DIY Sound Blimp

The other day I got asked if I had a sound blimp, which is a case that dampens the noise a camera's shutter makes. I don't own one and have to confess I didn't even think they made them for still cameras. I know they make them for audio equipment and noisy old (motion) film cameras. Anyway, I did a quick search and it seems the only company that makes them is Jacobson Photographic Instruments Inc in Hollywood. And they aren't cheap. We're talking $1000+. For a padded box.

So here's the thing, looks like I'm going to need one. I'd buy one but I'm on an equipment budget at the moment. I'm also hoping Nikon will sort themselves out with a full frame HD capable DSLR later this year that I can upgrade to (I don't need all the bells and whistles of the D3 - soon to be D4 series) and which will cost me a lot I'm sure. As Jacobson Blimps are custom built I'm a bit reluctant to spend the money on one now and then do it again for another camera before the year's out. Besides, it's a $1000 for a padded box for crying out loud.

As I live in New Jersey I found out that Lens And Repro in NYC rent them, which is great, but my first thought before looking for one to rent was 'I bet I can build something like that.' I even thought that a Pelican case would be a good starting point. Lo and behold a quick search revealed a couple of other people had already done just that and had kindly shared their experiments online. Check out Jim Newberry's post here and Tony Donaldson's post here.

So, following their lead I decided to give it a shot. I decided to do it as cheaply as I could. If it didn't work, then at least I wouldn't have wasted too much money So, eventually spending around $100, here's what I did:

Plan it first. I measured my camera and the lens I intend to use. I measured not just it's size but where the lens mount and eyepiece are situated in relation to the rest of the body. This will help you decide how big to cut the necessary holes and where to place them before you start drilling away. It takes a little longer to do this measuring but it's worth the effort. Oh yeah, and don't underestimate the usefulness of gloves, goggles and boots when messing around with power tools. You'll need you fingers to press the shutter and at least one eye to see out of..

At a bare minimum, the tools you'll need are a drill, saw, very sharp knife and strong glue.

Then take one small Pelican Case, the smallest you can get that will contain the camera body. In this instance an 1150, which was less than $30.

Cut out the padded foam to fit the camera you'll be using. Cut a round hole in the bottom foam for the lens and a small hole for the viewfinder in the lid foam. Mark it first using your camera body as the guide and your measurements to double check.

Using the holes you cut in the foam as a guide, and the measurements you made to double check, mark out on the Case where to cut holes for the lens and the viewfinder. You want to make the hole for the lens big enough to accommodate it without forcing it through. The lens I'm using has a diameter of about 31/2 inches so I cut a 4 inch hole. I had to buy a new saw and drill bit for this, which was $25. You'll want to hold the box secure when cutting. Don't do what I did and use your hand to hold it down while you drill. Be sensible and use a proper workbench with a vice.

I also cut and sanded down the ridges on the case to allow the lens barrel to fit flush. I also sanded smooth the cut edges.

Checking the camera fits.

The hole cut for the viewfinder, looking through with the camera inside.

I also drilled a hole for a screw threaded tripod mount which I had lying around.

And a hole for the cable release. There are various ways to control your camera once it is enclosed in the box - depending on your camera, preference and budget you can go for anything from the standard cable release to a remote contol wifi iphone app. This was the solution that fits for me. Cheap and cheerful remember.

Using two part epoxy resin I glued a piece of plexiglass onto the inside of the lid where the viewfinder is situated. Use a scoring knife to cut the plexi - they're dead cheap and really useful.

The lens barrel is cut from a piece of pipe - called Charlotte Pipe in the trade for some reason. Remember it has to be the same size diameter as the hole you cut in the case. In my case, this is 4 inches. This type of pipe is usually found attached to your toilet. They sell in hardware stores in various lengths, with the shortest usually being 2 feet, so you'll need to accurately measure and cut it down yourself. Take you time and get it straight. This is glued to the case with two part epoxy and then the join sealed over with a silicon gel. I thought about making this removable by utilising a plumbing flange, but in the end decided against it. This pipe is cut to 5 inches and easily accommodates the 17-55 lens I am using without any vignetting at the wide end. If I use a longer lens then all I have to do is add some more pipe and hold it in place with a rubber collar.

I added a piece of insulation foam to the inside of the pipe where it is glued to the case. This adds a bit of stability, helping to hold the lens in place and prevent sound travelling down the barrel.

Next, I added velcro to attach the cable release to the case.

After passing the cable release through the hole I sealed it with a simple rubber washer glued in place.

I added some thin sheet foam to the inside of the barrel after spraypainting the whole thing matt black. Don't forget to cover up the plexiglass for the viewfinder before spraypainting!

The only thing I was really unsure about was the cover for the lens barrel. I decided to use a rubber plumbing cap and cut a hole in the front. Below left you can see I used an old screw threaded rubber lens hood with a clear filter attached, which was then glued to the plumbing cap and sealed on with silicon gel. This actually works excellently so I'm going to make another one with a large filter on the front. These caps fit really tight so there's no need to glue it on.

And here's the finished Blimp.

Pretty ugly right? But does it work? Yes, really well. I don't know how silent the Jacobson ones are, but this is pretty quiet.

Here's how the shutter sounds normally: Camera Without Blimp.
Here's how it sounds enclosed in the blimp: Camera With Blimp.

I recorded this by placing a high end audio recorder less than 3 inches away from the camera/box in a quiet room.

In any case, I'll probably rent a Jacobson one if I need to and if I end up needing a blimp regularly I'll likely buy one, but I think this is a pretty damn good solution, for a tenth of the price and moreover it can be done with some basic tools and skills. I had a bunch of ideas on what I could do to make this better but for that I'll need a bit more time, a proper workshop with some cutting tools, welding or brazing and some more expensive materials...

But enough of that. Tune in next week as I attempt to make an underwater housing from some macaroni pasta and wood glue.


Kevin Coombs said...

That is very cool. We made a similar contraption when we installed a remote camera in the court room for the trial of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. We triggered it over IP. It worked but was not quite as elegant as yours.

Tom White said...

Thanks Kevin - though I'm not sure 'elegant' is the right word. More like 'hulking great tank'!

Anonymous said...

That is amazing! I think you've found (yet) another vocation in life! Market it!! Lx

Tom White said...

Just found this one by Kyle Peters - his lens tube is a much better design.

yann feron said...

have you tried to do it with a remote wireless control?

Tom White said...

I haven't needed to try it with a remote yet but it should work...

湯舜 said...

I constructed one myself. It zooms when you are using a 70-200mm lens!
I put it here.

Gillian said...

this is awesome, but one question: how do you control the camera settings?

Tom White said...

The camera can be controlled simply with a cable release as in this case, but you have no control over the manual settings - it's a fully auto option. If you need/want manual control, you can use a USB tethering solution in place of a cable release, or use one of the many wifi camera control options through a laptop, tablet or phone. Note that with wifi, you will need to accommodate any extra add on equipment your camera will require to work in this set up.

Steve Parr said...

I'm gonna' go out on a limb and say prime lenses are the way to go here, yes?

Tom White said...

Steve, actually I use it most with zooms! Obviously, I can't actually zoom with this setup - I have often mused over how to get that functionality in there and I've seen various options - but my most used lenses with this are a 17-55 and a 80-200 (both f2.8 all the way through). I usually use it at things such as classical music concerts and performances where audience quiet is, shall we say, much appreciated. In these situations you're usually placed in a certain spot and have to shoot the whole thing from one position, so getting a few shots with each lens at a variety of focal lengths - opening the case to make the change each time - usually gives me enough decent shots to edit from!

I've not had to revamp the design as yet, but having the ability to access the zoom ring would be my next modification..

These days though, if I can get close, I often use the Fuji X100, which is about as quiet as they get.