Simply put, a gimbal is a pivot point that allows rotation along a single axis. Combine three separate gimbals to allow rotation along three different axes and you have a 3-axis gimbal — and an excellent tool for achieving silky-smooth, handheld video.
In the never-ending quest to achieve smooth handheld video, a wide variety of techniques have been employed, from counterweighted poles to vest mounted articulating arms. The ultimate of these attempts has proven to be the 3-axis gimbal. If that terminology doesn’t resonate, think gyroscope. Most of us are familiar with the concept of a gyroscope from our years in elementary and high school. These devices are used in ballistic missile navigational guidance systems and as stabilizers for such things as the Hubble telescope and ocean vessels. Thankfully, they have found their way into the video production world to provide exceptional stabilization for non-stationary video. Of course, by non-stationary video, we mean video that has been captured while standing, walking, running, flying, moving up and down stairs and over all sorts of rough terrain.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a gyroscope from our years in elementary and high school.
In an effort to easily discuss some of the growing number of gimbals that are now becoming available, we have categorized them as manual (non-motorized), motorized and aerial, with a sidebar on mini gimbals.
Manual, handheld stabilizing devices employing 3-axis gimbals have the advantage of lower pricing while still delivering excellent results. For smooth action shots on a budget, check out these offerings.
A highly respected name in the industry, Glidecam offers their HD-Series of stabilizers (HD-1000, HD-2000, HD-4000). The offset handle is attached to a fully free floating 3-axis gimbal, allowing the hand to move vertically and horizontally without affecting the camera. A quick release camera plate and mounting platform make camera attachment quick and easy while platform control knobs, a telescoping center post and a counter weight system handle the balancing chores.
MSRP: $449, $549, $649 respectively
Similar in concept and design to Glidecam’s HD-Series, the CAME-H4 3-axis stabilizer employs carbon fiber for its strength and lightweight properties and is especially well suited for use with DSLR cameras. Its price point places it well within reach of even hobbyist producers.
Camera Motion Blackbird
Rather than utilizing an offset handle, the Blackbird’s handle and gimbal attach directly beneath the camera stage for firm, comfortable on-axis handling. In addition to the usual stage adjustments, the Blackbird employs dual bubble levels to aid in balancing as well as a scale reference for faster re-balancing when attaching the camera each time. The Blackbird employs patent pending SmoothTouch technology, which provides user adjustable gimbal friction control to minimize excessive pendulum motion. MSRP: $485 (basic); $675 (full kit: incl. custom case, universal docking bracket, resting stand and tripod adaptor)
For video use, the motorized 3-axis gimbal has its roots embedded deeply in the remote control helicopter world. Cameras initially were hard-mounted underneath RC helicopters, followed by two and then 3-axis gimbals and then belts, servos and so forth in the quest for ever smoother aerial images. Motor controlled handheld rigs have since evolved from these earlier efforts, delivering amazing results regardless of the demands placed upon them.
With a long list of patents pending to their credit, Freefly Systems was the first to market with this handheld camera stabilizer technology and continues to be a strong innovator in that space. From DSLRs to full-on cinema packages, the MoVI M5, M10 and M15 bring amazing stabilization to any production regardless of the situation. Each unit has a full camera cage to lock the camera in place both top and bottom.These rigs are lightweight and make use of custom designed and built sensors and near silent brushless motors. In Majestic Mode, a single operator controls gimbal direction using the rig’s handles. While in dual operator mode, one operator concentrates on framing while the other maneuvers the camera via a separate remote control device.
MSRP: $3,995 (M5 Essentials Bundle); $7,995 (M10); $11,995 (M15)
DJI’s Ronin is designed to support a wide variety of cameras and lenses ranging from Micro Four Thirds cameras to the Red Epic. Strong, lightweight aircraft-grade aluminum construction, three operational modes — underslung, upright and briefcase — high precision, low vibration and increased torque brushless motors, a built-in receiver and remote for use by a second operator, SmoothTrack gimbal control and dual 15mm rods for follow focus and matte box systems ensure the highest levels of image stabilization and cinematic production value. The Ronin also features the iOS DJI Assistant software to easily set up all system configurations using an iPhone. MSRP: $2,999
For DSLR users, an affordable alternative comes from CAME-TV. The CAME-7800 features three different modes with separate joystick control of camera tilt and pan functions. Pressing the joystick engages each mode: follow mode in which the camera continues to follow the movement of the handles in both the pan and tilt directions; commixture mode, where following occurs only along the pan axis, and locked mode where no following occurs in either direction. The rig features a 32-bit control board, is very lightweight and comes fully assembled and configured. MSRP: $1,300
The Ghost V3 and The Ghost Pro II
These two new Ghost gimbals from SICvisuals handle smaller camcorders up to five pounds and larger cinema setups up to 12 pounds, respectively. Both come with batteries, charger, stand, accessory mount and an extension grip. Each is constructed of lightweight, durable aluminum and carbon fiber materials. Three powerful brushless motors smoothly control pan, roll and tilt.
MSRP: $1,795 (Ghost V3); $3,995 (Ghost Pro II)
As mentioned previously, motorized 3-axis gimbal technology shares its history with aerial photo and videography. To a large degree, the RC helicopters of old have given way to quadcopters and multi-rotor drones. What was once a novel dream at best for most producers now has its own Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion at NAB!
Freefly Cinestar-8 MK Heavy Lift RTF
A true heavy hitter in aerial butt-kickery is the Cinestar eight-rotor drone. Constructed largely of carbon fiber and with a total weight of 6.72 lbs, the MK is built to carry a payload of up to 12 lbs. It uses the Freefly Systems gimbal. In fact, the MoVI line of stabilizers was designed with the Cinestar platform in mind to provide a seamless transition from shooting handheld to aerials in minutes. Top mounted batteries ensure an accurate center of gravity for optimal flight characteristics, and its open architecture design allows the use of a wide variety of cameras, from Canon’s 5D to the RED Epic. MSRP: $7,415
DJI Inspire 1
Another serious contender in the drone airspace is DJI. The Inspire 1 features a 3-axis gimbal, powered by brushless motors controlled according to a continuous data feed based on the craft’s momentum, angular velocity, GPS data and more for maximum camera stabilization. The integral camera is capable of shooting video at 1080p60 and 4Kp30! Dual controller operational capability allows one operator to fly the drone while a second operator controls the gimbal and camera. MSRP: $2,899 (single remote); $3,399 (dual remotes)
If you’d like to add an extra dose of high production value to your next video project, carefully assess your needs, consult your pocketbook and check out the many 3-axis stabilizers in today’s market. One of them just may provide the added oomph you desire.
For the ultimate in compact stabilization, check out one of the many mini-gimbals that are entering the marketplace. Lightweight, effective and far less likely to be noticed during covert filming, these devices are definitely worth a look.
Nebula 4000 Lite
The Nebula 4000 Lite is a single pistol grip style stabilizer capable of handling small cameras weighing up to 2lbs including the GoPro, Panasonic GH4 and Sony a7S. It features brushless motors and three operating modes: Tilt and Pan Follow (the camera follows as you turn the handle left or right); Pan Follow Only and No Follow (camera stays in neutral position regardless of the position of the handle). MSRP: $725
GoPro HERO and other similarly sized sports camera users will want to check out the G4 from Feiyu-tech. The G4 accommodates the HERO LCD Touch Backpack and features a powered 3-axis gimbal with four operational modes. Mode #1 follows left and right pan motions; Mode #2 follows both pan and tilt motions; Mode #3 follows left/right pans while the camera is upside down for low angle shots and Mode #4 locks all three axes. A single button on the handle is used to select the desired mode. The handle end cap conceals storage space for additional batteries and is threaded for use with the optional carbon fiber extension rod. Don’t have a GoPro? The G4 also has a model suitable for smartphone use. MSRP: $349 (either model)
Contributing Editor Mark Holder is a video producer and trainer.