A gimbal head is an essential accessory for wildlife photographers and their long lenses. Will Cheung tries out one of the latest models
Handholding a long telephoto lens up to the eye is possible for a short while. But even the strongest photographer will not be able to keep the camera up to the eye for very long, so some form of camera support is recommended. If you are shooting from a vehicle or a hide you can use a bean bag, or even a decent monopod but the ideal accessory is the tripod. Much depends on the situation and the lens being used.
With a typical tripod head, however, using a long, heavy lens means the camera/lens combination is front heavy so it will tip forward and locking it into position puts unnecessary train on the tripod head. Not only that but even if the head does lock securely if the subject decides to move you have to unlock everything to track it and that in practice means you have lost the shot. The accessory of choice for experienced nature photographers is the gimbal head.
Gimbals are heavy duty units that replaces the usual tripod head and give great support while being really quick, comfortable and smooth to use.
Once properly set-up, the camera and lens is perfectly balanced at its natural centre of gravity yet it is held securely in position so if you need to quickly realign the lens or pan with the subject you can without undoing any knobs or screws. Well known brands include Wimberley, King Cobra, Kirk and Manfrotto.
Gimbal heads, you will not be surprised to learn given their specialist market, are expensive but worth their weight in gold if you have the need. In the context of massive, fast aperture lenses that cost thousands of pounds investing in a gimbal head is comparatively small beer.
Here we try a Jobu Design BWG Pro (Black Widow Gimbal) that sells at £450.
Features and handling
|The Jobu BWG is a hefty piece of kit but its fuss-free set-up and excellent stability easily justifies its weight and price tag.
The BWG-Pro is a very solid piece of kit that will easily support a massive telephoto lens, even something like a 600mm f4, for example, but can be used for shorter lenses too. It is a single cast unit and feels incredibly robust so it should have no problem keeping a long telephoto lens steady. Of course, you do need a solid set of legs to use it on.
It does not take long to set up and once balanced the camera is held perfectly still. It is important to buy an appropriate quick release plate. The BWG uses the Arca Swiss style plate which is the most popular fitting in this market.
Aside from the locking screw for the camera plate, there are three large locking nuts. One adjusts the height of the camera platform while the other two adjust camera alignment. The head’s up/down swing function can be locked into position too – that is handy for carrying and means there is no camera plate movement during set-up.
All the controls are readily usable even with gloves on and are very positive. Once locked tight, the camera and lens are not going to go anywhere. But loosened, the camera and lens can be quickly adjusted, horizontally as well as vertically.
I had the head on a the popular Manfrotto 055 tripod and that is probably the minimum for this sort of application.
On the gimbal itself, I tried a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 with 1.7x teleconverter on a Nikon D700 fixed with an MB-10 grip. To be honest, the BWG coped with this relatively modest combination without getting out of first gear, and I would have no reservations with a 500mm or 600mm with a D3 body.
Stability was never an issue and the head's design allows a silky smooth panning action, perfect for shooting stills or if you are making movies with your DSLR.
Jobu BWG-Pro Verdict
This is an impressive piece of kit that is incredibly well-made. It is probably over-engineered but it does mean that it will easily support a long lens and provide a lifetime’s service in the wild.
If you are keen on photographing wildlife and need a quick to use but really solid gimbal head, I would have no hesitation at all in recommending that you take a close look at the Jobu BWG-Pro.
Jobu BWG-Pro: Pros
Easy to use
Jobu BWG-Pro: Cons
The Jobu BWG-Pro gimbal head video is now on ePHOTOzine.tv
Jobu Design Black Widow Gimbal Head Pro specification
Quick release plate Arca Swiss compatible
Fitting 3/8in screw