Gimbals are an essential tool for many everyday filmmakers, let's take a look at what they are, how to choose one, and how to use them!
How to Use a Gimbal with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
What is a Gimbal and What is it Used For?
A gimbal, in photo-video terms, is a camera mount that increases stability and aids creative cinematography, giving you more options and flexibility than using a tripod or filming handheld would. It does this by balancing the camera on axes and rotating it around its centre of gravity.
Motorised gimbals have become increasingly popular in the last five years as stabilisation technology has developed, particularly through that of drone technology. Before then, stabilisation mostly worked like Steadicam, using a multi-axis gimbal and a sled with the camera mounted at one end and a counterbalancing weight at the other.
Now, gimbals are comparatively low budget and accessible, not to mention a lot smaller and lighter! It’s great news for filmmakers because they’re a really effective and useful way to get great, steady shots.
What Shots Can I Get With a Gimbal?
A gimbal will steady any shot, but filmmakers use them creatively to overcome challenges that would usually require a lot more effort and money to get. Here are some suggestions for gimbal use:
- Walkaround or freestyle shots
- Pull out/push in and vice versa
- Tilt up/down
- Movement – if you’re in a vehicle for example
- Reveal – from behind a barrier
- Getting up high or into tight spaces
- Hand off – you pass the camera seamlessly to another operator who continues the shot
These types of shots are really useful for things like action and sports, or replacing a crane or slider for tracking movement smoothly.
How to Choose a Gimbal
There are a lot of great gimbals on the market, so like with most tech purchases it’s a fine balance – every pun intended – between what you need, price and then the weight/size requirements.
If you have a camera and lens that you want to attach to a gimbal and you’re purchasing for that, make sure to check that your existing kit fits within the accepted range of the gimbal.
It’s always worth checking reviews from trusted sites, too. Be wary of anything too cheap that has few reviews, and likewise, more expensive doesn’t always mean better. If you’re a filmmaker, there’ll be a ton of people who’ve been looking for a similar thing, so if you can’t find enough reviews to ease your mind, turn to the forums and social media and canvas some trusted opinions.
There are accessories that you can combine with a gimbal that will make it easier to use, and this is worth thinking about at the same time as you buy your gimbal. The gimbal on its own is essentially a pole which can be fiddly to hold and manoeuvre, so consider adding a handle or some grips to increase functionality. Be aware that the gimbal plus camera will be very heavy, and anything extra you put on will only add to that, so stick to the essentials.
It’s also worth picking up a carrying strap to help take some of the weight and distribute it more evenly. It can get in the way of functionality though, so a clip on/off strap is most useful, allowing you to take it off and on more efficiently.
An extension pole will make it easier to get low to high, high to low shots. It will also be harder to hold steady, and be heavier.
How do I Power a Gimbal?
Do you want to also be able to power your camera from your gimbal? Our Blackmagic PCC is usually powered with a V-Lock battery but when it’s on the gimbal, we take that off and power it from the gimbal. You can attach a V-Lock to the gimbal and continue to power your camera that way but you’re starting to add serious weight to the whole rig. A worry might be that to power the camera also will drain the gimbal batteries faster, and that is a concern but one you only need to think about if you’re planning on extended use. If so, you might be better buying spare batteries for the gimbal instead, and keeping that weight down.
Our Moza Air 2 came with four batteries (Li-ion 18650s, they look a little like fat AAs) plus a charger, so it’s quite cheap and easy to pick up another set as a backup. How long they last depends on use, but we use them to power both gimbal and camera and so far they’ve lasted beyond three hours which has been the longest we’ve needed to use them.
How to Attach Your Camera to a Gimbal and Calibrate it
Different makes of gimbal will have different methods for setting them up, but they’ll likely all follow a similar premise, so here’s how we do ours.
Our Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K has cage and we strip off almost everything but the cage (remove handle, XLR mic mount, V-Lock battery) but keep on a little Rode shotgun mic for scratch audio as it’s small and light.
There’ll be some things you’ll definitely want back on so that you can use them, but you might think about attaching those to the gimbal rather than the camera itself, like a battery (if you aren’t powering it from the gimbal), microphones, or an additional screen. There are mounting points on gimbals but they’re limited, so you can extend the usefulness by then mounting something on that mounted thing… like putting a monitor on a handle – so attaching the handle to the gimbal and then the monitor to the handle.
Balancing the Gimbal
The Moza Air 2 instructs to balance the camera while the gimbal is off. After that we:
- Put the supplied quick-release plate on bottom of camera.
- Slide it into the mount on the gimbal and lock.
- Make sure that any axis locks on the gimbal are off (so it can move, it’s unlocked, in other words).
At this point you’ll need to hold the camera and not let it free flop in any direction.
Next, go through manually balancing the camera before you turn it on. The goal is to get it as steady as possible without using anything powered. You do this by adjusting the various axes using the adjustable grips.
Make adjustments to the three axis arms and also by sliding forwards or backwards the quick release plate, the goal being that the camera should sit in the gimbal without moving in any direction, while unpowered.
Once you’re confident about that, power it up. It’ll move and adjust and then lock the camera into position. Then, gently move it through all of the axes to check the gimbal works and compensates for the movement. If it doesn’t – usually the gimbal will shut down if it gets ‘stressed’ (working it too hard) – switch it off and have another go at manually tweaking it until straight then try again.
When it’s done, the final thing is to tell it to auto-calibrate using the appropriate buttons and then it’ll do a bit of vibrating and moving while it fine-tunes.
The camera and gimbal should now be calibrated.
Things to Bear in Mind
If you add anything extra on your camera now, it won’t be calibrated anymore. This applies to just about everything, annoyingly, even switching out a lens for one only a little different in size/weight.
If you have a zoom lens and you zoom in (extending the lens), it won’t be calibrated anymore, but this small difference should be coped with by the gimbal and hopefully it will adjust automatically.
Wide angle lenses are better on the gimbal because it’s easier to get your focus if you’re focusing to infinity; it’s hard to get at the camera controls while you’re using the gimbal. Go to whatever the end of your movement will be and make sure your settings are right for that.
You can set the sensitivity of your gimbal to movement, so if you were moving quickly, like you were following a racing car for example, you’d want the gimbal to react quickly.
When you turn off the gimbal, it will go a bit floppy again, unless of course you’ve calibrated it so well that it was in the absolute perfect position to begin with. Transporting it, then, is hard. It will want to move freely and that’s worth considering if you’re moving from place to place. Most gimbals come with small tripod legs but it’s hard to stand it up safely when it’s powered off and floppy. It’s easier to stand it steadily, or transport it around, if it’s switched on but this will of course just waste the batteries.
Ideally, if you can find a case that fits the camera plus gimbal in that holds it steady and safely, snap it up, because it’s very difficult to find one. The case that came with the gimbal is, in practice, useless. It only fits the gimbal in a particular way, so it would have to be unbalanced to be put away and then rebalanced each time. Whereas if you can fit it in a case ‘as is’ once balanced, then it’s a quicker setup before you’re ready to film the next time.
Moving and filming is still a delicate act. You still can’t bounce around all over the place and get away with it filmically. Your movements should still be steady and deliberate, and that will take practice. Walking with the gimbal is a learned skill, you can end up with footage that makes you look like you’re on a space hopper, steady but moving up and down.
Remember, there’s no shame in still having to stabilise your footage afterwards. It’s a tool, it won’t solve all your problems.
Gimbals are amazing tools and so much more affordable than they used to be, making them ideal for filmmakers on a budget. Their usability is great: they’re light, small, compact and easy to use. Nothing is perfect though and there are challenges to overcome when using a gimbal. Try to remember to:
- Check the weight and size restrictions for the camera before buying a gimbal
- Use reviews and trusted sources to find out which best fits your budget and needs
- Consider accessories like grips and handles to improve functionality
- Read the instructions carefully to get the best calibration, and scale down your camera accessories to essentials only
- Try to mitigate the gimbal’s desire to destroy itself and your camera by bashing against stuff. Find an appropriate bag, or try to keep it switched on and ‘balanced’ while walking from place to place.
Also, think about the amount of stuff you want to be taking off and on your camera between your regular use and gimbal use. Better to not have to unscrew loads of things every time you want to use the gimbal or it’ll put you off using it. What this amounts to is really up to you, but things like handles being mounted with a cold shoe makes them easier and quicker to take off.
Get More From Your BMPCC
- VideoHow to Power Your Blackmagic Pocket Cinema CameraMarie Gardiner
- VideoHow to Use an Additional Monitor With the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema CameraMarie Gardiner
- BlackmagicHow to Add Storage Media to the BMPCC and Save MoneyMarie Gardiner
- VideoHow to Protect the BMPCC With a Cage and Add-onsMarie Gardiner
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