By Ron Dawson
If you decide to take up the craft of DSLR filmmaking, one of the things you will quickly realize is that shooting video is very different from shooting photos. One of the key differences is that unless you are extremely experienced, hand-held video shot with a DSLR will look terrible. It’ll be too shaky, resulting in significantly lower production quality than stabilized footage. The other thing you’ll notice is that trying to focus with an LCD screen is extremely difficult, especially at the wider apertures where depth of field is very shallow. These cameras were just not ergonomically designed to shoot video. As usual, Mother Necessity has led the way to a whole sub-industry dedicated to providing gear that helps the DSLR filmmaker shoot proper video.
Zacuto, based in Chicago, Ill., is one of the leaders in that industry. Created by veteran Emmy-award-winning film and video producers Steve Weiss and Jens Bogehegn, one of the reasons their gear has become so well known is because they bring more than 50 combined years of industry experience. I had the opportunity to try out three of their most popular DSLR accessories: the Z-Finder Pro, the Target Shooter, and the Striker.
The Z-Finder Pro: The Z-Finder Pro is perhaps Zacuto’s number-one DSLR accessory. It is an optical viewfinder that connects to the back of the DSLR, magnifiying the LCD live view image. If you’re using manual focus, this allows you to dial-in focus and keep it there as you shoot. It also blocks out glare from additional light sources like the sun. It also serves as an additional point of contact to get steadier shots. The more points of contact you can have, the more stability you have. When you hold a DSLR up to and against your eye with the Z-Finder Pro, you now have three POCs: two hands and your face.
When the Z-Finder first came out, you had to physically glue it to the back of your DSLR. It could be detached, but it was an awkward setup. Now they’ve designed it with a mounting frame and base plate that screws into to your tripod mount socket. You can adjust the Z-Finder to the left or right depending on the camera, and you can even add plastic extenders to push the Z-Finder farther out from the back of the camera, allowing you to adjust the focus on the Z-Finder itself to match your eyesight.
I found it very easy to use and extremely effective at monitoring focus. Of all the optical viewfinders on the market, it is the one chosen by high-profile DSLR filmmakers such as Vincent Laforet and Philip Bloom. If you’re doing a lot of moving around, it will be a key accessory in your tool kit.
I will say, however, that despite the testimonials from such professionals as Mr. Bloom, the Z-Finder Pro (or any optical viewfinder for that matter) is not absolutely required when shooting with DSLRs. If you won’t be changing focal length or distance from your subject (e.g. a documentary interview), you can use the camera’s built-in auto focus and zoom magnification to lock in focus before shooting. I do that all the time.
Target Shooter and Striker: Zacuto has a whole line called their DSLR Gorilla Kits. The lowest priced item is the Target Shooter. It’s small, compact, and provides three points of contact: two on the camera and one via a “gun stock” that goes against your shoulder. If you use a Z-Finder, this rig gives you a fourth POC. I liked using the Target Shooter and it yielded very steady shots. After long use, I did start to get a pain in my elbow. To be fair, Zacuto states that these kits are designed for no more than 30 minutes of shooting at a time (maybe an hour), and I was shooting for a couple hours with it. Watch their demo video at http://vimeo.com/13332069.
The second rig in their Gorilla Kits line-up is the Striker. I LOVE this thing. The extra extensions and longer gun stock allows you to keep both hands on the rig vs. the camera itself, thereby adding more stability. The camera also sits higher, so it’s closer to your head and your arms don’t have to bend as much. There’s a more natural ergonomic feel with the Striker. And the handheld shots you get are terrific. While on a shoot, I let a colleague use it for an afternoon. At the end of the shoot, he said it was “Okay” but it felt heavy after a while (he was shooting for a number of hours, so that’s natural). However, later that night I saw him again and he asked if he could borrow it one more time. He had downloaded his footage from that day and he said that it was the best looking handheld footage he had ever shot.
Both the Target Shooter and the Striker use built-in screws, gimbals, and rods that make them very flexible and extremely modifiable to adjust to your body. Also, the base plates come with 1/4" -20 standard screw holes so that you can attach your tripod’s quick-release plate. You can quickly and easily go from tripod to rig. Watch their baseplate demo video at http://vimeo.com/13332337.
FINAL THOUGHTS: When going out to use these, give yourself enough time to configure the rigs. You’ll need a flat screwdriver or thin coin for tightening the bottom screws. Also, if you shoot continuously for longer than an hour, expect some fatigue or joint pain. Lastly, Zacuto gear is priced at the higher end of the spectrum. The largest Z-Finder Pro retails for $395, the target shooter for $475 and the Striker is $948. If you can’t afford to buy them outright, you can rent them from Zacuto directly, or places like BorrowLenses.com. The investment in rigs like these is the price of admission to play in the world of DSLR filmmaking.