The NertCam Steadicam

So this is a bit of a breakdown of the toy I’ve been playing with the last few weeks. Inspired by cosplay fanvideos around the world I noted the video mode on my Canon 550d and set about doing some research on whether I could do anything similar!

Usual disclaimer, this is all my understanding of things and how they work, I could well be wrong or misguided, feel free to throw in comments if you know better! However for now this is kind of a layman’s view on things, I got a LOT of enquiries about the steadicam while running around with it at KitaCon and I promised I’d do a detailed writeup of how I abused the poor thing.

There’ll be a later post on actually using the thing and considerations for the filming itself, but for now this is the techy side of fixing up a cheapo steadicam.

This rig, of course, is all I used for the first Cosplay Cascade video, so the results are already out there!

Nert in Action - By Bento Dan

[Action shot of me with steadicam by Bento Dan]

Staring at these videos for some time isn’t the worst way to spend an evening or two but there’s much to be learnt – I’m certainly one for leaping in headfirst and figuring it out as I go along but I’ve technically already tried that. I know full well what my old camcorder footage looked like and magical and smooth it is not! So a steadicam of some description is clearly in order.

First of all I tried the weight-on-a-stick method, essentially the cheapest and easiest method. As acquaintances of mine have put it, a wellycam. Take a cheap monopod, extend and stick it in a wellington boot, then fill with cement. Maybe get some plumbing parts or something to make a horizontal handle a ways down if you feel fancy. Done! The added weight and low centre of mass helps reduce shake at the lens end of the camera where it matters, but as you can imagine it’s heavy, bulky, and clearly not the solution with the most finesse!

Second up is the Fig Rig, or steering-wheel cam as it’s fondly known. Many have seen this put to good use on freddiew‘s channel in behind the scenes shots, and the design is simple, a large wheel with the camera mounted somewhere in the middle. You can buy them or mock one up quite easily using plumbing parts and there are several tutorials online on how to do so – I did myself and it’s kinda fun to make. The idea is that rather than one hand held at an awkward angle (for most dslrs especially) you’re using both hands, spread widely apart, increasing stability. Also the ring allows you to grab from many angles to get high or low shots. Again it’s not perfect, hand shake is still present even if reduced, and you still don’t get that magical gliding camera feel unless you’re damned good.

Thirdly you have mounted shoulder-cam type things, they look like medical braces gone wrong and practically bolt the camera in front of your face and attaches itself to your spine. At least that’s how I like to imagine them. These are mostly for tracking shots, it helps stability and you move it with your whole body instead of just hands, but it’s not what we’re after here.
Fourthly is where I’m at. The Merlin-style steadicam, so called because of the brand-name variant. These consist of mounting your camera on top of a gimbal or ball-and-socket joint with a handle, and having counterweights hang below to keep it upright. While this seems convoluted, what the result is – when properly balanced – is the camera gains its own inertia. adding a force to it moves it but it will still travel once the force is stopped, until gravity/air resistance/friction stops it, rather than mounting it rigid, this lets it roam free, but still takes some hints and advice from your movements. Whether it listens is up to it!This removes much of the shaking from the hands and similar, the energy from mere shaking isn’t enough to shift the camera from its rest or motion, this is what gives it its steadiness, while giving the camera its own inertia is what results in that magical gliding feel we see in the videos. Downside is the camera gets a mind of its own in terms of where it points at what time, but that’s where the practice comes in.

I did quite a bit of research before putting money down – there are many guides and how-tos on YouTube to build your own with variations on exactly how but largely they all involve owning your own workshop and having access to particular parts for RC cars and skateboards.. Once the cost of ordering those particular parts factored in I might as well just buy one. So I did! I opted for the cheapest option of them all, the Opteka SteadyVid EX. Even the reviews warn it takes some tweaking but I’m fine with that for a fraction of the price of the others. It promises a Super Smooth Gimbal! While the next few up are all clearly ball and socket joints.

So here’s the product image vs how it looks now!
Not so different at first glance, beyond the rebranding!  and it’s not like I took a blowtorch to it, but it’s certainly had a lot of tweaks required before I got good results out of it!

First of all, STICKERS EVERYWHERE, ahem. Yeah, ignore those. I got a zillion One Piece themed durable name stickers as a birthday present from my sister a while back, pretty handy things.

Second of all, note the camera is level, note the FREAKING SPIRIT LEVEL IS NOT -_-  So yeah, unless I was just unlucky, you’ll quickly learn to ignore it. (The same applied before the odd tripod plate thing was added, since I know it looks like that isn’t helping matters)

So let’s take a look HANG ON, THIS IS A BALL AND SOCKET JOINT -_-  So much for the gimbal.. Not that I really expected it for the price but grr.

I’m pretty sure we all know what a ball and socket joint is, but gimbal’s probably a new one to many, it’s also known as a universal joint, sometimes just U-joint, wikipedia gives this colourful example of one:

That’s the basic gist of one, clicky and it might even be animated XD   It’s typically used to transmit rotation through angles – even though they’re at an angle here, turning one end turns the other, magic!   For this use though a camera stabilizer takes advantage of the freedom of movement in all directions – with a ball-bearing ring around one end to allow free rotation as well.  Long story short – and if you look at most of the YouTube DIY versions you’ll see this – it’s a metal and more condensed as well as rounded version  of the above, with a skateboard bearing stuck on the camera end, so that rotation specifically does NOT transmit!

Compare the points of contact on the joint there to the surface area of the ball and socket and it’s easy to imagine you get way less friction with this method, and more importantly the socket for the ball has to cover over half of the ball, or else it would fall out!  So you get about 30 degrees of freedom from the centre.  With the gimbal, you could potentially get something crazy like 120 degrees, far more freedom. This is important!

This is as far out as the handle will go with the ball and socket, why’s that bad?  Well, basically when moving your steadicam, everything apart from the handle needs to be free from contact with anything else, if you move too far and your handle touches the edge here, it’ll bounce the whole rig around.  You go from a smooth movement to a sudden jolt and the camera will fly off in the other direction!   Going for low angles is far more difficult as you still have to hold the handle upright, so you have to get your elbow lower than the camera itself!   With a more able joint, you could hold it more comfortably and from a higher vantage point.

Back to friction, straight out of the box, if you hold it and tap it from the side it’ll only travel about 10-15 degrees before coming to a stop. That’s not too great.  You’ll want to take it apart (requires a right-angle screwdriver or a bit of creativity to get at it), clean out the grease they’ve used and spray some high grade lubricant in there.  After that – and the occasional spray before use – a tap will sent the steadicam swinging all the way around, hurrah!  It’s not perfect and does need those occasional sprays but still a vast improvement.

So yes, it lacks a true gimbal/universal joint, and those are the reasons why that’s a shame and why one would be preferable if you get the option, but we have to make do, so let’s do that!

So here’s where the most obvious differences are from after modding, the adjustment screws. Next picture is the type it comes with.

Check out that surface!  Usually the point of adjustment screws are that you do them up and they stop things from moving. NOT THESE!  they’re smoother than the balljoint was.. Didn’t fancy putting it back the way it started but when you balance a camera like mine, unsymmetrical, you end up with the counterweight at an angle to keep the balance straight, tighten the top screw up so it stays there.. aaaand the weight would just sink down until it was straight >:|   Smooth. Literally!  So that got replaced with a 1/4″ bolt and a wingnut – the threads were a different size so this could look neater if you pick the right threading, without it just jams in and the wingnut tightens the rest of the way.

The other problem with them is this one, originally it just comes with the single big counterweight, so I’ve held it up to show where the weight would normally sit.

A quick bit of theory on how this model works: the pivot is just that, it relies on being balanced as best you can, everything in front of the pivot needs to balance everything behind it, everything left balanced with right, top with bottom.  You can have a bit of extra weight on the bottom so it rights itself quicker but otherwise keep it all even, that way the camera ends up level.   So let’s just consider that a second, everything in front of the handle has to be counterweighted by what’s behind.  The camera sits on top, most of the weight is on top of the handle but the lens will shift quite a bit of it forward, the counterweight is slung underneath so needs to be able to go behind the handle surely? Now imagine where the weight sat originally.. Uh.. it’s kind of directly underneath the handle, not behind it!

Secondarily, the balance is supposed to be even, but not all cameras are identical so only giving one single large weight is kind of odd, there’s no room for adjustment. They seem to have gone for the idea that no one will be moving with these cameras, so just weight the bottom as much as possible and the rig will be level! However if you move the heavier mass will drag behind and you’ll tilt for sure, and then the swinging begins!

I quickfixed this with the above massive-ass 1/4″ bolt I found lying around, the loop at the front actually helps tighten it as a bonus, a couple of washers to keep it from slipping through, a nut and another wingnut at the other end before large washers and the original counterweight made up the balance.  Originally I used the kit lens (Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS) and the original counterweight was too heavy, 15 washers did the trick instead, now I’m using the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 XR LD IF which is heavier so the original weight and 2-4 washers seemed to do the trick!   The long bolt meant I could place the weight behind the handle, and get the whole thing balanced finally!

Now I’m looking at this solution again I’m wondering if having the weight raised like that is hindering as much as it’s helping so I may try to get something to extend the lower arm down instead of this raised weight I’ve got now.  There’s also potential for better stability in making the weight a crossbeam and putting half the weight either side rather than all in one place like this is.

It takes a bit of practice to get the art of balancing it right, I’ve decided balancing front to back first then left to right seems the easiest but there’ll be a bit of back and forthing.  Shake the handle as you test your balance as friction still plays quite a part, and the vibration will help the weights find their natural rest.

More screws!  This time the tripod screw that holds your camera to the steadicam.. Once more the friction here is far less than the ball joint!  Here you can see what it looks like now but originally the screw was hollow, just the ring around the outside, saves on plastic.  Also means there’s crap all surface area to hold anything – the bottom surface it’s screwed to is smooth metal, and the rubber mat on top doesn’t hold much grip.  Long story short, bolt the camera on as tight as you can, it can still effortlessly swivel side to side, a bit of a disaster for balancing!

So here I’ve filled the screw in with hotglue, used a toothpick to smooth off the top as it cooled, and scratched it up a bit with a knife or scalpel to give it some extra friction, this helped considerably!

I ended up doing the same with the hollowed tripod screws on the plates I’m now using but I’ll get to those in a bit.

This I only needed after switching to the heavier Tamron lens, but with the extra weight the tripod screw alone wasn’t enough to hold it steady and it actually bounced with every movement!  So this is literally a piece of thickish cardboard tube cut, squished, and hotglued into place as a rest, and painted to look less hideously cardboardish!

Now the tripod plates, or at least that’s what I’m calling them.  Cameras like these are expensive and I generally freak out if mine isn’t physically strapped to me!  But there’s an issue with that, if it’s attached to you, it can’t be free and on it’s own inertia!  Neck straps are right out, as they’d dangle down and upset the balance as well as catch on things.. So my solution was to go with this style of quickstrap, or rapidstrap – available cheaply on ebay and I highly recommend them for comfort over a neckstrap as well as for these reasons.  This kind has swivelling screw-lock carabiners which clip onto the eyelets of the plates, and the plates can screw securely into the tripod sockets in any camera (I did end up adding a bit of hotglue to the surface of these plates for extra friction) and they have screwholes in the bottom so they can still be used on tripods or indeed steadicams!  As a bonus it means you can clip the camera onto yourself even with steadicam attached for security when not in use, it’s bulky and awkward but it saves never being able to put the thing down!

A quick note, the eyelet is bent out at an angle here because normally it’s pointed straight down, flush with the edge of the camera, but this gets in the way when used on my tripod in portrait mode, so I bent it out to let it fit!


So really those are the all the adjustments I made to the stock steadicam, replaced or filled all the screws, added washers and a great big bolt, and glued some cardboard to it. and painted my name on it, which I’m sure helps somehow.

The steps beyond this stage are – again possibly adding horizontal weights for better balance, moving to the glidecam style of stabilizer – which look like metal bird tables with a handle partway down them, much heavier but that in itself reduces shake – and it means you can mount lights and stuff which this style really can’t handle. Finally you can all the way up to the full-on vest-mounted crazy suspension-arm style of steadicam which cost more than A HUMAN SOUL, but oh god they are made of magic. Even if you need to go on a course just to figure out how to even wear it.

So that’s it for how the thing is constructed, again there are plenty of YouTube tutorials out there for building your own if you have the ability, but I hope this helps people get a grasp on how these things work, and indeed get a customised working version using only an off the shelf one, plus some nuts and bolts, cardboard and hotglue.

UPDATE! 01/05/12 What sorcery is this?

Yet to go through its paces proper but I’ve taken my own ponderings into action and bolted together a v2 of my steadicam:

The original adjustment arm is now a horizontal piece with two sets of washers on bolts+nuts+wingnuts and is dangled behind the handle by two flash-bracket things scavenged from my box’o’parts – because I don’t have the tools to make a decent replacement myself XD It already feels more stable despite not looking it, and the twin sets of weights means I can just load one more than the other to balance out my unsymmetrical camera rather than stick it at a jaunty angle. Hopes are high but I’m keeping everything from the old balance in a bag in case of sudden THIS SUCKSness.

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