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How to Use a Gimbal Head on a Super Telephoto Lens

Super telephoto lenses require special treatment when it comes to tripod heads. Not just any tripod head will do. Learn to use gimbal-style support systems!

The camera and lens on the gimbal head

One of the questions we get from customers is about photographing wildlife using long lenses. Here at BorrowLenses.com, we carry a wide variety of super telephoto lenses. Super telephoto lenses are typically north 300mm and can weigh in excess of 10 lbs, making hand-holding them impractical. A tripod is very important to have, but so is having the right kind of tripod head. A regular ball head would work fine if your subject was stationary for the most part, but wildlife – particularly birds – aren’t known for staying still. Ball heads also pose a threat to your delicate lens as their heavy front elements have been known to cause the entire setup (lens, tripod, ball head) to pitch forward if the tension is released too quickly.

The best solution? Say hello to the the gimbal head! 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. They take the weight off your camera’s mount and distributes it much better. But they look and feel very different from your average tripod head, so he’s a quick intro into how to use one.

Wimberley II Gimbal Head

First, familiarize yourself with the Wimberley Gimbal, which is the style of gimbal tripod head that we rent. It has a large, heavy mounting point to pair with your tripod and a swinging arm with a mounting platform for your telephoto lens. You’ll need a separate mounting plate for your lens. Since the lens is so much larger and heavier than the camera, you must mount the Arca-Swiss type plate not to the camera but to the foot of the lens. Super telephoto lenses will almost always come with rotating collars and feet. Nearly any Arca-Swiss type plate will work with a gimbal-style head but we rent out the Wimberley P40, which pairs flawlessly with the Wimberley Gimbal.

Wimberley P40 mounting plate

Most super telephoto lenses’ feet will have 2 mounting sockets: 1/4″-20 and 3/8″-16. It’s ideal to mount the plate to both points but sometimes plates only come with 1/4″-20 screws. This is when you’ll need to use a bushing to convert the foot’s 3/8″-16 socket to a 1/4″-20 socket. Whenever you rent a super telephoto lens – or any lens with a foot – it’s important to make sure the mounting sockets are compatible with your support gear’s screws. Note that the base of the Wimberley Gimbal itself is 3/8″-16, which is standard for many tripods. However, it might be too big to mount to your tripod if you happen to be using one with a smaller socket. You may need a tripod thread adapter.

You will need to use an allen wrench/allen key/hex key to mount the plate to your lens foot. Mount the gimbal to your tripod prior to attaching your lens to the gimbal’s platform. We recommend getting all of this in place before you even mount the camera. We’re used to mounting lenses to cameras. But in the case of super telephoto lenses, you need to mount your camera to the lens. It’s less awkward to do and safer to boot.

Make sure all the knobs on the gimbal are tightened before mounting so that your expensive lens isn’t tilting wildly on your tripods. Next, in order to balance the head so that your rig is 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 your camera and lens return to a level position once the knobs are loosened.

The lens on the gimbal head

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 until 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, dismount your lens/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.

The camera and lens on the gimbal head

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

Tags: , Last modified: July 7, 2021