Hands-on review: Benro Snoppa VMate camera
Image credit: Benro
Steadicam-style filming effects with kit that fits in your pocket
Benro is best known for its tripods and gimbals but this is its first camera. It’s a clever little digital device that’s built into a gimbal small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It smashed its Indiegogo target and is now available to buy.
We’ll rewind: if you’re not a filmmaker then you may not be familiar with gimbals. They’re basically a modern alternative to a Steadicam - a large contraption that carefully balances a handheld video camera with weights to smooth out movements on all axes.
A gimbal instead detects even tiny movements and uses motors to create a counter-movement so quickly that it cancels it out. The resulting footage is far smoother than just using a camera’s built-in image stabilisation.
Gimbals have got much better – and much smaller – in recent years and now some are ridiculously small and affordable. So they’re not just for budding filmmakers. If you want to shoot skating or parkour, you’re going to film with a gimbal. In fact, they’re taking over from rugged mini cameras like the GoPro as the pocket gizmo of choice for capturing action.
Gimbals for mobile phones are affordable and look a bit like unextended selfie sticks. They add a handle to your phone. But you have to balance the phone perfectly on top by fine tuning its position in two or three axes. Then putting the phone on and off the gimbal is a pain because it always needs to be calibrated again.
What we love about the Benro Snoppa VMate it that it’s immediately ready to use. You don’t need a phone at all, everything is built in. However, the square touchscreen is tiny at 3cm (measured diagonally) so you can optionally clip your phone on instead: the VMate connects to your phone wirelessly and the Snoppa app gives you touchscreen controls for the gimbal. They pair simply via a direct Wi-Fi connection and there’s no fiddly physical setup because the phone doesn’t need to be balanced: it clips on securely but you’re simply using it for the larger screen.
The camera’s specs include 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, recording onto a microSD memory card, so you really can make proper films with it. The same can be said for the latest Apple and Samsung phones and a few other handsets, but not most brands – they typically record 4K at 30fps.
It’s slim and light at 118g. Packed up it’s barely bigger than a Mars bar. The top part of the case can be stowed at the bottom to extend the grip, but more likely you’ll pocket it. The bottom part of the case includes the grips to securely attach a phone. There’s a small power button on the side and then your phone screen becomes the controls. Or remove the case and you have an even slimmer device that’s the nicest to hold.
Switch it on with the tiny button on the right-hand side and it starts by calibrating itself. This looks mad as the camera turns itself back and forth on all three axes to sense its position. Then you’re ready to film what is seriously the smoothest video you’ve ever shot.
It’s great that the clip-on phone is optional because there are pros and cons. Add the phone and you have a vastly bigger screen with all the controls at your fingertips. But without the phone attached, the gimbal is more manoeuvrable because you can hold it between thumb and two fingers. You can hold it lightly and follow your subject, moving your hand freely without the camera lurching. The results are stunning: its 81° wide-angle lens is filmic and doesn’t distort your subject matter.
Other modes include 12 megapixel still photos, timelapse, hyperlapse, slo-mo, first-person point of view and more. More importantly though, you can take shots that would be impossible without a gimbal: use the built-in motors to pan around, detect and track your subject, tilt and more. Sound is handled by your phone microphone or the VMate’s built-in stereo mics with noise cancellation. The gimbal’s motors are quiet.
One of our favourite tricks though was to set the VMate on a table (sadly there’s no tripod mount) and use the phone as a remote control to pan around with the camera.
We loved the various modes with one exception: the Broadcaster mode, which uses the phone’s built-in selfie camera for vlogging at the same time, looks great, but when we replayed it the two weren’t in sync with each other.
The Benro Snoppa VMate is a great buy for budding filmmakers who want something fun and pocketable. Its standout feature compared with gimbals is that it’s always ready for action with no calibration.
DJI Pocket 2
Like the VMate, this is a three-axis gimbal with built-in camera, which means it’s ready to use, without complex calibration. Use it as a standalone camera to shoot smooth, stabilised 4K video, but you can’t clip on your smartphone.
Zhiyun Smooth XS
This three-in-one accessory is a smartphone gimbal (two-axis), a tripod and a selfie stick. It’s lightweight and packs down small. There are joystick controls on the grip or, if you’re the subject, you can control the gimbal with hand gestures.
Zhiyun Smooth Q2
If the XS is for great TikToks, this is for great low-budget filmmaking. It’s still a smartphone gimbal, but this time three-axis, more features, fewer gimmicks and a much longer battery life (17 hours of use). You can even use it to charge your phone as you film.
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