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The best gimbal heads for tripods in 2020: heads that handle big lenses with ease

best gimbal heads for tripods
(Image credit: Future)

Investing in one of the best gimbal heads is a great way to take your photography to the next level if you often work with weighty gear, such as telephoto lenses and heavy DSLRs. While it might be tempting to simply stick with the ball head that came with your tripod, a gimbal head will be much more effective. This is because heavy gear can be tricky to maneuver and refine when working with the simplistic controls of a ball head.

In contrast, a gimbal head gives you much more control over your composition by giving your camera a lower centre of gravity. This means that the camera effectively hangs alongside the gimbal head, rather than balancing on top. It's important to note that it can take a little bit of practice to master this art. This is because you need to align the gimbal head so that its balancing properly on the head's mounting plate. In addition, if you use a gimbal with vertical adjustment, you'll need to make sure that the centre-line of the lens is parallel with the gimbal's tilt axis.

However, despite taking a little longer to set up correctly, once you've finished your camera will effectively be weightless. This means that the camera will hold any position you place it in, even if the tilt lock is loosened. This means that you don't need to worry about stability when working with long telephoto focal lengths. 

There are multiple factors to consider when looking at which gimbal head is best for you. We've compiled a few below...

Five things to watch out for

1. Vertical adjustment
You don't necessarily need to get a gimbal with vertical adjustment to feel the benefits of a gimbal head, but if you want to achieve complete weightlessness then you'll need it. The more vertical travel it has, the better.

2. Precision engineering
Loosening the clamps locking the pan base and tilt arm on cheaper gimbals, can introduce slack and wobble in the joints. Better designs will have tighter tolerances.

2. Precision engineering
Loosening the clamps that lock the pan base and tilt arm on cheaper gimbals can unfortunately introduce unwanted slack and wobble in the joints. However, better (and usually more expensive) designs will have tighter tolerances.

3. Ergonomics
While small dials and controls can look stylish and tidy, any wildlife photographer knows that it's easy to get caught short in bad weather. Set yourself up for success by looking for a gimbal head that has large controls that are easy to grip through gloves.

4. Mounting methods
All of the gimbal heads that we've featured in this guide use the Arca-Swiss mounting plate standard. If you purchase a gimbal head with a long plate, then you'll also get better adjustment.

5. Don't skimp on the legs
Mounting a gimbal head on a cheap travel tripod is akin to fitting a state-of-the-art lock to a flimsy wooden door. Look for sturdy, rigid legs, even if the combined weight will be unwieldy. 

We’ve tested six gimbal heads, which all use the same basic design principle, but as you’ll see, it’s the details that separate the best from the rest...

(Image credit: Benro)

1. Benro GH2

The best value gimbal head

Construction material: Aluminum | Load rating: 23kg | Weight: 1.44kg

Great value
No-nonsense design
Smooth rotation
Short on customisation

It may almost be one of the cheapest options , but stick the GH2 alongside the highly-acclaimed Wimberley head and you’ll have a tough job spotting the difference. Although you don’t get the style of the Gitzo or the customization potential of the Custom Brackets head, the GH2 is still an absolute pleasure to use. Its pan and tilt locking knobs are easy to lock and release when wearing gloves, there’s enough adjustment on the vertical arm for mounting tall lenses, and it includes an industry-standard Arca mounting plate.

But the real test of a gimbal is smoothness, and the GH2 doesn’t disappoint. It’s a fraction less silky than the three most expensive heads here, but both pan and tilt move beautifully and smoothly and with no bearing slack. For the price, it’s rather good.

We couldn’t find a camera/lens combo to completely test the Benro’s 23kg load rating, but the GH2 had no trouble supporting our beastly 4.5kg 400mm f/2.8 setup.

(Image credit: Gitzo)

2. Gitzo GHFG1 Fluid Gimbal Head

Italian design from the king of tripod manufacturers

Construction material: Magnesium & aluminum | Load rating: 8kg | Weight: 1.35kg

Great build quality
Lots of lens support
Disappointing fluid dampening

You can count on GItzo products being beautifully designed and well engineered, and accordingly GHFG1 Fluid Gimbal Head looks and feels fantastic. Its fluid dampening system works decently enough, though perhaps not as well as one might have hoped, but this is still a really solid gimbal head that'll support even hefty kit setups. While the maximum capacity isn't as enormous as the Benro GH2's, in practice 8kg is going to be more than enough for anyone's support needs, so wildlife and outdoor action photographers can rest easy.

Control knobs are easy to operate, and the Arca-style plate makes it easy to balance and detach equipment when necessary. Really, you can't go wrong with anything Gitzo-branded, as this high-quality head goes to show. 

(Image credit: Wimberley)

3. Wimberley WH-200 Version II

Technically the best, but you’ll need to justify the outlay

Construction material: Aluminum | Load rating: 68kg | Weight: 1.4kg

Great build quality
Super smooth operation
Extensive lens compatility
High price

First impressions of the WH-200 leave you wondering why this is one of the priciest heads here. Next to the feature-packed ProMediaGear, it looks average, but Wimberley heads have a solid reputation, and it’s easy to see why when you use one.

There’s plenty of vertical adjustment for mounting lenses of varying size, yet the head is still quite compact at 23.5cm tall and tips the scales at just 1.4kg. The pan and tilt axes both turn exceptionally smoothly and can be locked completely steady by grippy, ergonomics knobs. These also control the friction resistance in each joint, which is progressively adjustable.

The head uses a standardized Arca-Swiss lens mount, and Wimberley offers replacement low-profile lens feet to help balance lenses supplied with a taller than average foot.

This is the most satisfying head to use, but it can’t compete with the sheer value of Benro’s fantastically budget offering.

(Image credit: Custom Brackets)

4. Custom Brackets CB Gimbal

Hugely impressive, but the price is hard to justify

Construction material: Aluminum | Load rating: 100kg | Weight: 1.5kg

Silky smooth operation
Highly versatile
Expensive
Variable friction control ineffective

Named appropriately, this gimbal is all about customization. There are no fewer than nine knobs dotted around the bracketry, with separate pan and tilt drag knobs to control resistance independently of the locking clamps. The complexity is also a result of this being a collapsible, modular design, where the horizontal and vertical arms can be separated for more streamlined storage. 

Another thoughtful touch is the scalloped-edge base plate that you can grip directly when mounting the head to your tripod, rather than using the pan lock for extra leverage.

As you’d expect for hardware with a premium price, build quality is top notch. Everything clamps down securely, there’s no lateral play in any bearings, and the plethora of adjustment options makes it a cinch to mount lenses of all sizes. Once on board, even the heaviest glass will move effortlessly.

(Image credit: ProMediaGear)

5. ProMediaGear Katana

A stunning gimbal, if overkill for most non-pros

Construction material: Aluminum | Load rating: 22kg | Weight: 2.4kg

Uncompromising build quality
Large enough for supertelephotos
Pricey

The Katana looks more like a piece of weapons hardware than a camera support, owing to its macho design and huge 33cm height. Being such a tall gimbal does mean there’s plenty of vertical adjustment to perfectly balance even the largest lens.

The stellar build and material quality results in a load capacity of 23kg, ensuring any lens this side of the Hubble Space Telescope will have a stable footing. The only drawback of such strength is that, at 2.2kg, this is the heaviest gimbal here.

Maintenance-free steel ball bearings give perfectly smooth tilt and panning motion, and with no bearing slack when the locking knobs are undone. These are large enough for easy use in all weathers, plus they can be repositioned for more convenient access. You can also partly tighten the locking knobs to increase friction without introducing any jerkiness, and when fully tightened, your camera is held steady.

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