Smooth is the Word: How to Buy a Video Rig Stabilizer

Cameras continue to get smaller and lighter, without necessarily being designed with better ergonomics. Media costs drop, resulting in increased improvisation and on-the-fly filmmaking and, of course, you are always balancing quality with getting as much done as possible. So, unless you are making yet another Blair Witch Project, or reviving the shooting style of the TV series Hill Street Blues, smooth is the word when it comes to camera movement. In this article, I’m going to go over many of the available choices for stabilizing your camera moves while shooting, without relying on any in-camera optical, electronic, or post-production stabilization.
History of the problem
Since the very beginning of cinema, cameramen have been searching for and experimenting with ways of moving the camera, increasing the emotional impact of a shot, imparting new information to the audience without resorting to editing and, in general, creating a more exciting and interesting shot that would hold the attention of the audience. Heavy dollies and cranes that carried two people and the heavy camera were used, but even into the 1970s, a 35mm movie camera could still easily weigh more than 40 pounds, and electronic news gathering (ENG) cameras of the early 1970s would seem like boat anchors compared to the DSLRs and digital cinema cameras of today.?
But it was in the 1970s that all began to change, with the invention of the Steadicam. It was invented by Garret Brown, a cameraman searching for ways to operate heavy cameras smoothly without becoming exhausted. The Steadicam incorporated a vest and an arm that would support the camera on a gimbal arrangement. The vest would support the arm, which in turn supported the camera, transferring the majority of the weight from the operator¡¯s arms and shoulders to his torso. The arm also isolated the camera from vibrations, allowing the operator to walk while the camera ¡°floated.¡±
Steadicam with vest, support arm, and camera sled
Another part of the success of the Steadicam was that it freed the camera from being held tightly to the operator¡¯s eye, so they could frame the shot. This allows a greater range of motion and, although we’re all familiar with this now from working with DSLRs or digital cinema cameras, we can see the video output on an on-camera monitor. Being able to get our eye away from the camera allows for the extended, sweeping, smooth floating movements. That’s not to say getting your eye against the viewfinder isn’t advantageous and there are plenty of times, when working with lightweight cameras, it’s really useful to be able to hold the camera against your head as an anchor point, as with the Redrock Micro retroFlex viewfinder. However, in this article we want to cover the ever-increasing multitude of stabilizing rigs that you can use with anything from a smartphone, a DSLR, and perhaps even a 3D stereo rig with two full-size digital cinema cameras.
Choosing a system
When selecting a stabilization rig, being able to adjust the camera on the rig front-to-back and side-to-side becomes very important for getting a smooth shot, and being able to control the camera. While some systems will allow you to ¡°trim¡± your camera this way, other systems may rely solely on adding and adjusting weight. Additionally, vertical balance adjustment is extremely important, and this is where vertical adjustment and weight payloads become crucial. Generally speaking, with gimbal rigs you want the rig to be slightly bottom-heavy, so the camera ¡°wants¡± to remain upright. Each manufacturer has its own recommendation about this, which you should follow, at least until you become experienced enough to know when to deviate from the recommended procedure, depending on the needs of the shot. Remember that no matter what system you choose, the more time you spend practicing with it and learn how to maximize its performance, the better your results will be.
Comodo Orbit two-handed gimbal stabilizer, with Sony FS-700
Something else to consider is that the heavier the camera, the more tired you become holding it, but?lighter cameras still come with inherent problems. At least, with a heavier camera, there’s mass and inertia that help to keep the shot smooth as you move the camera. With lighter cameras, it becomes more and more difficult to stabilize or hold a still shot, and breath control becomes incredibly important because even the act of breathing while trying to handhold a lightweight camera can cause the camera to slowly move and pulsate, thus ruining your shot.
Mechanical balance systems
Let’s start with Steadicam, which still makes a version of the full rig vest/arm/sled stabilizing system that started it all for larger cameras. It is well worth mentioning that many of the vest/arm/sled stabilizer systems allow you to use just the sled with the camera by itself if your camera is light enough so that you don’t need the support of the arm and vest. This type of rig can be useful when working with some of the smaller, lightweight cameras, such as the GoPro HERO line, smartphones, and other cameras. Steadicam has brought out a few choices of handheld stabilizers for lightweight cameras that don’t require a vest/arm to support the weight of the rig and cameras. The Merlin and the Solo are two such rigs for lightweight cameras that can also be used with a vest/arm support system if you are stepping up to a heavier camera¡ªMerlin vest/arm kits and Solo vest/arm kit. Remember, with all these stabilizer systems you really do have to match whichever rig you choose to the weight of the camera. If your camera is too light, you will end up having to add weight to get the rig to function properly¡ªadding to your fatigue¡ªif your camera is too heavy, you risk catastrophic failure, i.e., the camera falls to the ground, shot ruined, sadness and crying commence.
Handheld Steadicam Solo with monopod foot
Other stabilization rigs for larger cameras tend to follow the same principles pioneered by Steadicam, but each with its own application and method of adjustment. Glidecam has become well known for designing complete systems, with flexible configurations, and offers a varied line of sleds that support cameras as light as your smartphone (iGlide) to systems that will support up to 38 pounds of camera gear with the Gold Series. Unless you are Hercules, you will need a support vest and arm for supporting cameras that heavy for any reasonable amount of time. One Glidecam innovation is the forearm brace that helps distribute the weight of camera and camera sled across your forearm, instead of having your wrist do all the work.? Combined with Glidecam’s camera sleds, the forearm brace allows you to work with cameras and accessories weighing up to 10 pounds without requiring a full vest/arm setup.
Glidecam iGlide handheld stabilizer for smartphones
The?Easyrig?offers a very different take on camera support and stabilization. Instead of providing a stabilizing platform, the camera mounts on top and is suspended from the Easyrig. Essentially a vest support with an arm that rises up and over the operator, you suspend the camera from a cable, which takes the weight of the camera. The support arm incorporates a shock absorber to minimize the transfer of vibration and movement as the operator moves about, and the suspension line can play out so the operator can lower the camera for low-angle shots.
Varizoom has a reputation for thinking outside the box, and offers a variety of stabilizers. Its FlowPod offers a different take on the camera sled, while still providing a gimbal for stabilization. The FlowPod can also be mounted on a vest/arm for working with heavier cameras, and is available as a complete kit. With the STEALTHY, Varizoom has created what it calls a three-point shooter, as it goes beyond a simple gimbal rig to serve as a rig you can stabilize against your body, turn into a monopod, or set down on a flat surface to stand by itself. The STEALTHYPRO features the same functionality of the Stealthy, with an improved 6-bearing gimbal. The STEALTHYGO, designed more for smartphones and action cameras, is made from a composite material instead of metal, as with the other STEALTHY stabilizers. It also eschews the gimbal for stabilization, instead featuring an adjustable tilt arrangement.
Camera Motion Research, which makes the Radian wireless transmitter and receiver system, also makes the Blackbird camera stabilizer. The Blackbird works with cameras from 1 to 8 pounds, and features a gimbal extender for vertical balance with loads weighing less than 2 pounds. Panpilot has come up with an interesting idea, which is essentially a monopod with three feet that stick out at the bottom, allowing you to carry and move the system and set it down without falling over. The Auxiliary Camera Panpilot Stabilizer & Tripod uses the mass of the system supported by your arm to provide the stabilization, and does not use a gimbal. It includes a good-sized field monitor on the base of the unit, giving the operator a relatively large viewing screen. CobraCrane’s Steady Tracker series also eschews the gimbal but does not incorporate a field monitor into its design, so you will have to rely on your camera’s LCD viewfinder. The Acebil Eagle series incorporates a gimbal, supports cameras from 2.2 to 11 pounds, has a version for smartphones, and is freestanding.
The Auxiliary Camera Panpilot Stabilizer & Tripod is a free-standing support and stabilizer system.
Axler has a variety of camera sled type stabilizers that feature height-adjustable gimbals, including a model that can double as a monopod. Axler also offers the Nimbus, which is a dual-axis, two-handed rig designed for DSLR shooters. Comodo’s Orbit and the Axler Nimbus are both similar in design, and quite a bit different than most other gimbal stabilizers available, which use only one hand for support.
Motorized gimbals
While the mechanical gimbals can do a tremendous job of isolating the camera from the operator¡¯s movements and providing that smooth floating feel, they are limited in following the action, requiring the operator to manipulate the system physically to accomplish pans and tilts. With practice, this can become second nature, although any contact with the system can lead to unwanted shake. Motorized gimbals, on the other hand, do not require the operator to?interact?physically?with the rig to pan or tilt the camera. In fact, with motorized gimbal rigs it is best that you never try to pan or tilt the camera while on the rig, for pans turn your body as you hold the rig and the camera will move in the direction of your body, which is different from a non-motorized gimbal, and unless the operator manipulates it¡ªpossibly compromising the stabilization¡ªthey will want the camera to maintain the same orientation, even if the operator spins in a complete revolution.
Two-handed motorized gimbals
FREEFLY brought us the MOVI, which is a motorized gimbal stabilization system. The lineup now includes the M5, M10, and M15, each designed for a different weight range of camera. The MOVI can be operated by a single person, but where it shines is when you have a second operator remotely controlling pan and tilt (as well as focus, iris, and zoom with optional wireless motors), while the first operator moves the camera. The motorized gimbals make passing the MOVI from one person to another without jarring the shot a real possibility, and motorized gimbals have, in many ways, changed the paradigm when it comes to camera stabilization.?At NAB 2015, FREEFLY announced and demonstrated the MIMIC?used instead of the normal joystick controller, offering a more intuitive way for the second operator to control the camera, and it¡¯s backward compatible for those who have the standard controller. Click here to see video of our coverage of the MIMIC from NAB.
The MOVI M15, motorized Gimbal Stabilizer, ready to stabilize cameras up to 15 pounds
DJI, the manufacturer of the Phantom and Inspire, has been incorporating gimbals into its quadcopters for mounting cameras and getting steady aerial footage. So, it was a natural progression for the company to develop its own motorized gimbal for larger cameras. The Ronin, like the MOVI, is a two-handed motorized gimbal system that works best with two operators working in conjunction. Varavon offers its Birdycam II, both with and without a remote controller, for those of you who already have a suitable RC transmitter. GyroVu offers a variety of two-handed motorized? gimbals worth looking at, while Came-TV offers its Came-8000 unit, which stands out from the others by featuring a more polished appearance, with hidden wiring.
DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter with remote-control unit
The Letus35 Helix offers a different take on the two-handed motorized gimbal, as it is scalable and available in three-axis and four-axis versions for mounting on other stabilizers. In its simplest configuration, the Helix is a single-person system; however, RC and Bluetooth modules can be installed by the factory at any time to give you two-person control of the unit. The Helix features two handles: one for control, and one that spins freely, allowing you to support the camera without any impact on the stabilization. It can be placed on a flat surface, and allows you to transition from two-handed grip to suitcase mode within the shot. The design of the Helix also positions the camera more at your eye level, rather than hanging lower than your hands, the way most other three-axis motorized systems mentioned tend to do.
Even with the ever-shrinking size and weight of cameras, you can get tired holding a camera in front of you all day, and for shoots with larger cameras and motorized stabilizing systems such as the FREEFLY or Ronin, the day can turn into a battle against fatigue. Enter Tilta’s Armor Man system, from ikan. Not a stabilizer in and of itself, the Armor Man is an exoskeleton that helps to stave off fatigue by helping you support the weight of stabilizers while still allowing freedom of movement. Click here for our coverage of the Armor Man, from NAB 2015.
Tilta¡¯s Armor Man exo-skeleton support for handheld gimbal units
One-handed motorized gimbals
For smaller-sized cameras and smartphones, there are increasing numbers of motorized gimbal systems that are simple to operate and help deliver smooth video from these lightweight cameras. Held in one hand, the systems are not generally designed to provide you with that perfectly smooth floating cinema shot; rather, they stabilize your shot as you move the camera. These single-handed models are available as either two- or three-axis units. It is important to note that they all have limitations on the range in which the motors will work. If you exceed that range on any motor, you will feel a telltale vibration/oscillation from which it is very difficult to recover. Most likely, you will have to cut the shot, power the stabilizer down, let it settle, then restart. With practice, you should find ways to overcome the limitations.
Originally, the stabilizers only smoothed your movements and didn’t just hold the camera in place. Now many of these stabilizers feature various modes and some even allow you to control the pan and tilt motors via a small joystick mounted on the handle. These one-handed stabilizers are the category that has seen the most rapid growth and introduction of new manufacturers.
Ikan Fly-X3 Plus handheld 3-Axis motorized gimbal unit for smartphones
SHAPE has its ISEE line of stabilizers, which does include a unique two-handed shoulder-mounted version. The company¡¯s one-handed line features two-axis stabilization, an articulating handle, and a motorized pan-and-tilt feature. Ikan features a variety of one-handed small camera gimbals, including the FLY-X3 and FLY-X3 Plus, three axis gimbals meant for smartphones and action cameras. These stabilizers do not feature the motorized pan-and-tilt capability; however, Ikan is bringing out the Beholder MS1, which supports mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a7S and features the standard follow mode, as well a completely stabilized mode that isolates the camera from pan and tilt. In addition, the built-in joystick allows control of the pan and tilt.
The Lanparte HHG-1?maintains your smartphone’s horizon while it follows your pans and tilts, for smooth organic-looking shots. The Nebula 4000lite series is a three-axis gimbal with a built-in battery and external battery. It can handle cameras weighting up to 2.2 pounds and features a follow and locked (camera orientation doesn’t change) stabilizing mode. It also features Bluetooth connectivity, which allows for remote configuration from select iOS and Android devices. Feiyu has a variety of stabilizers for GoPro, action cameras, and smartphones that feature three-axis stabilization and stabilizing modes, from follow to stabilized. Feiyu also has a wearable three axis action cam stabilization system that you can mount on a helmet, leaving your hands free. Big Balance offers both two- and three-axis stabilizers, with individual stabilizers for GoPro/action cameras and mirrorless cameras.
Helmet-mountable 3-Axis motorized gimbal unit for GoPro cameras, from Feiyu
The wrap-up
Remember¡ªno matter which stabilizer system you choose, from motorized gimbal to mechanical gimbal to no gimbal at all, follow the instructions to achieve optimal balance, which will make your work day easier and save wear and tear on your equipment. I hope you’ve found this guide useful to discern and select from the vast array of camera stabilizers available at B&H. Be sure to check the Stabilizers Section often, to find the latest in new products.