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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Brace Yourself

A travel photographer’s view of stabilizing options for DSLR motion shooters

The Burmese city of Bagan at sunrise. In motion capture, this kind of scene needs to be kept rock-steady.

Back in the days when I only shot stills, I was one cavalier dude when it came to using tripods and other bracing devices. Sure, if I was going out to shoot some twilight skylines or really dark interiors, I'd have a tripod along. But besides those situations, handheld was the way I rolled. And with the continually improving Vibration Reduction technology and high ISO performance in my Nikon DSLRs, it looked as though I was going to be spending more and more of my shooting time handheld.

Then video had to come along and ruin everything.

Yes, only after I was seduced by the sexy storytelling possibilities of the moving image did I learn that, if I wanted my videos to look decent, I had to kiss my free and easy handheld days goodbye and learn to love my tripod, or anything else that would kill the amateurish shake, rattle and roll that characterized my handheld video efforts. Sure, the shaky camera is a "look" these days. It's a good one when it's done well and it's appropriate to the subject. My problem is that while it seems to look good in everybody else's edgy cinematography, when I do it, it just looks like a mistake.

And so I've embraced my tripod, as well as a host of other small, portable devices to help me conquer the shakes when tripod use just isn't practical or allowed.

Is That A Rocket Launcher On Your Shoulder? Before we go any further on the subject, it's worth a few lines to explain what this column isn't going to be about, and that is, those giant DSLR "rigs" that you see every time there's an article about DSLR video. These aluminum and metal monstrosities can easily double, triple and even quadruple the size of your setup. When DSLR video was introduced, everybody loved it because the cameras were so small and portable. Then they proceeded to build stabilizing rigs around those small cameras that make them about the size of an average Stinger missile launcher.

Yes, they help you steady the camera, but I suspect the other reason these rigs are so imposing is so that you can feel good about investing four figures in what's essentially $20 worth of aluminum tubing (and also look macho on set). So, we'll be talking about more portable rigs that are appropriate to traveling multiplatform visual storytellers.

Table-Toppers. A small tabletop tripod is something most still shooters have, and these translate easily into small chest pods for shooting shake-free video. You spread the legs out against your chest and nestle the camera as close into your face as possible. The more points of contact between you and the camera, the steadier the camera will be, so I like to use an EVF loupe if I'm shooting my Nikon D5200 or D7000, or the built-in EVF on my Sony cameras.


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