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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!

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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.