Current Equipment (as of 24th November 2014)
| Tripod heads
Markins M20 Ball head or Wimberley gimbal head. If starting
again I would use the new Uniqball head that serves both purposes
for less money.
|Canon lenses used
17-40 f4L - I don't shoot a lot of landscape, so this is good
enough for me.
28mm f2.8 - I bought this used, specifically to photograph
the aurora borealis.
40mm f2.8 stm - Used with 5DmkIII to provide my lightest/most
50mm f2.5 macro
Mp-e65 f2.8 1-5x macro
100mm f2.8L macro IS
180mm f3.5 L macro - sometimes used with extenders
24-105L f4 IS. A good general lens.
70-200 f2.8 mk II L IS - also used with extenders. A zoom
that is as sharp as a prime.
300mm f2.8L IS - Superb lens. Also used with extenders when
I can't face lugging the 500mm f4. and extension tubes
400mm f5.6 - Favourite birds in flight lens. Sometimes used
with 1.4x extender
500mm f4L mk1 IS - Superb lens, also used frequently with
extenders. I would upgrade this to the mkII if money were
no object to save weight but I wouldn't bother otherwise as
it is so good.
1.4x extender III
2x extender III
|Canon EOS 1Dx camera. Used when shooting action as autofocus
and noise performance is stellar.
|Canon 5DmkIII camera - Use when weight is of concern and
also for macro where Af is not so critical. Silent mode is
useful for birds from hides as much quieter than 1Dx.
|Gitzo GT 3530S carbon fibre tripod - Also sometimes use
with sidearm attachment for macro
Travelling light(er) with big lenses
As much as I loved my big 500 f4 lens, Canon EOS ID mk II camera,
Gitzo 1548 tripod, and Kirk BH-1 head, the combined weight of
all this gear was a bit horrendous.
| Kirk BH-1 Ball head
|Canon 500mm f4 lens
|Canon EOS 1D mk II
||1.587 kg inc. battery
|Gitzo 1548 carbon fibre tripod
|Kirk L- bracket
The actual weight carried is even worse than this of course,
as I will usually have a couple of tele- extenders, memory cards,
spare batteries, lunch, a drink, and possibly a bag hide and chair
in addition !
This rig is fine when transported in a Lowepro lens trecker 600
rucksack and the hike is not too far, but I have been missing
too many good photo opportunities as my gear has been packed away.
What was needed was a lighter set-up that could be carried on
a tripod over my shoulder and would be immediately available if
a bird or animal appeared unexpectedly in front of me.
I now feel that I have achieved my goal - my new setup is (or
to be strictly accurate will be) 21% (or two kilos) lighter with
negligible loss in stability for my equipment. That's a big improvement.
New setup :
| Markins M20 Ball head
|Canon 500mm f4 lens
|Canon EOS 1D mk III
||1.335 kg inc. battery
|Gitzo GT 3530S carbon fibre tripod
Markins M20 ball head.
This is a remarkable piece of kit. I never thought that I would
find anything that worked better than my Kirk BH-1, but this
one does. There is only one adjustment knob for ball pressure
instead of two with the Kirk, but it has such incredible "feel"
and offers such control over the pressure on the ball, that
it is very easy to find the "sweet spot" where the
heaviest equipment is just held without slippage or sag, and
it moves so wonderfully smoothly.
The small star wheel in the knob is quite ingenious too. It
can be set with your thumb at a point where the equipment is
just being held without being able to do the dreaded "lens-flop".
Anyone who has used a long lens on a ball head will know what
I am talking about. If you haven't done the locking knob up
tight enough, and you go to lift the tripod, the lens flops.
This can lead to expensive damage to equipment - not to mention
causing much pain to crushed fingers!
So the Markins procedure is - mount the equipment, tighten the
main knob to the loosest point where the equipment is just
held without flopping. Next turn the star wheel in as far
as it will go with your thumb. This procedure restricts the
main knob from undoing (slackening) any further than this point,
so the lens can never flop. The final part of the procedure
is to adjust the main knob to the desired pressure - the point
at which your camera and lens can easily move, but will stay
put the moment you stop moving it, with no sag.
Here is a link to a video of the M20
being used with a monster 800mm Nikon lens - definitely
David and Goliath!
The Markins is a remarkable head. It does everything my BH-1
did at almost half the weight. It actually can hold considerably
more load (45 Kg) than all of the current competition (Kirk,
Arca Swiss, RRS and Acratech).
On paper, the cheaper M10 will easily cope with
the weight of the 1D II plus 500mm lens, but after reading several
forums, I went for the bigger M20 as the larger ball apparently
gives more control. I might have been OK with tech M10, but
as I had no option to try it before purchase, I went for the
The Markins's only weakness is that the panning knob doesn't
grip as tightly as it should. It is not a deal-breaker though,
I still thoroughly recommend this head.
To buy one and read more about Markins, you will need to visit
Gitzo GT 3530S 6x carbon fibre tripod
The greatest weight reduction that I achieved was
made by replacing my trusty Gitzo 1548 tripod with a smaller model
Gitzo from the new 6X range - the GT 3530S. This almost halved
the tripod's weight at a stroke. But how good is it you ask ?
The 1548 is just phenomenally rigid, but is actually overkill
when using image-stabilised lenses like the 500 f4. I have never
really liked having 4 leg-sections to undo, and I have never got
on with the horrible twist-grips on the legs that have to be tightened
or slackened in a set sequence if the next leg is not to undo
instead of the one you want.
The 3530S is made of a new, lighter but stronger carbon-fibre
weave and is the replacement for the Gitzo 1325 (not the 1548).
Despite increased performance over the 1325, the 6x model is 0.31
kg lighter. It is only 3 sections, so is much quicker to set up,
and the new G-Lock twist-lock legs are a joy to use. So much faster
than the earlier models.
The tripod does not go as tall as the1548, but as I am 5ft 9inches
tall, that is no problem for me, however, there is an LS model
which goes higher (146 cm vs 128cm) if you need the extra height.
Finally, there is a 3540 model which has 4 leg-sections if you
So how does the 3530S compare to the 1548 ? Well, when loaded
with a big camera and lens, it feels very rigid still. I can feel
just a little flex if I hold two of the legs and push/pull them
in opposite directions when the tripod is fully extended. This
movement was not present in the tank-like 1548, but in practice
I can see no image degradation when using the long lens and 2x
extender with IS activated. So I am very pleased - a 1.3 Kg reduction
in weight is more than I could have hoped for. With lighter equipment
of shorter focal length without IS, I don't think you would be
disappointed with this tripod.
I don't know how it would fare with a 600mm f4 lens on board
- it could still be fine as the extra weight would add additional
stability, and the G-lock legs appear immensely strong, but I
have no experience of it.
I should comment at this point that I (and most other nature
pros) do not use a centre column with the tripod. as convenient
as it is to adjust height, the decrease in rigidity is too high
a price to pay.
Click here to visit Gitzo
To save even more weight
A 40D or other xxD series camera may lag behind the 1D range
in functionality, particularly autofocus performance, but still
offers similar image quality in a very light body. Additionally
there is the benefit of the extra reach with telephoto lenses
thanks to the high pixel density of the1.6x crop factor sensor.
Gimbal Heads for super-telephoto lenses
There is no question, that when using the 500mm and 600mm super-telephoto
lenses, that a gimbal head is the way to go. Once the weight of
the camera and lens is balanced (by moving it back and forth in
the quick-release plate clamp, it effectively becomes weightless.
It goes just where you point it, and doesn't try to flop from
side to side like a ball head. The set-up is highly maneuverable
- ideal for fast action or even birds in flight.
The Wimberley full gimbal head version 2 is widely recognised
as the best gimbal head available, it is lighter than the original
mk I version but it is still heavy - 1.43Kg , not to mention very
expensive for what it is at £499 in rip-off Britain. To
that you will still need to add £50 for a QR plate. A head
of this calibre is required with 600mm lenses. Another expensive
and weighty alternative is Kirk's "King Cobra".
Full Wimberley head
The Wimberley sidekick (0.6kg) is designed to fit into the quick
release clamp of a ball head such as the Markins M20 . This combination
weighs 1.168 Kg - 19% less than the Full Wimberley. The combination
of Markins M20 and Sidekick is about the same as the full Wimberley
- so I wouldn't suggest this combination unless you already own
a good ball head.
On the plus side, the sidekick does not have to reside on the
tripod all the time, and is compact, so will fit into a generous
coat pocket. It is therefore more versatile than the fixed gimbal,
and can save weight if used with a light ball head. It is adequate
up to the Canon 500mm f4 - but not the 600mm.
On the minus side, it puts a lot of strain on the ball head, and
I don't recommend it on the Kirk BH-1 if you intend to carry the
rig around on your shoulder as it all too easily slips and sags
- which could result in a catastrophe when on the move. The Kirk
snap collar, a £22 piece of plastic which can be slipped
into prevent this happening if the lens is attached directly to
the ball head becomes useless when the ball is turned into the
cutout in the head to accomodate the sidekick.
The Markins head locks down far more effectively without slippage
than the Kirk, so I am looking forward to trying out the Markins-Sidekick
combination - as it must be a contender for the lightest gimbal
head out there.
Manfrotto 393 (Bogen 3421)
A much cheaper alternative to the Wimberley at a mear £99
is the Manfrotto 393 head (known as the Bogen 3421 in the US).
It can be used with 500 or 600 mm lenses or reputedly even with
the Sigma 300-800mm. It is often shown inverted - as in the above
picture, but I prefer it in the alternative closed position as
Kirk QR platform mounted on the
The minuses of the Manfrotto 393 are firstly weight - the same
as the full Wimberley, and secondly it does not accept an Arca
Swiss type quick release plate without modification. In the second
picture above, you can see that I have added an additional Kirk
platform onto the Manfrotto QR plate using the screws that come
with the Manfrotto. - more expense and a little more weight !
It is such a pity to have to do this, as the quality of the Manfrotto
quick-release is superb - it has a silky smooth runner, locks
down tight, and has a sprung-loaded button which has to be depressed
in order to remove the lens - a great safety feature. If you don't
currently use an Arca Swiss style QR plate system, then the Manfrotto
is a no-brainer!
Another small minus is that the Manfrotto is supplied at a fairly
loose panning setting, which allows some flex in the setup with
a big weighty lens. This is not a problem though, as if you remove
the rubber cover from the panning knob you will see a small hole,
inside which is an allen screw. If this is slackened with an allen
key, the knob may be tightened to remove the slack and then re-locked.
Once adjusted, it is hard to imagine how the full Wimberley head
could be any better - the Manfrotto is extremely rigid, operates
smoothly and is very well made, although it is a little bulky.
If only it was made from aluminium to save weight it would be
The Manfrotto is extremely good value and highly recommended
if you are prepared to adapt it a bit initially.