NOT SO LONG AGO you would almost never have come across a professional filmmaker who would own up to shooting footage handheld. It would have been seen as the ultimate in shoddy working practice, leading to an unusable end result full of wobbles and a decidedly amateur feel. It might have worked for the Blair Witch Project perhaps, but it wouldn’t cut the mustard for your average commercial production or pro-level documentary.
It’s precisely the reason why stabilisers have long been part and parcel of filmmaking life, of course, and using one of the many varieties available would instantly reduce the shakes and add a more professional touch, without taking away too much of the flexibility that comes with working away from the straitjacket of a fixed tripod. Shoulder rigs in particular are right up there in terms of essential and easy-to-use accessories for those shooting motion, and they can add a great deal to a shoot without breaking the bank.
They’re still an indispensable component of many filmmakers’ toolkits, but these days things aren’t quite so clear cut as once they were. Where once working handheld was something of a taboo, now, thanks to rapidly evolving image stabilising technology, it’s actually totally feasible, and even something that highly respected camera manufacturers such as Blackmagic are turning into a selling point.
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera range, for example, with its three models – the Super 35 PCC 4K, PCC 6K and PCC 6K Pro – is promoted as being a ‘Next Generation Handheld Digital Film Camera’ by the manufacturer, largely on the back of the model’s ergonomic design, which makes it particularly easy to hold, its massive 5in LCD viewing screen and the fact that these cameras feature a MFT mount and so can work with a range of image stabilised lenses, making up for the fact that there’s no in-body stabilisation Prime example of an optic to work with would be the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 and, even given the BPCC’s crop factor, this would become a still reasonably wide 24-70mm.
Meanwhile there is now a wide range of hybrid cameras available that boast awesome levels of IBIS – In Body Image
Stabilising – the latest being the videocentred new Panasonic Lumix GH6 which, in conjunction with a compatible Panasonic Dual IS2 image-stabilised lens, can deliver up to 7.5 stops of vibration reduction.
Meanwhile the new breed of top-end Canon EOS R cameras can also offer up to eight stops of image stabilisation when combined with selected optics and pretty much all of the latest models out there are now incorporating this fast evolving technology to some degree or other.
So, is this a move that’s going to enable professional filmmakers to shoot with ultimate flexibility and with the freedom to pick up their cameras and to start shooting at a moment’s notice? Or will the true pro always be looking for the security of something at least to help them smooth out the bumps? As always, with a matter on which there are bound to be divided opinions it’s always good to have the input of someone who’s in the know, and so we asked for the thoughts of our regular expert, CVP’s Technical Marketing Manager Jake Ratcliffe.
“Shooting handheld is pretty common in video production these days,” he confirms, “but it does come with its own set of challenges and choices that you’ll need to confront as a camera operator.
IBIS has certainly made life a lot easier for many operators, and lots of filmmakers now swear by it. But at the same time, you also have people who aren’t going to want to work with it and, ultimately, it’s coming down to personal preference.
“Those who prefer to stick with traditional methods will continue to find that other means of achieving stabilisation are available. This could be by using extra weight on their
camera, for example, or by employing third party supports to help prevent shake. Each camera system has its pros and cons in this regard. I would suggest speaking to one of the CVP technician consultants and booking a demo, so that you can get hands on with a camera and try it out for yourself before deciding on which approach suits your shooting style.”
One thing that you’ll need to realise from the outset is that image stabilisation, even when it’s at the advanced level we’ve been talking about so far, isn’t some kind of silver bullet that will immediately make all of your handheld footage silky smooth. If you’re filming in low light, for example, you’ll immediately be putting more pressure on your ability to hold your camera rock steady, while longer lenses will also naturally pose a greater challenge.
There are also handy techniques to learn that will enable you to get the utmost stability out of your camera, and these will ensure that IBIS is able to do its job as well as it possibly can. For example, it will help to hold your set-up close to your body, so that the weight is taken off the camera.
If you hold your kit at arm’s length you’ll naturally be subjecting it to more natural movement. You can also wrap a strap around the body of your camera so that it’s pulled closer towards you, which will again take away some of the shake, and you can also practice steady, measured breathing so that you’re relaxed while filming.
If you do want to follow your subject then use the ‘Heel Toe’ technique, where you walk with your knees slightly bent and step on your heel, roll onto your foot and then onto your toes. This will enable a nice even walk that minimises the bounce, while you could also
sway slowly from side to side as you move, using all your body weight in a nice smooth motion where all of the jerkiness has been eliminated. Some refer to this stance as the ‘ninja walk,’ since this is how you might look when you practice it but if it’s working then it doesn’t matter what you look like! Another hot tip is to shoot wide, rather than with a longer lens or in macro mode. If you’re attempting an extreme close-up or have zoomed right in to a subject then every small element of movement will be magnified, while if you pull further out then everything is less pronounced and any shake will become less noticeable.
“Weight is another really important element,” says Jake. “If a camera is too light then you’ll have a good chance of shaky footage, especially if there’s no IBIS on board. You will also find it much easier to achieve usable handheld footage if you’re shooting in slow motion, since this will naturally smooth out any movement.” Weight can be added in the form of a camera cage or even a top handle, and the latter is doubly useful since footage shot from a
lower angle tends to suffer less from judder. Meanwhile slow motion is a timehonoured favourite of filmmakers everywhere is any case, and it will not only look dramatic but you can pretty much discount camera shake entirely when you shoot in this style since it won’t be noticeable once everything slows down.
WORKING WITH SHOULDER RIGS
If you visited the CVP stand at the recent BSC Expo Show then you’ll have encountered the display of twenty of the latest and most popular small and medium form factor cameras that were rigged in shoulder mounted and handheld configurations. The idea here was to give visitors the opportunity to get hands-on with as wide a selection as possible.
It’s a sign of how popular the shoulder rig continues to be, even as IBIS is making waves, and Jake is convinced that this handy accessory has plenty of life left in it yet. “Shoulder rigs have been a staple in filmmaking for decades,” he says. “They are still a really good way of operating if you happen to be shooting over longer periods of time, and they provide a common camera perspective and allow you to be agile while shooting. There’s no doubt that they are very good at helping you to achieve really solid, stable footage.
“The reason we had a full-on show at BSC Expo was because what works for one person might not necessarily work for someone else. Each brand does things differently, so there are lots of pros and cons to consider. Our display featured a range of configurations and we were showcasing brands such as Wooden Camera, Vocas, Shape, SmallRig, Zacuto, ARRI and Bright Tangerine.
“There really is a product to suit the requirements and the budget of all filmmakers, and we’re more than happy for people to get in touch and to try out as many as they like without obligation. It’s the best way to make sure someone comes away with the solution that fits them and the way they work the best.”
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