Rigs come in nearly as many shapes and sizes as cameras and lenses do, and they’re often infinitely connectable, but there are a few basic types of rigs. Each type has a pretty specific purpose, but depending on the style a shooter is going for, there are no real hard and fast rules surrounding a rig.
You’ve seen them at events and trade shows: contraptions attached to or surrounding cameras to help you mount additional equipment such as a matte box or follow focus, maybe support larger lenses and adapters, held together by sets of rails, and supported by handles, shoulder mounts or something even more elaborate, like a RoboCop-esque Steadicam-like device. Some of them have mounts to add lights, monitors or microphones, almost all of them are customizable, and eventually we all want to get one. What are these wonderful contraptions that cry out for our hard-earned cash? We’re talking about rigs.
Now, “rig” is a pretty vague term, often used to describe a shooter’s kit of gear: camera, lights, mics, etc., regardless of what it might be. A Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Sennheiser EK100 G3 receiver mounted on top might be referred to as a rig, but that wouldn’t be truly accurate. By definition, a rig is a modular piece of equipment used to extend the usefulness of a camera, whether through accommodating additional shooting styles, allowing for additional gear to be mounted safely, or for smoothing out the motion of the shot. There are myriad other types of rigs, and we’ll guide the uninitiated through the murky and densely accessorized waters of camera rigs.
Rigging Your Kit
For many shoots, a simple setup is perfection. A decent all-purpose camera, a good quality microphone connected to the camera, and a light sitting in the camera shoe or a couple of external lights to illuminate a subject can do a lot. Many small production companies or hobbyists earning a few bucks on the side can function for years using just that setup.
A rig is a modular piece of equipment used to extend the usefulness of a camera, whether through accommodating additional shooting styles, allowing for additional gear to be mounted safely, or for smoothing out the motion of the shot.
As we become more skilled shooters and take on bigger jobs, our clients will demand that our production quality grows to using some advanced techniques and gear. This means we’ll upgrade microphones, add external monitors, buy an on-camera light to augment our light kit, perhaps add a follow focus to help us pull focus, and we’ll learn creative new types of shots such as low-angle or walking handheld shots. To pull off these shots and mount this extra gear, we’re either going to need to build onto our camera setup, or we’ll need a whole mess of gaffer’s tape. So why a rig now?
Not so long ago, professional cameras and most consumer cameras were much larger, heavier and had ergonomics built in to make them less unwieldy. Many had shoulder mounts or large handles. This made shooting handheld much smoother, and allowed for shots like low angles possible without the camera getting too awkward. Nowadays, cameras are small and lightweight, many have additional manual controls, and few have handles or shoulder mounts, save for broadcast, high-end prosumer and some full-blown pro cameras. As most of us have found out the hard way, small and light cameras are highly prone to the dreaded “shaky cam” syndrome, helped only slightly by optical and digital image stabilization. For this reason, the case for adding a rig is made.
Getting Rigged Up
Rigs come in nearly as many shapes and sizes as cameras and lenses do, and, like LEGOs, they’re often infinitely connectable, but there are a few basic types of rigs. Each type has a pretty specific purpose, but depending on the style a shooter is going for, there are no real hard and fast rules surrounding a rig.
When talking about shaky footage, there are some rig types that specialize in adding stability. Stability is achieved either through adding more handles or holding points, by hanging a counterbalance below a camera mount, or through resting a component on the shooter’s body. There are many options before stepping up to Lexus-priced Steadicam rigs. The good folks at Genustech have many modular options for not only adding nearly unlimited extras to a camera setup, but also for adding stability. They create “cheese plates” - plates with multiple mounting holes to attach lights, mics, monitors and what have you - as well as top handles for carrying and those epic low shots we all love, as well as articulating arms for mounting things like monitors to a rig. They also have camera cages for almost any kind of camera, right down to their custom GoPro cage, which turns the exterior of a GoPro into a cheese plate of it’s own. While less “riggy” than the products from Genustech, there are some great systems to allow for adding extra components as well as reducing shake. Using a suspended counterweight the Glidecam’s XR series and Camera Motion Research’s Blackbird are great tools, and the Blackbird gets a bit modular with optional table clamps and components for mounting it on a tripod. Glide Gear augments their popular slider line with a series of stabilizers for cameras ranging from a smartphone or GoPro all the way up to much larger pro gear.edelkrone’s The Pocket Rig for a small example of a rig capable of mounting in a rifle style, along with other configurations.
Alternatively, many systems rest a component on the body elsewhere, such as the chest or back. Redrock Micro’s RunningMan DSLR Nano Rig is a good example of a simple and effective stabilizer. By using a handle, a body pad and an optional viewfinder, the shooter has a cheap 3-point stabilizing system, offering far greater shot stability than many other handheld options.
Over the shoulder rigs are systems that bring that broadcast-camera shoulder-mount stability to cameras of every weight, shape or size. By extending to rest over the shooter’s shoulder, these rigs provide a perfect fulcrum with which to pan and tilt with ease. Some notable over the shoulder rigs are the edelkrone modula system, and companies like VariZoom, SHAPE and Letus Direct have complete lines of over the shoulder rigs for everything from DSLRs up to full size pro cameras.
For stable shots even when riding a skateboard or snowboard, Camtrol has a lineup of innovative rigs to smooth out footage coming from nearly any camera. Even smartphones!
Stationary and slider shots can benefit greatly from the fun lineup of devices offered by Cinetics. From reticulating tripods armed with wheels, clamps or suction cups to motorized sliders, they have opened up the range of creative shots that are possible.
Going Beyond Stability
A shooter’s rig can be as personal and customized as they want it to be. In some cases, the rig almost becomes an extension of their creativity and efficiency. How we choose and mount accessories, design or choose our stabilization system, and which shot-assisting components we add to our camera rigs speak volumes about the type of work we do, how professional and efficient we are, and how we’re really a bunch of gear junkies at heart.
But all of this gear needs a place to live within our rig, and fortunately for us, there are many components designed to mount gear, allow us to hold our cameras in interesting ways, and improve our shots.
To start, mounts are typically limited to one per camera, so to add our microphones, monitors, lights and other fun add-ons we’ll need multiple mounting points. Enter the cage.
Cages are pretty similar to what they sound like: a piece of equipment that houses your camera. From simple to elaborate, cages all serve a similar purpose: to assist shooters in creating a rig that can accommodate every accessory needed to make that camera do the job at hand.
Beyond mounting the small stuff, many cages include cinema-style baseplates that can hold 15mm rods, which are necessary for attaching large accessories such as a follow focus or matte box. Some even offer an option to add rods to the top of the cage for even more mounting options. Though cages can come in many shapes, sizes and form factors, edelkrone, Redrock Micro, and Zacuto all offer variations on the cage to help shooters create their own perfect rig.
Along the way, this article makes mention of grips and follow focus systems as well. While a grip is exactly what it seems, one or two handles to help shooters stabilize their rigs for steady shooting, a follow focus system needs a bit more explanation.
A follow focus is a system of parts working together to make manual focusing simpler. While putting an image in focus isn’t that tricky, following a subject, or pulling a rack focus from one focal point to another can be. The follow focus system usually involves a knob, and a gear that is connected to the lens’ focus ring. The knob allows for far more sensitive focus tuning, and the follow focus system almost always includes a marker ring: a place for the operator to mark off some focus points to use for reference during a shoot. There are many follow focus options, check out edelkrone, Redrock Micro and iDC Photo Video for great examples.
Sliding Into Home
So there are definitely a ton of modular rig options, but let’s take a look at a couple of sliders.
Wait, what? But sliders aren’t even in the world of rigs. They’re totally independent devices which allow shooters to add smooth sliding motion to shots.
While this is true, there is one interesting exception to the rule. Salamander Slider, creators of waterproof, corrosion resistant sliders have gone a modular route, with a kit to convert their sliders into jibs. The optional kit takes the 36, 48 or 72-inch slider and allows it to mount onto a tripod and operate like a jib.
Also in the not-quite-sure-how-to-classify it department are Camera Turret Technologies’ lineup of products. Innovative tools like motorized pan-and-tilt systems, automatic dollies and powered lens controls for ultra smooth zooming and focus pulling.
What to Watch For
When hunting for the perfect rig, like with all gear, it is important to consider a few things. The first is to make sure it is going to measure up to all of your current and near-future needs. It’s always possible to upgrade down the road, but purchasing something with good quality and expandability is definitely worth doing at the onset. The other consideration is that the rig is suitable for the gear that will be attached to it. Many systems have weight recommendations and limits, and figuring out if a setup will work with the gear you want to use is key.
Where to Go From Here
Buying a rig for shooting is an exciting proposition, promising to simplify and expand the experience of the shooter. Choosing rigs and components as they relate to stability, ease of use, accessory mounting options should be enjoyable, as the payoff will be better footage, easier and more interactive shoot days, additional shot options and fewer gear limitations. Just be sure to decide which options are sensible for now and the future, and which are just there to scratch that gear junkie itch.
Alba Camera Support
Cavision Enterprises Ltd.
D|Focus Systems, Inc.
Element Technica (RED camera)
Letus Direct, LLC
Manfrotto Distribution, Inc.
Merlin Video Dolly Systems
Redrock Microsystems, LLC
Rhino Camera Gear
SHAPE wlb, Inc.
UltraLight Control Systems
Xiamen Came Photographic Equipment Co., Ltd.
Russ Fairley is the owner of Russ Fairley Productions Inc., a Toronto-based video production company. He also co-chairs After Effects Toronto, an Adobe User Group.