Tiffen Steadicam Volt review

Can the first smartphone Steadicam live up to all the hype?

Steadicam has been making gimbals since Sylvester Stallone ran up those stairs in the first Rocky movie, in which an early version of the Steadicam was used to capture the iconic shot. The company now makes a variety of stabilization systems for both cinematic and consumer use. Most Steadicams use weights to act as a counterbalance to the attached camera, but the new Volt — designed for smartphones and GoPro cameras — is Steadicam’s first stabilizer to use a hybrid mechanical-electronic system.

That makes the Volt unique among smartphone gimbals. Depending on how you look at it, it is both simpler and more complex to operate. It only has one button and a power switch, but the mechanical counterbalance still takes some time to properly dial in. This means is blissfully easy to use, but only if set up correctly.

So, does the Steadicam Volt live up to all the hype that turned it into a million-dollar Kickstarter campaign? We weren’t particularly enamored with it at first, but the more we used it and figured out all the nuances, the more we fell in love.

Design

The original mechanical Steadicam system was a big influence in the design of the Volt, but while professional systems can weigh upwards of 40 pounds, the Volt is just 1 pound. Unlike most smartphone gimbals, the Volt has a long stabilizing arm dropping down from the top platform. By adding weights to the bottom of the arm, the Volt balances the weight of the smartphone (or GoPro) to create a steadier shot. This allows it to work with phones of all different sizes.

The top platform houses the Volt’s electronics, where a motor compensates for the movements that the mechanical counterbalance cannot. On top of the platform, a spring-loaded handle accommodates most smartphone sizes, even with cases on. To use with a GoPro, the smartphone platform can be easily removed and replaced with a GoPro-specific one.

With the hybrid system, the Volt is a bit unlike other smartphone (and GoPro) gimbals on the market.

Of course, that big balancing arm means the Volt isn’t the smallest gimbal on the market, but it’s also nowhere near the size of the professional mechanical rigs. The Volt weighs about one pound. When not in use, the smartphone holster and balancing arm can be folded, and can slide easily into a backpack.

The Volt is constructed mainly out of plastic, with the exception of the metal bracket for the support arm, the weights, and the top part of the handle. Despite the liberal use of plastic, the Volt doesn’t feel too chintzy, and we certainly appreciate that weight is kept to just 1 pound.

Setting it up

We were intrigued by the Volt’s hybrid design, but initially balancing it proved fairly complicated. Experienced Steadicam users may feel right at home, but beginners should expect to endure a small bit of frustration when starting out.

Steadicam Volt Review

Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

To balance the gimbal, you first need to add weights to the end of the arm while holding the system horizontally — if the gimbal moves up, you add more weight, and if the gimbal moves down, you take weight off. The first weight screws into the bottom piece, but any subsequent weights are then held in place by a strong magnet. You have to use substantial force to get the magnets off, so if your smartphone setup changes often, it’s going to be a nuisance. (On the plus side, adding weight is fast and easy, and the weights shouldn’t come off by accident while in use.) For an iPhone 7 with an Otterbox case, we used all but one weight.

Once the weights are added, you then need to make sure the top platform is level. A small dial moves the phone forward or backward on the platform to find the point where the camera is pointing straight ahead.

The Volt has two shooting modes and the control scheme couldn’t possibly be any simpler.

Finally, you need to balance the platform for roll, which is done by simply nudging the phone in the cradle until it’s balance, no longer tilting to one side or the other. The gimbal is rather touchy and every millimeter will make a difference, so, again, be ready for a bit of frustration on your first attempt. If you don’t switch phones or accessories, this last step will be the only thing you have to adjust the next time you want to use the gimbal. If you want to switch to a GoPro or another phone, you’ll need to repeat the entire process of balancing the gimbal again.

We had some initial trouble getting the gimbal to balance perfectly, but once we figured it all out, we were able to get a pretty good balance. If you aren’t familiar with mechanical gimbals, it may require some trial and error (for us, it didn’t help that some of the instructions weren’t very clear), but once you master the balancing act, it works quite well.

Using the Volt

Once balanced, all you have to do is turn the Volt on (while holding the handle, or else it will spin around uncontrollably) and start shooting. The electronics inside the platform work together with the mechanical elements to stabilize your shot.

The Volt has two shooting modes and the control scheme couldn’t possibly be any simpler. Once you hit the power button, the three lights on the back flash to indicate the system is powering up. You’ll feel the torque of the electric motor and see one blue light indicating you are in sport mode. Sport mode compensates for most types of movement and is the easiest mode to use. Press the single button on the back two times and you can switch to movie mode, which allows more experienced users to take greater control of the footage for effects like panning. A single press of the button goes back to the sport mode.

How you move while using the Volt is still very much important..

Even with quick pans, the camera stays level and stable. This is one of the Volt’s primary advantages over three-axis powered gimbals, which take time to “catch up” to your movements. But just like with other gimbals, how you move is still very important. The Volt doesn’t try to counteract vertical or horizontal shift — nor does any other three-axis gimbal — so there are noticeable up-and-down movements with every step you take while filming.

This works well if what you’re going for is a true point-of-view shot from a person’s perspective, but it’s not great if you want a perfectly level and smooth shot. This is where technique comes into play. You have to walk very carefully — fondly referred to as the “ninja walk” by many videographers — to smooth out your footsteps.

Steadicam Volt Review
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Unlike fully electronic gimbals, there’s no joystick to create smooth panning effects, but you can achieve this with very soft nudges with your thumb at the base of the platform. The perfect pan takes a bit of practice, but once you figure out just how much to move the base, you’ll get the speed you are looking for. And as you turn, the gimbal keeps in sync with your position, so the camera is always facing forward. You can also use the same thumb nudging to turn the camera positioning.

You can use the Volt with any camera app, including the native camera app.

The Volt works with any camera app, but Tiffen includes its Imagemaker App. The app has a handy level, and it’s easy to adjust exposure compensation to get a well exposed video. Unfortunately, the app goes to sleep mid-recording and tapping the screen to wake it up introduces a slight up and down movement that the gimbal doesn’t compensate for.

Tiffen says you’ll get about eight hours of battery life from the Volt. What’s more, if properly balanced, you don’t even need to turn the electronics on — the gimbal can still stabilize footage in 100-percent mechanical mode — but we definitely got better results in hybrid mode.

Is it Worth all the Hype?

While we were on the fence the first time we tried the Volt, we grew to love it the more we used it. It takes some practice, but the stabilization is solid once you get it. Overall, it’s an excellent smartphone gimbal, but isn’t quite as easy to jump into as fully electronic models, like the DJI Osmo+. Balancing the Volt is almost an art form in itself.

If you are looking for a gimbal that gets great video right out of the box, then the Volt probably isn’t for you. However, it has some advantages. It works with virtually any phone, or a GoPro, and if you’re willing to put in the time to master it, it allows for quick, precise pans that other gimbals simply can’t match.

The Volt is priced similarly to the competition at $195. This includes the gimbal, weights, two rechargeable batteries and charger, and a slip case for storage.

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