A Gimbal Head: An Essential Tool for Bird Photography

A gimbal head for your tripod is an essential tool for capturing fast-moving birds in flight with a heavy camera and long lens.

Birds in flight move at tremendous speeds. Small songbirds like wrens and sparrows fly 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) per hour, while ducks, geese, and pigeons can fly at speeds up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour. Some birds, like the peregrine falcon and golden eagle, have been timed diving at speeds exceeding 170 miles (274 kilometers) per hour. [1]

Getting good action shots requires nimble equipment. Somehow “nimble” and a 12 pound 600mm f4 lens with a four pound professional camera attached don’t seem to go together.
Fortunately, there are some tools you can buy that will help even the odds. For years, I struggled to mount heavy cameras and lenses on a traditional tripod head mounted beneath the lens. The problem: the camera and lens get too “tippy” the moment you point up or down. You’re always fighting with a runaway camera/lens combo. Then, I discovered a marvelous tool called the Wimberley head. It has a gimbal mount design.  (See pic below.)
The Wimberley gimbal head is a bit pricey but it’s worth every penny in my opinion. It makes the difference between getting and missing the shot. Why spend thousands on great cameras and lenses if you’re going to miss the shot because of a tripod head that wasn’t designed for the task?
The Wimberley gimbal head puts the center of gravity of the camera/lens combination at the exact center of the vertical and horizontal pivot points. This, in essence, makes that 15 pound camera lens combo virtually weightless.
You can move the entire gimbal head, camera, lens and teleconverter combination with a single finger. And when you move it, it stays put without having to lock down the tripod head. The Wimberley L-shaped arm moves up or down so that you can center the weight vertically. And the adapter plates that mount to your lens have horizontal tracks on them so you can shift the center of weight forward or back until everything is perfectly balanced.

Now, instead of fighting your equipment, you’ll find that a gimbal head moves weightlessly and without friction – in a word, effortlessly.

I have no experience with a gimbal head other than the Wimberley. Others may be perfectly satisfactory. But its hard to imagine any gimbal head moving smoother than the Wimberley. It certainly took my game to a new level. I remember thinking the first time I used it that it gave me the best of both worlds – the stability of a tripod and the freedom of shooting handheld. It’s not quite like shooting handheld because you can’t point straight up, but it’s pretty close.


What makes a good photographic portrait?

There are many different ways to gauge the success of a photographic portrait.

Does the portrait succeed on a technical level? For instance, is it lit well? Is it properly exposed?

Next, does the portrait succeed on an emotional level?  Is it merely a record of a fleeting expression at a point in time? Or is it riveting? Is there something about the portrait that takes your breath away?

Next, does the portrait tell a story about the subject? By looking at it, can the viewer learn something about person being photographed? Their circumstances? Their burdens? Their joys? Does the portrait capture the essence of the person?

I believe that for a photographic portrait to succeed, it must succeed on all of these levels. I, like most photographers, have certainly taken many portraits that were well lit and that captured the moment.

But unless the portrait reveals something about the subject and tells a story, I consider it a photographic record and not a photographic portrait.

Homeless Lady with Tear on Thanksgiving Morning

Every person tells a story with his or her life. They “wear” this story. You can see it on their faces. We all stand for something. Beauty. Fairness. Toughness. Hope. Sadness. Sorrow. Strength. Creativity. Fun. Love. Intelligence. This list is infinite.

When I can capture that essence, and do it in a way that tells a story, it will create a riveting portrait that stops viewers in their tracks and compels them to try to understand what the subject is trying to communicate with his or her life.

I consider some of the Chicago Uptown portraits I took almost 40 years ago to be some of the most successful in my life. Each tells a story about the subject. Four decades later, people still gaze at them for the longest time, feeling the struggles,  joys, sadness and sorrows of life in that place at that time.

The portrait above was taken on the street outside a women’s shelter on a cold Thanksgiving morning. It was so cold that morning, the ground glass in my Rollie SL66 was fogging up. I didn’t see the tear on the woman’s cheek until I developed the film.  See more portraits of Uptown Chicago in the portfolio section.

How do you judge the success of a portrait?


Teleconverters and Birds in Action

Teleconverters increase the effective focal length of a lens without increasing the minimum focusing distance. This means they can help bring you eyeball to eyeball with our feathery friends.

However, they do have one big drawback. They decrease the amount of light you have to work with by one to two stops. I use two teleconverters: the Nikon 1.4x and 2x.

These tele-converters are not fully compatible with all Nikon lenses and cameras. Before purchasing one, read the compatibility chart on Nikon’s web site carefully.

The compatibility issues fall into two big categories: physical incompatibilities and autofocus limitations.

Teleconverters sit between the camera and the lens. Some teleconverter/lens combinations won’t work because they bring the rear element of the lens into contact with the teleconverter. This could damage both pieces of equipment.

Other combinations reduce the amount of light so much that the autofocus no longer works properly. This typically happens when shooting at f8 or a smaller aperture.

Autofocus is critical when shooting birds in action. They just move too fast (at least for me) to pan with them, hold one finger on the shutter, and use the other hand to focus.  This causes me to miss many shots.

However, there is hope. Read the footnotes in the compatibility chart carefully. When using the 2x, autofocus IS available with cameras that offer f/8 support. These include the Nikon D4, D800/D800E, D600 and D7100.

It took me a long time to find this footnote. I wish I would have seen it years earlier. With one of these cameras, you can use the 2x with any lens in Nikon’s range that is physically compatible. (Remember, if elements touch, you could scratch your lens and the teleconverter.)

So I can use the 2x with my D4, the 600mm f4, and the 200-400 f4 zoom and the 400 f2.8. The 2x turns the 600mm lens into a 1200mm lens and so forth. For reclusive and skittish birds, this extra “reach” can mean the difference between getting a great shot and missing it altogether.

Some people talk about using a camera like the D800 which has a 36 megapixel sensor and just cropping the image to obtain the desired magnification. While this is certainly a viable technique, its not the optimal technique in my opinion. The extra megapixels generate heat which creates noise. The images also take longer to download to the card which means you don’t get as many frames in a burst. And the frame rate on the camera when shooting in continuous mode is less than half of that of the D4.

If you want your kid to be into this kind of shooting, start a savings account today. There’s just no substitute for a great camera and fast glass. And it’s not cheap.