Is DJI's OSMO the best solution for documentary shooting in remote locations? Craig Marshall reflects on his experiences during a shoot in Asia.
I'm normally lugging heavy ENG style cameras around Asia but in preparation for an anticipated travel documentary, I seized an opportunity to acquire a used DJI 'Osmo' 4K gimbal fitted with the entry level Zenmuse X3, a 4K capable camera usually attached to DJI's Inspire series drones. My other cameras are HD and weigh in at around 25Kg kitted up, so I jumped at the chance of shooting 4K video on a such a lightweight device, which seemed ideal for the remote month long shoot in Asia we were planning.
As a retired Broadcast Television ENG/EFP DoP, I have written some negative words about capturing any sort of professional video on such a small sensor using very limited bitrate codecs. So as soon as the Osmo arrived, I ran several workflow tests well in advance of our shoot, which to be fair would be more about capturing important events rather than trying to replicate IMAX cinema quality.
My personal 4K edit suite is based around a heavily optioned DaVinci Resolve PC with a 12G Decklink SDI Pro 4K card installed and routed to both a 55" Sony X9000 series 4K TV plus a properly calibrated 24" Rec.709, 10bit SDI 'grading' monitor. It is a clean signal path and quick to identify weaknesses in camera or codec.
Power supply issues
There are two things you really need to know about shooting video on the DJI Osmo:
1) 4K video drains the battery at a truly alarming rate
2) Did I mention the staggering speed of battery discharge?
At about 30 minutes capacity each, my three DJI batteries are nowhere near enough for a day's video shooting. However there are at least two very elegant solutions available:
1) Buy a cheap aftermarket USB charger that takes two DJI batteries. With three batteries as a minimum, you can have one in the camera whilst two are charging from the power bank in your pocket or your backpack.
2) DJI now supply a low cost 'Battery Extender' for the Osmo, which comes with a replacement cover so the included 600mm cable can connect to their proprietary chargers.
DJI's optional battery extender can be modified to take a 4 pin XLR
Unfortunately, neither of these accessories had arrived prior to my departure for Japan so I had to make do with the standard Osmo 110/240V AC single battery charger plugged into any mains outlet I could find along the way.
Sensor and lens
The Osmo is only officially compatible with the X3 and X5 cameras. However, after testing out an X5 Osmo, my opinion is that the size and weight defeats the purpose of the original Osmo concept. The X5 lenses are not so wide either when compared with the X3's 20mm equivalent.
I'm a big fan of large sensors but I'm also a big fan of a 90 degree FOV wide angle lens too, so I'll stick my head out here and say that the original Carl Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 is one of the very best super wide angle lenses ever made. It offers a 90 degree field of view - much the same as your eye sees but without any of the 'fisheye' aberrations that blight the pictures from most action cameras. It was this feature that drew me to the X3 Osmo - a lens with an almost identical 'look' to the Zeiss Distagon 21mm but permanently attached to a cheap, unobtrusive and gimballed camera the size of a golf ball!
An after market clip-on lens hood protects the Osmo's delicate 20mm lens
Rigging & monitoring
The DJI Osmo has no viewfinder, so you’ll need to fit a smart phone to the fold-up/flip-out phone holder. Unlike some models with flip out legs, the DJI device requires a bespoke Osmo holder otherwise it falls over when you put it down. But with a 1/4" thread, at least you can attach your favourite tripod or any QR mount.
I have yet to catch the smart phone disease so I needed some assistance when it came to set up and monitoring. Fortunately, my producer rummaged through a drawer full of her 'so last year' phones until she located one with an Android 4 (or later) operating system. Although much of what you'll read on-line suggests the Osmo only works properly with an iOS device, this is yet another example of Fake News.
Once set up, the phone displays all the tools you need to work the camera and the gimbal. DJI include a small real time battery charge indicator, and just like the petrol gauge in a Jensen Interceptor, you can actually watch it heading south in real time! There is a user positionable histogram as well as the all important audio level display.
The Osmo handle is fitted with a small thumb pad which acts like a 'joy stick' to manually drive the camera head. For me, this all important control was simply alien to my thumb. That was until I located the gimbal calibration menu where I could set up the control.
Once re-configured, I quickly adapted to driving the camera head. The feel and position of the different buttons becomes rapidly familiar, but please use the Osmo's wrist strap, because if like me you tend to hold the camera out the window of moving vehicles at high speed, the safety strap will help avoid any tears.
Three different shaped buttons serve three different functions. 'Joystick' button is top left
Most smart phones screens appear fairly useless in the typically bright Australian outdoors, so I purchased a cheap, fold-up magnetic sunshade to offer acceptable pictures in bright conditions. These sunshades are so affordable I suggest you buy two or three because you're going to need to cut one up to fit a micro USB style phone charging cable to your phone. When used outdoors with wifi enabled, your phone will use lot of juice so get a bunch of Velcro tabs and place them at convenient locations all over your Osmo hardware. This way, you can quickly attach portable USB power banks to revive your phone, power your lighting and possibly even the Osmo itself. Tip: get a charge cable with a right angled connector!