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Wildlife Photography – Camera Heads – Ball Head or Gimbal?

Wildlife Photography - Camera Heads - Ball Head or Gimbal?

There is no perfect camera head, but at times you can’t do without one. I use both a gimbal (movement around a single access) and a ball head, sometimes one is better than the other.  At the end of the day, I find that for big game in rugged, uneven country, (the kind I’m most likely to be in) a good ball-head is best. I use the large Really Right Stuff head (RRS).  About a year ago I switched over to RRS legs (from gitzo) and ball-heads because they are fine, precision, hand made American tools. They cost a bit more but they are worth the extra expense, and I like to support U.S. camera gear makers when I can find them.

mountain goat billy cliff, mountain goat trophy billy (Tony Bynum/tonybynum.com)

I use a ball-head to photograph mountain goats. (© Tony Bynum/tonybynum.com) Images are protected by Copyright.

When shooting big game or other wildlife with a 500 mm f4 or smaller, I go with a ball-head mainly because I can move faster and get set up quicker. Trust me, with the right technique, you’ll bring home more keepers shooting a good ball-head than a gimbal – I’d challenge you to prove me wrong . . .   It takes at least twice as long to set up a gimble than it does to plop down a set of legs and ball-head and start shooting. With a gimbal setup, to be most effective, you need a leveling base, and then you have to level the unit before you can effectively shoot with it, otherwise, if you’re slightly off level with the head and legs, it makes it tough to get a straight, square horizon. If your legs and head are not level, you’ll get a lot of images that are NOT square, resulting in more post processing work (unlevel or angled shots are one thing I can pick out from a mile away and usually cause me to reject a photo, not to mention they scream amateur and sloppy)! I would rather get it square with my eye than I would with a computer.

I know there are a ton of guys that would argue with me.  Most use a gimbal for wildlife, I use it only when it’s the right tool for the job. That means, for me, a gimbal is the right tool for shooting waterfowl and birds. I use the gimbal style head when I have time to set up and get the rig level, I know I’ll be stationary for a long time, or I know I’ll be doing a lot of panning.

northern pintail drake single flying, taking off from water, (tony bynum)

I use a gimbal style head for waterfowl, like when I captured this image of a northern pintail drake taking off from the water. Nikon D300, Nikon 500mm F4, nikon TC 1.4, f8 1/1250 sec., ISO 400 (© tony bynum) Images are protected by Copyright.

I use a Kirk King Cobra gimbal, it’s lighter, smaller, packs easier, and in my view, allows for a more true movement up and down. The other option, and the one most often used by professional photographers is the Wimberly Head. The Wimberly is a fantastic tool, but requires that you push the lens forward for up and pull back for down, and you must have it level! The King Cobra allows for a more natural movement, up and down.

Shooting with a ball-head most of time, puts me in the minority. I don’t know why since a ball-head is faster and more accurate in many situations. I see very few people using the ball-head setup . . .  Most gravitate to Wimberly (some guys even shoot the 200 mm lens or smaller from a Wimberly mount – I don’t know why). So, if you’re shooting a 600 mm or larger lens, or birds in flight, and have the time to set up properly, a gimbal is superior to a ball-head, but for 90% of the time, when I need a tripod and head, I go with the ball-head.

Add your thoughts are a question and I’ll be sure to provide my feedback!

Tony