Friday, October 22, 2010

$5 Quick and Easy Shoulder Rig

Before we get started, I need to apologize for neglecting this blog. I have a couple of product reviews, some DIY projects and an audio series brewing in the background but they’re all still works in progress. However, yesterday I was inspired to build a simple shoulder stabilizer rig – partly out of need but mostly as an experiment. This is what came out of that inspiration.

A Common Problem

Anyone who has ever shot video with their compact video camera (or iphone or point-and-shoot) quickly discovers how difficult it is to get a stable shot. The problem is simple: these little cameras weigh almost nothing – a few ounces at best. Without some weight in your hand, the camera bounces all around because your free arm isn’t a very good camera stabilizer. And, of course, you don’t realize how bad the footage is until you look at it. For smoother footage, you need a real camera stabilizer.

You could just mount your compact video camera on a tripod. Most non-phones have a tripod thread waiting on the bottom. But what fun is that? These little cameras are made for mobility and planting it on a tripod sort of defeats the purpose. Monopods are better – they’re small, lightweight and portable. You’ll get a more stable shot but there has to be a better way. Years ago, when cameras were big and bulky, they sat on your shoulder and you held the front with your hands. Two or three ‘mounting points’ made the camera more stable and you could still move freely. What if we could do that with our compact video cameras? We can!

Off To the Hardware Store

My wife gives me a fair amount of (deserved) grief over all the PVC pipe projects I do. Working with PVC pipe is a lot like playing with Tinker Toys only you get to adjust the parts to fit the project. It’s cheap, easy to work with and, if you screw up, just start over.

For this build, you’ll need a 10’ stick of ½” Schedule 40 PVC pipe, a handful of fittings and some PVC glue. Here are the parts I used:

6 – Tees
4 – 90 Degree Elbows

2 – 45 Degree Elbows
8 – 1.25” Lengths

2 – 12” Lengths

2 – 5.5” Lengths

2 – 3.5” Lengths

1 – 8” Length

1 – 2” Length

I arrived at the final design after some trial and error. I’ve seen several of this type of rig where the handles were symmetrical. Since the back rests on my right shoulder, it just made sense to offset the handles for comfort. Of course, you can modify the design to fit your body, shooting style or whatever. Also, I wasn’t completely convinced the 1/2” PVC would be stable enough. But after cutting and gluing everything, it’s very solid. So far, this one works for me.

Construction is simple, so I won’t spend much time on it except for a few hints. First, if you don’t have a PVC pipe cutter, go buy one. My local Harbor Freight had one on sale for $3.49 and it’s one of the most convenient tools I’ve ever bought. Yes, you can use a hacksaw and it will work fine. But the pipe cutter is faster and makes clean, straight, burr-free cuts. Plus, it doesn’t leave any plastic ‘dust’ on the garage floor. Second, dry-fit everything before you glue it. Test the rig for alignment and comfort before you make anything permanent. When you’re ready to commit, break out the glue. Remember, this stuff sets fast – like super glue fast. Twist the pipes in to get maximum coverage, but aim for your final position. You’ll have just a couple of seconds to adjust things before it sets up. I assembled the tee and elbow sections first and pressed them down on the garage floor to align. Wipe off any excess glue with a paper towel, but don’t get it on your clothes. It doesn’t come off easily.

Adapt and Conquer

You could totally use the bare pipe rig right now. Drill a ¼” hole through one of the front tee joints, insert a 2” 1/4x20 bolt (use a couple of washers for a better fit), mount your camera and start shooting. But it looks kinda ghetto, doesn’t it? For a more professional look, paint the rig black. I used Rustoleum Metallic Black spray paint – mostly because that’s what I had lying around. It’s not officially ‘rated’ for plastic, but it seemed to work well.
Next, I installed two Schwinn bike handlebar grips – also lying around from a project that never materialized. You can find these at your local Walmart for about $8. They really dress up the rig and make it easy to maintain a tight grip on the gear. Use some liquid soap, hand lotion or other water-based slippery stuff to help with grip installation. They won’t go on without some persuasion.

I drilled extra vertical holes at every cross section of the rig. I knew I wanted one in the front for a camera and one in the back for audio accessories. The others are for future setups. PVC is easy to drill, so you could put holes anywhere on the rig to mount whatever you need. I’m still designing a shoulder pad but not sure how it mounts yet.

As you can see, this simple shoulder rig works with all kinds of cameras – including my Kodak Zi8, Canon GL2 and even a full DSLR. I really liked the feel of the DSLR setup with the audio equipment on the back. The counterweight effect really balanced things out and make the rig easier to hold steady. If you wanted extra weight, I guess you could use a stack of fender washers or fill the pipes up with sand as you assemble.

Give it a Shot

When you get a few spare moments, consider building one of these simple PVC shoulder rigs. Pipe and fittings literally cost just a little over $5. I had all the other bits and pieces, but if you had to buy it all from scratch, it might cost $15-20. It took me about 30 minutes to cut and glue all the pieces. Drilling, paint and grips took another hour. You don’t have to stay with this design. Use it as a starting point and build one that specifically suits you. I really like mine and can think of a couple of friends who could use one right now. Christmas presents maybe…?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Welcome to Compact Video

It all started with the Flip. Oh sure, there were personal video cameras before then, but the Flip was a game-changer. A small, simple video camera, as tiny as a cell phone that could go anywhere. No crazy menu system, no tapes, no cables, just turn it on and push the record button. Simplicity itself and, in my opinion, a stroke of genius.

Now almost everyone is in the “compact personal video camera” market, from major manufacturers to importers you’ve never heard of. All trying to capture the magic of the Flip - with their own personal twists. Most of these cameras fit in the $100-300 price range which makes them affordable for virtually everyone. There are standard and high definition versions. Many come with built-in editing and organization software which helps you manage video. And all attach to your computer with a simple USB connection. What could be easier? Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Some remain very basic while others add nifty features and, of course, every compact cam has its quirks.

More important than price and features, these new cameras are plain fun to use! Unlike camcorders of the past, you can hand one of these to the kids or even your grandmother, tell them to aim it and push the record button. Now anyone can capture video. When you get it home, the video is instantly available – no need for capturing or fancy video editors. In most cases, you can find a clip you like and post it to YouTube in a few clicks. The ability to quickly and easily share your video memories makes it fun for everyone (and you’ll probably use it more too).

This blog is dedicated to the wonderful world of compact video. In these posts, I’ll review compact cams and software, play with some modifications and explore how to squeeze the best possible video from this new product segment. I’ll praise the winners and flame the losers. I’ll also point you to people doing crazy/amazing things with their little cameras. But most of all, I hope to inspire you to grab one of these compact wonders and make some video. Not just any crappy video (there’s plenty of that out there already), but something you’ll be proud to show the world.

I’d love for you to follow me on the journey.

(special thanks to shareski on flickr for the pix)