Walk the streets of most major cities and you’ll see more and more guerrilla-style video shoots by photographers using HD-DSLRs. To shoot, they’re relying on lightweight rigs designed to stabilize HD-DSLRs such as the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D300s.
Since this is a relatively new product category that photographers moving into video are still learning about, we decided to look at some of the major companies producing rigs designed for HD-DSLRs. Here’s our breakdown of the best of the best of the new crop of camera stabilizing systems.
Zacuto offers a wide array of products for video makers including one line designed specifically for the on-the-go HD-DSLR shooter. Zacuto’s Gorilla series of DSLR rig kits are lightweight and portable and are aimed at run-and-gun-style guerrilla street shooters. Zacuto describes them as basic “point of contact” kits suited for journalists or indie filmmakers who capture a combination of still photos and short video clips but not for extended cinematography. (For that type of work, check out Zacuto’s Cinema Kits.) There are no accessory rods built into the baseplates in the Gorilla series so you can’t add accessories such as a matte box or a follow focus knob. One nice feature is that you can attach your tripod plate to the bottom of the Gorilla baseplate, allowing you to switch from the rig to shooting handheld just by hitting the tripod’s quick release button.
The Gorilla line comes in two flavors: the Target Shooter and the Striker. The Target Shooter ($430) use a “gunstock” style brace that presses against your shoulder, allowing you to keep two hands on the camera. As with all of Zacuto’s products, we recommend using a Z-Finder attachment, the Pro ($395) or the Jr. ($265), which lets you easily view magnified live footage on your DSLR’s LCD screen via an eyecup device that shades out the light. The Striker ($880) also has a gunstock brace but adds a handgrip to provide more stability. The handgrip and gunstock on The Striker employ a ball joint that allows you to adjust them by 180 degrees. Red levers throughout the rig’s joints allow for further adjustment for comfort and maneuverability.
For more info on Zacuto’s full product line, visit www.zacuto.com.
One of the best-known names in the camera rig business is Steadicam. Back in the July issue of PDN we reviewed Steadicam’s Merlin, a product that has been around since before the whole HD-DSLR phenomenon blew up. Weighing just 13 ounces, the Merlin ($799) is one of the lightest rigs on the market and it was initially designed for videographers seeking to “float” their small camcorders in tight shooting conditions. Distributed by Tiffen, the Merlin has since caught on with photographers who are using it to shoot movies with HD-DSLRs. Designed by Garret Brown, the inventor of the original Steadicam Jr, the all-aluminum Merlin is lighter than a can of soda and uses a six-ball-bearing gimbal to isolate the camera from the shooter to create a smooth shot even when the operator is moving quickly over uneven ground. The device employs a dual extended weight system—the top mount where the camera goes and the curved section you see jutting out at the bottom—to increase stability. The counterbalancing weight can be adjusted to steady cameras weighing from 0.5 ounces up to 5 pounds.
During testing, we were able to hold the basic Merlin rig steady for about 30 seconds per shot but with the optional Merlin Arm and Vest ($1,495), which attaches the device to your body, you can lock it in for extended smooth shooting. Because of the Merlin’s lightweight design, adding any kind of serious zoom lens, without using the arm and vest, throws off the balance. Even when shooting with a 5D II and short prime lens, it takes practice with the Merlin to keep things steady. Overall though we found this to be a great lightweight solution for floating your HD-DSLR. And since the Merlin folds up neatly using a well-designed hinge system, it’s easy to pack in the included hard case and bring on an airplane. Few other similar rigs are as portable.
For more info, visit www.tiffen.com.
Another camera stabilizing device we tested earlier this year and liked is the 360-T2 Camera Truck ($879) from the Minneapolis-based Humble Monkey company. The Camera Truck, as its name suggests, is quite a bit different from the other products in this round-up. Designed to help you produce fluid low-angle tracking shots with your HD-DSLR, the 360-T2 Camera Truck’s simple, elegant wheel-based design provided smooth as silk movement in our high-def videos.
While we didn’t find it worked well on all surfaces during testing—it wobbled and chattered on rough ground—the Camera Truck with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II attached was capable of producing sweet tracking shots with a range of motion. And unlike clunky rail-based slider devices, the Camera Truck is highly portable (it fits snuggly in a plastic carrying box) and uses the effects of gravity to determine the length and speed of your shot. The device uses zero-drag 72mm in-line skate wheels made of lightweight acrylic and frictionless skate bearings with stainless steel axles to keep the movement smooth. There’s also a foot brake to prevent it from rolling away. The body of the camera truck is made of acrylic and rides low to the ground with just a .25-inch surface clearance. While this is ideal for sliding across tabletops, it only allows for low angle footage when pushed along the ground.
The company plans to start selling “Riser Diskette” accessories which will let you elevate the threaded camera mount by several inches. There will also be a “heavy duty” version of the Camera Truck coming soon, which will accommodate a 95-pound payload (current limit is 35 pounds) and will be fitted with a Mitchell (mounting) Plate instead of the 3/8-inch, 16-threaded post. The company will also offer 100mm “hi hat” mounts to elevate your camera further. The most unique feature about the Camera Truck is that each of its three wheels offers up to 360-degrees of independent rotation which allows for a range of movement to create a variety of tracked looks in your footage. While testing the truck, we were easily able to get it to track forwards, backwards, sideways, at an angle and on a curve to create some stunning shots.
For more info and to purchase a Camera Truck, visit www.humblemonkeystore.com.
Redrock Micro produces modular camera rig kits similar to Zacuto’s. Which brand you prefer is somewhat a matter of taste but they both offer top-quality stabilizing systems. Redrock Micro recently released a stripped down budget-minded line of rigs called “Nano.” We like the Nano Running Man ($440) and Nano Stealth V ($580) which offer shoulder/chest bracing to stabilize the camera and adjustable rubberized handgrips to give you control. There’s also a variety of blue switches—on Zacuto’s models, these switches are red—for adjusting the rigs for comfort and maneuverability. Though the Nano line includes seven rigs, they’re all basically modular variations of the same system based around Redrock accessories including a Nano baseplate, focus and zoom lever, a MicroHandle Plus with an integrated shoe mount, and a two-inch long, 15mm carbon fiber rails and two-inch handlebar rods. Mix and match until you get the configuration you want.
If you’re looking for something considerably more serious, get a load of Redrock Micro’s camouflaged Redrock/ops camera rigs. This heavy-duty line uses a special chemical coating that infuses the camo patterns right into the materials, giving it a slick rough-and-tumble look that won’t fade over time. The camo finish is matted so it doesn’t reflect any light on the set. Yes, they’re a little over-the-top but why the heck not? If you like the look, we suggest you go for the biggest model in the Redrock/ops bunch: the Redrock DSLR Field Deluxe Cinema Bundle ($2,368) which gives you two hand grips, and the ability to output to an HD monitor while recording. This is a great feature that lets an assistant handle focus so the operator can concentrate on shooting. There’s also a riser to elevate your HD-DSLR to accommodate follow focus, a microMatte Box and lens gears.
For more info, visit www.redrockmicro.com.
Finally, if you’re looking for a basic rig to float your HD-DSLR but can’t afford some of the more expensive set-ups in this story, consider Glidecam, which makes very decent, budget-oriented models. We like the Glidecam 2000 Pro ($369) which is a light stabilizing system designed for cameras weighing up to six pounds. Similar to Steadicam’s devices but with a vertical design that doubles as a monopod, the Glidecam 2000 Pro keeps your camera balanced and isolated from your hands for smooth panning, tilting, booming, or running shots. The Glidecam’s offset handle grip and gimbal system prevents shake even when you’re running down stairs or up a hill with your camera attached. The aluminum device is 14.5 inches tall and weighs over two pounds with the counterbalance disks. The best part though has to be the sub-$400 price tag, making the Glidecam one of the least expensive professional rigs out there right now.
More info at www.glidecam.com.