You may be familiar with the oddly-shaped, J-shaped head canny wildlife photographers are carrying. It's the Wimberley head, a unique, and extremely slick tripod head specially designed for big lenses and for action photography.
Left: Showing the up/down potental with a 600mm lens
-- at this point a bird would be almost flying overhead!
Center: Front View of the Wimberley without a lens attached.
Right: Closeup of the cam system in the up/down position -- at this extreme angle you would not be looking through a viewfinder, but the photo illustrates the degree of swing that is possible up and down, and of course there is left/right panning potential that is outstanding.
I resisted getting a Wimberley head for years, figuring that my B-1 and B-1G ballheads gave me sufficient panning and tilting controls, all with a single locking lever. I WAS WRONG! With a ballhead, you still must maintain fairly tight control over a big lens -- otherwise all sorts of flop will occur. Although it is possible to pan and to follow action with a ballhead, it is not easy nor effortless.
Enter, the Wimberley head. Honestly, with the touch of a finger a huge 600mm lens can be moved about. The lens seems weightless, and that feature was the one most commented upon by my Complete and Advanced Nature Photo Course Participants this past summer as they played with the big lens and the Wimberley head. To everyone, moving the big lens was now a joy.
If you're using lenses above 300mm and you intend to follow action, nothing will beat the ease of using a Wimberley head, not even handholding! Why not? Because when you're handholding a lens/camera you are supporting the system, and it requires work. This does not -- your lens sits on the tripod and swings, pans, and tilts at your slightest effort.
After demonstrating the Wimberley head to my classes this summer, I was anxious to give it a real workout and see if, indeed, it was as great as I thought it was fooling with it this summer. I was sold! The head provided quick, effortless action-following photography, allowing me to pan, tilt, and follow Kodiak brown bears, running elk, and pronghorns in Yellowstone and in Alaska. Everyone on the trips played with the Wimberley, and all shared the amazement I initially had had in moving a big lens with just a finger, without worrying about the lens smashing down upon a finger, hand, or tripod leg if the locking mechanism (of a traditional ballhead) were loose. That is one of the beauties of the Wimberley -- once a lens is balanced (a simple procedure you do as soon as you mount the lens onto its quick release clamp) you do not have to worry about the lens falling forward -- it is perfectly balanced and ready for your use.
I did experience one minor problem. I was using a 400mm F2.8, a heavy lens that weighs about the same as a 600mm F4 does. After ten days of shooting, my quick-release style clamp (that allows the Wimberley to accept RRS or dovetail-style fitted lenses) was beginning to loosen and had a bit of a shimmy. The clamp's screws are US inch style hex-head, but I didn't have a large enough size alum head screw-driver to tighten. One of our participants did (as would any hardware store in town, had we arrived back in before Gardiner's stores closed) and I tightened the screws and all was well again. However, you might want to carry the right size Alum screwdriver with you in case you're using a big, heavy lens, and the clamp loosens from carrying it and adding side-ways torque if you're slinging it over your shoulder.
Finally, two other points: The head is designed for lenses with their own tripod mounts. So, if you're using a small lens, you'd have to mount the camera on the Wimberley. Unfortunately, the quick release plate runs parallel to the lens axis, and a camera runs perpendicular to that, so I found it impossible to use the head with a short wide-angle. Now, that's not Wimberley's problem -- the head is designed for big lenses, but I didn't want to pack two heads along, one for the big lenses, and one for my short lenses. Fortunately, I had a 35-350mm lens along, and that lens has a tripod collar so I was only inconvenienced (and forced to beg for Mary's Arca) when I used my 17-35mm lens.
On the positive side, I actually enjoyed having two 'locks', for the pan and for the tilt, when composing my scenics. I could lock the pan, and still move the head up or down in the tilt mode, to fine-tune a composition. Then, after sweeping the edges, if I found I wanted to move left or right, I could unlock the pan and swing left or right for fine-tuning the composition. This is, admittedly, a two-step process over an Arca's one locking knob, but it worked, and like I said, it allowed me to very critically fine-tune a composition (analagous to a macro bracket with dual controls for forward-back and left-right movements).
Conclusion: I loved the Wimberley!
The Sidekick is a B-1 or B-1G or similar ballhead attachment that, essentially, transforms a ballhead into a mini-Wimberley. The Sidekick attaches to the quick-release clamp of the ballhead, and a separate quick release plate holds your lens. The Sidekick can be used with 300 and 500mm lenses quite easily, and Clay Wimberley is adapting lenses as large as 600mm for its use. For travel photography -- where the amount of gear you bring is limited -- the Sidekick will play a great role in completing your action shots.
The Wimberley head has been around for several years, so it's not a new product, but it's one I wasn't intimately familiar with. Used by pros for several years, you can be sure that the product is quite well tested, tried-and-true. I really, really like it!
For more information, visit their website at www.tripodhead.com