What's It All About?
Large and heavy lenses such as the Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS can be awkward to use, even when tripod mounted. The preferred mount for most field photographers is a ball head, such as the Arca Swiss B1 pictured above. But, when a camera / lens combination like this is mounted on a ball head it can be unbalanced and easily tip forward or backward unless the ball is cinched tightly. This, naturally enough, makes panning when following a bird in flight or a wolf loping across a field problematic.
How it Works
The Sidekick places the lens and camera so that its center of gravity is directly over the center of the tripod. It also means that the lens is hanging over this point rather than balanced on it. Consequently by setting the friction knobs to the desired points handling a large lens like this becomes almost a weightless experience. Following birds in flight, as I did at the Salton Sea in January 2000 and at Bosque del Apache in December 2001 was a breeze.
The Sidekick is designed to mount on an Arca Swiss type quick release plate. You'll also need a ball head, such as the B1, with a rotating base and lock knob. (You have one of these already ‹ right?). It's also a good idea to get a long quick release plate. This will allow you to slide the plate forward and back so that the lens and camera balance perfectly. The photograph above shows how the plate that I use extends slightly to reach the point of optimum balance.
Of course you'll also need a long lens with a rotating tripod mount collar. The Sidekick is designed for lenses in the 300mm ‹ 500mm range. The company also makes The Wimberley Head which is designed for larger and heavier lenses such as a 600mm f/4. It's more expensive and larger than the Sidekick but if you're the type of photographer that carries around a fast 600mm lens, neither of these issues will bother you.
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens with 1.4X extender. 1/100 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 900mm
A Word of Caution
As the instruction manual so rightly points out, you now have something like 7 lock knobs to pay attention to, between the ball head, the Sidekick and the lens collar. Murphy's Law will always apply. The first day I used this set up, when I finished balancing the lens by sliding the plate I forgot to lock the knob. The weight of the lens and friction held it on while I was shooting but when I went to move the rig I almost dropped the whole lens and camera assembly into the sand. New gear requires new habits and a bit of extra attention to locking all knobs is required.
The Wimberley Sidekick is the product of a small father and son company. Its design is simple, it does exactly was it sets out to, and does it extremely well. The cost is U.S. $250 and it is available directly from the company, who are a pleasure to deal with.
The Wimberley Sidekick as well as other products of interest to wildlife photographers are available though Naturephotographers.net
Kirk Enterprises now has a comparable product to the larger Wimberley Head called the King Cobra. I have no experience with this product which has a retail price of $439.95 ‹ a bit less expensive than the comparable Wimberley product.
This subject is featured in Issue #3 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal