A slider is a simple rail with a camera mount that allows you to get a smooth dolly effect in your motion shots. This small device creates a sophisticated effect and immediately gives your project an added level of visual interest. Even a relatively short rail of three or four feet can create a fantastic shot. You can change the angle of the rail for diagonal moves and even close to vertical, but they’re best suited for more horizontal motion. To properly work in the vertical axis, what you need is a jib or a crane. The only problem with jibs has been that they’re usually large, heavy, difficult to transport and require an assistant—until now.
Seeing the opportunity presented by the DSLR filmmaking revolution, manufacturers have started to make smaller and lighter jibs that are designed specifically for these lightweight cameras. If you’ve seen any kind of behind-the-scenes footage from a film production, you’ve probably seen a jib or a crane of some kind. Looking like a long boom mounted asymmetrically on a big tripod, the unit has a camera on one end and a counterbalance system on the other. Essentially, it’s a simple lever with the tripod acting as the fulcrum. The longer the lever and the heavier the camera, the more counterbalance weight you need. For Hollywood movies that are shot with big, traditional movie cameras, the whole system has to be huge and extremely heavy. For us as DSLR filmmakers, things can come way down in scale.
For all of its apparent simplicity, there’s one especially critical aspect to a jib that makes it less suitable for DIYers who might want to try building one with parts from the local Home Depot. The camera has to pivot to keep the framing consistent as you move the jib up and down. For example, let’s say you’re a wedding shooter and you’re doing a little video segment for the client. You want to start the shot framed up from eye level as the couple kisses, and with the camera mounted on the jib, you’ll raise the camera to get more of an overhead perspective. As the camera moves up, it also moves back a little, so you’ll also be backing off slightly, which shows more of the surroundings. It’s not a big move. The camera will move up about three feet. If the camera doesn’t pivot, instead of keeping the bride and groom in the frame, you’ll end up with the camera pointed skyward. That pivot mechanism is critical, and it’s best left to the manufacturers.
We mentioned that the bigger the camera, the bigger the jib system has to be. For the smaller jibs we address in this article, a DSLR with a moderately sized lens is the sweet spot. If you’re using a big telephoto (like a 300mm ƒ/4 or larger), that large, heavy lens, even on the relatively small DSLR, may require a bigger, more heavy-duty jib system.
As with most equipment, there’s a lot of variety in available jib sizes. We’re focusing on jibs that are suitable for DSLR users and are relatively lightweight and portable. By portable, we mean a range from airline travel-ready up to fitting in the trunk of a car or small SUV.
Jibs are pretty simple tools, and with a little practice, a novice can quickly become good at using one smoothly. Some jibs can be motorized, which is a particularly nice feature for doing smooth and repeatable moves. Also, if you’re going to do any time-lapse work, a motor is a necessity.