The Shoulder Rig: An Underrated Filmmaking Gem

The Shoulder Rig: An Underrated Filmmaking Gem

In a world where gimbals and motorized stabilizers are the cool kids on the block, the shoulder rig maintains its relevance quietly. Let's see why, even amidst all the high-tech alternatives, shoulder rigs are still a fantastic and practical solution for camera stabilization in any cinematographers tool kit.

Embracing the Weight: A Cinematographer's Endurance Hack

Ever find yourself wrestling with a camera rig, arms aching, creativity stifled by the physical strain? Typically, an operator's arms are the first body part to give out during a long day of shooting. For this reason, you can consider the shoulder rig an unsung hero, designed to redistribute the weight of your camera rig across your shoulder, liberating your arms from the brunt of it. Meanwhile, gimbals are fantastic stabilization tools, and many camera operators are quick to purchase them for good reason. However, only after an extended shoot will gimbal operators realize that, "WOW, my arms are tired." 

Unlike a shoulder rig that drapes the weight of one’s camera and accessories across the shoulder, a gimbal is completely handheld. The combined weight of a cinema rig and gimbal will make quick work of your arms, while the shoulder rig operator will be trotting along with a full tank. This is not to say there aren’t solutions for preventing fatigue with a gimbal―for example, the Tilta Float not only increases camera stability when operating a DJI RS3 Pro, it completely offloads and distributes the weight of everything throughout one’s torso. Similarly, you can opt for something like a Ready Rig GS stabilizer to act as a sole stabilizer, or pair it with a gimbal to achieve phenomenally stable results while removing weight fatigue, thanks to its backpack-like distribution. While these are all great solutions, they add a level of complexity due to all the moving parts, and are substantially pricier than a standard shoulder rig, which on its own relieves a great deal of filming fatigue.

In the fast-paced film industry, endurance is key. The shoulder rig is a cinematographer's simple yet steadfast companion, letting you focus on storytelling without the distraction of physical strain.

A Real-Life Touch: Because Smooth Isn't Always the Goal

Gimbals promise buttery smooth stability, while conversely, handheld shooting brings raw, adrenaline-pumping excitement. But the shoulder rig? It's the Goldilocks solution, offering stability with a touch of human flair. Think of it as a dance partner, helping you capture lifelike sways and motions without the distracting jitters.

Remember: each of these tools is designed to allow a filmmaker to capture, express, and invoke a certain emotion through the screen. The shoulder rig is arguably the most “human” when comparing it to a gimbal, or to purely handheld filmmaking. They are excellent choices for narrative storytelling and documentary-style shooting, allowing DPs to capture immersive media that place the audience in the heart of the scene.

Let me break it down from most stable to least stable.


  • Robotic and unnaturally smooth

  • Perfect for media that requires a stable, visually “sterile” feel

  • Excellent for transforming an otherwise eclectic, shaky scene into visually digestible, easy-to-watch media

Shoulder Rigs

  • Motion is stable and natural

  • Perfect for narrative and documentary work

  • Excellent for portraying lifelike, human movement

Purely Handheld

  • Unstable and shaky

  • Perfect for sequences that require a chaotic feel

  • Excellent for conveying excitement/aggression

Ease of Use

Shoulder rigs are inherently easy tools to use―you hoist one onto your shoulder and you’re good to go. It becomes an extension of your body; want to pan left? Rotate your hips or shoulders and point. Want to tilt? Lean. Seriously, it’s really that easy. It is simply a tool for all levels of cinematographers, because there isn’t much of a learning curve to using something that extends from your natural, intrinsic movements.

Gimbals, on the other hand, can be quite a nuisance to get a grip on, literally. As high tech as gimbals are, landing accurate shots during fast-paced sequences can be quite a challenge, especially for new users. With each movement there is a certain level of “easing” that the gimbal performs when starting and completing a motion, to avoid stuttering or creating a choppy shot. While this is exactly what a gimbal was made to do, this particular feature can lead to new users overshooting or undershooting their shot placement.

Gimbals, with all their sleek technology, demand a learning curve. Precision becomes an art, with every movement needing finesse to avoid jitters. The shoulder rig? It's like riding a bike, wherever you want it to point, it goes. No fancy maneuvers required.

Accessible, Customizable, Practical

When it comes to being able to rig out your setup, the shoulder rig is undeniably one of the easiest and most convenient pieces upon which to build. With most shoulder rigs coming stock with 15mm rods―a universal standard for cinema accessories―creating your own do-it-all rig is just a couple of clicks and snaps away. External monitors, focus motors, matte boxes, magic arms, and other miscellaneous doohickies can all be easily implemented on one's shoulder rig.

Gimbals can be customized, sure; however, unlike with the standardized 15mm rod support, mountable accessories are not as commonplace as they are for shoulder rigs, since different gimbal manufacturers often have their own mounting specifications, which would require either specific third-party support or in-house accessories. On top of that, load any gimbal up with accessories, and suddenly you're in an arm workout class. Shoulder rigs keep it breezy, adapting to your shooting needs without turning into a tech-heavy (literally) burden.

Another aspect to consider is how easy and quick it is to change things on the fly with a shoulder rig; switching lenses, changing batteries, moving things around in general is just convenient overall. The moment you opt to change something on a gimbal, the entire thing needs to be rebalanced and recalibrated, which becomes an absolute time suck.

In a field where high-tech solutions with hefty price tags are often the first line of action for many aspiring filmmakers, the shoulder rig remains a reliable, versatile, and authentically cinematic choice, reminding us that in the realm of storytelling, some things never go out of style.

What are your opinions on the use of shoulder rigs in cinematography? Are you a fan of them or do you prefer to stay away from them? Let us know below!