Arca-Swiss are known for two things: producing excellent precision photographic gear, and having spotty availability – probably due to very small production runs. This two part review is going to cover what I think are two of the best tripod heads currently available – the P0 and C1 Cube. I picked up the P0 from B&H as a lightweight travel head during my trip to New York earlier in the year; I’ve been using it since – more often than I’d imagined I would. After being very impressed with the little one, I requested a C1 Cube as soon as it finally became available; both out of curiosity, and also to see if the hype was true.
Let’s start with the C1 Cube.
The purpose of a geared tripod head is all about precision: the ability to move the camera in small, defined and repeatable increments makes life easy for anybody who has to frame very precisely. (Of course this is significantly less useful if you are using a rangefinder, non-TTL viewfinder or non-100% finder.) There are only a few options if you need such a device; unsurprising because it’s quite a specialized piece of equipment – there’s the Manfrotto 410 and 405 heads; the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube (reviewed here), the Arca-Swiss D4 geared ball, and Korean almost direct copy of the Cube – the Photo Clam Multiflex.
I’ve been using the 410 for the last year; it’s served me well but has a few annoying niggles: firstly, the odd shape and size makes it tough to pack on assignment; secondly, it doesn’t move the camera about the same central point, so you frequently have to tweak the other axes after repositioning one of them. Lastly, there’s an ever-so-slight bit of play in the axes because they do not really lock down other than by sprung knobs: not noticeable with the D800E, but occasionally noticeable with the Hasseblad, digital back and long exposures. It does offer some advantages over the Cube, however: a much greater range of travel in the axes (120 degrees on both lateral axes, full circle around the base), quick-unlock and quick-positioning functionality, and a geared pan base. If you want to work fast, but need final precise tweaking of position, this is the one to have.
The Cube really needs to be used with an L bracket, however – it moves through just +/- 30 degrees on each of the lateral axes. In any case, this is the correct way of doing things anyway to maintain proper centre of gravity; it’s just that the Manfrotto L bracket for the 410 proved evasively impossible to find. Combined with an L bracket, the Cube actually offers greater positioning flexibility; not to mention two pan bases – so you can use the bottom one to position the head, and the top one to stitch with. Neat. If you really must dump the whole thing sideways, you can – the base contains a hidden hinge that tilts through 60 degrees, with the remaining 30 degrees taken up by the geared track in that axis.
Overall build quality of the Cube is superb – fit and finish is every bit what we’d expect from an Arca-Swiss product, and one costing the best part of $1700 – excluding quick release plates. (No, that’s not a typo.) It’s a solid lump of aluminum, weighing nearly 1kg; this head is best deployed on a very sturdy set of studio legs, like the Gitzo GT5562 I use. There is no play or flex anywhere, and that includes in the geared knobs; which move smoothly yet have absolutely zero backlash thanks to a syncromesh-like gearing system. There’s also a tension adjustment for both axes, too. The pan bases are ungeared, but very smooth and operate with just the right amount of resistance for precise positioning. They feel much like a video fluid head, actually. Though the edges are ostensibly sharp – it is a ‘cube’ after all – they are bevelled and won’t cut you. The top deck also has a pair of bubble levels – one for each axis – built in. Interestingly, the Cube has no load rating published – looking at the way the thing is constructed, I can’t imagine any piece of photographic equipment that will tax the head before other parts of your support system – probably the QR clamp, if anything. It remains to be seen how well the exposed gear tracks hold up to dust and grit over time, however. I’ve not heard about any problems online even from early owners, so I’m inclined to believe it’s probably a non-issue.
There is one catch, however. And that’s in the QR clamp mechanism. It operates in two stages, requiring movement of a little catch each time to release – so your camera doesn’t fall off by itself. Good, right? Not really. Unlocking the first stage enables release by sliding; unlocking the second stage basically means the camera will fall right out – the grooves move far apart enough that the dovetail releases completely. There is no safety on either end to stop the camera sliding out with shorter plates, either. And on top of that, the lever doesn’t really lock down in the tight, secure way of the Manfrotto clamps – there’s a bit of give to it, and you have to test it to be sure. Not good, especially on a head of this price; what’s wrong with a threaded locking knob that can only open far enough to permit sliding, but not complete vertical removal?
At this point, the obvious comparison is to the Korean copy: the Multiflex. You’d expect it to be quite a lot cheaper since most of the engineering was already done for them; no dice; In fact, it’s about $1400 – that’s over 80% of the price. I’ve handled this head on two occasions – once at a photo show, and once at a studio in KL. The finishing is noticeably rougher, and it seems that they weren’t able to make the knobs clear the housing – so the upshot is that the knobs stick on magnetically and must be removed for certain movements. If you lose a knob…good luck trying to find a replacement. Though it does have a significantly better QR clamp, I don’t think the relatively small saving is worthwhile simply because the action is nowhere near as precise. MT
To be continued and concluded in part two with the P0 Monoball.
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved