We just returned from running two short weekend elk rut workshops in Rock Mountain National Park. And the photography was great; we timed the elk rut perfectly, and had some nice fall colors as well. Including a few personal trips to the park, I noticed I had taken nearly 10,000 wildlife photos this September. Most of the images were taken with the Nikon D6 and a 600mm F4 lens. Some participants were curious about the incredible ‘one finger balance’ of my RRS gimbal tripod that effortlessly balanced and secured my 600mm. Honestly, without this gimbal head, even using a heavy duty standard head, I’m sure my ratio of sharp photos would decrease by about 40 percent. If you own a 200-500 tele zoom (5 pounds), or anything bigger, you might want to consider a gimbal.
There are many varieties on the market, but I stick with Really Right Stuff. Their tripods, heads and plates are the best, and they stand by their gear. A gimbal head uses a cradle to support the lens. The lens is moved until it is perfectly balanced in the cradle. Once locked in place, you can literally move the lens using one finger for beautiful smooth movements.
There are three points of adjustment…note the arrows. A lower arm rotates 360 degrees, and the cradle allows vertical movement. Loosening the knob on the lens allows the lens to be twisted for level shooting. When you move to a new position, it is important to lock down all three points so the tripod/lens carries well. I orient the lens front with two legs side by side so I get a flat two tripod leg section to balance over my shoulder when carrying the lens. Having some insulation on the top tripod sections will make your shoulder happy! And I normally take off my camera strap if I am going to be shooting my 600mm a lot on a shoot.
The RRS gimbal has one important feature that I have not seen on any other gimbal head…the locking trigger. When I have dialed in my composition using big glass, I will quickly push the trigger to lock the vertical axis in position. This quick simple switch adjustment greatly improves the stability of the lens…you get sharper images. Other gimbals have a twist knob which is not nearly as quick and simple to adjust. I find my self switching back and forth numerous times in the field, and love this feature about the RRS gimbal.
Do you need a gimbal? These heads are a serious investment. Consider a few things. First, do you photograph a lot of wildlife from a tripod (versus a car window or on a boat)? Second, how easy is it to hand hold your wildlife lens? We use our gimbal with our 500mm 5.6 PF (3.5 pounds). This lens is easily hand holdable, but the bottom line is you get better results on a tripod, especially using a gimbal head. If you pan with wildlife, you will really love using a gimbal (especially birds). And if you shoot anything from about 5 pounds up, give it a serious thought. Also, you can rent a gimbal head for about $10 a day, a great option if you want to try it out or for a specific trip.