Using Gyros to Stabilize the Shot

The first time I used a Ken Labs gyro stabilizer was for a promotional project for an airshow historical stunt team. They needed some air to air footage of a rare Grumman F4F Wildcat, and the camera plane they wanted to use was an equally classic North American T6 trainer. To get the footage I needed of the in-air stunts, I would have to open up the rear-seat canopy of the T6. That was the first time I ever put on a parachute…and I found the 2-minute “pull this, then this” chute operating lesson less than soothing.

Going into this shoot, I was very concerned about vibration and camera shake in the cockpit of the T6. The camera was CCD, so I wasn’t worried about CMOS skew or jello. I could have mounted to the airframe in some way, but that would have transferred vibration directly to the camera body. So I knew that with the space limitations of the rear seat, I had to shoot it handheld. I’d use my body as a buffer between the airframe vibration and the camera, and the built-in lens image stabilization would help as well. I was particularly worried about being wind-buffeted in the open cockpit, and also concerned about the pitch and yaw of the camera plane throwing my shots off. So for those concerns, I rented a gyro. With a KS-6 gyro mounted on the bottom of my camcorder, I found that it soaked up most of the big bumps and vibrations, and helped me keep my framing when the camera plane banked sharply and made sudden moves. I got the footage we needed and, most importantly, I didn’t have to use that parachute.

Gyros work very well for car-mount and offroad applications, still allowing you to move the camera creatively, but limiting most of the big bumps. They’re great for shooting handheld from a boat, even at speed in choppy water. I’ve nearly pulled the trigger a couple times on used Ken Labs gyros on eBay, but haven’t yet found a used one at the price I want…and I don’t shoot with them that often. For occasional use, it’s probably best to ship them in from a good rental house, or rent directly from Kenyon Labs.

It looks like another possible option if you’re on a tight budget is DIY…via BorrowLenses latest Cool Stuff post, here’s a Do It Yourself gyroscopic stabilizer project. It appears to be modeled after the Ken Labs configuration. Looks a little flimsy, and I’m thinking it would work mainly for small cameras. Like most things in life, you probably get what you pay for. But it looks like a fun weekend project for sure.

One quick side-note…the DIY creator shows DSLR before and after footage where he made no attempt to stabilize the camera naturally. This isn’t a great example, and I personally don’t think that’s where a gyro shines. It’s not a Steadicam replacement, and it’s not magic (though you can use them on a Steadicam, and they seem like magic). You still need to shoot properly, utilizing appropriate support or rigs to move and stabilize the camera. Do everything you can to make the shot perfect, THEN lean on a gyro to take off the rough edges of a shot. A gyro can’t be your only stabilization solution, but as part of the total package it can be a big help.