Since the first Wimberley Head in 1991, Wimberley has been the gold standard when it comes to Gimbal Tripod Heads to support big telephoto lenses. However there is now a new player intent on changing that, with an innovative new design and their corporate tag line "Simply The Best". Introduced in 2009, the CB Gimbal from Custom Brackets brings a fresh approach to a 2-decade old concept, with an innovative maintenance-free modular design, built around precision roller bearings, and backed by a longer warranty than the competition. For those less familiar with Custom Brackets, they are a very highly regarded industry player with a reputation for designing and manufacturing a range of excellent wear-compensating rotating flash brackets, plates and other accessories since the 1990's.
If you use a larger telephoto lens for moving subjects, the only way to support it is with a Gimbal Head. A good Gimbal Head allows smooth, effortless, and just as important safe panning and tilting of the lens/camera combination about its center of gravity. While a loosened ball head will work, trusting up to $15,000 worth of camera and lens to a loose ballhead is one thing, and trying to pan and tilt such a top-heavy setup smoothly and accurately is yet another.
In that regard, the CB Gimbal provides the same basic function as the competition (Primarily Wimberley and Jobu for full Gimbal Heads): It provides two basic movements, panning and tilting; and it allows you to easily find the center of gravity by sliding the lens foot across the generously sized lens platform, plus the lens platform can be raised or lowered until the lens and camera are perfectly balanced. The biggest difference here is the CB Gimbals use of Precision Roller Bearings for the smoothest possible (and maintenance free) panning and tilting.
That's about where the similarities end. The first difference you'll notice about the CB Gimbal is the Modular design. The CB Gimbal quickly and easily breaks down into 4 components as you can see below (Panning Base, Upright, Arm and Lens Platform):
This modular design offers two primary advantages:
- It makes the gimbal much easier to pack and store or travel with, especially if you are trying to keep your kit bag small for airline travel or in a backpack for hiking.
- The upright can also be used on its own with an Arca-Type ball head (just like the excellent Wimberley Sidekick). If you are hiking or traveling light and need to switch between long and short lenses that can be a major advantage.
Now we have heard comments along the lines of "with that many joints, it can't be stable", obviously made by people who have never used or handled one. The unit utilizes massively strong Arca-Type connections for all joints, backed up by substantial safety stops. As a result the unit is rock solid, and we cannot detect any movement whatsoever in the joints, no matter how much force we apply. We'd have no problems using the CB Gimbal with the heaviest lens/camera combinations we could find.
Other notable features include :
- Separate controls on both the pan and tilt movements for locking and to set drag/friction.
- A soft rubber coating on the main control knobs for comfort and grip.
- Black "hard anodized" finish.
- A set-up/travel lever (one of our favorite features, more on that further down).
- A built in bubble level.
- Degree markings on the base for panoramic work.
- Assembly knobs are ergonomic, aluminum and captive for maximum performance.
The CB Gimbals is backed by an industry leading 5-Year Warranty, and at the time of writing has a street price around $580 (see B&H Photo)
In the interests of full disclosure, Custom Brackets provided the specific CB Gimbal used in this review for testing. We will periodically be updating this review detailing how this Gimbal Head holds up over time under heavy use, and in some cases extreme conditions.
The CB Gimbal is made up of 4 parts, a Panning Base which screws onto the 3/8" x 16 stud on your tripod, an Upright, an Arm, and a Lens Platform. They attach together using 3 Quick Release Arca-Type clamps, fitted with large, ergonomically designed aluminum knobs. This makes it fast and easy to set up or break down (they attach together in well under 30 seconds even with thick winter gloves on, then maybe another 30 seconds to attach to your tripod).
One thing to note here, is the knob on the clamp on the Upright has to be pushed in against a spring to open or close the clamp when it's not pushed in it rotates freely. The reason for this is two fold: (1) it allows the use of a large 2" wide knob for maximum grip, that can then be turned out of the way so it doesn't interfere with the movement of the Arm, (and if you forget to turn it out of the way, the moving the Arm will do it gently for you) and (2) as a safety feature: if you are using just the Upright on its own (used like a Wimberley Sidekick), if you accidentally bump the knob, it'll just spin out of the way instead of loosening the clamp that happens to be holding your very expensive lens. The picture below shows the knob in question you have to push it in a ¼" against a spring before it will work the clamp:
Attaching the tripod is straightforward, the panning base has a "flower shaped" wheel that is easy to grip and screw onto the 3/8" x 16 tripod stud (see picture of Panning Base below). You'll also notice a bubble level (Gimbal Heads work best on a level tripod): the level is conveniently aligned with a slot in the Lens Platform (not shown), so you can look directly down on it through the Lens Platform to help level the tripod, even when the head is fully assembled.
You can also see the Panning Base features laser-engraved degree markings (every 2 degrees) in case you want to make panoramic Images.
In the picture above of the panning base, you'll notice two Rubber Covered knobs: The knob at the back (large knob at top of the picture) locks the base when tightened (this is a friction lock, so the harder you tighten the stronger the lock). A mere 1/2 turn is all that is needed to go from "locked" to "freely rotating". The second, smaller rubber covered knob (shown sticking out of the Panning Base at a 45 degree angle in the picture above) allows you to fine tune the "drag" or "friction" on the panning motion.
The Upright has two identical rubber coated knobs, which serve the exact same function on the tilt movement, as shown in the picture below:
Once you have the unit assembled and on the tripod, the next step is to balance the lens. This is where our favorite feature of the CB Gimbal comes in, the Setup Lever. It's a really simple concept, and minor addition to the head, but it just makes a huge difference to the functionality of the gimbal, as we'll explain below.
The first step is to attach your lens to the Lens Platform. By swinging out the Setup Lever (pictured below, and also seen engaged in the photo at the top of this review), you limit the movement of the arm to about 10 degrees. Combined with safety stops on your lens foot, it becomes very easy to balance your lens by sliding it back and forwards in a loosened clamp, safe in the knowledge that the head has very little movement (plenty to allow balancing, but not enough to allow your camera/lens combination to pitch violently forward or backwards when you let go or let it tilt freely).
The picture on the left above shows the Setup Lever engaged. It fits into a channel in the back of the Arm, allowing only very limited movement by the Arm (approx 10 degrees). The picture on the right shows the Setup Lever at an angle (and the Arm has been removed). When not in use the Setup Lever swings completely into the Upright out of the way using the rubber knob shown in the picture. It requires a light force to turn, enough to keep the Setup Lever firmly in whichever position you set it.
Once you have the lens balanced forwards and backwards, it's a simple process to loosen the clamp that attaches the Lens Platform to the Arm, so you can raise or lower your camera/lens to balance it on the tilt axis. If you don't do this, the setup has a tendency to want to tilt back so the lens is horizontal, rather than staying at the angle you left it. If you raise the platform too high, the setup becomes top heavy, and tries to pitch forward of backwards (unless of course you have engaged the Setup Lever).
The first time we set the CB Gimbal up on a Tripod, we went through this process and balanced the lens, takes about a minute total, everything good, Steve happy. Then we decided to try adding a Wimberley Flash Bracket and Nikon Speedlight. Engage Setup Lever, attach the Bracket, Speedlight and Flash Cable, and suddenly the setup is very top heavy and the center of gravity has moved forward. If we had locked the Arm, added the extra weight and then released the Arm, the whole setup would have pitched violently forwards on us if we weren't ready to catch it. However with the Setup Lever engaged, that becomes a complete non-issue it's immediately obvious we are now both top and front heavy. With the Setup Lever engaged we can safely slide the camera/lens back, and then lower the Lens Platform and verify everything is balanced again, without any risk at all of our gear pitching forwards.
The Setup Lever also acts as a Travel Lever if you are changing locations, engage the lever and you can also carry the setup (still attached to the tripod) over your shoulder with ease. The Setup Lever is a small detail on the Gimbal, but the functionality and additional safety it adds to the setup process is huge.
Fit and Finish
The CB Gimbal is constructed from aircraft aluminum and is "hard anodized" for lightness, strength and scratch resistance. Overall the finish is excellent.
The ergonomic knobs are comfortable and large enough to easily use with thick winter gloves. Everything except the bubble level appears to be made from metal or rubber.
The clamps and safety stops do their job, providing an impressively strong and stable platform for your big lens.
One very important note though: The precision bearings used in the CB Gimbal are designed to work under load. If you handle one of these units in a store or elsewhere, I'll guarantee your first thoughts will be along the lines of "wow, I was expecting it to be smoother than that" mine certainly were. However once it's on a tripod with a lens attached, it simply transforms and becomes amazingly smooth, and an absolute joy to operate. It's so good in fact, that I've found myself not setting any 'Drag' or 'Friction' at all, making a heavy setup feel virtually weightless and glide effortlessly. The very first time I set it up on my deck to test, I called over 'She Who Must Be Obeyed' to try it (she's normally won't go near anything bigger than a D90 with a light zoom), and before I could do anything she'd sent the kids down the far end of the garden and spent the next 20 minutes taking pictures of them.
As you've probably gathered from reading the above, the CB Gimbal has more than impressed us. As a Gimbal Head, its functionality is right up there with the very best. Add innovative features like the Setup Lever, which gives you much greater confidence setting up your expensive gear safely, and a modular design that makes the CB Gimbal easier to pack (plus gives you the added flexibility of being able to use the Upright on its own with your ball head), and you have a winner.
If you shoot with big telephoto lenses, you need a Gimbal Head. If you are looking for the absolute best possible Gimbal Head on the market today, you have to give very serious consideration the CB Gimbal. Custom Brackets is so confident in their product, they offer a full 5-year warranty (which is at least 2 years longer than the other major gimbal manufacturers). Based on our experience so far with it, we have to give it our highest possible recommendation.
Ours will get significant use in varying conditions (meaning usually bad, freezing cold, wet, dusty or otherwise generally unpleasant conditions) over the coming months with assorted lenses, we'll update this review periodically as to how this head performs over time. With the robustness of the build and the maintenance free design, we anticipate it will hold up extremely well.
You can get your CB Gimbal from B&H Photo or directly from Custom Brackets.
In addition to the CB Gimbal reviewed here, Custom Brackets also sells the CB Gimbal Basic (which is just the Upright module from this kit, which can be used on its own with a ball head), a CB Gimbal-LS (a smaller, lighter gimbal head, with fewer features) and a CB Gimbal-LB (a more basic setup for smaller lenses up to 400mm). We'll review the CB Gimbal Basic (the Upright from this kit) separately in the next few weeks, the review will be published in our Tripods & Support Gear Guide when complete.
Custom Brackets also make accessories for the CB Gimbal including Lens Plates (we've already reviewed the GLM-1 Lens Plate for 500mm, 600mm and 800mm lenses), and we are told a flash bracket is in the works (we should have a picture soon we'll publish it here once we receive it). The full line can be found on Custom Brackets Website.
New Flash Bracket/Mount (4/20/2010)
The new Flash Bracket for the CB Gimbal is now due to ship on 5/1/2010:
Details and ordering information can be found on Custom Brackets Website.