Black Rapid / Arca-Swiss Solution: Mr. Blurrycam Edition

I get enough questions about my setup that I thought a video might help:

Black Rapid and Arca Solution – Enthusiast Photographer from Lee @ Enthusiast Photographer on Vimeo.

The full write-up can be found here.  I’ve carried this setup literally all over the world, and it has performed flawlessly.  If you’ve got a Black Rapid Strap and an Arca-Swiss-based tripod head/plate system, I think you’ll like this rig a LOT.  I think it even acts as a quick-release system for Black Rapid users who don’t have Arca-Swiss, too…

Apologies for the poor camera-work – I’ll try to improve on that in the future!

Here are some updated photos (though still camera-phone pix):
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Sunwayfoto DDH-02 and DT-01 Review

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Quick Report for the impatient:  Pro-grade quality and handling in a very compact package at a very competitive price.  The unique design of the DDH-02 won me over in a hurry.  Almost any monopod shooter will appreciate the usability, quality and value of the DT-01 monopod head, while pano shooters or folks with larger lenses will love the small size but great shooting flexibility and handling offered by the DDH-02.  These two products turned my monopod from something I was dreading to use into an essential element of my kit, enabling some of my favorite shots from my recent trips to Asia and Europe.  Highly recommended.

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If you read my preview, you know my latest gadget is a monopod.  I got it knowing I’d be spending two weeks in Europe in a bunch of very old, very dark buildings, and I really wanted to be able to take photographs without using a flash.  Even if I wasn’t of the opinion that flashes ruin the experience for everyone in these kinds of places, flash is generally frowned upon and most often isn’t allowed at all.  I’m usually an available-light guy anyway.  Unfortunately, tripods are also generally not allowed, either.  Monopods, on the other hand, seem to be acceptable in lots of places, either by policy, indifference or indecision.  The only exceptions to this in my travels were the roof of the Mori building in Tokyo and Versailles in France.  Neither made much sense since I saw lots of folks with canes, walking sticks and other things directly similar to my monopod, but whatever.

When I tried a monopod for the first time, bolting the camera directly to the top of the monopod immediately raised the “fiddly flag” – I had to tilt the whole thing to adjust my field of view, and it was clear right away that this setup wasn’t going to work for me.  I knew I’d be seeing a lot of domed churches and shooting with very wide lenses.  I’m not enough of a contortionist to make that happen with a monopod alone, plus the stability benefit deteriorates quickly as the angles get extreme. The L-bracket on my camera and the foot on my long lens have threaded holes for mounting to a tripod or monopod, but on top of the angle and handling limitations, who wants to deal with screwing and un-screwing them all the time??  I figured my Arca-Swiss plates would give me the same benefit here they do on my tripod – easy and quick mount/un-mount.  Of course I knew about the RRS MH-01 head, but for something I thought would see only occasional use, it seemed like a significant investment.  I’d seen similar, less expensive offerings at CES, including one from Sunwayfoto – the DT-01, so I began investigating.

I had more problems than I knew.  One of my favorite lenses is my vintage Nikon 80-200 f/2.8.  It is a big, heavy lens, and I love using it on my tripod.  I have an RRS plate that allows me to attach it directly to my Sunwayfoto XB-44 head.  Something I’ve never thought much about is the direction the plate faces when I use it…

…until I started looking at the monopod heads.  As opposed to a ball head, a monopod head swivels on a single axis.  This gives you the ability to easily change the angle of the camera relative to the monopod leg (either up/down or a sideways angle), and lock it in for full monopod stability with much greater flexibility.  Adding an Arca-Swiss plate to the mix means you can attach/detach very quickly, but it also means one other thing: you have to pick which direction the mount faces.  This isn’t a problem unless you’re using a lens with a foot, because the plates for the foot run at a perpendicular angle to the plates for the body.  That means if you want the same kind of angle adjustment (usually up/down) for body and lens, you really have only three options.

  1. Just use the camera mount: This is inherently less stable.  The reason the big lenses have feet is to allow you have a balanced setup for better photos.  Hanging a huge lens off the body with this setup is not only going to be less stable, it is very awkward to handle.  This is a possible option, but not really a workable one.
  2. Use a hex key to move the mount 90 degrees when you want to use the long lens: To say this isn’t convenient is an understatement, and it is even worse when you’re on vacation with your lovely and generally patient spouse.  Exploring the boundaries of that patience isn’t something I want to do, especially on vacation.  It takes less than 30 seconds to change the direction of the plate, but that isn’t going to work if you do it a lot, and might cost you the shot if you need to do it fast.
  3. Get a head that pans or rotates: These give you complete flexibility and speed.  The only downsides are price and bulk.

The first two options just weren’t going to work for me.  Then Winnie from Sunwayfoto suggested I look at their new DDH-02 panning clamp.  I’d seen it on their site, but was worried it was too small.  I really thought the larger and more robust DDH-01 was a better choice.  Winnie surprised me by offering to send three options to me for review: the standard clamp (the DT-01 can be purchased with no clamp or a standard screw-type 50mm head), the DDH01 I (thought I) wanted and the DDH-02.  You can read my initial thoughts on all three and see lots of photos in my preview review – let’s get to the review of what I actually took around the world with me – the DT-01 with the DDH-02 on top.

Features

The DT-01 (no clamp)
click for larger view

The DT-01 is a pretty simple product.  A large, all-metal knob with moderate knurling (bumps :)) for grip.  A single beefy swivel rail that allows for 180 degrees of angle. (the RRS and Sirui heads have two rails, which seems more complicated and more likely to get bent to me, but is likely just a design choice).  There are degree markings on the head with major and minor notches, but there are no numeric values, which didn’t bother me at all.  The DT-01 is dovetailed at the base and top mount for compatibility with Arca-Swiss clamps.  This is useful when using the DT-01 in some fairly exotic head setups, but mainly is a big weight-saver for most of us.  There is a DT-02 that is essentially the same head with a panning base, which is great for very large lenses, but too much bulk for me.

The DDH-02 Panning Clamp
click for larger view

The DDH-02 is a unique product in the market today.  The best thing about it is that it is extremely small and light.  As I was hauling around a lot of gear through Beijing, Tokyo, Kamakura and lots of Europe, any reduction in carry-weight was a welcome thing.  It has index marks from 0° to 90° and back around the full circumference of the head.  There is a bubble level integrated into the base plate.  The clamp is a screw-type clamp and the clamp rails themselves are marked on each side with the center and offset markings up to 10mm on each side of center.  The screw-knob is all metal and has deep knurling to ensure easy grip.  The panning function is secured with a metal flip-clamp: turn it left to unlock the very-smooth panning.  Flip it a bit more than 180° to the right to lock the panning motion.  This means you have a very positive “down” push to secure head, and the hold is extremely tight.  Every aspect of the DDH-02 points to thoughtful and original design on the part of Sunwayfoto.

Handling

Smooth, simple and solid come to mind for both products.  Full lock to fully unlocked is about a half-turn on the large knob of the DT-01.  There is no slop in the DT-01 – even when the knob is fully open the head won’t fall under it’s own weight.  The DDH-02 is designed very well.  Since the knobs are generally going to be hidden under the camera while you’re using the clamp, the round knob of the clamp vs. the tear-drop shape of the panning knob are very intuitive.  Switching from the body plate to the big lens and back was almost invisible – it was fast and easy.  Flip the panning knob open, rotate, flip the panning knob to lock, done.

I guess the only thing I can find to criticize at all in either product is I wish the knurling on the knob of the DT-01 was slightly deeper. It is almost exactly the same size as the knob on my XB-44, but the channels are a bit shallower and it lacks the textured surfaces.  This is picking nits, since not once in any of the sweaty old buildings did I slip while handling the DT-01, but I do think it would be a useful improvement.

I was a little worried that the clamp rails on the DDH-02 weren’t beefy enough to securely and stably hold my body with the large 80-200 lens.  This proved to be unfounded – the whole platform is very solid.  If I was using huge lenses, I’d go with the bigger model with the built-in panning base and/or the beefier DDH-01.  But for a 300mm prime, the 70-200 pro zooms or anything smaller, the DDH-02 is easily up to the task.

In combination, these two products carry very well due to their light weight, and handle seamlessly.  They also make very efficient use of space without big knobs sticking out – another big plus in my crowded bag.

Build

What can I say?  Both products are built entirely out of aircraft-grade aluminum, mostly anodized and clear laser engraving for use shooting panoramas.  Movement is smooth, easy and positive, with a nice bit of resistance and no slop.  No plastic anywhere.  Just like my XB-44, I don’t sense any corner-cutting here.  Quality is excellent.

Value

The DT-01 sells for $112 at B&H and Amazon, while the DDH-02 lists for $99. That puts you about $100 less than the comparable RRS panning setup with less weight and arguably better handling.  I handled the DT-01 and the Sirui L-10X head within minutes of each other at CES and came away with “Pro” impressions of Sunwayfoto and “Consumer” impressions of Sirui.  Comparing the models that come with the standard screw clamp, the Sirui comes in about $47 cheaper, but isn’t all-metal, has some exposed bolts and generally just seems more of a consumer-grade RRS knockoff.  That isn’t to say it isn’t a decent product, especially for the occasional users. Of course, Sirui has nothing like the DDH-02, and that is the piece that sells the whole setup for me.  For this Enthusiast Photographer, that makes the choice pretty easy – I like pro-grade at an affordable price.  I noticed several ball heads were now offered bundled with the DDH-02.

Summary

I’ve been very impressed with the products I’ve seen from Sunwayfoto.  They are clearly shooting for RRS quality at a lower price.  They handle well and it is clear they aren’t doing knock-offs – they are designing with real-world use in mind and offering some great features.  I really appreciate that I was offered the opportunity to look at the DDH-01 as well.  It is clearly a product that is better suited to use with some of the more exotic head/gimbal setups as well as traditional ball heads for panoramas.  I may do a separate review on it at some point, or loan it to a buddy who does lots of pano-shooting and get some thoughts from him.

If you have a monopod and don’t have a setup like this, I think you’ll be delighted with how much easier it is to shoot with your monopod.  If you’re getting a monopod, I’d highly recommend the DT-01.  Folks who have adopted the Arca-swiss system who have long lenses with feet will love how easy the DDH-2 makes switching between body and lens-mounted plates.

Thoughtful engineering at a competitive price is a winning combination for me, and I’m looking forward to many years of use from the DT-01 and the DDH-02.

Sunwayfoto XB-44 Arrives!

For those of you arriving here at Enthusiast Photographer via a web-search, I’ve completed my first review of the head. It can be found here.  I’ve got two big trips in the next couple of months to Europe and Asia, so it will get a good workout and I’ll bring back some additional comments and hopefully some good images!

A few weeks ago on one of my photography forums, a representative from Sunwayfoto created a thread asking for people interested in reviewing their newest ball heads.  Since I’d seen these particular products in person at CES and thought they looked very nice, I raised my hand and was lucky enough to be selected to review their newest XB-44.  This and the big-brother model XB-52 were recently added to the website at B&H for pre-order.

I’d gotten a note this morning that the package was out for delivery, but it turned out my wife was away when they came by, so I was bummed.  But lo and behold, they came back by in the late afternoon!  Thanks  DHL!

Unfortunately, I’ve got a busy weekend planned this weekend and a bunch of travel coming up through next weekend, so I won’t be able to do much more than post some photos and give some general thoughts in the next few days.  In the meantime, I figured I’d post a first photo and let you know a fuller review was on the way!  It should be fun to compare it to my RRS BH-40!

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Acratech

Acratech's quick-release head

If you’ve ever shopped for an Arca-Swiss-based ball head or other equipment, you might be familiar with Acratech.  They are a US company making professional ballheads that have some really unique features.  I’ve noticed their videos on YouTube, which inevitably feature their very…mellow…owner with the somewhat acerbic voice.

I walked up to their booth at CES, and the owner was there.  Honestly, I was pretty shocked – he’s very different in person – warm, friendly, very easy to talk to and of course very knowledgeable about this products.  I hadn’t seen the Acratech in working in Gimbal mode (which is a side-mounting that is especially useful with big lenses shooting moving things like birds or cars), and I was amazed to learn you can invert the head and use it to make completely level panoramas!  Especially if these are things you want but only occasionally, the Acratech heads become a super-strong choice because to get those functions on most standard ball-heads, you’re investing big money in additional equipment.

A true gimbal setup like a Wimberly head is almost certainly more stable since it keeps the weight directly over the tripod, but they also cost nearly $600 and are pretty large.  The Acratech head offers a very nice solution

Panorama mode: the ball head is flipped upside down so the panning base allows you free rotation once you've leveled the camera by the ball-head base. It looks a little funny, but appears to work great! Click the photo to see Acratech's demo (skip to 3:10)

Gimbal mode - note the collar on the head that allows the Gimbal mode

Another view of gimbal-mode

Make no mistake – Acratech isn’t selling inexpensive heads here – they are fully a competitor for Really Right Stuff in terms of quality, target market and Made in the USA credentials.  But they offer some interesting features for the serious enthusiast that might save you a few bucks while making your photography life easier (while shooting panoramas, etc.).  Add to that a clean design that eliminates any need to worry about dirt or water and you’ve got a compelling option.

I’d also mention they have a quick release head that has a safety built in, so the lever can’t get caught on a cord or piece of clothing and accidentally opened.  It is still a one-hand operation and their heads have a nice, big level built in, too..

Check them out on the web.  Also, both of my local camera stores carry their products (and when I say camera store, I don’t mean a retail store, but one that smells like cheese whiz and canvas, is crammed with stuff and has a lot of guys in it who are either unsure about facial hair or should be).

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – First stop: Black Rapid

BlackRapid at CES

I walked into the CES convention area located in the Venetian, which had quite a focus on the smaller photography vendors.  Among the first things I saw was the Black Rapid booth.

There weren’t any official announcements, but I mentioned to them my Arca dilemma and my eventual solution.  They were nodding from the start, and mentioned they had a solution that was just about ready to exit the development phase.  Expect to see something from them before the Fall.  My guess is that it will be significantly less than the setup I wound up with – I hope to get a chance to play with it!

Black Rapid + Arca Solution

Thanks for visiting Enthusiast Photographer! This is the most popular post on the blog, but feel free to check out other posts, follow the blog, “Like” Enthusiast Photographer on Facebook or follow on Twitter if you’d like to join me on my photography journey or just want to read something different once in a while.

If you’re here, you’re looking to solve a problem, so on to the information!

A phone-cam picture of Arca bliss…

Here is a quick look at a really convenient solution to using a Black Rapid with an Arca-based tripod plate system without having to constantly un-screw the plates and the strap fastener.  It think it is also a good solution as a “quick-release” for the Black Rapid system even if you don’t use tripods!  I’m a huge fan of my tripod, my Arca-Swiss system ball head and my Really Right Stuff L-bracket.  If you read my post “When Gadgets Collide”, I felt like my two favorite photography accessories were fighting each other – my tripod and my strap.  I’ve put a video walk-through on my Vimeo Channel, but have a quick read of this article too.  The video link is at the bottom of this page.

I saw a couple ideas on photography forums that I merged into this solution. The components are simple: the Black Rapid “FastenR” nub is attached to a Kirk QRC-1 1″ screw-type quick release clamp with the Op/Tech Uni-Loop (Op/Tech part number 1301062 – B&H part number OPSCUNL) as a safety tether.  I also got a small tube of Loctite Blue from the hardware store.

Setup is easy.  I put a little Loctite on the threads of the FastenR (which makes it very unlikely it will ever un-screw by accident), slightly moistened the rubber gasket and screwed it directly into the Kirk clamp.  The Optech strap loops to the strap hole in the L-bracket on one end and the D-ring of the Black Rapid strap.

The Kirk clamp mounts to my RRS L-bracket (or foot plate on my 80-200 f/2.8) with a few quick twists, so it is quick to put on or take off. It feels very tight and very secure – I don’t see this thing backing out.

Just in case it does (or, more likely, I do something stupid), the Op/Tech strap is a safety tether. This makes it very secure, and proof against one of the more likely failure scenarios of the strap:  the swiveling hook/carbiner wearing/coming loose or failing to tighen the carbiner nut enough resulting in a fall. Unlikely, but I tend to live in a world of realized implausible disasters ;).

Mounting and un-mounting is easily faster than if I was screwing in the Black Rapid fastener nub (FastenR) – I’d estimate three seconds or less for the tether and the clamp, The safety tether is very inconspicuous on the L-bracket even when I’m not using my RS-7.

I also like the idea of always attaching the safety tether first.  It is a good defense against me dropping the camera while attaching the strap – something I worried about a bit with the original setup. Here’s a view detached:

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Now I’m excited that my two favorite photo gadgets are working together (my Arca plate and my BR strap). The setup even works fine when I’m using the massive 80-200 and connecting the strap to the foot-plate.  All told it cost a little less than $50, but that seems a reasonable price for harmony while improving usability and safety!

I did a video walk-through that can be found here.

**UPDATE**  I’ve wrapped a bit of gaffers tape around the carbiner since I never need to remove it from the “rig” and I’ve heard stories of the carbiner opening and dropping cameras.  I have a safety tether, and I think most of those stories are the fault of the user, not the hardware, but why not take that risk out of the equation?

After spending four hard weeks traveling recently, most with this strap seeing action all day every day, I’m very pleased with all aspects of this setup.  The clamp has shown absolutely no signs of loosening during use, the safety tether has never gotten in my way and the Loctite has the FastenR securely fixed.  It carries well and is super-convenient – I love it!
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(You also might want to read my more recent post “Don’t Fear the FUD” regarding Black Rapid Straps and the concerns on the tripod mount.  If you enjoyed this post, feel free to follow this blog, “like” Enthusiast Photographer on Facebook, or follow Enthus_Photo on Twitter – I’d be thrilled :))
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Other Notes
As an aside, I’d note that there are certainly less expensive clamps on places like eBay, but I felt like the clamp was a poor place to economize.  The Kirk clamp is very solidly built and shows no signs of backing out, etc.  I’ve got a couple of Sunwayfoto clamps and they are very nice – I wouldn’t have any reservations about them either. I’d get the smallest screw-type clamp you can get from a reputable company – go a little larger if you carry bigger camera/lens combinations.

Recently I noticed RRS released a “nubless” version of their clamp, which I’m sure is awesome (though their photo of the setup has the knob pointed where your chin would be… :)).  RRS makes great stuff (I own several of their products, including my L-bracket in this rig) –  You can save at least $20 with Kirk or Sunwayfoto clamps, though my buddy loves his version of this rig using the RRS clamp.

Readers: What do you think?  Does this make you more comfortable with a Black Rapid strap?

When Gadgets Collide…

It all looks so innocent, doesn't it?

If you’re following the blog, you’ve heard me talk about two things recently:  my new tripod and head setup and the Black Rapid Strap.  I’m loving both of them:  The Arca-Swiss platform and L-bracket are just plain functional with a healthy dose of awesome, and the Black Rapid strap makes carrying your camera more comfortable and available.

One problem.  They don’t work together.

It isn’t so much that they can’t work together as they step on each other if I try to use them as they sit.  Here’s the issue:  If you look at the picture, you can see the fastener for the Black Rapid on the bottom of the camera (they cleverly call this the “FastenR-3” – sometimes marketing guys should restrain themselves…),  There is a handy hole in the bottom of the Really Right Stuff L-bracket for exactly that kind of thing.

Here’s the issue:  With the FastenR screwed into the L-bracket, I can’t mount the camera to my tripod unless I take the FastenR off.  That means I’m having to choose between quick and easy use of my tripod (which I love) and the easy-carrying strap unless I’m willing to unscrew the thing every time I want to put it on a tripod.

I don’t like that because:

  • (A) it is very inconvenient,
  • (B) it causes handling that puts me at higher risk of dropping my camera,and
  • (C) I’m worried that after a certain number of times through this cycle the threaded hole won’t hold as well as it should, and back out, dropping my equipment.  That may not be reality, but I don’t want to worry about it.  Half the point of the strap is to make the camera “disappear” when aren’t using it.

I have some ideas to fix it, and set the pieces in motion today (literally), so look for an update early next week.

In the meantime, have you had any gadgets fight each other?  Let’s hear some stories (and solutions)!