How to Select the Right Camera Supports or Camera Stabilizer

There is no one camera support that is right for every application. Some manufacturers and rental houses hype that their wonder product will do everything. A tool compromised to do everything will probably not do any ONE thing very well. Selecting the right tool takes knowledge of how each tool works, what skills are needed to make each one work well and, of course, the budget. Here are some guidelines.

HAND HELD Advantages: Ability to move the camera in all directions limited only by the reach of hands. Ability to make fast moves while following quick actions. Arms can absorb some of the undesired motions of the operator's body. Fastest setup time.

Disadvantages: Horizon control is not automatic and up to operator. Weight of camera causes fatigue and tetanus (muscles fighting one another.) Holding a camera steady is difficult. (Image stabilizers help some, but do not work very well for longer lenses and shots requiring a steady image for any length of time.) It is difficult to study composition. Camera must be continuously supported. Some cameras are not well designed for handholding.

TRIPODS Advantages: Image is stable at all focal lengths if tripod is rigid enough. Horizon stays level if the tripod head has been leveled and the camera is mounted straight ahead on the tripod head. Highest ability to study composition, contrast, lighting and actor's performance. The camera maintains composition if the operator lets go of pan handle. I highly recommend getting a good tripod and learning how to use it FIRST. They are one of the best bargains for ability to make solid shots and smooth moves. Skills learned using a tripod will make learning the use of other supports much easier and will help make the choice of the right alternate support much easier. A good tripod will not become obsolete next month like your DV camera will.

Disadvantages: A decent tripod is usually larger and heavier than a DV camera. It takes time to position, adjust height, and level the head. They have a limited ability to get high or low enough. An operator is limited by the ability to move around tripod to make pans of more than about 130 degrees.

A SAND OR BEAN BAGS Advantages: Cheap! Can be homemade. Fast to set up. Great way to level and support camera on the ground or against a wall.

Disadvantages: Horizon must be leveled. Smooth pans and especially tilts are very difficult.

INTERNAL LENS STABILIZERS (Steady-shot, etc.) They are an aid but, not a substitute for a tripod, crane or dolly. Adv: Can reduce SOME camera shake from operator's body and from a vehicle the operator is riding on.

Disadvantages: Non-optical (digital, electronic) models degrade the image. Some claim even the optical ones do too. Must be turned off for tripod shots, often a menu option. Do not work for shakes of all frequencies.

Professional stabilized video lenses (Canon, Schwimm Gyro Zoom) with internal stabilizers have many applications, are large and cost a lot. (Should become cheaper.)

DOLLIES, CRANES AND MOVING CAMERAS create perspective change and help give a 3-dimentional look for video images.

DOLLIES Advantages: All the advantages of being on a tripod (if the operator rides and the dolly and tripod are strong enough) plus the ability to move camera side to side.

Disadvantages: Cost. Set up time can be extensive especially on uneven ground. For decent moves, a trained dolly grip (pusher) is needed to coordinate his pushing the dolly with the operator panning the camera. Operating a camera on a dolly by walking behind it is folly. Only wide-angle poorly composed shots are possible. That said, there are some shots of static scenes that can be rehearsed and shot by an operator himself pushing the dolly smoothly and not watching the viewfinder during the take. (I did shots in 1964 this way for a Academy nominated documentary.)

CRANES There are big differences between studio and consumer cranes. I will discuss consumer cranes here. Adv: It is possible to make vertical moves from ground level to max height of arm. The horizon is maintained level in all positions if "the post" is vertical or if a tripod head is used for support, the tripod head is leveled.

Dis: Cost. Set up time. The horizon changes side-to-side composition with horizontal arm moves. With lightweight cranes it is difficult to keep the horizon well composed side-to-side. View finding can be a major problem. Moving the crane and operating the camera at the same time by operator takes a lot of practice. Models that provide tilting but do not provide panning about the camera axis seriously limit types of moves possible. These use a tripod head as a pivot and tilting the camera.

INERTIAL CAMERA STABILIZERS (Steadicam © etc.) Advantages: Reduces or isolated completely movements from the operator's body to the camera. Camera can be armed up and down and actors or moving objects can be followed. Camera can be operated over very rough ground and places where no other support will work. Much production time can be saved with a VERY WELL TRAINED operator.

Disadvantages: Cost. Ease of adjusting balance of the unit. The operator must support additional weight by hand or a body vest. NEED FOR MUCH PRACTICE. Difficult to hold a static shot with longer lenses. Can work well from SOME moving vehicles, but are very dangerous in OTHERS. Viewfinder can be difficult to see with some camera positions and in bright light. (Viewfinders are getting much better, but are still expensive.)

GYRO STABILIZED SUPPORTS Very stable shots from some vehicles possible with the right designs. (See Gyro Stabilization section.)

Disadvantages: Cost. They are noisy for sound, they need extra power sources, and are relatively heavy. They need start up time to work. (About 10 min.)

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.