When it came time to select my 2018 gear of the year, my first inclination was to think about cameras and lenses. After all, we’ve seen some great ones in 2018, and that would have been an easy path to follow. No doubt, I could have picked something both technically impressive and fun to use.
However, when I really thought about what product had the most impact on the quality of my work this year, both at DPReview as well as for my own projects, it wasn’t a camera at all. Rather, it was the DJI Ronin-S camera gimbal – a tool that allowed me to significantly improve the quality of my video work using the cameras and lenses that I already had.
Anyone who has shot much video knows that camera movement can be as important as composition.
Anyone who has shot much video knows that camera movement can be as important as composition, and while most cameras now include some form of image stabilization, camera-based stabilization systems can only do so much. Gimbals provide more latitude to create movement, but usually add some complexity to your shooting workflow. With the Ronin-S, I feel like I’ve found the Goldilocks combination: a great gimbal that fits so seamlessly into my workflow that I barely notice.
I was impressed with the Ronin-S almost from the moment it arrived in our office. After a few weeks of testing I was confident enough to choose it for a larger project: a documentary film I was shooting in the Peruvian Amazon.
Filming with the DJI Ronin-S in Iquitos, Peru. Photo by Matt Fraser
Like any filmmaker, I wanted to get the best results possible, but I also had some pretty strict requirements. Since I had keep my kit compact and easy to carry, I decided to shoot on a pair of Panasonic GH5s. I needed a gimbal that would work well with these cameras, could be easily reconfigured for different camera setups in the field, and which could quickly adapt to different shooting conditions on the fly.
The subject of my film was The Great Amazon River Raft Race, a 180km race down the Amazon river on rafts made from balsa logs. Over the course of this multi-day event I had to keep cameras rolling in conditions that included crowded street markets, unstable boats, and and all the rain that comes with Amazon thunderstorms.
The wide variety of shooting conditions certainly put the Ronin-S to the test, and it came through with flying colors.
I immediately came to appreciate just how quickly I could set up a camera in the field. With a bit of practice, I could balance a camera and lens combination in about a minute, which the Ronin’s auto-tune feature would then fine tune in just a few seconds.
The strong motors in the Ronin-S also made it possible to use zoom lenses without adjusting balance or recalibrating the system. As a result, I was able to use a single zoom lens for most of my primary filming – something particularly helpful in a location where it seems like everything around you is actively trying to contaminate a camera sensor. The ability to quickly switch among different gimbal settings at the touch of a button also saved me on more than a few occasions when the story took unexpected turns.
However, the feature I probably appreciated the most on the Ronin-S was remote camera operation, including remote follow focus with focus peaking.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Ronin-S can provide various levels of remote camera control, and the level of functionality differs a lot by camera model and lens. Fortunately, DJI has done an excellent job integrating it with the GH5 I chose for this project.
I’ve been asked a number of times why I didn’t use autofocus. While it’s true that the video AF on many cameras is impressively good today, it still doesn’t provide the level of control or predictability I want when filming. In contrast, I found the remote follow focus on the Ronin-S to be very precise, predictable, and easy to use.
Ironically, the one thing I was actually worried about turned out to be a non-starter. With limited access to power, I had concerns about how long the Ronin’s battery would last, but it never let me down. After a full day of shooting, my arm was borderline useless while the Ronin-S had hours of power left in reserve. So much for the superiority of man over machine.
The final area where I have to give the Ronin-S high marks is what I’ll call “Dale’s jungle survivability index.” I’ve worked in the Amazon before, and electronic equipment just doesn’t do well there. It’s hot and humid, and can be very wet, dirty and muddy. It’s damn near impossible to properly clean or dry equipment in the field, especially when you’re out for multiple days at a time. I’ve had equipment failures on previous trips, but the Ronin-S took everything I could throw at it and never blinked. It’s a solid piece of equipment.
I’ve had equipment failures on previous trips, but the Ronin-S took everything I could throw at it and never blinked. It’s a solid piece of equipment.
Sure, I have a few minor complaints, such as having to leave the entire system assembled just to charge the battery or the fact that the rubber seal over the battery’s on/off button keeps falling off, but those aren’t showstoppers.
Ultimately, what makes the Ronin-S my 2018 gear of the year isn’t the fact that it’s a camera gimbal – after all, those have been around for years – but the fact that it’s so flexible, configurable, and easy to operate. My footage looks better as a result of using it, and I won’t hesitate to use it again for future projects.