Waiting for DJI to enter the single-handed gimbal game — with something that could support more than the Osmo or a mobile phone – often left us with a strange, sometimes hard-to-decipher set of gimbals to choose from. With Amazon, B&H, and Fakespot reviews that varied wildly from product to product, camera operators tried gimbals from companies like Moza, Ikan, Feiyu, and Zhiyun – frequently encountering weird apps and spotty customer support.
In the class of single-handed, higher-payload gimbals, the Zhiyun Crane currently holds the reins as one of the most widely used, dependable gimbals. So can DJI’s much-heralded new Ronin-S unseat the reigning single-handed gimbal? I toted the Ronin-S along on a multi-state shoot to find out.
The DJI Ronin-S side-by-side with the Zhiyun Crane 2
As an early adopter of the original Ronin, and having used the Osmo X5 as a go-to travel gimbal for the better part of a year, I’ve really been looking forward to DJI entering this space. For the last year, I’ve been using the Zhiyun Crane 2 – it does the job just fine – but I’ve always felt like it was a budget solution, or at least felt like one. Compared to the Zhiyun, the Ronin-S feels like a million bucks.
Setup and Control
I have a stupid ritual – I challenge myself to use a new product without reading the directions. Reading manuals sucks – what happens when I’m hanging off the edge of a cliff and need to refer to the manual? I pulled the Ronin-S out of the box and laid out the various pieces that accompanied it, trying to figure out what was what.
Setting up the DJI Ronin-S
The main body of the Ronin-S is similar to the Zhiyun Crane 2 in terms of overall layout, but the Ronin has a much larger grip — and that grip is coated in rubber, as opposed to the Crane’s bare aluminum. The Ronin is also a bit taller than the Crane — I would call the Ronin burlier, overall.
Things I quickly discovered:
- The overall quality and construction of the Ronin-S feels superior to the Zhiyun.
- The Ronin-S’ four-cell battery is integrated and not removable.
- The Ronin-S has two power toggles that both need to be on in order to operate the gimbal – one on the battery/handle and another on the base of the gimbal assembly.
- There are no threaded mounting points on the Ronin-S with standard sizes.
- DJI’s nifty focus wheel that comes with the Ronin-S doesn’t work with the Sony A7 line (I had to Google to figure this out).
- The current DJI solution for controlling an A7 is an IR emitter with a semi-rigid wire that you bend around to face the IR receiver on the front of the camera, which allows you only to start/stop recording. I left this in the box.
- The foam case the Ronin comes in is almost twice the size of the Zhiyun case, and is made out of molded foam (similar to the cases the Phantom quads come in), as opposed to the Zhiyun’s rigid shell case.
- The battery is charged via a USB-C cable and you can’t charge the battery grip on its own – it has to be connected to the upper gimbal assembly, because that’s where the USB-C port is. This means having multiple batteries on standby is out, unless you charge them before you go out and don’t expect to re-charge in the field while the gimbal is in use.
Mounting a NATO rail on the DJI Ronin-S
With the focus wheel useless to me and my Sony A7SII, I removed it and went looking for a way to re-purpose the mounting point for a NATO rail – which I was able to do, after purchasing some washers from Home Depot and re-using the screws that originally held the focus wheel in place. That done, I went about building the camera up.
Assembling the DJI Ronin-S
The balancing process is the same for most gimbals — there are four points of adjustment to make. I generally use my Sony 10-18mm APS-C lens with the A7RII in APS-C mode when “flying” on a gimbal, so I dispensed with the A7SII and mounted the RII. Once I had the balance roughed in, I used the Ronin’s iOS app to auto-tune the rest. I then mounted my Atomos Shogun, fought with the HDMI cable, and turned everything on.
DJI Ronin-S iOS App Motor-Control Settings
Navigating the Modes
Where the Zhiyun Crane has two modes that can be accessed easily, the Ronin-S has three. The different modes represent different use cases, and can be customized to your liking. In each mode, the thumb stick on the back of the Ronin-S operates different parameters – for example, in my case, in Mode 2, the stick controls pan and tilt, but in Mode 3 it controls tilt and roll. I found it very convenient to switch over to Mode 3 to quickly correct an uneven horizon, which cropped up a few times. For users who have used other Ronins, you’ll get adjustable parameters in the app that you’re familiar with: SmoothTrack, Deadband, Smoothing, Endpoints, and “Aggressiveness.”
The DJI Ronin-S in the wild
One of the unique selling points of the Ronin-S is that the rear gimbal motor (the one at the back of the gimbal) is mounted at a 45-degree angle below the camera. The design allows you to see your camera’s LCD while filming, and allows the gimbal to do a 360-degree roll — which is cool, though in my attempts to do it, it seemed like my camera wasn’t balanced properly, because I couldn’t get the gimbal to rotate all the way around. I blame the HDMI cable.
The Ronin-S has the motor mounted 45-degrees lower than other gimbals
In the Field
I found it very easy to transition between shooting positions with the Ronin-S – from handheld, to briefcase (or flashlight?), to operating it from the ground, when it’s parked on the mini-tripod that you can attach to the bottom. The Ronin-S effortlessly rolls through the different configurations with ease. I haven’t gotten to vehicle mount the Ronin-S yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
In the past, even with my super-refined “ninja walk,” I’ve found my Zhiyun footage to be a little bouncy, and sometimes a bit twitchy. I don’t know if it’s me or the gimbal, but the footage I’ve produced with the Ronin-S seems to be a bit smoother than what I’ve been able to pull out of the Zhiyun. I hesitate to make any sort of quantified comparison here, but in all of the footage I’ve reviewed between the two, I’m liking the footage from the Ronin-S better. As an aside, I also did a handful of OTF (“on the fly”) interviews from the Ronin-S, and these all came out stable, without that distracting motion you can sometimes get when a gimbal is close up to something stationary.
There have been several instances with the Zhiyun where I’ve reviewed the footage and found myself wishing I was capable of shooting 4K 60p, just so I could get more apparent smoothness — but not so with the Ronin-S. While it still requires a great deal of effort on the operator’s behalf to get smooth footage, the Ronin-S makes getting there easier by having easy-to-reach controls, a comprehensive app, and long, long battery life. Why does battery life matter? Because I’m not constantly turning the gimbal off to try and conserve battery. When you’re not worried about your gear, you can focus on the creative — or just try that one move over, and over, and over.
Pairing the Ronin-S with an A7RII, Atomos Shogun, and Sennheiser EW100 G3
One of the best features on the Ronin-S that I’ve found is that you can taper pan and tilt speed while using the thumbstick – i.e., more input equals more speed, and less input equals less speed. I’ve spent many hours fighting the Zhiyun Crane, attempting to get smooth rolloff in pans and tilts. The Ronin-S handles these like a champ, and the parameters are highly customizable in the app, so you can achieve exactly the feel you’re looking for.
I was able to get several establishing shots that included starting and stopping pans and tilts where I was able to achieve smooth roll-off of the movement. This is reason enough alone to switch to the Ronin-S. Having easy access to Modes 1, 2, and 3 also means you can quickly switch between operating speeds as well, so you can easily go from whip-pans to slow-pans at the touch of a button, and from walking to driving without much fuss.
What’s Coming Next
DJI recently announced a bevy of Ronin-S accessories that address many of the issues I ran into. Later this year, they’ll begin shipping a cheese plate (mounting!), a cable to control Sony cameras (control!), a GPS module to improve horizon performance (yaw!), a follow-focus motor, a “Command Unit” that allows you to dispense with having to manipulate parameters in the app, and an adapter that allows the battery/handle to be charged independently of the gimbal assembly. In time, I’m sure there will be third-party manufacturers who will release their own compact cases as well, for those of us unwilling to just throw the whole thing in a backpack, unprotected.
It would also be amazing to be able to route the HDMI signal through the gimbal, so as to do away with the havoc-wreaking cable jutting out of the side of the camera, which promises to ruin at least a few shots. Short of that, it looks like DJI have addressed most of the major issues related to using and customizing the Ronin-S (especially when it comes to Sony A7 cameras).
I’m excited to see how the filmmaking community takes on the Ronin-S. The Ronin represents a marked step-up from other existing gimbals on the market, and I’m looking forward to putting my own Ronin-S through the paces. With the DJI accessories forthcoming, and the creativity of third-party manufacturers out there, it looks like the Ronin-S could be on its way to reigning supreme.