Smartphones changed the world by putting a camera in everyone's pocket. And over the last decade, the cameras on those phones have improved dramatically, to the point where the newest iPhone can shoot 4K footage and slow motion video, giving everyone the ability to capture moments with the fidelity and detail once reserved for Hollywood. Unfortunately, while the cameras in our pockets have improved, our ability as camera operators has not. Both the software on the phones and the programs we use to edit and upload our footage works to help us stabilize the final result, but shaky, nearly unwatchable video is still par for the course.
DJI, the company best known for democratizing aerial imaging with its drones, wants to solve that problem. It's newest product is the Osmo, a handheld stabilizer that uses the gimbal and camera from the company's drones, but adapts them for use by hand. We took the Osmo out and tested it against an ordinary smartphone, a stabilizing app like Hyperlapse, and the professional gear that our video team uses. The end result, at least to my untrained eye, was that the Osmo could go toe to toe with expensive gear like DJI's Ronin and Freefly's Movi in terms of stabilization, and it left smartphones in the dust. We put the results side by side, so you can judge for yourself.
To the untrained eye, the footage is as smooth as video shot on professional gear
The image quality of the Osmo doesn't match up to the high-end cameras you can attach to that more professional gear. It lacked the depth of field when it came to focus and the dynamic range when it came to shifting light, but of course those competing cameras are far heavier and more expensive. One of our camera operators said that she always felt prevented from becoming a great glide camera operator simply because the gear was so heavy she couldn't operate it for more than a minute or two at a time.
The low profile lets you film almost anywhere
The low-profile form factor of the Osmo also means you can use it lots of places where professional gear would be banned. The staff at the ice rink we visited when shooting video for this piece immediately spotted our Ronin and Movi, which they said we weren't allowed to use. But the Osmo, which is no bigger than your average selfie stick, didn't set off any alarms.
Your smartphone acts as the viewfinder for the Osmo and also lets you adjust camera setting and playback footage. It was far easier for me to see what I was capturing in the moment and review right after than it was for my colleagues on the video team using the Ronin and Movi. Setting up the Osmo requires turning it on, unlocking the gimbal, and pairing your mobile device to the Wi-Fi signal it emits. That took a total of a couple minutes, versus the half an hour or more it takes to unpack, balance, and set up the more professional stabilizers.
The big question I have after using the Osmo for a couple weeks is who exactly this product will appeal to. Perhaps if you combined it with the new, high-end Zen Muse cameras DJI is making, the final product would have both stabilization and image quality that is up to snuff for professionals. But of course then you're spending thousands of dollars, at which point you could just get a gently used, high-end rig. If you're just a dad like me, do you really care enough about the quality of your home movies to shell out $650?
No ordinary person carries dedicated video cameras around these days
One of the things I noticed while using the Osmo out in the wild over Halloween was how rare it is these days to see civilians using anything other than their smartphone. A few people were intrigued and impressed by the Osmo, but the majority were just puzzled. "Why are you carrying that thing, around?" When I showed them the results, they were often impressed, but when I told them the price, most seemed to feel it wasn't worth the difference.
The Osmo will probably start out as a product used by filmmakers on a budget and consumers who care enough about quality to shell out thousands of dollars for a mirrorless camera. Over time it could spread by word of mouth, or if the cost drops as quickly as it has for DJI's drones. Having used the Osmo, I definitely don't want to go back to shooting with the phone in my pocket. But I don't expect this will be a very mainstream gadget at this price point.