This summer I had a bunch of projects that required several hours of filming aerial video and photos. I wanted to get the smoothest possible video at an affordable price.
I knew I would use my Panasonic GH3 camera for a lot of the aerial video because it shoots 1080p60 at 50Mbits which would let me do a lot of slow motion.
A lot of great technology has become affordable lately for stabilizing your video camera.
There are two ways to stabilize your camera in a moving car or airplane. One is to use what I would call a robotic stabilizer with motors that counter move your camera to reduce shake.
Basically, if you turn your camera left, the motors will turn right to compensate.
I plan to either buy or build one of these some day but for the time being I decided to build a more old fashioned stabilizer using spinning gyros.
The spinning gyro stabilizer has been around for years and is commercially made by Kenyon Labs. These are also known as gyros since there is a large spinning gyroscope inside which resists moving because it is spinning so fast. They are expensive but work very well.
I wanted to try building my own version of the spinning gyro for fun.
I found this blog post about using toy gyroscopes to make a DIY camera stabilizer. The gyros are small but they spin at 12,000 rpm so they resist movement pretty good.
I ordered four of the gyros for about $400 and bought a small Pelican case to hold them and dampen the sound of the motors.
I used aluminum L tubing, tape and a lot of zip ties to hold everything in place.
A cheap 4-way macro slider from eBay would allow me to move the camera forwards, backwards or side to side for balance.
Here I am mounting it in a helicopter to do aerial video for this story
Here I am using it in a truck. It worked really well for stabilizing the camera while driving.
The result?… Since I’ve never used a real commercial motorized or spinning disk gyro I can’t really compare but I would say that the gyros did stabilize my light weight Panasonic GH3 more than if I was just hand holding it.
However for the price ($450+) of building the device, and the hassle of mounting the rig in an airplane I think I would rather rent a Kenyon Labs or Freefly Movi next time. My DIY solution was certainly better than nothing but didn’t make a huge night and day difference like I had hoped. Maybe night and sunrise.
Here you can see the ridiculous way I had to mount the rig in a Cessna airplane. Not super practical.
I also found there were other things that made a bigger difference in the smoothness of aerial footage. One big issue I had with my footage was rolling shutter also known as the “jello effect” when I zoomed in a lot with my GH3 and 14-140 IS kit lens. The footage looked great at wide angles but when I zoomed in a lot, the micro vibrations of the airplane (and probably the gyros too) made the video unwatchable.
Any digital camera with a CMOS sensor will have this problem unfortunately. Way more expensive cameras have global shutters that don’t jello.
Also weather and time of day (heat) will dramatically effect the smoothness of your footage because of turbulence. I flew in small Cessna airplanes for $250/hour but was only able to get a few minutes of rock solid footage. The rest was bumpy garbage. A helicopter costs more than $2000/hour but you can be way more productive and smooth in a helicopter compared to a Cessna.
One last thing. I edit in Final Cut Pro X and although it has a digital video stabilizer filter built-in, there is a way better filter called Lock and Load. For $99 it is worth every penny. Not only does it stabilizer better but it is also way faster at rendering.
Can you tell the difference? About 2/3 of the footage in this video was shot with a Panasonic GH3 on my gyro stabilizer and 1/3 was shot handheld with a Canon 5D Mark-III shooting RAW video and a Zacuto loupe pressed against my face. It was all shot in small Cessna airplanes which are super bumpy and rough to fly in hence wanting the stabilizer.