Early on in my drone career I always wondered how my friends captured those smooth, dramatic video shots that looked like a high-budget documentary. I knew most of my peers didn’t have super high-end video drones, but there was something they knew that I didn’t.
I finally had the nerve to ask a respected colleague what the secret was to those movie-quality shots without the jitter. His answer, of course, simply raised another question: “Well, what is a gimbal?”
A gimbal is a tool used by photographers and filmmakers that allows a camera to stay steady while being moved. Using a gimbal while recording video results in footage that moves around a subject without any jarring motions that can occur when holding a camera directly in your hands.
Gimbals come in a wide range of styles and prices ranging from massive crane-like structures for feature films to inexpensive units compatible with smartphones. With such a wide range of gimbals available on the market, I initially found it overwhelming trying to decide what would give me just enough flexibility without being overkill.
After a lot of research, I realized that gimbals are not a one-size-fits-all camera accessory and you’ll want to think carefully about your need before you commit. Fortunately, these days there are gimbals out there for just about every budget.
What Is a Gimbal: The Nitty Gritty Details
Before we answer the question “What is a gimbal?” by jumping into all the different options available for drone pilots today, let’s break down how gimbals work. There are a few different types of gimbals that you’ll find on most of the ready-to-fly and DIY drones out there today, but it’s important to understand their differences to make sure you’re getting the gimbal you actually want.
Yaw, Pitch, and Roll
Most of the gimbals that you’ll find for drones today work on three axes—yaw, pitch, and roll. There are, however, some gimbals that will only work correctly for pitch and roll. Before we move on, let’s review the definitions of these oh-so-important aviation terms:
Yaw (Pan): The yaw control on the 3 axis gimbal is what controls the left-to-right movement, similar to panning. This moves the entire body of the camera to the left or right. Most of the drone gimbals out there have a 360-degree field of view, and if you find a gimbal with detachable legs, it will most likely have a 360-degree field of view.
Roll: The roll of a gimbal moves just the lens portion of a camera to the left or right. This is not to be confused with the yaw, which moves the whole camera body.
Pitch (Tilt): The pitch of a gimbal affects the orientation of a camera up and down. The range of pitch on a gimbal can vary, but expect to find between 15 and 90 degrees of pitch in most of them.
Brushed or Brushless?
Once you’ve answered “What is a gimbal?” and started shopping, you’re likely to see some gimbals marketed with “brushless” motors. This is usually a selling point, but many don’t know what it means.
Brushless motors achieve ultra-smooth and efficient movement because they are bound to a central rotor with magnets as opposed to a physical connection like wire brushes. This makes them a far superior option for drone gimbals because they are much more sensitive to the movement of a camera in flight.
As with anything on a drone, power efficiency is critical. Brushless motors will also save you a good amount of power because they are essentially frictionless.
Since their hub attachment is floated with magnets instead of making a physical connection, brushless motors need much less power to rotate. With brushless motors, you’ll not only get smoother movement in a gimbal but also save battery power.
The Brains of the Operation
After answering “What is a gimbal?” and starting your shopping, you may wonder how all of this smooth, power-efficient movement actually happens while a drone is 200 feet off the ground. The answer is an inertial measurement unit or an IMU.
An IMU is a collection of sensors including gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers that constantly collect data about a drone’s angle, position, and force during flight. The IMU uses advanced pre-programmed algorithms to translate this data into motion signals for the motors that help keep your camera stable regardless of the drone’s position.
The IMU on some gimbals is powerful enough to contribute useful data to other computers on the aircraft. And while these are super powerful units, most are very compact and built right into the gimbal’s housing.
Be aware though: A gimbal IMU can easily get mis-calibrated during flight. If you make a hard landing, check your IMU’s calibration settings to ensure that up is actually up and vice versa.
The data collected by your gimbal’s IMU does not, however, communicate directly with the motors, and you will need a gimbal control unit to bring it all together. A GCU is the interface between your IMU and your drone’s flight control system.
GCU’s are usually sold separately from gimbals but are simple to connect to your flight control unit and very easy to calibrate. Once you’ve got your IMU calibrated and GCU connected with your flight control unit, you should be ready to test out your new gimbal and get flying.
2 Axis and 3 Axis Gimbals for Drones
Whether attached to a drone or not, the purpose of a gimbal is to stabilize a camera to get smoother videos and stills. Gimbals on drones are controlled by brushless motors that are able to rotate on various planes including pan, roll, and tilt.
These motors collect data from an inertial measurement unit (IMU) and make subtle corrections throughout a flight to ensure that a camera stays on target regardless of the drone’s angle. This helps the footage look like the camera wasn’t attached to anything at all.
While we usually subscribe to the “more is more” school of drone design, there are some possible upsides to a 2 axis gimbal. First and foremost, they’re less expensive.
They’re also lighter and require less battery power. So if you’re either looking to save money on a build, or want to maximize battery life and cut weight, a 2 axis gimbal could be worth a look.
The obvious downside with a 2 axis gimbal is decreased quality. The third motor in a 3 axis gimbal not only gives control over another plane but will also absorb a significant amount of additional jitter. Personally, we think it’s almost always worth the nominal added expense, weight and battery life to use a 3 axis gimbal.
What Is a Gimbal: Which Drones Gimbal Camera Should You Consider?
Now that we’ve answered the fundamental question of “What is a gimbal?” let’s take a look at some top drones you’ll find on the market today. The marketplace for aerial photo and video equipment has exploded in recent years with the proliferation of drones, and that has brought a ton of good quality and affordable gear to the market place.
Three of the top brands for drone gimbals that you’ll find available today are Yuneec, Walkera, and DJI. They all make gimbal cameras with a wide range of prices and features, but we chose three specific units to offer as suggestions.
Yuneec Typhoon H CGO3+ Gimbal
Yuneec’s Typhoon H 3-axis anti-vibration CGO3+ gimbal camera offers full 360-degree motion with 4K ultra-HD video and 12 megapixel still images. If you’re hoping to get those super smooth wide shots, then this camera’s 98-degree field of vision is definitely worth considering. If you want to get truly high tech, you can swap cameras in and out of this gimbal and add a CGOET thermal and low-light camera or C231 sensor cam.
Walkera Voyager 5 Gimbal
Walkera’s Voyager 5 quadcopter is worth adding to this list because their gimbal is such an integral part of the drone. It features a dual IMU and has been optimized for use with a number of very powerful plug-and-play camera options. Some options that work seamlessly with this gimbal are a 30x Optical zoom lens, a thermal Infrared camera, and a low light night vision camera.
DJI Matrice 600
Like the Walkera Voyager 5, the DJI Matrice 600 is not a standalone gimbal, but its vast compatibility options make it worth a look for those in the market. This drone not only has DJI’s largest carrying capacity but also comes with an advanced gimbal capable of holding eight different high-end cameras. Those cameras include the Zenmuse XT, Zenmuse XT2, Ronin MX+RED Epic, Zenmuse Z15-A7, Zenmuse Z15-GH4, Zenmuse X5R, Zenmuse Z30Hasselblad H6D-100C.
What Is a Gimbal: Final Thoughts
We’re so lucky these days to have the powerful aerial photography tools that we do. In just a few short years drones have put not only the power of aviation but also high-end film making in public hands safely and inexpensively.
To get the most out of your drone, you’ll definitely need the right gimbal on your camera. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned pilot, you should have no problem finding the right gimbal to take your aerial photography to the next level.