The Ultimate Smartphone Filmmaking Accessory
Discover why smartphone gimbals are the top relatively low-cost phone accessory that can help you capture smooth, professional shots.
As smartphone cameras continue to improve—adding more sensors and better lenses every year—they’re a solid camera choice for aspiring filmmakers. Though smartphone cameras are far from perfect, they’re incredibly convenient because of their portable size and proximity. Even “budget” phones like the iPhone SE, the Google Pixel 4a, and the One Plus 7T are perfect for vlogging, social media content creation, and making videos on YouTube. For filmmakers on a tight budget, a smartphone can act as a backup camera (or b-cam) for certain shots. However, most smartphones, even the high-end ones, suffer from shaky footage, which is ultimately unusable.
Smartphones aren’t the best choice for capturing footage when the user or subject is moving. Certain phones do have built-in image stabilization, but it’s achieved by cropping the footage, and it’s sometimes not that great-looking. To get stable footage from a smartphone consistently, even when doing sudden, sharp movements, you need a smartphone gimbal. The good thing is that smartphone gimbals are relatively affordable these days. And, unlike other smartphone accessories, they’re not manufacturer specific.
What Is a Gimbal
Gimbals have been around since the 3rd century B.C., which precedes the invention of the Daguerreotype by more than a dozen centuries. So, it’s safe to say gimbals are not a new technology. However, what is new-ish is the invention and mass availability of 3-axis motorized gimbals, which can keep cameras steady despite the user’s movement.
A 3-axis gimbal stabilizes the camera’s tilt, pan, and roll. The tilt controls up and down movement, the pan controls side to side movement, and the roll controls back and forth movement. There are two types of gimbals, but 3-axis smartphone gimbals are the motorized kind, which use a tiny motor on each axis to keep the camera stable. There are more affordable 2-axis gimbals, but ultimately they aren’t worth the savings when you consider just how much stability a 3-axis gimbal provides.
Smartphone gimbals these days have a bevy of features—such as a joystick to pan and tilt, time-lapse and hyper-lapse modes, subject tracking, and more. Newer smartphone gimbals are more affordable and also have improved battery life. If you already have a smartphone with a decent camera, a smartphone gimbal is the logical next step if you plan on creating videos, which is why it’s the best smartphone filmmaking accessory.
For vloggers, the gimbal is a must-have accessory for simultaneously walking and talking. The gimbal acts as a selfie stick as well as a stabilizer, giving you stable, perfectly-framed shots. If you’re about to start vlogging, I recommend this as one of your first upgrades—only after a portable diffused LED light.
Which Gimbals to Buy
DJI Osmo Mobile 4
DJI, known for their ever-present consumer drones, are undoubtedly a giant in the camera gimbal space. This company makes gimbals for phones, smartphones, plus the Osmo Pocket, a small gimbal with a built-in camera. The original Osmo was a very expensive camera gimbal, requiring a phone to operate it. The Osmo Mobile trimmed the fat, lowered the price, and brought stabilized footage to anyone with a smartphone. Since then, DJI hasn’t stopped perfecting the Osmo Mobile. They’ve added even more features, improved the battery life, and made it more compact and easy to carry.
I still own the original Osmo Mobile and it works fine to this day. However, the Osmo Mobile 4 makes a strong case for why I should upgrade. The Osmo Mobile 4 folds into itself when not in use, making it a no-brainer to bring on every outing. I especially like how fast it is to attach the phone via the use of magnets. You can slap the phone on the gimbal and start recording without having to adjust any knobs. You can either stick a magnetic ring holder on your phone, sort of like a PopSocket, or a removable magnetic clamp.
There are almost too many features to list. But, you can expect mainstays like ActiveTrack 3.0, gesture control, hyper-lapse and time-lapse, slo-mo, and so many others. With a fifteen-hour battery life, this gimbal can go all day. It’s $150, but that’s a far cry from the eye-watering price of the original Osmo Mobile, which was $300. While the Osmo Mobile is more expensive than the competition, DJI has been at it for longer and has earned trust among consumers.
Zhiyun Smooth 4
The Zhiyun Smooth 4 is similar to the Osmo Mobile 4 in many ways, but it differs in one big way—it only costs $89. It’s not as compact as the one above, but you can expect most of the same features at a discount. The Smooth 4 features tracking, slo-mo, hyper-lapse and time-lapse, plus a long battery life. But, it adds some new features as well.
PhoneGo Mode, which you can switch on with a press of a button on the gimbal, unlocks the motors’ full potential to track even the fastest subjects. The Vertigo Shot is another excellent feature that changes the size of objects in the background. This creates a shot known as the vertigo effect, which film geeks will love.
The Smooth 4 also has a wheel for pulling focus and zooming, which isn’t something I’ve seen on any other gimbal. The adjustment wheel is a nice touch and something videographers will appreciate, as they’ll be able to get the focus just right every time.
Zhiyun may be a newer name, but they’ve been putting out affordable camera equipment for years. Although they lack the name recognition of DJI, their products are affordable, making them worthwhile options for those looking for a deal. The Smooth 4 has a 4.3 rating from almost 4,000 reviewers on Amazon alone.
On a quick note, you may want to learn how to pronounce this brand.
Unlike the other two gimbals on this list, the Smooth-X is a 2-axis gimbal that controls only roll and pan. So, it’s not as impressive mechanically, but the price is unbeatable. While smartphone gimbals have come down in price in the last few years, the $50 price tag of the Zhiyun Smooth-X is shocking. With such a low price, it’s easy to confuse it for a badly-made gadget, but it’s got tons of glowing reviews. However, the bad reviews on Amazon seem to stem from a compatibility issue. So, make sure to check if your phone is compatible with the gimbal before purchasing—here’s a handy list.
The $50 gimbal is designed with vloggers in mind, as it can switch from landscape to portrait shooting mode with a click of a button. When not in use, the gimbal can fold into a nice compact shape for easy storage, and it’s not much bigger when in use. The gimbal also has a telescoping grip that extends out to nail those wide-angle vlogging shots. To get the most out of this gimbal, I suggest also getting the tripod feet for recording talking head videos.
I’d be happy if that’s all this gimbal did, but the app adds a few amazing features too. Apart from subject-tracking, which is pretty much a given these days, you can expect gesture control, built-in editing on the app, plus time-lapse. It also includes something called SMART filmmaking, which offers templates with music and special effects. There’s a slo-mo shooting mode, but it’s only available for iPhone users at the moment.
The combination of low price, compact frame, and great features makes it a reliable option for vloggers, travelers, and anyone who wants to take their smartphone video up a notch. Though it’s missing that third axis, it’s still plenty stable for most shots. I don’t know what else to say, except that it costs the same as some iPhone cases, which is messing with my brain.
Why I Think Gimbals Are Amazing
I bought my first smartphone gimbal years ago, when they began appearing at Best Buy. I purchased the first-ever Osmo Mobile for $300, and it’s been with me ever since, surviving multiple phone upgrades. The original Osmo Mobile showed a lot of promise, but, like most new consumer tech pieces, it was only the first of many on the road to perfection.
At $300, it wasn’t cheap, the battery life was terrible—it still is and takes three hours to charge—plus it was clunky to carry. Using the gimbal required downloading and using an app, which was not very good, especially for Android users. Regardless of all the drawbacks, I still use it regularly.
I originally bought the Osmo Mobile because a client asked if I could record his son’s football game. I knew I’d have to do it from the bleachers since they didn’t allow anyone on the sidelines, so it would have looked terrible with only a smartphone. It was my first-ever paid video gig, so I invested in the gimbal and it worked out.
Normally with a smartphone, zooming in on a subject from far away creates highly-unstable shots. However, the gimbal fixed that, so I could capture all the highlights in smooth 1080p. Since I only had the phone at that time, I also used the DJI GO app to cut the footage. I was happy with it, and the client got a nice video of his kid playing football. I’m sure it could’ve looked better, but I’m still happy that I did it only with an iPhone and a smartphone gimbal.
Admittedly, my original Osmo Mobile is getting long in the tooth. But it’s still relevant to this day, and it’ll continue to work with any smartphone I get in the future.
Gimbals and Smartphones: The Perfect Pair
Whether you’re spending the day at the beach, skating with your friends, or venturing on a trip, it’s always a good idea to bring along a gimbal. With extended battery life and ever-smaller footprints, it’s not much of a hassle to bring one along. Smartphone gimbals add quality to any shot, and they’re especially worth it when a smartphone camera can’t handle the shakiness and sudden movements of everyday life.
Although smartphone cameras have come a long way, they’re still no match for the smoothness of a gimbal, and they’re so affordable now. If you’re serious about filmmaking and videography, a smartphone gimbal is a smart first purchase to get you on your way. Solid gear won’t make you successful on its own, but it will complement your skill and bring out your best creativity.
For additional gear tips, tricks, and advice, check out these articles:
Cover image via July Prokopiv.
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