DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are small, light, and can get into spaces traditional cinema and ENG cameras just can't. However, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are not meant to work on a film set all day long—it just isn't in their ergonomics. This is especially true if you are planning on handholding a camera all day, or working with accessories such as follow focus units, zoom motors, or external monitors.
Build Your Own or Pre-Made
You can build your own support rig, if you like. Head out to your machine shop and have at it. But, most likely, you lack the milling machine, lathe, and precision tools needed to make a nice clean job of it. Don’t worry—you can still assemble your own rig from a dizzying array of components from a variety of manufacturers, available here at B&H. For a shoulder rig, in general, you are going to want to assemble a cage, support rods (most likely 15mm LWS), a handgrip of some kind (possibly two—one left, one right), battery attachment method, and a monitor/recorder/EVF mounting method. Now, you really can assemble this all, one piece at a time, picking and choosing to find just the right combination. I find this method to be fun, finding just the right pieces for me. However, you can also acquire a few pre-configured support rigs for your camera.
Enter The Cage
Traditionally, camera-mounted accessories were limited to being mounted on support rods, or perhaps on a mounting point on a top handle, which few, if any, DSLRs or Mirrorless cameras have as stock items. Plus, mounting anything on your camera’s body is going to introduce stress, and with the need to maintain tolerances of thousandths of an inch between your camera and its lens, stressing its body is a major no-no. Many companies have introduced cages of various sorts to protect your camera body and offer attachment points for accessories that allow you to mount accessories without stressing your camera body. My current camera of choice is the Panasonic GH5, and I’m still looking around for just the right cage to suit my needs. You can see all the choices for the GH5 here. One thing to be aware of is that the cine industry standard distance for center of lens port to rod center is 85mm (for 15mm LWS rods). Very few, if any, DSLR/mirrorless cameras are tall enough to make that work, which means there is plenty of room to add a cage, and you may still need a riser block or adjustable-height camera plate when outfitting you rig with rods. Something else to be aware of is that with some cages, cameras tend to twist. Many cages use small raised tabs that press against the front of your camera to prevent it from twisting. Some, that is, but not all. For example, the Zacuto “no-cage” cage uses the camera’s neck strap mounts to secure your GH5 and prevent twisting. Personally, I’d be wary of using a cage that relied solely on the 1/4"-20 mounting hole on the bottom of the camera to keep it from twisting.
How can you find cages built for your camera? Simple: just go to the B&H website, and in the search bar put in the model of your camera and then type “+ Cages.”
A Rod is a Rod is a Rod—Not
Whereas once there were only stainless-steel rods, available in limited lengths, now there is all manner of rods, easily available with different lengths and options. Stainless steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, chamfered ends, straight ends, threaded, non-threaded. All manner of choices. Why does this matter? Some rigs come with rods, some rigs don't. Some rigs allow you to include rods for adding accessories such as EVFs. Some rods are chamfered, which makes it easier to slide accessories onto the rod. Some rods allow you to thread extenders into them so you can join rods and make them longer. I'd like to take a moment to focus on the threaded rods and rod extenders. Although unlikely, it is possible that mounting a lens accessory on a rod on the camera's right (as the camera operator is facing) using a single rod clamp could cause a threaded extender rod to loosen and partially unscrew. This would cause the rod-mounted lens accessory—a lens motor for example—to move away from the lens and prevent the accessory from functioning at its best. To avoid this, firmly hand-tighten your rods and make sure that at least one of your lens-accessory supports clamps onto both rods (preferably a support farthest away from your camera).
To Offset or Not?
This is rather easy to answer. If you are using a camera with a hard-mounted LCD viewfinder screen and you are using a loupe-style magnifier to view the screen, then you are going to need an offset rig, that is, a rig that offsets and allows the camera to be right in front of your face while the rods that extend to the rear are offset to go over your shoulder. If, however, you are using an external monitor or EVF system, then this sort of offset is not necessary, and most shooters don’t want the camera right in front of their eyes, but prefer it to sit over their shoulder. A straight or non-offset rig is far easier to assemble.
Yep, you've got a spiffy cage to protect your camera, but unless that cage came with a baseplate, you are going to want some way of attaching rods—after all, you need rods for your rig. You can find baseplates here; however, you may want to consider getting a baseplate that has adjustable height. This allows you to make sure that your rod-to-lens center height is correct, which is crucial when adding rod-mounted accessories such as matte boxes, lens supports, and follow focus units. You also want to be able to adjust the position of the camera on the baseplate forward and back for balance. A built-in shoulder pad is a plus, especially if you can mount the baseplate on your tripod easily without removing the shoulder pad. Zacuto offers its VCT Pro, which fills the bill here.
Keep it Handy
There are handles a-plenty out there, both top handles and handgrips. Wooden handgrips are very much gaining in popularity—they stay cool in the hot weather, don't freeze in the cold, and are just so stylish. Don't forget that you are going to need to mount them on your rig somehow, and for that I'd suggest a rod clamp with a rosette. Most handgrips use ARRI-compatible rosettes, but it’s best to check, because some may require you to get a rod clamp with a non-standard rosette.
Hold On, Almost Finished
Let’s get back to the idea of seeing what you are shooting. For those who like an onboard monitor or monitor/recorder, such as those from SmallHD, Video Devices, Atomos, or Convergent Design, an articulating accessory or “Magic” arm is the way to go. You loosen and tighten it from a single knuckle, allowing you to position it easily. Noga was probably the first to come out with these arms, but now we sell many different versions for you to choose from. Another cool item to consider is a quick-release coupling for your monitor, which makes it easier to set up and break down, rather than having to spin the monitor onto a ½"-20 screw every time you mount it.
Can You See Me Now?
If you are using some kind of EVF, and there are a few from Zacuto and others, you are also going to want an EVF holder. Different from a simple accessory arm, the EVF holder allows you to position your EVF so you can press your eye right to it, just like in the old days of cameras with optical viewfinders, or ENG cameras. This provides you with the standard shoulder-mounted position for those days of handheld shooting, as well as being adjustable for when you are shooting on a dolly, or with the camera down low and you don't need or want to lean into the camera.
Once you've built your camera into its rig, the last thing you are going to want to do is remove it just to change out the small battery you are expected to use. Thankfully, most DSLR and mirrorless cameras allow you to use either a dummy battery or an external power cable. So, you can use a large battery to power your camera, as well as an onboard monitor/recorder or EVF. Zacuto offers an interesting item, the Gripper Series of batteries—they snap onto your rods and sit down low. Or, you could go with a variety of options for mounting professional or “camcorder” batteries.
Not to be forgotten are rigs that come pre-configured with all the components you are going to need, and these can be a great timesaver for those who aren't interested in assembling their own rig. Here again, Zacuto provides a few excellent choices, as do Cavision, Shape, Tilta, and many others. You can click here for the entire list.
No matter what camera you have, you can build your own bespoke rig, and that will help you to assemble your perfect shooting solution. If you have any questions, please post them in the Comments section, below.