Professional video certainly isn’t what it was at the dawn of the Betacam era, or even what it was 10 years ago, and overall that’s for the best—your current camera options are smaller and less expensive, and they produce higher-quality images than those bulky, shoulder-mounted behemoths of decades past. However, one thing those tanks had going for them was their self-contained nature. Native to the camcorder itself, they had high-quality viewfinders that were good enough to judge the focus of the standard-definition video being captured, and a form factor that promoted stable operation. (One side effect, of course, was significant wear and tear on the operator.) Because run-and-gun operation was for news-gathering teams only, lighting was typically someone else’s concern.
Today’s tiny handheld HD marvels need a little more accessorizing than their forebears—typically in the forms of camera stabilization, high-quality monitoring that helps with setting proper exposure and performing critical focus tasks, and for many situations, on-camera lighting.
Camera Stabilizers and Support Rigs
For camera stabilizers, Steadicam is the Kleenex or Xerox of this market segment: the brand name that serves as shorthand for the whole category. Of course, as we’ll see, there are other options. Since introducing its first stabilization system in the late 1970s, Steadicam has continued to update its line with simpler, lighter weight gimbal-based systems—many, though not all, employing the same type of iso-elastic arm that the early models featured. Other components that you’ll see across this category include a “sled” (a plate for mounting and balancing the camera), a central post, a three-axis gimbal (for isolating the operator’s movement from that of the camera), and an inertial control base (for mounting weights and/or a monitor and battery that make the stabilizer more like an impervious ocean liner than a keeling dinghy).
For full-size broadcast camcorders, Steadicam offers (among others) its Zephyr system, which supports up to 24 pounds, and for smaller camcorders, you can choose from Pilot and Merlin, which both grant fingertip-touch control over a well supported 1-10-pound camcorder. Like many stabilizers designed for small camcorders, you can get the Merlin with or without an arm and vest—whether you can go without depends on the duration of your shooting, your arm strength and your pain threshold.
Other companies that offer camera stabilizer systems include Varizoom and Glidecam. Varizoom has the VZAviator line for full-blown stabilization of larger cameras, and weight support via two arms. For a simpler setup without the weight support, there’s the FlowPod, which takes the idea of gimbal-based motion isolation and strips out the weight-adding (and cost-adding) components to support small camcorders (models up to 1 pound or so work best). Like most simple stabilizers, you can add a support arm or a belt-support system to the FlowPod as your needs dictate.
Like Steadicam, Glidecam offers a full line of stabilizers, from sophisticated five-figure systems to the simple handheld gimbal-based supports that cost in the low three figures. New to the Glidecam line is the XR series. These entry-level stabilizers share many of the features of the high-end models from Glidecam, including a three-axis gimbal and a tool-free design. The XR-4000, XR-2000 and XR-1000 don’t include an arm/vest support, but you can add one if you need it. The XR-1000 supports cameras up to 3 pounds, and it’s only 1.5 pounds itself (before you start adding the included counterweights for inertia), so operating just with the handheld stabilizer alone—and your camera—might be just the ticket.
Of course, for camera stability you don’t necessarily need a complicated gimbal/iso-elastic arm system. For many operators, just adding hand grips to a DSLR or small camera is all they need to steer the rig smoothly. iDC Photo Video offers an Accessory Mounting Bracket as part of its System Zero line of follow focus devices. DSLR cameras were not designed to capture motion, so mounting the camera on a bracket that’s attached to a handle does wonders for engendering operational stability for when you’re shooting HD video. This item does just that, and not much else, besides putting a cold-shoe mount by the handle.
At the other end of the spectrum of camera rigs, a company like Zacuto offers a veritable universe of Lego-style modular rigs, pretty much all of them based around camera baseplates that are mounted to 15mm rod supports. These allow you to add hand grips, follow focus units, and any other accessories. The Zacuto DSLR Z-Cage is a pretty simple setup, with three hand grips around a four-sided cage. On the fourth side is a camera baseplate with 15mm rods positioned in front of it. For shoulder-mounted stability, you might be interested in a more complicated rig, such as a Double Barrel, which includes dual handgrips, a shoulder pad, a counterweight, a Z-Finder viewfinder, and a follow focus. Zacuto makes rigs for specific professional camcorders as well as ones for general DSLR use, and you can, of course, buy any of their components on their own to custom-build your own rig.
For a more affordable camcorder or DSLR camera support rig, SHAPE offers a wide range of options that also tend to be based on 15mm rods. Its Composite Fiction Camera Support, for example, is almost a combination of the two aforementioned Zacuto rigs: with a three-sided cage encircling a camera baseplate, rods extending from the lens area and dual handgrips and a shoulder pad providing points of contact, the rig offers a plethora of ways to operate with stability and comfort.
When lightweight on-camera LCD monitors started to become available at affordable prices, video professionals took notice. Many of them were suddenly shooting high-definition video, which, with its much higher pixel count, is harder to keep in sharp focus when you’re judging it on a camera’s tiny built-in LCD screen or viewfinder. Mounting a 5- to 8-inch monitor atop the camera—one that offered image-critical features like blue-only for calibration, focus assist (peaking), and false color for setting proper exposure—became a necessity for many handheld operators.
Marshall Electronics has a great reputation for producing high-quality LCD monitors, both for installing in broadcast trucks and for mounting on a camera. Its popular V-H50 has HDMI input to accommodate both DSLR and professional HD camcorders. The 5-inch monitor weighs about 0.6 pounds and offers 800 x 480 resolution. For a higher-resolution (and larger) HDMI model, there’s the V-LCD651STX-HDMI 6.5-inch model, which is native XGA (1024 x 768). You can also select models that have SDI inputs (even 3G-SDI), and as these are field models, there’s generally a choice of battery plates (compatible with Sony, Canon, Panasonic or Anton Bauer).
The same applies for other manufacturers. Manhattan LCD field/on-camera monitors offer the same types of choices: the HD5 is a 5.6-inch HDMI monitor that also offers VGA, component and composite inputs. The monitor gives you peaking and false color features and also offers a special aspect ratio for Canon DSLR cameras, to display the preview and recording HDMI output without distortion.
For its part, Ikan offers monitors that generally sit at an attractive nexus between affordability and functionality. The VX7E is a 7-inch monitor (1024 x 600 resolution) that offers HD-SDI input as well as HDMI and analog video. With specs like that and a full complement of professional features (blue-only, peaking, false color,16:9 and 4:3 guides, plus a battery plate), it’s an intriguing value proposition. Another highly affordable LCD is Avtec’s 7-inch Visual Impact Video Monitor. This basic 800 x 480 HDMI/component/composite-input monitor comes with a sunshade and battery plates for both Sony and Canon. For more information on this technology, see the B&H InDepth buying guide, On-Camera Monitors.
Like monitors, on-camera lighting becomes more powerful and less expensive with each passing year. LED technology is a mature one at this point, and it’s hard to beat an on-camera LED light for run-and-gun productions that involve shooting at night, or for indoor environments such as bars and nightclubs. Consistent color temperature and low power draw over the product’s lifetime have always been great advantages of the technology, and now cost effectiveness joins that list.
Vidpro offers a full kit (the Z-96K) that includes a light, mounting hardware, a diffuser, a filter and a rechargeable power solution, for well under $200. The 96-LED light is rated 800 lux at 3.2', which may or may not be enough for your intended application. For brighter lights, you might step up to a Ringlite model from Litepanels, the company that first popularized LED lighting for pro video applications. The Ringlite Mini will get you 1100 lux at 5'.
For more affordable Litepanels models, look to its SolaENG 3-inch LED Fresnel, which offers excellent control over the beam, or the MicroPro LED, which comes with a ball head shoe mount and three filters that enable you to alter the light’s 5600K daylight to 3200K tungsten balancing.
On-camera LED lights keep getting more and more affordable. One company that makes that quite evident is Bescor, which offers models such as a 180W-equivalent light with 180 LED bulbs. It’s got a 2-hour run time with 8 AA batteries, but you can also power it from a car-plug adapter or a 12V battery. It’s dimmable to 25% and comes with filters for matching various color temperatures. For a smaller alternative, there’s Bescor’s LED-70W, a 70W-equivalent model with 96 dimmable LEDs. Also dimmable, the light runs on 4 AAs and comes with a clear frosted filter and an amber filter (4300K) for indoor use. For more information on this type of lighting, see the B&H buying guide, HDSLR Video Lighting.
Other emerging categories of pro video accessories don’t replace camera functions that proved unwieldy or expensive to build into newer, smaller form factors; quite to the contrary, they take advantage of new technologies that didn’t exist ten years ago, such as large sensors built into video cameras, and the ubiquity of the wireless Internet. (Low-cost, lightweight LCD monitors also fit that bill.) In this category, you’ve got follow focus devices and camera-top streaming servers.
Follow focus devices take advantage of the shallow field of view that large camera sensors afford. Until recently, a follow focus was something that the second assistant cameraman operated on a film set. Now, with the advent of DSLR video and large-sensor camcorders such as the Sony FS100 and Panasonic AF100, video professionals are interested in racking focus from one subject to another in a repeatable, ergonomically sound way. That’s where follow-focus devices come into play.
Of course, no longer do you have to spend thousands of dollars for a follow focus unit mounted on 15mm rods. System Zero and System One from iDC Photo Video are among the simplest follow-focus systems you can buy for DSLR cameras. They’re the rare devices that eschew both 15mm rod systems for support and the use of gears for turning the lens barrel. These camera-specific follow focus units rely on friction to pull focus accurately, and like higher-end models, they have a standard focus wheel port for adding a whip or a crank.
While follow focus units have existed for decades, HD-SDI and HDMI wireless on-camera encoders certainly have not. Teradek’s Cube line of encoders and decoders enables low-latency streaming of HD video over a WiFi network. This means that a roaming, untethered cameraman at a live event can capture shots of the back of the crowd, and this signal can be received and switched live to a projection screen for IMAG (image magnification) with less than a second of latency. Like many other accessories in this roundup, the Cube encoders (both HD-SDI and HDMI models are offered) mount easily to a camera or camera baseplate, via a shoe mount or ¼"-20 screw.
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