on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

The Arca-Swiss D4 Geared Head

The Rolls-Royce of geared heads?


David Tolcher

An enthusiast who enjoys having photography as an excuse to get out in to the wilds.

There has been little choice and many compromises for those wanting to benefit from a geared head. The Manfrotto 405 / 410 have been the only game in town and although very good for the job have suffered from a reputation for poor engineering and are not long lived before needing repair or replacement. They are also beasts weighing in at 2.4kg for the pro spec 405 which is the head most commonly used by large format enthusiasts. Ball heads are lighter but present challenges with control as once released a tiny change is often only arrived at with a waft in all dimensions so making precise compositional control more awkward than it needs to be. Arca’s cube although solving these problems was expensive and more designed for the studio than the landscape. It was with this backdrop that the announcement by Arca at Photokina 2010 that they had developed a new geared head was met with much interest by LFers and those who desired the ultimate control in a lighter weight package.

I took delivery of a new Arca Swiss D4 Geared Head from Robert White in May 2011 and was immediately impressed by its small dimensions and its quality engineering. A version without gears (the D4 Manual) is also available. This head is a very compact pan and tilt head. Weight is a meagre 800gms and size (110x90xH100) is basically the same as an Olympus EP1. Price was a hefty £690.00 plus VAT compared to a Manfrotto 405 for £300incl or Kirk BH-1 for £350incl.

Here is the press release for the head from Arca:
“With the invention of the d4 pan tilt head ARCA SWISS has put an end to setting levers of 3d heads that extend in all directions and always get in the way. No more uneven swivelling out of the camera. No more oversized dimensions, heavy loads and other all too well-known drawbacks to get in your way. We get straight to the point!
The d4 and d4m are especially suitable for efficient and precise work in digital studio photography and outdoors for architectural photography. The d4 is the world’s smallest, most functional and lightest gearhead.


Technical specifications

The innovative design of the Arca Swiss D4 Geared Head and d4m gear heads unites the pivot points of the X and Y movements at the same point.

The result of this new concept: identical and the smallest possible rotational radii. That ensures small camera movements and, as a consequence, almost no deviations in scale, which, until now, led to reduced depth of field in digital photography and all too often made tedious corrections necessary.

The self-locking, micrometric movements in X and Y result from separate gear mechanisms, manufactured with a high-strength special alloy. Every tilt movement has its own fine tuning knob and a lockable free wheel button. When both knobs are unlocked, the tilts can optionally be carried out in freewheeling modus. The possibility of free movement in both axes using the freewheeling modus then ensures free movements similar to those of a spherical head!

The ARCA SWISS d4 and d4m have, like the cube C1 from ARCA-SWISS, a turning device on its base to align the camera as well as a panning device under the camera mount for panorama pans which maintains the swivel axis. Underneath the panorama feature are 2 bubble levels at a 90° angle to align the camera. In additionto the tilts in X and Y and the panorama rotation, the ARCA-SWISS camera mount enables the camera back and forth movement in the exposure axis, the 4th dimension, so to speak, as the model number d4 symbolizes.

The outstanding specifications include the record-breaking weight of just 800gr for the d4 and only 640 gr for the d4m. There is no smaller gearhead on the market.”

I have used the head with 3 styles of camera that I own with the m4/3rds compact and D3X both with ‘L’ brackets and with the Ebony 45S. All the plates that I own work perfectly with the flip lock head that is provided.
In general it is a joy to use with precise smooth movements whether locked or unlocked. It has all the spirit levels you could need to get the platform level even if the head isn’t level itself. Panning is possible on the base of the head and on the QR plate which is an excellent touch for when the tripod isn’t level. Once locked the gearing is precise and micrometric in feel – ie very fine movement is possible. Once locked the camera is held solidly and with no creep. Basically it does what is says on the tin with the quality you expect from Arca. The one thing I will re-iterate is that this head is tiny by comparison to any other head that competes in quality. I have owned variously a Kirk BH-1 (& BH-3), Acratech GV2 and Manfrotto 405 (& 410) and only the GV2 was smaller and lighter.

Some buts…..

If you are familiar with the current version Arca Swiss cameras then the locking knobs are the same as on the cameras. This is both good and bad, the knobs are quite small (50pence piece size) and have a fine rubber grip which I don’t find very grippy. As with the cameras the gears are tight due to the tolerances. They should loosen up a bit with use (the cameras do) but right now the knobs are just a little small to comfortably drive the gears with the heavier combinations. I haven’t found a maximum weight specification but I might consider carefully whether I would put a 10x8 or larger camera on this head or indeed anything bigger that a d3x/70-200mm combination. A slight unknown at this point is how it will perform in extreme cold with tolerances this tight. I never had a problem with Arca cameras down to -20c but the jury is out until we have been through the Winter.

Lock nut placement on the base of the head isn’t good when the tripod base is larger than the head base. Its fiddly even with my small fingers. The head fits perfectly on a Manfrotto 055 but looks tiny on my Gitzo systematic 5 series. The base is about 5.5cm in diameter. I don’t have a Gitzo 35XX to hand but suspect the head would be about perfect on these legs.

A personal preference may determine whether you like the placement of lock nut and geared knob. The Manfrotto is quite convenient with both together and just a small movement of the hand needed to unlock the movement or gear. The Arca has them separated on opposite sides of the head. It has taken some getting used to especially with your head under a dark cloth.


Takeaway for me is that this head does solve the compromises between the classic Mn405 vs large ballhead and is a viable replacement. It wont suit wildlife photographers who need to convert it to a gimbal head or use big glass. Price is an obvious problem but it does replace both types of head and at that point looks more affordable. I expect it to last a lifetime.

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