The convergence of photography and video has never been closer than it is today. Virtually any camera marketed towards enthusiasts and professionals is expected to have some form of video functionality.
The combination of large high-quality sensors and fast lenses has created a revolution in the way we produce video. No longer are we restricted to expensive broadcast quality camcorders. We can create cinematic video with pretty much any DLSR or Mirrorless camera on the market.
One of the biggest issues with this, however, is a fundamental difference in the way photographers and filmmakers capture their images. As photographers, we can handhold our cameras to capture high-quality images. However, hand holding to shoot video mostly ends in shaky, jittery footage with “jello-cam”
To get stable footage we needed video tripods. To get smooth movement we needed steady-cams or sliders. Both cumbersome to use.
In the last year or so, however, there has emerged a new type of handheld stabilizer, the three axis, brushless motor gimbal. I have recently bought one for myself, the Zhiyun Crane and this is my initial impressions.
Since initially writing this article, my original Zhiyun Crane has had a motor failure rendering it unusable. However, a combination of good service from my supplier, https://zadeshevo.com.ua/, and Zhiyun’s own customer service led to mine being replaced with the updated Zhiyun Crane v2
What Is A Gimbal?
Gimbals allow us to mount our DSLR/Mirrorless cameras on a handheld rig. The rig allows full movement in all three planes, horizontal, vertical and pan. By using powerful motors and attitude sensors, the gimbal will hold the camera extremely stable in the direction you point it, smoothing out much of your body movement.
The Zhiyun Crane is one of a number of these gimbals to hit the market. It is designed for Mirrorless cameras, but could conceivably carry a lighter DSLR model too.
Setting Up The Gimbal.
The gimbal comes in a very sturdy plastic case. Inside there is the gimbal itself, the battery pack which doubles as the handle, and rechargeable batteries good enough for 12 hours of use and a charger. There is also a user manual, but I found that for setting it up, the Zhiyun videos – and others on YouTube – provided a better visual reference.
The first thing to do once the batteries are charged is to balance your camera. At first, this might seem complicated, but with practice it will become second nature.
The balance of the camera will change every time you change the lens but Zhiyun have made this tool-less so it is a matter of loosening thumb screws and making the adjustment. The best policy for this is to use a tripod to mount the camera – the Crane has a tripod thread under the handle. Of course the point of having a gimbal is to avoid tripods but it is possible to balance by hand, however another option is to buy something like a lightweight mini tripod such as this Cullman.
Balancing takes place in all three planes, starting with the tilt, then the roll and finally the pan. If you like to shoot with your screen out to the side, make sure you balance it this way. Even the relatively light weight of the screen will unbalance the gimbal.
Using The Gimbal
Once balanced, you switch on by pressing a small button for a couple of seconds. It is a weird feeling when the motors kick in, the camera suddenly locks into place. As you move your hands or body the camera remains locked straight in front of you. On the front – or back – of the handle is a small joystick. This allows you to electronically pan or tilt the camera for very smooth movements.
It is usable either hand held or tripod mounted. Pressing this joystick allows you to cycle between the three gimbal modes.
The first mode is Locking Mode. This locks all three axis so that whatever you do, the camera will face the direction originally set. The second mode is Pan Following. In this mode tilt and roll are locked but you can move the camera in the pan axis by twisting the gimbal handle. Lastly is Pan and Tilt Following Mode. This mode locks on the roll axis and the tilt and pan will follow you movements on the gimbal.
Finding the right mode for the job is a matter of practise and experimentation. From my first efforts I have found about 20% of my clips were useable. This is mainly down to my inexperience using a gimbal. With subsequent research and practice clips, my videos are becoming smoother and much more cinematic.
One very useful technique to learn is the “gimbal or ninja walk” Looking rather like something from Monty Pythons’s Ministry of Silly Walks, it is in fact a very good way to get smooth movement when walking or even running with the gimbal.
Another consideration to factor in when using a gimbal is focus. It is not recommended to attempt focus while shooting as this will obviously unbalance the gimbal. Techniques you can use include preset focus, autofocus or using a deep depth of field.
The Zhiyun Crane does not come with a quick release system as such. To enable me to remove the camera quickly from the gimbal I bought a quick release base and plate. The advantage of this is that so long as you do not change lenses, the gimbal should remain in balance when you put the camera back on.
From a purely photographic point of view, the Crane can potentially be used as a replacement for a tripod. It certainly allows you to shoot slower shutter speeds than hand held – although you need to use some sort of remote trigger to avoid touching the camera on the gimbal. When mounted on a mini tripod you can go even slower but only to a certain point. Then the constant slight adjustments of the gimbal axis will eventually introduce motion blur.
Two practical uses for photographers are for hyper-lapse sequences and time-lapse. The app supplied for the Crane includes a motion control section. This allows you to set a start and end point and time and will move the camera slowly over that time. In practice there is too much movement between individual frames to make motion time-lapse viable. Hand held hyper-lapses however are much more achievable.
I am excited by the possibilities. With practice I feel that the Crane will bring an extra dimension to my video shooting, with the possibilities of cinematic style movement. With the price being not much more than a good video tripod and head, its flexibility opens new creative possibilities.
If you shoot purely photographs, there is little benefit from buying a crane. However if you like to shoot motion and stills from the same camera, a gimbal such as the Crane can be a worthwhile investment.