How does a steadicam work?
And what is a steadicam in the first place? What is a steadicam shot? 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.
But before we answer, "How does a steadicam work?", let's find out first what a steadicam is.
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...
People use the terms “steadicam” and “steadycam” interchangeably, but they mean the same thing. The keyword is “steady”. And “steadi” is just another way people spell it.
There are, at least, 2 main reasons that I know, why video shooters and video creators would want to use a Steadicam…
These are your most obvious reasons for using a steadicam video stabilizer...
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…
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.
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.
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.
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...
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. ;-)
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.
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. ;-)
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--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.
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. ;-)
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.
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…
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…
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…
Here's how to set up and balance a handheld steadicam...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When handling a mechanical camera stabilizer, like the steadicam, there are 2 things you're actually doing, at the same time...
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.
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.
Here's some advice on using a camera stabilizer device—like the steadicam...
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.
Because the wide field of view of a wide angle lens, won't magnify disturbances in camera movements—as a telephoto lens does.
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.
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.
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'll have narrow focus, if you set your lens aperture to f/2.8. But, you'll get deep focus, if you set your lens aperture to f/5.6 or f/8.
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?"
What is the difference between gimbal and steadicam?
A gimbal is a type of camera stabilizer that is electronic and motorized. Meaning, it relies on battery power, motors and computer to stabilize your camera movements, though you use it handheld.
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.
Now, how do the Steadicam, the Glidecam, the Flycam, and the gimbal differ from each other?
The quick answer is the “Steadicam”, the “Glidecam”, and the “Flycam” are actually brand names of camera stabilizer.
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.
Whether you use the original Steadicam brand and design--or, any handheld steadicam stabilizer—you get the same benefits or advantages for your video shoots…
Less limitation. Some forms of camera dolly need tracks, just to stabilize the camera and the resulting shots. With a steadicam, you don’t need tracks, and you’re not limited by the direction of those tracks. To execute a tracking shot, just walk.
More freedom. On ground level, wherever the action takes place, you can follow the action with a handheld steadicam. No need to set up anything—except the stabilizer itself, the camera, and perhaps, an external mic.
Faster execution. Unlike narrative fiction, where every moment is normally planned and orchestrated, real life moments are unpredictable. Using a steadicam lets you respond quickly, and do the needed camera movements, to capture those moments. Also, you can easily improvise shots—something you’ll find yourself doing more often for docus, and other non-fiction work.