Help with Handholding Your Camcorder
by Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2004
Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine
In the March 2004 issue of C and CV Mark Shapiro explained “How to Eliminate the Shakes.” He covered proper handholding techniques, use of your cam’s built-in image stabilizer and software that helps remove the shakes. In the article he discussed a device to help users hold their camcorders–the DV Caddie. The DV Caddie and its little sibling, the DV Caddie Junior, are two of a growing number of handheld camcorder support systems that we will cover here.
Now that you have handled a camcorder, you know that after several minutes of holding it steady, your hand and arm start getting tired. Junior seems to take forever opening his presents, that dance recital seems awfully long and after only four innings of Little League, you are ready to for the seventh-inning stretch. Tripods give camcorders rock-steady support , but they are rarely practical when you want to pack light and be mobile.
Handheld camcorder supports not only relieve you from potential repetitive stress injury, they help stabilize your camcorder so you can walk and move with it, all the while maintaining steady, smooth action. You probably notice Steadicam shots in the movies; the camera appears to float as it follows the action. Garrett Brown, the man who won an Oscar for inventing the Steadicam, popular with Hollywood cinematographers, also invented the diminutive Steadicam JR for camcorders, what he called his “best invention to date.”
The Steadicam JR (MSRP $899) uses the patented gimbal design of larger Steadicams. The JR (pronounced “jay are,” not “junior”) balances the camcorder on a pivot that is positioned at the cam’s center of gravity. The system includes balance weights and an LCD screen. The Steadicam’s handle grip is mounted just below the pivot point, and a counterbalance weight hangs from a bracket below the handle to make the camera appear to float. You hold the Steadicam JR with one hand; there is no harness or shoulder support.
Owners of camcorders with LCD screens can save $300 by purchasing the Steadicam JR Lite (MSRP $599) without the monitor. Weighing less than two pounds, the JR Lite has a special mounting plate that accommodates virtually any 2-4 pound camcorder, according to the manufacturer. While it takes some time to get proficient in the use of a Steadicam, the smooth shots you are able to achieve make the learning curve worth it.
Similar in function to the Steadicam, the Glidecam uses two weighted counterbalance discs that connect to the base of the camcorder through a post mounted below it. The Glidecam 2000 Pro (MSRP $369) was designed for small camcorders. Its offset handle grip is attached to a free-floating gimbal that isolates the camera from unwanted hand motions. Because it’s handle is offset, Glidecam explains that, “the up and down movement alleviates the bouncing, pogo-type action so often associated with our competitor’s system, because their handle cannot move up and down.” The Glidecam can also act at a monopod.
The Glidecam 4000 Pro (MSRP $499.99) is a similarly designed stabilizing system supporting cameras weighing from 4 to 10 pounds. The 4000 has a telescoping center post that may be adjusted without tools and a base that allows you to attach and adjust the counterweight disks. An optional Body Pod (MSRP $169.99) lets the Glidecam rest in a waist pouch that attaches to a support vest. This design lets your shoulders and hips share the weight with your hand.
The Steady Tracker Ultralite (MSRP $199) is a lightweight camera stabilizer designed for camcorders up to five pounds. This versatile unit works as a handheld stabilizer similar to the Steadicam and Glidecam, but without a waist belt or shoulder harness. According to the manufacturer, you can mount it on your leg, against your chest or put it on your shoulder to look over the crowd. You can place it on a table or the floor to act as a monopod. The manufacturer guarantees “fluid motion in seven minutes or less.” It comes with a one-year warranty.
The Steady Tracker Extreme (MSRP $299) has a three-year warranty and is said to be “a high performance camera stabilizer.” Designed for camcorders weighing up to eight pounds, the Extreme operates in the same shooting modes as the Lite and is said to perform well even in the wind. It comes with an instructional video that features a “one take” 16-minute uncut shot and another shot taken one inch from the ground during an 85 M.P.H. car chase scene.
Doubling as a monopod and camera stabilizer, Varizoom’s FlowPod (MSRP $399) has a multi-purpose foam handle and a telescoping pin that can either be locked to form a monopod or unlocked to allow free-floating action shots. The slim design is said to allow for ease of use in the tightest of shooting situations. The company recently announced that the US Air Force issues the FlowPod as standard equipment for their First Combat Camera Squadron–an elite group of combat videographers. An optional Low Mode Kit (MSRP $90) attaches to the FlowPod; it enables the videographer to follow the action at a very low angle.
VariZoom’s StealthPod (MSRP $99) is a telescoping pod that may be adjusted at eye level with the bottom resting on the ground. The videographer can be seated waiting for his shot, and then quickly adjust the telescopic leg to the appropriate length, according to the company.
Varizoom also makes the VZ-1 (MSRP $99) a shoulder-brace camera platform that takes most of the weight of the camera off your arm. The system includes a shoulder pad that may be bent to fit your body. The camcorder attaches to a horizontal rail using the tripod mounting hole at the base of the camcorder. You can slide the camcorder along the rail horizontally and vertically so that the viewfinder or LCD monitor meets your eye comfortably. The foam handle is adjustable and has a locking clutch to hold it into position.
Tiffen makes the Compact Steady Stick (MSRP $179.95) that transfers the camcorder’s weight to the shoulders and torso. The handle can be used as a shoulder rest, and the unit is supplied with a 2-inch nylon belt with a belt holster. A telescoping support arm is secured to the belt holster for support. The padded holster design allows the unit to swivel, enabling “crisp, precise camera movements,” according to the company.
The DV Caddie Junior (MSRP $109.95) balances the weight of the camcorder on a vertical bar that attaches to the camcorder. The base of the bar attaches to a wide cloth sling that goes around the back of the neck or on the opposite shoulder. Designed for camcorders that weigh up to five pounds it includes a locking pan and tilt control for the camera.
The larger DV Caddie ($209.95) supports cameras up to 25 pounds and adds a locking “float” mechanism designed to keep the camcorder parallel to the ground. The sling on the DV Caddie goes around the opposite shoulder, to provide ergonomic balance. The company recently announced an optional shoulder pad that works with both the DV Caddie and Caddie Junior. Said to be available by the time you read this, the pads are interchangeable and come in different lengths. You can bend the pad to customize it to your own shoulder. No prices were available at press time.
Videosmith’s Mighty Wondercam (MSRP $229) is a shoulder brace with an optional Ab Pad (MSRP $69.99) that rests against the abdomen to provide additional support. The top of the aluminum support bracket attaches to the camcorder, and you hold the handle at the bottom of the bracket. The unit is said to be adjustable on five axes, and the optional Ab Pad has three-point adjustability.
The company also makes the Mini Rover Handgrip Bracket (MSRP $59.95) an aluminum bracket for handholding a small camcorder. Designed similarly to an “L” bracket for still cameras, it includes a standard photo accessory shoe on the top of the grip. It also comes with an anti-twist pin on the platform to keep the camera straight. An optional $14.95 Mini-Mate is a horizontal extension bar designed for mounting wireless mike receivers and other accessories without interfering with swing-out LCD screens.
DvRigPro (MSRP $695) balances the camcorder at four points: It has two handles, a shoulder pad and a suspension rod that fits into a pouch in the included waist belt. The suspension rod has three spring-loaded telescopic sections designed to float the camcorder. With its two handles, the DvRigPro allows the operator to move the camcorder to any position, including Dutch angles. The unit tilts up and down 180 degrees from floor to ceiling. The system includes a shoulder pad with a balance weight that hangs over the back of the shoulder. This weight can be easily replaced with an auxiliary power battery; you’ll need a cable to connect that battery to your camcorder or to a light. The DvRigPro folds into an optional storage case. Other options include a wireless mike holder, a light stand adapter and a tripod adapter.
The Anton/Bauer Stasis (MSRP $495) balances the camcorder in a similar manner, using a counterbalance or battery hanging off the back of the shoulder pad. The user holds the camcorder by the handgrip. The front plate of the Stasis is said to transfer the camcorder’s weight to the shoulder. The plate uses an offset design to place the camcorder in the proper orientation for the user’s eye. It is adjustable on two axes, and the camera mount has a one-touch release. The word “stasis” means a state of static balance or equilibrium. Anton/Bauer claims that their Stasis “redirects the geometry of a Mini-DV camcorder to make use of the most stable camera support platform in the world—the human body.”
Body Support and Ergonomics
The Stasis is designed to simulate the way a large broadcast camera rests on the operator’s shoulder. While broadcast cameras look big and heavy, when you put one on your shoulder, you will notice that the weight of the lens in front is counter-balanced by the battery in back. The entire unit’s center of gravity sits squarely on your shoulder, and an experienced camera operator can achieve remarkably steady handling with one of those bulky cameras.
Now that Mini-DV camcorders are used by pros and hobbyists alike, manufacturers have taken on the task of creating an ergonomic system for balancing a small camcorder and isolating it from the hands’ undesirable motions. Rather than restricting the videographer to a stationary tripod, these support systems allow the videographer to move with freedom and grace. Try one of these handheld stabilizers; you’ll soon be panning, tilting, walking and even running with your camcorder. With a little practice you will be able to create videos with the smooth, floating movements that Hollywood Steadicam operators exhibit in feature films.
Interested in learning more about any of these Products? Here’s contact information:
Anton/Bauer Stasis, www.antonbauer.com
DV Caddie, www.dvcaddie.com
Flowpod, Stealthpod, VZ-1, www.varizoom.com
Mighty Wondercam, www.videosmith.com
Steady Stick, www.tiffen.com
Steady Tracker, www.promax.com