You can only sneak around set as a tape measure ninja for so long before it gets old. Sometimes you just
want need to stay next to the camera and get your marks.
Introducing the laser measuring device: a technological godsend for the camera assistant who doesn’t have the time to walk on set with their soft tape measure.
Laser tape measures are incredibly useful tools. They allow quick and accurate measurements to be done almost invisibly and are small enough to easily fit into a pouch or pocket.
But with so many brands, models, and features out there — not to mention high prices — it can be tough to pick the right one.
Which Laser Measuring Tool Should You Buy?
This is a question I get asked a lot and I always deliver the unsatisfying, “it depends,” along with a list of features that are important:
- The ability to mute it. Many of the laser devices make a small beeping noise when you operate them. You want to purchase one that can turn this noise off or else you may be annoying people during rehearsals/quiet times on set.
- Long Range. In my opinion, the greatest feature of a laser device is its convenience. The 2nd greatest feature is being able to measure distances that aren’t practical with a tape measure. So definitely go with something that has a sizable range.
- Quick response time. When you’re grabbing marks during a rehearsal, an actor may move from their marks as soon as they land on it. If the device doesn’t respond quickly enough, you will miss those opportunities.
When searching for a laser measuring device, you will quickly realize almost all of them are designed with construction purposes in mind. Many of the features designed for these tasks become moot.
What you want to focus on is what I mentioned above and look for devices that will suit a rough life on set.
Popular Laser Measuring Devices for ACs
I’ve put together a run down of the most popular laser devices other camera assistants use as well as some alternatives to the admittedly pricey standards.
The main difference in the two main Hilti models is the optical scope/viewfinder on the side of the PD-42 that helps you take long distance measurements in daylight without searching for the red laser dot.
I personally recommend the Hilti series of laser tape measures because I own a Hilti PD-40 and am very happy with it. It measures quickly and accurately, has a built in level, and can even give measurements in real time.
Coupled with the nice features is the fact that the device feels rugged. I have dropped it on set without ever worrying anything was damaged. It’s sturdy casing was designed to be used and to be used often.
This device isn’t sold on Amazon and is actually quite hard to find online. Please leave a link in the comments if you find a place to purchase one. You may have better luck on eBay.
Leica Disto Series (D2, D5, D8)
The Leica Disto series of laser tape measures is a family of devices that span a range of prices and features. Though the Disto family is made up of many models, I’m going to highlight the D2 (low-end), D5 (mid-range) and D8 (high-end) models.
Those looking to buy a serious laser measuring device on the cheap would be interested in the Leica Disto D2 which measures about 200ft for the price of $179.00. The device is also built to be splash and dust proof which could pay for itself the minute you find yourself under a rain tower.
For most, the mid-range Leica Disto D5 should suffice with a hefty range of 650 feet (200 meters). The D5 also has a full-color screen and viewfinder combo that shows you the object you’re measuring to, which helps when measuring long distances outdoors.
At the high-end is the Leica Disto D8 with all the bells and whistles. It has the same features of all the other models plus computer sync technology for actions such as creating blueprints from measurements. It can also measure angles with its tilt sensor.
All of the Leica Disto models come with a three-year warranty so long as you register. They are the premiere brand in laser range finders, so if you’ve got some money to spend and want the best, go for a Disto — I have yet to hear anything bad about one.
Bosch GLR Series (GLR225, GLR500, GLR825)
Bosch used to only offer the DLR series of laser measuring devices (see below) but recently premiered this new line of devices to compete with the higher end models of competitors.
The entry level device in the GLR series is the GLR225 which features the same small size that Bosch is known for. The GLR225 measures about 230ft, but is limited by the lack of a backlight and complaints of painfully slow response times.
On the other hand, the GLR500 and GLR800 devices solve both of those issues and are the top-of-the-line when it comes to Bosch laser measuring tools. The sturdy casing, absurd distance (up to 800 feet on the one model!) and backlit screen make these worth a second look.
If you were drooling at the mouth with the Leica Disto series above, but quickly slapped yourself after seeing the price, consider the Bosch GLR series. They have the range of the Distos without the price and features you don’t want or need.
Bosch DLR Series (DLR130K, DLR165K)
When it comes to laser rangefinders, the Bosch DLR series devices are fairly affordable. The two models have similar features, the main difference being the range each can measure up to.
The drawing power to getting a Bosch laser measuring device is going to be the comparatively low price of the DLR135K model. It is one of few sub-$100 devices out there that is built to be rugged, pocket sized, and even has some great features like continuous measuring.
I worked with a camera assistant who used a Bosch device and he was more than happy with it.
The only drawback is a limited range of up to 130 feet. That may sound like a lot, but if you’re shooting on really long lenses, you may be at distances much further than that.
If you want a bit more distance (up to 165 feet), then Bosch offers another model that ups the ante — the DLR165K. With a similar design, the DLR165K is also pocket sized but packs a bit more oomph. It also more than doubles in price which means the DLR165K is $50 more than the Leica D2 but features 32 less feet in range.
If you’re looking to get a cheap laser device, go with the DLR135K, but if you were eyeing the DLR165K, I’d recommend switching brands and getting a more robust tool for a similar price.
Stanley FatMax Tru Laser (CST/Berger TLM100)
The Stanley FatMax Tru Laser is something you might recognize. If you were to head to a Wal-Mart or Target to find a laser measuring device, this is likely what they have on their shelves. Why? Because it’s cheap and simple.
Of course, cheap and simple don’t necessarily qualify this device as good.
Before I owned my Hilti PD40, I used one of these on a feature film. It worked for scenes that were relatively close in doors, but it never felt as robust as I would’ve liked. Instead it felt like a plastic toy and would turn on all the time while resting in my pouch and shine into my eyes.
The response time, I found, was sporadic. At times it would respond quickly, other times it wouldn’t respond at all. There were multiple occasions where I went to measure an actor and by the time I finally got the thing working, they were off their mark.
If you’re serious about adding something valuable to your toolkit, don’t settle for the Stanley FatMax Tru Laser. I only included it on this list so I could explain to you why I don’t think it’s worth the money.
Shop on Amazon: CST/Berger TLM100
Price vs. Power vs. Need
Don’t think that you are going to go out and buy a measuring device on a whim. It is a serious investment towards your toolkit and will take a good chunk of your wallet.
Because of that, I recommend holding off on purchasing one if you’re just starting out. There are other ways to measure for focus than a laser and I wouldn’t say it is an essential piece of a toolkit. Wait until you are making enough money off camera assisting to justify the cost.
If you decide you absolutely cannot wait or you decide to invest on a budget, you may be able to find a good deal on a laser measuring device on eBay. Since these tools are built to last in rugged environments, purchasing one used is often not a detriment to its quality.
Ultimately, the laser measuring device you decide to purchase will depend on three factors: price, power, and what you need out of it.
Weigh the options I’ve presented above and figure out which one is worth your money, provides the power necessary, and is able to do what you need it for.