Shooting Stable Video


By far, the most common problem with non-professionally-produced travel video is shakiness.  Nothing says, “hand-held consumer camera” like a picture that wobbles all over the screen.  Nothing adds a professional veneer to a video as well as a stable, rock-solid image.  There are a number of ways to get good, stable video.


In-Camera Stabilization

Most modern video cameras come with some form of image stabilization.  These take the form of either Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) or Optical Image Stabilization (OIS).

EIS uses a subset of the image sensor as a “window” for the video image.  This window moves around the sensor in response to motion detected by camera, having the effect of stabilizing the image.  Motion detection is usually computed by measuring changes in the image itself, rather than using physical position sensors.  EIS can be very effective at reducing handheld shake, but can sometimes be fooled when panning the camera across a scene, resulting in abrupt starts and stops.

OIS works by physically changing the position of an element in the lens in response to motion, i.e. it is the actual image that is shifted.  OIS usually uses physical position sensors, so it is not subject to errors that result from relying on analysis of the image to determine shake.  One side-effect of OIS is that internal reflections in the lens may appear to “dance” in response to the physical corrections made by the system.  Generally, higher-end prosumer use OIS.

In-camera stabilization can be quite effective but, by itself, is not sufficient to produce rock-solid video.


Camera Supports

Of course nothing beats a good tripod as a stable shooting platform.  However, tripods are big and heavy, two characteristics which undesirable for travel.  Compromises are available however.

-         Table top tripods  These miniature tripods weigh exploit stable surfaces as you find them.  Use one of these and you can have rock-steady shots wherever there is a table, wall or tree.  I find them very useful when I want to get in the shot (though be careful to note your surroundings – a fleet-footed thief can make off with your camera while you’re in front of the lens).  For an interesting, different perspective, use the table-top tripod on the ground for low-level shots. 

Make sure that the table top tripod is strong enough to hold your camera.  There are a number of cheap ones on the market that are an invitation to wobbly shots and camera accidents. 

-         Monopods  Monopods are extremely useful tools.  They're lightweight and collapse to a small size.  Though they won't provide a rock-solid base like a tripod, they'll eliminate a lot of shake.

In the picture, my VX2000 is mounted on a monopod using a miniature tilt-head.  The tilt-head is not used for panning and tilting, but to lock the camera into the correct position.

In addition to supporting the camera, a monopod can be used as a boom, to lift the camera high in the air, and over the heads of crowds - just tilt the LCD screen down and use that to monitor shooting.  I've even used a monopod to get "outside the window" shots on boats and trams.  If you're going to do that, make sure you have a good grip on the strap, just in case the monopod lets go.  I use the monopod in the collapsed position as a handle when I use my rain cape -- it ensures that the camera stays dry, and the heat from my hand does fog the inside of the cape.

The monopod in the picture is my favorite, the Adorama Podmatic, available here.  It's inexpensive, sturdy, and has a unique locking mechanism that speeds opening and closing.

-         Tripods  Tripods are the best solution for steady video.  However, all tripods are not created equal.  For video, a fluid head is an absolute must for steady pans and tilts.  A friction-locking head (or a poorly made fluid head) will grab and catch, resulting in jerky camera movement.  Some heads also include a bubble level, that helps ensure your camera is staight.  For travel purposes, of course, the smaller and lighter the better.  I use a Bogen 3160 fluid head, which provides smooth action and a locking quick release.  An even smaller and lighter alternative is the Bogen/Manfrotto 700RC2.  I prefer the somewhat larger 3160 because it mates nicely with a Bogen/Manfrotto Elbow Bracket, letting me use my still camera on the video head.  Tripod legs, called "sticks" vary in composition and number of sections.  For travel use, the lighter and smaller the better.  The lightest legs are, unfortunately, the most expensive and made from carbon fiber, rather than metal.  I use Manfrotto 3444D carbon fiber legs.  These have quick-release leg locks, which permit quick set-up and take down, and have four-section legs, allowing for a very small size when collapsed. 


Shooting Technique

I have discovered, over the years, that the best way to avoid shaky video is to develop a good shooting technique – obviously, the more stable I am when I hold the camera, the more stable will be the video that I produce.  There are a couple of ways to do this, some obvious, some not: 

-         Lean on things!  Tripods have three legs for a reason.  By leaning against a convenient tree or wall, I add an extra leg to the two I’m provided with. 

-         Use your camera strap as a brace. I wear my camera like a bandolier, over one shoulder.   If you wrap the strap around your hands a few times, and push the camera away from your body so that the strap becomes taut, you’ll remove a considerable amount of shake. 

-         Shoot from the chest.  Most people shoot video by holding the camera up to their face, using the viewfinder.  However, if you pay close attention to Hollywood films, you’ll notice that the viewpoint of the camera is rarely at the actors’ face level, but actually lower down.  I bought an extra-long strap for my camera that, when the camera is worn bandolier-style, puts right between my chest and my stomach.  By resting the back of the camera directly against my body and using the camera’s LCD screen instead of its viewfinder, I can get remarkably stable shots.  Instead of being dependent on the steadiness of my arm, I can provide a much more stable base.



Post Production Stabilization

There are software tools available, both as standalone products and plug-ins for editing programs, that can reduce shake in video after it's been shot.  Dynapel makes a standalone that also is available as a plug-in for Premiere Pro called SteadyHand.  Premiere Pro comes with a "light" version of the SteadyMove  stabilization plug-in.  All work in a similar fashion -- the software detects movement, and then enlarges the frame enough so that it can be kept centered.  Below, is a typical shaky video, shot while walking.

Original Video

In the next clip, with stablization applied, you can see how the software attempts to counteract shake by keeping the image centered in the frame.  This results in moving black borders, as the edges of the frame are move around.  Watch how the image stays centered, but the edges dance around.

Stabilized with Moving Borders

To ensure that the video fills the frame, it is zoomed just enough so that the frame edges aren't visible.  You can see the enlargement by comparing the still frame below with the ones above.  However, because the number of pixels in a video is fixed, any amount of zoom will result in pixelation and degradation of the video image.  The following clip has been over-stabilized.  Movement is smooth, but the video looks terrible.


The trick to using post-production software stabilization is to find the right compromise between smoothing out shakes and avoiding excessive zooming.  The clip below comes close - there is still some movement, but it is improved over the original

Optimally Stabilized

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