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Tuesday, 04 January 2011 19:59

Supporting (H)DSLRs

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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CamSupport_Zacuto_Cross_Fire_Photo_Credit_ZacutoIn keeping with Moore’s law, HD cameras have been getting smaller, better and cheaper at an accelerating rate. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with the blast of interest in DSLR still cameras for HD video acquisition. This sudden change on the camera scene has challenged designers and manufacturers of video support equipment to retool quickly, and it has catapulted some designers and producers of this gear to center stage, giving them a pivotal role in many new acquisition purchases.

Despite their impressive image quality relative to cost, there’s a basic problem with using digital still cameras to shoot video in that they’re actually designed to be handled very differently than video cameras, with the idea of holding it steady for a quick snap of the shutter for a fraction of a second versus many seconds at a time, or keeping a moving subject in focus for multiple seconds. Anyone who has used the manual shutter of an SLR or DSLR at a low shutter speeds in low light can appreciate the challenge of holding these cameras rock steady for even a few seconds at a time, let alone for eight seconds or more (for a typical video shot), not to mention the challenge of panning and tilting smoothly and evenly while keeping a subject in focus. Moreover, DSLRs are lighter than most pro video cameras, making it even tougher to hold them rock steady for more than a few seconds or to keep them level when panning without a complex system of supports and counterweights.
A standard tripod may help with static shots but not with panning smoothly, particularly when using large, front-heavy lenses. For fluidity of movement on a tripod (or “sticks”) a fluid head is required –– and while this is a fairly standard, if costly, practice for video shoots, it’s a new deal when using still cameras. Moreover, one of the great appeals of DSLRs is their compactness and agility, and most of us want to keep them that way so we’re free to run and gun comfortably. To resolve these logistical and ergonomic issues, an increasing number of camera support designers have been repurposing camcorder support rigs or designing new support rigs expressly for DSLRs at various price points. The net result has been an explosion of camera support rigs and germane products for HDSLR shooters.
If you attended NAB, IBC or DV Expo in 2010, you may have noticed that some of the busiest booths were those hawking DSLR support gear. And for large retailers like Samy’s Camera, DSLR support has been a growth area. Interest in using DSLRs for HD has been building ever since the release of the Canon 5D Mark II. “We get still photographers who want to shoot video, videographers who need to shoot film style, and independents who want to own an HD camera rather than always renting,” says Nick Homrich, DSLR sales at Samy’s in Los Angeles. “They all realize that they need good camera support to get the results they want.”
Homrich has learned that an ideal system for one customer may not work for another. “Everyone’s shooting style is different, but they all have to solve the ergonomic challenge of using DSLRs for video acquisition,” he explains. “Skateboarders need a top-mounted handle for low-angle shots and event shooters need a shoulder mount or tripod to shoot comfortably for longer periods. A simple [chest] brace may be enough for run-and-gun-style shooting, but you need rails to support longer, heavier film lenses. Rig makers have had to design for the full range of pro apps.”
In barely two years, the expanding interest in video DSLRs (or “HDSLRs”) has catapulted the accessory business for these cameras into a booming enterprise –– and, by some estimates, this has mushroomed into a multibillion dollar business globally. One brand sure to be included in almost any conversation about DSLR rigs is Redrock Micro, which has been building camera support rigs and cinema accessories of all types for nearly a decade. “Our philosophy is the highest quality at the lowest possible price,” says Redrock Spokesman Brian Valente. “We were the first to adapt 35mm lenses for use with video cameras at prices that independents could afford. Our mission is to build affordable professional cinema accessories for personal ownership.”
Support rigs and accessories for HDSLR cameras are at the core of Redrock’s business and span a broad price range in several different product lines. The introductory-level “nano” line features the company’s most compact, lightweight and affordable rigs, like the nano Low Down Deluxe with a top handle for low-angle shooting. The nano runningMan is a body-supported setup for running and gunning for under $500, while the nano Grippit comprises a single handgrip for supporting the camera at around $100. Extra handles, arms and mounts for monitors, mics and lights can always be added.  
At the other end of the price spectrum are Redrock’s DSLR Field Cinema Bundles. These shoulder-mounted rigs have been heavily adopted by cinematographers for many acclaimed dramatic TV shows like “House,” “Californication,” “True Blood,” “CSI: Miami” and “Ghost Whisperer.” The Field Cinema Bundle V2 has been the rig of choice on many high-profile applications, including the season finale of “House” (shot entirely on the Canon 5D Mark II) and the opening teaser for “The Tonight Show.” Valente says that it has to do with a fast, handheld style of shooting that demands balance and fast, accurate focusing.
Another popular Redrock rig, the “Captain Stubling,” features adjustable handgrips and is small enough to go anywhere. It was used to shoot “The Tonight Show” opening, among other projects. Other Redrock rigs with either a body brace or shoulder support include “theEvent,” “Ultraport” and “eyeSpy.” A step or two beyond these is the Studio Bundle for full-blown cinema, studio or 3D apps. And the latest new line for DSLRs, Redrock/Ops, recasts rigs from other product lines in Army/Marine corps-style camouflage colors and patterns versus black or grey.
Additionally, Redrock is introducing a new, affordable color viewfinder called the “microEVF” for under $595, which will work with any HDSLR and other cameras that have HDMI output. And perhaps the company’s most revolutionary new cinema accessory is the microRemote wireless follow focus system, which enables remote focusing for any external focus lens (not only DSLRs) at up to 300 feet –– wirelessly. The microRemote has a first-of-its-kind iPhone or iPod touch interface that visually depicts focus and depth of field and integrates a sonar range finder for accurate focus evaluation even by amateurs. Incredibly, it’s expected to start under $2,000 versus $20,000+ for current comparable options.
CamSupport_Varizoom_ACrossfireVariZoom, another key figure in the DSLR support market, also came early to the dance. “We’ve been making braces and shoulder mount support for small camcorders for years,” says VariZoom’s Andy Lemaster. “Products like our DV Media Rig and LSP were originally made for small camcorders but we’ve modified them for DSLRs. They now have a swiveling shoulder arch with vertical adjustment and articulating weight balance system for improved balance with a plush shoulder cushion for greater comfort.” VariZoom has also created new lines of DSLR rigs. The company’s Stingers feature a configurable rod system, twin handles and padded, shoulder support and comes with or without counterbalancing.
VariZoom also offers the cheapest shoulder support for DSLRs with the VZ 1Shooter at around $129, and riglits, rods and other components for modifying and integrating other DSLR and video support systems, including those of the company’s rivals. An interesting new product is the Zero Gravity Rig, which integrates VariZoom’s award-winning Zero Gravity technology into a DSLR support system. This center-of-gravity correction system enables smooth tilting by finding the camera's center of gravity and balancing it on the tilt axis. VariZoom first introduced this system to tripod heads but will now extend it to its handheld DSLR rigs.
Another important VariZoom product is the new VZ-CrossFire, which is a hybrid handheld stabilizing system that combines the fluid-like motion of a true handheld stabilizer along with the practicality of a tripod. The first CrossFire in the series was designed for DSLRs in the ¼-pound range and provides the user with a precision engineered, multi-use production tool at an affordable price. The CrossFire and the new StingRay (the most versatile rod-based support system available) are the latest innovations from VariZoom and are patented with other patents pending.
Zacuto is regarded by many as the high end of the DSLR rig market with complete systems that can cost much more than the DSLRs they support. This stems partly from Zacuto’s priority on quality. “We don’t say to our designers that we have $200 to make this product and then force them to do it for that price,” says Co-Founder Steven Weiss. “We make the best product we can and the price point falls where it needs to be. We’re not a low-end product design company, nor do we want to be.”
This philosophy permeates Zacuto’s popular DSLR product lines, such as the Target Shooter that uses a gunstock rather than a diagonal brace for added stability for rifle-style shooting. When using the company’s Z-Finder viewfinder, you get another point of contact, plus an image magnified two to three times for accurate focusing. Zacuto’s Striker rig adds a handgrip to the Target Shooter for another solid point of contact. The Gorilla Plate, one of Zacuto’s signature accessories, attaches to the base of the DSLR for a quick connection to (or disconnection from) a tripod head. The rig itself can be quickly freed from the plate by simply flipping the red lever.
If you require a matte box and/or follow focus, you’ll need to upgrade to Zacuto’s Cinema DSLR Kits which include counterweights and shoulder pads for heavier payloads. The Cross Fire, the company’s most popular cinema rig, combines the complexity of the Striker with the simplicity of the Single Action Kit and includes Z-Focus (follow focus). A very different style of rig called the DSLR Z-Cage comprises a rectangular frame for attaching all your DSLR accessories (from lights and microphones to monitors) and the dual handgrips which support it. While it’s not an entirely unique concept (e.g., there’s the K-Tek Norbert and Manfrotto Fig Rig), it integrates neatly and quickly with many other Zacuto DSLR rigs and accessories.

Zacuto also changes the game by transforming the form factor of DSLR cameras for video use with the Z-Finder EVF, a 3.2-inch high-resolution monitor to be used in conjunction with all the Z-Finder models. The Z-Finder EVF allows you to operate the DSLR camera with the correct form factor for video with the camera “in-line” to your rod system (the most stable method) and your eye in the Z-Finder EVF. This is the way all film cameras and ENG video cameras are operated and Zacuto believes this should be the way DSLR cameras should be operated. This will enhance stability; give better resolution; allow you to get your eye where it most comfortably needs to be; enable low-mode shooting; have your EVF in the back of a dolly or crane, detached from the rig for car shots and much more.

Glidecam Industries, Inc., now in its 17th year, has introduced the amazingly advanced and totally re-engineered Glidecam HD-Series of camera stabilizers. The lightweight, state-of-the-art HD-1000, HD-2000 and HD-4000 transform shaky camera footage into hypnotically smooth, professional images. The HD-1000 will also support the new series of video-enabled DSLR cameras, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. With the Glidecam HD-Series, your camcorder or DSLR camera seems to float, always balanced, freeing you to pan, tilt, boom or run without any camera instability or shake, even when running up and down stairs or traveling over rugged terrain. And the results are equally magical when shooting normally.

Each Glidecam HD-Series stabilizer’s offset, foam-cushioned-handle grip is attached to a free-floating, three-axis gimbal that allows your hand to move up and down –– an exclusive design feature –– and side to side, isolating your hand’s unwanted motions from the camera. The camera-mounting platform has a quick-release, no-tools, drop-on camera plate that allows the quick attachment or removal of a camera, and ergonomic, control knobs allow quick, precise adjustment of the top stage’s back-and-forth, side-to-side movement to let you adjust the camera’s horizontal balance. And you can adjust the camera's vertical balance by varying the amount of counter weights on the base platform or changing the length of the no-tools telescoping central post. With the Glidecam HD-Series you no longer need a tripod or a dolly, just your imagination.
Many DSLR shooters don’t look much beyond the aforementioned DSLR support leaders, but many new and vintage companies are now involved, including Steadicam. “DSLRs have definitely upped the sales of our smaller models, Merlins and Pilots in particular,” says Harry Hoffman, a Steadicam spokesman. “We’ve also gotten plenty of inquiries from DSLR shooters about our brand new Scout, which supports payloads up to 18 pounds. This makes it ideal for DSLR kits fully loaded with matte boxes, monitors, lights, [etc.]”

CamSuport_Frezzi_PhotoCourtesyofFrezziEnergySystemsAnother old tiger with new DSLR stripes is Frezzi Electronics, known for portable camera lighting and batteries. It now offers three DSLR lighting kits plus camera support. Two of these utilize handgrips only, however its DSLR-3 package includes Frezzi’s Stable Cam shoulder-mount camera rig, which is counterbalanced with a brick-style battery for powering a camera or LED light or both. The smaller kits utilize a new 14V power block that can power Frezzi’s Mini-Fill light with an 8-watt LED bulb for an eight-hour day –– and the DSLR-3 with an Anton/Bauer brick lasts even longer.  
One company at the crossroads of the DSLR support movement is 16x9 Inc. which represents many DSLR supporters. One of these, the EasyRig, is renowned for hanging heavy cameras from a hook on a thin wire that leaves both hands free to operate the freely suspended camera with a matte box and other accessories. According to Tech Support Manager James Lee, the company’s Turtle X model (originally for HDV camcorders) is ideal for DSLRs, while other products popular with DSLR clientele include Bebob camera lights, Noga arms (for monitors) and Chrosziel matte boxes.
One new rig carried by several distributors is the Genus camera shoulder-mount system that includes a counterbalance, all for under $900. The company’s Genus Loupe LCD Viewfinder is also a hot item for under $150.
CamSupport_Sachtler_Cine_DSLRWhile many tripod makers, including Vinten and Sachtler, are introducing smaller fluid heads targeted for DSLR users –– and one particular Manfrotto model seems to have caught fire among serious DSLR shooters. The Manfrotto 504HD head and two-stage tripod system supports payloads up to 16 pounds, adequate for fully loaded DSLR cinema packages. The 504HD’s $700 package isn’t being utilized only for events and indie docs, it was also used on some of the network TV shows cited earlier, illustrating the underlying appeal of HDSLRs in an HD world.
All this great equipment has lowered the entry fee for playing in production’s big leagues. And with prices starting as low as barely $100 and reaching to $4,000+, it’s a new game with new rules and new opportunities for all!

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