As cameras get smaller and lighter and as the cameras in smartphones continue to improve, the need for hand-held stabilizers continues to grow. Many cameras and lenses are now including some type of image stabilization. However, for handheld shots, you often need more support. With so many different types of stabilizers and models, it can be confusing, but hand-held stabilizers, like all camera support, are designed for a purpose.
You can take a monopod, mount your camera onto it, and hold it up over your head to get high angle shots. You could could collapse the leg and use it as a handle under your camera to get smother hand-held shots. Your results from trying either of these shooting techniques might not be that bad, but it’s doubtful that those results would be as good or as consistent as the ones you’d get by using the monopod for what it was intended for. Monopods are designed to provide ground support for your camera to help steady your shots.
Hand-held stabilizers are really no different than monopods in that in order to get the best results from them, it helps to understand what they were designed for. Different types of stabilizers have been designed to help get diverse types of shots. Your style of shooting and the various environments you shoot in also come into play as to what type of stabilizer will work best. It’s not about getting the best unit that will hold the weight of your camera, it’s about finding a solution to get the shots you need. Just like you may use both a monopod and a tripod at different times for the same camera, you may find you want more than one type of hand-held stabilizer.
Setting Up Your Shots
Before we get into the different types of stabilizers, let’s take a look at how planning out your shots will not only give you steadier moves, but it will also give you a better idea of the gear you need in order to get them. To get the most out of a stabilizer, it’s important to look at two factors that most affect getting a steady shot: composition and angle of view.
Watch: More Ideas for Adding Movement to Your Shots
Angle of View
The angle of view, also called the field of view of your camera's lens, can have an equal or greater affect on the smoothness of a hand-held shot as your operating does. Have you ever seen footage from an action camera mounted to a surfboard and thought it looked smooth even though you knew they didn’t use a stabilizer or fix it in post? It probably wasn’t because of some mad skill the surfer had but with the angle of view of the shot.
The wider the shot, the less noticeable camera shake becomes. Most action cameras have a field of view between 120 and 180 degrees, which is very wide. With a cinema camera, a Super 35 sized sensor, or a DSLR, in order to get close to 120 degrees in angle of view, you would need a lens of about 10mm. A lens that size on that type of camera typically gives a fisheye-style distortion which isn’t always ideal. If you use a lens with a focal length between 18mm and 24mm with a camera with a full frame, APS-C, or Super 35 sized sensor, then you’ll have between a 50 and 90 degree angle of view, which will make shots with a lot of movement easier to keep steady.
Even if you're standing still, any lens much longer than 50mm is going to make it hard to hold your hand-held shot for a long period of time, even with a stabilizer. If you can stick to using a maximum of a 35mm lens, you’ll find it much easier to maintain steady shots.
The feel of a smooth shot can have almost as much to do with how easy it is for the eyes of the viewer to track the subject of the shot as it does how much the camera actually shakes or drifts. If you’re framing a dancer or skateboarder from head to toe, leave a little extra room above the head and below the feet. That way if your framing is a little off for a moment, you won’t lose part of the subject, and it will be a lot less noticeable.
The feel of a smooth shot can have almost as much to do with how easy it is for the eyes of the viewer to track the subject of the shot as it does how much the camera actually shakes or drifts.
If you're going to move the camera a lot, avoid tight close-ups because you’ll find it’s really hard to keep your subject in frame and even the slightest drift or bounce of the camera is noticeable. Instead you may want to try framing the person from the middle of their torso to a little above or a little below the top of the head. Again, this way you have a little space for your shot to drift so the top of the person's head isn’t going in and out of the frame.
Finding the Gear You Need
Now that you have an idea of how to set up your shots to keep them looking steady, you’re ready to see what stabilizers will best help you.
The biggest factor that sets non-motorized stabilizers apart from motorized units is not cost but control. You have much more control over the subtle movements of the camera with a non-motorized stabilizer. If you’re tracking a moving subject with your camera on a non-motorized stabilizer and you want the camera to slightly lean into the turns to accentuate the action, you can do this very easily with most systems. Trying to get that same shot on a motorized stabilizer would be very hard, if not impossible.
The drawback to having this type of control is that non-motorized systems take longer to learn how to operate as far as making your camera movements look smooth. They tend to require more operator interaction than their motorized counterparts. If you're use to doing a lot of hand-held operating, than you’ll probably be getting smooth shots fairly quickly and with ease; gradually, you’ll be able to get shots that you might not have ever thought were possible even with a stabilizer. In time, much like panning and tilting on a tripod, you’ll find that the movement becomes second nature.
The biggest advantage to a motorized stabilizer is that, with most units, once it’s set up and balanced, you can grab it and start shooting. It doesn’t take long to get used to operating a camera on a motorized stabilizer. The stabilizer will maintain smooth level shooting, you just have to frame the shots. Most models will allow you to set up the camera with a tilt up or down if you want to get high or low angle shots. The stabilizer will maintain that angle for you. The only drawback is that you sometimes can’t deviate from this during the shot, or else changing the angle will require a second operator controlling the camera.
Another advantage to a motorized stabilizer is that you don’t always have to be right next to it. You could use a cart or wagon as a dolly, mount the stabilizer to it, and get shots that you might have needed a dolly on tracks to get.
The biggest disadvantages that some motorized stabilizers have is weight and set up time. Some of the larger units can be very heavy once your camera is mounted, so spending a long day shooting hand-held might be challenging. Many of the more complex units are computer controlled and require you to alter settings on the unit when you want to change anything that alters the weight or balance of the payload like changing lenses or cameras; the process isn’t always quick and easy, but it is something the manufacturers are working on improving.
Here is a quick break down of some good stabilizers available; it is arranged first by camera size and then by manual or motor control. At the end of the list, is a motorized stabilizer with a built-in camera.
Manual Stabilizers for Smartphone, Action Camera, and Small Cameras (under 2 lbs.)
Compatibility: GoPro Hero, 2, 3, 3+, 4
Weight: 9 oz.
Retail Price: $60
Designed specifically for the GoPro, the Curve uses the same type of gimbal that is used in the larger Steadicams rigs. The unit has adjustable counterweights if you want to use a LCD BacPac with your GoPro.
Steadicam Smoothee with Universal Smartphone Mount
Compatibility: Smartphones, Action Cameras
Weight: 1.5 lbs.
Retail Price $150
The Smoothee is a bit larger and easier to operate than the Curve. It has an adjustable camera platform for balancing your smartphone or GoPro — with optional mount. The unit has a very similar feel in operation to Steadicam’s larger gimbals.
Compatibility: Cameras with a 4 -14 oz. payload
Weight: under 1 lb.
Retail Price: $160
The iGlide is a mini version of Glidecam’s larger stabilizers. The unit has an adjustable camera platform, telescoping center post, removable counterweights and comes in four different colors.
Compatibility: Smartphones or Cameras under 2 lbs.
Weight: 6 lbs.
Retail Price: $180
One of the most unique stabilizer kits around, the Action Jib combines a small camera gimbal with a 3.5 foot long jib arm that has a hand grip and forearm attachment. It gives you the ability to grab cinema style camera moves with a small camera. The Glide Gear Action Jib System comes with smartphone, GoPro and camera mounts as well as a travel bag.
Compatibility: Cameras 8 oz. – 3 lbs. (5 lbs. with counterweights)
Weight: under 2 lbs.
Retail Price: $350
The Stealthy Pro is the latest version of VariZoom’s Stealthy with upgraded bearings. The versatile unit can be used as a stabilizer, or you can fold the bottom tube down and rest it against your chest while shooting. There’s even an optional monopod to mount the unit onto.
Motorized Stabilizers for Smartphone, Action Camera, and Small Cameras (under 2 lbs.)
Compatibility: GoPro Hero3, 3+, 4 or smartphone
Weight: 9.3 oz.
Retail Price: $360
The G4 is a computer controlled, 3-axis gimbal designed for GoPro. The small hand-held unit has a mode that stabilizes pan, tilt and roll as well as a mode where only roll is restricted. The unit is built to accommodate the GoPro LCD BacPac. The G4 comes in a smartphone model as well.
Compatibility: Smartphones up to 0.4lbs, and GoPro Hero3, 4
Weight: 1 lb.
Retail Price: $380
The Fly-X3-Plus is designed to accommodate a GoPro or smartphone up to 3.6” in width. The computer controlled 3-axis stabilizer comes with two smartphone mounts, a GoPro mount and a carrying case.
Manual Stabilizers for Cameras Over 2 lbs.
Glide Gear DNA 5050
Compatibility: Cameras 2 – 7 lbs.
Weight: 3.2 lbs.
Retail Price: $350
The DNA 5050 is a gimbaled stabilizer that is compatible with the DNA 600 arm and vest system. The unit has an adjustable center post and a base mount for a LCD monitor.
Compatibility: Cameras 2.2 – 9.9 lbs.
Weight: 3.5 lbs.
Retail Price: $370 for the stabilizer; $785 for the optional arm and vest kit
The Steadicam Solo is a full size Steadicam stabilizer with an optional vest and arm that make it a Hollywood style rig. The unit is lightweight and versatile; it even has a built in monopod and camera quick release plate. With the vest and arm, this is the most affordable full size Steadicam solution. It’s important to note that Steadicam has additional, more expensive models that include features such as more support, larger payloads, battery mounts, and an LCD screen.
Motorized Stabilizers for Cameras over 2 lbs.
Compatibility: Cameras to 8 lbs. max
Weight: 5 lbs.
Retail Price: $1,400
The Ronin-M is a 3-axis, 3 handled stabilizer capable of handling up to a small cinema camera rig. The unit comes with a RC style remote gimbal control and accessories including wireless follow focus control, wireless thumb remote, and a cable to run power from the Ronin-M to a RED cinema camera.
FreeFly Movi M5
Compatibility: Cameras up to 5 lbs.
Weight: 4.75 lbs.
Retail Price: $2,995
The Movi M5 stabilizer system has features that can be tuned via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth from an iOS, Android, Mac, or PC. The unit has flexibility with an optional remote, RC camera car, and drone.
Motorized Stabilizer with On-board Camera
Included 4K camera
Weight: 0.48 lbs.
Retail Price: $650
The Osmo is the same Zenmuse X3 gimbal and X3 camera that’s used on the DJI Inspire 1 drone with a battery handgrip that has controls and smartphone mount. If you already own an Inspire 1, the handle kit is $269. The unit is packed with features including a camera that does 4K and HD video, JPEG and raw stills, and automated time lapse; it also has panorama controls as well as a 3-axis gimbal.
Final Thoughts Before You Buy
Thinking about the types of shots you’re wanting to achieve, you may find that you’ll want to purchase both manual and motorized stabilizers. Additionally, the best stabilizer for your DSLR may not work great for your action camera and vice versa. It’s important to remember that smooth hand-held shots are often what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Buying good, quality gear is an investment into your career.
BC Media Inc.
Camera Motion Research
W. H. Bourne is an author, screenwriter, and award-winning documentary filmmaker.