A state-of-the-art handheld rig in 2019: The Arri Alexa Mini.
Do you still shoot video handheld? It’s a valid question these days as so many shooters are utilizing gimbals, Steadicam-like devices, sliders and drones. It seems as if the new visual vocabulary demands increasingly growing amounts of camera movement to be considered visually relevant. It seems as if in some people’s minds, the fine art of handheld shooting is a dying art. It’s interesting to take a look at a feature like any of the Marvel films, any of the Bourne Identity franchise and decide that handheld must be on its last legs, right?
Of course, these days it can also be difficult to decode exactly how a given shot is photographed and how the camera was moved and supported to give that result.In higher-end features and television, the budgets allocated for this sort of programming also allow for creative tools such as Technocranes, Russian Arms mounted on Porsches and, of course, the ever-present Fisher or Chapman dolly that weighs hundreds of pounds and often has its own crew assigned to set it up, move it and break it down.
All of these tools can provide exceptionally smooth and lithe movement in situations where moving a heavy cinema camera smoothly used to be difficult to impossible.
Those tools are typically only utilized on projects that have a lot more than just four or five zeros in their budget though. What about camera movement for the non-Hollywood budget like most of us shoot on? For me, personally, I’m starting to see a resurgence of handheld operating. Handheld shooting never went completely away and, in fact, most of the TV shows that I’ve worked on over the past five years were largely, and some exclusively, handheld or handheld mixed with some Steadicam for walking/follow shots. If a lot of TV and features are still being shot handheld, why have we seen such massive popularity in moving your camera with mechanical assistance over the past few years?
It’s really logical if you think about it. The Digital Revolution in production that began somewhere around the mid-1990s with Sony’s introduction of the DCR-VX1000 DV camcorder not only brought small size and weight with high-quality image acquisition to the forefront, but it also brought a whole new way of thinking about how and where you could mount a camera. The one place it was difficult to mount a camera as small and light as the DVX1000 was your shoulder.
Those of us who came from shooting Betacams, Digital Betacams and S16 film cameras were used to shooting cameras that were ergonomic masterpieces that weighed perhaps 10 to 25 pounds. Your shoulder, besides a tripod, dolly or original Steadicam, was really the only practical place to mount the camera when shooting handheld.
Shooting smooth but dynamic handheld footage is an art. The main ingredients besides skill and muscle control are weight, mass and inertia. Without going deep into a physics lesson, these characteristics made moving the camera smoother than a super small and lightweight camera like the VX1000.
While it was very small and light, camera operators soon discovered that it was tough to move a camera so small and lightweight smoothly unless it was mounted on a tripod or dolly. Its Handycam form factor couldn’t be mounted on the shoulder very easily (remember, this was well before the days of the numerous build-out kits for shoulder mounting DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that we have in 2019); therefore, the easiest way to shoot handheld was by gripping the handgrip and/or carrying handle.
This resulted in fewer points of contact between the operator’s body and the camera, and the result was shakier, more jittery footage. It was easy to be smooth with the 25-pound shoulder-mounted Betacam but a lot more difficult with the new generation of small cameras.
Fast-forward to today and a lot of newer shooters seem to be waking up to the fact that for the most part, gimbals and Steadicam-like devices are, in a way, one-trick ponies. If you’ve used either, you quickly realize that your options for movement are actually pretty limited as far as speed, variety and options to move the camera in and out of confined spaces. The interesting thing about shooting handheld is that the variety of shots and ways you can move the camera are almost limitless—it all depends on your skills as a handheld operator and your preferences about how the camera should relate to your subject.
For me, personally, I have been shooting tripod, gimbal and with a motorized slider quite a bit over the past few years. It’s not that I quit shooting handheld; I’ve been shooting my own documentary film about two women athletes largely handheld but our clients have tended to want more tripod and gimbal shooting than handheld over the past few years. Makes sense—for interviews, they tend to favor one camera locked off with a second camera/angle on a slider. It’s a nice, safe, “polite” way to move the camera.
As I’ve moved back toward handheld shooting, though, I’ve been challenged by my choice of gear. My main camera has largely been the Canon C200, before that the C100 MKI and the C300, with occasional rentals of the Sony FS7, various RED cameras and occasionally an Arri Amira. Most of these cameras are either useful as a shoulder-mounted camera (Sony FS7 and Arri Amira) or have enough weight and heft to be useful as a handheld cradled camera (all of the Canons, the REDs).
Lately, I’ve been using the Fujifilm XT-3 more and more though. It’s the first mirrorless camera I’ve bought, thanks to its amazing image quality, color science, build quality and Fujinon XF lenses. It’s a great camera that packs a lot of value into its tiny size, weight and cost. I soon discovered though that it was a terrible handheld video camera. It’s too small, light and has very little mass or inertial motion. I have used the XT-3 quite a bit on our Zhiyun Crane 2 where it works very well as a gimbal camera.
When I’d try to use the XT-3 handheld, though, the footage was less than professional looking, no matter how fluidly I tried to hold the camera and move it through space. I’d see something known as micro jitter in the image. Micro jitter is a term that refers to the small, shaky movement of a handheld camera; it’s very fatiguing to watch and makes the footage look very unprofessional. Even when utilizing an optically stabilized lens (Fuji calls this feature OIS), I was still seeing some jitter and undesired movement no matter how steady I’d try to hold my camera.
I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to add some weight, mass and inertia to my XT-3 rig in order to tame the Micro jitter and smooth out the movement. Fortunately, there are numerous companies that provide all kinds of camera support options. One of my favorites is a Chinese company called Small Rig. They’re available at plenty of pro video retailers but are also sold on Amazon.com. Their products are very good quality but sell for a fraction of the cost that most other pro video accessory companies charge.
Here are some images of my Fujifilm XT-3 rigged up for handheld camera use. The stock Fujifilm XT-3 weighs only 1.19 pounds with battery and SD card, with the lens adding perhaps a pound or two more, depending on which lens is used. After rigging up my XT-3 with the optional Fujifilm VG-XT3 battery grip, the Small Rig 2229 cage, 2156 Cable Clamp, 1984 Top Handle, 2093 Rosewood Side Handle, mounting a Røde Video Mic, an Atomos Shinobi monitor mounted to the cage with a Cinevate ¼” 20 to ¼” 20 ball mount, the entire rig weighs a little over 6 pounds.
The additional functionality of adding two more Fujifilm camera batteries via the battery grip has tripled the battery life. I can now monitor the image with the Shinobi monitor to see what I’m shooting and if it’s in focus and exposed correctly via the waveform monitor function, as well as applying a LUT to the footage. The Røde Video Mic makes ambient sound gathering easy. The Fujifilm isn’t the perfect shoulder-mounted ergonomic dream camera, but with the addition of the camera rig and the additional functionality, I’m now shooting better handheld footage than I ever could with just the bare camera and a lens.
Handheld camera movement can bring immediacy to the movement that other methods simply can’t. The whole rig, even with the additions, is still much smaller and lighter than a gimbal package or motored slider. It’s kind of amazing that just a few hundred dollars of accessories have turned my small mirrorless camera into a fully capable pro-level handheld rig.