Bird photographers and other action shooters frequently have to use really long lenses to get close-ups of often-distant subjects. Such lenses are really too bulky to handhold, so most work from a tripod. A tripod with a ballhead is great for stationary subjects, but what about action subjects? Conventional ball or pan-tilt tripod heads don’t allow for smooth tracking of moving subjects, especially moving birds in flight.
Most “serious” bird photographers use a gimbal head. This relatively simple device firmly supports a long lens, yet allows you to track moving subjects as easily as when handholding the lens, once you’ve practiced a bit. The head can be locked to hold the camera just as you want it for shots of perched birds, for example, and takes the weight off your arms—ideal when waiting for that perched bird to take off.
Using a gimbal head is easy, although it takes a bit of time to get the feel for it. You can move the camera in any direction, but it’s mounted to the tripod, and that makes for a different “feel” than handholding.
Most gimbal heads require use of an Arca-Swiss-type lens plate to mount the lens to the head. I just leave the plate on my 300mm ƒ/4 lens all the time; it actually provides a better grip for handholding, too.
The key to successful gimbal-head shooting is to get the camera properly balanced; then it rotates around its center of gravity. You can move it with just a finger, yet it will stay wherever you set it. Each particular design comes with its own set of instructions, but basically, you slip the mounting plate on the lens mount into the gimbal head’s lens platform, then slide the whole camera/lens assembly forward or back until it balances. This takes some trial and error (and care—follow the directions that accompany your gimbal head), but not really much time. You’ll know you have the balance right when the camera/lens stays put when you let go of it in any position.
A Gimbal Head Sampler
The Manfrotto 393 Heavy Telephoto Lens Support ($193) is the lowest-priced and most different-looking gimbal head, with a rectangular rather than L shape. It weighs 3.5 pounds and is appropriate for all lenses with a tripod collar.
The Wimberley WH-200 Head Version II ($595) offers the same stiffness, capacity and fluid movement as the classic original Wimberley Head, but is more compact, lighter and ergonomic. The SK-100 Sidekick ($250) turns a ballhead into a gimbal head.
Jobu Design offers five gimbal heads to suit different lens-weight requirements, ranging from the BWG-Pro ($699), which was designed for the 600mm ƒ/4 and 400mm ƒ/2.8 “big guns,” to the Jobu Jr. 2 ($325), which was designed for lenses in the 300mm ƒ/4 and 400mm ƒ/5.6 range (and can handle a 300mm ƒ/2.8).
The Flashpoint Gimbal Head 1 ($239) weighs just 2.2 pounds, but can support up to 15.4 pounds of lens and camera. It even comes with a 2¾-inch quick-release plate.
Custom Brackets offers three gimbal heads, plus the CB Gimbal Basic ($270-$300), which converts any Arca-Swiss-style ballhead into a gimbal. The CB Gimbal ($580-$630) is a heavy-duty model for all lenses; the CB Gimbal-LS ($460-$505) is a lighter, 2.5-pound gimbal for all lenses, and the CB Gimbal-LB ($395-$435) is a 1.9-pound head for lenses up to 400mm.
Induro offers three GH-Series gimbal heads, all capable of supporting a medium-format SLR or a 35mm/DSLR with long lens. Head weights range from 1.1 pounds for the GHBA to 3.2 pounds for the GHB2, which features a height-adjustable platform.
Kirk Enterprises offers the KC-1 King Cobra gimbal head ($455), a three-pound device that can support all telephoto lenses that have a rotating tripod collar. The aluminum unit features a side mount and a black satin finish.