Shedding light on camera support

The images produced by your camera are only as effective as the camera’s support and lighting. Make sure your giving your camera strong legs to stand on
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Establishing shots like this London night scene usually benefit from a well-supported camera.

When it comes to investing in lighting and support gear, it usually doesn't pay to scrimp. Unlike your camera, which you'll likely upgrade every two to three years, you'll probably be using the same lighting kit, fluid head and tripod legs decades from now.

Capturing compelling images with your camera demands rigorous frame support. Like the great painters of centuries ago, you are providing to your viewers a unique window on the world, a stage through which you expose, compose and otherwise implement the many rudiments of your finely tuned craft.

If you shake the frame and weaken its walls, you better have a good reason. Shakycam has been with us for more than two decades now, and we've all had quite enough, thank you. Appropriate support of the camera and frame is imperative and — in a more perfect world — reflects the impetus of your story. Is the frame anchored solidly in reality as in most establishing shots or landscapes, or does the handheld camera more accurately reflect the point of view, say, of a deranged serial killer?

A well-designed fluid head is worth its weight in gold. Smooth with large operating surfaces, the investment in high-quality support gear will pay you dividends for years.

Strong compositions built on solid support work in tandem with other aspects of good craft — such as logical, well-modeled lighting; adept use of focus (and follow focus); and effective depth-of-field control — all play key roles. In most cases, you want to foster intimacy with your viewers, drawing their eyes into the canvas by helping them identify frame elements critical to the story. Attracting unwarranted attention to the edges of the frame (as in the case of these ants-in-the-pants shooters) is counterproductive. Smart shooters know that appropriate camera support is imperative in order to maintain the integrity of the frame and the story housed in it.

Getting ahead in support

If you're a serious shooter, you'll need to invest in a pro-level tripod and the most rugged fluid head you can find. Fluid heads typically use a silicon dampening system to enable smooth pans and tilts. The viscous liquid is forced through a series of drillings like the oil through an automatic transmission. The intent is to provide a predictable amount of resistance regardless of ambient temperature. The incremental drag dials on some models vary the resistance; the precise amount of drag is selectable and repeatable. In this way, the shooter can gain confidence in his or her ability to execute consistently smooth moves. Like the clutch action on a car, the feel from vehicle to vehicle may vary, but once you are accustomed to the clutch on your car, the driving experience quickly becomes seamless and second-nature.

For winter shooting, a thin pair of polypropylene gloves is indispensable. These gloves offer protection from direct contact with a tripod’s frigid metal surfaces, while preserving the tactile sensitivity necessary to operate most cameras’ less than robust controls.

While a low-cost friction-type head may seem like a good option, the well-designed fluid head is the professional cameraman's best choice. Its low weight and robust construction are critical for it to withstand the rigors of real-life conditions. The action should be glitch-free, impervious to the elements and with no perceivable backlash — that is, the tendency of some heads to bounce back slightly when handle pressure is relieved. Pan-and-tilt locks should be the lever-type with large surfaces to facilitate single-handed operation, even in winter with thick gloves.

Low-wattage 150W/300W fresnels are highly controllable with four-way barn doors that can often obviate the need for a multitude of flags, cutters and cumbersome grip gear.

Throughout your career as a shooter, you will likely only need one fluid head if you make the right investment. In my 25 years as a National Geographic cameraman, I've owned only two. The first, a Sachtler 3+3 Panorama model, was lost at Mount Saint Helens in 1980 — a victim of volcanic ash and pulverized granite that penetrated the drag dials and destroyed the fine German action. The second, a replacement 7+7 model, I still use regularly to this day. That's well more than two decades of the most grueling punishment imaginable from tropical rain forests to Arctic tundra and everything in between. Not bad for (what seemed at the time) a ludicrously expensive $1900 investment. Of course, it was worth that sum many times over. I built my career literally on that one fluid head.

Key tripod features include (a) secure leg locks, (b) incremental leg markings to facilitate level setup, (c) a raised spider that stays clean and can serve as a monitor platform, and (d) a center column that permits easy raising of the camera in tight spaces.

You should learn to love your legs. They support everything you do.

Here are a few features to consider when shopping for tripod legs: They should be lightweight yet able to stand up to substantial abuse from facing down storm troopers in Eastern Europe to a panicked rhino in Zimbabwe. The leg locks should be simple in design to facilitate setup with minimal fuss. Leveling should be accomplished via a ball-mount and large knob that can be grabbed easily, even in winter with heavy mittens. I recommend leg adjusters with inscribed height increments, a useful feature when leveling the camera by eye or with the help of an overtaxed assistant.

Though lacking in control and subtlety, this on-board tungsten-based unit has been a popular choice for years.

With the advent of extreme low-light sensitive cameras, the Big Bang approach to lighting is no longer the only or preferred way to go. Shooters with the latest digital tools have a new credo: Less is more. Using less light means fewer and smaller instruments on location with less tweaking and futzing. It means fewer cutters, C-stands and gobo arms to control spill, which, in turn, saves money on crew and setup time.

In my own work, I usually prefer small focusable fresnels to less expensive open-face instruments that produce lots of light with far less control. I recall one History Channel documentary that I shot a few years back with a single four-head 150W fresnel kit. It looked great! You don't need much to capture compelling images.

Pretty legs

The savvy shooter recognizes the substantial craft required to apply appropriate fill light to a scene. Too little fill produces dark shadows and the potential increase in noise. Too much fill can wash out a scene and impart a lifeless artificial look.

LEDs provide a smooth daylight source that is frugal on power yet packs a surprising punch. The Israeli Arm’s single knob permits easy positioning of the light to eliminate eyeglass reflections or the shadow from a matte box.

The fill requirement for today's digital camcorders is something of an Achilles Heel as some frontal fill is almost always desirable when shooting close-ups or interviews. A passive fill from a bounce card may be all you need to return a portion of the key light to the shadows. A low-contrast/diffusion filter can also help by transferring surplus values from the highlights into the underlit areas, thus helping to preserve critical detail at both ends of the characteristic curve.

An active fill is often more practical and easily controlled, and for this a small fresnel through diffusion or a traveling China Ball on the end of a fishpole can work fine. An on-camera solution may be preferable for ENG folks, and there are several options ranging from the traditional tungsten-balanced sungun to a potent daylight-balanced LED or miniature 10W HMI. A fluorescent ring light affixed to the camera lens can be an effective low-power solution, though the necessary support may be a bit too involved for some users. Whatever solution you choose, you'll want a camera fill that packs enough punch to produce a natural wash even through a layer or two of diffusion. Depending on the ambient light, a 25W tungsten unit might work okay. Most shooters will want considerably more power and versatility than that — and with daylight balance.

Lighting: Less is more

Professional lighting and support gear may cost more than the flimsy consumer stuff, but the dividends such equipment pays in performance and piece of mind is worth it many times over. Lasting for many decades, topflight gear is a lifetime investment that will be with you long after your various cameras du jour are relegated to doorstops. Given the obstacles that professional shooters face every day, from climatic conditions and rough handling to ornery producers who push beyond any rhyme or reason, high-quality, well-designed lighting and support gear is one of the best investments you can make.

Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer with more than 20 years experience in feature films, documentaries and music videos. He is currently serving as a digital media expert and consultant to major studios. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” will be available in December from CMP Books

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