The Zhiyun Crane 3S is a big beefy gimbal for big beefy cameras that offers a lot of versatility
The Zhiyun Crane 3S is the latest iteration of Zhiyun’s flagship line of Crane gimbals, traditionally designed for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. On first glance, the Crane 3S looks a lot like the Crane 3 LAB, but it definitely holds a few extra tricks up its sleeve.
I’ve been using one for a few weeks now when weather and Scotland’s lockdown rules have allowed and I’m going to go over some of those differences and the advantages the Crane 3S has to offer over the Crane 3 LAB.
There are three different Crane 3S kits available. There is the Crane 3S-E, the Crane 3S and the Crane 3S Pro. We’ll get into the differences a little later, but for clarification, the kit I have is the standard Crane 3S.
First Impressions & Differences over the Crane 3 LAB
The case for the Crane 3S is quite similar to that of the Crane 3 LAB. It feels a little more compact, although it’s actually pretty close in size. It feels tough and rugged, built from the same kind of hard foam as many gimbal cases these days. It has a top handle for carrying it and locking clips that keep it shut when it needs to be.
Inside though, the Crane 3S case looks a little more cramped than that of the Crane 3 LAB due to a slightly beefier body, with no empty slots for future expansion and upgrades, which is a little disappointing. This was a great feature of the Crane 3 LAB case, which had dedicated slots for all the extras you could buy separately as well as a spare set of batteries. There is still nowhere to add any kind of shoulder strap. So, if you’re carrying the case, you’re tying up one of your hands.
If you buy the 3S Pro kit, I would assume (hope?) that it comes with a different case containing slots for all the extra bits that come with it. But if you’re buying the 3S and hoping to add extras like the focus motor (which only come with the 3S Pro kit), then you’re going to need something else to store them in.
All that said, the case feels solid and everything is packed well inside. The immediate difference between the 3S and the 3 LAB, for the observant ones amongst you, is that the handle isn’t actually attached to the gimbal. Yes, that’s right, it’s removable, and the gimbal can function just fine without it through a bunch of extra buttons on the gimbal body itself or by using the mobile app.
You can see when you look inside the Crane 3S and Crane 3 LAB cases side by side that the 3S is somewhat beefier than the 3 LAB, with noticeably thicker arms and larger motors. This provides the Crane 3S load capacity of a whopping 6.5kg vs the 4.5kg of the Crane 3 LAB. Interestingly, both gimbals have the same minimum load capacity of a somewhat modest 0.6kg. The gimbal itself, however, weighs almost a kilogram more than the 3 LAB, coming in at 3.2kg vs 2.3kg – which is a significant difference.
Pulling it out of the case, the 3S actually feels even more solid than the 3 LAB did. I think this is partly due to the new locking mechanism on the pitch, roll and yaw axes. In the 3 LAB, the arms could either be unlocked and free to move or “locked”, restraining them to a fairly consistent position, although a little movement was available. With the Crane 3S, these locks now have three modes. There’s unlocked, a locked mode similar to the 3 LAB and a new really locked mode, which tightens the arms down hard so that they don’t move at all – which makes balancing a little easier.
One of the things I immediately noticed about the 3S over the 3 LAB was how many connection points it has. But it wasn’t just the quantity that caught my attention, but the fact that some of them have been upgraded from 1/4-20″ to 3/8-16″. This is great because it means you’ll get a more substantial connection between accessories and support systems, but it is slightly annoying in other ways as some accessories will not be interchangeable between gimbals if you own both the Crane 3S and Crane 3LAB, or other gimbals that only utilise 1/4-20″ threads.
The new mounting plate was also something that I noticed right away. It’s still a Manfrotto PL compatible plate, although they’ve ditched the strange extra adjustable platform of the mounting plate that came with the 3 LAB and they’ve also added threads on the front of the plate to attach rods for your follow focus motors. Having this built right into the tripod plate means it’s much easier to set up your camera and balance it properly with a follow focus unit now than it was before because the camera and focus motor is moving together.
You’ll see above that there’s also a lens support supplied with the mounting plate. Personally, I’ve only needed to use this when playing around with the 300mm, but it can be very handy for larger cameras with big lenses that need a little extra assistance. To help with the increased size of the loads it can carry, the whole mount assembly slides left and right from the tilt arm, too, which means you no longer need offset plates for wide cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket 4K.
As a quick aside, while we’re on the topic of focus motors, the Crane 3S is compatible with the Crane 3 LAB focus motors, and there are Type-C USB sockets for connecting both right next to the mounting plate. So, if you’re upgrading from the 3 LAB to the 3S, bear this in mind.
After charging up the batteries and pulling everything out of the case, things went together well. The SmartSling removable handle, which replaces the fixed handle on the Crane 3 LAB goes in and out easily and utilises a double locking system to ensure a good fit with no accidents.
The camera slides onto the mount smoothly and balancing the camera is just as straightforward as it was on the 3 LAB if not a little easier, thanks to being able to completely lock each arm down tight.
Powering it up presents the same array of shooting modes as the Crane 3 LAB and handling seems very similar, albeit slightly heavier.
Let’s dig into a little more detail now, though.
The SmartSling (and EasySling) handles
The kit that I have is the standard Zhiyun Crane 3S package. This includes the SmartSling handle, which offers similar controls to the built-in handle on the Crane 3 LAB except that unlike that one, this is removable.
A removable handle might seem a little odd at first, especially if you’re only used to using gimbals handheld, but it has a few benefits. First, it means you can break the gimbal down into smaller components for more easily packing into a backpack. But it also means that you have easier mounting options for attaching it to things like vehicles, as the arm isn’t going to be getting in the way, and helps to keep everything as compact as possible.
Attaching the Crane 3S to a vehicle isn’t something I’ve tried yet, although it’s on my list. After Scotland’s lockdown is fully over and it’s safe to travel and be in close proximity to other people, it’s one of the first things I’ll be trying when the chance presents itself, so stay tuned for that.
The Crane 3S-E package comes with just the EasySling handle, which is essentially just a rubber-clad metal cylinder with a 3/8-16″ threaded socket in the bottom, a 3/8-16″ threaded screw on the top. It’s clad in rubber to make it easy to grip and not feel so cold when you’re shooting in chilly weather. You can screw this straight into the gimbal, or attach it via a small offset plate, putting it into a similar position to how the SmartSling would mount. Of course, you don’t get any handle controls or display with the EasySling handle.
Despite not being part of the standard 3S kit, I did receive the EasySling handle, and if you decide to only get the standard kit, I’d definitely recommend buying an EasySling handle separately. It’s available as an optional accessory. Both handles come included with the Crane 3S Pro kit, and having them both will make your life much easier with the Crane 3S, especially if you’re using larger cameras, as you can also mount it underneath the gimbal with the supplied tabletop tripod below that.
Being able to use both the SmartSling and EasySling handles simultaneously in this way and pick the whole rig up and set it back down with two hands definitely makes life easier on your arms and back.
I was originally going to recommend that the EasySling handle would be a good upgrade for existing Crane 3 LAB owners who don’t need the added load capacity and versatility of the Crane 3S, but there’s a bit of a snag. The Crane 3 LAB and its accompanying tabletop tripod use 1/4-20″ threads, not 3/8-16″. Hopefully, Zhiyun will release a similar handle that uses 1/4-20″ for Crane 3 LAB users, as Zhiyun has stressed that the 3S is not a replacement model for the 3 LAB, it’s simply another product line.
This also means that all your 1/4-20″ quick releases for the Crane 2 and Crane 3 LAB to take it on and off the mini tripod, your monopod, or whatever else you put it on also won’t fit the Crane 3S. Hopefully, they’ll release a 3/8-16″ version, too. Or at least one with a 3/8-16″ hole in the bottom, a 1/4-20″ thread on top, and a couple of 1/4-20″ to 3/8-16″ adapters.
Weight and size capacity
While the Zhiyun Crane line of gimbals has traditionally held a lot of weight, they’ve had a one or two issues. Many users haven’t been able to take full advantage of that weight capacity due to size limitations. Usually, it’s because the camera just can’t sit off to the side or forward & backwards enough to balance well or the larger camera systems (like the Blackmagic URSA Mini) physically don’t fit. With the Crane 3S, those problems are solved, with the ability to take some pretty large cinema cameras. Even the Blackmagic URSA Mini.
Knowing in advance that I’d have a Zhiyun Crane 3S was on the way to me, I had hoped to get hold of and actually test it with a Blackmagic URSA Mini but then the lockdown happened, making that pretty much impossible. So, I’ve had to make do with the equipment I have here at my disposal. For me, that primarily means Nikon DSLRs and Panasonic mirrorless. Not the best test subjects for a heavy-duty gimbal like this, but it does allow me to test out at least physically large and awkward setups, even if it’s not putting much of a load strain on the gimbal.
My basic setup for these tests was the Nikon D800 and the Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. It’s not a particularly outstanding setup when it comes to video quality, but it’s a respectable size and weight and represents what you might get with something like a Pocket 4K or larger video-centric mirrorless camera. So, it serves the purpose.
Initially, I tried it out with just the supplied mini tripod screwed into the bottom. Despite the increased weight, it felt quite similar to using the Crane 3 LAB. The movements were pretty much the same, and the general operation didn’t differ too much despite the extra controls and buttons on the Crane 3S.
The one thing that did stick out, though, was the joystick. You can’t unscrew it and remove it on the Crane 3S like you can with the Crane 3 LAB, which can sometimes lead to accidentally knocking it and moving the orientation of the camera if you’re not careful.
What I really wanted to see, though, was how big and useful this thing was fully extended. The extension is a separate piece, and it’s awesome, but it’s also awkward. It’s not designed to be regularly taken on and taken off. The wires contained within the arm are quite delicate and it is quite easy to risk damaging them if you’re not careful. So, if you’re always using larger camera systems, you’ll want to keep the extension attached all the time. This means you’re probably going to be looking for another case in which to keep the gimbal, as it won’t fit into the supplied one with the extension arm attached.
But, I extended the arm on the head of the gimbal, put the EasySling handle underneath and attached the focus motor. My D800 was otherwise engaged, so I just grabbed a 1.5x crop Nikon D7000 – mostly because this would offer me a field of view at a given focal length similar to Super 35mm. On this camera, I put the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S, for a field of view similar to a 450mm lens on full-frame. This is a setup that just should not work on a gimbal, and it’s rare you’ll find people using anything longer than about a 60mm or 70mm full-frame equivalent lens, just because such a long focal length massively magnifies the little micro-jitters from the motors or simply being handheld.
It actually held up surprisingly well. You do need to be quite careful, and tracking a moving subject is extremely difficult because the tiniest movement in pan follow mode can translate into a very big shift going ahead of your subject. But I just wanted to see how well it could even handle such an odd (for shooting video on a gimbal) set up and it was very impressive. It held the shot extremely well. Occasionally I moved a little too quickly and it would be pointing at something completely different to what I intended, but when I wasn’t screwing up, it was certainly giving me usable steady shots, without any of the jitters you’d expect with such an unusual load.
It’s certainly not a practical setup, by any means, and not something I’d ever use in the real world, but it served its testing purpose. If you want to go handheld on a static subject at a distance with such a long lens, then it does sort-of work. Of course, I’d probably recommend a tripod with a fluid head instead for this sort of thing, but curiosity got the better of me and I had to try it.
My loads were typically of the DSLR + 28-70mm f/2.8 variety I mentioned earlier, though and it it performed equally as well as the Crane 3 LAB. Except with the added benefit of being able to put the EasySling handle between the gimbal and the mini tripod, making it much easier to pick it up, set it back down and walk around with it two-handed.
Balancing and the new locks on the arms
As mentioned earlier, the Crane 3S features a 3-way locking system over the 2-way system of the Crane 3 LAB, which had them completely loose or sort-of locked. Now you get loose, sort-of locked and locked solid. This actually makes much more of a difference than I expected it to. For easy transporting in a backpack (which the Crane 3S can do, thanks to the removable handle), being able to fully lock the arms provides a much more secure feeling when it’s bouncing around inside the bag. But it also made balancing easier, too.
Instead of having a locked-ish feeling with the two arms I wasn’t currently balancing, I could lock them down completely. They were absolutely immobilised, which meant that it was much easier to adjust the length of the other arms individually and balance each one in turn without wobbles from the other two. As a result, balancing was easier and possibly a little quicker than it was with the Crane 3 LAB, and when you’ve got a big, unbalanced and unwieldy load on there, it definitely helped.
The locks of the Crane 3 LAB were definitely a step in the right direction from the no-lock-at-all on the Crane 2. The Crane 3S just takes that a step further and it made a big difference to me.
The Crane 3S comes with the usual assortment, but also has one or two extra tricks up its sleeve. As one would expect, there are places to connect a pair of servo motors to control focus and zoom (or aperture) rings on your lens. These sit directly next to the mounting plate for your camera, so they’re within easy reach. The Crane 3S also works with the same motors as the Crane 3 LAB. So, if you’re upgrading from the 3 LAB to the 3S, you won’t need to buy new motors.
There’s also the port on the other side for connecting the gimbal to your camera, offering some level of remote control for a number of brands and models of camera to different degrees. With some, you can control the focus without a servo motor over the USB connection. With others you can adjust the exposure settings. Some cameras allow you to start and stop recording from a button on the gimbal itself. And some don’t offer you any kind of communication between the camera and gimbal at all.
None of my cameras are compatible with the USB communications on the Crane 3S, but I did use the focus motor from my Crane 3 LAB with it and it behaved flawlessly.
One of the big advantages the Crane 3S has over the Crane 3 LAB is when it comes to power. Yes, both of them are powered internally by a trio of Zhiyun 18650 batteries, but the Crane 3S also allows for external power via the Zhiyun TransMount PowerPlus, which extends the battery life with six more 18650 batteries and plugs into a port on the side of the Crane 3S.
Shooting modes and handling
As you would expect, the Zhiyun Crane 3S offers the usual array of shooting modes including Pan Follow (PF), Follow (F), Point of View (POF), Vortex (V), Lock (L) and Go. Each of these modes offers different ways of shooting to get different kinds of shots.
- Pan Follow (PF) – This mode lets you pan and follow your subject on a horizontal plane, even if you’re tilting the actual gimbal for better handholding.
- Follow (F) – This mode pans horizontally as well as tilts up and down to follow your movements.
- Point of View (POV) – This offers synchronous 360° movements on all three axes.
- Vortex (V) – This offers 360° barrel rotation when the gimbal is “underslung”
- Lock (L) – This locks the camera to always point in a specific direction, no matter how you turn or tilt the handle.
- Go Mode – This mode lets you capture fast action and movement for things like sports or fancy whip pan transitions
All of these modes performed quite well, although I don’t really need to use the POV or Go modes much for the kinds of things I shoot. Pan Follow, Follow, Vortex and Lock modes work as well as we’ve seen from other gimbals in Zhiyun’s lineup – although Vortex isn’t one I need to use too often.
The controls to switch between modes are available on the SmartSling handle with buttons spread around the LCD and to the side, but you can also switch them on the gimbal itself. This means you have access to change modes with either hand if you need it, or when you’re using the EasySling handle.
After using the Crane 3 LAB for the past year or so, switching to the Crane 3S with the SmartSling handle was a doddle. It operates in a very similar fashion. Using the EasySling handle, though, took a little more getting used to. Not having the controls right there at my fingertips with an easy to read display was a pain. If you’ve never used the 3 LAB or the SmartSling handle, you’d probably take to it more quickly. But for me, that EasySling handle will live underneath the gimbal between it and the mini tripod.
And with that setup, it’s absolutely fantastic. SmartSling handle on the back, EasySling handle underneath (if you go for the standard 3S kit, BUY THE HANDLE!) and it felt easier to handle than the Crane 3 LAB, despite the increased weight. Because I was able to more easily distribute that weight, and because I didn’t struggle as much to lift or set down the gimbal, my arms and wrists survived for much longer.
If you’re using a much heavier system, like the previously mentioned URSA Mini, then you’re not going to have such an easy time. It’s certainly not something you’re going to be carrying around all day without some assistance from something like a Steadicam vest & arm or the Digitalfoto Thanos Pro. But, without the arm & vest, it should still be usable for short bursts.
One of the things I’m particularly looking forward to trying, which I haven’t done yet, is vehicle mounting. It’s something Zhiyun showed off in the launch video, and it’s made easier by the fact that there’s a more substantial 3/8-16″ socket underneath but also a second one on top, allowing for two pretty solid mounting points. And as you can remove the SmartSling handle from the gimbal, it’s not sitting there getting in the way.
When using this setup, obviously you’re not going to be holding it. You’re either going to be communicating via smartphone or Zhiyun’s Image Transmission System. But it’s definitely something I plan to try once the country starts to fully open up and it’s safe to hang out with other people again. And what could be a better view for it than the Scottish wilderness on two wheels?
Overall, it’s a really nice upgrade over the Crane 3 LAB if you can deal with the extra weight or really need the increased load capacity. If you already have the Crane 3 LAB and it already offers you exactly what you need, then I’d probably stick with it. If you don’t know whether you need the extra features and load capacity the Crane 3S offers over the Crane 3 LAB you already have, then just stick with what you know. But if you don’t have the Crane 3 LAB yet, and you’ve been thinking about it, it’s definitely worth considering the Crane 3S instead.
When it comes to the pros, there are quite a few – more than I expected over the Crane 3 LAB.
- 6.5kg load capacity with stronger motors for big beefy rigs
- Extendable arm for increased size capacity for larger camera setups
- Same minimum load capacity as the Crane 3 LAB
- Lateral movements of the camera plate for wide cameras like the Pocket 4K
- External power for longer running time with heavier systems
- Removable handle to let it fit in a backpack when travelling
- The EasySling Handle as a base between the gimbal and tripod (just get it)
- Weight. In a straight side-by-side with the Crane 3 LAB, assuming you’re using a camera setup that works fine on both, you’re carrying around an extra 900g for no real benefit. When you add the EasySling handle, though, it gets easier and for me, it sort of evened things out.
- If you’re using a really heavy rig, then you’re going to need to invest in a vest and arm solution for long term use on set.
If you’re thinking about the Crane 3S-E package which only contains the EasySling handle, then I’d probably suggest going for the Crane 3 LAB instead, if you can find one, unless you’re planning to vehicle mount it or something and control it remotely and really need that extra load capacity. The versatility of the built-in handle on the Crane 3 LAB is well worth the extra, plus you save some weight.
If you’re looking at the standard Crane 3S package, then I’d probably recommend going for this over the Crane 3 LAB if you don’t own one already. If you’re concerned about the extra weight, sure, go for the Crane 3 LAB, but given the benefits of the EasySling handle underneath the gimbal in addition to the SmartSling handle controlling the gimbal, I think I’d still prefer the Crane 3S with buying that extra handle (it’s only an extra $49)
If you’re planning to go the whole hog and get the Crane 3S Pro package, then you likely already know that you need both handles, along with the external power, focus & zoom motors and all the extra bits, so just go for it. But plan for the arm & vest.
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.