There’s More than One Way to Handle a Camcorder
By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2001
Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine
Compact camcorders have brought video production to the masses. Small, lightweight and simple to use, you can slip one into a purse or briefcase– ready for any kind of action. You can document an outing to the park, your child’s school play or your entire vacation. The quality of the small, hand-held camcorders is superb, and a compact camcorder is easy to hold in your hand for hours at a time.
Or is it?
After a day of site seeing, with your camcorder aimed at all the stunning vistas, how do your arms feel? A little sore, maybe? Is that lightweight camcorder starting to feel heavy at the end of the day? Is it really all that easy to hold to your eye for hours at a time?
While camcorders are designed to be compact, they sometimes get awkward to handle. Holding the camcorder for any length of time puts a strain on the right arm. Even if you use your left hand to help support the camcorder, before long, both arms get fatigued.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to holding the camcorder the traditional way.
Alternate Methods to Handling Camcorders
After you tire of holding the camcorder against your eye, try this alternative: If your camcorder has a tilting viewfinder (many do) you can hold it at waist level and tilt the viewfinder so you can see it. Since your eye is a distance from the viewfinder you won’t see the image as easily, but you nevertheless will see it well enough. At waist height you achieve a different camera angle while relieving stress on your arm.
If your camcorder sports an LCD screen, your options for handling it are limited only by the tilting range of the LCD screen. Some videographers can even point their camcorders at themselves. If the LCD screen tilts down, you can hold the camcorder over your head to get a bird’s eye view. Experiment with different positions of the screen to find alternate shooting angles.
You can place your camcorder on the floor for a worm’s eye view. If you want it to tilt up or you want to have a little more control when it is on the ground, you can put the camcorder on a beanbag. Some pros purchase the $50 Steadi-Bag, but you can go the grocery store and get a large bag of beans for about $2.00. The beanbag helps steady the camcorder when you are getting creative shots from such places as the hood of a car or the limb of a tree.
While it is fun to find new placements for your camcorder, most shooting is done with the camcorder at eye level. Since trying to hold it with your hands will lead to fatigue, many videographers put their camcorders on shoulder mounts. A shoulder mount will also help smooth out your camera movements.
Video Innovators offers shoulder supports in three models ranging from $49-99. The camcorder attaches to the mount via its tripod screw socket. Rather than hold the camcorder, you hold a stabilizing handle on the mount. A padded shoulder rest takes up some of the weight. Video Innovators’ Super Pro shoulder rest has an adjustable handle, a contoured foam shoulder rest and a shoe to mount a light or microphone. The length of the Super Pro is adjustable to fit any 8mm and VHS-C camcorder, according to Video Innovators.
Videosmith makes a $200 Mighty Wondercam shoulder mount. It has an infinitely adjustable handle and a large adjustable shoulder pad. To accommodate different camcorders, the user can adjust the position of the camcorder along the rail of the mount. At the base of the handle is a little stand that lets you put the camcorder on a table or floor without it falling over. The Mighty Wondercam can accommodate camcorders weighing up to 15 pounds. It would work well with the larger professional digital video camcorders such as the Sony V-1000 and the Canon XL1.
Manfrotto (formerly Bogen) makes a simple shoulder mount for smaller camcorders. Priced under $30, it does not have a handle or much of a shoulder rest. It is merely an adjustable rail with a small bracket that presses against the front of your shoulder. The advantage of this little device is that it is small and fits easily into a camera case.
Glidecam makes a unique mount called the Campal for $59. It consists of a padded bar that rests against the front of your shoulder. The handle is adjustable and lets you use the Campal in a monopod mode, handle-grip mode or low-angle mode. The Campal is but one of several camcorder stabilizers made by Glidecam.
The Glidecam 1000 ($279) consists of a vertical arm with weights at the bottom. At the top of the arm is a platform for the camcorder. Below the platform are gimbals that balance it. You hold the unit with a handle that comes out of the vertical arm. The 1000 can support camcorders weighing up to six pounds. The Glidecam 3000 costs $599 and includes a forearm brace to distribute the weight of the system over the user’s forearm. This helps reduce fatigue to the hand. The 3000 accepts camcorders that weigh up to 10 pounds.
Cinema Products makes the Steadicam JR, a $400 consumer version of their big broadcast camera harness. The Steadicam JR uses counterweights and gimbals to balance the camcorder. It is operated with one hand holding the unit’s handle. The stabilizing rig comes with an LCD monitor that plugs into the camcorder.
Video Innovators makes a simple Camcorder Handle ($29) that screws into the tripod socket of any camcorder. Designed for small 8mm and VHS-C camcorders, the padded handle locks into three positions. The handle measures only 5-inches long and can easily be included in any camera case.
Perhaps the lowest cost stabilizer is the $19.95 Biddle Stick. It is simply a 15-inch pole that screws into the tripod socket. With one hand on the camcorder and the other on its padded handle, you can smooth out some of those otherwise shaky shots.
While the Steadicam JR is a simple unit designed for camcorder users, its senior brother includes a body harness and gyroscopes to balance and support even the heaviest of cameras. However, we are talking about stabilizing systems that cost many times the price of a camcorder.
Glidecam makes a $139 Body-pod that attaches to their 1000 and 3000 stabilizers. You wear the pod like a vest, and it transfers the weight of the system to your hips and shoulders. This reduces the fatigue of holding the stabilizer with your hand. The stabilizer can quickly be removed from the Body-pod for more flexible shooting.
Vanguard makes a simple body-type camera support unit for under $100. It consists of a belt, a camera support arm and a neck strap. The support arm fits into the front of the belt, and the neck strap attaches to the top of the support arm. The Vanguard completely supports the camcorder; you can let go of it between shots and walk with the unit to your next location.
Other Sources of Support
Monopods are a good alternative to tripods. Bescor’s MP-5 is under $30.00 and includes a quick-release bracket, a pan-tilt handle and a foot-brace. The foot-brace helps you stabilize the unit. It quickly folds into a small package that can easily be attached to your camcorder case.
If you plan on producing a car-chase movie or simply want to document your vacation, Video Innovators makes a vehicle camcorder bracket for $149. It secures your camcorder to the inside of the windshield without tools. CruiseCam makes a similar car mount starting at $89. The CruiseCam mounts between the two front seats and attaches to the headrest mounts.
Whether you operate your camcorder from your car or from a tree, in your backyard or on your vacation—you will enjoy videography more if you give your arms a little rest. These camera-mounting alternatives provide support and stabilization. Whether you choose a shoulder mount, a body pod or a monopod you will obtain smoother shots with less fatigue.