I’ve always dabbled in filmmaking to some capacity: I’ve had various flings with movie-making throughout my school days—including a particularly-inspired history class project recreating scenes from Star Wars for a unit on democracy—and the one thing I got drilled into my head, over and over, was that your equipment mattered. Your story could be phenomenal, but if you used no mic and bounced your camera all over the place, you’d have an unwatchable video.
A decade later, taking video with a smartphone is strikingly similar: the smartphone alone provides pretty solid footage, but paired with the right equipment, it can really shine. The iPhone, for example, is fairly miraculous in terms of what it can do naturally. If someone had told me at age 15 that in a decade I’d be able to afford a better, nicer camera than the DV model I had just shelled out for (and it’d be able to fit in my pocket!) I would have laughed them right out of the room. But its tiny camera has flaws: Its microphone isn’t great. It has low-light troubles. And oh, my, the digital video shake.
So when I caught a glimpse of Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee at CES earlier this year, I was rather captivated. Tiffen has been in the film business a long time—the Steadicam brand is recognized worldwide—and the company was one of the earliest to market with a Steadicam arm for mobile devices.
I’ve been using a review unit for awhile now, in a number of different circumstances and situations, and I’m incredibly impressed. Not only is the Smoothee incredibly stable for its rather small size—a testament to the brand behind it—but it’s cheap, too. In contrast with other Steadicam units, which can range anywhere from $700 to tens of thousands of dollars, the iPhone 5 model retails for $169 (and is just $150 at B&H Photo).
Out of the box, the Smoothee is little more than a foot in height. The build is similar to Tiffen’s handheld Merlin model, though the Smoothee uses quite a bit more plastic in various areas and offers fewer controls. Two knobs at the Smoothee’s camera base allow you to adjust the tilt: The side knob offers left and right controls, while the rear knob lets you tilt up or down. These controls help balance your iPhone or GoPro through the gimbal and get it comfortably in your hand.
The iPhone itself clips into the Smoothee using a spring-released square plastic mount. Pop the iPhone into the mount, then snap the mount into the Smoothee, and all you have to do from there is balance the stabilizer in your hand. You will need to remove any case or covering from your iPhone before inserting it into the clip, as it’s designed to fit the shape of your device.
Though Tiffen includes a step-by-step picture guide for setting up the Smoothee, it’s almost not needed—the controls are simple and easy to figure out, as is the initial balancing of your device. The one tip I thought proved most helpful was how to control the system—filmmakers not used to stabilization devices might think the metal arm is there to grip and turn, rather than to provide counter-balance for the camera base. Being told that the only touch needed to control the system is a trigger-finger-and-thumb combination may seem crazy at first, but it works surprisingly well.
Using the Smoothee
A great stabilization system becomes an extension of your arm, balancing your movements without impairing them. Despite the Smoothee’s (relatively) tiny price tag and plastic components, it does this with aplomb: I love holding this device while I film. It’s infinitely more comfortable than shooting iPhone video with my hands—without gear, I’m terrified of jiggling or shaking the device, holding it to my chest like a prison number while I attempt to get the right shot. It’s a horrible experience, and I’m constantly worried I’m going to drop it when filming in crowded areas.
Shooting with the Smoothee is smooth indeed. I took it to task during my months with the review unit, shooting while racing around on roller skates, walking down a steep hill in the snow, even incorporating a 360-degree movement shot or two. All were easy tasks for the Smoothee. It doesn’t eliminate all shake, of course; in my walking and running tests, you can still tell that there’s a person behind the camera. But it makes camera movements much smoother than they would be if capturing the same shot without stabilization.
I did find it harder to control the tilt and pan when moving quickly. The Smoothee’s calibrations require the device balance to be perfect to get a steady tracking shot with just your fingers guiding the handle; my calibrations were often a few notches over-balanced, occasionally sending the Smoothee into a dizzying whirl if I stepped too far to the left or right.
Wind, too, is not your friend here: When I shot in windy snowfall, it was very difficult to keep the device level and shooting straight on while only using the handle. In that situation, I eventually decided to forego some of the device’s smoothness by controlling direction with the balancing arm, rather than the handle. You’ll lose some of the floating quality of the Smoothee, but you gain much more horizontal and vertical control.
Unsurprisingly, your arm will get tired after a few minutes of holding the device—while it comprises only a few pounds of plastic and metal, even those few pounds seem exhaustively heavy after a period of time. But chances are you won’t be shooting three continuous minutes of video; taking short 30-second breaks made all the difference for me in shooting a thirty-minute roller derby scrimmage.
While the Smoothee is much smaller than any of Tiffen’s other stabilization options, it’s still going to take up a fair amount of space in your backpack or other carrying device. Its U-shaped arm may be great for balance, but becomes a bit of a pain when you’re trying to fit it in with the rest of your gear. Plan how you’re going to fit it into your equipment bag ahead of time, however, and you’ll find it can be easily used on the go. Maybe not for every vacation, but certainly for the occasional trip, convention, or photo shoot.
Filming with the Smoothee is a lot of fun. The resulting footage can be pretty good, too—though it can suffer from your device’s digital stabilization engine. The iPhone I shot with (the 4S) has automatic video stabilization built into the device, which can’t be turned off. When you film quickly with the Smoothee, the stabilization appears to slow down the video, smoothing frames together, which can occasionally result in a jittery, bouncy look. (See some of the roller derby footage I captured in the video above for a great example of this.)
You can largely avoid major digital stabilization goofs by panning and moving slowly, but it’s still slightly annoying that your device can’t trust the Smoothee enough that it will stabilize video the old-fashioned way.
The Steadicam unit also lets you get shots that are highly difficult to grab without a manual stabilization unit. Dolly shots (video taken while on a guided track) can be achieved by sticking someone with a Smoothee on roller skates or in a car. Running shots are much cleaner-looking than they would be if shot without stabilization. And 360 panoramas are incredibly amusing and delightful to do.
There are a couple different stabilization options on the market for mobile devices—including the ever-popular DIY method—but of the ones I’ve tried, the Smoothee is my favorite. It has the Steadicam brand behind it, and it shows.
The Smoothee isn’t for every budding videographer out there. It’s a specific tool designed for a specific purpose, and not everyone’s going to need a stabilization unit for their vacation videos. But for aspiring filmmakers and video journalists, I think it’s a great piece of equipment. It’s small, affordable, and easy to set up, and you likely already have the camera equipment it goes with in your pocket.