Accessorize with Caution
We first talked about camera rigging way back in week three. Rigs are great for adding additional components to your camera and for making it handle more like a traditional dedicated video camera. However, it’s also easy to go way overboard with rigging.
Several years ago, I was working on an informational video for a university in California. I had recently purchased some new camera accessories for my DSLR and – wanting to make a good impression as a capable professional – I built up a shoulder rig with everything I possibly could. The end result was heavy and awkward to use; on the first day of the shoot, I slammed into a door frame trying to maneuver it through a narrow hallway.
Since then, I’ve tried to be more thoughtful about how I accessorize my cameras and when rigging is and isn’t necessary. One of the biggest strengths of hybrid cameras is that they are light and portable – easy to move around with. Sometimes that is worth trading for some of the functionality of a dedicated video camera and sometimes it isn’t.
Of course, video cameras can be rigged up as well, with rails, a follow focus, an external monitor, or other accessories. It’s important to remember that all of these things are tools with specific purposes. In other words, don’r rig just for the sake of rigging.
Rods and Rails
Rail systems are probably the most common way to rig up a camera. They use standard rods that are either 19mm – for large cinema cameras – or 15mm in diameter. These are generally made of either aluminum or carbon fiber. We use 15mm rods with our equipment and these have become much more common in the last few years. The rods use mounts and clamps that are always the same distance apart (60mm), so you can buy parts and accessories from various manufacturers and combine them however you like.
Most matte boxes and follow focus controllers are attached using rods. As hybrid cameras have increased in popularity, these tools have decreased in price and many hybrid shooters now use them. Unfortunately, the desire to make a small camera look “more professional” has led to a glut of cheap plastic accessories that function poorly. Make no mistake, it’s sometimes important to make a good impression on a client – but if you’re starting out as a filmmaker, there are probably better investments than a cheap matte box.
In addition to camera accessories, you can also use a rail system to add movement options to your rig. The simplest – and most effective – way to do this is by adding front handles and a shoulder pad. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all serve to add more points of contact between yourself and the camera, creating more stability.
You might not think that adding a shoulder pad and handles to a camera would make a big difference, but it really does. You are much more steady when holding the camera still and much more smooth when moving it. Especially on smaller hybrid cameras without internal stabilization, small vibrations can make something like walking footage basically unusable. A shoulder rig adds a lot of stability. As an experiment, try a simple movement – say, following a walking subject – with and without a shoulder rig and review the footage.
Other Stabilizers and Rigs
While 15mm rods are the most widely used rigging system, there are a number of other options available as well. One of the simplest is to add a handle to the bottom of a hybrid camera. Doing so places one hand directly under the camera’s sensor, which helps smooth out the footage. It also encourages you to hold the camera near your body, which also helps.
In our collection, we have two additional shoulder rigs that do not use 15mm rods. One is a folding “spider” rig, which can be twisted into a variety of configurations. This is a versatile tool – it can go from a shoulder mount to side handles to a tabletop tripod fairly quickly. I personally find it a bit too “fiddly” to use regularly, however.
The other rig is a simple plastic shoulder rest with a mounting point for the camera on the end. This is an inexpensive rig and it definitely feels a bit cheap and creaky. However, for a lightweight camera, it actually does a really good job of adding stability. For handheld moving camera shots, it’s a great option – you just look a bit silly using it.