Tip of the week: Using a gimbal head

Tip of the week: Using a gimbal head

Every Thursday, we post a photography-related tip on our blog. These tips are typically inspired by questions we get from our customers. Sometimes we might feature a technique tip, and sometimes a gear recommendation. If there’s something specific you’d like to see in this section, let us know. Email us at blog@borrowlenses.com.

Canon 1D MK IV on a Wimberley gimbal head

Canon 1D MK IV on a Wimberley gimbal head

One of the questions we get quite often from our customers is about photographing wildlife using long lenses. Here at BorrowLenses.com, we carry a wide variety of those lenses, like Canon’s 500mm, 600mm and 800mm lenses, as well as Nikon’s flagship 500mm and 600mm lenses.

These are large lenses and can weight in excess of 10lbs, making hand-holding them incredibly impractical. A tripod is very important to have, but so is having the right kind of tripod head. A regular ballhead would work fine if your subject was stationary for the most part, but wildlife – particularly birds – aren’t known for staying still. Ballheads also pose a threat to your delicate lens as their heavy front elements have been known to cause the entire setup (lens, tripod, ballhead) to pitch forward if the tension is released too quickly.

The best solution? Say hello to our littler friend, the gimbal head. Made by vendors such as Custom Brackets and Wimberley, these heads allow you to mount large lenses in a way that makes them almost weightless and lets you move the lens in a free and easy manner using just your fingertips.

Let’s take a look at what you need to make this work. All these components were photographed, then assembled in the field, so what you see in the video at the end of this post is exactly what’s in these images, and all of it is available for rent through BorrowLenses.com.*

First, you’re going to need one of the gimbal-style heads we mentioned earlier. In this case, we’re using the Wimberley II Gimbal head.

Wimberley II Gimbal Head

Wimberley II Gimbal Head

Next, you’ll need a mounting plate for your lens. Since the lens is so much larger and heavier than the camera, we mount it, not the camera, on this tripod head. The lenses mentioned above come with lens collars that have feet you can put mounting plates on. In this case, we use the P40 mounting plate, also from Wimberley.

Wimberley P40 mounting plate

Wimberley P40 mounting plate


Next up: the lens. In this case, we used a Canon 500mm f/4 lens. Pay special attention to the foot of this lens.

The lens foot of the Canon 500mm f/4 with reducer bushing in place.


In the closeup of the lens’ foot, you’ll see that one of the two holes (the one on the left, in this case) that the plate will fasten to looks a bit different. It looks that way because typically, that socket accommodates a larger-sized screw that some mounting plates use. In our case, we’re using a mounting plate with identical screws, so we’ve installed a “bushing” in the larger socket to make it compatible with the P40 plate. If you rent this from us, please make sure you request the bushing in your order notes, as it’s not included automatically.

Next up, you’ll need the P40 plate and a hex wrench to fasten it.

P40 plate  HexHex wrench set and P40 plate

The hex wrench isn’t included with the rental, so make sure you have one on hand before you head for the field.

Fasten the P40 plate onto the lens, as shown below.

The 500 f/4 with Arca Swiss plate attached.

Now, you’ll need a good tripod. Here, we’ve used the Induro AT413, a fairly heavy-duty tripod. Smaller tripods may not be as stable, so we went with a larger one for maximum stability. Mount the gimbal head onto the tripod as you would mount any tripod head onto a standard 3/8″ tripod screw.

Once that’s done, mount the lens (we recommend doing so without the camera) onto the gimbal head. Make sure that all the knobs on the gimbal head are tight when you do so. There’s a knob on the mounting bracket that you loosen, then, once the lens is in place, you tighten it till the lens is securely in place.

The lens on the gimbal head

The lens on the gimbal head

Now you can mount the camera and take the soft lens cover off, then extend the hood. You’ll need to do all of this before you balance your setup.

The camera and lens on the gimbal head

The camera and lens on the gimbal head

In order to balance the head so your rig is at its most efficient, loosen the knob holding the lens in place on the mounting bracket slightly so the lens can be slid forward or backwards a bit. The plate is longer than the bracket, so you have some wiggle room.

Tighten the mounting knob, then loosen all the other knobs that control the head’s motion. There should be two, one for horizontal motion, one for vertical. See if the your camera and lens return to a level position once the knobs are loosened.

If they do not, adjust the position of the lens on the head by loosening the mounting bracket’s knob and slide the lens forward or backward, as needed. Do this till the lens and camera can be freely moved with minimal effort, but returns to a level position once released. All the knobs except for the one on the mounting bracket should be loose to test this.

If you reach a point where you can’t move the plate forwards or backwards on the bracket because you’ve run out of space, unmount your lens and camera and adjust the position of the mounting plate on your lens. You have several inches to play with, and it can take a bit to find the right balance.

Once you have found the right balance, however, your camera should move freely, then return to a level position when you let it go, as shown in the video below.

Canon 500mm mounted on a gimbal head. from Sohail Mamdani on Vimeo.

Here are some examples of what you can do with a gimbal head and long lens. These images were captured at different dates and times, using a combination of a Canon 7D and a 1D Mark IV, as well as a Canon 500mm and 600mm lens.

[smugmug url=”http://sohailmamdani.smugmug.com/hack/feed.mg?Type=gallery&Data=19896094_ZWwksm&format=rss200″ title=”Gimbal%20head%20image%20examples” description=”Examples%20of%20images%20taken%20with%20a%20long%20lens%20on%20a%20gimbal%20head.” imagecount=”13″ start=”1″ num=”13″ thumbsize=”Th” link=”lightbox” captions=”true” sort=”true” window=”false” smugmug=”false” size=”L”]

* Editor’s Note: A couple of the images of the lens foot above were re-shot and replaced to better illustrate the difference in the two mounting sockets.

All images Copyright © 2011 Sohail Mamdani. All rights reserved.


The following two tabs change content below.
Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at anymedium.com.


  1. The duck is an american wigeon not a northern pintail

  2. Are you sure it’s not a female pintail, Brett? I looked it up on birdipedia and you may be right, just making sure…


Leave a comment, a question, or show us your work!