Sans tripod…

This posting sprang out of a conversation begun over on the globalvjs facebook group. Someone asked which was the best camcorder for under $500 and I entered the discussion by showing off a video shot with my Kodak Playtouch. A simple P&S camera which I carry everywhere. No zoom, not much in the way of manual controls but it does have a mike input and decent quality.IMG_1191

The response to the video was not about the camera but about how smooth the video looked…

moving around with a camera – I have a cannon eos 603, without a bulky-tripod, brough this quality? the Kodak Seems smoother in movement.

So another “duh” moment on my part where I forget that I know what I know. My first thought was the built-in stabilization in the little play camera. But no – that wasn’t it.

My second thought was more right-on. It was me. Well, not me really. Decades of experience in being a human Steadicam. When you’re paid to beat the streets, shaky is not an option. News video MUST be rock steady or as near to that as possible. First option is always a tripod.

But there’s more, even with a tripod. Too many newbies place camera on tripod and then hug or hold tripod closely. Mistake #1. You live and breathe, therefore YOU are not a stable platform. And by giving your tripod the death hug, you transfer your jitters to the pod and the camera. So – once you hit that record button, un-hand the tripod and let it do its job.

Gotta pan or tilt? Please don’t, but if you have to, use a light touch. For pans just loosen the pan lock on the tripod head and literally push it along with one finger. But wait! There’s more! In addition to pushing with said finger, hold your upper arm against your body and using your hips as a swivel point, slowly move the tripod head in a pan. Even your arm can be shaky if held away from the body. (And yes, I will shoot some videos and get them up tomorrow to illustrate.)

Tilt is pretty much the same. Lock down the pan function. Hold the tripod grip/handle. Push gently for up, pull gently for down.

That’s it for Tripods 101.

Now for Human Tripod 200. As I told my students, you are alive and breathing. The only way you can hold a tripod rock solid steady is if you are not breathing – if you are dead. Not a good option.

But here are some good options. The best tripod ever: the planet Earth. Place your camera on a tree stump, a rock, a table, a wall. Get down and dirty and put it on the ground. You can pile up dirt or pebbles to achieve the framing you want.

Kathy Newell
Kathy Newell
Lean against a wall…use the weight of your body and wedge yourself in good and tight, holding the camera up against your head or chest. By extending your arms you are increasing the odds your shots will be shaky, so keep it up close and personal.

The Human Tripod pan and tilt head is your hips. Again, keep that camcorder close and personal by folding your arms to your side and creating a human tripod. Your two arms become two of the legs and by placing the camera up against your face (hopefully you have a viewfinder) there you have it. Human Tripod. Now swivel your hips slowly and you have the pan function. To tilt, bend gently up or down at the hips.

And finally: Human Steadicam 500 for advanced students. Way back in the dim dark reaches of my adventure in shooting news I stumbled upon a Tai Chi class held at daybreak in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The agonizingly slow movements of the participants intrigued me and pretty soon I was out getting my feet wet in the misty morning fog. I learned to stretch and slow down and lose my mind in the blank beauty of mindless movement. Oh – and I learned how to focus on centering my mind and body on my hips and hip movement.

Fact – the lower your center of gravity, the more stable you are. Center too high/walk with your head or shoulders and you bounce. Center too low/your feet and you drag. But center in that smooth jointed hip area and you glide. I learned over the months to walk without bouncing up and down…how to walk in a controlled smooth pace. It became a habit, so much that I still find myself slowing down and centering myself whenever I pick up a camera.

Those Tai Chi stretching movements lent themselves to jib-quality pans and tilts. Coupled with the lessons in Tripod 101 and Human Tripod 200, Human Steadicam completed my mastery of getting a stable shot.

Final hint. You don’t get good without practice. Somewhere up there I mentioned months to learn the basics of Tai Chi. Decades of shooting. You need to handle that camera daily…and for more than minutes – for hours. You need to train your body to control itself and the camera, until the camera becomes an extension of your body – freeing you to see the story while operating the camera goes on in the back of your mind.

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