I wanted to write this post because I wish it’s something I’d have read myself a few years ago when I started getting into wildlife photography. The answer to the question “What is the best photography beanbag fill?” seems obvious to me now with experience, but for a while I was getting it all wrong!
What is a photography beanbag for?
I’m sure there will be a few people who are unfamiliar with the usage of a beanbag in photography, so let’s start with a brief overview. Beanbags take two main forms: The first is a U-shaped bag that sits over your car door when the window is down. It provides you with a somewhat mouldable platform on which to rest your camera and lens. Usually this kind of setup is used for wildlife photography, so the bags are generally quite large so that they can accommodate lenses like a 500mm or a 600mm. Sometimes these u-shaped bags have a metal plate on the top of them so that a ballhead or gimbal can be attached.
The second kind of bag is a bit less common, but these take on a variety of different forms that are a bit more mouldable in shape so that they can conform to shapes other than a car door. Often they are used on the hood of a car, or lying on the ground. Some of the u-shaped bags are also suitable for this too, and therefore a bit more universal which explains their more prolific usage. The second kind of beanbag is also used for weighting down lighstands and tripods.
What to fill them with?
When I got my first u-shaped photography beanbag I filled it with rice, and this was a mistake. Rice is far too dense and heavy. In a pinch, it works, but it’s not that easy to adjust the shape of the bag to conform with your camera. If you are travelling on safari with a beanbag, you’ll be removing the fill before you travel, and purchasing something on location. In certain places rice might be your only option, but hopefully you can find something else! I do still use rice in my smaller bags that are designed for weighing down lightstands, where the density does makes sense!
In my main wildlife photography beanbag, a LensCoat LensSack Jr, I now use buckwheat hulls for the fill. This is substantially lighter then rice, and their more irregular shape prevents the whole setup from hardening up too much and becoming tough to conform. I can’t tell you just how much nicer this setup is to use than when I was using rice. I really feel like a dumbass for persevering with the rice for so long, so that’s why I’m writing this post!
Another option is to use styrofoam balls, although this has some environmental concerns which I’m not comfortable with myself. On the more natural side of things, sunflower seeds (bird feed) are also a popular option. They sit somewhere between the rice and buckwheat hulls in terms of weight and density.
I got my buckwheat hulls in a 2lb bag from Amazon and it was enough to fill a small-medium sized u-shaped bag. There are many different sizes of beanbag though, with many different volumes. I’ve definitely seen some, like the large Apex Beanbag, that would require more than 2lbs of buckwheat hulls to fill them. Thankfully you can get anything up to about 10lbs of them in a single bag from good old Amazon.
I know a lot of you shop online at B&H Photo, as I do too, and they actually stock buckwheat hulls in bags of various sizes from brands like Tamrac and Kenisis. In fact, if you want to keep things really simple, they’ll even sell you a pre-filled Kenisis Safarisack!