More often than not, it seems photographers become content creators, whether it’s just to document family or friends, or whether it’s something a little more intense, like filming a small video for a business for which you’re also creating photographs. It might even involve larger products where you’re doing multimedia, short films, and stills – the whole nine yards, so to speak!
Those of us who started with stills photography and then added moving pictures to our arsenal will likely have that one memory where we simply put our camera into Video mode and tried to create an epic cinematic masterpiece, only for it to turn out a shaky mess (albeit a shaky mess we were proud of!).
Skip forward, and it might be time to up your production value and add a stabilizer to your rig. There are many options out there, and many good options at that! We were offered the Zhiyun Crane-M3 Combo to try out, and here are our thoughts on the snappy little unit!
The Zhiyun Crane-M3 Combo: Overview
The Zhiyun Crane-M3 Combo comes in its own bag/mini-backpack and packs in as a perfectly compact kit with everything you need to create stable films on your phone or mirrorless camera. Included in the bundle is a compact tripod as well as an adapter to mount your phone on the M3.
The M3 is what can only be described as a compact gimbal. It’s not quite as large (or heavy!) as those I’ve used in the past, but it still manages to hold a medium-sized rig just fine, like my Sony a7R III with the highly underrated Tamron 28-75mm lens (a very versatile combination for filming!).
The Zhiyun Crane-M3 Combo: Features
The Zhiyun Crane-M3 has some great features that cross over from photography to filmmaking, including slow-motion, motion-lapse, time-lapse, hyper-lapse, and panorama, as well as its SMART mode, which allows you to choose from a range of built-in templates. By using the SMART mode, you can automatically add certain camera movements, color grading, transitions, special effects, and music, depending on the template.
The gimbal also has a Portrait mode, which does exactly that: It switches the camera to record in portrait mode. Therefore, if you’re on a shoot and you want to create some content for social media, Reels, or TikTok, you don’t have to do that nasty 16:9 to 9:16 crop afterward; you just shoot how you want it! There’s also a Vortex mode, which sets the camera to point straight up. You can then have the camera spin as you film – kinda like it’s in a vortex – to create some awesome-looking footage.
As a photographer who likes to create a little video from time to time (rather than a filmmaker who takes the occasional photograph), what makes the Crane-M3 a great tool to have is that it’s compact! It can take a camera phone, an action camera like the GoPro, or even a mirrorless camera. I felt like the Sony a7R III with my 28-75mm Tamron lens was as big as I’d like to go with the Crane-M3; that said, I have no complaints about how it performed!
You spend a little time making sure to balance the three axes of the gimbal as best you can (made much easier by the included tabletop tripod), and the M3 will handle the load fine. When I set the camera up with the Sony a6300 and Tamron 20mm lens, it was a super snappy and very responsive little unit! In “Go” mode, the gimbal is quicker to respond, but I’d imagine that it gives the onboard battery a bit more of a workout.
The battery isn’t replaceable, but you can charge it on the go, so you can always attach a USB-C battery bank and stuff it in your pocket if you’re getting low on power. Zhiyun claims the Crane-M3 should last around eight hours during normal use, which is a long time to be filming, so you should be just fine!
I also tried the Zhiyun Crane-M3 with my iPhone 14 Pro Max, and while it felt like I was sailing a small ship (the iPhone’s kinda wide, come on!), it worked like a champ. Paired with Filmic Pro, it’s a great little content-creating rig! I will add, though, that it took some setting up. Getting the iPhone even and stable on all axes was a task that took an extra-strong coffee, but I got there in the end.
I’ll mention that you can add a Bluetooth module (sold separately) to the Crane-M3 that allows you to control other cameras than those for which the kit includes a cable (there’s a camera-compatibility list here). I was fortunate to have two cameras on the list, so I can’t speak to the Bluetooth functionality.
You can also adjust many functions using the Zhiyun Play app. I found it super handy when setting up things like time-lapse – my thumbs and the small screen were not always friends, but the screen on the gimbal works fine, is responsive, and is bright in regular daylight.
The M3 also hosts a front-mounted LED light (let’s call it a modeling lamp). It’s not super bright, and as it’s a small source, it’s not going to be the most flattering. It is adjustable in terms of output and color temperature, and you can magnetically snap on the included filters to create a different look. However, if you’re hoping to actually light a subject, I’d maybe consider external lighting.
The Zhiyun Crane-M3 Combo: Final words
Overall, the flexibility of the mounting options, the ability of the Crane-M3 to take multiple cameras, and its small (but strong!) size were real wins for those looking to add a little video (we should call it “filmmaking”!) to their bag of tricks.
(Remember, your video is only as good as your audio, but I’ll cover that in a future review.)