I mentioned in Part 4 that gear wasn’t the most important thing when producing video and it’s not, but there are things that can make your video production easier and more importantly interesting, as I’ve been slowly finding out. Video production is all about conveying a story through visual impact; movement, light and manipulation of scenes, movement being one important aspect, and not forgetting sound and editing, as I mentioned in Part 5. This is how video provides the story that words provide in a book; you can’t leave it to the reader’s imagination, you have to create the imagination and that’s what I’ve been discovering. To that end, there are tools or accessories available that help you to create that imagination, as opposed to simply pointing a bare camera at things. You could achieve reasonable results with nothing more than a hand held camera, and movies have been done that way, but the results may not be as good unless that’s the effect that you want.
A tripod with a fluid head is one of those tools as I’ve already noted, but there are other related tools that can and perhaps should be considered at some point in time. To the able to move about easily, a tripod can sometimes become a burden and so you need to consider tools that will allow you to balance your camera and keep things steady while you move about. One such device is a static gimbal, also known as a Steadicam or Glidecam (proprietary name), which is simply a counterbalanced pole that allows smooth camera movements while in motion. I have one and while it works quite well, but it’s a bugger of a thing to get properly balanced and requires a significant learning curve to use properly (which I haven’t yet mastered and honestly wouldn’t recommend to anyone). Also, if you want to change lenses or anything on the gimbal while out and about, you exacerbate the difficulty. Another related device is what’s called a shoulder rig, again, a simple static device that holds your camera while providing you with separate hand and shoulder grips for stability. I have one as well and bought the former and latter at the lowest-cost end, but they turned out to be of pretty good quality.
If you clicked on the shoulder rig links I provided, you’ll see that they come in a variety of forms and prices, but generally follow the same form factor. Now they are called shoulder rigs because part of the rig rests on your shoulder to provide support for the camera and associated components. A shoulder rig can be fine if you have the camera close to your eye, especially if it’s a DSLR, but if the camera is held away from you because you’re using the camera LCD or an external monitor, things become more complicated. They become complicated because the majority of the weight is well out in front of the body (even when using the viewfinder) and there’s not much weight on the shoulder part. So to alleviate this, many shoulder rig users add weights to the shoulder end to try and balance things out. This of course increases the total weight of the rig, which is not so good.
Now I’m writing a bit more than I intended about shoulder rigs, notably the cheap one that I bought because after watching numerous videos and reading reviews, I came to the conclusion that while it’s going to work OK, maybe the reviewers were doing it wrong. So when I received my shoulder rig, I put my theory to the test and proved that what I was thinking was in fact reasonably correct. If you note in the previous photograph, the user has the arm of the shoulder rig slung over their shoulder and this being lightweight alloy and plastic, offers no counterweight whatsoever to the camera and rig out in front. What’s the solution? Most just add weights to the rear, but I adopted a completely different way of holding the shoulder rig making it more of an armpit rig and so far more practical and comfortable to hold. As the camera tries to force the rig down, the rear arm just digs more firmly into your armpit, keeping everything evenly balanced. Of course a motorised gimbal is even better; however, given that the cost of the cheapest motorised gimbal to suit the weight of the cameras that I use is around 10x what I paid for the static gimbal and 15x what I paid for the shoulder rig, I’ll hold off for the moment.
After much deliberation, I also bought a slider. Again, there are so many styles and brands of sliders about that it’s somewhat mind boggling. They vary from under $100 (depending on length) to over $1000. So once again I read and watched review after review before deciding on what brand, style and size of slider I’d get. I opted for a carbon fibre style slider made by Selens. I was considering making one myself, but after tallying up the parts list, it was way cheaper to buy one ready made, the same applied to the gimbal. I chose the Selens brand because from the numerous reviews I went through, it didn’t receive a bad comment from any of them and it was available for under $160 for the 120cm model. The sliders that did receive some negative comment were the plate style, which tended to have less smooth movements when used by hand because of the design and I suspect would be harder to keep clean. Selens also makes a model named the Nordic 1, which I would have loved to have bought, but baulked at the price. That said, even the cheap model had solid features such as adjustable roller tension and rollers with bearings.
The slider also came with a carry bag (as did the gimbal) and a small ball head, which works surprisingly well. But I decided to use my Novoflex Classic Ball 5 because it provided some mass for smoother hand control and the locking mechanisms gave easier and better access. The ball head added to the weight, but overall it’s still a relatively lightweight package. As for use, a slider enables a different perspective to be applied to camera motions that differs from say just rotating a fluid head and it’s more stable and controlled than say hand holding and moving the camera sideways or up and down. A slider can be used on its own, or attached to a tripod or stands and positioned at virtually any angle from horizontal to vertical. This slider is all manual, but making it into a motorised slider isn’t difficult, as belts, gears and motors are readily available from eBay 3D printer parts sellers (this might be a future project).
Another item that I added to my collection is a levelling base. With video, you tend to use a tripod significantly more than you do with still photography and getting that tripod level can become a right royal pain in the rear. This started to hit home on numerous occasions when out and about and I finally had enough. A levelling base is a simple attachment that sits between the tripod and fluid head and allows you to set up your tripod ‘roughly level’, or not at all, and then when you unlock the levelling base, it can be easily moved about until the fluid head is level. Levelling bases usually allow about 15 degrees of movement in any direction, but this is all you generally need to get things level. It only requires unlocking one lever and watching the spirit level and then locking things firmly. If you’re in situations where you’re changing positions a lot, a levelling head makes things so much easier and I have to add that actual use has proven this accessory to be invaluable.
All of these accessories are extremely useful, but like with anything, some can take hours or days of practice before you get them to work smoothly and intuitively. Even the simplest of these devices can be frustrating initially, as you sometimes fight what’s going on before you eventually realise that what you thought was intuitive is far from it, or you discover small tricks that make things work smoother, more consistently and become repeatable. Not all of these accessories are things that you use all the time, but when you need them, they just make things easier. But you have to know when and how to use them to get the maximum benefit and in Part 7 I’ll talk about some changes I’ve made.
Footnote. One thing to watch out for with the feet on the slider (any similar slider) is that they are prone to coming loose and therefore easy to lose. I had one missing leg after a trip to Mossvale Park and was somewhat peeved, knowing that losing this small item at the park meant that it was effectively lost for good. However, I decided to look in my car and, to my relief, it was lying in the footwell. So to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, I put a spring washer between each leg and locking ring so that this component was firmly fixed until I wanted to adjust it.