Living a dream as a photographer & filmmaker

Mission Impossible? Putting together the right DSLR cinema rig - Part 1

Personally, I am disturbed by the fact that DSLR rigs are so outrageously priced.  Manufacturers are driven by the high prices of equipment in the movie industry as well as demand for DSLR gear, because of the DSLR filmmaking revolution.  I understand pros like I'm on mission to find more affordable rig, that's still usable, to add to my gear bag.

After selling my ENG-style Panasonic HPX300 and buying the Nikon D4 DSLR, I was on a mission to find the right DSLR shoulder rig.  I say the right rig, because for me it means the best rig I can buy on my budget.

I have looked at various rigs from +Redrock Micro, Cinevate, Zakuto, and others.  I just don't want to pay one thousand, two thousand, three thousand bucks for this hardware.  It probably takes 50 bucks to make one, why are they charging so much?

I like RedRock equipment, and it's priced better than Zakuto, for example.  But I needed something that was cheaper more affordable, and still good quality.  So I found the RedRock imitation Flashpoint, sold by Adorama.  Ok, now we're getting close: a few hundred bucks, and I'll be in business.

Rig Components

I have made a list of everything that I will need to put together a DSLR rig.  It will have both shoulder and tripod/steadicam support.
  1. Camera mounting plate - DONE
  2. Mattebox - DONE
  3. Shoulder pad - DONE
  4. Counterweight - DONE
  5. Handle grips - DONE
  6. Remote switch - DONE
  7. Field Recorder/Monitor (Atomos Ninja 2)
  8. Follow Focus (reviewed) - DONE
  9. Cage (possibly) + top handle - DONE
  10. Articulating arms - DONE
These components should provide versatility to the rig, allowing to shoot on sticks, shoulder, steadicam, etc...

DSLR shoulder rig

While searching on the Internet, I came across a generic DSLR rig that looked like the RedRock/Flashpoint, but cost 199 bucks, so I bought it. Here are product links to Amazon and LinkDelight.

This shoulder rig is made in Taiwan, and looks just like the RedRock/Flashpoint rig.  The build quality is ok; it's nowhere near the quality of an American-made product, but with this price tag, it was expected.  I feel that for the task that this rig has to do - it'll do just fine.  It works as advertised: steadies your camera on the shoulder ;)  The rig has a camera plate with a bottom tripod plate, so its ready to go on sticks.  It also has the shoulder pad - a cheap one, but it is comfortable and it works!  The kit comes with handlebars.  They are nice and comfortable to hold.  Everything mounts on 15mm rods - industry standard.  After putting together the rig I noticed that it is solid and rigid, which was unexpected for the kit that cost 199 dollars - so we're good to go here; moving on to the next piece.


Now that I have the shoulder rig, I needed a mattebox.  Once again, while I like Arri, Cavision, and other pro matteboxes, I cant spend several thousand dollors on it.  Once again, RedRock makes one, and I used to have it with my old camera (Panasonic HPX300), but I felt that it would be too big for my current DSLR setup (Nikon D4).  By the way, Flashpoint by Adorama has the same looking mattebox, almost 4 times cheaper.  Go figure...

So, I wanted a lighter, smaller mattebox.  No clip-ons, 15mm rails setup.  Found one!  Flashpoint Basic Mattebox II. Here it is on Adorama (RedStar version here).  This matebox will do just fine.  It is not flimsy - fairly solid build, and really how tough the mattebox should be?  You're not hitting baseballs with it, right!

The mattebox has 2 filter trays, 4x4.  I had some biger filters left over from RedRock mattebox, so they will not fit.  That's ok.  I will buy 3 ND filters for it - they are not too expensive.

It also has a top french flag as well as side barn doors.  I dont usually use those, but on occasion I have, and they come handy mid-day with bright sunlight entering the lens.

Here's the description from Adorama:
Designed to prevent lens flare and glare from natural and artificial light sources, the Flashpoint Matte Box offers everything you need to get started whether you're shooting with a digital video camera or a DSLR. This lightweight but sturdy device is equipped with dual ABS plastic filter frames and stages and can accommodate filters 4 x 4" and 4 x 4.5" filters. One filter stage can be rotated 360 degrees when shooting with circular polarizing or gradient filters; the other is fixed. Both filter frames can be locked in position but are easily removed. Three donuts are bundled with the Matte Box. Constructed from thick and durable neoprene, the donuts fit snugly against the Matte Box's 100mm back mount opening. Inside circumferences measure 48mm, 64mm and 74mm to accommodate a widerange of lenses for all your shooting needs. The removable coated aluminum French flag and two side doors attach securely viaa bayonet mount and thumb screws. The blades are easily adjusted-even while looking through the viewfinder for the most precise placement-and can be folded flat for storage or protection of the lens during transport.

So I like this mattebox a lot - its just the right size, not expensive, has filter option as well as french flags.  Just what I needed.  Will it survive years of abuse? Probably not, but I will get a few years out of it for sure.

DSLR cinema rig: mattebox

DSLR cinema rig: mattebox

DSLR cinema rig: mattebox

Record Button Remote switch

Next thing on the list is a remote switch. I found a great deal on Amazon: Vello 10pin wired remote release for Nikon cameras. I attached the switch to one of the handles on the rig, so that I dont have to reach for the top of the camera to press the record button.  The switch has a 10 pin wired plug that plugs in to the 10 pin connector on the side of the camera.  Nice.

One thing to add here is that I had to go into Nikon D4's menu and change the shutter button preference to Record, so that it acts like the actual record button.  That's all.

Vello remote control for Nikon camera for DSLR cinema rig


To balance the camera on the shoulder I have added a counter weight.  Opteka makes an affordable 3lb counter weight that attches to the 15mm rods nicely.  Here it is:

Building a DSLR cinema rig: Opteka counter weight for DSLR rigs

More to come

I will still need to get the follow-focus, a cage (possibly), articulating arms, and a field/recorder monitor.  More about that in Part 2.  Stay tuned!

Share your experience with DSLR cinema rigs by commenting below.

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  1. COMING SOON: Part 2 of Putting together a DSLR cinema rig
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    What's in my gear bag?

    Nikon D4 - what's in my gear bag - push processed

    I believe that equipment should be the extension of the artist.  I dont chase the latest and greatest gear (except for D4, because it is a great camera that I plan on keeping for a long time).  I am also not into too tech details and tests.  I believe real-life field tests are more valuable.  Also, it is not the camera that makes the image, it is the photographer/cinematographer.

    But, it helps to have the right gear.  So, in my pursuit of the right gear, this what I currently have, used to have, or want to have ;)

    Here's what I currently have:
    1. Nikon D4
    2. Nikkor 80-200mm 2.8
    3. Nikkor 24-85mm 2.8-4
    4. Nikkor 50mm 1.4
    5. Nikkor 12-24mm (DX)
    6. Manfrotto Photo tripod
    7. SB800 speedlite
    8. SB600 speedlite
    9. Vella 10pin Remote for Nikon
    10. No brand DSLR Shoulder Rig
    11. Flashpoint Mattebox
    12. indieSystem follow focus

    Here's what I sold and no longer have:
    1. Panasonic HPX300
    2. Redrock mattebox
    3. Redrock follow focus
    4. Glidecam X4500
    5. Libec Video Tripod
    6. Nikon F5

    Here's what I want to have ;)
    1. Atomos Ninja 2 field recorder/monitor
    2. Video Tripod
    3. On-camera field monitor (5 or 7 inch) for AC

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    1. Putting together the right DSLR cinema rig
    2. More gear reviews
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    The frog story: quick reaction macro field test with Nikon D4

    I usually don't photograph wildlife, but when I saw this tiny frog sitting on my basement glass door, I had to grab the camera.

    Late one evening, while in the basement, I noticed a little baby frog sitting on the glass door.  The frog measured about an inch and a half.  I grabbed the camera and started setting up tripod as fast as I could.  I thought the frog would leave, but it sat there, oblivious to my actions on the other side of the door.

    Here's a snapshot of the frog with my phone.

    I have setup the tripod and started taking images.  I used a Nikkor 24-85mm macro lens, zooming in all the way to 85mm.  The aperture was locked at f/4, shutter speed was about 1/2 of a second.  Because the light was dim, I had to raise the ISO to 1600.  D4 is the low light king, so I knew there will be no problem there.  I put the camera on self-timer to minimize the camera shake.

    I took a few shots, changing the exposure slightly.  Then I brought the images into my Mac, chose the one I thought was the best of the set.  The adjustment were minor - contrast, color temperature, and cropping - thats about it.

    So, below is the final image.  I didn't clean up some of the glass imperfections, so what you see is what the camera saw, minus a slight contrast and color adjustment.  I would say it is a pretty good image, considering how bad the lighting conditions were, as well as the small size of the frog.

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      Photoshoot at an abandoned hospital - Nikon D4 in the field

      Nikon D4 field test: photoshoot at an abandoned hospital in Maryland, USA

      I wasn't sure what to expect going to a location like an abandoned hospital in Maryland to do my first field test of the Nikon D4.  First, I haven't done a shoot with people for some time now; then there's the issue of photographing at an abandoned building.  It was starting to look like a challenge.

      After finally receiving the D4 in June 2012 ( ordered it in January ), I was looking forward to field testing it. I wanted to find a unique location to use as a backdrop. A friend of mine checked out an abandoned Insane Asylum a few years back and told me about it, so I decided to find an abandoned hospital to put D4 to the field test.

      Location Background

      Initially I have found an abandoned power generation station not too far from where I live, but after doing some research I found out that the building has been demolished.  Too bad, because it was my Choice A location.  So, moving on to Location B - Henryton State Hospital.  I have spend a bit of time to research the location.  This is what I found out (in part on Wikipedia):
      Henryton State Hospital is a now-closed hospital complex in Marriottsville, in southern Carroll County, Maryland, just across the Howard County line. The Henryton State Hospital center, or the Henryton Tuberculosis Sanatorium as it was called, was erected in 1922 by the Maryland Board of Mental Hygiene. It was established as a facility to treat African Americans suffering from tuberculosis. This was one of the first such facilities in Maryland erected to provide African Americans with the same level of treatment as whites.

      Will not use tripod or speedlites - going to plan B

      On the day of the shoot myself, my assistant, and two first-time models set out to find this hospital.  The location was easy to find, although the vehicular gate was closed, we parked the car and continued on foot.  The buildings were in bad shape with no windows, debris everywhere, peeling paint, and an eerie feeling.

      My plan was to find one or two locations within the hospital complex, setup tripod, backlight flash, as well as key flash.  Going through the abandoned building gave me the unsettling feeling.  It was a feeling like you're being watched.  I didn't like that, but we were there, so we continued.

      I realized that we'll have to move fast, taking a few shots at different locations within the hospital.  So the tripod never got setup.  I like using tripod for the simple purpose that it makes you slow down, think about the shots, plan things.

      This was turning into run-and-gun shoot, which was fine, considering that I wanted to leave the place the second I got there.  I also decided to ditch the flashes and use available light, once again realizing that it was taking to long to setup, and I didn't want to be there any longer than I had to.  Oh, and did I mention that it was so freaking hot, I was sweating like a pig.

      D4 becomes an extension of me

      The models were tense as well; I think it showed throughout the whole shoot.  Usually, the model will be tense in the beginning, but then loosen up - that's when the photographer will get the best shots, usually towards the end of the shoot.

      Now, the models being tense a bit might have been a good thing because this tension can be felt in the photographs, so considering the location and the whole background of the shoot, it seems ok to me.

      I took just over 400 photos in couple of hours, shooting both inside the building and outside.  The light outside was harsh and direct, because it was mid-day - not the ideal conditions for the shoot.

      The camera became my extension, I didn't have to think much about the settings, as it was second nature.  I concentrated on directing the models, with varying degree of success.  The camera performed really well, considering the high contrast situations I encountered.

      After coming back, I processed the images in Camera Bag 2 on my Mac. Considering how fast the shoot went, the bad lighting conditions, models and myself being tense, this was a good shoot.

      D4 low light / high ISO performance

      Just as I expected the D4 performed so well in not-so-good lighting conditions. Low light performance as well as ISO performance were absolutely superb!

      I was shooting with 50mm 1.4 Nikkor lens (great lens) most of the time, so that helped to get little bit more light on the sensor.  I was able to raise the ISO up to 6400 with no problems, although I mostly shot at 800 ISO.

      Some images were a bit soft: could be because I've used the 50mm Nikkor lens fully opened at 1.4.  This lens is not the sharpest, especially at 1.4 setting.  It also could be that there was no sharpening applied to the images in camera, and I didn't do any in post.


      Overall, the shoot went well.  The main point was to see how the D4 holds up in the field.  It did as advertised.  I love this camera.  Its built like a tank, it's fast and accurate, and it's a pleasure to use!

      Bottom line - we had fun (sort of), and the D4 had its first field experience!


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