There's a saying among videographers that people move, but cameras don't. Although this is obviously not always true, it speaks to the fact that the video camera should be as steady as possible when shooting moving sequences on the fly. As still photographers know, a tripod or some other type of camera support is mandatory once you get down below a certain shutter speed to ensure sharp images.
With the fluid motion of video effects, such as panning and zooming, you want the motion to be as smooth as possible to keep the viewer's attention on what's happening inside the frame, not aware of the frame itself. When shooting high-definition video, most of us do our best by trying to hold our camera tight and locked into our body, but for fluid shots, the laws of physics dictate just the opposite. Steadicams aid this smoothness by keeping the camera stable, whether you're moving or stationary.
A Steadicam is a type of camera support system that provides a platform for fluid motion effects while moving or flying the camera by altering the camera's center of gravity. There are many different-sized brackets and counterbalances for different-sized cameras, from small camcorders to large motion-picture cameras. The basic principle consists of a camera platform/counterbalance assembly, gyroscopic three-axis ball-bearing gimbal, handgrip, counterbalancing weights, and precise and accessible trim controls.
The Steadicam Merlin is the latest version for compact cameras such as the 5D Mark II. Although fairly cost-prohibitive to purchase for casual shooting, a number of camera and video suppliers rent them on a daily basis. If you've never used one, it may pay to rent one for a day to get a feel for how it works to keep the camera motion smooth and fluid when shooting on the fly.
The actual Steadicam Merlin itself weighs only 13 oz, less than a can of soda, but once you add the correct counterweights to balance the camera, it could approach 2 lbs. Because the official camera weight limit for use with a Merlin Steadicam is just under 5 lbs., it's built to work great for handheld shooting with the 5D Mark II with all but your larger telephoto lenses. More than 5 lbs. requires you to secure the Merlin Steadicam to the vest and arm assembly that you wear like a flak jacket to support the camera as well as the lenses you've decided to use.
Connect the camera/lens combination to the Steadicam platform with a standard tripod mounting screw into the bottom of the camera. Adjust the arc size of the arm (which is the distance between the camera platform and the end weights of the arm) and then begin adding finish or tapered weights to the bottom of the arm until the camera attains a horizontal orientation. Add weights in 1/8 lb (57 g) increments by screwing the top of one into the bottom of another.
Tiffen, the filter manufacturer that markets the Merlin Steadicam, has a site called the Merlin Cookbook (www.merlincookbook.com) that includes the recommended weight amounts and arc-size settings for a large assortment of video cameras — with the 5D Mark II topping the list.
Once the camera is attached and balanced, it's best to shoot some practice footage to get a feel for the entire apparatus while moving around with the camera. Holding the grip in one hand and the other hand lightly holding the gimbal underneath the camera platform with your index finger and thumb to control trim, slowly pan and swing the camera in an arc from side to side. This is definitely a new experience for still photographers who have spent considerable time learning how to keep a handheld camera stable. With a little practice, you can even run, jump, or run down stairs and the gimbal absorbs all your body's abrupt movements, keeping the camera action steady and the resulting video smooth.
One thing to keep in mind when using a precise instrument such as the Merlin Steadicam is that any changes you make to the camera, even as slight as adding or removing a filter or lens hood, necessitates a balance readjustment. The Merlin allows you to perform micro adjustments to the camera's balance by use of two rolling adjusters on the bottom of the camera plate. More substantial changes, such as changing a lens or adding a light or shotgun microphone to the camera's hot shoe, may require repositioning the camera on the mounting plate. Fortunately, the camera mounting area has numbered markings, allowing the user to annotate various setup options for custom situations where the weight of the camera has changed from the preceding setup.
You need to assess how much video shooting you plan to do before considering purchasing this tool. The high cost and a steep learning curve send many aspiring videographers to the Internet, where a variety of lower-cost performance options and do-it-yourself projects abound. Any Steadicam operation is an art form and does require a fair amount of practice time, but the rewarding footage you see on your screen is well worth the time invested. Find out more information at www.steadicam.com.
Was this article helpful?