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Rig Up Your Mirrorless Camera to Become a Cinema Powerhouse

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Mirrorless cameras have the distinction of being tiny, yet able to deliver some outstanding image quality, sometimes on par with dedicated cinema cameras. This kind of image quality in such a small form factor allows cinematographers to get shots they otherwise would not be able to, without compromising on image quality. On the flip side, though, their ergonomics are not really tailored to conventional cinematic shooting. Sure, you could throw a mirrorless camera on a tripod for some stability, but the built-in viewfinder is rendered out of reach, the LCD screen is tiny and will often get washed out in bright sunlight, and any accessories you want to attach are limited by the lack of mounting points on the camera body. Luckily, accessory manufacturers have come to the rescue! Practically all these drawbacks, and more, can be fixed by building your mirrorless camera up to become like a cinema camera.

The first step in building up a mirrorless camera is to provide a platform for everything with which you’re going to build it up. The best way to do this is with a baseplate. Most baseplates have clamps for rods, which run parallel to your camera’s lens and grant you the ability to build your camera rig outward, usually in front of and behind your camera. Of the baseplates that allow for rod mounting, many comply with the 15mm Lightweight Support (LWS) rod system, which specifies that two 15mm accessory rods be placed directly below the lens, 60mm apart from each other, and 85mm from the optical center (center of the lens). While other rod standards exist, they are overkill for mirrorless cameras.

Compliance with 15mm LWS ensures compatibility with matte boxes, lens supports, and other accessories that also utilize this rod standard, hence, I recommend going this route. Just note: not all baseplates that use 15mm rods truly comply with the 15mm LWS standard, so be sure to do some research before settling on any baseplate. As for camera compatibility, many manufacturers take away the guesswork and provide complete baseplate kits for specific cameras. These kits will usually include not only a baseplate with rods, but also a camera cage (more on those later), and even some more extras. This is a great option for first-time rig builders, because it provides invaluable experience, showing how everything fits together without the trial-and-error involved with assembling individually selected parts.

Cages are great accessories for mirrorless cameras. Not only do they surround the camera body to protect it, they also offer mounting points for fitting just about any accessory that you can think of. Wireless receiver? Check. On-camera light? Check. Shotgun mic? Check. While your camera space will be rather crowded with all those things on the camera at the same time, the point is that you can be prepared for just about any kind of shoot by accessorizing your camera appropriately. If you need to build up your mirrorless camera, a cage is an absolute must.

So, you’ve got your baseplate and your cage. What’s next? In this writer’s opinion, nothing makes a camera look like it’s ready for cinema more than a matte box and a set of filters. While it may be tempting to take a “go big or go home” approach, completely outsizing your mirrorless camera with a huge 3-stage swing-away matte box can be somewhat counterproductive. As cameras have gotten smaller, so have accessories. Matte boxes are now being made smaller, yet encompass the same essential feature set as the larger models without much compromising on filter size or stages. Not only does a matte box give your camera a professional appearance, it also lends a more cinematic quality to your image. Since optical filters change the image before any compression or encoding is done by the camera, you can achieve classic looks and image styles without inducing compression artifacts from heavy post-production. ND filters help you achieve smoother motion by cutting down on excess light, allowing you to open your lens’s iris while maintaining a longer shutter speed, and the dedicated 4x4" and 4x5.65" cinema filters designed for matte boxes will generally be of higher quality than screw-on or variable ND filters.

A subject that’s often overlooked is power. Small mirrorless cameras don’t have much room for powerful batteries. Some batteries weigh in at under 10 Wh. Luckily, this is an area that can be easily rectified. Pro video batteries, like those with V-mounts or Gold mounts can be expensive, though, mirrorless cameras don’t have much of a power draw, so one of those batteries could last an entire day of shooting and then some. Other solutions can clamp directly to the rods in your rig, precluding the need to buy a separate plate. With my Sony a7S, I was able to get through an entire evening shoot with just a 75 Wh battery, and was left with plenty of charge. Just make sure you get the correct cable to power your camera. Sometimes, mirrorless cameras don’t have a dedicated power input and require a DC coupler, or “dummy battery” to take external power. A further advantage of having a dedicated battery is the distribution possibilities. Batteries and battery plates with D-tap or other accessory outputs allow you to power your entire rig. If any other part of your rig requires power, chances are, an accessory cable is available for battery power.

This brings me to monitoring. The screens on mirrorless cameras are fine for rudimentary framing. But, if you’re going to be precise with your compositions and want to ensure that your images are in focus in challenging lighting conditions, you will want to invest in a dedicated monitor. Along with a brighter and more precise image, a dedicated monitor can also analyze your image for exposure and display focusing aids. More advanced monitors can overlay LUTs, and others can even record the uncompressed image. For those who prefer a more traditional cinema camera experience, an EVF, or electronic viewfinder, is your best option. Many EVFs use high-quality display panels that can display a large contrast range. Once your eye is up against the EVF, you won’t miss out on any details otherwise lost to glare or reflections. Don’t forget an articulating arm to mount your monitor or EVF on your camera. Most articulating arms use a central lever to lock the arm in place after you’ve positioned the monitor where you need it.

Building a rig around your mirrorless camera will have it ready for producing cinema-grade images. Here at B&H we have a lot of different rig options to fit many different cameras, so be sure to have a look to see what’s available to fit your needs!

6 Comments

"Since optical filters change the image before any compression or encoding is done by the camera, you can achieve classic looks and image styles without inducing compression artifacts from heavy post-production."

I don't know where this assertion comes from. Compression artifacts don't come from post-production. Also, you MUST re-encode any frame that is color-corrected, resized, cropped, has a single pixel changed, or is delivered in a format or codec that differs from what the camera natively records. In other words, essentially everything you shoot will be re-encoded, whether you do "heavy post production" on it or not.

You could take pristine footage, apply all kinds of wild effects to it in post, and render it to a lossless format before bringing it into your editing timeline... and not sacrifice one iota of quality in the final delivery.

Shooting through a filter means there's no going back, and you're stuck with the decision forever.  The only argument in favor of using physical filters is that their optical effects can't necessarily be duplicated by software filters.  The compression-artifacts argument is not valid.

Hi Gavin, thanks for reading and responding! In my experience, manipulating a highly compressed image in post-production, especially with regards to exposure and creative color decisions that can be achieved with filters (grad filters mostly), can cause some codecs to crumble a bit (AVCHD and the like, even after transcoding to ProRes). Your argument in favor of filters is quite valid, and something that I probably could have mentioned in my article. All the best!

I agree with Keven T on the SmallRigs products. Recently bought one of their quick release plates that allows me to effortlessly switch my A7sii between a Ronin-M and a tripod during a shoot. Well built and it works great!

Hey Forrest, thanks for reading and commenting! As far as I know, SmallRig only deals direct. If they decide to distribute through other retail channels, I'm sure we'd pick them up!

Speaking of rigging up cameras, B&H should really look into picking up SmallRig products. They make some incredible products for various cameras and rigging needs.

Hey Kevin, thanks for reading and commenting! SmallRig products are really innovative and cool. I've considered them when I rigged up my a7S a couple of years back.

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