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How to Produce Professional Aerial Video, Part 2: Choosing a Gimbal and Capturing Stable, Usable Shots

In Part 2 of our 3 part series on mastering aerial video, we'll explore the challenges of choosing and assembling a gimbal system--ranging from DIY options to fully assembled kits--to ensure smooth and successful flight operation and capture stable, usable, professional-quality aerial shots, and also look at monitoring approaches and options.

In Part 1 of this 3-part series on aerial video, we emphasized the importance of safety to a successful aerial flight operation. As discussed in that article, only after garnering a healthy respect and understanding of the technology and the need for solid flying skills will you, as an aspiring aerial videographer, be able to successfully tackle the cinema and photography challenges that await you.

In this installment, we’ll move in a different direction and identify some of the challenges of capturing smooth, usable video that we have to overcome when mounting our camera to our copter.

Stabilization Issues

Rolling shutter issues are exacerbated by vibration and quick movements. Most of our cameras will suffer from rolling shutter and require some method to mitigate its effect on our footage. Four or more propellers rotating at high RPM create a tremendous amount of potential for vibration. Be sure to balance your propellers, as we discussed in Part 1, to alleviate any unwanted high-frequency movement being transferred to your camera, resulting in the infamous “Jell-o” effect. Additionally, the smoother you are on the controls of your copter, the less noticeable the rolling shutter effect will be when you’re changing course or changes.

In the early days of aerial photography we saw cameras being mounted directly to the copter. While this approach yielded an awesome perspective, it also introduced unwanted movement into the video.

Your copter has 3 axes from which it moves:

  • <Roll: The left and right banking motion around the longitudinal axis.
  • Pitch: The tilting-up-and-down motion around the lateral axis
  • Yaw: The panning-left-and-right motion around the vertical axis of our aircraft.

If your camera is mounted directly to your copter, then as the copter banks left and right or tilts up or down, so does your video. This would be a desirable effect when capturing video from a first-person view (FPV)--as if you were sitting in your copter--but for obvious reasons, it would not be preferable when capturing video for other purposes.

Gimbals and Handheld Stabilizers

This approach created the need for a stabilizing device that would isolate the camera from the movement of the copter. Early gimbals were constructed from mechanical linkages and belts that were controlled by model aircraft servo motors, with stabilization information provided from the copter flight control electronics or a dedicated gimbal controller board. This method of stabilization served well to improve the production value of the aerial video by isolating the camera movement from the copter, but it was far from perfect. Slack in belts and “play” in mechanical linkages continued to leave the aerial cinema world searching for a more comprehensive stabilization solution that would not require postproduction stabilization techniques to render usable footage.

The solution was to replace the servo motors and mechanical linkages with a direct-drive system consisting of high-precision, high-torque brushless electric motors. The brushless gimbal has become the mainstay of not only aerial video but also of handheld stabilizers such as the Free Fly Movi, DJI Zenmuse, and Ronin.

The DJI S800 hexacopter with Zenmuse gimbal

If you consider yourself technologically challenged and do not possess an above-average desire to tinker endlessly with gadgets, then I recommend you limit your search for a camera gimbal to the more established manufacturers who offer you a turnkey solution, documentation, and support. (More on this later.) For those motivated by the DIY approach, you can find a number of gimbal kits available through a simple internet search.

Many, if not all of these kits come unassembled and without any documentation. It’s not uncommon to spend hours searching for direction within the endless amount of internet forums and wikis. We continue to see new entrants to the brushless gimbal world each week. The most common controller(s) available to the DIY community consist of what used to be called the AlexMos Simple Brushless Gimbal Controller (after its inventor), but recently renamed BaseCam. The other is the Martinez controller; unlike the BaseCam, the Martinez is an open source project.

Basecam

Both of these controllers require a certain level of patience and tinkering acumen to master. It’s important to reference the dealer’s notes as to the size of the camera that is supported by the gimbal. While DIY brushless gimbals can be very rewarding, providing awesome performance at a highly reduced cash outlay, they often require you to spend an inordinate amount of time researching documentation, not to mention the tweaking and testing to finally get the performance you expect.

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