Picture this: you’re ‘runnin-and-gunnin’ and traveling light. You’ve left that bulky tripod behind and are going handheld. You’re thinking on your feet, acting on instinct, one eye welded to the viewfinder, the other open surveying the action around you – A one man crew on a mission – you versus the world!
Documentary filming is the breeding ground of cutting edge camera ops; countless Hollywood Cinematographers having been forged in the fierce fires of this filmmaking furnace. If your footage can (literally!) make the cut in the fly-on-the-wall arena then you’ll quickly become a highly valued member of any crew – trusted by Directors and Producers to get the shots no matter what.
So here are my TOP 5 TIPS for getting rock-steady shots without that pesky tripod:
1: “Think like the Tripod. Become the Tripod”
Get a solid footing, firmly spread your feet and legs apart and stand your ground, Soldier! A tripod has the ability to compensate for all types of terrain but so do you. Like a golf pro preparing to tee off, you must make sure you’re firmly on your feet; this is especially important when your attention is tunnel-visioned down a lens and not where your feet are planted. A solid base will result in a solid shot.
2: “Shoulder it, Son!”
“Shaky shots?… YOU’RE FIRED!”
Get that camera up on your shoulder! That is where it is designed to be. Just like when the camera is locked onto the tripod through the baseplate, the camera’s centre of balance will be distributed down through your body. With your shoulder… well, shouldering the majority of its weight the camera will become an extension of your body, operating and framing being achieved with a lighter and more precise touch.
3: “Rig a Rig!”
If you’re working with a much smaller camera, such as a DSLR or the BMPCC, get that thing on a shoulder rig pronto! The image quality and aesthetic will be totally transformed by getting that camera up on your shoulder, giving a more stable and cinematic feel. Not only will the camera gimbal around in your hands if it’s free, it’ll also accentuate any rolling shutter artefacts that the camera may produce.
You can buy a shoulder rig, but they can be pricey… or you build your own. We did using copper piping and we’ve got a tutorial on the way showing how.
“TAKE A KNEE, CADET!”
4: “Lean oooon me…!”
For extra stability lean up against anything you can! Brace yourself against a tree, door frame or wall. A tripod has 3 legs and 3 points of contact, you only have 2 legs so increasing contact points with your elbows or shoulders will create 3 or even 4 points of contact and really stabilise your footage.
“You chose… wisely”
5: “Choose your lenses… widely“
Another fundamental method for reducing wobbly framing is to favour wider lenses. On a longer lens the slightest movement will be accentuated… (sometimes this effect is advantageous; a character POV can feel more realistic if matched to the focal length of the human eye [approx. 40mm] and adds a little ‘life’ into the shot to differentiate it from a technically clean ‘filmic’ shot)… but when aiming for a rock-steady handheld shot, get wider and get closer to your subject.
“KEEP HER STEADY NOW, HOOPER!”
BONUS 6: “Practice! Practice! Practice!”
As the old adage goes; practice makes perfect and building your upper body strength will go a long way. Stronger arms, shoulders, wrists and core muscles will form a supportive ‘cage’ around the camera, and good strong legs will allow you to hold steady shots on uneven ground for even longer.
So get cracking, gang! I expect y’all to be human-Steadicams before long!
And to play you out, here’s a on-location video of Zander in Africa putting these tips into practice – enjoy!