Before image stabilizers, the signature of a great operator was how steady he could hold a camera in his bare hands. Now, thanks to stabilization gear, any camera operator can do smooth, shake-free tracking shots — even with the tiniest action cameras.
It began with Garrett Brown’s invention of the Steadicam, which was patented in 1977. The early Steadicam models were big, bulky and expensive. When supporting large film cameras, their weight was almost backbreaking.
Brown’s invention allowed camera operators to shoot film while walking without the normal wobbling and jostling associated with a handheld camera. It was a technological breakthrough that won Brown an Academy Award in 1978.
Today, handheld stabilizers, at costs beginning as low as $100, allow fluid shots by even untrained amateur camera operators. Stabilizers are made for every type of camera, from digital cinema models to iPhones and GoPros.
The term image stabilization actually applies to a family of techniques with the general objective of reducing motion blur during a camera’s exposure. Known as simply “IS,” it compensates for jerkiness in the pan and tilt of the camera.
Some types of image stabilization are optical or digital and built into the camera body or lens. Other kinds are outboard gimbal devices designed to steady the camera’s shake. In video, this jerky movement can cause visible frame-to-frame jitter.
In this article, we’ll look at outboard stabilization devices designed to stabilize video cameras, rather than in-camera techniques used in many camcorders and mirrorless cameras.
Outboard image stabilizers typically operate using a gyroscope or stabilized remote camera head. The camera and lens are mounted on any device that moves — such as the human shoulder, rail systems, drones, cables, moving automobiles or helicopters.
There are two types of outboard stabilizer now used in video production: single and two-handed models. The obvious difference is whether the operator holds the device in one or two hands. The type of stabilizer used is generally determined by the size and weight of the camera.
Single-handed stabilizers are typically used for smaller cameras weighing under three pounds. These can be squeezed into tight spaces, such as small rooms or hallways. Single-handed devices can be inexpensive, depending on the features, and can be used by untrained operators.
For example, the popular single-handed DJI OM 5 for the iPhone is priced at $169. More complex professional models can cost in the thousands of dollars.
The design of single-handed stabilizers allows the user to easily balance the camera. Most have a quick release camera plate that enables the rapid swap of cameras for battery or lens changes. Some higher-end models need less time in re-balancing the camera after these changes.
Some models feature a joystick control on a pistol grip to operate the stabilizer and change its modes. This joystick allows users to control the camera’s positions with one finger
A gimbal is a pivoted support that permits rotation of an object about an axis. Devices can operate on one to four axis stabilization. The term axis refers to the line on which a body or object rotates. Gimbals that are three-axis rotate along three lines — an X, Y and Z axis.
The way stabilizers incorporate this is by allowing the camera to be fixed on the center of these axis. The gimbal’s handles rotate around it on the three different axis while the camera stays still. Motorized gimbals use electronic motors to control the gimbal at the same speed as the movement of the handles. This keeps the camera stable.x`
There are two versions of camera stabilization systems: mechanical and motorized. Mechanical gimbals have a sled, which includes the top stage where the camera is attached and a post which can be extended with the monitor and batteries at the bottom to counterbalance the camera’s weight.
This is how the Steadicam stays upright, by making the bottom slightly heavier than the top — pivoting at the gimbal. Control of the whole system is accomplished with the lightest touch on the gimbal.
Motorized gimbals have the ability to keep the camera level on all axes as the camera operator moves the camera. An inertial measurement unit responds to movement and uses the device’s three separate motors to stabilize the camera.
With the guidance of algorithms, the stabilizer is able to notice the difference between deliberate movement such as pans and tracking shots from unwanted shake.
Two-handed stabilizers are designed for heavier cameras, such as digital cinema cameras used in feature films or high-end television production. They work essentially the same way.
A leading brand of professional two-handed stabilizers is Freefly Systems, who makes devices that can support cameras weighing up to 15 pounds. Freefly’s rugged stabilizers can be used with a suite of camera accessories including microphones, lights and monitors.
These stabilizers work with ease on windy days and from bumpy moving vehicles. They are priced at about $8,000 with minimum accessories and have easy-to-use balancing systems that allow for using the camera in any position.
DJI also makes a line of Ronin stabilizers, with the Ronin 4D-6K costing $6,799. It has four-axis stabilization, LIDAR focusing, wireless transmission, and can even record Apple’s ProRes formats onboard.
In essence, handheld stabilizers allow operators to move the camera almost any way desired while keeping the shot stable. Stabilizers are available at every price point.
The choice of which model to buy centers on the weight and type of camera being used; the features needed; and the budget. Stabilizers have become essential gear for all types of video production, from low budget videos to high-end productions.