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|Using pan/tilt heads, jibs and sliders, you can make a sophisticated-looking video project.|
The incredible explosion in time-lapse projects and the proliferation of HD video DSLRs have created a new golden age of filmmaking. Amateurs who have never shot motion before are on an equal playing field with high-level, sophisticated cinematographers in terms of having access to tools that can create beautiful-looking motion footage. Alongside the advancements in reasonably priced cameras, pro-level software has become incredibly accessible. Sure, there's still a learning curve to deal with, but there's also no shortage of tutorials, workshops and classes that you can find to help bring you up to speed.
For DSLRs, a combination still and video pan/tilt head like the Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 gives you a lot of versatility, and it's sturdy and smooth.
On the hardware side, this is a really special time. At the 2013 NAB show (National Association of Broadcasters, the largest trade show for audio/visual content creators in the U.S.), the buzz in the air was palpable. There's a new energy at this trade show as innovators display cutting-edge gear that's revolutionizing motion capture. The innovation is coming from entrepreneurs who are part businesspeople and part creative people. The upshot for us is that we're being inundated with incredible products that are making it possible to pull off sophisticated camera moves, and we can do this with affordable gear.
The old maxim of keeping the camera locked down for most of your shooting has faded away. That rule of thumb existed because camera motion was so tricky to pull off. A heavy motion-picture camera needed some pretty serious hardware to move it smoothly, not to mention the crew to make that happen. Dolly shots—those shots where the camera is moved on a small cart—used to require a pretty large-scale rail system to make it look good.
Cameras got smaller and the tools to create camera movement have evolved in lockstep. Jibs and cranes for moving the camera vertically, as well as sliders for moving the camera horizontally, are available, and they're portable, too.
You can take camera movement up a notch with a slider. The Kessler Pocket Dolly is small enough to be easily transportable, and you can carry it into the field (it's not exactly packable, but for a short walk to a secluded spot, it's doable).
The Basics: Pans And Tilts
Adding motion control to video requires a stable platform, as well as the ability to show motion smoothly. There are a few basic moves: pans and tilts are the most common, and the ones that require the least amount of specialized equipment. Panning is moving the camera from side to side while it's locked down on a tripod. It's a good effect, but it's hardly cutting edge in this day and age. That's okay because cutting edge is the kind of thing that one shouldn't apply too much.
To pan well, you need a good, sturdy tripod and a fluid head. You can't skimp on these if you expect to have good, smooth pans. A rickety tripod will make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep the camera steady during any move. Sturdy doesn't have to mean heavy. The good news is that you probably already have a tripod that will do the job. A good carbon-fiber model will do well, but if it's really light, you'll want to hold or weight it slightly to keep one of the legs from lifting up as you pan. This is especially a problem if you have the tripod set up on an uneven surface.
The fluid head is where most still photographers try to save some money. After all, you likely already have a tripod head. However, if it's not made for video, it's probably not going to be up to the job. Trying to pan with a three-way head seldom works, and trying to do it with a ballhead is an adventure in frustration.
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Jibs like the Libec Swift Jib give you crane-like action to get both motion and unique vantage points.
A fluid head feels like it's made with fluid inside to keep the motion smooth. With current fluid heads, that effect is created by a complex series of gears inside the head. There's a drag control that gives you control over how much resistance will be applied. The drag should be set so that it's easy to pan the camera, but it stops when you stop without slippage and it doesn't have any bounce back. To pan well, it's important that you level the head perfectly. It only takes a few seconds to do it. Use the level on your tripod and an inexpensive bubble level on the camera and you can't go wrong.
Tilting is similar to panning, which is why so many people use the terms interchangeably. Technically speaking, tilting is moving the camera up and down while panning is moving it side to side. As with panning, a good fluid pan/tilt head will do you just fine, but your still photography three-way head or your ballhead won't get the job done. The tilt control is managed via interworking gears in the head, and a drag lets you set the resistance.
The Next Step: Sliders
We mentioned hefty camera dolly carts that need large track assemblies, which you'll see in photos from big Hollywood movie sets. The modern DSLR version is a slider. Okay, this is an oversimplification, but we're making a point. Simple dolly moves don't have to be like the three-minute tracking shot in the beginning of the Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil. Placing your DSLR on a four-foot slider gives you an incredibly powerful tool for adding a dynamic element to your videos. The slider can be supported on a tripod or two, or it can rest directly on the ground via outrigger feet.
The camera mounts to a head, which attaches to the moving car on the slider. A low-profile head is helpful, but not a necessity. Your pan/tilt fluid head will do fine. You can use the slider by hand simply by taking hold of the fluid head's control arm. If you want to create smoother action, use your slider's manual belt cranks, if so equipped. Either way, go slow for the best results. Fast, herky-jerky motion will just make your viewers get motion sick.
For more precise movements, you can motorize your slider. A remote-controlled motor system lets you program the movement to give you smooth, consistent motion clips. The downside to motorizing is that it's expensive. The cost of the slider easily can double with motor units, and it can go much higher with more sophisticated computer-controlled remotes.
Going Higher (Or Lower): Jibs
Using a slider, you can do push or pull movements, where the camera moves forward or backward, and if you have the slider tilted on an angle, that push or pull also will change the height of the camera, which can give you a great effect. The next step is to place the camera on a jib, which is like a miniature crane system. There are a lot of compact jibs, which are ideal for DSLRs, coming onto the market, but they're still larger, less convenient to transport and use, and more expensive than most other motion accessories. They're also indispensable for creating a high-impact crane movement.
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The jib is unique because it gives you a dramatic effect, and it also lets you get the camera up high for an uncommon perspective. With the camera up high, you can apply pans and tilts in addition to the crane motion. The bottom line is that you can do a lot with a jib. You even can motorize it for perfectly smooth movement. Motorizing a jib isn't easy, but the effect is fantastic.
One thing to consider with a jib. You'll need counterweights, and even the most compact models are bulkier than a tripod or slider. You're really not going to hike around with a jib, at least not without a friend to help carry some of the load. If you're okay with shooting close to your car, though, it's an outstanding device to have in your arsenal.