Butterfly Bean Bag version II
and Flying Saucer Ball Head

     I often photograph birds from the window of my vehicle in situations like a wildlife refuge, where you can drive around and see plenty of opportunities to get good shots. I've made three double bean bags for this type of photography, created from the basic pattern from an article by Scott Fairbairn. These worked well for almost everything. I found, however, I needed more height than these provided when I was shooting from the window of my truck..

Problem #1-
     Even in my full-sized truck, the camera and lens sat too low in the window to shoot comfortably. The bean bag needed more height. I tried stacking two bean bags, but they would slip apart. I had to slump down into the seat to see through the viewfinder. I didn't dare use the window to raise the bean bag, camera and lens. That much weight on the power window mechanism seemed a very bad idea. It was designed to raise a piece of glass, not 25+ pounds of deadweight.

Problem #2-
      When panning left and right, the tripod foot would bind in the bean bag, and the lens wanted to flop over on one side all the time. When I panned right, the side mirror was at the same level as the lens and in the way. It made following the action a bit of a hassle. Spinning the tripod foot up out of the way helped, but I lost what little height advantage it offered, making the lens sit even lower.

The Butterfly Bean Bag and Flying Saucer Ball Head in use with a super-telephoto.
How to make your own
     I had looked at every bean bag I could find on the web, including the "Molar Bean Bag" by Vertex Photographic. I liked the way it hugged the vehicle door, but it simply did not provide enough height above the window for comfortable shooting. Also, the photos on the Vertex website showed the beanbag with a camera mounted on a plate, with what I presumed to be a panning head attached. I found such a device at another website, but it wasn't cheap. It did however give me the impetus to come up with my own solution. After pondering these problems for awhile I designed a one-two combination to solve both problems. . . . .

The "Butterfly Bean Bag" and the "Flying Saucer Ball Head"

     I will start with the Butterfly Bean Bag, so named because the cutting and sewing pattern for it looks something like a butterfly, although the bean bag itself actually looks more like a "molar tooth" than the Vertex product. I used the basic back-to-back "double bean bag" construction technique from the bean bag on the Scott Fairbairn website, and combined it with the general "molar" shape of the Vertex design. The advantages of my design are:
    •  Weighs less for its size than other designs
    •  Stands far taller than other designs of same (or even greater ) weight

The tubular bottom
design improves rigidity
and cuts the weight by
4 pounds.
The molar-like shape of the
Butterfly Bean Bag is
evident in this shot.
      To accomplish these improvements I made the top half taller (above the "V") than the Vertex design, and added stitching to shape the sides and make them stand up stiffer. Otherwise the extra height would have been lost due to the sides bulging out and drooping. I also closed off a large portion of the bottom half so it didn't fill with unnecessary beans. This created four tubular colums, providing a firm base hanging over the vehicle door so the bag stands up taller and firmer. Without this design feature, the extra height would have required an additional 4 pounds of beans to fill it. In essence, it provides greater height, while retaining the bulk necessary to handle the super-telephoto lens. I don't pretend the material I used is as rugged, or that the stitching is on a par with the Vertex product. That part of the construction is up to the discretion and skill of the do-it-yourselfer who is making one. Mine is quite rugged enough for my use.

      If you would like to make one for yourself, follow this link to a separate page with full details and instructions on how to make your own Butterfly Bean Bag.

The Flying Saucer Ball Head mounted on a 500mm lens
The Flying Saucer Ball Head?

     Yup, that's what I call it. I think you'll agree it's an apt description. I never would have thought a piece of wood with a bolt in it could be so useful, simple and effective, but I believe this idea is the epitome of simple design form and function. It's really only half a "ball", but that's all it takes to make my big, heavy telephoto lens pan and tilt smoothly while resting on a bean bag. It screws on and off the lens tripod foot with the flick of a wrist. Even if you have to go out and buy a stainless steel 1/4 20 bolt to make one of these, it'll only cost a couple of dollars.

     To the left are photos of the top (showing the 1/4 20 stainless bolt I used), and the bottom (showing the countersink hole). The bottom left thumbnail links to a large diagram explaining how to make the Flying Saucer Ball Head. It's relatively simple to make with simple tools, although a wood lathe is by far the easiest and fastest way to make one. Even making one the hard way with hand tools took me less than two hours of work. The only thing I haven't done is to seal or stain the wood, or paint it. Unless you think it will get wet, you won't really have to do that.

     If you should decide to put any kind of finish on yours, I recommend leaving at least a one to one-and-a-half inch radius area on top (around the stud) clear of any paint or finish. This is the area that will rub on the bottom of your lens tripod foot when you screw on the Flying Saucer Ball Head. The paint or finish here will probably get rubbed off anyway, and you don't want that coming off and staining or marking your lens finish. Just leave the wood natural and unfinished in that area.

Two views of the ball head with the Manfrotto
quick release clamp attached.
Update: After using the Flying Saucer Ball Head for some time, I decided to find a way to better balance my large lens on it. The lens was quite front heavy, despite the camera body's counterbalance. Eventually I decided to borrow my Manfrotto 357 Pro QR (quick release) adapter from the monopod I was using it on and try it on the ball head (shown below). This really did the trick. Now I have 3-1/2 inches of slide range to adjust the balance point, which allows perfect balance with the 500mm lens. This is the same quick release that comes on the Manfrotto 393 gimbal I use for this same lens, so switching back and forth is a snap. If you're using the Flying Saucer Ball Head for a very large lens that is front heavy when the foot is screwed directly to the ball head, try a quick release clamp that works with your equipment. It should solve the issue easily.