COMING TO THE world of video from stills photography you’ll already know the importance of having a decent tripod to keep your shots steady. And if all you ever want to do is to keep your camera locked down and static then you can carry on using this method for motion work. However, while a locked-off shot might be fine for those occasions when you’re shooting something specific, such as a time lapse or when you’re working with more than one camera – more on that later – if you end up never having any movement in the frame it won’t make for very exciting viewing.
The wonderful world of the moving image opens up many more doors for us in how we tell a story. Work with stills and you have to plan your narrative and then consider a series of static images that can convey your ideas and feelings. With video, however, there’s a lot more to consider. As well as the obvious technicalities of exposure/shutter and so on, there’s also how you set up the shots and how you then take these to the audience. For this – as always – there’s a variety of tools that all offer different sets of pros and cons with regard to visual storytelling.
Let’s start with the basics – your own hands. Holding a camera perfectly still without some kind of bespoke support is not as easy as it seems. If you want to get some shots without all the hassle of using an accessory or you’re on a budget and don’t have the necessary tools with you then hand holding can be an option. It’s actually become more feasible these days, and both the cameras I’m shooting with at the moment – the Panasonic Lumix S1H and S1 – offer an insane amount of stabilisation in the camera and lens.
This is so good that the footage looks as though it was produced with the camera on a tripod. There is a downside, however, and that’s the fact that it’s very hard to hold a position for a decent amount of time. So, if you’re shooting an interview, you’ll end up getting tired pretty quickly and this will ultimately affect the shot. Where handheld shooting can come into its own, however, is when you’re running around shooting bits and pieces on the fly, and this technique is something you should practise, because it’s a skill well worth honing.
To make handheld work easier you can add things to your camera which, while not saving you getting tired, will make your camera more comfortable to handle. I have a ‘cage’ on my S1H which is like a Meccano set. It allows me to add and remove accessories depending on what I’m shooting. I can add a top handle, a side handle and such things as microphones, say, for example, a Sennheiser MKE 600 shotgun, and a monitor. There’s a huge variety of cages out there and you can choose the one that best suits what you want to shoot while ensuring it won’t add too much bulk to your overall set up. The caveat here is that it will still add something in the way of extra weight and size to the camera. The main trade off is the fact that, once a cage is employed, the camera could be ergonomically compromised. Accordingly, if I’m wandering around a busy city I might extract my camera from its cage and just use it in its naked form, but then I do miss the chance to work with extra handles and so on.
USING A RIG
Investing in something more substantial that allows you to put your camera on your shoulder adds great support and enables you to use the camera for prolonged periods. This could be the method to use if you want static shots but are looking to add movement to make the footage more interesting. You can also add mics and perhaps a light or a monitor. Be warned though – this all comes at a cost to the weight. Carrying a heavy rig around is no fun and after a full day’s shooting you’ll felt the burn.
There are various supports you can invest in to take some of this strain. Easyrig is a popular system but expect to pay as much – if not more – than you will for the camera kit you’re using. This suspends the camera over your head, and you can then take the strain into your hips via a harness. It’s not for everyone though and I would suggest this would be for long, handheld shoots rather than a quick interview. It will also add to the set-up time needed to shoot, plus you’ll have one or two extra bags to haul around.
We started off by mentioning tripods and you can find ways to get more flexibility out of these but you will probably need to look at a speciality video tripod and a fluid head. With stills it’s not important how smooth the pan and tilt might be since you’re recording static moments, but if there is any tension that could create jerky movement then motion will look terrible.
Tripod kits are a good way to get everything in one package and, much like stills tripods, a bespoke video product will come with the legs and a head. Sometimes they include a spreader, either low down or mid-way, and these are great for extra stability, although my preference is for one without for the sake of deployment speed. A major difference you’ll see with video tripods is the way the head connects.
It’s usually a ‘ball’ which can be loosened and then the whole head adjusted to make levelling a lot easier for the filmmaker. Carbon fibre legs are great for their lack of weight and I tend to favour tripods that have clip lock rather than twist lock on the legs, but again this is personal preference.
The head is more important, and you can spend a lot of money getting a proper counterbalanced fluid head. You should look to get one that can take the weight of your camera plus at least 20% more, which should give you enough latitude to add a lens and perhaps some other bits of kit, such as an auto prompt. Think ahead and don’t buy one that maxes out at the weight of your current camera since you’ll have no room to grow.
The more expensive heads have a counterbalance, which means it provides some torque when panning and tilting. This is important for when you want to move the shot and you’re shooting a take. The fluid head will give you smooth movement, but if you’re using a head that has little or no counterbalance it’s very hard to do a smooth and even tilt because you’ll be fighting the camera’s natural pull.
Manfrotto video tripods are a popular choice and the company has just launched a couple of great tripod kits – the 635 and 645 – which are super-fast
to deploy and have more than enough headroom on the head load weight for a decent size rig. If you want to go straight in at the pro-end then you’re looking at the Sachtler Flowtech 75, but it will hurt your bank account a lot more! Ideally your cage will mount with a standard Arca-Swiss or Manfrotto style plate so you can pop it on and off your sticks as you please.
Initially I would strongly recommend shooting on sticks with some occasional hand held work once you get used to operating a camera this way. Smooth tripod moves are difficult to perfect but it’s worth investing time to get them right, since they’re really the fundamentals of shooting video. You want to avoid over complicating your shots and story and, by doing so, to become more embroiled in what kit you’re using rather than the actual shots you’re delivering.
The biggest culprit here is the gimbal. This is an accessory that everyone, myself included, loves and I personally have four different ones, designed for different cameras or situations. They’re great to use and have benefitted my filmmaking considerably, but I’ve noticed there’s a tendency these days for people to shoot everything this way and to then slow the footage down in edit to smooth out the shots. Remember, just because you have the kit doesn’t mean it has to be used all the time, no matter how excited you are to show it off! The use of a gimbal is another skill you need to rehearse. Log on to YouTube and you’ll find plenty of examples of gimbal use that looks amazing, but start using one and it becomes obvious that the ‘silky smooth’ look isn’t something that comes straight out of the box. Gaining the skills you need takes practice.
The first challenge is to ‘balance’ a gimbal. Without mastering this step the motors won’t work properly and they could come under strain and potentially even burn out. You need to have the camera balanced, so that it’s in a ‘neutral’ position before you switch it on, and if you change lenses then you’ll need to balance it again. Once you’ve arrived at this state then it’s safe to fire your gimbal up and get going.
Usually there’s a load of features that are unlocked with an accompanying smartphone app. My tip here is to ignore this initially. Get practising walking around with it, because this is the hardest part. There’s no stabilisation for the ‘z’ axis, namely your arm, and most people tend to walk with a natural bounce. You need to try to counteract this, and it’s often referred to as ‘walking like a ninja,’ while I like to add ‘treading on eggshells’. Walking heel to toe, and with a small stoop/crouch should help, although not fully mitigate, the bounce.
As well as this you need to think about the focusing. Some cameras have better AF in video than others but I would suggest shooting with a nice wide lens and keeping the focus on manual and aperture at about f/8 to try to keep
most of the scene in focus. Otherwise you’ll be trying to focus and walk like a ninja at the same time, which won’t look pretty and could be tricky for a newbie.
The final piece of kit I have with me is a camera slider where, much as the name implies, the camera travels up and down a track. Again, I don’t over-use it but it helps me add more dynamic and highly controlled panning shots when I’m shooting an interview. You need to practice moving the camera at an even pace for the best results.
To return to what I was talking about at the start of this feature, I almost always work with two cameras when I’m shooting an interview. One camera is static – so you can use your photo tripod for this – while the other is on the slider, moving back and forth the whole time but keeping the subject in the centre of the frame. This gives me a choice of two shots to pick from and makes any longer pieces of interview a little more visually interesting as a result.
If you don’t have two cameras you could consider sticking your smartphone onto a tripod and your main camera on either another tripod or a slider. You could then convert your phone footage to black and white so, once it’s all synced up afterwards, you can have the pick of two very different shots. Once could be a tight close up and the other wider. Crashing into a close-up can be a powerful way to bring a story to life.
There’s really not a right or wrong way to go about keeping your shots steady. What I would always say is that keeping it simple is a good way to go. Get the shots and use the edit to tell the story and the narrative. If you don’t get the basics right and end up with unusable shots because they’re too wobbly it will cause endless headaches, so this really is a fundamental area to master.
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