The continuing saga of the Enthusiast Photographer at CES: Sunwayfoto and Sirui

In the name of torturing you with fewer posts, I’m combining some of them to make things easier on everyone ;).  I’m leading up to my two final posts, which are my visits to Timbuk2 and Nikon, so bear with me.

A few stops down from Acratech was Sunwayfoto. I remember seeing some things on various forums about them a while back – a company based in China that  made ball heads and various other products, had a website in English and Chinese and shipped to the US.  For a period of time, it seemed like their website dropped off the web.

Now they are back, and even have some of their products on B&H.  But they had a much broader product line on display at CES.  Among other things, they showed me their medium (44mm) and large capacity (52mm) ball heads, which are very similar to the Markins design – pan and lockdown on two big knobs, with tension adjust in a mini knob embedded in the lock knob.  They have a newer product line – noted by “X” in the product name – that is a lower-profile version of their head, which keeps a lower center of gravity and hopefully offers more stability.

Same size head and weight rating, but lower-profile "X" model on the right.

From an Enthusiast Photographer perspective, these seem very sturdy and well made.  They exhibited no creep at all, but I didn’t have an opportunity to see a camera mounted on one.  But when I compare these to the new Manfrotto Magnesium heads, I find myself liking them better, especially since they include an Arca-Swiss clamp and will probably sell for less.

Are they Really Right Stuff (RRS) quality?  I doubt it, but I do think they offer a very reasonable option for the serious amateur working on a limited budget.  I spent a fair amount if time handling the products and came away impressed.

The same is true of their panning clamp.  Since my lens and camera plates face different ways on my head and I was thinking about getting a monopod for an upcoming trip to Europe, this is interesting to me. The Sunway DDH-01 sells for almost $100 less than the very similar RRS PCL-1 ($235 vs. $137). We’re talking about amazing-quality, USA-made vs. likely-decent-quality, Made-in-China here. Since I own an RRS head, L-plate and lens plate, I can attest to the RRS workmanship and quality. If I was a working pro, I probably have a lot of their gear. If money is a challenge or you are an Enthusiast Photographer, I think Sunwayfoto is a viable option.  The monopod head is tempting for the trip to Europe I have planned for the Summer…

I also saw a monopod head that looked pretty beefy, but isn’t available at B&H (yet):

I didn’t notice the price, but my guess is it will be close to the $139 price of the Sirui head in the next section, though this one doesn’t have a plate included.  It does, however, include a panning function, which might or might not be handy.

On to Sirui.

Sirui is one of a number of made-in-China makers of carbon fiber and other tripods that have popped up on the market in the last year or two.  I’ve seen several of their aluminum and CF tripods and monopods at my local camera store, and come away impressed.  My visit to their booth at CES was no different.  The large tripod on the left is taller than me (and I’m 6’1″) and seemed extremely solid while offering airy carbon fiber weight.  Again, the true test of a tripod or head is in the field, and I’m a big fan of my Gitzo.  I’d love to have an RRS tripod.  I can’t help but like the Sirui products I’ve looked at – they aren’t dirt-cheap, but they are affordable for what they are and seem to have very good stability and quality.  I can’t say the customer service is much of a risk against anyone else other than RRS (who is excellent) – I’ve heard a fair bit of grumbling on various forums about Manfrotto’s service and support, and they now own Gitzo, too.

Net: I liked the Sirui tripods and monopods a lot.  If I get a monopod, these guys are likely to get my business.

They were also showing off a really attractive monopod head:

There is no mystery here where the design was inspired from (think RRS), but it is pretty compelling for a casual/occasional user at $139 including the head.  The unit was very solidly built, has an integrated Arca plate on the bottom and felt very comfortable.  I almost hope they sell a version without the head – that base plus the Sunwayfoto panning head would be a really nice combo for reasonable money.

Should you buy from Sirui or Sunwayfoto?  I think the answer depends on a lot of things, but ultimately I think they represent very reasonable quality for very reasonable money.  There are a lot of brand snobs who are going to tell you that unless it is Manfrotto, Gitzo or RRS (or add Acratech, Markins and Arca-Swiss to the list for ball heads) that you won’t get quality or durability.  I think that is untrue, at least for the Enthusiast Photographer.  If you’re a pro, they are probably a marginal, or at least risky, choice.  For those of us who aren’t generating income with our photography, I think they represent a good budget alternative.  The challenge is that they aren’t well distributed so there aren’t lots of hands-on reviews and experience to draw from.  In the giant money-sucking vortex that is photography, it comes down to a risk assessment.  I think it is a decent bet that the Sunwayfoto and Sirui products will serve you just fine.  Of course, Vegas is where all the bets seem to be made…  😉


I saw lots of other vendors last week and took lots of other photos, but I think I’m down to three more CES posts after this: LensPen, Timbuk2 and my visit to Nikon and Canon.  Hopefully I’ll wrap it up before the weekend so we can get back to the fun stuff!

Facing Vegas (off to CES)

So the Enthusiast Photographer is off for CES, the famed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  That probably means it will be a quiet week for the blog, though I may do some quick mobile blogging – who knows?

I go for work, not fun, but I should get a chance to swing by the area that hosts the photography industry.  One obvious target is the new Nikon D4, but what would you like to see?  I’ll try to get to anything you post as a comment and take a few photos and/or post a few thoughts, though my time isn’t my own, so I can’t make any promises.  Let’s hear some ideas!

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)!

Gitzo 2531 and RRS BH-40 First Thoughts

The magic of easy portrait shooting, courtesy of the BH-40 and the RRS L-plate.

The new setup finally arrived Wednesday, and from the first moment I’ve been wowed by the quality and overall excellence of both the Gitzo 2531 and the RRS-BH40.  A full review with some photos and maybe even a video is coming, but I’ll net it out: Awesome.

It is more stable, it feels…right…and the L-bracket make portrait shooting easier.  Unlikely I’ll ever out-grow this setup, and that is a good thing.  There are too many things in the world of photography where you’re always looking at the next-generation.  No more of that here.  Unless I wind up winning the lottery and decide to invest in big, long glass (bigger than a 300mm prime lens), I’m done.

Done feels good.

My advice to you, if you’re starting out and serious about photography as a hobby:  Think about your tripod as seriously as you did the camera itself.  You might want to check out some of my thoughts on tripods and heads gathered while I was hunting for this setup.

Visit your local camera shop (and when I say camera shop, I don’t mean the retail store at the mall where the teenagers work, I mean the one staffed with a bunch of real photography geeks where the pros in your area get their stuff) and find a deal on a used tripod.  It might be old and heavy, but it will probably work better than the cheapie stuff.  Or grab the Manfrotto 055XPROB.  If you can afford it, the Sirui N-2204 is an amazing tripod for $400.  Not chump change by any means, but it is a solid, travel-ready carbon fiber tripod that comes with a nice case, seems very sturdy and even has a trick monopod capability.  I checked it out at my local shop yesterday.  I’m not sure I can say it is equal to the Gitzo, but it is certainly up to the needs of the Enthusiast Photographer, and it definitely isn’t junk.  If I hadn’t lucked out with the Gitzo, I’d probably be raving about how nice the Sirui is for the money.

I just noticed that B&H and Amazon prices on the Gitzo 2531 have gone down quite a bit – less than $500 after a rebate.  I can only guess they are getting ready to come out with a 2532 since the list price on this at is $778!

My complete thoughts on tripods and heads, the review of my new setup are in the works, and I just got a notice that my new, custom-made Timbuk2 bag is on the way, so lots to do this holiday season!  Maybe even a few photos!

The least sexy upgrade, and it isn’t in your bag…

In my post “Breaking Through the Wall“, I made the analogy that to make your car faster, the best upgrade is to make the driver better and said photography is the same.  That doesn’t probably sit well with people who think they can get newer, better equipment to solve their problems.

It is natural to want the latest thing, or to upgrade the camera or lenses you have, but I’ll throw another one at you:  most people need to buy a good tripod before they spend any other money on other equipment.  Unfortunately, tripods are like pretty much everything else in the photography world – you get what you pay for and the curve can get steep in a hurry.  The net of it is this:  buy the best tripod you can afford.  If you’re really mobile, a monopod isn’t a bad idea either.

Why? Simple.  Stable cameras make for much clearer, sharper pictures.  Shaky cameras make for blurry images.  Sadly, even a basic tripod setup with the head is going to cost you well over $200, and really nice ones that will serve most Enthusiast Photographers will get up where – $300-400 for the legs and another $300-$400 for the head.  If you want carbon fiber, you just added a few hundred dollars more.

But for most of us, the enthusiast photographers, we don’t need a $1200 tripod/ball head setup.  We just need a nice, non-consumer set of legs with a ball head capable of supporting the equipment in the bag.  Check some of the Buy/Sell/Classifieds on the more established photography forums.  Like good lenses, good support equipment holds value pretty well, but it is also generally something that doesn’t lose performance unless it is damaged.

I got the Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with their interesting 322RC2 head.  In retrospect, I might have gone for the slightly heavier-duty 055XPROB (don’t ask me about Manfrotto’s product names/numbering – I’m sure it makes sense to somebody…) and a more standard ball-head.

I can tell you this – my pictures and photography have improved dramatically since getting on good support.  Yours will too…

[UPDATE:  I moved on from the Manfrotto to a Gitzo tripod and heads based on the Arca-Swiss standard.  My opinions have evolved a bit, and while I think Manfrotto’s tripods are an excellent value, I’d recommend just about any head based on the Arca-Swiss system over any Manfrotto head.  The “Why” is probably a topic for a later post, but check out some of my newer posts on Gitzo, Really Right Stuff and Sunwayfoto (you can search at the top right of the page)]