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.

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