Guardian photographer Felix Clay flys high with a 5DmkII and Zacuto rig

Felix Clay about to fly with a Zacuto Tactical Shooter rig.

Felix Clay about to fly with a Zacuto Tactical Shooter rig.

Based in London, I have now been shooting video on a Canon 5D mark II DSLR regularly since the beginning of 2009 for the Guardian newspaper. Having managed with little more than the camera and a tripod to date, I have recently felt the time was right to start investing directly into the extra equipment. I’ve seen the demand for video rapidly increase from news and corporate clients over the last eighteen months and simply put, there are far more opportunities in having the skills to offer potential clients both options rather than simply stills these days.

So: having finally placing my order for a Redrock Micro rig it finally arrived the night before I was due to visit the Canon Pro Photo solutions event at the Islington Business Design Centre in London last month. I was going along to check out some of the latest Canon products (including the new Eos 1D Mark IV) but also many of the other manufacturers, whose gear I was keen to get my hands on to finally finish kitting out my rig for shooting video on DSLR’s. I duly spent an hour bolting it together watched by my bemused colleague from the Guardian Dan Chung, who was over from his base in Beijing. We were meeting for a quick drink and consultation session on my new gadget as he had been using the Redrock for sometime now, and was going to give me a few pointers on using it. Dan was scheduled to give several talks at the Expo over the following two days; talking about his experiences to date, he presented a “how to” on shooting video on a DSLR, beautifully illustrated to the audience with some short exerts from his work which demonstrated his increasing mastery over the video he shoots on DSLR’s. Along with my other colleague from the Guardian, Sean Smith, who also talked about his multimedia and video experiences, primarily from his recent “embed” trips in Afghanistan over the last couple of years; they both turned out to be one of the highlights out of the series of seminars presented at the Expo.

Overnight I was presented with my first opportunity to try the Redrock out when I received a call from the Guardian newspaper and asked to shoot an aerial video the following day of the latest developments at the Olympic site over in east London. On finding out how small the helicopter for the trip sounded, and realising how little equipment I was going to be able to take with me, I realised I’d need to re-think my approach. The door on my side of the helicopter was going to be removed, leaving nothing between me and the great outdoors but a seat belt, to allow me an unobstructed shooting area, so balancing a large-ish rig like the Redrock, changing lenses mid-flight, and everything else that might need juggling with, sounded like a nightmare, if not downright impossible. This proved a good guess as when it came to getting into the chopper and strapping in, the pilot made me go through all of my equipment that was either strapped around me or inside a host of pouches and zip pockets to take only really essential gear. He then wanted a complete demonstration of exactly how I proposed to change lenses, data cards and batteries in mid-air without dropping anything and killing someone 1500 ft or so below us.

Before I left the Expo to get to the airfield in north London, I passed by a stand showing off some of the latest Zacuto gear, rigs and viewfinders which I had noticed earlier on that day. I got chatting to Den Lennie from F-Stop Academy who was there talking to visitors, amongst other things, about the latest addition to his DVD guide series, how to shoot video on a Canon 7D. I told him where I was headed off to and he suggested I try out his Zacuto Tactical Shooter rig and the Zacuto Z-Finder as a solution to the space problem I was anticipating in the helicopter. This was an unexpected opportunity to checkout a direct rival to my rig, which I reckoned was worth postponing the Redrock experience for. As I’d not yet invested in a viewfinder, (I’m also considering the LCDVF viewfinder which is just coming onto the market and is considerably cheaper) I took both and headed up to the north London aerodrome.

Once the pilot had finished instructing me about safety with my gear we took off and headed over northeast London. We had a perfect day for it. The sun had come out after a cloudy, overcast morning and the light was soft, if slightly hazy. I had two Canon 5D mark II’s with me (the second to grab the odd still on the way to the Olympic site) and the first sporting the very light-weight, but solidly built Zacuto rig, at the ready. The gun grip meant I could tuck the support tightly into my shoulder, which as I found out immediately, was essential to cut down on the vibrations and turbulence buffeting us. As the helicopter was so small, smaller than previous aircraft I’ve shot stills from before, motion and turbulence was going to be a problem I was simply going to have to live with. It was impossible to omit it completely, even from the final result despite the worst being edited out. Only a gyroscopic camera stabiliser would deliver perfectly smooth footage, a little out of budget for this assignment. From my confined and semi-restrained position in my seat, I found the compact size of the rig perfect for the job. It felt strong and solid, and handled intuitively. I could imagine having a similar set-up (with an added top mic attached, something like a Rode VideoMic or similar from Sennheiser) slung over one shoulder when covering a news event that looked as if it might warrant video. It would be easy to carry, would never notice knocks or scrapes and could be pulled straight to the eye and provide immediate stability for short bursts of footage – the photographers natural instinct of stills over video is always a conflict, particularly with something major unfolding in front of you, but I could have done with this set-up when covering the G20 protest in London back in April of this year (the Guardian wanted stills and video from all the photographers covering events that day). You can see the results of that day here:


Although not all of this video was shot on DSLR’s (the early footage is from a standard video camera) the latter footage when things got heated between protestors and the police, shows what is possible, especially in these types of situations, with video on a DSLR, and hand held too.

Finally, my first experience of the Zacuto Z-Finder. A piece of kit essential to judge a decent exposure in bright daylight at the minimum, something I’ve struggled with in the past for lack of one. I found an immediate problem in that my left eye is my “viewing” eye and is also much stronger than the right. Using digital DSLR’s for video requires you to view with your right eye, essentially if you are going to see where you are going and what is happening around you as you film, but also so as you don’t have to crane your neck into the side of the camera. Sports photographers will have an advantage here as many of those who have the same problem as I do now, have trained themselves to use their right eye (so as they can see over the very large lenses and follow the action of a football match or similar fast moving events). Apparently it takes years I’m told and not sure if I have the patience for that! So it’s either learn the correct way or make do with a slightly twisted, partially sited filming experience. You can at least mount the cup upside down or roll the rubber surround down to make it entirely usable if this is the situation for you too.
It also took me a while to see past the pixilation caused by looking through the Z-Finder magnifying a small screen so close, but once I’d adjusted to that it felt quite natural. Although, compared to the early days of strapping a makeshift viewfinder or even the Mark I Zacuto Z-Finder to the body of the camera with tape or rubber bands, string etc., there is now a magnetic surround that holds it in place. I did find I knocked it off a little too easily, but then I was in a confined space with a lot of equipment strapped around me, which probably exacerbated this, and there is a lanyard you can attach to either your camera strap or have around your neck to keep it flying off at the wrong moment – and in my case 1500 ft to the ground below. Overall a viewfinder is an essential piece of kit for video and I’m keen to compare it to the LCDVF version soon.
You can see the results of the video here:

olympic park


Posted on December 14th, 2009 by Felix Clay | Category: Canon Eos5DmkII, DSLR video news, Journalism |

21 responses to "Guardian photographer Felix Clay flys high with a 5DmkII and Zacuto rig"

  1. James Dodd Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Sorry, but I just found the video completely unwatchable.

    and you can blame the equipment all you want but I honestly think it was simply a mistake to try and film this on a dslr due to the horrible rolling shutter nasties!

    and it’s not like there wasn’t a budget to rent another piece of equipment (if the paper didn’t own anything else, which it does going on the G20 footage) so that can’t be an excuse either.

    Kill it. as someone might say.

  2. Adam Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I don’t think it’s a mistake to film it using a dslr – I think the biggest mistake is to chuck a load of rushes on to a time line and cover it with a slightly lame sound track. I’d be interested in finding out what settings he used…something is seriously wrong with the camera setup, more so with the shutter speed he’s used!

    I think it also proves that the still image is far stronger in some areas! The slideshow from David Levene and Graeme Robertson, is far more interesting (less dull anyway). If it had the BBC Planet Earth quality which is also HD, then i’d be blown away, but it looks like Marry and Joe’s home video of their wedding helicopter ride.

    The only reason most of this garbage is shown, is because it can be on the web. No one is regulating the standards but the guys that are giving it praise!

  3. Gary Taylor Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I couldn’t agree more!

  4. James Dodd Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    It is interesting seeing this dilution of content on newspaper sites.
    I mean, it’s getting to a stage where many places are simply adding content just because they can. The viewer almost becomes the editor (take a look at the likes of sky news with their seemingly never ending galleries of pictures which on the whole are usually pretty irrelevant).

    I would have much rather have seen one single image of this.
    A nice large image where my eyes could wonder around for a few minutes, an image sharp as a tack with loads of clarity and an almost where’s wally essence to it?

    I suppose these are more questions to the people commissioning these jobs than the photographers themselves? but still!

  5. Mark Says:
    December 14th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Lots of rolling shutter issues going on there. And in this instance as there were no other cut aways shot from the ground all thats left is lots of kinda boring wobbly aerial footage. Not really worth watching.

    Newspapers need to either invest properly in video or forget it completely. I don’t how much a small gyro would be to hire but this defo needed it if you weren’t going to shoot on a camera without a rolling shutter. And if you’re going to the trouble of hiring a helicopter then you’ve got to either use the right equipment or don’t bother.

    We’ve all shot footage on dslrs that looking back has faults, certainly i’m still learning how to make the most of the equipment available. But we’ve got to stop accepting a certain level of quality now and really move things on. On this whole site the only stuff thats really impressed me is Danfung Dennis.

    Editors need to get their heads round the fact if you demand both video and still then quality is going to suffer. And to be honest its not like the standards in the industry were terribly high when only one discipline was being asked for.

  6. Dan Chung Says:
    December 16th, 2009 at 2:22 am

    Hey guys, cut Felix a bit of slack. This is supposed to be a caring and sharing kind of website where we learn together. I’d also invite those who don’t like what they see here to contribute themselves and make the site better, as long as you work in news or docu I’ll welcome submissions.

    I think the criticism of newspaper websites is valid but lets try and help Felix improve his films with a little constructive criticism. Let me start – I think shooting with a Gyro like the Kenyon lans KS-6 or KS-8 on the rig would have helped his heli shots greatly, I’m no expert on this but if someone has first hand experience on how to do this please chime in.


  7. Gary Taylor Says:
    December 16th, 2009 at 5:46 am


    I’d happily give him some slack, but if we were to praise everything coming off the production line, then there wouldn’t be any standards to level from!?

    I hate to grill someone on a bad performance, but I equally hate seeing that standard of work being produced by professionals. Sometimes you need to be a Simon Cowell to get the message across.

    It’s a case of terrible footage, I suggest he should do take time out to do some formal video training, or step down doing video and practise on his own projects. Why has the highest level of documentary journalism come down to learning ground!?

    It just proves guys like that are in the position they are, when they clearly don’t have a clue what their doing. Or have anyone suitable enough to guide them in the right direction. Its ok to suggest using a Gyro but it’s done now, it’s online and paid for and the end results are poor. It’s basic equipment anyone in that position should be loosing sleepless nights over, if they don’t have it! Instead it’s comments about Zacuto and plugging away what they can about them and how great their rig and Z-finder is!

    It shouldn’t be happening, and it’s probably one of the main reasons the newspaper market is failing. However someone in that position is showing this standard. I’ve seen it across the board, right from the day of basic journalism training! Photographers gaining high grades, but at the cost of poor work.

    Sure cut them some slack, but its the reason we see what we see today. But who am I to judge? I’m just that ordinary guy in his room, wishing for better. Thinking my work isn’t to what I’d like and not really showing anyone, because I see it as not being good enough.

    I don’t see you producing work to “it’ll do” standards, I see something with understanding and passion. Something worth your time producing and something you’ve spent time thinking about. He knew the footage would be bad, but he went out and did it anyway..”As the helicopter was so small, smaller than previous aircraft I’ve shot stills from before, motion and turbulence was going to be a problem I was simply going to have to live with.” Well he’ll have to live with the criticism unfortunately!

    Its about caring for what you do, and why you do it…for the good of all!

  8. Sam Morgan Moore Says:
    December 16th, 2009 at 11:31 am


    I note that you talk about the struggle between still and motion on a hard news job

    I dont do hard news much but would seriously consider something like a Sony SR12 handycam (there are probably new faster now)

    Get a metz bracket and bolt it onto your stills cam – im sure this is what the paps do !

    120GB onboard, will run for hours – but cause you a major PP headache

    my rig will have the finder mounted on the rails – rock solid – some time soon now


  9. James Dodd Says:
    December 16th, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    @Dan: apologies if I came across aggressive. this honestly wasn’t my intention.

    But regardless of this I don’t feel cutting people “slack” is going to help them at all with their work.

    Surely you have to agree that honest opinions can be more valued even if it does mean that someones feelings may get a little hurt?

    That’s what I thought this place would become? A place where people could openly discuss things and hopefully avoid all of the tech talk and “ooh nice video” pointless comments which aren’t going to further anyone’s work.

  10. Mark Says:
    December 16th, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Yup its true no one is going to progress if all we hear are empty ‘nice video’ comments. It seems to be a problem across the industry though, everyone’s keeping their heads down and not really questioning what they’re producing.

    What strikes me though is that as someone who has just completed the NCTJ, is seriously financially struggling, and having looked at the industry is really trying work out what the next steps to take are, i look at the stuff i’ve done and and while some of it has some potential it just isn’t at the standard that i want it to be at.

    Yet here’s someone working at the top of the industry, with the budget to hire a helicopter, someone i should be looking at for inspiration and we’re being asked to cut them some slack?

    Now don’t read that as me doing someone down because i want to be in their position. Its just that i want to see good content all round and i do think giving honest feedback is probably the best way to improve your game.

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