Better video camera handling. Those guys with the big shoulder mounted cameras had it right.

For decades I worked as a still photographer at events right next to my friends from a staging and production company. Many times I'd watch their video guys shooting "happy face" videos at big conventions and corporate road shows, or I'd watch them videotape a CEO on stage, switching live from their high-mag, tripod mounted cameras to various handheld cameras presenting closer views of the stage action. A director in the tech booth would switch on the fly between the various feeds and integrate the content, along with charts and graphs, onto giant screens on their side of the main stage. In this way the audience members (in a crowd of 1200 to 1500) would have a great view of the stage action. In fact, the view, because of the 12 by 30 foot screens, was good anywhere in the house.

As technology advanced I wondered why this company, which was quick to buy into the latest projection and sound equipment, still favored the larger, shoulder mounted ENG video cameras over the latest, small and hand holdable video cameras that weighed just a few pounds. I'd read the specs and pondered the footage from both styles of cameras and found them to be almost identical. And the company could have purchased four or five of the new Sony or Panasonic hand held video cameras for the price of each bigger, more traditional, shoulder mount cameras.

Well, to make a long story shorter, it's one thing to stick a camera on a tripod and just point it at a subject but it's an entirely different undertaking to hold a video camera steady enough over a three or four minute interview when it's just sitting in your shaky hands. Even with the best of image stabilization at your command. Just because your new Sony, Canon, Nikon or Panasonic has "state-of-the-art" image stabilization doesn't mean you become a solid pillar of stability while holding a camera in your two hands. But there are times when a little sway or movement is fine; actually desirable. But there is a difference between subtle and pleasing motion and the kind of footage you get from hand holding a camera in front of your face with no physical support.

What the video pros at the production company knew, even years and years ago, was that a good shoulder mounted camera makes optimal use of your body construction to provide a much more stable base for a video camera and allows for longer clip lengths with much less erratic motion than a strictly handheld camera.

I learn mostly through shattered hubris. I try to figure stuff out on my own and change when a good idea turns into disaster on the ground. Then I do some research and try again. I've successfully handheld short video clips (and by short I mean 10-20 seconds, max) with highly stabilized cameras like the Olympus EM-5ii and the Sony RX10iii but have been far less successful hand holding longer lenses on modestly stabilized "video" cameras such as the Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 with stabilized lenses. There's something about the two hand (death) grip and the desire to look through the EVF that, when combined, conspires against long term, overall stability.

Several years ago, in a spasm of experimentation, I bought a cheap shoulder mount and found it to be surprisingly good. It was branded as an Ikan and basically held the camera via a big clamp that cinched on one's upper back and on the front of one's rib cage. Once I learned to breath without moving the camera I was able to get much better footage than I ever had by just holding the camera in my hands (in any pose or configuration).

I used the cheap shoulder mount a lot with the GH5 and, along with that camera's image stabilization, have been very happy with the controlled content I was able to film. It was somewhat less stable (but not jittery) than a tripod or a good monopod set up but so much better than any naked grip I tried.

My friend, the full time, professional videographer/director, kidded me about how cheap I am when it comes to buying good tools for the trade. He looked at my plastic rig and laughed. I countered that I paid only $39 for the device and had used it on many jobs. He laughed and suggested that it would fall apart some day, and at the least appropriate moment. I scoffed but he was right...

Last week I used the Ikan shoulder mount to handhold a GH5S + Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens while I followed a CEO around the headquarters of his company. I was doing a completely documentary approach and nothing at all was scripted or set up. He would walk down the hallway, run into an engineer or person from finance and they'd have conversation. I moved in and around the conversation getting good angles along with jitter free close ups and moving shots. It all worked so well.  I could pan left and right smoothly by moving from the waist. I could pan up and down easily as well. When I edited the footage together for a minute and thirty second program I was quite happy with how everything cut together. There is a big difference between slow and mostly controlled "camera drift" and the bouncy, sometimes erratic motion I got by hand holding.

At the end of the week I'd scheduled some shooting time for a personal documentary I am working on for Austin's theatrical troupe/theater: Esther's Follies. I went to the Friday evening performances of their shows. The cast works on a small stage and does wide-ranging political satire, some magic acts that are Vegas quality and some song and dance. It's irreverent, funny and topical. And the small, dark spaces backstage can really test your video handling skills...

The old, Ikan shoulder mount. It finally bit the dust. 

I was doing well with a Panasonic GH5S blazing away at ISO 3200, sitting on the aforementioned Ikan shoulder rig but at one point I stopped to adjust the camera position and overtightened the bolt that held the camera to the rig. The plastic construction snapped and the camera began a slow motion plunge to the floor (along with my Olympus 12-100mm lens). Only my cat-like ninja skills prevented total disaster. I lunged with both hands outstretched and managed to grab the camera+lens before it hit the floor, tossing my 62 year old body onto the floor in the process. But, as I am resilient, no damage was done and I brushed myself off, tried to shed my embarrassment and go on with the job. Handheld.

Yes, plastic stuff might not be optimal for continuous and long days of actual work. Lesson learned. The hard way. The gods plucked the strings of my hubris and then kicked the chair of fate out from under my feet. What a wretched metaphorical morass.....

Later, nursing my bent ego with a glass of cheap red wine, I sat in front of my computer and looked at the footage I'd shot over the course of four hours on a Friday night and I could see, defined, the before and after marker detailing the demise of my steadying tool. Not a horrible difference but enough of a difference so that I noticed it and was chagrined.

Now, none of this sent me in search of an ENG camera. I'm not buying into putting 20 pounds on my shoulders every time I'm heading out to shoot video. I value my ability to swim a nice butterfly too much to take the risk. But I knew I wanted to be able to get the GH5S and a good lens onto a shoulder rig that was both reliable and highly adjustable. So I set out to build one from the parts I found online.

Here's what I ended up with:

This is my custom rig made of parts from SmallRig, NiceyRig, and a few nuts and bolts. The shoulder pad is adjustable and has metal cheeseplates, front and rear, on which to hang batteries or something to act as a balancing counterweight; if I find it necessary. The camera is also able to be adjusted closer or further from my face. Even the handgrip assembly allows for backward or forward adjustments. 

For me, the important ingredient was the actual padded shoulder mount. I love that it works with the 15mm rails. The whole rig is rock solid when everything is tightened up. I can add a platform to the camera mount, just above the top of the camera, to hold a microphone and, in theory, a monitor, but I think that works against the whole idea of being able to effectively hand hold the rig. Too much weight in the front would require more weight in the back to balance and at some point it all becomes unwieldy. 

With another documentary-style corporate shoot coming up on Weds. we'll be sure to put this to the test. I'll also be practicing with it today and tomorrow. If you have a rig that I've missed, is fantastic and is under $300 be sure to let me know about it. I'm in the trial and error phase of shoulder mounts right now and leaving now rocks unturned. Who knows what lurks beneath?

(For SEO...): Will work with CANON, NIKON, OLYMPUS, PANASONIC, SONY and other cameras. Ha. Ha.


Anonymous said...


you forgot "Full Frame", king of SEO :)


ODL Designs said...

Of course, another advantage of the small rig approach is how you can build your rig up or down as needed.

Have you tried any of the new gimbals, like a crane etc?

Anonymous said...

SEO? On VSL? Never!!!

Mike Rosiak said...

Here's a cheap-o idea: fasten a couple of pounds of weight to the rig near its CoG.

An object at rest tends to remain at rest. More mass equals more resistance to motion.

Michael Matthews said...

Publish a parts list and/or plans. I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Better yet, how about a video showing its construction and use?

Speaking of heartbeats, that proved to be the downfall of my attempt at using the plastic rig. It’s sold under a dozen different brand names. Mine was labeled “Cowboy Studio”. Has a sort of pornlike resonance to it. At any rate, the downward support which terminates in a pad resting on the ribs should be a longer element which fits into a socket on the user’s belt. Or into a separate toolbelt-like item worn at hip level. Isolating the support from movement associated with breathing or having a pulse would be a big help.

Your rig looks much better, assuming the forward weight bias of camera and lens supported by a hand grip isn’t tiring over time.

Kristian Wannebo said...


Craig Yuill said...

Good thinking! I wouldn't want to wear something like this when taking clips for family vacation videos. But I could see the possibility of doing something like this for handheld telephoto work when videoing and photoing birds and wildlife in the field. Please give us a long-term user report some time down the road.