Float Your Video Camera with the Axler Robin 20 Stabilizer
There’s nothing quite like the elegant, floating feeling you get when watching footage shot on a stabilizer. Conversely, there are few things as distracting and annoying as poorly balanced or shaky attempts to nail a smooth run.
I had a big project lined up, and one of the tools in my arsenal was the Axler Robin 20 Stabilizer. It would be my first time using this product, so I documented my experiences with it from opening the box, to setup, to using it on my shoot. If you’re familiar with Glidecams or other handheld, non-powered stabilizers, the Axler is similar to these products.
Out of the Box
The original box in which it shipped was a bit larger than I expected, but once opened, the packaging box for the Robin 20 S was quite a bit smaller. And once I opened that box, I was greeted by a black shoulder bag that was even smaller, sort of like a matryoshka doll (you know, those little Russian dolls that have an increasingly smaller figure inside each one). The final size of the bag, with the entire kit packed, was only 21 x6.5 x 6.5". Since I was hopping on a plane the next day, this made packing it a breeze. The bag features a bit of padding, as well, and it held up to the rigors of gear transport for the next 14 days, as I made about seven flights with it—and it was tossed around in the gear van on a daily basis.
The Robin 20 S comes in two major parts when shipped, the column/gimbal/head, and the counterweight plate. I’ve used Glidecams, Steadicams, MoVi systems and more for stabilizers, and I can tell you that it was a relief to see this kit in only two parts, and small ones at that. There’s no huge head or counterweight plate, so it can pack down much smaller. It’s such a pain (and time suck) to be constantly building up and breaking down parts of my kit. The only other things in the bag were the baseplate, manual, and shoulder strap for the bag itself.
When setting it up the first time, I noticed that the quick-release plate was very similar to the 504PLONG plates made by Manfrotto, which I use on several of my video tripod heads, and have QR mounts on jibs, sliders, etc. I checked to see if they were compatible and, unfortunately, they were not.
For my first tests, I used a Panasonic GH4 with the Metabones Speedbooster and a Canon 16-35mm II lens. This combination weighs only about 3.5 lb, about half of the Robin 20 S published weight limit of 7 lb.
The column screws into the counterweight plate, and aligns properly along the fore-aft axis. I set up a C-stand and slid the handle onto the end of a grip head arm. It barely fit, but it fit. Placing the rig on a light stand or C-stand will allow you to balance it easily, so definitely use one if you’re setting up any sort of stabilizer. From here, I pored through the manual and followed its step-by-step instructions on proper setup and balance.
Per the manual’s suggestion, I removed one weight from both the front and back of the counterweight plate to start. An oversized thumbscrew made it easy—and quick—to remove and replace these weights as needed, as well as to slide them farther away or closer to the center.
The next step was to get my camera onto the sled on top. A pin locks the plate onto the sled, allowing for some fore/aft movement, while a small screw tightens it down, just like on a lot of tripod heads.
A brief digression: The screw you tighten is smartly built to be ratchet style, so if the camera body hangs over the screw, you can still slide it back and turn it as much needed. I have worked with many other screws that were built to work this way, and this one is by far the best, and easiest to work with. In my experience, ratchet-style screws are a good idea, but are a pain in practice. Not this one. Other manufacturers should take note of the way this one is built.
I followed each step in the manual, which was pretty straightforward, and got the rig balanced relatively well in just a few minutes. I chased my dog around to get a feel for flying the Axler and scope out my first run footage.
This test showed me that I needed to dial-in my balance quite a bit, but it also made me realize that there was no information in the manual on the proper way to “fly it” and no information on the company’s recommendation for shooting in low mode, where on other stabilizers you typically fly it upside down. I checked the website, but at the time of this writing, it was under construction. My guess is that you handle it and use it in low mode the way you would with other stabilizers. A first-time user won’t know how to do all of that, so I hope they get their site up and running soon, with this additional information.
This thing is light and it looks great. A black finish with some red notes along the column and handle look good; as inexpensive as this stabilizer is, it doesn’t look cheap at all.
At first it appeared that the counterweight plate didn’t misalign from the camera plate at all, but after a few runs and re-adjusting my balance, I could tell that it had shifted a little somewhere. It was easy to fix. The takeaway is that you’ve got to be patient, and rebalancing a stabilizer several times is par for the course—if you want the smoothest and most level shots, expect to spend time balancing and rebalancing your stabilizer.
The sled, or head area of the Axler, boasts threads for storing extra screws and, of course, hosts locking knobs for the quick-release plate. The underside screw gives the user left/right adjustment latitude. There are two built-in bubble levels for reference, but they can only be seen from above—you have to be looking down onto the head section to observe them. So if your C-stand is a large one, you won’t be able to reference them. The handle and the tightening sections of the column sport textured rubber for a decent grip.
My second round of test-flying the Axler was in the RGG EDU studio in St. Louis, where we were prepping gear for a week of shooting video in New Orleans for a tutorial about natural-light portrait photography, featuring Dani Diamond.
Setup went quickly, as I balanced the Robin on a small C-stand in the studio. Dialing-in my balance, I went for a spin around the studio.
I walked up and down stairs, and just tried to spend time getting used to the weight and feel—a must for anyone using any form of stabilizer. The footage was a bit better than my first runs, with the up/down looking OK but I was still seeing a bit of wiggle from left to right.
With these initial tests sating my appetite for the time being, I disassembled the Axler Robin 20 S and loaded it into my bags for travel to New Orleans!
On the third or fourth day of shooting, I saw an opportunity to use the Axler to float around the production crew, model, makeup, and all the gear in the area. I used a basic lighting stand to hold the Axler in place while I balanced a C100 with a Canon 16-35mm f/4. I kept the top handle on so that I could record audio, and the grip handle for making exposure adjustments when needed. This weighed probably around 6 lb, so I was nearing the weight limit.
I messed up my first few clips, as I forgot to switch the Image Stabilization on the lens to the OFF position. In my experience, IS can ruin footage when you’re on any sort of stabilizer—when you try to make smooth, subtle moves, it tries to compensate, but ultimately over-corrects and makes footage look a bit jumpy, especially around the edges. Once I fixed that, I was able to get a few nice orbit moves and floating in/out camera moves with relative ease.
Tips for Flying
Be sure to set the position and accessories BEFORE you balance. An action as simple as repositioning the camera’s LCD will throw off the stabilizer’s balance.
If you’re shooting at a very wide angle from around head to chest height, consider balancing the camera so that it is tilting down ever so slightly. I find that I naturally want to tilt down to eliminate the excess of headroom that comes from shooting straight on, so balancing my camera to that in the first place makes it easier to shoot that way.
Is it Heavy?
This is the question I got the most when using the Axler. Holding 15 lb in one hand while trying to keep a steady hand will get tiring, but for most shots you only have to fly it for 10-30 seconds. After that you can hold it with your other hand or place it back onto your light stand until you’re ready to do your next shot.
The Axler 20S can deliver smooth, stabilized footage, but just like some of the other systems on the market, can take some practice to master. What makes it stand out for me is how quickly I can get my camera balanced and ready to shoot– it was much faster than any other stabilizer setup I’ve ever used. It also packs easier and smaller than comparable systems, so those two things alone make it a better choice, in my opinion. My biggest complaint is the camera plate—I wish it were compatible with Manfrotto QR systems. Having to switch plates every time I use a different piece of gear can get annoying and it’s just another plate to keep track of.
I think what was the most eye-opening was that I almost confused the Axler footage for Ronin footage when pouring through clips after the shoots. I had to study a few shots closely to determine if they were shot with our DJI Ronin, a 3-axis, powered gimbal stabilizer that costs about $2,500) or the Axler. It would be very interesting to see how good I could get with the Axler Robin 20S after using it for more than a couple of weeks.