LensVid Exclusive: Off The Shelf Overhead Camera Rig DIY Build
For some time now we wanted to start looking at DIY projects beyond our normal review cycle here on LensVid and this is why we are so happy that we recently had a chance to record the first of two DIY videos which will look at how we created our brand new overhead camera rig.
We have been thinking about building an overhead camera rig for a long time. Doing long talking head videos is kind of boring and we do need to show a lot of products and the whole concept just fits better in our general workflow.
It hasn’t been until we got some request from a few of our readers that we decided to actually build such a unit though. We started by looking around. If you go to Google/YouTube, you can find many types of DIY overhead camera rigs – most of them are made with wood, plastic with a few metal exceptions. Since we wanted the most robust thing that we can get – there was no question in our minds that metal is the way to go.
Our zero movement DIY overhead camera rig
- Highly robust – zero movement even with heavy load.
- Takes no space on our desk.
- Can be “folded” against the wall.
- Adjustable – can make small angle changes.
- Allows the camera to reach a spot above the center of our desk (more or less).
Our approach was to go for a wall mounted rig (online you can find DIY rigs which you put on your table), as they take far less space and usually can be more robust. The downside is that we needed to drill some holes (we work in a reinforced concrete room so you need some serious drilling power but you can be sure that it will hold for years), you also can’t move the rig (easily) to a new location.
The components and the Build
Let’s go over the components that we used for this project:
TV wall mount (Eco mounting solutions) – As we mentioned, we wanted a robust wall mounted rig and what is more robust than a TV wall mount (after all almost all TVs are heavier than even the heaviest cameras). We simply went to the store and picked on off the shelf for around $35 (yes, Israel is an expensive place – in the U.S. you can get the same thing or better for half as much if not less).
We got an arm which is quite long – 12″ inches/30cm from the wall. Its downside is that it only has 2 parts and not 3 parts like many other TV arms. If you decide to get your own – look around and try and see how far each section of the arm goes – if the section that extends directly from the wall doesn’t go far enough it can be a problem as you might see the wall and not just your desk or alternatively you will need to angle your camera (what we have is marginally O.K. – having a bit more reach would be great but its very hard to find).
If you do find a 3 section TV wall mount arm that fits the bill, you might have the extra advantage where you will not need the extra arm that we needed (depending on how long it is).
Price: Starting at around $15.
Our generic TV-wall mount – you can get a 3 part one (if it is long enough)
9.solutions – Vesa To 5/8″ Receptacle: This was the heart of our build. After all there is not much that you can do with just a TV wall mount as it only has a VESA mount for your TV which doesn’t really connect (natively) to any normal camera gear (1/4″ 20 / 3/8″ or 5/8″).
After a long search online we ran into a product from a company that we didn’t know called 9-solutions. We decided to get in touch and they were quick to answer and very helpful. Apparently they are a new Taiwanese manufacturer although the design of the products is done in Europe and the they do have a U.S. distributor (koll-ltd). [Quick note 9.solutions is actually pronounced “9 dot solutions”].
9.solutions are focused on accessories and more specifically high quality mounting accessories for photographers and videographers and they have a pretty interesting list of products with a number of innovative and unique ones which we didn’t see elsewhere.
For this project they had just what we needed – a VESA to 5/8″ adapter with a nice bonus of two extra connectors for 1/4″ 20 and 3/8″ (we shall talk about what you can do with those later on).
The 9.solutions – Vesa To 5/8″ Receptacle which made the project possible (installed upside-down)
9.solutions – El-Bo ARM: As we noted above – since we only had a 2 section TV-wall mount, we needed a way to get our camera into the right position just above the center of our desk facing downwards (with the top of our camera close to the wall where the TV arm was mounted).
To achive this we needed an extra arm which is exactly what 9.solutions has in the form of the El-Bo arm (they have a few versions and also some interesting extensions). of course you can probably use arms from other manufacturers with a 5/8″ connector (these are pretty standard photo/video gear (unlike the VESA adapter which is quite unique), but since 9.solutions suggested the arm we had no problem testing it and it worked great – although we did need to use it as it was connected from the top part of the VESA adapter (the adapter is actually upside-down as you can see in the picture – not that this matter in any way apart for the logo).
The adapter is very comfortable to use with the handle (open it to unlock the arm – close it and it is super tight). The only minor downside – in the way we connected it the red tip of the arm touches the knob of the VESA adapter just a little bit, but we can live with that.
The 9.solutions – El-Bo ARM – extremely flexible and easy to use
Studio-assets Magnesium 3-Way Low-Profile Pan/Tilt Head – Finally we needed a way to connect the camera and remove it easily with our favourite quick release system (Manfrotto 323 RC2 System). We tried a ball head but as it opens on all axis the minute you open it (ours at least – there are more expensive ones with better friction control) we decided to go for a 3-way head.
We happened to talk to koll-ltd (U.S. distributor of 9.solutions and a few other brands) and as we mentioned this they suggested that we will take a look at Studio-assets heads which are relatively inexpensive and relatively compact. As it happens the Magnesium 3-Way Low-Profile Pan/Tilt Head they have looked perfect for the job (we didn’t want anything too big or heavy but we did want enough control with zero movement).
As it turns out, the head worked great and although others might work just as well (even old ones if you happen to have them might do the trick) we really liked the fact that it is kind of small. The only minor drawback is that the bubble level is not in a place where you can really use it in the way we connected the head – so you might need to use an external levelling unit or maybe try your luck with your camera built in level meter (if it has one and work facing downwards.
The Studio-assets Magnesium 3-Way Low-Profile Pan/Tilt Head before we installed it on the rig
DSLRdashboard: This has been our go to software/app for shooting video on LensVid for a long time now. If you are going to shoot from high up and don’t want to spend your time on a chair or a ladder all the time than you need to be able to control your camera remotely. In our opinion DSLRdashboard is hands down the best software/app for the job. You can work with a computer either wired (connect it to your camera’s USB port) or wirelessly if your camera supports this feature (our D7100 doesn’t but you can get the WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter – which we use all the time for working wirelessly).
We will talk about DSLRdashboard in more depth in a future video but it is highly recommended and not just for overhead camera rigs.
DSLRdashboard – the best app for fully controlling your camera
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7″: Although we did work with our laptop some of the time, we decided to get the chance to use the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7″ that we recently got for one of our next DIY projects for this video as well. You can probably use more or less any tablet (or even smartphone – although with most the screen will be too small), but we really enjoyed the S2 with its great screen and general lightning-quick response.
The only tiny inconvenience has to do with the OS – apparently in the Android version we had on the device we couldn’t find a way to tell the tablet to always connect to our WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter when it is available instead of the regular WIFI connection – no big deal just another step we had to make.
Working with the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7″ with the DSLRdashboard app
Miggo – Two way Speed Strap: Here is something we didn’t really cover in the video but is sort of cool. Some of you might remember our excitement about the strap which came with the Miggo Agua Water Resistant Camera Holster that we reviewed here last year (and yes you can buy the strap even without the holster). Now for a camera rig you don’t need a strap – it is actually in the way most of the time. What is nice about the Miggo strap is that it is detachable so you can take it off when you use the rig.
What is even better is that you can use an extra fail-safe buckle to make sure your camera is secure to the rig when putting it on and taking it off (it can be a bit of a pain at times even with the quick release and you don’t want your precious camera/lens falling and breaking up). Really simple solution that should give you some piece of mind.
Simple but secure – Miggo fail-safe bucklesPrice: the Two way Speed Strap itself cost $30 (you will have talk to Miggo if you would like extra fail-safe buckles to put on your rig).
A few extra points to keep in mind:
Assembling everything was a piece of cake (as you can see in the video) and more or less just a matter of connecting one part to the other (we did need some M5 or M4 screws with nuts to secure the TV arm to the VESA adaptor but this is really as far as this goes in terms of DIY).
We do have a few points to keep in mind we learned during this build:
- Consider the height – This is very important – place your camera in the position and hight from your desk where you would like it to be (use a face down tripod or just hold it in your hand and take a picture (try and put some objects or maybe a ruler on your desk so you will know what size of frame you are likely to get – with our D7100+35mm lens we got 70×40 cm frame from about 1 meter/3feet). Only after you are 100% sure that this is the right hight start building the rig – you don’t want to drill deep holes in you wall just to learn that the hight is too low/high.
- Consider lenses – Prime/Zoom and Macro – We used both primes and zooms with the rig. Prime usually give you better IQ but zooms are more flexible and can help you can closer. Macro lenses can be great if you need close ups – but don’t get a short macro if you really want to get close.
- Think about the background/surface – we used a couple of ceramic tiles as background – we think that they are pretty cool although we will probably replace them from time to time just so we (and you) won’t be too bored. Don’t use bold colors, noisy patterns or anything else which is too distracting to the eye for video. Reflective surfaces as well as 100% white or black are probably not recommended as well. For stills you can do whatever you want (more or less) if you know how to light.
- Think about lighting – this isn’t a lighting tutorial (we have enough of those on our site), but you really have to consider lighting when you build an overhead camera rig. We discovered that light directly from above typically doesn’t look very good (surprise surprise…). What we did is use two lights – Pipeline Remote Phosphor LED Reporter – which we are currently reviewing – one from each side facing in about 45 degrees downwards. It is important to try and lit the surface evenly so you will probably need a good spread with no shadows. One last nice thing about the 9.solutions – Vesa To 5/8″ Receptacle – when you connect something to the 5/8″ connector – you still have the 3/8″ and 1/4″ 20 free to connect other gear – so you can mount a microphone if you want to record voice or even an extra light from the side if you have another small arm or even just a ballhead which is what we show in the video.
We are really pleased with the rig that we were able to create in this project. It is very robust and will probably last for many years (although chances are that we will try to improve it even more in the future). It can hold more or less any type of camera that will we throw at it and won’t move by accident or tip down unintentionally.
Another look at the rig (with our D5000)
This wasn’t a cheap DIY project mind you – the TV arm was about $35 (although in the U.S. you can probably get one for half as much), the 9.solutions VESA adapter cost about $75 and the arm is about $80. As for the 3-way tripod head – We used one from “studio assets” Magnesium 3-Way Low-Profile Pan/Tilt Head which cost about $70 and works pretty well – you can get a Manfrotto for probably about the same price – at the end of the day we are looking at a total cost of components of about $260 – as we said – not exactly inexpensive DIY build, but a very robust one.
We would still like to see a non DIY solution for a complete kit of an overhead camera from one of the manufacturers (we talked to several manufacturers including 9.solutions which might take on this challenge in the future, but it really depends on how much interest they will see from users).
Our vision for a non DIY overhead camera rig is based on the same general idea as our current build but with a few modifications that will make it stronger and more usable at the same time.
The basis in our view should be a wall mount or possibly a very strong grip/table clamp (we are talking real heavy duty one or possible even some sort of dual solution). Users can choose which type of solution they prefer (wall mount/table mount) and the rest of the unit will be pretty much identical. To the wall mount (or its table alternative unit) you will have 3 robust metal telescopic arms (just think about tripod legs coming out of the wall with joints that can change angle horizontally). This will allow you to get the right angle and distance of the camera.
Next you will have an option for a forth vertical arm for adjusting the height or the distance of your camera from your table (which is something that we don’t currently have on our rig). The last part of this rig should either be a head or a head attachment (it is important that the weight of the camera will not accidental loosen the lock of the head (something which stills worry us on our rig).
A complete set like this should cost no more than $200 (without the head and extra vertical arm probobly) and in our opinion it will find its niche market with quite a photographers and possibly some other users as well (youtube shooter?).
We hope that you enjoyed this build – we will have another semi DIY project coming soon to LensVid and if you have comments/ideas/suggestion on this project and overhead cameras in general – feel free to let us know in the comments – here or on our facebook on YouTube.
You can check out more LensVid exclusive articles and reviews on the following link.