When you just hold a DSLR with your hands only, there is a lot of opportunity for the camera to move around multiple axes – opportunity to shake, jitter and wobble. This might be desired in certain scenes – action, horror, something where you want the audience to feel uncomfortable and unstable – usually though, it is undesired and a downside of the highly portable, lightweight and incredibly advanced video-ready DSLRs like the Canon EOS 7D, EOS 5D, T2i / Kiss X4 / EOS 550D or Nikon D7000. I must admit, I am obsessed with these cameras, and am convinced that they (in the manifestation of the likes of a RED Epic, which is similar in shape and has way bigger resolution / a way higher price) will be the future of filmmaking.
Anyway, enough compliments to the DSLRs, let’s get to the cheap DIY part. As you already know from my How to build a 15$ Camera Crane Tutorial, I like building quite cheap rigging equipment for quite expensive cameras. For the design, I was inspired and/or copied other, similar designs, both in the commercial sector and from the DIY community. If you are trying to find these DIY communities, I can recommend the popular DVXUser-Forum and the IndyMogul-Forum.
Buy the parts for your self-built shoulder mount
Let’s see what a shoulder mount does: It gives you three points of contact and stabilization, between which you mount the camera. Two are held by the hands, and the last corner of the triangle is, as the name implies, the shoulder. For the hands, we will need handlebars, for the shoulder we will need a cushioned but sturdy thing with a curved profile so it wraps around the chest and shoulder. The camera itself will need to be mounted on something with, preferably, a screw mount.
To get the parts, go to any hardware store (e.g. Home Depot). There are two categories of parts you will need:
- Plumbing pipes
- Metal platform, EMT Clamps & screws/mothers
Let’s first concentrate on the pipes, as they are the basis of the whole structure. Of course you can derive anything from this tutorial and come up with your own solution of a shoulder mount; nevertheless, keep a few things about plumbing pipes in mind when experimenting:
- Metal pipes are always more stable than plastic pipes – but also much heavier
- Thinner pipes are generally easier to handle and offer you more options of combining them with other equipment; mounting something on it with clamps is generally easier as well
- Screw connectors are always stronger than stick-together connectors
- Screwing plastic pipes onto metal pipes results in a stronger bond than plastic onto plastic.
Detailed Shopping List
So, let’s get to it: Go to the plumbing section of the store, and find the place where they have pipes. Try to find the thinnest ones, usually 1/2″ diameter. These are the parts and quantities you will need to buy; I recommend to assemble them inside the store to check if all the parts are working fine. Buy all parts with 1/2″ diameter.
- 2 long pipes, plastic, smooth stick-together ends, about 2 feet (less than 1m) in length, – these will determine the total length of the shoulder mount
- 6 L-connectors, plastic, female screw mounts on both ends
- 2 T-Connectors, plastic, with 2 female screw mounts on two ends, and 1 stick-together (smooth) female mount on the remaining end
- 2 pipe caps, plastic, female screw mount, for the bottom of the handlebars – so you don’t scratch anything when putting the mount down
- 2 medium pipes, metal, male screw mounts, for the handlebars – choose a length that will server your hands and give you some space to move the hands up or down
- 2 short pipes, metal, male screw mounts, about 1.5″-2″ long, to connect the handlebars to the main rails – this will determine the width between your hands
- 2 very short pipes, metal, male screw mounts, about 0.5″ long
- 2 super short pipes, metal, male screw mounts, as short as you can get them, they will determine the width between the main rails
Assemble the mount as shown on the right: screw the pipes into the connectors, and stick the two main pipes/rails into the T-connectors. Push them in really, really hard, otherwise their connection might loosen over time. then head over to the hardware/lumber section where they sell screws and clamps. Buy:
- 4 1/2″ EMT clamps, with a screw hole on the top and two on the bottom (one of the bottom ones is threaded)
- 8 1/4 screws, pretty short (these are the ones that fit into the camera’s tripod mount)
- 8 nuts, fitting to the screws
- 1 flat thumbscrew, quite short
- 1 metal platform, about as big as two hands
Test out the EMT clamps; they must fit around the two main pipes, close them tightly with a screw on the bottom; the 1/4 screws must fit through the hole on the top. Pay for everything and go home – or somewhere where you can find a metal drill.
Drilling, an Old Sweater & Final Assembly
You are nearly done. Find a drill somewhere that can drill metal, and use a 1/4 drill head. Make five holes into the platform; four of them positioned where the top holes of the EMT clamps will be, one hole dead center where you will mount the camera. Use a flat screwdriver to widen the holes by scraping their insides – that way the screws will fit through smoothly. Scrape the middle hole especially well, so you have no trouble with the thumb screw and the camera. Insert four screws into the top holes of the EMT clamps, then fit them around the two main pipes. Tighten the screws with nuts, put the platform on top so it slides down on the screws, and lock the screws with a second set of nuts (or, if you have them, locknuts) on top of the platform. If everything went well and the screws are short enough, they won’t stick out of the nuts.
Slide the platform to the desired area, then use the remaining screws to tighten the EMT clamps.
Still missing is the shoulder piece. Take an old sweater or towel, roll it into a tight, flattened sausage, and use electrical tape to bind it. Fold about 1/4th of the sweater over, and start taping the sweater sausage to the back of the two main rails. By folding the 1/4th, you create a base for the sweater-sausage’s curved profile; in my case, I used a second sweater as a block (the brown one, as you can see below) to increase the curvature of the shoulder piece. After taping it lightly to the rails, adjust the fold and curve, and finish it off with a lot of tape so the sweater stays in place and keeps its shape.
With the platform in place, take the camera, put its tripod mount over the hole, and use the thumb screw through the platform’s middle hole to mount the camera onto the platform.
To soften the handlebar grips, use paper towels; tape a bit onto the bars, roll the remaining sheets around tightly until the bars feel puffy, and wind a bunch of tape around it, so you cover the paper towels and get a softer grip. Voila, your cheap shoulder mount is ready for use!
[ Shane King suggested to go to a sports equipment store instead and get tape for wrapping up tennis racket handles, which can result in a better gripping surface. ]
Known Issues / Space for Improvement
- The camera sits on top of four nuts, which works fine when the camera faces forwards, but unstable when the camera is turned into a different direction.
- The nuts come loose over time, making the platform a bit shaky.
- The screw mounts of the pipes can be tightened but usually always leave space for bending and turning – that can bank the parallel main rails and tilts the camera.
- A weakness is the stick-together connection between the T-connectors of the handlebars and the main rails/pipes. Maybe screws through both pieces of plastic would help secure that connection; the easiest solution is simply to push the pipes really hard into the connectors – we never had an accident so far, the connection held unless we deliberately used muscle strength, hands and feet to pull it apart.
Maybe you can find creative solutions to these problems – post your attempts in the comments section. Any questions? Just ask.
Here’s a few photos of us using the shoulder mount:
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