How does a steadicam work in a video shoot?

By Alvin Motilla

How does a steadicam work?

And what is a steadicam in the first place? What is a steadicam shot? How does a steadicam work to achieve smooth, stable footage? How do you balance and use a steadicam? What is the difference between steadicam and a similar video camera stabilizer, the gimbal?

Let's get to know these and more about this camera stabilizer called, the steadicam.

how does a steadicam work as demonstrated by a lady steadicam operator

What is a steadicam?


A steadicam is one of the camera stabilizer devices that you can use, to shoot steady moving shots--which aren't easy to get, if you're only shooting handheld while walking.

You’ll find that you’ll normally use a steadicam, when you want to follow your subject’s action. Or, when you want to record smooth tracking shots.

The key thing we need to bear in mind about steadicam—or, “steadycam”—is this...

... It is a “mechanical video camera stabilizer”.

Meaning, you don’t need to use batteries, in order to stabilize your footage. A steadicam stabilizer is...

  • non-electronic, and
  • non-motorized.

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When people say “steadicam” and “steadycam”, they're talking about the same thing. The keyword is “steady”. And “steadi” is just another way people spell it.


Why is Steadicam used?


There are, at least, 2 main reasons that I know, why video shooters and video creators would want to use a Steadicam…

  1. practical reasons
  2. expressive or communicative purposes

Practical reasons

These are your most obvious reasons for using a steadicam video stabilizer...

  • You want to avoid shakes, jolts, or unintentional jumpy shots, that may irritate your viewers. You don't want them to feel dizzy, watching your video.

  • You want to achieve smooth tracking shots. Even when you're walking on rough surfaces, or uneven ground.

Expressive or communicative purposes

These are going to be your very personal reasons.

It means, when you use a steadicam, it’s going to be dictated by your interpretation of subjects, and your style. Somehow, you hope to evoke some feelings, or thoughts in your audience.

You may want to use a steadicam to do the following examples…

  • You create a "point of view shot" (POV) of your character, who's walking while seeing things around him. Here, you want to show your audience what your character is seeing.

  • Instead of giving your audience a series of fast cuts—or, montage—to reveal key details one by one, you shoot just 1 long take—a long tracking shot that slowly unveils those story details.

Tip:

Use any steadicam-style stabilizer to really convey, or suggest an idea to your viewers.

Use it mindfully.


What kind of shot is a steadicam good for?


Any moving shot on uneven surfaces--like rough roads, stairways, hills, etc... In whatever direction of your camera movement... And whenever you want it.

That’s the advantage that any steadicam-style stabilizer has, over a camera dolly.

camera tripod on a dolly

You simply cannot execute a smooth, tracking shot with a dolly, on uneven terrain. A dolly will only give you steady motion shots, on smooth surfaces. And an expensive camera dolly—like the one used in feature filmmaking—will require you to set up tracks, similar to a railway.


Steadicam shot definition


What is a steadicam shot?

Let me say first what it isn't...

A steadicam shot is not simply a moving camera shot executed with a mechanical video stabilizer, called the steadicam.

A steadicam shot is not done just for the sake of getting smooth camera movements. Or "always" having the effect of moving in space.

Now, here's what I think what it is...

A steadicam shot is an expressive camera movement that conveys something important to your viewers. When you wield a steadicam, you do it because you intend to create a shot that is worth-watching because it gives your viewers a piece of information that advances the story.

Not all shots have to be done with a steadicam, or its derivatives. And this is true whether you shoot events, documentaries, music videos, short narrative films, or other video presentations. Let the story be your guide.

pull quote about the steadicam shot definitionHow does a steadicam work? It doesn't work so well, if all your shots are steadicam shots, or tracking shots.

How does a steadicam work?


Know first that the original “Steadicam” brand was designed mainly for heavy cameras used in big productions, with big budgets. This particular Steadicam system works through the help of its basic parts, namely...

  • the vest,
  • the arm, and
  • the camera sled.

In order for the Steadicam to work, the Steadicam operator wears a mechanical vest that supports the entire stabilizer, the big heavy camera, and some accessories like the display monitor. And so, the video shooter might look like a cyborg, as a result. ;-)

how does steadicam work - demonstrated by a professional Steadicam operatorHow does a steadicam work - original Steadicam controlled by a professional Steadicam operator

The vest is connected to an adjustable arm. That arm is attached to the camera sled, which carries the video or cinema camera, and other equipment.

Why is it necessary to wear a vest?

The purpose of the vest is to keep the Steadicam operator from getting tired so easily. If you are that person wearing the vest, you feel that the weight of the camera stabilizer—and other equipment it supports—is allocated to your shoulders and waist.

Also, wearing the Steadicam system makes you feel really in charge, as you’re executing camera movements. You have that strong sense of grasp and control. Because, it’s not only your hands that hold the stabilizer device, but your upper body as well.

How does a steadicam work in a video shoot to make your footage smooth?

Imagine you're shooting a moment where the camera needs to move with your subjects, but without any jittery shakes. That's where the Steadicam comes in!

But how exactly does it turn shaky steps into stunning shots? Let's delve into the secret behind this filmmaking wonder, using easy-to-understand explanations

The Balancing Act: Gimbal Power

Hey! Remember that trick where you balance a spoon on your finger? I used to do that as a kid. ; ) There's this perfect spot you gotta find, like magic!

How does steadicam work? Like balancing a spoon on your finger.

A Steadicam uses a similar principle, but with a high-tech twist. Its core is a gimbal, a special mount that allows the camera to rotate freely along various axes. Think of it as a super-sophisticated version of your finger trick.

a Steadicam's gimbal

Here's the cool part: the gimbal uses gyroscopic systems, those amazing things that help airplanes stay upright. These tiny gyroscopes sense any tilt or wobble and send signals to tiny motors that counteract those movements.

So, even if you bump or turn, the gyroscopes keep the camera perfectly balanced, like a superhero for smooth footage!

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Here's how a gyroscope basically works...

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And here's an explanation of how gyros work on a steadicam...

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The Invisible Hand: Isolation with the Arm and Vest

Imagine holding a camera with your outstretched arm. Every little movement you make gets transmitted to the camera, resulting in shaky footage. That's where the Steadicam's genius arm and vest system come in.

The arm connects to the gimbal and extends upwards, holding the camera assembly. This creates distance between your body and the camera, essentially isolating it from your movements.

It's like having an invisible hand holding the camera steady, even as you walk, run, or climb stairs.

parts of a Steadicam, steadicam operator in action

The vest plays a crucial role too. It distributes the weight of the camera and Steadicam system across your upper body, making it easier to hold everything steady for longer periods.

It's like having a built-in support system for your filming adventures!

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Here's a Steadicam and its operator in action. It shows how important the Steadicam operator's skill in achieving smooth footage...

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Beyond the Basics: A World of Smooth Possibilities

The core functionality of the Steadicam is built on these easy-to-grasp principles – balancing, isolation, and a sprinkle of gyroscopic magic!

The original Steadicam model looked big and bulky. But Steadicam models that came after that were becoming lighter due to advancements in material science. This allows for longer takes and more dynamic movement by the operator.

Garret Brown, Steadicam's inventor, believed that it allows the operator to become more like an artist, moving freely and creating new storytelling possibilities. But...

"It’s not a black box: push a button and it’s stable. Without a gifted human being, it does nothing, it’s no more valuable than an unattended violin." - Garret Brown



However, you also need to know that the original Steadicam brand—which has a vest and an elastic arm—may not be for someone who’s just starting out. Unless, you really want to become a Steadicam operator in big productions. And you have the money to buy a Steadicam system, and want to practice with it. ;-)

How does a steadicam work - specifically the handheld steadicam?

There are simpler versions--or derivatives--of the Steadicam—those that are handheld. For a beginner, a handheld steadicam stabilizer may be enough, and more suitable.

a handheld steadicam example

A handheld steadicam--which is lighter and smaller--works similarly to the original Steadicam. But without the need for you to use the more complicated parts of the original Steadicam.

Here are some key points to know about a handheld steadicam-style stabilizer...

First, it is designed mainly for lightweight cameras, that normal people may already have. They simply don’t want to own those bulky broadcast studio cameras, for no reason at all.

Operating a handheld steadicam for reasonable amount of time, is just fine.

how to operate a steadicam that is handheldHow does a steadicam work? A handheld steadicam works simpler than the original Steadicam.

Second, a handheld steadicam-style stabilizer, has a simpler design. No need for you to wear a mechanical vest, connected to a mechanical elastic arm. Because the vest and the arm don't exist. You still look like human, not half-robot half-human... or a cyborg. ;-)

handheld steadycamHow does a steadicam work in a real-world video shoot? (Photo of me courtesy of Jessica Motilla.)

However, since you’re holding the device with your bare hands, your arms are carrying all the weight. Which means... your hands, arms, and even your back, can get tired soon. Especially, if you’re new to using a handheld steadicam.

Lastly, a handheld steadicam has a gimbal handle and counterweights. These help smoothen your camera movements—say, when you’re walking and following your subject.

how does steadicam workHow does a steadicam work - gimbal's handle and counterweights

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Here's an example of smooth camera motion you can achieve by properly using a handheld steadicam...

I shot this video with a mirrorless camera mounted on a handheld steadicam.

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person who shoots videosPhoto of me and my daughter courtesy of Jessica Motilla. :-)

What does a Steadicam operator do?


If you’re going to work as a steadicam operator, in a big production team—say, in a film production set—here's some of your tasks…

  • You work closely with the director, the cinematographer (or director of photography), and the on-camera talents—like the actors and actresses.

  • You set up the Steadicam system. So that it works optimally with the cinema or video camera, that you’ll attach to it.

  • You wear a mechanical vest with arm that carries the camera, and the monitor that you’ll look at, as you operate the steadicam.

  • You execute the required camera movements stated in the shot list—like following the action of your subject, and other tracking shots.

  • You work in different environments, whether in studios or outdoors. And you work in different genres—like, narrative, documentary, sports, entertainment events, reality TV, etc.



But, if you’re in a small team, or you’re a solo video creator—who’s also going to operate the steadicam, here's some things you need to bear in mind and do…

  • You don’t have to own that expensive Steadicam brand of camera stabilizer. You just need to borrow, or own, a similar functioning device—that is, a steadicam-style stabilizer. This is for small, lightweight cameras that you’ll typically use.

  • If you’re a newbie, using a handheld mechanical stabilizer, will feel like a challenge. Because the muscles in your arms, legs, and back have to gain stamina by practice. So practice, and in no time, you’re a good handheld steadycam operator.

  • Make sure you have a purpose when you use a handheld steadicam. It should help tell the story. So, consider how your steadicam shots will affect your audience.

How to balance a steadicam


It is sensible to prepare the steadicam stabilizer, and practice using it first—before you can use it well, in real-world situations.

One simply cannot learn, develop, and refine the needed skills overnight. It takes time…

  • Time you need to invest in rehearsing how to prepare, and operate a steadicam-style stabilizer. And...
  • Time away from your "real-world" video shoot, or video coverage.

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Here's how to set up and balance a handheld steadicam...

how to balance camera stabilizer - the steadicam stabilizerHow does a steadicam work - setting up and balancing the steadicam, or "steadycam"

1. Decide on the very camera setup you'll actually use during filming.

A basic setup could just be a smartphone, an action cam, a small camcorder—or any camera with built-in lens and mic. Plus, the handheld steadicam.

However, an interchangeable-lens camera mounted on a steadicam, may not be that basic at all.

So, if yours is a mirrorless camera, a DSLR camera, or a cinema camera, take away any unnecessary weight. Remove the lens cap, the camera strap, and the lens hood—if you opt not to use it when shooting.

2. Attach your camera to the base plate of your handheld steadicam stabilizer.

Then, attach the base plate to the stabilizer itself. Make sure that the camera, the base plate, and the steadicam are securely connected as one.

Tighten enough what needs to be tightened—depending on the design, of your mechanical handheld stabilizer.

3. Balance your camera so that it stays center.

It shouldn't lean forwards, or backwards too much. And it shouldn't lean to the left, or to the right too much, as well.

Make incremental adjustments to the stabilizer, as you do this.

4. Check if the counterweight is sufficient.

There are several designs of mechanical camera stabilizer counterweight. But regardless of the counterweight's form, we want to see that the stabilizer's bottom is neither too heavy, nor too light.

To check this, raise the counterweight platform horizontally, then release it so it drops.

If it takes about 2 seconds, before the counterweight platform reaches the vertical position—the counterweight is just enough.

If it doesn't, just do incremental adjustments, until you achieve that 2-second drop time.

5. Do a quick test.

Hold the handle of your steadicam stabilizer.

While you're firmly holding it, move your arm forward and backward.

Stretch your arm again horizontally and move it to the left, then to the right.

If the camera stays level, your handheld steadicam is ready to use.


How to use a steadicam


Sometimes, the story or script for a proposed video, will tell you the need for some camera movements—especially tracking shots.

It means, you need to be able to handle and operate a camera stabilizer device--like the steadicam--in the actual shoot. That skill applies whether you’re shooting events or documentaries—or more structured pieces, like narrative short films or music videos.

How to operate a steadicam during the shoot

a lady demonstrating how to properly hold a steadicam-style stabilizer when shootingHow does a steadicam work? It works when properly handled and used as a storytelling tool.

When handling a mechanical camera stabilizer, like the steadicam, there are 2 things you're actually doing, at the same time...

  1. Your stronger hand is firmly holding the stabilizer's handle. (In my case, my "stronger hand", is my right hand.)

  2. Your other hand is gently touching the stabilizer column, just below the handle. (In my case, my "other hand", is my left hand. But I only use my index finger and thumb, to gently touch the stabilizer column.)

You're doing #1, to support the overall weight of your camera stabilizer setup. And it's not just your stronger hand and arm that carry that weight. But your back and leg muscles as well.

holding-steadicam-handle

You're doing #2, to steer the stabilizer column—to guide what your camera's lens will look at. Remember, you're not tightly holding the stabilizer column with your left hand—if you're right-handed. You're only touching it lightly with your index finger and thumb, to help your camera record smooth motion.

how-to-hold-steadicam-handle-left-and-right-hands

However, when you're operating an electronic gimbal, it's a different story…

Let’s say your gimbal is properly set up and balanced. You may just have to hold the gimbal handle with one hand. Maybe two hands, depending on the gimbal’s brand and model.

The gimbal handle usually has some buttons that you can press, to control gimbal movements.

It can feel like some artificial intelligence—or AI—is helping you control, and enhance camera movements. There's some automation involved when you're operating a gimbal.

It's a different experience compared to using a handheld steadicam, which is mechanical and operated manually.


Camera stabilizer tips - how to operate a steadicam

Here's some advice on using a camera stabilizer device—like the steadicam...

Relax if your camera setup feels a bit heavy, after you included what's essential in your setup—say, an external mic.

A reasonably heavy load, or extra weight, can help make your shots more stable.

The only drawback is your arms and hands—even your back muscles—get tired faster, after shooting for some time.

So, make sure your use of camera stabilizer really serves some purpose. It will keep you from overusing your “reasonably” heavy setup.

Go for a wide angle lens, instead of a telephoto zoom lens.

Why?

Wide-angle lenses are forgiving! That's because they capture a lot of the scene, even if your camera moves a little. Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, zoom in so much that any little wobble gets magnified in the photo.

Wide angle lens mitigates the effect of camera shake.

It means, your viewers will perceive enhanced camera motion, when you're using a wide angle lens—like 18-55mm, or 17-50mm lens.

Be mindful of your lens focusing, when executing tracking shots—like walking to follow your subject.

You want your subject to stay in focus.

If you're using a mirrorless camera with advanced auto focus technology, you may not need to worry about keeping your subject in focus. As long as no other subject enters the frame.

If you're using a DSLR or a cinema camera that uses photography or cinema lenses, set your camera to manual focus. Be the one to decide where your lens focuses on. This tip is also true, when you're filming with a mirrorless camera with a fully manual focus lens.

Avoid very "shallow depth of field"—or narrow focus, when doing tracking shots.

This tip applies if you're shooting with manual focus lenses.

"Depth of field" is related to lens focusing. It is how much of the image is clear or in focus, and how much of it is blurred.

The lens might lose focus of your subject as you move, if your lens focusing is very "narrow"—or "shallow".

So, you'd want "large depth of field"—or deep focus. It means, a larger area of the image will be clear, or in focus—including the subject you're following.

You have narrow focus, if you set your lens aperture to f/2.8. You get deep focus, if you set your lens aperture to f/5.6 or f/8.

Decide how near to—or, far from—your subject you're going to be.

It will also help you keep your subject in focus, when you're executing tracking shots. So...

"How do you walk—or run—with a camera stabilizer, like the steadicam?"

  • Maintain your decided distance, when you walk to follow your subject—say, a walking person.

  • Look at your camera's monitor to keep good shot composition.

  • Pay attention to your environment, at the same time. Because you don't want any accidents.

  • Avoid moving your body up and down repeatedly, when you walk or run. Because your body's unintended vertical movement, is going to be recorded by the camera.

  • You only want to move horizontally with your stabilizer—whether you walk forward, backward, or sideways. Video shooters call it, "the ninja walk".

Steadicam vs gimbal


steadicam or gimbalHow does a steadicam work? Steadicam works similarly to the gimbal... but still differently from it.

Steadicam? Gimbal? What's the difference?

A gimbal is a motorized arm for your camera. It's all electronic, with batteries, tiny motors, and a clever computer program working together to smooth out your shaky hands. Pretty cool, right? And the best part? You can hold it all yourself!

On the other hand, a steadicam is a mechanical camera stabilizer. Meaning, you harness your technical skills and muscle strength to get smooth camera motion, without using batteries and motors. And without being assisted by a computer.

Glidecam vs gimbal. Flycam vs Steadicam. Steadicam vs Glidecam.

You might be wondering how these camera stabilizers - Steadicam, Glidecam, Flycam - are different from the gimbal thingy.

Well, here's the thing: Steadicam, Glidecam, Flycam, those are all brand names for a similar camera stabilizer type.

And “gimbal” is just a common name for one of the many forms of camera stabilizer.

Now, those three brands mainly refer to mechanical stabilizers. While gimbal, as you already know, is motorized and electronic.

Of course, other brands of camera stabilizer exist. Those companies design and manufacture their own versions of camera stabilizer, both for hobbyists and professionals.


Frequently Asked Questions


Who invented Steadicam?

Garrett Brown, who is an American, invented the Steadicam.

“Steadicam” is really a camera stabilizer brand name. But over the years, the word has become synonymous with any similar device, that can mechanically keep your movement apart from the camera.

Garrett saw the need to film moving camera shots, without the shake or wobble. Even when the camera operator is walking on uneven, and rough surfaces.

That led him to make the Steadicam. Although he said, “I wasn’t enthralled with the idea of professionally inventing.”

When was the Steadicam invented?

It is said that Garrett invented the Steadicam in 1974. At first, he called it the “Brown Stabilizer”.

But Cinema Products Corporation bought his invention, and officially named it the “Steadicam”.

What was the first movie to use Steadicam?

It was “Bound for Glory”, which the American audience first saw on December 5, 1976.

It’s a biographical film—or “biopic”—that features the musician-songwriter, Woody Guthrie.

Here’s the first ever steadicam shot that moviegoers saw in a film…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0gYPsTtvFo

The film was directed by Hal Ashby. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, won the “Academy Award for Best Cinematography”. Steadicam operator-inventor Garrett Brown, was the one who executed that shot.


Key takeaways: How does a steadicam work


Think of Steadicams as your trusty sidekicks for filming. They’re like a blend of smart design and a bit of science magic that help you keep your camera steady.

Chasing someone for a dramatic scene? Trekking over hills for that perfect shot? Your footage stays smooth. It’s not about looking cool; it’s about making sure your shots bring your story to life.

We saw 2 main types of Steadicams:

  1. Original Steadicam: A professional system with a vest and arm worn by the operator. It's expensive and requires practice to use effectively.

  2. Handheld Steadicam: A lighter, more affordable option for beginners. It stabilizes footage but lacks the complexity of the original Steadicam.

Understanding how a Steadicam works involves 3 key principles:

  1. Balancing: Imagine trying to balance a spoon on your finger. That's kind of how a Steadicam works! It uses a special mount called a gimbal to keep the camera level and smooth, no matter how much you move around.

  2. Isolation: Like how you hold a camera still with your hands, a Steadicam (especially the older ones with an arm and vest) keeps things steady by isolating the camera from your body's movements. This means no more shaky footage, just smooth sailing for your videos!

  3. Gyroscopic magic: Tiny gyroscopes in the gimbal detect and counteract tilt or wobble, ensuring smooth video.

Before using a Steadicam, consider your needs and budget. A handheld Steadicam is a good starting point for beginners, while professionals might require the advanced features of the original Steadicam.

Practice is crucial for using a Steadicam effectively, especially handheld models. Your arms and core will need time to develop the stamina needed for smooth operation.

Remember, using a Steadicam should always serve a purpose in your storytelling. Don't overuse it just for the sake of fancy camera movements.

See also a camera stabilizer similar to the handheld steadicam...


See how camera stabilizers, like the steadicam, work with...