photographer" on Craigslist four years ago, and it has held up well despite whatever heavy use it saw in its nightlife past. My main objection with the Ace is solved by this tripod in a way that feels custom targeted at me. So, I will admit I'm so excited about the quick swap system and I think that counts as a bias.)

The flowtech system allows you to control three stages of leg expansion with a single control.

A few years ago, Sachtler did a deep dive and rethought tripod legs with the Flowtech system.

Traditionally we had all gotten used to reaching down to adjust every stage of legs individually. There were systems that allowed you to control all the stages at once, but they always seemed too delicate and finicky to survive a long life on set.

Flowtech changed that, offering a system that allowed for complete control over leg length from the top of the tripod leg in a system that felt robust and well-engineered. Several years in and the overwhelming feeling from most Flowtech users is very satisfied.

The legs are holding up to frequent use and are genuinely a time- and back-saver on set.

That same thinking (looking closely at pain points we had gotten used to and seeing if there was a way to fix them) has come to the head of the tripod with the new Aktiv line.

At first glance, it looks relatively like the FSB head that it replaces. It has more counterbalance settings and a higher maximum weight, but that isn't enough of a difference to call it a whole new line of tripod heads.

The big revolution with the Aktiv line is a focus on on-set usability.

The lever for leveling the head is conveniently placed at the front of the head where you can grab it without bending over.

Take the way you level the head.

Traditionally you had to reach underneath the head to unlock a turnbuckle to loosen the head, then level, then lock it again.

Now, you can stay standing upright, or however you were set up, and lift a lever at the front of the tripod head. A convenient and very appreciated innovation that will just make things more pleasant setup after setup.

We all got used to doing it the old way from the first time we ever set up a tripod, and it's nice to see it refined to something new.

Lift that same lever all the way up, and the head pops right off.

This addresses another huge frustration of the modern cinematographer; switching quickly from sticks to other setups on sliders. With modern productions requiring operators to get more shots more quickly than ever before, and the expectation that everyone arrives on set with sticks and a slider and a gimbal and even a drone as the "default," quickly changing setups is something all companies are focusing on.

A flat to bowl adapter on the left added height, instability, and time, to moving between sticks and slider.

Previously, if you had a bowl-style tripod, switching to a slider was a hassle. You either had to take the round bottom bowl off of your head, or you had to use an adapter (add a lot of extra height and instability) to the system to move between sticks and slider before, and neither was quick.

If you wanted to be running and gunning, getting a lot of setups off during an important event, this was very frustrating.

The new quick-release system changes that. You can get the slider on the tripod, and the head on the slider, in a matter of seconds instead of minutes.

The adapter with nubbin waiting on a slider.

The way this works is a very nifty bit of engineering. You can take regular bowl Flowtech legs (or probably any bowl legs), and you put on this adapter, which screws into the tripod like your old tie-down (only it's flat on the bottom).

Out of the new adapter, there is a nubbin that goes up into the head that the head latches onto. 

The quick release plate leveling adapter waiting on the tripod.

They sell another adapter that goes onto your slider, giving it its own little nubbin and a quick plate that just has leveling ability to receiver your slider.

It's elegant, it works well, and pleasantly it feels flexible. It's designed with sliders in mind, but I can imagine it'll find a lot of surprising uses with special-purpose rigs for specific shots. Even if you only ever use it for the slider, if it lets you get into or out of slider fast enough to get another shot or two, it's worth it.

Last but not least, they've added an additional viewpoint for the level bubble, so if the camera is rigged above you on a high setup, you can still see the tripod level and get it adjusted properly.

It comes with an LED for seeing that bubble in a dark set, and if you press and hold the button that turns on the LED, it lights up other LEDs to help you read your pan, tilt, and counterbalance settings to check them as well. This is all powered off a watch battery that can be changed by taking off the counterbalance knob with an Allen wrench.

The little details go even further.

For instance, on my personal Ace, there is storage for spare screws, but it lives underneath the top of the head. It looks nice hiding them out of the way down there, but it's hard to get the screws in a hurry, and you frequently forget they are there.

With the Aktiv, the storage moves to the top, where it can be quickly accessed when you are in a rush. If you lose one, you'll know, and if you have a touch of OCD you'll know to replace it to have it on standby for when it's needed.

LED light also illuminates your drag and counterbalance settings.

The quick-release system is designed to be used with any 75mm or 100mm ball (depending on the ball type you get with your head; the 6 and 8 are 75mm sized, the 10 is set for 100mm ball heads) tripod. However, it's clear that the system was designed to integrate most closely with the Flowtech legs.

You can spread Flowtech legs to fully horizontal, and since there is a flat tie-down on the bottom of the Aktiv head, put the head basically on the ground, saving yourself buying a low-hat provided you are in a space that has room for the splayed legs. 

90° straight down, very useful for slider work.

There are really just very, very few downsides to this tripod. You can point fully 90° down forward, but only about 80° straight up because of the interference from the counterbalance knob. This is something that will likely never be a problem on set (I've done countless shots where I need 90° down, especially on sliders, but I can't remember if I've ever needed 90° up), but it's there.  The counterbalance knob is remove-able to change the battery that powers the LED for the tripod bubble, and if you really need 90° up for a shot you could probably take off the counterbalance knob to get it.

How does it perform as a fluid head? Unsurprisingly, quite well.

There are more steps for counterbalance now, which is nice if you are working with heavier cameras, and the counterbalance goes to zero if you want to do a whip-tilt for some reason, or are working pointing straight down for an overhead setup. Pan and tilt are quite smooth. I took out a 150mm lens, put it on the Blackmagic URSA Mini Broadcast (with its smaller sensor size, giving a narrower field of view making the lens "longer") and I was very happy.

The whole system was stable enough that hand-racking the lens without follow focus didn't disturb the imagery. Smooth starts and stops were possible, and the camera came to a rest easily. A fluid head will never match a geared head, of course.

It's a little pricey, but still not too expensive.

The heads start at $1500 head only, and $2600 with legs. The prices go up from there.

While that is a lot of money, it's money that everyone considering buying a camera should be ready to pay for whatever tripod they are thinking about. I usually say you should be willing to spend at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost of your body on the tripod to hold it. A poor-quality tripod can make your shots so unpleasant that the quality of your camera doesn't matter.  Especially since a tripod will likely last you through several bodies over the years, this is something you should be budgeting for as you assemble a camera package. The price seems very reasonable for the quality you get.

And if you want to see a really expensive tripod to feel better about these prices, you can look at the beautiful 2575 from O'Connor, which is worth its $16,000 price point, but is a rental item for almost all of us.

I generally like to have a few key "avoid this if X" points in a review, but I don't really have any here. I wish I did just to feel "fair," but there honestly isn't anything I don't love about this combination. It's just a dynamite refresh that solves real-world problems of life on set.

I'd go for the 75mm ball for most one-mule-team shooters working with Canon C-line and even URSA Mini Pro style setups, but the 100mm ball if you want more compatibility with other systems. Most jibs will be 100mm ball, and in general, if you are doing a lot of that kind of work, the 100mm will integrate with a larger infrastructure well. For the rest of us, though, 75mm ball hi-hats exist, and a 75mm system will offer lighter weight and more affordability and still hold a 26lb. package which is pretty beefy. That won't be an Alexa LF with an Optimo zoom, but it will easily cover an LF Mini with primes.

Because of gimbals, camera and lenses have focused on weight savings the last few years, and you'll likely be just fine with 75mm for the vast majority of shoots. If you need the 100mm, chances are you already know that; if you are struggling about whether it's worth it go to 100mm, odds are the 75mm will suit you just fine. If you are doing a jib shot once a year, rent a head and sticks when you need to shoot it. 

This is one of those strange situations where there are so many smart refinements of details that it almost comes through as a complete redesign and deserves attention and praise as such.

By building on a strong foundation, Sachtler has given us something that will make life easier and faster and set, which is something we can all use.     

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Group buy anyone???

October 27, 2020 at 12:00PM

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