NOTE: I’ve updated this post to reflect developments which preclude me from recommending SmallRig parts to anyone. Several of the elements have failed prematurely with no satisfaction from the company, leading me to revise this post and remove any links to their products. With any Chinese company, quality and customer service is an afterthought. Buy with caution.
The original information for archival….
I’ve been working with the Sony FS5 as my main camera for a little over a year and a half. Compared to many currently available cameras in the price range I could realistically afford (C100, C300, FS7, GH5, etc), it offers the best balance in portability, flexibility, features, and image quality. Moving to a smaller camera (GH5, A7) compromises simple things like easy-to-manage on-the-fly button settings and battery life, and a larger camera (C300, FS7) is… well… LARGER. Always.
The FS5 can be taken down to barely bigger than a full frame DSLR, or have metric tons of tinker toys and recorder/monitors added to get a good, stable weight and/or higher bitrate recording options. It can roll compressed fast-uploading AVCHD or proxy files, internal broadcast-approved 1080 10-bit 4:2:2, or output raw DCI 4K… whatever you need, one main body. The ultra-flexible E-mount can use anybody’s lenses with the right adapters (even my m4/3 Voigtlanders… more on that another time).
Anyway, it’s a nice flexible package for doc, corporate, commercial, and more. I like flexible.
It’s not without some compromises. Most notably, operating at shoulder level for any length of time requires some way, any way, to mount the grip anywhere else except its stock side-body bayonet. The moment you add a large, heavy lens, the stock placement makes your camera a front-heavy, unwieldy mess. Ideally, the grip would be immediately beside or in front of the center of gravity… which changes whenever your lens package does, and thus, should be semi-infinitely adjustable. Companies like SHAPE and Chrosziel offer grip relocating arms, but these semi-permanently mount rosettes in the body grip bayonet mount and make reverting to the slim stock setup problematic. They also do nothing to add grips to the offhand-side of the camera. Other makers of various price-points and quality offer varying iterations of gigantic, unwieldy jungle-gym contraptions to turn your compact, nimble camera into a truly borderline useless back-and-wallet-breaking wobbly-goblin. Not ideal.
In the past, I’ve used relatively simple and conventional under-body rod setups, combined with the Wooden Camera FS5 Handgrip Relocator. The Wooden unit is simple and compact, and with any basic rosette cross bar, allows your right and left-side grips to ride together nicely. These setups, however, also have a few problems: most of the rig must be disassembled to fit in a reasonably-sized case; the center of gravity is raised leading to a less stable platform; and the baseplate alone can add a pound or more of weight… not to mention all the other stuff.
The Ideal setup (in my humble opinion) with these featherweight cameras is to get your hands right up near the business end of the lens. That’s where most of the weight it. It’s easy to reach the lens controls or a compact follow-focus, and makes balancing a camera overhead or over-shoulder (as often happens catching details, etc) a less painful proposition. O’Connor’s O-Grip/O-Box solution puts the handles directly on the matte box… an ideal arrangement, but not exactly cost-efficient with a ~$5K camera. While I’d had a similar grip-forward setup with my ancient AF100 prior to the FS5, it took me a while to get around to devising a similar solution.
My goal was to improve the “sling-abiity” of the camera while also keeping it reasonably svelte, mobile, and quick, and fast to transition to gimbal use.
One of the first accessories I fitted to the FS5 were SmallRig cheeseplates. These are simple, sturdy, light-weight chunks of threaded aluminum that add dozens of potential mount points for Israeli arms, clamps, and all that stuff. . Like any good accessory, they simply add features to the camera without hindering any of its normal usability. Almost since the beginning, I toyed with adding rod mounts to these plates to dangle left-side grips, follow focus, and the stock monitor for compact setups. Unfortunately, the position of the threaded holes, placement of the FS5 top handle audio module, and similar forces conspired to make this… a little fumbly.
So I set out the personal specs… I wanted to fit a set of double 15mm rods at standard width. I’d use the otherwise wasted space between the lens mount and handle top, keeping COG and total rig height low. The Cheese Plates would be the obvious mount point.
Add Less, Get More
The solution is a bit brain-dead simple. Enter the SmallRig Lightweight Rail Block. It has a couple vital elements… arranged in a u-shape vs. being a solid cross block, it fits around the FS5’s top handle nicely. With two 1/4″-20 threaded holes parallel to the rod fitment (vs. maybe 1 in many other blocks), it could be solidly mounted to a bit of angle plate… and then bolted to the fore-end of the Cheese Plates.
After a bit of (slightly imperfect) hacksaw, measure, mark, and drill work, I had a working prototype. The only camera modification necessary was to unscrew the plastic cable clip from the bottom side of the handle audio unit (for clearance). My rosette crossbar and handles are adjustable over the full length of the rods. If wanted, I can sling my Edelkrone Focus One from overhead, in front or behind the left handle (or instead of). To transition to gimbal work, the entire rod setup can simply be removed by loosening two screws. Similarly, going in and out of its case is as easy as moving the main control handle back to its stock body bayonet. I found 6″ rods were about the ideal length to adjust to most of my lenses and also stay out of the FOV on my widest lenses (11mm).
After using it on a couple jobs, it’s a small but very effective modification. Adjusting everything to different-sized lenses is fast… pull the old lens, adjust the rods, affix new lens. With a lower COG on the shoulder and less weight, it’s less fatiguing. It doesn’t want to pitch over on its side, is easy to transition from shoulder to overhead, and is fast to deploy and adjust. I still have a standard baseplate-and-rod setup to click everything into for use with iPad Prompters or similar heavy accessories, but don’t have to try and wear that extra weight when it’s unnecessary… which is most times.
It still needs some tweaking. The 1/8″ aluminum angle does have a small bit of up-down flex on the handles… using something thicker for a more solid connection would provide a touch more peace of mind, but I haven’t noticed any problems in professional use. It’s a simple product for SmallRig’s Co-Design Program, which seems to get out some pretty useful little doodads with exceptional quickness… even if you are designing a product for their profit for free… but how much profit can you really make from a bit of angle aluminum?
For me, the money from this will come from working faster and nimbler with fewer chiropractor bills.