The reality is that for extended recording sessions or if you are using the optical zoom function on your camcorder you really need a tripod or some kind of stable support.
Both photographers and video shooters use tripods but there are different types. First, an anatomy lesson.
Plate: The removable plate allows you to quickly attach or remove the camcorder from the main body of the tripod. There are some plates that have a level guide, on others the level guide is attached to the body of the shaft. Plates are available on both inexpensive and professional support.
Head: The plate locks and rest on the head of the tripod; it also allows you to move the camcorder horizontally or vertically. The knobs on the head lets you control the amount movement or lock the camcorder into place.
Legs and Extenders: The legs of a tripod controls how high you can raise the camcorder. Tripods that have independent extenders also allow you do level uneven surfaces.
Still Photography Tripods
Tripods for still photography are designed to keep the camera from moving. They are also the most inexpensive types of tripods. For still and stationary video recording that could be acceptable.
However, if your subject moves to the far left or right, the effort to pan becomes a pain. You might see jiggers or jerky motion in your video. I use a still photography tripod and I have to tell you it has come to the point where I have to remember to actually pick up the tripod and camcorder and turn it; if I don’t I have guaranteed a jerky section of video.
Tripods for video use a ball bearing type of head that allows for fluid movement. These are going to cost a bit more than the ones you find in a department store photo section. The cost may be worth it if you shoot sports or performance type videos.
What About Image and Optical Stabilization?
Eh, yeah. When you have that turned on the camcorder compensates for your hand movements. It is a great feature except that there are limits to what it can compensate for; not to mention your hands and arms getting tired.
So What Is the Deal About Optical Zoom?
Let’s say you are using the optical zoom function to bring the subject closer. When you do that without a tripod you are going to have the shakes. The more you zoom in the harder it will be to keep the camcorder steady. The shakes will really be visible in the recording.
So, What Do I Buy?
It is a trade off of what you can afford and what you need. A tripod is better than no tripod. Here is one way to think about purchasing, by the weight of the camcorder.
Point and Share Camcorder Under 1 Pound
These camcorders are small and light. It might be that the still photography tripod that came with the camera bag will do the job. I did say might because there are some crappy tripods that you really shouldn’t think about using. Those three inch all plastic with a single screw? Uh-uh.
If you don't have a tripod then looking at those models that are priced under $100 will be fine. Not perfect, but they will do the job of holding up the camcorder. Anything else is gravy.
Keep in mind that your should not really trust inexpensive tripods to totally support the camcorder. It doesn't take much to knock a cheap model down. Keep the tripod close enough that you can grab it in a second if something or someone knocks it over.
Standard Camcorders Over 1 Pound
It is dicey risking the camcorder placing a camcorder on inexpensive tripod. If you only need it for casual recording when you are using optical zoom then an inexpensive support is acceptable.
For example, I have a thin still photography tripod that I use for the poetry recordings. It is about 19 inches compacted and five feet extended. I can put it in my handbag or backpack. It works at holding up the camcorder.
It is not so great for smooth panning when a poet moves. I have to be aware of people moving near the tripod. There has been on more than one occasion when someone walks by I had to be ready to clutch a leg to keep it from falling.
Yet I needed something portable. It is the trade offs and learning to working with them.
Camcorders Over 2 Pounds or over $700
Prosumer and professional tripods are designed for working professionals. Stability and smooth movement are essential.
If your video recording is tied to producing income then yes, you will need a prosumer or professional level tripod. We are talking big American bucks but you get what you paid for and it makes you look cool.
I specifically didn't make any recommendations for a specific tripod. I can't. I can give you an idea but each of you have specific needs. A $20 department store tripod might be just the thing for a Kodak Zi8. It is not something that you should use on a Nikon 3100.
I can recommend these sites for more information:
Darren Rowse from Digital Photography School on How to Buy a Tripod
MediaCollege How to Choose A Tripod
Tiffin is a manufacture of photographic products, I'm including their list on buying a tripod because they do go into detail about the different types and uses for their products.
Videomaker Magazine's article on Buying A Camcorder Tripod