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Big Camera Rigs Versus Small Camera Rigs, Which Do You Prefer?

To go big or to go small, that is the question. In today’s article, I’ll look at a handful of pros and cons of each to try and figure out which is the best approach.

Now, to be clear, I will not be able to definitively decide on the right approach. The right approach depends on your particular circumstance. Even more than that, whether to go big or go small with your gear depends on each particular job. A large reason why I find myself spending such an inordinate amount of time thinking about this is because of the inordinate amount of time I spend rigging up my camera for one job only to have to strip it down for the next. As someone who is both obsessed with efficiency and, well, let’s face it, lazy, I dream of being able to simply leave my camera in one configuration to rule the world. Ideally, that configuration will suit all my production needs, be the best to solve my client’s needs, tie in seamlessly with all the other crew members on set, be impressive to look at, yet weigh next to nothing and pack itself up into a case no bigger than a thumbtack. Does such a camera rig exist? Of course not. But a man can dream. The truth is that there is no such rigging scenario that will fit all situations. So today, I thought I would have a little fun looking at all the myriad ways in which one choice is better than the other, but at the same time decidedly worse.

Oh, My Back!

The amount of joy that photography and filmmaking have brought to my life is utterly indescribable. Honestly, I don’t know what my life would look like if I hadn’t found these outlets for my creativity. I’d have a different career — likely one that would require me to wear pinstripes on occasion and use terms like “corporate synergy.” But regardless of the financial aspect of my job, the spiritual life force that art provides me is the most valuable aspect that creativity has injected into my days on Earth.  

On a practical level, however, pursuing my artistic goals has also pretty much wrecked my body. Sure, I’ve gotten a lot better about practicing more ergonomic shooting methods over the years. But my back problems, my torn rotator cuff, and the right knee that is pretty much gone from a lifetime of lunge squats when shooting low angles are all pretty much the direct result of the time I’ve spent on set. No need to feel sorry for me. I am still plenty capable of soldiering through a physically demanding shoot. But I have learned firsthand the benefit of having as light a camera rig as possible.

With mirrorless cameras packing in so many features in both the still and video world these days, it is now possible to get excellent results with much lighter kits. Especially, if you consider yourself to be a “run and gun” type of shooter, being able to move quickly and collect content without overloading the trunk of your Dodge Stratus is a major highlight.

Where Do I Plug This In?

But, while going small is perfect for the solo operator, it’s not always a viable option on a professional set. In this case, I’m not defining professional as a paying gig. You can certainly shoot high-profile paid gigs with mirrorless cameras. In this case, what I’m referring to are large-scale commercial projects where you are unlikely to be doing much of anything “run and gun” and where you will be just one of the dozens, if not scores, of production personnel on set. You are operating the camera. But you also have a dedicated focus puller, a sound operator, a director on a remote monitor, and a small armada of clients gathered around your DIT in video village to watch all the footage you’re shooting in real-time. That’s not even to mention all the various matte boxes, wireless transmitters, XLR cables, SDI cables, and every other kind of cable that comes along with those people. All of these things need to somehow plug into or have consistent contact with your camera rig.

There’s a reason why cameras on big commercial and movie sets look like the Hulk’s younger brother, Freddy. A lot of people have to be able to access the camera while you are shooting, and having a small portable mirrorless camera is oftentimes simply not going to be 100% practical. There’s just not enough physical real estate for everyone, not without rigging it up at least. And often, this rigging will result in a camera system almost the same size as a larger camera but without the inherent stability of having all those components come in one piece.

Wait, Is That What I’m Paying You For?

There is, of course, an equally practical if fully illogical side-benefit to shooting with a bigger camera. We don’t like to talk about it, but let’s face it, clients are fascinated by gear. Now, you and I know that a small point-and-shoot camera, in the right hands, is capable of creating just as amazing an image as a Hasselblad in the wrong hands. It’s not the gear that makes the art, it’s the artist. And a good client will understand this. A good crew should understand this. But, humans are humans, and, quite simply, people like to feel they are among the shiniest toys. Especially if this is the first time you are working with a particular client or crew, they are scrutinizing every inch of your presentation on screen and off. And while it most definitely shouldn’t, this is an area where your gear can matter.

If you are hired to shoot the next Avengers movie and you show up on set with a mirrorless camera as anything beyond a crash cam or a C cam, the producers are likely to walk over to you casually and politely ask “where is the rest of your kit?” That’s not to say that your small camera can’t do the job. But there is an expectation that when you are shooting at a certain level that you will be using gear at a certain level as well. It may be political rather than practical. But set politics can matter in certain circumstances.

Producers themselves probably own one or two Sony mirrorless cameras that they took with them on vacation to Bermuda last year. So, if you show up planning to use that as an A cam, they might lean a bit skeptical. Certain producers, not all, might get it in their head that if you are shooting with the same camera they use to photograph their kid’s soccer games, then they can do the job themselves. It’s not true. But that thought would cross certain people’s minds, especially if you are charging them an additional kit fee. They probably don’t, however, shoot their home movies with an Arri Alexa 65. So, when you take that out of your kit, it is a subtle message that you mean business and you are bringing only the best to their project. And, as a result, they tend to ask fewer questions.

This is more prevalent on motion sets versus skill sets, I’d say. There are productions where medium format systems are required over full frame or crop sensor bodies. But rarely do I have producers scrutinize my gear before a shoot. They may casually ask if I shoot Canon or Nikon. But it’s unlikely that they will refuse to work with me based on the nameplate on the front of my camera. I probably wouldn’t, for example, show up on set with a Fuji X100V or an iPhone to shoot an advertising job (assuming the job itself wasn’t an ad for the new iPhone). Practically speaking, the X100V’s leaf shutter gives it a big advantage in some applications that might make it easier to shoot with. But still, big advertising jobs, where lots of money is on the line, are probably not the right situations to try and figure out how small you can go.

Will This Fit in My Carry-On?

Depending on your business model, there’s a solid chance that you spend a great deal of time waiting anxiously for airport luggage carousels to spin long enough to deliver your well-packed Pelican cases for your out-of-town job. If you’re like me, you are likely equally determined to avoid this situation by packing as much gear as humanly possible into your carry-on baggage, both to save the time at the carousel and to ensure that the overzealous baggage handler at the airport gets as little an opportunity as possible to cradle your brand new five-thousand-dollar lens like a football while rearing back and imploring his co-worker to “go deep.” In scenarios like this, smaller is better.

Then again, even when your work is local, if you encounter enough shoots that take place on the 12th floor of an old building with lots of character but no freight elevator, you might find the idea of a lighter rig equally appealing.

Don’t Drop the Baby

Regardless of whether your camera is big or small, I would highly recommend avoiding dropping your photographic baby from great heights in a misguided attempt to see if it will bounce. But one reason one might choose a big and heavier camera as opposed to a smaller and lighter one is simply the question of durability. Most higher-end cameras these days, big or small, are built to a fairly rugged standard and can put up with far more punishment than you are likely to put them through, at least willingly.

But sometimes, those big, heavy cameras are so heavy because they have been built with more solid materials. More metal, less plastic. More durable components. This is not always the case. And you certainly shouldn’t go testing this theory by punting your new camera over the fence and into your neighbor's yard. That might not be good for your camera or your foot. But sometimes, durability can come at the cost of weight. But it might be a weight well worth carrying.

Can You Please Just Stand Still?

Speaking of being worth the weight, there can be a somewhat overlooked benefit to carrying a camera with a bit of added girth. Smaller cameras are so light to hold that it can be like you’re not holding anything at all. Because the weight is so negligible, you can often move the camera without even realizing you’re doing it. So, while the light weight invites you to want to handhold it during a scene, the lack of weight can lead to little micro-jitters in the resulting footage. You won’t notice the small micro-jitters while you’re shooting. But when you get back to the office and view the image on your computer screen, you’ll often see this barely perceptible movement in the footage that signals to the audience that the footage was handheld. Depending on the aesthetic of the piece you're shooting, this could potentially leave your footage feeling less professional. Most high-level shoots have elaborate systems for keeping footage perfectly steady, and micro-jitters can undermine that.

To fix this, lots of mirrorless camera manufacturers have introduced in-body image stabilization systems that help to smooth out footage. The effectiveness of these systems varies from brand to brand and model to model. Many do an excellent job.

But, assuming you aren’t using IBIS or some other gimbal or Steadicam system, using a heavier camera while shooting handheld has a big advantage. The heavier body which makes it more difficult to hold also makes it harder for you to introduce micro-jitters. It’s heavier and thus harder to jitter around accidentally. In this case, the added weight works to your advantage and makes it easier for you to get smoother footage while shooting handheld. If you find yourself needing to shoot handheld for creative or practical reasons, heavier can be better.

So ultimately, is it better to build your camera up or strip your camera down? The answer is not always the same in every situation. So, as much as I wish my camera system was a transformer that could go from minute mirrorless to full-blown cinema rig with the push of a button, I still find myself constantly pulling cameras in and out of cages and putting more miles on my hex wrenches than I might like. But, like the wrench, a camera is just a tool to do a job. And the best tools can come in multiple sizes.

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2 Comments

JJ Casas's picture

Ultimately, it comes down to the budget that dictates how much “camera” (and crew) you’re using. The creative/approach will dictates the why of using a particular camera/rig.

I remember when I had shot for Star Wars’ Solo press junket and we were just told to make our set look expensive given that major news/press outlets were all there. Our camera (because of the nature of the company) was having Solo’s stars record themselves on an iPad.

I get the author’s take here but it’s less so on personal preferences (ie building light rig vs heavy rig) and more about building/using a particular rig based off of budget and more importantly the creative.

Paul Trantow's picture

"Which Do You Prefer?" The one that's appropriate for the job. Christ, F-stoppers, you do not need to print this crap.