There is a wide-range of camera stabilizers and supports on the market. Which one best fits your needs and your budget? Let's examine some of the choices.
Here's the good news... you were born with one of the most modular camera supports ever designed: your body. But there are times when the hand-held approach just won't do. In fact, there's little else more annoying than a shaky shot, especially when your story calls for something smooth. Thankfully, support comes in all shapes and sizes. From something as simple as a monopod to tools as complex as jibs, stabilizers and dollies, there's a support tool out there to fit just about every need.
These three-legged tools are probably the most widely used type of camera support in the industry. While they all operate on the same basic principle, there is a huge variety of tripods to choose from.
You can think of a tripod as two distinct parts, the head and the legs, which are built to act as one. When looking for a tripod the legs, or "sticks" as they are sometimes called, offer stability and height. While metal legs are a popular choice for many videographers, tripod legs built from carbon-fiber have been in use by many in the industry for a number of years. Carbon-fiber legs are sturdy, and just as importantly, light-weight. They lessen rather than transmit vibrations like metal legs and because they typically come without a center column, the legs can be spread wide enough to position the camera near to the ground.
The second part of the tripod system is the head. While the legs are essential to stability, the right head can make all the difference in the world when it comes to movement.
There are two primary types of heads used for video production. There are geared heads, which are used in a lot of studio productions and film work, where exact movement and framing is essential; and fluid heads, which contain a lubricating fluid around the interior parts of the head. This lubrication allows for incredibly smooth tilt and pan movements.
When looking at a fluid head, it is essential that you determine the maximum weight it will handle. While many prosumer video cameras range between 5-12 pounds, once you begin adding accessories, the weight of your camera may exceed your head's maximum allowance. Doing so makes fluid movement difficult and locking in place hard on the threads.
That said, it's a foregone conclusion that when choosing the right head, price really is everything. If you're looking for a bargain, you could buy yourself right into a world of disappointment. Many fluid heads just don't make the grade with respect to range and fluidity of motion. Therefore, it is best to go with a brand name. While there are many quality names on the market, several manufacturers of fluid heads and tripods usually rise to the top of most professional lists.
Sachtler is a German manufacturer of quality tripods and heads and have been making them practically since the first cameras were introduced. They produce a massive array of support systems used by countless professionals throughout the industry. O'Connor is another manufacturer with a time-honored tradition of servicing the motion picture industry. Their products are typically used for high-end productions, but they have long supported the video industry with lighter models. And then there is Manfrotto. This manufacturer carries a wide range of support systems for both the photographic and video industries. While you can still expect to pay a decent price for the right support system, Manfrotto is, for many, the most cost-friendly selection.
Monopods, Camera Stabilizers And Beyond
As cameras have gotten smaller, so has the need for modular support systems. And while a good tripod will usually suffice for almost every shooting situation, you may one day find yourself in an environment where it just won't fit. Weddings, parties, dance recitals... The last thing you want to be is "that guy with the tripod." So in the case where space is tight and you need to stay on the move, a monopod will work wonders.
A monopod, also commonly called a unipod, is a single-legged staff with the ability to adjust to different heights. Lightweight and modular, these stylish sticks are great for "run-and-gun" shooting situations. However, there are drawbacks. You obviously can't press record and walk away. Your camera will have to constantly be manned while mounted to your monopod. Additionally, most monopods thread directly into your camera, they do not come with a detachable plate like a tripod head. Therefore, going off the monopod takes longer than you might like. Therefore, some camera operators have begun switching to smaller handheld support systems.
The Scorpion by Cam-Caddie is a handheld device, which works well with small, consumer model cameras. Its positioning plate allows for perfect balancing of your camera, and its handle construction helps reduce vibration. There is also the WristShot camera support system, which is worn like a heavy-duty wristband. This system transfers the weight of a handheld camera from the wrist to the forearm, easing wrist fatigue and allowing for longer handheld shots. Both systems claim to be steady-cam systems, a term which has gained a lot of popularity over the last 20 years, and in a sense they are. Both help reduce camera shake, but don't let the use of the word "steady" fool you. You will not get that fluid spot-on shot in which the camera seems to glide through the air. The one system one the market leading the way in that kind of support is Steadicam (that's steadi with an "I" not a "y").
If you've seen a Hollywood-produced movie in the last 20 years, then you've probably seen a Steadicam shot. In the simplest terms, the Steadicam is a highly specialized piece of gear operating on a gimbal system, which enables camera operators to walk or even run without shaking the camera, thus providing a steady, fluid-moving shot.
Even if you do have the funds to afford this pro piece of gear, don't just expect to strap one on and go. Using a Steadicam correctly takes years of practice. That's why there are schools where you can receive training on correct operation of the Steadicam or the lighter Steadicam Flyer model. There is even a Steadicam Merlin, which is designed specifically for lightweight video cameras and have a reasonable price point. They are handheld devices, (sorry, they don't come with the cool body armor), that operate on a surprisingly simple gimbal handle design.
Because Steadicam has become so wildly popular in the film industry you can bet there are a ton of similar styled models on the market, and some of them are surprisingly good. Look at Glidecam, Ikan, Indicam or Atlas for some of these body-worn models.
If you're looking for a support system that will allow you the ability to get those dramatic overhead shots, you will want to look into a device called a jib. A jib is a long arm working with a counterweight, which will give you fluid up and down motion. There are some models that, with the arm fully extended and camera out of arm's reach, will allow you to remotely pan or tilt the camera while with others you need to set and lock your camera angle before hoisting it into the air. Check out CobraCrane's and Glidecam's websites to see smooth crane/jib shots in motion.
Rest assured, there are a lot of quality jib manufacturers and retailers out there, but as with anything else, do your homework. Cheap and good do not often meet in the middle.
From monopods to steady-cam systems and everything in between, we've only scratched the surface of the camera support tools currently on the market. Some are designed with exceptional attention to detail and are built to endure exceedingly rugged environments. Others have limited applications but work well with respect to their intended use. In the end, you truly do get what you pay for. Our guide has filtered the types of supports many companies carry, so you can start doing your research and invest wisely in just the right tool for you.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Camera Support Buyer's Guide.
Michael Fitzer is an Emmy award-winning commercial and documentary writer/ producer.