Shooting documentary handheld: Cinematographer David Leitner gives his insights on camera ergonomics and talks Sony FS700 and F5/F55

By site editor Dan Chung:

Sony have posted an informative video of Cinematographer David Leitner talking about shooting handheld documentary work with large sensor cameras – in particular the Sony F55/F5 and FS700. Speaking at the Cine Gear Expo earlier in Los Angeles earlier in the year he gives insights based on his extensive knowledge of various handheld systems. The video is a little long but well worth watching all the way though if you are a real world shooter.

Shooting Documentaries with Sony’s NEX-FS700, PMW-F5, and PMW-F55 from Sony Professional USA on Vimeo.

Especially interesting is his take on the ergonomics of the handgrip and also how camera should be balanced on the shoulder. Leitner loves wooden handgrips and devotes a large part of his talk to the subject. He illustrates his points really well at various times with lots of photos of different setups, some of which are very entertaining. He also talks a little about the history of handheld shooting and the ‘cat on the shoulder’ approach taken by Aaton that many operators feel has still not been bettered.

A Vocas wooden handle setup for Sony
A Vocas wooden handle setup for Sony

Like Leitner I have long argued that a real world shooting rig should be balanced well on the shoulder, focussed with a hand directly on the lens and with a near-centered single handgrip featuring focus magnification and start/stop trigger. A lot of rigs I see are simply an ergonomic nightmare, either giving the operator a bad neck or requiring super strong biceps to hold.

Another good point that Leitner makes is that a lot of rig manufacturers make rigs that aim to be highly adjustable, but that as a documentary shooter all he really wants is one simple configuration that works. I also share Leitner’s dislike of excess cabling.

I agree with Leitner that Sony’s F55 and F5 are currently the most suited of the current crop of larger sensor cameras for on-shoulder use, but I feel he is perhaps a little unfair about other designs such as the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera (BMCC) or Canon’s C300 handgrip (unlike Leitner I have no problem controlling the aperture dial with my smallish hands). There is also no mention of the F55’s main competitor – Arri’s Alexa, which while heavier can also be used on the shoulder with its excellent EVF in a similar way to the F55 with the exact same Vocas wooden handgrips that Leitner demonstrates.

Vocas wooden handle setup for Arri Alexa
Vocas wooden handle setup for Arri Alexa

Whatever camera you own I believe you should aim to make it work more like ‘a cat on the shoulder’. Not everyone can afford to get a new F5 or F55 – but don’t despair: there are plenty of good options out there.

Even before the launch of the FS700 and F55 there were other on-the-shoulder wooden handle setups for large sensor camcorders. In 2011 Andy Porch’s Panasonic AF100/WestsideAV wooden handgrip setup for Sky News being a good example.

The voightlander 25mm f0.95
WestsideAV wooden handgrip for the Panasonic AF100

Movcam/16x9inc were early to make a centrally balanced shoulder pad/baseplate combo for the Sony F3 which I felt worked very well with an EVF. They now have similar options for the FS700 which our own Matt Allard is very keen on. They also have a much improved version of the wooden handle shown in Leitner’s video.

Zacuto's Recoil for Canon C100 and C300
Zacuto’s Recoil for Canon C100 and C300

The BMCC as well as Canon’s C300 or even DSLRs can be made to balance well on the shoulder with the right rig (and often the addition of weights and an EVF). Kudos should be given to Zacuto for their Recoil rigs and grip re-locators, which I find make for a nicely balanced C100/C300 setup.

WestsideAV Unirail system with wooden handgrip
WestsideAV Unicamrail system with wooden handgrip
Even the 5D can be made to work with counterweights on this WestsideAV system
Even the 5D can be made to work with counterweights on this WestsideAV system

WestsideAV had been making their Unicamrail set-ups for DSLR and Panasonic AF100 for some time. I also recently played with the lovely FS100 rig from Japanese maker Triad, which also balanced perfectly on my shoulder.

Leitner is essentially right though. Sony have upped the game in terms of camera ergonomics. Hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit.

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