If you have one of the many popular lightweight camcorders and want to get smooth shots like the pros, then the new Steadicam Merlin 2 handheld stabilizer from Tiffen may be just what you need.
Out of the Box
The Merlin 2 comes in a very neatly configured foam lined, semi-soft shelled case. Even at first glance you can tell this is a quality product. All of the structural components are precisely machined aluminum and stainless steel. Plastic and rubberized parts are substantial and mate perfectly, and sparse but well-placed reference marks indicate this Steadicam means business.
The standard package comes with a folded Merlin 2 rig, dovetail plate, one starting and two finishing two-ounce weights, six four-ounce middle weights, lens support bracket, assorted screws, tripod adapter plate and a DVD that closely follows the 44-page setup and operation manual. Be sure to check Tiffen’s listing of popular camcorders for sample setup configurations.
What’s new in the 2?
The Merlin 2 is now more robust and better engineered. Tiffen cut the new dovetail plate from solid aluminum and included many mounting options. It now has stainless steel components and an oversized locking lever for added security when mounted on the base for the dovetail plate, known as the stage. The stage is now stronger, in part, as some professional Steadicam configurations now use it. The fore and aft trim rollers are slightly larger with a machined gripping surface that makes it easier to roll with your thumb. Roller movement remains smooth and firm ensuring there won’t be any slippage during even the wackiest moves. There is a lens support bracket that minimizes the instability of some cameras with longer lenses and/or weak mounting threads. The caliper hinge is now stainless steel and what used to be a locking lever is now a caliper release hinge ring with two spring-tensioned locking pins. The caliper hinge locking knobs are a bit larger and everywhere weights connect there is a stainless steel receiver. Finally, Tiffen reworked the grip to fit your hand better.
Slow Down and Setup
Without careful setup, you will not be happy with your shots; period. You need to pay close attention to the complete step-by-step instructions. And don’t look for it; there is no printed quick start guide. There is, however a short guide on the DVD for experienced users. Expect to spend as much as an hour or so pulling everything together and setting up for the first time. After you get your particular camera dialed in, you should be able to get up and flying in just a few minutes.
Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, hosts the DVD introduction and much of the setup, so you are getting about the most expert advice you can get. The DVD uses the previous version of the Merlin but there are edited sections for the changed components in the Merlin 2. We highly recommend you watch this video. We did and by following the simple instructions were able to get a near perfectly balanced rig on our first try.
The camera we used for our test was a Canon EOS 60D fitted with an EF 8-15mm fisheye lens that, together, weighed a little less than three pounds. The formula for getting a rough pre-setting balance in the DVD and manual tells us to add four ounces of weight to the bottom spar for each pound of the camera so we added three weights. But when fine tuning our balance we found we needed slightly less weight so we exchanged one four-ounce bottom weight with a two-ounce finishing weight.
For cameras more than 2.5 pounds, Tiffen recommends adding one mid- and one finish-weight to the front of the caliper hinge which we did for our test. To keep the overall weight to a minimum, we extended the lower spar to its maximum position. In total, the Merlin 2 with our camera and counter weights only came in at five pounds and three ounces. Our last bit of fine tuning was a couple of turns to the threaded guide ring and we were ready to operate.
Once we finished balancing the rig, we ran it through our standard Steadicam course used to train beginning professional Steadicam operators to test overall handling and performance. It includes three setups. The first is the Line Hurdles that consists of a 20-foot string that runs from about three feet off the ground to about five feet stretched tight between C-stands. A couple walk-over obstacles placed in the path test booming. The second is the Target course that is simply a large cross on a wall with black gaffer tape that we try to maintain in the center of our image area while walking toward and away. The last test setup is a simple stair climb.
After two practice runs on the Line Hurdles, we were able to keep the lens perfectly centered on the ascending line even while negotiating the two steps placed in our path. Even though the angle of our control hand changed, the practically friction-free gimbal helped keep us centered and smooth.
A slight breeze came up for our Target test that made it difficult to keep our target perfectly centered. When an assistant shielded the rig from the breeze with a large reflector the Merlin 2 stayed right on target. We were particularly impressed with how little panning drag there was when walking around the rig going from Don Juan (camera facing backwards) to forward Missionary position (camera facing forward). We had to provide hardly any countering pressure with our guide ring hand.
For our stairs test we first trimmed the Merlin 2 to tilt slightly up for walking up and a bit down for walking down so we didn’t have to apply too much control force with our guide ring hand. Like with the Target course, a little practice is all it took for the Merlin 2 to give us a graceful and fluid shot with no perceptible influence of the stairs.
With all of our test exercises we found the most important operating technique was using a very light touch on the guide. This is true for all Steadicam designs but even more so for the smaller handheld types like the Merlin 2. It does take some time to get used to training your hands to do their separate jobs without bumping into each other or the Merlin 2, but it can be done with just a little practice. Of course, if you are working with heavier camcorders and/or are doing multiple takes of lengthy shots, you may find your arms get tired.
The Merlin 2 is a sophisticated, well-built, precision camera support device that requires more skill and attention to detail on the part of the operator than just about any other type of camera support. But, when done well, there is nothing that compares to the fluid go-anywhere movement it can provide.
Weight: 1.4lbs. (0.64kg) (without balance weights)
Camera Weight Capacity *: 0.5lb.-5lbs. (0.23 x 2.27kg), 7.5lbs. max. (3.4kg) with OPTIONAL Merlin Arm & Vest Accessory
Maximum Height Folded: 5.3″
Minimum Height Open: 8″
Maximum Height Open: 15.3″
Case Size (W x H x D): 13.4″ x 9.9″ x 4.9″
* dependent on camera center of gravity
- Durability and precision
- Ultra-smooth gimbal
- As with other handheld units, your arms may get tired during lengthy shots.
A very effective high-quality stabilizer for camcorders between eight-ounces and five-pounds.
The Tiffen Company
Brian Peterson is a commercial video producer and certified Steadicam owner/operator.