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This week, I opened the trunk of my car to find an old (and I mean old) steadi-cam rig I made out of PVC pipe and duct tape back when I was in high school. I suppose I had been carrying it around for some time out of a silly combination of nostalgia and… perceived future necessity…?
Which got me thinking: was I ever going to actually use this almost fifteen-year-old rig, rig being generous as I doubt it even works anymore, to stabilize a camera on an actual shot? Instead, what other affordable, DIY options are available to me now, in 2019, for stabilizing a camera on a budget?
So I did the smart thing and finally did some research. This is what I found:
The top seven affordable DIY ways I found to stabilize your camera on a budget, in order from simplest to most complicated, were: 1) making use of a simple and cheap tripod to tilt, pan, or monopod a DSLR camera, 2) tying strings, rubber bands, or camera straps to your camera and anchor with your body weight to stabilize handheld pans and tilts, 3) making a glidecam out of an old gift bag 4) using wheelchairs, skateboards, or “magic carpet” dollies for tracking shots, 5) creating a PVC pipe rig that actually works in 2019, 6) using metal instead of PVC for a sturdier DIY rig, and 7) doing some fabricating at home using carbon fiber and some electronic components to create your own DIY Gimbal!
And that’s just a bird’s eye view of all the tricks and tools you can use to stabilize your cine-work with a DIY mindset.
If you’re not interested in a DIY solution have a look at our amazing guide to the best gimbals for DSLR and mirrorless cameras instead.
Let’s take a look at each of the prescribed methods in more detail below. But first:
What is Camera Stabilization?
Let’s talk about camera stabilization for a moment. When we talk about camera stabilization, what we are talking about is the creation of a smooth, stable image.
We often think of stabilization as solely referring to the opposite of “shaky cam”, but stabilization isn’t just about smooth sailing when going handheld. A tripod is a perfect example of hands-free camera stabilization.
I know that’s a very basic observation, but it’s worth pointing out because in my research I found that the method of stabilization that’s best for you is largely dependent on what type of shot you are trying to create.
For example, when you think of stabilization, your first thought might go to a gimbal or glidecam rig, and you might skip over a tripod or a slider. In reality, anything that supports your camera’s weight and creates a steady image can be a stabilizer. Even a bit of resistance to keep your arms steady can count as stabilization.
There are more reasons than a complex eight-minute handheld one shot that you could use help stabilizing an image. You might need a stabilizer when panning or tilting, or maybe you need to stabilize an image while tracking or dollying. You might just need a steady solution for shooting handheld in a pinch. I’ve got all of those covered.
With that in mind, here are my top seven picks for the best, most affordable, most DIY methods for stabilizing your camera on a budget.
Method 1: The Versatile Tripod
Tripods are so much more than just a way to firmly rest your camera on.
In fact, a tripod can be used for several other types of stabilization as well – from glidecams to shoulder rigs and snorricams.
Let’s start by taking a look at how you can use your tripod as a steadicam.
Below is a video from Film Riot where you can see this technique in use together with other cool tricks, e.g., how you can use your tripod as a snorricam:
To do this method, begin by connecting your camera to the tripod. You will want to hold the tripod by the middle bar, not one of the three legs. By doing this, you can use the three legs as counterweights, which will steady your shot.
If you want to create a tilt, you can by extending the first two legs extended all the way to the ground, and using the third to tilt the camera forwards and backward.
You can similarly use the tripod to create a crane effect by lowering or raising the middle tripod with the hand-crank. This works best for shots with a subject close in the front of the frame to focus on as you take it in.
Just make sure you crank slowly to keep it smooth. You can always speed it up in post. (Obviously, this works better with cheap tripods, but cheaper tripods are not always as smooth).
If you’re looking for an inexpensive tripod for video – or an expensive one for that matter – have a look at our guide 10 Best DSLR Video Tripods for beginners, travel, and pros.
But there are other ways to use your tripod as a Steadicam, as you can see presented here by YouTuber Will Merrel:
“The Merricam” is a really inexpensive way to use a tripod as a steadicam or glidecam, as you can just buy an inexpensive tripod and modify it for these kinds of shots.
Keep in mind, that the heavier the tripod, the more stable your shots are going to be.
Also, if you find the legs of the tripods doesn’t way enough to counter-balance the weight of your camera, you can just add a light stand sandbag or some of those fitness weight-belts you wrap around your angles to the legs of the tripod.
And finally here’s a way to quickly turn your tripod into a shoulder-rig as presented by Eric Rossi:
If you prefer, you could even wrap some plumbing pibe insulation – or just your jacket – around the leg which goes over your shoulder for a quick DIY shoulderpad.
Method 2: Straps, Strings, and Other Things
Thanks to a helpful video I found from Filmora, I discovered quite a few useful methods for stabilizing your camera with only but a camera strap.
Like the above method, these methods are best for DSLR cameras as well. I think it’s safe to assume that if you are on a budget and you are shooting a project without renting a Steadicam rig, you are probably shooting on DSLR.
One of the first methods I found interesting was using a five to seven-foot piece of string that you screw between your camera and a tripod baseplate.
You begin by holding the two ends of the string together above your head in front of you, then step forward onto the string, using your feet to separate the middle to form a triangle, which will act as a base.
You then line the two ends of the string together and lay them against the bottom of your camera. Screw in the baseplate so you are sandwiching the string between the camera and the plate until it’s taught, then adjust your feet until you are holding the camera at the height you will be most comfortable with holding it while you pan or tilt.
Your feet forming a base, you should be holding your camera enough away from you so the string is tight, creating resistance, and stabilizing your movements. By creating this resistance against your bodyweight, your movements should be much smoother.
A similar method to the string trick above that you can use on the go is to use a rubber band that you tie against your belt loop. Using a rubber band gives you more flexibility while still keeping the connection taught while tying it to your belt loop makes you mobile in a way the string method can’t.
Here’s what you do. You first attached the rubber band to your belt, and tie it so that it’s nice and tight. Make sure the rubber band is new and not an older one that’s been sitting in your cabinet for years, as old rubber bands will easily break on you.
Attach the end of the rubber band that isn’t tied to your belt loop to the camera using the base-plate to anchor it in place.
From there, you can hold your camera at arm’s length from you and use the rubber band to help stabilize the image as you pan or tilt, as long as you keep the resistance taught.
The last option I found interesting, is that you can use your camera strap for resistance in a similar way as the above.
You start by putting your DSLR camera’s strap around your neck and holding your camera at a far enough distance from your face that the strap becomes taught. Pulling it tightly against your neck in this way, your camera will use your own body weight as a stabilizer, which will create a smoother look as you pan the camera from left to right.
To make this work, you’ll want to move slow enough and use enough resistance so the strap doesn’t loosen, or it’ll all basically be for naught. If you’re in a pinch, this is a neat trick that will at least help to do something to reduce the shaky look in a handheld shoot.
Method 3: Glidecam in a Bag
Another find courtesy of Filmora, this method is useful for when you have gift bags lying around from before you were a broke filmmaker and could actually go shopping for gifts. Get thrifty by turning an old gift bag into a make-shift glidecam rig!
Here’s what you do: Begin by selecting a gift bag that’s big enough to fit your camera (most likely a DSLR) with in-tact handles that will be able to support the weight of your camera without breaking.
Next, consider the size of the lens you will be shooting on, and cut a wide-enough hole to allow you to shoot through in the side of the bag.
Place your camera in the bottom of the bag so that the lens is pointing through the hole, and voilà! You have a makeshift glidecam that you can carry for smooth tracking of a subject.
Keep in mind, this method is best for low-lying tracking shots, like following feet or a character at a distance from a lower vantage point. You can carry the bag so it’s at eye level by holding the bag with your arms above your head, but that will get tiring fast, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, try…
Method 4: Skateboards, Wheelchairs, and “Magic Carpet” Dollies
Dollies, dolly track, cranes and jibs are some of the priciest production tools to rent and are time-consuming to set up. On a budget, there are some simple (and fun) alternatives you can consider.
For example, one of the first-ever good dolly substitutes I discovered as a young film student was a wheelchair. We were lucky in that one of my frequent collaborators had an old wheelchair around the house, and we were able to use that on a lot of our earliest films together.
When using a wheelchair, you can operate the camera while sitting in the wheelchair, or put the camera on a tripod and get out and push the wheelchair dolly yourself.
The trick with using a wheelchair to stabilize your tracking shots is that a wheelchair is only as smooth as the ground beneath it and whoever is pushing the chair, but it’s far superior to something like an office chair, with unreliable wheels that like to jut off in different directions than the one you’re going in and have virtually no shock-resistance.
But wheelchairs aren’t your only option. You may have tried this before, but skateboards can make for a decent dolly replacement too. Longboards or boards with bigger wheels are safer bets, and you’ll only want to use them for short distances along hard, flat surfaces.
For soft surfaces, like interior carpets, you can use the “magic carpet” dolly technique by sliding your camera along the ground with a large piece of cardboard.
Sliding your camera (on a tripod) with cardboard is a surprisingly smooth ride, and works very effectively, especially if you can rig it with some type of handle to push it while standing up.
If you don’t have a piece of cardboard, you can even use some coffee cups, skateboards, and even a pot from the kitchen, like in this video from Filmora:
You can also use smaller pieces of cardboard to slide your camera on hard surfaces, like a kitchen table or nearby counter-top. This method doesn’t require a tripod – just your DSLR camera sitting on the cardboard.
The magic carpet method doesn’t have to just be cardboard. You can use a cut of cloth to place under your camera to then slide along a hard surface like a table or countertop. As long as you go slowly, this will smoothen the shot and add a nice parallax style slider effect to your shots.
Have a look at trick number two and three in this video by Hayden Pedersen, where he uses a towel as a slider and a desk chair as a dolly:
Now for the slightly more complicated solutions…
Method 5: Build Your Own PVC Pipe Steadicam Rig
All right, I couldn’t resist including this one in here. Building rigs out of PVC pipe is how I first learned how to DIY my own steadicam rig, and thanks to some creative designers, they are still a viable DIY option for stabilizing your shots this day in age.
However, my rig is definitely obsolete, so I wanted to research the type of rig would someone want to build if they did want to make their own steadicam out of PVC pipe.
I found this video, called the $13 DIY Camera Stabilizer by Collin McDowell:
In it, Collin shows how to use PVC and some counterweights to create a monopod-style rig with two smaller PVC arms as handles, which you can reverse 90 degrees to transform the rig into a shoulder-rig or to be held for low-angle glide-cam style shots.
It’s pretty easy to assemble, and you can’t beat the price. All you need are three ¾ inch PVC caps and elbows, a ¾ inch PVC cross, two ¾ inch PVC pipes for the arms and center leg, and a half inch PVC pipe that will go up the middle for the head, where you will mount the tripod head (which you can get from a cheap tripod on Amazon or Best Buy). Other than that you just need a ¾ inch metal nipple and two 2.5 lb dumbbell weights for the counterweight.
Because it’s pretty simple and doesn’t require too many materials to put together, I found it’s the cheapest and easiest of the “build your own” rigs I uncovered in my research.
There are a few other PVC pipe rigs you can create if you feel you want to up your PVC game, like this double shoulder rig from Film Riot which feels like a spiritual successor to the $13 one from Collin McDowell:
And last the PVC Fig Rig by Media Unlocked which is a more handheld, circular PVC rig that stabilizes the camera in the middle of the rig so you have more mobility as more of a glidecam kind of situation:
Method 6: Build Your Own DIY Metal Stabilizer
The best version of metal, non-PVC pipe DIY stabilizer was this one, called the Silver Flyer steadicam. Its curved design reminds me of a more professional Merlin Steadicam rig, minus the rotating handlebar, but what it lacks in “buoyancy” it makes up for in functionality.
Because it is made of metal pipes as opposed to PVC, plan on this rig being heavier to operate. I found the video was helpful and easy to follow, so for all the details on how to build this stabilizer, go ahead and watch that video to learn the components you need and how to assemble it.
Also, because it’s metal and not PVC, you may feel a little more comfortable bringing this to a professional shoot than a more amateur looking PVC rig.
If you’re looking to stay in the metal stabilizer territory but want to create one with a more basic design, you can check out this video from Youtuber I Like to Make Stuff:
In the video, he uses a few pieces of ¾ inch steel pipe and a cross connector along with some ends, bolts, and nuts, and some PVC that he cuts up and duct-tapes together to turn into a hand grip.
Most interestingly, for a counterbalance, he uses a flange, which he then screws a block of wood onto so that he can adjust the weight by adding a brick (yes, a brick) for a counterweight.
Very strange choice to me, but it’s creative and seemingly good in a pinch, especially if you are going to be using different weighted cameras… and have bricks lying around somewhere. I might create one using all of the chopped firewood in the front of my Southern California home we never use (because we’re always on fire).
Method 7: Build Your Own DIY Gimbal
Definitely, the most complicated rig to create from scratch, but if you simply must have a gimbal stabilizer for your DIY film shoot, this is the right method for you.
This method requires some metal fabrication and 3D printing, so it’s not for the faint of heart or those afraid of picking up some new technical know-how.
If you think it’s a project you can tackle, all the steps and materials are laid out simply in this tutorial on Instructables thanks to a user called Thehydoctor.
Using carbon fiber tubes and sheets, some brushless motors, a lithium-ion battery, and a controller board, it is possible to actually create your own two-axis brushless DSLR Gimbal camera stabilizer. You can even mount a monitor on the rig, too.
Check out the final product in this video here:
Stabilizing On a Budget
Beyond all of those DIY methods, there are plenty of cheaper knock-off versions of popular stabilizers on the market you can try. I say that with the caveat that the popular versions are popular for a reason – they work. DIY options are a good alternative to shelling out a little money now for a weak investment.
Instead, why not build a temporary solution yourself so you can save your money until you can buy your own professional rig once the money is coming in.
After all, the benefits are two-fold: you master the art of stabilization by learning the core concepts through trial and error, weight and counter-weight, so when you can afford the pro versions, you actually understand what you’re doing.
At the end of the day, with how complicated all the reprogramming and rebalancing can be on some of these high tech rigs, even when swapping out a lens, sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution.