A camera is useless if it can not be supported so that image is free of vibration and jerkiness. That is the purpose of camera support products.
Cinematography today has the advantage of technologies that those in the early 20th Century could never imagine, but one thing that has remained unchanged is the need for being able to support the camera and lens so that what is being shot will be held steady and in focus. To satisfy this need, there are a number of camera support solutions available, depending on what kind of shooting the camera will be doing. The following categories illustrate the types of camera solutions that are now available.
A tripod is the most basic of camera supports, but just because it's old school doesn't mean it should be treated with disrespect. Tripods vary in size and composition but their basic purpose is to not just to hold the camera steady during shooting. Tripods also allow for minute control over the positioning of the camera. An example is the VariZoom TK75A Video Camera Tripod, which is suitable for compact video cameras and DSLRs handling cameras of up to 10 lbs. Featuring a quick release plate, the tripod has a 65/75mm fluid head, built-in bubble leveler and the aluminum switchable rubber/spiked feet folds down to 31-inches and extends to 64-inches. The MSRP is $199. Another example, the Benro AD71FK5, combines a sturdy lightweight tripod (7.1 lbs.) with a precision matched K5 video head. It can support up to 11 lbs. and the maximum height extension is 60-inches. The legs quickly lock into place and there is also an internal spreader and quick release plate. The MSRP is $195.
A monopod can have many of the same attributes as a tripod, except they are usually not able to stand on their own. This is traded in for portability and easier access into areas where a three-legged tripod would not be able to fit. In a real sense, the camera operator functions as part of the tripod, using his/her body to add stability when in use.
An example is the Sachtler Monopod 2 CF, which is composed of carbon fibre and weighs only 1 kg. It has a 100 mm head fitting. Useful for photographers as well as for cinematographers, it has a two-stage extension and reaches a height of 166 cm. It has an MSRP of $880.
Shoulder Mounted Rig
A shoulder-mounted rig adds stability and focus control for the camera operator, while allowing movement during shooting. It also enables access into areas where a traditional tripod would be unable to go, as well as rapid movement on the part of the camera operator. In the past, heavier cameras helped to create a center of gravity for those using the rig, so as to make movements during shooting more stable. With today's lighter cameras, a bit more concentration will be of service. An example is the Manfroto SYMPLA Shoulder Mounted Rig. It supports camera equipment on the shoulder of the camera operator and has swivel-joint handles and a quick release plate. It’s ideal for use with DSLRs and interchangeable lens camcorders. The Variable Plate allows for quickly adjusting the position of the camera in combination with all other accessories being used. It has an MSRP starting at $390.
A shoulder-mounted rig adds stability and focus control for the camera operator, while allowing movement during shooting.
The Zacuto Next Generation Recoil is another example of a shoulder mounted rig. It is customizable and designed with balance in mind so that camera operators can endure long shooting sessions without developing fatigue (for example, wedding shooting). The VCT style baseplate is of a universal type and so can handle all cameras and can be used on a tripod. There are custom top plates for bolting directly to the camera frame or a Halfcage Rail can be used. Besides positioning for a viewfinder and being able to mount power accessories to the back, the front of the rig is where the focus control and camera control are found. There are Universal Rigs for all cameras (mirrorless and DSLRs), and customization options are available for the Canon C-Series, the Sony F5/55 and FS7 and Cinema (RED/BMCC, Cion/ALEXA). Prices range from the sub-thousand to more than $5,000, depending on the type and items chosen.
Similar to shoulder mounted rigs, but smaller and less confining are hand-held support systems, which allow the camera to be more intimate and free in movements. Designed to combat jerkiness and smooth the images being shot, these are used in situations where fast and intimate shooting is desired. Glidecam offers a range of handheld stabilizers with the HD Series. Prices start at $450 for the HD-1000, which supports compact cameras weighing 1.5 to 3.5 lbs. The HD-2000 for $550 is ideal for DSLR setups weighing 2-6 lbs. From there, prices climb to $650 for the HD-4000, which can support cameras up to 10 lbs.
A sled is a system that holds the camera and isolates the operator’s body from causing unwanted vibrations. The camera can be boomed up and down and also moved into various positions easily, since a negative buoyancy is maintained on the camera arm. An example of a sled is Steadicam’s M-1i Sled, which is made for HD broadcast and feature film use. It is of a modular nature for adapting to the filmmaker’s needs. A low vertical profile provides flexibility for the operator for positioning the monitor and gimbal as necessary, making a wide variety of monitors available for use. The iso-elastic arm can handle up to 70 lbs of lifting capacity, is adjustable and provides a smooth operation with a 29-inch boom range. The MSRP in in the mid two thousand to upper three thousand range, depending on the items being acquired.
Another example is the GLIDECAM X-30 Professional Camera Stabilization System (MSRP $16,000), which utilizes body-mounted camera stabilization, isolating the camera operator’s body motion from the camera (which remains balanced in a relatively motionless and isolated state). This makes it usable from within vehicles, when walking or running, using stairs or moving across uneven terrain. The support arm can be boomed up and down, pivoted in and out and from side to side. It can handle cameras from 15-30 lbs. The complete system consists of the support arm, a support vest and support sled.
Jib/Dolly/Slider/CableLite Pro Gear Feather Camera Crane (MSRP $979.00). Designed for travel and remote location use, it is constructed of lightweight, corrosion free carbon fiber. It has a telescoping boom (28-inches to 10-feet) held in place through flip-lock clamps and an adjustable self-leveling camera head. It can shoot in close quarters and has an adjustable counterweight end for fine-tuning the camera balance. The boom can be used separately as a monopod, as a mic boom or GoPro pole for quick and dirty overhead shots.
A dolly is a platform on which the camera is placed, often in use with a tripod. Often on wheels, the dolly can be moved forward or backward, with the subject being filmed now kept at a constant distance from the camera through pre planned and precise movements. An example is the Miller’s Solo Dolly, which is composed of lightweight aluminum and has a collapsed length of 552mm and a 729mm width. The carry handle is molded into the Dolly’s center bracket and the TPR rubber wheels employ a dual-lock braking mechanism on each wheel and castor. It is also compatible with the Solo 75 and 100 tripod series. The MSRP is $582.
A Slider can be used as an alternative to a dolly. It is basically a piece of metal with two rails and a carriage that rides on top of the rails (think monorail train). The camera is placed on the carriage and moved along the rails. The carriage can have wheels beneath it or rely on friction to aid in providing a smooth movement. An example of a slider is the Kessler CineSlider with an MSRP starting at $1100. It is designed for the heaviest of rigs, even as its reinforced aluminum construction provides a portable and lightweight slider solution. The rails are protected and there is an 80 lb. weight capacity with adjustable drag control similar to that found on tripod heads. The removable crank handle provides options for manual operation and it is motion control ready, being compatible with elektraDrive, Cinedrive and Second Shooter motion control systems.
Cable support systems suspend the camera on a cable. The Dactyl Guerrilla Rig is a line-based camera rig system. The line spans 1200 feet and speeds of up to 40 mph + can be attained. Designed to set up in under an hour, a payload of up to 50 lbs can be strung, with a quick hook asymmetrical system providing an easy mounting. The motor swing adjusts for variable tension on the line. It has an MSRP of $7,950.
Narrowing your Choices
The types of camera support are as varied as the different styles of filmmaking. Choosing the best camera support will ensure that the shooting is free of distractions and stays true to the vision of the filmmaker.
Sidebar: Motion Control
Motion control enables a camera operator to produce time lapse photography or real time video through a device attached to standard gear such as dollies, sliders, jibs and tripods. An example is the Genie Motion Control Time-Lapse Device from Syrp, which consists of a 4-inch cube weighing only 3.3 lbs. It allows for both panning and linear motion control, has factory presets such as stars, people or clouds with a maximum panning speed of five seconds for a 360 degree pan and linear motion of 39-inches in 23 seconds. It comes with a length of rope (9.85-feet) for pulling across the rail but kevlar-cored ropes are available in lengths of 32.8-feet, 164-feet and 328-feet. It has an MSRP of $795.00.
Marshal M. Rosenthal is a business technology and consumer electronics freelance writer