As I write this, I am sitting in sunny Raleigh North Carolina assisting on a video shoot with some good friends from Glasgow Scotland. One of the key elements to the shoot is the ability to make live footage of real people in non-static shooting situations as well as rises, falls and other movements with a minimum of kit. We are working very light, so Ricky and John brought a DJI Ronin-M for the shoot.
As often happens, this is one of those times where synchronicity appears for me. I've been doing a fair bit of private enterprise video work as well as teaching folks new to video. There is a high demand for the mobility of video on a smartphone, but with more stability and a reduced requirements for post processing stabilization.
I've been exposed to a wide variety of stabilizing tools going back to the original Steadicam. Those tools were amazing, but took a toll on the backs of the operators as I know a number of pros who while now retired, still feel the pain. There are numerous mechanically balanced units in the market, some quite good such as the Glidecam and many that are truly deplorable.
Recently we have witnessed the wider availability of stabilizing systems based on motorized gimbals to keep the camera steady. Some are designed for smartphones, such as the DJI OSMO, while others are white label products so the same product appears under many names. We also see the same concept for DSLR and mirrorless cameras and this is the area that I want to cover.
I have tested more stabilizers than I care to count. Other than the Glidecam, I have not found a single mechanical device or rig that was practically usable. Using a mechanical stabilizer is a skill in itself and I do not count myself as an expert. I have practiced a lot, but even after an extremely onerous level of work to balance the devices, they still turn out sufficiently bouncy or wobbly footage that a heavy dose of Warp Stabilizer and the resulting in-cropping is required to generate anything really usable. The Glidecam works well, but takes practice.
This balancing challenge exists with all devices, whether mechanical or electronic and it is very much a game of millimetres. If the device that you are considering does not offer micro-adjustment capability, perhaps look elsewhere. Some people are under the impression that the electronic stabilizers do not require balancing. That's definitely not the case, even with a higher end device such as the Ronin-M. Time spent in properly balancing your device will pay dividends in better quality footage, lower post processing requirements in time and horsepower, and where an electronic device is used, far superior battery life.
I do see comments on the internet that says many of these electronic devices do not need to be properly balanced, just close enough. It's true, but at the cost if battery life and strain on the motors. The extra effort to fine tune is worth it, from my perspective.
Let's be clear. Proper balancing takes time to master because you are working in three axes, and a correction in one, can throw others out of true, so it is a circular process to get things right. Some vendors offer videos that propose that this is fast and easy. I would disagree. When Ricky and John followed the instructions completely and on multiple times, they became extremely frustrated by not getting what they were expecting and noted that while all the videos show the starting points, none went through to the end.
I guess I am fortunate because I have been through this a number of times, so when I showed Ricky my method for balancing that doesn't exactly follow the guidelines, we were set up and decently balanced in a about ten minutes.
Once balanced we were able to go outside and get some practice time in. Ricky and I agreed that he would operate camera A on the Ronin-M and I would handle camera B on sticks along with all the audio stuff. John would be the host as well as the interviewer. Ricky and I spent a good hour practicing with the unit and I shared my Groucho Marx duck walk mode of smooth movement. Ricky is younger and far more fit and picked up very quickly and the first round of test footage was pretty decent. There was a bit of jiggle and the pans were a bit slow. We went back inside, and I learned that the Ronin-M had not been calibrated via the DJI App.
For a lot of us folks with "tenure", we may not think first about binding the electronic software to the device, especially when it appears that the device is "working". Ricky's version of the app must have had some wonky settings because when he connected, the Ronin-M started making a screeching noise and then the motors shut down. We tried another battery and same thing, so we started to fear that the unit had become borked. The app also informed us that both batteries were not original DJI smart batteries, which is not true.
After searching the DJI manual and help pages, we had no joy. We did find a video on YouTube where the fellow advised really pushing hard when mounting the battery, even when it seemed locked in place. So I tried that and got the unit to power up long enough to screech and power the motors down. I did a fresh download of the DJI app and connected to the Ronin-M and forced a factory reset. With a restart of the Ronin-M we were back to being able to shoot as we had been 90 minutes before. Don't get me wrong, I like the Ronin-M, but DJI support still would benefit from some decent and more complete documentation.
Following the full reset, I went through the app completely and found that a number of settings were not optimized for the Sony a7R Mark II camera that we had mounted. I made a number of settings changes and we were able to refine the previously well defined balance and movements to be much smoother and both of us could feel that the motors were working less hard when holding the Ronin-M by its grips.
The object lesson, use the controlling software if your device has it. Our initial footage was very good. The second set was even better.
Outcomes of the Learning
I have had the opportunity to work with the original Ronin, and with the MOVI, which I loved, but once we had the Ronin-M properly configured, it's a brilliant solution. When I look at the cost of acquisition vs alternatives and your time to delivery, I've concluded that the Ronin-M is absolutely a go-to solution to the problem of stable footage. I have a long history of shooting pro cameras off the shoulder because the portability outweighed some of the downsides. To do live work off a shoulder rig is a real skill, particularly while moving. I am confident that the Ronin-M would be a good solution for most DSLRs and most any mirrorless cameras. I need some time offline with one to see if I could mount up a pro level DSLR or my Canon C300. I think that I can make the C300 work based on some cursory measurements, so long as the lens was not too large. A device like the Ronin-M could be a strong alternative to a classic shoulder rig, particularly if the camera has decent autofocus, and soft touch exposure controls. I have not tried it, but the camera plate looks to be a standard size and if I could use the same plate on the Ronin-M and on a Sachtler or Manfrotto video head that would be a real additional benefit.
It took a long while to get this article finished. I wanted to do more research before posting and I knew that DJI had a new Ronin coming and there were a number of the small handheld gimbal based stabilizers entering their second generation of delivery and I wanted to be as balanced as I could be. The new Ronin 2 is amazing. Much larger and much more expensive than the Ronin-M but with numerous enhancements that had to come from the customer experiences with the first generation unit. DJI releases new kit pretty quickly and that has put my purchase of a Ronin M on a hold, because I expect a replacement from DJI soon enough, and so will not commit to the current product unless I get a gig that will completely pay for the Ronin-M as well as generate otherwise good revenue. As much as I think that DJI sucks at customer support, when their kit works, it works a charm. I wish that they had inherited the old Hasselblad customer support attitude following the acquisition, but it appears to have gone the other way.
As for the rest of the little handheld gimbal things such as the Beholder EC-1, the latest releases are an improvement on the first generation devices. They are still way overpriced for what they do, balancing them remains a complete and utter pain in the butt, they are physically exhausting to shoot with for any serious length of time, you cannot see the LCD, you cannot touch the camera for focus pulls or zoom shifts without creating the semblance of an earthquake and every single one of them has lost its mind requiring a full reset inside the first half hour. At about $1000 a pop, don't be an idiot with your money, They are pieces of s**t. Spend another $500 and get a Ronin-M. You can use a proper display and even use electronic focus and zoom controls mounted to the frame, although they will cost you more.
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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.