After acquiring a slider, the next accessory I absolutely had to own was a brushless gimbal stabilizer. Dave Dugdale’s review convinced me to purchase the Nebula 4000, although he seemed to still be on the fence about purchasing one, preferring to wait and see what was in store at the next trade show. One thing he was certain of however, was that small units like this would revolutionize independent filmmaking. But following weeks of struggling to get mine balanced, I finally gave up, and it’s been gathering dust in my closet now for over a year. While there were several other pistol grip stabilizers on the market built specifically for cellphones or action cameras like the GoPro, the Nebula was the first capable of handling light weight DSLRs and mirrorless cameras like the Lumix GH4. Being the first on the market also meant, in this case, having design flaws, the most serious being having to loosen and tighten a dozen screws to get it balanced. Finding a replacement hasn’t been easy. Many other stabilizers, mostly emanating from China, have appeared since, but even though they offered tool-less design, 360 degree rotation and many other enhancements, some require complicated PID tuning or suffer from erratic stabilizer behavior. Some companies are still manufacturing gimbals with exposed wiring and circuit boards that are exposed to the elements when the handle is removed. Furthermore, some of the more popular models sell for upwards of $1,000. But perhaps the greatest drawback of all is poor customer service from many of these manufacturers.
Having watched several video reviews of the Zhiyun Crane (a few by filmmakers inexperienced with stabilizers, others by professionals looking for an alternative to cumbersome two-handed gimbals), I decided to purchase one. I bought mine from Coog Tech – they responded to my inquiries very quickly, and delivered the device almost immediately upon receipt of payment. The parcel arrived in Vietnam only a couple of days later. It is rock-solid, whisper-quiet, and baby simple to balance. By baby simple, I mean even an idiot should be able to get it up and running in a matter of minutes. I was able to balance both my Panasonic Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.8 zooms in under five minutes the first time around.
The Zhiyun also sports a handsome, all-metal design, with exceptional fit and finish. The black anodized aluminum parts are highly durable: I’ve knocked mine about now for the past several weeks, yet the surface is exceptionally scratch and fingerprint resistant. Although it is not weather-sealed (I don’t know of any electronic stabilizers that are), it is definitely pro quality. Because the handle is removable, the device can be easily stowed away in a very small backpack or camera bag. Apparently, the compartment in the handle will also accommodate higher capacity batteries, allowing up to seven hours of uninterrupted filmmaking. I only had to replace the original batteries once after several weeks of casual shooting.
Apart from enabling smooth tracking shots, an added benefit of using a gimbal is extremely crisp images: without a stabilizer, even minor camera shake destroys sharpness. I am overjoyed that I didn’t purchase the Ronin M, which would have been a hassle to lug around, or the Zenmuse X5R, which runs in the neighborhood of $4,000 or so, including lens and proprietary SSD. In fact, as good as the DJI Film School videos showing off the X5R are (I highly recommend watching all of them), there isn’t a single scene that couldn’t have been pulled off with the Zhiyun, with better results and far less time in post. That is because the X5R accepts a limited number of lenses, and the RAW files require hours of post-processing. Whereas the Zenmuse creates quite a bit of noise, the Zhiyun Crane’s motors are virtually silent. And perhaps most importantly, a pistol grip stabilizer can go places where a two-handed unit like the Ronin M would be prohibited. I was allowed to bring the Zhiyun with me into the Saigon Central Post Office, a historic site where security guards are normally vigilant not to allow anything but compact cameras.
It’s really incredible that in the three short years since the Freely Movi created such a stir at NAB, we’ve got tools as good as this that are within the reach of serious hobbyists and independent filmmakers. The Zhiyun Crane sells for only around $650 and can handle loads up to 1.2 Kg. Anyhow, I’m super excited about this and hopefully, I’ll be sharing some of the videos I make with the stabilizer in the following weeks.