Camera Stabilizers: The Basics And A Little Bit More

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As social media remains a constant societal presence, along with the desire to show off oneself & one’s surroundings, photography has become a regular medium for many.

Cameras are standard in many devices, and the technology’s always developing to offer us pristine, blur-free images.

To give an idea of how many take advantage of this, Business Insider reported in 2017 that people took around 1.2 trillion photos. This past year, over 95 million of those were uploaded to Instagram every day.

Posting Photo On Instagram

Of course, given the proliferation of smartphones, not all of these are taken on digital cameras. In fact, about 85% of the photos from 2017 were taken on the former, while only 10.3% were from users of the latter.

10.3% of 1.2 trillion photos is still around 123.6 billion. Standing out amongst that crowd is a challenge that can only be combated by talent & the proper technology. While we can only do so much to help with talent, we have some advice for tech.

If you’re an aspiring professional & don’t have one already, a stabilizer can be a lifesaver. If you do have one, it always helps to get more familiar with it. That same idea goes for your camera in general.

That’s why we’re here. Break out your notepad (or just bookmark this article for future reference), we’re going back to the basics and adding a little bit on top.

Cameras: The Foundations

DSLR Camera On Stump

Given that everyone reading this probably has access to a camera of some sort, how many of you can honestly say you know how they work? We’ve been taught more times than we can count, and even we’ll forget some things now and then.

For your sake and ours, we figured it would make sense to revisit the essential aspects of cameras and their functionality.

The basis of modern cameras is, of course, the film camera. If you’re using one, you first have to load in a spool of film that’s wrapped in a light-resistant cylinder made of plastic.

Once you’re loaded up, you press a button that opens the shutter, a mechanism that makes an opening, or aperture, for light to enter through. This hits the lens, a piece of plastic or glass hidden behind said shutter.

As the light hits a strip of the film, it reacts with the chemical coating on the surface of it, thus saving the picture.

After that, you’d go to a drugstore to have it developed. In there, an automated developing machine utilizes more chemicals to make the photos appear. Negatives remain on the film itself, and the machine uses them for the creation of prints.

Those with access to a properly equipped darkroom & the right training, of course, don’t need to bother with the drugstore.

That process, while dear to some, has been increasingly switched out for the conveniences of digital cameras. As far as those go, quite a few factors play into the function, but we’ll try to keep it brief.

As with the film cameras, pressing the button makes the shutter in front of the lens snap open to let light in. From there, the process begins to diverge.

Instead of the film catching rays, either a charge-coupled device (CCD) or CMOS image sensor catches them & breaks them up into a vast amount of tiny pixels.

These sensors categorize the brightness & colors of the pixels by number. This massive string of numbers is what we perceive as a photograph.

Smart Phones Vs. Digital Cameras: The Battle Of The Sensor

Smartphone And DSLR Camera

As we mentioned before, 85% of photos taken in 2017 were from smartphones. They’ve been present on our mobile devices for years, and companies try to outdo themselves & each other every year.

Given all that, many are led to ask whether smartphones are sufficient enough to replace standalone cameras entirely.

One of the main factors being considered in this battle is the sensor, an essential part of a camera that makes or breaks image quality.

As much as the quality of smartphone cameras has ascended in recent times, the sensor you’ll find on a Galaxy S9, for example, isn’t going to do you as much justice as an actual camera with space for a larger one.

If you’re just trying to present visual information, the sensor size isn’t an awful issue, but for those who are focused on quality, it’s one of the main things hurting the legitimacy of smartphone photography in professional circles.

These physical limitations prevent even the best of smartphones from competing with actual cameras. This clear challenge has led some to suggest that camera companies create devices with the capabilities of standard mobile phones.

Some are already stepping in this direction; several cameras that run Android have come onto the market recently.

The Shutter

DSLR Camera Mirror Box

You probably knew the sound it makes before you knew the name, and it’s one of the main reasons we’re able to have photographs in the first place. There are a lot of different types, but there are certain functions that apply to each general category.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, for instance, have three primary aspects to their mechanics; these are the mirror box and bottom & top door.

The mirror box is the first thing you see when you look through your camera’s viewfinder. In that instance, you’re looking through a bunch of mirrors that obtain their light from the lens.

Upon you pressing the shutter button, you flip these mirrors up to let light pass and go to the sensor. This would be why the view goes black at that moment.

When the mirror goes up, the bottom door collapses into its base and uncovers the sensor underneath. That’s followed by another door coming in from the top and covering it all up. After that, the mirror comes back into place.

The time interval in which those door movements happen is known as the shutter speed. That whole process is called an actuation, and average DSLR devices can do 100,000 before checking out.

As suggested by their name, mirrorless cameras are distinguished from DSLRs in a specific way. Lacking a mirror box (or pentaprism), the sensors of these cameras are constantly exposed, leaving monitoring up to LCD screens or electronic viewfinders.

Like their mirrored counterparts, top & bottom doors come into play in exposing & covering the sensor.

These doors play a key role in the brightness and quality of your image. A longer shutter speed, for instance, means more light comes into play when the image is being processed. The first sign of this is the blurring of motion.

The second effect is the brightness of the image. If you’re photographic a barely-lit environment, like the outdoors at night, a longer shutter speed can serve you well in capturing the full picture of what’s happening in front of you.

Quicker shutter speeds, inversely, give your images the impression of being frozen in time. These can get down to hundredths & thousandths of a second.

DSLR Vs. SLR

DSLR Camera And SLR Camera

When focusing on cameras that utilize mirrors in their mechanics, the choice between a DSLR and SLR is dependent on what you’ll be doing & how you’ll be doing it. The digital age has brought advantages, of course, but SLRs have fans for a reason.

Materials

For those keeping it old school, as we discussed before, film is your best (and most important) friend. Specifically, you’ll be going with the 35-mm rolls, which can go for around $10 per pack of three.

Are you feeling modern? Meet the memory card. Despite being notably smaller than a roll of film, they can go for up to hundreds of dollars in certain cases, although that’s not without reason.

Storage Space

That reason, as you might suspect, is storage space. The standard roll will keep you covered for 36 photos, while our miniature memory card can range from anywhere between 16 and 512 GBs of space, which can definitely store more than 36 shots.

Shutter Speed

As tech develops, things are bound to get faster, and shutter speed is no exception. An SLR can get pretty quick, getting down to a thousandth of a second at the entry level. Despite that, DSLRs have the edge, with some getting down to an 8000th.

Functionality

Along with speed, we’ve seen the functions of our cameras developed with time as well. SLRs don’t allow for many things that we take for granted with our smartphones and digital cameras today.

For instance, you can’t preview or edit a photo on an SLR, and you can’t delete it either. You just have to develop everything and hope for the best.

Meanwhile, the adjustments you can make on their recent digital counterparts can have you nearly ready for posting or publication.

Cost Of Entry

Holding Money

The memory cards aren’t the only expensive aspect of DSLRs. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a decent one below a few hundred dollars (some end up in the thousands), and editing software doesn’t help with the final price tag, either.

SLRs, however, are a tad more forgiving. You can likely find a used entry-level one for a hundred dollars, and you can easily keep the cost under $1000.

That doesn’t account for the cost of film, though, along with either darkroom equipment/access or drugstore development fees.

Complexities

The analog way is merciful to the wallet, but not as much so to the beginner. Since film can’t be reused & photos stay on the roll, SLR cameras are more often the territory of experienced & competent users.

If you need to develop your photos yourself, darkroom processes require some extensive training & time commitments. The digital alternative is, outside of some editing, ready to go.

While neither is necessarily the easiest to pick up at the start and maintenance is required for both, the digital option also comes with automation in certain facets, along with presets and an LCD viewfinder in many cases.

Control

Film advocates, no matter how functional & effective DSLRs become, hold that control over the development of a photograph is worth any difficulty that comes along with it.

In a BBC article, a man by the name of Stephen Dowling noted that film allows for one to work in large formats that would run a much greater cost digitally.

Aesthetics play a factor as well, with many enjoying the options for mellower saturation & the grain of the film.

Others, lastly, find joy in the process of watching prints come to life in the darkroom.

The Shaky Sensation​​​​

Soft Effect Of Camera Shake

While the debate between DSLRs and SLRs is as old as the first digital cameras, it’s time to focus on a new debate. This one centers around a controversial cinematic trick known as the “shake effect”.

Like any effect, it can be positive in moderation. When applied in the right situations, it can make shots feel immediate & intimate, as though you’re living what’s happening. With all that being said, there is a limit.

When things get overdone, people can get figuratively & literally sick (there’s a reason its nickname is “queasy cam.”

If you were to say this to certain action movie directors, however, you’d find them suddenly going deaf. “Cloverfield” is perhaps one of the most well-known examples.

While some do this on purpose, a fair amount of others don’t necessarily mean it. Our limbs are great, but they can get shaky every now and then, thus leading to trembling footage.

If you’re tired of the video jitters & are looking to achieve stillness, the solution is out there, and you’ve even got a few options.

Camera Stabilizers

If you’ve worked on a professional video set or even one with a semi-decent budget, you’re probably familiar with these devices already.

In the various shapes and sizes that they come in, camera stabilizers are rigs or devices you attach your camera to in order to keep everything nice & steady.

Speaking of steady, the pursuit of mobile stabilization began in earnest with the debut of Garret Brown’s Steadicam in 1974. As seen in the cinematic output of that time, including “Rocky,” Brown’s invention changed the playing field.

As important as it was, this wouldn’t be the last innovation in this realm by a long shot. Coming on the scene in 1991, Martin Stevens of England brought about an even more mobile option with the Glidecam.

Today, the latest craze in stabilization is the gimbal, which involves a network of sensors and motors that do the job. They’re far more compact than Steadicams, and they’re a smooth & handheld solution if you know how to operate and set them up.

For those on the fence, there are a few reasons to glide along or take it steady.

Obviously, the main advantage is stillness. Movement is nice in moderation, and can sometimes have a major positive impact on the shot. But for those shots where you really want your audience to focus, you’ll need a stabilizer.

If your standards for your footage are higher than most, they can serve purposes outside of the main function. The mechanics usually allow for mounting plates where you can add microphones and lights, along with other accessories.

Lastly, bringing in a stabilizer can break open your boundaries as far a camera positioning. No matter what odd angle you want to capture, a functional rig will help you keep it smooth.

Mechanical Vs. Electrical Stabilizers

Couple Holding Digital Stabilizers

As with cameras, so it goes with camera stabilizers. Mechanical & electric systems have different capabilities, and it’s crucial you know the difference before you think about whether you need one & which you’ll want to go for.

Ed Gregory, a veteran photographer, was intrigued by these differences and set out to do a comparison. For his video on the topic, he did a control test with the built-in stabilization of a Canon PowerShot G7 X.

From there, he pits the two devices against each other the mechanical Glidecam HD 2000 against the DJI Ronin M, a 3-axis gimbal outfitted with motors fueled by battery power.

He goes on to compare shots of him running through a desert, going up a mountain, and going in circles around a subject. During his run test, he found the wind gave him issues with the mechanical option, although he was satisfied otherwise.

The gimbal-assisted Ronin faced no such issues, and achieved a near-perfect shot. He was also able to operate it with just one hand if he wanted, which he said was not as much of an option with the Glidecam.

As he flipped both devices upside down to test the vertical axis, he found worse shaking with the Glidecam, but more impressive results for the Ronin.

Going up the hill, he was happy with the Glidecam, although he mentioned there’s a learning curve that comes with it. As far as the Ronin, he got a clearer shot from the start, but the physical effort required for it was a drawback.

The more modern option will get you the better results, sure, but whether these are worth the price is up to what you’re trying to do.

If you just want to do some standard videography with no intense movements, you’ll be plenty happy going analog. If a single shake can cost you a hefty video contract, the electrical stabilizer will likely pay for itself.

Even then, there are those out there standing by the semi-recent old-fashioned way.

Going through different scenarios, various videographers & industry experts who sat down for Cinema 5D’s ON THE COUCH podcast maintain the belief that a mechanical stabilizer should still be preferred in many cases.

They state that the prices, which have even been dropped recently, might not always be worth it when it’s an issue of $15,000 versus $8,000.

Due to the costs of research and development & the software, they say that the prices for the most reputable gimbals are justified. Whether you need it at all is the issue here, and that depends on your implementation.

Stabilizer Maintenance

Cleaning Camera Stabilizer

No matter what option you go for, though, you’ll be putting down a significant amount of money, and you’ll want to ensure the lasting power of your investment. That means maintenance & proper storage are a priority above anything else.

With a mechanical stabilizer, one of the main things you’ll need to keep track of is the condition of the bearing. In the manual for the Glidecam HD-2000, the manufacturers recommend a light application of light lubricating oil.

Very little is needed for the process, as the excess will end up emerging from the bearing and greasing up your device.

When you feel like it’s time to give it back it’s original shine, be sure to stay away from any sort of harsh cleaners, solvents, or anything like that. Instead, for the Glidecam at least, it’s recommended to just stick with a sponge or cloth & water.

If you have the option to get a case with your stabilizer, we hope you don’t need to be told to keep it in there when you’re moving it around. These devices can be durable to an extent, but even the toughest can only take so many falls.

When you’re putting it away for the long term, there are a couple of constants, namely position & conditions, you’ll need to maintain.

The Glidecam manual advises owners to “…store the unit upright in a dry or low to normal humidity area whenever possible. If you’re unable to find an environment like this…store [it] in an airtight plastic container or bag.”

Concerning the positioning, they explain that keeping it upright prevents the system from undergoing any chronic stress.

While these instructions will apply for most mechanical stabilizer owners, we still strongly suggest you check the manual of a product you have in mind for specific advice & procedures.

Conclusion

The options are plenty, and the factors you need to consider come in even greater numbers. Unless you depart dramatically from your budget or go too far down the discount route, you’ll probably be okay with many of the choices out today.

That doesn’t mean you should just pick anything, though. To help you out with your choice, check out our buying guide that details some of the best stabilizers available.

Resources:

Wikipedia
HowStuffWorks
Diffen
Instructables

John Lochert

What started out as a desire to find a way to create "jitter-free" photographs and videos has turned into a mission to share my research and experiences with as many people as possible. Despite the ever-increasing varieties of gimbals and camera stabilizers on the market, more knowledge can help match the best solutions available with your needs and budget.