Steady handheld shots on DSLR

Here’s the scenario: you’ll be shooting talking head ‘voxpop’ interviews, you have to shoot hand-held, and you’re shooting DSLR. The problem is that DSLRs are an absolute handful to hold steady. The longer the lens, the worse the jitter, and the jitter makes shots hard to watch.

So there’s two branches one can follow: Image Stabilisation and Camera Support. Please bear in mind we’re talking about DSLRs that do video, not video cameras per se.

The Image Stabilisation built into lenses for a stills camera is not the same beastie as Optical Image Stabilisation built into many video cameras. Lens-based IS is to use a slower shutter speed – you’re doing well to get sharp images at 1/30th of a second but an IS lens may allow you to go down to 1/8th if you hold your breath. The secret of this IS is that it tries to ‘freeze’ the image.

Video cameras capture movement, so an IS lens trying to freeze the image may produce unexpected or slightly disturbing results. A pan, for example, may judder as the IS tries and fails to yank the picture around to make it fit.

The other alternative is to stabilise the camera – either through intertia – which means adding weight so little jerky movements are resisted as they can’t shift the heavy mass of the camera, or through leverage (so twitchy movement from tired arms are reduced by making the hand holding ‘area’ artificially large). Shoulder mounted broadcast video cameras tend to use inertia, and systems like the FigRig, Zacuto and the rest use leverage.

Back to the shoot: do you invest in high end IS glass, or a rig of rods? What makes the most difference to steady shots? Time to test:

For the record, I tried to simulate a run and gun situation, so I wasn’t shooting ‘fully rested’ so to speak. Lots of dashing about. You could meditate for an hour or two, neck some betablockers and be really steady, but that’s not how shooting works.

I didn’t use ND and stuck to the highest shutter I could so one can see the jerkiness frame by frame.

The first clip demonstrates the jerky micromovements that are hard to hide unless you keep the camera moving all the time. It’s a trick that’s become a style in its self, but there will be times when that won’t do.

Slapping on the Zacuto Z-Finder irons out the gross movements (I assure you it does, so one can work with UltraWide lenses like the Tokina 11-17 for short periods). My excuse for this clip was that I happened to be kneeling on some very uncomfortable concrete at the time.

Ditto, mounting to the Tactical Shooter. I have done it a disservice here as, in less extreme situations, it’s given clear advantage when hand-holding at the longer lens lengths. I have been a total convert to it but still need to fine tune my own layouts.

Next, I used the kit lens – it’s my only IS lens, and frankly it’s a bit unloved. Not the sharpest nor the brightest of the bunch, but it will do for some video situations.

Switching on IS was a revelation. Suddenly, all the micro-movement had gone. But pans and other camera moves have a bit of ‘stiction’ to them. I try arcing round the subject, and I see little skips which are in the video rather than in the compression.

Finally there’s some standard candid style shots, and that’s where the Tactical Shooter comes into its own. Steadier shots, far less effort involved.

So, in general, I am sold on IS lenses now. Should I have sold my Nikkor for a Canon L Series IS equivalent? After all, that’s probably the same as the Zacuto rig! Well, for me, no. Image Stabilisation does sort out the minor micro-movement, but doesn’t help in the simple task of pointing a nose-heavy DLSR camera in the right direction of a interviewee who ducks and dives like a balloon in the wind for 15 minutes. I need that rig if I am ever to hand-hold a lens longer than 15mm for video.

My own conclusion (YMMV) is that I will have to do both in the longer term, but I can go more places and move faster with the rods, and I am happy with how it works in interview situations. The rods are also less tiring to use.

Zacuto stuff is extremely expensive, but it works and – like Dedo and Sachtler – you buy them only once. I’ve earmarked the cash for a DSLR support over the last few jobs (with good shots ruined by hand-held issues) because I’m lucky enough to be paid to film stuff. There are cheaper systems, and talented folk build themselves a support. Many will live with little niggles and irritations if it saves them exquisite pain and damage in the wallet area. Just remember: a good choice shoudn’t flex, vibrate, snap, come undone by accident, skin your knuckles whilst adjusting, end up being left at home because it’s a bugger to carry or too heavy, and it should, of course, adapt to fit you not the salesman or the picture in the manual. Steady pictures from comfortable shooters.

Take me where, Boris?

Boris in a taxiI hope you all enjoy the journey you can find here:

Yes, it’s what is known as a viral campaign, and I will stop right there because it’s got a job to do. Enjoy.

But, dear readers, I thought I’d pass on a few notes on the actual shooting and editing of it. It will spoil the whole experience as you learn how we gutted the chicken you found so tasty, but it’s all about the learning.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE IDEA: First off… viral video – don’t get too ambitious in the cinematic camp. Keep it real. Don’t do full on production values, as people (your audience) get suspicious. Evan was pulling us back from the big picture and pushing us forward in keeping it real and light – and ‘happy’.

MAKING HAY WHILST THE SUN SHINES: We had booked an hour with Boris. He’s a busy chap, has a city to run and all that. We planned well beforehand, booked a spot that’s nearby his office that has lots of different vistas. A private road near some modern offices that overlook the Thames and has a little tree-lined avenue and a patch of grass and a whole vista of ‘Tradional London’, plus some utilitarian spots.

Well, didn’t quite go to plan. On the day, Boris had too many commitments, our filming spot was shifted 1 hour earlier (which turned into 20 minutes, of which 15 was spent reading the script). We ended up sharing our spot with 3 coachloads of children having a really great picnic lunch in the sunshine. We tried to ask the supervising staff for a little consideration, but they were children playing in the sunshine. Whilst the Producer in me wishes for a non-lethal Kid-EMP weapon, the dad in me says ‘mic Boris closer’ so we switched from Radio mic to a COS-11 as close as I dare to Boris’s mouth.

SOUND ISOLATION: if faced with loud surrounding noise, put the mic as close to the sound as possible. It’s just like lighting – the inverse square law is your friend. That’s why pop vocalists hold the mic to their mouth. There’s no way any other sound is going to get a look in. Their sound will be 100:1 louder than anything else on stage. But people don’t like looking at microphones – it breaks the fourth wall and feels a bit ‘keen’.

DISTRACTING BACKGROUNDS: We only got one location, and it had a bright green privet hedge in it, which really didn’t sit well with shots from the many locations we needed to shoot in (no way was Boris going to be driven round London for this). So the simple solution was to pick ‘privet green’ in the the FCP colour corrector as our ‘selected colour’ and desaturate it fully. Suddenly, Boris pops out of the background which we never even see. People wander past, but it’s just set dressing. It’s not Schindeler’s List, merely a trompe d’oeil.

PLENTY OF LOCATION SOUND: Everything was shot with the engine off, and we carefully recorded plenty of engine-on – both interior and exterior – with ‘taxi pulls in’ and ‘taxi pulls out’, plus door opens and closes. Even things like brake squeals, car horns (it’s my car horn you hear, recorded days later). All this covers up a multitude of sins and makes the whole thing believable. Especially because we recorded interior taxi noises, but nobody believed the sound of ‘int taxi’, so we had to trickle ‘ext taxi’ over Boris’s lines as that’s what the audience wants to hear, not what they would have heard if they were there. RECORD ON-SITE ATMOS SFX!

MAKE A LOOK AND STICK TO IT: We shot the external taxi shots one day, and Boris the next. Of course, the weather decided to go from ‘inside a tupperware sandwich box’ grey sky to brilliant sunshine (with occasional storm cloud) the next. So we had to overdrive the dull outside shots to make them really colourful and almost like toytown, then scale back Boris (and that wretched hedge) so he’d fit ‘inside’ the external shots. Colorista helps even out the exposure range of the Canon 550D to the Sony EX1, and Magic Bullet does all the colour, grads and vignetting,

SHOOTING IRON: We shot the external GVs on a basic Canon 550D. We didn’t have time or paperwork in some locations, and so we had to be as non-threatening as possible. You can shoot from public areas, but this fact is sometimes lost on Community Support Officers working for the Police. So, no BFG Zacuto Rigs, matte boxes, tripods, monopods or follow focus systems, just a Tokina 11-16 on a Canon 550D with a Zacuto Z-Finder. I could have really done with a Zacuto Target Shooter support on this one, but fate was agin me and mine is now on order. ‘Just In Time’ ordering sucks rocks through straws.

Of course the main shooting was done on Sony PMW-EX1s – looks like a Z1, better picture than a 570. Everything shot 720p – the Canon stuff was downsampled to 720p too.

EDITING: All done in FCP, pretty quick thanks to Evan’s tight storyboard and requirements. Lots of little nit-picking changes over a few days, changes that you will not see or care about, but they had to be done. So, what made my life sane was the Elgato Turbo264HD USB dongle that accellerates H.264 encoding. Each iteration of the movie required a web and a YouTube version, we may go through 3 iterations per day of 7 movies, so if left to Compressor, I’d be, well, dead. But because the Elgato unit does H.264 in pretty-much-real-time, I was able to turn around changes pretty quickly.

So… Keep it real, use extreme limitations to do your best, remember the basic rules, go for consistency, simple solutions work, and edit for your audience even if your client needs you to change things.

Photos by: Sean Barnes