How to Shoot Smoother Handheld Footage with DSLRs
While any number of shoulder rigs and supports have come out in the last few years for DSLRs, some either don't want the bulk, or need to stay quick or stealthy, and not call attention to themselves. Whatever the reason, if you're finding yourself in this exact situation, there are a few techniques that can help you get much smoother-looking footage without a rig of any kind.
1. Use an IS (image stabilized) lens.
2. You’ve got two hands… use them both!
3. Keep the camera close to your body.
4. Increase the number of contact points..
5. Avoid changing focus.
6. Use wider lenses.
My favorite technique is to actually use the shoulder strap. If I'm just using the LCD to focus, I'll shorten the shoulder strap just a bit, put it around my neck, and push out with both thumbs holding onto the camera, with my elbows tucked in. Then, as long as you have decent-sized hands and you're using shorter lenses or older manual lenses with large focus rings, you can actually continue holding onto the camera with your thumbs pushing out and use both ring or middle fingers to focus. It works better when the focus ring is a little looser, but I've used this technique since I first started shooting DSLRs and it has helped tremendously when trying to avoid a rig. It can also work with slightly longer and bigger lenses, it just depends on how long your fingers are and where the zoom or focus ring is.
Here is an example, all of the footage in the Gazebo starting at 2:10 is with the strap technique on a Mark II and SmallHD monitor sitting on top, the rest was whatever contact points I could get (we didn't rehearse any moves or anything, so there were no marks, and I didn't know what they were going to do):
I realize this is old, but this is from last year's NAB using a Canon 7D and a Canon 24-105mm zoom (using Image Stabilization), and since the lens isn't that long physically, I can grab both the zoom and focus rings with my middle or ring fingers. The only real jerkiness comes from when I forget which way the lens needs to turn because I'm often mixing Nikon glass in, which rotates the opposite way (I also thought it was fitting as Patrick makes an appearance right at the end):
For the sake of comparison, here is the same camera at NAB and a Nikon 50mm without Image Stabilization (the static shots are using a tripod):
The shoulder strap as the only point of contact has also worked well in the past for me when I've needed to shoot over people's heads and still look at the LCD screen. This way I still have a point of contact, and I'm using both hands to focus so that the camera doesn't shake.
Obviously any of these techniques require some practice, but something I've learned from my photo days that can help, is to take a deep breath and exhale deeply before recording, as that is when your body is the calmest. Trying to hold your breath can actually make things worse, and your extremities will usually be more jittery.
What have you done to get smoother footage without a rig? Share some of your techniques in the comments below.
Disclosure: Cinevate is a No Film School advertiser.