Cinetics Axis360 review
From $395 (Kickstarter pledge) | www.cinetics.com
Panning, tilting and sliding are essential actions in both photography and video. They enable us to shoot panoramic images, record time-lapse compilations and provide fluid movement to video productions. To elevate the quality of camera movement, professional-grade equipment is needed, and it's usually very expensive. The folks at Cinetics aim to bridge the gap with the introduction of the Axis360, a compact, motorized tripod head and slider for dynamic video and time-lapse photography.
Like the two prior successes in the Cinetics family, the Axis360 has landed on Kickstarter to seek funding for production. I got a chance to use the Axis360 before its launch, so if you're in the market for an affordable motion control system that rotates and slides your camera, stick around.
|The Kickstarter pledge rewards breakdown for the Axis360 system.||The individual components that make up the Axis360 ecosystem.|
The Cinetics Axis360 is a gear-driven stepper motor that propels a rotor capable of spinning a full 360-degrees continuously in either direction. This rotor has a standard male tripod thread embedded on top, which is able to receive a Cinetics ballhead mount, tripod plate, or other standard mount device. The motor can move any camera weighing less than 5kg (11 lb) with a standard 1/4"-20 mounting thread. It weighs 0.6kg (1.4 lbs.) and measures 93mm x 63mm x 60mm. Motor movement has variable speeds up to 70° and is accurate to 0.1°. The body of the motor has female threads on three of its sides to further enhance its modular abilities. By adding a Cinetics snap mount to the side of the motor, the controller can easily be fastened to it.
The Axis360 is controlled by the CineMoco controller running CineMoco software version 2.0. The controller enables the Axis360 motor to rotate your camera at different speeds continuously, or in an incremental move-shoot-move pattern. Several terminals are built into the bottom of the CineMoco controller, including a shutter release jack that can be used for time-lapse or panoramic photography. The shutter release cable is not necessary if your camera has its own built-in time-lapse mode, but life is easier using the cable. The CineMoco controller is compatible with over 100 camera models from all major manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Sony and Panasonic.
When multiple motors and controls are used, the controllers can be daisy-chained via the 3.5mm sync jack. One of the great features of the CineMoco controller is its Micro USB terminal, which can connect to a computer and run Dragonframe stop motion animation software. Since the software is built on open source Arduino code, compatibility with future software is possible. The CineMoco's battery is slated to last six hours in continuous use and 24 hours in power saving mode. The front of the controller has a monochrome LCD screen controlled by six rubberized buttons: Home/Play, Menu and a four-way directional setup for scrolling.
The Axis360 motor and CineMoco controller alone are capable of panning a camera or video camera, but what happens when you need additional movement? Cinetics offers the Tilt setup, which enables the camera to tilt up and down. The Tilt kit is composed of two L-brackets with slots and tripod fasteners to support the camera. The L-brackets slide into the grooves of tripod plates in order to be supported. With the Axis360 motor mounted upright, the rotor spins on the Y-axis, and the camera can now move up and down. Tilting is great for video or time-lapse photography.
|The Axis360 Tilt setup consists of two L-brackets.||The Axis360 pictured atop its Slider. Note how three separate Axis360 controllers are being used to pan, tilt and slide the camera all at once.|
If X and Y-axis movement is still not enough for the type of shooting you do, Cinetics offers the Slider, which is a 32-inch aluminum rail track-and-cart system that can be extended with additional rails and clamps. The Slider can be mounted to a 3/8-16" thread tripod base in the middle after removing the tripod head, or it can sit on the ground, courtesy of its four adjustable outrigger legs. The sliding cart rolls on eight urethane coated bearings and has adjustable drag. By mounting the Axis360 to the end of the Slider, the cart can be motorized by the use of a Kevlar belt and pulley system. This is ideal for sliding video, and when two additional Axis360 motors are used, it is possible to pan, tilt, and slide your camera all in one fell swoop.
Cinetics sent me one Axis360 motor with CineMoco controller, Tilt setup and slider to test out. So, I was able to shoot in all three available motions offered by the Axis360 ecosystem. I was sent a pre-production model, and Justin Jensen (the founder of Cinetics) told me that his company will be fine-tuning various aspects of the Axis360 prior to launch. This includes refining the gears inside the motor for a smoother operation, whittling down some options on the CineMoco controller for more simplified operation, and improving hardware like the mini tripod.
The overall construction of the Axis360 and its components is very good, as a high quality glass reinforced polyurethane is used in conjunction with high grade aluminum. Each Axis360 unit is hand-built in Austin, Texas with parts sourced from all over the world. So when it came to the ruggedness of the Axis360 system, I was not concerned at all.
I found that the biggest learning curve with the Axis360 was its CineMoco controller menu system. This thing is capable of so much, and its menu system can seem quite daunting during initial usage. Cinetics offers a manual for the CineMoco controller, which is quite helpful, but it still takes a while to be completely familiar with the interface. After a great deal of trial and error, and communication with Justin, I was able to really fly through the menu system, and shooting with the Axis360 suddenly became an exciting prospect. The most important thing is to first figure out what you want to shoot, how you want your camera to move, and the duration of the shot.
Time-lapse? Video? Panoramic image? Let's break it all down.
Time-lapse and Panorama
If you're shooting a time-lapse video, the first step is to set the controller to Time-lapse instead of Video. Next, you have the option to move the motor according to Keyframes or Run (distance in cm). When set to Keyframes, you can manually scroll the motor left or right to reach your start point and end point.
I never use Run in Time-lapse or Video mode because I found Keyframes to be the most precise method of picking a Start and End point for camera movement. The manual scrolling speed (using the directional pad to manually turn the motor left or right) can be controlled, as well as the speed of the motor once it's on its programmed path - but the motor speed is mainly for video applications. Operation speed can be set at 1/8, 1/4, or 1/2, which I equate to being the device's throttle. The smaller the fraction, the slower and steadier the motor turns, while the larger the fraction the faster and rougher the engine runs. 1/8 is ideal for time-lapse photography, as it provides the most finite movement available due to its small steps.
The time lapse video above showcases three scenes shot using the Axis360. The first is a panning example, shot over the course of an hour at 240 exposures. The second clip is a tilt with the same parameters as the panning clip. The third clip utilizes the slider, but the sliding action is barely noticeable due to the wide angle lens and the lack of objects in the immediate foreground. The third clip is a combination of 120 30-second shutter exposures. If anything, the Axis360 performed admirably in all three settings, and I realized that panning is probably the best option for a long exposure night sky.
Once these parameters are set, the real fun begins. Photography is an art based on ratios and complimentary actions. Hastening the shutter speed requires a wider aperture or higher ISO, and the combinations multiply from there. Well, the with Axis360, there are several elements that directly affect each other. For instance, if I want to shoot a 10-second time-lapse video at 24fps, I need to adjust the exposure time and Axis360 operation time accordingly. Factors like available light, focus, your camera's processing time, and time available to you all come into play. It's a complicated process, but once learned, it's not so bad. Let me explain.
My first dose of reality came when I set my camera up at night to shoot a 10-second 24fps time-lapse video. My shutter speed on the camera was 30 seconds, aperture F4, and ISO at 400 with a Canon 5D Mark III and 14mm F2.8 L lens.
I set the Axis360 controller to a 30 second exposure time to match the camera, which meant the motor will allow 30 seconds per exposure before heading to its next stop. With all of those parameters taken into consideration, total record time with the Axis360 was two hours for 240 frames. This was all for a camera movement of approximately 120° left-to-right.
What I failed to realize was that I needed to compensate for my camera's processing time on each image. So, by selecting 30 second exposures on both my camera and motor, the motor was allowing exactly 30 seconds before moving on to the next shot, when in reality my camera was probably taking about 35-40 seconds to capture and process each image. So, it made sense when my camera only captured 120 frames after two hours instead of 240. If I had lowered the exposure time on my camera, or allowed more record time to fit in longer exposures, then I would have been able to capture all 240 frames for a 10 second 24fps time-lapse video. Again, it's all about the ratios.
One additional setting of the Axis360 is that its motor can move in two different methods: Continuous and Shoot-Move-Shoot. In Continuous, the motor does not stop moving for the full duration of the programmed operation. So, throughout the two full hours I was recording the night time-lapse, the Axis360 was moving ever so slightly from left to right. This way, motion blur was present, enabling each frame I shot to blend into each other. However, even at a 30 second exposure, my images were rather crisp, despite the slight movement of the camera, enabling a beautiful blend of images of the night sky. So, I decided Continuous mode was the ideal time-lapse setting.
|24-frame panorama captured with the Axis360.|
With Shoot-Move-Shoot, the Axis360 does just that. The camera snaps an image, the motor turns to its next location, and then stops before the camera snaps its next image. Shooting this way minimizes motion blur, and is really best for shooting panoramas. Speaking of which, I shot a 24-frame panorama with the Axis360 via the Shoot-Move-Shoot option. The results were impressive, as all images were perfectly aligned and easy to stitch together in post.
One hiccup I ran into was that the camera was misfiring at times. This was chalked up to user error yet again, as the shutter speed and processing time on the camera needed to be fast enough to coincide with the motor movement of the Axis360. Deja vu - but once I chose a fast enough shutter speed, the misfiring disappeared.
One thing to note is that when I had my camera and controller settings configured properly, the Axis360 always fired a shot via the shutter release cable, so that was never an issue. There is even an option to test fire a shot, and an entire menu section dedicated to picking your camera type and adjusting settings via the controller, including HDR and Bracketing.