For many photographers the weight of the equipment they have to carry can be a problem and this is especially true of wildlife photographers who often carry a wide variety of lenses and a spare camera body.
In the past if I leave home with my Canon 500mm f4 or 300mm f 2.8 in my bag then my camera support would nearly always be my 3 series carbon fibre Gitzo tridod and my Wimberley MkII gimbal head which I find a little on the heavy side if I have to walk very far. When I really need to travel light I often take my Canon 300mm f2.8 plus extenders which I mount on a 2 series Gitzo carbon fibre tripod and Gitzo GH2781 ball head. I have however never been happy with the later combination as in use I frequently find the ball head ends up leaning over to one side which I have to compensate for by turning the camera and lens using the lens tripod collar and your entire set up ends up hopelessly off balance and increasingly more difficult to use. You then have to stop what you are doing and straighten everything up.
For me Acratech have just helped with these problems with their Long Lens Head – you could argue it is the only tripod head you will ever need being almost at home with a 600mm f4 mounted on it as a 100mm macro. I watched the impressive Acratech Long Lens Head tutorial but questioned would it be rigid enough for me with my 500mm f4 mounted on it. Fortunately a friend and his wife decided to purchase one each so I got to try it before I purchased it. The first thing I noticed was how light and well made it was being precision CNC machined out of aircraft quality aluminium. I tested the head using my Canon 1D Mk1V plus 500mm f4 + x1.4 extender mounted on both my 2 and 3 series Gitzo tripods. As you would expect the 3 series felt a little more rigid but in practice there was little to choose between them and when comparing the results between the Acratech Long Lens Head and my Wimberley MkII again there was little to choose between them. In use the Wimberley is more user friendly due to the gimbal design which balances the head perfectly making it virtually weightless at any camera angle and if you forget to tighten the locking knob it will not fall forward. In contrast although you can fine balance the Acratech and use the tension knob if you move the camera and lens too far off of it’s central axis (particularly long telephotos) it will fall forward or backward if you forget to tighten the locking knob. This would apply to almost any non gimbal type head. However in use when you have hold of your camera and lens and are tracking moving objects (in my case birds) I found it smooth, easy to use and almost the equal of my Wimberley.
Will it replace my Wimberley, in short no, but when travelling abroad or whenever my long lenses are likely to be on my back for more than 20 minutes my camera and lens support will be my Acratech Long Lens Head and 2 series Gitzo tripod. This combination is very compact, some 1.26kg (3.4lbs) lighter and most importantly solid enough that I do not have to worry about unsharp images as a result of poor camera support.
Up until now I haven’t really spoken about how versatile this head is compared with the Wimberley which is designed for camera lens combinations where the lens has a tripod collar. You can however use the Acratech Long Lens Head with any camera lens combination and the only application I have found when it doesn’t out perform even a ball head is when the camera is mounted directly onto the head and you need to level the horizon. For me this is not a problem as this is not likely to be an action shot and you will have time to adjust the horizon using the tripod legs. Alternatively you might consider purchasing the Acratech Leveling Base. For use with macro lenses the Long Lens Head is the perfect partner and I much prefer my Canon 180mm macro on this head than my old Gitzo ball head.
In brief the Acratech Long lens Head pretty much does what it ‘says on the tin’ – I love it and would highly recommend it for the reasons given.
The Acratech Long Lens Head uses the widely available Arca Swiss style lens and camera plates. Acratechs own lens plates appear not to be available in the UK although you can purchase their camera plates which are competitively priced. This is not a problem as I have both Wimberley and Arca Swiss lens plates and they fit just fine. I have recently purchased 2 Benro Arca Swiss style plates and quite frankly the only difference I can see is the Benro are less than half the price of the Wimberley.
Tip: When using the Acratech Long Lens Head with large telephoto lenses if you roll up a piece of high impact foam or similar material and push it through the opening below the mounting plate with an inch or so protruding out of either side – if you then forget to lock the lens head and it falls forward or back this will cushion it’s stop and prevent it from hitting the tripod leg.