Actually, this is why it makes sense to find the optimal compromise between price and performance for the core components of your gear (camera and lenses): you're going to need a pile more dough for everything else. But "pile" is a relative term. Welcome to episode 2 of what I'm now calling our Goldilocks series, where this time we look at baseplates - a category I used to think was beyond mundane. I was wrong. Video at end of post.
In the Beginning
A few years ago I learned the hard way that I needed a matte box. But I was shooting with a little Canon Rebel SL1, $400 a pop, and I needed the cheapest usable solution I could find.
It worked, and back then I thought it (the gear) looked PRO-FRESHIONAL.
I used a hair bandy thingy as a donut; the stray light stayed out; contrast improved dramatically; and we were a finalist in the competition for a major auto parts retailer commercial.
Make no mistake: if I'd had the money, I would have done the usual "geeks gone wild" routine and bought something nosebleed beyond my capabilities like I always had up until a few years earlier.
But this time, with more common sense than money (well, some common sense and NO money), I was forced into being a recovering gear-aholic, sober at that point for more than a year.
Time Moves On
The great thing about doing what you love is that you just keep getting better at it. We outgrew the SL1s, moved on to the Sony a6000, and the little matte box and rod system that could kept on trucking.
Even if they were a pain in the butt to adjust.
Who were we to be picky?
But then the projects and gear reviews got more sophisticated -- and heavier. Real shoots became higher pressure, and futzing around became less a good way to economize than false economy when it got in the way.
Oh yeah, and then there was the time a Sony FS7 went crashing to the floor because one of the quick releases on one leg of a pretty darned expensive and robust (to me) tripod slid a few millimeters under the weight, leading the whole thing to topple over.
Just recently, a long-term Sony FS5 loaner looked very unhappy perched atop the FOTGA system as I attached one follow focus after another during a comparo (video here). The FOTGA system was not up to the task of mounting a heavier camera, with a monitor and a heavy duty, high torque, wireless follow focus like the Cinegears it flexed along multiple axes.
Heck, just going back to the camera to change a setting required me to wait a moment for the camera to settle down on the FOTGA.
It's not as much fun reviewing gear when you're constantly waiting for something dramatic to happen and worrying about how you're going to break it to the vendor who's expecting their gear back in perfect condition.
It was at NAB 2016 that I met the good folks at famed German gear company Sachtler while gawking at their precision iron. Their fluid heads and tripods made my Cartoni FOCUS HD look uncomfortably like the skinny kid in a Charles Atlas ad (does anyone reading this know what I'm talking about?).
But they were all too expensive, without a justifiable ROI for me to do anything other than drool.
"Would you like to check out some of our gear for review?" the Sachtler folks asked me.
The saving grace? I'd learned to do more with less, and I figured the drool would quickly evaporate once the loaner stuff arrived.
If I'm honest with myself, I didn't expect the prices to be justified.
The Sachtler Ace Baseplate Takes on the Little FOTGA - and the Monster Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate
Like much expensive gear these days, it looks like Sachtler has taken a page from the Apple playbook: the packaging for the Sachlter Ace baseplate is heavy and beautiful.
But really, who cares?
I took the base plate out of its box and thought: this is big and heavy, too. Not as big and heavy as the Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate, but then again it's half the price of the Zacuto.
I decided I needed to call up the friendly folks at Zacuto and get that VCT monster back to do a little Three Blind Men and an Elephant action: try to better understand the essence of baseplates by taking at least three different perspectives.
The Zacuto would arrive a couple of days later, in time for the product shots.
But as I turned over the Ace in my hands and inspected it from all angles, I saw how much forethought and engineering had gone into it, clearly with just one objective in mind: making it disappear from the mind of the operator.
What does THAT mean?
It means eliminating the possibility of a weak link in the chain of gear, so that you as the camera operator can concentrate on the important stuff - getting the shot.
Worried about losing the 1/4" or 3/8" mounting screw? Don't: the Ace base plate has two of each screwed in on the side so that even if you lose a second one, a third is right there. That's on top of the one that's already in the quick release plate.
Annoyed when the QR plate locking knob hits the bottom of the camera and you have to pull the spring-loaded lever out two or three times to tighten it in place? You won't be with the Ace: the lever on the Ace is flush with the top of the QR plate so that it will never be an issue.
Ever get crabby when you have to remove the camera from the base plate and forget to mark exactly where you had it, and now the shot is going to be just a little off from where it was? Thing of the past: the QR plate and the base plate are each indexed. Snap a pic with your smartphone if you don't have the time or inclination to write it down, and you're good to go.
Do you get fidgety when you have multiple locking levers to secure a pair of rods in place (the FOTGA has four) and worry about one of them sliding before you can get to the others? Won't happen with the Ace: a single lever locks both rods at four different clamping points.
Do your fingers scream in frustration when you have to adjust the height of a base plate (say, to fit a wide diameter geared cine lens) and the design of the base plate requires you to stick them in spaces too small for mortal fingers to go? Fretting that you may inadvertently turn the locking screw too far to the left and have it separate from the base plate altogether? Not happening here: another single locking lever makes it easy to adjust the height of the Ace on two robust diagonally opposed risers.
The Goldilocks Analysis
But do you need this kind of attention to detail and robustness?
Can you afford it?
If you're not a daily shooter, you don't mind futzing a bit to save money, and you're happy to stay with a little camera (and there are some amazing little cameras out there, most notably the Sony a6300 [B&H|Amazon] which is my daily shooter, though I remain intrigued by the Panasonic GX-8 [B&H|Amazon] and GX-85 [B&H|Amazon]), I think the answers are: "No," and "It doesn't matter."
There are better things to do with your money, like pay for gas and maybe a nice B&B to road trip somewhere beautiful and capture footage. Gear come and go, but experiences remain with us forever.
$80 for a matte box and rods to mount it on is more than enough; the Neewer and FOTGA kit are fine (just remember to slip on and tighten that cross brace, even if you're not going to use the lens support).
I think $288 for the Ace baseplate is cheap insurance and easy peace of mind.
Then again, if you've got something like the Sony FS7 or Blackmagic Design full-boat URSA, I think you probably need to pony up for the big boy in the group, the $574 Zacuto VCT with its companion VCT Tripod Plate, another $270.
That combo is MONSTROUS.
It makes the Ace look dainty. It makes the Ace feel light. It isn't industrial art like the Sachtler, but it's not trying to be. The VCT basically screams "Who gives a crap? Are you looking at the baseplate or do you want to look through the viewfinder and nail the friggin' shot? You gonna whine about busting some knuckles because you have to lift and turn those levers? Call the wahmbulance!"
For the people who are likely to need it, that's absolutely right. I know. I had it underneath that FS7. Even after falling a little bit in love with the Ace, it would still be the VCT that I'd put underneath an FS7 class machine, especially when kitted out with accessories.
But with this written, errr... I'd get annoyed with those levers. I'd get annoyed about having to whip out a hex driver to change the VCT's height. There is an undeniable elegance to the Ace that the Zacuto lacks.
Maybe there's a reason I spend more time writing screenplays than shooting footage.
When you move into the world of moving pictures it's a whole other level of complexity and spend. At my current level, the Ace base plate is a compelling piece of kit.
But the bigger picture is this: each one of these baseplates represents a reasonable price/performance trade-off, appropriate to the people to whom they most appeal.
At $60 for the FOTGA rod system, beginning DSLR and mirrorless filmmakers can graduate to using a matte box for flare control beyond what a lens hood can accomplish. Of course, you can MAKE one out of cardboard and duct tape, too -- but then again you can do an awful lot with a smartphone in one hand and shielding the lens with your other.
If you're looking to support a sophisticated matte box which includes holders for larger glass filters and/or a heavy duty follow focus on a camera up to and including the weight class of the Sony FS5, $288 for the Ace baseplate and another $40 for the rods seems an eminently reasonable price. We're talking about an allocation 10% or less of the purchase price of the camera body like the Sony a7R II, Sony FS5, or Canon C100 Mk II.
Interestingly, that's about the same percentage allocation I'd expect for FOTGA-appropriate cameras.
At the high end of this trio, that under 10% figure for the Zacuto VCT combo seems about spot-on when you think about cameras like the Sony FS7, the Blackmagic URSA, or the Canon C300 Mk II.
You really do get what you pay for.
As always, special thanks to the folks who made the gear available to me -- you guys are great! In this case, shout-out to Sachtler, Zacuto and Sony.
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