I do a lot of wildlife photography from my car using a heavy Canon super-telephoto lens as my main lens. A few months ago I read about a new type of window mount that is very light and inexpensive, so I ordered one. It’s called a Puffin Pad. Together with my Kirk Window Mount and my BLUBB bean bag I now have three window mounts. I use the term “window mount” loosely here. The Kirk is the only one of the three that “mounts” to the window, but I couldn’t think of a better term to cover all three. In any event, I’ve used all three now and I want to pass along my thoughts on them to those who may be contemplating the purchase of a window mount.
I have attached all three of them to the driver’s side window area of my 2011 Subaru Outback. From left they are: (1) the BLUBB bean bag, (2) the Kirk Window Mount (which requires a separate tripod head) and (3) the Puffin Pad. By the way, when I mounted the Kirk I just lowered it onto the top of the window without trying to level it. It can be mounted so it’s parallel to the ground on a sloping window. Note the slope of the Outback’s window along almost its entire length and where it disappears into the door.
There are some things I want to point out at the beginning. First, if you’re not using a super-telephoto lens, a window mount may not be needed. If I were using a Canon 300mm f/4, 400mm f/5.6, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 or some other relatively light lens I wouldn’t normally bother with a window mount. Second, your vehicle may greatly influence which window mount is best for you. Some things to keep in mind in this regard are how steep the slant of your window is from rear to front and how far forward you like your seat to be. If your window disappears into your door fairly abruptly (as mine does) and you like your seat to be fairly far forward (which I don’t), you may not have enough window showing above the sill to work for you with the Kirk or the Puffin Pad, especially if you like to stop well before you pull up to that bird on the fence post across the road to minimize spooking it. Another thing to keep in mind for all three mounts is that power windows can cause damage, especially if your windows have an “auto” feature (auto up or down). This can lead to a broken window, damaged window motor and/or damaged lens. I always remove the lens and window mount before operating the window for those times when I want to raise or lower the window a bit.
Kirk Window Mount. I bought my Kirk Window Mount in 2005. I used it for all vehicle-based shooting with a super telephoto lens until about 2008. It is nicely machined, weighs about 3 pounds and costs $250.00. You need to add a tripod head to it to use it. I use a Wimberley Head. When mounted on my driver’s side window with my Wimberley head attached, it provides a very solid mount and it allows for very sharp images at relatively low shutter speeds (provided there is no significant wind). You can lock it down. If you’re going to be in one spot for a while I think this is the best mount to use, especially when the light is low.
However, it has some significant shortcomings. You have to put the window down to just the right point for the clamp to grip the window without being too high or too low. You’ll get the hang of that after a while. Next, you have to tighten the clamp on the window. You’ll also want to have your tripod head already attached to the Kirk. (Hopefully, you did that when you finished photographing those coyotes fifteen minutes ago using your tripod. If it’s still on the tripod you’re out of luck.) Finally, you need to mount the lens to the head. All this takes a lot of time. It can also be a hassle switching the tripod head from the Kirk to your tripod and back again many times during the day. One solution is to have two tripod heads, but that can be expensive. Wimberley heads, for example, cost $595. Another little problem if you use a Wimberley head is that the lower knob on the Wimberley will hit the window as you pan to the right. To solve that problem I put the head on the reverse of how I use it on a tripod, but then I am limited panning left which I sometimes need to do. (Panning left much is problematic anyway though because the steering wheel and the door, in combination with the location of the window mount, make it difficult to turn your body to pan much to the left.) There are other fixed window mounts, but I think the Kirk is the best.
BLUBB Bean Bag. I bought this bean bag in 2008 or so. It weighs about 16 pounds filled with pinto beans and costs about $100 (plus beans). It seems durable and well made. After I tried it I stopped using the Kirk. It rides on the console next to me. I rarely feel the need to do anything with the window, height-wise. I like that it is very fast to use. Open the window all the way, grab the bean bag and place it on the windowsill, put the lens on the bag and shoot. No need to get the window to the right height and then needing to tighten the clamp until the Kirk fits tight on the window and then sliding the lens plate into the head and then tightening the lens plate clamp. I also like the fact that the top of the bag is concave which helps “nestle” or hold the lens in the bag, yet doesn’t prevent panning. See photo above. Some claim a ground pod on the lens foot makes panning easier, but I prefer panning without one. BTW, I keep the lens foot at nine o’clock and hold it with my left hand. There’s also no need to remove the Wimberley head from my tripod to use the bean bag which is a big plus to me.
On the negative side, at 16 pounds the bag is heavy. It will be a hassle for some people to lift onto the windowsill and off again numerous times a day. (The same can be said for the 10 to 15 pound lens and camera combo regardless of any window mount.) I keep the BLUBB on the console next to me so I don’t have to move it far. The lens/camera combo is kept on the passenger seat. If you’re going on a flight and want to take the bag you’ll have to empty it, get new beans (or bird seed) at your destination and then fill it. Emptying and filling is a bit of a hassle (especially filling), but it’s also nice that when empty it packs about as flat as a T-shirt. Also, with the bag you can’t lock the lens down like you can with the Kirk. If you have a very low light situation and a stationary subject I think the Kirk will produce sharper images than a bean bag, although I haven’t actually done a comparison test at very slow shutter speeds. There are other bean bags out there. I haven’t tried them. All I know is the BLUBB has served me well for the past three years and it shows no signs of wearing out.
Puffin Pad. The Puffin Pad is what caused me to think about doing a review of window mounts. When I first learned of it I was hoping it would save me from slinging that 16 pound bean bag on and off my window 20 to 30 times a day. So, how does it compare to the other two? On the plus side, it is very light, relatively small and inexpensive ($30.00). It’s quicker to use than the Kirk. Because it is small and low in profile, I need to raise my window a bit more than the Kirk to use it. When I do that the concave bottom, which is supposed to fit over the windowsill (but doesn’t match my car’s sill very well), is far above the windowsill and thus rendered useless. See photo.
It may not matter though. I came to just forget about the fact that the bottom doesn’t touch my sill when I used it. The fairly steep slope of my window means it’s also always slanted downward to some extent at the front end where I need the pad to be on my window for my ergonomics. Unlike the Kirk, you can’t adjust it to be level with the ground regardless of the slant of the window. See photo.
I’ve come to see the Puffin Pad as basically a cushion between the hard window edge and the hard lens. It reminds me of a piece of foam pipe insulation in function. Foam pipe insulation is commonly used on tripod legs.
The Puffin Pad may work well for some people in some vehicles, but it doesn’t work for me in my vehicle. For me and my car I think it would be better if it were a bit taller with a deeper slit for the window. I’d get rid of the circular bore through it (I don’t want it to rock) and I’d make it a bit wider because I’d like to have some more space for the lens and my left hand holding the lens foot, especially when panning. For now, I’ll keep using the bean bag.
Summary. All three choices have pros and cons. The BLUBB bean bag is my first choice overall. It’s quick and simple, albeit heavy. If I see something to photograph I just put the window down all the way (if it’s not already down), pull over, lay the bag on the sill, put the lens/camera combo on it and shoot. I think the Kirk would outperform the bean bag when the light is very low and slow shutter speeds are required. I can even see it being used for long-exposure landscape photos if the car isn’t being affected by wind. It is rock-solid. As for the Puffin Pad, it doesn’t work well enough for me and my car to replace my bean bag. I’d like to try it again if it had the changes I mentioned above. I should also mention that sometimes I find using none of the above works best. If I see a real skittish subject, like a kestrel sitting on a fence post close to the road, I just hit the down button for the window, pull over, grab the lens and shoot. I use the windowsill under my arm for support. After I’ve gotten some images, if that kestrel is still there I may slowly pull the lens in, slowly put the bag on the windowsill and resume shooting. If the kestrel has taken off during all of that I’ve at least gotten some photos without a window mount. Hopefully, they’re sharp.