When out shooting wildlife my best lens is a Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-400 f/4G ED VRII zoom lens. Since I use a Nikon D5100 camera that has an APS-C sensor, due to the 1.6 crop factor the 35mm equivalent would be 320-640mm. I chose the lens because it is very sharp, the image quality is great, the f/4.0 aperature lets in plenty of light and the reach of the lens lets me take shots very far away. The downside is that when mounted on my camera the rig weighs about 11 pounds.
The weight isn’t much of an issue when I can use my tripod. However, lugging around a tripod, setting it up, getting it level and such is a bit of a hassle. On the other hand, trying to get a steady shot at a distance while hand holding the camera and lens is very difficult. I have done it trying to shoot birds in flight, but being a bit older my hands normally shake a bit making hand-holding my rig all that much more challenging.
I have tried using my monopod, but it too light weight to handle the 11 pounds. I researched other solutions, but many of the portable platforms like shoulder or chest mounts with gyroscopes were out of my price range.
I found the Cowboy Studio shoulder brace online and since it was ~$30 I thought I would give it a try. It is mostly for videographers, but since it is rated to hold up to 13 pounds, I thought it might work for me. Although it took some getting used to I have been able to take shots that I would otherwise have missed.
I attach the Cowboy Studio to the tripod foot on the lens that is closest to the camera (there are two mount points on the 200-400mm lens), which give a pretty good weight distribution. I usually attach my Joby shoulder strap to the further tripod mount on the lens to carry the camera, lens and brace. The curved top piece in the picture goes over my right shoulder and the bottom piece rests against my chest. This brings the camera viewfinder in from of my eye. Even though the brace is made out of hard plastic I haven’t had any issue with stability or it breaking. Since the bottom brace rests on my chest, it does move when I take a breath.
I call the big lens “Bertha”. Yeah, we’re the people who name our cars, camper and so on. . .
The opening picture of the bald eagle was taken in Alaska while I was on a whale watching trip in the Inner Passage. I was standing on the back of a motorized 40 foot catamaran in three foot seas shooting at the eagle from almost 100 yards. The image is cropped significantly and post processed in Lightroom.
I did get some shots of humpback whales in the Inner Passage. This was taken from 150 yards or so. You can see the shallow depth of field by looking at how the water is slightly out of focus in front of and behind the tail.
While I am not fond of this shot I have included to show one of the challenges in shooting birds in flight with such a cumbersome rig. The camera picked up the rock and vegetation behind the eagle as it was taking off. The autofocus can’t keep up with objects moving rapidly towards the camera.
This photo of a great horned owl was taken in Alaska while on a jet boat trip up one of the rivers. I was standing in the back of the jet boat maybe 60 feet from the bird. This image was not cropped, but it was post processed in Lightroom. The day was fairly overcast, so I was shooting wide open (f/4.0) and the ISO pushed up to 320.
None of these shots would probably be possible without the vibration reduction (Nikon’s term for image stabilization) built into the lenses I use. I tend to shut off the VR when I am using the tripod, but engage it when I use the brace. I have tried to use the brace with some of my other lenses, especially when I am using a 1.4X teleconverter to extend the reach. I have found it is easier and more versatile to just hand hold the camera and lens in those situations.
It is always nice when a bird holds still for its picture. I have a 13″ X 19″ print of this on the wall of my office.
In summary, if you have a moderate to heavy lens in your collection and want to try a different platform from a tripod or monopod, I would recommend the Cowboy Studio Shoulder Brace. At under $30.00, what do you have to lose?