Caging Your Camera For Handheld Shooting

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Building a cage, like this SmallRig cage system, not only adds weight, but it can increase versatility. For instance, we can add an Atomos Ninja V recorder if we have a client who prefers us to shoot ProRes over the X-T3’s internal H/265 codecs. But if we have to shoot in a tight space, where there isn’t room for the Shinobi monitor, we can just use the X-T3’s LCD screen.

If you look at the camera market this past year, it’s hard to deny the influence high-quality mirrorless cameras have had on camera choice: Models like the Panasonic Lumix GH5, Sony a7R III, Canon EOS R and Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, as well as the Fujifilm X-T3, offer 4K shooting with high-quality images, removable lenses, professional features like LOG recording, DCI 4K, IBIS and a host of other tools. It’s no wonder cinema cameras that used to cost between $6,000 and $10,000 have been replaced by mirrorless models priced under $3,500.

But it’s not a perfect scenario. For example, if you’re coming from a professional video-camera/digital-cinema camera, you’re sure to notice missing features that you’d have taken for granted on larger, more professional cameras, including built-in ND filters, waveform displays, time code i/o, XLR audio connections and more.

There are other things I personally miss when shooting with a mirrorless camera, such as size and weight. The body on our Fujifilm X-T3 weighs a little over a pound. But even when you add a lens, it doesn’t really significantly affect the overall weight. Our Canon C200, when fully rigged for shoulder-mounted shooting, can weigh as much as 22 pounds or more, depending on the lens mounted. That extra weight can be fatiguing to carry and shoot with all day, but it does add the bonus of smoother handheld shooting. The extra weight actually smooths out shake and jitters that would be visible on a smaller, lighter rig. Plus, movement becomes smoother and more fluid with extra weight.

While most of us love how lightweight mirrorless cameras are, as well as their portability and lower profile, when it comes to creating smooth handheld movement, too little weight isn’t good. It’s more difficult (although not impossible) to achieve smooth handheld moves with no micro jitter if your camera package is too light.

Ironically, when operating handheld, you, as the operator, have to have a lot more skill and apply more concentration to achieve smooth, jitter-free camera work with a 2-pound camera rig than with a 7-pound rig.

There’s also the challenge of where to attach various professional accessories on a small mirrorless camera body. What if you want to attach a monitor? Sure, you can put a small ballhead on the camera’s hot-shoe, but what about if you then want to add a microphone? An EVF? A light? All mirrorless cameras are pretty much limited to a single hot-shoe.

Caging Your Camera For Handheld Shooting
Many mirrorless cameras, like the Fujifilm X-T3, barely weigh over a pound, which makes capturing smooth handheld footage a challenge.

Enter The Cage

One popular solution these days is to create a camera cage, which is a metal series of bars with holes tapped into them that not only encloses the camera, offering more protection to the camera body, but also gives you numerous places to mount various accessories.

My company bought the Fujifilm X-T3 for a variety of reasons, but one of the most significant was that we needed a 4K-capable camera that would be small and light enough to mount on a gimbal. We’ve been using the camera for the past several months, often to shoot lifestyle footage of our documentary subjects we’ve been shooting for an upcoming docuseries called “Year On The Water.” The X-T3 has performed very well, but as we’ve continued to shoot, we’ve run into several situations, particularly when operating the camera in vehicles where mounting the camera on our gimbal actually becomes a less-effective way of capturing the footage.

The decision was made that besides using the X-T3 on our gimbal, we wanted to expand to shooting a lot more handheld footage.

While the screen on the X-T3 is decent for an on-camera monitor, we found that often when shooting exteriors, the ambient sunlight overpowered the screen, making shooting, composing and checking focus difficult. We knew that we needed to add a monitor.

While we try to wire our subjects with small recorders and wireless lavs and use a boom mic to record them, there are often situations where we need to pick up audio from our subjects or others near them so that we can hear them on-camera. We also like a clean ambient audio track when shooting with outboard recorders. So mounting a mic on the handheld rig was desirable. The last design criteria on our handheld rig was to figure out a better solution to protect the flimsy and fragile Micro HDMI video output connector of the X-T3. (More about this later in the story.)

SmallRig And Other Accessories

We did some research and found one of the most popular camera-cage systems on the market is from a Chinese company called SmallRig. I own quite a bit of camera support gear from Zacuto, Shape, Wooden Camera and others, but I also have several SmallRig accessories, which have always worked quite well for me. And while they’re not cheap, they’re significantly less expensive than a number of popular brands of camera-support gear.

This meant we could spend just a few hundred dollars without breaking the bank. (Keep in mind: Every item mentioned here—short of body, brands and models of specific cages—are modules that will work well with cameras from other brands.)

The camera cage for these systems is the first building block. It’s the “base” that you work upward and outward from. So it’s an important choice.

There are two SmallRig cages for the X-T3 (which, by the way, is a mirrorless camera that lacks robust battery life). The only difference between the two cages is size: The larger cage (SmallRig 2229) accommodates the X-T3 body as well as the VG-XT3 Vertical Battery Grip (which costs $329). The smaller cage only holds the X-T3 body. So, we bought the SmallRig 2229. We also decided to buy a slightly used VG-XT3 grip for just $200.

Caging Your Camera For Handheld Shooting
Pro medium-level digital cinema cameras, like the Sony FS7 MKII, feature built-in variable NDs, XLR connections and time-code i/o options not typically featured on mirrorless cameras.

The following accessories include the SmallRig cage and additional accessories we attached to that cage:

  • SmallRig 2229 Cage, $99: This form-fitted cage, which fits the Fujifilm X-T2 and X-T3 (with battery grips) and features built-in NATO rails and a cold-shoe, provides all-around protection and mounting options for either camera. The cage is attached to the camera via the bottom ¼-inch-20 threaded hole and the m2-threaded hole, as a second point, to prevent wiggling. The one-piece aluminum cage features multiple ¼-inch-20, 3/8-inch-16 and 3/8-inch holes for accessory attachment. I was struck by the quality of the CNC machining on the cage: The edges were smooth and all of the tapped holes were nicely finished off and burr free.
  • SmallRig 1984 Top Handle Grip, $39: There are many handles available for the SmallRig 2229 cage. For example, you can mount a NATO rail with a quick-detach handle or a fixed-mount handle, as I did here. (I felt that I wouldn’t need to mount and detach the handle too often, so I went with the fixed mount.) There are cold-shoe mounts found on the top and back for attaching lights, microphones, monitor mounts and EVF mounts.

There are other handles available, but I liked that the 1984 handle was bare metal with serrations for a sure grip. The coolest feature is that the handle has an integrated magnetic slot that contains a built-in channel for an included Allen wrench, for affixing or detaching the handle to the cage or accessories to the handle.

There’s a milled slot that also contains two spare Allen screws that are out of the way yet easily accessible.

  • SmallRig 2156 Cable Clamp, $23: This small metal clamp keeps an inserted cable in place as the camera is handled and used. Consumer and prosumer cameras, like the Fujifilm X-T3, often utilize an HDMI, HDMI-mini or HDMI-micro connector to output the video signal.

Of the three connections, the Micro HDMI Fuji included on the X-T3 is the worst. It’s tiny, fragile and flimsy and generally wears out quickly. So, the best we can do is affix a cable clamp to the connection, which holds the connection in place and offers some protection to the connector and cable.

SmallRig offers several clamps, each designed for a specific camera and cage. Buy the one recommended for your gear. For our cage, SmallRig recommends the 2156 model, which affixes to the cage via two small Allen bolts. There’s also a small slot screw to affix itself to the cable. The only downside is that it’s time-consuming and awkward to remove the camera and then re-insert it back into the cage again using the clamp.

  • SmallRig 2093 Universal Wooden Side Handle, $79: After holding the camera in various positions, it soon became apparent that although we could hold the X-T3 battery grip with our right hand, there really wasn’t a great place to grip the whole rig on the left side. The SmallRig 2093 Wooden Side Handle solved this problem. The natural Rosewood handle not only looks great but is quite comfortable to hold. In fact, when shooting in the cold, the wood responds to your body temperature and doesn’t hold the cold. Conversely, in hot situations where your hand may be sweaty, the natural finish on the Rosewood gives just the right amount of grip.

As a plus, the 2093 side handle has a cold-shoe on top, which is perfect for our Røde Video Micro microphone since the distance from the microphone to the 3.5mm-audio input on the X-T3 left panel was only a few inches away. That meant I wouldn’t have to worry about running straight audio cables all over the rig. I could just use the stock Røde short-coiled mic cable, which will minimize overall cable clutter on the rig.

Caging Your Camera For Handheld Shooting
These two shots of our SmallRig cage rig shows how we turned this simple mirrorless camera into a more well-rounded and flexible camera system, which makes it easily configurable for different shoots with different gear. It’s also an integrated system with better ergonomics than it had before for improved handheld video shooting.

Like the top handle, the SmallRig side handle also features a magnetic slot for carrying an included Allen wrench/spanner, very slick design.

  • Cinevate Universal Accessory Mount, $36: Although we bought the Atomos Shinobi SDI 5-inch camera monitor to use with our gimbal, we decided to also mount it on this SmallRig setup. The Cinevate mount has been a handy addition to our camera rigs over the past few years, with its dual ¼-inch 20 arms with a two-stage, articulating ballhead in the middle, each supporting the two arms.

We found that the string of ¼-inch 20 sockets on the right side of the cage worked perfectly for quickly threading on the Cinevate mount and attaching the Shinobi SDI to it. The dual articulating ballheads make positioning and adjusting the monitor’s position quick and simple.

The only downside of the Cinevate mount has more to do with the Shinobi monitor’s single ¼” 20 receptacle: The monitor constantly comes loose from rotating counter-clockwise so you have to spend time retightening it

Should You Cage Your Camera?

Overall, we found our rig worked very well and is an improvement for shooting handheld. For instance, we increased the weight from 1.19 pounds to 6 to 8 pounds (depending on the lens, as well as what other accessories we used). The increased heft allowed our camera movements to be significantly smoother and more fluid. Also, the addition of the 2093 Universal Wooden Side Handle let us grip the whole rig with our right hand on the cage/battery grip while using our left hand to zoom.

Also, we come from a traditional background of using film and higher-end video/digital cinema cameras. And since the Fujifilm X-T3 is our first mirrorless camera, we felt caging it made sense: It allowed us to produce consistently steadier and smoother handheld footage, even when we were operating the X-T3 on a tripod. The additional weight made creating smooth pans and tilts easier.

For us, building the SmallRig setup only cost a few hundred dollars, and the end results are noticeably improved over shooting with only the body and a lens.