The Zhiyun Crane 2S is a powerful 3-axis gimbal that’s small enough to fit in a backpack

Nov 3, 2020

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

The Zhiyun Crane 2S is a powerful 3-axis gimbal that’s small enough to fit in a backpack

Nov 3, 2020

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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I’m going to open this post with a very subjective, but completely honest, opinion. The Zhiyun Crane 2S (first look review here) instantly became my favourite gimbal as soon as I took it out of the box.  Ever. That’s it. Review over. Ok, not really review over, but it really has become my new go-to gimbal for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

The Crane 2S is the followup to Zhiyun’s extremely popular Crane 2 (review here), launched in September 2017. Although already a very capable gimbal, the Crane 2S offers some very noticeable upgrades over its predecessor. So, let’s talk about those.

One obvious omission from this review is the Zhiyun ZY Play App. This is intentional because I don’t really use apps with gimbals unless they’re smartphone gimbals – where they can be kind of important. When I’m working with a DSLR, mirrorless or cine camera on a bigger gimbal, I don’t want to have to deal with a phone and it doesn’t really offer me any benefit for my needs. So, if you wanted to know if the app had improved or how it works with the Crane 2S, then this isn’t the review for you. I did give the app a brief test, and all of the features within it seemed to work, but beyond that, I haven’t really used it. So, I’m only going to be addressing the hardware and physical changes between the Crane 2S vs the Crane 2.

First impressions

Ok, let’s get this out of the way. I don’t like the box that the Zhiyun Crane 2S comes in. It’s one of those hard styrene foam types like the Crane 3 LAB (review here) and Crane 3S (review here) and just about every other gimbal these days.

loved the original zip-up hard-shell Zhiyun Crane 2 case because it had one very valuable feature – the lack of which on subsequence gimbal releases I’ve complained about ever since and shall continue to complain about until it comes back because it’s actually a very useful feature for run & gun shooting. That’s connectors for a shoulder strap.

If I’m carrying a full camera bag around and a gimbal, and I’m walking and shooting, I really need to have both of my hands free to hold the gimbal steady. Having a gimbal case with a shoulder strap makes that a doddle. If I have to tie up one of my hands by carrying a gimbal case then… well, not so much. That being said, the Zhiyun Crane 2S actually breaks down to be somewhat smaller than the Crane 2 and will fit quite happily into a backpack – or even the laptop slot of many backpacks – but we’ll come back to that.

On opening the box, though, we see what we get. That is the gimbal itself, a mini tripod, three 18650 batteries & Type-C USB charger, a lens support bracket, a box of cables and bits, and a couple of tripod plates. My Crane 2S didn’t come with the focus motor (I have one now, though, see below), but there are also spots in the case where you can put them if you didn’t get them with your gimbal and choose to buy them later.

On pulling things out of the box, things came together quite quickly, as there aren’t many parts, but one item confused me a little, and that’s this little plate in the bottom right. Where does it go? What does it do? Well, that’s the thing that turned out to be my favourite feature of all with this gimbal, and I’ll tell you why a bit later, but it’s a base plate that goes between the Manfrotto compatible tripod plate and the gimbal itself.

After figuring out what it does, the first thing that I also immediately liked is the fact that the battery cover that becomes the handle is made from carbon fibre. And it’s not just some vinyl wrap over aluminium, either. It’s solid carbon fibre.

The 18650 battery charger holds all three batteries and is of the new Type-C variety that also comes with the Zhiyun Crane 3S. No more do we have to combine a pair of micro USB cables into a single charger to get max charging speed. Now we can do it with a single Type-C cable.

And after charging those batteries, the setup was a breeze. It felt good and solid in my hand, the locking mechanism for each of the three axes didn’t feel wobbly, and the new way of mounting the whole camera assembly to the gimbal is just… yeah, as Mando would say, this is the way!

The carbon fibre handle

Mostly, people like carbon fibre in their camera gear because of the weight advantages it can offer. Carbon fibre is lighter than steel or aluminium, and when you have a lot of metal in something like a tripod or a camera slider, it can make a big difference in the weight you have to carry.

On the Zhiyun Crane 2S, however, the advantage to me is somewhat different. In such a small part of the overall gimbal, weight isn’t really a factor here, but what I do like about it are its thermal insulating properties.

I live in Scotland, which gets really cold at times. With the Crane 2S and its metal handle, that thing can feel like ice when you pick it up. The handle on the Crane 2S, on the other hand, always feels comfortable to hold, even if it’s been sitting in sub-zero temperatures for a little while.

The same is also true of the inside of the handle where your batteries are stored. With a metal cover like on the Crane 2, which lets just about all heat escape instantly, the carbon fibre cover of the Crane 2S should help to keep the ambient temperature up inside the handle, preventing your batteries from shutting down sooner due to getting cold. It’ll still happen eventually, but the carbon fibre cover should help to delay it.

That mounting plate

This is probably my favourite feature of the Crane 2S over the Crane 2 and just about every other gimbal I’ve ever used. The mounting plate.

Normally, this is permanently affixed to a gimbal, and it’s where you slide in the tripod plate that’s screwed into the bottom of your camera. With the Crane 2S, though, it’s completely removable. And you can screw another tripod plate on underneath the head assembly for use with your tripod or gimbal.

It might not sound like that big of a deal, especially if you’re only ever using the same camera and lens and you’re always using it on a gimbal. But if, like me, you’re regularly bouncing between a gimbal and a tripod or a slider on location, this makes a huge difference to workflow and efficiency – especially when it comes time to put the camera back on the gimbal.

When the camera’s plate remains fixed to the gimbal’s removable baseplate, then as long as it’s balanced before you take it off it off the gimbal, it will instantly be balanced when you put it back on.

It means that I can also balance my gimbal way in advance of arriving at a shoot, remove the whole head assembly, pack it all into a backpack and when I get there there’s no messing around. As soon as I show up, I can just slide it back onto the gimbal, it’s already balanced, so power it up and away we go. It also means that if you’re run & gun shooting, you can dismount the entire camera assembly from the gimbal itself, throw it all in a backpack and then be ready to put it all back together without having to rebalance at a moment’s notice.

This might not be a big thing to some users, as I mentioned. But for me, this is a very big deal.

There’s also a second slot for a Manfrotto mounting plate on the pitch axis that allows you to mount the camera to the gimbal vertically. You can’t just quickly slide off the whole unit this way. like you can when mounting horizontally, but the fact that you don’t have to deal with cages and L brackets and other weird rigs to be able to do this is a very useful feature, especially with as much content is being shot specifically for social media these days.

This is the initial vertical orientation test photo from my first look. The Godox trigger is simply acting as a counterweight to help balance the tiny Panasonic G80 camera in this orientation.

Load capacity & Balancing

The load capacity on the Zhiyun Crane 2S is an unusual one because Zhiyun hasn’t declared a maximum load capacity. They have said that the minimum load capacity is the same as that of the Zhiyun Crane 2 – around 500g (any lighter than this and the motors go nuts because there isn’t enough weight to counter them). But while the Crane 2 specified a maximum payload of 3.2kg, the Crane 2S does not list one at all in its specs.

Zhiyun says that this is because getting a good balance is far more important than the actual weight of what you’re attaching to the gimbal. And I’ve always found this to be true myself. You can have a camera rig that weighs a relatively low 1.5kg, but if it’s not balanced properly, then the motors are going to be working harder and stressing in order to keep it level.

Personally, I’m nowhere near even the original Crane 2’s 3.2kg limit, so whatever theoretical limit there might be on the Crane 2S isn’t something I’ve managed to find yet. But with the motors in the Crane 2S being stronger than those in the Crane 2, I expect it’s quite high.

Balancing the gimbal went extremely smoothly. Surprisingly, it felt easier than both the Crane 2 and the Crane 3S, but this is because it essentially combines the best of both. You have the similar compact form factor of the Crane 2 without handles sticking up and getting in the way while also having the ability to lock each of the three axes individually like the Crane 3S. When Zhiyun introduced locking axes to the Crane 3 LAB, that was one of my favourite features of it over the Crane 2. So, seeing these on the Crane 2S is a very welcome addition.

Having locking axes on a gimbal of this size makes balancing an absolute breeze because you’re not fighting an arm, flailing in two other directions while you’re trying to balance the third. To be fair, the original Crane 2 isn’t that difficult to balance if you are indoors in controlled settings, but outdoors, in the middle of nowhere, in dodgy terrain, it’s a bit of a pain.

Wit the Crane 2S, though, it’s a breeze to work with, and the design of the new plate allows you to work with wider cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket 4K and Pocket 6K without having to deal with cages or offset plates.

The focus & zoom motors

The basic gimbal package doesn’t come with a focus or zoom motor (the Crane 2S Pro package will, when it becomes available) and as I mentioned above, I didn’t initially receive one when the Crane 2S arrived at my door shortly before the initial announcement. I have since received one and there’s not really all that much to say about it, although there are a couple of key points.

  • The new focus motor works with both the Crane 2S and the Crane 3S, but not the Crane 2 or the Crane 3 LAB.
  • It has more power and torque than the motors that were released for use with the Crane 3 LAB and Crane 3S gimbals.
  • There is only a single model of motor. The same motor can power either focus or zoom (and you can combine two to control both simultaneously).

There are slots for two motors in the Crane 2S case – one for focus and one for zoom – with all their associated bits for connecting it to the gimbal. I rarely use zoom lenses for video, and when I do, I never actually need to zoom, so I just have the single motor and when it’s not in use it fits in the case nicely.

One of the things I like about the focus motor on the Crane 2S is that like the Crane 3S it attaches to the Manfrotto compatible plate, rather than to the actual gimbal head – like on the original Crane 2. This means that when you take your camera off the gimbal, whether it’s with the Manfrotto plate or the removable base plate, the focus motor’s going to come with it. Just make sure to unplug the cable attaching it to the gimbal.

As well as having more torque to deal with the heavier focus rings found on many cine lenses, the new motor is also more precise with less latency than previous generations of Zhiyun focus & zoom motors. You can see in the above, too, that they had no problem dealing with tiny lenses like the minuscule Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF. They had no issues dealing with larger diameter lenses, although depending on the camera you’re using, you might want to stack a tripod plate or two to raise the camera up from the base of the platform to get clearance for the rod to which the motor attaches.

The focus wheel on the Crane 2S is much smaller and easier to manage than that of the Crane 2, and it did feel very responsive for me. It didn’t spin quite as free and loose as the wheel on the Crane 2, which was both a blessing and a curse. I liked that I could spin the wheel on the Crane 2 with very minimal effort, but the firmness of the Crane 2S wheel means that it’s not going to accidentally shift the focus away when you’re least expecting it.

Shooting modes

The Zhiyun Crane 2S offers the usual six gimbal shooting modes.

  • Pan Follow
  • Follow
  • Lock
  • POV
  • Vortex
  • Go mode

Each of the modes performed as well as one might hope. Typically, I only tend to use the Pan Follow and Lock modes the most when shooting on a gimbal, although I did have a play with them all.

Go Mode is fantastic and works very well, but my usual subjects are rarely moving fast enough to justify it over the regular Pan Follow mode. POV and regular Follow modes also work well, although I tend not to tilt or rotate my camera all that often when shooting. So, how useful these modes will be, as with all other gimbals, depends on what it is you’re shooting.

The Vortex mode, however, is something I’m really starting to love. And I felt that it was much easier to use than on the Crane 3 LAB and Crane 3S – purely due to the form factor. It wasn’t something I used often in the past, but I think it’s something I’ll end up using a lot more with the Crane 2S in future productions.

Side note: Vortex mode was also added to the original Crane 2 in a previous firmware update but as I hadn’t used mine in a while, I had no idea during my initial testing of the Crane 2S. I did do a quick side-by-side of the two after updating my Crane 2 and both perform quite comparably.

How it felt to use

The Zhiyun Crane 2S feels very similar to using the Crane 2, but just… better. It has a similar form factor, handle diameter and overall layout (with a slightly larger OLED display), but it just feels like a much more refined and solid gimbal than its predecessor. And the removable plate is fantastic. I hope that’s something they’ll release as a separate purchase at some point, so I can have 2 or 3 camera rigs ready to swap out as needed during a shoot without having to swap plates from underneath each.

I think it’s partly down to the build quality (and the decision to switch out the metal handle for carbon fibre) but also the fact that you can lock the axes when it’s not powered up, and when it’s turned on, the motors feel generally more responsive.

Despite having both the Crane 3 LAB and Crane 3S at my disposal, the Crane 2 was always my go-to gimbal (I just prefer this form factor), ever since its initial release. Now, though, that’s changed. The Crane 2S is now my new go-to gimbal, although I’m keeping the Crane 2 around as an emergency backup.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned, The Zhiyun Crane 2S very similar to the Crane 2 but better. More refined. Everything I loved about the Crane 2 is there with the Crane 2S, but with the removable plate, the larger OLED, the carbon fibre handle, axis locking, more responsive motors, and all the other benefits it offers over the Crane 2, it’s just a no brainer for me. Even though it’s become my new go-to, I won’t be getting rid of the Crane 2. That will be going on backup duty, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice (well, after balancing) if I do something silly while shooting and accidentally kill my Crane 2S.

And for existing Crane 2 owners who’ve been thinking about whether it’s worth getting the Crane 2S, I think that’s a great way to look at it. If you’ve been thinking about getting a second gimbal as a backup anyway, then get the Crane 2S and make the Crane 2 your backup. The Crane 2S offers enough advantages over the Crane 2 that it makes for a very worthy replacement. And the Crane 2 is still good enough that it can serve as a handy back up in a pinch, or for if you want to run a second camera without having to deal with swapping out plates.

If you own the larger Crane 3 LAB or Crane 3S but find it a bit too heavy and unwieldy for some of the circumstances in which you find yourself shooting in, then the Crane 2S is a fantastic option for a lighter and smaller overall setup for those situations. Your arms will definitely thank you and you can also take advantage of your existing focus motors (although they’re not quite as strong as the new one).

If you don’t own any gimbals of this type and size, but you want to get your camera steady, then the Crane 2S is definitely worth a look. But do align your expectations. Not all cameras can communicate electronically with every gimbal. So, if you were relying on the gimbal controls to start/stop recording and adjust in-camera exposure settings, make sure to check the Crane 2S compatibility chart first.

The Zhiyun Crane 2S is available to buy now for $599 in the standard package. A Crane 2S Combo package is available for $649 which adds a spare set of three 18650 batteries and a side-handle.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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