If you are shooting video with one of the recent crop of video-capable DSLRs, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, one thing you should invest in, without question, if you don’t already have one, is a good baseplate. Having your DSLR (or any other camera, for that matter) mounted to a baseplate unlocks a whole new world of possibilities, such as the ability to be able to control your focus with more precision, accuracy and repeatability via a follow focus, the ability to control and prevent unwanted light from entering your lens via a matte-box (something a lens hood can’t compete with), the option of adding shoulder pads, battery mounts, hand-grips, LCD screens… The list goes on! All of these things make your camera more capable, and as a result, make you more efficient at your job, and it all comes down to having a good baseplate.
A quick 411 on baseplates for n00bz…
A baseplate is essentially something you mount your camera to in order to be able to use it with other equipment designed to benefit or enhance the performance of your operation of that particular camera. These additional pieces of equipment are added to your set-up by way of two metal (or sometimes carbon fiber) support rods that are pre-inserted into the baseplate. Depending on your requirements, these rods could be of varying diameter and placement, including “15mm Lightweight” rods, “15mm Studio Offset” rods, 19mm rods… Or maybe even some random “totally-incompatible-with-everything” diameter rods.
Baseplate types & my experience…
I’ve owned and worked with a lot of these baseplates thingies in the past, and you’d think they’d all pretty much act in the same way, but you’d be wrong… as was I. Some require you to raise the camera too high, which puts the center of gravity at a disadvantage, making your camera rig less stable. Some get in the way of your fluid head when trying to tilt the camera. Some don’t allow for much adjustability, and some are simply bollocks in every other way.
After getting to the end of my tether and becoming extremely frustrated with the baseplates I owned at the time, I eventually bit the bullet and went with Zacuto’s “Universal Baseplate V3” (or UB3), which I’d previously been put off from buying because of the $560.00 price tag. Ironically, by that time, I had ended up spending a helluva lot *more* than $560 because of all the previous instances I’d tried to convince myself that other, cheaper baseplates would work for me. Luckily, since purchasing the UB3, I haven’t had the need to purchase another baseplate… Well, until I came into ownership of a 5D Mark II, that is.
When I first got the 5D Mark II, I used it with my UB3, and everything was fine until I decided to add a Z-Finder into the mix. Due to the length of the UB3, you just cannot get your eye close enough to the eyecup of the Z-Finder and have your DSLR mounted far enough off the front end of the UB3, without smashing yourself in the teeth with the back-end of the rods. This isn’t a design flaw on Zacuto’s part – The UB3 is meant for much larger cameras, such as the EX1, up to fully loaded RED rigs, and although perfectly usable with a DSLR, isn’t the best choice. For DSLRs, Zacuto once again answered our unrelenting demands and created this very simple, but ingenious piece of equipment called the “Mini Baseplate“, which is essentially just like the UB3, but half the size. There are, however, a few notable differences, which I will explain later.
The Mini Baseplate…
Is one fantastic piece of well engineered aluminum! Well, several bits of well engineered aluminum. It’s lightweight, as solid as a mule, features XYZ adjustments to align your camera with different types of matte-boxes and follow focuses, has a beautiful finish, and you can really trust it with your rather expensive camera equipment bolted to its surface via the provided 1/4 20″ screw and locking pin. The baseplate comes with two female-threaded twelve inch 15mm Lightweight support rods, and will affix to your tripod’s quick release plate by way of a 3/8 16″ and 1/4 20″ screw to ensure rugged rigidity.
The main differences…
Between the UB3 and the Mini Baseplate, aside from the size, is that the 1/4 20″ screw and locking pin are no longer on a sliding carriage (or “T-Slide”), but permanently placed quite a bit further towards the end of the plate, allowing the lens mount of your DSLR to peep over the edge. This is so that when you use particularly short lenses, such as the f/1.4 50mm, that you can use lens gears and follow focuses without any obstructions from the front end of the baseplate. The tripod screw threads on the underside of the baseplate are also no longer on a sliding carriage, but in fixed positions at the front and back of the plate. I would have preferred the Mini Baseplate to have simply been a scaled down version of the UB3, just because I like as much control over what I’m using as possible, but so far, this lack of adjustability (when compared to the UB3) hasn’t posed any problems at all, and I can’t foresee any issues arising from this design.
The other minor difference, is that you cannot use the Mini Baseplate with Zacuto’s “Zeddie Wedgie” (which I am going to call the “Z-Wedge” from now on, due to the slang definition of “Zeddie Wedgie” according to urbandictionary.com). This is due to there being no sliding carriage to swap out from the underside of the Mini Baseplate with the carriage that needs to be used, and comes with, the Z-Wedge. Again, not a biggie, but something I would have liked as an option. However, this doesn’t stop you from mounting the Mini Baseplate to a VCT-14 Quick Release plate (an industry standard camera mounting device used with, but not limited to, full-sized Panasonic and Sony ENG camcorders), as explained in a moment.
Accessories / Workarounds…
If your DSLR’s lens mount doesn’t reach the end of the baseplate, Zacuto give you two options: 1) A thing called a Z-Spacer, which is basically a metal block that goes in-between your DSLR and the Mini Baseplate, relocating the DSLR further forward, and also raising it, giving your camera enough height to be used with a matte-box… Or 2) The Manfrotto RC4 Low-Profile Rectangular Quick Release Adapter, which is my personal preference, as not only does it raise the DSLR to the appropriate height for mounting matte-boxes, but it also gives me a quick-release function, allowing me to swiftly take the camera off the Mini Baseplate, should I want to shoot stills, or, I don’t know, thump someone with it.
If you want to attach your Mini Baseplate to a VCT-14 Quick Release Plate, you should purchase a VCT-14 adapter plate, such as the one made by TLS, Genus or Protech. If you’re on a tighter budget, you might want to consider the Manfrotto RC4 Low-Profile Rectangular Quick Release Adapter, which can also be used in the same way as a VCT-14 set-up, placed in-between the tripod and Mini Baseplate, but as a comparatively inexpensive alternative.
I’m actually quite a big fan of the VCT-14 Quick Release Plate, and would use one every day in conjunction with a TLS VCT-14 Adapter Plate screwed to my UB3 when using my EX1 and Letus Extreme, but since things have gotten a lot smaller and lighter (thanks in part to the 5D Mark II), the VCT-14 has taken a bit of a backseat for me, and I’ve found that I’m pretty content with my Mini Baseplate simply being screwed to the quick release plate belonging to my Miller fluid head… Just food for thought.
And in my opinion, the Mini Baseplate is essential for shooting handheld video on a DSLR when using a Z-Finder (or any other loupe, for that matter), and works great as a general purpose baseplate for those who don’t want to be lugging around the extra weight and / or have to deal with an unnecessary, larger-than-it-has-to-be rig. Its lack of sliding mounting carriages, because I’m so finicky, is a little bit of a nause, but certainly not something worth getting your panties in a twist over. At $430.00, yes, you may think it’s a little expensive for what it is, but with Zacuto, you certainly get what you pay for, and that is unsurpassable QUALITY, compatibility, longevity, a life time guarantee, and fantastic, very lenient customer service, who will put up with any number of annoying and irritating questions and suggestions that you may have for them. That, alone, is worth its weight in gold. Also, with RED‘s new Scarlet and Epic line on the horizon, and the ability to be able to configure those cameras to the form factor of a DSLR, the Mini Baseplate may prove to be even *more* of an investment! So, if you’re shooting video on a DSLR, or a DSLR shaped camcorder, pick up a Mini Baseplate and a Z-Finder… Or while you’re at it, why not just look into getting one of Zacuto’s DSLR “Precision Shooter” kits? – Your work will thank you for it.
Writer, Director and Cinematographer.