In the Field: Zacuto Tactical Shooter and Z-Finder
Posted Dec 9, 2009

The stunning video and images that Canon's EOS 5D Mark II makes possible have been well-documented. But after purchasing my own 5D, it didn't take me long to figure out that shooting video with a fully manual-focus camera in a still-camera body was going to have its difficulties. It's very difficult to see if your shots are in focus by looking at an LCD screen that does not tilt. It's also not easy (at least for me) to hold a camera that size steady while shooting video. Since I knew I wanted to incorporate the 5D into my wedding and event video equipment arsenal, I started doing some research into how to make the camera steadier and how to ensure that I was shooting in focus, especially when working outside. I wanted something that lasts forever. It had to be easy to unfold, easy to adjust, fast to set up, and lightweight. While I found several manufacturers with camera stabilizer rigs available, I finally settled on one line of products: the DSLR Gunstock Shooter Gorilla Kits by Zacuto.

First (Hands-on) Impressions
In September, I went to WEVA Expo 2009 hoping that Zacuto would have camera stabilizer rigs on the trade show floor available to try-they didn't let me down. They're much more impressive in person than on the Zacuto website; the pictures of the products don't do them justice.

Zacuto Gorilla kits come in three flavors: DSLR Rapid Fire, DSLR Quick Draw, and DSLR Tactical Shooter. The Tactical Shooter can be broken down and put together as either a Rapid Fire or a Quick Draw. Trying them out at WEVA, I was immediately struck by how light all three kits were; the Tactical Shooter weighs in at just 24 oz. Once the camera is mounted, you get three points of contact: the handgrip, the chest brace, and your focusing hand. The camera releases quickly from the rig by flipping the lever on the quick-release plate.

I quickly zeroed in on the Tactical Shooter, which lists for $1,117 and is a very simple product consisting of three 15mm rods with a handful of clamps, a handle, and a shoulder brace. It was exactly the product I was looking for.

Zacuto Tactical Shooter

Finding a Viewfinder
Similarly, I decided I needed an optical viewfinder attachment to help with the focus issues. After reading as many reviews as I could find, I decided to purchase a Z-Finder optical viewfinder ($395) for my 5D. The product has 3x magnification with optics by Schneider. It has a 40mm diameter lens and an eyecup. The total weight is listed on Zacuto's website as 6 oz.

The first thing I noticed about it, upon delivery, was how solid it was. It comes with a lanyard that attaches to the eyepiece and a mounting frame that sticks to the LCD screen. The frame fits very nicely on the Canon viewfinder. I was reluctant to stick something on my LCD screen, but Zacuto assured me that it would come off easily with no residue left behind. After I stuck the frame on the LCD screen, I placed a weight on it and let it set for 24 hours, as instructed. The next day I snapped the Z-Finder on the mounting frame and began to check it out.

The Z-Finder pops on and off effortlessly. Right away, I found that I was able to hold the camera much steadier with the Z-Finder pressed against my eye. It actually adds a fourth point of contact to the three points provided by the Tactical Shooter. This is a product that you have to see and use to really understand how great it is.

Zacuto Z-Finder

Real-World Tests
I recently had an opportunity to see how both products work in the field. A good friend had a wedding shoot scheduled and allowed me to come and shoot video and still pictures using my Canon 5D Mark II. This was an excellent opportunity for me to really put the new equipment to the test. Since I had no real shot assignments for the day, it was an opportunity to just focus my attention on setting the camera on the rig, attaching the viewfinder, and checking both out for the day. This ended up being an 8-hour shoot at an outdoor wedding ceremony with an outdoor photo shoot and a dark reception hall venue for dinner and dancing.

Although there were times I would have normally used a tripod for shooting, I really wanted to see what I could do using just the Tactical Shooter. As I packed my gear for the day, it occurred to me how compact the Tactical Shooter was when folded up. It was very easy to just use a camera bag for transporting it rather than the usual tripod cases I take to a shoot.

Once at the wedding site, I simply loosened the clamps on the shooter, adjusted the rig, and attached the camera. With it in place, I was able to make small adjustments easily by loosening the clamps and tweaking the position of the shoulder brace and the handgrip.

There seem to be an almost infinite number of adjustments you can make to fit your needs. Once I snapped on the Z-Finder, I was ready to shoot. Once the clamps are tight and the camera is locked on, you can basically carry the camera by holding on to any of the rods without worrying if a clamp is going to come loose. When tight, the clamps do not move.

I did notice that with the Z-Finder's 3x magnification, the 5D's low LCD resolution seems more noticeable. The shoot day was a combination of sun, shade, and everything in between. It seemed pretty easy to see the action using the Z-Finder attached to the camera. The one thing that was a bit annoying was the lens getting fogged up quite often. I think this is because of the perspiration that can build up against the large rubber eyepiece. This is an annoyance, but pulling the eyepiece back for a few seconds clears up the fog. (To address this problem, Zacuto sells defogger wipes, but I haven't tested them.)

My first test was to take some shots of the bride getting ready. The first thing I discovered was that the Tactical Shooter doesn't have to be held up to your shoulder as advertised. It can also be lowered and held by one of the rods. This is nice for low-angle shots, but you do have to make sure your focus is good before doing this. The best position, however, is having one hand on the handgrip and the other hand on the camera.

One problem I noticed is that if you're right-handed, as I am, you'll have to hold the handgrip with your left hand in order for your right hand to be free to make camera adjustments. I did find myself holding the handgrip most of the time, but once in a while I grabbed the rig by one of the rods and held it there. Either way, I found it very stable. The shots I got in the bridal prep room were as steady as if I had been shooting on a tripod.

I took my next shots during the ceremony. I used two different lenses for the ceremony-the 70-200 and the 16-35. Holding the 70-200 proved to be very stable and comfortable with the Tactical Shooter. The Z-Finder was outstanding and allowed me to really focus precisely. Almost all of my shots were fairly static. I did try to get some of the recessional, but keeping in focus with someone walking toward you is always going to be difficult. The task is much easier, however, with the Z-Finder.

Postceremony Shooting
Once the ceremony was over, it was time to go outside for the photo shoot. The wedding was at a golf course, so there was a lot of walking involved. Having the 5D attached to the Tactical Shooter rig gave me a couple of handles to carry both with. I was very confident that the camera was not going to fall off the Tactical Shooter. Zacuto does make a camera strap that can connect to the rig and allow you to carry both.

Shooting the bride and groom outside was a blast. Again, there are an infinite number of ways you can adjust the rig. I was able to sit and kneel. I was very surprised to find out that shooting still pictures is also easier with the Tactical Shooter. The camera can be held very steady, and if you want to shoot stills with live view, the Z-Finder provides an excellent option for seeing what you're shooting and determining if you're in focus. I found myself shooting video, then stills, and then video again.

While I would normally shoot most of this with either a tripod or a monopod, I found the Tactical Shooter was just as stable.

Interior and Low-Light Shots
Once back inside the reception, I decided to get some cake shots, head table shots, and so forth. I would consider some of these shots far superior to my normal handheld shots. This was due to the fact that I could grab the Tactical Shooter a couple of different ways, which allowed me to get steady moving-camera shots. I was also able to get some nice wide-angle and pan shots with my 16-35 lens-also very steady shots.

Soon it was time for dancing and turning out all the lights. The video crew hired for the wedding had plenty of lighting, and I did not use a camera light. I was able to get some pretty nice shots of the first dance, but once the lights went way down it would have been a great time to pack up the Tactical Shooter and mount the 5D on a tripod.

The Z-Finder did an outstanding job in very difficult lighting conditions. Without it, I would have had a very hard time seeing if I was in focus.

All in all, I'm very pleased with both the Zacuto Z-Finder and Tactical Shooter. Both are high-quality products that resolved the issues I was having with the 5D and exceeded my expectations. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't hesitate to buy either product.

Jerry Cleveland (mymemoriesforever at mac.com) runs My Memories Forever, an Oshkosh, Wis.-based studio that specializes in wedding video storytelling.