In the five years since Nikon first released the groundbreaking D90, the use of digital SLRs for video work has expanded exponentially. What was, at first, an interesting curiosity has become a mainstay of the professional video production industry.
Before you can market your video skills to clients, however, you need to understand what separates a professional from your uncle Bob. Camera stability and movement are essential if you want to avoid footage that looks amateurish. High-end productions are filmed with a variety of techniques including dolly, follow and jib shots. Numerous manufacturers have introduced products designed to help the DSLR shooter replicate these techniques without the manpower or equipment used in a Hollywood-level production.
Enter the Flashpoint ZeroGrav Stabilizer, a Steadicam-style camera stabilizer with a $300 price tag. Stabilizers like this provide the advantages of a mobile handheld camera, with the stability offered by a tripod or boom. After a little practice, it’s possible to achieve professional-looking dolly, follow, jib and many other shots with this setup.
The ZeroGrav is constructed of carbon fiber and aluminum. It has a load range of 2.2 to 11 pounds, and the unit itself weighs 2.6 pounds without the balance weights. There are four weights included that add up to a total 2.86 pounds. So, fully loaded, with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, you are looking at a total weight of around 9.3 pounds. The ZeroGrav collapses to as small as 27 inches and expands to 47 inches. With its carbon-fiber center post, black anodized-aluminum components and blue anodized accents, the ZeroGrav has a sleek, professional appearance. Finally, unlike many stabilizers in the sub-$1,000 price range, the ZeroGrav includes both a Q/R plate and matte box rods. Both of these features add value, and should be taken into consideration when doing a cost comparison.
Using one of these stabilizers is initially a matter of getting the unit correctly set up and balanced. For most filming, you will want the camera to be perfectly level both left to right and front to back. The ZeroGrav facilitates this by having a hole in its handle to fit onto a standard diameter light stand. You mount up the camera you are going to be using, set your light stand to a comfortable height and mount the ZeroGrav onto it. Then, you can use the ZeroGrav’s micrometer adjustment knobs to set the balance and lock it into place. Additional adjustments, such as adding or removing weights, changing overall length and moving the handle position, can then be made to further fine-tune the balance. The millimeter calibration scales that allow you to record the balance points for various camera-lens combinations are another handy feature, saving you the hassle of having to start from scratch every time you swap lenses.
Perhaps even more impressive than the ZeroGrav’s $300 price tag is the fact that for an additional $350, you can get a kit that includes both the ZeroGrav and a vest/arm mount support system. This ergonomic support setup transfers the weight of the ZeroGrav to your torso, leaving both hands free to properly balance and guide the unit as you execute your shots. If you have ever been to a televised sporting event, you have probably seen a cameraperson using a similar body mount setup for a broadcast camera (which can weigh in at over 40 pounds). It’s simply the best way to operate these types of stabilizers if you’re going to be using one for any length of time.
In practice, the setup works fairly well, although there are a few slight design issues worth mentioning. While almost all of the ZeroGrav levers and knobs are easy to use, the locking knob for the left/right balance is small and not easily accessible. At the very least, it should have the ability to accept a screwdriver or Allen wrench. The Q/R plate’s front/back adjustment could have used a gear with more teeth. The gear it uses allows a speedy release for the plate, but it also makes for a slightly sloppy feeling when adjusting. On a positive note, the front/back adjustment knob (that also releases the Q/R plate) is located on the left-hand side. Some stabilizer plates have the knob located on the right, which when using a DSLR means it ends up hidden under the protruding handgrip and becomes inaccessible. Finally, while no “one size” vest is going to fit everyone, the ZeroGrav’s vest does an admirable job of adjusting to various body sizes.
The ZeroGrav’s 11-pound weight capacity is impressive, and far outstrips the two- to six-pound capacity offered by its competitors in a similar price range. If you’re using it with a camera of that weight, however, the optional vest/arm support system becomes a near necessity. If you don’t believe me, try holding a ten-pound sack of flour in front of you for a few minutes and see how you feel. For anyone wanting to film longer shots or work an event, purchasing the support system is a smart move. Vests are stiff and bulky but using one allows you to focus your attention on getting the shot, not on how tired your forearms are.
The Bottom Line
In use, the ZeroGrav far outperforms its price tag. Make no mistake, stabilizers take some practice to use at a high level, but even if you are a complete novice, the ZeroGrav does its job well.
If you are a photographer moving into video, you should have access to some sort of stabilizer. The capabilities that a stabilizer offers are, quite simply, a necessity if you want to create polished, professional-looking footage. The Flashpoint ZeroGrav is a solid stabilizer at a fantastic price. When you factor in the ability to use the vest/arm mount support system, it becomes a great deal. There are a few design tweaks that I would like to see made, but overall the quality, design, features and price make the ZeroGrav a good choice for the working pro.
Pros: Excellent price point; optional vest/arm accessory; QR/plate and matte box rods included; easy set up
Cons: Frustrating adjustment lock knobs; slightly sloppy front/back balance adjustment; one-size vest may not fit all bodies well
Price: $300; www.adorama.com/FPSTAB.html