We were preparing for our big August/September video project and we all (the producer, myself, and the marketing director) sat down to discuss what we wanted it to look like and how we might go about filming. It quickly became obvious that my two under 30 counterparts were smitten with the look of a constantly moving camera and were hoping they could convince the Luddite before them to get on board with the new technology. Use a gimbal. It was uncomfortable. Mostly because I value their opinions and I hate to appear stuck in the past.
The smart thing I did was to consult with a filmmaker I know who loves moving cameras around on gimbals and has a long tenure of experience with six or seven gimbals from four or five geological strata of gimbal development. He had an interesting idea and I guess I grabbed onto it the way a panicked, drunken non-swimmer clings to a flimsy float when accidentally pushed into the deep end of the pool.
He suggested baby steps. He counseled that before I lunged off the deep end into the jungle of available "big boy" gimbals that I might be better served by getting an inexpensive model made for phones and give that a try first. I might be able to learn a lot without making a big and ill-considered investment.
I trundled off to Precision Camera with a bit of attitude. I wasn't even sure I really wanted a gimbal and I harbored the fear that I might not be able to figure it out. Or worse, that I was already so far behind the learning curve that I'd never become proficient with one.
After "kicking many tires" I settled on a phone gimbal that my trusted sales associate thought to be a good seller. I asked him what the definition of a "good seller" was and how that might affect my purchase. He let me know that a good seller, to him, is a product that is reliable and does the job. It's a good seller because people want it and not very many people return them. Works on so many levels.
The one I settled on is a Zhiyun Smooth 2. It cost a hundred dollars and change and comes with its own internal battery as well as a simple set of instructions. I carted it home, charged it up and, after learning that it worked best if I took the fancy case off the iPhone XR I was walking around the studio trying to get used to the three basic control settings.
I spent three or four days working with the gimbal and my phone. My skill set, while not as fluid as those of a Zoomer Gen operator, advanced to the point where I could get the phone camera pointing where I wanted smoothly and consistently. Once I added more image control via an app called Filmic Pro I was become comfortable with the process and happy with the output. Still seems like magic.
But I knew we'd need more control over the video images for the real project and that would mean a camera with a robust video codec as well as a range of good lenses. I was back at the camera store a handful of days later splashing out for my first real gimbal. It was a Zhiyum Crane V2. I bought it because it does all the basic stuff: panning mode, follow mode and lock mode. It also lets you trigger the record start via bluetooth and it has a nifty table top tripod thing on the bottom so when you get tired of holding the gimbal and camera in one hand you can put it down on the ground without messing up the balance you worked hard to set up.
Two days later I was on the pedestrian bridge filming a group of dancers marching toward me as I marched backwards. Here's what I learned that made my first big days with the gimbal work:
1. You need to match the capabilities of the gimbal to the weight of your camera and lens. A combo that's too heavy for your gimbal will cause some jumpiness and motor vibration. I started out by using the Lumix G9 + 12-60mm on the Zhiyun Crane. It's about a two and a half pound load and the gimbal is rated up to a little over four pounds. That worked.
I tried to use that gimbal with the Lumix S1 and the 24-70mm f2.8 lens but that was pushing it. The combo was right at the edge of the specification and it quickly became obvious to me that the gimbal maker was over estimating the product's chops.
2. You have to practice with a gimbal in non-stress situations to master it. Spend time walking around your backyard with the camera+gimbal, shoot some footage and review it. You'll soon intuit a feedback loop and start fine-tuning your technique. I started out with the phone gimbal but as soon as I bought bigger gimbal I started working with it in my off time to try to get as comfortable with it. Theoretical is great for conversations over coffee but experience is almost always a much better teacher.
3. Start re-learning how to walk. I know it sounds crazy but the normal gait of most people is decidedly bouncy. You see it with new gimbal users like me. The footage just tends to bounce up and down as you walk. You have to crouch into it a bit and also bend your knees and try to walk as flat as you can. Smaller shuffling steps seem to work best. And it's the same when you are moving backwards. Bent knees, try to stay low and flat and do more toe to heel, toe to heel. Again, it takes practice and looks really goofy. But the goofier you walk the nicer your gimbal footage tends to look.
4. For the life of me I just couldn't figure out how to move side to side for shots that would require me to follow along next to someone like I was a camera on a dolly. I'd look at the screen and try to kind of shuffle to the side I wanted to head in. My footage looked awful. Absolutely junk. Then my gimbal mentor shook his head and flipped my camera's rear screen out so it was perpendicular to the camera. That way when I pointed the camera at my subject I could look in the direction I wanted to travel and I'd be looking straight into my screen. It's like my subject and I are walking side by side but I'm holding the gimbal so it's pointing at her while the screen is right in front of my face. All of a sudden my tracking shots cleaned up enough to be useable.
5. Some newer gimbals come with controls that allow you to actually focus using a thumb wheel while working with your gimbal. Mine don't. And I'm not sure how people can concentrate on both watching their composition, walking and also checking focus. I can do two but maybe not three. Instead I try to set a focus for a specific distance, use an aperture that gives me a little safety via depth of field and then work with the gimbal while being cognizant of keeping the distance. Of course, this assumes I'm working with manual focusing.
6. I've had some luck using autofocus but just as often when I move off a subject the camera flails to find focus and everything goes to hell. My best luck has been a combination of enabling all the AF points and also using a helpful aperture. The basic, full frame AF will nearly always try to find the closest object on which to focus and that's nearly always the actor I want to follow with my gimbal. If I use face detection AF and my subject turns away from the camera while there is someone else in the frame the camera thinks it's being smart by shifting focus to the other person instead of just waiting for person one to turn around.
It can be a bit frustrating. Not as bad outdoors where light levels are high and sensors are more easily satisfied by not everything we shoot camera be in bright sun. In fact, I'm generally happier if that's not where we shoot.
7. If you shoot projects like we do there is probably a lot of time (five or ten minutes?) between takes. You can stand there with the gimbal torquing your biceps or you can put it down on the little built in tripod but I favor a different compromise. I stick the bottom edge of the gathered mini-tripod legs against my upper thigh. That point of contact takes most of the weight and takes the load off my left arm (that's my gimbal handling arm, by default). Eventually I'll make a little gimbal tip holster you can wear hanging down from your belt and it will receive the tripod legs (all gathered together) and take the weight off without damaging your fine trousers.
8. Following on from point seven... The further out from your body that you hold the weight of the gimbal plus camera rig the shorter amount of time you'll be able to handle the strain. The closer you hold the gimbal to your body the less force it will exert in concert with its best friend, gravity. Elbows in with the gimbal as close as you can get it and still operate it and you'll be good for much longer. I learned that doing lifts with a ballerina girlfriend in high school. If you want to lift someone up onto your shoulder you want to lift as close to your body as possible. You might also ask your dancer to bend her legs and jump up in sync with your life. Anything helps. Also, try to only date dancers that weigh less that 105 pounds. Not always possible in north America...
9. Use a handheld meter, or a waveform monitor, or even histogram to set your exposure but bump up the brightness on your LCD so you can clearly see the edges of your frame if you are shooting in bright sun. Also, a bit of black wrap and some tape will make a decent hood for your LCD which will enhance the image a lot and make you look like a DIY pro.
So, after a bunch of shoots with the G9 and the Zhiyun Crane I was ready to try a gimbal that could handle one of my full frame, Panasonic cameras. A friend had a DJI Ronin S that's rated to handle up to 8 pounds (I'd call it at 5 lbs.) and he was ready to move on to a newer and more technically advanced gimbal so he offered the Ronin to me at a nice price. I've been using it with the Lumix cameras and some of the lenses and it works well. But I've also been using it with the much lighter weight Sigma fp and it feels like a match made in heaven.
I think gimbal development must be where camera sensor development was back in 2010 or 2012 and it's still changing rapidly. I'm trying to master the basics first and get more projects under my belt before I go looking for the greener grass in the next field. I'd hate to fill the studio with a gimbal collection of greatest hits from every era of development; even if that's what my trajectory looks like in the moment.
Go Gimbals. (P.S. I still dislike drones. Mostly on principle).