Is the Ronin-S as good as everyone says it is?
Ah, camera stabilizers. The candy-coated mechanical goodness that create buttery smooth composition. For years I’ve been jumping between Steadicam and Glidecam models over motorized gimbals because of familiarity. They’ve become an extension of my body to the point where I don't need to think about how to use them. And that’s key for me as an operator. Not thinking but doing. Missing a shot is downright awful.
But I’ve always wanted to change my bias against motorized gimbals. When Tabb Firchau showed me the MoVi M10 at NAB 2013, its design was innovative and has been replicated many times since. But even with the smaller M5, I couldn’t get on board—it’s just a different way to operate—and I’ve become increasingly jealous of some MoVi operators out there.
When Zhiyun and DJI released the Crane 3 and Ronin-S in 2018, and now the Ronin-SC for smaller payloads, I figured it was time to take a small step closer. After a quick soft test, I preferred the Ronin-S because of its ergonomics and asked Utah-based videographer and photographer Lance Robbins, who has a ton of experience with motorized gimbals, to come along for a field test and keep me in check.
Note our test was not scientific, nor was it in a controlled environment. The footage itself is direct from camera without any camera stabilization or color correction added in post. We wanted to put the Ronin-S in a gritty, dirty location and walk on uneven terrain and sandy beaches to see the results in different operation modes. Your results will change based on camera setup, conditions, and operator. We paired the Ronin-S with a Sony a7R III and a Sony Vario-Tessar T FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS lens.
Out of the box, the Ronin-S has an all-metal design offering 3-axis stabilization: roll, pan, and tilt. As mentioned, the ergonomics feel great in hand. What I didn’t like about the Crane 3 was the plastic handle on the back. You need to operate it further from your body and that can take its toll during long takes. However, underslung mode on the Crane 3 is much better than the Ronin-S, especially when transitioning from high to low or low to high. As for weight, the Ronin-S comes in at 4.1 lbs (1.86 kg) and can handle a payload capacity just under 8 lbs (3.6 kg).
Setup & Balancing
Putting the main pieces of the Ronin-S together was simple, as was balancing the Sony a7R III. The gimbal uses a Manfrotto-style base plate for straightforward camera balancing. We did have to tweak it a bit to get all three axes balanced but the levers made it easy. In all, the initial setup took roughly 8 minutes. If you do run into trouble, DJI does have an instructional video.
The Ronin-S has a mode button (M), a joystick and a front trigger for different operations. The M mode button has three programmable profiles. By default, the difference between the three is the sensitivity of the motors. Profile 1 will react to movements faster than 3. You can also program a profile with a feature like infinite roll via the DJI Ronin app—a shot that can be accomplished operating in flashlight mode and by moving the joystick to the left or right. Also, if you hold down the M button while operating, it switches to sports mode and the Ronin-S will follow your movements as quickly as it can.
The joystick provides manual control over the motors. Again, depending on sensitivity settings, the motors will react accordingly. The front trigger has a few different operations. By default, the Ronin-S follows your movements as you rotate left or right or tilt up or down. To lock your tilt or pan, you can hold down the front trigger. Then when you move the camera it will remain level in the locked position. Triple-tapping the front trigger puts the Ronin-S in selfie mode and a double-tap resets it to the default position.
Apps can be hit or miss. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve wasted trying to pair cameras to phone or devices. I didn’t even want to dive into the Ronin app, but Lance has more patience than I do and says it’s a must download, especially if you want to program the mode button or remotely control the Ronin-S.
Through the app, we did run the balance test to check the manual balancing. When passed, the words “excellent” will appear for roll, tilt, and pan. If not, you’ll see “needs to be rebalanced.” Next, we ran the autotune feature under the motor parameters menu. This calibrates the Ronin-S motors to the balanced setup of the camera. DJI suggests running autotune each time you switch cameras or lenses. Since we always ran autotune, we can’t detail its effectiveness when comparing it to not running it.
Diving into the app, there are a lot of options that allow you to remotely control the Ronin-S. In the create section, there are selectable modes for video, panorama, timelapse, motionlapse, and track.
The first three you should be familiar with, but motionlapse lets you create a moving timelapse selecting up to five designated points. Track is similar to motionlapse, but gives you ten points and duration settings for each point.
The three basic modes are upright, underslung, and flashlight. Upright allows for one or two-handed operation (but is best with two), underslung is for shots low to the ground, and flashlight mode is where the gimbal is held horizontally with the camera facing straight out.
Being old school, I was already at a disadvantage when it comes to memorizing the different buttons and presets, but after a few hours, I did get a handle on everything. Lance was able to pick things up right away. An early standout was the angled roll motor. The Crane 3 has one too and this design should be standard on all similarly constructed gimbals as nothing blocks the camera’s viewfinder while operating.
To test the overall weight, we took a 3-mile roundtrip trek to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park and visited Goblin Valley State Park. Lance found the entire rig to be well balanced, easy to handle and still light enough to not be cumbersome. I don't tout the same strength as Lance and had a little difficulty holding the rig for an extended period of time. But I’ve always had similar problems operating the Fig Rig or MoVi M10/M5. I prefer the bulk of the weight coming from a vest.
However, one advantage of the Ronin-S is the ability to attach the tripod accessory to the bottom. It not only creates a stand but acts like a grip extension. Another thing we found ourselves doing was placing the bottom of the Ronin-S against our hip to absorb some of the weight between takes.
When using the Sony a7R III’s continuous autofocus, it worked exceptionally well. Even on the rough Utah terrain—sandy washes and mountainsides—we were able to record tack sharp footage. We also connected the Multi-Camera Control cable (MCC-Multi) to the Sony a7R III which gives control over recording, shutter, and autofocus. The focus knob is well-positioned but Lance felt it did lack overall responsiveness at times.
As a one-handed gimbal, the Ronin-S works best tracking a subject in upright mode or when pedestaling up or down. We both agreed that all other movements really required two hands for maximum stabilization. One advanced feature Lance enjoyed was the aforementioned track feature. Once programmed, the Ronin-S did all the heavy lifting. When we were able to find a flat surface, we shot photographs and both Lance and I were impressed by the image capture.
After several days of desert shooting, the sand, dust, and dirt didn’t slow down the brushless motors on the Ronin-S. We also found the larger motors performed well resisting wind while tracking subjects in the open air. DJI says you can film out of vehicles operating at speeds up to 46 mph (75 kph). Lastly, the motors are exceptionally quiet which is good news for those wanting to attach a microphone to the camera.
Battery life is as advertised with 12 hours of run time and a two and half hour full charging time. We shot for over 8 hours with no issues and still had enough juice to shoot some sunrise footage the next day.
We did set up the Command Unit which gives the operator access to the Ronin app functions. With a single button acting as the joystick and selector, users can scroll through multiple menus quickly and easily. It’s a solid option for those who need to access features without being able to place the rig down. We found it the most useful when shooting the same shot multiple times with different motorized movements on rough terrain.
The Ronin-S Focus Motor is another accessory worth considering even if you mainly use the camera’s autofocus. The unit has an all-metal design and works directly with the focus knob. If you’re not using a lens equipped with a standard 0.8 module (32 pitch), the accessory kit includes gear strips that connect to the ring. The strips are 14.8" (37.6 cm) long and fit lenses 30 to 110mm in diameter.
I won’t begin comparing the DJI Focus Motor to something like the ARRI MFF-2 or the Zacuto Z-Drive—you just can’t—but it does work as advertised. Single-button operation on the focus motor shuffles through iris, focus, and zoom. There’s auto-calibration for lenses with mechanical hard stops and the focus motor reacts well when turning the focus wheel using only one finger. Keep in mind, any lens that touts autofocus can go from close focus to infinity very quickly, so perfecting your rack focus can take some time. One thing to note is that the Focus Motor does make some noise and can be picked up by a mounted microphone.
Learning the Ronin-S is fairly easy, but to truly seize all of its functionalities it will take some time and practice. If you’re more familiar with Steadicam or Glidecam stabilizers, the major learning curve is getting used to the speed of the motors and how the overall rig reacts to body movements. The most notable feature for me was its form factor when comparing it to a full Steadicam setup. In crowds, few people take notice. There’s no “oh look, a camera guy” stares, which is a bonus when you need to be inconspicuous.
To me, footage can look robotic at times so it’s important to figure out how to fine-tune your touch and settings. Operator experience plays a huge part in all of this. Practice. Practice. Practice. It can take months to achieve the perfect “ninja walk.” Lance highly recommends the Ronin-S and says he will continue to welcome it as his go-to camera setup for handheld shots going forward.
Overall, having a gimbal that can be operated with one hand without being physically exhausted can give you confidence as a one-man production crew, especially for those starting out. The Ronin-S is well-engineered for its price point and it’s practically a steal for the $559 Essential Kit. While I'm not entirely convinced yet, the Ronin-S has changed my attitude towards motorized gimbals. Now I just need more time to practice.