Experiment to make a cheap Steadicam

Gorillapod on a ski pole

Gorillapod on a ski pole

This experiment took much less time to do than writing about it here in the blog. Modern, light, cameras now take decent video. Since it is impossible to take a steady hand-held shot we are seeing lots of shaky movies. For hand-held shots, the pros use a Steadicam® — the very cheapest costs about $800. There are lots of plans on the net for homemade rigs that are projects that take time and require carrying around some heavy plumbing.

My hope, this winter, is to take some video in the backcountry while skiing. Since I have a Gorillapod® and I have ski poles when skiing, and since I know the principle of the Steadicam, I tried this mashup. I wound the legs of the Gorillapod around the handle of a ski pole. The camera on the top is a Canon SD 870 IS. Here is the result…

The Steadicam works because the camera is on the end of a beam with a counterweight at the other end. The operator holds the rig at the balance-point near the camera, and the whole assembly floats around that point. (There are no gyros.) An unsteady hand-held shot is shaky because the camera is allowed to rotate around the axis of the lens. If the camera is constrained so that the lens axis remain parallel, or the axis moves only fluidly, the camera can move — and move quickly — and yet the shot feels steady. The beam makes it difficult to rotate the camera around the lens’ axis. In this case, the beam is the ski pole. BTW, the pole is a Black Diamond FlickLock® — one of the cheapest and best in the backcountry. To use this setup, I held the Gorillapod just below the camera, and while letting the pole pendulum naturally, I adjusted the camera so that it was level and the lens pointed in the direction I wanted… and began the shot.

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20 Responses to “Experiment to make a cheap Steadicam”


  1. 1 neath November 30, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    That worked really well!

  2. 2 Robert November 30, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks neath… now no excuses for crummy hand-held video. Many years ago (long before the invention of the Steadicam) I read about a film-maker using professional 16mm gear who designed a gadget that was like a ladder with rungs only at each end. He put a counterweight on the rung at one end and the camera on the other end. He’d hold the ladder over his shoulders with his head in the middle, the camera in front of him, and the counterweight behind. He could ski down a hill filming another skier, and the camera would seem to float smoothly. Same principle. What makes my gadget possible is the lightness of the little camera. If I put my old Bolex 16mm on that Gorillapod I’d have to put a huge counterweight on the basket end of the pole and the assembly would become too heavy to hold.

  3. 3 Dona December 1, 2008 at 10:17 am

    I don’t know what a gorillapod is, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand why the camera seemed to float. Well done! d

  4. 4 Robert December 1, 2008 at 11:06 am

    @ Dona, Gorillapod = small flexible camera tripod. You can see me holding it in the picture at the top of the article.
    Gorillapod information – click here.

    There are imitations but the reviewers claim that this is the one that works.

    This system functions simply because the camera is attached to the pole. As the camera moves, the axis of the lens remains parallel from frame to frame… that’s all. The pole hangs down like a pendulum, and the trick to managing this is to find the balance-point, and hold the rig just above that. This keeps the camera upright and the pendulum does not swing. BTW, the Gorillapod really grips the pole-handle tightly… there is no slippage or wiggling. Also, the ‘Pod has a quick-attach feature so the camera can instantly be taken off if you want to take some stills without the whole rig. The pod weighs only 5 oz, so it is easy to pack.

  5. 5 Robert December 3, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Clarification: a shot will seem to be smooth if, during the movement of the camera the axis of the lens remains parallel (or moves fluidly). When I wrote about the Steadicam preventing the movement of the camera “around the axis of the lens” the issue is really that the axis of the lens is prevented from a rotation around an axis that is more-or-less perpendicular to the axis of the lens itself. In other words, camera shake is mainly due to tiny pans and tilts of the camera. For anyone with a heartbeat, this is almost impossible to prevent.

  6. 6 mor10 December 13, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Hello. Tanya (NetChick) sent me.

    I know it’s quite a lot bigger than what you have in mind and might not work very well for skiing, but after researching DIY stabilizers for a long time I ended up building a PVC Fig Rig like this one:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/shygantic/129121710/

    it works extremely well and only cost me $25 or so.

    Morten

  7. 7 Robert December 13, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Hi mor10. I found that PVC copy of the Fig Rig when my daughter’s film class was in production. It is a great concept! The Fig Rig is a good idea, and even the cost is reasonable for a professional outfit. I like the way it is easy to clamp a microphone and a light on to it. I don’t think it ‘floats’ as smoothly as a Steadicam. BTW, some of the utility of the Fig Rig can be simulated by clamping the Gorillapod on to a throwing disc, like a Frisbee. As with the ski pole, it works only with a very light camera.

    Thanks for dropping by and introducing me to http://www.pinkandyellow.com/

  8. 8 Scott Kingery December 27, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    So I’m having lunch with my daughter (13yo) today and mentioned I’m thinking about building some kind of DIY steadicam. She says ‘what about your Gorilliapod?’ Of course I hit up Google this evening and look what I found! Excellent job, Robert.
    I was thinking it might be interesting to have some kind of collapsible pole for those times when you aren’t on the ski slopes. Something that goes smaller than the typical monopod. Could be PVC, still thinking about it. Then there is the weight at the bottom. It might be heavy enough as it is but I was also thinking that weight you are already carrying could work (camera bag or spare batteries or something). Just has to counter balance.
    Anyway, thanks for the great inspiration.

    Scott
    @techlifeweb (on twitter)

  9. 9 Robert December 30, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Scott, this works with a light, collapsible aluminum backcountry ski pole because the camera is so very tiny and light. I find that as the weight of the camera increases, even a little, the mass of the steadicam elements should increase considerably. The ski-pole system quickly becomes awkward or impossible to manage. There are lots of DIY plans for more robust gadgets on the Internet. The difficult part seems to be the pivot around which the ‘sled’ or beam floats. I’ve not seen a good, cheap, off-the-shelf part that does that trick. (With my Gorillapod gadget, my wrist is the pivot, and I held the rig just above the balance point.) Unless you have access to a machine shop, it might be more efficient to look at the cheap alternatives to a real Steadicam.

    This supplier has a crude but inexpensive gadget. I’ve not found a review by someone who has used it: http://stores.ebay.ca/Indiehardware

    The U-Flycam looks more substantial, and costs only a bit more: http://snurl.com/99tym [cinecity_trustpass_alibaba_com]
    I found a review here: http://snurl.com/99u32 [www_youtube_com]

    If someone is reading this and would like to see a real Steadicam demonstrated, this could be useful: http://snurl.com/99u4r [www_indymogul_com]

    And, here are many illustrations of home-built stabilizers: http://www.homebuiltstabilizers.com/

  10. 10 Robert December 30, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    And let me add the Hague Mini Motion-Cam to the list. It looks inexpensive, small, and well thought-out. http://snurl.com/99xei [www_b-hague_co_uk]

  11. 11 Robert January 11, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    I am astonished at the number of hits this article and its comments are receiving every day.

    If you find the material in the article or in the comments useful, so might other people. Blog articles listings seem to fade with time in Google’s ranking unless there are links to that article. It would be very helpful to others searching for this material if you would make a link in your website or blog to this article. When you do, please list the actual URL, and do not use intermediate sites like http://tinyurl.com/. Google’s PageRank™ will find your link and treat it as a vote for this article.

    Many thanks.

  12. 12 Taffy January 19, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Hi Robert
    I like your gorillapod/ski pole “steadicam”
    I cannot quite work out how you holding the rig, or which part you are holding to form a gimbal. The video on your site is very good. Do you have any yet out on the trail? I want something like this for when I am hiking in the mountains and also climbing on snow and ice. Please explain your method of holding and if possible show a photo of you holding the rig. Thanks for sharing.

  13. 13 Robert January 19, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Taffy, I am holding it as you see in the top photo of the article: Robert holding the Gorillapod-skipole-camera rig. Since I was filming me, the camera is pointed at me. The Gorillapod is tightly grasping the handle of the ski pole, which is dangling straight down below. The trick is to hold the whole rig just above the balance point – any higher and the pole will try to swing like a pendulum. So I let the pole dangle and THEN level the camera so the horizon is level. It still requires some practice to move smoothly — but even Steadicam operators need to learn that. BTW, it does not have to be a ski pole – anything will do. The Gorillapod seems to grasp the ski pole better than some things I’ve tried, such as the very smooth handle of a golf umbrella. If you are using a hiking (or ski) pole, and you don’t need to move, put it down so that it becomes a monopod – that’s even better.

    You LIVE IN a National Park! Lovely. Best wishes… rjb

  14. 14 Taffy January 23, 2009 at 5:12 am

    Hi Robert
    Thanks for your reply and photo. I will buy a gorrilapod and five this a try. I am hiking across Iceland from N to S later this year so am looking for ways to make a short film of my endeavours on lightweight video equipment and this seems a great idea for self filming with a small lightweight camera. Many thanks.

  15. 15 Robert January 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I see that the Steadicam company now has announced its own offering for the fly-weight camcorder and video cell phone market called: Steadicam Smoothee
    http://www.steadicam.com/smoothee_home.html

  16. 16 Mike February 17, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks for your blog and info. I tie-wrapped a $5.00 mini-tripod (it’s maybe 4″ long) to the handle at the top of my skipole, tie-wrapped about 2Lbs of scrap steel 1/2 way down, and screwed my Xacti Vid-Cam to the top ($240. of HD video). Down-hill skiing in the Ottawa, Canada area on local hills (1000ft vert.drop) to take vid’s of the kid’s : it really worked for me!! The skipole approach allows me to start up right off the chair-lift. The pole can be rotated to the side or back as I hold it to catch my kid’s there while I ski beside or in front. As we move about the slope, it can be a challenge, but is often do-able to track a skier. The pole is there in hand if I really need it for skiing. And I can have my glove on in the cold!

    Use Specifics:
    – The Cam stands about 1″ or so above the pole top; the tri-pod’s
    – The weight provides better overall mass for inertia stability of the cam, and better vertical control.
    – I hold the pole just under the bottom of the handle flare losely. With a winter glove on, it allows something of a gimble, the handle flare swivleing in the circle of my thumb/forefinger.
    – The ideal weight position is maybe 6″ below the bottom of the handle. The ideal c.g. is the bottom of the handle.
    – This is a lose/gimble that also allows adding some up or down ‘english’ of the glove grip to track up or down the hill. this is necessary to track, but adds a bit of vibration.
    – Problem issue is wind resistance at speed downhill: the bottom of the pole blows back and the Cam gimbles foreword/downward. It’s easy to overlook this correction while tracking a skier, and the hill to avoid a cameraman crash!

    Again, thanks for the idea as I work the technique. Best regards, Mike

  17. 17 Robert February 18, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Mike, thanks for the story. I hope you can take pictures of the rig and also find a place on the web to post them plus some action footage taken on the slopes with that setup. If you do, please come back here and provide a link.

  18. 18 Nam July 22, 2010 at 5:12 am

    Hey,
    I am highly interested in building myself a Gorillapod steadicam. However, I haven’t completely understood the way it works. You don’T just attach the gorillapod to skipole right?

    Where do you hold this construction?

  19. 19 Robert July 22, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Nam, even for a small camera, use the larger Gorillapod®. And it must be a tiny camera. If it has any significant weight, the assembly that the Steadicam people call a ‘sled’ has to be heavier and may require a counterweight. A ski pole would not be enough to do the job. The advantage of a ski pole (or a hiker’s pole) for me is that it is a piece of gear that I am already carrying when I am out in the hills.

    Please review the links to see other stabilizers, and the demo of a real Steadicam (all above in the comments) so that you understand the principle of how the rig works.

    The way that I did it, there is no construction. There is enough friction in the knobs of the Gorillapod to grasp the handle of the ski pole firmly (see the picture at the top of the article). If you have any wiggle, some duct tape would be all that is necessary to stop that.

    You hold it just above the point where the whole rig balances. That means that the lower part of the pole acts as a pendulum to keep the camera upright. When the ‘pendulum’ is hanging straight down (not swinging) adjust the camera until the horizon is level. When you hold it, your wrist is used to damp any attempt of the rig to pendulum.


  1. 1 Ideal Ski Day on Round Mt. « Salish Sea Trackback on February 23, 2009 at 10:25 pm

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