Looking for the most solid, best quality, affordable tripod head for big collared lenses? Just get the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head.
For a very long time, Wimberley Gimbal Heads have been the gold standard tripod head for photographers supporting big lenses. The Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head represents a "much less is better" scenario. With less weight, less size, and less cost, the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head provides a more rigid mount than its already-impressive full gimbal sibling.
I referenced the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head in the Really Right Stuff PG-02 Pano-Gimbal Head review, supposing that it would be a more solid competitor to the higher-priced RRS head than the full gimbal model. Wimberley then sent me a WH-200-S for evaluation. My expectations were confirmed.
To begin to answer this question, let's get a definition of gimbal: "A gimbal is a pivoted support that allows the rotation of an object about a single axis." [Wikipedia] From a photography point of view, that object is a camera and lens combination, and the head part of the subject indicates that the gimbal is made to be mounted on a support, most typically a tripod or monopod.
Why use a gimbal head? Controlling a large lens mounted over a ball head or similar mount is difficult and risk-filled. Gravity is always trying to pull your top-heavy ball head-mounted camera and large lens setup to the ground while you fight to maintain control over the rig. "Ball flop" is a painful term derived from this experience going bad, typically involving a camera and lens inadvertently tipping over, impacting the tripod hard, and often knocking the entire tripod over, resulting in everything crashing to the ground. To answer a question that might have arisen, yes, this has happened to me. I caught a 500mm f/4 lens and Canon 1-Series body with my foot just before they hit the ground. The experience is scaring enough that a second occurrence does not happen.
A properly adjusted gimbal mount places the weight of the balanced camera and lens at (or below with a full gimbal) its pivot point with gravity not influencing the position of the rig. This setup leaves a heavy lens and camera body practically weightless to the photographer. Only two fingers are needed to orient even a pro body with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens.
Once leveled, always leveled. One of the benefits of two-way-adjustable gimbal heads is that when the tripod is level and the tripod collar is locked in a level vertical or horizontal position, the camera will always be level. This attribute frees this photographer to follow their subject, on the ground, flying, etc., without concern for levelness. A leveling base (or the UniqBall IQuick3Pod 40.4 Carbon Fiber Tripod) makes leveling the tripod considerably faster.
While gimbal mounts are practically requisite for large lenses, they work very well with smaller ones for the same reasons. Gimbal heads are a joy to use, especially when following an in-motion subject.
Military-grade is the first comment that comes to mind when describing the build quality of the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head. The one-piece cast aluminum chassis is ultra-heavy duty and seemingly indestructible. The textured matte finish reduces reflections and provides a sure grip, and the obstruction-free design makes the WH-200-S an excellent handle for moving and carrying a heavy setup.
The large, soft-grip rubberized panning base adjustment knob is comfortable to use and conveniently located. This knob connects via stainless steel parts, imparting a very smooth panning motion even when nearly fully tightened. A very firm twist is required to fully lock the panning motion.
The machined panning base is 1.93" (49.0mm) in diameter. Due to the hollowed interior of this base, the tripod or monopod top plate needs to have a diameter at least as large, which is not a problem on most tripods and monopods sized for larger lenses. A 3/8"-16 mounting stud is required, and a 3/8"-16 to 1/4"-20 reducer bushing enables compatibility with the other typical thread size.
The oversized, soft-grip (rubberized) tilt adjustment knob is quick-impacting and provides a very smooth adjustment even when nearly fully tightened.
Opposite this knob is a full-size Wimberley quick-release clamp. Being directly connected to the clamp, the lock knob rotates with the clamp as the lens is tilted, and if a hand is holding the knob in a fixed position (resting over the knob), the tightness adjusts slightly when the lens is pivoted up and down. The clamp's lock knob is machined aluminum. This knob requires about three full rotations to release a lens plate fully. While the lobed knob provides a firm grip, a round-shaped knob would better roll in the fingers when fully opening or tightening. I would like to see Wimberley release a lever release clamp.
The knobs are all captive, and the top two have center screws exposed for disassembly needs. All movements are extremely smooth.
The head can be used on the left side of the camera with my hand resting on the head, directing the setup. Alternatively, mounting the head on the right side of the lens clears the camera and lens for two-handed use, similar to handholding. Both options work very well.
Wimberley lists the capacity for this head at greater than 100 lbs (45 kg). I'm not surprised at this strength (I mentioned "military-grade"). There are few heads stronger than this one, and the WH-200-S is "Compatible with the largest lenses in the industry" [Wimberley]
At 10.7 x 8.0 x 2.5" (HxWxL) (27.2 x 20.3 x 6.4 cm), the overall dimensions are somewhat large.
At 2.3 lbs (1044 g), the weight is similar to a full-size ball head.
The generous limited 5-year warranty reflects this USA manufacturer's trust in the product.
You likely already determined that the WH-200-S is primarily meant for use with lenses that have tripod mount feet. For attachment to the clamp, tripod feet require an Arca Swiss-compatible dovetail, either built-in from the factory, added via a replacement foot (recommended – Wimberley's are great), or added via a lens plate.
Looking a bit industrial, the WH-200-S may not be the most elegant looking gimbal head on the market. However, the WH-200-S is practically unbeatable for performance.
On a solid retracted tripod (the Robus RC-8860 Vantage Series 5 Carbon Fiber Tripod was used for testing), strong impact vibrations to a 600mm f/4 lens settled completely in about 0.5 seconds. That is VERY impressive performance.
This extreme rigidity is not as important when gimbal mounts are being used with knobs loosened to enable tracking action, but sometimes completely locked down is important. For example, when photographing an owl sitting in a distant tree cavity on a windy day, the rigidity of the mount can make or break the shot.
Let's talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head vs. the Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head.
What are the advantages of the sidemount gimbal head?
Touching on the first sidemount advantage in that list, with fewer parts between the tripod and the lens, the sidemount head has reduced vibration dampening time. When mounted on the retracted Robus RC-8860 Vantage tripod, the difference in time to equalize the vibrations of a 600mm f/4 lens was 0.5 seconds. This vibration difference will not be of significance in most cases, including with moving subjects. Still, it could be a factor with more-stationary subjects (such as the moon) and when photographing in the wind.
The price difference is a noticeable $150.00 at review time. The weight difference, 2.3 vs. 3.1 lb (1.0 vs. 1.4 kg), is also noticeable.
OK, so what are the advantages of a full gimbal mount?
I'll let you make the first determination.
Because WH-200's arm is vertically fixed, perfect centered alignment of the lens over the panning base requires a precise distance from the lens collar's foot to be the optical axis. As a generalization, 300mm f/2.8 through 500mm f/4 lenses have close to the ideal distance, and 600mm f/4 lenses with low profile feet will align close to centered. That said, I've been using a couple of 600mm f/4 lenses on this head with not-so-low-profile feet resulting in a not precisely centered alignment. My take is that the non-centered-ness made little or no difference in perceived functionality.
Side mounting the camera (without a collared lens) requires an L-bracket for portrait orientation and minimally a base plate for vertical compositions, which results in the lock lever being positioned to the right of the camera (or the shutter release on the bottom). Cradle-mounting a camera body requires an RRS MPR-CL II, a Wimberley Perpendicular Plate, or similar along with, minimally, a camera base plate for horizontal composition and an L-plate for vertical composition. The MPR-CL II or similar is required to balance a camera-mounted setup. It will be front-heavy otherwise. That was a lot of words to say that the side-mount has an advantage for direct camera mounting, but it isn't a big one.
Did you purchase a Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head and regret not opting for the full gimbal version? The Wimberley CK-200 Full Gimbal Conversion Kit is what your need.
With either conversion kit, there is a choice — the benefits of both head versions available as desired.
The Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head does not ship with an included case. This head is relatively large and very hard; it should not come into contact with camera gear. The size and shape of this head means that it does not conveniently fit into many existing cases. I purchased the Wimberley Gimbal Head Pouch made my Lenscoat. This attractive cover is reasonably priced and offers good protection for and from the head.
As mentioned before, the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head used for this review was provided at no charge.
On a recent photo trip, the WH-200-S spent many hours supporting a 600mm f/4 lens and pro camera body just above the surface of the Chesapeake Bay. This head was perfect for catching the fast motion of the canvasback and widgeon ducks.
While not cheap, the WH-200-S is very reasonably priced for the value. This simply-designed, rock-solid lens support makes using even the largest lenses extremely easy. At review time, the Wimberley WH-200-S Sidemount Head is the only gimbal head remaining in my kit.
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