A gimbal tripod head allows you to perfectly balance the weight of your camera and a telephoto lens so that it can be effortlessly moved vertically and horizontally while photographing wildlife. With a perfectly balanced gimbal, even the heaviest setups, such as a 600mm lens and pro-sized camera body, can be moved with only your pinky finger.
A camera mounted to a gimbal tripod head is always ready to go because you can take your hands off it without locking any of the controls. When the action starts, you need only grab the camera and spin it quickly towards your subject, saving precious seconds that might make the difference between getting the shot or not.
Gimbal tripod heads come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In this gear guide, we’ll examine the top options on the market today at various price points, and I’ll make recommendations for the one that will best suit your photography.
Table of Contents
- In a Hurry? My Top Pick
- Photography Gimbal Vs. Video Gimbal
- Side Mount vs Cradle Mount Gimbals
- Best Gimbal Tripod Heads
- Protecting Your Gimbal
- Use Your Gimbal With a Skimmer
In a Hurry?
If you’re in a hurry and need a quick solution, you can’t go wrong with the exceptional GKJr Katana Pro gimbal from ProMediaGear. This is an incredibly lightweight gimbal (2.4lbs), yet it will easily hold any size of telephoto lens and maintain perfectly smooth motion. This gimbal’s weight-to-performance ratio is unmatched, making it an easy recommendation that will suit most people’s needs. I’d recommend buying directly from ProMediaGear to get free US shipping or very reasonable international shipping rates.
Photography Gimbal Vs. Video Gimbal – NOT the same!
Googling the word ‘gimbal’ can be confusing because you’ll get mixed results talking about photo and video gimbals. If this is your first gimbal purchase, you don’t want to get the two confused. Even if you search ‘gimbal’ on B&H Photo, you will see many video gimbals in the search results. To help you, the better search term is ‘tripod gimbal‘ because video gimbals are not designed to go on a tripod. In contrast, photography gimbals are exclusively intended to go on tripods.
A photography gimbal – what we are discussing in this guide – doesn’t have any electronic parts. It’s designed to be put onto a tripod, where you can manually balance it to hold your camera and a telephoto lens without needing to lock the tilt or pan axis.
A video gimbal is a stabilizer to hold your camera level while you move it around. It contains motors, rotating gyros and a ton of electronic wizardry designed to resist the inertia of your camera while you move. Video gimbals are designed to work hand-held or sometimes attached to a moving vehicle.
TLDR; if you are shooting photos, do not buy a video gimbal from DJI, Zhiyun-Tech or any other similar product. If you are shooting video, only buy a video gimbal if you want to move around with the camera. If you’re going to shoot a video of wildlife with a long lens from a static tripod position, use a photo gimbal with a fluid cartridge or a video fluid head.
Gimbal Heads: Side Mount Vs. Cradle Mount
Gimbal heads come in two different mount styles, and it’s essential to understand their pros and cons when deciding which suits you. Some manufacturers offer both mount styles for the same gimbal so that you can get precisely what you want; for example, the ProMediaGear GKJr Katana Pro is available with either a side mount or a cradle mount, as are the Wimberley WH-200 and the RRS PG-02. Some gimbals, such as the Sirui PH-20 and the Fotopro Eagle E-6H, include everything you need in the box to switch between the two mounting styles.
The more traditional style is definitely the cradle mount, where the foot of the lens is mounted on an L-shape arm that comes down from the vertical pivot point and cradles the lens foot underneath the lens. The side mount style of gimbal does away with the L-shaped cradle and puts a clamp directly on the vertical pivot. This means the lens foot is 90 degrees off from where it is with the cradle mount.
What’s the difference between the cradle and the side mount?
Gimbals with a cradle mount are heavier, bulkier and usually more expensive than a side mount version of the same head. Still, a cradle mount is easier when mounting a heavy lens to a gimbal because gravity is on your side. The cradle can support the weight of the lens while you tighten the quick-release clamp. With a side mount gimbal, you must support the camera and lens with one hand while tightening the clamp with your other hand. It’s fair to say that there is slightly more potential for an expensive accident when mounting a camera to a side mount gimbal. Still, I almost always opt for the side mount to save some weight in my bag.
From a functional point of view, there is also a slight difference that many people are unaware of. When a side mount gimbal is perfectly balanced, letting go of your camera will return it to a horizontal position. When a cradle mount gimbal is perfectly balanced, both in the fore/aft position and in the up/down part of the cradle, letting go of your camera will do nothing. The camera will perfectly maintain its position at whatever angle you leave it.
In the latter case, with the full cradle, there might be some situations where it is beneficial to leave your gimbal unlocked but pointing upwards or downwards. Perhaps towards an animal’s nest or den. Maybe this tiny time saver, not having to reposition your camera a few degrees, might make the difference between getting a shot or not when the subject finally appears. Is that possibility worth the extra gimbal weight? Or does it mean you should, at least, consider a gimbal that has the option to swap between the two types of mounts?
I’d take the lighter weight option nine times out of ten, but your opinion might be different. As I get older, my confidence in one-handing a 600mm lens into a side mount gimbal without dropping it will likely lessen, too. And, should I develop arthritis in my hand or fingers, I’m sure the easier mounting of the cradle gimbal will suddenly seem more appealing on a cold morning.
The Best Gimbal Tripod Heads
This table shows you the list of products that I’m going to be reviewing further in this guide. I didn’t choose these products blindly, so if it made it as far as being included in this gear guide at all then it has already shown some merit. If you don’t have time to read the in-depth guide then these links might save you some time.
|ProMediaGear GKJr Katana Pro – #1 Choice||ProMediaGear / B&H / Amazon / Adorama||Free US shipping direct from ProMediaGear. International shipping is available.|
|ProMediaGear GKJr Katana Pro Side Mount||ProMediaGear / B&H / Amazon / Adorama||Free US shipping direct from ProMediaGear. International shipping is available.|
|ProMediaGear GT2 Tomahawk||ProMediaGear / B&H / Amazon / Adorama||Convert your ball head into a gimbal. Free US shipping direct from ProMediaGear. International shipping is available.|
|Fotopro Eagle E-6H||Amazon / B&H / Adorama|
|Really Right Stuff PG-02 – Highly Recommended||B&H||Currently out of production.*1|
|Really Right Stuff FG-02 – Best for video||B&H||Currently out of production.*1|
|Gitzo GHFG1 Fluid Gimbal||Amazon / B&H / Adorama / WEX / DigiDirect (Aus)|
|Wimberley WH-200||Amazon / B&H / Adorama / WEX|
|Wimberley Sidekick||Amazon / B&H / Adorama|
|Wimberley MH-100 MonoGimbal||Amazon / B&H / Adorama / WEX||A gimbal for your monopod!|
|Oben GH-30||Amazon / B&H /|
|Induro GHB1||Amazon / B&H / Adorama|
|Benro GH5C||Amazon / B&H / Adorama|
|Sirui PH-20||Sirui / Amazon / B&H / Adorama||Save 5% on the PH-20 by using the discount code SHUTTERMUSE on the Sirui web store.|
|Magnus GH-M1 – Low budget option||B&H Photo|
*1 RRS Gimbal Stock Notice – The Really Right Stuff PG-02 and FG-02 RRS gimbals are currently out of production and have been for a while. RRS has said they are redesigning them, but this was first mentioned over two years ago, and there is still no sign of a replacement. It is unusual to discontinue a product while an update is being designed. The existing gimbals were already best-in-class products, so why not continue to sell them in the meantime? I don’t have an answer.
In recent years, getting a hold of many RRS products has become tough. Most tripods and tripod heads are perpetually out of stock. Although I love RRS products, I have to say that these days, if you need something soon, say, for an upcoming photography trip, you should not hold your breath and hope it will become available. It is best to buy one of the other in-stock gimbals on this list. It is anyone’s guess when, or even if, we will see an update to the RRS gimbals become available. If it happens, which I hope it does, you can be sure I will buy them, test them and update this guide.
ProMediaGear GKJr. Katana Pro Gimbal
At only 2.4lbs (1.08kg), the GKJr Katana Pro gimbal from ProMediaGear is one of the lightest gimbals on the market despite being made from aluminium and not carbon fibre. As you can see from the photos, this is achieved by machining a skeleton-like structure out of a solid block of aluminium. Despite the weight-saving design, the Katana Jr. gives up nothing as far as support stability is concerned. This head will easily hold the biggest lenses on the market, such as 600mm or 800mm. Equally, it’s at home when paired with much lighter options such as the Sony 200-600mm lens seen in the photos or a 100-400mm.
Not only is the GKJr Katana Pro light, but it’s also relatively compact compared to heads like the Wimberley WH-200 or the Gitzo Fluid Gimbal. If you opt for the cradle mount version, the cradle is easily removed from the head to help pack it into your bag. For ultimate portability, the side mount version of the head drops the weight down even further to 1.8lbs.
This gimbal is a personal favourite because the weight-to-stability ratio is unmatched by any other gimbal on this list. If you’re someone that travels with your gear or wants to carry both a gimbal and a ball head, then weight and packability are always a concern. It easily manages heavy loads, and the smoothness of the bearings in the pan and tilt mechanisms matches the other top gimbals on the market.
ProMediaGear GT2 Tomahawk
The ProMediaGear GT2 Tomahawk is best described as half a gimbal. Comparing the Tomahawk to the GKJr. Katana Pro, you can see it closely resembles the vertical part of that gimbal, using the same clamp and bearings. The dovetails on the bottom of the Tomahawk allow you to clamp it onto a ball head, thus using the ball head’s panning base for the gimbal rotation.
Wimberley first developed the half gimbal concept with their Sidekick model. ProMediaGear has taken this concept further by adding 1/4″ 20 and 3/8″ 16 female threads that allow the Tomahawk to be used on top of a monopod. This ingenious design can negate the need to carry a separate monopod head or a full-sized tripod gimbal if you are already travelling with a ball head.
Fotopro Eagle E-6H
Fotopro is a Chinese manufacturer that has a broad portfolio of support products. Unlike most companies, they haven’t chosen a pricing sector of the market to concentrate on. Instead, they manufacture everything from sub-$200 tripods up to $1400 tripods. This is a very different way of doing things. Imagine if Gitzo or Really Right Stuff made sub-$200 tripods and their top-of-the-line offerings, or if Ferrari made a cheap 4-door sedan?
I don’t think this approach helps people’s perception of the brand’s products, but I’m here to tell you that their high-end Eagle Series products are the real deal, and any qualms should be put aside. The Fotopro E-6H is an excellent gimbal head and deserves your consideration, with some weight capacity caveats.
The E-6H gimbal is tiny. It’s roughly half the size of any of the other gimbals in this guide, and it’s easily the lightest at 911g with the cradle or a mere 700g in side mount mode. Despite its small size, it has some of the smoothest pan and tilt motions of any gimbal in this guide. It’s so smooth that I had to ask Fotopro if it used fluid cartridges because it’s smoother than the Gitzo Fluid Gimbal. As it turns out, it does not. But you certainly wouldn’t know it by using it.
This gimbal is full of features that don’t exist on other gimbals. Firstly it has click stops that can be engaged on the panning base for panoramic photographers to get perfectly repeatable results. Secondly, the vertical arm can be swivelled forwards or backwards up to 180 degrees. This means you can shoot straight up to the night sky or down to the ground for macro work. Alternatively, fold it down for more compact travel.
Other unique features include toolless swapping between cradle mount and side mount and locking screw-lock knobs on the Arca-Swiss clamps. It even comes with a panning handle so you can use the head for filmmaking. And yes, this head is smoother than many cheap video heads, so that’s an entirely plausible scenario.
Really Right Stuff PG-02
The Really Right Stuff PG-02 is a modular gimbal head that can be constructed with either a side or cradle mount. The thing that first attracted me to the PG-02 was the two-piece design. The horizontal and vertical arms can be separated and clipped together in parallel to make them easier to transport. This modular design also means that you can use the horizontal rail as a nodal slide for panoramic photography by adding an RRS FAS clamp.
Everything about this gimbal screams quality. The design and machining are beautiful, and the gimbal’s movement is buttery smooth, even with the heaviest camera setups. The PG-02 is rated up to a 50lb load, but with even a 600mm lens on a pro body barely tipping the scales at 12lbs, you will never need that capacity. Suffice it to say; that whatever gear you put on this thing, it barely breaks a sweat and vibration dampening is extremely good.
The Really Right Stuff gimbals are the absolute gold standard in terms of build quality and robustness, but you pay the price for that. At $766 for the side mount version, you’re looking at a couple of hundred dollars more than other excellent options like the ProMediaGear or Wimberley. You won’t get better photos by choosing the RRS gimbal, but you get the functional modularity and the best gimbal head that doubles as a multi-row panoramic head.
Adding a nodal rail such as the MPR-CL II to the PG-02 side mount version of the gimbal will turn it into a multi-row panoramic head. This is only possible because you can adjust the horizontal position of the vertical arm so that the lens’ optical centre is precisely over the point of rotation. Simply adding a nodal slide to a regular gimbal, such as the Gitzo or Wimberley, doesn’t work. With that, you would only be able to adjust the fore and aft positioning of the optical centre, but unless you can move the camera left and right, as you can with the PG-02, you can’t use it for genuinely perfect panos.
What About The Smaller PG-01?
Really Right Stuff FG-02
The FG-02 has many of the same features and design characteristics as the PG-02, so I’m not wasting time repeating myself on all those points. The main difference is that the FG-02 uses fluid cartridges in the horizontal and vertical panning joints, which makes the gimbal movement much smoother. This smoother movement is hugely beneficial when shooting video because even the slightest jitter in your pan or tilt can be amplified to a massive degree when shooting with long focal lengths.
The resistance of the movement is also adjustable in four steps, which is beneficial when making long sweeping pans for a video, compared to minor adjustments when looking through the viewfinder for still photography. Two buttons cleverly control the resistance. Pressing them individually gives you two different resistances; you have a third when they are both pressed and a fourth when neither are pressed. An elegant solution that adds very little bulk to the design.
Gitzo GHFG1 Fluid Gimbal
The Gitzo Fluid Gimbal is surprising in a few ways. Firstly this is a fluid head, so fluid cartridges dampen rotational resistance of the horizontal and vertical panning joints. Fluid heads deliver a much smoother panning motion, as discussed in the RRS FG-02 fluid gimbal section. A panning bar is included in the package to aid with smooth motion when shooting video.
The relatively low price point is the second most surprising thing about the Gitzo gimbal head. Gitzo products are known to be of the highest quality, and many photographers aspire to own them, but the price point can sometimes be prohibitive. In the case of their GHFG1 Fluid Gimbal, the price is a bargain when you compare it to other models in this gear guide. It’s much less than half the price of Really Right Stuff’s fluid gimbal, and it’s cheaper than some of the most popular gimbals, such as the Wimberley WH-200.
The main downside of this gimbal is that they do not offer a side mount version, which would have saved a little weight and size. The overall design is also significantly bulkier than many other options, such as the ProMediaGear Katana Jr or the Fotopro Eagle. It’s also lacking a bubble level. Something that is offered by the PMG Katana Jr, the RRS gimbals, the Fotopro E-6H and more.
The Wimberley WH-200 design has been around for decades and is popular with many photographers. The design is bland, but they are among the smoothest gimbals on the market, and their durability and general robustness have been proven over time. If you tend to beat up your camera equipment in harsh environments and don’t mind the sterile, industrial look, the WH-200 is one of the best options.
Wimberley MH-100 MonoGimbal
This product is an outlier in the gimbal guide, but I don’t think the guide would be complete without it. The WH-100 MonoGimbal is designed primarily to act as a small gimbal for your monopod. However, the base of the head is an Arca-compatible dovetail, which means you could attach it to a regular ball head to give it some gimbal characteristics (see photo below).
The Wimberley Sidekick is an interesting design for someone who must carry both a ball head and a gimbal head. Instead of switching heads entirely, this handy gadget converts your existing ball head into a gimbal. To do this, your ball head must have a separate panning base lock knob and an Arca-Swiss compatible clamp.
To install the Wimberley Sidekick, release the ball lock and flop the clamp into your drop notch, positioning it vertically, then tighten the ball as much as possible. Now clamp the Sidekick into the now vertical ball head clamp and loosen the ball head’s panning base lock knob to rotate the gimbal.
Choosing the sidekick instead of a proper gimbal will give you some weight savings, but, as with the ProMediaGear GT2 Tomahawk discussed earlier on this page, the head’s effectiveness depends on the smoothness of your ball head’s panning base. Ball heads are not designed to have heavy weights levered on one side while rotating. They are designed to be locked down tightly. Even some of the best ball heads on the market struggle to deliver a smooth horizontal pan when used in this out-of-scope manner.
In my testing, the RRS BH-40 and BH-55 ball heads produced the smoothest pans with a telephoto lens and the Sidekick. Many other heads can hold the off-centre weight, but the pan fluidity is slightly compromised. Still, this might be a worthwhile tradeoff for the overall weight savings if you otherwise need to carry both a ball head and a full-sized gimbal.
At about $250, you save a significant chunk of change with the Sidekick compared to the full Wimberley gimbal ($550), but it’s only really a saving if you already own a high-end ball head to pair it with. If you need to buy a new ball head, your total bill will undoubtedly be larger than the cost of the Wimberley Gimbal or the better ProMediaGear gimbal.
The Oben GH-30 deserves a spot on this list because it brings gimbals down to a price point that makes them accessible to many more people. At just $250, this is an excellent beginner option for people who don’t do much wildlife photography but want something that will make life considerably easier for them on the odd weekend excursion. It’s also a good budget option if you have booked a costly wildlife photography vacation and suddenly realize that you should take a gimbal with you but don’t want to break the bank.
The Induro GHB1 is a moderately sized side mount gimbal with a 22lb capacity and a relatively low weight of 1.7lbs. It is suitable for smaller and lighter telephoto lenses, such as a Sony or Nikon 200-600mm, a Canon RF 100-500mm, Nikon Z 100-400mm or a Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5.
The Sirui PH-20 is a carbon fibre gimbal that comes equipped with an Arca-compatible cradle and an included option to remove the cradle and convert it to a side mount gimbal. Sirui strangely does not mention the included side mount option on its website, despite being one of its best features. In full cradle mode, the PH-20 weighs 1163g or 2.56lbs. When the cradle is removed and the smaller side mount clamp is installed, the gimbal weighs 899g or 1.98lbs. These are the measured weights on my digital scapes. Ignore the lower weights suggested by Sirui.
Protecting Your Gimbal
Use Your Gimbal With a Skimmer
Most will use a gimbal head on a tripod, but there are many times when a lower point of view is beneficial. While it’s possible to spread your tripod’s legs to attain that low angle, it’s cumbersome to repeatedly lift a tripod and adjust its position while lying flat on your belly. The heavier your lens, the harder this becomes.
Which Gimbals Do I Use?
For many years I have used an RRS PG-02. It’s built like a tank but also has the exquisite finishing that we have come to expect from RRS. I love that it can be broken down into two pieces for travel, but a significant downside is its considerable weight. When this PG-02 gimbal went out of production, I started my search for a replacement. It’s all well and good having my own PG-02, but I can’t very well recommend an out-of-production product to readers.
My search led me to the ProMediaGear GKJr. Katana Pro, which has now become my gimbal head of choice, and number one recommendation. The buttery smooth bearings, combined with its fantastic capacity-to-weight ratio, make this an excellent gimbal tripod head for any size of super-telephoto lens. If it falls within your budget, you won’t be disappointed.
When using a monopod for wildlife photography, I prefer to have a gimbal head on it, just as I do on a tripod. It gives me an Arca quick-release and makes it much easier to aim my lens at subjects above and below my eye line. However, gimbals designed for a tripod are too big for a monopod and create an unwieldy top-heavy setup. The solution for most people will be the Wimberley MH-100 Monogimbal. I rate this as the overall best monopod head and find the sub-$200 price very reasonable.
The second monopod gimbal I use is the ProMediaGear GT2 Tomahawk. Essentially, the GT2 Tomahawk is the top half of their top-rated GKJr. Katana Pro Gimbal and can be used on its own as a monopod head or combined with a ball head to create a gimbal tripod head. I love this head, but the near-$400 price point makes it more than twice the price of the Wimberley Monogimbal and, therefore, much harder to recommend to people who simply need a monopod head. Instead, the GT2 Tomahawk is best chosen when you also want to use its ability to convert a ball head into a gimbal head.
If ordinarily, you would travel with a tripod, a monopod, a ball head, a gimbal and a monopod head, now, with the GT2, you can simply carry the tripod and monopod, along with a ball head and the GT2. You are saving yourself the weight of the monopod head and much of the weight of a full-sized gimbal. Brilliant for travel, if you don’t mind the rather steep price!