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Steadicam Merlin + DSLR

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Danny Grizzle
Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 4:22:34 am

I ran across a video online that got me jazzed about doing handheld using my Canon 5D Mk II.

Steadicam Merlin with 5D demo.

This DSLR with battery and an appropriate lens is about 3.5 lbs, well within the Steadicam Merlin's 5 lb. limit for handheld. (Steadicam says you can go up to a 7 lb. payload when using the vest and arm, which triples the price.)

I just finished a test of two lenses, trying to decide which one to fly on the Merlin. I already owned a Sigma 12-24mm and a Canon 16-35mm (original version, not the Mk II). Using my ancient Paterson Optical Test Target 2, I ran a sequence of RAW exposures at various focal lengths and apertures. The Canon L-series lens will be my choice, but results were a bit odd.

Aside - I have a ton of respect for the people with patience to do exhaustive lens testing. Another anomaly - both of these lenses are raved in reputable online reviews, like user feedback on B&H Photo and Amazon.com. But they are also both trashed elsewhere on the internet, although at sites I am not too familiar with reputation.

I bought the Sigma for Virtual Reality stills, where the 12mm is important, and I can stop down. But I got weird results with my quick tests today - center sharpness is questionable, and edge sharpness is surprisingly good. Maybe because of the aspherical elements in this design.

The Canon 16-35mm is sharper overall, but exhibits considerable chromatic aberration in corners at 16mm. I found edge sharpness to be very good (unlike other reviews I've seen online), but CA is objectionable. I've since bought a fantastic 17mm prime, the Canon 17mm T/S, which compliments my 24mm T/S, so this lightweight wide angle zoom which had fallen into disuse has now found a new life in DSLR video. (BTW - I do a lot of architectural stuff, both still and video. The main application of the Merlin rig will be walk-throughs.)

-------

OK - that's where I'm at: best laid plans, no practical experience. Just wondering if anyone here is doing Steadicam type DSLR work, which is the route I'm going to take as opposed to the Zacuto-type gunstock or shoulder mount rigs. This seems like a good approach for anyone not shooting events who does not need to work for extended time with the handheld Merlin.

One major concern - viewfinder. A lot remains unknown if this combo will be successful. Pointers appreciated!


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Richard van den Boogaard
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 9:36:02 am

I use a Glidecam instead of a Steadicam Merlin; much cheaper, but I guess there is difference in quality/stability as well. Especially if you decide to load it up with extra gear.

With regards to a viewfinder - there is no point in that on a Steadicam/Glidecam: You cannot (or: should not) have physical body contact with the camera when you use a Steadicam/Glidecam; the whole idea is that the camera remains stable (floats) as you move it. Instead of a viewfinder, you will need to attach a monitor on the rig, unless you can watch the LCD screen.

Not allowing yourself to touch the camera, mostly means that you'll have to shoot it at higher F-Stops and have deep focus. There is another solution, but that involves placing a motor on the focus ring, along with a wireless video monitor and then have an assistent do the focus pulling for you as you move the rig.

So there is a real point in having a shoulder rig (or tripod/monopod) next to a Glidecam/Steadicam. Due to their huge sensors, DSLRs excel in shallow DoF, so if you really want to only use it for Steadicam shots, you might as well settle for a video camera with a much smaller sensor (and, thus, deeper focus).

Aside from shooting with deeper focus, you will also want to use wider angle lenses on a Glidecam/Steadicam, in order to hide some of the rolling shutter issues that DSLRs tend to have.

Check out the updated My Gear Section on Vincent Laforet's blog.

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com


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Danny Grizzle
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 5:24:23 pm

I've shot for almost 10 years with a CobraCrand SteadyTracker. I'm actually old school in shooting style and never did much handheld until I bought a Sony PD-150 at NAB years ago. Promax was having an NAB show special and the SteadyTracker was free with PD-150 purchase.

I've got mixed feelings on this device. Actually, I hate it, only I've gotten some amazing shots. My grievances have to do with design and build quality. Design: bulky with a huge sled that is easily bumped with my legs during shots. And the integral stand (a rudimentary crossbar with feet) is also prone to hit things and ruin shots. Finally, the whole contraption is bulky and inconvenient to transport. Build quality: the SteadyTracker is just an assemblage of rough parts and pieces that look like they started the day at a plumbing store, then got sprayed with hideous black crinkle paint.

The only thing going for the SteadyTracker is price ($250 currently) and the fact it can make a decent shot.

The PD-150 has a flip out rotating LCD viewfinder. The Canon 5D Mk II screen is fixed position. Thus my concern about monitoring being more difficult.

There is a guy named Jim Farrell who is linked from Garrett Brown's Steadicam Merlin FAQs page at tiffen.com. He makes a lightweight mounting plate intended for wireless receivers or external hard disk drives. It takes the place of the lower balancing weights on the Merlin:

http://www.jimfarrell.com/merlin/

What I was thinking is the new SmallHD 5.6" monitor could ride the bottom counterweight on the Merlin.

http://www.smallhd.com/Products/DP6.html

I wrote SmallHD, and they say it should work - the monitor and two Canon batteries weigh just over 1 lb.

I'm not going to do this immediately, but only if needed as I see how things go with the Merlin, which will be delivered tomorrow.

BTW - the Merlin is $200 more expensive than the Glidecam HD4000. But two features of the Merlin make it worth the extra money to me: 1) operation profile - the Merlin is simply sweet, a very minimal design. After my experience with the SteadyTracker, I'm looking forward to working with a stabilizer where I can concentrate more on composition and less on collisions during moves. 2) The Merlin quickly folds into a very compact storage position. I'm thinking this thing will fit inside one of my Pelican cases, even though B&H is including a free Steadicam case.

If the Merlin becomes an important part of my routine shooting kit, I will probably purchase a 5D Mk II body to dedicate to handheld.

========================

DSLR Aesthetics

Shallow DOF is all the rage, and probably to excess. A month ago, I caught myself piling on ND to shoot something in full August sunlight. Really, this is an unnatural stylistic excess.

Anybody who is a real professional shooter has long crafted images to suggest depth in what is essentially a 2 dimensional medium. Lighting has always been the primary tool, and volumetric spaces should be lit in planes that draw the eye into the subject.

About 10 years ago, I wrote a piece about large aperture, equating shallow DOF to human physiology and behavior -- the boy meets girl effect.

All these techniques - lighting and DOF control - have some basis in reality. With lighting, the rule of thumb has always been "One sun, one shadow." Multiple shadows are unnatural and detract. They should be avoided, unless there is a compelling reason and probably a practical fixture in frame to explain the contradiction.

Large aperture and shallow DOF should also be used artistically, not gratuitously. My own recent shots in bright sunlight are an example of unnatural wretched excess.

I think handheld work is another form of introducing 3D space into the 2D image. Continuous perspective changes introduced by camera motion may offset the need for shallow DOF. Which is good because the Steadicam Merlin is going to require a wide lens, which generally means deep DOF. There are pros and cons. Obviously a major pro is less need for follow focus. The big con is concern about how Steadicam Merlin images intercut, say if I do an interview with other cameras locked off on tripods and set for shallow DOF.

It would be interesting to hear from other more experienced operators. Does adding a $1,600 vest and arm allow you to shoot with an 85mm lens vs. a 35mm when hand holding the Merlin or Glidecam?

On the other hand, maybe the Steadicam is the wrong tool for the interview situation above. A jib might be better, and have the stability to use a longer lens and larger aperture also.


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Richard van den Boogaard
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 8:44:36 pm

Sorry if I have misinterpreted your original question. I thought you were new to the field and needed some guidance in proper use of the Steadicam - i.e. choosing that over handheld rigs or tripod/monopod shots and your question about use of a viewfinder on it...

Although stabilisation systems can be great for some uses, definitely not all. In my projects, I tend to use a few shots, not a lot. If find that they intercut just fine with talking heads.

Example here:

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com


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Danny Grizzle
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 9:34:10 pm

Nice reel for Gavelers. I found myself wishing to see a reflection of your rig in the glass cases, just to see what you were doing. Actually remarkable that you avoided reflections, given the challenge of so many glass surfaces at so many angles.

Thanks for your comments.


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Michael Sacci
Steadicam
on Sep 7, 2010 at 10:50:52 pm

what most people don't realize is how much time needs to be invested in practicing. I use to produce a live concert DVDs and the last thing I wanted was a steadicam operator that didn't have a lot of experience. The need was different than shooting for a doc or movie, since there are no retakes. I never went cheap on my steadicam guy. He was the first one booked and the highest paid. Next inline was the jib operator.



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Richard van den Boogaard
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 8, 2010 at 8:11:49 am

I guess that was more luck than anything I had planned for, although I do remember checking for reflections as I was closer to the glass. As an afterthought, I think you can't see me because the light inside the cabinets was practically the only light available: I was shooting on the dark side.

As you may have noticed, those shots were all done at 50fps and then slowed down to 25 (PAL). This certainly adds to the floating experience.

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com


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Danny Grizzle
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 9:38:27 pm

BTW - anybody who wants the SteadyTracker, I'd be glad to give it away. Don't know what it might cost to ship, but surely not much. On the other hand, it might be best to throw it into the dumpster.


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Michael Sacci
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 7, 2010 at 10:51:56 pm

I would glad to take it, i will paypal you the cost of shipping

onthecow at michaelangelodv dot com.


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Phil Balsdon
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 8, 2010 at 12:40:31 am

Things to consider when choosing a Steadicam - Merlin v The Rest.

The Merlin is high build quality. It was also designed by Garrett Brown who invented the original Steadicam and he has a far better understanding of operational features than anyone. It was not built with lowest cost as a priority, the quality and performance were more important.

It's very lightweight, probably the lightest in its class, this is very important when considering the operational style, even a couple of pounds is going to get heavy after a short time, (if you don't have the vest and arm option).

The Merlin doesn't have to be removed from the camera to do a traditional hand held shot, it can simply be folded under the camera and actually used as a hand grip. Convenient and time saving. Useful for run and gun style shooting.

The vest arm option is the same as the Steadicam Pilot, this means you can economically upgrade later.

Whilst the vest / arm option will help heavier cameras with longer lenses, the problem of focus is always going to be there with DSLRs and their low depth of field, you cannot physically rack focus on the lens whilst shooting, you need a remote device. With film cameras this is normally done by a very skilled focus puller with a wireless controlled device (expensive). Some traditional video cameras have focus motors built in and can be remotely controlled by after market devices. There isn't much low budget equipment yet available for DSLRs.

Finally, you are not going to be able, as a first time operator, to buy any Steadicam off the shelf, walk outside put your camera on it and start operating. You need a good understanding of how to set it up and balance it for optimum performance (this is more fiddly and requires more precision, on smaller rigs). Then you need to practice the operating techniques just the same as if you were learning to ski, surf or ride a bike. If you want to get up to speed quickly take workshop. (Almost all the big time steadicam operators started with a workshop early in their careers).

A well performed and appropriate Steadicam shot will enhance a production, it is also the most satisfying and challenging job in the camera department. I've taught a lot of workshops and I don't recall a single student who was not inspired by the possibilities of what can be achieved.... with practice.

Cinematographer, Steadicam Operator, Final Cut Pro Post Production.
http://www.steadi-onfilms.com.au/


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Richard van den Boogaard
Re: Steadicam Merlin + DSLR
on Sep 8, 2010 at 8:18:12 am

I totally agree with you. When I first purchased the Glidecam HD-4000 that thing was going nowhere, until I took a day's worth of training from an experienced operator who taught me how to set it up. Glidecam referred me to him.

As I foresee more jobs which will require floating shots, I have now decided to invest in the X-10 vest (double spring arm as opposed to the Smooth Shooter's one spring arm).

So, all-n-all, I am a relative newbie in the field, but practice makes perfect. On an average shoot, I tend to do several takes and then choose the best in the edit.

Richard van den Boogaard
cameraman / editor / video marketing consultant

Branded Channels
W: http://www.brandedchannels.com


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