Gear & Now: Remote Control Camera Gear
Posted Jan 24, 2005

There are many products and applications for remote control (R/C) camera gear. R/C is used in videoconferencing systems, in wireless video transmission and control products, and in robotic camera supports, such as studio pedestals and other such fixed mounts.

R/C camera gear may simply refer to what's often called a zoom controller. Less limited than its name suggests, a zoom controller may let the operator control not only zoom, but also focus, power, and other basic camera functions at a distance from the camera itself.

Such devices are easily mounted on a tripod arm, and usually cable-connected to the camera.

Not all units are easily mounted, however. The now-discontinued line of pan/tilt camera-control devices from Panasonic—models 7320, 7330, 7360, for example—were housed in bread loaf-sized boxes. But most models are considerably more compact.

For event videographers, even wired remote control opens up shooting opportunities that may not be otherwise available. Operators can use R/C devices to control more than one camera at a time, as a way to save on crew costs, reduce set-up time, or reduce the number and visibility of the video crew in sensitive or close-quarter settings.

Control the Camera or the Tripod
Remote control pan/tilt tripods like the Sunpak AP200, the Bescor MP-101, and the 21best.com Waterproof Pan & Tilt (WPT) system, offer basic control over pan and tilt functions, using custom-built heads and either wired or wireless connectivity. Depending on features and functions, such pan/tilt heads range in price from around $150 to $1000 and beyond.

Telemetrics, for example, offers advanced camera control and robotics systems for broadcast, sports, and videography applications. Using Telemetrics' CoaxLink Adapter and Base Station, a MiniDV camcorder can be transformed into a dual-purpose field/studio camera, with viewfinder, remote power, video, audio, and intercom all multiplexed on to a single coax cable.

Perhaps more affordable for the rest of us is an interesting concept from video-direct.com, a wireless remote control kit for most Sony and Canon camcorders. Combining a motorized pan head and a wireless transmission system, the kit supports start-stop record control, zoom, pan, tilt and transmission of video and stereo audio up to 300 feet. The kit is priced at $359.

Hi-Pod offers remote camera control with its telescoping monopod, for a complete camera support and control system. It includes LANC cabling (see next section), as well as an interval video feed for monitoring the shot (an LCD is included in the system). The yoke/pulley system controls the camera head assembly for panning and tilting. It also features power supply, carrying bag, and more with the system. It is priced around $3,000.

For multiple-camera remote control, a new system from Grizzly Pro, the r-THREE, will offer a camera control and support device kit (tripods, handheld controls, cables, and connections, etc.) for shoots involving up to three cameras. From a single control console, an operator can manage each camera individually.

Get Your Signals Straight
Most of the non-wireless remote control units now on the market rely on the Sony LANC protocol, a signal protocol that is recognized by many other manufacturers. Controllers from Giotto's Industrial connect through LANC connections, providing basic control over power-on/off and zooming in and out. Giotto's controllers are compatible with Sony and Canon DV cameras with LANC terminals; Sony digital cameras with ACC terminals can also be used with this economical system. Mounting with either clamp or rubber belt, the Giotto 2010 series is priced around $30 or less.

Besides LANC, Panasonic's Control M protocol, as well as computer-friendly protocols like RS-422, can be used in R/C applications.

The Tao Machine Control products from Sweet Pea Communications recognize such protocols, and will convert between them as necessary. Even DV timecode can be transmitted using the company's remote control camera products, allowing for batch capture and auto assembly functions using compatible camcorders.

TAO DV, DVCAM, Digital-8, and Hi-8 camcorder control interfaces are priced between $500 and $600, depending on function, compatibility, and other features.

Compatibility--Technical and Human
Compatibility between your camera and an R/C device is critical to all remote camera operation. But what's just as important is the devices' compatibility with you, and the way you are used to shooting.

The speed at which zoom controls operate may be different from what you are used to; the start (or take-off) and stop (or ramp-down) of a zoom move may seem rather abrupt to some, depending on the system used. These factors can be controlled and customized to some degree.

For example, the line of camera remote handles from Bogen/Manfrotto allows users to switch between left-right or right-left zoom targets—something that is very handy for left-handed videographers!

The 522 model (MSRP $415), for example, designed for Sony and Canon LANC camcorders like the DSR-250, VX2000, VX2100, or PDX10, provides controls for focus, record, zoom, backlight, and more. Camera movement and record control is at your fingertips—no matter which hand you use.

The 523 model has general-use preset buttons, which can be individualized to meet personal preferences. It also features a progressive zoom wheel feature, by which the range of minimum and maximum zoom can be accessed gradually, and repeated easily.

The StealthZoom from VariZoom also features variable-speed zoom and rocker controls that are easily adaptable to individual styles and shooting preferences. Smooth zooms, with both telephoto or wide-angle shots, are more easily achieved with variable units than fixed speed models. The StealthZoom gets clamped to tripod, stabilizer, or even the camera handle itself, and connects with a supplied 40" cable. Pricing is under $200. VariZoom offers a wide variety of camera and zoom control products, specially made for specific cameras and/or lenses.

Sign Video's Zoom Commander line also offers variable preset zoom controls or buttons, each with two continuously variable-speed set dials. One controls speed for zoom in, one for zoom out, allowing for repeatable and predictable zoom moves.

These wired remotes are mounted, using Velcro strips or clamping plate, to tripod arms, jib arms, or other such devices. They provide control over zooms and recording, and also have features such as focus control, selectable auto restart, manual power up/down, auto focus on/off, VTR controls. Extension cables are available.

Zoom Commander is available in three configurations, based on features, functions, and camera compatibility. The DVX, Pro, II, and base model range in price from $99.95-$159.95.

R/C gear from Germany's Bebob Engineering, marketed under the name Zoe, are among the best controllers around, based on price, size, and function. Zoe R/C options include DVL (LANC-compatible), DVX (for Panasonic cameras, including the 100A), and newer Model II versions (also available in different configurations).

The unique rocker shape is really styled for finger and thumb control; three indented positions can be used easily and comfortably. The focus functions are special, as well: a double click toggles the camera between manual and auto-focus. A single click switches the rocker switch between Zoom and Focus. A longer click activates the Push-Auto function (only DVL).

Using a patented technology called maximum speed reduction (MSR), the top speed of these controllers can be decreased or limited, without affecting the progressive, incremental nature of the zoom (proprietary hardware and software contribute to this). Smooth zooms are easily achieved; the slowest of slow zooms may jump a bit at take-off, but the rest of the results are quite stable.

Available from 16x9 Inc., ZOE II features variable-speed stepless zoom control, reversible zoom direction, and a record start/stop button in a very compact (about five and a half ounces, less than two inches in any direction) unit, and easily clamps on a standard tripod panhandle. Prices range from $250-$350, depending on configuration. Optional extension cables, lens adapters, clamps, and handles are available.