Gripping stuff – Redrock’s Event DSLR video rig includes an eyepiece hood.
A camera is just the starting point if you want to get into HD-DSLR video. Now there’s a small industry of makers producing the necessary accessories to convert them into broadcast quality filmmaking kits. David Kilpatrick takes you through the essentials
There are some things you have to tackle head on with your wallet. Shooting video with a DSLR is one of them. You can shoot freehand clips crudely enough with the camera alone, but to compete with established filmmakers you need to convert it into a rig.
This does, indeed, have something in common with a three-masted ship in full sail, so the term is very appropriate. The DSLR video shooter ends up lashed to the wheel, and navigating a fast-moving situation is often hazardous. The camera may well be connected to a frame, which in turn fits a body harness, with both hands on twin vertical grips and eyes glued to a monitor screen.
All this can double the cost of your rig over the price of a professional HD-enabled DSLR and lens, though prices are falling rapidly as the innovators are copied and the consumer market demands camera supports, steady-cam solutions, large monitors, stereo shotgun microphones and portable lighting.
Weight and balance
One unexpected problem with DSLRs is that they are too small and light for motion capture. A professional HD video camera can be handheld, usually with the aid of a shoulder stock and a design that balances anything up to 10Kg comfortably. A DSLR with a general-purpose lens may weigh a quarter of that.
Sachtler, maker of the industry-standard fluid heads for video work on tripods, recently introduced its Video 20 S1 head, which has its payload reduced from an original 7kg to only 2kg, with 16 steps of counterbalance action instead of four. This makes smooth panning easier with a lightweight DSLR kit, which lacks the mass to match the original 7-25kg payload of the Video 20.
For shoulder stocks, body harnesses and the many devices used to steady and support video cameras, light weight has always been a priority, with the camera and its essential accessories already as much as anyone would want to handle. This changes with DSLRs unless very heavy and long lenses are used. You don’t need to keep the weight down using hi-tech materials; standard components from Manfrotto, IFF, Climpex, Tre-D and others can be made into grips. But the best ergonomics can be had from expensive dedicated rigs by Zacuto or Redrock.
The costs can be considerable; a Redrock modular Micro system with carbon-fibre rods, grips, balance weights, adjustable DSLR mount and further mounts for peripherals will exceed the cost of a Canon EOS 5D Mk II. The price of a consumer DSLR will buy you Redrock’s Event DSLR 2.0 Hybrid rig, adjustable for chest or shoulder support and close-eye or standoff live viewing.
These systems are barely a couple of years old – often less – from their launch date. Zacuto’s products are now into their second phase of designs, says Chris Whittle of UK importer The Flash Centre, but its website warns of impending price rises for new gear like the Gorilla kits. The cheapest reasonable workable rig is its Target Shooter Gorilla kit at £389 for the single-bar shoulder stock support, to which you can add £205 for the simplest Z-Finder (focusing magnifying is good for the live view screen). You might, instead, try Manfrotto’s Fig Rig (designed by British film director Mike Figgis), a metal hula hoop with a bar across to mount your camera. By holding this in steering wheel fashion, you stabilise the camera almost as effectively as a Steadicam rig (which Calumet also sell at many times the Fig Rig’s modest £300-or-so cost with mount).
The Habbycam shooting support, SD Brace, is a relatively new introduction and undercuts the Zacuto and Redrock options by selling for an official $299 from www.filmmaker accessories.com (direct ordering from the USA). The company is currently negotiating UK distribution and we haven’t seen one of these physically, as they were only launched in April, but the deal looks very good and in proportion to the cost of popular video DSLRs.
The Steadicam is, however, the ultimate answer for wandering around with a DSLR flying free in front of your face or a couple of feet above your head, which is the best way to tackle crowd situations. Its hanging balance weights and articulated frame allow you to move the camera smoothly in various ways while the rig mounts to your torso. The Flyer with vest (the most comfortable way to mount it) will set you back more than £6000, but as the name indicates, your own feet will enable you to ‘fly’ the camera through your scenes.
Viewing the screen
Supporting the DSLR is the first challenge. Composing the shot, and viewing the exposure and focus well enough to judge both, is the next. The simplest solution is an affordable Delkin or Hoodman hood with eyepiece, which just clips or straps to the camera and turns your rear screen into a magnified viewfinder that you can put your eye up to.
The Hoodman Hoodloupe is a rubber body magnifier you would normally hold by hand to check manual focus in magnified live view for stills. For video, a couple of bungee straps are added (bringing the price up from around £60 to around £80). They hold the loupe to the camera leaving both hands free.
The preferred solution, however, is to dispense with the small rear screen and feed a seven or eight-inch external battery powered monitor from the HDMI output of the DSLR. In my first tests of HD-DSLRs, I linked through a 2m cable to a 22-inch HD TV to see how well this connection transferred the rear screen menus and live view. It works on every DSLR I have so far tested; the HDMI connection does not just play back video or stills, it also allows an external monitor to take over from the rear screen.
Small battery-powered monitors are surprisingly expensive. My 22-inch TV was £199, but a good seven-inch monitor will set you back from £400 upwards. The two main brands you will find are Swit (from Calumet) and Marshall (from The Flash Centre), the former being the lower priced. Marshall monitors have some clever features such as exposure warnings, which is important for high-end video work.
However, there’s a new player – Lilliput UK Ltd – offering a slightly simpler specification for a much more affordable £145 +VAT, and a 12V polymer lith-ion rechargeable power source for £35 +VAT. Its seven-inch monitor is exactly the same 800×480 resolution as the others, accepts the same HDMI input with a range of other connectivity options, and comes with a ball and socket adhesive VESA mount plus a bundle of cables including a DVI to HDMI conversion lead.
Since an £800 field monitor seems excessive on the £600 Nikon D5000 I’m using, I opted for the Lilliput from www.carcomputer.co.uk and can survive with slightly lower brightness, less accurate colour, and no clever facilities like fitting standard camera batteries directly as a power source. My initial mount is nothing more expensive than a vintage flash bracket, the screen has a quarter-inch tripod bush and is easily adapted to any standard flash or camera support.
Like the Swit HDMI monitors, some lightweight LED video lights will accept camera batteries. The standard design is a 128-LED rectangular array, in a plastic housing, with a simple flash shot foot or tripod mount. I found one through Ebay with Sony battery compatibility, taking exactly the same batteries as my DSLRs, or six AA cells. Those sold through UK dealers usually just take the AA cells or an external adaptor.
The difference between a £50 Chinese direct import and a £200 UK purchase looking suspiciously similar may be more than you think. The LED lights used to make them vary a great deal in specification, and cost. Despite the “daylight” rating of my low-cost video light, it does not produce the most pleasant colour, and clearly has a non-continuous spectrum with spikes in the wrong places. Similar units sold by specialist video suppliers have better LEDs and offer a more complete spectrum, which improves skin colour especially.
But there is one surprisingly low-cost, good colour quality solution – the Rotolight Professional Camcorder Video light. This is a ring light, but instead of mounting around a lens, it pushes on to the foam baffle of industry-standard microphones and sits above the camera lens. This design solves the problem of having only one accessory shoe on your DSLR, but needing to mount both an LED light and an external microphone.
Rotolight is a British product, and comes with Lee conversion filters to change its native 6900K to D5600, 4100K or tungsten 3200K. It costs under £100 and if you’ve got the right external mic to hang it on, is an ideal solution.
The final part of your HD-DSLR kit is either an external microphone, or a separate sound recorder, or both. The Canon EOS 550D is tempting me to switch from my little Nikon D5000, mainly because it will accept the Audio Technica stereo shotgun mic I’ve had for many years, and produces good audio. So will the more expensive Nikon D300s, with the benefit of gain level control.
A mic on the camera – even one with a limited unidirectional sensitivity – is rarely ideal. The Audio Technica has a 3m cable and a shoe that mounts on any spare tripod. Just moving it off the camera, to a fixed position, avoids odd changes in sound quality accompanying changes of camera position. For many situations, I find a tiny Sony stereo condensor mic with a lapel clip even more convenient.
For better stereo quality, a pair of Neumanns would be wonderful, but today’s Chinese made half-inch condensor pencil mics are pretty good copies. I use two Behringer C-2s bought as a stereo pair with a mounting bracket for X-configuration. They cost under £40, which is incredible for the quality of sound recorded. They need phantom power, so a small preamp is necessary. The Mackie Onyx and Edirol UA models are portable enough and will power a stereo pair, with individual gain control, and enough adjustment of the final output stage to allow a Canon (“mic only”) DSLR to accept the input. Officially, Nikon’s DSLR input is mic-line compatible and Canon’s is not, but careful adjustment allows such preamps to be used.
With digital editing, it is very easy to snap a separately recorded sound file into perfect synchronisation. No clock signals are needed now, as long as the recording standards of the camera and sound recorder are matched. I’ve been using a Zoom H4 for two years now, and this or the Zoom H2 seem to have become low-end industry standards. They record on to SDHC card, are easily configured to match the audio sampling rate and depth of your camera, and the files simply drag and drop into editing software on Mac or PC. The Zoom recorders do away with any need for microphones as they include them (the H2 looks like a studio ribbon mic, but houses 2+2 surround sound – stereo front, and optional stereo rear; the H4 has a higher quality external stereo mic pair only).
One final accessory I found for the Nikon D5000 is a Delkin Snug-It Pro. This is fairly soft silicon rubber “armour” skin, which has some use in helping protect the camera from the elements. Far more useful is its ability to damp handling noises, with the Nikon depending so much on its internal mic. The Snug-It even seems to reduce wind noise, with its small aperture in front of the mic holes. Nothing can cure this completely, but attempts to reduce wind noise on a blustery day produced much less than some earlier recording in better conditions without the skin. It’s such a pain to remove and refit that proper tests were foregone. Anyway, it costs under £20 and makes a neat difference in handling to the small Nikon.
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