Although the weight of new cameras and telephoto lenses has mostly decreased in recent years, I still recommend using a tripod to support long lenses for wildlife photography. An essential part of any tripod kit is a good quality head. Today, I will review the LensMaster RH-2 gimbal head, which I use for wildlife photography.
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Choosing a Tripod Head for Wildlife Photography
The setting Colombian sun stroked the tops of the tallest trees of the tropical forest in the Río Claro valley. All day, my eyes scanned the green thickets for their hidden avian inhabitants. A photo backpack weighed on my back. I had my Nikon D500 with flash, teleconverter, and a 400mm f/2.8, attached to a monopod via a ball head.
On a muddy path, my foot slipped, and I fell headlong into a river-washed ravine. Fortunately, the benevolent vegetation caught me in its gentle embrace, and I was left hanging upside down in the lianas like a gigantic, clumsy butterfly caught in a spider’s web.
But what happened to my camera? I doubted that it was as lucky as I was. After reorienting myself, I couldn’t believe my eyes – the monopod with the camera attached was stuck in the soft soil at the edge of the ravine!
Unfortunately, the fall caused the ball head to become stuck in place; it wouldn’t move or loosen at all. Although I consider myself to be a pretty skillful mechanic, I couldn’t loosen the head with my Swiss Army knife. How fortunate that this was our last day in the Colombian field after three weeks of daily photography.
I knew I needed to replace the tripod head when I got home, but I wasn’t thrilled about buying the same one again. If this had happened on one of the first days of my trip, the entire excursion could have been much more difficult. So, I started looking around for newer, more reliable tripod head. I considered another ball head, a video head, and lastly, a gimbal head.
The ball head is currently the most common tripod head for shorter focal lengths. It allows fast and precise adjustment of the frame in all directions. On most ball heads, a single locking mechanism fixes the camera movement in all axes at once.
Although there are certainly some ball heads that would be very usable for heavy telephoto lenses (such as the RRS BH-55), they are not ideal for wildlife photography.
In my experience, a ball head is either in the “loose” position or the “locked” position. That’s fine for something like landscapes. However, for wildlife photography, I’d like to move the camera smoothly and freely – yet let go and have the camera stay in place without any slipping. Even on ball heads with good friction controls, I have yet to find this to be possible, at least not when using heavy supertelephoto lenses.
Plus, my earlier experiment with the ball head hadn’t ended well. I didn’t want to run into another situation where the ball head froze, or worse yet, where the head slipped and damaged my equipment if I didn’t tighten it down enough. I’d have to shoot the rest of the expedition only on my phone, which is not an ideal choice for wildlife photography. Believe me, I’ve tried.
The next option was the video fluid head. Many photographers use them for telephoto work and would swear by them. The advantage of fluid video heads is the buttery smoothness in both horizontal and vertical axes. This feature is not only appreciated by filmmakers, but also by nature photographers when tracking moving subjects.
A big advantage over ball heads is the ability to adjust the counterbalance. The counterbalance system on fluid heads is there to prevent the catastrophe of your camera tilting over rapidly and falling.
When properly adjusted, the counterbalance will keep your camera at the tilt you left it in, and it can even return it to the horizontal position. It is a great solution and I totally understand why this type of head is so popular among telephoto lens users.
But what deterred me from buying a fluid video head was the weight. Most of the models that can handle long lenses are heavier than the actual carbon fiber tripod I use—too heavy for a lot of air travel.
Could the third option be the charm with a gimbal head? Their design can be likened to a child’s swing. The stability point is at the lowest position of the “swing”. Gravity is therefore an ally, not a malicious villain sending precious gear to the ground at an unguarded moment.
On a gimbal, if you balance the camera properly in the front-to-back direction, it will stay tilted at the angle you leave it, and this is without any locking.
Moreover, thanks to the bearings on the horizontal and vertical axes, even very heavy gear is handled with ease. I verified this with my son, whom I left in the bird hide with camera on a gimbal head. Although the tripod and camera represented about half of his body weight, he managed to track even very agile songbirds near the feeder.
Compared to video heads, gimbal heads are lighter. For aluminum alloy models, about 1.5 kilos / 3.3 pounds is common. Carbon fiber models are typically one kilogram / 2.2 pounds. This isn’t much heavier than a ball head of similar load capacity.
In short, you can probably see why gimbal heads are so popular among wildlife photographers. I went with a gimbal here – specifically the LensMaster RH-2 – which I’ll cover in detail next.
The LensMaster RH-2 Gimbal Head
Apart from function, the serviceability of my equipment in the field is also important to me. That’s one reason why I was especially interested in the brand LensMaster and its RH-2 gimbal head.
- Height: 250mm (9.75 inches)
- Width: 220mm (8.75 inches)
- Depth: 60mm (2.25 inches)
- Weight: 1.19kg (2.62 lbs)
- Max Static Load: 45kg (100 lbs)
If you don’t know this garage-based company, no wonder. It was founded by avid birder and photographer Robert Hardy, who handcrafts his heads in quantities far lower than those of mass production.
LensMaster heads have a combination of a sparse appearance mixed with durability and functionality. Rob currently sells two tripod heads and one monopod head. All of them are designed to work with long lenses or heavy spotting scopes.
The RH-2 has a static load capacity of 45 kg (100 lb). This provides plenty of room for the occasional rough handling that you often can’t avoid in the field. It weighs 1.19kg (2.62lb) and costs a relatively low £187.95 (British Pounds, as it’s a British company). Rob ships the LensMaster tripod heads worldwide. If you’re in the US, for example, the cost with current exchange rates is about $230 USD, plus $30 for international shipping.
There is a key difference between LensMaster heads and virtually all other heads on the market. The rotation of the two arms and the panoramic movement is provided by axial needle roller bearings that are are completely exposed to moisture and dirt, whereas other manufacturers use sealed bearings.
LensMaster’s unsealed roller bearings look like this:
The sealed bearings found on other gimbals work well, but no seal is perfect. Thus, it’s only a matter of time before dirt gets inside the seal.
If you frequently expose your tripod to mud, sand, or use it directly in water, you’ll probably find that over time, the movement of the head is no longer as smooth as when you bought it. (Of course, bearings can be replaced by a service center so that the head will work like new again, but that’s not usually going to be feasible to do yourself or do in the field.)
By comparison, when the LensMaster head gets dirty, it takes a few turns of the tightening screw to separate the arms. Then the bearings need only be washed in warm soapy water, dried with a cloth, and coated with a little vaseline before reassembling the head. This takes a few minutes and doesn’t cost a cent. If the bearings need to be replaced, you can do it yourself without any tools.
What are the downsides of the LensMaster Gimbal? Both pivots, panoramic and vertical, show a slight play, which causes a minor change in the angle of view when moving from the released to the locked position. In other words, the camera moves slightly when the head is tightened or released.
I don’t find this to be a problem for wildlife photography, because the need to fix the camera precisely and firmly does not occur very often in my experience. However, photographers who are hoping this head will double for landscapes or architecture may not be as happy.
On the RH-2, you can control the friction of the two axes with two large, rubberized wheels that have internal threads made of brass. The solid wheels are easy to handle even in wet conditions or with gloves.
If they are accidentally damaged (by a tumble in the Colombian tropical forest, for example), you can replace them temporarily with a wing nut. Just rememeber that the thread type must conform to the Whitworth standard, not the metric one as is usual in continental Europe. LensMaster also provides service, including spare parts.
On the LensMaster RH-2, the camera mounts to the gimbal with a standard Arca-Swiss plate. Securing the plate is done with a screw, which is functional but not very fast. Here, I would welcome some sort of quick-release lever with a lock against accidental release.
Moreover, when carrying the tripod on one’s shoulder, the screw presses uncomfortably on the trapezius muscle in some positions. (Granted, those of you who have ever carried a ten-kilo tripod and camera over your shoulder will probably agree with that there is no comfortable way to do so.)
The head attaches to the tripod with a standard 3/8″ screw. This is machined in a steel axle, set into a solid disc of high-density polyethylene, a material that is lightweight but very tough. This assembly forms the base, which rests on the tripod plate. The disc is knurled for easier tightening to the tripod.
The manufacturer offers its heads in two colors. The classic black and a silver grey one with black vein. The latter color matches the pattern on Gitzo tripods.
If you shoot with lenses longer than 400mm, you’ll want the benefits of a head that was specifically designed for long and heavy lenses. In that case, I recommend a gimbal head, and the LensMaster RH-2 may be a great choice for you.
Compared to other gimbal heads, the RH-2 is neither the prettiest nor the lightest, but what definitely impressed me is its sheer strength and reliability in all conditions. Also, compared to other heads, you can find spare parts for it in almost every hardware store in the world.
In addition, you can have the warm feeling that you are using a product that not many photographers use. The RH-2 is a product that is not mass produced by nameless manufacturers, but rather handmade in North East Lincolnshire by birder and photographer Rob Hardy.
Where to Buy
At the moment, you can only buy the LensMaster tripod new from Robert Hardy’s official website, lensmaster.co.uk. The USA sales page is here. Cost is £187.95 including shipping in the UK, and an extra £25 to ship to the United States (again, for a total of about $260 USD with today’s exchange rates).
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about this gimbal or this review!
Lensmaster RH-2 Gimbal Head
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
- Ease of Use
Photography Life Overall Rating
It‘s nice to be able to service some parts, but sealed bearings don‘t require any attention. 2R is the designation for seals that are water- and even dustproof as specified by industrial use.
The difference is similar to consumer and pro grade cameras.
Industrial sealed bearings have to run 10 hour cycles for a minimum of 8 years.
In exceptional cases, like damaged seals, they can be treated as described in the review.
It’s worth mentioning that Robert will even make a custom version if you ask nicely.
Many thanks – was glad to find your excellent review.
I am in the Uk and stumbled across the RH-2 and am very glad I did.
I use it with an old Gitzo 3530 6x carbon tripod, D500 and (again) old Sigma 120-300 2.8 OS + 1.4TC mounted.
The gimbal head is very strong, well engineered and smooth in operation – I like it a lot.
Also – after discovering the freedom of using a Gimbal head on a monopod, (thanks to Steve Perry – try it if you haven’t), I discovered that Robert of LensMaster also makes a Mono Gimbal head – similar to The Wimberly MH-100.
This is known as the LensMaster M2. Interesting to me as it looks very well made great value and importantly – the side mount is closer to the centre of the monopod than the Wimberly – which should in theory anyway -feel more stable as its less offset.
Suffice to say I am exited to purchase and try this out as a light weight option with monopod compared to full tripod/gimbal
I intend to use this option when simply out with camera in an opportunistic, wildlife spotting kinda way.
Robert will be in receipt of my order next week and I therefore hope to be happily using the set up very soon!
Glad you enjoyed the review, Andy. I also use the head on my monopod if I take it with me. I last used this combination in Ecuador on an Umbrellabird and it worked great. I was looking at the LensMaster M2 too, but it would have been a second, plus quite specialized head, hence the (mostly) unnecessary extra weight.
Thanks for the reply Libor, I think personally the M2 might be more suited to my use here in the UK. Just out of interest do you run any workshops? Many thanks
That’s a great question Andy, which will soon be answered in my post here on Photography Life. For now, I’ll just say YES I do. You’ll be able to read the details maybe this week. Have a nice day.
I have this and have used a plate that allows the front of my long lens to rest on the front. It works pretty well.
Having been through several gimbal heads over the years, I now use what I suspect is the best made head – the GimPro version from South Africa. CNC machined and finished with aerospace grade sealed bearings, in my first hand experience it outperforms the RRS head, the Wimberley head and even the ProMediaGear head. I travel a great deal for my photography and just wanted a well engineered, stable, smooth and weather resistant head that I could set up with a 400/600/800mm lens and forget about. Obviously it can be mounted on a tripod head but critically it can be mounted vertically or horizontally on safari vehicles and in hides. You can add extension arms to increase the radius of the swing of the head (recommended for tracking hunts on safari) and even have a head that carries two lenses at once. Whilst I appreciate where the author is coming from in this particular article, if you are looking for the best gimbal head then take a look at them: www.gimprogear.com/products
The GimPro heads certainly look interesting. Especially the one that comes with the boat chair. I saw something like that in Chobe Africa. The head reviewed certainly doesn’t aspire to the title of best head ever, but if you include its price in the equation, I think it’s a great choice.
I used the Manfrotto 393 for five years and found it quite good. The slight play in the bottom bearing was the issue in that marred it’s usefulness and I decided to move to a Wimberley sidemount for the tripod after finding out how smoothly the monogimbal worked on a monopod. Using the monogimbal on a Gitzo monopod (GM4532)with the Bigfoot base was delightfully smooth for panning. I use the sidemount on a tripod and mounting it is the same process as the monogimbal by Wimberley. The small rubber Bigfoot pivot point is extremely simple to clean out if mud gets in it.
Using a gimbal for bird photography on rugged trails produces excellent results.
From the looks of the RH2 looks very much like half a 393. It looks like a good compromise solution. You may find that the Wimberley Monogimbal worth a close look as well.
Great photos by the way. I have photographed the Black Mandibled Toucan in Costa Rica and your photo brings back memories of those trips.
There is without doubt a movement that can be detected in the Panning Bearing at the Base of the 393.
I have once or twice thought about Perforating the Metal to lighten the Gimbal, as well as, stripping the base bearing, with the intention to discover if alternative parts can be selected and improve on the interface as well.
This design with reduced weight and improved rigidity at the Base Bearing Interface, would be a very nice robust piece of kit.
The slightest of panning that has been reported when locking the Base/Panning Bearing, has never shown to be an issue for myself, as I usually track moving subjects.
I am quite happy to say that the mechanical interfaces have not been responsible for causing issues with taking images, as it does take a reasonable amount of applied pressure to to the Gimbal to force the movement to become noticeable.
I think some play is inevitable with a flat needle bearing that’s clamped to tighten. When its loosened enough to rotate, play will be present. Tapered rollers, ball bearings with axial thrust, and cup and cone bearings, all have an advantage that they can be loosened just a tiny bit without introducing play (which is why bicycles traditionally use cups and cones). I’m guessing you won’t be able to do much with this design unless you can ill out the base for a different kind of bearing that includes more radial bearing surface.
I am coming away from the type of equipment that begs for a Gimbal Head to be a consistent item taken out during trips.
I have used a Two Arm Manfrotto 393 for many years, as I have not had a great deal of trust in other designs, even though some of these designs do look the part.
This type of Gimple has a weight that in not unattractive, and is seemingly robust through the materials used the method used for the construction.
It might become my lighter weight model Gimbal, to be used at the times that require a Gimbal, I can’t see any reason for it not to supersede the 393.
It looks like a nice simple design, but the one thing I would worry about is vibration. Not likely a problem when chasing wildlife, but I’ve found that even sturdy tripods and heads can have sympathetic vibrations, and I wonder if the flat material might have that issue, as even though it’s thick, it looks a little springy.
Nonetheless, it looks like an interesting design, easier and cheaper to make than the usual castings,
I’m not quite sure I understand Mark B’s issue with balancing the lens. The gimbal has the usual Arca-Swiss type mount, and if the lens has a long enough plate, it should be possible to balance. I have a home-made gimbal modeled after a Wimberly Side-kick, and another modeled after a Wimberly Mono-gimbal, and find that it’s quite easy to find a balance point even on the Nikon 200-500 zoom, if I mark the points on the mount.
I’m dangerous around machinery, so I might have to see about making a gimbal of this sort, but I’ve hesitated up to this point because I prefer to carry only the one tripod, and for that the Sidekick style has an advantage.
Another downside that was not mentioned is that there is no way to center the weight of the lens on the mount as there is with many gimbals. So I presume that the lens does not stay where you have it aimed if you let go of the camera unless you tighten down the mount.
The truth is Mark, the “swing” arm does not allow for height adjustment. Personally, however, I don’t consider this an issue. On the contrary. The head is more reliable and lighter. When I put the lens in the center of gravity, it doesn’t tilt even with the head loose.
I got another one: Neewer Professional Heavy Duty Metal 360 Degree Panoramic Gimbal Tripod Head with Standard 1/4” Quick Release Plate and Bubble Level for DSLR Cameras up to 30lbs/13.6kg
It was very stiff, unusable, but on youtube someone described how to open it up, remove the sticky grease and replace it with a silicone based grease. It was a little project but it turned out just fine. Very happy with it.
That’s great, Roel, that you were able to fix your head. The beauty of the reviewed head is that even without the youtube tutorial, I would trust my 9 year old son to service it.