Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support System (Podcast 419)

Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support System (Podcast 419)

This week we’re going to take a look at the very simple but incredibly functional Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system, that enables you to set up to three rolls of seamless background paper simultaneously, then raise and lower them as necessary using a chain and pulley system.

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The Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system has been on my radar for a while, but as it is quite a big ticket item, I had been keeping my eye out for a good deal, and then a few weeks ago, the price for the various items that make up the system dropped on two of my favorite suppliers here in Japan, amazon.co.jp and yodobashi.com. I selected the cheaper site for each part for a good deal and set up my support system, so today I’m going to walk you through what it’s comprised of and why I love having this system in place.

In fact, if I take a step back from that, there was another reason that made me take another look at the pricing at this point in time, and that was because I needed a projector screen for my May 17-18 In-Studio Pixels 2 Pigment workshop, and I was looking at screens that I could just attach to the wall and forget about.

The problem with that though is because I rent our apartment, I can’t make big holes in the wall, so I came back to the Manfrotto system which doesn’t require me to make any holes. In this image (below) you can see that a great secondary benefit of having this system in place is that it doubles as a relatively good projector screen. I can almost hear any home-theatre buffs sniggering as I speak (type) but hey, this is good enough for my needs, and it’s a hell of a lot better than a bed-sheet pinned to the wall, which we have to use on some of my workshops.

Using Manfrotto Expan System as Projection Screen

Using Manfrotto Expan System as Projection Screen

As a background support though, as you can see in this next image (below) the system enables me to set rolls of seamless background paper into place, and then roll down the required color quickly and easily when I need it using the chains on the left side.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support Sys

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support System

Now, you would probably use this system with wider rolls of seamless more often, like the 2.7m (9ft) wide roll that I used in the portrait shoot that we looked at in episode 415, but here in my small office/studio on the 3rd floor, I don’t realistically have room for much wider than this, without it obstructing the door that opens from the left in this photo.

Plus, although I can shoot one or two people in this studio, the majority of the work I do here is shooting products as illustrations for this Podcast or my eBooks, and being able to just roll down a background in a few seconds saves a lot of time.

Until now, I’ve had to get my background stand out and set it up, then feed the poles through the core of the seamless, then clamp it after I rolled the paper down, and unclamp it every time I have to adjust it, and of course, if I need to change from white to black, I have to pack the white away first and start again with the black seamless. Now it’s literally a 10 second job, and I’m rolling with another color, as we can see in this photo (below). Another great benefit as well is that unlike my stands, which always get in the way of the door, this system is away from the door, and so can be left in place permanently.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support Sys

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support System

It’s difficult to see in these photos, but as I mentioned, the beauty of this system is that it doesn’t require you to make holes in your walls, and because it’s basically just clamped into place, if needs be, I can easily unclamp the system to break it down, or adjust the width for easy use with different roll lengths, or to take to a client’s premises for a shoot if needs be.

The main supports are Manfrotto Auto-Poles 032B, which you can buy from B&H currently for $211, and I’ll put some affiliate links in the blog post in case you think of picking any of this stuff up yourself. The price stays the same to you when you buy with our links, but you help to support the podcast buy using these links.

The Auto Poles are 2.1m (82.7″) tall, and extend up to 3.7m (145.7″), which is a good range, and you can buy extensions if you need taller. If you know you’ll never need this tall though, there are shorter and thinner poles available, and that’s a good way to save some money, as these are a not cheap.

To adjust the height, you literally just slide the top section out of the pole, until it touches the roof, then you lower the handle that you can see in this image (below) and once you get past that little red button that you can see, the top section is extended a little more locking the pole into place. The red button then ratchets out locking the arm in place. To release the handle to loosen the pole you have to push that red button in, so there’s no chance of this lever coming lose buy itself.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Pole Tightening/Locking Mechanism

Manfrotto 032B Auto Pole Tightening/Locking Mechanism

The part to attach the seamless rolls to the auto poles is the Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hooks and Super Clamps for 3 Backgrounds, which is currently $95 on B&H. As you can see in the other photos, this enables you to set up to three rolls of seamless in place simultaneously. In this image (bel0w) we can see that the hooks are attached to the auto pole with the Super Clamps, which lock it in place solidly.

Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hook and Super Clamp

Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hook and Super Clamp

Now, the entire system is incredibly well made, and worth the money in my opinion, but there is one thing that bugs me about the system and that is that the tightening lever on these Super Clamps isn’t adjustable. You know how on some clamps you can pull the handle outwards, then rotate it and let it drop back down into place at a different angle? Well, you can’t do that with these.

This means that if like me you want to tighten these right against a wall, you have to adjust them before you put the pole in place, and also, I had to over tighten one of my pair so that it didn’t stick out backwards. This is a small detail, but those kind of adjustable levers are common on lighting gear, and I wish they were included. It just makes life easier for the user and would have been a nice touch.

Something else to note here too is that if you have permanent studio space and you know that you will always use the same width rolls of seamless, you can actually just buy these hooks, and drill holes in your walls and screw them into place. You’d need to ensure that you have strong enough walls etc. but this is definitely an option and would save you a lot of money.

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Once you have your hooks in place, you’re ready to assemble your seamless rolls, and for this you’ll need the Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Metal Chains. As you see here (above) these basically just screw into the core of the seamless roll and open up as you rotate the knob, tightening themselves into place inside the core. You just have to align the end of the black plastic part with the edge of the core, and adjust as you tighten, then once you put the other end in place, you’re ready to drop the seamless into place in the hooks.

Another thing to note is that I also bought a Manfrotto 062-2 Background Paper Counterweight to attach to the bottom of the paper. This in my opinion is an essential edition to the system. Without the counter weight fitted the paper curls and fights you as you unroll it, and you need to pull it into place and then clamp or tape it down once in place to stop it from rolling back up. You would also probably need to clamp the paper roll as well, to stop it from unrolling further. This all kind of defeats the object of the system to a degree.

Although the Counterweight at $33 is comes in two pieces, and can be fitted together for 9 foot seamless rolls, because I’m using 1.36m (3.4′) rolls, I was able to use one of the two halves of the counterweight for each roll, which was perfect for me.

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

You will of course have to adjust the gap between your Auto Poles so that the Expan Drive holders drop into the hooks properly, but once it’s set up, you can place up to three rolls of seamless in place. Note that if you do use the counterweight as I’ve done, you can adjust the width between the hooks with the torsion and locking nut of the other part of the Expan Drive. If you undo the locking nut, it slides along the pole a little, and that can give you enough play so that you can roll the seamless totally up, and the counterweight will go in between the hooks OK. By default my counterweights hit the hooks, so I had to make this adjustment.

Also note that it’s best to not over-tighten the torsion nut, as it then becomes more difficult to freely unroll the seamless and roll it back up again with the chains. These are meant to be left a little free unless your seamless is so heavy that it starts to unroll by itself, then you can use this nut to lock it into place, or increase the torsion until it can be unrolled, but not so freely that it unrolls by itself.

The Expan Drive Sets are currently $89 on B&H, and you need a set for each roll of seamless that you want to set up simultaneously. I only bought two sets for now, though I might buy another set later if necessary. Of course, if you run a high volume studio using many different color backgrounds, you may end up setting up more than three rolls of seamless, using more Expan Drive kits, so that you can switch them out easily. Because the rolls just slide into place it takes literally just a couple of seconds to switch these out, so the investment may well pay off in time saved.

One other thing to note here too is that you have to set the seamless so that it unrolls from the back. When using a single roll of seamless on my portable stands, I usually set them up so that the paper unrolls from the front, because then the seamless doesn’t fight you around the bend if you’re going to have it run under your subject. When you roll as we see in these pictures, the paper doesn’t want to take that corner as freely. This is something you have to live with of course, otherwise the higher rolls will unroll into the lower rolls as you lower them, and the system isn’t as effective.

I also saw reviews on B&H that made me think there are Expan Drives available with plastic chains, but everyone seemed to agree that the one’s with metal chains are better, so watch out for that if you build this system for yourself. The metal chains are nice and heavy and probably help to keep the action smooth and well balance, so this is probably not the place to try and save a few dollars.

Draping a Black Velvet Background Cloth from the Expan System

Draping a Black Velvet Background Cloth from the Expan System

Of course, I don’t only use seamless for my backgrounds. I sometimes use a beautiful black velvet background that just sucks up light, and I’ll continue to use that, though now what I’ve done is taped the end of the velvet to it’s core, and threaded a long loop of nylon string through the core, so that I can hook it up onto the support’s hooks, as we see here (right).

When I place another order for some stuff, I might pick up another counterweight set, and then I can use one length of that as a new core for this velvet, which would be neater than this taping, but this works, although it’s not so pretty.

I also tied a few knots in the left side of the nylon string so that I could easily adjust the height in stages as necessary.

I haven’t included any details on lighting today, although I will of course generally be using this set up with my Profoto Monolights and soft boxes and other lighting modifiers.

This is my play studio too, where I sometimes just for example buy a bunch of flower and have a few hours of fun shooting them, so I’m looking forward to getting a little free time or my next project to really start to benefit from this new system.

With regards to lighting though, I wanted to finish with one note about a new ceiling light that I also just installed. It’s basically an LED ceiling light replacing my old circular florescent tube light, partly to conserve energy, but more because I can easily change the brightness and color of the light. I can make the light warmer or cooler with a remote control, and on it’s bluest setting it’s about 4750K, which is not too far from Daylight, which is generally considered to be around 5500K.

Now, this isn’t studio lighting, but when turned up full, with a small light balance adjustment, I can shoot hand-held without setting up my studio lighting. Of course, for professional results, the studio lighting is going to be worth setting up, especially as I can’t control the angle of the light and the shadows with my ceiling light, but for a quick product shot, such as the one’s I’ve embedded in this episode, the ceiling light is going to be a big time saver.

I did have a look on B&H and Amazon.com for something similar, but I couldn’t find it, so I can’t include a link, but it is a Toshiba LEDH95040-LC ceiling light with remote control, if you want to check availability near you. I’m all for putting little time savers like this in place, especially when we’re all trying to get so much done with so little time.

Anyway, I hope this has been somewhat useful. I’m really pleased that I finally took the plunge and built my Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system. This is going to be a huge time saver moving forward. Remember too, as I mentioned earlier, if you like this idea too, and set up your own system at some point, please do use the B&H links at the bottom of the post. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it really helps with the costs involved in producing this podcast each week, and that is always very much appreciated.

Namibia Full Circle Tour – Aug 10-26, 2015

I also wanted to quickly mention before we finish that I have just finalized details of an Aug 2015 Namibia tour with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse. It’s called the Namibia Full Circle Tour as we are covering pretty much the entire country, except for the Etosha National park, although we come close. We are considering doing an extension into Etosha after the main tour though, so if you are interested in that, do let me know. Click the graphic below to see full details of the tour on Jeremy’s Web site, and please make sure that if you book, you tell Jeremy that you heard about the tour from me.


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See details of the Namibia Full Circle Tour here: https://mbp.ac/namibia2015

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Podcast 234 : Camera and Photo Imaging Show 2010

Podcast 234 : Camera and Photo Imaging Show 2010

This year marked the start of a new event, the Camera and Photo Imaging Show, at the Pacifico Yokohama exhibition hall. I can see from the updated Web site, which is at cpplus.jp, that they had around 41,000 visitors over the four days of the event, which I guess isn’t bad for a new show. The day I visited, March 13th, had the most visitors with almost 13,000. It wasn’t particular crowded when I was there, but I left at just after noon for some Canon Video Seminars nearby, that I’ll talk about later.

The show was free to attend if you registered in advance, and I arrived just as they opened at 10AM. I shot images with my iPhone, so that I could upload to Twitter as I went around the show. If you don’t already follow me on Twitter, and would be interested in these kinds of updates, please do follow me, as I rarely announce that I’m going to do this sort of thing beforehand. I chose the 1D Mark IV as my DSLR, because I wanted the good quality high ISO images, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to need the highest resolution possible.

Welcome to CP+ 2010

Welcome to CP+ 2010

As I entered the exhibition hall, the first stall to my right was the Epson stand, and then in front of that was the huge Canon stand. Although Epson were the closest, the Canon stand was the first to come into sight. I got a distinct feeling that Canon put a lot into this new show. I tweeted an iPhone image of part of the stand, with all of the big white lenses that Canon usually lines up for people to look through, and we can see from the image that they were also making a point of their 50 millionth EF lens sale, from 1987 to 2009. Which reminds me, I pick up my new 70-200mm F2.8 version II lens hopefully this coming Friday, the 19th of March, and if possible, I’ll be reviewing this lens in comparison to the old version in next week’s Podcast and blog post, so stay tuned for that if you are interested.

Canon Stand with Big Gun White Lenses

Canon Stand with Big Gun White Lenses

As you can see from the next picture, Canon also put on their usual slew of models for people to shoot, using their own camera or the ones provided. It’s probably no surprise that the big gun white lenses are also pointing this way. There was also an area behind the stand, like a large L shape surrounding the two areas I just showed you, where Canon was showing their cameras and printers. They had the new iPF6350 and iPF 6300, 24″ printers on display. I’m still very interested in this format, to enable me to do my own large prints, but as I mentioned last year, I have to move apartments first, and that is taking me longer than expected. 🙁

Canon Stand

Canon Stand

It was nice to see some large prints, including canvases that Canon had done with their wide roll paper printers. Being a fan of the large print, it got me all the more fired up about wanting to move and get myself one of these big printers. I asked one of the Canon reps if they had any intention to remove the silly borders that they enforce on the user when printing to their fine art papers from the Pro 9500 series printers, and he didn’t have a clue. That’s to be expected of course. I told them that I’d provided the photography community with a workaround, which has been popular, and that Canon are probably losing at least some sales because of this restriction. He politely thanked me for the feedback, and of course I know that he will forget this the moment I walk away. But, I feel that I have a moral duty to tell Canon that this was a very silly idea, whenever I get the chance.

From the front of the Canon stand as you face it, if you swung around to your left, you could see the Olympus stand, and they were of course pushing the new Pen camera, and then after that there was the Nikon stand. Probably about two thirds the size of the Canon stand, and with the slightly less prominent position, Nikon didn’t seem quite as willing to invest in the event.It’s hard to say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It was the first year for this event after all, and maybe Nikon even feel that they don’t have to invest in events like this, and they’ll still sell lots of cameras.

As we can see from the pretty bad iPhone image that I shot here, instead of models revolving slowly on a merry-go-round, Nikon put on a colorful bush like flower arrangement for their visitors. I actually shot this with one of the DSLRs that they had on display, and it was great for seeing how well the LCD displayed the colors that the camera had captured so well, so I don’t really want to make fun of this. They obviously put a lot of thought into it. It certainly came across as being just slightly cheap-skate compared to the Canon stand though.

Nikon Stand

Nikon Stand

Right in front of the Nikon stand was the Gitzo and Manfrotto stand. This was actually a small island with Gitzo and Manfrotto on one side, and Kata Camera Bags on the other side. I was disappointed again in the reply from the Gitzo rep when I asked if there was anywhere in Japan that I could get the zips on my Gitzo jacket replaced, because they keep jamming, and he didn’t have a clue.

I have been planning to buy a Manfrotto fluid head for video though, and found the Manfrotto rep very helpful. He knew roughly what weight each of their fluid heads would support, I thought it was great that he could walk me through to the Gitzo room next to theirs, and explain exactly what I would need to mount their 519 Pro Video Fluid Head to a Gitzo Tripod. The he told me that I’d need a 75mm bowl adapter, and a Systematic Tripod. When I got home it made it very easy for me to find what I needed on the B&H Web site, so full marks to Manfrotto here.

Manfrotto and Gitzo Stand

Manfrotto and Gitzo Stand

After this, I went around to the other side of this stand, and found the Kata Camera Bag people. I had heard a lot of good things about the Kata bags, and so decided to take a closer look, and was greeted by a helpful rep called Bellina. I had my Zoom H2 digital recorder with me, and although there isn’t much point in me recording conversations in Japanese for this Podcast, because Bellina spoke English, after speaking for a while we decided to record a quick interview. So I’m going to insert that here, and then we’ll come back and I’ll talk a little more about my impressions of the Kata Camera Bag line of products.

Bellina from Kata Bags

Bellina from Kata Bags

<<Here I play an interview with Kata Bags, so there’s no transcript. Listen to or download the audio at the bottom of this post>>

It was nice to chat with Bellina, and I was pleased to be able to record that for you guys. I really was very impressed with Kata Camera Bags, and can’t wait to get a hold of one or two of these and bring you a full review. From what I saw, they are light, well designed and well made. As Bellina said, they design their bags first and foremost around the person that is the photographer, and not around the gear, and I really think they are on to a winner.

Here’s something else that’s really cool too. If you go to the Kata web site at kata-bags.com, click on the photo link, you will see their Photo Bag Navigator. Here you can narrow down your choices with a number of variables, and the thing that I found most cool was that they list most laptop models from all of the main manufacturers. I have an Acer 9620, and could quickly see which bags I can chose from if I want to carry my laptop as well as my camera gear, and I can tell you, the HB-207 ruck sack style bag is looking pretty tempting.

I don’t carry my laptop that often though, and for when I also won’t be carrying so much of my gear, the new 3N1-33 that Bellina showed me and was wearing in the “X” Position in the photo I posted on my blog, is totally amazing. The way you can wear and carry the bag is so many different configurations, and the layout of the pockets for quick access to your camera and lenses, as well as the space for and access to your personal belongings is awesome.

I actually didn’t have much time to walk the floor at the CP+ show, because I’d registered to attend three Canon seminars that turned out to be just down the road from the show, in a different building. I had maybe another 30 minutes after talking to the Kata folks, so I continued to walk around, and looked at the Lite Panels that were available, including ones with White Balance control on the back, which was pretty impressive. I found that they could also be controlled by a central control unit, rather than going to each light. It didn’t seem possible to control them from a laptop PC or anything though, which I thought would have been better than making the user buy a separate control unit, but I guess that’s a good marketing strategy.

Canon EOS Movie Seminars

I left the exhibition hall at just after midday, and grabbed a sandwich at the convenience store, then walked the 10 minutes down the road to the Canon EOS Movie Seminars, which were to be held at the Brillia ShortShorts Theater. The first seminar I watched was by a photographer and videographer name Juumonji Bishin. For the most part, I’d seen the video that was being played, and although beautiful, was starting to feel a little bit disappointed that the seminar was really just rehashing stuff that had already been published.

Then Bishin started talking about his experiences when Canon first came to him with the 5D Mark II when it was still in prototype. Apparently they asked him to take the new camera out and get some photographs for their marketing, to show how good the camera was, but before he left, they said, by the way, this camera can shoot full High Definition video. If you have time to get a few video clips as well, that would be great! Because Bishin has a lot of experience with video, and has used film HD camera for a number of years, he said that he was excited because he immediately realized that the full sized sensor in the 5D Mark II would give him much more ability to shoot with a shallow depth-of-field, compared to even the largest 35mm film HD video cameras, at half the size. He also said that he simply couldn’t stand digital HD cameras, because the sensors are so ridiculously small.

He went on though to show us what is probably the first DSLR Video shot in the world, outside of what the Canon R&D team would have obviously shot during the development and testing of the camera. It was a small patch of equinox flowers in the rain. It was a simply 15 to 30 second clip, that he says he just shot between shooting stills, to see how it looked. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful, what I call “moving stills” that I’ve seen. The way the rain hit the long tendrils of the equinox flowers, making them bend down then spring back up again, and the light was amazing. I love shooting in the rain, so I was maybe more responsive to this, but it really was a beautiful clip, and to see it on a full sized movie theater screen was great.

I’ve been shooting this sort of moving still for a while now, and have a number of them from Hokkaido as well that I will share with you soon, but having already gotten the bug to start to do more of this, and after being inspired by one of this year’s Hokkaido workshop participants, I really enjoyed this clip, and started to feel happy that I’d attended. After all, it was getting the video bug that made me decide to sign up for these seminars, and I’ve actually just placed an order for a Manfrotto 519 Pro Video Fluid Head and some other things from Really Right Stuff to hopefully rig up my cameras so that I can drop them onto a video head easily without having to remove my RRS Arca Swiss type plates. My main focus will remain stills, but I hope you aren’t going to mind if I talk about video a little bit more in the coming months as I get more into this.

The second seminar that I attended was called “EOS Movie Practical Techniques from a Pro Photographer. These guys spent a lot of time talking about the new plug-in for Final Cut Pro that will basically enable people to convert video to a better format much quicker than has been possible so far. One of the take-aways was seeing how they used LiveView on a laptop PC and a second HDMI monitor coming straight out of the camera, to accurate focus and view the video stream on a large screen as they shot. I hadn’t realized that you can attach something like the Manhattan 8.9” HD monitor screens to the camera and use it for LiveView, and although I knew that you could use LiveView on a Laptop using the EOS Utilities, I hadn’t really thought of using this for video until now, so this was good information for me.

Probably my biggest take-away here was when they showed some 60fps video played back at 30fps. I knew about this technique, and rather than it looking like slow motion, it just had a dreamy feel to it. I thought that was entirely down to the shallow depth-of-field being used, but then they said that this is how we view our memories. Basically, when we look at something with interest, and commit it to memory, then recall it later, it is played back to us slower than the actual scene was, and this clicked with me instantly. The footage they showed seemed like the recollection of a precious memory.

The last seminar that I attended was on tips and techniques from a music video director. I almost didn’t sign up for this one, and I almost of wished I hadn’t. There were a few things that I enjoyed, like watching how the director works with the photographer and seeing the gear that they were using. Again, they had Manhattan HD Monitors and PCs hooked up to the camera, and using all sorts of gear to get their video footage. They also gave a lot of background information on the video that they did called “the passage”, which you can see on the Canon web site at the moment as well. They said that when they chose the young Italian model for this video, the agent had told them that she had loads of video experience, and when they turned up to start shooting she said it was her first video job, which I thought was quite funny.

Anyway, a relatively enjoyable afternoon, although Canon’s handling of the logistics could have been better, and I wished it hadn’t been so far from the main exhibition hall so that I could have gone back, but in general I’m pleased I went. My one complain about the whole thing is that it’s too short. The doors open at 10AM and close at 5PM, so if you want to attend some seminars as well, there really isn’t enough time to talk to many of the exhibitors. I got to all of the stands that I was interested in, but if I’d had a few more hours, I could have looked at a few more stands in more detail, to see if I could find any other hidden gems.


Podcast show-notes:

CP+ Web site: http://cpplus.jp/

Kata Bags: http://www.kata-bags.com/

The new Kata 3N1-33 Sling Backpack: [Removed invalid link]

WebSpy giveaway: http://www.webspy.com.au/blogs/index.php/new-webspy-soho-giveaway/

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


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Tripods, Monopods, etc. (Podcast 32)

Tripods, Monopods, etc. (Podcast 32)

Today I’m going to describe what types of camera supports I use, give you just a few examples of images shot with each, and a few tips on what to look out for when buying a tripod, monopod or other camera support.

Today’s Podcast topic was originally suggested by Dom Leary, username Scrubs, from Surrey, England. Dom has been a member for a while now and contributes a lot to the board, so Thanks Dom, both for the suggestion for today’s topic, and for your continued contributions to the forum.

As of April 2006 I use two tripods and a monopod, selecting from them as necessary based on the intended use. I took all three to Hokkaido with me in February this year and used them all.

So firstly, the tripod that I’ve owned the longest, around 4 years now I think, is comprised of a set of Manfrotto 444 Carbon One legs, and at the end of 2005 I bought Acratech’s The Ultimate Ballhead for this tripod. The Ultimate Ballhead is a great piece of equipment and it fits perfectly onto my Manfrotto 444 legs. Unlike my previous ballhead that was greased, and required a lot of pressure to be applied to fix the camera in any particular position, and even then sometimes the camera would still move, the Ultimate Ballhead is not greased and really needs very list pressure to stop it dead.

When you order from Acratech’s Web site, I’ll put links to all this equipment in the show notes by the way, you can choose from a number of options, such as to optimize the ballhead for left-handed use, and also you can choose rubber knobs, as I did, which makes tightening and un-tightening much easier. I also chose the option to not put a Quick Release shoe on the ballhead, as I wanted to standardize all my camera supports with the same Wimberly QR or Quick Release clamp, C-10. This QR Clamp has a groove down the middle into which screws in the plate that you fit to the camera or your lenses slide, but stop the lens from sliding all the way out if the screw should come loose at all. I now have a plate permanently screwed to both my 5D and 20D, as I sometimes use both together, and I also have a plate on all my lenses that have a tripod mount, namely the 600mm F4, the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 and my 100mm macro lenses.

I find it important to be able to use both cameras and all my lenses on any of these supports, as the plates that you fit to lens mounts or camera are not quick release. They screw into the tripod mount and in some cases also have other locking nuts, so taking them off and switching to different plates in the field is impractical. So basically this tripod and both my second tripod and monopod are all fitted with QR Clamps from Wimberly, so that I don’t have to waist time changing shoes instead of shooting.

So, why did I go for the Manfrotto 444 legs? Firstly, I wanted carbon-fiber for it’s lightness, as I was going to attach this tripod to the side of my already too heavy camera bag and often trek up mountains or walk for long distances. It can’t be too light though, as we don’t want it blowing over in the slightest breeze with our precious equipment sitting on it. This particular model weighs in at 3.5lbs or 1.6 kilograms and will support up to 11lbs or 5kg of camera equipment happily. It was important to check this as the tripod needs to support a large DSLR with battery grip and flash. Basically the message is don’t go for something too flimsy. Small and light is nice, but only really suitable if your main camera is a compact digital. Even then, I wouldn’t go very light as you’re not going to be too happy if the wind takes it.

The second reason I chose this particular model, the 444, is because it has four leg sections, which means it is compact when the legs are all contracted. The closed length without a head is 19.2 inches or 48cms. When I have a head on this, it is just under the maximum length that you can carry one to an airplane. I don’t like checking any photographic equipment when traveling abroad, so making sure that I can carry it on to a plane was important.

Another consideration was the maximum height. I like a tripod to get the eyepiece of the camera to eye level, without having to extend the center pole. Extending the center pole is OK in emergencies, but you don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to always use it, as it reduces the effectiveness, that is the ability of your tripod to steady your camera greatly. At 48 inches or 1.2 meters, then adding the height of the ball head and the camera itself, this tripod gets the eye piece right to my eye level. You also don’t want to be crouching to shoot, unless you are doing macro work where the subject is low to the ground. For normal landscape work, you want to be able to stand without stooping and look through the finder. This is just a comfort thing really, to stop you from getting back ache unnecessarily.

Now, if you do any amount of macro work or shooting from low angles for any other reason, the minimum height from which you can shoot is also important. I chose this tripod for low angle shooting for two reasons. Firstly, the legs can be widened to three different angles. If you don’t do anything, the legs stop at pretty much the same angle as most tripods, in this case, 25 degrees. Then using the quick action leg angle selector buttons at the top of the legs, you can also allow the legs to open more widely to 45 and then even wider to 65 degrees. This allow you to get lower to the grown with the camera still attached to the top of the tripod. Once you go past a certain angle though, the center pole will hit the floor, so there’s a special low angle adapter, that screws into the bottom of the center pole, which you unscrew, take the center pole out, and then drop the low angle adapter into the hole where the center pole was. This allows you to get the tripod way down low because the pole is no longer sticking out of the bottom to stop you. You then remount your tripod head onto the low angle adapter and drop your camera sits on that as usual.

Today, I’m not going to talk about many photos, as this is going to be more equipment based, but one that I do want to look at is shot number 955, of a tiny blue flower called a Common Field Speedwell. If you know this flower, you’ll know that it grows on a bed of leaves and stalk right down at ground level. To make this image, actually looking up at the flower head slightly, I had my camera upside down, with the flash shoe about 2 centimeters from the ground. To keep my camera stable I was using the Manfrotto 444 Carbon One tripod with the legs opened out to 45 degrees, and the center pole inserted upside down into the tripod so that the camera hung upside down. The ability to do this was another consideration when I bought this particular tripod, and if you are into macro or low angle photography, I suggest you keep this in mind too when deciding what to buy.

Frail Blue Flower

Frail Blue Flower

This shot was made with the 100mm F2.8 macro lens with the 25mm extension tube at F4 for 160th of a second, at ISO 200.

The last thing I kept in mind when buying this particular tripod was the Quick-action leg lever locks that secure the leg extensions firmly in place. This means that I can undo the lever, extended the leg section and lock it again pretty quickly. I’d say that the feeling of how easily the legs extend and contract is going to be pretty much down to personal preference though, so I’d try to get to a camera store and actually handle the tripod before buying.

The second tripod I use, which comprises of a Gitzo 1348 Mk2 and a Wimberly Head, also has four leg sections for shorter minimum length of 24 inches or 0.6 metres, and with this tripod leg sections that are locked by rotating a rubber grip on the leg sections. This takes a maybe a fraction longer than the quick action leg lever of my Manfrotto to undo, but equally easy to use. In fact, this might also just be because I’m not as used to using the Gitzo tripod just yet. The main considerations for this tripod were that I wanted something that would steadily support the weight of my 600mm F4 lens with a camera and battery grip. This tripod weighing in at 4.75lbs or 2.2kg will support up to 26.5lbs or 12kg of equipment. Although the Manfrotto will hold the weight of my 600mm and camera too, I wanted to use this tripod with the Wimberly head, and as changing the head in the field is not practical, because they sometimes lock up, I decided to buy another tripod especially for this combination.

Another reason is that I wanted something that extends higher than my Manfrotto, so that if the legs sink in snow, I would still be OK. This tripod actually extends around good two feet higher than I need it too for this purpose. The other advantage of this is that if I want to use the 600mm to shoot at say a falconry display or something, where there will be a crowd, it is not possible to set up a tripod at the front row or in the crowd. The only option would be to stand at the back of the crowd, so I could take some small steps, set the tripod up to maximum height, which is 65.75 inches or 167cm, and then another twenty cms or so for the head, and then shoot while standing on the steps. This is something to bear in mind if you intend to shoot from a tripod at sports venues or similar locations.

The Gitzo Tripods center pole also can be removed and replaced with a different adapter for low angle shooting, as with my Manfrotto tripod.

I found an interesting fact on Gitzo’s Web site today while preparing for today’s Podcast. It seems that in 1992 a UK company called Vitec Group PLC bought Gitzo, and this same company also owns Manfrotto. They are committed to both as separate brands apparently. I just thought it was funny that I chose two different tripods for different needs, and the money for both ended up going into the same company’s pocket.

Anyway, one other consideration, as making sure the tripod is level when using the Wimberly Head is important, is that this particular model incorporates a spirit level. This helps to get the tripod perfectly level so that when I pan I don’t find myself with a crooked horizon at any point.

The reason I chose the Wimberly Head was partly through seeing it in action in a copy of Michael Reichmann’s The Lumious Landscape Video Journal. For long or super-telephoto lenses the Wimberly Head really comes into its own. As you can achieve perfect balance of your lens and camera, you can literally undo all the locking nuts on the lens and swing it around with almost the same amount of freedom that you get when hand-holding. Once again, I’ll put a link to the Wimberly Web site and Michael Reichmann’s Video Journal in the show notes.

So, by way of introducing just one image I made using the Wimberly Head on the Gitzo 1348 Mk2 legs during a trip to Hokkaido in February 2006, let’s take a quick look at shot number 872. I first spoke about this shot and the Wimberly Head in episode 26 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast, but I really like the sharpness of this shot, and one of the reasons for that sharpness is the excellent design of the Wimberly Head and the ability it gives you to track subjects like eagles as they move across the sky. This was shot with the 600mm F4 lens at 1/800th of a second, ISO 400 at F11.

Daunting White-Tailed Eagle

Daunting White-Tailed Eagle

Finally, although not very often, I use a Manfrotto 3245 monopod. As I mentioned earlier, this is also fitted with a Wimberly QR Clamp to allow me to fit my lenses to this monopod too, without changing the plates on my equipment. I don’t have a ball head or anything on this monopod, as I can loosen the screw on the tripod mounts on my lenses, and turn the camera in the mount to the vertical or portrait position. This does make it difficult to shoot things very high up in the sky, but I don’t find myself needing to do this very often.

Monopods are great for sports photography and actually provide more stability than you might think. I used mine to good effect also during the Hokkaido trip in February, from the deck of a fishing boat when shooting eagles. Take a look at image number 909 to see the results. This was one of the first images I’d made after switching to the 600mm F4 on the Manfrotto monopod from hand holding the 100-400mm lens with my 5D. It was shot at F5.6 for 1/640th of a second at ISO 400. I hope you can appreciate how sharp this image is. Using a tripod on a rocking boat is obviously not an option, so I hope this image will also help you to appreciate that using a monopod is a viable option when circumstance dictate.

Rausu Steller's Sea Eagle #2

Rausu Steller’s Sea Eagle #2

For studio work, where carrying the tripod around is not an issue, there are also some much larger, heavier tripods around, and as they are usually made from steel or other heavy metals, as opposed to carbon-fiber, they are not as expensive.

I haven’t provided a review of all the options available here, and as I don’t have any experience with other products, I don’t think it would be fair to compare them with what I do use and know. Anything like that would be just speculation. There are lots of makers of excellent quality tripods in addition to Manfrotto and Gitzo, so please do take a look at all of your options. Hopefully sharing what I considered during the search for my camera supports will help to figure out what you want if you are currently in a similar situation.

Options other than tripods and monopods that I can think of include bean-bags that can be dropped onto a wall just about any steady surface and then you rest your camera lens or body on the bean-bag for stability. You can use your camera bag in a similar way, but a bean bag I’d imagine will mould itself to the shape or your camera and lens. There are also clamps that house a standard tripod head, that clamp onto shelves or some that also can be clamped onto your car window. I’m not sure I’d like to support a 600mm lens clamped to my car window, but I’m sure this is a viable option for shooting with shorter lenses. Another similar option is something that clamps onto your car door with the window down. This will obviously support much more weight. There are very small compact tripods. I personally would not use one of these for my photography, but I can imagine if you found one that will support the weight of your camera and your longest lens, they may have some limited applications. As I say, check out what’s available and make up your own mind. At least now you’ll have my own considerations and opinions and will hopefully think of a few things that were not initially important to you.

So that’s it for today’s main topic. I have a quick update on the photography assignment we kicked off last week. Firstly, I decided to change the voting system. I was going to turn on the rating system in the gallery at the end of April when we stop taking entries to the Assignment gallery, but this system allows members to vote multiple times and would also allow zero voting to lower the average score of others images and so would not be fair. I’ve now implemented a system where a vote button will appear above the images when viewed in the Assignment gallery. On clicking the button, your vote will be counted and you will not be able to vote for a second image for that assignment. I have also made it possible to change your mind, so if as you view the gallery you decide you really like a particular image, then as you further view the gallery you find something you like even better, you will be able to change your vote to that image, but it will be removed from your previous vote. To do this, just click the vote button again on a different image and the system will give you the option to update your vote.

Also, a good point about the rules of the assignment was raised by Dom, the member that suggested today’s topic. I’d not mentioned what the limits for reworking images in Photoshop or any other editing tool was. I’ve added a bunch of guidelines to the rules section on the top page of the mbpgalleries.com site. If you are thinking of entering, please take a look.

There currently just under three more weeks to shoot your entry to the assignment. Remember the theme is contrasting colours, and for full details listen to Episode 31 if you haven’t already. I look forward to seeing what you make of this assignment.

Even if you are not thinking of entering, have a great week. Bye bye.


Show Notes
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