What’s the best way to use a big lens — something like a 500mm or 600mm — when photographing from a small boat? Here’s the sort of boat I’m talking about.
Handhold that big lens? Sure, you can get a shot or two off, but handholding a really large lens is almost impossible to do for any length of time. The minute you relax and lower the lens is exactly the moment you should be shooting. Set up a tripod? A tripod is almost impossible to use, if you are in a situation where you cannot move around. Try this experiment: sit with your tripod mounted big lens directly in front of you at eye level, as if you were sitting in a small boat. Now swing the lens hard right, and without changing your body position, try to look through the viewfinder. Bet you can’t do it. And if your tripod doesn’t have a centerpost it’s almost impossible to raise or lower the shooting height. You’re stuck with photographing to your left side at one camera height. Don’t even try to aim the lens at much of an up angle, unless you want to turn your body into a pretzel.
My solution may seem a bit strange at first, but it works really great. Use a monopod with a gimbal head mounted. My preferred setup is the Manfrotto 681B monopod (the flip-locks make it easy to lengthen or shorten the monopod using just one hand, while you support the camera/lens with the other) plus the Jobu Jr 3 Deluxe gimbal head (the smallest and lightest gimbal, ideal for travel).
I’ve used this combination a lot from small boats, and also from open sided safari vehicles, while working with my Nikon 500mm and both the “old” Nikon 600mm G and my “new” Nikon 600mm FL lens. Balance the lens in the head as you would whenever you use a gimbal. Lock the gimbal’s horizontal rotation, as you can just turn the monopod from side to side. Leave both the swing arm, and the lens’s tripod collar, unlocked. You can now easily aim the lens in any direction, side to side or up and down, and raise or lower the shooting height. The advantage of the gimbal head over a “monopod head” is that with a gimbal the lens remains balanced even when the control knobs are loose. Hold the monopod with one hand, and your lens doesn’t flop forward or backwards as it would with an unlocked “monopod head.” With the gimbal mounted on a monopod you’re always ready to shoot.
Yes, I know this seems unconventional, but just try it to see if it works for you. And by the way, I absolutely love the “new” Nikon 600mm FL lens…in my estimation the sharpest long lens I’ve ever used.