What makes a great shot? Is it the lighting? The camera angle? The mise en scène? Is there even a formula? Who can compare the gritty naturalism of much postmodern cinematography with the deliberate, expansive visuals of classic Hollywood? I can, I hope, show you many of the tools that have the potential to make great shots possible.
I can already hear yawns in the audience. The humble tripod!? Yet, if there is one piece of camera support every DP, videographer, wedding shooter, or parent-filmmaker must have, it’s a tripod. And not just any tripod, a good tripod. Okay, a documentary with nothing but sit-down interviews might get away with a simple “photo” head—i.e., one that locks off and doesn’t have to pan smoothly. But for anything else, the quality of your camera moves might be more important than the quality of your camera. A jerky pan, an accidental dip, these will be noticed, possibly even at a conscious level. Smooth camera work, on the other hand, will go utterly unnoticed. But that’s what you want: camera work that is transparent (which isn’t to say a handheld, documentary-esque shooting style isn’t a valid aesthetic in its place).
So, by “good,” do I mean a “fluid” tripod? Well, yes, but more than that. In fact, most video tripods—even consumer models—have some form of fluid lubrication, meaning they can, without lying, claim to be fluid heads. Most professional tripods are distinguished by having a pan mechanism that rides on ball bearings. However, this feature is rarely specified or marketed.
The key to choosing a tripod comes down to your complete rig’s weight, as well as its weight distribution. Tripod heads specify the recommended counterbalance capacity, not the maximum weight above which the head will be damaged. On heads with adjustable counterbalance, you will have a range in which to work. Bear in mind, getting a tripod designed for a heavier camera than yours—though safe in terms of damaging your equipment—is non-optimal, since the counterbalance spring in the tilt mechanism expects a heavier payload and will push back with more resistance than is probably comfortable.
This is something I get asked a lot and feel it worth taking the time to answer: Which is better: a “floor” or “ground” spreader or a “mid-level” spreader? The answer depends on the use. On level surfaces, such as indoors, a floor spreader works fine and these are usually faster to set up. You can also “sandbag” the spreader for added stability. But for uneven terrain or bleachers, a midlevel spreader will be required. You can almost always swap out the spreader type later on, should your needs evolve. A third option is spreader-less tripods. Once only accepted for photographers, these are ideal for remote shots, and often have a substantially greater height range than spreader-bound sticks. They cost more and, some argue, are not as stable as legs with spreaders, which is why they have been slower to spread in the video world. However, torsion-resistant carbon fiber designs compare favorably, in my experience.
As a film student in Edinburgh, Scotland, I can’t tell you how many flights of stairs I had to truck the 500-pound monster Elemack Spider Dolly up and down. Kids these days are foregoing the dolly in favor of handheld and vest-supported stabilizers. For me, the dolly still holds a special place. There is a solidity to shots that “freer” systems can’t recreate. But, then again, I am a reactionary who would probably still be shooting film were it readily available.
To be most effective, dollies require track, usually in the form of metal rails, either straight or curved. You can bolt-on rubber ties—some pneumatic, some “run-flat”—to avoid the track requirement. But the reality is rubber tires are only truly effective in studios or on basketball courts. Most residential and commercial spaces don’t have sufficiently smooth floors to pull off a trackless dolly.
VariZoom VZ-CINETRAC System Complete Dolly Kit
Popular with indie filmmakers are scaled-down dollies with either skateboard or inline roller-skate wheels. These suffer the same limitation of larger trackless dollies in that the smoothness of the shot depends more on the type of floor than anything else. But they can be useful for short tracking shots, and enable moves in spaces a normal dolly just can’t go.
The other indie favorite is the “slider” dolly. Here, a tripod head (or the camera itself) mounts directly on a carriage riding on a short track. Sliders are generally fixed-length and straight, but afford an effective way to get smooth shots from a relatively portable piece of equipment, without breaking the bank. Providing repeatability and greater precision, or for motion time lapse, some can be equipped with motors.
Redrock Micro One Man Crew Director Motorized Parabolic Slider in use on tripod with DSLR mounted
Jibs and Cranes
What’s the difference between a jib and a crane? Depends on who you ask. I’ve tended to regard a crane as a longer apparatus requiring either an elevated camera operator or a motorized control system, whereas, to me, a jib is a short arm that tends to keep the camera within reach. In practice, the terms are used interchangeably.
VariZoom Solo Jib
Jibs and cranes put the camera in the air above heads, and enable the camera to “sweep” along a radius, almost as if gliding. They mount on a tripod and consideration must be taken to include the weight of the jib itself, along with counterweights in addition to the camera, when summing up the requirements for a suitable tripod. For even more dynamic shots, the entire jib can be placed on a dolly. Most break down for transport, though not every model fits easily in the backpack.
Since the camera may be out of reach, consider a field monitor or first-person view (FPV) goggles so you can keep tabs on framing. Many have conduits for cables integrated, and wireless video systems are becoming increasingly affordable.
For handheld shooting with enhanced control, shoulder and other types of handheld rigs are extremely popular, especially for DSLRs and cinema cameras, which each tend to have poor ergonomics when deployed in video. Handheld stabilizers run the gamut from simple handgrip add-ons to full-fledged over-the-shoulder monstrosities with waist belts and support columns. Very often they will integrate rod supports (usually of the 15mm LWS variety), allowing you to easily kit out with a matte box, follow focus, or other rod-based accessory.
Ikan Tilta Universal Shoulder Rig, Baseplate w/Shoulder Pad, 4x4 Carbon Fiber Matte Box & FF Unit
What handheld stabilizers offer is somewhat reduced hand shake and more comfortable shooting. They are not an alternative to a gimbal-based dynamic stabilizer. But they can take a camera from being unusable off sticks to quite manageable in-hand for productions where the “handheld” look is desired.
Originating with the Steadicam, dynamic stabilizers enable free movement of the camera operator without the “handheld” look. Arm-and-vest-based systems and smaller handheld renditions like the Steadicam are passive, using a non-motorized gimbal, counterweights, and physics to isolate the camera from hand shake.
Revo ST-500 Handheld Video Stabilizer
The 21st-Century solution is motorized and is confusingly known as the “gimbal,” even though its non-motorized predecessors also feature gimbals. They use motors on two or three axes to counteract shake. The advantages of gimbals include less weight, since they don’t require heavy counterweights (though correct balance is still essential), and a relatively compact form factor. Another advantage is that gimbals allow the camera to be intentionally moved—via a second operator holding a remote—while stabilization is happening. With arm-and-vest systems, a skilled operator might be able to affect a subtle tilt, but that’s it. With gimbals, limited only by the range of each axis, tripod-style pans and tilts are possible in motion.
Arm-and-vest systems still have a place, though. Gimbals can’t do much about “translation”—the bobbing up and down as the camera operator runs. For this reason, gimbals are sometimes mounted on arm-and-vest rigs.
The largest growth sector for camera-support equipment is drones. Drones can be fun to fly in their own right, but most are fitted with some sort of camera. Racing drones and hobby craft may have basic cameras to give the pilot a first-person view (FPV) from the air. But for the filmmaker, the technology can be quite sophisticated. Modern cinema cameras, such as the URSA Mini, are light enough to mount on electrically powered multi-rotor UAVs. Drones used for video production will always have a two- or three-axis gimbal to stabilize the camera.
Action cameras aren’t just for capturing adventure sports. They are compact, can be mounted just about anywhere and, depending on one’s perspective, can even be regarded as disposable—“crash cam” being the preferred term. From drone-based shots, to underwater B-roll, drones are ideal companion cameras for getting supplemental footage not possible or too risky with a conventional camera. They are also ideal for one-take scenarios where the goal is to cover every conceivable camera angle.
Terrestrial Vehicle Mounting
Industrial-grade suction cups—the kind used to shift glass—offer a way to mount a camera rigidly on a car, boat, or other vehicle with a relatively flat, non-porous surface. With small cameras and action cameras, a single suction cup may suffice. For your larger cinema and ENG cameras, complex mounts with multiple suction cups provide a more secure hold and reduce vibration. Window-ledge mounts are also available, enabling head-and-shoulders shots of the driver or a passenger from outside. Resting on the window ledge, they are often reinforced with secondary points of contact, usually suctions.
ARKON Car Windshield and Dashboard Mount for GoPro HERO
For added stability, a gimbal can be interposed between the vehicle mount and the camera. This leads to a more natural feel, with the camera free to move slightly in relation to the subject.
Panoramic and Time-Lapse Heads
A type of motion-control rig that often markets itself more to photographers than videographers, these motorized heads enable Baraka-style time-lapse shots that include camera movement—a sweeping pan across the night sky being the canonical example. When coupled with a compatible camera, many can fire the shutter at the appropriate time, taking the math out of the, er, equation. Some additionally feature linear control, such as a pulley mechanism, alongside pan and tilt.
Syrp Genie Motion Control Time-Lapse Device in use under tripod head
Thinking outside the box, one could even take advantage of the repeatability time-lapse heads offer for stop-motion animations involving composites.
Productions aren’t just bowing to union pressure by requiring a dedicated person to pull focus. The focus puller is an essential crew member. With the inherent shallow depth of field of a 35mm image plane, keeping things in focus is a mission unto itself. Forcing the camera operator to think about focus risks distracting him/her from his/her primary job: framing the shot. In the old days, this was often done blind; the focus puller would mark up the follow focus with dry-erase marker and time his/her hand movement to match the actor moving from one “mark” to the next.
Ikan ELE-FGK Follow Focus Cine-Kit
Because things can get crowded quickly, removing the focus fuller from the camera is a major boon. This is where the wireless follow focus comes in. The focus puller can work from his/her own monitor or, relying on a focus assist, or do it the old way, relying on marks. Advanced systems even offer automatic focus pulling, allowing the focus puller to simply select the desired in-focus subject using a touchscreen. One might wonder about the benefit, considering many cameras have autofocus, anyway. Even with improvements, contrast-based autofocus (the kind most cameras use for video) remains sluggish. And by leaving it in the hands of the autofocus system, you are leaving a key component of your shot to chance.
Productions of any scale but the smallest require a way for crew to communicate. Was there a mic in the frame that only the assistant camera noticed? Do we need to hold because a noisy dump truck is about to thunder past? Is the low-voltage alarm going off as the director winds up to call “Action!” on a one-off stunt? Much like a military operation or a construction site, the set is a chaotic place. Ideally, radios should be duplex systems (“talkbacks”) allowing free two-way communication, though one-way director-to-crew communication may suffice. Some systems—known as intercoms—are made for production and can be integrated with live switchers. Others are more general purpose—essentially walkie-talkies with headsets.
A gaffer's best friend: gaffer tape
Last, but not least: gaffer tape. You’ll never know what you’re going to need it for, but rest assured you’ll need it.
There is no accounting for taste, as they say, and artistic merit may or may not be subjective. But for just about any shooting style, you are going to need more than just a camera. You will need something to put that camera on, be it that vestige from yesteryear, the tripod, or the latest fully autonomous drone. There is a broad range of tools—in fact, the only thing holding you back should be your imagination. So no excuses!