I’m always looking for a way to get me and my photo gear around the city in the most efficient way possible. I love biking, even during a snow storm like we had yesterday in Chicago. The city is good at keeping the streets cleared, faster than the sidewalks getting shoveled a lot of the time. So biking in snow sounds crazy, but it’s really not too bad.
The challenge is when I have a lot of gear to carry. The usual cameras, lenses and what-not, but when I’m shooting motion, the gear starts to add up. A monitor, tripods and sometime a glider. That’s too much to carry on a bike. I do have a wonderful little gear trailer that I can hitch to the back, but it’s a bit unwieldy to drag that behind me through snow drifts.
Enter the Bicyclipod!
It’s something I invented yesterday. I’d been thinking that a bike could be a fairly good camera support system if I could work out the camera mounting. If I could get it right, the bike has two wheels of course, and maybe, just maybe, I could use it as a dolly or glider of sorts in a pinch.
So as the snow fell, I thought it might be a good chance to take out the Bicyclipod on its maiden voyage and see what it could do.
Now before some of you start freaking out about me riding with thousands of dollars of camera gear strapped to my bike, let me assure you, the Bicyclipod is not designed for riding with the camera mounted on it. My camera, lenses and monitor are all tucked away in my shoulder-bag while riding. The Bicyclipod is designed to get me to a location where I can dismount and only then does the camera get placed on the mount and quick release head, which is the only thing that stays on the bike during my ride.
Once I’ve arrived and slide the camera into the quick release lock, I have a fairly stable support for my camera. Solid enough for the kinds of exposures that require a bit more steadiness than handheld. And it’s perfect for having a locked down shot when shooting motion.
The question that I really wanted to answer however, was could I use the bike as a dolly with the camera mounted on it and pull off a steady shot. I practiced a bit in the studio before heading out into the winter Chicago night.
Even in perfect studio conditions, right away I could see that there were some issues. I could move the bike fairly smoothly along a horizontal line, shooting perpendicular to the bike movement, but since the bike only has two points of contact to the ground as opposed to three with a traditional tripod, I was having some… um… I guess I’ll call them pitch or yaw issues.
Holding the handlebars and the seat steady with both hands makes walking a cross step proposition. Not ideal for smooth movement. I found I had better luck when I used one hand on the handlebars near the neck which allow me to walk in a more forward direction.
The really tricky part though, continued to be the side to side motion of the bike, which translated into a tilt up and down to the camera. Keeping a horizon line level was going to take some practice if it was possible at all.
It was time to get out into the snow and see if what I put together had any real world value. I headed downtown toward the Picasso in Daley Plaza, a nice Chicago landmark. It was after 10pm and my only company was the workers plowing and salting the plaza.
I set up the Bicyclipod and made a still test exposure. So far so good. Now the real test. I began to record and roll the bike, trying to keep the Picasso steady in the frame.
Oh, that first one was pretty bad. Lots of pitching and yawing while I walked. A second try was a bit better by still not as smooth as I had hoped. The freshly salted ground was actually a bit bumpy under the bike wheels as well.
I tried a few different angles and focal lengths, looking for a sweet spot. Part of the problem was that I had designed the mount to shoot more or less level to the ground rather than at an upward angle as I was shooting now up at the towering sculpture. I tried to get the head to point upward so I wouldn’t have to tilt the bike so much to get an upward looking shot, but even at its limit, I still had to do more bike tilting than I wanted and that tilt was really making it hard to keep a steady framed shot.
Having a monitor mounted on top of the camera certainly helped because I could view the shot looking down at it and the bike as I moved. But I could see a lot of shake that probably wouldn’t even be able to be stabilized in post. I’d have to review when I got back to the studio.
I decided to try one more shot before the windy chilly air turned me into a Popsicle. The Bicyclipod was certainly working out as a way to quickly get from one part of the city to another.
I rode over to the LaSalle Street canyon and the Board of Trade Building in the financial district. Another landmark part of downtown. I’ve shot there a lot over the years and I’m not alone. Brian De Palma shot scenes from The Untouchables there and of course, Christopher Nolan with The Dark Knight among others.
I love that street when it’s lit up at night with the period street lamps. The wet pavement and reflections are an art directors dream. I parked my bike just behind a car so I could use it as a dolly reveal as I rolled across the street.
Downtown is not too busy late at night, but the days snowstorm left it more empty than usual as everyone cut the day short to avoid a snowy rush hour. I wouldn’t have to worry too much about getting hit by a car rolling back and forth across LaSalle Street.
This setup was working better. Shooting straight perpendicular to the bike without having to angle the shot up as much was much easier to keep things framed up. Still not as easy as using a proper glider or even better, a dolly with tracks, but I was able to do an entire move across a fairly wide street without any crew. The ultimate in run-and-gun.
It will probably take me a few days to review all of the tests to determine how useful the Bicyclipod will turn out to be. It’s not perfect, but for locked down shots, it’s a great way for me to bike to a location without strapping a tripod to my back.
I’ll probably have to modify the placement of the mount to allow for smoother shooting of upward angles as well. I was expecting to have to make a few tweaks once I actually did a field test with it and that will be one of them.
I’ll go through the footage in the next few days and post anything I find that’s not half bad if anyone is interested.