Hands-on review: Zhiyun Smooth 5 smartphone gimbal
Image credit: Zhiyun
Lights, camera, action! Zhiyun's latest Smooth gimbal has its sights set on the filmmaker in you.
We've reviewed a number of Zhiyun gimbals in recent years, but that's not even the half of the Chinese firm's dizzying pace of releases, seemingly slotting a new gimbal into a specific niche every few months.
If it's not an entirely new gimbal range, it'll be a refresh of an existing product, often including those with an immediate predecessor still decidedly fresh in many people's minds.
Still, technology moves at a pace these days, you snooze you lose etc, so here we are checking out the Smooth 5, one up from the 4. What's new?
Moving as it must in tandem with advances in smartphone capability - which in turn raises exciting new use cases for the hardware, which in its way begets heightened creative demands from users of peripherals - Zhiyun is firmly positioning the Smooth 5 as the gimbal for the mobile filmmaker.
This is totally a thing now: with 4K video almost as standard on many handsets, there are few creative barriers for anyone wishing to capture broadcast-quality footage and produce amazing films - and many creatives are doing exactly that.
Footage still needs to be stable to cut the movie mustard and that's where a decent gimbal is top of the accessory list. With the Smooth 5, Zhiyun wants to step up this product line into the rarified atmosphere of the prosumer gadget. More than just another long-armed caddy for your iPhone while you snap selfies at sites of historic interest, the three-axis Smooth 5 has, like its predecessors, been designed to help you document your moving world, only this time even better than before.
Straight away, the Smooth 5 looks good. Its classic black metal construction, with soft rubber grips, steps away from the white and silver stylings of recent, more youthfully oriented, offerings and there's an overall pleasing solidity to the gimbal, with firm and chunky control dials and wheels. Such is the elegance of the Smooth 5's design, in fact, that it recently won a Red Dot Award for Product Design.
The Smooth 5 has been equipped with stronger professional magnetic steel motors with upgraded algorithms, along with a wider phone clamp with a smart lock design, so the gimbal can handle bigger and heavier phones more comfortably (e.g. iPhone 13 Pro MAX, Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold, Huawei Mate X2, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra).
With the body size actually reduced by 40 per cent and the motor at the rear, this all helps to prevent the gimbal from blocking shots at certain angles, even in low and super-wide angles or with additional lenses (fisheye, macro etc) attached.
There is also now the opportunity to attach a magnetic fill light (two, in fact, above and below the phone) to illuminate your subject. The lights actually work 360° for all-round lighting on both sides of the new phone clamp, although there's no option to control the brightness of the lights: they're either on or off. Peak brightness is stated as being 580 lumens, which is strong enough for a healthy light boost in dimly lit situations. The overall hue (5300K-5700K colour temperature by default) can be shifted from the standard warm white using the optional light filter pack, which allows for some pretty cool effects. The magnetic light and the four colour filter set are optional extras for the Standard pack. The lights and filters are bundled in the Combo pack.
Control of the gimbal has been optimised - but not simplified - such that every core function is within reach of your thumb and/or fingers. The dials and buttons feel good, so it's a pleasingly tactile experience operating the gimbal. The multifunctional control wheel that adjusts zoom and focus is a particular delight. It's also not too heavy as a gadget, at around 620g, so it's not a total bear to carry with you and use all day - although note that the Smooth 5 doesn't fold down to any great extent. There are other gimbals that become much more compact, if that's a concern for you.
At least with the Combo pack you do get a handy branded carry case for the gimbal, cables and accessories. You can sling the whole lot in there, zip it all up tight, then stash that in your regular day bag along with all your other working essentials.
Neat filming tricks available from the Smooth 5 include the classic cinematic 'Dolly Zoom', which can be initiated from the hardware, with further options such as Smart Follow (activated either by button press or gesture command, if you need to control filming from a distance), Timelapse, Slow Motion, Shot Reverse Shot, Magical Pano, Timelapse, Live Stream Master and the entertaining MagicClone (whereby multiple iterations of the same person can be in the same shot) all available in the ZY Cami app.
While the Cami app can definitely help simplify fancy operations such as those above, the app's performance and overall appearance is a disappointing running theme with Zhiyun gimbals. With certain features and functionality obliging users to work via the app, you'd think Zhiyun would have put more development effort into it. As things stand, it remains a source of clunky frustration. It mostly works OK, but again we're left thinking that perhaps Zhiyun should spend more time on coding a rock-solid version of this essential app instead of pumping out new gimbals. The users would undoubtedly appreciate the effort.
That said, if you choose to largely avoid the Cami app, the gimbal hardware is excellent. The app is probably aimed more at beginners, with new video templates bristling with filters, music, special effects and stickers. More experienced users can simply crack on with their filming.
From the hardware, you can quickly access the most useful features and settings, such as resolution and frame rate; shutter, ISO and white balance; opening your photo album, and starting and stopping recording. Incidentally, video resolution can be set to 720P, 1080P or 4K at 24fps, 25fps, 30fps and 60fps frame rates (all depending on your smartphone model).
The Smooth 5 works in a similar fashion to other Zhiyun gimbals, as well as those from rival companies such as DJI. On the Smooth 5, the motors on each axis will lock or stabilise the smartphone depending on what mode you are using, be it Pan follow mode (PF); Lock mode (L); Follow mode (F); Point of View mode (POV); Vortex mode (V), or Go mode.
In use, the Smooth 5 doesn't support automatically switching between portrait and landscape orientation: manual rotation and rebalancing is required. Perhaps this isn't so surprising, given that the Smooth 5 is positioned as a mobile filmmaker's tool, where the shot and camera position will typically have been decided in advance. For the more casual gimbal user, who wants to shoot from the hip, on the fly, there are other models that might be more suitable for that approach.
You will have to go through the rebalancing process every time you change the orientation or switch phone models, as the weighted bar will require adjustment so that the motors can work most efficiently. Again, this might not be best-suited to beginners or people who want to constantly be flipping their camera aspect around, but for more serious filmmakers with a clear filming vision in mind - and a smartphone tool of choice with which to execute that vision - locking their hardware perfectly into the Smooth 5 and being ready to roll will be a perfectly acceptable state of affairs.
We did notice some motor noise each time the gimbal was balancing, so if you're tracking an entirely silent scene and relying on the phone's mic, you will pick up a bit of this audio with your footage. Chances are that if you're serious about your filmmaking, you will most likely be capturing your audio on another device anyway, so this may be moot.
Battery life with the Smooth 5 is decent, with a 2600mAh battery installed for a projected 12-hour runtime and two-hour fast charging capability. Battery life will inevitably be reduced if you're operating fill lights, but the good news is that the Smooth 5 can be charged by a portable power bank, plus it can also simultaneously charge the phone via its USB Type-C port.
A small tripod mount is also included, which screws into the bottom of the gimbal. It doesn't add a lot of length - unlike the extension handles for other models - but the three extendable legs at least create a stable base for filming and photography work.
The Smooth 5 is a very good gimbal, designed with mobile photo and filmography in mind. It is eminently capable and unapologetically full-featured, which means that total beginners might find it overwhelming, but more professional enthusiasts will appreciate its depths. Perhaps it is less for the holidaymaker and more for the committed filmmaker, but any user prepared to take the time to learn its controls and operation should find that the Smooth 5 rewards them with stable and beautiful footage.
Standard package, £159
Zhiyun Smooth 5 Mobile Movie Contest
Below are two winning entries submitted to Zhiyun's Smooth 5 Mobile Movie Contest. These videos were winners in the 'Behind The Scenes' category and help to illustrate the potential in mobile filmmaking, using primarily just a smartphone and a gimbal.
The judging panel for the contest included representatives from Zhiyun, Insta360, Artlist, Artgrid, Motion Array, NANLITE, SmallRig and ESRgear. The five main categories were narrative, mini documentary, adventure, music and dance, and how-to. More winners can be found on YouTube.
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