Sometimes, you have to learn your own way…

Thanks for visiting Enthusiast Photographer! For those of you coming from search engines or links, the post below was my “First Look” review of the DT-01 and DDH-02 setup.  Since then, I’ve taken it all over the world and written a full review.  Please feel free to read the post below, but click the link at the bottom for the complete story.  Also, feel free to 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.

I’m not ready to post a review about the Sunwayfoto DT-01 Monopod Head yet, but I learned something tonight.  Women can be pretty clever.  Either that or Winnie from Sunwayfoto has been talking to my wife…

It all started during some correspondence about my XB-44 ball head review.  I mentioned to Winnie that I was going to be taking two trips soon, one to Europe and one to Asia, and was going to buy a monopod to use while traveling.  Since my 80-200 plate has a different orientation than the L-bracket on my D90, I was looking for a solution that I could quickly change to accommodate the orientation of whatever I was using.   Winnie suggested their DT-01 monopod head and the DDH-02 plate.  I’d noticed that head previously (it was on display when I visited their booth at CES) and the DDH-01, which looks similar to the RRS MH-02 setup – a monopod head with an indexing clamp.  Honestly, when I looked at the DDH-02 on their website, I thought it seemed too small and a little delicate to handle my 80-200 on the monopod.

Winnie surprised me when she suggested that I have a look at the head with three clamps – the standard DDC-50 screw-clamp, the DDH-01 I’d been looking at and the DDH-02 she had recommended.

The package arrived the other day, and I just had a chance to try out the various configurations.  I learned a lesson:  Listen to the people who do it for a living.

While I can’t fully speak to the handling and other features yet, I can say this:  if you want something more than the standard screw-clamp, the DDH-02 is the way to go.  When I fit the larger and more substantial DDH-01 on the monopod head, the whole setup is pretty bulky.  This is clearly the reason Sunwayfoto developed the DDH-02 and why Winnie was patiently suggesting that pairing to me.

So when I was failing to listen, Winnie took the direction my wife often does, which is to let me see for myself that she was right. 🙂

Let’s have a look at some photos:

The DT-01 with the standard screw clamp

The DDH-01 and DDH-02 side by side

The DDH-01 panning clamp mounted to the DT-01 Monopod head. I need to try to see if one of the standard screws fits directly to the head, but it doesn’t appear to. Mounting it using the standard clamp worked fine, but the package is bulky.

Last but not least, the svelte and effective DDH-02 panning clamp.

It will take a while to post a full review, but I’ll mention a few basics:

The DT-01 bears some similarity to the RRS monopod head.  They both have a pendulum design and an Arca-compatible dovetail at the base of the head.  Both are all-metal and stoutly made.  Sunwayfoto chose a single-arm base, where RRS has two outboard rails for the swivel base of the head.  The Sunwayfoto design appears to be beefier – my guess is they both perform well.

The Sunwayfoto DDH-01 is a panning clamp that offers similar function to the RRS PCL-1 Panning Clamp.  I thought that made a nice choice to rotate the clamp orientation for use with my 80-200.  As I mentioned previously, it is a fairly substantial clamp, and even directly attached to the monopod it is over-large for good ease of use.  It is a terrific solution to use when shooting panoramic shots on your ball-head, however, and the included dovetail makes using it very simple (you can add a dovetail to the RRS PCL-1 for  $30).

Then there is the DDH02:

It is small, clamps very securely and has a nifty flip-lever that allows it to rotate or pan in 360°.  As soon as I’d mounted it on the head, I knew I had the right solution.

I’m still going to take all three out on my trips so I can see how everything handles, and I’ll write up a full review in a couple of months.  But over and above some things I’ve already learned as a enter the world of monopod users, I learned again a lesson for so many of us:  Listen.   🙂

The DDH-01 panning clamp is available at B&H, but for now I can only find he DT-01 head on Amazon and eBay.  As a new product, the DDH-02 hasn’t popped up anywhere yet…
Update: My full review on the DDH-02 and the DT-01 can be found here.  Both products are now available at B&H and Amazon.

UPDATE:  I’ve completed a full review!  See it by clicking here.  Enjoy!

Note/Disclaimer:  You might have noticed these products have “SAMPLE” serial numbers.  As with the XB-44, these were provided to me by Sunwayfoto for review at no cost.  If you’ve read my blog, I hope you believe that I’m a very straightforward guy – I say what I think, I admit what I don’t know and I’d never let anything sway my review of a product: It works or it doesn’t.  I like it or I don’t.  I hate fiddly stuff and poor design, and I’ll never hold back on those issues.  I always try to be fair, whichever way that cuts.

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Sunwayfoto XB-44 Ball Head Review

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:

Nicely wrapped in a foam cocoon…

A look at the included plate with a screw-clamp and a bubble level. The plate has laser-engraved markings and is notched for the safety screw in the plate. The head will, of course, accept other plates.

A look at the knobs – no rubber here, just raw, meaty, knurled goodness. Knob placement and function is very good.

Fully upright, with a good look at the tension adjustment integrated into the main knob.

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:

A look at the XB-44 mounted on a Gitzo 2531 (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

Another view (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

The XB-44 with its big brother, the XB-52. I see the XB-44 as a Series 2 tripod and down, for use with lenses up to 70-200 and more, while the XB-52 can likely handle just about anything you throw at it, and will sit on a Series 3 tripod or above. (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

Thoughts? Questions? Please feel free to leave any comments!

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).