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How to Build Your Own Digital SLR Video Dolly for Under $20

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This post is part of a series called DIY Tips & Tricks.
DIY: Creating Your Own Ring Lighting Setup
Shooting & Editing a Paint Splatter Texture

With video capability in Digital SLRs becoming ever-more pervasive, there's an increasing demand for accessories and gadgets to help produce fantastic video footage with your camera. A "dolly" is a gadget designed to make smooth camera movements in video. The common way to use it is raising it on a track, creating tracking shots on the horizontal axis. Today we're going to walk through the process of creating your own Digital SLR dolly, to add a fantastic element to your video footage!


Materials Required

dolly diy home made photography

In order to build your own DIY dolly, you’ll need the following materials:

  • Wood
  • Two long PVC pipes (same size)
  • Two short PVC pipes (same size)
  • 4 PVC Elbows
  • 4 Office Chair Wheels
  • Assorted screws and nails
  • Camera Tripod

First Step: Measure and Draw

This is the first step to start building your dolly. First of all, you need to measure the distance between two of your tripod legs. This is very important, as we need to ensure the dolly is made to a size that fits your tripod.

Next up, you need to prepare four pieces of wood. In my case, I used some wood board. They should be a bit larger than the length of the distance between the legs - around 2-3 inches larger. That's because you'll need to add the tripod guides to keep it from moving. In the next step, we'll use two pieces of wood on the top of the structure, and two below, made to keep it together.

dolly diy home made photography

Cut the Wood and Mount the Main Structure

dolly diy home made photography

Once you have the wood prepared, cut the four pieces and mount it all together using screws or nails as shown in the picture above. It must have a rectangular shape, and sufficient size to fit the tripod on top later. I made my version with a hole in the middle, so I can easily attach a weight bag to make the structure heavier and also more stable.

To appreciate it better, take a look at the following image. You'll notice that two pieces of wood are hanging out toward one side. I made it like this because, as you'll see later, it's a great way to control your dolly by attaching a pull string it.

dolly diy home made photography

Add the Tripod Guide

dolly diy home made photography

With the main structure finished, you’ll need to find a way to fix your tripod to the dolly. In my case, I used two square pieces of wood for every tripod leg. But it’s really your choice—you can fix the tripod in many ways. For this tutorial, I used wood, so the next step is to screw these supporting blocks to the wood.


Add the Wheels

dolly diy home made photography

Now it's time to add the four wheels, used to create the smooth movement along a track. Using some nails, fix them to the lower part of the dolly. Be careful aligning them, because this part is very important.


Prepare the Track

dolly diy home made photography

In order to make the track, you’ll need a few pieces of PVC piping. Two large parts for the dolly, and one short one to keep the tracks from moving. So, the final track should be a rectangle (as shown in the photo above).

The length of the large part is more or less unlimited and, it depends on your budget and need. The short part must have exactly the same length as the distance between the two parallel lines of wheels.


Mount It All Together!

dolly diy home made photography

Once you have the main structure and the track completed, it’s time to try it out and to see if it works. Find a nice place for some shooting, and place the track on the ground. Take your wooden structure and put it gently on the pipes.

If you did everything correctly, it should slide smoothly from one end to another. This is by no means a "given" the first time around, so you might need to make a few adjustments and tweaks so that it all fits together well.

When it's running back and forth really smoothly, take your tripod and mount it on the dolly. Finally, place your video-capable camera on top, and try shooting some movies!


Tips for Taking Great Videos

dolly diy home made photography

The best way to use a dolly is with a fixed lens. Also, to appreciate the smooth moving, it’s better when you use larger focal lengths, rather than wide angle lenses. Another good tip is to place still objects in your scene, close to the camera, to create a better "moving sensation".

Regarding the structure, to achieve a smooth movement, try placing some weight on it, or hanging a weight from the tripod. In my case, I use a bag with a pair of weight disks (used for dumbbells). This makes a huge difference, and is definitely worth trying to see whether it gives you a smoother operation.


My Sample Video

Finally, let's take a look at a video example, shot using my very own DIY Dolly!

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