Gimbals are amazing. They’re exciting to use, relatively easy to figure out, and they expand your filmmaking style and the types of shots you can acquire to a countless degree. You can add tons of production value at relatively little cost to your gear kit, all by just adding a gimbal. Immediately, your shots will reveal more life, more exploration, and more creativity.
There are definitely many nuances and subtleties that need to be taken into account before and as you’re shooting with a gimbal, though, along with the overall concepts you’ll need to get the best footage possible. And even though it’s a fun tool, it’s certainly not a toy, and doesn’t work for every application — so read on to become a gimbal ninja (gimja? ninbal?). Actually, there’s already a Gimbal Ninja.
*Note: these are mostly for larger handheld gimbals (Mövi, Ronin, etc), but many principles work for smaller gimbals as well — just not smaller drone gimbals.
Balance It Out
The most important first step to shooting with a gimbal is to get it balanced correctly. Smaller gimbals, like the DJI Osmo or the GoPro Karma Grip don’t require you to balance them beforehand, but for larger gimbals like the Mövi or the Ronin, you’ll need to get them dialed in perfectly for optimal results. Typically, this is the order of how you should balance your gimbal:
1. Front/Back Camera Balance (rough)
2. Tilt Axis Balance
3. Roll Axis Balance
4. Front/Back Camera Balance (fine)
5. Pan Axis Balance
Tweak each clamp or bracket mechanism and check the balance. Make any adjustments so that everything is perfectly level and doesn’t move after you put the camera in the position you want.
There are a few ways to carry most gimbals. While holding handles at chest height, the camera can either be upright and below the handles, or inverted and above the handles. You can also grab the center handle and go lower to the ground, and in the case of the Ronin, you can grab one of the side handles and turn it upright into “briefcase mode.”
Most of the time, your shots will be in the standard setup. It offers a ton of versatility and can accomplish almost every shot this way. When you flip it over and invert the camera (thus inverting your image), you can raise it higher above your head, so it’s good for overhead shots or higher perspectives, and can actually give the camera operator a bit of a break from the strain of standard usage. You just need to invert the footage in post.
You’ll want to use the center handle for anything where you want the gimbal to be on just one side of your body, and usually near the ground, or at least below your waist, such as following someone’s feet or rising up from the ground. “Briefcase mode” (handles pointing up and down) is also for low-angle shots, but has the added benefit of being more narrow, since the handle is now up and down. New handles and rings and all sorts of ways to carry these gimbals are also being built constantly (see Mövi Pro).
Controlling the Camera with the Gimbal
This is the most fundamental part of using the gimbal. You need to be aware of how you want it to act with your movements. Normally, when you pan or tilt, the gimbal pans or tilts the camera. Some gimbals have connecting thumb controls, giving you the ability to control the camera independently of where you’re facing, and most gimbals will actually let you adjust and refine the smoothness within the controls or an app, but more on that later.
It takes a decent amount of time working with gimbals to understand how much you prefer to have to “force” the camera into moving, and how easy it is for you to move it around comfortably, so I recommend practicing not just in general, but specifically on shots that you’re envisioning for your project.
Camera Movement Options
Since you now have all the creative benefits of your new tool, you can really experiment with all kinds of different shots and movements. Here are some of the various shots you can get:
Dolly/Tracking Shot: Instead of the traditional way that usually calls for rails or a metal track and a wheeled cart (a “dolly”), you simply walk, run, bike, or ride in an office chair for your motion while holding your camera.
Crane/Jib Shot: Usually, you would have to construct the jib, then move the thing around. It can be quite cumbersome, especially if you don’t have a lot of room. The beauty of the gimbal is that you can get these rising/lowering shots much more easily by either just bending over or squatting. You’re limited to your body’s reach, however. Here’s a clip using the Ronin in a jib/crane style:
Pass-Through Shot: This is when the camera moves through a very tight space, like a window or a hole, and keeps recording, all in one move. The gimbal eliminates many of the roadblocks that would come with traditional Steadycams or shoulder rigs and allows you to fit into spaces that are smaller. (Although, if you’re the aforementioned Gimbal Ninja, you can pretty much do anything.)
Lockdown Takeoff Tradeoff Shot: I don’t know exactly what the official name of this shot is (or if it’s actually an official shot), so I made up that name. Since gimbals are so versatile, relatively compact, and (relatively) lightweight, they can be transferred between people, between stands, or even between moving objects. You are able to do a move to follow the action, rest the camera on a stand while the action pauses, then start the next move as the action picks back up, all without having to stop recording. Similarly, you could hand off the camera rig to another operator mid-shot and keep things fresh.
Using a Rig
You can take away most of the strain on your body by using a rig. Most of them run between $2,000 and $8,000, depending on the options, so they’re not cheap, but they are well worth it. After using a rig just one time myself, I realized I should never shoot without it. In addition to saving your body, you can shoot longer, and depending on the rig, you can do more moves with a greater range of motion because of the lack of body strain.
The main thing to take away about using a gimbal rig is that you need to have it sized and adjusted as best as possible so that it performs ideally. Once you learn your limitations, your balance, and your range of motion, you’ll start getting the best shots.
Avoiding the “Swimming” Motion
One of the things to be on the lookout for while you’re operating the gimbal is a vertical “bobbing” or “swimming” motion that occurs in footage when the camera operator is walking. This is most common when walking at a normal pace, but not as much when moving very quickly or very slowly. This happens because the gimbal doesn’t control vertical movement of the camera, so when your arms move up and down too much, it’s visible.
The low-cost/higher-strain solution to this problem is to bend your knees, walk with very even, deliberate footsteps (“rolling” from heel to toe), and hold the camera out further away from your body. You may not be able to eliminate it, but you can definitely tone it way down.
The high-cost/low-strain solution is to buy a rig, and then possibly even buy an arm or adapter that adjusts for these movements and eliminates them completely. The Easyrig’s Serene Arm is the arm of choice for many operators, but it’s an additional $3,000 on top of the cost of the rig. (Shooting in high speed/slow motion also reduces the visible shakiness, so keep that in mind, as well.)
Working with Apps and Accessories
A lot of the different gimbals’ accompanying apps can help out in many ways, too. You can calibrate the gimbal, set how sensitive the gimbal is to your movements and how much padding you want when you stop moving, and you can turn on or off the movement feature altogether.
There are also tons of accessories, and since there are ports located on most gimbals, you can plug them in directly. Things like basic thumb controls for movement, control boxes that change all your camera settings, follow-focus rings, and wireless monitor transmitters are all common accessories to add to make your shots easier to obtain and duplicate/replicate. (Also, more money, of course).
And don’t forget about the simple things, like tools and wrenches you may need to set up the gimbal (usually included), or extra batteries, or even a C-stand to use for holding the gimbal between shots.
Adding an Extra Person
Another way to make it easier for yourself is to have someone else controlling the camera while you just focus on the movements of the gimbal through space. This “dual operator” mode is quite common for most gimbals and a wireless remote or controller is simply an add-on, or may even come with the gimbal itself. You can actually use the remote yourself if you have the gimbal on a stand to perform nice pans and tilts, eliminating the need to bring along a tripod.
This brings me to my final few points: Some people, when talking about gimbals, may say or write something like, “Even though it’s versatile, it can’t replace your dolly track, slider, tripod, etc,” but I think that’s not exactly 100% true. You can make dolly-esque moves with the gimbal and something as simple as a skateboard or office chair, instead of bringing along a bunch of metal tracks to your shoot. You can do subtle front-to-back or side-to-side moves like a camera slider track would do, and, as I said in the previous paragraph, you can put the gimbal on a stand and do pans, tilts, and rotations with a remote. This has the potential to save you not only money, but also the time and energy it takes to carry all that extra stuff around.
Of course, you don’t really want to use a gimbal when going handheld for something like a timelapse (although I’m sure someone has done it successfully), and you couldn’t possibly use it handheld in something like OK Go’s latest video — nor would you want to use a gimbal on a stand for an action scene — but for the most part, pretty much every type of shot is possible. You just have to be good and work at it, and that’s where practice makes perfect.
Explore all the clips in this post and more in our Great Gimbal Shots collection »