Tiffen Steadicam Merlin Hand-Held Stabilizer Review

Magic Carpet Ride

More Than a Feeling

The feeling you get when you nail a great Steadicam shot is like no other. In part, because you know that your practice and your tools have worked together successfully. The Steadicam Merlin allows for glassy smooth shots over uneven terrain like stairs or inclines, and produces epic scenes with that "floating-in-air" look. So let's ditch the sticks, grab our sub 5-pound camcorders and go!

Smooth Start


An American named Garrett Brown developed the original Steadicam in the early 70’s for motion picture cameras. For the first time, cameras could be moved by a single operator almost anywhere without unwanted shake. Twenty years later, the technology became available to the hobbyist in the form of the Steadicam JR. The Merlin is in essence a scaled down version of its larger predecessors and an updated version of the Steadicam JR. Machined aluminum has replaced plastic parts and it has a more high-tech look. No doubt, the Merlin is sleeker, trimmer, and higher quality than the Steadicam JR.

Sitdown and Setup


The Merlin includes a host of resources to help properly setup the product. An interactive DVD, paper workbook, and online camcorder guide are all packed with helpful info.

The DVD includes Options for “Setup”, “Operating”, and “Quickstart.” The “Setup” section is very helpful, even if you’ve used a Steadicam or other camcorder stabilizer before. Setup time will be more than previous models. Budget at least forty-five minutes for this. If it sounds daunting, you’re not alone. Lucky for you, there’s a crew of experienced Merlin users who’ll show you how to setup and use the Merlin effectively. The DVD also features the inventor explaining tips and tricks he uses, while delving a little into the technology of the product. The “Operating” section mostly covers the basics, but also explains some advanced moves. Many of which are explained with specific examples of the situations that warrant them. One example is the “Don Juan” move, where you walk forward but turn the camera opposite the direction you are moving. This is perfect for when your subject is walking behind you.

A paper workbook is included, which the Merlin crew asks you to have handy during the DVD. Speaking of handy, a Flathead screwdriver and a pencil will go a long way towards your first shot. Use these to find the balance point of your camcorder, and learn how important it is to mark this point.

Last but not least is the online camcorder guide found at www.merlincookbook.com. This guide is set up to offer a custom arrangement for your specific camcorder and the Merlin, therefore optimizing your shooting time. Using the guide is a good way to get your settings very close right off the bat.

Really, Really Compact


The Merlin folds neatly into a custom molded carrying case that’s a little larger than a lunch pail. The small case fits everything you need to operate the Merlin, which is extraordinary considering its small size.

Design elements really make the Merlin stand out from the pack. The Merlin is made up of 7 main parts that add up to one sleek unit. Unfolding the Merlin is easy. Just make sure to lock the “hinge release” in place, midway up the Spar, the curved metal tube that hangs below everything else. This will ensure that once your camcorder is aboard, the unit will not fold up again.

Secure your camcorder to the Merlin by using the newly designed Dovetail mounting plate. The plate is made of lightweight aluminum and features 15 screw holes to ensure proper balance for a wide range of camcorders. Once your camera is secured to the Dovetail, slide the plate onto the Stage, and make coarse fore-aft adjustments. Once in approximate position, lock down the Dovetail and start making finer adjustments with the Trim controls. Simply rotate these very smooth thumb rollers to adjust the fore-aft, and side-to-side balance. A nice touch that adds functionality is the engraved arrows next to each control. Trim “up” to point the camera up, arrow down to point at the dirt.

Steadicam’s famous low-friction gimbal design stays the same on the Merlin, and some parts are still made of plastic. Accompanying the gimbal is the new guide. The guide now acts as a fine adjustment to lower or raise the balancing point of the unit. How do you know when to use it? If your Merlin sways when you start or stop a move, you probably need to do some adjusting.

Finding proper balance includes adding the correct amount of weight to the lower Spar. Each machined weight connects to end of the Spar, and can be piggybacked (five total) to create a long extension of stainless steel counterbalance. The Merlin has been brilliantly designed with rubber O-rings between each weight, keeping them from binding when threaded together. Nice.


Choose your Potion


We mounted both a light camcorder (a Sony DCR-DVD505) and a beefy camcorder (a Panasonic AG-DVX100A) to the Merlin. Each camera weighed close to what the Merlin allows; one at the light end and one at the heavy end. While it took longer to set up the heavier camcorder, we were able correctly balance each one. For lightweight camcorders, we found that only a small amount of counterweight was needed. This helps keep the overall weight to a minimum, and allows for longer use before forearm fatigue sets in. Some handheld stabilizers rely heavily (no pun intended) on overall weight to stabilize the camcorder.

If you’ve ever thought about shooting with a handheld stabilizer, Tiffen’s Steadicam Merlin comes close to making the decision for you. Short of a full dolly setup or a full-blown Steadicam rig, it’s a great way to get the moving shots you need.

TECH SPECS

Folded Size: 3.5″ x 2″ x 11″

Open Size: 3.5″ x 3.5″ x 7″ (Min.) to 13.5″ (Max.)

Weight: 12.8 oz. Without additional weights

Cameras Accommodated: 0.5-5.0 lb.

Weights Included: 6 threaded precision stainless steel ¼ lb., 2 finishing

Extras: Carrying case, accessory tripod mounting plate, rapid-mounting locking dovetail plate, DVD, fixing screws, special Gezornenplatz screw.

STRENGTHS

  • Manufacturing quality
  • Helpful support
  • Very lightweight

WEAKNESSES

  • Steep learning curve

SUMMARY

It’s no surprise that the Merlin has more than 30 years of R&D behind it.

Andrew Burke is Videomaker‘s editorial assistant, a member of AIVF and has worked in video production worldwide.

$849

The Tiffen Company

90 Oser Ave.

Hauppauge, NY 11788

(800) 394-3686

www.tiffen.com

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