Building a Rail System for your Video DSLR

indiRAILSproThis is a product that may be new to a lot of photographers.  I know it’s a little new for me too, as I just started researching rail systems at the beginning of this year after buying my Canon 5D Mark II.  I read, researched and talked to people to really get an understanding of what a rail system does for you and why you would need it. So, lets get into it…In a nutshell, a rail system is a framework to support your camera and accessories.  It is called a rail system, because it usually starts with a pair of rails, or tubes that are held together with some framework of blocks and mounts, and your camera and all of its needed accessories mount to this framework.  For photographers, this is a clunky thing and not something you would want to ever mount your camera on.  For the budding to professional videographer, a rail system opens up a whole new set of doors.  And with the release of the 5D Mark II from Canon, and its amazing 1080p HD video, videographers need a way to use the camera differently than they as a still camera.  You need to be able to accessorize.

District9If you look at the movie industry, rail systems have become the standard way to mount all of the gear wrapped around a digital camera system (in this case, I believe this was a Red system).  Notice the young lady carrying a massive display of equipment on her shoulder. If you look closely, you will see that there is a person supporting her around the waist as she is walking on rough terrain, and there is a person to her right who is actually running the follow focus and focusing the camera while she walks.  All of this gear looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie.. and actually, it is (District 9).  In this article, we will talk about building a rail system similar to this to wrap around a DSLR.

When using a DSLR for high definition video, there are several other things you need to make the recording as clean as possible.  You need:

1) Stability – the ability to fluidly move your camera around

2) Focus – DSLRs do not have auto focus like camcorders do.  Focusing a lens is much more clunky and harder to handle

3) Light Control – sometimes a lens hood just isn’t enough control over the light on the lens

4) Microphone – the internal microphone is not nearly the quality needed for a professional video

5) Live View – the small, internal display is not big enough to use when manually focusing and framing a scene

6) Lighting – in darker situations, a light is often needed to illuminate your subject

7) Lens Modifiers – there are lens modifiers that do not attach to a lens and need to be fixed in-line with the camera lens, like a depth of field modifier

Now, imagine being able to take care of all of these needs at the same time. To do this, you need a frame around your camera with which you can attach all of these components. With a good rail system, you get:

1) Stability – a shoulder mount and frame you can hold with both hands

2) Focus – a follow focus knob and gearing with which you can easily mark your focus points and smoothly focus the lens

3) Light Control – a matte box with french flag and adjustable side flags and removable filter holders

4) Microphone – a frame allows you to mount a microphone either on the hot shoe or on the frame itself

5) Live View – an external monitor can be mounted above or to the side of the camera for optimal viewing, instead of just the small, built in screen on the camera

6) Lighting – a lighting solution can be mounted above the camera and will move with the camera

7) Lens Modifiers – with a rail system, a lens modifier can be mounted in-line with the camera lens in a rigid and secure installation

To accomplish all of this, we need to start with a rail system.  And to my surprise, there are quite a few out there to choose from.  But with a DSLR, there are special needs to handle the height and weight of the camera and all of its size requirements.  This means that not every rail system will work with your particular camera.  Rail systems designed for DSLRs are a little more height adjustable to allow for the height of the lens off the bottom mount of the camera.  The more flexible systems allow for a battery grip or XLR audio box under the body too.

And as of the writing of this article, there are a few video-capable DSLRs on the market, but many more are coming.  I am basing the article completely around my Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

empty railThe rail system we chose to work with for this article is the IndiSYSTEM from Studio4 Productions out of Waterloo, Iowa.  This is a U.S. manufactured rail system that is constantly changing and evolving to meet the needs of modern DSLRs as well as camcorders on the market today.  Tim Ovel, the owner, is a really personable and knowledgeable guy, and a lot of fun to talk with.  Throughout the build of this system, Tim was helpful in piecing the needed items and attachments together to make the rig just how we wanted it.

This article will be the first in a series that goes more in-depth into building and outfitting a rail system. For this particular article, we are going to focus on the rail system itself.

However, we have other components that will be completing this rig in the next articles in the series. We have a 5.6″ High Def HDMI battery powered portable monitor from Ikan, an LCD light panel from Ikan and a stereo mic and accessories from Rodes.  Delkin provided us with a Pop-Up Shade for the 5D Mark II, which helped with the outdoor light.  These accessories will help to complete the setup for a full production camera.

empty rail frontNow, let’s take a look at the system we have built here.  The first thing you need to understand is that this setup is completely reconfigurable.  Before even the first photograph was taken of the rig, I probably went through a dozen different configurations. With the complete flexibility of the indiSYSTEM, you can pretty much make the rig fit exactly what you want it to.

The components:

There are several pieces that make up the rail system.  Combined in any arrangement, these parts make up a rail system.

The rails.

product_indirailspro_imageThe rails themselves are the basis of a rail system. They are a platform on which all of the components are attached. Typically, the base is made up of 2 rails made up of a strong material like metal or carbon fiber.  Many of the rails out there are 15mm in diameter.  They can be almost any length, although the common lengths are anywhere from 10″ to 24″.  The indiRAILSpro system is based on carbon fiber rails, which are both light and very sturdy and strong.

The camera block

camera-blockThe camera mount, sometimes called the camera block, is where you mount your camera.  This is kind of the hub of the rig.  In the indiRAILSpro system, this block has a mounting plate that locks down to the rails themselves to the block and is the basis of holding them in place.  The block is drilled and tapped with mount holes with which to mount quick release bases and plates to attach your camera or to mount the entire block to a tripod.

The shoulder mount

shoulder mountThe shoulder mount is not always a necessary piece of a rail system, but it is a very common requirement for many people.  The shoulder mount allows you to balance and carry your camera, rig and accessories on your shoulder while smoothly operating it.  The shoulder mount for the indiRAILSpro is easily adjustable and can be angled to allow the rear end of the rig to be higher or lower as best suits your needs.  The newest shoulder mount was just designed before this article’s release and is a cool new take on their last shoulder mount.  It is light weight and very flexible in layout. It not only adjusts the distance of the rig from your shoulder, but it also angles to allow just the right angle for comfort.  After all, our shoulders to slant at an angle and your shoulder mount should accommodate that.

The Front handles

handlesHandles on the front end of the rails are how you control it when it is shoulder mounted.  If you don’t intend to carry your rig on your shoulder, then you probably want to tripod mount it, and handles wouldn’t be important to you. The handles need to be adjustable and flexible as people’s arm lengths are different.  This was another nice feature of the indiRAILSpro system as length, angle and separation could all be adjusted easily.

The Matte box

product_indimatteA matte box has many functions. It allows you to control the top and side light that hits the camera lens. It can allow you to easily insert filters in front of the lens too. A matte box can also shape the image aspect by blackening the top and bottom of your image to form a wider aspect letterbox effect. On top of all of that, it makes your rig look cool and professional. There are lots of reasons to want a matte box on your rail system.

The follow focus

product_indifocuspro_imageThis is not a “must have” accessory, and it is not terribly important to people using a rail setup with their average camcorders as auto-focus works well in that arena with that gear. But with today’s DSLRs and video, auto-focus is not there yet. Plus, there are many reasons to manually control your focus when doing cinematography. A follow focus system will give you complete manual control over your camera’s focus.

Other Components

As you build out your rig, you will find lots of other  accessories you want to add to make your videography easier and more effective. Once we built out all we needed with the indiSYSTEM, we started to add some other electronics to complete the system. Here is what we found most effective to add.

A Matte box for the camera’s viewing screenDelkin Pop-Up Shade for the Canon 5D Mark II

DelkinThis little attachment is an inexpensive way to get a bit of light control over the screen of the 5D Mark II (or most any other popular DSLR) when shooting in outdoor lighting.  It takes only seconds to install, and looks good on the camera.  If the positioning of the rail system is right and you can focus your eye on this screen comfortably while moving your camera around, a pop-up shade like this really can make a difference.  And at $25, it really is an affordable addition to any DSLR.

A Larger external display – Ikan V5600 High Definition 5.6″ Monitor

V5600_1_400pxLet’s face it… the small display on the back of the 5D II may be O.K. for checking out your still photos, but it is really too small for monitoring live video while on the move.  When you are moving around with a rig this large on your shoulder, you want to really be able to see exactly what is getting recorded. Ikan has a series of monitors that are compatible with the HDMI output from the 5D II and many other cameras and camcorders on the market. With the help of the Ikan mounting arm, the V5600 display took our rails system to a whole new level. I will go further in depth to this display and it’s features in a future review, but we really loved the light weight, the long life battery pack and the ease of mounting it to the system.

Ikan also makes an 8″ HDMI monitor for those who want a larger display. It is not as high of a resolution as the V5600, but then the HDMI live video output from the 5D Mark II is only 480P, so most of that video res is wasted anyway. We will do a more in-depth review of this screen in a future article. You can see this display here:

Ikan V8000HDe 8″ TFT LCD Monitor with DV Battery Plate, 16:9 and 4:3 Switchable Aspect Ratios

Video Light

iLEDOn-camera lighting is another nice thing to have to accent your shot… especially if doing live interviews. With a rail system, you have more real estate to mount a larger light and battery pack on top of the rail system above the camera. The ikan iLED 150 is a slick solution to put portable lighting on top of your rail system. With 144 LED lights and adjustable brightness, the iLED 150 gives you a nice, controlled lighting solution that runs for hours on a single charge. We will be doing a specific light review on this product in the near future.

External Microphone – Rode Stereo VideoMic plus the Dead Kitten

StereoVideoMicsidewaysThere are many ways you can go with audio with your 5D II (or 7D or any other DSLR). One way would be to add an XLR adapter such as those from Beachtek. These would allow you to hook up XLR microphones either to the rig or wireless or off a boom. But there is another, much easier way to add a mic. As the Canon 5D II and many other HD recording devices have mini-phono jacks as their only source of recording. For this, a cold shoe mounted microphone with a mini-phono jack is often the ideal solution. We used a Rode Stereo Videomic with a wind filter called a “DeadKitten”. This unit attaches right to the hot shoe on the camera and plugs into the mini-phono input. It is a powered mic, using a 9v battery, and it has some really nice features. It is a stereo “shotgun” style site mic with X/Y configuration, which enables it to capture the true ambiance of the recording space. This mic is said to be the world’s best selling stereo shotgun mic. I will be doing a full review of this and several other Rodes mics in the coming weeks, but for now, you read some great reviews here:

Rode Microphones Stereo VideoMic On-Camera Microphone

Putting It All Together:

So, I have to say, putting this all together was the best part. If you are like me and you like to tinker with things, this is a tinkerers dream. The system came in pieces and components ready to assemble. I was a bit intimidated at first, but quickly dug into the project. There were dozens of pieces to put together, but all was done with either thumb screws or allen wrenches that were included.

First – the rails.

I started with the rails… two 12″ long carbon fiber rods that are the backbone of the IndiRAILS system  There are “blocks” that attach to the top and bottom of these rails and clamp down to hold the rails in place. All it takes is 1 set of blocks and your rails are steady and firm.

Second – the camera block

camera-blockThe first block to mount is the camera block. This is where the camera mounts and is kind of the core of the rig. The IndyRAILSpro camera block is adjustable vertically, so the Canon 5D with a battery grip can still be adjusted to a good height to work with the rest of the attachments.

Inside the camera block I have mounted the “C” shaped mounting bracket and carrying handle. This is also a pretty recent addition to the product line-up (one that I think I had a little influence in creating) and is an important addition to the rig. This handle not only allows me to mount my microphone and other gear above the camera, but it is a firm handle to help carry a rather awkward shaped rig around.

Third – the Matte Box

matte-boxNext, I attached the indiMATTEpro matte box. It also mounted with a block on the front, which added further stabilization to the rails. The height of the matte box can be adjusted to match up properly with the lens height on the camera. The side and top flags are easily adjustable and can be tightened into position. The height is also adjustable so you can easily align the opening and masking height with the particular camera setup you have.

Fourth – front handles

handlesTo give me something to hold onto, I next mounted the front handles to the rails. These mounted to the rails with a block just like the Matte box mounts. The handles are pretty flexible with good adjust-ability, and they lock down real tight when in position. In a future article, I plan to mount a remote control for the camera to one of the handles to allow start and stop recording while on the move, as your hands tend to be pretty tied up while carrying all of this gear on your shoulder.

Fifth – shoulder mount

shoulderFrom here, I put on the shoulder mount. This latest design of the shoulder assembly is pretty nice. It is lighter weight than the last model and is more flexible in that you can easily switch which side of the rig you put it on and the length of the mount, as well as the angle from the rig and the angle to the shoulder.

Sixth – follow focus

follow focusThe next item to add was the indiFOCUSpro. This is probably the coolest addition to the rail system. The issue with the 5D II and video is auto-focus… or the lack thereof. And truthfully, you really don’t always want auto focus. Selective focusing is much more dramatic and engrossing in your video production. The issue is that grabbing the lens to focus shakes the camera and is inaccurate. The indiFOCUSpro comes with a large hand grip dial to allow you to focus more naturally. It has a gearbox that drives gears to turn the lens. It also has gear teethed rings to mount on the outside of your lens.follow focus ring With the 6 simple adjustment points, it is easy to clamp the ring down on your lens. It doesn’t have to be tight, and the alan screw tips are rounded as to not mark the lens. But I went down to the local hardware store and spend $0.86 on some thread protectors and cut them down to fit on the threads. This made me more comfortable tightening the screws down on my expensive lenses. You can see these (orange and red) in the photo to the right.

Once aligned and adjusted, the follow focus is a great tool for focusing the lens. It also has a white back plate where you can mark your focus points with a grease pencil (included with the indiFOCUSpro).

At this point the rail system is ready to take out and use. All of the gear mentioned above has been mounted to the rails and the camera installed. Here are a few finished shots.

complete1complete2complete3complete4

Cost

If you have looked into these rail systems before, then you know how pricey they can get. We studied the Redrock Micro system and Zacuto gear. We were amazed at how fast you can spend $2.5k, $3k, $4k and more. What really excited us about the indiSYSTEM from Studio4 Productions is how reasonable the pricing is for their solution. The complete indiSYSTEM setup I have shown in this article (not including additional electronics or camera – mic, screen, light, 5d, lens) was just a little over $1,200 at the time of writing this. For those of us trying to break into video production, many cannot afford $3k or more to outfit our gear to get started in video. This is something to truly consider when looking for a rail system.

There is a lot more reviewing to do here, as we need to show this rig in action. But for now, it took me long enough to get all of this gear together. I wanted to get a basic overview review of the indiSYSTEM components done so we could start to familiarize ourselves with using a rail system.

Stay tuned to see this rail system in operation and for reviews of the individual components.

Here are the websites for the manufacturers of products in this article:

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