Video enabled DSLR cameras are the most cost effective way of producing beautiful, big budget looking video. But 3 years after they took over the market place the cameras still have shortcomings that have to be addressed before they can work their best.
Sound was the initial biggest issue,and the current line up of cameras largely take care of sound so the two biggest remaining issues are the cameras are difficult to focus and hard to hold.
A DSLR is ergonomically designed to hold against your face with two hands and shoot still photos with. If you are a little shaky that way it is ok because the shutter speed will likely compensate for the shake. Shooting video is an entirely different matter. You can’t hold the camera against your face so it is difficult to be steady. More importantly the cameras gather video using a rolling shutter and any shake can end up looking like jello. Auto focus that most of us rely on no longer works.
There are lots of supports and focus systems on the market that help correct those problems. Manfrotto enters the market this year with the Sympla system, a comprehensive group of supports and innovative focus assists.
When my friend Ira called and told me about the electronic focus controller my first thought was that it couldn’t possibly work. The Manfrotto sales rep arranged for me to try a set of gear this week and I have to say I was wrong, the controller does work. It works great. In fact coupled with an EVF that provides focus peaking (like the Zacuto or the Small HD) the camera operator can do a good job of keeping the camera in focus without taking eyes off the viewfinder or changing hand position.
The controller provides 2 focus racking modes, fixed and variable plus 3 focus speeds. On fixed the focus speed is set to either fast medium or slow, on variable the farther you press the focus controller the faster the lens focuses. Fast is pretty jerky, but medium and slow are SMOOTH. In addition in the fixed mode you can preset focus points and rack between them. Obviously you are using the lenses internal motors and the better your lens the better your focus will be. However, even my old 100mm macro moves well with this focus controller.
above, focus racking, first two scense canon 100mm macro, 3rd canon 70-200mm f2.8 prestored focus points on the sympla controller.
The controller itself is a 2 part, silver dollar sized unit that clamps to either side of your camera support handles or fluid head handle. It is powered by 2 AAA batteries. The controller allows you to turn live view on and off, and magnify the viewfinder. I'm happy to have these controls down on the handle as things in back of the camera get pretty crowded. The controller communicates with the camera via a mini usb connector. You can add an off the shelf USB extension to give you the ability to rack focus at the end of a crane or on a remotely mounted camera.
There are two downsides to using the lens motors. First is that you are stuck with 3 focus speeds and the fast speed is too jerky to look good. This will make it hard to track a subject moving quickly toward the camera. The second is power. I am doing these test with a 5D MK III and I find that when using the lens motors for focus the camera battery lasts about half as long as when I manually focus. So to shoot with this set up a lot either have many spare canon batteries on hand or look at a more professional 12 volt solution (Bebo or IDX).
Street price for the remote controller is just under $400, less than half the price of a decent mechanical follow focus system.
The other part of the Sympla system are a new set of camera supports built around an adjustable camera plate and and industry standard set of 15mm rods. The plate holds the camera with a standard Manfrotto video plate. In that respect it is a lot like many rod support systems out there. But the Sympla lets you adjust camera height and switch rod lengths without tools. The rods themselves are heavy duty threaded aluminum in lengths of 300 and 150 mm. They screw together making them easy to pack but remain rigid enough to hang lots of weight on.
They need to be heavy duty because the Sympla accessories, handles, matte box and shoulder support are heavy duty too. Rental House kind of heavy duty. They are made with Manfortto’s customary quality. They might not be the lightest things on the market but they are going to last. The matte box, shoulder pad and handles all attache by way of a common universal rod mount. The common mount lets you put the handles straight on the matte box, or combine the handles with a lens support.
One of the features I like best is the universal rod mount is bristling with threaded ¼” and ⅜” female industry standard holes. There are plenty of places to attach hydrostatic arms to hold your EVF, sound recorder, or microphone.
The handles themselves are easily adjustable to make them comfortable for each user. Unlike some other models I have tried these do not slip. They are also easily reversible if you are trying to hold a low angle. The electronic focus controller clips on left or right without a problem.
The unusual looking matte box holds two rotating 4x4” filters and flexes to accommodate wide lenses (I found 35mm to be the widest without vignetting). It also flexes asymmetrically in case you need to shoot against a window and have to block out reflected light. The 4x4s are useful for ND and split ND filters, They will keep you running at a nice wide aperture. And sliding the filters in and out is sure a lot classier than taping them on with electrical tape a la Shane Hulbut.
The comfortable shoulder support is also reversible in case you are trying to hold a low angle. There is a threaded hole in back for a counter weight which you will definitely need if you are shooting with the matte box.
In general the Sympla system is a high quality, well thought out, moderately priced system. It is adaptable for almost any camera from a small dslr up through a Red. Much like manfrotto tripods it will certainly outlast the camera that you are using now.
The big question is am I going to buy it? Well, certainly parts of it. Definitely the remote and the handles and the adjustable support plate.
Complete Sympla system information is here.