Zhiyun has just released a gimbal that’s compact, light weight, and rugged enough for world travel.
I’ve always been hesitant to travel with a gimbal. While I’ve always known that one would increase the production quality of my videos and documentaries, their added size and weight would simply push the bulk of my gear bag beyond the carry-on regulations of most airlines. Additional camera bodies, lenses, audio recorders, lights, and external hard drives always trumped gimbals in terms of my equipment priorities.
To be honest, I just sort of forgot about getting a gimbal, limiting my filming repertoire to static hand held shots and tripod-driven tilts and pans. Limitations on shooting parameters is just a part of filmmaking, I reasoned, but there have been many times when I’ve really wanted to move with a subject, get a smooth walking shot, or a more dynamic pan and muttered something to the effect of, “I really wish I had a gimbal right now.”
Then came the Zhiyun Crane M2 gimbal. I checked the specs: 1.1 lbs and scarcely 10″ from bottom to top. “Hmm, I could travel with that.”
Crane M2 specs
Before I dive into this review, I should probably clarify what this device is and what it isn’t. The Crane M2 is a gimbal built for small cameras: smart phones, compact cameras, diminutive mirrorlesses, and action cams. It is not a gimbal for a medium size DSLR or a cinema camera — even a GH5 is too big for it. The Crane M2 is meant to round out Zhiyun’s slate of gimbals, which include the Weebill for mirroless cameras and the Crane 3 for larger size cinema cameras and DSLRs. Basically, think small, medium, and large here, with the Crane M2 serving the smaller end of the spectrum.
This is excellent news for the travelers who already use small cameras as a standard practice or those who would like to lighten their load a little, as they now no longer need to lug around a larger-than-needed gimbal. The M2 is a gimbal built for smartphone vloggers and action cam adventurers — for those who want optically stabilized shots in the smallest and lightest package possible.
Weight and outward appearance
As I previously mentioned, the Crane M2 weighs a mere 1.1 lbs (500g) but has a payload capacity of 1.58 lbs, or 720g. The pin position on the M2’s camera plate is set up in a way that larger cameras don’t even fit — so there is no pushing the weight limits here.
The business end of the M2 is made of high-quality metal and feels rock solid, while the handle is made of high-quality plastic. While I’m usually turned off by plastics in my camera gear, in this case I’m giving it a pass, as this is what makes the gimbal as light as it is. No filmmaker wants to be denied boarding a flight because their gimbal pushed them over their carry-on baggage allowance. Also, it’s the top end of the gimbal that really matters here, the handle is just … a handle, and, from a performance standpoint, it doesn’t really matter what it’s made out of.
One addition to the Crane M2 that is truly ingenious is its detachable stand. It’s three plastic prongs that screw right into the bottom of the handle. When in use it serves as a handle extension. When you want to set the gimbal down you just pull out the prongs and you have a sturdy stand.
I nearly jumped for joy when I saw the Crane M2’s OLED screen. One of the biggest issues that I’ve previously had while using other gimbals is that you NEED to use them in conjunction with a special app. This means that you essentially need to use — and keep charged — two devices to run one gimbal. Now, this wouldn’t have been that much of an issue if the apps worked properly, but in some of the ones that I’ve used this just wasn’t the case — the phone wouldn’t be able to find the gimbal or the connection would be lost … resulting in all kinds of clunky messes. The Crane M2 is fully operational without the app. You can use the small OLED screen to see what mode you’re in, the connection status, battery level, etc. Basically, you have access to everything you need to run the gimbal right on the handle. Excellent.
The app works
That said, during my testing, the Zhiyun ZY Play app worked seamlessly and really provided useful additional functions. Basically, the app connects your smartphone or WIFI-enabled camera with the gimbal, allowing you the ability to start and stop recording and zoom right from the handle of the device. It also provides functionality for time-lapse, panorama, and slow-motion shots.
While I don’t really like using accompanying apps for my filming gear, this is one that I quickly got used to and one that, I have to admit, improved the quality of the user experience. Not having to reach up and push the record button on my camera or manually zoom the lens means more seamless and smooth shooting — which is what using a gimbal is all about.
Six operating modes
The Crane M2 has six operating modes: the usual Pan Follow and Lock, along with Full-range POV, which enables 360 degrees movement on all three axes, Vortex, for 360° barrel shots, Go mode for fast movements, along with a special mode for selfies.
A full overview of the Crane M2’s modes can be found here.
All axes lock
The designers at Zhiyun obviously really listened to filmmakers when designing the Crane M2, as they added something to it that we’ve been asking for for a long time: fully-lockable axes. Gimbals are inherently gangley creatures — when not in use they flop all around. This is definitely not ideal if you’re carrying it in a backpack or even when carrying it in your hand while walking down the street. Zhiyun fixed this by creating a way for the gimbal’s arms to sort of fit into each other where they can be locked by a switch at the base of the main motor.
The Crane M2 is supposed to get over 7 hours of life from a single charge of its internal lithium ion battery (charged through a USB-C cable). I intended to give this feature a run for its money but after a few hours of using it with hardly a dent made in the battery charge I gave up. Yes, 7 hours seemed about right to me.
This battery life in such a small gimbal means that it can easily handle a full day of shooting without needing a recharge. For multi-day shoots in remote locations — which this gimbal is specially suited for — all you need to do is charge it via a standard external battery or plug it into some of the other batteries in your rig. Easy.
Using the Crane M2
Don’t even bother reading the instructions that comes with the Crane M2. Do yourself a favor and remove them from the box and promptly put them in the trash. It is a mystery why a company as sophisticated as Zhiyun would allow such banal and confusion instructions to be packaged with their product. Instead, go to the Zhiyun website where they have excellent video tutorials that will show you how to do everything from balancing the Crane M2 to taking advantage of all of its features.
I took the Crane M2 out for a couple of spins around Astoria, getting some street shots and doing a little vlogging. I was impressed by the fact that after a few moments I was no longer thinking about the gimbal but was instead absorbed in what I was filming. This should be the intent for all filming gear: to work so seamlessly that it essentially becomes unnoticed by the operator. The Crane M2 did what it was supposed to and did it well, allowing me to focus on my frames rather that continuously tweaking my equipment.
One perk of the Crane M2 was that the gimbal’s arms stayed clear away from my screen when filming with it. It’s surprising how many gimbals block you from watching what you’re filming, which, obviously, has a negative impact on the quality of what you shoot. This isn’t a problem at all with this one, as the motors sit down well beneath my camera and phone’s LCD screens.
I was especially impressed by how inconspicuous the Crane M2 becomes when not actively using it. While keeping it powered on I could just let it drop down by my knee and swing from my hand in a normal walking motion, and then just swing it back up and hit the record button when I saw a shot that I wanted.
My one complaint is that the handle isn’t the most ergonomically designed. If you hold the gimbal in your hand so that your forefinger is on the trigger then the record, mode, and pan controls are buried in your palm and require a readjustment of the hand to utilize. Conversely, if you slide the handle up in your hand so that you can access the backside controls with your thumb then the trigger is going to be too far away for your forefinger. However, this isn’t that big of a deal, and is something that I imagine Zhiyun getting to in a future release.
All in all, the Zhiyun M2 is the quintessential travel gimbal and is something that many wandering filmmakers and vloggers have been waiting for for a long time. With a price tag of just $269 this piece of kit is also extremely accessible and makes it so there is no longer any excuses for shaky footage in your travel videos.
Shop for a Zhiyun Crane M2 gimbal on Amazon.