Dec 11, 2023

Why You Might Want to Consider External Power Sources for Your Mirrorless Video

Simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to powering your video system.

We’ve all had it drilled into our heads in recent years that, when it comes to camera gear, smaller is better. In fact, that was always one of the main selling points when prodding photographers to switch from DSLR to mirrorless was the promise of weight savings and more nimble gear. Whether that ever actually bore itself out or not might be a matter of opinion. For me personally, I’ve realized that my mirrorless cameras, once one adds the lenses and accessories, tend to be just as large as their DSLR counterparts in most cases. Likely this has to do with my own personal use case. But, needless to say, whatever advantages have come with my switch to mirrorless have very little to do with the size of the rig.

In fact, in many ways, my rigs have gotten bigger. But, perhaps, not for the reason you might suspect. The main advantage to me for switching to mirrorless was the chance to provide better video options to my clients. While larger cinema camera systems still do the bulk of the heavy lifting, modern mirrorless cameras have advanced to such a point that using one as a B cam on a larger production or as an A cam on a smaller production is often the smart choice.

But, despite the promise of being able to shoot the next Saving Private Ryan with a camera barely heavier than a cell phone, the reality is that, even when opting for a mirrorless camera, filmmaking most often requires far more than running-and-gunning. This is because filmmaking is fundamentally a team sport. Whereas using the smallest and lightest system possible for still photography often makes a lot of sense, when it comes to filmmaking, keeping things small is not always practical.

When shooting in a proper production environment, you aren't operating in a bubble. There are a host of other people that need to monitor your every step and provide their own contributions. So, for example, focus pullers need to see what you see so they can keep your images sharp (or unsharp if that's the creative intent). Sound recordist might need to have access to your camera's XLR port. Wireless transmitters might be sending additional feeds to the video village. Many combinations are possible.

So, by the time cameras get to rolling on most productions, that small, lightweight camera you saw in the advertisement more closely resembles an unrecognizable metallic octopus. And, as if figuring out how to properly rig all those various elements wasn't enough, you also have a second problem. How do you get power to all of these various devices?

Of course, many of these components may come with their own batteries. The cameras especially will have some kind of internal power source with varying levels of life support. External monitors can likely be mounted with standard batteries on the market. Mics can often draw phantom power. External EVFs might be able to run off of other battery solutions. But wouldn't it be nice if all of these things could run off of a single power source? This is where using a larger external source, such as a V-mount, can be a game-changer for your productivity.

External batteries come in several varieties. Personally, I have a small armada of V-mounts in my bag at all times. Other systems use Gold mount batteries. With Arri's new Alexa 35, they announced the advent of the B-mount battery system. These types of batteries all have their differences and aren't exactly the same thing. But, for the purposes of our discussion today, the founding concept is similar: to have one battery to rule them all.

Why would you want to do this? Why else? Speed and simplicity. If you’ve ever built up a video rig, you’ll know that getting the balance just right and connecting everything where it needs to go can sometimes get complicated. It's not rocket science. It can just be a bit of a pain in the neck. So, as tedious as it can be to assemble your rig in the first place, the last thing you are going to want to do is have to take it all apart every time one of your components runs out of juice. If you have multiple components, all with their own varying battery lives, you can spend half your day changing out batteries one at a time. By powering everything off of one battery, you only have one unit that needs changing without requiring and disassembly.

You also have the benefit of only needing to bring one type of battery to set. Have you ever been on set and realized you have five different types of batteries, five different types of battery chargers, and five different types of headaches keeping track of them all? Standardizing your power source can fix that.

You might also be able to guess from the sheer size of most external batteries that they are capable of holding significantly more energy than even the most highly rated camera battery. So, if you plan not only on powering multiple devices, but having to do so over an extended shooting day, starting your morning with the biggest battery possible will allow you to shoot for the longest period uninterrupted. This might not seem like much, but the last thing you want to do is have your small mirrorless battery give up the ghost right in the middle of the best take of the day.

There are different ways to connect to a V-mount depending on your system. The simplest way, assuming your camera doesn't have some kind of built-in connector, would be to purchase a V-mount sled. Usually this works by having your camera connected to "rails" then having the sled connected to the rails as well. You can then run cords from your camera, monitor, etc., straight into the sled, or potentially, directly into the battery itself. Different sleds come with different ports. So, if you need multiple D-taps, USB ports, 5-, 7-, and 12-volt connections, or so forth, you will find many of these on the sled. By connecting the V-mount battery to the sled, it can power all of those ports simultaneously.

There are many companies that make external power sources. For example, I just recently got the SmallRig VB99 Mini V Mount. It comes in 155 Wh, 99 Wh and 50 Wh versions (you’ll want to keep in mind travel restrictions when choosing your V-mount). One of the nice things about this particular one is that it has an OLED display screen that lets you know the power status for your devices to avoid surprises on set. I have other models of V mounts without this feature and can say from experience that knowledge can be a lifesaver. It also has direct D-tap, USB-A, USB-C, as well as 8 V and 12 V connections. So if you are using this without a sled, it gives you plentiful options for direct connection.

The other nice thing about the SmallRig, which is a trend in modern battery design, is that companies are beginning to manufacture Mini V Mount batteries which reduce the footprint while maintaining the power supply. How they do this is beyond my personal understanding of how energy works. But, what I can tell you is that attaching a smaller battery that still can provide all day power is a major advantage over a long day's shoot. And, if you frequently find yourself balancing something like a RED Komodo on a gimbal, the smaller battery can make balancing your rig a cinch.

There are any number of external power sources and methods for rigging them on the market. What works best for you will depend on the type of system you are working with and your specific needs. But there's a good chance that, if you are serious about shooting video, looking into external power supplies is going to make your life a lot easier and your shoots a lot smoother.

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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