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Gun stock type camera mounts aren't a new idea -- they've been around for years. However, most were home-made, and being constructed usually of wood, were heavy and required the creator to figure out some kind of trigger assembly that would actuate the shutter. I had toyed with the idea of making one myself, and while researching it online, came across the BushHawk website.
I was immediately intrigued by the BushHawk product because of its light weight (it is all space-age composite material); the fact that the two-stage trigger assembly mimics the shutter button of your camera (for instance, holding the trigger half way down initiates focusing; all the way down actuates the shutter); that the manufacturer offered shutter release cables; and indeed, the whole assembly (I obtained model 320D with the optional front handle) is reasonably priced (about $250 with all the accessories).
The unit arrived at the peak of waterfowl migration through my area. If you've looked around my website, you've no doubt noticed that birds on the wing are a favorite subject of mine. While I've gotten quite good at hand-holding a camera and long lens while taking on-the-wing shots, there have been times when I've wished for something that would add stability, especially on lenses over 400mm. I was optimistic the BushHawk would do the job.
I mounted a 500mm lens and Canon body on the BushHawk and went to the marsh. I won't keep you waiting -- I immediately fell in love with this device. Although bringing it up and getting your eye behind the viewfinder takes some getting used to, and some adjustment to fit your body (it seems infinitely adjustable) is necessary, after a while I found that this was by far the most natural way of swinging a camera and lens on a moving subject. I qualify that by saying I've used shotguns all my life, so swinging on a bird with a gun-like device comes easily to me. However, I also believe that anyone, with a little practice, will find it to be natural as well.
After I was certain I was going to keep the device, I made two modifications. First, I camouflaged it with spray paint. I also added a quick release mount. The BushHawk comes with a standard threaded screw for mounting a lens or camera body. While I found this to be adequate for smaller lenses, when using a lens of 400mm or larger, you'll really want to use a quick release mount because I simply could not tighten down the thumbscrew enough where there wasn't some play in the unit. I replaced the thumbscrew with a hex-headed screw when adding my release plate. The BushHawk company also offers their own quick release plate. If it is compatible with your current quick release system (or you don't own one at all), I'd suggest you look into it.
The BushHawk is at its best when photographing moving subjects. With one hand on the forward handle, the other on the pistol grip, you can pull tightly to your shoulder and truly increase your steadiness. While this works on stationary subjects as well, it could never replace a tripod (and it isn't intended to) for real rock-steady work. However, I do believe this to be a better choice than a Wimberly-type mount for photographing fast moving critters and birds. Even with the excellent Wimberly, you're hard press to grab overhead shots, or pivot completely around the tripod. And such a set up is heavy and awkward to move. With the addition of some nylon straps (I fashioned a suitable sling by scavenging the shoulder strap from an old briefcase), the BushHawk can be slung over your shoulder, making the trudge into the blind or sneaking around in the woods or marsh very easy.
The end result is that I am convinced that the BushHawk has increased my number of "keeper" wildlife photographs. This is true whether I was using image stabilized lenses or not. There are a lot of gadgets out there that don't perform nearly as well as what the manufacturer claims. The BushHawk isn't one of those -- it does what it is supposed to do, does it well, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
There are times you'll still want to use a tripod, times when a monopod will be better, and times when hand-holding is just fine. That said, I think that the BushHawk is one more valuable tool to add to your arsenal if you're serious about wildlife photography.
UPDATE -- TWO YEARS LATER -- with photos
It has been almost exactly two years since the BushHawk first came into my life, and I wanted to confirm all that I said above, and then some. Not only is the BushHawk a useful tool, for me it has become indispensable. It is a rare day that the camera even comes off the BushHawk, no matter where or what I'm photographing. I've found it very useful shooting out a vehicle window, and while I said that it is at its best photographing moving subjects, it is also extremely valuable at shooting subjects that "might" move. Huh?
By that I mean subjects like dragonflies, small birds, small mammals -- any wildlife subject that by its very nature is skittery and in constant motion. Ever try to set up a tripod on a warbler? A woodpecker? Insects? Then you know that just about the time you get it set up, they move. And move again. And move again! With my BushHawk, I can move with them. Even large animals move quickly at times -- if you're going to grab a shot of them doing something other than just standing around, you need to move with them.
To give you an idea of the range of subjects I've photographed using the BushHawk, I've put up a web gallery of images. Every one of these was taken using the BushHawk -- you'll see flight shots of all kinds of birds, but you'll also note some low angle shorebird shots (using the BushHawk while prone), songbirds (they are always on the move!), and mammals (deer, otters, etc.). You'll even see one shot of a peregrine falcon taking the hat off the head of a researcher who is trying to put leg bands the peregrine's chicks. If you're a sports photographer and you wonder how a BushHawk might work for your purpose, consider that a peregrine flies many times faster than the quickest athlete can run or jump! Please take a peek at the gallery.
If you're a serious wildlife photographer, you know that many a great shot is taken right out your vehicle window. Critters seem much less afraid of a vehicle than they do a person, and at times you car or truck is the perfect photo blind. For years I've used a sandbag on the window or window ledge, but now I just rest the BushHawk on it, and actuate the shutter not with the remote trigger, but with the shutter button on the camera. The advantage of keeping the camera on the BushHawk is three-fold. One, it's steadier than just resting the lens on the window. Two, I'm ready to jump out and photograph without having to re-attach the camera to the BushHawk, and three, I'm also ready to grab a shot out the passenger window.
Shooting out the passenger window (from the driver's seat) is awkward, but sometimes is necessary. With the BushHawk (and power windows) I can merely drop the window and shoot one handed to my right. Less than ideal, I admit, but I've gotten some really saleable images that way, shots I simply would not have been able to get otherwise. If you looked at the gallery above, you saw a shot of a short eared owl flying low over the North Dakota prairie. I actually shot that photo out the passenger window, while the truck was still moving (thank God for quiet country roads and Image Stabilization).
How has the BushHawk held up? Admirably, considering it is routinely tossed in the pickup truck, hauled through all kinds of brush, and out in all kinds of weather. I've had to replace the remote cable because I somehow managed to break it off where it entered the camera body. And the plastic knurled knob that tightens down the front handle came off somewhere, but that's OK because it actually just covered a hex screw, and now I tighten it down with a hex key. And it's probably time to hit it with some camouflage spray paint again, too. That's it. That's the extent of the wear. Remember, I use the BushHawk almost daily, and often in extreme conditions (including many, many sub-zero days). I consider these minor problems considering the amount of use I've gotten from the BushHawk.
The bottom line is that I can't live without my BushHawk now, and I frankly can't understand why I don't see more photographers using one! If you shoot the kind of wildlife subjects I do (or sports), I think you'll find that the purchase of a BushHawk may just be one of the best buys you'll ever make.
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