Review: Apex Bean Bag from Essential Photo Gear

July 23rd, 2009 by Juan A. Pons

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to use and test the newly released Apex Bean Bag from Essential Photo Gear.

I have used bean bags for quite some time and find them indispensable when shooting wildlife from a vehicle. I have found bean bags to be a superior solution for in-vehicle mounts for several reasons, but most importantly because they provide a significant amount of vibration isolation compared to hard mounts, and for their versatility, you can use a bean bag in multiple situations not just when in a vehicle.

For the past 5-6 years I have been using a nice and simple bean bag from Kinesis, and it has served me well. It is of a decent size and has some useful features such as grip pads at the bottom and a strap to secure the bean bag to the vehicle. I even recommended this bean bag to the participants of my most recent photo workshop “Winter in Yellowstone”. However, I was disappointed to see that the strap that is so essential to securing the bag to the vehicle is no longer included in their “updated” design. A very regrettable omission.

Although traditional bean bags have worked well for me, I have often wished for a better design that provided both a more stable platform as well as multiple lens mounting options. This would be a bag that I would use mostly at those locations where I expect to use the bean bag a significant portion of the time; in places like Yellowstone and Pocosin Lakes NWR.

Enter the Apex Bean Bag:

Apex Bean Bag with a Wimberley Head Version II

Apex Bean Bag with a Gimbal Head

When I first saw images of this bean bag, I have to admit, I was skeptical about it’s non traditional design, also the bag looked way too big and too heavy, and I was not sure I really would want to have my gimbal tripod head on this thing. One of the advantages of using a bean bag is the speed at which you can take a shot after stopping and turning off your vehicle, since normally I would simply leave the bean bag draped over the window opening on the door and place the lens right on top. Having a tripod head would mean I would need to mount the lens on the head and then balance it, something that normally takes time. However as I thought critically about my bean bag usage, I realized that I just as often take some quick shots and move on as I linger on those more cooperative subjects. For those times that I linger, I have found the traditional bean bag a hassle, for two reasons, first I have to constantly have a good grip on my lens and camera, as it is very precariously balanced and could easily fall if I am not paying attention, and second, the traditional bean bags most often do not provide enough “lift” from the window sill, and consequently I find myself peering thru my viewfinder with a crooked and tilted head. Oftentimes this translates into crooked images.

The Apex Bean Bag solves both of these problems, read on to find out how.

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After receiving my review sample from EPG I quickly wanted to inspect the packaging and workmanship of the bag, and I have to say that I was very impressed. Right away it was clear to me that EPG took great care and pride in both their packaging and workmanship of the bag, packaging was simple but effective, minimizing the amount of waste, something I very much appreciate. The Bean Bag itself came in a simple and tough “zip lock” type bag and included some straightforward but welcome instructions. Included in the package were:

  • The Bean Bag itself
  • Instructions on filling and usage
  • Metal Plate with treaded screw in it’s own pouch
  • One white and one black (not pictured) nylon washers

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The workmanship on the bag is top notch, and it’s readily apparent that a lot of thought went into the design of this bag. The material used on the underside of the bag is very grippy preventing the bag from slipping once mounted on your vehicle. Additionally, two pockets, one large and one small, as well as an attachment loop have been designed into the bag providing some very handy extra storage and attachment options.

For a filler material I normally use bird seed, more specifically black oil sunflower seed. The reason for this is that I normally have lots of it for my bird feeders, it’s readily available and when I travel I am able to discard the seeds before retuning home while at the same time provide some of the local birds with a nice meal.

Filling a bag of this size takes a lot of sunflower seed. When filled my bag weighs in at 13.5 lbs!

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Filling this bag is a two stage process. Because of it’s U shape, you want to fill the “leg” opposite the fill zipper first. Once that side is full, you then want to position the bag upside down and completely fill the “leg” with the fill zipper, as illustrated in the pictures above.

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Once full, you can slip in the aluminum plate with the threaded bolt. You would only use this plate when using a tripod head. When resting your lens directly on the bean bag you want to remove the plate and store it in the included pouch.

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One of the best features of the Apex Bean Bag are the straps sewn into each leg, these straps provide a very easy and convenient way to securely fasten the bag to your vehicle (or anything else), preventing the bag from slipping or falling, and allowing you to drive short distances without worry.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that one of the drawbacks of traditional is that they oftentimes do not provide enough “lift” from your vehicle window sill causing you to look thru your cameras viewfinder in an uncomfortable position. The Apex Bean Bag when full, provides approximately 4 inches of lift from your window sill. Depending on your vehicle and your height, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. Let me explain:

I am of average height (5′ 8″) and have a smaller SUV (Honda CRV), when I use the Apex Bean Bag with my gimbal head Version II, the “lift” or height of the Apex Bean Bag works against me, as the camera is just a bit too high, very close to the vehicles ceiling, thus forcing me to lift myself a bit from my seat to be able to look thru the viewfinder. However, when placing my lens directly on the bean bag, with no plate, or with when using the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, the “lift” is just perfect for me.

Top Left: Wimberley Head Version II, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

Top Left: Gimbal Head, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

As illustrated in these series of images, you can see that when using either the gimbal head or the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead and the Wimberley Sidekick the camera and lens combination is too high for me based on both my vehicle and my own height. When using just the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead or simply placing the lens directly on the bean bag with out the plate, the height works much more in my favor.

Top Left: Wimberley Head Version II, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

Top Left: Gimbal Head, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

Here is another view providing an unobstructed view of the support systems.

Top Left: Wimberley Head Version II, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

Top Left: Gimbal Head, Top Right: RRS BH-55 and Wimberley Sidekick, Bottom Left: RRS BH-55, Bottom Right: No plate

One more view, this time from the inside of the vehicle.

Your experience may be different than mine, mostly dependent on your vehicle, your height and what kind of adjustments your vehicle seat provides.

Besides using the Apex Bean Bag draped over your window sill, as illustrated above, you can invert it and use it as an incredibly stable support for your long lenses from any flat surface, by placing your lens between the two legs of the bean bag. I can tell you from experience that this provides a much more stable platform than a traditional bean bag. So much so that I don’t hesitate leaving my 500mm lens cradled by the bean bag on my vehicles hood. Just make sure to remove the aluminum plate before placing it in the inverted position, or the threaded screw will do a nasty job on your vehicle.

At $129.95, the Apex Bean Bag is pricier than other bags, however the versatility offered by this bean bag is unparalleled in my opinion, as it provides you with more mounting & support options than any other bag.

Overall I have to say that I am very pleased with the Apex Bean bag and HIGHLY recommend it. I think it is truly an innovative design that addresses some of the most pressing shortcomings of traditional bean bags. Having said that, this does not mean that I will be trowing away my old bean bag, it will still come in handy on some occasions, specially when needing to travel light, but for the bulk of my bean bag use I will be relying on the Apex Bean Bag from now on.

You can purchase your own Apex Bean Bag directly from Outdoor Photo Gear at: http://www.outdoorphotogear.com/store/apex-bean-bag.html.

As always, if you have any questions or comments use the comments section below or you can reach me via twitter at http://twitter.com/jpons.

Juan

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