Let me preface this by saying I hate calling anything the "ultimate." Odds are, I've missed something in the market that might be better. It's nearly impossible for me to keep a pulse on everything in this massive and expanding industry. But if anything comes as close to "ultimate" in the video tripod world, it would be the Benro S8 Video Tripod.
If you're shooting DSLR video, you don't need this tripod. You can want this tripod, but it's simply not necessary for the light load. This tripod means business. RED, the Sony FS700, the BlackMagic Production camera or the URSA are all far more realistic applications of this tripod. For me on this particular review, I shot on both a Sony FS700 as well as with the Phase One IQ250 in the pitch blackness of a moonless night and could not have been more enamored with how it performed.
While working, I never once thought about the tripod. To me, that means the tripod worked flawlessly.
This is a beefy tripod. It is prepared to support cameras weighing up to 17.6 lb, has a maximum height of 63.8" and folds down to about half that at 31.9". The legs themselves weigh basically nothing (being carbon fiber), but the head is so gargantuan, so customizable and so stable, the whole tripod package still weighs 10 pounds. I appreciated the carbon fiber though, because if it were made of anything else I would likely have been sweating just taking it from my front door to my car. The weight is manageable, but it is by no means a "portable" solution. You won't be backpacking with this tripod, and you shouldn't. It's designed for applications requiring the strictest stability, not to be a walk-about solution.
Let's talk panning and tilting: it's flawlessly fluid. You can meticulously adjust the speed and friction at which the tripod does both actions, down to the absolute crazy level of detail. If you have a good chunk of time to get a shot, which is often the case in set productions or certain types of photography, then the Benro S8 will give you a level of control over detail that I fell in love with.
The S8 gives you intense control without being complicated. It's powerful without getting lost in customizable functionality. If you want to be detailed, you can be. If you want to whip it out of the bag and get a quick shot, you can.
The removable pan bar handle can be mounted for left or right handed operation, which is (no pun intended) handy for those of you who are like my father- left handed. Additionally, a second pan bar handle can be added at a later date if you want to add zoom and focus remotes or are looking for two-handed operation (common in broadcasting applications).
I mentioned I was out in the pitch blackness of northern California, and that was to photograph stars with the Phase One IQ250. What came in mighty handy was the illuminated bubble level on the S8 pan head. Sure, I could have used a flashlight but it was actually a nice addition because I wasn't forced to. Options are important.
The legs, as mentioned, are carbon fiber which brings the gargantuan size and weight of the tripod down to something more reasonable. The legs also get a couple other features right.
Firstly, the legs are clip locked. The biggest complaint I have for my much beloved MeFoto tripod (which used to be a Benro tripod until it was rebranded as a standalone) is that it is twist lock, not clip lock. Sure, it's a small gripe on the MeFoto, but I can't really express how much faster and easier to adjust I find using clip locks to be.
Secondly, I very much like the way the legs lock into position at the base of the ballhead. The most common way to keep the tripod legs at certain heights is to hold them together using interior leg supports. Though this does prevent the legs from bowing outwards, it doesn't really let you have full control of where each leg goes in the event of uneven surfaces. Benro uses stepping locks up at the base of each leg, which allows for a free leg system that's more adaptable to various situations.
Thirdly, there are only two stages to each leg, which keeps both stages suitably thick and sturdy. Normally having only two stages might be seen as a weakness, but both stages are quite long and result in a tripod that has good, albeit not great, height. The tripod is mighty tall at just shy of 64" in height. It's more than enough for most video applications, but it's nothing to write home about. It was good enough for me, but I can see it being too short for some people.
The finishing touch that makes this tripod great though is the price: it's normally only $625 (though at the time of publication Benro had a $125 mail-in rebate that brings it down to $500). That's a really great price point, putting it below a lot of the higher-end video tripods (some over double the price) with mostly the same features (with the exception of load capacity, which can get much higher on some of the most expensive tripds).
What I liked:
- Amazing control over detail with pan/tilt head
- Lightweight legs
- Independent motion, clip lock legs
- Illuminating, well-placed bubble level
- Price point
What could use improvement:
- Still quite heavy despite carbon fiber construction
- Huge and somewhat ungainly (not at all portable)
My complaints with the Benro S8 Video Tripod are few and based mainly in side effects caused by its solid construction. There is an aluminum version that is a couple hundred dollars cheaper, so if price is a big factor I would say consider it. The aluminum version doesn't weight much more than the carbon fiber version, tipping the scales at 11 pounds. But bear in mind that extra pound can wear on you if you plan to schlep the tripod around a lot.
Yes, it's a beefy, heavy and ungainly tripod, but it's ridiculously steady, allows for very precise control and is well priced in a market segment where one could easily spend thousands. Though it's specifically for video, it works for stills quite well (and especially for timelapse in high-wind, unstable situations where you are attempting longer exposures). Though it's far from portable, it is one of the most stable and well-built tripods I've ever used.