DSLR cinematography styles vary a lot, since the cameras are so adaptable. At the core of all this flexibility is the rigging.
In the past bulky 35mm film cameras needed a correspondingly large rig for professional looking results. Even in terms of the most basic rig, a tripod, these had to be heavy and steady.
Now you can pull out a DSLR and start shooting steady professional looking cinema on it with as little as a Canon OIS lens.
The problem with optical stabilisation though, is that for me it just looks too floaty. It is good for where kit needs to be kept to an absolute minimum like for video journalism, documentary run & gun in pressurised situations, or at places where video cameras would not otherwise be allowed entry.
A handheld rig is a step up from the basics.
Yes, you do lose a bit of stealth. But a good handheld rig is essentially the core for much better looking handheld footage. Namely, a follow focus for racking focus and a mounting point on the body to stabilise the camera. Add to that a decent monitor for focussing on the fly and you’re away.
I take great pains to stay true to the ethos of DSLRs. They are not like other cameras. Their size advantage and their simplicity should never be compromised by over complicated rigging. Vincent LaForet for example may as well use 35mm for most things.
The Letus Talon K1 Shoulder Mount is a smart looking rig. It isn’t a lightweight one – especially with the counter-weight on the shoulder. It is made of tougher stuff than most. This extra heft is a good thing though since it helps stabilise the camera. Also the weight on the shoulder mount can be removed.
The shoulder mount is offset to put the camera in front of the shooter’s eye-line. Letus have designed this offset for using DSLR viewfinders but I’d prefer it if the rig had the option for straight camera-to-shoulder rods, since a monitor can be offset anyway, and it is that which I need in my eye-line, not the camera body. A straighter rig also helps to balance the weight of the camera and lens centrally.
Balance is very important for handheld rigs, and to that end they must be adaptable. The Letus Talon isn’t massively adaptable, it is not a Meccano set. They have designed it to fit a purpose. But I do prefer to tweak it to my liking, which is to dispense of the long rods for the handles, and attach the handles as close to the baseplate as possible, with one at an angle under the monitor.
As you can see from the photos – here first is my customisation, and second is the original default configuration with the handles on extending arms.
I feel it’s easier to pick up without the arms too, a bit less spidery. Although when you place it down in my configuration, it doesn’t sit flat.
I have balanced the weight on the rig by putting the monitor to the left and the shoulder mount to the right, with the camera more-or-less in the middle. So the offset does come in handy balance wise, although it has to be said the shoulder mount weight is a lot heavier than the Small HD DP6!!
The grips on the handles are great. This is an important area and one rig builders often get wrong. Rigs are required to be used for long stretches and the need to have a certain degree of comfort built-in not just practicality. The handles are rubber with a criss-cross grip and quite ergonomic in shape. Good job there.
The only place where I feel Letus could have improved the Talon is the spacing of the quick release plate lever and the mounting points on the side of the quick release plate base. The levers are slightly too large and not comfortable to tighten. They are better than thumbscrews because you can tighten them tighter, but they do tend to catch on things. They have a capability where if you pull them, you can rotate the lever like a spanner and reattach, turn, then pull off and rotate the other way again. It just makes it more time consuming to undo a joint if the lever has to be operated this way due to catching on something. I have my DP6 arm screwed into the side of the quick release plate holder.
I’d also like to see the smooth rods have a pattern etched into them where fixings attach, so that they don’t rotate when tightened. However much I tighten the handles the rods are so smooth and buttery there is a slight bit of movement when forced. It’s not a problem in normal operation though. I’d just prefer to tighten less extremely and have grippier joints.
Overall, the Talon is currently my rig of choice. It looks superb, is very well built, quality materials and an overall design which understands what DSLRs are all about. It’s just about adaptable away from it’s default configuration enough to meet my needs. Most people will probably use it in the default state and love using it with a viewfinder.
Rigs give handheld footage a aesthetic missing from any other form of handheld DSLR footage.
If you are serious about shooting handheld with DSLRs, I strongly recommend one. They’re a creative choice as well as practical. Sometimes you will not want to use one for creative reasons (Aronofsky shot the subway scene in The Black Swan without any rigging at all) but 90% of the time they are essential.
Tripods, sliders and rigs are probably now more important than which camera you chose. Certainly more than the difference a purchasing decision between a 7D and 600D would make.