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 in our heads over the past few years that when it comes to camera gear, smaller is better. In fact, it’s always been one of the biggest selling points when urging photographers to switch from DSLRs to mirrorless was the promise of weight savings and more nimble gear. Whether or not it actually got bored might be a matter of opinion. For me personally, I’ve realized that my mirrorless cameras, once you add the lenses and accessories, tend to be as big as their DSLR counterparts in most cases. It probably has to do with my own personal use case. But, needless to say, whatever the benefits of my going mirrorless, they had very little to do with the size of the rig.
In fact, in many ways my rigs have gotten bigger. But, maybe, not for the reason you might suspect. The main benefit for me of going mirrorless was the ability to provide better video options for my clients. While larger cinema camera systems still do most of the work, modern mirrorless cameras have advanced to such an extent that the use of a B-camera on larger production or an A-camera on 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 cellphone, the reality is that, even opting for a mirrorless camera, filmmaking requires the most often much more than running and shooting. It’s because cinema is fundamentally a team sport. While using the smallest and lightest system possible for still photography often makes a lot of sense, when it comes to filmmaking, keeping things small isn’t always practical.
When you’re filming in a proper production environment, you’re not working in a bubble. There are a host of other people who need to watch your every step and make their own contributions. So, for example, focus shooters need to see what you’re seeing so they can keep your images sharp (or blurry if that’s the creative intent). The sound engineer may need access to your camera’s XLR port. Wireless transmitters can send additional streams to the video village. Many combinations are possible.
So by the time the cameras start rolling on most productions, that little lightweight camera you’ve seen in commercials looks more like an unrecognizable metallic octopus. And, as if understanding how to properly rig all of these different elements isn’t enough, you also have a second problem. How do you power all these different devices?
Of course, many of these components can come with their own batteries. Cameras in particular will have some sort of internal power source with varying levels of survivability. External monitors can probably be mounted with standard batteries on the market. Microphones can often use phantom power. External EVFs can work with other battery solutions. But wouldn’t it be nice if all of these things could run from 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 the new from Arri Alex 35, they announced the advent of the B-mount battery system. These types of batteries all have their differences and are not exactly the same thing. But, for the purposes of our discussion today, the founding concept is similar: having one battery to rule them all.
Why would you do that? Why else? Speed and simplicity. If you’ve ever built a video platform, you’ll know that finding the right balance and connecting everything that needs to go can sometimes get tricky. It’s not rocket science. It may just be a little sore in the neck. So, as tedious as it might be to put your rig together in the first place, the last thing you’ll want to do is have to take everything apart every time one of your components runs out of juice. If you have multiple components, each with their own battery life, you could spend half your day changing batteries one at a time. By switching everything off from one battery, you only have one unit to change without the need for disassembly.
You also have the advantage of only needing to bring one type of battery to tune. Have you ever been on a set and realized you had five different types of batteries, five different types of battery chargers, and five different types of headaches to track them all? Standardizing your power source can solve this problem.
You might also be able to guess from the sheer size of most power banks that they’re capable of holding much more energy than even the top-rated camera battery. So if you’re planning to not only power multiple devices, but do so for a long day of filming, starting your morning with the biggest battery possible will allow you to film for the longest time without interruption. It might not seem like much, but the last thing you want to do is have your little mirrorless battery die right in the middle of the best shot of the day.
There are different ways to connect to a v-bracket depending on your system. The easiest way, assuming your camera doesn’t have some sort of connector built in, would be to buy a v-mount sled. Usually this works by connecting your camera to “rails” and then also connecting the sled to the rails. You can then run cords from your camera, monitor, etc., directly into the sled, or potentially, directly into the battery itself. Different sleds come with different ports. So if you need multiple D-sockets, USB ports, 5, 7, and 12 volt connections, etc., you’ll find plenty on the sled. By connecting the V-mount battery to the sled, it can power all these ports simultaneously.
There are many companies that manufacture external power sources. For example, I recently received the SmallRig VB99 Mini V Stand. It’s available in 155 Wh, 99 Wh, and 50 Wh versions (you’ll want to keep travel restrictions in mind when choosing your v-mount). One of the good things about this one is that it has an OLED display that lets you know the power status of your devices to avoid surprises on set. I have other v-mount models 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 8V and 12V connections. So if you’re using it without a sled, that gives you plenty of direct connection options.
The other benefit of the SmallRig, which is a trend in modern battery design, is that companies are beginning to manufacture Mini V Mount batteries that reduce bulk while maintaining power. 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 can still supply power all day is a major benefit over a long day of shooting. And, if you often find yourself balancing something like a Komodo RED on a gimbal, the smaller battery can make balancing your rig a breeze.
There are a number of external power sources and methods of 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 chances are, if you’re serious about shooting video, finding external power supplies will make your life much easier and your shots much smoother.