Tripods, monopods, gimbal heads and other means of camera and lens support .....

As with the Canon v Nikon situation, every wildlife photographer will have their own view or opinion regarding the best method and set-up for supporting their heavier equipment. The difference here is that you’re not buying into a brand as you are when you purchase a camera system and, consequently, it’s very likely that you’ll mix different components from different manufacturers. There’s also a much wider choice with tripods from names such as Benro, Gitzo, Kenro, Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff, Vanguard or Velbon, and gimbal heads from companies like Induro, Jobu and Wimberley. Frustratingly some items are far more readily available in the States than they are here in the UK and, to make matters worse, if you look at B&H’s website you’ll find even more choices from other manufacturers. So, all in all it’s a bit of a minefield where it’s easy to end up with a system that doesn’t quite do the job. This is why its good to share information and experiences. If you’re happy with your kit then stick with it as it’s all down to personal choice, but for anyone that’s interested this is what works for me.

For general static support of my 500mm lens in the UK, or if we travel to Europe by car and ferry when weight and/or space are not major considerations, I will use the more rigid and taller of my two tripods - the Gitzo GT4542LS fitted with a Jobu DMG-HD4 mark IV gimbal head. For those not familiar with the Gitzo product codes, this particular tripod is a Series 4, carbon, long, 4-section design in the highly regarded ‘Systematic' modular range. The heavy-duty rotating, swing-arm gimbal head is from Jobu Design UK. This combination provides a slightly stronger and more adaptable method of support, particularly when working on the side of a lake or river, or anywhere else where there’s a sloping bank or uneven ground, where it’s useful to be able to extend the front leg in order to keep the tripod solid and level, and with the camera still at eye-height.

I also have a similar, but lighter and shorter, set-up, being the Gitzo GT3532S fitted with a Jobu BWG-J3KDLX gimbal head. I replaced this tripod with the GT4542LS model when I purchased my first 500mm lens but, rather than selling it, thought it would be useful to keep as a spare in case my wife wanted to use it. I’m glad I did because, although I generally don’t need a tripod when I travel overseas, it is good to have one that is lighter and easier to pack if I need to. The general design of both the tripod and gimbal head are essentially the same as the previously described combination, except that the tripod is a Series 3, standard, 3-section model, and the gimbal head is a lighter scaled-down version. The total weight saving is around 750g, which makes a lot of difference when you’re travelling yet, when you're using this set-up, the only noticeable compromise is the maximum height and having to lower your eye-level if you’ve had to adjust the legs to any degree.

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Gitzo GT4542LS tripod (fitted with Lenscoat leg-wraps which not only keeps the upper legs protected, but also provides a better grip and shoulder protection when carrying) plus Jobu DMG-HD4 mark IV gimbal head, D810 camera body, 500mm f/4E FL lens and the TC14E III teleconverter.

Whilst I would opt for a tripod when I'm planning to be photographing from a reasonably fixed location, I would always favour my monopod if I'm going to be more more mobile. I have a strong, but relatively lightweight system that works really well with my normal set-up. It's the excellent Gitzo GT5561T, 6-section, compact travel monopod, manufactured again from 6x carbon tubes and utilising the same quick-set twist-lock leg clamps that are used on their tripods. However, I don’t use it with a conventional monopod tilt-head or small ball-head that are usually suggested, as personally I found both the manoeuvrability and method of support far too awkward and restricting. The lens was also completely unbalanced, so you had to lock down every time you were waiting for action, or moving about with it over your shoulder. Instead, I utilise the smaller Jobu BWG-J3KDLX gimbal head that I use on the lighter tripod. I’ve also fitted a large diameter Gitzo swivel foot plate, which has two benefits. First and foremost, it spreads the weight to give better support on soft ground, but it also provides an added bonus of free rotation due to the small ball and socket connection. With the addition of the gimbal head and swivel foot plate I’ve managed to adapt the monopod to provide almost the same balanced and fluid movement that you get when using the tripod. Obviously it’s not self-supporting or a method of securing the lens in a fixed position, but it does support the weight of the lens keeping your camera at eye-height and allows complete freedom of movement so that action shots are not missed. In fact, I personally find it a far better means of support for photographing birds in flight than a conventional tripod set-up, albeit I would far prefer hand holding for those shots. When you use the swivel foot for rotation you can lock off the gimbal’s rotating collar and just use the swing-arm. And, if you’re happy to crop in PP and have space in the frame you don’t have to worry about keeping the monopod perfectly level when tracking. It is a really good, versatile and rigid set-up, and one I’d recommend wholeheartedly for anyone that wants this type of support. Not only is it a good walkabout option, but it’s also a compact and relatively lightweight solution for overseas trips - with the gimbal head packed separately, the monopod is only 41.5cm long. Another thing that is often overlooked, is that a monopod can be used in a restricted space, such a safari vehicle or boat, when a tripod would be impractical. And last, but not least, the minimum height can be quickly dropped right down, such that your lens is only about 45cm or so off the ground, which is a convenient minimum workable height without lying down and removing the camera and lens.

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The Gitzo product design features and general build quality are without doubt excellent, but they certainly come at a cost. But, as with a lot of things in life you get what you pay for, and if you want to ensure that you have a good rigid and uncompromising means of support for your expensive lens and camera then the investment is worthwhile. Similarly with the Jobu gimbal head, which in my opinion is a better design than the Wimberley, but at a slightly cheaper price.

The important specs of the five bits of kit I’ve mentioned are :

Gitzo ‘Systematic' range tripods and the similarly designed travel monopod - manufactured in Italy, produced from 6x carbon leg tubes with the efficient quick-set twist-lock clamps, and all rated with a 25kgs safe load capacity :-

GT4542LS - Series 4 (telescopic leg tubes range from 24 to 37mm dia), 4-section, long, eye-level design
weight : 2310g, working height : 9.7cm min to 156.5cm max, closed length : 62.3cm

GT3532S - Series 3 (telescopic leg tubes range from 24 to 32mm dia), 3-section, compact height design
weight : 1880g, working height : 9.8cm min to 129.5cm max, closed length : 62.1cm

GT5561T - Series 5 (telescopic leg tubes range from 20 to 41mm dia), 6-section, standard height monopod
weight : 780g, working height : 155.5cm max, closed length / min working height : 41.5cm

Manufacturer’s link : http://www.gitzo.co.uk/tripods-systematic


Jobu Design range of gimbal heads - designed and manufactured in Canada, produced from top grade aluminium

DMG-HD4 - the current mark IV model is a ‘tweaked, revamped and re-designed' version of the previous top-selling HD3 gimbal head. The swing-arm is now produced from a solid aluminium billet, which not only makes it stiffer for improved vibration control, but also cuts the weight down to 1000g. Implementation of a needle bearing system makes the tilt action very smooth, as is the rotating footplate, both of which can be tightened or loosened via rubberised knobs. Finish is a mix of black powder coating and anodising to provide longterm weather protection and durability. Suitable for pro-camera bodies and lenses up to 600mm.

BWG-J3KDLX - sold as the ‘lightest, best-functioning, gimbal head on the market’ at 680g, yet still perfectly capable of supporting a pro-camera body and 500mm f/4 lens. Whilst Jobu would always recommend the larger HD model, they understand that when travelling by air, or when weight is a concern, you need a lighter option. Although this is the ‘junior’ version, it operates virtually the same as the DMG-HD4.

LF-N504LP - I didn’t mention this item previously, but it’s Jobu’s replacement Nikon lens foot with an integrated Arca-Swiss TM style mounting plate. This particular foot fits both the 300mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4 (previous G and new FL models) as well as the 200-400mm f/4 zoom lens.

Jobu Design UK distributor’s link : http://www.jobu-design.co.uk/Gimbals


So, as a final note regarding weights :

GT4542LS tripod at 2310g, plus DMG-HD4 gimbal head at 1000g = 3310g (3.3kgs)
GT3532S tripod at 1880g, plus BWG-J3KDLX gimbal head at 680g = 2560g (2.6kgs)
GT5561T monopod at 780g, plus BWG-J3KDLX gimbal head at 680g = 1460g (1.5kgs)

To take this a stage further, if I add the combined weight of my D810 plus 500mm f/4E FL lens and TC14E, being 3090g + 980g + 190g respectively, the all up carrying weights are either 7.6kgs or 6.8kgs when mounted on a tripod, or 5.7kgs with the monopod.


And last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that a good old bean bag can be very useful at times, particularly if you want to get down at ground level (although in certain situations some form of skimmer-pod would probably be a better option) or when photographing from a vehicle - on safari or just out the car window, or for use in open-window hides. Personally I prefer the larger double sided versions of these bags such as the C4 design sold by Wildlife Watching Supplies.

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