PDN Review: Steadicam Merlin

July 1, 2010
By Dan Havlik

PRod Reviews Steadicam MErlin

The Merlin’s lightweight design is great for HD-DSLRs.
We review all kinds of rigs for balancing your HD-DSLR in these pages but one of the best comes from perhaps the best known name in the business: Steadicam's Merlin. The Steadicam brand is so ubiquitous in the world of cinematography—and now in the world of digital SLRs that shoot HD video—most people ask for it by name even when they don't quite know what they're asking for: "We need a nice steadicam shot here" or "Does anybody have a steadicam we can use?"

What people usually mean is they want some kind of stabilizing mount for the camera to produce a nice, smooth tracking shot. That the Steadicam brand is so associated with this type of device is a mixed blessing for Tiffen, the company that owns the trademark and distributes Steadicam products. (Sort of similar, perhaps, to how Abode feels about the term "photoshopping" being applied to any and all image editing.)

The Steadicam Merlin ($799) is a product that had been around for a few years before the whole HD-DSLR phenomenon hit the scene. An extremely light rig—it weighs just 13 ounces—the Merlin initially appealed to videographers seeking to "float" their small camcorders in tight shooting conditions. That the Merlin is also tailor-made for DSLRs such as the Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D90 which both shoot HD video is one of those "happy accidents" that has to please Tiffen.

I tested the Merlin recently with photographer Jason Groupp who has added what he calls "FUsioN"—a marriage of photography and video—to his list of services. Jason's been scouting around for the ideal device for creating smooth tracking shots with his 5D Mark II—see our review of the Humble Monkey camera truck in the May 2010 issue of PDN—and so far it's been a case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: "This one's too small. That one's too big," etc.

The Merlin, designed by Garrett Brown, the inventor of the original Steadicam Jr, may be the "just right" rig for Jason. Lighter than a can of soda, the all-aluminum Merlin uses a six-ball-bearing gimbal to isolate the camera from the shooter to create a smooth shot even when the camera operator is moving quickly over uneven ground. Jason had tried less expensive "knockoffs" of the Merlin previously but now wishes he saved his money for the original.

The Merlin kit includes an instructional DVD, led by Brown, to help you get the proper balance with the camera rig. After that, set-up takes just a few minutes and Jason was off and flying his 5D II. Initial impressions?

"Awesome," he reported. "It handles so much more comfortably than any other rig I've tried." For his FUsioN videos, Jason could see using the Merlin to create establishing shots outside a church during a wedding shoot; or of the bride and groom during the reception. For free-form street shooting, which Jason does with his urban "I (Heart) NY" sessions, the possibilities with the Merlin are wide-ranging.

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