PART 1 OF 3,



Outside looking in, I stood on the step-side, clutched the roof rack with one hand and pointed the camera into the open passenger side window with the other, keeping my back to the gauntlet of young trees and branches trying to swat me off the side of the Range Rover, Marco Pierre White content to careen through the overgrown estate road at a fairly good clip.  I had dived into the thorns behind him earlier, getting all cut up as we tracked a deer through the thickets and I guess that impressed him.  Bourdain had just shot his first stag, a prize winner, and I hadn’t missed a second of it.  It was dead in the trunk, bouncing with the ruts and still warm, it’s dried blood still a messy cross drawn on Bourdian’s forehead.  Marco noticed me wincing from the branches and without slowing the truck down turned, “good man you’ve got there Anthony, good man.”  Pushing away the loaded rifles, Bourdain grabbed a sloshing, half-full pint of beer from the center console and nodded at the road, “not bad.”

I was in bed, years later, outdoors on a second floor porch in Haiti.  A hurricane was on the way and the occasional gunshot snapped into the neighborhood.  I’d had a few rum punches, to no effect, and was laying in a pool of sweat beneath my mosquito net.  Unknown to anyone, for the first and only time I’d accidentally erased some hard won footage in a moment of haste.  I’d spent years in Bourdain’s world of no retakes and no second chances and knew gone was gone.  I didn’t sleep.  I thought about not missing things, and how that was the point of a camera man’s life.



The camera person’s primary concern is capture: how to not miss it.  This is the root decision of all lighting, blocking, and camera choices. People agonize over camera choice.  I’m often asked, what should we shoot with?  I say, it’s complicated.  Maybe the question should be, how will I not miss what I’m setting out to get?  Every level of production is about capturing moments.  Moments with someone, or something, some place, some atmosphere.  Beautiful or not beautiful, fact or fiction, laboriously crafted or found, the kind of moments we’re trying to capture and how these moments are to be transmitted will determine the type of camera.  As will our budget.

Presently, many camera people have worked with many different types of camera.  I’ll say the more interesting discussion to me isn’t the obvious disparities of what I would term capture power. We all know the inequalities among camera systems, we speak of them often and all suffer them.  These factors continue to improve in future generations of all digital cameras as chips evolve at an exponential pace.  Amongst all the differences in cost and capture power of systems, what I’m interested in is some consistencies and their effects on capture.  Going forward the types of material we set out to get, be they fact or fiction, will not change radically.  In capturing this material we’ll choose among constants like a camera’s form factor, its chip or gate size, and its lensing.  This is a discussion about form; how the shape, volume, and mass of a camera effects us, and the look of our project.

With future capture power arriving in smaller camera bodies we increasingly have to choose between two types of camera form and two distinct operating possibilities: Box or Balance.  Rigid stabilization, tripod or otherwise, will limit some of the differences between these two forms.  However, if we’re departing from stabilization we’ll have to make the choice between capturing with a Box Camera in our hands, or a Balance Camera on our shoulder.  A form cannot be both things at once, in capture we will have to choose one.



1976. Anthropologists Margret Mead and Gregory Bateston, in a conversation with Stewart Brand for CoEvolution Quarterly magazine.  They debate the proper method of shooting for the science of Anthropology.


Bateston: Yes. By the way, I don’t like cameras on tripods, just grinding. In the latter part of the schizophrenic project, we had cameras on tripods just grinding.
Mead: And you don’t like that?
Bateston: Disastrous.
Mead: Why?
Bateston: Because I think the photographic record should be an art form.
Mead: Oh why? Why should’t you have some records that aren’t art forms? Because it’s an art form, it has been altered.
Bateston: It’s undoubtedly altered. I don’t think it exists unaltered.
Mead: I think it’s very important, if you’re going to be scientific about behavior, to give other people access to the material, as comparable as possible to the access you had. You don’t, then, alter the material. There’s a bunch of filmmakers now that are saying, “it should be art”, and wrecking everything that we’re trying to do. Why the hell should it be art?
Bateston: Well, it should be off the tripod.
Mead: So you run around?
Bateston: Yes.
Mead: And therefore you’ve introduced a variation into it that is unnecessary.
Bateston: I therefore got the information out that I thought was relevant at the time.
Mead: That’s right. And therefore what do you see later?
Bateston: If you put the damn thing on a tripod, you don’t get any relevance.
Mead: No, you get what happened.
Bateston: It isn’t what happened.
Mead: I don’t want people leaping around thinking that a profile at this moment would be beautiful.
Bateston: I wouldn’t want beautiful.
Mead: Well, what’s all the leaping around for?
Bateston: To get what’s happening.
Mead: What you think is happening.
Bateston: If Stewart reached behind his back to scratch himself, I would like to be over there at that moment.
Mead: If you were over there at that moment you wouldn’t see him kicking the cat under the table. So that just doesn’t hold as an argument.
Bateston: Of the things that happen the camera is only going to record one percent anyway.
Mead: That’s right.
Bateston: I want that one percent on the whole to tell.

I see no right or wrong in this conversation, but different ways capturing things.  I see a discussion of reality coverage and a Phenomenological discussion of, how do we know what is really happening?  I see quantum science’s problem of being unable to see something without influencing it, and Bateston’s penchant for coming off the sticks as I too am believer in the Handheld Mystique.  I appreciate Mead’s seriousness in knowing the camera’s usage determines all future possibilities of how the scene can be replayed.  She’s shooting with the edit in mind, even if that edit is a single take.

I have nothing against a tripod, it’s a tool; an equalizer and a disparager.  I use it whenever needed.  As we know stabilizing the camera in an unhuman way subconsciously produces a level of objectivity allowing the viewer to observe the action within the frame at a psychological distance, as one would a well-crafted novel.  Handheld leaves us feeling the scene as witnessed, reminding us someone was present the moment what we’re watching happened.

Beyond psychology, shooting handheld has a tremendous impact on coverage. It determines what shots are possible, probable, and the speed and style their accumulation.  Because handheld offers a broad and immediate set of adjustments in camera angle it excels, but is not limited to, scenarios of unpredictability.  Which is the resulting emotion we’ve been trained to expect.  How the camera interacts with a user’s body changes the way, Mead might say, we leap around with it.  As tools influence their user’s behavior, camera form can shape the physical and mental process of the user as to which shots are possible and which are probable.



Increased sophistication in the process of recording and display increases a camera’s mass.  Though Moore’s law gives us more processing power in a smaller space it isn’t rapidly reducing the footprint of all camera bodies.  Based on the development of film gate sizes, optics, magazines, recording decks and the ergonomics of the human body, we have accepted a certain size, shape, and mass for most sophisticated cameras. There is a need and rationale for keeping this size and mass fairly constant in the future.

A Balance Camera, defined by the way it interacts with the body, is like a seesaw.  With masses along its length at equilibrium, the pivot point is near the camera’s center.  Our shoulder acts as fulcrum and free from torque pulling one end up or down the camera rests on us, balanced.  The design has organically evolved around always having two lateral masses to balance, the optics and the magazine.  The elongated shape evolved around its interaction with our head and shoulder.

The viewing mechanism in these cameras is ideally placed close to the image plane and close to the camera’s center of gravity (CG).  Bring the viewfinder to our eye and we bring the camera’s CG into alignment with our body’s CG.  Connecting with the camera combines our masses to form a new common CG.  Balance comes from keeping this common CG over our base of support, our point of contact with the ground, be it toes, feet, knees, etc.  Holding the camera away the body moves our CG towards the base’s edge, the farther we move it, the more we must work to maintain balance.  Move the camera too far, the CG moves outside the base and we fall.  Keeping the camera on our shoulder and our CG over our base allows us move less like two separate masses and more like the one we have become.

A body at rest tends to stay at rest.  Inertia stabilizes the camera resting on our shoulder, more mass at equilibrium providing more stability.  Hands and shoulder form three points of contact, countering torque and providing a high degree of control.  The camera is stacked above all major muscle groups.  As the force vector of gravity pulls straight down, we use our legs, core, back, chest and arms to push the camera back up.  Dispersing the load allows us to counter fatigue and carry more weight. Incredibly important, the Balance Camera and viewfinder encourages correct posture; hips, spine and neck erect and aligned. Our head is positioned looking forward naturally, and not tilted down.

We tend to shoot subjects at eye level, be they sitting or standing.  Depending on the material we may be holding the camera at these two levels frequently and for great lengths of time. Can we hold a twenty pound camera for longer in our hands or on our shoulder?  Ten pounds is the same answer, and perhaps negligible but true, so is five.  Comfortable inside the viewfinder, our eye can clearly see focus, critical picture information and frame lines.  Our attention, split between the action and the display, can shift mostly to camera.  The viewfinder dominates our vision, permitting precise framing and deep concentration.  The murmur of the world around us dulls and the action in the viewfinder can fully absorbs us.

Before considering the consequences of shooting with a Balance camera we have to answer two koans of the camera operator.  Did we get it?  And, was it worth it?

Do not miss the story.
Cost and format are intentionally missing from this discussion.
Capture Power is a subjectively judged quantitative combination of data rate, bit depth, sensitivity, latitude, and resolution.  It provides an idea of how much of the world is being recorded onto a particular medium, film or digital.
Coverage is the collection of camera angles edited together to form a particular scene.
Sophisticated camera’s mechanical or electronic complexity maximizes capture power.

PART 2 OF 3,


Before considering the consequences of shooting from the shoulder we need to incorporate the idea of camerawork, and what we are trying to produce with it.  Work is the force it takes to change something; to move a camera’s mass, to operate it.  The relationship between camera, operator, and audience is a system defined by Thermodynamics.  If the experience of experiencing something provides energy, the Thermodynamic movement is the transfer of this energy from one point in space and time to another, via the process of work.  There is the original energy of the experience, the work needed to capture this energy, the energy lost in the transmission process, and the final amount of energy received by the viewer.  Knowing a system can never be 100% efficient, we hope to maximize transmission and minimize work.  If there is more work than energy transferred, the system is ineffective.

Power is force over a distance; the amount of work done over time; a product of current and resistance.  In viewing, power describes the final amount of energy transferred to the viewer.  More energy transmitted in less time equals more power.  We consider power when we stand, camera in hand, having lived what we just captured and ask ourselves, Was it worth it?  Will the work of capture enable a powerful experience to be transferred to the viewer?  Will the work amount to little or no energy for the viewer?

Unfortunately, more work does not necessarily produce a more powerful image.  The camera cannot make something from nothing.  The camera does not create, it transfers.  In non-fiction and fiction we have to start with something; an experience of some intensity.  If there is no energy in what we capture no matter how hard we work there will be no energy for the viewer.  In terms of the system, when all the energy comes from the work itself, all the viewer experiences is the work.  Images may appear elaborate, labored over, well executed, well crafted.  But they lack energy.  They are stylish and powerless.  This dynamic relationship requires constant attention: what we capture, and how hard we must work to capture it.

Did we get it?  Was the image in focus?  Was it exposed and framed properly, the action clear and understandable?  In terms of Thermodynamics: did we capture the energy of the experience?  How much?  What percent of the found, created, joyous, desperate, or bewildering energy in front of the camera are we transferring to the viewer?  Thermodynamics helps answer the question of whether a camera is too much work to operate, or not enough.  It helps us answer whether a particular camera is performing its primary function: the efficient transfer of energy from one place to another.

Energy for the viewer relates directly to form; form determines how hard we work.  The higher the mountain, the more we expect the shot to pay off.  Elegance is the economy of beauty.



Consider some consequences.  The strength of the shoulder tempts us into maximizing camera size and mass.  The more we carry, the more work required.  More work is more fatigue and if we are overloaded, less shoot time.  The inertia that helps stabilize the camera also resists us repositioning it.  A heavier camera means we have to work harder to pick it back up off our shoulder, hold it over our head, put it on our hip, carry it in a low angle, hold it in front of us, run.  We have to work harder to prevent inertia from slowing us down and limiting angles.

Efficiency, together with the viewfinder being most effective at our eye, encourages us to let the camera remain on our shoulder.  The camera’s range of motion tends to be where the whole body can support it, favoring certain angles and heights like standing or kneeling, and making us work harder for shot variety outside of these two positions.  A tendency to remain on the shoulder may shape the coverage, and the look.  A heavier balance camera does not make dynamic and variable camera movement impossible, but it does require more work.  We move it in a different way.

The larger the camera, the larger the footprint.  Expanding footprint includes not only the camera body, but all its accessories, including power, support, and protective cases.  This effects storage, set-size, and transportation.  For the operator, the Balance Camera’s viewfinder and body block a portion of their view, reducing their situational awareness.  Carried high up on our body, the camera becomes more visible.  The body and viewfinder hide our face from the subject.



When we can take a camera down from our face, hold and operate it comfortably in two hands before us and watch what we are capturing on a monitor viewable from most any angle; it’s a Box camera.  The form of a Box is nothing like the form of the Balance camera. With its monitor and small size, the Box is liberated from our eye and shoulder giving the camera a far greater range of motion.  Its small mass can be moved faster and more dynamically with less effort.  The box can be boomed and tracked with less effort, small moves requiring less work.  Within arm’s reach a great variety of vertical and horizontal positions can be reached and retained.  Incremental height adjustments are easier.  The smaller size can be fit into tighter spaces, often putting it closer to subjects and objects, making it capable of new angles.  Unlike the Balance camera, feeling the constant mass in our hands we tend to experience the Box as a separate entity and tend to interact with it as such.  We move it.

With the camera down from our face, situational awareness increases; we see more of the world around us.  Like shooting with a medium format camera or rangefinder operating from a distant monitor can encourage a different style of framing.  With our eyes further from the screen, frame lines are less dominant in our vision, our proximity to action becomes more apparent.  Frames may get looser, and more active.  We may see and experience the frame in a different way.  A small camera tends to pull us closer to things.  These factors shape the coverage, and as the tool shapes the capabilities of the user, the camerawork shapes the future possibilities of how the scene can be replayed.  Things may look different.

We can use the Box to find the same frames as the Balance camera, but its strength may be in finding something else.  Beyond new angles, interacting with a smaller sized camera encourages different behavior; different proximities to people, different camera movements.  It’s another set of possibilities, which may or may not be right for our project.



Consequences.  By it’s very nature a Box camera is less stable.  Second to exposure and sound, instability can render a moving picture unwatchable.  Like being too dark, a picture can be so shaky a viewer cannot understand what is happening.  As in light and darkness, there are also varying degrees of shake.

The CG of a box is in the center of the box.  Our arms cantilever out and support the camera’s entire weight, holding it before our body with nothing to rest on.  This is the Box’s most ideal position, and its most problematic.  Suspended in front of us the camera has maximum freedom to respond; the hovering image plane is also highly prone to the effects of shaking, and puts the body in an awkward position.  The cantilevering tends to arch our back, we dip our head to see the monitor. Keeping the camera at eye level for any length of time requires more work as there is nowhere to rest it.  Fatigue brings the constant temptation to pull the camera back in towards our body. Our arms tire long before the shoulder, and no matter how small the Box, we’ll reduce the cantilever of our arms and try find a way to use more muscles to support the camera.  We will inevitably rest the Box on our body somehow, contracting our arms to find a place where the monitor can be outside of our eye’s minimum focus distance, landing the camera on our stomach, chest, or half-shoulder.  This tucks the chin further into our chest, bending the neck and spine out of alignment.  Rather than keeping our posture erect we tend to hunch over the small camera.  Resting the camera on the body nullifies the freedom of movement which was the Box camera’s greatest asset.

Unknown hundreds of devices have been created to turn the small box into something sizable enough to rest on our body, or directly upon the shoulder.  The problem is aggravated by our eye’s minimum focus distance. Getting the camera to rest anywhere near our shoulder places the monitor so close to our face that a diopter is required for our eye.  Unlike a camera kept on the shoulder, we need the both the monitor bigger as it moves away from our face, and smaller with a diopter as it approaches.

The greatest tradeoffs in a Box camera are lack of operational stability, and lack of capture power.  These factors are clearly changing as more power arrives in smaller bodies, and stabilized lenses and software arrive continue to evolve.  What will not change is the two camera forms will never be one, as we will see they are impossible to integrate.  We must choose to operate the camera in one way, or the other.

In Economic terms: we work to be paid, our pay based on the quality of our product and its cost to produce.
There are Box cameras in all formats.
Minium focus is an optical function, proximity, a matter of size and space.
The shakiness of handheld has been abused as an effect, typically signaling a negative emotion to the viewer. Psychologically, there is something interesting at the root of our intolerance of shake, it may be mechanization over humanization.
Minimum focus is at least six inches and increases rapidly with age.
Imagine how Head’s Up Display eye glasses might change things.

PART 3 OF 3,



Why can’t we have both camera forms?  To be clear, some cameras can be changed into either form, but no camera can be two forms at once.  Some Box cameras can be made bigger, and a few Balance cameras can be detached into separate elements and made smaller.  This either-or scenario is determined by the Laws of Physics and the bounds of Ergonomics.

There is only one Center of Gravity (CG) for a rigid body, and in a state of equilibrium this CG will be above the pivot point.  A box is a box, and to make it balance on a shoulder we have to add more mass laterally, i.e. make the camera longer and heavier. We also need to see into the box and control the box which means adding even more mass and size in the form of multiple accessories.

Increasing the box’s mass leads us to an operational inefficiency: we prefer the operation, but now carry more weight than we need to perform the primary functions of record and display.  The accessories added for enhancing operation on the shoulder work directly against the camera operating efficiently in one’s hands.  Optimizing one form has immediate consequences in operating the other.

As for the larger camera, reduced to a smaller head and lens, it too will need modification to make the smaller version operational.  It will also need to remain connected to its larger self via cable, leaving its overall footprint ultimately no smaller. This process of modification, parts taken away or parts added on, may or may not be a problem for us.  It will not be a problem if have the time, specific parts, and desire to stop and make this change when needed.  Some of us may simply have both forms on hand.  Some will only want one.  Whether dual form, modular, or modified cameras are more or less efficient and elegant than cameras engineered for a single purpose will be determined by their users.  The market will generally meet demand.




With Mead and Bateston, there is no right or wrong, just different ways of trying to capture something.  Why does walking through a rural village with a large camera on my shoulder produce a different effect then carrying a smaller camera in my hands?  Is it a matter of size equals authority, does a bigger camera make people take us more seriously?  Do simply less people notice a smaller camera?  I get the same reaction in New York City.  Different cameras have different effects on people.

Camera operators are trained to be actors.  We are trained to ignore the subject, and simultaneously put all of our attention onto the subject.  We ignore a subject’s interaction with us so they may continue to do whatever is they were doing as if we were not there.  We have this strange instinct that we can capture things as they would be if we were not there.  If we could just be very quiet, and stay out of the way, we could films things as they really are.  Yet the camera of course is there, its physical presence undeniable. When we look at this odd situation it is the camera person, not the camera, that is continually trying to disappear.

We hide behind the camera because we feel it’s the best vantage point to capture from.  Camera operating is an intimate relationship with objectivity and operators end up living in two realities; one in the frame, one outside it.  Evidence is in a camera operator standing next to a subject and speaking about them in the third person, as if they were not there, standing right beside them.  The operator’s point of reference is still within the reality of the frame.

Hiding my face behind the camera helps the subject forget I am there, not the camera mind you, just me the person.  Having been on other side of the lens, and I came away thinking that people never forget the camera is present.  Many, many times after filming I’ve heard subjects say, “oh I forgot the cameras were even here.”  It’s very hard for me to believe it.  We can accept the camera’s physical presence, deeply accept it, even ignore it, but once we’ve seen the camera, part of us always knows we are being recorded.  We are influenced.

The act of recording creates the camera’s presence, or camerapresence; what we feel when being recorded.  Like switching on a heater or air conditioner, camerapresence is a change in atmosphere, it influences behavior.  In quantum physics, the instrument of measurement changes that to be measured.  Same with a camera, we will never know what it was like if the camera were not there, we want to believe we do, which is interesting, but it will never be so.  No matter what the camera’s form once it’s there, it’s there.  Making a camera smaller in size does not reduce its presence.  The question is strangely not whether the camera is there, but whether I am still there.

In the scenario of me ignoring the subject, and the subject ignoring me, it’s easy for us both to occasionally lose sight of each other’s humanity.  This is where camera form may play a role.  People can be overwhelmed by the sight of a lens being pointed at them.  Positively, or negatively.  They do not tend to see a person holding a camera; they see a lens and they think about it recording them.  For the subject, lens and operator merge into cameraperson, which they regard as neither person, nor camera, but as that which is recording them.

Taking the camera down, exposing my eyes, my face, and my expression to subjects has the distinct effect of making me more like a person and less like a cameraperson.  I am like you, we are here together, along with this camera.  This process of humanizing the camera person may produce a different interaction and reaction from subjects.  It is an effect.  Whether you want this effect is another matter.  Can we take a Balance camera off our shoulder and get the same result?  Of course.  The question is, will we tend to?




Form is the shape, volume, and mass of a camera.  Capture power is limited by form, and form limits the way we use the camera.  Changing form changes the process of capture; the way the camera moves through space, the way the subject regards us, the way our project looks.  We should think about how much capture power we need for a project, and how we want to carry it.  We should stop and think about what it is we are trying not to miss.  What we should not think, is that a small camera in our hands is like not being there.  Because we are there, holding the thing.


“There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”  -Erwin Schrödinger, “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics”   

Center of gravity is identical to center of mass, which is sum of masses X distance to center, divided by sum of all masses. Meaning we must balance the box with more weight closer to the box’s center, or less weight much further away.

The Cat and the Box experiment highlighted a paradox in quantum mechanics where a body could not be in two states at once.


Are The Variables Really Blurred?

The camera manufacturer Aaton claimed that their camera bodies were so ergonomic it was like “a cat on the shoulder.”  

They are much loved by documentarians.


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