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Find Out Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot

Todd Blankenship

Gimbals are one of the best pieces of filmmaking gear to be developed in the last 20 years, but you might be overusing them.

Top Image Via Shutterstock.

Whenever exciting new gear or technology becomes available, it takes the film world by storm. Just think, before 2013 nobody had ever released a powered gimbal meant for stabilizing footage (the first being the Movi M10 announced at NAB 2013). And cinema-quality drone footage was not readily available to consumers and professionals alike until just around 2014 with the Inspire 1 release. Now these tools are so popular that they often get overused. For a few years, drone footage and gimbal footage appeared in everything.

Unlike drone footage, gimbal footage is not something that jumps out at viewers. Gimbals are a different type of support system like a dolly, Steadicam, or tripod that create a natural, dreamy, smooth motion. Even so, there are instances where gimbals are unnecessary.

When the first DJI Ronin came out, I saved up as fast as I could and bought a used one on eBay – and I fell in love with it. Everything I shot was immediately transformed, so I started to use it on almost everything. However, it came to a point in my work when I realized I was overusing the gimbal. Not only was I using it at times when it didn’t make sense, but it was also slowing me down at times when I needed to be more nimble and adaptable. As great a tool as it is, the gimbal has some limitations.

These are, in my opinion, the times you need to stop using your gimbal.

When Consistently Sharp Focus Is Critical

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — Sharp FocusImage via DJI.

If you use a camera with great autofocus, like the Sony a6500 (or if you are lucky enough to own a wireless follow focus system) this might not apply to you, but focusing on a gimbal is a huge hassle. In some cases it can be troublesome enough to ruin your shoot.

Your subject should be in focus only when you want them to be in focus. This isn’t always possible when using a gimbal.

Unless you have some extra piece of gear or a camera with acceptable autofocus, your only option is to set your focus at a certain spot and then maintain that specific distance from your subject. This can become extremely annoying if you’re shooting with a shallow depth of field, or if you’re tracking with a subject and having trouble gauging their speed. These things are all part of operating with a gimbal, and you have to master the technique of balancing them quickly if you want to use one.

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — BalanceImage: What it looks like when you have to pull your own focus on a gimbal.

Changing focus is also especially frustrating when you’re using a gimbal because you need to either have someone else focus the camera for you, or you have to drop the (usually heavy) gimbal down from your specific framing, kind of guess at your focus, and then re-frame your shot. Changing focus can also throw off the balance of your gimbal depending on what lens you’re using (though this happens less with a gimbal than a Steadicam because of the powered motors), which can mess up the movement of your shot or overload the motors altogether.

Times when this is less of an issue:

  • When shooting in slow-motion and going for a dreamy look (where you can move in and out of focus momentarily).
  • When shooting a wide-shot tracking a slowly moving subject.
  • When your shot can start out of focus and push into focus with a camera move.
  • If your camera has good autofocus.
  • If you have a wireless follow focus system (and a camera assistant).

When You’re One-Man-Banding

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — One-Man BandImage: Me in a one-man-band gimbal situation. Frustration and all.

This is probably an area of filmmaking where I am most guilty of overusing gimbals. I’ve done one-man-band documentary style shooting throughout my career, and for way too long I would shoehorn a giant and heavy gimbal setup into this process. At times, it was almost comical.

For example, if you’re using a first-gen DJI ronin with pretty much any camera, the weight of the rig can multiply quickly. This can lead to shaky-armed shots that you completely ruin because you’re either too tired to nail the movement or timing perfectly, or because you’re too tired to even hold the camera up anymore. You can easily combat this by having some nearby help. Once you get the shot, you can hand the rig off to someone else immediately so you can rest your arms.

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — Ursa MiniImage: Ursa Mini 4.6k with DJI Ronin and Atlas Support Rig

Pro Tip: If you have a heavy gimbal rig, purchase some sort of support gear like an atlas support system, an easyrig, or an easyrig knockoff. Your arms and back will thank you forever, and your shots will look much better.

Another downside of one-man-band gimbal use is the setup time. Gimbals are generally pretty quick to set up, and with each new model they’re getting lighter and easier to rig. Even still, if you’re using a more complicated rig with monitors or separate battery mounts (recommended if you’re going to fly an Ursa Mini or other similarly sized camera), it will take a while to build and balance it. That time could be better spent discussing the blocking or approach with your subject, or the lighting, framing, directing – any number of things.

Bring in some help, make sure they know how to set up the rig, and have them take care of it.

Times when this is less of an issue:

  • If you have a super light and easy-setup gimbal, like a Zhiyun Crane with a mirrorless DSLR
  • If you’re shooting more controlled subjects with lots of time
  • When there is a specific shot list and there aren’t as many gimbal shots
  • You won’t be switching from gimbal to other support systems often
  • If you set up your gimbal before the shoot

When Being Discreet Is Key

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — DiscretionImage via DJI.

This is a big one, especially in the documentary filmmaking space. A major benefit of the smaller form factors of cameras is the fact that you can get into pretty much any space with them to do a bit of guerrilla-style filmmaking. A lot of the time you’ll be shooting in public spaces and the thought of acquiring permits or permission hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind. That’s okay – that’s just low-budget documentary filmmaking.

However, rolling into a public space with a fully built-out gimbal rig is probably a bad idea. Most non-filmmakers don’t know what gimbals are, so they will garner a whole lot of attention. If you’re trying to shoot somewhere you don’t have specific permission, or a place where the subject matter is sensitive or exposed (perhaps a more emotional subject), your shoot could be blown almost immediately. Security might shut you down, passersby could ruin your shot by looking straight down the barrel of the lens with a bewildered expression, or subjects might find it hard to to be authentic and unaffected by the presence of a camera.

Sometimes, being discreet is just as much a functional need as it is a story-driven one.

Times when this is less of an issue:

  • If you have absolute permission to shoot at your location.
  • If your subject is familiar with cameras and camera gear.
  • If your gimbal rig is smaller and less noticeable.

When It Doesn’t Support The Story

Why You Should Stop Using A Gimbal On Every Shoot — HandheldImage via Shutterstock.

One of my favorite ways to shoot before I had a gimbal was handheld. Shooting handheld, I was always able to sink into the emotion of the scene, and always found it to be a much more visceral way to shoot. At some point I noticed that almost everything I had shot for a year was either on a gimbal or a tripod. My work had lost much of the visceral feel that once made me proud. The smooth motion of a gimbal isn’t always right for your shot or your story. Shooting on a gimbal can still leave you feeling somewhat engaged as an operator, but on-screen these shots can feel more removed.

It’s also important to remember all of the other methods for moving a camera. There are Steadicams, dollies, handheld, tripods, monopods, etc. All of these will lend a different feel or motion to your shot, and they all have their own emotional tone to impart on your scene.

Think about how you want your scene to feel, then decide how functional a piece of support gear will be for the shoot and for your story. It might slow you down, and leave you unable to make quick decisions or alter your game plan. Don’t force a certain piece of gear into your shoot. Just because it makes pretty shots, they might not be the right kind of pretty shots.

When you’re building out your game plan for a shoot, always consider whether a gimbal is the right choice and whether you’re using it too much.

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