Hands-on review: Zhiyun Smooth Q2 smartphone gimbal
Image credit: Zhiyun
With smartphone cameras taking increasingly better-quality photos, the accessories to help you capture your best shots are evolving, too.
We're all reportage photographers now, documenting our lives and significant moments, often on a daily basis.
Accordingly, a side industry supplying accessories has sprung up to serve and satiate all our photographic needs and desires, from additional lenses to tripods and more.
Gimbals are a relatively recent area of interest. Long used in professional film circles, the gimbal is a pivoting, stabilising device that allows the camera operator to move freely while keeping the image in the frame perfectly level.
For the handheld smartphone photographer/videographer, this equates to smoother videos, time-lapse photographs, widescreen panoramic tracking shots etc, with the gyroscopically balanced gimbal eliminating all trace of camera shake, wobble, lurch and tilt.
Having filtered down from the professional world of film-making, gimbals have for the most part retained their industrial-design heritage. Recent popular models have still been quite beefy – reassuringly solid and sturdy in the hand and making quite a technology statement. If you were interested in using a gimbal, you really had to commit.
Chinese brand Zhiyun – pronounced “you win”, as it turns out – has offered products in this standard style before, putting out gimbals for DSLRs, mirrorless, point-and-shoot compacts, and smartphone cameras.
Now, with the Smooth Q2 (yes, Smooth is part of the product name) Zhiyun wants to make gimbals much more commonplace and more appealing to every smartphone user. To do that, it's gone small. Now, as the company says, "Everyone can be a filmmaker".
The Q2 (as we'll call it from here on in, for the sake of brevity) is Zhiyun's "pocket-size smartphone gimbal". While it won't easily slip into the tight pockets of your skinniest jeans, it should fit snugly into a roomier pocket on, say, a pair of cargo pants, or into a jacket pocket, or any shoulder bag or backpack. It would even fit happily into one of those weird bum bags, which have bafflingly come back into fashion among millennials, something anyone who lived through the 1980s could never have foreseen happening.
Measuring just 204mm long, the Q2 is certainly a wee sleek beastie. The phone-holding jaws at the end make it a slightly awkward shape to trouser, but that's gimbals for you. It's still a size that isn't offputting for carrying with you regularly, perhaps even permanently in your day bag, for example. It's small profile also makes it less conspicuous for use in public places and crowds.
The body of the Q2 is aerospace-grade aluminum, coated with soft silicone, and it feels comfortable, lightweight but strong in the hand. The bottom of the gimbal is flat (unlike the Osmo), so it is possible for it to stand upright on a reliably flat surface. This could be useful for panoramics, time-lapse, selfies, live streaming to camera etc. A tripod is advisable to guarantee stability (there is a 1/4in threaded hole), but this flat-bottomed girl will work standalone (excuse the pun) in a pinch.
It's not all sunshine and roses with the Q2's diminutive form factor, though. Bigger hands (e.g. male) will feel the difference, compared to a standard, chunkier gimbal, as the truncated body of the Q2 stops short in the palm. This might not be such an issue for females and teenagers of both sexes. In our experience, it was more like holding a tube of Smarties, as opposed to the exponentially larger, ergonomically moulded handle of, for example, the DGI Osmo Mobile 2 gimbal, which we happened to have available for comparison during this review.
The larger handle of the Osmo felt 'more pro', with more on-body controls within easy reach – kind of like the difference between a DSLR and a compact camera. It's not that the Q2 is not well-equipped, more that its use has been streamlined and simplified, presumably to appeal to the fashion-first influencer types embodied in the product images Zhiyun uses online to promote the Q2.
On the subject of competitor products, we noted that the Osmo gimbal comes with a moulded styrofoam carrying case. The Q2 comes in its foam-lined retail box, but there's no case, per se – not even a fabric slipcase. Straight into the pocket or handbag it goes, we suppose, with all the attendant worries about scratching and damage. It's like a guitar that doesn't come with a case. Of course it adds to the upfront cost, but it would still be nice to have one from the get-go.
Zhiyun has pared down the controls and simplified their operation so everything about the Q2 can be adjusted with just one thumb while you shoot. Controls are selected via either one of two buttons or the five-way joystick, with a single LED to indicate current state.
The Q2 offers five shooting modes, selected using the joystick: Pan Following Mode, Following Mode, Lock Mode, Vortex Mode (great for capturing 360-degree barrel shots in all dimension) and Full-Range POV Mode (which enables 360-degree synchronous movement on three axes). The full 360 degrees of rotation is tightly controlled by the Q2's 3-axis stabilisation and Tilt, Roll and Pan motors.
You have to pair the gimbal with your phone using Bluetooth to get the most out of it, as the Q2 supports direct control of your phone's native cameras for both photo and video taking. Bear in mind that the Q2 can only be connected to one phone at a time via Bluetooth, so don't forget to 'Forget' if you want to switch phones or lend your Q2 to a friend.
Using the ZY Play app (free to download), you also gain control over more advanced camera settings than your native camera app might allow, such as ISO and shutter speed, as well as different filming modes. You can also edit your video footage directly within the app.
A nice feature of the Q2 is the 'quick-release latch', which means you can release your phone from the gimbal in a second to use for other tasks (e.g. making phone calls, imagine that, eh?), then reattach it just as quickly to resume your videography activities. Naturally, this does depend on how happy you are to have a gimbal bracket attached to your phone all the time.
The Q2 is self-balancing, though, providing you've kept your phone in the clamp, so switching between states doesn't require tedious recalibration every time.
However, if you have more than one phone – particularly if they're different models/manufacturers – it takes time to swap between them with the Q2. You'll have to rebalance each time. The Q2's motors are strong, so it is responsive and produces good results. Balancing with the Osmo is done with scroll-wheel tighteners, so that is more of a set-and-forget deal. The Q2 is less straightforward, requiring that extra bit of fiddly faff every time you change the phone.
The Smooth Q2 does feel nice in the hand, with a good grip across its surface. It's metal, but not too heavy, and this sense of solidity is reassuring when you're using it in anger. The unobtrusive weight also means you can film for longer without feeling the effect in your camera arm.
Given that the 16.2Whma 3.6V battery (recharged via USB Type-C) lasts for many hours (up to 17, the spec sheet says), you'll probably run out of stamina before the Q2 does, anyway. As an added bonus, the Q2 has a micro-USB port on the side, so you can use the gimbal as a powerbank to charge your phone. This is a very welcome feature for extended filming sessions in more remote locations.
The quality of video the gimbal helps capture is very good. There are a variety of filters in the app to transform the look of your footage, if you want that, as well as a good range of resolutions: 1080p, 720p and 4K at 24/30/60fps.
Advanced time lapse, motion lapse and hyper-lapse functions are also available and the Q2's object-tracking lock is solid. The Panoramic mode was very good, with a nice wide image, and capturing moving objects was also a reliable success. We tested filming different people moving around naturally, as well as following them up and down stairs and over natural terrain outdoors while filming. Footage was stable and the results were pleasing.
It can also be worth experimenting with turning your phone's electronic image stabilisation feature on and off, to let the gimbal do all the image steadying, rather than have it fight with the phone. You can gauge the recorded results to see which is better for you.
Video footage is saved to the ZY Play app. One camera op's touch we did miss on the Q2 was a zoom slider: the Osmo has one on the handle, as was the case with Zhiyun's previous gimbal offering, the Mobile Smooth Q.
Presumably this is a compromise to keep the Q2 as streamlined as possible, to suit the intended target market. Any 'pro' user will probably look further up the gimbal evolutionary tree, while the more casual user will likely be perfectly satisfied with the easier-to-grasp Q2.
It's worth mentioning that the instruction and set-up manual is somewhat barebones, amounting to little more than a series of cryptic pictograms. In the ZY app, the screen instructions were also in Chinese, although we did eventually figure things out. The app also stays in portrait mode, even when the camera is tilted, which is a bit of a neck-bender if you're trying to read the on-screen app controls.
The Q2 did occasionally lose its mind and freak out in operation, such as if we angled our hand too far down, too quickly, in certain situations. The classic 'turn it off and on again' tactic fixed these momentary lapses, so it's only a matter of a few seconds' delay.
There is also an issue with Max or Plus-size phones, as any 'over-sized' handset can knock against the body of the gimbal at more extreme orientations, notably in vertical (portrait) mode. Ultra-wide angle phones (e.g. iPhone 11, larger Huaweis and Samsungs) can also capture part of the gimbal in shot, which is not the case with the Osmo Mobile 3. In practice, you have to stay aware with the Q2 and either tilt to hide the gimbal from straying into shot, or flip the phone around in the clamp and use your phone's alternate camera.
On balance, though, there aren't any major deal-breakers with the Smooth Q2. Any pocket-sized gimbal is going to have some minor quirks and limitations – mostly down to the diminutive form – but Zhiyun has packed sufficient smarts into the Q2 to defuse any serious objections. The Q2 soon wins you over with its ease of use and accomplished feature set.
If you're interested in shooting (much) better video and becoming more 'filmic' in your feature presentations, the Smooth Q2 would be a great way to go.
Zhiyun Smooth Q2, £129 from Amazon (price correct at time of publication)
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