What is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics, also called ‘Human Factors’, is the field that studies and describes how well a tool can be used by humans.
Its scope is pretty wide. Consider a hammer. From the width of its handle to the sound the hammer makes when striking a nail; from the alloy used in its head to the way the manufacturer’s name is embossed on it – everything affects us, and therefore, ergonomics.
Is ergonomics important?
Imagine walking for miles, day in and day out, with a shoe that is the wrong ‘fit’. Imagine working for months on your laptop, at a desk that is not at the right height. Imagine sitting on a 14 hour flight in a seat not designed for your frame.
We all have to make compromises, right?
If you don’t complain, your body will. If you don’t listen, your body will suffer. If it suffers long enough, one day it will make you suffer. An incorrectly designed rig might shorten someone’s career, or life.
You decide whether that’s important or not.
How to start thinking about ergonomics
A great tool not only does its job well, but also provides tactile pleasure, motivates and inspires. Since time immemorial, humans have designed their tools to look good and feel good. Take a look at the 15 most beautifully designed video cameras ever.
Ergonomics is a subjective set of criteria, and what works for me might not work for you. Why should it? We don’t expect a shoe to fit all sizes, do we?
Start by asking these questions of your gear:
- How am I going to use this camera?
- Am I comfortable working with it?
- Do I feel a tactile pleasure while holding and using it?
- Are all the buttons in the right place?
- Is the information I need easy to find?
- Is it easy to carry and transport?
- Are the materials used safe, healthy, non-hazardous, non-allergic, recyclable and eco-friendly?
- Is the camera shockproof, weatherproof, waterproof and dustproof?
- Will I feel like a million bucks carrying it around?
Some of these questions (or maybe all of them) might sound downright silly. I can understand that, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I believe Ergonomics should be the first thing you must consider after having decided which camera you need. It’s that important. That’s why this chapter is here at the beginning of this guide, and not at the end!
What is a form factor?
Form factor is the design and geometry of a tool. It is one of the aspects of ergonomics.
The Form factor helps categorize tools into standard patterns. One could theoretically define a form factor in infinite ways, so don’t read too much into it.
I haven’t seen a thorough independent study of camera from factors to refer to, unfortunately, so I’ve made my own system:
- Wide Body – Camera body width is largest
- Tall Body – Camera body height is largest
- Long Body – Camera body length is largest
- Modular – Camera body is designed specifically for modularity
- Full body – Camera body is designed for handheld and shoulder use
- Ovoid – Oval camera body designed for wall, vehicle or surveillance, etc.
- Other – Non-geometric shaped cameras
Here’s a table that shows cameras chosen for this guide arranged according to this classification.
Note: None of the cameras I’ve chosen resemble an Ovoid or Other, but I’ve seen examples of both.
The advantage of classifying cameras is that you immediately see where each camera belongs physically.
From such a classification, you can start asking questions on how a particular form factor will contribute to the overall rig. The following table lists a few generalized points to get you started:
In certain cases, it is difficult to classify a system based on my system. E.g., consider a camera like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC) and the Red Scarlet. The Red Camera Company clearly states that the Scarlet is a modular camera, and was designed to work with accessories.
On the other hand, the BMCC looks modular, but is it? The BMCC is designed for handheld use right out of the box, without any accessories. When in doubt, see what the manufacturer says and use that as a guideline. That’s what I did in this case.
A few points from structural engineering
Cross-check your form factor classification with the following rules of thumb:
The lower the center of gravity the better. This is why taller objects fall down easier than flatter objects.
The more evenly the weight is distributed the better. This is why platforms are rectangular – the load is balanced over a greater area.
Matte/rough surfaces are easier to grip than glossy surfaces.
Glossy surfaces reflect light, and draw attention. It’s harder to read off glossy surfaces.
Matte surfaces attract dust and particles, and are more difficult to clean.
Tall bodies are the least stable structurally, and need deeper foundations.
The greater the weight, the greater the stability. If we have two tripods similarly designed, one made out of carbon fiber and the other of aluminum, the carbon fiber tripod will be lighter, but offer less stability. It might offer sufficient stability, but it will always be lesser than the heavier tripod.
The more the points of contact the more stable the structure. Monopods are the worst, bipods (or humans, bikes, etc) are better, tripods are a good compromise, tetrapods (like the pyramids, cars, etc) are excellent, and so on.
The lower the number of points of contact the greater the need for a perfectly load balanced structure. Theoretically, one can balance a ton of rock on a pin strong enough to take the weight, if the weight is balanced equally from all sides.
Rig designs are usually based on lever principles, which we’ll cover later.
What’s my favorite form factor?
I prefer full bodied cameras made for heavy duty handheld or shoulder mounted use. Only if budget or availability played spoilsport would I choose another option.
Here’s my order of preference:
- Full bodied
- Long bodied
- Tall bodied
- Wide bodied
- Everything else
What about your body?
I hope you realize a healthy body will give you more mileage than an unhealthy one.
In short: Exercise, stretch, take a break, eat healthy, sleep well and don’t forget to smile every five minutes!
Develop a keen awareness of your body and how it works. Find out what conditions allow it to perform at its best and what conditions hinder it.
One suggestion: Take up weight training, martial arts or formal dancing. These disciplines will help you improve your understanding of your body, and get you that much-needed exercise as well.
Please consult a doctor before trying anything!
Resources for further study
For further information on ergonomics, check out these Wikipedia entries:
Here’s a decent video from Zacuto that gives you brief overview on some of the things I’ve talked about, and will talk about. I do not endorse all the opinions, products and ideas in the video, but it’s a good watch for beginners:
If you like good books, try these:
We all have to work hard to get something done, so why not do it in style? Unless you are reporting a historical event or recording a crime as it happens, there is no scenario where putting your or someone else’s life and health on the line is worth it.
Understanding your body, your tools and the principles of ergonomics will help you attain the highest efficiency possible. It’s the same as race cars – the safest racing line also happens to be the fastest.
Enough about ergonomics. Let’s get down to brass tacks.