Shooting Video in the Field

Today was my first saturday off in about two and a half months. I spent part of it getting a typhoid shot I didn’t know I needed. Oh well.  Eight days and I leave for South Sudan.  My posts will probably get shorter after I leave and deal mainly with what’s currently going on in as real time as is possible. I’ll also be uploading pictures when internet allows.

My passion is still photography, but I also shoot video. Especially with the kind of missions work I’m doing, it’s really necessary to have moving pictures as well as stills, because while some stories can be told with a single image, others can’t.  I’ve done videos on previous trips, and I’ll post a link to the previous finished video after this paragraph. However, video is an entirely different skill set than still photography, and although some things transfer over, such as composition and lighting, adding the element of time changes things.

Another issue to deal with is sound, which obviously I don’t need to deal with in still photography. I’ll probably talk about that another day. The thing I want to deal with today though is taking a stable image.  With still photography, you just need to have a fast enough shutter speed. This doesn’t work in video for obvious reasons. You can’t simply hold the camera steady enough, especially if you’re walking. In parts of the above video this is quite obvious, but I did the best with what I had. This time I want to be able to take some epic video.

The limitation is in the equipment I can carry. With my weight limit at 35 pounds for clothing, shelter, backpack, some food, and all my camera equipment. That doesn’t leave much for extras. So with that, I built a steady-cam out of equipment I was already bringing. But let me back up. The reason it’s nearly impossible to shoot steady video is because there is nothing stable to hold the camera in place. Furthermore, the lighter the camera, the more shake, because it has less inertia. The options to take care of this are to mount the camera to something rigid, such as a tripod, or to use something that will counteract the jarring motion of the camera if you’re holding it. This is what a steady-cam does. By using counterweights, it keeps the camera from making sudden, jarring motions.

So what do you do if you have a severe weight limit on your equipment?  You use your camera, a monopod, and two empty water bottles, (which can be filled in the field.)  I personally use a giottos monopod with latching locks rather than twist locks. It’s bulletproof even if it gets dirty, and it rises to a height taller than myself.  I also have a giottos ball head which has fluid action, so if I want to actually use the monopod as a monopod, I can take smooth, panning video. For my counterweights, I use two camelback water bottles. The reason I use these is because they have a loop in the hard plastic lid that fits on the bottom of the monopod if I first remove the rubber foot from the monopod and then put it back on after the water bottles are attached. Following are a few pictures of the setup. I apologize for the picture of the whole rig. I didn’t take it. It’s quite out of focus, and just as a side, I have pictures of me from all over the world where I’m out of focus for the same reason. The monopod, ball head, and water bottles cost somewhere around $200.

The whole setup.
A closeup of how the water bottles are attached.

The other thing about the loops on the camelback water bottles is that they hold the weight out to the side a bit, which is more effective for counteracting twisting motion. By having the weights on the bottom of a monopod, you are able to balance the weight of your camera by extending or compressing the length of the monopod rather than adding or reducing weight.  I tried this out over the last couple of days, and it is very effective at taking shake out of your videos. Also, if I need to quickly use the monopod, I can just slide the water bottles up, and plant the base of the monopod on the ground. If I want to go back to using it as a steady-cam, all I have to do is lift it up and the bottles slide back down. I will probably post a couple video clips in a subsequent blog.

The ball head I’m using. It’s built extremely well, and has fluid action for panning.

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