By Ron Dawson
One of the tell-tell signs of a rookie DSLR filmmaker is a hand-held video that is so shaky you get sea-sick from watching it. A big drawback to DSLRs for shooting video is that their small size combined with the "line skipping" aspect of the CMOS sensor (every other line of resolution on the sensor is skipped in order to get that much data on a small card) makes hand-held video look awful.
Unless you're going for a very specific kind of cinema verité look, you absolutely should be using some sort of stabilization device when shooting video with DSLRs. The most basic and simple is your tripod. If you need to move around and get hand-held shots, you may want to use a rig. These create multiple points of contact from the camera to your body, thereby reducing the shakiness.
The game totally changes, however, if you need to walk or run with a DSLR while shooting. In that case, your only option to get steady, fluid shots is some kind of tracking stabilization device. One of the most common questions I get from my photographer friends looking into such devices is which one to get. There are two that I generally recommend: the SteadyTracker or the Glidecam.
The SteadyTracker Xtreme and a Sony HD camcorder.
For over six years, the stabilizer that has served me well is a CobraCrane SteadyTracker. I own the Xtreme model because I purchased it when a larger, traditional camcorder was my main camera. But the UltraLite model would be perfect for DSLRs (retails around $190). The first thing you may notice about the SteadyTracker is that unlike most other popular tracking devices, this one does NOT have a gimbal. The plate that attaches to the bottom of the camera allows you to slide it left to right, and forward and backward. This helps you find the perfect center of balance. It also makes it exponentially easier to balance than a gimballed device. You will literally be up and running in under 10 minutes the first time using it. (Click here to see someone putting it together and balancing it in 3 minutes.)
Ron Dawson adjusts the focal length on a Canon 5D Mark II on a SteadyTracker. Even when the weight of the lens shifts by zooming in or out, the balance on the SteadyTracker remains relatively stable.
The other thing I really like about it is that is works great as a mini-tripod, resting it on the ground or a table. I frequently use my thigh if I need a higher shot.
(Here's a neat trick: If you want to get a ground-level shot of someone walking, hold it upside down and track that way. Then flip the video right-side up in your editing software).
SteadyTracker in Action
Here are a couple of real-world examples of the StreadyTracker in action.
This first one is a recap of a photography event to raise money for a senior girl battling Ewing's Sarcoma. Except for the very noticeable vertical dolly shots, all my other shots in this video were done on the SteadyTracker (even the interview with the mom). Notice the shots particularly from 1:16 to 1:48.
In this promo video I produced for Canadian photographer Gabe McClintock, except for the interviews, everything was shot with the SteadyTracker. Notice how many low angle shots I use placing the SteadyTracker on the ground.
The second device I recommend the most, and which I rent from time to time, is the Glidecam HD. There are three models: HD 1000, HD 2000 and HD 4000 ($449, $549 and $649, respectively). This is perhaps the most popular device used by my fellow filmmaking colleagues who shoot DSLRs. The incredible work of wedding filmmakers like Joe Simon and David Williams has made this stabilizer a top pick.
Because the Glidecam does use a gimbal, if you can master it, you can theoretically achieve much smoother shots than even the SteadyTracker. But therein lies the rub. The trick is mastering it. The very first time I ever used a Glidecam it took me 4 hours to balance it! I should note that it was late at night, I was tired, and I didn't realize you could adjust the weights at the bottom left to right. Regardless, even if you’re wide awake and rarin' to go, give yourself a few hours to learn how to really balance and use this baby. Then give yourself a few months to really become a master at smooth shooting.
The Canon 5D Mark II on an HD 2000. Notice the gimbal handle and all the knobs and screws.
You balance the camera by adjusting the weights at the bottom (you have to make sure you pick the right number of weights), telescoping the shaft to the right height, then adjusting the camera left to right, and front to back. You may even have to change where you specifically screw in the base to the camera. It is a very precise setting to get the camera balanced. Once balanced, you cannot deviate from the weight or the center of balance. If you're using a variable focal length lens that adjusts in and out, changing the focal length will change the center of balance. If you flip out an articulating view screen like that on the T3i or 60D, the center of balance will change. To be fair, the balance does not have to be exactly perfect for you to get use out of the Glidecam. But, if you want 0 percent wobble, that's what's needed.
Another key difference is that when using the Glidecam, you'll use both of your hands most of the time: one holding the camera, and the other as a steering hand (unless you're using a vest, but I won't even go into that discussion). You do not need to use your other hand to steer when using the SteadyTracker.
Glidecam in Action
David Williams is arguably the most knowledgeable expert of Glidecam use in the wedding and event filmmaking arena. This wedding film trailer has a number of outdoor and reception shots showing what's possible with the Glidecam.
I'd be remiss to write an article about stabilizers without mentioning the granddaddy of them all—the Steadicam (the stabilizer of choice for wedding filmmakers turned NFL cinematographers, StillMotion—they always play with the most expensive toys). Tiffen (the manufacturer) makes a number of models, but most are designed for larger film and television cameras and run in the multiple-thousands of dollars. This is not what you should be looking for if you're a DSLR shooter. They also make the Steadicam Merlin (MSRP of about $849), which is the perfect size for DSLR. I personally have never used it, but I know from others who have that it takes quite a bit of time to really get proficient. One photographer I know recently emailed me frustrated about his experience with it, which in turn inspired this article.
The Steadicam Merlin. Just for the record, this is NOT what StillMotion uses. They use the Zephyr which can run you $9,500 to $12,000, depending on your setup.
Obviously, there are many other stabilization devices you could use. No one device is perfect. If you're not sure which one to invest in, try renting different types first. All in all though, given the price point, ease of use, and speed with which you can be up and running, the SteadyTracker gets my vote for top pick.
One More Thing
Before I go I want to give you one last tip. When using these devices, you typically will want to shoot wide. Aim for an equivalent focal length of 14 to 24mm (keep crop factor in mind when selecting lenses).