Steady as she goes - with the move toward smaller and lighter cameras, the need for enhanced support is more important than ever before.
While smaller and lighter cameras have their advantages, there are some disadvantages too. For one, smaller camcorders are more difficult to stabilize. While proper handheld technique goes a long way toward achieving a more stabilized shot, these cameras cannot be shoulder mounted like their larger, heavier counterparts, to create a solid base. And, those highly popular DSLRs, by virtue of their form factor, are not inherently well-suited to handheld video use at all.
As a result, a completely new breed of stabilizing devices has evolved to meet the needs of this new and emerging market.
Of course, if all you want is to simply grab-it-and-go and you're not too concerned about a few bumps and bobbles here and there, then you probably don't need to worry much about stabilizing devices. Practicing proper handheld techniques will surely suffice. These tools are among the most unique shapes and sizes, so you'll need to plan accordingly for when they aren't in use.
However, if your interest is more commercial in nature, or perhaps you intend to channel your inner filmmaker, then you'll want to move your camera in creative ways while maintaining maximum stability.
In some cases, such as a fight scene, or running through the forest while trying to evade an approaching alien horde, a certain amount of camera shake and jiggle is acceptable, even expected. And many of the handheld devices will give you that, while still establishing a smooth scene that won't throw a viewer's stomach. In the majority of cases you'll want your images to remain rock-steady and silky smooth.
Of course, you can always mount your ultra-compact camera onto your favorite tripod or jib and have at it. But where's the excitement in that? Besides, your existing support equipment may not be the most suitable for today's smaller cameras.
In light of these considerations, we'll take a look at some of what the world of ultra-compact stabilization has to offer. There seems to be about as many different stabilizer designs as there are designers so we've put together a list of rig makers. You'll want to examine the way in which the product is used, whether handheld, shoulder mounted, or hands-free. Don't be surprised to find devices designed for horizontal and vertical motion.
These are very simply constructed units with no more than a mounting point for your camera and a handgrip or two. The advantage to this design is that it easily puts the screen at eye level, directly in front of your face, allows for good hand separation for better stability, and by tucking both elbows into your body, you can achieve a pretty stable base.
The VariZoom CineGrip ($700) has a nice, wide, dual-grip configuration for good stabilization. The grips swivel and the entire unit can be reconfigured into a rifle-style shoulder format. The Camtrol Sniper 1080 KS ($259) has a rather unique design, which lends itself to a great deal of versatility. It has a grip handle with a post for mounting accessories, a stabilizer bar for two-handed use and three variable locking ball joints. Loosening and tightening the joints allows you to change the device's configuration very quickly for low, medium or high level shooting. The optional TROL 4.2-inch articulating arm attaches to the accessory post which otherwise is good for attaching lights, monitors and other accessories.
Shoulder Mount Rigs
Shoulder rigs come in several flavors: those that press against the shoulder (rifle-style), those that are worn over the shoulder as single or dual-shoulder units and those that come with additional body support.
The VariZoom StingShot ($450) is a basic model that rests against the shoulder, with one hand holding the camera. The articulated shoulder stock rotates out for pistol grip handheld use or as a kickstand for tabletop use.
Cinevate's Proteus Simplis Solo ($400) comes with an articulating shoulder stock as well as an articulating handgrip. Over-under hand positioning on the grip allows the stock to be pulled firmly into the shoulder for a very stable base. The Proteus Simplis Dual ($575) adds a second grip for good hand separation.
Over-the-shoulder rigs are similar in design but actually rest on the shoulder rather than against it. Often equipped with dual handgrips, these models sometimes come with dual-shoulder mounts for even greater stability. VariZoom's VZ1Shooter ($130) is their most affordable unit for small-to-medium cameras. Made out of aluminum and with loads of adjustment possibilities, it's lightweight, inexpensive and easy to use. The Proteus Simplis DSLR Rig can adapt to a single-shoulder mount design with thick shoulder pad and fillable counter balance. A rail system is included with 11.8-inch (30cm) long, 15mm diameter, carbon rods. If you want to crank it up a few dozen notches, Cinevate's Doc Bundle ($3,355) is a packaged deal, consisting of a single handgrip, single-shoulder mount unit with fillable, adjustable counterweight, Titan Swing-Away Mattebox, Durus Follow Focus and Proteus Quick Release System.
Finally, there are the shoulder mount rigs with body support. VariZoom's Zero Gravity Rig ($1,600) combines a dual handgrip, single-shoulder mount design with an abdominal belt and support rod for added stability. The shoulder mount is configurable for either side, high or low angles and up-close or further away mounting positions. An extra long accessory mount is included for adding monitors, lights, microphones and other accessories.
A few hands-free designs are on the market today. Some utilize a padded shoulder mount, bracket, spring steel chest harness, adjustable platforms and straps, to achieve hands-free stability. The chief advantage of this design is reduced fatigue because the weight of the rig is fully supported by the body. juicedLink offers a simplified, yet effective, design that you can build yourself with the help of their Hands-Free Rig.
Due to the cost of professionally built stabilizers, many innovative do-it-yourselfers have been scouring the hardware stores for suitable parts with which to cobble together their own designs. Some of these have proven to be quite effective, many of which can be built at a fraction of their commercial counterpart's retail price.
Well, it was just a matter of time before someone figured out how to marry the best of both worlds. Those behind juicedLink save DIY-ers money, as well as the time and trouble of traveling up and down parts aisles, wondering what will and will not work, by providing kits consisting of critical, hard to find parts, such as milled aluminum components, and/or alternative designs, with instructions on how to assemble them. The customer provides aluminum rods or tubing as required by the particular design, along with time and a little elbow grease. Before you know it, a consumer has his or her very own, highly effective stabilizer rig. The products offered by juicedLink include cost-effective designs for sliders, a hands-free rig, accessory brackets and more.
Sliders/Table Top Dollys
Dolly shots have long been a mainstay in Hollywood cinema. Packing around several sections of track and a dolly for use with your favorite DSLR probably isn't too practical though, particularly when you're out trekking around through the woods. You can still achieve the smooth-moving look you want with a slider dolly. These dollys are very compact by comparison, some only a couple of feet in length. When mounted to your tripod or a short set of legs they can deliver beautiful results.
Cinevate's Pegasus DSLR Table Dolly ($795) can be used with a rail system or stand-alone as a table top dolly. Its wheels may be configured for straight runs or to track in a circular motion. Their Atlas 10 Camera Slider ($680) is a 40-pound, easy to set up slider system for achieving both horizontal and vertical moves. The Atlas 10 features a full ball bearing linear tracking system with vertical counter-balanced operation. The counter-balanced pulley system allows the weight of the counterbalance to lift and lower the camera for much smoother movement.
Give and Go
Giving your viewers some smooth movement livens the footage and heightens your production value. Whether you're someone who just wants to smooth out the shakes and jiggles in your home videos, or have a desire to create smooth match-action scenes, or you're a pro with money to burn and a need for maximum stability and creativity, there is definitely a rig out there to suit both your needs and your wallet.
Sidebar: Goin' Pro
You will find that some stabilizers are rather basic while others have professional features. Here's a brief look at some of these features and their purpose.
Rail system - A rail system consists of two rails, or tubes, and mounting blocks that form a framework to support a camera and its accessories. The rails are made of strong material such as metal or carbon fiber. The standard diameter is 15mm, with carbon fiber the favored material due to both its strength and minimal weight.
Follow focus - A follow focus enables very precise manual focus adjustments without having to touch the camera itself. A large dial with integrated gearbox drives gears that mesh with a toothed ring mounted to the outside of the focus wheel on your lens. Turning the follow focus dial turns the focus wheel. The dial also has a white back plate for marking focus points.
Matte box - A matte box resembles a set of barn doors and mounts to the rail system, in front of your camera. Flags over the top of the lens and at either side, control the light hitting the lens. A matte box also will often include slots for easily inserting filters in front of the camera's lens.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's DSLR & Camera Rigs Buyer's Guide
Colin Marks is a video producer and trainer.