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One thing that sets professional event videographers apart from the swarms of home video enthusiasts is steady shooting. Trendy "Shakycam" styles aside, a solid, steady shot is still the professional norm, and is invariably—if often unconsciously—what our clients expect.
But steady shooting takes more than a steady hand. So in this inaugural edition of Gear and Now we'll discuss camera support: what your options are, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and how much you can expect to pay.
Three Legs are Better than Two
A fluid-head tripod is a must. You can spend anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for a quality tripod and fluid head. As you might expect, given that price range, not all tripods—fluid-head models included—are created equal. Here are some features you should look for:
• Black legs, because they're less conspicuous at a wedding than shiny aluminum.
• No spreader, so it can be easily placed over the back of a church pew. However, many good tripods are only available with floor-level or mid-level spreaders. You may decide that the other qualities of the unit outweigh this disadvantage.
• A claw ball, for quick and easy leveling.
• A bubble level.
• A true fluid head. These achieve smooth motion by forcing a viscous fluid through a narrow channel. Fluid-effect heads use friction between Teflon plates, and are not as smooth.
• Enough load capacity to carry your camcorder and any accessories. Extra load-carrying ability comes in handy when you want to add, say, a teleprompter.
• For camcorders in the 11 pound-and-up range, a centering spring. If you don't have this feature, your camera will "run away" if left unattended and tilted off the vertical. As you might expect, this can be highly embarrassing. Some models have adjustable centering tension, or different sizes of centering springs.
• Adjustable pan-and-tilt drag.
• Above all, smooth motion, especially at the start and end of pans and tilts.
For the smallest camcorders, I like the little Libec TH-M20. For something a little larger and stiffer, a set of Bogen 3001 BN legs with their 501 head is good. The Bogen Manfrotto 503 head is the first model to offer a centering spring, and the 505 (along with the similar Gitzo model) offers interchangeable springs. For real silky smooth quality, look at the Sachtler DV models or the Vinten Protouch or Vision 3 systems. Other brands such as Miller and Cartoni are also worth investigating.
Cinesaddle makes a line of custom beanbags designed to support your camcorder on a rock, a car hood, or just about anywhere. It's not so easy to pan or tilt, but the Cinesaddle is a useful tool, especially if you tend to shoot in locations where it's difficult to tote around or set up a tripod.
Standing on One Leg
Monopods are a compromise between the solid stability of a tripod and the mobility of handheld shooting. They can be equipped with a fluid head if you like, and some models have little stub legs that let them stand on their own. You can collapse the monopod and brace it against your belt buckle, or use it as a boom to raise the camera above the heads of the crowd. If loosely gripped just above the balance point, it can be used as an impromptu camera stabilizer for moving shots.
Varizoom offers the FlowPod with a gimbaled handle that can be unlocked, becoming a stabilizer. Many of the event shooters I talk to on the Web have adopted monopods, and are using them for more and more of their shooting, even during wedding ceremonies.
Shouldering the Load
Prosumer handheld camcorders are extremely popular for their low cost, light weight, and unobtrusive size. Unfortunately, holding one in your right hand all day is even more taxing than carting around a big DSR-570 on your shoulder. A shoulder brace can help. My favorite is the Varizoom VZ-LSP, for its abdominal brace and its rugged, yet adjustable, construction. However, it limits you to shooting from the shoulder position.
You may prefer something with less support but more flexibility, like the Biddlestick, a simple rod that extends back from the camcorder to your shoulder. Anton Bauer makes a brace that incorporates a high-capacity battery, which moves the balance point of the rig back towards your shoulder.
DV Caddie has a unique offering. It's a short monopod, with the lower end attached to a shoulder strap. This transfers the weight to your left shoulder. It also has a floating pan-and-tilt head that lets you move the camera while keeping it level.
Move On Down the Road
Stabilizer rigs for event shooters come in two flavors: handheld, like the Steadicam JR and Glidecam 2000, and units with a load-bearing vest and articulated arm, like the Steadicam Mini or Glidecam V8. The handheld units are priced around $400. They work well, but will quickly tire your arm. The vest-type rigs go for $3,000 and up.
Both types require plenty of practice to use well, but a skilled operator can run up and down stairs or over rough terrain without a camera bobble.
www.antonbauer.com : Battery systems powered shoulder brace
www.bhphotovideo.com: Huge mail-order video supplier in New York City
www.bogenimaging.us: Tripods, heads, monopods
www.cinesaddle.com: Beanbag support
www.dvcaddie.com: DVCaddie brace
www.libec.com: Tripod systems, pedestals, and jib arms
www.varizoom.com: FlowPod, shoulder braces, remote camera controls
www.vinten.com: Fluid heads, helpful "what camera, which head"