Wimberley Sidekick: A Solution to a Problem You May Not Even Know You Have
Shooting with even a moderately big lens on a ball head, one quickly becomes acquainted with gravity. It's as if the lens has a mind of its own. The ball head coupled with the lens's tripod collar give the setup two points of freedom, and the lens just doesn't want to remain atop the ball. If this sounds familiar to you and you're tired of wrestling your lens to go where you want it, the Wimberley Sidekick may be just what you need.
The problem: With a traditional ball head, you have to fight against gravity to position a big lens
Wimberley, with the cool distinction of having tripodhead.com as their website address, is a small family-owned business that made its reputation by producing the full-sized tripod head that bears the company name. Unlike a ball head, the Wimberley operates on the principle of a gimbal, allowing the lens to rotate on three independent axes. The head itself provides the pan and tilt axes with the lens collar providing the roll.
By positioning the lens such that its weight is balanced forward and aft, it can rest freely and seem almost weightless. Imagine the joy of being able to position a ten pound lens and camera where you want it with one finger. And having it stay where you point it when you let go. No more flopping. No more sagging.
The Wimberley Sidekick is a scaled down implementation of the same idea, but it works in conjunction with your existing ball head rather than in place of it. You position your ball head all into its drop notch, the way over to the side, and lock it down. The panning base on the ball head remains loosened and provides the panning axis of movement for the gimbal. The bottom of the Sidekick then drops down into the clamp on the ball head's quick release. A pivot on the Sidekick provides the tilt axis of movement. The tripod collar on the lens still provides the roll axis of movement.
So if Wimberley makes both, why am I writing this article about the Sidekick rather then the full sized Wimberley head? Well, for one thing, I get to write about what I want to here and at least for my needs the Sidekick is a better option than the full Wimberley. I shoot mainly landscape and general nature images rather than wildlife. While I do own a large lens, I don't use it all the time and it's only a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 AFS VR. There are definitely even bigger lenses. I used to have the Nikon 500mm f/4 AFS II and the Sidekick worked great with it as well, but a 600mm would have been too big for it.
Your needs may differ from mine of course. If you do mainly bird photography or other long lens wildlife work you'd do well to invest in a heavy duty tripod such as the new Gitzo GT5540LS (or its predecessor the G1548) and the full Wimberley head. But for me, the ability quickly switch between using the ball head on its own for most of my work but easily drop in the Sidekick to convert to it to a gimbal head gives me the best of both worlds. When I'm not using the Sidekick, it fits easily into my camera bag.
You do need to be somewhat more careful when using the Sidekick than when using the full Wimberley, but it shouldn't take you too long to get used to its operation. When assembled together with your ball head, you will have a plethora of knobs in front of you. You need to be sure you are loosening the right one when you make adjustments. In particular, the main locking knob on your ball head should not be touched once a lens is mounted atop your setup. Keeping this knob tightened is what allows the Sidekick and your ball head to function as one piece of equipment. You also need to be at least somewhat careful in mounting your lens to the Sidekick since it mounts on its side, directly at the gimbal pivot point. The full Wimberley has an additional arm that drops back down underneath the lens so it can mount right side up. I find the easiest method is to mount the Sidekick to the lens foot and then drop the two together into the ball head quick release. If you need to loosen the clamp on the Sidekick to rebalance your lens after adding a teleconverter or other accessory, do so only enough to allow the lens to slide forward and aft, not so much that it can come out of the clamp. None of these are serious concerns though if you exercise due care while using such a setup, as you should any time you are using an expensive lens.
On my Nikon 200-400mm AFS VR I have replaced the stock Nikon lens foot with Wimberley's AP553 foot since it both lowers the center of gravity for the lens and includes safety stop screws at both ends of its built in lens plate. Wimberley also makes a number of other accessories that work with the Arca-Swiss clamp system.
With a list price of $250, the Sidekick isn't cheap. But if you need it, it is well worth it. Before I bought one some years back, I can remember thinking there was no way I could justify such a purchase. After I got one though, it rapidly became one of the best investments I had made in my photography. Some things are like that. If you need one, you know who you are.
Update 01/27/2007 - Fourth Generation Designs makes some nice lightweight gimbal setups, both dedicated heads and ball head add-ons similar to the Sidekick. They also make a number of other nifty gizmos from aircraft aluminim that are worth checking out. And now that their website has finally been updated, you can find out all about them online.
Kirk Enterprises also makes a gimbal head as well, the King Cobra. Personally though, I've always preferred Wimberley. The Kirk is a dedicated head much as the full Wimberley is so you'd basically need a dedicated set of legs for it. But a lens mounts sideways on the King Cobra, just as it does for the Wimberley Sidekick. Thus, you'd have the lens safety concerns from the sideways mount without gaining in exchange the ease and flexibility of being able go back and forth between gimbal and ball head as you can with the Sidekick. Indeed, it's even worse than that. With the Sidekick, you can mount the gimbal to the lens foot before putting the combination into the clamp on your ball head, to my thinking a much easier (and safer) operation than holding the lens sideways with one hand while trying to tighten the Cobra clamp with the other.
Still more gimbal options are available from Jobu Designs.