I recently had the opportunity to use the Steddiepod from BarberTech Video Products. Over the years, I've heard others talk about the device, and I even saw it at trade shows at video conventions. When you see a demo of it, you see that it's designed as a single device that is multifunctional: It can be used as a monopod, a tripod, and even a flying stabilizer.
Can it be all those at the same time and do those functions effectively? Well, being a shooter who's always searching for the best and most cost-effective stabilizer to perform all these tasks without adding too much extra gear or breaking my budget, I thought it would be worth checking out.
The basic Steddiepod starts at $299 for just the monopod/tripod setup and a solid but adjustable grip. But the price begins to climb a bit with various a la carte items that I'll discuss in this review.
If you have an extra small tripod head lying around the studio, you could use it on top of the Steddiepod and save a few dollars. The version I received was the fully loaded model. It included a nice, spring-loaded fluid tripod head and the rotating grip for smoothing out flying shots with a heavier camera (more about that later). Also included was a remote zoom controller for when you're using it as a monopod and shooting up high.
The total price for the model I tested is $499 if you don't need the zoom controller. A nice feature of the zoom controller (which costs an extra $179) is that it works on Canon, Sony, and Panasonic cameras. I know Panasonic, for one, has a proprietary controller interface that normally requires a different unit. But BarberTech's zoom controller works with all the cameras. It's simple but effective, with only a zoom controller and a record button, which are the most commonly used features in the majority of scenarios for a zoom controller.
Setup and Balancing
Upon unpacking the Steddiepod, I noticed that the unit was solid and well-built. I opened the directions, and within a few minutes, I had my camera set up and balanced on the unit. I was using a Canon XH A1 for my testing. Those of you who shoot with the A1 know that it carries most of its weight on the right side. I was able to balance my camera on the Steddiepod using a small offset balance plate. The balance plate costs an extra $19, but if you have a side-heavy camera, you'll need it. This is one component that BarberTech should have included with every unit. Pro shooters often have multiple cameras in different models, and they may not realize they need the plate for balance until they've already purchased the Steddiepod and set it up for a shoot. So keep this in mind if you have an A1 or other side-heavy camera.
The hardest part of the balancing process on the Steddiepod was the location and installation of the balance plate. There's a great video demo on YouTube showing how the balance plate works. After watching the video, I balanced the camera perfectly and very quickly. Now, on to the testing.
Will It Fly?
The first thing I wanted to test was what everyone wants to know about a new stabilizer: Will it fly like a Glidecam or a Merlin? I worked with a colleague from my PVA to balance the A1 on the Merlin and he shot the footage that appears in the side-by-side comparison in the video at the top of this page. There was no one in my market with a Glidecam to test the Steddiepod against, so I asked someone I knew from out of town to shoot the footage for me with the Glidecam 4000. I told him exactly what kind of shots to create with his A1 and the Glidecam 4000 so we could keep the test as "apples to apples" as possible.
One of the newer innovations to the Steddiepod is the swivel handle that is mounted on the monopod tube. It is a bearing-loaded handle, so it rotates freely and actually helps remove some of the side-to-side motion that is common with non-gimbaled stabilization devices. It's not quite a full-function gimbal, but it did help me get some pretty good flying footage.
In the EventDV-TV clip above, you can see that the footage from the Steddiepod held up well against the Merlin and the Glidecam. It will never rival what you get from a vest-mounted system, but compared to other handheld stabilization devices, it does a good job. I've never had a Glidecam or a Merlin, but I have used other budget-friendly steady devices in the past. Of those budget versions, the Steddiepod is the best flying device I have used.
It took very little time to set up the Steddiepod, which is one of its benefits. If you need to change cameras on it or add a light to your camera, you can have it rebalanced and ready to go in less than 5 minutes. No weights are needed. The tripod feet are your ballast, and if your camera is too heavy, you get extra ballast by lengthening the monopod section. It's a very simple concept.
Now, what about those other modes? Among the key features of the Steddiepod are the round screw-out legs on the bottom. You open those up for tripod mode and when using it for flying shots. Once the legs are tightened down in tripod mode, it acts as a pretty stable tripod.
With my A1 on the Steddiepod, I had no problem setting it down and letting go, as long as the tubes were collapsed most of the way. But with the small footprint of the tripod legs, it will get tipped over easily if you leave it up and unattended. The fluid head included on my unit didn't appear to be anything high-end or expensive, but it worked smoothly in all directions; also, it was spring-loaded, so it was very usable.
It includes a quick-release plate, which is not interchangeable with other tripod heads, making this a drawback for some. In tripod mode you'll want to keep a light grip on the monopod tube when panning and tilting because of the small tripod footprint. This small footprint can be very handy at a reception where space is tight and you need to adjust positions when filming speeches. When I'm filming speeches at weddings, I usually position myself among the guest tables to get the required shot.
Filming receptions in tripod mode will make moving around easy and, once in place, will provide a steady, good-quality shot. Is it as solid a mount as a conventional tripod? No, but it's more solid and less work than holding a monopod steady for long periods of time. I could see myself using the Steddiepod as my only support for a reception, based on the shots normally required from my camera.
Those little tripod legs have other functions too, which can come in handy in run-and-gun event shooting. There is a small chain included that attaches to the controller mount. If you have the remote controller, this allows you to use a shoulder strap (like a camera strap) to hold the Steddiepod while shooting. You can rest the little tripod legs on your legs below the waist, attach the camera strap to the small chain, and it will support the unit.
The downside to this setup is you have to get the zoom controller and this chain to use this mode. I'm not a big zoom controller user most of the time, and if I had a cable running up to my camera all day, I'm sure I'd rip it out at least a few times, eventually damaging the controller port of my camera. The chain doesn't appear to be very strong, so I'm a little cautious about supporting my camera with it. I mentioned these concerns to Steddiepod designer Eddie Barber, and he said the chain has a 50lb. test strength. I'm still not a big fan of requiring shooters to mount the little chain and the zoom controller to use this particular mode. I'm hoping Barber will continue to develop the Steddiepod to work in this mode without the zoom controller and small chain.
Getting High-Angle Shots
With the little tripod legs still extended, the Steddiepod can be easily held up high over a crowded dance floor at a reception. Just extend the Steddiepod all the way and those little legs will rest on your waist or thighs and provide a nice base of support.
I've used a monopod in this manner before, but the single leg would often land in a place that wasn't the most comfortable. These little legs make high shots steady and easy. This particular mode is where the zoom controller can come in handy giving you the ability to zoom if needed without having to bring the camera down. If you do lots of high-angle shooting, the zoom controller may be a good investment.
‘Ego Cam Mode'
There is one other way the Steddiepod can be used with those little tripod legs extended. The included instructions call it "Ego Cam mode." Extend the monopod tubes up a little, attach the shoulder strap around your waist, and connect to the small chain that attaches to the controller mount. Now, rotate the camera toward yourself and point it down. Grab a handheld mic, and you can do on-site, on-camera reporting like a news reporter by yourself. I filmed the beginning of the online demo using this mode.
While this is not something we may use as event shooters in our everyday run-and-gun world, it offers another way to be creative when needed.
Back to Monopod Mode
OK, enough with those little tripod legs. Unscrew them a little, fold them up into monopod mode, and tighten them down. You now have a very capable monopod. You have the added benefit of the little handle on the tripod head, which can brace up against your shoulder. With the viewfinder up to your eye, the handle on your shoulder, your hands on the camera, and the monopod on the ground, you have many points of contact to stabilize a shot while zoomed in. I frequently use this method when shooting b-roll for a ceremony. For other monopod-type shooting, the Steddiepod is a very capable support on par with any others out there.
One other function you can use in monopod mode that many shooters often use with standard monopods is shooting low to the ground. Flip the Steddiepod upside down, and you can get steady flying shots from the ground level. Obviously, you'll have to flip the footage in post, but that's an easy fix.
With the Steddiepod, you have a little extra twist to the low-mode functionality. On the bottom near the tripod legs are 3 little holes in the triangular support. Add a 1/4"x20" screw in there and you can mount your camera on the bottom and still have the benefit of the rotating grip on top.
If your camera has a tripod mount bolt on top, you don't even have to flip it upside down. This can help make your low-mode shots even smoother. You'll have to spend a moment getting the camera mounted on the bottom, but if you have the time, it's a much better setup than the normal "flip the monopod upside-down" method.
In the EventDV-TV clip above, I showed the low mode by flipping the whole unit upside down. Often at a wedding when I want a low shot, I don't have time to stop and reinstall the camera on the bottom. When I film a concept video or spotlight video where we are in control, then I will use low mount feature.
So what were my overall impressions? On the negative side, I didn't like the fact that the zoom controller and the small chain were required for certain shots and in certain modes. Some sort of attachment that can allow the quick removal of the camera strap so the camera can be mounted without a zoom controller would make the Steddiepod more versatile and easier to use. I almost never keep a zoom controller attached to everything I am shooting in a day, so I don't want to have this extra attachment with a hanging wire just begging me to bump it and rip it out.
If you don't have the zoom controller and chain, the versatility of the Steddiepod is reduced by a few modes that would otherwise come in handy for you. Since the Steddiepod has been around for a few years and has evolved considerably in that time, improvements are ongoing, so I think there's a good chance that this issue will be addressed as the product continues to develop.
One other little thing to be aware of is that the little tripod legs could come unscrewed if you don't tighten them well when packing up. If this happens the small washers that are integral to the Steddiepod's stability in tripod mode will fall off. They could be replaced easily at the local hardware store, but it's still best to make sure they're tight.
On the positive side, the Steddiepod glides very well for a device whose initial design is not made for flying or gliding footage. In monopod mode, it's as good as any monopod I've used, and the fluid head and tripod legs make it a capable tripod for use in tight quarters or in a pinch. It won't replace your good tripod, but it could replace your monopod or your flying stabilizer (if you only use it a few times a day).
With a cost of $500, the Steddiepod is not the least expensive device around. But its versatility can save you from purchasing multiple devices to get the same functionality that it provides as a single unit (albeit with a few add-ons that raise the price from $299 to just less than $500). Even at the full $499, the savings can add up, and you'll have the convenience of a single device to do many functions.
Check out the EventDV-TV clip at the top of the article page to see examples of the various ways that the Steddiepod can be used and to see some footage I shot around my little town using the Steddiepod. Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the Steddiepod and what it was capable of doing. I've been trying to reduce the amount of gear my crew hauls around to weddings and other events, and using the Steddiepod will allow me to take a tripod, monopod, and shoulder brace out of the mix and replace them with a single device. In this case, the Steddiepod's less is most certainly more.
Philip Hinkle (philip at frogmanproductions.com) runs Madison, Wis.-area video production company Frogman Productions. A 2008 EventDV 25 honoree, he won a 2008 WEVA CEA Gold in the Social Event category and a 2006 4EVER Group AAA Diamond. He was a 2009 WEVA CEA judge and a featured speaker at WEVA Expo 2009. He is co-founder and vice president of the Wisconsin Digital Media Group.