HDSLR Guide Chapter 9: More Supports

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Tripods

With all of the HDSLR handheld and shoulder supports available, a tripod is still the most stable form for mounting a camera. The stability factor becomes even more important when the HDSLR rolling shutter issue is considered, because the issue is exacerbated by motion. For this reason, unless the camera must be moved around to follow action, a tripod is an ideal way to support the camera.

Video tripods, unlike photo tripods, are designed to pivot the camera in a smooth motion while recording. While a ball-head tripod can be an acceptable solution for static shots, it cannot be used to move the camera smoothly for videography. A proper video tripod is an essential part of a filmmaker's toolkit.

Because HDSLRs are much lighter than professional video cameras, they don't require heavyweight tripods that weigh more and cost more. However, if plans call for adding a number of accessories — for instance, a matte box, follow focus and battery power — a tripod with more weight capacity must be considered.

Unlike many HDSLR-specific accessories, the tripod will most likely outlast current HDSLRs, and even future iterations. Therefore, it’s wise to invest in a high-quality tripod that can handle a range of cameras and shooting situations.

Tripods - Features to Consider

Head

The tripod’s head is the main component that keeps the camera smooth through pans and tilts. Some heads can control the amount of "drag," or resistance, depending on how quickly the camera needs to be moved. A good tripod head allows the precise amount of drag to be dialed in, as well as allowing the pan and tilt resistance levels to be changed independently of each other. For example, a clean pan across a scene without camera tilt requires the tilt adjustment to be fully locked, while the pan adjustment is set to allow movement.

Video tripod heads are described as having “friction” or “fluid” construction. Friction heads are not as smooth as fluid heads and are typically of lower quality. Fluid heads, as the name implies, contain a kind of fluid between the internal moving parts that is adjusted to add more or less drag. Fluid heads also "dampen" movements, so starts and stops transition slowly instead of suddenly. Friction heads, in contrast, adjust drag by tightening internal components against one another.

Some high-end tripod heads have an internal counterbalance system that prevents the camera from tipping forward or backward, even if the operator leaves the camera unlocked and at an angle. This is very useful because it means the camera doesn’t need to be locked down every time the operator wants to stick with an angle for a few moments. High-end heads can also better withstand temperature changes, meaning less of a negative effect on the shot’s smoothness.

The tripod head sits in a bowl on the top of the legs, which allows the head to be leveled. The two main standards for tripod heads are 75mm for smaller cameras and 100mm for larger ENG or digital cinema cameras. Ensure that the head and legs match the bowl size. Many dollies and jibs use 100mm heads, which would have to be purchased separately if a 75mm bowl head is present. If a dolly or jib will be used, a 100mm bowl head will be compatible. On the other hand, larger tripod heads may not balance correctly with light cameras like HDSLRs, so it might make sense only if a rod system, matte box, or other accessories will be used as well.

Legs

Like the head, the tripod legs need to be able to hold the weight of the camera plus any added gear. The operator’s preferred shooting height and any travel requirements need to be considered as well. Check the fully closed and fully open height measurements, and check the material the tripod is made from. Most tripod legs are aluminum, but the more expensive — and much lighter — ones are made of carbon fiber. Aside from being lighter weight, carbon fiber is more suitable to water and salty environments because it doesn't corrode like aluminum. The last point to consider is the number of stages the tripod’s legs have. Two stages allow the tripod to fold up smaller than one stage. Adding stages, however, also adds to the price tag, so unless there’s a real need for the tripod to fold up into a compact unit, a tripod with fewer stages should work fine.

Spreader

Spreaders keep a tripod sturdy by attaching to each of the unit’s legs. Ground-level spreaders are used on even surfaces like floors and pavement, while midlevel spreaders —which sit at the center of the legs—are intended for use on uneven surfaces like stairs, ramps and rocky terrain. Midlevel spreaders allow each leg to be adjusted independently of the other. Most ground-level spreaders, however, offer the ability to lower the tripod closer to the ground than midlevel spreaders.

Monopods

A monopod is like a tripod, but with just one leg. It’s much lighter, more portable, and less conspicuous. A monopod offers support over stability, so it should be used only when a tripod is ruled out. The monopod's single leg expands to a suitable shooting height and contracts to make it compact for travel and storage. Many sporting events and locations do not allow tripod use because of safety concerns or permit requirements, so a monopod can sometimes be the only way to stabilize a camera and make feasible the use of telephoto lenses. A good carbon fiber monopod will weigh so little it may get more travel time than a tripod. It may also provide more stability than a shoulder-mounted support, allowing for a longer shooting schedule. A video head isn’t necessary with a monopod, but it will help to control the camera better.

A monopod can be more versatile in some situations than a tripod. It can be held up in the air to get high angle shots, flipped upside down for low angle shots, and even moved with while it's held in many different positions to get interesting shots that would be impossible with a tripod or shoulder support.

Stabilizers

By far, the most flexible way to smoothly move the camera through a scene is with a stabilizer. While there are some drawbacks compared with a shoulder-mounted support — i.e., price (for a good system), weight, and an inability to shoot low-key — the pros usually outweigh the cons. The resulting video from a good stabilizer and a well-trained operator is unparalleled by any form of support other than a dolly and jib. Even the average viewer will be able to recognize the footage as being of a much higher caliber.

Stabilizers work by countering the weight — and therefore the movement — of the camera that sits on the top of the post. Stabilizers range from the very simple handheld type to more elaborate setups mounted on a vest and arm for longer and more stable use.

Note: No matter how good a stabilizer is, it will not be of much help without hundreds of hours of practice. Many users are disappointed when they first start using a stabilizer because they find there’s not much of an improvement in their footage. Keep in mind that the stabilizer will enable only a skilled operator to get smooth shots. Therefore, if investing in a stabilizer system, make sure to also invest the necessary time and patience to learn how to use it properly.

General Points

Balance

Moving a camera smoothly through the air is, appropriately, called "flying." In order to fly, the camera needs to have the perfect amount of balance and counterbalance. A stabilizer's performance relies on balancing the camera correctly; therefore a good stabilizer will allow accurate balance adjustment without the need to jump through hoops. Whenever a lens is swapped for a different one, or accessories added and taken off, the system needs to be rebalanced. If the stabilizer is well designed, it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to get back to shooting.

To be sure, a skilled stabilizer operator can make even the cheapest stabilizer perform as well as the higher-end ones, given enough time and energy. For some, the extra time and energy to get a smooth shot is worth the savings, while others will need more accurate and efficient systems to work with.

An important thing to be aware of is that because externally focused lenses and external zoom lenses have a protruding front element, they can shift the weight slightly and take the stabilizer out of balance. Ideally, only internally focused prime lenses should be used, but if an external zoom lens must be used, the focal length should be set before the rig is balanced. However, some zoom lenses can "creep" in or out with the force of gravity, so prime lenses are the best bet for use with stabilizers.

Weight

The weight of all components that will be attached to the stabilizer must be calculated so it doesn't exceed the maximum weight capacity of the stabilizer. Consequently, the weight capacity of a stabilizer is the largest determining factor in price. HDSLRs are very light in comparison with video cameras, so a less expensive stabilizer can often be used. On the other hand, HDSLRs can be too light to achieve proper balance when used with most professional stabilizers, so adding more weight to the camera through the use of a rod support system and matte box or additional weights is required in these situations. The added weight can also help balance the camera's front-to-back axis because the HDSLR’s form factor is wide, which is not conducive to a well-balanced setup.

Quick-Release Adapter

As with any camera support, it's a good idea to mount the camera to the stabilizer with a quick-release adapter that’s also compatible with any other supports that are used. This makes it very easy to mount and dismount the camera across each setup.

Focusing

For the most part, the operator will need both hands to hold, stabilize and pivot the stabilizer post. This leaves the focus unattended. Aside from shooting with wide-angle lenses at a deep depth of field and then setting and leaving the focus, and/or keeping the camera-to-subject distance the same throughout the shot, the only way to properly focus an HDSLR during filming is by having a 1st AC pull focus with a wireless follow focus system.

Additional Supports: Features to Consider

Vest

A good vest will distribute the rig’s weight so that one part of the body does not carry most of the burden. It provides a stable and comfortable platform to mount the arm on. However, one thing to consider about vests is that they may not fit all body types. Steadicam offers different size vests for this purpose.

Arm

The arm is meant to transfer the weight to the vest properly, as well as isolate the operator's movements. A well-designed and well-balanced arm can even absorb the movement from running. The arm is typically made up of two hinged sections with tension springs mounted inside. The springs’ tension is adjusted based on the weight and desired level of the camera. For this reason, it's ideal to have an arm that can be adjusted on the fly, without tools, and without having to take the whole system off. Another key aspect to a good arm is its range of motion, from low to high. More range allows more interesting angles, and can even create the look of a jib shot.

Sled

The sled is where the camera is mounted and where all of the counter-balancing is done. Its main components are the stage (where the camera is mounted on top), the post (which is the central column), the gimbal (where the sled is mounted to the arm), and the counterbalance, which is located at the bottom of the post. As far as the stage is concerned, all major stabilizer models will block access to the battery component. However, a raised baseplate in a rod support can provide the clearance needed for battery access.

Another option is to use the power tap found on some of the higher-end stabilizers, eliminating the need to swap batteries in the middle of a shoot, but this requires the proper adapters. The important things to consider with sleds are:

Adjustability 

The amount of adjustment that can be made to the different points of balance, as well as the ease with which adjustments can be made.

Repeatability

Essentially, a setup should always be able to “remember” a set of adjustments, once those are found to be ideal.

Durability

The amount of production abuse the sled can handle depends on the materials and design of the system.

Range

Some sleds offer a booming feature to get higher-angle shots.

Power

Some stabilizer systems can have a battery attached to the bottom of the post to act as a counter-balance. The battery serves as the onboard monitor's battery and provides a power tap on the stage for powering the camera. The issue with using this power tap is that the unregulated voltage of a broadcast camera battery, which can be 14 volts or more, would fry any HDSLR. Switronix makes cables to convert the power tap output into the necessary voltage for HDSLRs.

Monitor

Some stabilizers come with a monitor to mount at the bottom of the sled. However, many are not high-resolution, nor do they have HDMI inputs. This makes it necessary to swap it out for a proper field monitor. While the HDSLR can output the video through its A/V jack as an SD signal over an RCA cable, making it compatible with the included monitor, this method results in a much lower quality image.

Low Mode

Low mode is when the camera is mounted on the bottom of the sled instead of the top in order to get a very low-angle view. Certain stabilizers can "fly" in low mode without the need for additional accessories, but for the most part, a special mount or cage needs to be purchased.