I wanted to get a few hours under my belt shooting with the Sunwayfoto XB-44 before I put a review out there, so I appreciate the patience of the folks who contacted me about when I’d write it up. So many comparisons and reviews are done on paper rather than from use in the field that I wonder if people who read them are getting good information – how can Ken Rockwell declare a new camera “the best *insert-brand-name-here* SLR ever” when he has only looked at it on paper?? But I digress.
In my limited experience, photography products are highly susceptible to the “looks great on paper, but…” syndrome – what good are specs if they are poorly designed and/or implemented? What fun is it to get a great price on something that isn’t made with quality and won’t last as long as you want?
On paper, the XB-44 looks pretty interesting – design clearly inspired by the Arca/Markins heads but just as clearly a different overall direction: Dual drop notches similar to my Really Right Stuff BH-40. 88-pound capacity. All-metal construction. Low-profile design intended for the lowest center of gravity and stability. An included screw-type clamp with a bubble level that can be mounted in multiple locations on the clamp. All for $299 at B&H.
But how does it work in real life? In short: really well!
But before I get too far down that road, let’s check out some photos of the product:
Disclaimer: I didn’t purchase this head – it was given to me for review by Sunwayfoto. I responded to a request by Sunwayfoto on one of my forums for volunteers to review the heads. The unit I have is marked SAMPLE in the serial number. If you’ve read my other reviews, you know how picky I am about anything that is fiddly: I can’t stand it, and getting something free won’t endear me to any product. I’m not a talented enough photographer to overcome distractions created by poor products or bad design. I just won’t tolerate anything that gets in the way of my photographs, so I hope you’ll trust that my opinions here are entirely straightforward, honest and unbiased.
On to the rest of the review. I took my RRS BH-40 off my Gitzo 2531 and mounted the XB-44. First problem: there were no included hex keys. I still had the keys that came with my BH-40 and 2531, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me, but it seems presumptive that the customer will have one. Second problem: no user manual or instructions. I contacted Sunwayfoto and learned that the user manual was still under development when mine was shipped (so there will be one), but no hex keys will be included. Not a big deal for me, but something to know.
I played around with it a bit in my den, but the real test was taking it to my favorite car show for a four-day weekend. I spent a fair bit of time taking pictures, and with that crowd you often don’t get second chances – everything had to be quick!
So how did it perform? In a word, flawlessly. I really want equipment to disappear as much as possible, and the Sunwayfoto XB-44 didn’t disappoint. I was really surprised how much I liked the screw-type clamp since I’m used to my RRS LR-II with the quick release. The compact design is also nice – it looks very tidy on top of my tripod and makes packing it and lugging it around a little easier.
The knob placement is very natural and the knurling ensures positive contact. Where I’ve liked the flap-paddle design of the RRS BH-40 well enough, the knob on the XB-44 is just plain out of the way, literally and figuratively – I liked it instantly. The tension adjustment knob works as expected, and the progressive tightening of the main knob is smooth. The movement and action of the head feels just right. The tension/drag adjustment is built into the main knob. It operates fairly well with the tip of a finger, but can be over-tightened to the point it is pretty hard to move. I think the directions would have helped me here. It didn’t bother me too much since it seems to pretty much be “set and forget”, and I like how little real estate it takes up. I expect that once I get used to it I’ll like it fine, but it is the only thing that made the “fiddly” dog bark at all.
The XB-44 ball uses an elliptical design that reduces the “flop” that spherical balls have when you reduce the tension, but the movement is extremely smooth. If I understand correctly, the only other major ball-head company that uses an elliptical design is Arca. All I can say is I liked how it handles a lot. This includes the panning base, which glides nicely while keeping reasonable amount of tension – no slop at all. The panning knob, like all the knobs, is a “captive” design, which means it won’t fall out if you unscrew it too far. The panning base is marked every 5 degrees with the same laser etching found on the plate, and has a ridged design that I assume is intended to ensure a secure grip when mounting to the tripod.
Two drop notches give you a great deal of flexibility for portrait shooting as well as extreme up and down shots. One of the great thing about the Arca-Swiss plate standard is the availability of L-brackets for virtually any camera. This eliminates the need for the drop notch for portrait, but the notches are still very useful for extreme composition up and down. Like many heads (including my RRS BH-40) you can run into clearance issues in portrait mode – where the head contacts the base of the tripod. The ability to move the bubble level to any of three sides of the plate would come in very handy here. Personally, I’m a huge fan of my L-bracket – it makes switching from landscape mode to portrait seamless, avoids any issues with clearance and is a more more stable way to mount the camera since the weight stays centered over the legs.
The load rating is specified at 88 pounds, which sounds very impressive. Unfortunately, there isn’t an industry-standard way to measure load capacity that I’m aware of. I can say that with my massive 80-200 f/2.8 lens mounted to my D90 that the camera felt very stable. I think a 300mm prime could be used in this head, but if you use a lens like that or larger on a routine bases, I’d suggest a look at the big-brother model from Sunwayfoto, the XB-52.
I’m thinking of some “unfair” tests to run on the XB-44 vs. the BH-40 (for example, running my big 80-200 from the base as opposed to the foot on both and seeing which maintains its composure). Any recommendations on that would be welcome!
In summary, I liked the Sunwayfoto XB-44 a lot. Nothing on this head feels cheap. I don’t see any corners cut. I like the fact that is is a unique design overall – there are lots of elements incorporated from other heads in the industry, but in total the design and function stands out against most designs. At $299, nothing touches it for overall functionality, ease of use, load capacity, excellent handing and very good design. I can’t fault anyone for buying RRS – they make terrific products, but every dollar counts and if you want a premium ball head while saving a big chunk of money toward that prime lens you want, it is a fine choice.
Here are a few more photos of the product from the Sunwayfoto website, used with their permission:
Thoughts? Questions? Please feel free to leave any comments!