Heads for every budget - review thread

Discussion in 'Accessories' started by fluppeteer, Dec 4, 2012.

  1. Sagging balls are a perennial problem for the photographer.

    I've recently acquired some support in an attempt to solve this problem and, since some of the solutions are a little uncommon, I thought sharing my limited experience. (I mentioned a while ago in other threads that I'd do this, so here goes. Apologies if this is not the preferred way to do this kind of thing...)

    By way of background, my historical set-up has been a D700, a Manfrotto 055CXPro3 and - except when my Manfrotto 393 is supporting 500 f/4 - a Giottos 1301-652. That's a medium-range carbon fibre tripod (maybe like a poor man's Gitzo 3-series) and a pretty low-end but otherwise competent ball head with a proprietary quick lever-release plate. I've been happy with both as far as they went, but plans to acquire a 5x4 and my lens calibration stint with my D800E persuaded me that I was due an upgrade. Please take my previous item ownership into account when reading this - I can't claim to have spent the last few years trying the best that Arca-Swiss, Really Right Stuff and Markins have to offer.

    Rather than going for more system-specific mounting solutions, I decided it was time to buy into the Arca-Swiss system, and picked up a Really Right Stuff L-plate for my camera. (Note: "Made in America" is not much of a selling point for me because I'm in the UK, making RRS products only slightly easier to acquire than Arca-Swiss's own.) Other than being a little heavy and pushing my nose a bit to the side when I use the camera hand-held, this is a well-built piece of kit, and I have no complaints about it. I considered the Kirk option - slightly easier to source in the UK - but while I like the fact that it has a lip that embraces the front of the camera to hold it steady (in addition to the lip at the back which both have), I was concerned that it had less contact area than the RRS version when slid to allow cable access. I've not actually tried the Kirk design so I can't vouch for the superiority of either solution.

    I had resolved to get myself a good ball head and a good geared head, since both have their uses on different occasions. My preferred choice of ball head would probably be a Burzynski Pro-Tec, but these have been out of stock at both the French and German suppliers for several months. In the meantime, I heard about the Triopo RS-3 as a very cheap option, lauded for its weight-bearing ability. I wasn't expecting much, but for less than the cost than some Arca-style lens plates (from EBay) I figured it was worth a trial run.

    My RS-3 turned up with a nice velvet bag (given to my wife for jewellery). It's chubbier than my Giottos head, but impressively light - I measured 310g, which is a bit more than claimed but still dinky - and, as default, has no quick release. The ball is an attractive champagne colour, presumably due to telfon coating or something similar.
  2. That went well. A firewall seems to be getting in the way of my image uploads, which will teach me not to try to do this on a lunch break. I'll try again.
  3. [Aha. Sorry about that. Where was I...]

    The RS-3 only has the one control lever. It's held on to the hex nut which controls the clamp amount by a spring, which makes it possible to move the lever into any of six positions (which means it can clear a large tripod base if it still has to). There's a small region of the lever's range in which the head can revolve on its base without the ball slipping. Ball movement feels a little uneven when manipulated by hand (as it were), but with extra leverage from mounting a camera on the top it feels more even, and can be adjusted to provide some resistance. The stem is reassuringly short and thick (this is one of those reviews, isn't it?) and when clamped with only moderate finger pressure is a great deal more solid than my Giottos - capable of withstanding more torque than I was willing to put through anything I attached to it, whereas the Giottos would slide under enough pressure. The RS-3 also seems reasonably good at not drooping after locking, whereas the Giottos would - as I started by saying - sag when I let go of a heavy lens.
  4. The ball is spherical (it's no Z1) so it can flop if insufficiently clamped, but to fit in the drop slot the ball needs to be loosened more than would be necessary just to move it. Therefore it can't flop fully just through slippage. Indeed, since the boundary between the ball rotating and the whole head rotating on the base is so narrow, I see the ability to rotate the head as being more useful for relocating the slot than for trying to pan.
  5. My biggest issue with the RS-3 was the lack of quick release plate. The default attachment is a conventional screw thread with a rubber ring below it for anti-slip.
  6. The ring is only glued to the base in a couple of places, which meant that the first time I attached a camera, the ring came loose. This makes the head almost useless, because the camera can rotate freely on it.
  7. Fortunately, there is a solution. A Triopo-branded Arca-Swiss clamp is reasonably cheap (though it brings the total up to the prices of other cheap ball heads). It has a spring-loaded stud to stop plates from sliding out, at least in one direction; it compresses under a plate that has no indent. The clamp came in its own little velvet bag, again donated to my wife, and with a suitable bolt.
  8. The double-ended screw in the default head on the RS-3 is held in by some adhesive. It can be removed by a deep socket wrench that's thin enough, or by my approach of grabbing the screw thread with pliers and cranking it. This mangled the screw thread, but I don't intend to reattach it. There are crenellations on the pillar which slot into an indent on the bottom of either the circular base provided with the RS-3, and into the bottom of the Arca-style plate; these ensure that the clamp is unlikely to unscrew from the column.
  9. The thumb screw on the Triopo Arca release is centred, making it relatively easy to centre the clamp on the camera. (I went with traditional style Arca clamps rather than flip clamps so as to keep compatibility with third party clamps and plates.)
  10. The clamp is relatively small, but then we're talking about a small head. It seems large enough to be stable and grips my RRS L-plate quickly and firmly. Observe that I haven't learnt which way around you're supposed to use Arca clamps yet...
  11. Ah, if that looks familiar it's due to a mis-click while I was sorting out my browsers. Here's the side view of the RS-3 with its default head.
  12. Sorry about that. Now, having covered the cheap end of the range...

    My other toy was a bit more expensive: An Arca-Swiss D4 (yes, from a Nikon owning perspective, this is a stupidly confusing name). Here's a size comparison of the D4, the RS-3 my Giottos head.
  13. The D4 is obviously much heavier than the ball heads, but it's tiny compared with the nearest alternative, which is probably the Manfrotto 405. I would consider the 405 to be a combination geared and pan/tilt head, in that by pulling the knobs on a 405 the gears can be disengaged and the head tilted manually to approximately the desired position. The knobs on the 405 are spring loaded, and so re-engage the gears (and lock the head) when you let go. With the D4, the gear disengagement mechanism is not spring loaded, and the axes of rotation are approximately coincident - unlock all the controls and the D4 feels like a ball head. Re-lock the gears and the main axes can be fine tuned (or one can be left unlocked to implement a pan/tilt head).
  14. The pear-shaped controls are locks, and rotate to disengage the gears. The circular controls wind the gears, allowing precise control.
  15. The gear knobs are below the axle that they turn, with the locking "pears" on the end of the axis that they turn. Note that the knob for the upper ("roll") axis is opposite the lock for the lower ("pitch") axis, which means that the knob stays in place as the pitch control changes, but the "axis of roll" is slightly higher and not quite concentric. The pan for the whole head and the pan for the QR plate on top are not geared, and have smaller locking levers. The gears are firm, but not as stiff as I was worried from previous reviews that they might be. The whole head seems to lock very securely, but - since slipping would probably involve damage to the gears - I wasn't willing to try to force it to learn the limit of lock, unlike the ball heads.

    Something that wasn't obvious to me until I saw it in the flesh is that there is a rotating base under the obvious extremity of the head. The bottom (tripod-end) panning lever is fixed in position relative to the rest of the head - the visible circular base doesn't move - but an inner base rotates. This means that the lever doesn't foul on the square hinge arrangement. It can still foul on the tripod, but since it's loose even in a horizontal position, that can be avoided by not turning it too far.
  16. At the camera end, the panning clamp is again attached to the tripod and the clamp itself rotates above it. It's unlikely that the lever would foul anything, but again it doesn't need to be turned too far. The clamp has a mark to show when the camera is centred.
  17. The clamp has a pin underneath which assists in lining up the orientation with the marks on the head. I avoided a lever release for compatibility between Arca-compatible plates: For those not familiar with the Arca-Swiss system, the traditional clamps screw down onto the quick release plate, which means that they're very tolerant of slightly different sizes of plate; lever clamps tend to work only with precise sizes, and not all the manufacturers of Arca-compatible clamps have agreed on the same size.

    Arca-Swiss offer a clamp in their new "MonoballFix" smaller plate system, but since my aim in switching to Arca was to have third-party plate support, I was interested only in the "classic" system - besides, I kind of prefer the idea of a wider clamp for leverage. There's no obvious downside to this (other than that it costs more and took a bit longer to get), because Arca's "classic" clamp is actually two-tier, and will also clamp their "fix" plates. I'd considered getting the cheapest D4 version I could and replacing the clamp with the RRS version, but once I realised I'd need a panning clamp this became quite expensive. The Arca-Swiss design seems fine in use. Note that the pillar is offset, but quite substantial.
  18. Note that the "safety pins" on the clamp don't engage with anything that fits the traditional style gap.

    I didn't care too much about range of movement, in part because of my L plate. However, the D4 will point past straight down.
  19. That said, its sideways movement is a bit more limited and the controls do foul the base eventually.
  20. Though the head does reach its limits in some orientations, the presence of two panning clamps is enough to avoid this being a major problem in practice. They also mean that my concerns about whether the head would "gimbal lock" have thus far remained unfounded.
  21. [Sorry, now with image]
  22. To give a size comparison with a slightly higher-end tripod, here's my D4 on top of my shiny new TVC-34L. The plate of the RRS tripod is somewhat bigger than the D4's, but not to the extent that it makes it hard to access the controls. I've yet to give this tripod a thorough attempt, but in the "press down on the top and try to wiggle it" test it really does feel at last as solid as the Gitzo GT5532LS I was considering - at least with the bottom leg section retracted (it's my height with three sections, so the fourth is for standing on hills) - and it's much easier to carry. It's appreciably more solid than my 055CXPro3, but then it's three times the price...
  23. [Interrupted again. I wish it was possible to edit posts to change images...]
  24. The base clamp lever overhangs the edge of the 34L's raised plate, so there's room to move it - though since "horizontal" is "loose" it wouldn't have a problem even on a bigger plate.
  25. The biggest problem with the D4 was that of acquiring it. It is sold in the UK, but rarely in stock and quite expensive; the MonoballFix version and the D4m (with clamps but no gears) seem slightly easier to acquire, possibly because they're less desirable. I decided that my fastest route was to go straight to the manufacturer (which was also how I got my TVC-34L).

    Arca-Swiss are a small company, apparently kept so by an eccentricity of French law - they sell enough products that they could probably grow easily were they not capped. This has the unfortunate effect of inflating their prices and putting their rarer items (like the D4 and Cube) on a waiting list. There is a web presence (I'd heard rumours that there wasn't) and the D4 can be found at www.arca-swiss-magasin.com.

    Being a small company, they don't take credit cards, meaning that I had to trust a very expensive purchase to a bank transfer. My communication was in school-grade French assisted by Google Translate (by which I mean I got Google to translate what I wanted to say and checked that I could read the result with my limited French abilities), but my - very friendly and understanding - contact and I got everything sorted out. Other than the delay of a few weeks while waiting for a manufacturing run, it all went smoothly. I had plenty of time to reconsider my purchase, however. (But since they're still doing better than Burzynski, I probably can't be too critical.)

    All in all, I'm pretty happy with the Triopo with the Arca-Swiss clamp on top (without, it's a paperweight), at least for the money, and I'm very happy with the D4 (and TVC-34L). I may yet complement them with either a Burzynski or a Z1 if I feel richer than I am, and I might pick up a Manfrotto 359 or a RRS long lens support, but - in combination with 393 - I now feel that my technique will be the reason for any residual wobbling or inability to point the camera in the right direction.

    I hope this has been of some use to people; apologies to the site maintainers for using Photo.net as a blog, but I figured this information was more useful here than on a site of my own.
  26. Bonus review: I also recently picked up a Joby Gorillapod Focus, having learnt long ago that my original Gorillapod really can't hold my D700 stably. I got this partly because of a deal providing the very small "ball head X" and free quick release plate, which are Arca-Swiss compatible. For the price, a spare plate and a head for occasional use were reasonable. The head won't hold anything like as much as the RS-3 (I can make it slip by forcing it with relatively little weight - my Giottos is probably stronger), but it's slightly nicer to use than the Triopo, and shorter. As for the Gorillapod itself, I've set it up in tripod configuration with a D800 and 14-24 on the top and watched it sag sadly - but that's on a table over which the feet can slip. On a rough surface or wrapped around something it's a bit more solid, though I'm not sure about the claimed 5kg. The D4 is on it below for amusement value rather than practicality, though it does work. The provided head is far more practical as a pairing, but I'm not going to be hanging my 200 f/2 off it. My original Gorillapod is overwhelmed by the weight of my D700 even with a fairly light lens on it, so I'm satisfied that - if arranged to grip carefully with enough legs - the Focus is a substantial upgrade, even if it's a bit difficult to force the individual joints into perfect position.

    Having said that, I've had some success with my D800 and 14-24 on a Tamrac ZipShot (with a ten second timer release and the strap around me neck in case it all collapsed), and my D700 has occasionally been stable on a Velbon VTP-777, so I'm a believer that some support is better than none at all. (Tip to manufacturers of tiny tripods: please over-engineer the head - if it's pointing the right way, you can do a lot with technique and a wind break.) I thoroughly recommend both of these devices, but for very different circumstances than the RS-3 or D4 and TVC-34L.

    Here's a summary of my impressions of the kit I've mentioned. Please take this with an appropriately large pinch of salt.
    Device Ergonomics Stability Weight Price + -
    Triopo RS-3 (default head) 3/10 10/10 8/10 10/10 Cheap, small, solid Camera attachment useless
    Triopo RS-3 + A-S clamp 5/10 10/10 7/10 7/10 Cheapish, smallish, solid Not perfectly smooth, panning poor
    Arca-Swiss D4 9/10 10/10(?) 5/10 3/10 Lovely bit of engineering, solid and flexible
    Light compared with my 393 or a geared head, heavy for a ball Knobs a little fiddly (no suggested improvements though),
    Very "exclusively priced"
    Joby Ball Head X 7/10 4/10 9/10 9/10 Tiny and reasonably cheap for an A-S system head Not strong enough for big lenses, simple ball + pan ergonomics
    Giottos 1301-652 6/10 5/10 6/10 7/10 Respectable and cheap ball head Not strong enough for very big lenses, proprietary clamp
    Manfrotto 393
    (Gimbal fork head) 7/10 9/10 2/10 5/10 Solid and cheap gimbal head, great on supertelephotos Limited adjustability, very bulky and heavy
    Tripods with integrated heads​
    Tamrac ZipShot
    (integrated pan/tilt head) 3/10 3/10 9/10 9/10 Full(ish) height tripod that fits in a bag, holds a DSLR (just) Barely holds smallish lenses, budget head, no QR, fixed height
    Velbon VTP-777
    (integrated pan/tilt head) 4/10 2/10 9/10 9/10 Full(ish) adjustable height tripod that fits in a small bag, just holds a light DSLR Barely holds a DSLR at all, very budget head, no QR
    Joby Gorillapod 4/10 3/10 8/10 8/10 Light, portable, take photos wherever there's a tree or street lamp Struggles to hold a pro-spec SLR
    RRS TVC-34L 8 10 6 3 Very solid, light, pretty, staff very helpful on the phone Very conventional tripod (vs, say, Neotec), extortionate, hard to get
    Manfrotto 055CXPro3 7 7 6 5 More solid than non-CX version, centre column flexible, mid-price Centre column flexes, not that tall, not in the 34L's class
    Joby Gorillapod Focus 5 4 6 5 The right tool for a specific job, much more robust than the original A bit pricey and heavy for a gadget, still not that solid, fiddly
  27. Andrew,
    Here are the photos I discussed. First is clearance over the panning base lever. This is a Sunwayfoto clamp.
  28. Again with the P0, you asked about the ring. I've never nudged the lever out of place. I don't think you need to worry about it.
  29. Thanks, Laura. That certainly shows the finger clearance on the panning clamp, which was my big worry; it probably also tells me that there's no problem reaching the locking ring even if there's a big camera base on the top (I was worried about large format field cameras), so those were some very concise photos! I have to say it looks a little bigger than I'd imagined - and the stalk is perhaps a bit longer, which might make me nervous about stability, though I guess it's necessary for hand clearance with a large tripod plate. Still, it's not intended to be a high-capacity head, so it certainly seems worth a look when I next have money to burn.

    Anyone got any more obscure heads to share? (P1? Burzynski? A-S cubes, although they seem almost common on some forums around here?)
  30. Andrew,
    The "stalk" is less than 3cm high, not as long as it appears. Here's what it looks like bent over. The head is pretty compact. Same with the P1, it's a bit larger.
  31. The P0's column still appreciably longer (and possibly thinner?) than the one on the RS-3, which is really stubby, but the head proper is wider, presumably because of the gearing arrangement, so it has to be a long stem in order to get to 90 degrees. The P1 column looks shorter, but then it doesn't have to flip on its side. Having said that, having the column below the ball at least means you're balancing everything on the column rather than hanging things off the end of it, so it's probably slightly more stable than the conventional arrangement (depending on how much head there is above the ball).

    But then, as I said, this isn't an "ultimate stability" head, so I'm not too fussed.
  32. A belated disclaimer: I've had another experiment with my RS-3, and I want to be clear that, at least with the Arca clamp attached the way I did it, there is a tiny amount of sag when tightening the ball on an RS-3 with a large lens attached - I was experimenting with my D800 and RRS L plate, with a 150mm Sigma macro hanging off the front (though the right thing to do would be to use the lens collar instead). At least, I think the problem is with the RS-3 and not my 055CXPro3, though it's a bit hard to tell. The sag is less than I experienced with my Giottos - standing the tripod on carpet makes more of a difference - and the d4 won't have this problem because you can change position while the head is already holding the weight of the camera (so even if it flexes, it's already flexed when you align it), but I don't want to claim the RS-3 is absolutely perfect. I've not had the honour of trying the expensive high-end heads to see whether they're better. The RS-3 doesn't move any farther, though - there's no slip, the sag is just something in my system bending slightly as it takes up the weight.

    Just making sure that I'm not over-selling this bit of kit while enthusing about it!
  33. Follow-up to that disclaimer: I put my same test set-up (150mm Sigma, D800 supported by the L-plate) on an Arca-Swiss Z1 over the weekend, having found a generous and sympathetic store employee (thank you, Wex Photographic). There was still some sag when the ball took the weight - whether it was the tripod, my camera flexing, or what I couldn't say. There may have been slightly less than with my RS-3, or it may just be that I was trying it on a more stable floor, but a high-end head isn't free from this either; apparently my RS-3 isn't as disadvantaged as I thought. Neither sags very much (and I should have been using the lens foot anyway), but if you care about precise alignment, it would appear that the d4 is still the right tool for the job (or a Manfrotto 405, or similar). For the record, the Z1 dwarfs the RS-3 - I did a double-take, assuming it was a Z1g, but it wasn't - and the flip lock shredded my fingernails, so I may have been badly disposed towards it. At least it didn't bite me, unlike the last Gitzo I tried.

    In other news, the Velbon Ultra REXi L was much more stable than I expected, and I like the quick leg lock system. Something in that line might be my new travel tripod...

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