Inside this issue
D4 Tripod Head
Long Term Report
Iam what can best be described as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. I try not to follow fashion or trends and I’m never happier than shooting with my 5x4 camera on good old sheet film. The intimate landscape is what interests me which is, perhaps, surprising given that I have been based in Switzerland for a number of years. My favoured habitat is the bottom of a rocky gorge but I do occasionally emerge to shoot the bigger vista. And I do occasionally shoot digital - but shhh, don’t tell anyone! website
A while back, Dave Tolcher reviewed the then quite new Arca Swiss d4 geared head. This report picks up where he left off and rounds out his observations with some solid experience gleaned over the past 18 months of using the Arca d4 in the field and compares it to the cheaper Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head with which some readers may be familiar (and which I also own).
Let's get one thing out of the way first. The Arca d4 is not cheap. It's not as expensive as its beautifully-engineered big brother, the Arca Cube, but it is more expensive than Arca's excellent ball-heads and considerably more expensive than Manfrotto's capable 410 (not to mention the larger and beefier 405). So why would you even consider it when there are good and much cheaper alternatives? Well, let's say you've shelled out for a top-notch camera - a 5d or a D800, say - and a bag of lenses that are more than a match for it. This is no small investment so you really need a camera support that won't let you down when it matters. It therefore makes sense to pair a high quality camera with the best tripod and head you can afford. Futhermore, if precision of composition is important to you, you simply cannot beat a good geared head.
Arca Swiss started out in the 1950's as a manufacturer of large-format view cameras based in Zurich - hence 'Swiss' (the other part of their name is derived from 'All-Round CAmera'). And they still sell view cameras to this day, as well as a range of innovative tripod heads. Although now based in eastern France, they remain a small, independent company with, it has to be said, a wilfully old-fashioned approach to marketing. Don't go looking for their web site: it doesn't exist! Unlike Manfrotto, they are not a volume manufacturer so are unable to take advantage of economies of scale to drive prices down, which goes some way to explain the price differential. As can be expected of a small company trading on Switzerland's reputation for engineering excellence, the quality of their product line-up is peerless. So, as might be expected, in use the d4 feels solid, precise, tactile, reliable. There are other advantages too which all add up to a better product than the Manfrotto, in my opinion, but is it worth the not inconsiderable premium? I've been using the d4 for around 18 months now and have owned a Manfrotto 410 for considerably longer than that. So, let's see how well the d4 stacks up against the 410 in the field.
Arca D4 Finish and design
The Arca is a well-made bit of kit, make no mistake, with a finish and a precision 'feel' to match. In a similar way to Leica cameras, Arca Swiss products have that quality 'engineered' feel that exudes attention to detail. All the knobs are metal castings (at a guess, magnesium) and the shell is smooth anodised to give a very tactile feel. Despite all this metal, it tips the scales at around 400g lighter than the Manfrotto 410 - a significant advantage when you're hiking to a remote location. The main controls are surrounded with grippy ridged rubber and, because of this, are more positive in feel and easier to turn than the lightly textured plastic of the Manfrotto.
Although they are roughly the same height, the Arca is a lot more compact. This is partly by virtue of the fact that the left-right tilt mechanism is contained wholly within the axis of the up/down tilt but also because of smaller gears - which equates to the sort of fine control that allows millimetre-perfect adjustment. The shorter radius of movement means a minimum of 'travel' in the camera itself meaning that your composition is less likely to drift. Major control knobs are smaller and positioned closer to the body of the head all of which gives the d4 a neat appearance, quite at odds with the rather ungainly look of the Manfrotto with its knobs that protrude at all angles. Given the general punishment meted out to landscapers' tripods, a more compact design means there is less likelihood of damage to sensitive parts.