When Photographing with large telephoto lenses ranging from 400mm 2.8 on up to 800mm f/4, there are several methods and devices to choose from when considering mounting options for the lens and camera body. The sheer weight of the larger lens/camera combination can approach 12 pounds, and although this doesn’t sound like much, it can fatigue a photographer’s arms very quickly.
Some things to consider when deciding what method will be utilized for mounting the camera and lens include the location you will be shooting from. Will you be photographing from a vehicle, or carrying the gear mounted on a tripod? Will you be shooting from ground level, or will you be hand-holding the system?
In this article we will discuss several different methods and devices that are often times used by nature and wildlife photographers, and take a look at how they may improve your photography by providing a secure and/or mechanically efficient means to support a large telephoto lens.
When photographing from a vehicle, the best way I have found due to simplicity, ease of use, expense, and setup, is a large “bean-bag” sack that fits over the window opening on a car door. You fill the bag with any number of mediums to allow the sack to conform to the lens as it rests on top of the bag. I have tried several different fillers and have found black-oiled sunflower seeds which are inexpensive and found locally, to be a great choice. If traveling, you can empty your bean-bag before you go, pick up some seed at your destination, and then dump it for the birds when you leave; a win-win situation for the wildlife and you!
The second method is to mount your lens and camera on a tripod. The question is whether to use a large ball-head, or some type of Giimbal head which allows the lens to pan and tilt which is great for tracking birds in flight or fast moving land animals. If you are photographing stationary subjects with a large telephoto lens, a large, high quality ball-head may be the best choice based on stability performance. Really Right Stuff and Kirk make very high quality ball-heads for use with large telephoto lenses. These will allow you to lock down the ball-head and hold heavy lens/camera combinations securely without and sag or drift.
If wildlife or moving subjects are what you are photographing, a much better alternative to the ball-head is a Gimbal style head. Several manufactures such as Really Right Stuff, Wimberley, and Jobu Design make high quality Gimbal heads. You really do not want to skimp on quality when it comes to this style of head. You do get what you pay for, and there are huge differences in quality and performance when using this style of head. The Gimbal head allows you to pan and tilt the lens in a vertical and horizontal axis through the implementation of an arm which has heavy duty sealed bearings enabling the arm to pivot as the photographer moves the camera following the subjects movements. This is a highly effective and effortless way to mount a heavy camera system and achieve the highest quality stabilizing platform available when photographing moving subjects. This system can be locked down and used for still subjects, but some movement may occur simply due to the mass of the whole rig. If fast shutter speeds are being used, this system will work just fine, but if slow shutter speeds for longer exposures are being used, a large, high quality ball-head will perform the best.
If shooting from ground level, the best option I have found is the Skimmer Pod manufactured by NatureScapes. The is made of a heavy plastic material and is shaped like a frisbee. Inside the concave dish is an aluminum riser which has a standard 1/4″/20 mounting stud allowing you to mount any number of tripod heads or clamps onto the device. I have mounted a Really Right Stuff quick-release clamp onto the stud keeping the whole system very low-profile and simple. The benefit of the device is that it allows the photographer to keep the lens supported, along with the ability to slide the camera across the ground while approaching wildlife without having to set the lens/camera itself directly on the ground. I also clamp my lens into the Skimmer Pod for use on top
of my bean-bag when shooting from my vehicle. To some extent this allows me to pan and tilt just by rocking the camera either back and forth, or by panning left or right. This works a whole lot better than just laying the lens directly on the bean bag, as the manual focus ring tends to continuously get rotated with camera movement. There are several other ways you can use the Skimmer Pod in the field. It has a small hole formed into the body that I put a carabiner through and clip to a belt loop when hiking with my telephoto lens. If I see a nice shot I want to take from the ground, I can quickly un-clip the device, clamp my lens in, and I am ready to go in an instant.
Last but not least, is the option of simply hand-holding your camera and telephoto lens. “Are you kidding?” No, not in the least. This is certainly a viable option, and in many cases can be a method that contributes to getting far superior shots than by choosing one of the other mounting options. Without getting into much detail, as this subject will be covered in a future article, hand-holding allows you to position yourself in virtually any conceivable position, allowing for unique perspectives not attainable with other mounting alternatives. The weight of the lens and camera can be an issue for many people, and this should be considered before risking injury.
Dependent on your subject matter and the location from which you will be shooting from will dictate which support platform will perform the best and assist in obtaining sharp images. With several manufactures producing high quality products, it pays to do some research, shop around, and try out various products for yourself. As with most things, you get what you pay for. It is quite common for people to skimp when it comes to Tripods and other various support options, but life as a photographer is made much easier working with quality tools of the trade. Do yourself a favor from the start, and take the time to make an educated choice, you will thank yourself in the end.
Links to manufacturers sites mentioned in this article:
Really Right Stuff (Ball-heads, lens plates, Tri-pods)
Wimberley (Gimbal heads, lens plates, specialty brackets)
NatureScapes (Everything for the Nature Photographer)
Jobu Design (Gimbal heads, lens plates, specialty brackets)