The Pilotfly H1+ is a small, lightweight gimbal stabilizer which provides the ability to hold & move a small video camera with one hand while still getting smooth footage. The low cost of this and similar devices is bringing Steadicam-like footage to the low-budget filmmaker and the small size is providing opportunities for getting smooth footage in tight situations where it wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Balancing the Stabilizer
Critical to the operation of any stabilizer is balancing the unit properly. Balancing the Pilotfly H1+ is not particularly difficult although, at first, I found the procedure unclear and even a bit confusing. First, there is no manual in the box, just a single sheet of instructions which does include some basic balancing info. However, the small black-and-white diagrams are hard to interpret. In addition there’s an error in step 5 where the text is the same as in step 4 but the camera is shown pointing in a different direction. That threw me at first but then I was able to pretty quickly figure out what’s really intended by looking at the diagram. (It should say the roll axis in step 5 instead of the tilt axis.)
One nice thing about the instruction sheet is that it includes a QR code which, when scanned, automatically takes you to a more detailed PDF manual on the web. The PDF is in color and the color-coding in the diagrams does clarify some things which are not so obvious in the black-and-white illustration.
There’s also a video on YouTube made by Pilotfly. There’s no narration so the video is less clear than it could be. And when I watched it on my iPad there was no explanatory text on the screen but watching it just now on my PC I see there are text overlays. Maybe they have two different videos.
Balancing the H1+ requires an Allen wrench (provided). As such, it’s harder to balance than a tool-less stabilizer. In addition to the Allen wrench requirement, there’s another headache related to the little tool. The motor housings are round and protrude into the area where the wrench handle needs to go in order to tighten the screws fully. So, this means that, in some cases, if you need more than an eighth of a turn you have to remove the wrench, re-orient it and re-insert it, and then continue tightening. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Initially, I thought the build quality looked pretty good but after using it for a few days I have to take it down to just OK. I noticed right away while balancing that simply tightening the screws scratches the paint and exposes the bare metal below. This is not the result of careless handling. There doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid scratching the areas where the screws fasten.
Also, the parts don’t slide easily or smoothly. For example, when the camera lens is facing upward (toward the sky) it is hard to slide the bracket smoothly. I found that I can work around the problem by lifting up on the camera to reduce the friction while sliding. That allows for easier movement. Even so, it’s still difficult to slide just a millimeter or 2. That friction leads to over- and under-correcting, requiring repeated tries to get it just right.
Balancing my GH4 with the Panasonic 12-35 mm lens attached requires mounting the camera as far back as it can possibly go. Otherwise, it’s too front-heavy. And this is with the lens zoomed all the way out (at 12 mm). As far as I can tell, with the lens zoomed in it’s not possible to balance this camera and lens combination. And with the GH4 all the way back the bail on the ¼" screw scratches the bottom plate while tightening.
Mysterious Balancing Screws
Even though I’ve been able to balance and use the stabilizer there’s one thing I still haven’t been able to figure out—why there is a pair of screws for each gimbal axis. For example, note area #3 in this drawing from the manual where I’ve overlaid two yellow circles. There’s one screw near 3A and another nearby below the orange line with the arrows. Each axis has a pair of similar screws. Tightening either one is sufficient to prevent movement of the parts, thus locking in the adjustment for that axis. So, why are these provided in pairs? Nothing in the manual or in any of the videos I’ve seen addresses this question.
No tech support is available as far as I can tell. I’ve been unable to find any tech support contact info on the Copter-RC website.
Balancing Comparison with the Ronin-M
Balancing the H1+ requires more care than needed with the Ronin-M. The Ronin-M appears to have much more powerful motors. With the Ronin-M when I turn the power on the stabilizer/camera snaps quickly to the level, balanced position. But with the H1+ it slowly tilts and rolls into place. The speed of settling into position isn’t a problem; it’s just an illustration of the relative power of the two rigs (same camera and lens in both cases).
The lower power of the H1+ does mean that the balancing has to be more accurate. I’ve found that some of my footage has had jitters when I didn’t have the stabilizer balanced carefully enough.
However, again, I don’t feel this relatively low power is a problem. The H1+ is smaller, lighter and less expensive than the Ronin-M. I don’t expect the H1+ to work the same as the Ronin-M. I cite this difference mainly as a point of comparison.
Finishing the Balancing
The Copter-RC balancing video shows the operator balancing by simply standing the H1+ up on a desk. It’s not stable enough to stand safely on its own, though, and you’ll have to be pretty dexterous to be able keep it upright while also mounting the camera and making the adjustments.
I found it much safer and more convenient to use my tripod as a stable base while balancing. Of course, that’s assuming you have a tripod handy. And even if you do, you then end up with a quick release plate attached to the bottom of the H1+. You can, of course, then remove the plate but then you may need to reattach it later.
I tried using my small, lightweight Gorillapod as a tripod/stand but it’s not firm enough to handle the combined weight of the GH4 with lens and the H1+. It collapses. So, I’ve ordered a small Manfrotto tripod which is rigid and capable of handling the weight.
In the meantime, I can get by just using the quick release plate as a sort of mini-stand.
Once you get through all this you’ll be ready to “Roll and rock” as it says in the Pilotfly video. Or pitch and yaw.
One big drawback with the H1+ is that the battery is not easily replaceable. With reportedly only about two hours’ time available this could mean that recharging would be required in the middle of a shoot. And, it’s not clear how much warning you get before a battery runs flat. According to the manual there is a blue low-battery LED but it doesn’t say whether it flashes one minute in advance or one hour.
The website does show an “external” battery being available. Curiously, it has a different watt-hour capacity than the original included battery. It’s not clear whether this battery really is intended to somehow be attached externally or whether you can open the H1+ and swap out the original battery.
A “Lipo Balance Changer [sic]” is also shown for sale on the battery page. It’s not clear whether you need this charger for the “external” battery or whether the original included charger/changer will work.
Pilotfly H1+ or CAME-TV Single?
In spite of some of these things I’m griping about I think I’m glad I got the H1+ instead of the CAME-TV Single. The H1+ is smaller and lighter than the Single. I find my arm gets tired fairly quickly with the H1+ and the Single is significantly heavier (about 10 oz. heavier).
The Single does have some advantages though like removable batteries. However, I’ve heard that the Single cannot be used inverted which is something that the H1+ can do (haven’t yet tried it myself). For more detailed comparisons of these two units see this review on Cheesycam’s YouTube channel or this one by Dave Dugdale.
Notes for Using with the Panasonic Lumix GH4
One problem with the two-screw arrangement mentioned above is that it’s impossible to access one of the inner screws with my Panasonic GH4 mounted. This means that I have to leave it loose enough that I can make the adjustment and then use only the other screw for tightening. I feel like I have to keep an eye on that inaccessible screw because I don’t want to leave it so loose that it falls out. Why not? I’m not sure. But it seems like it must be there for some purpose!
Like most similar gimbal stabilizers it’s hard to see the camera’s LCD screen when in use. Obviously, this makes it hard to adjust & monitor your framing while shooting. Update Oct. 1, 2015:
The H1+ kit does include a smartphone mounting bracket but my Samsung Galaxy S5 doesn’t fit into it. It does fit. See my comment below.
And speaking of the LCD screen I found that I have to turn off the GH4’s automatic Eye Sensor feature. When the Eye Sensor is turned on the camera automatically senses when your eye is at the EVF and turns off the monitor. When you lower the camera from your eye the EVF turns off and the LCD conveniently comes back on. But the camera is fooled by the proximity of parts of the stabilizer and the LCD is inconveniently turned off most of the time. So, you have to go into the Eye Sensor feature in the GH4 menu and set it to Mon to keep the monitor on all the time.
Of course, the monitor may still go dark after some period of time (when it times out to save the battery). But you can turn it back on by touching the LCD touchscreen.
As I was doing the balancing I found myself constantly pressing the power button by accident. This often happens at inopportune times while holding the camera and stabilizer awkwardly. It even happens sometimes when I’m removing the device from its case. Annoying. It would be nice if powering on/off required some affirmative action like holding down the button or holding and sliding. There is some sort of plastic power button protector but it fell off and I now I can’t get it stay on.
The recharging socket has a direct connection to the battery and, if not covered with the plastic cap, will spark if you short its two terminals by accidentally touching them with something metal like the Allen wrench (this happened to me when I absent-mindedly attempted to insert it there). The plastic cap is connected to the power button cover which doesn’t stay on so the cap is not really useful.
Use with a GoPro Hero 3+ Not Recommended
I attempted to mount a GoPro Hero3+ on the Pilotfly H1+ but couldn’t get it to work properly. That’s probably the reason Pilotfly has a separate product for the GoPro cameras, the FunnyGO+ (which is also much less expensive than the H1+). But just in case anyone has ideas of making the H1+ work with the GoPro cameras I’ll share my experiences here so you can judge for yourself whether it would be worth trying.
First, I found that balancing the diminutive GoPro comes with its own set of challenges. The balanced position for each of the axis arms is quite different from the GH4 positions. While the GH4 needs to be pushed back as far as possible the Hero needs to be pushed forward as far as it goes. And when swapping out the GH4 and swapping in the Hero the roll axis screw must be removed completely and inserted into a different screw hole (three are provided) in order to get anywhere close to balancing that axis. For both the tilt and roll axes the operative word is close—because I wasn’t able to slide the arms far enough to fully balance either of those axes.
The GH4 is sufficiently heavy that, when tightening the balancing screws, that tightening action does not move the arms appreciably. By contrast, the GoPro Hero is so light that tightening the screws causes the arm to shift quite a lot. This requires developing a technique to hold the arm in place while tightening so that the arm doesn’t move.
With the GoPro finally mounted and almost balanced I had problems while shooting—lots of vibration.
I only had the GoPro for a day (it was borrowed) so, considering the existence of a dedicated product for the GoPro and all the problems mentioned, I gave up trying to make it work.
The H1+ comes with a nice carrying case but there’s a problem with it. When I have the unit balanced for my camera and lens the H1+ no longer fits into the case. In order to fit the H1+ back into its case I have to adjust all three axes back to a sort of middle position. This means I cannot balance it for my specific camera & lens and then have it be ready for quick use after unpacking. I would have to fully rebalance every time I use it even though I always use the same camera & lens.
Also, one of the cables doesn’t fit nicely into the cutout area in the foam and I worry that it could be damaged by repeated insertion and removal from the case. For now, I’ve decided to remove the foam from the case and cushion the unit with a towel. Sigh.
I’ve been doing some test shooting but my initial results are not quite as good as I’d hoped. I’m seeing some jerkiness which is disappointing. There may be a fix for this. You can customize & calibrate the device using the SimpleBGC software. This is something I plan to check out soon so I don’t want to complain about the stabilization until I know more. Also, I’ve been able to work around the minor jerkiness I’ve seen by turning on the camera’s (actually the lens’) optical image stabilization. With that on I get real smooth footage. But I’ll be following up with some more tests of the SimpleBGC software and attempting to improve my hand-holding technique.
Update, September 5, 2015: Bill from Federal Express
I was surprised today to receive an invoice from FedEx for $21.50 for “Customs Duty” and an “Advancement Fee.” I assume these are legitimate charges that I’ll have to pay. But I’m pretty disappointed that Pilotfly didn’t include these costs in the price or, at least, inform me that they would be coming due.