Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

May-June 2008

Tip of the Month

Two Sturdy Light-Weight Tripod Heads

On our recent Arizona High Speed Flash Photography Shoot Mary and I had a chance to try two new tripod heads, both offered by Acratech, Inc. If memory serves me, the owner/inventor of the Acratech tripod heads is a backpacker who was frustrated with the size and weight of available tripod heads, and being an inventive guy he designed and built his own!

Both images were made using Gitzo Mountaineer Tripods and AcraTech Tripod Heads,
and both involved very slow shutter speeds. In fact, the Madera Canyon scene was a twenty
second exposure made with a Singh Ray Variable Neutral Density Filter cranked down to
an 8 stop ND level. Both the tripod and the tripod head held up to these slow speeds.

Of the two heads we tried, the LONG LENS HEAD was our favorite, mainly because we often use big lenses, and that head accommodates them very well. The head is designed to hold lenses as large as 600mm, and I used the head with that lens, and Mary used it with the 500mm. We both found that it held these large lenses very well. I did have a bit of wiggle or play in the panning portion of the head, but that may have been operator error on my part in not tightening the pan knob as tightly as I could have. Even so, that was a very minimal criticism that did not affect our use, or the performance, of the head.

Mary complained that she got her fingers 'mouse-trapped' a couple of times because the main knob/tension knob, when not locked tight, allowed the lens to swing down and thus clamp her fingers, but that was her error, and she'd have experienced that with any head short of a Gimbal-style like the Wimberley which keeps its center of gravity (if you've balanced the lens correctly). Short of that, however, she loved the head and so did I, and for our upcoming trip to Botswanna where we will be severely limited in weight we're going to buy another one so that we both our carrying that head with us for the trip.

Bottom line, for a very light weight ballhead that is very sturdy, the Acratech long lens head is excellent. To be fair, I haven't tried the ReallyRightStuff smaller ballheads or the Giotto's, as both manufacturers make smaller heads, and for the record my 'standard' ballhead for everyday field use is a RRS BH-55 head. However, for travel, and we do a lot of it, I really liked the Acratech, enough that we're going to get a second head.

We also tried the GV2 ballhead, using it as a standard ballhead. It, too, is extremely lightweight and when attached to a Gitzo Mountaineer carbon-fiber tripod, the package was extremely lightweight, and virtually effortless to carry. I found that this was the rig I carried around from one hummingbird set to another, using any of the following three lenses - 28-300, 70-200 F4, and the 100-400. Coupled with the lightweight Canon 70-200 F4, I had a rig that was as portable and lightweight as I could imagine.

I also carried that system around through Madera Canyon as I looked for canyon treefrogs and shot scenics of the canyon and the beautiful sycamore trees that line the waterway. For this I generally carried the versatile 28-300, and the lack of weight made the whole system a joy. As I write this, I can't help but think how I used to carry a metal heavy-duty, big Gitzo tripod, the original Wimberley head, and a 600mm. I was younger, then, and dumber, maybe .... OK, I wish I still had that type of strength and energy!

Like any ballhead, the GV2 can flop and trap your fingers if the head is loosened, but when locked down it held. I had a bit of drift when I carried the rig over my shoulder, as the weight torqued the system, but that only resulted in the camera/lens nestling more comfortably on my shoulder. One caution I'd advance when using the head concerns the quick-release locking knob. Since both heads (GV2 and Long Lens Head) were new to me and thus relatively unfamiliar, I found myself sometimes reaching for the wrong knob and begin to unlock the quick-release mechanism, rather than loosening the tension knob. Fortunately I caught myself each time and didn't drop a lens. Familiarity with the head, and a bit of practice, and I don't think this potential error would be a problem.

The GV2 can also be used as a Gimbal-style head by flopping it over into the side slot, and in this capacity can be used with long lenses for action shooting. I did not use the GV2 head in this way, but I did use it with my 600mm attached. Granted, it wasn't a rock-steady mount, but frequently I don't lock any head down but instead I keep the head somewhat loose so that I'm free to move the lens about as I'm following a subject. In this capacity this lightweight head did alright, and it would serve in a pinch in that capacity.

Final thoughts -- we really liked the long lens head, and we're going to get a second for our trip to Botswanna. I liked the GV2, too, and I would definitely recommend it if you need a very lightweight but fairly sturdy ballhead. With lenses like the 70-200 or 28-300 or 100-400, the GV2 will do just fine. Check out their website or their email for more information and ordering specs.

Either tripod head, but particularly the GV2, might be the perfect combination if you're thinking of using a Monopod, as we're considering for a future Rwanda mountain gorilla trip.In the jungles and thick bamboo forest a tripod can be a hindrance, and a new Monopod might be the perfect answer for those who want support but are either unwilling or unable to carry a tripod. Not too infrequently, on our gorilla treks someone starts with a tripod but by the third day abandons it for the greater freedom a tripod-free shooter has, even though their images undoubtably suffered from the handholding. The Monopod might be the answer. We just tried out a new Monopod, called the Trek-Pod Go!, make by trekpod ( and we liked it. It extends to full height, breaks down into three approximately 20 inch sections, and has a small flange-style tripod arrangement at the base for added support. My only misgivings about using it in the Rwanda forest is that I often shoot very, very low, and the minimum height might still be higher than I'd like. However, I could unscrew a column, and by tilting the Monopod, and using the GV2 head, I could probably get the support I'd need. I'll be trying it out in my gorilla-free woods here in Hoot Hollow. I'll be reporting more on this later.



Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


DEC - A solution to the Digital Dilemma
Western Digital portable external Hard Drives

CS3 Upgrade

Framing with a Telephoto Against a Desert Sunrise

Adobe Photoshop LIGHTROOM
Workflow and Workload - You Can Keep Ahead
Bring along a Point N Shoot

Backing Up Your Digital Files - you'll need more than you think
Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings
maximizing depth of field digitally
Capture 1's Most Useful Features
DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values
Effective Cloning in Adobe CS2

Watch Your Backgrounds - The potential of composites or shooting in RAW format
DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future
DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II
The Helicon Focus Filter Revisited



Smell the Roses
Frankly access your skills before deciding upon a workshop

The Songs of Insects
- a super book on katydids, cicadas, and grasshoppers
A Great Insect Field Guide 
Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings
The Pond-A Must-See shooting Location in southern Arizona
Don't take in baby wild animals
Seize the Moment!
Take a Workshop First
  Luck, what is it?
At the Pulse of Life by Fritz Polking
Carry-on Luggage for small commuter flights


Lens Coat equipment covers
The Ultimate Long Lens Case - McDonald Safari Bag
Positioning your Roll-on Carry-On bag
New Lens Covers for Long Lenses
The Best All-Around Lens
Keep Your Head Up
Save Your Equipment from Crashing!
The L-Bracket, the ultimate camera bumper
Visual Echos Tele-Flash for the 580EX Flash
Testing your Flash's Aim
The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds
Specular highlights and the flashing frog

Geared Focusing Rail for Macro Work
Shooting in Inclement Weather
Low level tripod work
Sighting in a very, very long lens
Padding Your WimberleyTripod Head
Using The Wimberley Gimbal head with a camera body

Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate
How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari
How do you shoot the Moon?

If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation
Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not the same thing!
A great depth of field guide
Carry Your Gear!
Custom Function 4-1 for Nikon and Canon shooters
Sigma's 120-300 f2.8 APO zoom telephoto lens


A Car Tip that could Save Your Life
A Great Website for Information - the Singapore Nature Photography Society
Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

Ask Questions Before You Go
Liquids in your Levels - TSA Warnings!

Disconnect -- travel precautions
Photograph America Newsletter
Obey the Rules
Wildlife Portraiture
Drying out boots with newspaper
Removing Cactus Spines

The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites
The Sibley Bird Guides



Contact us by e-mail:
Or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.