Finding the perfect photo bean bag for safari

October 2, 2009
By

Well, that is what I planned to title the article.  I spent two weeks examining more than a dozen different bean bag designs for supporting camera and telephoto lens on safari.  I developed a rating system and thought I could come up with the one true winner. It doesn’t work that way – life just isn’t that simple.

A real bean bag - Let's hope we can find you something better than this!

A real bean bag - Let's hope we can find you something better than this! Photo by EduardM @ Outdoorphoto.co.za

As I reviewed each of the 21 different bags (and a summary review will be posted) and considered how one needs a bean bag on safari, I concluded that it is very safari dependent.  Make no mistake – YOU NEED A BEAN BAG!  The question is which bag….but to answer that question; you will have to decide which type safari you will be taking.

Okay, enough with the confusing double talk.  Here is what I mean: the right bean bag support for a vehicle window is probably not the same bean bag one would choose if support is needed in a more open “tour style” safari bush vehicle.  There is some overlap.  For example, if one is shooting through a roof opening, using the rooftop as a base, many different bags will work…Some more portable and some more stable, but those compromises will be discussed.

For lack of a better descriptor, I will classify the bags into two main categories – full supports and sack supports.  By coincidence, we found an equal number of each type. Both types of supports can be transported empty and filled once you get to your destination.  I highly recommend this as a) full bags are heavy and there are constantly more flight restrictions on weight, b) full bags take up valuable packing room and c) bag fill material can easily be acquired anywhere in the world at a low cost.

If you want to jump to the conclusions and recommendations, you can click here for our full support bag recommendation or click here for our sack type recommendation.  A word of warning, if you jump to the ending, you may miss our discussions on designs for “do it yourself” (DIY) bags, which can provide a real cost savings or our review of fill materials you should consider.

Criteria for judging

Judging was based on a 1 to 5 ranking of each of the category bags for each of the 13 criteria chosen. A forced ranking was considered, but for some criteria, the completion is so close that this created an unfair skewing of results. Understandably, not all criteria are equally important, so a subjective, experience based multiplier was applied to each criteria.  This process may sound complex, but was really pretty easy. To better understand our recommendations, I would like to present the criteria used in comparison in order of importance we chose (note: for your use, the criteria order may change):

  • Stability – The most critical factor.  If the bag does not create a rock solid platform, it will be of little use at slower shutter speeds (defined here as shutter speeds less than lens size in mm – in other words, a 1/200 sec shutter speed is slow on a 400mm focal length, but adequate on a 100mm lens)
  • Ease of use – A critical factor.  If it is too much of a hassle to set up the bean bag it will not often be used.  If it is too slow to set up the bean bag, you will not be able to quickly respond to situations as they develop.
  • Applicability for 100-400mm zoom and 600mm prime lens – A critical factor.  Photo safaris are primarily about telephoto and super telephoto lenses.  To get the right shot, a few different sizes need to be accommodated.  While our review was based on Canon lenses, we feel the results would be valid for the famed Nikon 200-400 f4 and for many of the Sigma and other lenses found on safari.
  • Flexibility – A very important factor.  For most, a high percentage of your shots will be from a truck, car, or similar safari vehicle.  However, a Chobe safari should always also consider support when shooting from a pontoon boat or similar.  Further, events may occur when one wants to shoot from the hood of a car or even while lying on the ground.  A good beanbag will be a stable support in these settings also.
  • Shooting comfort height – An important factor.  Unfortunately, this is also a function of the vehicle.  For our consideration, we used the doorway of a Toyota HiLux (Tacoma) and also the doorway of a BMW X5 SUV.  I have used beanbags that were at the wrong height.  If you are young and flexible, this may not be a big deal, but for the writer (age 54), bush drive after bush drive of doing track seat yoga gets old and leads to an unneeded stiff neck.
  • Ability to take attachments (i.e. panning plate, Wembley style supports, ball head supports, etc.) – This feature is important for several reasons.  It can help one overcome the limitation of comfortable shooting height noted above.  Attachments also can allow panning of running/flying animals and easier shooting of birds, monkeys and baboons high in a tree.
  • Quality of construction – An important factor.  It is quite frustrating to have beans dribbling out of your bag every time you use it.  Further, if well constructed, one bag can last a lifetime of photography.
  • Portability – Important.  If it is a pain to pack for travel, you will not take it.  If it is a pain to lug in and out of the vehicle back at the lodge, you will not take it.
  • Price – Of interest.  Even the most expensive bean bag is cheaper than a tripod, camera bag or a good lens.  At the same time, it’s just a bean bag.
  • Applicability for smaller lens use (typically 100mm and less) – Worth consideration. On safari, you will occasionally want to shoot a landscape or other scene in low light/slow shutter speed.  Mostly likely at sunrise or sunset.  Regardless of lens size, the beanbag will allow these shots to be sharper.  You will also want to use the bean bag “back home” where your smaller lenses often
  • Ease of acquiring this bag (in the US) – Can’t be ignored.  I searched a lot harder than most would to discover bean bag options.  We have provided links that will help you on the harder to find bags.  That said, if a bag has to be custom made or shipped from (for example) South Africa, then lead time and/or likelihood of your purchasing the product is affected.  Of course we realize that South African readers may put priority to locally made bags over a bag made in the US.
  • Water resistance – A consideration. A Chobe safari in June through August will most assuredly be rain free.  That will not stop you from spilling your water bottle on your bag.  Additionally, you will likely be using this handy support when at home.  Beans and other organic filler do not mix well with water – and you definitely don’t want mold growing on a support for your lens/body.
  • Attaching for security – A consideration.  While on a “booze cruise”, one of my fellow photographers was able to use straps attached to his bean bag to secure his bag to a “tee” on the railing of the pontoon boat.  This provided a more stable support that was also less likely to fall overboard.  Strap attachments also allow one to better secure the bag in the vehicle – and you will likely want to cruise along within Chobe with window open and bean bag sitting on the window ledge.

Full supports Bag Reviews

Full support bags are primarily designed for use on the window ledge of vehicles.  All of these bags are fairly large and are designed to conform to the shape of the window ledge.  Most of the bags are either “U shaped” (see image) or “H shaped” designs (see image). Being large, they require more fill/beans and, consequently, are heavier.  This weight may hurt portability, but generally will help bag stability.  These bags are my choice as a primary bean bag on a self drive safari. The full support bags include (in no order): Badger Gear Snugfit, The Molar, The BLUBB, Apex, Wildlife Watching Supplies, Wildlife Imaging, Wildlife Studio Delux Bean Bag, Lenzz-Rezzt, The Shapeshifter, and The Butterfly DIY bean bag.

Badger bean bag with panning plate

Badger bean bag with panning plate

  • The Badger Gear Snugfit – This beanbag is a “U shape” bag and is offered on-line via OutdoorPhoto, a South African forum with a focus on wildlife images and discussions.  The bag costs 290 rand ($39 at time of this article) plus shipping and ships empty.   Filled with beans, the bag weighs in at 10 pounds. There are several interesting features on this bag: 1) it was designed to accommodate a Swiss-Arca style panning plate.  The plate is pricey but allows for panning shots and also opens the door for various mount supports (ball type or Wembley type.  2) It has straps.  The straps are designed for carrying, but I have seen them used to help secure the beanbag.
  • The Molar Bean Bag™ –The makers of the Molar claim it is shaped like a tooth molar.  While I basically agree, we will stay consistent in this discussion and classify this as a “U shaped” bag. The bag costs $39 plus $7 shipping Shipped empty) within the US.  When full, the olive drab colored bag is approximately 10” (L) x 8” (W) x 11” (H).  Filled with beans the bag weighs in at a whopping 18 pounds.  With sunflower seeds, the bag weighs 12 pounds. The Molar Bean Bag™ is made out of 420 denier nylon pack cloth. This cloth has a water repellent finish to keep water out of the bag. The opening for the bag is closed with a top quality YKK zipper. Every Molar Bean Bag™ is individually hot cut to seal all edges and prevent raveling. Every seam is double stitched and sewn with nylon thread used in the parachute industry. Every Molar Bean Bag™ has two nylon straps for carrying handles. These handles can also be used as attachment straps to secure the bean bag in place. Additionally bungee cords or any kind of cord can be used to secure the bag.
  • The Molar TV (travel version) – Is a smaller version of the Molar Bean Bag™ described above.  Obviously, it is also a “U shape” bag. The bag’s construction is like its big brother, except for a canvas pad has been added to the top surface of the bag as some had complained the nylon was a little slippery.  This diminutive option measures approximately 7.5” (L) x 6.5” (W) x 8.5” (H).  Filled with beans the bag weighs about 8 pounds, less than half of the larger version.  While smaller, this version is actually $10 more expensive, costing $49 plus $7 shipping (shipped empty).
The BAA BLUBB - largest of the bags

The BAA BLUBB - largest of the bags

  • The BAA BLUBB – Designed by Arthur Morris, the BLUBB is another “U shape” bag and is large measuring roughly 12”(W) X 6”(D) X 10″(H).  Filled with beans, it will weigh nearly 20 pounds. (Note: web site lists weight at 16 pounds filled). The BLUBB costs you $100 (shipped empty, no beans included) plus $6 shipping.  The BLUBB is made of durable nylon pack cloth and each section is individually hot-cut to sear the edges to prevent raveling.  As nylon can be rather noisy and slippery, the surface that the lens is placed on has a layer of heavy duty cotton duck fabric sewn on top of the nylon fabric.  The entire upper surface of the BLUBB is concave so that the lens will stay put. All of the fabrics have a water-repellent (but not water-proof) finish. The entire bag is sewn with nylon thread used in the parachute industry. The bag closes with a top quality YKK nylon zipper. All seams are sewn twice to help prevent failure. The bags are made in the USA and each is individually hand-sewn.
  • The Apex Bean Bag™ – Yet another “U shape” bag is the Apex Bean Bag™ by Essential Photo Gear.  The bag with plate (read on) is $129. This monster bag weighs over 20 pounds filled. The bag comes in black and camo green colors and is made of tightly woven heavy-duty nylon pack cloth and sewn with high tensile nylon thread. The design is unique in that the top is designed to be a stable platform for attaching your ballhead or gimbal head, allowing you to track, pan, auto-focus, without the problems typically associated with bean bag use. The flat top provides a highly stable surface for lens support on its own, while also allowing the bag to be easily inverted for use on a car hood or the ground. Each Apex Bean Bag is provided with an aluminum plate that can be inserted into the top pocket of the bag for a tripod head. The aluminum plate can be removed when desired to use as a regular soft shell bean bag. The U shaped portion is covered in a high-tack material to insure the bag stays where it is positioned. The strap design allows the bean bag to be securely fastened to a vehicle door handle, rail, beam, etc as well as offering an easy means of carry. The fill zipper is covered with a weather resistant flap, logically positioned in an easy to fill location. The bottom line is that this is one sturdy, well-made bean bag. It supported my camera and lens better than any other I have tried. It is stable solution but very large. It may or may not be too big for your application. Further, with ball head or Wembley attached, it may be too tall for comfortable use with your vehicle.
  • Wildlife Watching Supplies (WWS) – WWS is a British company that offers several size bean bags.  Many are of the “H shaped design”, known by WWs as a “double bean bag”.  The C14.3 is the most popular size and is £43.50 ($70 as of this article) plus international shipping.  The bean filled bag will weigh about 15 pounds.  The bag is camo green in color. Of interest is that this bag comes with plastic liners which you fill with beans.  This seems like a very sensible idea. Using the double bean bag with liners makes the bean bag more adaptable as you can take one liner out and use the bag at half the weight. It would then be lighter to carry around and could be used instead of a tripod. Ideal for travelling abroad as you can fill the liners with beans or rice when you arrive. The easier it is to transport around the more you’ll use it. This bag includes a detachable padded shoulder strap which makes this bean bag easy to carry around. The strap can also be used to aid in securing the bag within the vehicle. Of course it is worth mentioning that this particular version is a large bag and depending on what you fill it with it is going to be heavy. But the versatility it offers thanks to both that strap and by using two filled liners inside make this a great bag. The bag is ideal for use on a Safari vehicle because they are large enough to support a heavy long lens on the vehicles roof.
Wildlife Images bean bag

Wildlife Images bean bag

  • Wildlife Imaging Bean Bag – The Wildlife Imaging bag is a “U shape” bag in buff color.  The bag costs $64.95 plus shipping.  This is a medium sized bag for this group, with dimensions of 7”(L) x 8”(W) x 9” (H). Filled with beans, the bag will weigh 12 pounds. The more compact size makes it easier to handle and less expensive to fill – remember beans either here or Africa will run about $1 per pound. The soft, non-scratch material on the top and underside help protect your car and your gear. The zippered enclosure allows you to fill and empty the beanbag at any time with the fill of your choice. Two handles can be closed with Velcro, resulting in a sturdy base for use on the ground or hood of a car.
  • Wildlife Studio Delux Bean Bag – The Wildlife Studio has a web site with limited functionality run by Ian Andrews.  Due to site limitations, we were unable to get a copy of this bag.  I did find a review at ephotozine that gave a reasonably positive review on the bag.  The bag costs a reasonable £12.95 ($21 at time of this article).  While the review is good, the reviewer was not using a super-telephoto lens.  Since the dimensions are only 3” x 3” x 8”, I think the bag is actually too small to be a stable vehicle window support, but it may work for a rooftop.  The bottom line – when evaluating this bag, I think it is most reasonable to compare it to “The Pod” which we also review.  The bag is probably adequate for a 100-400mm telephoto when used from a vehicle rooftop or hood, but is judged inadequate as a solid window support.  As of this post, the “shop” link is not working at The Wildlife Studio site.
  • The Lenzz-Rezzt Bean Bag – This is an “H shaped design” bag and is another South African bag, manufactured in the fishing village of Paternoster. The earth-toned bag costs 280 rand ($38 at time of this article) plus shipping and ships empty.  The Lenzz-Rezzt is made from durable, washable fabric with a 2-part designed to work on flat and sharp surfaces (e.g. a car window) alike. It has two carrying straps for easy handling. It is approximately 9” (L) x 5.25” (W) x 6” (H) (full) and comes pre-filled with plastic pellets.  Filled with the plastic pellets, the bag weights about 4 pounds, with beans it weighs about 6 pounds. It has a zip and can be emptied for ease of transport and refilled with the fill of your choice.
  • The Shapeshifter bean bagMandys Your Choice offers a number of bag sizes and designs. For our review, we have chosen the large Shapeshifter which is a 10” x 10” x 10” “H shaped design”.  A virtual pillow in an “H” shape.  The price is right at £18.95 ($31 at time of article) plus shipping for this water resistant bag which comes in many colors.  I am not sure if this is a plus or minus or just a fact, but you can find many of their bags listed on eBay. The downside to the bag we reviewed is that the makers of this bag are not photography people, so they did not consider straps, special surfaces, or the need for extra strong stitching.  Related to construction of this bag, reviews by others on this bag have been mixed.  Bottom line: Not a bad design and reasonable value, but we must say buyer beware.
  • DIY “U shape” bag design – This design is by Fred Hurteau. Fred refers to his design as a “butterfly design”, but we will refer to it as a “U shape” to stay consistent with other bags in this article. Working with my sister (who can sew), I used this link and made two of these bags (one for me and one for my son) for my last trip to Chobe NP.  Total cost of materials was less than $10! The bag dimensions were approximately 10” (W) x 8” (D) x 11” (H). We double stitched all seams. Since these were ‘prototype’ and because we knew the weather in Kasane would be dry, we used a non-waterproof, camo fabric.  Once finished, I did spray the bag with a waterproofing spray. This DIY bag performed well, but with some minor issues.  First the good – the tubular legs did provide more rigidity in the legs that other “U shaped” bags I examined.  Further to the good, the sewn gussets that create the tubular legs also significantly reduced the amount of beans required and the resulting weight.  My bag required 6 pounds of beans (or 4 pounds of sunflower seeds).  Areas for improvement:  The bag is designed with a ~4” opening on each side for filling the bag.  We sewed heavy duty Velcro in the opening.  This did not create an adequate seal and I had to be careful of leaking beans into my vehicle.  We used the Velcro, because it was hard to find a zipper small enough.  I suggest that if you construct this bag; leave the opening wide enough for installing a standard, heavy duty zipper.  Otherwise, this was a great DIY project.

I also think the leg design leads to the bag sitting slightly higher on the window ledge. While I had my sisters’ commitment, I also made 2 basic rectangular beanbags which were 5”x 12”.  These were used as a) stabilizing weight on top of the lens or b) between the lens and “U shaped” bag as a height booster.

  • DIY “H shaped” bag design – This design is by Scott Fairbairn.  He refers to it as a BSD – Bean Stabilizing Device.  The filled bag will weigh 10 pounds and is about 13” (W) x 12” (D) x 8” (H).  Total cost of the bag is less than $10! Variations of this design were the most popular DIY design I saw in my last trip to Africa.  There is good reason:  if you compare the construction challenge of this bag to the construction needed for our “U shaped” DIY bag, you will see that this is much simpler to make. Scott has a couple of great notes near the bottom, namely, make sure you consider a 6” zipper so you can use this for travel and also seriously consider using the Ziploc bag idea for creating easily removed inserts.

Sack supports

Sack supports are generally smaller, with a few exceptions and are a more basic shape (being a more basic shape, it is not unexpected that more DIY options exist for this style).  These bags can be used as primary supports, but can also be used as “height boosters” for full support bags and/or as additional “anti-vibration support” to a primary support when placed on top of the supported lens.  This type bag may be most flexible when traveling in a group safari where shooting is from a commercial safari vehicle. In East Africa (principally Kenya and Tanzania) the solution is very low-tech: beanbags. Safari vehicles are typically either Toyota Land Cruisers or minivans. You shoot either by standing up—if the vehicles have a roof-top hatch—or by rolling down the windows and placing the beanbag on the sill of the car window. The roof hatch is the less restrictive of the two options. Beanbags are so convenient for East African photography that they dominate every other approach. The sack support bags include (in no order): The Pod, Novoflex bean bag, Kenesis “Safari Sack”, Ikan Camera Cradle, Vested Interest Bean Bag, and four DIY bags.

  • Kenesis SafariSack I™ – This is one of the most popular bags for general safari.  It purchased unfilled, it costs $29 plus shipping. Originally designed for photographers shooting in Africa, the SafariSack™ bean bag features a single compartment constructed of tough 500 denier DuPont Cordura® Plus nylon. SafariSacks™ are double stitched for extra strength, and come with non-slip Toughtek fabric on the bottom. The SafariSack™ is pretty basic, but quite adjustable.  It is a flat bag, about 10″ x 16″ which is and weighs about 9 pounds filled with beans. It has adjustable side straps which allow it to be used in an upside down “A” configuration in which the crossbar of the “A” is the stabilizing strap. This allows the bag to be raised slightly from a surface to cradle a lens, or to be draped over a car window when shooting from a vehicle. The bag also has an adjustable handle which can be extended into a shoulder strap for easy carrying.  The bag appears to be well made and has a single zipper so the bag can be filled or emptied easily. It can also be used on top of a lens to damp out vibrations or as a ballast to stabilize a small tripod or light stand.
  • The Vested Interest Safari Bean Bag© – This bag filled is 11” (W) x 7” (D) x 3” (H), comes in a Black, Gray, Tan, Olive Green or Camouflage. Cost is $35 plus $5 shipping. These bags are made out of durable water-repellent nylon pack cloth. They close with a strong YKK zipper. They are individually hot cut to prevent seam failure. All seams are double stitched to prevent failure. Each bag has multiple straps with quick release hardware. They can be stacked, folded, or strapped onto a window mount or roof of a vehicle.  I am particularly impressed with all of the quick release straps, which allows flexibility in securing the bag.  I have not used this bag on safari, but a curious enough that I plan to acquire one for further testing.
  • The Novoflex Telesack Bean Bag – At 7.9″ square the bag is a little smaller than many reviewed.  The bag has a tough external leather covering. That makes it both durable and great at grabbing the camera.  The inside of the bag is lined with a waterproof coating so that you could even use damp sand if needed.
The Pod in red showing the mounting lug

The Pod in red showing the mounting lug

  • The Pod – The Pod comes in several different colors coded sizes: Red, Yellow, Blue, Black, Green and Silver.  One of the neat things about the pod is that all models have a threaded stub on top for securing either the camera body or lens foot. The Silver and the black (either is $49 to $38) are the largest version with a 7.5” diameter x 3” height and weighs 2.66 pounds when filled with the plastic pellets with which it is shipped.  All versions of the pod are zippered and one could carry empty.  I would expect these versions to weight about 4 to 5 pounds filled with beans.  This version of the bag has side lugs to use straps to secure the lens.  The difference in the two models is that one has the threaded fitting in the center of the top (black) and the other has the fitting offset from center (Silver). The green and red Pod versions are the most popular sizes.  Both are 5” diameter and 2” deep and cost $27 to $20, depending on store.  The green has the offset fitting and the red has the center fitting.  The yellow and blue versions are smaller and really not big enough to support a dSLR or larger lens.  I personally own a red Pod, which I used on my safari in 2007 with my Canon 30D and a 100-400L IS lens.  The pod was small and versatile, but was not a truly stable support for the vehicle and performed okay, but not great with the 100-400 zoom lens.  With smaller lenses, the Pod was satisfactory.  I know of one annual safari enthusiast who feels the Pod is perfect due to the compact size and ease of filling/carrying.  I personally plan to use larger bean bags on all future trips into the bush.
  • The Ikan CameraCradle – The CameraCradle ($90) is designed to comfortably hold and stabilize a professional video camera for extended lengths of time. It should also work well with telephoto lenses on a dSLR.  Dimensions are 19” (L) x 13”(W) x 7.5” (H) and weights a mere 2 pounds filled with the plastic beads. My guess is that it would weight about 5 to 6 pounds with beans. Per their ad, it has a padded shoulder strap and an adjustable waist belt (with a sewn-in loop and carabineer for holding extra cables). Also includes two straps to safely hold your camera in place. The CameraCradle claims to be made of a durable material. There are also two side pockets.  The bag looks interesting, but was not tested first hand and I could not find reviews on this product.
  • Photo Bean Bag by Cazbeanz – Cazbeanz exists today.  Will it exist tomorrow?  This company and web site was developed when quality, low cost bags could not be obtained by ‘Dad’.  It appears these bags are made by a college student with a strong textile background.  Since the owner admits currently studying at a theater/music school, I am not sure where this business goes.  That said, the product description shows good knowledge of material selection and product construction … and how many follow-up purchases to you actually need?  Cazbeanz makes bags of various sizes.  The bags are of a pillow design with a side zipper, with the largest noted on the site being  9” x 13”.  The bags are made in the UK and  can be bought using PayPal, with the large bag selling for $12 ($22 with side carrying straps) plus shipping.  The bag was not tested first hand.
Snir Golan's DUY bean bag

Snir Golan's DUY bean bag

  • DIY bean bag by Snir Golan – Mr. Golan longed for a Kenesis, but didn’t want to spend the $$$ required for a mere beanbag.  Using some basic sewing skills and a laundry bag bought at his local army/navy store, he constructed a serviceable 12” x 14” bag for only $6 plus time to sew in the zipper.  Snir notes that the bag can also be used as ballast for a tripod in windy conditions.  While the bag isn’t waterproof, it’s a pretty good solution for a quick beanbag.  The one issue I see is that since the large bag does not have individual chambers, I am not sure, when used for a vehicle and positioned over a window opening, how much padding exists directly under the lens being supported. A link to the finished project and discussion on use is found here.
  • Budget DIY bag by Ron Spomer – In this article from www.Mother Earth News.com, Ron discusses details for construction, including material selection, but doesn’t give specific pattern or design.  A good read if you want to build your own, but you will want to review other DIY options listed in this article.  As a compliment to this DIY design, I present an idea I have heard by several in the past – old pants!  Simply cut out the thigh section of a pair of old pants, double stitch sew one end and insert a heavy metal zipper in the other end.  Voila! A quick 10” by any length bag.  Similarly, I have heard, but never seen, a design that utilizes small child short pants – about size 2 or 3.  By sewing shut the legs and inserting a zipper along the waist, you could create a “V” shaped bag which would be quite stable on a vehicle window frame or, if inverted, a stable base on a rooftop.
  • DIY ‘pencil case’ beanbag – This link take you to a budget solution listed on www.NaturalImagery.com.  The design is really for macro photography and probably not big enough for use with a telephoto lens, but it does help get the mind thinking on lower cost solutions.  The bag can be had for less than $3. As the name implies, what the author is suggesting is that a basic beanbag can be as close as your local office supply store.  Here, the author has found a soft plastic pencil holder with zipper.  In a pinch, this would create a light and portable beanbag at a cost. Similar to this solution, I have heard of folks using 1 gallon heavy duty zip lock bags.  I am sure this would work in a pinch, but I would always be worrying that the bag would open and my car would fill with beans!

So there you have it – 21 options for consideration.  My advice: 1) seriously consider how you will be using the beanbag. This will narrow down the best design options.  2) Honestly assess how often you will be using the bag other than this next safari.  This will help you determine how much you may want to consider spending, BUT 3) Remember how badly you want quality shots and how much the overall trip is costing … for a few dollars more, you may be getting the good solid support you need for the shots of a lifetime.  I personally shoot a lot in the US and in Africa.  I currently use The Pod in red and also a large homemade U shaped design.  My next purchase or DIY will take me to a design that will accommodate a panning plate as I think the extra height will make shooting more comfortable from my vehicle.

A Word on Fill Materials

Many bags can be ordered with or without fill.  When ordered with fill, most typically the fill is either a man-made polymer or plastic pellets or Buckwheat shells.  This fill is typically lighter than fill options available in the bush.  You may want to buy the bag with fill for use at home, but, for portability, I advise traveling with the bag empty and buying fill once at your destination.  In the bush, the most common fill material is dried pinto beans.  Other popular options include rice or lentils.  If you select any of these, make sure you save the bag and, at the end of your safari, offer these as a gift to your guides or folks that work at the lodge.  These foods are appreciated staples.  (My housekeeper, Ester, did a dance when presented with 8 kg. of beans from several bags.)  Another simple option in the bush is dry sand.  There is plenty available, but it is heavy and I worry that the fine particles can seep through the bag and get into my camera equipment, so I do not recommend this option – but in a pinch is an option.  Another popular fill option is black oil sunflower bird seed.  Bird seed works well and is lighter than beans.  Additionally, bird, some of your seed fill can be used as “bait” to bring birds to a preferred log or limb to photograph.

Not Recommended: I have also heard of using sawdust.  I have not used sawdust and would think it a bit too light.  If you do plan to use sawdust, I recommend you pre-filter in a colander or screen to remove dust sized particles. While you may be tempted to use extremely light material like Styrofoam “peanuts”, these are too light and do not work as well as other options.

Summary of Ratings:

As noted earlier, we developed a number of rating criteria. We then applied these criteria and did a final adjustment based on personal experience.  In order of ratings, here are our recommendations:

Full Support CategoryNOTE: This group was tightly bunched with value for the dollar and quality of construction creating some spread in the final ratings.

Highest Rating: The Badger, The Molar TV, DIY “U shape” bag design

Good Rating: The Apex Bean Bag, The Molar, Wildlife Imaging Bean Bag, Wildlife Watching Supplies, Lenzz-Rezzt Bean Bag, DIY “H shaped” bag design

Lower Rating: Wildlife Studio Delux, Shapeshifter bean bag, BAA BLUBB

Sack Support categoryNOTE: This category had a very wide range of ratings!

Highest Rating: Kenesis SafariSack I, Vested Interest Safari Bean Bag

Good Rating: The Pod

Lower Rating: all others

Additional Related Posts

Links to reviews on specific bags

Links to beanbag suppliers (Note: names mentioned more than once reveal additional suppliers of this product.)

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18 Responses to Finding the perfect photo bean bag for safari

  1. [...] Original post: Finding the perfect photo bean bag for safari | Chobe Safari [...]

  2. Dave Conroy on October 4, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Great review … I am a big Pod fan because it’s always on the lens and is light and stable when used in a vehicle. It’s important when you see a shot that you don’t waste time finding and fiddling around with a beanbag, getting it on the window, getting the lens seated, etc. I tried a different design this year, similar to your first category, and really it didn’t do such a good job: it was fine but just lacked the ease and convenience of the Pod Red. The Kenesis, which another guy had and which I used a few times, I didn’t rate. Cool brand I know, but just wasn’t convenient. Was also heavy, but he’d filled it with rice. The Pod has very light-weight plastic beads. Easier to heft your gear around.

  3. Anon on October 4, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    That’s a lot of work and I greatly appreciate your sharing this information.

    My only criticism of the bean bag supports available is that they are grossly over priced for what they are.

  4. P. B. Eleazer on October 4, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Dave, I know you are a fan of The Pod – Red. As noted in the article, I have also used The Pod on a self-drive safari. Seemed fine for my Canon 100-400 and is portable as you note. For any larger lens than the 100-400, it would be too small. It is also not as stable for very slow shutter speeds.

    Anon, Thanks for the comments. While I agree the prices seem high, I want a solid support for my multi-thousand dollar lens on my thousand dollar camera body on my multi-thousand dollar safari. In that context, it is money well spent. BTW, I have also struggled with the high cost of quality tripods … but I justify that a tripod AND a beanbag is a lifetime investment in my not so cheap hobby.

  5. RUSSELL on October 13, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Hello,
    Nice to read your articles on beanbags. We supply JACOBS, they now have 17 stores throughout the UK with a beanbag called THE PANDORAS BOX. The product is now 4 years old, The very first one was sold to a branch manager of Jessops…. he thought there POD was not up to much!! The product comes in 3 sizes, it has been used worldwide on safari’s, artic expeditions etc most leading magazines have tried and tested it and have praised its performance and quality.

    Best Regards,

    Russell

  6. Caroline Bateson on November 30, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    This was a very interesting read, the first time any one has put something like this toagether I think. Well done!

    You said you didn’t get hold of one of my bags. If you really would like to see what you get from cazbeanz at photobeanbags.com give me an email and I’ll be happy to send you one for your thoughts. they are going all over the world and people seem very pleased with them.

    PS does this make my dad hazbeanz?

  7. P. B. Eleazer on November 30, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Caroline,
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I wish to regularly update this review to provide value to photographers.
    I will contact you shortly regarding working with you to properly review your product.
    Best Regards,
    Buddy

  8. Mike McWatts on January 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    I’ve come up with a lightweight Perspex holder which push fits on the window and has a removable suede beanbag attached. It is unique in that it can be left in place whilst driving in the parks, instantly ready for that once in a lifetime shot. I use it with a 170-500 mm Sigma zoom with great success. Have a look at the webpage if interested.

    Mike

  9. [...] a previous article, we discussed commercially available bean bag options for safari.  We promised to continue [...]

  10. [...] you are shooting from a vehicle, so tripods are out.  Most folks rely on the trusty bean bag.  In a prior article, we summarized many of the available options.  Since then, another option has come on the market – the Skimmer [...]

  11. Mike Cohen on March 5, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks for the good work. I’m shopping for a bean bag and this was a great help. I’m going for the Kenesis or Vested Interest as it seems the most versatile and easy to deal with.

    Mike

  12. South Africa Travel on August 16, 2010 at 4:04 am

    I have to say that I would never in a million years thought of using something like this in order to take that photo perfectly from a car, I always have terrible bouts of shakiness when taking certain photos and this is just an ideal way of doing so, those photos are really gonna coming out a lot better, when using these bean bags.
    Its amazing to see that there are so many different kinds of the bean bag of photography, who would have thought that these little bean bags would come in so handy when doing photography.

    Great article thanks for the advice on using bean bags, will have to seriously try this out next time I am in the bush battling to take photos

    Kind regards
    Cyndi

  13. Boat on September 5, 2010 at 6:42 am

    hi buddy… i just wanted to say that my opera is freezing when I click on the pics… are you using some javascript or something?

  14. Kenya Safaris on September 27, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    thanks on the great advice of using bean bags. it would be handy when out on a Kenya Tanzania safari.

  15. Albertus Ziervogel on October 16, 2010 at 7:20 am

    I have been using a Badger beanbag for the past year. Have a bin with recycled plastic pellets to fill the bag depending on the use. Using the bag in all conditions as it is easy to clean. For macro photography the bag is placed on the ground, a lot lower than using the tripod. In the game park use one on each side of the vehicle to allow quick positioning of the camera. There is no weight limit on this bag, even used it to sit on. Use a non slip rubber mesh, normally used in the load bay of a car on top as an extra measure to prevent movement.

  16. Hamster Cages · on November 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    bird seeds should be choosen so that they are 100% organic and does not contain genetically modified stuffs. .

  17. randolph ujcich on February 17, 2011 at 3:28 am

    can you tell me where I can get the polymer pellets to fill a beanbag?

  18. P. B. Eleazer on February 17, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I would suggest contacting Greg at NatureScapes: http://www.naturescapes.net

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