Gimbals for Wildlife Photography: Comparing 4 Models for Heavy Telephotos

INTRODUCTION

Background – This review has gestated over the past couple of years. It is an overview of my quest for a gimbal solution with the features and flexibility to support a FX camera with hefty telephoto lenses in different situations. Its features must provide:

  • (1) the stability to photograph African wildlife subjects, and;
  • (2) minimize fatigue, but also;
  • (3) with the features that simplifies lugging gear over hikes of several kilometres

My peregrinations after wildlife subjects often drift off the beaten paths carrying close to 10kgs of gear. Shooting before and around the gold hours also means I may be lucky to see an unexpected scene illuminated in the landscape; then such captures call for a wide angle lens, which, in turn, demands a quick switch to support the camera on a travel tripod or modify the gimbal head to grip the camera via a L-Plate (secured on a heavier tripod). Ideally, the gimbal on the tripod must allow its swift conversion from telephoto support to clamp the loading L-Plate on its vertical arm. This clamp must be secure enough on a heavy camera (eg gripped D850 + 15mm f2.8AIP Zeiss Ultrawide) on the L-Plate: and solid to photograph at very slow shutter speeds.

Eventually, by early 2021, my searches for a reliable gimbal to support a heavy telephoto rig had amassed least 3 different models of 3 different brands. Then the local agent for Leofoto asked me to review the PG-1 gimbal, so three became four. The lightest model is supposed to be for extreme hikes, and it also has the flexibility for close ups, which are often taken from a range of views / subject distances.

Heavy spells out as often +5kg and more – usually used at a relatively fixed station (eg hide) or on shorter hikes. This is all 3.8kg of a 400 f2.8E FL Nikkor and gripped Pro DSLR of at least 1.2kg. Add a tripod plate with teleconverter (eg the 330g TCE2 III); all these grams push the net mass of such a rig close to 5.5kg. And bear in mind that a heavier G Nikkor telephoto or all the 4.59kg of a 800 f5.6E FL Nikkor would make up a net load of over 6kg. Fine tuning the autofocus (AFFT) of a telephoto on a DSLR also demands sturdy support with minimal shake and resonance. This is when I have found all 1.6 kg of the Gimpro Mk2 makes this the ideal gimbal for AFFT.

See the first image illustrating the main parts of a gimbal designed to support a telephoto lens. This comparisons discusses and compares the main features: zeroing in on the positives and negatives. Each of these four is made by a different brand, and they vary in respective mass and overall performance. I highlight critical factors that improve Ease-of-Use and Safety (security) to support expensive gear (minimizing accidental slippage or worse). I have not repeated detailed descriptions of their features and nuances (easy to compare on the product pages). Also see links to pertinent reviews.

These three gimbals I selected and bought for my own use (and appraisal) are of three brands, which are more easily obtained from retailers outside of the USA and Europe. The exception is the FotoPro, which a local dealer in Cape Town kindly sourced from BandH, NYC (but at high cost and delays with shipping and import taxes etc). They also kindly sourced me a RRS PG-CC cradle plate to modify one of my gimbals. So I have not been in the position to try the Pano-Gimbal Head Cradle Clamp made by RRS (aka Really Right Stuff) nor any of the Promedia gimbals (also USA). All factors considered, these are too expensive to import from the USA. In reality it’s only practical to buy such products from within North America.

For a purely intra-Europe brand, Zenelli is the only brand that has caught my eye. Not only must a Zenelli gimbal be ordered direct from the factory but it at a steep price! They claim to sell the lightest gimbal for wildlife photographers, constructed almost entirely of carbon fibre – the Carbon ZX. I confess to be more intrigued by the Q-R safety feature of their QLX cradle (or the QRX). And these parts are relatively more affordable.

To summarize thus far, the above caveats summarize some of my hard won lessons – and a few expensive lessons are described below. After in depth comparisons of reviews and catalogues, I first bought the Jobu Jnr Deluxe late 2016. I soon learnt of its deficiencies, which led to a second. This was the Gimpro Gimbal Mark II. More recently, I added the FotoPro Eagle EH6 and Leofoto PG-1. To short circuit one conclusion of my quest, only the Gimpro worked and still works well ex factory i.e. it has required no modifications. Each of the other gimbals have required modifications to fix major deficiencies. I am fortunate I have a functional workshop and metal working experience with a dremel, draw-filing, drilling and threading modifications of the aluminium and stainless steel components etc… read on (and I will get more down more on the workshop side in another post.)

Core Gimbal Features – To credible a gimbal for the wildlife photographer must give safe and sturdy support but its features must allow for the essential adjustments to optimize the heavy load of your lens and camera. This is not the place to describe these absolutely essential features, as the explanation has been eloquently described by Steve Perry – see How To Properly Balance a Gimbal Head: watch his video and also bookmark his site…

Without going into all the details, the standards demanded for a reliable gimbal don’t differ much from those of a reliable tripod. Quality comes at a price. Basically, a gimbal machined out of decent quality materials with quality workmanship carries a high price. The reality is the total cost – for the most expensive gimbal – compares at most to 10% of the RRP of a big telephoto, and the professional camera supported by a gimbal. Many wildlife photographers have invested in such high end lenses, yet one tends to read of many relying on a cheaper gimbal.

Yes, one can buy all-risks insurance, but such cover cannot fix the gear gap a disaster leaves you with on a trip into remote wilderness. Just consider the costs and pain when a cheap tripod / monopod support fails – and trashes what is effectively priceless gear. All risks considered, it’s a no brainer to pay at least the equivalent of US$500 for a gimbal of acceptable quality, but beware that some gimbals with high price tags also fail in key features not least metallurgy and aspects of poor design (read on!).

To qualify to use in the outdoors for wildlife photography, a gimbal must combine light weight, robustness and strength. The bearings in both Panning and Tilt hubs must be of acceptable quality with minimal play, especially when tested under moderate load (+3kg). Side Mount gimbals are lighter and cheaper, but I find this design suffers the risks of false economy. One straightforward reason is it unwise to load the Clamp with a heavy rig, such that the torque under gravity injects a lateral force, which will twist the lens foot against the top jaw of the Side clamp. Even a reputable lens clamp still has some flexion across the sliding jaw. If you use such a gimbal make sure to use a safety lanyard – just in case the rig breaks loose. This is most likely to happen if the tripod is being carried and/or receives a hard jolt/crash landing etc.

Major parts of a gimbal designed with stabilizing a heavy telephoto lens rig. This is a Leofoto PG-1 upgraded with RSS Cradle with Quick-Release lever action QR (not adustable)

But, Why Not Use a Fluid Head? – Besides, and beyond Manfrotto’s RC2 system, there is also the 501 system (originated by the same Italian company). These wider plates and clamps are better at securing heavy video rigs, often exceeding 10kg and much more. The 501 clamps are not only more robust, and faster to operate compared to most Arca-swiss clamps, but the inherent design in the 501 lock and anti-slip features is much safer. Widely cloned (eg by Sirui), the 501 is also a dovetail fitting, similar to narrower Arca-Swiss units. Compared to the 38mm width of Arca-swiss, the dovetailed 501 plates measure 50mm at the widest point across the dovetail. They are also deeper (~10mm) with more meat between clamp and plate under heavy loading. The clamp uses a superbly designed adjustable “toggle” lever to tighten the securing jaw.

Superbly designed? Yes, for it takes only a ~1/4 turn of the toggle to release the rig (with left hand), but the plate will not slide out of the locking-plate. This 501 anti-slip security feature comprises molded alumimum lugs in the underside of the plate. This is far more reliable than the anti-slide pins/pegs in a A-S plate; a 501 clamp secures the plate, even with a completely loose jaw. You must depress a spring-loaded safety pin before sliding out the plate. The 501 video heads are typically fluid-buffered for smoother panning, so some wildlife photographers use them for heavy telephoto rigs.

Some wildlife shooters may well find that 501 system gives them the most ideal support system for a heavy expensive telephoto rig, especially if you need a fluid head for video + all the bonuses of security and quick-release. I tried a 501 fluid head + plates, but it is heavier and I find this solution harder to carry the lens. This 501 investigation was fuelled by distrust of the A-W system and especially the challenges I was struggling to get around for a robust quick-release clamps. Today, a couple of years later, I’ve concluded there is nothing wrong with the reputable Arca-Swiss clamps and plates, provided one sticks to basic safety protocols when locking and removing.

Other Models Out There….

TWO CATEGORIES OF GIMBALS: SEEKING THE BEST IN EACH

To complicate the quest, I soon discovered I needed two complementary gimbals:

One, a larger, more robust unit for maximum stability, especially shooting at slower shutter speeds. The heavier weight is less critical as it sees most of it working life in a hide or relatively stationary roles. To repeat the obvious: Strong Support and Safety are the two priority features, so this demands a heavy gimbal.

Second, a gimbal that must optimize minimum weight with performance but not sacrifice safety of the rig. Ideally, as models and practicalities allow, this gimbal should be compact and weight < 1kg. I also use a lighter gimbal on a monopod in preference to any version of ballhead or monopod head. Some years ago I bought a Sirui ?L20S Tilt-Head. I found out very quickly how this device is too ungainly under a heavy load (Nikon D500 and 300 f2.8G Nikkor), but worse the had a malicious habit to suddenly tip forward. These topples of the heavy lens are hard to avoid: impossible in fact with the vertical kinesis set to minimal tension. Sooner or later, the fingers of your right hand will be crushed between unyielding metal of the lens foot and monopod. Using a 400 f2.8E on a gripped D850 was the finale. The combined impact of over 5kg of telephoto + DSLR delivered a set of bruised knuckles with deep cuts, and I finished the shoot, cursing Sirui with blood running down the monopod. Lesson: a dangerous and unsafe solution.

GIMBAL SAFETY FACTORS

Gear Safety 101 – This is important, in fact critical, if you happen to be anxious about your prized lens and camera not slipping out of the gimbal (or ballhead)! And how strange that most reviewers of tripods barely mention this risk, if at all? In this context, safety refers to keeping the telephoto rig secured in the lens cradle – safe from an unplanned journey to terra firma. An alarming discovery I made soon after starting photography is to grapple with the less obvious differences in “standards”. Moreover, it saves wasted funds to learn at the outset that many tripod heads only use a screw-type clamp to lock in the plate. Yes, opinions differ, but I avoid such clamps. They are too slow, clumsy and there is a real risk it will not lock the Arca-swiss plate tightly. Basically, based on my experience they are useless unless used only in strict roles. Otherwise a screw-clamp is a waste of money. Free advice.

Anchors 101 – Only use a 3/8″ UNC steel bolt to secure the gimbal to the tripod, or the levelling base. Also make sure to use 3/8″ UNC bolts to secure the a QR AS plate is attached to the (non-Arca-swiss) factory foot of a telephoto lens. Leading companies of high quality photographic accessories endorse this standard for heavy telephotos. I consign almost all bolts of chinese origin (eg Siriu) to scrap. And pay for high quality stainless cap bolts. It pays to find an engineering supply selling fasteners of 316 stainless steel, which is a common austenitic stainless steel; the molybdenum-alloy is corrosion resistant in marine environments. Countersunk heads work best to secure a Sirui AS plate on to the gimbal base. And Don’t Forget the drop of Locktite, and torque those threads tight.

This photograph depicts a capscrew and yes it is manufacturer-supplied, and worse it is a 1/4″ only. Obviously of inferior quality allow, use such fasteners at your own risk! (Note Jobu Design have a factory warning: “Using a 1/4″-20 threaded tripod with a reducer bushing will VOID your warranty.”

This capscrew went into the recycling bin, after I took this photograph for reference. Note the head will strip very soon and only under moderate torque.

Safety 102 – Lanyards. Simple, 4mm nylon cord secured to the top of the tripod (or monopod) with clip the free end with a snap link on to the gimbal rig directly, on the carrying loop on the tripod collar of the telephoto lens (or L-plate on the camera if you have to side-mount it for an impromptu landscape scene).

A FEW SOME NOTES ON TRIPODS(S)

Levelling the Tripod

It is not essential to level a telephoto rig on a gimbal, well not as precisely as one would a camera for landscape scenes, because the rotating lens collar of a telephoto gives you some latitude to tilt to the horizontal plane. In practice, a leveling base simplifies operations. It is quick to level up the rig properly. I use a types Gitzo system 75 levelling base, which secures the gimbal or a separate locking plate via a 3/8″ UNC screw. The Leofoto YB-75 base works well with its QR lever, which has adjustable jaws (but don’t forget your 3mm allenkey for unexpected adjustments).

ARCA-SWISS PLATES: THE GOOD, THE MEDIOCRE, AND THE BAD

To be of any relevance, a gimbal must be compatible with the Arca-Swiss ‘standard’ quick-release plates. Obviously, this includes the lens-foot of the telephoto, if this foot comes the Arca-swiss grooves (eg the replacement lens-feet made by Kirk, RRS, Wimberley, or by reputable Asian sources, eg Haoge, i-Shoot, Leofoto).

Important ! Note that not all Arca-swiss plates meet the engineering standards adopted by Jobu, RRS and Acratech in the N America. QR Plates of different widths create headaches if they do not lock tightly, and/or worse fail under load; then camera and lens part company with the tripod!

Not all Arca-Swiss plates are created equal. Comparison (top to bottom) of the dovetailed rebated lip (arrowed) of a Peipro L-plate, Sirui and Leofoto lens plates. Note the flattened lip of the Leofoto (Bottom).

The Gimpro and Leofoto lens plates have the corners shaved flat, even though their total width is still ~38mm. Why?!? Under a load, such a plate risks pulling out of the adjustable locking plate of some ball heads (and possibly a gimbal). A picture is worth the proverbial 1000 words – compare the three plates in cross section. The risk zone is highlighted by the arrows

This image serves to illustrate the risks facing even a relatively light telephoto rig: when used in a lateral position as a “poor-man’s gimbal” – swung sideways on a Acratech GPSS Ballhead. The red cord protects the lens foot from parting company entirely with the lens (a documented problem with this excellent optic). Note the attached Safety Lanyard. The soon-to-be-trashed Gimpro Lens-plate is shown for purposes of this warning (see main text above for details).

This inexplicable design error of a Gimpro plate seriously damaged a 500 PF Nikkor lens (the Z7 camera was fine). It fell less than 1m out of an Acratech GPSS head. Under gravity, lateral torque on the jaws was sufficient to rip the lensplate out of the clamp (and just as I reached to clip the lanyard into the lens collar! The example includes a photo of this offending Gimpro plate. Afterwards, I mangled the plate in a vice into scrap, so it can never be used again (for photography at least). Expensive lesson….

I find the long Sirui PH-180 plates are ideal to deploy not only a heavy telephoto but also a lighter zoom or prime (such as the 500 f5.6E PF Nikkor). These allow (1) the adjustment length sufficient to balance a telephoto on your gimbal; the points of balnace changes with a teleconverter, and especially between a gripped DSLR versus compact mirrorless camera. And second, not least (2) this long plate makes it so much easier and safer to lift and carry a heavy lens by its foot.

COMPARITIVE SUMMARIES OF 4 GIMBALS: Fotopro E-6H, Gimpro Mk II, Jobu Jnr, Leofoto PG-1

Fotopro Eagle E-6H – This relatively light and compact photographic accessory is more than a Cradle Gimbal. It has an additional Tilt axle in the base. The pay off is the E-6H can support different kinds of camera rig in several different orientations. A detailed positive review of the E-6H, by photojournalist, Dan Carr, also discussed its heavier 1.6kg sibling – the Fotopro E-9H (rated for maximum loads of 30kg). His is one of a couple of recent positive reviews of the E-6H, including another here and this photographer with video.

Fotopro E-6H Eagle Series Gimbal Head. Note the remarkably short rail

The positive features of this light gimbal are commendable, certainly; but on eventually receiving the E-6H I immediately identified two major points of weakness (none mentioned by any reviewer). But first more about the positive features. These include:

(1) Simple conversion to side-mount gimbal to clamp a camera on its L-Plate to shoot landscapes and other subjects;

(2) The Tilt Facility using the bottom Tilt axis enables adjustments to set the nodal point of lenses of different lengths. This tilt feature is superb if you will ever want to point a camera downwards from the tripod for macrophotography. Moreover, tilting the arm downwards to fully vertical enables you to ‘squeeze down’ the gimbal fixed on a tripod for compact carry. The main arm of the E-6H can be set at any incline between 0o and 180o and more as allowed within the legs of the tripod. Loosen the main knob, and depress the locking study to fix the incline to 45o increments. Intermediate inclines are set by tightening main knob at our setting.

(3) Click control of the Panning Base by degree increments. This feature is a boon for shooting panoramas, and one controls this function with a separate knob on the panning head, next to the larger Panning lock-knob. Tightening/Loosening a smaller knob this click turns on or off.

These images give some idea of the flexibility of the Fotopro E-6H for landscape and macrophotography, as well stabilizing a lighter telephoto rig (500 f5.6.E FL Nikkor). Note a D850 is secured in the more robust Leofoto clamp via the L-Bracket.

Problems with the Fotopro E-6H – Unfortunately, attempts at cost-cutting by Fotopro undermine the quality of the E-6H. Firstly, the clamp plate bolted into the Tilt hub is too flimsy; its design is too shallow with thin jaws; and secured by 4 rather suspect screws, which were loktite but using a JIS driver (ie not an allenkey). I fear the too-thin aluminum jaws could fail, even under only a moderate load. Be warned! Considered overall, this gimbal suffers from poor quality compared to the other three models I have tested. The bearings are too tight – especially in the tilt hub, Possibly, Fotopro uses sealed pre-loaded bearings in an attempt to minimize play under lateral load.

Vertical Locking plate of the Fotopro E-6H after removal

At very least, if you plan to carry a side-mounted rig on this gimbal, avoid applying excess torque that could twist the L-plate or other plate out of this clamp. Bottom line – never forget to clip the safety-lanyard into the L-plate securely.

Narrow neck of the jaws of the clamp – the arrow highlights a distinct lack of ‘meat’ in a critical area.
Who has the confidence to hang their camera off this clamp?

Secondly, the overall height of the E-6H is too low – a decidedly dwarfed 145mm – to balance most telephoto lenses. It leaves too little height lower the lens sufficiently to set its centre of gravity close to the tilt axle of the gimbal. This problem is a hassle, even when using a 70-200 f2.8 or 80-400 medium telephoto zoom. The problem applies especially to a deep lens foot (I find such a foot design essential if one carries such a telephoto held by the foot – efficiently without cramping / skinning your fingers.

I have fixed these problems in my copy of the E-6H to bring its quality up to my minimum standards for wildlife photography. The priority was to remove the side clamp and replace it with a Leofoto LR-50 QR plate, secured by four capscrews of high quality 316 stainless alloy. (The Jobu Jnr needed a similar upgrade, which was relatively simple: see below.)

Fotopro E-6H upgraded with Leofoto LR-50 QR-clamp secured with high-quality capscrews to the spindle hub

This then took me several hours of machining, with draw-filing, to modify a Gimpro locking-plate, by reducing its dimensions into a shorter rail and clamp, to replace the poorly designed original. I also scrapped all 1/4″ UNC bolts in the Fotopro assembly, because the alloy is too soft. I plan to describe these modifications, in due course, in a complementary post.

As explained above, this image underscores why you should be careful of quality of the engineering fasteners supplied with a tripod head. Too often the alloy is too soft.

The load-rating of 10 kg is a distinctly generous extension of material reality. Even the modified version was not my first choice of the gimbal to use a heavy telephoto. A big significant advantage will be appreciated by many photographers. The simplicity to adapt this gimbal into a highly versatile tripod head by attaching a camera by a L-Plate. The Leofoto QR clamp makes this more secure. It’s packed for trips primarily for its flexibility to shoot landscapes and macrophotography, with judicious use of a telephoto (eg 500 f5.6E PF Nikkor).

Modified Fotopro E-6H to use a shortened rail and narrower cradle from Gimpro. The rail has been thinned in the top region to fit the greater width of a fast, heavy telephoto lens, when adjusted for balance to align with the spindle. Even so this gimbal in still too short to balance a tall rig. Note this redesign with the Leofoto clamp allow quick change to secure a camera by a L-Plate.

Gimpro Mk 2 – this robust gimbal is designed and manufactured by South African, Wayne Pollack, who founded his company Gimpro, based in Pretoria. The Gimpro Mk 2 is one of his first products. Gimpro export to selected UK retailers, Bob Rigby, who is also a UK agent for Acratech and Wimberley (all high end products). Gimpro produces a range of accessories designed for wildlife photography, and particularly to handle fixed telephoto rigs by a photographer shooting out across the front door of an off road vehicle, or seated on an articulating seat in a boat. As a friend quipped, these products remind one of devices designed for the harshest military deployments under very tough conditions. One could fire a heavy rifle on this gimbal, and I mean a hard-hitting heavy calibre throwing +500gr bullets at decent velocities!

This is a well made gimbal of high grade aluminum alloy, with a quality that strikes me as similar to RRS products. The main units are tempered, which points to what some sales retailers describe so knowingly as “aircraft-grade” aluminum alloy, technically graded in the 6000 series alloys – Al-Mg-Si – or better the 7000 Series – Al-Zn-Mg-Cu – of alloys (eg 7075) which can all be heat-treated.

Well, whatever is its alloy, I have found the Gimpro Mk 2 can safely support the heaviest telephoto rig with ease, and the sealed roller bearings cope with heavy loads of much more than 5kg; I detect no trace of frictional resistance in the spindle’s tilt nor the pivoting pan axes. The bearings on my copy feel beautifully smooth; this is rotating a heavy rig under friction and set to rotate freely. I have read each axle is supported on 3 needle roller bearings, sealed from from the elements. I cannot afford time nor cost to dissect these hubs.

Gimpro Mk 2

For a more detailed description of this gimbal, see this review by the experienced Professional Guide and Wildlife Photographer, Grant Atkinson. (Grant reviewed the Mk 1, previously.) The cradle clamp looks uncannily similar to the RRS PG-CC plate, except the Gimpro’s adds 10 mm of length in the cradle floor+jaws to support the lens plate. The important difference from all other readily available (and affordable) gimbals is revealed in the Q-R locking mechanism of this Gimpro clamp. You get a unique feature that allows for micro-adjustment of the Clamp for variations in width of Arca-Swiss lens-plates. I’m not aware of any other gimbal with this feature, so it deserves scrutiny. It works as follows:

The throw of the clamp jaws (their range of lateral movement) can be adjusted by a rather neatly designed pair of nested brass nuts: more correctly termed ‘threaded-ferrules’. This feature is very useful to deal with lens-plates that might differ in width by a millimetre and more. The dimensions of the respective 3rd party lens feet differ, and not every one is able to standardize on one brand of Arca-swiss plates (as I finally have on Sirui plates).

As illustrated in this image, this “micro-adjusting” subunit rotates on the 6mm stainless pin locked into base of the plate, and the secured Q-R lever compresses the entire mechanism (inclusive of the clamp jaw) in place against an internal spring. Typical of this design, you flip the stainless steel arm through 180o on the fulcrum of the 2mm securing pin (also stainless steel). It has 3 positions, fully-open, fully locked: halfway at 90o slackens the jaws sufficient to adjust the balance of the rig, yet the AS plate cannot tip out of the clamp, and the detent-screws at each end prevent the plate sliding out neither fore nor aft.

The core of the mechanism to swiftly adjust the jaw throw, and optimize the Gimpro clamp for plates of different widths. The distance of the Q-R locking lever (A) is set the distance by adjusting the knurled male ferrule (B) screwed into the female ferrule (C). This maintains the relative tension in the eccentric head of the locking lever across its 3 primary positions. These swing across 180o from: fully-open (0o ), Adjust-position (90o ), Full-Clamp (180o ). Adjusting the jaw width to the optimum setting for your plate allows, respectively, lifting and dropping the rig between the clamp jaws; adjusting balance ; and locking the lens plate at full tightness under extreme load. (Here the modified brass nut is shown outside its recess machined into the articulating jaw.)

You can adjust the knurled – widest – outer ferrule easily with forefinger and thumb. Setting the travel distance of the jaw to hold the QR plate/lens foot tightly under full compression, and it is designed thoughtfully for two stage release: all controlled by the eccentric head of the Lever arm at 3 positions: Full Release (0o) Adjust (90o) and Lock (180o) in its closing and opening the clamp jaw. With the arm at Adjust, the lens can be slide within the horizontal travel range of locking pins, but it cannot tip out of the dovetails (to terra firma!). The lens foot is completely free at Full Obviously. Avoid expensive disasters by setting the correct distance, especially in Adjust and Lock modes, with no risk of the rig breaking free!

Another advantage of this Gimpro is a camera can be mounted via a L-Plate if the vertical rail is removed. But bear in mind the risk of the screw-lock, so ensure the L-Plate has detente screws. The main negative feature is the weight, and its is large unit, allow it dissembles into 3 main components. Also you have been warned – trash check the supplied Arca_Swiss lens plate, which fails the specifications of (ArcraTech, Jobu, RRS, and Sirui). It risks pulling out from the clamp jaws of some gimbal(s) and tripod head(s), even under moderate loadings. The problem with this plate? Its rebated edge (see comparisons above) is machined too blunt.

Jobu Design BWG-J3K Jobu Jr.3 – Judging by reviews and forum threads, this light, well made gimbal seems to be fairly popular. The main gimbal is a one-piece hollow, cast and heat treated aluminum body, with the rail and lens clamp CNC machined from 6061-T6 aluminum stock.

I bought my copy in the UK in late 2018. I find the bearings on my copy feel smooth: turning under friction and when set to rotate freely – with no lateral play.

A key feature to note is the Cradle Clamp and Vertical Rail are integral; this restricts adjusting the height of a telephoto to align with the tilt axis – for optimal balance. Short of modifying your BWG-J3K, the solution is to buy Jobu’s heavy duty DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal Head MK IV, with its adjustable vertical rail.

Image from Jobu Design

Second, and most importantly, the BWG-J3K‘s locking clamp is the dreaded screw-design, and so is the DMG-HD4. At the price, I expect to be able to adjust the vertical rail, which besides setting up a balanced rig, would also give one the option to swop in a QR-Clamp for the ArcaSwiss lens-foot.

Thus, after using the Jobu Jr 3 over a few months, I discarded the integral Vertical Rail and Lens Clamp and screwed on a modified Sirui Lens-Plate to secure and adjust a telephoto QR-plate with more flexibility; and a robust Gimpro cradle clamp replaced the offending original. This modification worked okay; but I recently modified this Jobu again.

The ideal should make it simple to attach a camera securely by a L-Plate. So I adapted a Leofoto LR-50 clamp plate to bolt on to the end of the spindle, and used a Gimpro cradle and now a RRS PG-CC Cradle Clamp (both are of the quick-release design) – after the Gimpro Cradle was modified into a narrower configuration to fix the Fotopro E-6H (see above). As configured it is also simple to collapse my modified Jobu Jnr for travel.

Leofoto LR-50 clamp modified to fit the spindle of the Jobu Jnr gimbal, which now enables vertical adjustment of the Arca-Swiss rail
A relatively straightforward modification of the Jobu Jnr gimbal to use the superior Gimbal cradle clamp on a Sirui lens plate, as it allows modifying the height of lens relative to the gimbal’s spindle. This is only a partial solution, because it still too cumbersome and requires loosening both cap bolts. Mounted on a Leofoto Systemic LM323C tripod with YB-75 Levelling Base

Leofoto PG-1 – Made in China by the newly ascendant tripod manufacturer, this gimbal is very similar (identical, shall one say?) to the GKJr Katana Pro, designed and produced by USA Promedia using T6061 alloy as the primary material. The main gimbal base is CNC machined into the weight-saving truss design. Leofoto also market a (partially) camouflaged version (see below), which is aimed at the more zealous wildlife photographer (see photos below).

This design has several commendable features. It weighs 1kg net only. The bearings on my copy feel nearly as smooth as the Gimpro’s: under friction and set to rotate freely. Both hubs are easier to control and adjust tension with your left hand only; this means you do not have to drop your right to tension the panning hub. Why have so few team of engineers not recognized and fixed this obvious problem? Perhaps these engineers do not shoot off a gimbal often enough?

Problems with the Leofoto PG-1? There is no option to swop out the dreaded cradle-clamp for an alternative QR clamp cradle (similar to the RRS PG-CC or better using the adjustable clamp of the Gimpro design). There is no excuse for this, Leofoto should prioritize the release of a cradle lens-plate of total ~90mm length with the QR arm they already mass produce for their LR-50 clamp-plate and YB design of levelling bases for their .

But Leofoto – please, redesign all these QR clamps to use the Gimpro design. How can an engineer not appreciate that that 3mm allenkey gets lost/left behind at home: far removed from the photographer ‘Out There’ challenged to readjust a clamp to secure their lens with requisite tightness? The knurled thumbscrew solution is a simple design that can be knocked out by a competent hobbyist (or else a machine shop) let alone a tripod factory making tripod heads using modern CNC machines!

The only serious feature some photographers may need on the PG-1 (also its American Promedia twin) is there is no QR clamp to secure a L-Plate off the spindle. Fixing this problem to side-mount a camera is going require a complete change of the Rail system, or machining the existing Rail to attach a side clamp. I have not investigated this change, as already I have the solutions in my modified Fotopro and Jobu gimbals. Again – make sure to check the fitting of the supplied Arca_Swiss lens plate in the clamp jaws of your gimbal(s) and tripod head(s). Is it secure under load? I distrust the flattened rebated edge of the Leofoto lens plate (see comparisons above).

In summary, the Leofoto PG-1 is a relatively affordable gimbal. It is well made, and surprisingly light, yet it can support a fast i.e. heavy telephoto. As importantly, you can buy this brand in many countries outside of North America. Some wildlife photographers will persist with a screw-type cradle, because, unless Leofoto does the simple fix, modification to a QR cradle can be expensive. It should be feasible to modify the existing plate to QR if you have a milling machine, or can find a willing machine shop to copy the lever jaw mechanism in stainless steel (RRS PG-CC design, not forgetting critical the Gimpro adjustable lock). Finally, note the PG-1 is not simple to convert to attach a camera by an L-Plate.

Main Features of the PG-1

Too Many Gimbals – Too Few are Optimal (Safe Designs)

It is unfair to expect a Fotopro or Jobu Jnr gimbal to encapsulate the robustness of a heavy duty unit embodied in the hunky Gimpro Mk2. Nevertheless, considering their steep retail prices there are no excuses to cut corners on design and produce either locking plates of inferior quality, and/or not provide the means and options to adjust the lens rig for optimal balance on a gimbal.

The same criticisms hold for not offering the option of QR clamps locked by an adjustable lever. This deficiency killed off any plans to buy any of the the more affordable Chinese-made carbon-fibre brands (eg Benro, Movu).

With a 5 year quest behind me now, I find I tend to reach for the Leofoto for most of my work with a heavy telephoto. The modified Fotopro and Jobu Jnr pair better with a monopod, and the FotoPro is ideal for macrophotography (superior to a ballhead in key respects). The Gimpro is the best for all day shooting in a hide, and it is the go to support on a heavy duty tripod.

The following Table summarizes the key features of the four models. Headspace refers to the height of the gimbal. The taller the better, because it allows for adjustment sufficient to balance a heavy telephoto rig.

Feature Fotopro Eagle EH-6 Gimpro Mk 2 Jobu BWG-J Jnr 3Leofoto PG-1
Mass (kg)0.9071.630.680.998
Dimensions
(Vertical Height x Width, mm)
145 x 180245 x 180220 x 180255 x 220
Base Diameter (mm)58504360
Rated Maximum Load (kg)10Not stated.
(Basically more than sufficient)
2.36-5.44 kg recommended
Maximum: 22+ kg “for occasional usage”
25
Cradle Length (mm)50905060
Cradle SecurityPropriety Lock – Non Adjustable (but best discarded with QR Plate)Partial in 3 stage Lever ActionNONENONE
Adjustable Throw of the ArcaSwiss Clamp-Jaw?NOYES
Rotating ferrule
NONO
Vertical Rail – Adjusts?YESYESNOYES
Pan Lock Above Bearing Above Bearing Above Bearing On Main Gimbal – – Non-Shooting Hand
Headspace (Vertical Rail)TightGenerousAverage Average
Camera L-Plate?YESYESNONO
Modify to Fit Camera L-Plate?Replace weak clamp with stronger bolts N/AFeasible with existing threaded spindle, and new Rail and CradleFeasible with existing threaded spindle, and new Rail and Cradle. May require machining spindle
Levelling IndicatorYESNONOYES
Price(s)$529SAR 8,950/£510£329.99SAR 8,999.00 / $458
Main ProblemsCurrently no option for QR clamp. Use with caution for any camera, and never use for telephotos without expensive custom modification Heavy
NEVER use the supplied lensplate that fails on A_S standards
No option for vertical adjustment;
No QR clamp, and requires custom modification
Currently no option for QR clamp, and requires custom modification

#gimbal #tripod

Sources of Gimbals: Hougaard Malan of Landscapegear kindly provided the PG-1 to review at minimal cost. I sourced and paid for the other gimbals and did the necessary modifications myself.

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