Focusing rails - what to look for

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by jeff_loughlin|1, Sep 11, 2012.

  1. I'm looking to add a set of macro focusing rails to my kit. Looking around at B&H and other dealers, I see that the price varies widely, from around $70 up to $700.
    Like anything else, sometimes you get what you pay for, and sometimes you don't - I don't want to throw away money on a cheap set and end up replacing it later when it falls apart or is too frustrating to use; but I also don't want to spend too much for a name, or for something that has too many bells and whistles that don't matter for me (amateur, hobbyist, learning).
    So what should I look for? Will I be frustrated with the cheap ones, or should I take a chance on them? $700 is way too much for me to justify, but I'm willing to spend a little more than the bottom of the line to get something that's usable in the long run.
    Thanks for any suggestions.
  2. Do you need a set? For focusing only one is needed; buy the best you can. Avoid cheapest ones, usually "clever" designs but almost useless in real life (I`m thinking on the Manfrotto).
    After several attemps, I finally settled on the Novoflex Castell Q; no one is perfect, but this works quite good in "normal" situations. It is expensive.
  3. Solid build, knobs for fine adjustment and able to lock the rail positions are all important. Then there's some
    differentiation in convenience features and length of rails, but unless you do enough macro that this is a big priority for
    you I don't think you need something expensive. I have the Adorama/Flashpoint one that's something like $60-70 and
    it's quite good for casual use.
  4. The Novoflex CROSS-Q Castel-Cross-Q Focusing Rack is brilliant but at $650 not for the casual user.
    At $100, the Velbon Super Mag Slider Macro Rail - Magnesium is worth the money. I also think the Manfrotto 454 Micrometric Positioning Sliding Plate is a great option but you need two if you want front-to-back and side-to-side control.
    Henry Posner
    B&H Photo-Video
  5. Hi Jeff, you're paying for precision mechanics in this type of equipment so it really depends on what you want to achieve.
    Photographing large objects or field use (such as flowers) leaves you no choice but to macro-position the camera but it's difficult to achieve high precision without mechanical slack and backlash. This is due to the camera's weight and balance on the stage.
    In the alternative, you can achieve ultra high precision by repositioning the work if it's a small(er) object such as coins.
    I use a Melles Griot sub-micron X-Y linear translation stage which allows 0.1um increments to reposition the work with absolutely no slack or backlash - it's designed for precision positioning of lasers/mirrors. You can find them on eBay relatively inexpensively.
    If camera-positioning is what you need then you're pretty much stuck with what you pay for.
  6. I bought the inexpensive Adorama one and was disappointed. The settings slip under the weight of the camera, and the camera had a tendency to rotate on the 1/4-20 screw. I tried to use it with a D300 and an 85mm PC lens—maybe it would be OK with a lighter camera.
    Something with an Arca Swiss type mount would be preferable but of course expensive. I'm still window shopping. Really Right Stuff maybe.
  7. Amongst others, I used to have a 454. The problem with focusing rails like this is that the parts are too loose by design, and the operation smoothness quite at the opposite. It`s a real pain to adjust focus when the subject goes from one side to the other at the screen when using Live View. As a critical focus aid (which I suppose is what we`re looking for), I`d say it is what the OP refers as a "... to throw away money on a cheap set and end up replacing it later when it falls apart or is too frustrating to use... ". But obviously, it all depends on the money he is willing to spend.
    The Velbon looks good, and I think I have read good things about it, -never used one myself-.
  8. SCL


    Like others said, it really depends on how much you really plan to use it and the degree of accuracy needed. If you plan to do a lot of stacking of macro photos, you will definitely want an expensive electro-mechanical one. I find, however, for most of my needs, a moderately priced one in the area of $100 does fine, even though it has a little backlash...I added a heavy grease to the helicals to smooth things out.
  9. Jeff,
    I had the same intentions so I though to go as cheap as possible to better understand what makes a good rail.
    1) Access to adjustment/lock knobs
    2) Play in rail as it moves
    3) Ease of attaching the camera/lens
    4) How secure/rigid does the camera remain
    So I bought really inexpensive "4way Macro Shot Focus Rail Slider" from um, well .. some auction place for about $25.
    One lesson ... you need a quick connect for the camera/lens rather than the threaded attachment; that's more $$ than you may originally consider. All comments mentioned in the other posts apply: you need to buy up to the performance level that the rail is an asset rather than the problem with enjoying macro work.
    PS: the rail I bought is made about as well as a Jeep exhaust manifold ;D
    PPS: I'm still in the messing around stage but only have the cost of two pizzas committed.
  10. If you can settle for 1/4 inch connectors, one possibility to consider is looking for an older Minolta Auto Bellows set. They turn up from time to time, and some of them incorporated a separable focusing rail that's very nicely made.
  11. When it comes to focusing rails the simpler the better. Try o avoid any that stand to tall because when it comes to macro you don't want to be titlting the lens down too much. I have used the Manfrotto in the past because of it's low height. You can stack them at 90 degree angles if you want left/right movement. The Manfrottos were OK for a while, but I did not like that you had to manually move them, then micro-adjust, so recently I got the Velbon Macro rail which is not very expensive and comes with left right movements.
    They come appart so that you can use only the FWD/Back movements. This keeps the rail pretty low. The Velbrons are well built an precise at least mine is, but not as well built and smooth as my Nikon PB-4 Bellow macro rail.
    You might not need these rail at all especially in the studio where you can use plain wooden blocks, or mini tripods to prop-up the camera and lens.
  12. I find a simple tripod crossarm is good enough for close-up work at magnifications less than 1:1, and for real macro you really need a bellows. A decent bellows set will come complete with a micro adjuster between tripod mount and bellows rack. If you have to add a focusing rack under your bellows or camera it'll make for a cumbersome contraption to work with.
    The bellows I use is an old Pentax set with the rear-mount converted to a T2 adapter and the front mount adapted to 39mm Leica thread. The operation is silky smooth, it has a built-in positional adjuster and locks solidly. This arrangement gives me a huge choice of 42mm or Leica-fit lenses, and since Nikon don't currently sell a lens specifically designed for true macro, the loss of the F mount isn't much missed.
    The Benbo design of tripod would be an ideal all-round macro tool with the addition of a geared rack on the centre-column/crossarm. As it is, it's a little "stuttery" to adjust, but workable.
  13. Happy with my Really Right Stuff focusing rail. They also make a model with two screw-type cross slides. RRS screws are smooth and tight, and move about .050" / 1.25mm per turn. That's fine enough movement for me. YMMV.
  14. I got one on Fleabay about 10 years ago for $35 bucks (I am sure they are more than that now) and it works like a champ. It is built like a tank and the rack and pinion focusing is still smooth as butter with essentuially no backlash. It has dovetails for both the X and Y axis and I have actually used it in conjunction with my bellows for even finer control of the whole rig. It is more than adequately strong enough to handle the whole rig, which can be pretty heavy. There is honestyy no need to go all out on a a very expensive macro rail but you DO neeed a very sturdy tripod. I use a heavy duty Bogen studio tripod and it works well.

  15. A focusing rail with a rack and pinion, like a Novoflex Castel-Q, moves over 20 mm per revolution. This is best suited for larger items, like items for on-line sales. At 1:2 magnification or closer, your DOF at f/11 is on the order of 2 mm or so, which requires finer control.
    After careful consideration, I purchased a RRS focusing rail with a screw drive. For coarse adjustments, the entire rail has an Arca bevel, and can be slipped within an loosened Arca clamp. In addition, the precision slider can be disengaged from the screw for rough positioning without noticeable wobble. Although the RRS is only 6" long, you can achieve nearly 10" range of motion by positioning the rail in the head and moving the slider.
    At 1:2 magnification or less, you can use the lens for fine-focus or for focus stacking. Closer than 1:2 magnification, the rail is the best means of fine focus or stacking.
    Kirk makes a similar rail, which seems to be of comparable quality. There are also some rails with tubular ways, which are much cheaper, but not as intrinsically rigid as V ways. The RRS rail is relatively small and thin, and easily carried in a spare pocket in a bag or backpack. What good is a nice piece of equipment if it's not convenient to carry?

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