Join Joseph "PhotoJoseph" Linaschke for an in-depth discussion in this video Constructing a low-cost camera dolly, part of The DIY Photographer.
- When you're shooting video, it's quite common to want to have a smooth, slow panning shot, typically called a dolly shot where your camera just moves along nice and smooth like so. The problem is that if you want to have a true dolly shot and put the camera onto a dolly, well dollies can be really expensive. So, for your home cinematographer, it may not be in the budget. Fortunately, there's a few DIY solutions, and we're going to start with one that is so simple, anybody can do it with anything your're going to find with anything laying around your house. The second one is just a tiny bit more advanced, and I mean barely.
And then the third one is going to be a full-on custom build that we're going to do right here in this fabulous workshop. So, let's get started. The first one requires a book, and it doesn't have to be this kind of book, any book and a towel. Watch what I'm going to do. Simply put the towel on a table with a book on it, nice solid surface, set my camera on the book there, frame up the shot the way that I want it. Obviously make sure you're in focus here. We're going to go ahead and start recording, and now simply pull the camera along the table.
Nice, smooth steady motion, and you can get a really great, easy dolly shot. And that's all there is to it. Nothing more to it than that. So that's obviously the simplest approach. It's not going to be perfectly smooth, but it'll get the job done in a pinch. The smoother your table, the smoother the motion's going to be, but I think you can manage pretty well. Now, let's kick it up a notch. Next, skateboard. If you skateboard or you got a kid that skateboards, you can borrow their board, and this moves really nice and smooth.
Look at how smooth that motion is. So, let's go ahead and set this up again. So, the camera, get the shot framed, start recording, and here we go. Beautiful. Super smooth motion, looks good. We're going to have a nice, solid shot. The limitation here, however, is that the camera can only move in one straight line. I can't have the camera curve along a path. Also, since the camera's just sitting on top of the board here, it pretty much has one position it can be in, straight on.
If I wanted to tilt the camera up or down, I couldn't do that here. So the next level is to build something totally custom that will allow us to solve both of those problems. We'll be able to move the camera in an arc or in a straight line, and also tilt the camera however we like. Let's get started. I'm going to be using quite a few different parts here. I'm just pulling some of this wood, and I've already got part of this assembled, but I'm going to show you how the entire thing was made. So, essentially we have a platform that we're going to use to mount the camera onto. Now, there's a couple things to consider in this.
This platform, we are going to put a screw hole through here that we can screw directly into the camera, but also we want to put another hole in here that we can mount a ball head onto. So I have the ball head here, and I want to be able to mount this onto the board. Now the ball head has a 3 8/16th screw in it whereas the bottom of a camera has a standard tripod socket which is 1/4 20. So, we're going to end up with two different holes on here for two different types of screws so we can put either the ball head or the camera. So that's our platform. Next we have the wheels.
Now, if I just put wheels on here, let's say I put two there and put another two on here, just forget about this board for a moment. Pretend we just have the four wheels on here. These wheels are designed not to move. You can see these aren't swivel wheels, and there's a reason for that. If these were swivel wheels and I mounted it on like this, the whole thing would just spin freely and that would not give me what I needed. So I need to have control over the movement. So I have these wheels that don't swivel. But if I just put these four wheels on here, again, forget about that board for a moment, I'm only going to have one angle of motion just like the skateboard.
So I haven't really improved very much on from what we had with the skateboard. So instead what I want to do is add another piece of wood under the wheels. Then we're going to drill a hole through here, all the way through into the board underneath, put a single locking point on here that we can loosen and tighten by hand which will then allow us to pivot this, therefore creating an arc. So if I wanted to position the wheels like so for example, the whole board would move in a nice arc. And this is going to give us incredible control over our camera moves. So the way this whole thing goes together's pretty simple. You can see I've already got one built here, and we're going to go ahead and do another one.
And then put a hole through here that lines up with the hole on the board and screw the whole thing together. Pretty straightforward. So, let's get that working. You'll notice too that this board is not any particular size. This isn't some required measurement. This is just a scrap of wood that we had laying around the shop. This became our base board. It could be bigger, it could be smaller, whatever you like, that's fine. This little board for the wheels, I then cut to make sure that it was the same size on here, the same width. And again, it doesn't have to be exact. It really doesn't. But it's nice if it kind of lines up a little bit.
The key thing though when I put this together is that I want the hole to be centered or as close to centered as possible, and I want these wheels to be evenly spaced from that center hole. If the wheels are off by a bit, then it's going to kind of mess up my arc and make it a little bit harder to control. So, we want to keep it as even and straight as we possibly can. So the first step here is going to be figuring out where I'm going to mount the wheels, and where I'm going to put the hole on here. Now I do happen to have a lot of really nice tools in this shop in here, but if you don't have the squares and you don't have the triangles and all this fancy stuff, you know, you can do all this with just a household ruler or a tape measure.
That's going to work as well. Like my daddy always said, measure twice, cut once. Make sure that you get the measurements right before you start putting holes and cut marks on things. You'll be much happier. So, let's get this thing measured out. So, let's see, I'm just lining this up on the ruler between the one and the 11 inch mark on here just to make sure it's perfectly centered. Looks pretty good there. And then these wheels, I'm going to line up off of the inch mark, so that's off the two there, and again the numbers are irrelevant. I'm really just lining it up to make sure that they're even.
That's looking pretty good there. Let's put some marks on the wood so I know where to drill. And you could drill pilot holes on here, or if you have self-tapping screws, as I do here, we'll just go ahead and screw those straight in. And you do want this to be pretty straight on there, so take your time to get that nicely marked and into position. And then we're going to need our center point as well. We may as well mark that up while we're at it here. So, I'm going to use this triangle here, and make sure that we are again still centered.
Go off of the center point on that. This one is exactly three inches, so I'm going to put a center mark right at an inch and a half. So, a nice little center point there. That's the hole that's going to go through this through the baseboard and lock together. All right, so now I've got all the holes marked, let's go ahead and start putting it together. (whirring) You know, before I go ahead and put the other wheel on, I think I'm going to drill the hole into the middle here.
Otherwise these wheels might kind of get in the way. So, let's get that taken care of. Now if you're going to drill a hole into a couple of pieces of wood like this, you can mount them on the edge of your table and just drill through, but it's generally better if you are drilling into something. So we want another piece of wood underneath this that we can drill into. It'll just make for a cleaner hole. So, I have here my boards. Let's go ahead and get these nice lined up. Looking good, and then we're going to want to clamp that into place.
Awesome, that's great. So now the size of the drill hole that you're going to make, of course, is going to depend on the tools that you're using. In this case, this is what I'm going to use to mount these two boards together and ensure that I can tighten one by hand and you know. loosen it by hand as well. And you can see here I've got this nice big bolt with this little square on the end here. That's going to allow it to really bite into the wood so it doesn't spin. A washer, a locking washer and then a wingnut on here. And we'll take another look at this again later, but of course the drill bit that I use has to be big enough to accomodate the piece that I'm going to put into it.
So, that's what I've got here. Let's go ahead and drill that in. Now before I start drilling, two more things. First, safety first, put on your drilling goggles. Looking cool. And now I want to make sure that I don't drill too far through here because if I go, you know, through the top one and the second one which is what I want and into the third one, that's okay. But through the third one and into the table underneath, I'm going to get in trouble. Especially if I'm doing this on the dining room table at home. So, let's make sure that we don't do that. Easy way to do that is to take your drill bit, and just kind of hold it up next to it, look down, so there's the first board, second board, a little bit into the third, and then let's just take this little strip of tape and mark that like so.
So now I know that I don't want to go past that bit of tape on there. That'll just save me from a whole world of hurt and trouble. All right, so again, right into that mark that I made earlier. Let's get that on there. We are going forward, and away we go. (whirring) Perfect. And now I'm going to finish putting the wheels on. Let's go ahead and get that other wheel on there.
(whirring) All right. So now I have my two separate platforms, already with the holes drilled. Ready to roll. Now we can put this whole thing together on here, but wait! One more thing I have to do. I have to drill the holes for this board, through this board so that I can mount either the camera or the ball head onto it. So, before we put this whole thing together, let's get that set up.
Now the position of this, we do want to be as centered between the wheels as possible. But it doesn't have to be perfect, and we do want to accommodate two different sized holes. So, what I'll do is basically get them centered this way and then kinda spaced evenly across here. That should be pretty good. Doesn't have to be exact, but the closer the better. There we go. And the two holes that I'm going to drill through here, let's talk about those for a moment. I could just drill holes through, and then have bolts that screw in and out of it. And that would be just fine.
I could put some screws in there with washers to kind of protect the wood a little bit, and if you're just going to do that then you probably want to do that. You probably want those washers on there to protect it. Or what you can do, what I'm going to do here is I'm going to use this little T-bolt. What this does is it allows me to kind of hammer this into the wood. So it's bolts in there. You see the little teeth on this thing, it's quite bite-y. This is really going to hold onto the wood. And then the bolt here will just screw into that, and the nice thing about this is I can put this in to mount one accessory, and if I want to swap it for the other one, I can take this out and it won't leave anything on the surface.
I'll have a smooth surface on the top of the wood that I can, so it's not in the way of whatever else I'm going to screw in. So these are the two devices I'm going to put in. We're going to put one T-bolt there. Let's take the other smaller one. So, again, the bigger one is for the 3 8/16th. That's for things like light stands or the ball head here, and then the smaller one, the 1/4 20, will go right into the bottom of the camera. So we'll just put these basically a little bit off-center. Put them about an inch apart, and again, this really isn't critical here, but just get it where you're going to get it.
So I'm going to go ahead and mark that at the five and a half inch mark here for one of them and the four and a half inch mark here for another one. And now I need two holes. We'll make that a little circle on there. That's going to be the bigger hole and then the smaller one. So now let's make sure we've got the right bits on here. The drill bit that I'm going to use has to be a little bit bigger than the T-nut that's going to go into it. So that's this one here. Let's get that into place. (whirring) And once again, I'm going to put another board underneath and clamp this down to make sure that it doesn't move and I have a nice, clean holes drilled.
And by the way, the second hole is going to be a little bit smaller. We're going to go back to this other drill bit here. All right, let's get this thing together. And here we go. (whirring) Looking good. And the second one, forgot my goggles! Safety first. And I'm not going to tape this one. I'll just pay really close attention to it. (whirring) Looks like it went through the first one and not the second, so I think I'm clear.
Looking good. All righty. So now we are ready to start putting everything together. Let's go ahead and put these T-nuts in here. We're going to put the first one in there, second one goes there, and these just get hammered into place. So, let's get loud. (banging) Fantastic.
So now I have the hardware in place to mount either a camera directly or the ball head onto it. So again, just to kind of recap how that's going to go. The bigger nut for the ball head will just thread into here. (clinking) And then I can mount the ball head on this side. Let's go ahead and get our wheels put on. (clinking) This is the bottom, right? This is where we're going to thread the bolts through. So that's the bottom. So that means that this is where we're putting the wheels on. I'll go ahead and take this hardware.
Put the washer and then the locking washer. And then the wingnut. And right here we can see as I start to tighten this, you can see that this bolt here is really starting to bite into the wood. Now at this point, I can still spin this. It doesn't spin freely, but I can move it if I want to. And then once I get it into place, I can really lock it down so that it can't move. Let's go ahead and do the other side.
There we go. So there we have it. Now, as you can see, I can position this with the wheels straight and get a nice straight motion or simply cantilever these guys, put that down, and now we've got an arc. This is awesome. So let's go ahead and put the camera on there. I am going to attach the ball head, again using this larger 3 8/16 T-nut that I put in there and the bolt. So let's go ahead and thread that in.
I think that's just fine actually. So there's that. Okay, let's get the camera on here. Very good. Now I can position of course, the camera however I like. So if I wanted to tilt it, put it at an angle, whatever I wanted to do, I could. So let's go ahead and just tilt it down a little bit. Level that out, lock that in. I'm going to cantilever these wheels the other direction. So let's just tilt it up that way a little. That way a little bit, and then of course, so that they don't move, I can go ahead and lock that down nice and snug.
And those are definitely not going to move. Now let's just clear some space here. Put that drill in there. And let's get the shot. This'll be awesome. And let's roll. That is fantastic. Now that ride was a little bit bumpy mainly cause this table is really dirty. So, you want to make sure you have a nice, clean smooth surface for that.
Also when you're shopping for your wheels, the ones that I have on here are pretty hard plastic, but shop around a little bit. You might find some softer wheels, maybe even some miniature inflatable ones that'll give you a really nice, smooth motion. It just depends on what you're looking for. Spend some time shopping around for the right parts, and when you build your dolly, you'll ensure that it is going to do the job that you want it to do and last for many, many years.
That's the idea behind The Do-It-Yourself Photographer. Photographer and educator Joseph Linaschke shows how you can fashion ordinary items—from plastic cups to clamps to parchment paper—into accessories that will improve lighting, stabilize your camera, and much more.
So roll up your sleeves and break out the gaffer's tape. Learn how to become a DIY photographer.
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