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What Is a Gimbal? A Guide to Gimbals in Videography

What is a gimbal, and why you should get one?

It’s a common question, especially as videography becomes more accessible and the term “gimbal” gets thrown around left, right, and center.

And in this article, we’re going to look at all things gimbal: what it is, how it works, different types of gimbals, and how to set up and use it.

Let’s get started.

What Is a Gimbal?

Gimbals are a useful tool for videographers; they make sure the camera motion is stabilized regardless of its movement.

Gimbal is a blanket term that covers everything from iPhone supports right through to $40K+ professional gimbals.

In its simplest form, a gimbal is a pivoted support that lets an object rotate on a single axis, but for videography, the most common types of gimbals have two or three axes. Two-axis gimbals deal with pitch and yaw, and three-axis gimbals deal with pitch, yaw, and roll.

Pitch handles the up and down movement of a subject, also known as tilt. This axis is useful when subjects are moving upstairs and downstairs or when filming falling objects.

Yaw is also known as pan, and covers left to right movement. With this axis, you can capture someone walking through the frame or vehicles passing by (basically, any horizontal movement a subject makes).

Roll, often known as Dutch cant, lets you film subjects at an angle, or off-center.

How Does a Gimbal Work?

Without a gimbal, it’s difficult to shoot moving subjects smoothly – which is why, if you’re after stability and range of motion when recording video, it’s an essential piece of kit.

You don’t need to be an expert to use a gimbal; modern gimbals use motion detection to identify both intentional movement and camera shake. You know how your smartphone can tell when you’ve rotated it, and it changes the orientation of the screen accordingly? Well, a gimbal has the same kind of sensing capabilities (and much more).

A gimbal contains moving pivots along with a camera mount, plus it has quiet brushless motors. These motors make tiny adjustments to the arms, keeping the camera nice and steady as you film.

Now, an unstabilized camera will suffer from unwanted movement in all three of the axes we mentioned earlier. But a gimbal senses those movements and counters by adjusting your camera in the opposite direction.

Motorized gimbals contain something called inertial measurement units (IMUs), which are motion sensors and rotation sensors. These IMUs send data about the movement to a computer, which makes lightning-fast calculations to decide how much counter-movement your gimbal needs to make.

So how can the gimbal tell when it’s dealing with deliberate movement versus camera shake? Well, it comes down to advanced algorithms, and the results are silky-smooth video, regardless of the unwanted movements the camera operator makes.

Key Gimbal Features

As mentioned earlier, there are generally two-axis or three-axis gimbals. Three-axis gimbals allow you that extra axis of movement, but they are more expensive than two-axis ones.

There are also other useful gimbal features, such as remote controls so you can operate the camera from a distance. You can also get gimbals with time-lapse video modes, which will slowly pan your camera while you film. Some gimbals offer auto-tracking features that keep a moving subject in the frame.

There are other factors to keep in mind before choosing a gimbal, though.

Weight can be a big deal if you are looking for a handheld gimbal, as a heavy setup can really take a toll on your arms during a shoot!

The weight of your camera and lens is also a crucial point when choosing a gimbal. If you are using a DSLR camera and lens, this combined weight can be pretty significant. Make sure you choose a gimbal with motors strong enough to handle your kit.

Balancing features are very useful if you want to remove and reattach your camera frequently. Pick a gimbal with a quick-release platform or other balancing functions; that way, properly balancing your camera is a breeze.

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Do You Need a Gimbal?

It depends on what kind of shooting you do, but if you want to put your travel videos online or shoot something with a lot of movement for a client, a gimbal is a must-have. Without one, you’ll end up with shaky, unprofessional footage. 

However, if you shoot mostly static things, such as video tutorials for making/doing something (like cooking), video interviews, or unboxing products, then you may well be better off using a video tripod instead.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on a gimbal with lots of bells and whistles if a basic yet good gimbal will do the job. It helps to decide whether the type of filming you do requires a two- or three-axis gimbal. Not everyone requires the extra axis, and a two-axis gimbal is less expensive.

Working with a Gimbal: The Basics

While gimbals help you get smooth footage, they do have their limitations. They also require you to practice before you can really see their benefits.

Here we’re going to look at how to set up and start shooting with your gimbal, as well as some tips on how to get the best out of it.

How to Mount Your Camera on a Gimbal

Starting with the basics:

Two- and three-axis gimbals have their own systems for mounting and balancing your camera, but they follow similar principles. Put the gimbal together, lock the axis, and set it upright on a table using the foot attachment.

Mount the camera on a mounting plate. Use as many plates as needed to get the camera on and the lens clear of the plate. Keep the camera’s center of gravity as close as you can to the center of the mounting plate.

When done, it’s time to insert the plate and camera into your gimbal. Your item may be the type that you have to slide the plate in by going backward from the front, or you may have to place it using a drop-in method. Whichever method your gimbal uses, make sure your camera is securely mounted and locked in place on the gimbal.

How to Balance the Camera

Balancing the camera is a simple yet essential step in getting your gimbal set up. There will be a lock/unlock trigger on the tilt axis. Hold your camera so it doesn’t fall, and slide the trigger to unlock.

Slowly release the camera weight; you will feel that it wants to tip forwards or backward. If it’s falling forward, loosen the tilt access and move the camera back a bit and relock it. Test the balance again, and see if it still wants to fall forward. 

If it tries to fall backward, adjust the camera in the opposite direction until it’s nicely balanced and level. 

Next, unlock the tilt axis and follow the same process, but balance the camera from side to side. Then pick up the gimbal while it’s still turned off, and aim it forward as if you were using a flashlight. Unlock the pan axis and balance your camera again so it doesn’t tip in any direction but stays solidly in place. This step can be challenging, as you need to hold the weight of the camera to test it. However, you can just balance the first two axes precisely and aim for a decent enough balance on the pan axis.

Next, put the gimbal on a table and hold the handle. Turn it on. It will likely test the motors and let you know if the balance is okay. If it’s not, you’ll have to repeat the balancing steps.

When you first start out, it can take a good 15 minutes or more to balance your camera and lens. Over time, you’ll be able to do it faster and confidently.

Getting Smooth Gimbal Shots

While a gimbal is capable of giving beautifully smooth footage, it doesn’t stop the up/down movement you get from walking with a camera. To get the best out of walking shots, bend your legs and get your center of gravity down low. This minimizes any vertical motion.

Don’t be tempted to shoot for long periods of time, as operating a camera and gimbal can be surprisingly tiring. If your lens has internal stabilization, then use that, too, for even smoother footage.

It pays to plan your shots in advance, so you can work with your equipment while you’re still feeling energetic! This also has the advantage of keeping your camera mounted between shots.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve answered your questions on what a gimbal is, how it works, and when you should use one. There are gimbals out there to suit every type of camera and budget, so if you’re looking for the best gimbals, there’s sure to be something for you!

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