Have you ever seen wildlife photographers or sports photographers going about their business with huge lenses on a tripod? There’s a big chance you might have, probably on NatGeo or History TV. Telephoto lenses though superb pieces of equipment are very troublesome to use. Unless you have great support systems like gimbal heads, a good set of legs, sandbags, etc it becomes almost impossible to use them only by hand.
If you are keen on learning more about gimbal heads, then you have come to the right page. Keep reading on and by the end of this article, you will have a fair idea of what is a gimbal head and how to use one.
Types of Gimbal Head
Well, there are all sorts of Gimbal heads in the market and it can be quite frustrating searching for one if you don’t know what to look for. Technically, Gimbals are rings fixed at right angles to an axle which keep an instrument upright in a moving frame, for example- gyroscopes. Gimbal heads are used to balance long telephoto lenses on a tripod so that they can be moved around easily. The controls are fairly simple, just a couple of knobs to adjust the tension and lock the camera in place. There are two major points of discussion when we talk about the difference between gimbal heads.
Tripod Gimbal Head and Video Gimbals
Video Gimbals are handheld devices which work on batteries. These are used to stabilize the camera for shooting video. In most of the cases, video gimbals are handheld. They have a ton of electronics buzzing around on the inside and isn’t quite suitable for photography. The DJI Ronin or the DJI Osmo are good examples of these. Like GoPro, these can be used in a variety of situations and are fundamentally different than photography heads.
The tripod gimbal heads are purely mechanical systems. These heads are suited for action photography wherein you need to be agile with the long lenses. Shooting videos isn’t quite the purpose for which it was designed but some casual static video shooting isn’t out of the question. The only problem with tripod gimbal heads is balancing. If the lens is not mounted properly, chances are it will dip/tilt while shooting and you will have to rebalance it from time to time.
Note: The weight capacity of video gimbal is considerably less than that of gimbal heads.
Side Mount and Cradle Mount
Tripod gimbal heads are categorized as side mounted and cradle mounted. The difference is quite visible but each of these has its own positives. If you ever go about asking for advice about gimbal heads, you are bound to receive mixed opinions. There are a lot of rumors about the cradle mount being illogically expensive or the side mount to be insecure. But this is not true. Both of these heads are excellent and perform very well. There hasn’t been a single issue with side mounts regarding safety and at the same time, the cradle mounts are highly stable, if not more than side mounts.
Side mounted gimbal heads have fewer moving parts. As you can observe from the images, one big L shaped piece – cradle is missing and the lens is mounted sideways. It might seem unsafe but believe me if that had been the case, they wouldn’t have stuck around here. Sideways mounts are generally cheaper than cradle mounts and are great options if you are on a budget. Balancing is an issue with side mounts. Since the lens is mounted sideways, you are never too sure if it is balanced right halfway or not which creates problems while shooting.CRADLE MOUNTS
Cradle mounts have an additional L shaped part attached to the vertical shaft. A clamp is used to affix the lens with the head. This clamp rests on the cradle. Cradle mounts are heavier and bulkier but very easy to balance. You can almost never go wrong with balancing on a cradle mount. They are expensive and some companies like Gitzo make only these versions. Other companies like RRS and Induro make both the versions of the same head. Choosing one totally depends on the user’s taste because both of them are equally good and stable.
Things to Look Out For
Now that you familiar with the basics of gimbal heads, let us look at some key features which are important while choosing a gimbal head.
- Engineering and built qualityThe head must be engineered precisely and all the parts must fit in perfectly. The built quality of clamps, shafts, brackets, etc is indicative of the head’s standard. There mustn’t be any squeaking, bending, etc when the lens is mounted.
- Functional DesignThe ergonomics of the head must be well-designed. Since it is to be used in not so ideal conditions, make sure the head is lightweight, small in size, easy to carry and is able to hold sufficient weight.
- Quick Release PlateThe QR plate on the clamp plays a major role when you want to remove the lens quickly for some action. Choose one which is universal like the Arca Swiss Type systems and make sure that the lens is supported properly by the plate while attaching.
- Tripod or MonopodThe tripod on which the gimbal head is to be used is of major concern. This is because not all tripods are strong enough to support such heavy equipment (head+camera+lens). Keep a strong set of legs like the Gitzo systematic series handy. Click here to learn more about systematic tripods.
- Bubble Levels and Vertical Adjustments
Though, not a deal breaker, it is always good to have a bubble leveler on the head. The vertical adjustment is that extra feature for precise positioning vertically.
To save you some time and hard work in searching for a head, I have listed some best gimbal heads available right now. The built quality of all these are superior and the performance has been tested by time!
The benro GH2 is probably the most famous head and gives the best value for money. It is in production for a long time now and hopefully won’t go out anytime soon. The design is very straightforward and fares well in ergonomics.
The maximum load capacity is 51lbs (23kg) and is made of aluminum. It does not disappoint in its performance and swivels beautifully even when heavy lenses are attached. It checks all the boxes mentioned above and is no doubt a great buy.
GITZO GHFG1 FLUID GIMBAL HEAD
This might come as a welcome surprise that the Gitzo GHFG1 is reasonably priced and very affordable. It is very unlike Gitzo but they have done an amazing job at a very sweet price. At around $500 it is the best bargain. The head is made of aluminum alloy, in Italy and has excellent damping properties due to the fluid chambers inside. It is not optimized for photography because the fluid resists sudden large changes in position.
The head can support a subtle 17lbs (7.7kg) and comes with a 5-year extended warranty.
The Benro gh2 and Wimberley wh-200 are almost identical in terms of design. The difference is in the load capacity and price. The Wimberley can support a massive 150 lbs (68kg) of weight but costs around $600, around $350 more than the Benro.
This head has been around for a long time and though it is not very cheap, it offers premium built and performance.
The sidekick has a very innovative design. It can quickly convert your ball head into a standard gimbal head. It is a great option for those who don’t want to spend a ton of money on various heads. Also, this saves space in your gear bag and works just as well.The only downside is that the ball head needs to be very good and of high quality otherwise your equipment would be at risk.
How to Use it with a Telephoto Lens
Balancing the lens on the head in a very crucial step. A perfectly balanced lens must not move or drift when you release the camera. It should stay in position. For most people, this might not be a problem but imagine a situation where you have to shoot a subject and you have it nicely in your viewfinder. You are waiting for some action, now you take off your hand for a little while, what happens? The camera has drifted and it isn’t the same way as you left it, as a result, the subject is no longer in the viewfinder and you have to find it again and by that time you missed the action. Also, a well balanced tripod is much more stable as the center of gravity is just in the middle of the tripod and lens.
Most people get it wrong but I’m gonna teach you how you can do it very simply. Mount the lens using the lens collar onto the clamp. Fiddle around back and forth until you find that sweet spot where the lens is perfectly horizontal and does not creep (move) when you release it.
Now we wanna make sure that the camera stays wherever you point it. For that, you need to adjust the camera vertically. Move the lens upwards and tilt it at an angle. Observe the movement of the lens, does it creep? Yes, move it higher. You wanna do it until the lens stays in the same position no matter how you tilt it or pan it. Watch this video, it has all the information on balancing the gimbal head.
Gimbal heads are a blessing for wildlife/aviation photographers and it takes years to master it in the wild. All the different gimbal head which I have mentioned are top class and won’t disappoint if you opt them. If not, then keep in mind what to look for and what are your requirements before finalizing one. Gimbal head is a professional grade photography equipment and will last a lifetime if used properly.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post and if you have any doubts or queries feel free to drop in a comment and I’ll be more than happy to help you out.
Tripods For All