Smartphones are dramatically improving their digital image stabilisation with each generation, as such, external stabilisers are no longer the necessity they once were, at least for casual users.
However, if you’re more serious about your smartphone filmmaking, a gimbal can really elevate the smoothness to the next level, as well as offer handy additional features.
Zhiyun knows this, and instead of targeting the mass market, has come out with something that’s aimed squarely at prosumer-level content creation, the Smooth 5S.
This is a smartphone gimbal that looks like it means business, it’s big, weighty and covered with tactile manual controls – making it the polar opposite of DJI’s tiny and lightweight Osmo Mobile 6.
So, how does this tool perform? We’ve been putting it to the test to find out if such a hefty smartphone gimbal makes sense in 2023.
Zhiyun Smooth 5s
This gimbal won’t be for everyone, it’s more of a professional filmmaking tool than a mobile phone accessory, but if that’s what you need – then the Zhiyun Smooth 5S does the job well.
- Quality look and feel
- Tactile and precise controls
- Long battery life
- Works with heavy payloads
- Excellent range of motion
- It’s pretty huge
- App features behind a paywall
- No quick switching between vertical/horizontal
- Dimensions: 311 x 168 x 52 mm, 625 grams
- Built-in fill light, optional magnetic lights
First things first, this is a very large gimbal, to the point where it’s about the same size as some of Zhiyun’s mirrorless camera gimbals. It doesn’t fold down to a smaller size, either, so it’s not the most portable option for travellers.
This design works to its advantage in some regards, though. It has an extremely comfortable grip, for starters, and the larger controls make it easier to adjust with precision.
The weight is also an advantage when it comes to stability, as it’s easier to keep your hands and arms steady when gripping something with a bit more heft to it. Of course, this also means that you’ll feel this gimbal weighing down your backpack.
We’re testing the white version, which has a pretty bold look, with contrasting black accents that remind us of a stormtrooper from Star Wars. We’re very fond of the design, but if you prefer something more subtle, it’s also available with a professional dark grey finish.
A new feature for this model is the addition of a fill light, situated on the rear of the smartphone clamp. This has an adjustable brightness, controlled by a wheel on the front of the gimbal, and it gets surprisingly bright. It’s a heck of a lot brighter than the LED unit on your phone, and it also has much better diffusion, so shadows aren’t quite as harsh.
The disadvantage of this design is that it only works with the rear camera. However, you can add additional magnetic lights that clip onto the top and bottom of the clamp, and they can be placed backwards for selfie shooting – or to supplement the main light with additional lumens.
You get one of these magnetic lights if you opt for the combo pack, which also comes with a nice carrying case, or they can be purchased on their own for about $30 each.
One thing that’s worth noting with these lights, is that the built-in fill light will always be active when they’re in use. The dimming controls are universal, so no matter which way they are oriented, all attached lights will shine at the same brightness.
- Max payload: 280 grams
- 360-degree panning, 259-degree roll, 209-degree tilt
The design of the Smooth 5S means that it needs balancing before use, and if you have a larger phone, you’ll likely need to redo this every time you unlock the arms. This is due to the way that the arms fold into each other, if you need to extend past the 2.5 marker, then the horizontal arm will hit the pan motor, so you’ll need to slide it back to a shorter setting.
Thankfully, balancing is a pretty painless process, you only really need to fiddle with a single adjustment point, rather than the three-point system found on some professional mirrorless gimbals.
Once you have the balance point figured out, it’s simply a case of remembering where it needs locking on the numbered slider, and then you’ll be able to set it up fairly quickly each time you use it.
What’s more of a pain, is that you also need to rebalance when switching from horizontal to vertical recording. This is something that can be done with a couple of button taps on competing gimbals, and here it’s much more of an involved process.
However, while this is all a bit of faff, especially compared to clip-and-go solutions like the DJI Osmo Mobile 6, it can yield better results. This is especially true if you have an unusually weighted phone, like the top-heavy Vivo X90 Pro that we tested with, or if you like to use clip-on lens adapters.
We found that we got significantly smoother results with the Smooth 5S, and we suspect that a lot of this is down to the balancing. The DJI option offers basically no adjustments, so the motors have to work much harder to keep things stable – although there’s a lot to be said for its convenience.
Another factor that helps out a lot is the wide range of motion on all axes. This means that you can go from high to low angles seamlessly and smoothly, whereas gimbals with a more limited range tend to hit their limiter, resulting in a sharp judder in your footage.
The pan axis can spin infinitely, which makes the “vortex” mode work especially well. And while it’s not a feature that we tend to use very often, its implementation here is probably the best we’ve seen on any smartphone gimbal. It also means that subject tracking is much more versatile, but more on that later.
Software and features
- 2 hours PD fast charging, up to 24 hours runtime
- ZY Cami and StaCam for iOS and Android
The Zhiyun Smooth 5S’s battery seemingly lasts forever, we’ve had our sample unit for a while now, it’s only been charged once, and it’s showing no signs of needing a top-up.
Zhiyun says you can expect up to 24 hours of runtime on a charge, and when you consider that most continuous shots are a few minutes at most, those 24 hours go a very long way. This mammoth runtime could also make it a good choice for motion timelapses over extended periods – if that’s your kind of thing.
When it comes time to charge, it’s done so via a USB-C port on the handle, which is covered by a rubber bung. The Smooth 5S utilises fast-charging USB-C PD tech, which means that with the appropriate charger, it’ll go from flat to full in around 2 hours.
There’s also a USB-C output found near the phone clamp, which you can use to charge your phone from the gimbal’s battery. However, the design of the clamp means that it’s difficult to do so. You’ll need a right-angled USB-C/Lightning cable, and then you’ll have to hope that it doesn’t make your phone stick out too far to balance properly. This is definitely a feature that could be improved.
Zhiyun has two separate apps that work with the Smooth 5S. There’s ZY Cami, which is a general-purpose app that’s aimed at the mass market, and StaCam, which is a more professional offering, allowing access to more manual controls and advanced features.
We can see the logic here, Zhiyun wants to keep ZY Cami accessible and simple for the average user, while still making more professional tools available in StaCam. The way that it’s done is pretty clumsy and unintuitive, though.
To us, it makes more sense to have a single professional app for the Smooth 5S. Nothing else about this gimbal is targeted toward the average consumer, so why would the app need to be?
What’s more frustrating is that some of the advanced features like the ability to use LUTs and focus peaking are locked behind a paywall. You’ll need Zhiyun’s Prime+ subscription to access them which will cost you an additional $24.99 / £22.49 per year, or $2.49/ £2.29 per month.
You also have to exit the StaCam app and go to the ZY Cami app in order to subscribe to features that are only available in StaCam, which is weird. There’s a free trial to Zhiyun Prime included in the box, but not to Prime+, so it’s all horrendously confusing and unnecessary – especially since we don’t think that these features should cost extra.
Rant aside, the apps do their respective jobs pretty well and don’t require any of the sideloading malarkey that DJI requires on Android devices. In them, you’ll find all of the usual gimbal features like the ability to record motion timelapses, hyperlapses, panoramas and the like, as well as comprehensive beautification features, if that floats your boat.
One of the most important app features, in our view, is subject tracking. This is present in the ZY Cami app, but not StaCam (for some reason). It works well with human subjects, but it’s not quite on par with DJI’s system and is more definitely more easily confused when there’s a lack of contrast.
The Zhiyun Smooth 5S is a niche product that’s designed for serious filmmaking with a smartphone. It forgoes convenience and portability in favour of quality and tactility.
In many ways, it achieves what it sets out to, the hardware is excellent, the stability is top notch and the compatibility is unparalleled.
The software is a definite pain point though, it’s confusing and it wants more of your hard-earned cash. That said, every feature that we needed was available for free, and the majority of the time we tend to shoot with the phone’s native camera app for the optimum quality anyway.
The Smooth 5S also works with Filmic Pro, if you use that, but this wasn’t something we were able to test.
If you’re looking to take your smartphone filmmaking to the next level, and don’t mind carrying around some bulky equipment to do so, then we think the Zhiyun Smooth 5S is an excellent option.