You have probably noticed already the crane is a beast. A big and heavy beast. But this old behemoth can be your best friend, especially if you need really dramatic shots in your productions.
Put the thing together and play with it. Get a feel for it, take the old girl out for a backyard excursion and give her a good workout. Hook up all your accessories and really get to know her. After you are done here are some techniques you can use to get better shots.
Behind or Beside?
Two of the best ways to use the crane is to stand behind it or beside it.
Stand on one side slightly in front of the tripod toward the head of the crane. You want to position yourself so as you walk, you are walking around the tripod. Hold the crane by it's largest bar and move the crane around. If you have it balanced well this will be effortless.Standing behind can be like operating a railroad car. You push down and you pull up. The crane goes up and down. However this may not be the best standing position for side to side shots. You have to walk it around with it up or down from behind. If you are comfortable shooting this way then do so. However you may find that standing to one side of the crane is easier to maneuver the jib and get smooth up, down, or side to side shots.
Most cranes will have a bolt that will fix the head so as you move up or down, the head stays level. Without the bolt the arm will tilt the camera. Practice moving the crane while panning or tilting the head. Your crane may be tight so doing this more will loosen it up. If you are shooting low, switch to behind the crane and operate it there.
Watch The Shot:
You probably already have figured out that you can't see the little flip out monitor on your camera. You need a larger monitor and you need to mount it on your crane. You can run a cable down the crane from the camera to where you will be standing most of the time and mount the monitor there.
Your monitor should be able to swivel so as you move to a different position around the crane, you can angle the monitor for the best view. Now you have three things to deal with. Moving the crane, using the handle and keeping the monitor facing toward you. This will become easy the more you use the crane if you stand beside it. If you stay behind it the monitor may not need to swivel because you are moving parallel with the crane.
Try both ways and mount the monitor the way that best fits your style.
Parking Your Crane:
If you have several weights you can figure out the proper balance to have the crane come to rest at the precise level for your shot. Another technique is to use your monopod and have it handy.
Adjust your monopod to the height you want the crane to come to rest. Now, holding the monopod under the crane allow the crane to drift down and 'rest' on the monopod. This is a quick way to get the crane to stop at the correct level. Tricky but useful in a pinch.
You may find holding a shot with the crane is tricky too, as you may sway or cause the crane to sway. Any movement against the crane will translate into a camera movement so proper balance is important. You want to handle the crane only when it is in motion, when you can.
Avoid The Bounce:
Bringing the head (with the camera on it) to the ground is tricky also, you may drop too low too fast and bounce the head on the ground.
That sudden shock and bop can hurt the camera so practice lowering the crane so you know when to stop, or start applying pressure to avoid a bop. A small rubber ball under the head can act as a shock absorber. Consider keeping one handy if you are shooting many low angle shots. You can also walk the crane down.
Walking the crane down simply is walking toward the head as the crane head is moving downward and 'catching' it before the bounce. Practice this as well. I've placed my fist under the head and let it come to rest on the ground, with my fist acting as the shock absorber. That works well too.
Up And Over:
With the head high in the air standing behind it may not work, you will be bending down with your head down. Standing beside the crane works best for me. If your crane is really tall watch for electrical lines or tree limbs the crane may get caught in. Plan your movements in your head first and look around before executing a move. Guide the crane smoothly where you want it to go. In time you will learn to watch the crane, your monitor and where the crane head is at all times.
Sooner or later you will want to get those impossible shots, like swinging the camera low out over a pond or lake, hanging it off a building then coming up and over the side. Those shots that make your audience think, "Wow!" However before you do, you need to have many hours of practice beforehand.
Swooping down over water is dramatic but not something you want to miss and dip the head in the pond so know your crane and be able to master it. Make sure the camera is secure on the crane and double check it before you dip it over a ledge or around water. I would hate for your camera to take a dip!
Make sure your tripod or base is secure and will not tip over. Plus check any accessories so they don't fall off. Then go for it!
Get that dramatic shot!
Plan Your Pans:
Before you shoot, run the idea of your shot through your head twice, then practice the shot a couple of times before you even roll tape.
Know exactly where you want the crane to go and practice putting it right there. Then shoot it. You will need to figure out where you will be too. Can you safely walk the crane and camera into the shot? Will you need to move and where will you end up? Your crane is an extension of you, and you should handle it naturally. With time and practice this will be a piece of cake.
Watch Your Feet:
You're so busy watching the crane, watching the monitor and planning your movement you may forget your feet. I can't tell you how many times I've kicked my crane. Not intentionally of course, but I was so busy I didn't realize my feet were in the way of the tripod legs. Plan your movements along with the crane movement. Look where you will step and you can avoid a sudden earthquake on the footage. If you kick the tripod the whole thing will shake.
One Or Two?
Most cranes can be operated well by one person but two can be helpful as well. Employ a friend if the movement is complicated. You may need a friend to catch the crane from the other side and finish the movement. If you can't execute the move alone then it's probably not a good idea to try.
The Lonely Crane:
Never leave your crane alone or unattended. Let's face it people are not as protective of your equipment as you are. It is all to easy for someone to want to play with it, trip over it, bump into it or worse. It may be the elephant in the room but you will be surprised how many don't notice it. So stay with it or have someone stay with it at all times.
With that said, people are curious and a huge camera crane will be noticed by many. In fact it may be a huge attention getting appliance. From your average camcorder enthusiastic to the just plain nosy, some people simply will not be able to keep their hands off it. For both reasons you should never leave it alone.
Now You're Zooming!
Operating the zoom on your camera can be tricky if you don't have LANC controls.
If you do then invest in a LANC controller and mount it to your crane. If you don't or your camera does not have a LANC connection you can use clear non colored fiber optic thread to deliver the IR signal from your camera remote control to the camera up on the head. Mount the remote using Velcro to the crane and run a cord of fiber optic cable up to the front of the camera at the IR receiver.
One end of the cable in front of the remote, the other end pointed at the IR receiver on the camera. Now you can control the camera from the crane when it's up in the air. The Infra Red light from your remote will travel up the cable to the camera.
Transporting The Crane:
When folded and disassembled the crane is still a monster. It may not fit into a small car. Consider a bag to hold all the stuff that goes with it, such as bolts and plates. Try to keep it contained in as little space as possible. Crane bags are great for this. If you can't afford a Crane Bag, look up an army surplus store and grab a cheap duffel bag. Even an old sleeping bag can hold it.
Like your camera, your crane will be something you will buy stuff for. Monitors, mounting brackets, cables, bags, weights to name a few. But fully rigged out it will be awesome. And if you have to buy a few items now and then you will still be able to get great shots without all the accessories. First up invest in weights, a good solid tripod for the jib, then a monitor. Everything else can come later.
In time you can have a fully rigged and tricked out camera crane that will bring you awesome shots for years to come, even after you change cameras and replace your other gear.
Crane shots are a tremendous advantage to your production. With a little planning and smart purchasing you can have a crane that is worthy of your talent without breaking the bank. Enjoy your crane and remember to safely and creatively use it often!
Below is a video of test shots from a Cobra Crane: