Jobu Design: Black Widow Gimbal Head
I'll say it before anything else - Jobu Design are a great organisation to deal with. Ian Gvozdek was helpful, friendly, honest and encouraging and I thank him. If only all suppliers or retailers were as pleasant, what a better place this world would be! Apart from being a very satisfied customer, I have no connection with Jobu Design.
The product is great too...
After acquiring a Canon 500mm f4 IS lens I really needed something to rest it on as handheld with that beast of a lens is not practical for long, or at least unless you have biceps like Popeye. I have a Manfrotto monopod, which is fine for moving around with, but staying put and waiting for a bird to land is not really the best approach. I have tried mounting the lens on top of a ballhead on my tripod, but adjusting the position with such weight and precarious balance simply doesn't feel right with many thousands' worth of camera and lens.
An alternative was called for, no more than a few days after starting to use the lens. After a little research I looked into the Wimberley heads and read as many reviews and other comments as I could find. This was the solution I was looking for, no question. I carried on the research and eventually came across Jobu Designs. To cut a long and frankly boring story short, I ended up in a short email dialog to order a Black Widow Gimbal (BWG) head for heavy lenses plus a lens plate for the Canon 500mm f4 lens. I decided to try the BWG for several reasons but four stand out:
- Price. The BWG and lens plate came to a total of $554 (plus $55 shipping to the UK from Canada, plus any import taxes). That's about £300 at the current exchange rate. The nearest equivalent Wimberley Head Mk II with lens plate and shipping from B&H would be about $726. That's a big difference and even allowing for possible import taxes I should save a few UK pounds. If I had bought the Wimberley Head from Warehouse Express in the UK it would cost £499 (yes, UK pounds) plus lens plate plus shipping!
- Reviews. There is always a risk in buying products from another country that are not seen as the "standard" product in its class. Reviews I found of the BWG had nothing but praise for the product, so minimising the risk that I would end up with an expensive piece of junk. I certainly have not received junk, exactly the opposite.
- Help. There is currently no UK dealer for the BWG so I had no option but to go to Jobu Design direct for help. The website is extremely good and told me everything I thought I needed to know to make the right purchasing decision. When it came to ordering I called Ian who could not have been more helpful.
- Product range. Whilst I did not feel I wanted extra bits to support flash at present, it was reassuring to know that such extra bits are available. However, I was more concerned that there was a selection of heads (there is) and lensplates (many and for a wide variety of lenses).
I ordered the BWG-HD and the Surefoot Grande lens plate designed to provide a top mount configuration with the big lens. The package arrived quickly (took 5 days including a weekend) and was in pristine condition.
First thing is to assemble the parts which means mounting the lens plate on the foot of the Canon lens. Allen keys are supplied for the job which takes just a few moments. Then the head itself needs fixing to the tripod. The longest part of this job was removing the existing head as I struggled to find a screwdriver that would fit the locking screws. That done, fixing the BWG head is easy. As is very clear from the instructions (which I did read) the locking screws must be tightened to ensure it does not fall apart when in use.
Then to attach the lens to the head. This rapidly gets easier with a little practice but the first time I tried I fumbled a bit to orientate things properly. There were no accidents, just a little nervousness. I then attached the camera (1Ds Mk3) to the lens and before I started to play I adjusted the lens plate to ensure the rig was balanced. This was quite easy and helped by the little bit of friction in the tilt axis introduced by the weight of the camera and lens. The dovetailed lens plate mount (the Arca-Swiss style) and the dead stop bolts means that it is difficult to let the lens drop off the head, but I must admit to a heart stopping moment the first time I realised I hadn't tightened the clamp fully! Once balanced and a double check to ensure the tripod bush setscrew and the lens plate clamp are tight it's time to get out there and get some photos.
(2008-6648) Jobu Design BWG supporting a Canon 500mm f4 IS lens and 1DsMk3
The components are beautifully machined and finished showing great care in their manufacture. The whole assembly is negligible in weight compared to the lens and camera but very strong. Good sized bolts are used rather than little things which would shear at the first bump. An impressive piece of kit. I've seen people carrying the whole rig, but I feel more comfortable carrying the lens by its foot and the tripod/head assembly separately. I should buy a small cushion to fix to your shoulder to rest the tripod on though!
My larger tripod is a Manfrotto 190PRO which has served me very well for landscapes. However, even with the middle column extended it does not allow me to keep the viewfinder at eye level when using the BWG. It should also be noted that when using a tripod with this head (as it the case with the Wimberley Head) it is not really something you will want to keep changing. I would recommend that the head is left permanently on the tripod. Given this and the fact that I do not think the 190 is tall enough, I plan on purchasing a new taller tripod, probably a Gitzo carbon fibre model.
It's quite remarkable being able to freely move the big lens around with very little effort. The whole rig rotates very freely (I can spin the whole thing round and round, but I worry about crashing into something or someone) and tilts up and down easily. As noted above, there's a useful bit of friction on the tilt axis which means the lens will stay at whatever angle it is at without having to clamp in place (assuming it is balanced properly). Which of course means that tracking wildlife becomes much easier. At least there's one less thing to worry about. The clamping knobs are a good size and easy to use with gloved hands and there's a locking knob on the horizontal axis to keep the thing from moving when carrying it or mounting the lens.
One aspect I completely overlooked when doing my initial research was moving from a landscape to portrait format when taking the picture! The rotating collar on the Canon lens fortunately takes care of this nicely but alternative mounting brackets are available if needed. These will not replicate the rotating lens collar and expediency however.
I have taken the rig out a good few times now and have found it great to use to the extent that it becomes unnoticeable. It doesn't interfere with taking photographs, which for me is just perfect. Of course it is noticed when transporting from the car to site and I wouldn't really want to carry it for miles up and down mountains. At the time of writing this I haven't yet replaced the tripod but must do as stooping for long periods to gaze through the camera viewfinder makes my creaking middle aged back hurt!
I am absolutely delighted with this head. Unless I think about it the BWG is invisible. It just works and works well. I think it is very good value and have no hesitation whatsoever is recommending this gimbal head. As mentioned above, dealing with Jobu Design couldn't have been more pleasant either.