Keeping A DSLR Steady For A Video Shoot?

Ever since they started shooting motion pictures one of the biggest questions have been… How do you keep the damn camera steady? And what do you do about it if it’s not? If you’re a photographer just getting into shooting video with your DSLR, you’re likely to have the same questions. I’ll give you some answers to the first question and a few tips on dealing with the second.

While a shaky camera can be used, on rare occasion, to good effect… it’s usually something to be avoided. More often than not, it just means your watching a B horror flick and the owner of said shaky camera is about to be bitten in half. Hopefully we can get you shooting stable video so as to insure you are not similarly attacked by creatures that are aggravated by shaky video.

So… how do you avoid such a fate?

How you solve the problem of the shakes is, in part, determined by how much money you want to throw at the problem. I highly recommend you check out The DV Rebel’s Guide by Stu Maschwitz. Stu is a veteran visual effects supervisor who’s worked on Star Wars, Sin City, and many others. The DV Rebel’s Guide is a great resource for shooting professional looking video on the cheap. For example, using a skateboard and sandbags as a dolly. Brilliant! Lots of great info, cool tips, and if you’re just experimenting and playing around the book is very handy.

If you’re considering shooting professionally however, you probably owe it to yourself to get some real equipment. For example, the Steadicam Merlin (pictured above) is a great way to keep a DSLR stablized. It takes awhile to master it, but once you do you can get some beautifully stable shots. Do a search on YouTube for ‘steadicam merlin’ and check out some of the videos. It uses weights to counter balance the camera and keep everything steady. At $799, it’s a little pricey though.

Now, you can create something similar to the merlin with a pipe and weights and it’ll cost you $14. The problem with this (and with the Merlin itself) is that between the weights and the camera, it’s freakin’ heavy! You can only use the thing for 10-15 minutes or so at a go because your arm just gets worn out. One advantage the Merlin has is that you can buy a vest for it (also pictured above), which distributes the weight more evenly over your body and you can work much longer. It’s a great system, but it’ll set you back a cool $2400. But if you’re shooting professionally, it’ll be worth it. It should be pointed out that there are other professional tools, like the Glidecam, that compete with the Merlin. But I’ve used the Merlin, it works, so I can speak from experience with it… but there are plenty of folks that love the Glidecam. There’s also other inexpensive things like the Fig Rig, which allows you to move the camera around more fluidly, but is less helpful for dealing with bumps when walking.

Let’s talk about a few other things…

The tripod head you use for still images won’t cut it for video. You want to be able to smoothly pan the camera from left to right and most photo tripod heads aren’t set up for that. So you need a fluid based video tripod head, such as the one pictured in the top image. These also have a handle that makes smooth panning easier. You’re current tripod will probably work, so you don’t need to replace that, but the tripod head needs to be for video. The prices range anywhere from about $150 – $600. If it’s more than $600 you’re probably buying a head meant for a large film/video camera and it’s probably unnecessary for a 5-10 lb DSLR. Of course, if you’re mounting a 15lb, $7000 400mm prime on the camera, then maybe you should spend the extra $200 and get a tripod head that won’t collapse under the weight. I’m just sayin’…

That covers the basics for stabalizing the thing. From $14 stick and a dumbell and a skateboard with sandbags to a $2400 steadicam rig. Again, the DV Rebel’s Guide has a much more complete discussion of all the options, including stuff I’m not getting into here. This is just a blog and I ain’t spending the next 3 months writing a book.

What if it’s already shaky?

Well, first off, I would look out the window for zombies. They’re usually around when the video gets shaky.

If not, then bolt the door, get the shotgun ready, and we’ll try and stabalize the footage.

This is where things get dicey. If you thought Post Production for photos was bad (for example, if Photoshop makes you sweat worse than a bunch of zombies), you’ll LOVE Post Production for video! Actually, no you probably won’t love it…

So yes, post production. There are many options for video… from iMovie on the low end, to Adobe After Effects and Apple’s Final Cut Pro on the high end. iMovie has stabilization built in. It works ‘ok’. It’s not really a professional tool and it shows. But if you’re just experimenting it’s definitely adequate. Adobe’s After Effects has excellent stabilization, but it takes awhile to learn it. It’s sort of like Photoshop for video, so it’s a very deep program. There’s also a program called Mocha from Imagineer Systems that works as a plugin for After Effects and Final Cut Pro and provides excellent stabilization for both programs.

Professional video stabilization is somewhat difficult. Once you understand how it works, it’s not too tough, but getting there can be a long process for someone without a video background. However, if you’re serious about video, then learning After Effects,  Adobe’s Premiere Pro or Apple’s Final Cut Pro is probably essential. You’ll need at least one of them.

Of course, you can always hire someone to stabilize the footage for you. Assuming the footage isn’t _too_ shaky, it shouldn’t cost too much. If you don’t expect to have lots and lots of shaky video, then hiring someone to deal with the occasional shot is probably the way to go. However, if you choose to do it yourself, there are many training videos out there that deal with stabilization and can help you get up to speed.

I hope this has provided some useful info to all you crazy folks doing crazy things with DSLRs.

Oh and btw… CHECK THIS OUT: The DSLR shootout, where the folks at Zacuto do a spectacular job comparing a number of DSLRs with a $100K Feature Film camera. The results are pretty amazing!

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