I’m a committed still photographer, and that will always be my job description, but it doesn’t prevent me from spreading out into other creative areas. The obvious one is writing, and about half of that is inspired by my photography. It fits nicely into my schedule; when I’m not shooting I’m writing. Video more recently is fitting into the same pattern, and while it’s partly because I’ve always been interested in film and am making an effort to set aside some time for it, the main facilitator is, as you’d expect, that I can switch to it quickly (in principle) with the same equipment. I use a Nikon D4S and D4, with a range of lenses that goes from 14mm to 600mm, and as my outlet is the web, that’s enough quality for my needs, using an Atomos recorder for an uncompressed output via HDMI. Nothing complicated, but sufficient.
How many other photographers are in my position? Stills always first, but high-quality video with the least amount of equipment. Over the last year, my personal interests and those of a client have happily coincided, so I’ve been allocating some more time to shooting video, mainly in China. The client is LUX* Resorts and Hotels, a Mauritius-based company expanding its operation into Yunnan, a part of China that I’ve been closely involved with ever since principal shooting began on my book Tea Horse Road. That indeed is the client’s concept — a chain of luxury boutique hotels stretched out along the old Tea Horse Road, which ran from the tea mountains close to the Burmese border in the far southwest, all the way to Lhasa. The success of this book, now in its second edition, generated other projects and commissions, and is why LUX* approached me to develop the narrative that this chain of properties relies on to generate bookings.
This may be an over-long preamble, but it’s to explain why, on the ground, the 60cm Camera Slider with Fluid Head is the most important additional equipment that I need for video. Weight and bulk is one critical issue when travelling, and I need to keep it down. Even Business Class allows only two pieces of checked baggage, with weight limits, so each equipment has to be chosen carefully.
The second issue is the added complication of operating more items of equipment, which slows down shooting, and especially the time it takes to react to a situation and set up for it. A slider offers the best creative value-to-weight ratio I know, because quite simply it allows you to move the camera smoothly, and that raises video one major level. You need a tripod anyway, as handheld now looks even less professional than it ever did, as it’s the hallmark of smartphone shooting, and while a locked-off camera at least looks professional and considered, a sequence of static shots soon conveys a static feeling to the audience. Panning with a fluid head is only an occasional solution, because it shifts the audience’s view rather than lets the viewers stay focused on one part of the scene where the action is.
A slider makes a major visual difference, and more than that, is an effect that audiences are subliminally conditioned to expect. Watch any good video or movie production, and see how many of the shots have camera movement, even if only slight. A moving camera puts the audience more strongly in that viewpoint than a static shot, and so gets it more involved. Simply put, I want smooth movement with the least weight and complication. A number of years ago I worked with the director Ron Fricke at Angkor when they were filming Baraka, and had the interesting experience of having a Hollywood crew turn a few of the images from my book Angkor: The Hidden Glories into film. This shot was one of the more prominent ones, a slow dolly and crane shot. It was impressive on 70mm film, but it took all six of us, me included, to make it happen. By contrast, I want to be able to operate the camera alone.
Choosing a slider is involves compromises, and they fall into four areas: length, transportability, durability and smooth operation. The longer the slider, the longer the shot and the more interesting parts of a scene that it can move through. But longer means heavier and bulkier, which impacts on transporting it, especially when flights are involved, as they almost always are for me, while on the ground, someone has to carry it unless you restrict all shooting to using a vehicle. It also needs to be sufficiently well engineered, from the right materials, to be able to stand some knocks and rough treatment. The world is not a studio. Finally the most complex part of the compromise is smooth operation. There are several different ways of having a carriage move smoothly with little friction, and the Manfrotto design, with precision ballbearings and special polymer wheels, fulfils the need.
In terms of value for weight, I need a slider that is in a single machined piece for stability, rigidity and immediate use, yet it has to fit into a standard checked piece of baggage. And as I really need only some movement rather than a long tracking shot that goes from one specific point to another, 60cm is sufficient. Put another way, I’m more concerned with being able to have movement of some kind in a shot when I need it than with having a particular movement. Manfrotto make a 100cm slider, but that would need its own carrying bag and would be less stable at the ends if I’m using a relatively light tripod.
Ultimately, though, it’s smooth operation with the fewest moving parts that’s the key, and this is where the Manfrotto slider really scores. All parts are machined, and the carriage has 8 high precision steel ballbearings and four wheels made of PSU, a high-performance polymer. In addition to the carriage locking knob, there is also a knob to adjust the friction drag. This accommodates for the different styles of operation that people have. Some prefer super-soft so that the camera glides effortlessly at the touch of a finger, others would rather have firmer control that comes from rather more resistance, so it’s quite a personal thing. Very little friction allows a single point of contact, say at the end of the fluid head pan bar, while some controlled drag with the adjustment knob tightened a little is more suitable for two-point contact, such as one hand on the camera or carriage and the other holding the pan bar firmly. Three-point contact is even firmer, such as one hand on the camera, the other on the carriage and the fluid head pan bar pressing into the shoulder. For me at least, the critical part of any move is the end, either slowing down at a controlled pace with the idea of cutting the shot later towards the end of the slide, or even more demanding, slowing down to an imperceptible standstill while filming continues. Ramping UP from a standstill at the start is less of a problem than slowing down, as the final clip is easy to cut once the camera has started moving. All of this needs personal experiment. Overall, I prefer a slightly firmer setting, so that I can move my body into the slide, with gives me at least more control than having all the impetus coming from my arms and hands.
I mentioned a lighter tripod. That’s the other major practice issue. I have several, and there’s no doubt that a large and heavy tripod, plus the assistant necessary to have it in position whenever you want, is ideal. But once again, travelling influences the choice. If it didn’t, I’d use my 057 Carbon Fiber Tripod 4 Sections, with a safe payload weight of 18kg, which I consider perfect for supporting slider, head and camera, and if I were shooting an assignment that were entirely vehicle-based, that’s what I would take, as I did for a recent still shoot of interiors in colonial Singapore houses. The extra weight and bulk there had no effect on shooting, as we were always moving by car or taxi. More recently, I had a shoot in Yunnan in which video had minor rôle for just a few planned shots, and I decided to experiment and see if I could still use the slider with its fluid head (see below) on what’s essentially an inappropriate support — my Gitzo Series 1 Traveler Tripod (code GT1555T). This tripod, separately reviewed by me here is quite simply the best lightweight traveling tripod available, superior for its design, engineering and compactness, and I always travel with it. Could it possibly be made to work with a slider?
The final answer was, just about, with quite a lot of compromise. The problem was inherent in the tripod’s lightness rather than its ability to support — distribution of weight. With the camera at either end of the slider, it would overbalance. My solution was to support one end from one leg, as below, cannibalising some parts from other equipment. The other part of the trick was to align the slider with the leg carrying the support. This worked, as in the shots below, but I felt (meaning could feel during the slide) that it was at the limits of stability, and with the camera at the opposite end was close to overbalancing. It saved me from bringing a second, larger tripod, but the next time, this Spring, I’ll add that other tripod — the 190 XPRO Aluminium 3-Section Tripod with Horizontal Column.
An almost obligatory accessory to a slider is a fluid head, so that I can easily execute a track and pan or a track and tilt, each of which adds even more audience involvement. The Lightweight Fluid Tripod Video head with Flat Base (code MVH500AH) that I use is impressively light (900gm) and compact for the smooth motion it gives me, and with a safe payload weight of 5kg is well able to support a D4 even with a 70-200mm lens and Atomos recorder slotted into the camera’s hot shoe mount. Quite simply, I don’t need a larger head; this does the job with no handling penalty, and is also surprisingly inexpensive. I pack the head’s pan bar separately, which is only a minor inconvenience, and re-positioning it — rotating it upward, for example, if I’m making a pan while sliding that might put it in the way of the slider — takes just a few seconds.
Everything is motivated by my search for the most effect in a limited amount of video work, as the still shooting overall takes priority on a travelling assignment. Put another way, I’m looking for added creative value for the least weight and set-up time. As a result, I’ve developed some preferences in the way I use the slider-and-head combination, as follows:-
- Exactly levelled
There’s no doubt that an inclined slider that allows the shot to rise as it tracks is dynamic, but it takes a lot more trouble and skill to move the sliding head plus camera smoothly by hand. That translates into perhaps several takes to be sure, and even then some uncertainty about the smoothness of the shot, particularly at the start and finish. Once again, as I’m shooting video as only a part of an assignment and not full-time, I reluctantly avoid this. By the same token, I can save a lot on bad shots by making sure that the slider is absolutely level. Even a slight angle impacts on the smoothness of the shot, because it means extra attention to either pushing or holding back on the movement. Much more secure is a level slide, which I can then execute with a light touch.
- Wide-angle lens
You get the biggest effect for your bucks with a shorter focal length, because the apparent travel is greater.
- Close foreground
Something that can be combined with the extra apparent motion for a wide-angle lens is making sure that there is something in the close foreground as you track, because it makes the strongest use of parallax to add movement.
- Diagonal track-in
My default angle to the subject is diagonally, again for the reasons of getting a stronger sense of movement — partly inward and partly across.
- Sideways track
More straightforward than the diagonal track is positioning the slider side-on to the subject so that the camera is aimed perpendicular to the slider and simply moves from left to right or right to left.
- Track and pan
More effort to get right, but more dynamic in the result, is to loosen the fluid head’s base and pan at the same time as sliding. There’s more risk of failing to get it smooth, which is why I do this after shooting a simple track, and therefore on shots where there’s a little more time and less pressure to move on.
- Forward track-in
Actually my least favourite movement to execute, because it limits the focal length I can use to one that doesn’t show the front end of the slider at the start, so the apparent motion is quite small, unless the camera is tilted upward slightly. Nevertheless, it’s a standard and useful move.