HDSLR Guide Chapter 8: Camera Supports
Motion control, to borrow a term, is another caveat of the HDSLR. Its form and ergonomics were designed to shoot stills without the need to record in motion. By the way the camera is held and where the start/stop button (shutter release) is located, it's obvious HDSLRs weren't designed for shooting video. That’s not to say the current crop of prosumer video cameras is perfect in this regard either. They, too, require additional rigging to be shoulder-mounted and supported.
An HDSLR can be a discreet, handheld camera, or it can be outfitted to function as a full cinema package. Starting with a small and light body comes with challenges, but also offers more flexibility if the right gear is used. Practicing to handhold an SLR can greatly improve the smoothness of shots, but longer or more critical shots require some form of support.
While a small form factor comes in handy in many situations, this can also make it more of a challenge to get smooth shots in motion. The "rolling shutter" issue makes smooth shots a must. A steady shot is probably as important as getting good sound and is more important than the actual quality and resolution of the video.
Thankfully, there are many options to choose from. The type of stabilization needed, of course, depends on the type of shots planned for the production. In addition, the camera, lenses and additional accessories must be considered when making the choice for stabilization.
Budget is typically the primary limiting factor. Therefore, it's important to be realistic with the needs at hand. What kinds of shots are needed? Will the camera operator need to follow moving action? Will the camera operator need to travel light? Attract the least amount of attention? In the following section, we'll cover the various categories, options, limitations and considerations to keep in mind when choosing a stabilization system.
Rod Support Systems
Rod supports are the heart of most camera support systems. A lightweight rod support system typically consists of two 15mm rods placed parallel to each other with a distance of 60mm from the center of one rod to the other. The two rods are held together by a metal plate, called a baseplate, onto which the camera is mounted. Typically, a rod support is required to mount a follow focus or matte box (although there are clip-on options as well). With additional attachments, rods can also help support long and heavy lenses. Many handheld and shoulder-support systems use a rod support as the base and build upon it to configure different setups. These are the most flexible and adaptable systems.
For quick and simple setups, there are HDSLR-specific rod support systems that come with the necessary components to get started. These are good for first time buyers because it’s just a matter of ensuring that the rod system is compatible with the camera. More advanced users should consider either building upon existing rods, or configuring a system from the ground up using only the desired components.
There are several rod standards, but the lightweight 15mm is the standard best suited to working with HDSLRs. The rods are small tubes that are made of carbon fiber, aluminum or steel. The rods connect to the central baseplate, where the camera is attached. Attachments, like a follow focus or matte box, are mounted directly to these rods (accessories must be compatible with the 15mm standard).
Rods are available in many different lengths so that a rig can be customized to fit the needs of the shoot. The length required depends on the camera, lens and any other attachments that will be added. Most kits are designed to work with short- to medium-size lenses; longer lenses will require additional rods. Some rods, such as Zacuto's, can have threaded male and female ends so that they can be connected to create varying lengths.
The baseplate is where the camera is mounted and therefore needs to provide a rock-solid platform without being too large or heavy. Well-designed baseplates will ensure that the camera is aligned properly and doesn't vibrate or come loose during a shoot. For this reason, larger cameras require larger and more expensive plates, but HDSLRs are much smaller, so smaller baseplates will work fine.
Some baseplates are designed for specific HDSLRs, but others are universal. The important thing to consider when choosing a baseplate is the ability to adjust the height of the camera so that the base of the camera to the center of the lens is a standard height of 85mm. This allows the unit to work with a matte box as well as for the lens to be at the right height to work with a follow focus.
The baseplate should ideally have a large range of adjustment so it can work with small cameras like the 7D, as well as the 1D Mark IV (which have very different camera heights). If plans call for mounting an accessory like a battery grip to the bottom of the camera, the height of the baseplate must be lowered so that the lens is at the correct height for a follow focus and matte box.
Some accessories, like the Beachtek (DXA-5DA) adapter, will actually offset the camera to one side, so a baseplate that can adjust from side-to-side would be needed.
It's also important to ensure that access to the battery compartment is not blocked by the baseplate so that batteries can be replaced swiftly.
Some baseplates can mount directly to a tripod, but many require a separate tripod plate to be mounted to the rods and then to the tripod. These plates have various size holes and some of them have several duplicate holes in different areas of the plate so that the rig can be mounted to the tripod at different points. This is helpful when the rig’s center of gravity falls to the side. However, some balance plates, being separate from the baseplate, require additional rod real-estate; this can limit where other accessories can be attached.
A cage is typically made of several 15mm rods mounted on the sides and top of a camera. This provides a lot more space and flexibility to mount accessories.
A follow focus can be mounted upside down for a low-mode shot, for example. Or a shotgun mic can be added to the top of the camera. As an added benefit, cages protect a camera from inadvertent abuse in a production environment.
Though it may seem trivial, without a top handle the camera setup is not comfortable to transport once it has been mounted onto a rod support with a matte box and follow focus. Trying to hold the camera's grip is futile, as the rig weighs a lot more and can be front-heavy because of the matte box. The operator will end up grabbing any unused part of the rod system or cradling the whole rig like a football just to get a solid grip. Like any professional video camera, a top handle makes it a lot easier to handle and transport the camera.
Lens supports mount onto 15mm rods and support the lens from underneath. Long telephoto lenses, such as 150mm and above, and heavy zoom lenses need support to prevent them from weighing down and damaging the lens mount on the camera. Without a support, the lens may also destabilize the camera when walking or running and cause shaky footage.
A shoulder-mounted support allows the camera operator to rest some of the weight of the camera on the shoulders, which steadies the footage by adding an additional point of contact with the body. Unfortunately, this doesn't automatically translate to significantly improved comfort or the ability to endure long takes. Because HDSLRs are unlike video cameras, which typically have a longer body (to distribute the weight better), an HDSLR with a lens mounted will be front-heavy.
Shoulder mounts are good for "run-and-gun" field work and offer more stability than a handheld system, and may allow the camera operator to record for longer periods of time (depending on the specific setup). Cinematographers also use this setup in narrative work when the scene calls for more natural handheld movement, but without the shakiness of a real handheld setup.
Features to Consider
Most supports were not designed for the current crop of HDSLRs, which can sometimes be a problem. Issues to look out for are access to the battery compartment; sufficient adjustability to conform to the body of the camera; proper weight distribution; unblocked access to important camera controls; and proper alignment of camera to the operator's eyeline, if an LCD adapter will be used. The lenses that will be used also need to be accounted for.
HDSLR cameras are still in their infancy and they're bound to change in the future. A highly modular support system is important because of these rapid changes. A key to modularity is the use of industry standard parts so that the purchased system can be configured using a wide variety of additional parts.
Aside from being able to adapt to changing camera setups, a modular system can be more cost-effective if there’s a need for different kinds of supports. For example, if both a hand-held setup and a shoulder-mounted option are required, a modular system will allow the use of the same parts for both setups (additional hardware may be required).
Following up on the previous point about modularity, support systems that are based around the industry-standard lightweight 15mm rods offer the most options now and into the future. They allow users to add additional accessories, such as a follow focus, monitor arm, and matte box, without adding an additional rod system to the shoulder support. If plans call for adding any of these to the camera setup, look for a support system that uses the standard 15mm rods. It will be a better investment, because it ensures that the parts can be reused to create other solutions down the line. If, however, a rod support system is already part of the equation, it can be used with compatible shoulder mounts.
Build quality varies from one product to the next. Precision parts ensure that nothing on the rig moves or falls apart under the weight of a camera setup or the strain of quick movements. Generally, the lower-priced options offer less quality, but weight considerations can also stand in the way of build quality. There are many options available; setups depend on the filming situation at hand.
Ideally, a good stabilization system offers the right balance of weight, quality and durability. Because most HDSLRs are very light in comparison with video cameras, there is a benefit to using a heavier support system because the added weight tends to steady the small shakes that occur when using a lighter rig. On the other hand, a heavier rig makes it harder to shoot for longer. On the other hand, added weight can increase fatigue and reduce the camera operator’s ability to shoot for longer periods.
Comfort can be subjective. Varying body types and shooting styles lead people to have different opinions on the optimal setup. A good stabilization system will be designed with varying preferences in mind. Aside from comfortable materials and good design, adjustability is important so that users can configure the system to preference. A comfortable system is more important for longer shoots because it can help the camera operator endure the weight. A casual shooter may not need to consider this a priority, but if shooting with HDSLRs becomes a constant activity, comfort will become more important.
Ideally, the camera should be aligned with the shoulders, just like any shoulder-mounted ENG video camera. However, if the camera's LCD will be used to monitor the video (either with or without an LCD adapter) the camera needs to be raised and offset toward the operator’s eye so that it will be in line with the LCD. An option to adjust the camera height so that it conforms to individual body types is ideal, but not critical. An offset adapter is not necessary if the shoulder support video will be monitored using only an external camera-mounted monitor.
A comfortable shoulder pad allows operation of the camera for longer periods of time with less fatigue. Some shoulder pads are more comfortable than others, and some grip the shoulders more snugly to prevent the rig from sliding. Additionally, most shoulder supports are designed with a certain average body type in mind, so if, for example, the operator has rather large shoulders, some shoulder supports may be unusable.
Some models offer more adjustability in terms of balance than others. If plans call for long periods of shooting, a well-balanced rig will make all the difference. Ideally, the camera shouldn't tip to the front, back, or sides. Because every user's camera, lens and mounted accessories are different, it's important that a rig allows not only the addition of weight, but also a way to adjust the balance of the weight distribution.
For example, if an LCD viewfinder adapter is used, the camera needs to be offset from the shoulder pad so that it reaches the operator’s line of sight. This setup's weight distribution isn't ideal because most of it will be tipping in one direction. A shoulder pad that has an adjustable counterweight can counteract this by positioning the weight on the opposite side of the camera.
For very front-heavy setups, it's necessary to add weights to the shoulder to better balance things out. Otherwise, the operator’s hands will tire very quickly, especially if one hand is needed to pull focus. This would leave only one hand to hold the rig. By mounting weights on the end of rods that protrude past the operator’s shoulders, complete balance can be achieved — even with a front-heavy rig. (With this kind of setup, however, care must be taken to avoid the risk of the operator striking people and objects during moves and turns.)
The handles on an HDSLR shoulder support need to carry a lot of the weight, because many setups will be front-heavy. That means the handles should be comfortable and sturdy. Comfort largely depends on the amount of adjustability the handles offer. Not only are each shooter's preferences different, but different camera setups may require repositioning the handles for better leverage and overall rig balance. Options for adjustments include horizontal (for a wider or narrower grip) and vertical (to raise or lower the handles in relation to the rods for more leverage).
Setup and Breakdown
The setup and breakdown of a support system can sometimes be tedious. The camera needs to be positioned correctly in terms of height. The lens needs to be forward enough to mount into the back of the matte box, but close enough so that the LCD screen or LCD adapter is close to the eye. Every lens change can mean taking some parts off and putting them back on again. All this drives a strong need for the entire system to be designed in such a way that makes it quick and hassle-free to make the most important adjustments on the fly. Although most support systems do well in this domain, there are a few rigs that stand out as being ultra-simple to configure and use.
Will the audience notice the difference between an expensive support system and a DIY solution? Will the audience appreciate the carbon fiber or aircraft aluminum in that high-end rig? In most cases, with the proper skill, there will be little difference in the final result. The question comes down to how much additional time and discomfort is acceptable to the situation at hand. If plans call for occasional, casual shooting, a cheaper solution won't prove to be much of a liability.
Standalone Shoulder Supports
For users who don't plan to use a rod support system, a standalone shoulder support may be a more cost-effective option than more complex supports.
If there’s already a rod support system available, but the operator wants to make it shoulder-mountable, a standalone shoulder support can be a simple solution. A standalone shoulder support coupled with a rod support system may offer more options and flexibility
Although not as effective at smoothing out shots as a shoulder-mounted system, handheld supports are a clear improvement to holding the HDSLR bare. They work by changing the form factor and points of contact with the camera to make handheld shots smoother and more comfortable. Using just the camera's grip and lens as points of contact works for stills, but not as well for video. Handheld supports are great for quick setups and breakdowns, light transport, and offer a less intimidating and low-profile option.
These systems are great for street shooting, photojournalism and casual shooters. They can also be used creatively to capture interesting angles, or in narrative work when a handheld look is desired.
Keep in mind that many handheld systems utilize the same components as the shoulder support system, so purchasing one will likely yield some of the parts needed for a shoulder support system. However, although some of these kits have the necessary rod supports to mount a matte box and follow focus, some do not. If this is a requirement, make sure to choose one that has the necessary rod support.
Mounting different accessories can be an art form in itself. It requires research, creativity, and some skill at putting things together. A well setup kit will save time and provide easy access to securely held accessories. The two main factors when considering mounting accessories are:
- Finding available mounting points
- Using the proper hardware
Finding a place to mount an accessory becomes more of an issue when there are multiple parts to add to the camera. The simplest way to add almost any type of accessory to an HDSLR is directly on the hot shoe. This can be a mic, a field recorder, a small light, or even a small monitor. Generally, this will require some form of hot shoe adapter because many accessories lack a hot shoe mount. Check to see what kind of mount, if any, the intended accessory has. Many non-hot shoe accessories will have a threaded 1/4"-20 mount, for which there are many adapters.