The textbook definition of a gimbal is, "... a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis. A set of three gimbals, one mounted on the other with orthogonal pivot axes, may be used to allow an object mounted on the innermost gimbal to remain independent of the rotation of its support." Gimbals are standard fare aboard ships with all manner of items (e.g., compasses, stoves, drink holders) into the device to keep them level and upright despite the ships' rolling or pitching.
The principles that make gimbals so effective in a maritime situation transfer over to photography when long, heavy lenses are used to shoot fast, erratically moving objects. Two-axle gimbals allow for an incredibly effective way to perfectly balance this equipment and rotate it up, down and to either side effortlessly when the gimbal is mounted on a stationary support such as a tripod. Wildlife photographers swear by these devices, especially when their prey involves our feathered friends. If you've ever tried to keep up with a flying bald eagle with a 400mm f2.8 lens (or any other long lens that can't be hand held) mounted on a standard ball head, you have no doubt experienced the frustration of not being able to properly frame the darn thing, or worse yet, you've gotten soft images caused by uneven camera/lens movement. I have. More times than I care to remember.
I've also had the same experience when trying to photograph evening launches at Cape Canaveral. No matter how I've tried to steady my 400mm f2.8 (with a 1.4X TC) mounted on a standard ball head/tripod, the slightest bit of camera/lens shake has meant soft images.
Well, hopefully no more frustration for me. I have finally acquired a gimbal after searching high and low for one that would function as needed and without breaking the bank. Enter the Calumet Long Lens Gimbal Head which arrived late last week.
The Calumet gimbal is basically a quality knock off of the tried and true Wimberly gimbal. It is a hefty piece of equipment that is robust enough to handle all of my long lenses, from the 200-400mm f4 (although I doubt I'll use this lens on the gimbal as I can hand hold this guy when need be) to the 400mm f2.8 and the 600mm f4. The specs confirm that it can handle up to 26 1/2 pounds of weight. My 600mm f4 AF-S I lens weighs in at approximately 16 pounds and even with a D3S and a 1.4X TC, I'm well under the max. What really makes this gimbal attractive is the cost - right now, Calumet is blowing them out for $324.74 after a $100.00 markdown.
The gimbal comes with a quick release lens mounting plate to conveniently affix the lens to the gimbal, and It will also accept standard plates such as the Wimberly plate (shown above, mounted on the horizontal plate) that the prior owner of my 600mm was kind enough to include when he sold me the lens. That means that if I so choose, I can permanently attach a quick release plate on to both the 600mm (the Wimberly plate) and the 400mm (the Calumet plate) so they can both be mounted on the gimbal quickly.
But that presents me with a dilemma - in order to "permanently" attach the quick release plates to the 600mm and the 400mm, I must remove the bottom part of the foot that is attached to long lenses and replace each with the quick release plates. Removing the various screws that affix the bottom part of the feet and installing the quick release plates is not a difficult thing to do with a T-handled allen wrench. The problem is that if I remove the factory installed feet and replace them with the quick release plates, I can no longer mount the lenses onto a monopod for sports photography. The only way I could use the lenses would be by attaching the gimbal to a monopod and then mounting whichever lens I decided to use onto the gimbal.
If I don't remove the bottom part of the feet and attach the quick release plates, I would have to do so (and affix the quick release plates) every time I want to use the lenses with the gimbal, followed by a removal of the plates and replacement of the standard foot. This perpetual off/on/off concerns me as repeatedly removing/installing/removing/installing something isn't good for the parts.
The alternative is to carry around a monopod/gimbal mounted lens on the sidelines, something that I have never seen. Functionally, there is no reason not to have one of these lenses mounted on a gimbal for sideline shooting (except it would add some weight to the combo when carrying it around and make it a little more cumbersome) and it may even provide a better platform from which to shoot sports. On the flip side, it would look a little goofy and I can hear my sports photography colleagues' barbs now....
I'll just have to weigh the pros and cons and decide which way to go. For now, I'm just tickled that I was finally able to snatch up a quality, functional gimbal for half of what one normally would have to pay. Thanks, Calumet.