Since DSLR video cameras are incredibly light and not very ergonomically friendly for handheld work, using them without some type of stabilization system can render many of your shots unusable do to unpleasant camera shake. This camera shake draws audiences’ attention to the camera, which breaks the 4th wall and the illusion of reality, which as a director, you’re trying so hard to create. You wanted gentle movements that had a sort of “feather” quality to them and you’re not going to achieve that look by holding the camera in your hands while shooting. If you hold a DSLR camera in your hands it’s going to pick up the jitters from your morning coffee, your heartbeat and the movement of your breathing. These little machines are remarkable, but they are incredibly sensitive to movement.
Older, heavier video or film cameras had a weight to them that helped stabilize hand-held work. However, even those older and heavier cameras were generally mounted on the camera operator’s shoulder to help further stabilize the shot.
A shoulder mount is a dynamic piece of equipment that moves with the camera operator. It’s not static like a tripod and it allows you, the filmmaker, the flexibility of movement, which can really help increase efficiency during production.
Some filmmakers, and some audience members for that matter, don’t like the hand-held look – and that’s fine. They claim it makes them dizzy and nauseous. Fair enough. But some incredible films are being shot using this style of movement so we shouldn’t reject it as a legitimate shooting style. Essentially, a shoulder-mounted camera helps filmmakers create a sort of visual metaphor for something happening in the narrative of the film.
What does a shoulder mounted shot look like on the screen?
As with any type of camera movement, the decision to use a shoulder rig will be determined by what type of story you’re trying to tell. Shoulder mounted camera movement places the audience in the scene and let’s them experience the scene as a sort of voyeuristic participant. This style of camera movement can also be used to give the scene a frenetic feel full of energy and can even help visually punctuate a chaotic moment. Take for example the film The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which won Best Picture at the Oscars.
It’s not a polished look, but it’s not “lazy filmmaking”, as some of the opponents of this type of movement would call it. Sure, it’s an efficient way to shoot a film, but that isn’t a bad thing and it definitely doesn’t mean that the filmmaker was lazy. And in this case, the movement really complements the action within the story.
A steadicam shot would have allowed the same freedom for the camera operator to follow the action within the scene, but steadicam shots would have been much smoother, which would have taken away a little bit of the image’s edginess.
Other films have used this style of camera work with great success as well. For example, Ballast, 21 Grams, Rachel Getting Married and Fish Tank to name only a few.
If you’re working on a film or documentary project, where you think that this aesthetic would complement your story, then a shoulder mount is the tool to help you get there.
Chances are, If you’re reading this page you’ve already shot footage, with a camera such as the Canon t2i (550D), t3i (600D), 7D, 5D or 60D that looked okay in the monitor while you were capturing the footage, but once you imported your footage to your editing suite you discovered unsightly movement around the edges of the frame that really drew attention to the presence of the camera. That’s not a good thing as I’m sure you’ve found out for yourself.
Luckily, there are a few effects that you can use to try to smooth out these shaky shots (such as the smooth-cam effect in Final Cut Pro), but as we teach our students in our intensive online filmmaking program (click here if you want to learn more or enroll), it’s ALWAYS best to try to capture the strongest raw images possible while you’re shooting. Trying to upgrade “unusable footage” to “bad footage” in post production is a bad habit to get into.
Let’s now talk a little bit more about specific features of shoulder mounts.
What shoulder mount is best for your DSLR camera?
Not all shoulder mounts are built for the same reasons or for the same camera. So before you invest in a shoulder mount, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
First and foremost, you need to consider what shoulder rig is best suited to the camera you will be using. One of the first things you need to consider is if you want a straight shoulder mount or a offset shoulder mount. If you’re using the LCD monitor on a DSLR and it opens up to the side (like the articulated LCD on the Canon t3i) then you’ll want an offset shoulder mount. The offset shoulder mount will keep the viewfinder in front of the camera operator’s eyes rather than beside him or her. The same camera on a straight shoulder mount would put the viewfinder off to the side a little bit which might get a little awkward for the camera operator. However, if you’re using a off-camera DSLR monitor then this becomes less of an issue, as you can either place the monitor in the camera’s hot shoe mount, or on the rail support system if you’re using one.
Which leads me to my next point. You need to consider the design of the shoulder mount. Some shoulder mounts are built with flat metal surfaces that allow you to attach your camera on top. Others are built using a rail system.
Generally speaking a rail system is better because it’s more adaptable to different shooting scenarios and you’ll be able to build onto it as your budget allows you to do so. For instance, rail systems make it easier to add on attachments such as a follow focus, lens support, cage, handle and a multitude of other goodies. You could also attach an articulating arm and clamp to get your monitor off the hot shoe of your camera if you like. This will give you a little more freedom as to where you can position your monitor.
Next, you need to consider how much weight you’re going to be putting on the shoulder mount. Small camcorders pose less of a problem due to their light weight, but even seemingly small DSLRs can start to become heavy when you start attaching telephoto lenses and other accessories to your camera. This is especially true if you need to free up a hand to pull focus or if you’re shooting for 10 hours straight. Carrying the weight of the shoulder rig, camera, attachments and lenses can quickly start to put a strain on your body. To solve this problem some shoulder mounts come with an “arm” or “chest support”. This arm rests on the camera operator’s chest, which helps support the front of the camera.
Similarly, most shoulder mounts will come with different counterweight options. As you start adding, microphones, batteries, matte boxes, monitors and heavy lenses, your shoulder mount will quickly become “front heavy”. To combat this weight imbalance you can add on weights that you attach to the back of the shoulder mount that will help you rebalance the rig.
What are the best DSLR shoulder mounts?
There are many different options when it comes to choosing a shoulder mount and the “best” option will be one that compliments your camera, your current gear and your budget. Many companies offer various “rigs” or “bundles” where you can purchase a shoulder mount as well as additional add-ons (follow focus, matte box, lens support, weights etc). The majority of the options below range in price from $150 to $2500.
If you’ve been shooting with a shoulder mount for your DSLR camera and you want to share your footage with our blog readers simply post a link to your footage in the comment box below. We’d love to see it!
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