Film makers have longe since realised the power of camera movement, employing all manner of rails, cranes, jibs and dollies to introduce motion into their shots. Documentarian, Ken Burns, famously pioneered the idea of applying movement to still images that he included in his film productions, understanding that even small perceptions of motion would be enough to somehow energise an otherwise completely static vista. One of the most common ways for videographers to introduce a sense of movement into sequences when filming, is to use a camera slider. The principle is quite simple: using a set of bearings travelling on rails, or some kind of folding cantilever system, the camera is moved smoothly through a linear track, giving the result of subtly changing the camera’s point of view during a shot. Although a relatively simple production trick, even the smallest movement can really help to engage the viewer, particularly if the contents of the frame are relatively static.
Unsurprisingly, the range of camera sliders available is large, each with unique selling points and slightly different applications. Equally unsurprising is the massive variation in price tag, depending upon the quality, load capacity, motion range and general flexibility that the device offers. In this article I’ll be looking at the criteria that I’m using to inform my choice of camera slider.
Variety is the spice of life
Some camera sliders are designed to be as long as possible, some to be as compact and portable as possible; while others offer the possibility of being extended in order to go some way towards addressing both of these possibilities. Some sliders offer flywheels to even out the speed of camera motion, while others offer full automation and even wireless remote control (there’s an app for that too). Light duty devices, aimed at use with compact cameras or even phones, are now available, while others are capable of carrying cameras weighing many kilos. In terms of price, sliders can be bought from Amazon, for as little as £40.00 – £50.00, while others will potentially run to several thousands, depending upon the accessories that are purchased along with the main device.
Bulk and space.
I’m a solo shooter, and as my business grows, I’ll be doing a variety of video production work: corporate video assignments (company profiles, interviews, etc), live production for recording and streaming (including multi camera work), along with some documentary production for a variety of sectors. Working solo means that I have to carry all the gear necessary for an assignment myself. While I don’t mind a couple of trips to and from the car, after that I have to question how much kit I’m carrying. For a simple corporate video, including an interview, I typically need to to take a camcorder, two tripods, an LED panel light, a reflector and a couple of stands; along with a rucksack containing a second, smaller camera, mics, leads and general bits and bobs. If I’m doing live production work, I’ll add a third camera and also take an ABS rack case containing an ATEM Switcher, monitors, disk recorder, web interface, network AP and power management. To avoid any additional bulk, it’s really important that a camera slider can be carried either inside or strapped to my camcorder case, or similarly in or on the rucksack I use for leads, etc. While I could undoubtedly get greater movement and ultimately a wider range of possibilities from a larger, e.g. 120cm device, for me, a big linear slider would be an unacceptable burden.
Performance and range.
The two most important factors for any kind of moving camera support are the inherent stability of the system and how smoothly it moves. Certainly, when reading reviews of budget sliders, these are the two main parameters by which reviewers, more often than not, judge a slider to be unfit for purpose, and rightly so! Let’s be honest, no matter how interesting the potential of motion within a shot is, if the camera jerks or wobbles at any point in its travel, the footage is unusable. In the same way that a humble tripod needs to be rock solid and, if fitted with a panning tilting head, the motion of this needs to be silky smooth; a camera slider needs to support the weight of a camera solidly and to move it without any perceivable snagging or vibration whatsoever. This requires meticulous design, quality materials and very high engineering standards. Although some budget sliders perform better than others, to a very large degree, you get what you pay for in this area. If you’re a working professional and can’t afford a hope for the best attitude to your work, then it pays to invest more to ensure minimum standards of performance, as it could make the difference between usable and completely wasted footage.
The range of movement and therefore the potential usefulness of a camera slider is another important consideration. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as better to have it and not need it, because as the size off the device increases so do the tradeoffs to stability, smoothness, portability and cost. With larger sliders, commonly as long as 1.2 metres, there’s also the issue of how they are supported. If you wish to raise a slider of this size off the floor, then you may find it necessary to use more than one tripod in order to prevent the camera sagging at the extreme ends of the slider’s travel. For the work I hope to do, length of travel isn’t particularly important, as all I’m really looking for is to inject a perception of movement, rather than to create a larger, more noticeable effect. If you’re looking for a more obvious effect, then you’ll probably need to look at a slider that allows at least 60cm of travel. Similarly, if you’re working on a more expansive scene, featuring more distant subjects, then the geometry involved in giving a sense of changing perspective necessitates a longer track; although there are ways to use foreground elements to help offset the restrictions of shorter camera travel.
One of the important features I require is automation and the ability to control this remotely. As a solo shooter, I’ll frequently set up an unattended camera to capture B roll, while my attention is on other aspects of a production. Having this remote camera, effectively locked off, but on a simple motion loop, courtesy of a camera slider, is a huge bonus. For example, while I’m conducting an interview and monitoring audio from my main camera, it’s always good to capture a completely different angle of the interviewee; but rather than this being static, I can use the slider to inject movement. Similarly, if I’m doing something like a live stream at a conference venue, I can have a third camera on an automated motion loop, to supplement my locked-off wide angle and closeup cameras. In this second scenario, being able to adjust the parameters of this automated movement remotely is an added bonus as the remote camera could, in some cases, be quite a distance from my workstation.
There’s an old saying that time is money and this applies in spades in media production. Whatever equipment I use, ease and speed of setup is essential, as I really don’t want to waste unnecessary time wrestling with setting up and taking down gear that’s unnecessarily fiddly or complex to prepare. Ideally I need as much of my equipment ready to rock straight from the bag as possible. In fact, in a perfect world all production gear would simply self inflate! Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect, so I need to look for a camera slider that’s as close to plug ’n’ play as possible, which means some trade offs in terms of functionality. Many longer sliders come with separate camera carriage, flywheel mechanism or motor drive, all of which need to be connected before the device will operate. My needs call for something considerably more integrated, ideally all in one, leaving me to simply attach the slider to a tripod, then attach the camera to the slider and voila!
My criteria and choices.
O.K. so I need a camera slider that is:
- Compact and light enough to fit into/onto an existing bag, I.e. something that won’t generate additional luggage.
- Offers automated motorised operation, which ideally can be adjusted remotely.
- Is quick to setup
These criteria all but eliminate most of the parallel rail type models that I’ve seen, as most, if not all of them are too bulky for my packaging and transportation needs. I took a good look at models such as those from A&J, GVM and Manfrotto, but almost without exception they were going to be too large for my particular circumstances. I was momentarily tempted by iFootage’s Shark Slider Mini, and also by Edelkrone’s Slider Plus Compact; but with motor and remote options taking the price for either of these to well over £1000, I had to think again. One linear slider that did catch my eye is the Rhino ROV Pro Traveller, which, at just 40cm, is certainly compact and could certainly meet all of the above criteria, without bankrupting me.
Next my attention turned to the folding cantilever or wing type sliders produced by Edelkrone and DigiSlider, both of which are very compact. I’ve heard good reports about this type of slider, provided that it is engineered to be fit for purpose. Sadly, according to many reviews, some of the cheaper examples of this type of slider simply aren’t up to the job. I quite like the idea that this type of device doesn’t require a long flat cavity in a bag or case to stow it. When folded they’re about the size of a DSLR body, so there are plenty of places in a bag that one of these devices will fit quite nicely. While the Edelkrone Wing is purely manual at this point, the Digislider comes with remote control motorised operation as standard. My only concern is whether the engineering and materials used will stand up to the obvious strain that is placed on the moving parts in this kind of design.
I haven’t yet really made up my mind on this one and a spend in the order of £500+ always warrants careful consideration in my book. As I’ve said, I like the idea of the folding wing devices very much, but I am concerned as to the long term serviceability of these devices, which haven’t been around long enough to have stood the test of time. I’m also conscious that they aren’t standalone and will always need some sort of additional support such as a tripod, while a linear device could be placed on any convenient table or worktop. One of the short linear models, such as the Rhino ROV Pro Traveller, could tick a lot of my boxes, but again, this is such a new offering that there aren’t enough purchaser reviews to really inspire my trust just yet.
Clearly, this is one I’ll come back to in the future and hopefully I’ll soon be in a position to review my weapon of choice. In the meantime I’ll just keep scouring the web for info and opinion surrounding the silky smooth world of the camera slider.