Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Grizzly Bean Bag

Photo of an empty Large Grizzly bean bag (available in both black and green from TheWildGrizzly.
In this review I will be testing the new Large Grizzly Bean Bag with another wildlife photographer, Stephen Presutti. We took the bag on a week-long birding trip along the West coast of FL, using it as support on car roofs, sandy beaches, shallow salt water lagoons, and muddy coastlines. We primarily used it to get low (more on why I like to get low here) and separate our subject from the background.

In short, the bean bag was everything it was supposed to be. It held up great through some tough terrain and most importantly it provided the support needed when using long telephoto lenses.

For this review, we used two different lenses: the Nikon 500 f/4 VR and the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 OS. Both are great for birding, but that's a topic for a different post.

Why a Bean Bag?
When using long telephoto lenses, a solid support is necessary. In most situations, a tripod is used for support, but there are some times and places where a tripod isn't suitable. For those cases, a sturdy bean bag can be used to create support for the lenses.
This is me supporting my 500 f/4 on top of the roof of a car with the Grizzly bean bag. Photo courtesy of Stephen Presutti. 
First Impressions
There are two things that I look for in a new product before buying: cost and quality. The first one is easy to assess, it's $45 for the large bag (Grizzly also sells a smaller version of the bag for $35). This is by far cheaper than some of the more well known brands out there (which can cost as much as $120 per bag). So, in terms of cost, we have a winner. First impressions on quality were great. The first thing I did when I took the bag out was to check over all of the stitches and zipper. I tugged here and there to make sure that everything was secure. So far so good, but the real quality test will come once I put the bag through its paces in some tough terrain.

One of the neat features about this bag is that its very simple to pack. It's less than half an inch thick when empty and weighs in at just a few ounces. I was able to pack it into my camera bag with no problem. So when going on long trips, I'll have no hesitation on bringing this guy with me - in fact, I'll make sure to bring it along!

It's important to note that Grizzly does not provide the fill material. That's a good thing, in my opinion, as I'm sure the cost of shipping would increase quite a bit! This also allows you to experiment with different fill materials. After a quick internet search (look here and here for some good information on density of different fills), I found that Sunflower seeds are some of the lowest density seeds available, so I opted for those as fill. I bought a 10 lb bag at my local grocery store and used about 2/3 of the seed to fill up the bean bag. The total weight, including fill, was XX lbs XX oz.
Black sunflower seed is low density (when compared to traditional grains) , so I decided to use it to keep the overall weight down while still providing good support. The total weight of the filled Grizzly bean bag is 6 lbs 11 oz.
In the Field
The main reason photographers buy a bean bag is to support their long lenses when shooting from within a vehicle (hence the U-shaped design). So of course, we tested that out. As expected it worked like a charm (as seen below).
Here is Steve using the Grizzly bean bag to provide support for his Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 lens.
But the real test for me was to use the bean bag in other conditions. In conditions that you may not think a bean bag should go. The fabric around the bean bag is stated to be "abrasion, water, mildew, and flame resistant" so why not test it out in some more punishing conditions?

So we headed to the beach! If there is anything worse than water, it's sandy salt water. Using the Grizzly bean bag, we were able to get down to eye-level with our subjects, allowing for a more intimate capture. Since we were out during low tide, the bean bag was the only thing between out lenses and the wet/muddy sand. It was much easier to set up than a tripod (basically put it on the ground and lay your lens on it) and much quicker to move around once on the ground as there is no need to get up to reposition, you can just drag the bag through the sand (remember it's abrasion, water, and mildew resistant!). The image below shows me on my belly in some wet sand getting photos of a least tern.

Grizzly bean bag being used at the beach to capture images of a Least Tern. The bean bag allowed for great stability while in a low position. Photo courtesy of Stephen Presutti.

Least Tern resting along a saltwater lagoon. Grizzly bean bag used for support on the sand.
500 mm | 1/1000" | f/8 | ISO 400
We put the bag through this type of terrain for five days. It was used in all kinds of weather (it even rained once when we were out) and of course, we dragged it through some mud (no photos of that since we were pretty filthy at the time). It supported our lenses on car hoods, roofs, and doors as well as the bow of a boat. And then, after a whole day of shooting, the bean bag slept in the trunk of the car - which proved that it was indeed mildew resistant since it didn't make the car smell like the inside of my soccer cleats after just one practice :)

Grizzly bean bag supporting the Nikon 500 f/4 on the bow of a boat. This resulted in some great shots of Pelicans in flight and Ospreys in their nest!
Brown Pelican using ground effect to help generate lift. Grizzly bean bag used for support on bow of boat.
1/2000" | f/8 | ISO 500
Osprey in nest. Grizzly bean bag used for support on console of boat.
1/1250" | f/6.3 | ISO 320
On the final day we took it a bit "easy" on ourselves and the bean bag. Instead of taking out out to salt water, mud, or sand, we decided to put it on some nice soft grass. We went to one (of many) local Burrowing owl sites and used the bean bag to get down low to the owl's height. Lucky for us, there were some juvenile owls in their burrows that didn't seemed too concerned about our presence.
Grizzly bean bag supporting the 500 f/4 in the evening light. Note the orientation of the bag allowed me to get a couple of inches higher. My hand left hand was used to control the manual focus ring, as there were a few branches between the lens and the owl that were confusing the auto-focus system. Image courtesy of Stephen Presutti.
Juvenile Burrowing owl yawning after a long day. Grizzly bean bag used for support at ground level, allowing for isolation of the owl from the background and giving an overall soft effect.
1/1250" | f/4 | ISO 1000
Overall I was impressed with the quality of the Grizzly bean bag. I was able to put it through a variety of situations and at the end of the day there wasn't a rip or evidence of degradation. It was dragged through sand, mud, and salt water. I wiped it off at the end of the day and it did it's job for me the following day. All in all, I would highly recommend the Grizzly bean bag to any photographer looking for solid support in various terrains. You really can't beat it for the price!

The Grizzly bean bag after a full day of shooting at the beach. Just wipe it off and it's ready to go to the next location.