In the southeast of Panama, where the jungle meets the ocean, there is a boutique resort destination on one of the most colorful, untouched beaches on earth. It’s called Azul Paradise and my buddy Morgan lives there. He has one of the coolest gigs; he’s a photographer that lives on the resort making photo and video content for their various social media platforms to spread the beautiful imagery to American adventurers, Instagrammers, and honeymooners who wouldn’t see the getaway destination otherwise.
Morgan told me to bring all my video toys out to Bocas del Toro, Panama to shoot an adventure music video with him for a song called “Cold Ain’t For Me” by up-and-coming group Oceans. The one thing he needed that I didn’t already own was a gimbal for my Sony a7RII. As the director, that’s how he envisioned our A-cam moving and I’d never used one before. The DJI Ronin-M arrived at my home in Baltimore from Borrowlenses the afternoon before our 6AM flight and I had deadlines to meet and packing to finish. I couldn’t make time to put it together and take it for a spin, so I was going in blind. I went into a 5-day shoot complete with ATV rides through the jungle, giant waterslides and hand-carved fishing boats without having ever used my A-cam support. So I’m going to share the results of my first effort with the DJI Ronin-M and what my experience was like using it for the first time.
Setup and Gear Used for the Music Video
The DJI Ronin-M gimbal is a remarkably intuitive addition to your camera. It is well-suited for a first-timer but success starts with unboxing and assembly. The kit comes in a Pelican case with the essential pieces packed in two custom-cut foam layers: a 3-axis gimbal unit, handle, remote, and a stand to balance and rest it on.
Morgan and I had this thing together, balanced and cruising around the beach in 10 minutes. We had little prior knowledge and zero experience with it. What we learned is the goal of balancing your camera on the gimbal is that when you move the camera in any direction, it should stay in that place when you let go, not return to center. We used the sliding adjustment levels to adjust tilt, roll, and pan in that order. We watched the following setup video from DJI and part of this video from Aerial Media Pros (pre-anchored to the 9 minute mark for you) while sipping cocktails in a beachfront bar to help answer any questions we had while assembling. It’s a good idea to give the videos your full attention before prep and it’s even better with a cool drink in hand!
We gave it a quick tune-up in the DJI Assistant app for things like slowing down the pan/tilt action to taste and calibrating for single-operator use. We also added my SmallHD 702 monitor with the included ball-head mount before we took a stroll down the beach for an evening of test shots.
Operation of the Ronin-M
For the next 6 days of production, my camera rarely left the gimbal and always stayed balanced until I removed it. With a small camera like the a7RII, you can safely add things like a small lens hood or screw-on ND filters and be confident the gimbal can make up the difference for small changes in balance once you turn it on. Its reaction to the operator’s motion is fluid and intuitive and with practice you’ll quickly learn how much turning you can do in every direction before the gimbal begins to respond. We shot sun-up to sun-down most days and the battery lasted all day for us, sometimes with some left to spare. On the second day of production, my otherwise trusty SmallHD monitor stopped being friendly with the off-brand batteries that’ve been powering it for the last year. Without a backup plan or internet access, I realized I’d have to operate the rest of the video using only the camera’s live view. This is where the Sony’s articulating screen and remarkable autofocus really saved the day. Even in the brightest sunlight and the most awkward ATV rides, I could always at least make out my composition and when I couldn’t even see the back of the camera I knew the autofocus was probably dead-on. I’ve personally never shot so much autofocus on a job in my entire career. Morgan and I never once said anything like, “Oh man, if only it were in focus” when we reviewed footage in the evenings. Regardless, let this be a lesson about batteries – you can never pack too many!
We took this thing on journeys with the kind of bumpy terrain that made me feel like an inflatable tube man but the tracking shots of the Jeep from the back of an ATV, for instance, were undisturbed. Parallaxing walking shots through the jungle and out onto the beach were a one-take affair and it even survived hanging from the mangroves above our heads. Whether it was short takes or long ones, the gimbal was tracking. I found that after a day or two I started getting comfortable enough balancing it on the fly moving and between locations that I would remove the camera from the unit for a few snapshots along the way. It’s a lot easier not to ever remove the camera but you totally can in a pinch if you don’t mind the mounting plate.
Looking back, we treated the Ronin-M like any run-and-gun setup I’ve ever used in a dozen different countries and we had no issues to write about. Nothing technical ever stopped us from creating and we always got the shots we came for, even when we beat it up. It can handle the mist of cruising on an uncovered fishing boat but be careful in this kind of climate! The Ronin-M’s external screws ended up with some corrosion that I had to have replaced for BL.
The Ronin never felt unwelcome even though we had to travel extremely lightly and it balanced nicely on its stand, fairly unobtrusively, at the bar when we wrapped up every night. We tracked girls up rain-soaked bamboo steps, jumped off docks to get shots from beneath our subjects, and we filmed through the top of an off-roading car.
Special Note on Corrosion Risks
While the Ronin-M functioned through long, humid days and the occasional light misting of saltwater, the Ronin-M’s screws and quick release-type fasteners are susceptible to corrosion from humidity and salt. I’ve shot on the beach plenty but I didn’t account for the toll a whole week of it can take on the metal in your camera. If you plan on bringing the gimbal to the beach, do yourself a favor and get BL’s Damage Waiver. I didn’t and I paid for the repair. BL’s Repairs and Recoveries department took care of the transaction with DJI so it was very hands-off until asked to pay the repair cost. This warning applies to your cameras, too. My FS5 and a7RII all came away with mildly corroded screws (luckily nowhere near the articulating screen’s hinges). If you’re shooting in the type of humid, coastal climate I was, use a cleaning cloth to remove moisture at the end of your shoot day and store equipment in a dry, well-ventilated area. Store batteries outside of the camera and cover everything when the camera and the gimbal aren’t in use.
The DJI Ronin-M literally made this video possible. The shots from it make up roughly 75% of the video. One lens, one camera, one week of filming. If you’re like me and you fancy yourself a cinematographer but you’ve never taken one of these gimbals out for a spin, I challenge you to think of a very simple concept and spend a weekend filming something that costs nearly nothing. You’ll see how much more camera motion you can add to your work with so little effort, and you can add another amazing tool to your skill set.