Long focal length telephoto lenses are a staple of wildlife photography. If you save up enough money for one of the truly big lenses (400mm and up), you’ll also need to take into account how you’re going to support it. The big lenses are too heavy to comfortably hand-hold, and you’ll need to make sure your tripod is sturdy enough to hold the weight of your lens/camera combination.
I personally use one of two tripods for my telephoto work, the Gitzo 3541LS and it’s bigger brother, the Gitzo 5541LS. Both of these tripods are sturdy, carbon fiber designs that I can pack in my suitcase with the head removed. Most of the time, the 3541LS is plenty, but when I use my 600mm f/4 Nikkor, I use the heavier tripod for maximum rigidity and support.
After you have chosen a tripod, you’ll need to put a good head on it. Most of the time, I use the Really Right Stuff BH-55 head. However, when I’m using a big lens, like my 200-400mm f/4 AFS G VR Nikkor, the ball head isn’t quite ideal because the rig tends to flop if you aren’t careful to lock everything down. For big glass, I prefer to use a gimbal-style mount.
The simplest gimbal mount is an adapter, the Wimberley Sidekick. It mounts in your ball head and is small and easy to pack. It works great for lenses like a 300mm f/2.8 and my 200-400mm f/4 VR. However, when I pack the big gun, I also go with the Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head. This head replaces your ball head and gives you maximum flexibility for balancing the biggest lenses, like the 600/4 and 400/2.8.
Here’s a short video that shows how the three different support types (Ball head/Sidekick/WH-200) differ in use.