Do I need a DSLR rig?

The essential DSLR kit is, in most ways, very similar to the essential camcorder kit. As well as the camera (and a standard zoom lens for a DSLR, or perhaps a couple of primes), the self-shooter or full-time video journalist needs a tripod (as sturdy as possible), microphones, memory cards, and possibly an external audio recorder and external LCD monitor. Oh, and a good bag.

But the one extra piece of kit many DSLR shooters use, but seemingly fewer pro camcorder users bother with, is a “rig”.

Considered an essential for high-end broadcast and especially cinema and advertising shooting, a rig brings together a matte box, rails, a follow focus unit for precise, manual focus control, and a handle or cage. The rig might have a shoulder mount and counterweight, and additional arms and brackets for outboard audio recorders, mics, monitors and video recorders. There are some fun examples of “frankenrigs” on the various pro video sites, often containing quite small DSLRs.

A DSLR rig ready for action

The cheapest rigs start at about £200 or so and range up to £2000 or more, for a Zacuto (considered by many to be the Rolls Royce of follow focus and camera support systems). Other makes are certainly at least in the Mercedes or BMW price range.

Rigs set out to overcome some of the more painful ergonomic compromises of the DSLR, as well as the lack of space on a small camera for all the stuff video makers tend to acquire. The large bodies of a Sony PMW-350 or even EX3 come equipped with places to attach radio mic receivers, outboard recorders and the like, and with more functions built in, they tend to need fewer bits than DSLRs too.

Adding a rig adds more cost, and more weight (significantly more weight often, although more expensive rigs tend to be lighter). So what does the rig actually do?

– The matte box
The matte box, and associated “French Flag” keeps excess sunlight out of the lens. Less an issue in Northern Europe than in California perhaps, but the matte box can also be useful to stop stray light from portable lighting catching the lens in the wrong way.

And it does make the camera look very “pro”. A matte box is also a very useful way to add filters. Nneutral density filters, built in to broadcast camcorders, are absent from DSLRs but are essential if you want to control lighting, in order to control depth of field.

But if you just want a matte box, there are quite a few on-lens options, including the cost-effective Formatt or even – at a push – the Cokin filter holders designed for stills photos.

– The follow focus
The jury is really out on this one. A follow focus is a large, geared wheel that attaches to a cog, fitted to the camera lens (pro cine cameras have lenses ready geared). It allows very precise (manual) focusing, and allows repeatable focus “pulls” – following a moving subject to keep it in focus, or moving in and out of focus for effect.

The follow focus makes this more ergonomically convenient, and also reduces, although does not eliminate, the chance of camera vibration during a focus change. (That takes practice even with a follow focus, and it can be done, albeit with care, with a camera on a decent tripod). It is no use at all, though, for auto focus and of little use for setups where the journalist-camera operator is in shot.

– The rails
If you have a follow focus, you need rails to fit it to. And it’s useful to add other accessories on to, although budget for additional accessory arms for that too.

– The shoulder mount
This is really for “run and gun” shooting. Some film makers love shoulder-mounted DSLR rigs; others never use them. For journalism purposes, if you do a lot of hand-held or tripod-less shots then it might make sense. But using a camera on the shoulder needs practice, and if that is the shot the story needs, then it may make more sense to hire a camera operator for the day. After all, no-one can film themselves in shot without a tripod. There are other ways to do handheld shots with a DSLR, including using a Gorillapod as a makeshift rig, either with or without an optical viewfinder. Personally, I’ve only done about three handheld videos in five years…

– The accessory arms
These can be a real help, especially for small cameras with lots of extras. Attaching multiple accessories to the camera hot shoe can be done, although it is never a great idea as it is putting weight and strain where it is not designed to go. But there are also some quite neat, and very cheap, accessory arms that screw between the camera and tripod and are sturdy enough to handle an audio recorder or a small LCD monitor – even if they lack the big camera presence of a rig.

So is a rig worth it? For a full-time video journalist or film maker, yes. For the more casual shooter, a matte box or decent lens hood may be enough. Spend the money on a fast, prime lens instead and add a rig later if the need arises.