The jig is up: DIY modding a smartphone video cradle

Oh what pun, it is to write, in the WordPress where we play…

Basic steadycam for your smartphone videos

Within the last decade, smarphones have replaced nearly every personal electronic device that humanity ever cared about, ranging from portable music players to gaming devices. A GPS-enabled compass? No problem. Want to run a drone and stream the video feed? There’s an app for that. Rarely, these modern miniaturized marvels are even used as telephones.

We have previously noted the decimation of the point-and-shoot camera market by smartphones. The camcorder has also been diminished by an assault of video-enabled DSLRs and near-DSLR formats on one hand, and smartphones on the other. Properly equipped, the nice camera will tend to outperform a majority of dedicated video recording devices in the consumer space, provided you can live with an inane 30-minute video limit (or wish to hack the firmware). Smartphone cameras can easily bypass such nonsense using low-cost apps. The phone format severely cramps the absolute sensor size, but various software and hardware trickeries have made them very adequate for casual video use.

However, there are two things that modern digital recording devices generally lack: ergonomics, and old-fashioned heft. One reason why social media and casual YouTube uploads are filled with portrait-mode (vertically-filmed) media is that there isn’t a great way to hold a camera phone sideways. It’s not the usual way we hold any object having an oblong profile, and attempting to do it anyway can lead to twitchy video and hand fatigue. The lack of appreciable mass can cause stuttering during panning, made worse if image-stabilization hardware or software is active and doesn’t react gracefully to the accelerometer input.

The issue becomes doubly complicated if the user wants to accessorize, for example by using an external microphone or a video light. For situations like these, there is a practical solution,  and we recently purchased such a gadget from an Amazon store.

Let’s take a look. Then, let’s take a drill to it.

This thing is rigged

What we require is a type of “video rig” or “camera jig,” as they commonly known. Search a site like Amazon and there are hundreds of options at every degree of complexity (and price). The concept is simple: build a frame that allows the camera to mount up firmly along with any desired accessories. The user must still be able to move freely while carrying this device, but in a way that reduces shake and vibration.

Purportedly, commercial production studios can conjure up contraptions ranging from basic harnesses to cybernetic exoskeletons. For our purposes, we just wanted something that would hold the phone, provide a couple accessory shoe mounts, and allow us to film our usual nonsense with marginally more grace.

What we ended up buying was this:

Actually pretty good for thirty bucks.

We’re not entirely sure what a “Yelangu” is, although it may have been a side-quest item in Final Fantasy XIII. In any case, what we got was a nicely machined and powder coated aluminum smartphone rig, complete with two rigid plastic handles, two accessory shoes, and the ability to quickly convert into a pistol-grip format. Provided, that is, that you don’t lose track of the hex key driver.

It arrived as a box of parts but there were only five main pieces: an upper cross-piece with shoes already installed, a lower cross-piece, two grip handles, and the phone clamp assembly. A simple picture manual was also included in the box, but it was incompatible with an existing Y-chromosome. Zero instruction manuals and three hex-key screws later, and we were in business.

The overall height of the assembled device is a just over 5.5 inches and the overall width is a bit under 10 inches.  Given the dimensions and the use of industry standard quarter-twenty threaded screws for the mounting hardware (take that, Système International), we were even able to install our micro four-thirds camera kit into the rig using the tripod mount:

East meets East: Olympus and Yelangu, together at last.

Quality, as noted above, seemed nice at the price point. Additionally, the smartphone clamp is machined and anodized aluminum and uses little pads of urethane rubber foam in the grip to both secure and protect the phone from clamp scratches. It also includes two metal adjustment wheels that turn fine-pitch screw threads. The result is precise adjustment of the phone mount and resistance to accidental loosening during use, so we had no complaints. That is, until we tried attaching a Gen1 Pixel phone.

This really is a drill

You, our loyal readers, will have to check out our YouTube segment (see below) for the details, but suffice to say that the volume control buttons on a Gen1 Pixel prevent the unit from being mounted in an ideal position. Yelangu could have solved this by making the rig about 1-2 inches wider, but didn’t. With the phone mounted at the most center-possible position, it nearly hit our hand on one side. Since we here at Club Vienot happen to be of relatively fine boned French ancestry, the size of our fingers wasn’t the problem.

Rather than raise a white flag, we chose to break out power tools and add a couple additional mounting holes for the phone bracket. Thankfully, Yelangu did cut the lower bracket wide enough to make this possible. When we were done, everything fit great and still looked mostly OE, but now the clamp was installed with an offset:

The post-op patient, after a full recovery.

Would we recommend this product? Sure, but with a caveat: there are lots of others that follow this concept with slightly different layouts, and one of them might meet your needs out-of-the-box.  This one did require modifications to fully meet our needs; fortunately, that was doable with basic shop tools. We broke out a cheap cordless drill, a couple bit sets, and a can of WD-40, and got the job done in under an hour.

For more information, as well as general tips, tricks, and sardonic commentary that you can try at home, check out our 20-minute video feature below. This feature will be part of an ongoing channel series that we call “Workshop Quick Takes” (wqt). Like, share, subscribe, yadda yadda.

Whether you decide to try this mod or not, we wish you good luck in your future video hobbies, and look forward to seeing you again next time.

Aaron Vienot

Engineer by day, hobbyist by night, occasional contributor, and full-time wise guy.

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SomeOtherGeek
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SomeOtherGeek

Hey, nice video. Even had great closed captions!

Anyway, I like your work ethics. Cleaning up after each little pause. I believe in that too. Clean place makes for easier and safer work place.

I probably have no use for this particular DIY, but I look forward to future wqts.

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Aaron Vienot

Thanks! My YT channel is gradually growing and not all of it will show up here, depending on whether or not it’s at least tangentially relevant to TR.

Xolore
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Xolore

Looking at the modified position of the clamp on your phone, if I squeezed below the volume buttons like that on my Pixel 2 it could activate the google assistant…
“Hey Google, take a picture!”

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