Photo Tip of the Week: How To Build Your Own Camera Dolly
A camera dolly will help you get smooth tracking shots with your DSLR or compact camera. Peter Wilson-Jones shows you how to build one for less than $40.
Camera dollies are widely used in film and television to create smooth tracking shots. Generally comprising a moving platform on wheels and tracks, small systems can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand.
If, like me, you baulk at the thought of spending that much on something you only intend to use occasionally – most of us are primarily still photographers after all – then you may be interested in having a go at building your own system.
The dolly pictured on this page cost me less than $40 (not including tools) and took around an hour to put together. Even better, the results are excellent – comparable in my opinion to some professional systems.
So, where do you start? I bought the bits and pieces for this project at my local Bunnings but you should be able to find the same stuff in any big hardware store. Here’s what you need:
• Two one-metre lengths of 20-22mm diameter PVC pipe or round conduit (the smallest size you can get). [$5]
• Four small double-wheeled casters with bolt/nut attachment. Make sure the wheel width matches the diameter of your PVC pipe – the wheels should just straddle the pipe. [$10]
• One 20 x 20cm flat 'Make a Bracket'. [$2.50]
• Two 20 x 4cm flat 'Make a Brackets'. [$5]
• Eight 10mm long x 4mm self-tapping, marine-grade stainless steel screws [$2]
• One 15mm long x 3mm self-tapping, marine-grade stainless steel screws (to attach the tripod head to the 20x20cm Make a Bracket. [$0.50]
• 1 x cheap desktop tripod (the craptastic ones with bendy wire legs) [$10-$15]
• Electric drill with two drill bits: 9mm and 2mm
• Spanners to tighten the wheel nuts
• Masking tape
01 WHEELS AND BASE
First up, mount the wheels onto the 20x20cm 'Make a Bracket'. You may
need to widen the holes in the Make a Bracket to fit the wheel bolts through. If
that’s the case get cracking with the 9mm drill and enlarge the four corner
holes. The tripod head will attach through the centre hole, so make that wider too.
Once you’ve finished drilling, attach the four wheels and tighten the lock nuts
firmly with the spanners.
Attach the wheels to the 20 x 20cm 'Make a Bracket' base plate.
02 TRIPOD HEAD
Take your desktop tripod and unscrew the legs (we just want the mounting attachment). The legs may have a bit of contact glue holding them firm, but once you bend each leg at right angles to the top and twist anti-clockwise, with a bit of force the legs should break free and unscrew from the head section. At worst you might need to use a hacksaw to get them off. Once this is complete you will notice a centre hole on the underside, between where the three bendy legs were screwed in. Using the 15mm screw, insert it through the centre hole of the 20 x 20cm ‘Make a Bracket’ plate from the underside and attach the tripod head to the centre.
The cheap tripod head attaches to the 20 x 20cm plate from underneath with a 15 x 3mm
self-tapping marine-grade stainless steel screw.
03 MAKING TRACKS
Finally, you need to put the tracks together. The easiest and most
accurate way to do this without an engineering degree is to place the two PVC
pipes parallel to each other on a flat, smooth surface like a kitchen or garage
floor. Next, place the dolly on top of the tracks and align the PVC pipes so
they sit correctly under the wheels as you track it from left to right along
its length. When you are happy with the position, use a couple of pieces of
masking tape to stick the PVC pipes to the floor. Tape one end first and then
Finally, take the two 21x4cm 'Make a Bracket' pieces and place them across each end of the taped tracks. You need to put two screws at the end of each bracket to eliminate the possibility of twisting and deformation of the tracks with transportation/use. Mark the appropriate hole positions at each end of each track with a pen and drill pilot holes into the PVC with the 2mm drill bit. Attach the 20 x 4cm 'Make a Brackets’ to the pilot holes with the 10mm screws.
Two 'Make a Bracket' pieces keep the track in position. For a longer track
simply use longer pieces of PVC, with more ‘Make a Bracket’ pieces as
04 LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
Turn the track over so the brackets are underneath. Place your Dolly on top with the wheels aligned to the tracks, mount the camera and you're ready to roll!
The finished dolly system.