Tiffen Steadicam™ Smoothee

Exclusive: Steadicam Smoothee Review!

By Peter iNova UPDATED 6/7/10 WITH IPHONE 4 INFO!

Background: I shoot HDSLR scenes most often from a Steadicam™ Merlin, and have used the Merlin for three years; previously with two HD video cameras, and more recently with the Nikon D90 and Canon EOS 7D cameras.

You will see a boat load of Steadicam Merlin shots in my recent eBook, HDSLR.

Last year I was asked by Tiffen to comment on their top-secret project which turned out to be the half-pound Smoothee, a Steadicam made for the iPhone, Flip HD recorder and Droid.

The product won't be out for sale until "later this year" but I got my hands on the iPhone prototype and went out hunting for images. Price: TBA.

The history of the Steadicam idea is a major story unto itself, starting back in the 1970s when a young cinematographer, Garrett Brown, realized that you could fly a movie camera by hand while isolating one's hand from the typical shaking seen in every hand-held shot.

If, he reasoned, you could balance and counter-weight the camera a micro slice below a spherical frictionless gimbal, your hand could move the gimbal around, but the camera would be stable due to its momentum, or lack of upsetting forces. Hand vibrations, twists, nervous tics, wiggles, upsets, bumps, jumps and bounces suddenly became old school, not the one which we all attend, now.

Big Steadicams can cost over $60,000, carrying cameras up to fifty pounds, and they get those smooth steady shots you see in movies where the camera runs through a submarine, orbits an actor in the middle of nowhere, flies effortlessly through a party, opens the Jay Leno show, or moves naturally over terrain that would be impossible for a camera dolly to negotiate.

Announced at CES in January, the Smoothee is a scaled-down version of a Steadicam that has been created for the iPhone 3GS, Flip HD (Ultra), and Droid. It's a two-piece rig with a product-specific camera holder that clips onto your video device and a pre-assembled, pre-balanced arm in the shape of a giant comma. The unit we reviewed is a pre-production prototype, but represents the final product right down to the fine points.

Permanently attached to the arm is the gimbal and grip handle. The grip handle snaps into a storage holder when being stowed.

You clip your video device (in my case, an iPhone 3GS) into the camera holder, clip the holder onto the arm, and grab the handle, letting go of the rest of the rig. Immediately, the rig uprights itself and levels off. All the camera holders are pre-balanced to the same standard and even though the video device in them may have a different center of gravity and overall weight, you can interchange them without having to re-balance the Smoothee.

If any tilt or tipping is present, two red knobs let you adjust the up/down and side to side balance of the Smoothee, a process that takes just a few seconds. I found that I didn't even need to stop walking while adjusting these, and wherever you leave them, the next time you use the rig, your last setting is remembered, just where you left it.

Since not all shots are straight out to the horizon, small adjustments to forward/back tip are common. The rig has enough adjustment to cover about 80 degrees in equal amounts up and down. For "Dutch Angle" shots, you can adjust about 20 degrees off horizontal either way.

Everybody who owns an iPhone 3GS (today it's probably around 20,000,000 of us out there, around the world) knows that iPhone video... erm... sucks. There, I've said it, but it's the truth, and there is no going back.

In the iPhone's defense, ALL small fixed lens video devices shoot video that sucks, and it's all because they can't possibly be held steady. Unless you put the camera—cellphone video camera, Flip camera, Droid or other weight-free camera—on a tripod, your image is going to be more of an electrocardiogram of how poorly you can hold the thing, than it will be a clean record of whatever it was you were trying to shoot.

Shot using iMotion App for iPhone using the Smoothee camera clip on a small tripod.
Double click to run.

In the case of the iPhone in particular, you shoot video in constant fear that the slippery thing will squirt right out of your grip and head for the floor. Not any more. The iPhone grip has a tripod screw. Now you can shoot time-lapse scenes with your iPhone. Ohboyohjoy.

The Smoothee literally gives these small video devices a whole second life. It will take the average user (I predict) about ten minutes of practice to learn how to run the thing, and by the end of the first half hour of playing with it, that person will be getting into the fine points of camera moves, dolly shots, boom shots and floating shots you only ever see in the movies.

To give the rig a good workout, we took it to the J Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, one of the world's leading art museums, and started taking pictures of every kind we could think of. You can photograph without flash at the Getty, but NO TRIPODS ALLOWED.

None of the shots required any extra gear, or received processing in editing. The shots you see in our demo movie are just like the shots anybody could take with their bare hands and a Smoothee.

Flat, level shots, images at up and down angles, moving in the cable car, walking into the plazas, dollying sideways, moving up and down stairs, booming the camera over people's heads, capturing a subject being interviewed, trucking into scenes, orbiting subjects (panning while moving around a subject), going for arty patterns, covering subject matter traditionally, shooting in low light, shooting into the glare of the sky, shooting straight up, shooting as stable as can be, moving backwards, shooting at floor height, pushing the camera into the subject, trying to tell a story in as few shots as possible, and even using the balancing system as the driver for shots that pan up to the final subject.

Note: When you upload video to server sites, the results are not quite what you saw on your own computer. Extra twitches in the video stream, compression artifacts that lose texture detail, lower dynamic range and steppy contours on high contrast subjects all conspire to reduce the image quality. Vimeo is quite good with video playback, but the original is a tweak better.

Here's what it looks like on Vimeo (about 87% as good as it looks in the original file):

Obviously the best thing about the Smoothee is the steadiness it brings to the shots. I think that after it appears in many hands, the notion of shooting with a camera video phone or pocket HD recorder will stop being thought of as a strictly amateur endeavor. This is one of those products that is way larger than it seems on the surface, because it changes the fundamental notion of what can and cannot be done. The idea that you cannot use iPhone video for anything worth while has been changed.

It turns video devices that lacked any hope of aspiring to commercial usefulness into plausibly useful video recorders. If manufacturers keep the weight and form factor of their pocket video cameras compatible with existing Smoothee camera mounts, the future might hold a Flip HD Pro with exposure lock, great auto-focus, high dynamic range images, etc.—one that would be there in every pro's kit bag for those shots that can't be gotten any other way.

For those of us anticipating the Apple iPhone 4 with its perhaps 720p30 images, improved image dynamics and low-light sensitivity, the Smoothee becomes Essential Accessory Number One.

UPDATE 6/7/10

Yes! The iPhone 4 has in-camera 720p30 shooting, a much longer-scale HD dynamic range and on-board editing App for $5 more. The iP4 has FaceTime for video chat, too.

The only thing missing is an App to drop in your recorded, edited video piece as part of your FaceTime session, but we've predicted that for over a year now.

Good news: The iPhone 4 weighs exactly the same (within two grams) of the iPhone 3Gs, so there was zero adaptation/engineering penalty in making it work on the Smoothee.

The iP4 tremendously enhances the desirability of the Steadicam Smoothee. I can't wait to make a demo with it as soon as possible and post it here. All the following remains true:

Eventually, people will look at your hand-held videos and judge them based on whether or not you used a Smoothee. "Oh. Too bad you didn't get a Smoothee to shoot that," will become a common attitude. It's a device that is so simple, elegant and easy to use that I think Tiffen's Steadicam division has a real winner.

Not just a "Cool" but a "Holy Cow Izzat Cool Or What" kind of response from its users. And as the cameras that mate to it become more sophisticated, it will become the device equivalent of a Killer App.

It changes the game for its first three four cameras, and after it gets enough requests for a camera clip for your favorite video device, more mounts will become available. If you were to already own an iPhone and Flip HD Ultra, you could get one extra camera clip and use either one on the Smoothee arm.

Latest eBook

HDSLR cameras are the hot topic in DSLRs these days, so we are creating a new form of eBook about them. The coming available "HDSLR" is trying to be was born before Christmas '09. It includes hundreds of items that will help you shoot better, edit more gracefully and end up with on-screen results you can be proud of.

Our two in-house HDSLRs have been pressed into extra innings bringing you a wide range of camera-born examples and computer based tricks, techniques and work-arounds. In the eBook, images spring right off the e-page as you read through it.

Unlike previous titles, this one is not camera-specific, so the focus is on the HDSLR genre, specifically the movie mode, not the cameras themselves, but oh, boy, is it packed.



© 2010 Peter iNova. All rights reserved. Do not reprint. Simply add a link to this page.