Neewer Professional 360 gimbal head
This page discusses the Neewer Professional 360 gimbal head. First of all, this product has nothing to do with the Neewer Crane gimbal, which is a small, hand-held active-feedback video gimbal stabilizer used with mobile phones or cameras with (typically) small lenses. This page deals instead with a tripod head designed to support heavy and long telephoto lenses.
The full name of this product is "Neewer Professional Heavy Duty Metal 360 Degree Panoramic Gimbal Tripod Head", and this is where the problems begin. There seems to be no model number or designation, either on the box, or on the head itself. Amazon currently has two Neewer gimbal head models in stock: a metal one (the subject of this page), and a very similar carbon fiber one that costs about twice as much and has the same 13.6 kg maximum load rating. The carbon fiber model is lighter and some of its mechanical details different, but its price-to-performance ratio is not as favorable as the metal model.
I decided to try the Neewer gimbal head because some of the available reviews conclude that it does its job in much the same way as other, often ludicrously expensive, gimbal heads of better-known brands. The latter heads do have more refined mechanics, but a few reviews showed simple ways to improve the performance of the Neewer head and reduce the impact of some of its potential problems.
Another problem with the Neewer gimbal is that at least two reviews on YouTube show a gimbal head that differs in important respects from the one I received from eBay:
The two above reviews were among those that convinced me to buy this Neewer gimbal head. They show what they call a Neewer gimbal head that, among other details, has a compass mounted above its tripod mount. In the lack of a model identification, we will call this head the "compass gimbal".
The gimbal head that I received, however, is clearly not the same model, has no compass (thanks heaven), and is instead shown in the following video:
This is apparently an official Neewer instruction video. However, the operator demonstrating the head (without uttering a word, and at the sound of some elevator music) seems to be a bit clumsy, and makes a few odd choices: First he mounts the gimbal head on a plate atop what appears to be a video head (why in heaven??), then he picks up a DSLR with a medium zoom lens and proceeds to attach the supplied Arca-compatible lens plate under the camera body. Of course he has to attach the plate perpendicular to the camera base, because the gimbal head and plate are simply not designed to attach under a camera body. He then goes on to clumsily balance the camera and lens on the gimbal head - but the supplied plate is too short to do this efficiently. He then concludes by showing how easily one can turn the gimbal around with one hand - except that it is too stiff, and this action threatens to overturn the way-too-lightweight tripod.
The instruction leaflet that accompanies the head also shows a camera attached by the bottom of the body to the supplied Arca-compatible plate, and a medium-zoom lens on the camera. It appears that the sales department does not really know what type of lens is normally used on a gimbal head of this type, and how the lens is supposed to be attached to the plate, rather than the camera body (hint: which lenses are normally equipped with a lens collar?). It seems that Neewer and scores of other China-based companies simply set out to design cheaper versions of gimbal heads made by Wimberley, Gitzo and other western brands without fully understanding the main purpose of these items.
The Benro GH2 is similar to the Neewer gimbal head in several respects, but it is not the same product.
What about the "compass gimbal"? Amazon still carries it, but it is no longer identified as a Neewer product. It is possible that Neewer used to sell a third-party head under its brand, but they dropped it from their inventory and are selling another, better head.
Features of the Neewer gimbal head
In addition to the nonsense compass added "just because they could", several reviews mention an additional nonsense "feature", i.e., the bubble level on the locking knob of the Arca-compatible clamp. A bubble level that is never going to be oriented the right way simply has no use. It is just another example of a feature added "just because they could". At least the compass, in theory, could work in the place where they put it.
Although the compass is gone in the present Neewer model, the bubble level is still there.
With the useless features largely out of the way, we can start to talk about the useful ones. The lowermost of the two side knobs is only used to lock the rotation of the base. It cannot be used as a friction adjustment, and has only two reliable positions: locked and unlocked. When unlocking it, remember to turn it at least one full turn, or it may partially engage while rotating the head, with uneven friction as a result. This knob separates from the head after unscrewing a full 5 cm of bolt from its hole. It is unlikely to happen by accident without you noticing, but it is a good habit to lock both knobs before carrying the tripod on your shoulder, even without a lens mounted on the head. You may want to lock the head also when you are shooting a static subject and want to avoid the lens accidentally drifting away from the subject.
The uppermost side knob locks/unlocks the gimbal rotation about the horizontal axis. This is a captive knob, and only unscrews a couple of turns. Unlike the Allen bolt at the top of the base, which is imperial size (7/32 to be exact), the bolt head at the end of this knob is metric (n. 6), and the knob is threaded onto the bolt. Once this knob is unlocked, operating the gimbal causes the knob to gradually unscrew to its maximum extent, and a 1 mm gap to appear between the L-shaped body and the arm, which causes a moderate amount of wobble.
The base of the head has a standard 3/8-16 UNC socket, with a removable 1/4-20 UNC adapter screwed in. This adapter is also useless because it does not completely screw flush into the 3/8-16 socket. Just unscrew it and drop it into your "just in case" hardware drawer. Almost all respectable tripods have a 3/8-16 stud, so you will not need the adapter here.
There is an Allen bolt at the top of the pan mechanism. Once the lower of the two large side knobs is unlocked, the pan mechanism allows the gimbal head to turn about its vertical axis. The Allen bolt keeps the base securely attached within the arm, and is reassuringly well tightened. It is not likely to unscrew and allow the head to wobble. This was one of the main faults of the "compass gimbal", which forced users to pop out the cover containing the compass in order to get access to the bolt head.
In my specimen of the gimbal head, there is a small (2-3°) amount of wobble in the pan mechanism. It is hardly noticeable when a heavy lens is mounted on the head.
At 1.362 Kg (without the supplied Arca-compatible plate) this is a heavy gimbal head. It is, however, very stiff (except for the small amount of wobble in certain conditions, as noted above) with the combined lens and camera weight of about 4 Kg that I tried. For a 10 or 15 Kg lens, I would probably choose a better, more expensive brand of gimbal head.
Some photographers use a gimbal head like this to shoot series of landscape pictures to stitch into a single high-resolution panorama. This is not what a gimbal head like the Neewer is designed for (for example, it has no tilt angle scale), but it can be done with some practice if you do not have equipment specifically designed for this purpose. In this sense, the word "Panoramic" in the product name/description is somewhat misleading.
Modifying this gimbal head
A substantial modification of the Neewer gimbal head is discussed at the following link. The modification involves machining with a lathe, adding new parts, and appears to correct the faults described by other users by installing ball bearings in the modified mechanisms.
This type of modification requires a machine shop and is therefore out of the reach of most photographers. However, this video is informative also for those who wish to disassemble the head to carry out minor adjustments and re-lubrication.
Several users find the grease used on this head too stiff, and instructions are available for cleaning out the original grease and replacing it with a less stiff one. It has also been reported that the original grease becomes very stiff at low temperatures (below freezing).
I replaced the grease of the tilt mechanism, but so far I left the pan mechanism alone because its stiffness is not excessive for my use of the head. When replacing the lubricant, avoid a "runny" type, because the tolerance of the rotating joint is relatively poor, and one of the functions of the grease is to fill the space between moving surfaces and smoothen their reciprocal movement.
I simply tightened the Allen bolt on the tilt knob by about one turn to take up the 1 mm gap. I had to apply a moderately high amount of torque to do this, while holding the clamp assembly with the left hand. The bolt was originally tight but, unlike the descriptions by other users, did not appear to have been glued in place.
Features of gimbal heads
As already discussed, a gimbal head is meant to carry a long and heavy telephoto lens, attached to the head by its lens collar. In most cases, an Arca-compatible plate must be attached under the lens shoe. The plate accompanying the head is just as long as the Arca-compatible clamp of the head. In many cases, especially with physically long and heavy lenses, you will need a longer plate, so that you can slide it within the clamp in order to balance the weight of lens and camera.
A gimbal head presupposes that the tripod is level. Since a gimbal head only allows motion about two axes, if the top of the tripod is not level, the camera will lean to one side when panned horizontally, even if you start with the camera horizontal. Although in a pinch you can correct for camera tilt by rotating the lens within its lens collar, you will need to do it again every time you pan horizontally. This method is feasible for still photography, but not for video.
If your tripod allows precise adjustments of the leg lengths independently for each leg (most do allow this), you can level a tripod in the field by adjusting the leg lengths, following the indications of a good bubble level (often built into the tripod). However, as soon as you move the tripod, you need to level it again.
Leveling the gimbal head is easier when it is mounted on a leveling tripod. This is a tripod equipped with a low-profile head that allows a limited tilt adjustment in any direction. The most practical leveling head is a low-profile ballhead that allows a tilt up to about 20°. The leveling head must also be equipped with a sufficiently precise bubble level. In this way, leveling is done in a single operation and by checking a single bubble level, which is much faster than adjusting the lengths of individual legs by trial and error. A leveling tripod is also ideal for use with a video head.
There are other types of leveling mechanisms (for example, a platform with three micrometric screws), but none is faster to use than the one described above. In a pinch, a large ballhead can be used as a leveler, but overloading or accidentally unlocking the ballhead is a recipe for a guaranteed disaster.
The best tripods for this use often have a built-in leveling mechanism (or, like the Gitzo tripod in the above picture, a modular construction that allows a flat plate, a leveler or a column to be swapped at the top of the tripod). If a tripod without built-in leveler is available, a separate leveling head can be mounted between tripod and gimbal head. This, however, stacks multiple pieces of equipment on top of each other, which is not an optimal solution.
There are two types of gimbal head. In the most versatile type, the lens is attached to the head with the foot of the lens collar lowermost. This is the case of the Neewer head shown above. In this type, the lens always sits directly above the panning axis. There is an adjustable slider for the height of the clamp, which is used to balance the lens on the head.
In the second type, the clamp is directly attached to the tilt axis, and the foot of the lens collar is oriented sideways. This is a simpler construction that avoids the need for adjusting the height of the clamp. The center of gravity of the lens, however, can end up off-center with respect to the pan axis for lenses with the shoe of the lens collar unusually close to or far from the lens axis.
Several brands market gimbal heads with a "skeletal", lightweight contruction of the body that reminds one of a truss bridge. I have never tried any of these. If well-designed, they should be almost as stiff as the ones built from a solid block of metal, or a pipe. They may however be more easily crushed or snapped. These skeletal gimbals are remarkable expensive.
How to balance a gimbal head
The way of working with a gimbal head is essentially:
The lens and camera are now ready for use. When shooting for a prolonged time with the lens sharply tilted upward or downward, it is a good idea to balance it at the needed inclination, rather than horizontal.
Some gimbal heads are similar in shape to the Neewer one, but lack a mechanism for adjusting the lens position with respect to the tilt axis. A few of these models have multiple sets of screw holes instead of a slider, and require a partial disassembly to change the lens height. This limits their usefulness when you want to use two or more different lenses on the same head.
In several pictures I have seen, gimbal heads are used with the L-shaped body on the left side (as seen from behind the camera). For me, it makes better sense to mount the lens so that the L-shaped body is on the right side, since I am holding the camera body with my right hand to operate the shutter and need unobstructed access to focus and aperture rings on the lens with my left hand. On the other hand, it is perhaps better to place the L-shaped body at the left of the camera when using this gimbal head as an improvised panoramic head.
Alternatives to gimbal heads
Strictly speaking, there are no alternatives to a gimbal head for quickly handling long and heavy telephoto lenses. A video head allows a more limited amount of vertical tilt, which is sufficient for some subjects like large mammals at a distance across a prairie, but not for birds in flight or animals high up on a rock wall. Some video heads have built-in balancing springs that can be adjusted to compensate for the weight of the lens. Video heads are usually dampened, which means they require a much greater physical effort to follow a fast-moving subject like a running or flying animal.
If you are serious about multi-shot panorama stitching, you are better served by a dedicated panoramic head like the Nodal Ninja products.
The Neewer Professional Heavy Duty Metal 360 Degree Panoramic Gimbal Tripod Head is a low-cost product that corrects some of the worse faults of an earlier model sporting a compass on its base. A couple of minor faults remain, but this newer model is an improvement over the preceding one, and can be used out-of-the-box without much aggravation. Replacing the lubricating grease with a less sticky one makes the use of the gimbal more effortless.