How to Use a Camcorder: Keeping Your Image Steady

You’re about to take part in the world’s shortest psychological test. Ready? All right, then. Please note your reaction to the following word: tripod.

Now check your response against the results of our nationwide scientific survey:

  • I wonder what’s new on the mail order pages: 43.2%.
  • Gee, this column’s going downhill: 37.5%.

To be sure, two-tenths of one percent responded, “Tripods are my life!” Of course, his name
turned out to be Bogen.

Camcorders? Wow! Neat editing hardware? Yesss! But when the topic turns to camera support,
the brain turns to stone.

Too bad, because the function of camera support is to help create a steady image, and a steady
image is the first and most obvious mark of competent videomaking. Also, there’s much more to this topic
than just tripods and stuff, so work with me here, okay? We’ll cover some ingenious ways to steady a hand-
held camera and then look at monopods, tripods, camera stabilizers and special purpose hardware. (For the
record, image stabilization systems also add steadiness, but they’re a topic unto themselves.)

And if you still need a lure to keep you reading, there’s even going to be a dandy craft project for
a rainy afternoon!

Steady As She Goes

Before surveying ways to steady your camcorder, we need to establish why you should bother in the
first place.

The answer begins with that great tyrant of the video world: the frame. (The word “frame” also
refers to a single video image, but here, we’re using the term to mean the picture border.) Though you
rarely think about it, every second of every film and video ever made is imprisoned in the iron rectangle of
the frame.

Human vision, by contrast does not include this immobile boundary. To demonstrate this, extend
your arms at eye level with both index fingers pointed skyward. Staring straight ahead, slowly sweep your
arms sideways as you wiggle your index fingers. (Better try this in private; it saves tedious

Concentrate on those wagging fingers. As they move into your peripheral vision, they will grow
more and more indistinct. Finally, at somewhere around 160 degrees of arm spread, they gradually fade
out. Notice that they don’t suddenly pass some border that masks them from view, that is, they don’t move
“out of frame.” The reason, of course, is that our vision has no distinct frame around it to move out of–it’s
a continuum from acute in front to vague on the sides to finally, well, nothing.

The point of all this is that when you walk around, run or drive, the image delivered by your
vision system waggles as constantly as the shakiest video footage. But without a motionless frame to
compare it to (literally, a frame of reference) this movement is seldom noticed. Your eyes and brain
collaborate in an “image stabilization system” that works almost perfectly.

But when you view a video, shaky footage calls attention to itself because even the tiniest
movement contrasts with the perfectly motionless border around it. Since good video encourages you to
notice the picture content rather than the image itself, unsteady images are almost always undesirable.

Hand-held Steadiness

Many videomakers shoot hand-held much or even all of the time, so let’s check out some ways to
steady your camcorder without a tripod or monopod. In a nutshell, your strategy for hand holding is to
brace the camera, and if you can’t do that, brace yourself and if you can’t do that, keep it

Wherever possible, set the camera down on something–a wall top or railing, a table or bookcase–
any horizontal surface. To see what you’re shooting, angle the viewfinder upward so that you can look
through it (provided your camcorder has a rotating viewfinder). Better yet, use an external LCD screen,
either built in to the camera, or riding its accessory shoe.

Don’t overlook vertical surfaces. True, you can’t do much with the side of your camcorder pasted
to a wall, but with full-size units, at least, you can brace your own back as well as the camera’s against a
wall, a tree, a light pole–anything.

If you can’t brace your camera by one of these methods, try to brace yourself as you hand-hold it.
Again, lean against a vertical support or prop your elbows on any handy horizontal surface. For low angles,
try kneeling rather than squatting. The four-point spread of your knees and feet offers a more stable camera
platform than your feet alone.

Where it’s impractical to brace your camcorder or yourself, practice good hand-holding
techniques. Briefly:

  • Use an external viewfinder to keep your hard forehead from touching the camera. If you have only an internal viewfinder, remove your eye from it at least slightly.
  • Hold the camera with both hands, elbows spread away from the body so that they can act as shock absorbers. Some people recommend holding your elbows tight at your sides for extra bracing, but that works only if you breathe about as often as a whale.
  • If the shot will not run too long however, try to not breathe. Take a deep breath, let half of it out, then hold the rest and shoot.
  • Work with your knees slightly bent, again so that they act as shock absorbers.
  • If you pan the camera, stand with your feet parallel to the middle of the movement, then twist your upper body back until you can frame the beginning. That will prevent the human pretzel effect that ruins the ends of many pan shots.

Here’re some extra tips for walking shots:

  • Here again, keep your knees bent, though walking like this makes you resemble Groucho
    Marx loping in pursuit of Margaret Dumont.
  • When walking parallel to a moving subject, move sideways in semi-crab fashion.
  • Pretend that the camcorder is a very full cup of very hot coffee that you must carry without
    spilling a single drop. It’s amazing how that will steady your hand.

Finally, whether you’re braced or unbraced, moving or still, shoot hand-held footage with the lens
at the widest angle setting that’s practical. Remember that wide angle lenses tend to minimize the effects of
camera shake.

One Foot, Three Foot, Four

The first step up from hand-holding is a monopod–a one-legged camera support. At its simplest, a
monopod is just a walking stick with a bolt on top that threads into the camcorder’s tripod socket. More
elaborate monopods consist of two sections that you can adjust for height or collapse completely for

The good news about monopods is that they are very light and compact, and setup is simple. The
bad news is that they permit only limited horizontal camcorder movement (panning) and almost no vertical
movement (tilting). The reason is that with a monopod, the pivot point is not directly beneath the camera
(as with a tripod) but way down where the tip of the stick meets the ground. This means that any tilt must
be made on almost a six-foot radius.

For smooth panning and tilting, you need a tripod. (Why not use a “quadrapod,” trivia fans?
Answer: because you can set three legs on any uneven surface without a wobble. Four legs require a flat

Here are some tips for using a tripod effectively. First, make sure it is perfectly level, especially if
you’ll be panning. A camera on a tilted tripod may show a level horizon line when you start a shot, but
when you rotate the camera by panning, the horizon will tilt farther and farther as you turn. Better tripods
have built-in bubble levels, and the best models have heads that can be leveled independently of the

Next, adjust the tension controls so that the tripod head slightly resists your attempts to move it.
This will help smooth out your pans and tilts. Make sure that the vertical tension is high enough so that the
camera doesn’t tilt forward or backward when left unattended. Not only can this hurt the camera, but it
makes you look (and feel) like an idiot.

Some tripods are fitted with two-way feet for rough or smooth surfaces, as you can see from
figure 1. The smooth-floor knobs will work adequately outdoors on gravel or turf, but the rough-surface
pins will mar tile or vinyl floors, so never use them indoors.


Another approach to steadying the camera is the stabilizer, the best known of which is the Steadicam
JR ($499 NTSC, $695 PAL, 310-836-7991). GlideCam is another well-regarded brand of stabilizer ($1,399
DUAL-G, 800-949-2089).

A camcorder stabilizer consists of a camera platform with a hand grip and a counterbalancing arm.
An external LCD monitor usually sits on the counterbalance.

To use a stabilizer, you begin by mounting the camera on the plate and adjusting the
counterbalance until it compensates perfectly for the mass of the camera. (This can be a time-consuming
process.) Once the camera is counterbalanced, you operate it by holding the stabilizer hand grip and
watching the external LCD screen as you shoot.

Users report that stabilizers require considerable practice to master, and they are not especially
convenient in tight spaces. But once you have your stabilizer under good control, you can make moves that
look as if the camera were on a dolly or crane, or floating along on a magic carpet.

A very inexpensive alternative to stabilizers is the Biddlestick, which you can buy from the
manufacturer for under $20 (401-423-1682). This is essentially a length of pipe with a tripod bolt at the top
and a hand grip at the bottom. Just screw the Biddlestick into the camcorder’s tripod socket, grasp the grip,
and shoot. Despite its extreme simplicity, this product adds considerable stability to the camcorder, and its
many users swear by it.

The simplest camcorder stabilizer of all is a tripod, preferably a lightweight model suitable for still
camera work. To use it, simply collapse the tripod legs and mount the camcorder on the head. Then carry
camera and tripod about by the head as you shoot. The hanging weight of the legs will counterbalance the

Special-purpose supports

At the times when conventional tripods are impractical or unavailable, a special-purpose camera
support may fill the bill. Personally, I depend on my table-top tripod. Three six-inch legs hide in the eight-
inch tube of its body for storage, and its ball-and-socket mounted head lets me aim a camcorder precisely. I
often turn the body horizontal, at right angles to the upright camera, and press it to a wall with my left hand
while operating the camera with my right.

For mounting cameras in odd places, lighting equipment companies like Lowel and Bogen offer
threaded tripod bolts that can be clamped to light stands, century stands or pipes. Some Hollywood
production companies have camera mounts with suction cup bases, for mounting on glass or smooth

But that takes us into pretty esoteric territory, so let’s double back toward cheap and simple ways
to steady your camcorder.

Cheap Support

The cheapest and simplest is a length of braided nylon line (available in hardware emporia) and a ring attached to a tripod bolt, obtainable from camera stores. (Often, this ring and bolt are attached to a hand strap for carrying a still camera. Discard this strap.) Here’s how you can turn these simple components into better-looking video.

  1. Tie line to ring and thread tripod bolt into camcorder tripod socket. Drop other end of line to ground.
  2. Crouching slightly to lower camcorder height, step firmly on end of nylon line. Straighten up
    to normal shooting height, so that line is taut.
  3. Shoot, already.

Once you get the hang of it, this little rig really does help steady the camcorder. And it weighs
perhaps six ounces and fits in a pocket.

Another indispensable accessory for camera bracing is a bean bag. The idea is to compensate for
uneven surfaces (and the dinky bases of many compact camcorders) by placing the bean bag on the support
surface and then snuggling the camcorder into it. Not only does this keep the camera more secure; it also
lets you tilt the unit up or down a few degrees, to help frame your shot, as you can see from figure 2.

You can buy a camcorder beanbag from large video supply houses for under $60, but here’s how
to make one for maybe $5 or less. To begin with, determine the size you will need: small for compact
camcorders or large for full-size VHS units.

Next, procure the beans. Some people like the foam pellets used to stuff beanbag chairs. You can
get them at fabric and upholstery supply stores. Personally, I find these too light to create a bag that will
stay put. Since sand or buckshot are obviously too heavy, I prefer the classic filler: beans. Get a bag of one
type of bean (or dried peas) rather than the variety packs sold for making soup.

Now create the inner beanbag by partially filling a resealable heavy-duty freezer bag (one-gallon
size for compacts or the humongous new two-gallon size for VHS). Do this with your camcorder handy so
that you can see how the bag supports it when filled with different amounts of beans.

When the plastic bag is filled to your satisfaction, seal it and then double-seal it with duct tape.
(Remember that intriguing but inconvenient things happen to beans when they absorb water.)

The final step is to make a pillow case of rough fabric (canvas or even a terrycloth towel) in which
to enclose the slippery plastic beanbag. Sew three sides and fit a flap on the fourth with a hook-and-loop
closure. (Perhaps you could con your spouse into making the cover, that is, if he knows how to sew.)

Insert baggie, close flap, and you’re ready to roll.

When you start using this ultra-lowtech approach to steadying your camcorder, you’ll love it and
wonder how you ever did without it.

Good shooting!

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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