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How to Use a Gimbal in Your Documentary Video Production

Pans, tilts, jibs, and sliders are all solid, established tools to help you add motion to your documentary. But a steadicam, or more recently, a brushless gimbal, can emulate all of those traditional movements with ease. More importantly, they can do things that no other tool can do: they can take your documentary production to a whole new level.

Video camera with brushless gimbal

But the major problem with most camera stabilizers is that they’re too much hassle for the practical realities of documentary production. If you’ve read up on the series “How To Use a Gimbal,” you’ll know just how much finesse it takes to get a gimbal up and running. For commercial and narrative work, without a doubt a gimbal or traditional steadicam is a great tool. But when you’re working alone or with a small crew on a fast-paced, unpredictable documentary shoot, the decision to use a gimbal becomes a more delicate balance of risks and rewards.

Recording video with a hand-held gimbal
Recording video with a hand-held gimbal

For the past two years I’ve used a gimbal on countless documentary shoots around the country, and I’ve found it to be an invaluable addition to our production quality. But it’s the small details that have made it possible and pleasurable to use on some videos, whereas other times it’s been a frustrating experience that has negatively affected our ability to tell a decent video story.

Finding a Place for Gimbal Shots in Documentary Production

Before I go into the nitty gritty details of using a gimbal on a documentary shoot, let’s take a moment to point out the advantages of using one in your video.

First, if you’re interested in a steadicam or glidecam, it’s relatively simple to figure out your balance in advance of your shoot. And if you attach a quick release plate, at the moment you want to use your steadicam you can take your camera off your tripod and place it on your steadicam rig, and you’re good to go. The issue is that a traditional steadicam is difficult to master, it’s hard on your wrist (unless you add a more sophisticated arm or chest harness), and your movement and camera control is fairly limited.

Gimbal camera operator and subject in a forest

With a gimbal, you can use both your hands to hold the rig, and you can even move your camera’s control grip to one of the gimbal handles, so you can control exposure, focus, and even zoom while maintaining steady shots. Without getting into more advanced types of gimbal shooting, you can mimic a slider, jib, pan, or tilt shot with just the gimbal alone. If you’ve ever used a jib on a documentary shoot, the ability to shoot a jib-like shot with just your hands holding a gimbal and camera is a phenomenal tool in your tool belt.

But a gimbal can do so much more for your documentary, by enabling you to create sequences of shots while your subject is in motion. Traditionally your sequences are set in static locations, or you play the cat and mouse game of running in front of your subject, let them pass, and then repeat. With a gimbal, you can shoot your subject as they’re walking, driving, biking—or any other form of transportation—while you follow along. And even when your subject is not moving you can create camera motion that gives your video a polished look that has been incredibly expensive to achieve, up until now.

Gimbals are a Lot of Work

Most gimbals are not set up for solo operators looking to get quick shots. The biggest hurdle is that gimbals require a stand of some sort, to hang the gimbal while you balance the camera. If you change lenses, zoom in or out, adjust your accessories, or simply bump the gimbal out of balance, you’ll need to bring your gimbal stand along everywhere you go. 

The balancing act is also a bit cumbersome. The first gimbal we bought took us a year of frustrating balancing on all sorts of stands before we finally got it working. Nowadays, the balancing is easier, but you still need to dive into the dark arts of software adjustment to fine tune your camera’s balance. 

Adjusting gimbal setting on a smartphone

And then you need to figure out an external monitoring solution, if you can’t see your camera’s LCD screen while you’re shooting. And to minimize your camera’s weight, your microphone has to go somewhere off the camera. If your camera and lens is over five pounds, you’ll have to move up to more heavy-duty gimbals that are costly and even more cumbersome. 

And finally, once you have your gimbal all rigged up and ready to go, there’s the problem of physically holding the gimbal for long periods of time. Most gimbals are designed in a way you have to hold the gimbal and camera far in front of you, so it doesn’t touch anything that could push it off balance. And the camera is placed at the bottom of the gimbal, so if you want to shoot at face level you’ll need to hold the gimbal higher above your head. Within minutes you’ll be worn out from holding the rig so much that your shots will feature major shake, even with the gimbal motors running. 

To ease the weight of a heavy gimbal and camera, there are solutions out there that can transfer the weight to your back, hips, or arms, but not only are they costly, you’ll also start to look like a cyborg wearing a suit of armor. It just won’t fly on a documentary shoot.

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The Documentary Gimbal Solution

You can still use a gimbal on a documentary—and I’ve done it many times—but you have to be discerning with the kind of gimbal you use.

First, you can ditch any model that uses a gimbal stand. Instead, choose a gimbal that can be placed on a tabletop, or any flat surface, while you balance the camera. There are even gimbals that have flat undersides that you can attach a quick release to, so you can place the gimbal on a tripod. Apart from balancing, you can even use this setup to shoot precision pans and tilts with a gimbal on top of a tripod fluid head.

Balancing a hand-held gimbal on a table
Balancing a hand-held gimbal on a table.
A gimbal that allows you to shoot in “inverted mode,” where the camera sits on top of the gimbal rather than being suspended from the bottom of it, does more than just allow you to balance on a tabletop. It also allows you to shoot at face level without having to raise the gimbal above your head, which means you can shoot for long periods of time without getting fatigued. 

And then there are gimbals that are incredibly lightweight and portable, but are intended for small cameras or even smartphones. In a documentary shoot, you could have a small B-cam ready to go on a gimbal at all times, but you have to be aware of any issues that come with matching multiple cameras and their picture profiles.

Finally, there are gimbals that have small cameras and lenses permanently attached to them, often in super lightweight one-handed designs. While your options are limited in terms of camera and lens choice, the flexibility and ease with these setups are perfect for documentary shoots. This enables you to put aside your main camera for the moments where your subject is on the move, pick up your separate gimbal/camera, and shoot a sequence without disrupting the rest of your traditional setup.