Hands-on review: Zhiyun Crane M3 camera gimbal
Image credit: Zhiyun
Everything's all white with Zhiyun's latest gimbal, a pro-level model for smartphones and action cams as well as DSLR, mirrorless and compact cameras.
Like it's smartphone-specific sibling, the Smooth 5 (which we reviewed previously), the Crane M3 is also a Red Dot Award 2022 winner for its product design.
Certainly, on looks alone the Crane M3 is an eye-catcher. Switching from the traditional/typical grey and black tones of pretty much every gimbal out there, with the M3 Zhiyun has gone all-out on white. Even the very useful backpack that comes with the Combo and Pro Kit options is white.
While this might not be our #1 colour of choice for a backpack (although it is undeniably a very useful, well-designed bag for stashing your camera and lenses, plus the gimbal and its accessories), for the gimbal body itself the new colour is quite lovely. Mostly white on the handle, with a subtle red accent, contrasting with black on the metal camera clamps. It's a good-looking gadget.
It also feels good in the hand. While there didn't seem to be anything intrinsically wrong with previous gimbal design, the Crane M3's stockier, chunkier handle is an ergonomic improvement. The overall weight distribution, when loaded with a camera, feels well-balanced and the composite materials used on the handle enhance grip and thus afford greater control overall of gimbal and camera.
The new handle design also puts all control buttons and wheels and the joystick within easy reach of pretty much any size fingers, plus there's the neat all-new, full-color 1.22" touchscreen directly on the body for immediate access to core features and settings. Zhiyun has adopted the smartphone handling paradigm, where your thumb can do most of the tapping work efficiently and effectively.
While smaller than previous gimbals, the Crane M3 features angled rear motors and what Zhiyun refers to as "optimised axis arms" - featuring the charmingly named 'Poka-Yoke' design - which essentially means that the M3's design builds on previous generations to be able to support a wide range of camera styles and body weights (a full list is on the Zhiyun website) and deliver the stable, smooth footage you need and expect.
Zhiyun has also considered the demands of long shoots, with the M3 offering a universal quick release plate that allows the user to quickly change camera battery without entirely removing the camera from the gimbal, thus avoiding the need to go through the whole rebalancing act. When you do want to separate camera from gimbal, the M3 has Zhiyun's 'Quick Release 4.0' - an upgraded quick-release system designed to make balancing, assembly and disassembly easier, a procedure clearly indicated on the body with a red button.
On the subject of long shoots, the M3 supports the 'PD Fast Charge' protocol, with two hours of charge giving you up to eight hours of runtime from the 1150mAh battery, depending of course on how many features you're using and how hard you're torquing those axis motors. Neatly, there's also a USB-C slot in the body, so the gimbal can be charged with a power bank whilst continuing to operate.
The Crane M3 also comes with a built-in dual-colour temperature LED fill light directly within the gimbal housing, which typically sits to the right of your camera's lens. Often in the past it's been necessary to have a separate light source, either as an optional accessory or as something entirely standalone and separate from the gimbal. The Smooth 5, for example, can accomodate two magnetic light attachments, available as an add-on for the core gimbal.
While this approach has its pros and cons - you don't always need a light source and it's sometimes creatively beneficial to have the light source separate from the camera point of view - most of the time having the M3's small (2cm) but deceptively bright 800-lumen (average) lighting available on demand is undeniably a good thing.
The light is also continuously adjustable, both in terms of colour temperature (2,600K to 5,400K) and brightness (0 to 800 lumens), using the gimbal's control wheel, so you can find your lighting sweet spot. All three Kit options also come with the same four colour filters that were available for the Smooth 5's light. For many typical talking head, piece-to-camera shoots, both indoors and outdoors, the M3's little light will be enough and saves you having to remember to pack extra equipment. It helps you capture better low-light photos and video, reducing image noise from your camera's sensor.
The expansion base for the gimbal (included with the Pro Kit option) has a receiver built-in, which can be paired with the transmitter module for wireless control of cameras via Bluetooth where supported, e.g. to trigger your camera's shutter button.
The base module also has a 1/4" threaded hole, supporting additional accessory expansion, while a separate 1/4" audio jack enables the connection of devices such as a wired microphone - e.g the Zhiyun-branded one included with the Pro Kit. This is, naturally, white. It's also a decent mic, with a cardioid/hypercardioid pattern and a foam windscreen, and with the cables to connect it also included in the Pro box it makes for a solid all-in-one A/V capture bundle.
We applaud Zhiyun for going with a 1/4" audio jack, as this is the more professional-size socket. A lot of creatives already have a dynamic microphone or two knocking around, so they'll be able to use them with a standard XLR-1/4" mic lead and plug straight in.
Balancing camera hardware with the M3 has been perceived as a mixed bag, as attested by other online reviewers, some of whom took issue with the stiffness of the locks (which seems more like a positive to us; a solidly locking lock is preferable to an easy-sliding lock), while others raised issues with the eyepieces of specific cameras knocking against the gimbal body in certain axis situations (YMMV indeed - check the camera compatability list).
From our own experience, the balancing process with the M3 was no more nor less arduous than any previous gimbals we've tested. It's always a bit of a faff, especially when you want to change a lens or swap out a completely different device, but this is somewhat the nature of the beast. If you want the most stable footage, for each specific device, you've got to put in the hard yards and balance each one. We didn't have any serious issues with the M3's axis locks and thumb locks.
The M3 controls the standard three axes of movement and rotation (pitch/tilt, 309°; roll, 333°; yaw/pan, 360°) and has the same shooting modes familiar to us from past Zhiyun gimbals, including follow, pan follow, lock, point of view, vortex and portrait.
Also familiar to us is the Zhiyun iOS and Android app, which enables additional control of the gimbal as well as offering templated creative options. We're not exactly power users of the app, but it's always there if you want or need it (e.g. firmware updates to the gimbal are done via the app).
How you use the M3 is entirely up to you. It does support everything from smartphones to action cameras, and from compact cameras to full-frame mirrorless cameras (with certain lenses), so you have many options when it comes to your shoot. It also makes the M3 a great all-rounder, smoothing out the jitters on (virtually) any device you throw at it. For smartphones, an adjustable mount is included that can accommodate phones up to the size of an iPhone 13 Pro Max. That's a big phone.
Zhiyun keeps surging forward, releasing new gimbals and updating existing models at a dizzying pace, although to be fair the compact and DSLR camera market is equally fast-moving. Rather than pushing the limits of a gimbal, it makes more sense as a user to allow the setup more headroom so the motors can operate comfortably - you'll get better video footage that way, courtesy of greater overall stability.
If you have a very heavy DSLR, or use specific long lenses, you might consider moving up to a more heavy-duty gimbal, such as Zhiyun's Weebill 2. The Crane M3's sweet spot - noting its stated maximum payload of around 2.2kg - is with smaller-body DSLRs and mirrorless compact cameras, as well as smartphones.
Naturally, before considering any gimbal purchase, particularly if you're looking at one of the M3's more premium-priced options such as Combo or Pro Kit, you should check on compatibility with your camera hardware. There is a long list of blessed models on Zhiyun's website, so check there; also check user feedback online.
Whether to buy or not is most likely to depend on what camera hardware you already own or are intending to use with the M3. If you can find the right combination, the Crane M3 is a mini marvel. It supports a broad range of shooting options and helps capture excellent, professional, stable footage.
Its size is also less obtrusive than a bigger body pro gimbal, which makes the M3 a good choice for holidays, public spaces, reportage and street photography/videography days. It folds down neatly to fit into almost any day bag and doesn't weigh too much (around 700g), so it's comfortable enough to always have with you. Once you have the hang of the balancing process for your camera hardware, you should be able to whip the M3 out and start shooting in a matter of minutes.
The Crane M3 is another great gimbal from Zhiyun. If you're intrigued by its accommodating do-it-all nature, your remaining decision might only be which of the three Kits suits your needs.
Standard Kit, £369; Combo Kit, £449.00; Pro Kit, £649.00
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