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convergence-motion-2-still

It’s been nearly a year since the first wave of “motion capture” enabled dslrs which I have been referring to hslrs or hdcds were announced. So after my eight months of using the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D MarkII, I decided to revisit the concept of stills and motion. 

Needless to say the reaction to the convergence of still and motion capture was mixed and depending on whom you talk to or which Internet forum you read, remains mixed.  Some hardcore photographers expressed the sentiment that motion capture in a still camera is a gimmick.  Some videographers pointed out limitations that make hslrs suboptimal for capturing motion.  Some people adopted a wait and see attitude; yet others have embraced the possibilities with enthusiasm.  There are also those who were or are indifferent, as motion capture may be one more feature among many they will not use.  The discussions on the convergence of stills and motion  reminds me of the discussions several years back when Olympus first “lifted the mirror” facilitating live-view in a dslr or when the monotone capture option which was a feature on point-and-shoots, made its way to dslrs; or even further back to some of the passionate debate on digital capture versus. film.  There appears to be a direct correlation between time and acceptance or in some cases perhaps resignation.

Prior to the inclusion of motion capture in dslrs, photographers depended on the high frame-rate per second capability of their cameras to chronicle action. This eliminated many cameras from consideration for action shooters.  The inclusion of motion capabilities in still cameras opens up new possibilities for action shooters, and may make cameras, that otherwise would have not been considered for action shooting, contenders.

One thing is for certain:  Whether you are talking about the hslrs from Canon and Nikon, hdcds like the Panasonic Lumix GH1 or the Red DMSCs, a convergence of dual capture in a single package is not just coming, it is here.  I don’t really understand why the discussion for some comes down to one or the other.  Point-and-shoot cameras have had this capability for years and I don’t remember this ever being discussed in the same manner.  But then they were not capable of producing the quality of video we are seeing in the current crop of motion capable still cameras. 

My own stills/motion “ah ha” moment, came not because I woke up and realized there were three monitors on my desk, or because I found myself rotflmao courtesy of a YouTube video or watching a product promo on a manufacturer’s web-site, but rather while walking between locations in Central Park last August during a wedding shoot.  I wasn’t thinking about recording a blockbuster, only capturing a few moments of motion that were visually arresting.  I thought my clients would have appreciated such footage, and would have wanted to share it with their friends and family as they had been doing with their still images on Flickr for quite some time. The great irony here is that I usually do not shoot weddings.  That was about a week before the Nikon D90 announcement was made.  My only experience with motion capture up to that point had been relegated to my cell phone camera.

Since the arrival of the  Nikon D90 and the  Canon 5D MarkII, video camera accessory makers from Zacuto and Redrock Micro to independent image makers like Bruce Dorn have developed products to enhance the “still to  motion” capture experience.  There are a growing number of products targeting hslr users with items ranging from focus follow and sliders, to mounting rigs and screen enhancers, some reasonably priced and some extremely expensive.  The effort to produce accessories at every price point suggests that still and video convergence is a growing segment of the imaging industry and that there will be a demand for tools to exploit the combined capability by amateurs, enthusiasts, and working image makers.  The fact that many products have lengthy waiting lists or are back-ordered, suggests that the manufacturers simply cannot keep up with demand.  Perhaps, those embracing motion are not as vocal  on Internet forums as those who do not.  And perhaps the term “silent majority” is being re-defined.

The number of camera model specific sites which provide information on motion capture or celebrate the capability is growing and is both surprising and impressive.  Additionally, there are plenty of people posting samples and instructions on-line of their DYI accessories for motion capture.  You might argue about whether a still camera with motion can be used to record a box office hit, but clearly they are very capable for many of the Web-based multimedia and monitor/television-viewed applications that are growing in popularity and becoming a more important part of the entertainment and knowledge acquisition processes. 

The area that there has been surprisingly slow to respond to the convergence of motion and stills is lighting, and this remains one of the biggest areas of concern and challenge for photographers.  While the camera makers continue to provide either built in and/or supplemental flash solutions, none market a continuous lighting option as part of the available accessories.  Additionally some of the more popular names in flash photography continue to release new studio and location powered flash units, but have been silent with respect to continuous lighting products.  Between small flashes, small video light solutions, studio flashes and larger continuous lighting sources, the prospects of having four different brands and solutions is mind-numbing, and potentially expensive.

Perhaps no individual early on had a greater impact on getting dslr users to consider the potential of motion capabilities than Vincent Laforet.  Laforet’s self-produced and self-financed short “Reverie” which was shot with a Canon 5d MarkII and has become the centerpiece of the camera’s print marketing campaign, generated a tremendous amount of interest and activity.  In less than four weeks after Canon announced the camera and nearly two months before the camera hit the stores, Laforet and his blog became a “real-time experience” resource for many.  Over a 10 day period, between late September and early October 2008, “Reverie” was reported to have been viewed over 1.5 million times.

With recent firmware changes which have given users greater manual control over the 5D MarkII, along with stir caused by “Reverie,” I cannot help but wonder if Canon was even remotely aware of the possibilities that people would see for the motion enabled dslr beyond the “quick grab.”  I am sure this has caught the attention of the other camera manufacturers as well.  It is just a matter of time before HD motion capture becomes as common as auto focus in every dslr. 

One of the arguments that I hear often with respect to still vs. motion capture is that they are such different disciplines.  But in the stills arena, I could make the case that shooting weddings and shooting landscapes are different disciplines; or in the motion arena that shooting shorts and shooting full length features are also different disciplines.  There are some substantial differences in stills and motion work, and I don’t want to minimize them – sound, lighting and processing are three of the more obvious ones.  But in purely visual terms, I think that the response to how different they are, may be “it depends.”  It really does depend on one’s frame of reference.  A photographer who is used to shooting against gray paper or muslin backdrops with posed subjects, may find the transition from stills to motion a different experience from a photographer who works from story boards, on sets or in rooms and locations, where the environment is key and the lighting considerations and needs are different; and/or from the photographer who actively directs his or her subjects; or the photo-journalist.  It should be noted that photographers have been moving between stills and motion for quite some time.  Three photographers who come immediately to mind who made the transition are Stanley Kubrick, Gordon Parks and Herb Ritt. 

I asked New York based photographer Mike Kobal, who has embraced the motion capabilities of the first generation of hslrs/hdcds in a big way, to describe the differences he finds between capturing stills and motion.  Mike says that “Shooting stills is a subtractive process:  I choose the moment to press the button and hopefully capture the essence of what I want to say and what I saw; whereas shooting video is more of an additive process, anticipating the flow of things and editing to complete the story.”  Mike has been shooting with the Nikon d90 and Canon 5DMarkII, and recently began working with the Panasonic Lumix GH1. 

While some photographers may continue to debate still vs. motion or motion vs. still and often with great passion, there are three things that are not debatable: 

  1. We live in a multi-media age
  2. The Web continues to evolve and grow; and
  3. There is a there is a demand for content.

The people who are looking for content don’t care what camera is used:  They just want to see the end product.  You do not need a $50,000 camera or for that matter even a $1,000 camera to shoot content.  But hopefully better tools will lead to better visual quality.

Without getting emotional, let’s look at a few facts related to the U.S.A:

 

  • In April 2009, nearly 79% of the total U.S. Internet audience viewed online video.
  • The average online video viewer watched nearly 6.4 hours of video.
  • Over 107 million viewers watched 6.8 billion videos on YouTube.com which equates to almost 64 videos per viewer.
  • 49 million viewers watched 387 million videos on MySpace.com which equates to nearly 8 videos per viewer.
  • The duration of the average online video was 3.5 minutes.

Source: comScore Inc.

 The growth in the video trend is not just an American phenomenon:

  • The total number of videos viewed online in the U.K. in April 2009 grew to 4.7 billion videos, a 47%increase over the same period in 2008.
  • Google sites were the most popular U.K. online video property in April 2009.  2.4 billion Videos were viewed, which represents a 58% increase over the same period in 2008.
  • YouTube accounted for 99% of all videos viewed on the Google sites.

Source:  comScore Inc.

Sites such as Flickr (Yahoo), SmugMug, and Photobucket (Fox Interactive Media) that were built around the business of photo sharing offer video sharing options to their members:  Stills and motion, side by side.  Now at this point at least one reader is thinking that a lot of those 5 billion or so videos that were watched are mediocre; but then so are a lot of television shows and movies, not to mention many of the still images that end up on stock sites or are posted on the Web.  But there are also plenty of gems out there.  It is up to the viewers to choose the wheat or the chaff.

How we image makers define ourselves may have a lot to do with whether and how we embrace the convergence of stills and motion or motion and stills. Even though technology has marched on, we may be saddled with legacy baggage from the film days.  Call yourself a photographer and you may be confining yourself to one camp; call yourself a videographer and you may be confining yourself to a different camp.  Consider yourself something else like an image maker, or a “stil-mo-tographer,”  be open to trying and doing new things, and you may just find that it frees you from the perceived constraints of one discipline versus the other, gives you an advantage and/or opens up new avenues or perhaps keeps you competitive.

I just realized something:  As a child the one thing I never did was go to camp. 

 Glossary:

Hslrs – hybrid single lens reflex cameras

Hdcds – hybrid digital capture devices

DMSC – digital motion and still camera – the Red designation

Rotflmao – you can Google this one!

Note:  The hyperlinks that appear throughout this article and site have been included with the consent of the respective product and site owners.  Their company names and their respective products names are in many cases registered trademarks /service marks and are the property of the company.  I thank them for allowing us to link to their content.  This site has no affiliation with any product manufacturer or retailer and its owner receives no consideration, financial or otherwise, from any company or retailer.  The entries and images on this site are copyrighted and should not be reproduced with out permission.

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One of the most significant products that I have come across in my examination of stabilizers for hslrs is the U-Boat Commander.  The Commander, as I will refer to it, is an innovative product developed by photographer/director Bruce Dorn, a Canon Explorer of Light, writer, and gadgeteer extraordinaire.  I call him a gadgeteer because Bruce has a wonderful ability to craft solutions to meet his shooting needs.  A visit to his site www.idcphotography.com/blog/  is extremely enlightening.

 

I consider the Commander significant because it is, to my knowledge, the first stabilizing rig developed from scratch to accommodate the Canon 5D Mark II for video capture.  The other rigs which I looked at were existing products.  I have had use of the Commander for the last five days, and I will admit that as I boxed it up this morning to send it back to Arizona, there was a bit of mist in my eyes.  Nikon D90 users do not feel slighted:  I encourage you to read on.

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

 

The Commander offers something for lots of people due to its modular nature:  In its most basic form it is a two-handled platform; the intermediate configuration adds a plate on top (bridge) as well as a handle and cold shoes, which allows you to mount a microphone and/or lights, as well as facilitating low angle shooting; and in its most complete form it adds a shoulder stabilizer, which can also aid in table top stabilization and or panning and tilting movements.)  The anodized aluminum plates and bars are beautifully finished.  I do want to note that the knurled handle grips come without handle pads:  They will take standard bike handle grips (I used weightlifting grips.)

 

In many respects, the Commander reminded me of shooting with the Fig Rig, in that the unit is held out in front of you and the body acts as a shock absorber when moving. I also found that there was tremendous mobility although the Fig Rig does enjoy an edge here due to the circular frame.  Unlike the Fig Rig, since the bottom plate of the Commander is flat, the camera can be safely placed on a flat surface when not in use.  The 5D Mark II can be mounted directly to the commander base or attachment can be achieved via an optional quick release assembly.  Either way, you have access to the 5D Mark II battery door.  u-d90For those shooting with the Nikon D90, the battery door of the camera is also fully accessible when it is mounted to the Commander base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The modular nature of the Commander brings together the best aspects of many of the other products I own/have used and/or considered, both less expensive and more expensive.  It offers good range of motion, and shoulder stabilization on demand, the ability to mount accessories such as lights, microphones and monitors.  The low angle shooting ability is a functionality that can be very costly with other systems.

Low angle shooting with the Commander

Low angle shooting with the Commander

 I found setting up the Commander pretty intuitive.  There is, however, an excellent video demonstration on Bruce’s site for those who want an understanding of how all the pieces fit and work together.  While I spent most of the time with the Commander in the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) with the bridge and handle attached, there is a lot to be said for attaching the shoulder stabilizer.  I found it much easier to access camera controls while moving around with the shoulder stabilizer than without it.  I liked the option of being able to use the stabilizer either over my shoulder or pressed into my shoulder.  I also “pimped” the Commander and discovered that with the addition of small furniture gliders on the bottom of the base plate that I could achieve similar action to a dolly and track system on flat surfaces.

 

As I was mulling over my thoughts, I realized that most equipment reviews/commentary are written by men.  I asked my sister to try the stabilizers out and share her reactions.  Of the three pieces of equipment, her hands down favorite was the Commander.  For her use, the Commander offered the best balance, was lighter than it looked and than she thought it would be, and she liked the over the shoulder stabilization option as opposed to the into the shoulder bracing.

 

The Commander kits are not inexpensive:  While the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) exceeded the $300 budget I set by $69, the basic configuration (Kit 1) at $239 would have been within the parameters.  The Works (Kit 3) would have been way out of range.  The good news is that very soon there will be upgrade modules available for purchasers of Kits 1 and 2 so that you can add on as you need to and/or grow.

 

In looking at the options for products, I always suggest to the extent possible that consumers not only look at how they think they are going to use a product, but to try to look at the versatility and the range of applications for which a particular product can be adapted or used.  I think that this is the most appropriate way to consider a tool like the U-Boat Commander.  When I look at its functionality, and modular nature relative to the universe of available tools and add ons, the U-Boat Commander looks very, very good. 

 

Don’t be surprised if you see one of my cameras mounted to my own Commander in the near future!

If you want to seriously stabilize your Canon 5d Mark II or Nikon D90 (referred to as “hslrs,”) a tripod and/or monopod along with a fluid head are, at a  bare minimum, essentials. They are available in different configurations and at various price points.  A critical consideration is making sure the tripod/monopod and the head can support the camera and lenses that you are going to mount.  Be sure to check the load capacity of the equipment you are considering.  While tripods and monopods address relatively stationary shooting where you may primarily be interested in panning and tilting movements and you have the space to use them, they do not address dynamic shooting conditions or shooting in tight spaces.  And that’s when you need to look at the portable stabilizing solutions.

 

Just like with tripods/monopods and fluids heads, there are portable stabilizing options to fit every budget.  Personally, I did not want to wear a belt, vest or any contraption which made me look like I was in traction while trying to stabilize my hslr.  In addition to keeping the camera steady, I also wanted to keep my wallet steady.  After giving the matter serious consideration, I arbitrarily set my budget for a portable stabilizing solution at $300 maximum:  Too much over that amount and I felt that the solution would be overkill since my primary usage for both cameras is  still work.  The solution had to be easy to transport; easy to set up and break down; and just as importantly, easy to use.  The stabilizer also had to be able to support the camera body and substantial telephoto lenses.  I was aware that this last consideration might knock out some of the support products aimed at the palm sized camcorders.  My last requirement was that I had to be able to physically handle the product before purchase.  The “video virgin” in me was driving this requirement.

 

After doing a lot of research, I found two products that piqued my interest, and were readily available here in New York for purchase.  The Manfrotto Fig Rig which I found at Calumet Photographic and the BushHawk 320D camera support which I picked up the next day at Adorama.  These are two very different solutions, but two products with impressive lineage:  The Fig Rig being the brainchild of writer/director Mike Figgis in conjunction with Manfrotto, and  BushHawk offering stabilization products for many  nature and wildlife photographers.

 

The Fig Rig

 

fig-rig1What do you get when you mount a camera inside a steering wheel?  You get a Fig Rig!! I keep hearing the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” every time I think about the Fig Rig!  People may find the concept of walking around holding a “steering wheel” in front of you, strange but I have to tell you it works.  The Fig Rig offers incredible freedom of movement.  The two handed navigation if you will, results in tremendous stability and smooth shooting.  The body acts as the shock absorber and does not transfer the jarring movement to the Fig Rig.  The wheel itself can accommodate add on’s such as video lights or a microphone using the optional Fig Rig clamp.

 

The Fig Rig is made of aluminum with padded hand grips.  You attach the supplied quick release mounting assembly to the frame and plate to the camera and you are essentially ready to roll.  Also supplied are 4 cable clips which allow you to manage any wires for accessories you might attach to the frame.  You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of 2 pounds before you add the camera.

 

The biggest drawback with the Fig Rig is the fact that it is impossible to place the camera down in a stable position when it is mounted.  I find myself removing the camera from the cross bar when it is not in use (perhaps some sort of surface brace or stand can address this.)  The other possible drawback is that you do look a bit weird walking down the street with one.  But to those worried about how they look, I say get over it!  The price of admission:  $299.

 

The BushHawk 320D

bushhawk1The other product that I found myself very excited about is the BushHawk 320D Shoulder Support System.  If you think steering wheel with the Fig Rig, think shotgun with the BushHawk!  This shoulder based stabilizing system is what is called gun mount with a trigger which with the appropriate cable release will “fire” the shutter.  Now one of my big concerns about taking this thing out and using it on the streets of New York is that someone is going shout “gun” (as Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” does in a crowd) and wrestle me to the ground!! 

 

 

The 320D Pro Kit (one of two Canon versions and there is a Nikon version as well) I purchased included:

 The 320D double handle stabilizer with trigger and shoulder pad; Canon shutter release cord; Quick   release assembly and wrenches; Window Pod;  Strap; Release cord case; and Storage bag.

 

bushhawk2The 320D is a modular thermoplastic frame which is extremely light and strong.  An adjustable arm, which has a shoulder pad at the end slides into the main frame, and is locked into place by tightening a knob.  While BushHawk advertises the product with both hand grips in the same plane, I  loosened the front hand grip and rotated it 90 degrees (as pictured to the left,) which gave me   better balance and  greater stability while shooting video. 

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest plusses for the BushHawk 320D is that with the cable release cord attached, you can effortlessly capture stills while shooting video with the 5D MarkII via the trigger button. I also found the BushHawk worked well for normal viewfinder shooting, live view shooting or video.  If there is a negative associated with the 320D, for some people it will undoubtedly be  having the shoulder pad braced against them.  It does take a little getting use to. The price for all this at Adorama was $212.

 

Whether you go with either of these systems, or with another, the stabilizer is only part of the equation.  The other part of the success of any of these systems depends on you and your ability to hold and move with  the product of your choice.  For me, a heel toe combination seems to work best for removing variability from my stride under most circumstances when moving with either of these stabilizers.  I urge anyone buying a stabilizer to practice moving and finding their own “right” stride.  And don’t forget about picking up a light set of weights to get your shoulders and arms into shape.  You will thank me for this advice!

 

In Part 3 of this series, I will be looking at  the Bruce Dorn U Boat Commander.  I have elected to talk about this system independently because unlike the Fig Rig and the BushHawk, both of which I purchased, the U-Boat commander is on loan for evaluation purposes. Also unlike many of the available solutions, the U Boad commander was developed specifically for use with the 5D Mark II.