Hands-on review: Zhiyun Smooth-Q3 smartphone gimbal
Image credit: Zhiyun
Out and about or staying safe at home, with Zhiyun's latest smartphone gimbal you can capture your best video self wherever you go, day or night.
We looked at this unit's predecessor, the Smooth-Q2, and were impressed with its feature set, its capabilities and the photo and video results we got with it. What does the Q3 bring to the party?
The obvious standout new feature is the 4,300-kelvins warm-toned integrated fill light built into the clamp of the gimbal. This features three levels of brightness adjustment and touch-button control and can be rotated for either 180° front or rear lighting. This soft but powerful light contributes to a warmer, more natural skin tone and is well-suited to day or night-time use. Obviously at night, or in dark spaces indoors, having a dedicated light is immensely useful, making it much easier to capture clear portrait images or moody videos in low-light conditions.
It's a little like having your own professional studio lamp with you at all times, and the fact that you can adjust the brightness either for your selfie or your subject is crucial. Some of the latest smartphones have a dedicated 'Night Mode', which principally work by cranking up the ISO and adjusting the captured image in software, and some of the results can be very impressive. Regardless, for any phone, having a lamp directly on the gimbal is likely to produce better, more natural-looking results with less noise.
The Q3 has more to offer than just a new light. There are improvements across the board from the already delightful Q2, such as the very shape of the thing. The sleek black metal of the Q2's handle - which was a perfectly fine and attractive style - gives way on the Q3 to a more ergonomically shaped grey aesthetic, with indents where your fingers naturally rest to give a better, more comfortable hold and a textured palm rest for additional grip. These are subtle but welcome features when filming for extended periods.
The Q3 retains a similar folding design to the Q2 and, whilst not exactly pocket-friendly, it is small-bag or coat-pocket capable. However, the redesigned body here sees the Q3 unfurl beautifully, with a smooth sliding action that raises the smartphone clamping arm up and around, simultaneously swivelling the phone holder. You genuinely can go from pocket to shot in seconds.
The Q3 is also lighter than the Q2, weighing in at 340g, with a maximum stated payload (i.e. phone size) of 280g. For reference, the stated weight of an Apple iPhone 12 Max Pro (which is a beast) is 228g. The weight savings of the body have been achieved by moving from the Q2's aluminium to the Q3's plastic, which does affect the upscale feel, but the comfort improvements compensate for that.
One key change is that the upper arm of the gimbal is now longer, so the phone in the clamp is kept away from the hand grip in almost every conceivable position, regardless of the size of the phone. This was a minor inconvenience with the Q2, where a plus-sized phone would occasionally knock against the gimbal as there wasn't sufficient clearance. The Q3 appears to have solved this problem.
The triple-axis motor design of the Q3 is similar to the Q2 and moves as smoothly and reliably as its predecessor. There is the inevitable balancing to do first, to give the gimbal motors an idea of what smartphone payload they're working with. You could simply slap in a phone and start gimballing, but you'll be making the motors work a lot harder than they need to while they constantly compensate for the movement. A few minutes balancing will pay off in the long run. When shooting, the Smooth Q3 can pan (300º), tilt (340º) and roll (340º).
The core controls and button layout have also been improved on the Q3 for more natural thumb and finger access and a simplified workflow, which makes using the gimbal more instinctive once you learn the necessary. For example, the wide-angle toggle is on the left side of the handle, so your thumb can easily control zoom in and out, whilst double and triple trigger taps easily switch between different modes, such as moving from portrait to landscape orientation. You can pretty much do everything with just your thumb and fingers whilst holding the gimbal.
On the front of the handle, the round joystick control is used to orient the gimbal, and the further you push the joystick in any direction, the faster the gimbal responds and moves. There's a red record button, a mode button and that's your minimalist lot. The latter's indicator shows you which mode you're in, from a list of six possibilities: pan follow; follow; lock; POV (point of view); V (vortex), and Go. These modes will be familiar to most gimbal enthusiasts.
The more advanced, finessing features are all in the ZY Cami app. Zhiyun's improved companion app hosts 17 new 'SmartMode' video templates, which contain special effects and filters for quick, professional-looking results when created with the ZY Cami Editor. It's also the app which unlocks a lot of the new features, in terms of enhanced film-making.
There is now gesture control, where you can effectively remote control the shutter on your phone using specific hand signals. This is so handy (pun intended) for solo vloggers. There's also 'SmartFollow 3.0 Object Tracking' which, with a single press of the rear trigger button, is designed to keep a selected figure or object in the frame as it moves; the infinitely amusing MagicClone Pano, which allows you to reproduce multiple versions of yourself, in different poses if desired, within the same scene; and the Hitchcock-inspired 'Vertigo' classic camera technique of 'dolly in, zoom out', where the subject appears to come towards the camera as their surroundings recede. You've seen this visual cinematic trick used a million times in the movies, and Zhiyun's 'Dolly Zoom' feature in the ZY app makes a decent fist of capturing that feeling.
The app also allows for ultra-wide-angle shooting, to capture even the most expansive panoramic landscapes; control over ISO and shutter speed in manual mode, with shutter speeds as (s)low as half a second for those cool motion blur effects; and also provides the user with some funky in-app editing tricks to enhance the finished product, such as copying and pasting footage; reverse; adding stickers, subtitles and background music.
Inevitably, disappointingly, certain app features are restricted to 'ZY Prime' members, which is possibly another level of ownership that nobody needed. These 'exclusives' include online editing and face-tracking in cameras; glamour effects and short video apps, as well as integration with live-streaming platforms. If you also have Zhiyun's separate ZY Remo remote control feature, a second device can control the cellphone on the gimbal and switch between shooting modes and monitoring - e.g. your glamorous assistant can be operating the camera while you preen and star in the movie of your own life.
To be honest, these aren't really features general gimbal users are going to miss. They're nice to have, but not essential. We'd prefer it if companies would end this 'premium' baiting and just give us all the same features and functionality - especially when it's all in software. 'Unlocking' content just feels like gouging. Hardware bundles are different: you pays your money, you gets your spec. That's fair enough.
With that thought in mind, if you buy the 'Combo' pack - which is the better value of the two hardware bundles available - you get the Q3; a decent carrying case; the USB-C charging cable; the extension handle; a hand strap - plus a one-year membership card for Zhiyun Prime. With the 'Standard' pack, you just get the Q3, the handle and the USB-C charging cable. In our opinion, it's probably worth the £20 difference for the protective carrying case (and a hand strap is always useful), plus you'll get that fabled Prime membership, woot. At least, you'll have it for one year so you can evaluate those extra software features (Prime will cost you around £22 per year after that).
The Smooth-Q3 feels like Zhiyun's natural response to the Q2, in as much as the shortcomings of the Q2 have largely been addressed with the Q3. It's definitely lighter, smarter and more capable. While more serious, heavy-duty DSLR camera users will migrate upstream to pro-level gimbal products such as Zhiyun's own Weebill and Crane (or competing products from e.g. DGI and Osmo), it seems that the company is using the Q3 to target the more youthful, easy-going creators in the TikTok, YouTube, vlogging crowd, with the Q3's hardware improvements, easy video editing software features and that lovely built-in lamp. If you have a Q2, you'll almost certainly appreciate the Q3's advantages and if you're looking to get into vlogging, or you just want to shoot better balanced home movies on your phone, the Q3 would be a great place to start your own Hollywood journey.
(A 5 per cent discount is also offered to new customers)
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