Many budding sports and wildlife photographers dream of larger and larger lenses that get them closer to the action while letting in more light—allowing blazing-fast, action-freezing shutter speeds that capture priceless moments on the field or out in the field. But, with long lenses comes the increased chance of camera shake due to the extreme focal lengths. How do we combat physics here? Well, if you are entering the world of the long super-telephoto lens, a must-have accessory for improving image quality is the gimbal head.
In our guide How to Choose the Right Tripod Head, we acknowledge that the ubiquitous tripod ball head is fantastic for almost every type of photography—and we won't counter that here. But, when you want to up your stability game while allowing fluid movements to track and capture action—as you would see with wildlife or sports—the gimbal head, when paired with a long telephoto lens, is the best tool for the job.
Confusingly, the word "gimbal" has become, in the visual content world, synonymous with stabilizing rigs for smartphones and small cameras capturing video. Before the smartphone was even a thing, the tripod gimbal head was helping photographers stabilize long telephoto lenses.
The gimbal head provides damped movement of your telephoto lens and camera about the vertical and horizontal axes—similar in feel to a video fluid head. When properly balanced, your camera and lens will maintain their position when you let go of the camera and/or lens.
Gimbal heads are not small and, when traveling or heading into the field, you'll need to account for the size and weight of them. But, if you are slinging a huge telephoto in your quiver, your dreams of traveling light probably went by the wayside a while back.
Types of Photography
As alluded to above, top uses for a gimbal head are found in the wildlife and sports photography worlds.
For outdoor photography, birds and wildlife rarely stay where you want them to, and the gimbal is the best outdoor photo accessory that gives photographers a speedy way to recompose an image or target an emerging subject quickly and smoothly.
For sports photographers on the gridiron, pitch, field, or other arena, the added stability of the gimbal allows for tack-sharp images from a long telephoto—even when the action is far away.
For added versatility, the damped movements and stability of the gimbal head make it a great choice for air-show photography, auto race photography, and horse race photography; the controlled movements of the head make it a good tool for panoramic photography as well. As discussed in the article Tools of the Trade for Panoramic Photographers, some panoramic heads double as gimbal heads, and vice versa.
What Lenses Work Best with Gimbal Heads
The quick answer is that any telephoto lens that comes with its own tripod foot is well suited for use on a gimbal head. The longer the lens, the more suitable it is for a gimbal. On a modern 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom that has a tripod foot, the gimbal head might be a bit of overkill, but, depending on your subject, those lenses can still benefit from the controlled, damped movements and stability of the gimbal. Long focal length mirror lenses, even those without tripod feet, will work well on gimbal heads, as well.
If you are employing a gimbal for panoramic photography, or another special use, you can use just about any lens/camera combination on a gimbal.
Note that most gimbals accept Arca-compatible quick-release plates that need to be affixed to the lens's tripod foot or, with smaller lenses, to the camera.
Shopping for Gimbal Heads
A complete line of telephoto lens gimbal tripods heads can be found at B&H here. We'll look at some of the more popular options, but know there are other great gimbal heads from many manufacturers.
Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II with Quick Release Base
The Wimberley Head—invented in 1991 and known as the world's first gimbal head—is designed and manufactured by Wimberley in the USA. The new version, the WH-200, makes the legendary original head even better. Wimberley does not specify the load capacity of the WH-200, but the company does state it will accept loads greater than 100 lb (good luck finding a lens and camera combination that exceeds that capacity!). The new Version II is one pound lighter, and more compact that the original, while retaining that same insane load capacity.
The Wimberley head is used by the legendary likes of Art Wolfe, Joel Sartore, Frans Lanting, Chris Johns, George Lepp, Moose Peterson, Arthur Morris, and others.
ProMediaGear GKJr Katana Pro Aluminum Gimbal Head
Lighter than the Wimberly, at only 2.4 lb but with a 50-lb carrying capacity, the GKJr Katana Pro from ProMediaGear is a precision tool machined from aluminum. Multiple lightening holes increase rigidity of the bracket while saving weight. The Katana Pro is designed for rugged outdoor use with large telephoto lenses.
Gitzo Gimbal Fluid Head
Storied tripod manufacturer Gitzo provides a beautifully shaped gimbal head that doubles as a fluid head by presenting a panning handle similar to what you would find on a professional video head. The Gitzo Gimbal Fluid Head weighs 3 lb and can support 17.6 lb of gear.
Wimberley Arca Sidekick Ball-to-Gimbal Head Adapter
The Wimberley Arca Sidekick allows you to create a kind-of gimbal head while using your existing Arca-type compatible ball head. The Sidekick lets you enjoy the benefits of a gimbal while carrying a smaller accessory into the field and employing your ball head.
An alternative to this same concept is the ProMediaGear GT2R Tomahawk V2.
Oben GH-30 and GH-30C Gimbal Head
Gimbal Head in Action
Check out this B&H Video Gimbal Heads: A Wildlife Photography MUST-HAVE (and How to Use It) to take a comprehensive look at how to set up and use a gimbal head for your long lenses.
Do you have any questions about gimbal heads? Are you a user of a gimbal head who wants to share your experience with other Explora readers and B&H customers? Let us know in the Comments section, below!