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What is a Gimbal? Portable Camera Stabilizers for the Masses are Here!

While Web 2.0 made it possible for anyone to become a content creator, technological improvements in cameras, especially smartphone cameras, took content creation to a whole new level. Today, photography and videography are not relegated to ‘professionals’ – anyone with a decent cell phone can start creating stunning video content for social platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and so on.

A gimbal (not ‘gimble’ or ‘gimbel’) takes this video content creation to the next level, allowing masses (you and I) to create cinematic footage rivaling big studios! Videos made with cell phones today (iPhones in particular) are great, but not very smooth during ‘technical shots’ due to lack of camera stabilization, which movie studios achieve using bulky equipment like the camera dolly shown below.

Camera Dolly
By Martin Kraft, CC BY-SA 3.0

Gimbals essentially stabilize cameras, allowing smooth horizontal and vertical movements as you shoot dynamic, moving footage. Check out the video below for examples of shots made using gimbals!

How Do Gimbals Work?

A short gimbal definition is ‘a portable camera stabilizer’, but how do gimbals work?

Unlike older camera stabilizing equipment, which was operated manually, gimbals take most of the skill requirements out of the picture (pun intended) using built-in computers and sensors (such as accelerometers and gyroscopes) and compensate for sudden, jerky movements using multiple motors and pivots.

Gimbal Dance
The 5-axis gimbal dance. Notice how the camera remains stable!

Gimbals can support movements in 2, 3, 4, 5, even 6 axes (most budget gimbals only support 2 axes), but for most purposes, we consider 3 axes, called Yaw, Roll, and Pitch, or Pan, Roll, and Tilt, as shown in the diagram below.

Gimbal 3 Axes
Yaw, roll and pitch movements supported by a 3-axis gimbal.

The built-in computer and sensors in a gimble constantly monitor movements across the supported axes and counter any sudden, unintended camera motions as you make videos, resulting in smooth, stable footage.

Difference between 2-axis and 3-axis gimbals

As mentioned above, gimbals can support movements across multiple axes, but the primary ones we will consider are, yaw, roll, and pitch, but some budget gimbals only support 2 axes – roll, and pitch.

You don’t necessarily need a 6, 5, 4 or 3-axis gimbal to make great videos, in fact, the yaw axis, used for panning horizontally, can easily be handled manually, while the roll and pitch movements require support.

If your budget and needs justify a 3-axis or higher gimbal, go for it, but if not, even a 2-axis gimbal should be fine for most videos and cinematic footage. Moreover, a 2-axis gimbal is typically lighter, much easier to carry around, and can have better battery life compared to a 3-axis or higher one.

How to choose the right gimbal for your needs?

Luckily, gimbals now come in all sizes, specs, and price points. You have some amazing high-end gimbals for heavy cameras (such as bulky DSLRs), and then you have lighter ones, like gimbals for iPhones (or Android phones), gimbals for GoPro cameras, and in some cases, mirrorless cameras (which are lighter than DSLRs).

So naturally, your choice of a gimbal depends firstly on the device you intend to use it with. If you’re going to be shooting mostly using a phone or an action camera, you can go with lighter (and cheaper) portable gimbals. On the other hand, if you’re looking to get a gimbal for your DSLR camera, you may need to spend more money and get something sturdy.

Be careful to check individual item specifications before buying a gimbal, since most have maximum weight/payload limits, and may also have varying support for native features depending on your camera make and model.

Note: All features besides the gimbal’s movement are dependent on your camera/smartphone.

How to use a gimbal for shooting videos?

Now that you understand the basics of what a gimbal is and how it works, let’s move towards using one.

Most gimbals are easy to set up right out of the box – you just need to balance your phone/camera on the gimbal before you can use it.

Balancing a gimbal is straight-forward. You start by attaching your camera to the gimbal and then finding its center of gravity across all axes so that it doesn’t fall to any side when held up horizontally or vertically. The video below shows how to balance a gimbal with a DSLR.

Once your camera is balanced on the gimbal, just turn it on, connect the devices via Bluetooth (or connect your Gimbal with your smartphone for remote operation), and start recording. As you move around holding the gimbal, you will notice smoother motion, reflecting in stable footage. In order to test things, you can record running shots as well as different perspectives, such as shooting while panning vertically and horizontally for that lovely cinematic effect.

What are some key features of gimbals?

Apart from the obvious stabilization (which is the main selling point), gimbals come with several built-in features to facilitate great video shoots. Some of the most exciting features in gimbals include:

  • Automated time-lapse shooting (including varying modes like roll-angle timelapse)
  • Focus wheels and zoom toggles
  • Object tracking
  • Video effects (like parallax, vertigo, slow-motion)

Depending on your gimbal’s make and model, you may have all or some of these features along with other custom add-ons. However, all these features also depend on your phone or mobile device supporting them. For example, if your phone does not support slow-motion video recording, your gimbal will not offer the option.

Are gimbals needed when phones and cameras have built-in stabilization?

Nearly all smartphones and dedicated cameras today have some sort of built-in stabilization. In the case of phones, it can be achieved with software, using processing power to compensate for shaky footage. In dedicated cameras, such as DSLRs, the lenses have physical stabilization capabilities (the glass lens moves for compensation), while some newer models have sensor stabilization (as opposed to lenses).

lens stabilization vs sensor stabilization
Lens-based stabilization vs sensor-based stabilization

All this means cameras today are already well-equipped for stable footage, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a gimbal anymore. A gimbal’s utility is in getting a lot of technical shots right, allowing you to move more flexibly, as opposed to holding a camera with both hands during shooting. Moreover, a gimbal brings all the key features together for one-handed operation, making video shooting convenient and fun.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, if you’re creating, or planning to create video content on the move, such as cinematic footage or travel blogs and so on, you will not regret investing in a gimbal. There is a bit of a learning curve in practicing various gimbal tricks for great footage or getting used to all the features available to you. However, once you become familiar with your gimbal, you will be shooting stellar videos and have fun doing it!

In future articles, I will include gimbal buying guides, tricks, and reviews, and if you have any questions, suggestions or tips for, please share them via the comments below or contact me directly.

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