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PIMP YOUR DSLR
Roberto Quezada-Dardon highlights the accessories that are bringing video camera functionality to single-lens reflex cameras.

 

MATTE BOX, CARRYING HANDLE & FOLLOW FOCUS BY REDROCK MICRO.

 

The single-lens reflex camera is ergonomically suited for handheld photographs taken at 1/30 of a second or faster. It has married purpose to design for 75 years, a holy union that the newer digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) has found little to improve on. On the inside, of course, a lot of changes were made when digital came along — starting with the elimination of those pesky rolls of film. Now that still cameras can be used to record high-quality video, perhaps the next phase for DSLRs will consider the different ergonomics involved in shooting motion pictures. Hopefully the result will be a compact, inexpensive HD camera that improves upon the round peg on a flat box design that has defined cameras for decades. In the meantime, however, the mountain has come to the aid of an ailing Mohammed because a cottage industry has sprung up aimed at bringing the lowly DSLR closer to the functionality of a full-blown commercial video camera.

Three companies fully invested in DSLR/HD video cameras are Redrock Microsystems, Zacuto USA and Cavision. All three outfits are aggressively pursuing independent filmmakers with their products. As these companies have known for a few months now, enthusiasm for these cameras extends beyond no-budget filmmaking. Returning from Cine Gear this year, Steve Weiss of Zacuto said that the number of queries from established cinematographers about shooting video with DSLRs was very high. But to properly court these directors of photography, many of them in the ASC, the same types of accessories used on film and high-end video cameras have to be made available for DSLRs. Accordingly all three companies offer complete lines of accessories, either made specifically for the smaller cameras or modified from lines they've developed for full-sized film and video cameras. Other companies, such as Genustech and Hague, have single offerings of interest to DSLR cinematographers as well.

 

TACTICAL SHOOTER GUNSTOCK SHOULDER MOUNT BY ZACUTO USA.

SHOULDER MOUNTS

Ideally the goal of handheld camerawork in any format is to make the shot as steady as possible. It's only on films in which handheld camerawork is used for a specific stylistic purpose (Rachel Getting Married, Norma Rae, Husbands and Wives, etc.) that it tries to call attention to itself. Whenever possible the roller-coaster effect should be controlled, not accidental. The key to controlling the jumpiness of handheld shots is to increase the points of contact between the operator and the camera. When shooting handheld still pictures a photographer has a minimal number of contact points — an eyebrow and one or two hands, or just one or two hands. This is fine for a split-second photograph. But a seconds or minutes-long handheld shot requires adding a shoulder or part of a chest to the mix.

Both Zacuto's and Redrock's shoulder mounts accomplish this with modular systems that look like speed rail, erector sets and steroids were all tossed into a supercollider. A DSLR operator using a shoulder mount balances the front end of the rig on his or her shoulder with two rubberized handgrips and can adjust the camera on a base plate to either enable use of the camera's eyepiece or the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

Brian Valente of Redrock says that these rigs combine parts of their core products but add new DSLR-specific accessories (such as their DSLR base plate), which won the Black Diamond Award at NAB '09. Redrock's DeLuxe Bundle sells for $395.

Zacuto offers a solution that is a custom fit. Depending on what accessories are used and how they're manipulated, some models can add another point of contact by bracing the rig up against the operator's chest. Their Web site presents five models starting at $551.  Zacuto also has its own proprietary eyepiece, a $395 3x Schneider optics magnifier that attaches to the LCD screen on the back of the DSLR.

Another shoulder mount that works with its own 6x LCD viewer is from Cavision. The rig costs around $500. With LCD viewfinder and connectors, add another $150.

One more handheld stabilization rig worth mentioning is the Hague Maxi-Motion Cam, a "Steadicam-like" device to enable shots that glide. Much of the engineering that goes into a Steadicam is to counterbalance a 25+ pound load. It stands to reason that a system to take the bounce out of the operator's step will be immensely simplified and sell for much less if the camera weighs under five pounds. See demonstrations of Hague's stabilization system at their no-frills Web site noted at the end of this article and on YouTube. As handheld shots go, they are distinctive-looking. The Maxi goes for around $250.

 

MATTE BOXES

Stunning landscapes and interiors are rarely achieved by simply removing the lens cap and pulling the trigger. Interior sets often have multiple sources of light and hopefully the subject is not being lit primarily from behind the camera. The lens of a still camera can be shaded with a hood or even the photographer's hand to eliminate glare and flares while a photograph is being taken, and filters for these cameras screw right onto the bottle. But motion pictures are just that, pictures with movement, and often a motion picture camera has to pan or track across the trajectories of many light sources or the sun to keep a subject framed. A bright sky in a photograph can easily be darkened or colored in a darkroom or with Photoshop, but it's much harder and more expensive to fix it in post when the image is moving at many frames per second. Cinematographers have learned the hard way they must get the best image possible right on the set, and for optimum effects they use filters both singly and stacked in front of the camera. To hold these filters in place and to eliminate glare and lens flare from light sources, a DSLR will require a matte box and, in most cases, the rods and plates that hold everything in place, just like on traditional film and video cameras.

According to Steve Rushworth of Genustech, "The majority of quality matte boxes on the market today are far too large and heavy for DSLR use. They have been primarily designed for larger video and film cameras and are not a good match for the smaller form factor of the DSLR." So Genustech offers a lightweight screw-on matte box that can also sit on a rail system for added safety and stability.

Cavision, Zacuto and Redrock's matte boxes are heavier, but weight is not necessarily an issue when using the shoulder or tripod mounts developed by these companies. The added weight is the trade-off for adaptability to different lenses and cameras and for being able to use as many as four layers of filters. Dan Chung, a photojournalist who also shoots video for The Guardian with a Canon D5 has this to say about light vs. heavy matte boxes: "I have both the Redrock and the Genus. They are very different beasts for different uses. The Genus is lightweight for run and gun, the Redrock is more for controlled environments where weight does not matter. The Genus has a lightweight construction and the manufacturer states it is designed to break on heavy impact in order to protect the lens it is attached to; the Redrock seems like it would take a few knocks (but I haven't tried)."

The cinematographers I contacted who use the various matte boxes were each happy with theirs. Ultimately then, personal preference and a consideration of the shooting conditions should guide purchasing decisions. Redrock's "Standard Bundle" matte box comes with two filter trays and sells for around $635. It is a full-sized cinema matte box that can be upgraded for use with the new Red/Scarlet video cameras. Zacuto does not make its own matte boxes but sells models by various companies. A popular one is made by Petroff, which sells for $1,399. Cavision's matte boxes go for around $685 with all the rods required to hold the matte box in place.

 

FOLLOW FOCUS

Currently the only DSLR on the market with auto focus is the Panasonic GH1. The Canon D5 and the Nikon D90, like professional film cameras, require constant manual focusing either by the operator or an assistant. On a dramatic film, this is as it should be. A documentary audience will forgive the camera occasionally searching for the proper focus, but dramatic projects normally do not want to call attention to the camera in this way. Autofocus systems visibly search for a moving subject to focus on. There is currently no automatic mechanism in the world that will produce the seamless focusing that a good first a.c. or seasoned documentary filmmaker can accomplish. A DSLR assistant with a light touch should be able to keep the scene in focus without hampering the operator's movements given the proper tools with which to work. But following focus on a DSLR still has its problems. Chris Chomyn, d.p. on the indie features Sea of Dreams and Lockdown among others, describes the video vs. still camera issue aptly: "Some of my biggest concerns about shooting video with a DSLR and lenses designed for shooting stills relates to the functioning of the lenses. Lenses designed for still photography are engineered so that the operator (photographer) can quickly find focus and quickly zoom to the desired focal length. These needs are a bit different from those of the cinematographer. Lenses designed for cinematography often have greater distance between the focus witness marks to enable the camera assistant to accurately and smoothly pull focus with a moving subject. The added distance between the marks makes it possible for the assistant to accurately match focus."

In the future, lenses on DSLRs may or may not function as smoothly and efficiently as motion picture lenses (at what point does a DSLR just become a video camera that can shoot stills?), but any use of a DSLR for professional motion picture purposes will require the use of a follow focus mechanism. Zacuto's high precision solution sells for around $1,110. Redrock's system is $675 with lens gears. Cavision's follow focus system comes in at just over $500 with Canon lens gears and rings.

As you may have noticed, prices for all the equipment discussed here vary widely from company to company — in some cases, dauntingly so. I've tried to make the comparisons apples to apples whenever possible, but it is important that DSLR operators do this for themselves and try out as many different models as possible before investing in a system that could cost more than their camera. (The expense of these accessories has more to do with how little the cameras cost than how expensive the accessories are.) Chomyn voiced what most of the cinematographers interviewed for this article had to say about selecting the right systems: "There is more to selecting accessories than price. Value should weigh heavily. Are you getting a good value for your investment?  Is the equipment you are buying durable, robust, versatile and dependable? Does it perform as intended? Will it last over time? Does it make using your camera easier? Or is it more of a hassle than a help?"



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