I have two different geared tripod heads I use when shooting architecture. The economical and multi-talented Manfrotto 410 and the luxuriously refined and notably more expensive Arca C1. I meant this article to be a comparison between geared heads but before I go too in depth, I should start by saying if you are not using a geared head for architectural work you are really missing out.
Geared heads make everything go so much smoother. I have tried shooting architecture with a ball head, even a very good Really Right Stuff ball head and it is no contest, the geared head wins every time. I would find when using a ball head that I would fuss with the angle, make several adjustments and then just give up. Only to fix things later in photoshop with great effort, I never knew if I had my composition just right, because I might have to crop once I fix a rotated, or out of skew image. With the geared head I would level the tripod, line up my composition and I am done, all in a few moments. I would barely need to correct at all in photoshop. In tandem with the tilt-shift lens it gives a level of precision and efficiency that is tough to beat and reminds me of my 4"x5" camera days. I find the geared tripod head indispensable as an architectural photographer but it is equally at home when shooting food, still life and landscape.
I started with a Manfrotto 410 geared head and the difference from a ball head was amazing, the controls are big, and I got so used to them that within a few days of use, I didn't really need to look at them at all. I could level the head in a few seconds using both hands at the same time. It is intuitive and easyto use and I find working with the head to be a pleasure.
If you are unfamiliar with the process or purpose of leveling a tripod head it goes a little something like this. As you probably know, if you photograph a skyscraper and tilt the camera upwards, the skyscraper looks smaller towards the top and bigger on the bottom. It is physics, the top is actually farther away and the bottom is closer. Now if you level the tripod and shoot the building flat on, the bottom and top stay relatively similar in distance but you have cropped the building top off because rather than pointing upwards you are looking straight forward. If you have a tilt-shift lens you can fix this issue, you can take the additional step of shifting the lens upward while maintaining the camera's relationship to the building. This has the effect of changing the crop without shrinking the top of the building in the frame. Then the building appears just as wide at the top as the bottom and fits beautifully in the frame.
Tuning in just the right amount of shift is exacting work. As well as making sure the tripod is absolutely level. This is where the geared head really shines. Geared heads feature a bubble level that you watch as you work the knobs Once the bubble is precisely in the center you can be sure that your camera is perfectly lined up with the architecture. "Geared" refers to how the head actually moves. Typical tripod heads usually work by loosening and tightening the fittings. You loosen the knob make an adjustment to the camera then tighten when just the right angle is found. Geared heads work differently, they are stable, without someone touching them they will not move. When you want to make an adjustment, the knob is geared directly to move the camera. Turn the appropriate knob left and right and the camera moves left and right. The knob is firm so no accidental adjustments will happen, and it is geared at a ratio that allows for a high degree of precision. So a large turn of a knob results in a small movement of the camera. The gearing ratio allows very precise movements and once you stop adjusting the knob the camera stays fixed in exactly that spot. Compare this to ball heads where you loosen the ball move the camera and re-tighten and there is a slight change in the cameras position when you begin tightening. Don't get me wrong, the ball head is amazing at portraiture and anything that moves relatively quickly. Just as the geared head can be miserable at candid portraits because it is too slow and methodical for the task.
I have used the Manfrotto 410 for years without too many issues, then I moved on to a Arca C1. While it is true I still love the 410 and the C1 is an expense bordering on crazy I opted for the stability and precision of the Arca.
The first reason I switched to a cube is that the Manfrotto gets looser over time, because the gears see lots of action. There is a secondary knob next to each knob that allows for larger movements. every time you use the second knob, the gears pull apart to allow the quick adjustment, then the gears go back together. Sometimes it is between gears when the two gears go back so they don't mesh right away causing a little damage to the gears as they finally seat into their proper position. Over a long period of time this amounts to some loosening. On my 410 with my camera mounted I can lock the tripod down tightly and grab the camera and it will wiggle, quite a bit. I did some experiments with mirror lock up and sand bags on the camera to see if the wiggle was effecting my images and I really couldn't see any loss of sharpness. It still concerned me that my tests were in my lab like studio and not outside coping with things like wind. I also feel like the camera should be rock solid, I spent a fortune on a large, heavy, steady tripod so there would be no movement at all and the head is flopping around like a fish. No thanks!
The other reason, and I think it is really just another issue to do with the gears becoming more damaged over time is that the head would move slightly over a long shot. It isn't often a problem but when it happens it can be frustrating. Sometimes I will shoot a composite image that can be made up of 15 to 20 images, which I shoot over a period of 20 minutes or so. Since I will combine these images together digitally it is critical that these images line up and stay in exactly the same place. Otherwise when I combine the images later in photoshop it can lead to a loss of sharpness. I was finding that the head would move slightly once or twice a day. It isn't a huge problem because it was usually only one axis, typically the weight of the lens would pull the camera down very slightly. If I caught the issue early I could easily align the layers but if I missed it, I might need to reprocess the files.
I must admit the Arca C1 Cube had always been appealing to me. I had worked with a lot of 4"x5" film cameras and I really enjoyed the precision. I never had a camera with movements quite as nice as the Cube but my photographer brother Ned Jackson had a beautiful Arca Swiss 4”x5” that was a pleasure to work with, it was so smooth and precise. My love for precision is part of why my specialties are in architecture and food, I love taking my time with a composition and trying to get everything just right.
The Arca C1 Cube is a somewhat quirky piece of equipment, there are a lot of great things about it and a few weak points. But overall I am quite happy with it. When I first got the cube I was pleasantly surprised by how small it was. The main body felt sturdy, but the knobs and levers felt somewhat cheap and plastic. As I have used it, It works exactly as I expected, beautifully. Its movements are smooth and precise, if maybe a bit stiffer than the 410. if I wiggle the camera there is no movement at all, it is reassuringly as stable as a rock. When the tripod is locked down including my geared center post, there is no wiggling at all. I still worry about the durability of the knobs, in fact, I have a padded tripod case but I usually take the head off of the tripod and transport the head in my camera bag for safety. The levers on the top and bottom for panning the head are small and seem like they could be easily snapped off. Putting the head safely in my camera bag is insurance, because I like throwing stands and gear into the back of my car at the end of the day, and I cant imaging gently nestling everything into my car after I am exhausted from a long day of shooting.
Rather than the three geared axes of the Manfrotto 410, the Cube has two, left/right and up/down. The Cube’s pans work a little more like a fluid head and sit both on the bottom and top, just under the camera. Using the top pan has the effect of insuring that once leveled, the camera can be panned 360 degrees without getting out of perfect alignment. On the 410 if a pan move is made, the camera might need to be re-leveled. I found that as a workaround there are many inexpensive panoramic plates available that can be attached to the top of the Manfrotto. Then once leveled, only the top pan is used, and since the pan is mounted on a perfectly level tripod everything stays true no matter which way or how far you turn.
Another quirk of the Cube, and all geared heads as far as I know, is a somewhat restricted angle of motion. On the 410 I had a few occasions where I was shooting straight up and would turn the head far enough that I would hit the tripod collar and could go no further. In these circumstances the solution was to turn the camera backwards in its mount and the shot would be possible. Still it seemed a rather clumsy solution. The Cube has a different work-around for the restricted motion of geared heads. The Cube has an extra knob that allows the entire head to tip to the side allowingthe camera to reach any angle. My only real issue with this solution is that the bubble levels that are so helpful for leveling the head become useless in this configuration. I think there should be an additional set or sets on the side to fix this. Although, it is easy enough to use my in-camera level to to the job, it requires a few extra button pushes or menu reading. I know, waaaaaah, but for this kind of money I want perfect.
So is the Cube worth the extra expense? That is a good question that I still occasionally ask myself. The 410 is a magnificent piece of equipment that I could easly replace many times over before I got anywhere close to the cost of a Cube. The considerations I would recommend thinking about are, will you use it enough that it will save you time and effort? In other words will it somehow pay for itself? And, are you willing to baby a piece of equipment to make sure you don't destroy it? If you like to throw your gear around, maybe this isn't the head for you. I also believe when you buy a boutique item like this, that is expensive, and highly sought after, it typically retain its value and used prices stay fairly high. So if you buy one and decide a year later that it didn’t help your work at all, you can resell at a small loss and it would still be cheaper than renting, (if you could rent this kind of thing.)
I never tried the Manfrotto 405, although it looked worth checking out I opted to go for the Arca C1 to avoid any similarities that might arise between the two Manfrotto heads. I am curious if anyone has a strong opinion either way about the 405, is it prone to wiggling in the same way as the 410? Another fascinating option is the Arca D4 which is a geared ball head. Let me know if you have experience with either of these, I am curious what your thoughts are.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!