Keeping our cameras supported in order to capture sharp shots is of the utmost importance. Tom Mason weighs up the wildlife-friendly options...
As wildlife photographers, often waiting for long periods with long and heavy telephotos, this need for support is even more apparent. Of course, in different situations not everything is practical, so below is my guide to supporting your camera out in the field...
Aim low with a versatile tripod
Tripods are one of the oldest and most well-known methods of camera support. They’re the photographers’ friend for a reason. These three magic sticks that allow you to balance and stabilise your camera are the first and most important accessory any photographer should consider purchasing.
One of the first features to look for in a tripod, certainly as a wildlife photographer, is the ability to go to ground-level. I love my Gitzo Systematic for this - it has no centre column, which allows me to work flat to the ground for low-level wildlife images. Tripods often have removable columns and variable-angle legs to accommodate this. Some even feature swinging columns that lay crossways to get them low to the ground - great for macro, but if you’re using a fluid or gimbal head these are highly impractical in the field.
Choose a suitable tripod head
On the subject of heads, tripods can be fitted with a variety of types, which allows us to move and fine-tune the position of the camera. Personally, I favour ball, fluid and gimbal heads when working on location.
Ball heads are great for a variety of lens types, with solid versions being able to support long telephotos as well as shorter lenses. Versatile for stills shooting, they’re a great all-rounder. I use the Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium - it’s a great head with an Arca-Swiss style top plate, it’s easily capable of supporting my 300mm f/2.8 lens and, due to the Arca mount and separate panning base, I can also use it with the excellent Wimberley Sidekick to turn it into a travel-sized gimbal.
With smooth pan and tilt actions, fluid heads are designed for video. They’re great for mixed media and especially those wanting to film, as well as shooting stills. Better models have built-in counterbalances that allow for the support of heavy and long lenses and are great for telephoto shooting. I work with the Manfrotto Pro Video Head and find it to be a great support, even up to a 500mm. The removable panning handle makes it adaptable for stills or video. The long plate allows for adjustment of my lens for perfect balance, meaning I can fluidly pan and tilt for great video, or loosen everything off for fast action stills shooting.
Gimbals are designed for long lenses and work by setting the camera at its perfect centre of gravity. They allow you fingertip control of positioning, meaning you can follow, track and keep up with the action without hesitation. The Wimberley MkII is my favourite and I use this all the time with my long lenses. The downside of gimbals is that they’re not much good for working with shorter focal lengths, so if you want to switch out for some landscape shooting, you’ll need an extra head.
It’s important to remember that size also plays a role in stability. Small tripods might be light, however their small legs can’t handle the weight of larger lenses. Often it becomes a compromise between weight and stability, and I always favour the latter. Carbon fibre is great for helping to reduce the load, but this does add a significant price to a setup. If you carry it every day though, I can tell you it’s worth it.
Consider the alternatives
Moving away from tripods, there are also a number of other ways of keeping your camera steady on location. Beanbags are a great example of a superb low-cost support for long lenses. The filled bag can be positioned low to the ground, on a fence post, tree limb or car door to give you a solid platform to work from. The bean bag surrounds the lens, reducing vibrations and dampening the effects of camera shake. A downside is that being a bag full of beans (plastic pellets, rice, birdseed etc), they’re a bit of a dead weight to carry. If you’re travelling by air, pack them unfilled and buy some beans or rice locally when you arrive on location. I love those from Wildlife Watching Supplies – they’re built to last, with excellent materials that are waterproof and rugged.
Another alternative is the ground pod. These devices feature an attachment thread for a tripod head and are great for low-angle work, giving you the support and angle of a bean bag on the floor, but without the weight. The Skimmer is a version of this that can be purchased online - made of plastic, it’s lightweight and portable and perfect for working low, especially on beaches.
Additional solutions, especially when working from a car or safari vehicle, include the super clamp. These can be purchased for around £20 and are pretty amazing. Offering the ability to hold up to 15kg, you can team them up with a tripod head and clamp them to a rail, car door or other solid structure. These are also great for working from wooden hides at natures reserves - the clamp takes up far less space and is less prone to shake from people walking across the wooden floors.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.