Adorama's affordable Flashpoint brand has offerings for entry-level DSLR/DV students and budget-conscious indie filmmakers. So I've taken the gear to task in some various shooting situations to see how well it works under normal conditions and if I found them a helpful tool or not. Note that I've never used any cinema gear with a DSLR before (though I've seen rigs my colleagues have) so my review here is only based on first-time user experience, intuition and usefulness – not to compare with any other gear or manufacturer on the market today – we all know who those players are. But I will discuss different features and what they do and how well I feel the build/design quality is vs the price point. This review is primarily focused on the Flashpoint DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle and I thought it would be good to include a bit about the other support products and accessories as well, but I will save a more detailed review on the Flashpoint monitors until later so I can do a thorough testing and comparison with it on several cameras.
Products covered in this review:
- Flashpoint All-Inclusive DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle
- Flashpoint 7″ TFT LCD Field Monitor, Aspect Ratio:16:9 1024×600 Resolution, HDMI Input
- Flashpoint Swivi HD DSLR LCD Universal Foldable Viewfinder Version II with 3.0X Magnification
- Flashpoint 7″ Adjustable Double Articulating Arm (Israeli arm)
- Flashpoint Sony NPF950 NP-F550, NP-F750, NP-F960, NP-F770, and NP-F970 replacement Battery
My First Cinema Gear Kit:
Let me preface this with the fact that while I've been shooting stills and 3D stereo pairs for decades; video camcorders for about 20 years and most recently, POV cams like the GoPro for the past 3 years, I've never laid out the cash for a full-blown cinema gear kit for my DSLR (or even prime lenses, etc.) mainly because of the cost factor involved. I normally just use my DSLR handheld or on a tripod to get B-roll, photos and the like, and use other rigs like jibs, sliders etc. with my Sony EX3. So when I got the opportunity to try out the Flashpoint Cinema products, I thought it would be a great time to dive-in and see what all the fuss was about with this style of gear, though with some skepticism. A colleague of mine who also comes from a photography background says he's not interested in looking like he's “invading a country” with one of these handheld rigs, but much to my surprise, I can definitely see a benefit to most of the accessories and configurations you can obtain with this kit – at the most affordable price I've seen from a trusted manufacturer/distributor like Adorama. For anyone starting out and has limited resources, or just curious if a cinema gear kit is right for your production needs, this may be the right package to consider starting with.
So what do you really gain from a setup like this? First off, the rail-mount system allows you to add-on attachments to further stabilize, filter or control your lens and add-on audio gear and other accessories. Often you may see a “cage” design that surrounds the camera and allows a ton of accessories to be attached but keep in mind, if you're going handheld, every additional ounce of weight will wear on you very quickly!
What Comes in the Bundled Kit?
The Flashpoint DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle comes with 4 major components: A shoulder Rig w/Rails, Matte Box/Filter Holders, Follow Focus and an offset connector. This bundle sells on Adorama.com for $599.96 (free shipping in USA) and would normally cost about $858 if all the components were sold separately. Here's the bundle as shown on the Adorama website:
Unpacking the kit, everything seems to be well designed, manufactured and packaged neatly and professionally.
Assembling the Cinema Kit – First Hands-On:
Unfortunately, Flashpoint doesn't include instructions with most of their products, so if you have no prior experience working with a device, you have to figure it out from the picture on the box or images on their site. Some things are intuitive and easy to figure out how they go together, while other items take some time to determine fit and application. Again – I was new to this so it took a few attempts to get everything together and functioning properly with my DSLR (Canon 60D with EFS 18-135mm lens).
Let's look at each item as it came packaged:
The DSLR Shoulder Rig II comes with two sets of 8-1/2″ 15mm rods, connected to produce over 19″ rig, single cross bar for the two rubberized handgrip handles, shoulder pad and a base plate with quick-release plate. Add-in the Z-Shape Connector to offset the rails for the shoulder pad and you have your basic kit structure to which everything else attaches.
This part of the package seems pretty well designed and allows for several configurations – whether you use it for a full handheld rig or just attach the Follow Focus on a tripod, I can see that this part of the kit will most likely bring a lot more flexibility to my production workflow. All of the tensioners work well, however I would like to see the design incorporate the same “tighten and pull-rotate” tensioner used on the quick-release plate throughout as sometimes you have interference with other parts and can't get something tightened all the way.
At first, I was a bit turned-off by the plastic shoulder pad on the rig – it looks like molded closed-cell foam but it feels more like molded plastic. It's fairly rigid and unforgiving and unless you can bring the rig fairly close to your face, it's quite difficult to adjust to that it really cradles your shoulder – more like sits on top of it. This isn't really a big issue because with a rig like this, most of the weight is out at the front and your arms are holding up everything, but it's more for helping you steady the shots. I was also wishing to have two more 8-1/2″ rails as that would allow a longer reach, but utilizing the Z-shape connector did help offset the shoulder pad enough to make it easier to hold/operate.
You most likely won't be standing for hours at a time with a rig like this. I have seen some poor fellas carting these rigs around trade shows and they look like they're in immense pain toward the end of the day. Just know that a cine rig isn't a replacement for a video camcorder for that type of shooting!
The Matte Box System II includes the Matte Box unit, two 4″ filter frames (one stationary and one rotates 360º), three neoprene donuts, two side doors and a French Flag (sorry, no partridge in a pear tree)
I've always wondered, “what do you really need with a matte box”? Other than the obvious cool factor that says “Hey, look at me! I'm a cinematographer!” – the matte box is designed to hold filters and shield from lens flare and glare with the addition of the French Flag and side doors. The Flashpoint Matte Box design is simple but practical. It's mostly a sturdy plastic with metal components, mounts and flags/doors are anodized metal. It's easy to assemble and transports well the doors' easy removal.
The filter frames hold 4″ filters, and I happened to have some ND & polarizer filters from Tiffen to test this with. The rotating filter holder works great with the polarizer as I'll show later in this review.
The neoprene grommets help keep glare and light leaks around the lens as it aligns with the matte box, and there are 3 different sizes in the kit to chose from, depending on the size of the lens you're using.
The Follow Focus Pro II comes with the follow focus mechanism and a clip-on adjustable gear belt to fit any size lens.
The Follow Focus seams to be well-designed and features adjustable stops that you can set for two focal points in your shot for that great shallow DOF focus-pull effect that DSLR filmmaking gives us. Attaching the unit to the rails, as well as the gear belt on the lens, take a bit of effort to align properly. Starting with the gear belt, it's adjustable for any diameter lens and if you don't get it mounted right on the grip of the focus ring of the lens, it may slip. It's a little difficult getting the right amount of tension on it as there's no leverage for tightening the diameter – only locking down the adjustment once it's set.
The bracket that grabs the rails for attaching the follow focus mechanism is hard to apply as well, though it looks like it's designed correctly, but perhaps manufacturing tolerances were a bit off on the unit I tested. You have no adjustment control forward/backward on the rails other than removing the mechanism and attaching it into place close to where you need it. There is adjustment for side-to-side movement until the gear contacts the teeth of the gear belt on the lens.
Once everything is installed and adjusted however, it works smoothly and performs well.
The Flashpoint DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle assembled and mounted with a Canon EOS 60D
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Testing the Flashpoint Rig & Components
My initial test experience was really quite intuitive. It performed as I would assume it might, albeit holding the rig with one hand while attempting to use the follow focus with the other is a bit awkward. I mounted the rig to a tripod for some of my testing with the follow focus and filters.
Starting with the follow focus, I adjusted the set screws on the dial to stop at a couple intervals with interesting focal points and it worked brilliantly. All this time, I've never “nailed” a rack focus by turning the focus ring on the lens nor even much luck with a video camcorder. I can definitely envision uses for this alone in future projects. The screws hit a metal tab which causes the stop, but the rings have kind of a “clutch” in them that allow you to forcibly turn past the stop if your target moves during the shot so you can continue pulling the focus.
My only real complaint with the follow focus unit is the initial setup and adjustments to align everything perfectly. Changing lenses is a tedious chore, should you chose to do so.
One thing I did attempt was to use this on the lens zoom ring and it worked perfectly, but I imagine you'd probably need a second device on the opposite side if you wanted to pull both a zoom and rack focus at the same time.
Here's a sequence of a controlled focus pull to presets:
Example sequence from a focus pull with the Follow Focus presets (with exception of extreme close-up by Mysty)
Still it's awkward to try to hold the Shoulder Rig while operating the follow focus knob with the handles set to the outward corners of the cross rail. However, I found it easier to adjust the right side handle in toward the center of the rig for better balance and control and still allow me to operate the follow focus. That's one of the flexibilities of this rig.
Using filters with the matte box helps to get better quality video footage. I dropped-in a 4×4 polarizer from Tiffen, as well as a couple ND filters to test. The rotating filter holder allows you to get the correct degree of polarization in your shot and ND filters will help you get better exposure and contrast in bright light situations.
Here's a sequence shot while dropping in a polarizer filter (camera WB needed to be reset after filter is inserted):
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Adding Flashpoint Accessories:
Using the Flashpoint 7″ TFT LCD Field Monitor with Flashpoint 7″ Adjustable Israeli Arm is pretty-much plug & play. Connecting to the DSLR with the provided HDMI cable, the LCD monitor runs off A/C power (with provided adapter) or using a battery – I used the Flashpoint Sony NP style Battery which is affordable, charges fast and holds power for weeks in the bag.
One of the features I liked the most on this field monitor is the collaspible screen cover/sun-hood. This not only works great outdoors but is a great protection for the screen while in transit and pops-up/collapses easily.
I will be providing a full-length review on this monitor using different cameras and shooting scenarios in the upcoming months, so check my channel for updates.
Another great addition to the cinema gear lineup is the Flashpoint Swivi HD DSLR LCD Universal Foldable Viewfinder II with 3.0X Magnification. This is a simple but practical design and works in a large variety of shooting situations.
The device mounts to the base of the camera and has adjustments in 3-dimensions to properly fit over the LCD screen on the back of your camera. With the viewfinder loupe folded down into viewing position, it works as a video camcorder viewfinder – similar to what I'm used to shooting through with my Sony EX3. It has an aperture-style cover that opens and closes with a slide lever on the top to protect the lens and keep it clean in transit, plus has an focusable lens so you don't have to try to look through the loupe with your eyeglasses on. The rubber eyecup can also be rotated 180 degrees for either left or right eye viewing. I tried various configurations with this viewfinder – both with the battery grip and without and it worked really well on my 60D. The viewfinder can be easily removed and replaced with a single adjustment screw on the side that allows the bracket to slide out from the base which remains attached to the camera body.
By flipping the viewfinder up, the Flashpoint Swivi acts as a sun-shade for outdoor shooting and makes seeing the camera's LCD screen & menus much easier.
I did however, encounter some issues when trying to mount the camera with the Swivi base installed. The base is essentially a quick-release insert plate, but it does not ship with the matching quick-release receiver baseplate. This is a major oversight (or design flaw) making it difficult to even attach to the Flashpoint Should Rig and maintain adjustability left-to-right. I found I had to turn-over the camera mount base on the shoulder rig to better align my camera to the matte box and follow focus. It was also difficult to look through the viewfinder eyepiece when attached to the shoulder rig as a result, but with it flipped up, the sunshade was still functional.
Overview of the Flashpoint DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle & Accessories:
I have to say that overall I'm impressed with the basic design and material quality of the components in this series. There are however some quality control issues in manufacturing that I'm sure will be sorted out, and nothing that renders the parts totally unusable. For the price-point, it will be hard to beat this system for entry-level filmmakers and students. It seems solid enough to endure a good workout, yet inexpensive enough to replace components should anything happen out in the field or you run over it with a truck.
All information can be found on Adorama's web site with links to the individual items and the bundle listed in the beginning of this review.
Jeff Foster is a published author of several how-to books and training videos in the motion graphics, animation and video production industries and is an award-winning video producer and artist. Visit his web site to learn more about his training methods, tips & tricks at PixelPainter.com