Shoulder Rigs: The Definitive Buyer's Guide
Tired of your shots being mistaken for found footage?
You've come to the right place.
Often, one of the first major camera equipment investments an aspiring filmmaker makes is a sturdy shoulder rig.
A handheld camera rig can be what takes a production from amateur to professional.
However, a stumbling block many potential filmmakers may run into is the variety of options available. How do you decide if you need a shoulder camera rig? If you do need one, how do you find the best one for your project?
Thankfully, the answer is simple: it's about knowing the product and knowing what you need.
Or you may be a seasoned camera vet looking for an upgrade. The world of shoulder-held camera equipment is vast, and it's easy to miss technology updates.
In this Shoulder Rig Buyer’s Guide, we’ll answer all of your questions, such as:
- How do shoulder rigs work?
- What's the difference between a shoulder rig and a gimbal?
- Should you buy a shoulder rig based on quality or budget?
- What are the types of shoulder rigs?
- Can you build your own shoulder rig?
But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page
What Is a Shoulder Rig?
A shoulder rig is a piece of filming equipment that connects to the camera and rests on the shoulder. It is used to capture dynamic movement while keeping the camera itself stable. A shoulder rig functions as a versatile mounting system that is designed to ergonomically hold an iPhone, GoPro, DSLR, or cinema camera as well as provide stabilized footage when shooting. They typically vary in price and quality, depending on the needs and budget of the cameraman or production.
Shoulder Rig VS Gimbal
The difference between a shoulder rig and a gimbal comes down to construction. A shoulder rig can be as basic as a piece of wood with a weight on one side and a camera on the other. A gimbal on the other hand is a tool that uses motors and sensors to support and stabilize the camera. In outcome, they are both used for stable, balanced shots. In functionality, a shoulder rig relies on an operator to work properly, whereas a gimbal uses technology to differentiate between intentional and unintentional camera movements and adjusts itself accordingly.
It's hard to argue with the popularity of the gimbal. Since they came onto the scene a few years ago, they've exploded in popularity. By 2016, it seemed like gimbal footage was on everything.
But have they eclipsed the shoulder rig?
We would argue that while there is a place for gimbal footage, it will never completely replace the shoulder rig.
How Shoulder Rigs Work
At its core, a shoulder rig is a support system for a camera that is stabilized and rests on the shoulder of the cameraman. They can range in price from free (the DIY option) to several thousand dollars (the Hollywood option).
Shoulder Rig Parts
It is absolutely possible to construct your own shoulder rig. All you need is a frame for the rig itself, a means to attach the camera to one end, and a kind of counterweight to balance the other end.
However, many DIY shoulder rigs fall into the category of a "Frankenrig." That is, they are made up of different parts, designed for different purposes. While a Frankenrig may seem appealing depending on your budget, consider what you're sacrificing in terms of quality. Further, how expensive would it be if the rig breaks mid-shoot (a distinct possibility), damaging your camera?
A typical, professional shoulder rig is made up of several parts, all designed for shooting comfort as well as professional shot quality.
Shoulder rigs generally start with a camera baseplate and shoulder pad. These are the most important components for a stable, comfortable, and balanced shoulder rig. If you're going to have a potentially heavy camera resting on your shoulder for hours at a time, this is necessary.
Next are the handles. These connect to the baseplate rods and are used by the camera operator to direct the shot and situate the camera direction. The handles also make up the main body of the rig itself.
Onto the rig body, many optional components may also be added. Depending on the type of shoulder rig purchased, they may include follow focus, extra battery space, or an EVF.
When Should You Use a Shoulder Rig?
In shooting a DSLR video, there are many instances where you need a shoulder rig for your camera.
The obvious argument for a shoulder rig faction is the increase in stability. This is particularly necessary if you plan to shoot a b-roll or utilize run-and-gun shooting. Carrying a camera by hand and trying to achieve these styles can come off as amateurish and potentially jarring to the viewer.
A shoulder rig would also be crucial when shooting something that requires mobility. If the alternatives are carrying the camera manually or nixing the shot, then you need a shoulder rig.
How to Find the Best Shoulder Rig For You
Not all shoulder rigs are created equal.
Different models have various strengths and weaknesses. Some are designed with a specific shooting style in mind. Others may be designed with an emphasis on balance, durability, or versatility.
Spoiled for options, how should you choose?
Our recommendation is to identify the criteria that matter most to you.
Professionals generally choose based on:
- Film Style
Based on your unique needs, there may be other considerations. But typically, these are the main decision-making factors when shopping for a shoulder rig.
If you can’t afford a particular shoulder rig, then don’t waste your time on it.
Certainly, it may make sense as an aspirational purchase in the future. But if you need a rig for an upcoming shoot, then affordability will be your priority. Fortunately, you can typically find a shoulder rig to fit any budget.
Now, we don’t recommend budget or DIY rigs for professional shoots. However, price point could represent a barrier to entry for you. If that’s the case, it’s probably wise to invest in the best rig you can afford.
Higher quality rigs lead to better shoots. They also tend to last longer. So even if you pay more up front, you’ll probably save money in the long run. Better rigs also increase your chances of scoring higher-paying gigs and repeat clients.
So your goal should be to get as much bang for your buck as possible.
Best Shoulder Rig By Budget
In terms of high-quality, affordable shoulder rigs for DSLR/DSLM cameras, we would recommend the ACT Basic Recoil Rig.
This shoulder rig would be for those who already have a few of the staple camera accessories (ie, who have a camera cage and EVF). But it's professional-quality without being Hollywood-level expensive. What's not to love about that?
The ACT Basic Recoil Rig is easily configurable to accommodate different shots. It can be used for tripod, cage, run-n-gun, and even handheld. Beyond that, it is capable of accommodating all of those shooting styles while boosting stability and comfort.
In a perfect world, this would be your first consideration.
Again, higher quality shoulder rigs lead to better footage. Better footage inevitably leads to a better career. If you are a professional (or are trying to become one), high quality equipment is crucial to long-term success.
Higher quality shoulder rigs generally offer more stability and balance. Not only does this lead to better shots, it also leads to more comfortable shots. Ergonomic design is one of the hallmarks of top-notch filming accessories. Your neck, back, shoulders, and arms will thank you for the investment, especially on long shoots.
In addition, the top-tier brands are more likely to offer cutting-edge, easy-to-use features.
For example, Zacuto’s trigger grip system offers massive advantages over the competition. They reduce setup time and allow a superior degree of adjustability mid-shot. Lower quality brands simply don’t invest in research and development. Instead, they wait on industry leaders to do so (then try to copy our ideas).
Best Shoulder Rig By Quality
As you might expect, higher quality shoulder rigs cost more but offer more in return.
If quality and versatility are your main interests, we have some recommendations. First, we'd recommend the ACT Universal Recoil Rig.
For this recoil rig, you're getting all the benefits of the more inexpensive model with more balance and greater customization options. Beyond that, you’re getting a well-made, robust rig that is compatible with all DSLR/DSLM cameras. That means you’ll be able to continue using it as you upgrade your cameras. Not to mention, you get a free EVF when you buy Zacuto.
The type of camera you're working with plays a big part in choosing the right shoulder rig.
Obviously, you need a rig that is compatible with your specific camera. Some shoulder rigs claim to be universal but don’t account for all the nuance across the camera industry.
For instance, if you're shooting with a large camera, then the rig should have appropriate shoulder padding for comfort and weight balance. On the other hand, shoulder rigs add sturdiness if you’re shooting with a camcorder or lighter DSLR. And obviously, you’ll need the right cage or top plate to fit the specific camera you’re using.
You’ll also want to factor in other accessories like your preferred EVF or follow focus.
At Zacuto, we’re able to leverage our partnerships with camera manufacturers to produce rigs with greater compatibility. We coordinate with them based on their upcoming products. We also consider feedback from filmmakers and adapt our products to their needs. This results in higher quality, more versatile rigs over time.
To a degree, the rig you need is a function of the shots you’ll be taking.
If you're searching for that shaky, found-footage look, stability may not be your greatest concern. But if you're trying to achieve a run-and-gun, frantic look to your shot (without making everyone sick in the process), balance and stability are more important.
Other factors such as shooting conditions and length of shot also matter. You may need accommodations for microphones or extra battery packs. Or comfortability and mobility may be first on your list.
Ideally, you’re able to find a shoulder rig that fulfills all of your needs. But if you’re making a purchase based on an upcoming shoot, your most immediate use case should take priority.
Types of Shoulder Rigs
Today, there are several different types of shoulder rigs.
It can be hard to categorize them because there is a lot of overlap. It’s not just a quality thing. Different styles of rigs are often built with different end goals in mind. For simplicity’s sake though, we can break them into four general categories.
The four groups we use are:
- DIY Shoulder Rigs
- Basic Shoulder Rigs
- Motorized Shoulder Rigs
- Recoil Shoulder Rigs
These aren’t necessarily definitive types. But this organization is a useful way to highlight the differences.
DIY Shoulder Rigs
Do-it-yourself shoulder rigs will always have a certain degree of popularity.
Yes, it is possible to build your own shoulder rig. DIY rigs can be constructed with materials like PVC pipe or metal rods. Depending on your use case, they may suffice for your requirements. But without welding or milling, your is likely to be significantly below industry standard.
DIY shoulder rigs could be a good choice for newbie filmmakers. However, they aren’t recommended for professionals. If you have an established business or career, it’s probably not a good idea to show up on set with a shoulder rig made out of PVC pipe and duct tape. You’ll look less professional and your work quality will take a hit.
How would it look if you hired a "professional" contractor and they showed up with homemade tools?
Basic Shoulder Rigs
Most shoulder rigs fit into this category.
The most basic shoulder rigs often feature a simple shoulder support and static handles. Generally, the camera weight is out in front of you so you are required to support most of the weight with your arms (exhausting!). While they represent an upgrade from do-it-yourself rigs, they can be very uncomfortable, especially on extended shots.
Some have additional features that add functionality and/or make them more versatile. However, 90% of basic shoulder rigs aren’t robust enough to achieve that true Hollywood quality. They also tend to be made out of cheaper materials and may not outlast your current camera.
Motorized Shoulder Rigs
A few shoulder rigs feature motorized lens controls.
These are generally a step up from basic shoulder rigs. Motorized follow focus and zoom controls are certainly useful. But they also come with their own set of problems.
First, the motor and gears add both weight and bulk. Though it may not seem like much, a 10-20% weight increase can make an enormous difference over an hour’s worth of shooting. Second, electronic mechanisms create another point of failure. They tend to be more delicate than the rest of the rig, shortening its overall lifespan. This can be especially inconvenient if you encounter a problem in the middle of shooting.
Recoil Shoulder Rigs
Recoil rigs are a specialty of ours.
The main difference between a recoil rig and a regular shoulder rig is balance and stability. In our recoil rigs, the balance point is directly on the shoulder. We use a sliding camera baseplate system with the camera directly over your shoulder so that your arms have to support less weight.
In addition, the positioning of the camera results in a shorter, lighter rig. Along with adjustable handles and support for all your most important accessories, this puts recoil rigs at the pinnacle of the shoulder rig industry.
The end result:
Once you try a recoil rig, you’ll never go back—and due to our lifetime guarantee, you probably won’t have to!
How Much Do Shoulder Rigs Cost?
Shoulder rigs can vary in price from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. The pricing depends on the manufacturer, the quality of materials, and the additional options available. The majority of shoulder rigs fall into the middle of the price range, with the very-cheap and very-expensive being outliers rather than the norm.
When considering how much to spend on a shoulder rig for DSLR or other cameras, affordability may not be your primary concern. In all likelihood, it’s shot quality.
Can you afford to have amateurish or overly-shaky shots? Further, can you afford to only work amateur gigs due to amateur equipment?
The quality of your work is something that needs to be factored into the spending equation. If spending a little more allows you to work higher-paying, more professional gigs, then isn't it worth it?
What about the time you're wasting by not using a professional shoulder rig? Time spent with low battery and doing excess editing is time wasted. And that time adds up.
How to Save Money on Your Shoulder Rig
The easiest way to save money on a shoulder rig is to take care of an existing one.
But clever answers aside, what do you do if you find the perfect shoulder rig but it's just out of your price range?
There's no one easy answer to this one.
Sometimes it's about shopping the sales. Many companies will have different deals throughout the year, or when they receive new merchandise. In these cases, it's about finding a company you trust and waiting. Sometimes subscribing to a newsletter can keep you in the loop of sales and buying opportunities.
Depending on the manufacturer, you might even find financing options. For example, at Zacuto, we offer a pay-over-time option through Affirm.
Beyond that, you might also consider the cost of replacement. You can either buy one high quality rig once or buy five cheap ones over the next decade. The very best shoulder rigs come with lifetime warranties.
Should You Pay More for Your Shoulder Rig?
As leaders in the filmmaking industry, we understand that professionals don’t always prioritize price.
When assessing if you should pay more for your shoulder rig, you need to assess what your filming goals are.
If you don't have a shoulder rig, will upgrading to one land you more professional gigs? Likewise, if you have a poor shoulder rig, will upgrading to a nicer rig with more accessories improve your filming quality enough to pay for itself?
Upgrades that have the capacity to increase the tier of your work should be thought of as an investment in yourself. Sure, it may be more expensive in the short-term. But how will you advance without investing in yourself?
A shoulder rig is one of the most important pieces of equipment for a professional cameraman. It's indispensable for getting a stable shot and allowing for longer shooting times.
If you've never bought or used a shoulder rig before, hopefully this has answered some of your questions, such as:
- How shoulder rigs work
- Where to find the best shoulder rig
- How much should you pay for a shoulder rig
- When should you pay more for a rig
- And can you make your own shoulder rigs
The world of camera equipment and accessories can seem broad and confusing. But when you break it down, it definitely can be more manageable.
Found this shoulder rig guide helpful? Please like this post! Have a question, comment, or insight we missed? Leave it below. Know someone who could benefit from this post? Please share it with them! We love to keep the conversation going. And of course, if you’re in the market for a shoulder rig, please reach out to Zacuto. We’d be happy to help!