What Is a Gimbal and How Does It Work?

Nothing is worse than coming home from a long day of shooting video only to find that all of your footage is shaky and blurred. Shaky footage is hard to watch and lowers the production value of your video projects. On the other hand, stabilizing your footage with a bulky Steadicam is physically exhausting. You'll also need a good amount of training to operate a Steadicam rig properly. What if you want to capture free, fluid motion on video without sacrificing mobility and convenience? That's where a gimbal comes in.

In the context of video production, a gimbal is a type of stabilizing device that dramatically reduces the jostling effects of movement and motion on handheld video footage. Cameras affixed to a handheld gimbal mount often appear to float or glide seamlessly through the air. Filmmakers typically use the gimbal camera mount to capture footage of moving subjects or to pan around landscapes. Drone-mounted cameras benefit from specialized gimbals, too, because they need to remain stable in highly unpredictable circumstances. Gimbals are also useful for photographers, particularly wildlife photographers who deal with the sudden movements of animal subjects. Crisp shots of fierce jungle predators pouncing on their prey are accomplished by using gimbals just like the ones you can purchase for yourself.

Gimbals aren't only useful for videographers. In fact, the basic design of a gimbal has applications in everything from oceanic navigation to advanced rocket engineering. The rocking waves responsible for seasickness, for instance, can interfere with the navigational devices onboard ships of all kinds. Affixing those devices to a gimbal effectively neutralizes the impact of the environment, ensuring accurate navigation. Although it's often used in state of the art technology, the basic design of the gimbal isn't new. Gimbals have been around since at least the 3rd century BC, but the novelty gimbal incense burners of antiquity were a far cry from the gimbals governing the thrust vectoring of the Saturn V lunar rockets.

How does a gimbal work?

Fortunately, the kinds of gimbals used in video production are widely available and relatively easy to use. A handheld gimbal mount affixes your camera to a system of motorized rings and pivots which, when paired with a motion sensor, provide either resistance or acceleration to your camera in its rotation about three axes: pitch, roll, and yaw. As a result, your camera's rotation remains independent from the rotation of its support structure. That means you can move freely with your handheld camera without worrying about vibration or jerky motion ruining your footage. The gimbal negates those types of motion before they can interrupt your shot.

The stabilization of a handheld gimbal is achieved with brushless electric motors. Each of the three axes of the gimbal is paired with a motor. When the motion sensors detect undesirable motion, the relevant motors rev up and negate the jerking and vibration that would otherwise ruin your footage. This is why properly balancing and calibrating a gimbal is so important. When poorly balanced, a gimbal's motors have to spend extra battery power to counteract unnecessary jostling and shaking.

Although gimbals are relatively easy to use, you should keep in mind that the sophisticated electrical and computerized systems responsible for a motorized gimbal's stabilization require special software in order to function properly. You should take the time to familiarize yourself with the relevant software before using a gimbal.

It's also worth noting that the three axes regulated by the gimbal's motors (pitch, roll, and yaw) keep your camera stabilized horizontally, not vertically. The standard gimbal camera mount will offer smooth motorized tilting up and down, but the bobbing motion that accompanies normal walking needs to be corrected by the gimbal's operator rather than its motors.

How can I get the most out of my gimbal?

Just like any piece of equipment, the best way to learn the ins and outs of a gimbal is to practice using it in the field. Gimbals are much easier to learn than other stabilization devices. Many filmmakers even find them fun to use. Testing your handheld gimbal mount on a variety of subjects and in a variety of environments is the quickest and most enjoyable route to mastering the device.

Of course, a wide variety of enhancements and attachments are available to help you get the most out of your gimbal. With the right handheld gimbal adapter, for example, you can customize your gimbal with microphones, lights, and other useful equipment. Mounting a microphone to your handheld gimbal adapter and shooting an interview with the fluid, graceful motion of a gimbal is an excellent way to add instant production value to your video projects at little expense.

You might also consider using a specialized gimbal monitor adapter to affix a monitor directly to your gimbal. The rear screens of some camera models, such as the popular Panasonic GH4, can be partially obscured by certain gimbal rigs. If you're particularly adventurous with your gimbal, the instant feedback of a monitor is a great way to know whether your new techniques are working the way you intended. Even if you're playing it safe with your camera motion, a gimbal monitor adapter will help you spot any problems with your footage as they occur. Any filmmaker who's noticed a stray piece of lighting equipment in the editing bay months after production has wrapped can attest to the value of a good monitor.

Some popular gimbal accessories focus on the comfort of the camera operator. When your next shoot inevitably goes a little longer than you planned, the ergonomics of your gimbal will make quite a difference in your state of mind. Different gimbal rigs vary widely in their handling and ease of use. After you find the gimbal best suited to your needs and your personal style, accessorizing the gimbal with ergonomic grips on the rig's handles is an easy way to give your gimbal a huge upgrade.

No matter which enhancements you decide to incorporate into your gimbal rig, it's important to make sure they're designed to withstand a beating. The gimbal is designed for movement. If you get a little too adventurous out in the field and you find yourself tripping and falling, the last thing you'll want is a set of flimsy plastic attachments that break on impact. Make sure to seek out reliable attachments for your gimbal. Aluminum alloys and stainless steel are preferred for their durability.

Fluid motion made easy

A gimbal is an indispensable tool for modern filmmakers and videographers of all kinds. By incorporating a gimbal into your handheld rig, you can achieve steady, fluid motion and boost your production values without sacrificing mobility or ease of use. You'll be surprised what you can accomplish with this excellent device.

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