1.) Camera Support equipment (Robus, Oben and Arca-Swiss).
Camera support is a longer topic, and much of this equipment will be revisited in more depth later on, along with some gear from other manufacturers, but there are quite a few useful pieces in for review right now – some of which are right in the “holiday gift” range, while others are more expensive. Both Robus and Oben are B&H store brands. Aside: why does B&H use a wide variety of brand names, instead of putting their own highly respected name on products? I don’t think any photographer would refuse to buy B&H products, and many might seek them out. I recently received a variety of both Robus and Oben support gear from B&H for review, and much of it is getting its first mention here.
Perhaps the most unique item in the group is the tiny Oben CTT-1000 carbon fiber tabletop tripod. This $100 tripod (on sale for $80 right now) weighs less than a pound, yet has actual leg extension (unlike anything else I’ve seen in its weight range with a reasonable support rating – most other sub 1 lb tripods are either single-section ground pods or support only phones and compact cameras). The little CTT-1000 gets up to about 16” high, and, perhaps more importantly, will set up on uneven surfaces by varying the leg lengths. This is an incredibly useful feature, and unique as far as I know until you start getting towards a 2 lb tripod. There is almost certainly nothing else that fits in a (largish) pocket, supports a DSLR and has leg extension! The next step down is a medium-sized GorillaPod, for the next step up, see below.
Oben/B&H claim it supports 11 lbs, and, while I’m not sure I’d trust it that far, it does support a reasonably sized camera and lens combination. It will support a Micro 4/3, APS-C or relatively light full-frame mirrorless camera or a compact DSLR with a smallish lens. I’ve used it with Nikon Z bodies and the 24-70mm f4 lens, and I wouldn’t go terribly much longer than that. A heavier body with a similar lens is probably fine, as is a heavier lens that doesn’t protrude much farther from the body.
By far the weakest link in the package is the included ball head. The tension lever goes almost immediately from “fully locked” to “camera flopping”, leaving very little “adjust the camera” range in between. The tiny Arca-compatible clamp and plate are not really meant for ordinary-sized cameras that the legs will support easily – the plate is the right size for something like a Sony RX-100 or another premium compact, or for a flash head. Given that it comes with a set of carbon-fiber legs for under $100, it’s probably a $20 head, and it shows. I am looking forward to trying the legs with a better head, since the head comes off, revealing a standard 3/8” 16 thread mounting (what every standard tripod head uses – you could technically drop an Arca Cube on these legs, although it wouldn’t make any sense!). I have visions of trying a Really Right Stuff BH-25 on the Oben legs – yes, it more than doubles the price of the setup and adds a couple of ounces, but it could be a really exceptional compact tripod.
With the included head, it is useful as a compact tabletop light stand, or as a tripod for a compact camera, or with a mirrorless or DSLR as long as you are careful with the head – I’d probably keep the neckstrap on as an extra point of contact, just in case. With an upgraded head, it’ll really come into its own with higher-end or heavier cameras. I use it with the little Bolt lights discussed below when I am doing product shots – the lights are small enough that the head and plate are non-issues, and it is very helpful to have them on adjustable stands. I could easily mount a larger flash to it as well – if I had a full-size shoe-mount wireless flash compatible with the Bolt transmitter, I’d use it without hesitation.
More on the Oben CTT-1000 when I have a chance to try it with some better heads – for now, a unique and useful product recommended with the reservations above. The legs could easily earn a highly recommended rating with the right head, and I look forward to testing a few on it (will anything cheaper than a Really Right Stuff make the grade)?
The next step up from the little CTT-1000 in the B&H tripod line is the mid-height Oben CT- 3535 (normally around $225, it’s on a holiday sale for $150 as of this writing). It weighs two pounds and a little bit (~1100 grams), and it is small enough when folded to fit in the water bottle pocket on many backpacks (it’s around the same diameter as a Nalgene water bottle and a few inches taller, and it’s actually slightly lighter than a full 1 liter Nalgene bottle). If your water bottle pocket will fit the taller 1.5 liter bottles securely, it’ll fit the CT-3535 easily. If the 1.5 liter bottles tend to tip out, the tripod may need an extra strap securing the top.
What do you get from a tripod the size of a water bottle? You get a working height of 41.4 inches in five sections – enough to use a mirrorless camera with a flip-up screen comfortably while standing – if you’re using a DSLR or an X-Pro, you’ll be crouching or bending quite a bit. You can get some extra height out of the center column, but with a significant cost in stability. You get a weight capacity of 9 lbs – any mirrorless camera except the heaviest (I haven’t tried it with something like a Panasonic S1r or a Leica SL2 – it’ll probably work), or a relatively compact DSLR, with a lens up to a 70-200 f4 or so. A 70-200 f2.8, supported from the tripod foot on the lens, might work. I look forward to trying it with Nikon’s long, but light PF lenses – if it’ll take a 500mm PF, it’s about the lightest way of supporting that kind of lens!
Like the CTT-1000, the head is not quite up to the legs. This head is certainly better than its little brother, both because it has a somewhat better tension knob (there’s still a limited range between “locked” and “floppy”, but it’s improved) and because the clamp and plate are
significantly more secure – they are designed for mirrorless cameras and small DSLRs, not for compact cameras, phone mounts, flashes and GoPros like the CTT-1000 setup. Still, it’s a standard inexpensive ballhead – fine tension adjustment isn’t its forte. Better ballheads that will fit in the folded legs should be easy to find, and the tripod is a deal even with a more expensive head. Again, the ultimate head for this thing is probably a Really Right Stuff BH-25 – I wonder what else (cheaper) might work? Like all smaller tripods, tighten leg locks with care.
Highly recommended, with some caution about the head.
The final tripod in B&H’s collection of support gear is the mighty Robus RC-5570. With a weight capacity of 55 lbs (and that’s probably conservative), it’ll support anything you can attach to it! It weighs 5.6 lbs and extends to 70” without a head. Add 2-3” for the head and another 2-3” for the camera itself and eye-level at maximum extension is about 75-78 inches (6’3” to 6’6”). No need to bend down if you’re less than 7’ tall! What can you put on it? I don’t have anything long or heavy enough to really do it justice right now, but this one’s in the permanent review collection, and will see view cameras, long lenses and maybe even telescopes. I have absolutely no concerns about its ability to support any of the above with the right head.
Tripods like this have existed for years – but the Robus is half the price of a comparable Gitzo or Really Right Stuff (it’s around $500, depending on sales, while a Gitzo approaches $1000 and a Really Right Stuff is a little more). It’s slightly heavier than its more expensive competitors, but it’s still a reasonable weight for what it’ll support (5.6 lbs without the head) Does the weight really matter for a tripod with a 55 lb maximum payload? the heavy part is what’s going on top of it.
It has the same smoothness as its more expensive competitors, and it actually comes with more accessories – it comes in a very nice tripod bag similar to what I’ve seen with $2000 video tripods, and it comes with a flat deck, a video bowl and three sets of feet (all of which are often sold as extras). When you need the ultimate in stability instead of the ultimate in portability, this is what you want.
Anything that will accept any standard photo mounting system (1/4” 20 thread, 3/8” 16 thread or Arca Swiss) is no problem at all. Large format won’t faze it… An Arca-Swiss Monolith 8×10” studio view camera weighs about 16 lbs – plenty of capacity to add a 4-5 lb tripod head, a lens and a film holder. A Canham 11×14” field camera is a little heavier, but not much – and this tripod is so stable that I wouldn’t worry about the bellows extension. Even a true monster – a Chamonix 16×20” camera – weighs about 33 lbs. It should work, especially without extending the lowermost leg section (with a 16×20” camera, the photographer needs to be able to see the top of the ground glass – you almost certainly don’t WANT the lower leg section). If the maximum format is 16×20”, how about overwhelming the tripod with an overly long lens instead?
An 800mm f5.6 is not even close – those are only around 10 lbs, and they’re one of the things B&H had in mind as an everyday payload!. A big gimbal head and a big DSLR might add another 10 lbs at most. How about some real exotica? The legendary Canon 1200mm f5.6 is 36 lbs (16 kg) worth of lens, and it’s nearly a meter long! That’ll still fit, even on a big gimbal or fluid head. The Nikon 1200-1700mm f5.6-8 zoom is about the same size. The Sigma 200- 500mm f2.8 is no larger, and the 2000mm Nikkor mirror lens is in the same range… The only photographic lenses that will challenge this tripod are a couple of one-offs. Carl Zeiss once made a 564 lb 1700mm f4.0 lens, apparently for a senior member of the Qatari royal family – that will collapse even the Robus, but it pretty much has to be permanently mounted , probably to a truck, because no human can lift it.
Video gear that uses long video plates will fit easily on any fluid head, right up to Hollywood-scale Dutch heads (essentially a double fluid head that allows a smooth side tilt as well as the standard pan and tilt). A large digital cinema camera approaches 20 lbs, and a Dutch head can run 10 lbs or more. There’s still room for 20+ lbs worth of viewfinders, batteries, lens and other gear. Shoot a Hollywood feature – no problem – that’s another thing this monster’s made to do. Very long video lenses, as used for some professional sports, on the largest broadcast video cameras, might challenge it – but those tend to be mounted on concrete piers!
Probably the most likely challenging payload is an astronomical telescope! A 9.25” catadioptric telescope (the most common advanced hobby telescope is a 6” or 8” catadioptric, while a 9.25” is a fairly big one) on a heavy mount will just about use up the weight capacity – but a telescope wants to be fairly low most of the time, so the legs probably won’t be fully extended. Any normal-sized telescope set up for astrophotography works just fine. Most telescopes the Robus can’t handle want to be permanently set up in a dome, anyway.
The use of a monster tripod like this is that you simply don’t need to worry about whether you have enough support. Copywork that needs ultimate sharpness? No problem (good luck sneaking it into the art museum without permission, though – it’s perfect for copying paintings if you’ve been hired by the artist or museum). Testing lenses? Sure. Video with long lenses? Yes. Birding with big spotting scopes and high magnifications, even with cameras attached? Easy. Multi – second exposures? Fine, how about several minutes… Time-lapse? How long? Hours is just fine… GFX 100? That’s nothing – bring on the 400 MP multi-shot Hasselblad. It’s not the tripod you’ll carry into the backcountry, but it is the one to use shooting high-resolution landscapes in near-total darkness and high winds near the car. It’s not the right tripod for run- around photojournalism, but it is the perfect base for the shot of the rocket rising miles away on the day humans return to the Moon.
At $500 or so (plus head), it’s a very useful addition to many gear closets. It’s not a great only tripod unless you shoot exclusively medium and large format – but it is a great way to top off a tripod collection that contains more portable options. Highly recommended, and an essential part of the permanent review collection because it means “too little tripod” is off the table! The next significant step up is a concrete pier!
The head I have on the Robus right now is an intriguing one. The Arca-Swiss Cube is a legend, but it is also a monster in cost and weight. Arca’s Leveler heads are an attempt to bring the precision of the Cube to a more reasonable price and weight class. Instead of the Cube’s 90 degrees of movement in each axis (plus complete rotation, of course), the Leveler has only 10 degrees. Because of this, a Leveler L60 like the one I’m testing is around 1 lb and $600, while the Cube is double or triple that. The 10 degrees of movement in the side to side tilt axis is no problem. If you can’t get the tripod within 10 degrees by adjusting the legs, the ground is extremely uneven – it is far more efficient to use an L-bracket for vertical images than to put a Cube at the edge of its range.. The ability to level the camera within that last 10 degrees precisely is perfect. Similarly, 10 degrees of vertical tilt upward is plenty – most of us are unlikely to be chasing birds with a geared head.
The one real limitation is 10 degrees of downward tilt. For long-distance landscapes, it’s plenty. The Leveler is also very tempting for macros, product shots and the like, and those applications sometimes want more than 10 degrees down-angle. It is actually possible to mount the Leveler on top of a ballhead (or any other head), which gives additional movement – get the setup most of the way there with the ballhead, then use the precise adjustments on the Leveler to finalize position. How hard would it be for Arca-Swiss to add another 10 degrees of motion in one direction in order to avoid the need for a second head for most images? 20 degrees would be plenty for all but the most extreme setups.
The second application of the Leveler is for panorama photography. It has a rotation axis on top of the two geared axes. If the gearing is used to get the top of the head absolutely flat in both axes, the camera can now rotate for panoramas without distortion. A high-quality bubble level in the top of the head makes this easy to do The level isn’t visible with the camera mounted, so the three options are to level the head before mounting the camera, use the digital level in the camera, or mount an additional level in the hot shoe.
The geared axes are extremely precise, and (as typical for an Arca-Swiss product), the knobs feel just about perfect. I actually find the Leveler far quicker to set up than a ballhead, as well as more precise. The quick rough setup of a ballhead is balanced out by the difficulty of getting it just right.
I need more time with the Leveler shooting landscapes to fully form an opinion, but my preliminary verdict is highly recommended if you understand the 10-degree down angle limitation and either don’t need more or are willing to work around it with a second head.
2.) Lighting – an intriguing flash system.
Also in the box of B&H gadgets was their latest Bolt (yet another B&H brand) lighting setup. They call it a TTL Macro Ring flash with Transceiver, but it is more than that. For $300, they supply a TTL radio transceiver (Nikon available now, Canon and Sony coming soon), two small but capable lights with built-in receivers (guide number (GN) 33 each), and a variety of mounting rings (for any lens up to 77mm), tripod mounting accessories, diffusers, gels and other accessories. The whole setup fits in a zippered case about half the size of a kid’s lunchbox. The designer’s original intent was to mount the lights to the lens on a ring, but they have enough power to mount in other ways as well. I’ve been using them mounted on small tripods a few feet from the image area. At around ISO 400, they have enough power for simple portraiture (one or two people) – the ISO can go down farther if they’re fill lights. They power
down far enough to work as ringlights for subjects as small as jewelry. Under manual control, the heads will go as low as 1/128 power – on a GN 33 flash, that’s a tiny minimum power, allowing a range of inches without having to use neutral density filters. The most intriguing part of the setup is that the transceiver is far more capable than it needs to be for simple macro photography – it is a 3 group TTL radio transceiver with a 328 foot range! It offers both TTL and manual power control. Until a couple of years ago, this transceiver alone would have cost the price of the whole set.
If B&H made a more powerful light for this setup (something around guide number 150 – a powerful on-camera speedlight), which shouldn’t be hard to do, they would have a true studio in a box. They already make high-power speedlights that simply need the radio receiver added, ranging from a $90 compact light at GN 105 on up to a GN 262, 360 watt-second bare-bulb head that almost qualifies as a full-fledged monolight ($388). Related B&H brands sell even larger lights, some with radio receivers that seem to be on almost the same channels. A kit with two flashes around GN 150, two of the little heads in this kit, and a wide range of light modifiers might sell in the $600 range. While it’s not a Broncolor or Profoto setup, it is a lot of studio that packs down awfully small and is relatively simple to use (with the two high-power heads, it would pack into something only a little bigger than a kid’s lunchbox). Many of us do some portraiture or other work that would benefit from studio-type lighting from time to time, but not enough of it to be worth owning bulky, expensive gear.
As it exists, the Bolt setup is great for many types of tabletop photography, and even portraiture with single subjects. It can turn a kitchen table into a studio with five minutes of setup. I took most of the product shots in this article and the companion piece with the Bolt lights – the exceptions are the shot of the light kit itself and the three heavy payloads, all of which are from B&H. The opening image to this article, of the giant Robus RC-5570 tripod, is pretty close to the largest area these little lights are practical for – a portrait of one or even a few people would also work.
The controls are very easy to figure out, even if you have never used remote flash before. Oddly, the hardest part is getting the batteries in with correct polarity, since the lights in particular are not well marked. The batteries are small and require relatively frequent replacement (every few hundred shots). The transceiver takes two AA batteries, while the little flash heads use two AAA apiece. If you use this setup at all frequently, it is a classic case for rechargeable NiMH batteries. It is relatively inexpensive for a wireless macro light setup (less than half the cost of Nikon and Canon options with less capability, although more expensive than basic LED macro lights), and positively cheap when its extended capabilities are considered. Expect to hear more about the Bolt setup as I experiment with its full capabilities. Highly recommended for many purposes as is, could be extended to even greater capabilities.