One of the biggest advantages of the micro four thirds system is that of its light weight. In my case being able to pack a camera and three lenses (covering the FX equivalent of 28-350mm) into a bag that is only slightly bigger than the standard issue bag my Nikon 24-70/2.8 zoom lens came with, has me feeling quite content with myself, borderline smug, in fact. The only disadvantage I have found with this lightweight system is that because it’s so light, good camera support becomes increasingly important, especially if you’re into using your lightweight kit for things like landscapes and architectural type shots where a tripod is essential.
My current m43 kit comprises two bodies, namely the Panasonic Lumix GF-1 and the amazing Olympus OM-D E-M5. I have three Panasonic lenses; the 14-45mm kit lens that came with the GF-1, a Panasonic 45-175mm that I bought as a lightweight telephoto carry around and my most recent acquisition was a Panasonic/Leica 45mm 2.8 Macro. Leaving out the GF-1 it all fits perfectly into a little Hama video camera bag I picked up brand new for under $25.
With my m43 kit nicely established I set out on a mission to try and find a small, but functional tripod and ballhead to match this system. My criteria were simple: it must be as light as possible without being flimsy and it must be very adaptable to my changing photographic needs (ie, adjustable leg angles to allow for getting down low to subjects).
The first thing I sought out was a reasonably priced set of carbon fibre tripod legs. Ideally I was looking for something that could extend to about 1.2m and would collapse to around 50cm. There are a number of options available to photographers, with Gitzo being the most obvious name when it comes to quality assurance. Manfrotto also make a few CF legs, but when I looked at the options available to me locally I didn’t see anything that suggested really small and light. I also found the asking prices quite exorbitant and not the kind of money I would spend on what is essentially my hobby photo kit (I don’t use it professionally).
Then I came across the Velbon Sherpa range of tripods. I saw the very reasonable price of the Sherpa CF-435 and my immediate thought was that it couldn’t possibly be any good at that price. I got hold of the local distributors and they very kindly sent me a sample, together with a Velbon fluid video head. The video head is actually very nice, but if you want to shoot something in portrait orientation you’ve either got to find a way to cheat the laws of physics and get your subject to hover parallel to the ground, or do the same for your tripod! I’m very happy with the Velbon CF-435 and will write a separate review of it soon.
The lightweight rig: Olympus OM-D, Velbon Sherpa CF-435, Sunwayfoto Ballhead FB-28
Part two of my mission was therefore to find a good quality lightweight ballhead for the CF-435.
I already own a Kirk BH-3 ballhead that has served me well over the years and which has become permanently affixed to my Manfrotto 055C legs, but while it is the smaller of the two options Kirk offer, it can’t quite be considered lightweight weighing in at 538g. So the search was on!
As with all good searches the best place to start is at the Fotozones / Nikongear community, so I posted my question in a thread there a few weeks ago.
I received a lot of responses to that request and one of the companies that was suggested to me was Sunwayfoto. They are based in China and have been producing high quality ballheads for tripods since 2009, so they’re relatively new kids on the block.
In November last year they introduced the FB-28 ballhead to their range of products. This is a very small and lightweight ballhead and it was this particular product that I wanted to investigate feasibility of as a permanent partner for my Velbon CF-435. Sunwayfoto very kindly sent me a sample for evaluation on Fotozones/Nikongear.com.
The Sunwayfoto FB-28
In The Flesh
The FB-28 arrived at my door via DHL shortly before New Year. I opened the box and was really surprised at just how small, solid and yet light this item was. It weighs a mere 200g, which is considerably lighter than the Kirk BH-3’s 538g heft.
Direct comparison between the Kirk BH-3 and Sunwayfoto FB-28
Like all good ballheads, the Sunwayfoto FB-28 uses the Arca-Swiss type dovetail clamping system, so if you have plates from any of the major manufacturers you won’t have any issues using those with this head.
It’s made from machined aluminium and has a very high grade finish. There is a single locking knob with machined grooves to aid with tightening and releasing. I like this a lot better than rubber and plastic grips that are usually found on locking knobs as rubber tends to wear and become grubby with continued use. However, this metallic grip might present a problem for those members who work in very cold climates where touching metal might not be as comfortable as synthetic material.
Compared to my watch it’s tiny!
The panning base has degrees painted on it in 5 degree increments up to 90 and then back down to zero. The numbers are partly blocked off by the locking knob, but you can still see the markings below that should you need to check off degrees through the whole 360deg range.
A nice feature of the quick release clamp is that it has a spirit level built in. This will get covered over as soon as the camera is mounted onto the base (see my product shot), but Sunwayfoto have put mounting holes on the three other sides of the QR plate where you can attach an accessory bubble level if you need to.
Using the FB-28
Unlike bigger ballheads, the FB-28 only has this single locking knob that also serves a double function as a tension controller. This has a few drawbacks, not least of which is that if you are planning on using the head to do quick panoramas, you’re not going to be able to swivel the camera around the panning base without compromising the level position of the camera you are using. Yes, if you are using the accessory bubble level and the degree markings this shouldn’t be a problem, but know that it is going to be slower than using a ballhead that has a separate clamping knob for panning.
The Velbon CF-435 has the advantage of having a circular centre extension arm, so if I loosen that I am able to pan the head without having to loosen the FB-28’s tension knob at all. Problem solved for me, at least.
For portrait oriented shots the FB-28 has a single notch cutaway. What I have found is that if I want to shoot in portrait orientation I have to clamp the Olympus OM-D to the right side of its base plate otherwise there is not enough clearance for it to avoid being impeded by the top of the tripod legs. This is likely to be the case with all tripod legs as this is a very compact ballhead – only 7cm high including the QR base plate. This isn’t a problem if I extend the centre column of the tripod, but that’s something I try to avoid if possible.
In The Field
The most important aspect of ballhead use is how well it holds your camera in position when you tighten the ball. I’m happy to report that with the little micro four thirds kit I own there are no issues with this at all. When you lock the FB-28 into position it stays there. The Sunwayfoto website claims that the FB-28 is capable of holding a 12kg load, but to be honest that’s pretty heavy and I think you’re definitely going to find the load shifting in the ballhead at that kind of weight, unless you have the physical ability of locking the tightening knob to the point where it simply can’t move any further to the right. It’s not something I’m going to try. The purpose of this ballhead for me is to support a small, lightweight m43 system, not a big heavy one.
If I loosen the locking knob slightly I can get enough friction to re-position the OM-D without it totally drooping out of its original position. The trick, of course, is to learn the feel of the FB-28 and know just how much you can slacken the tension without drooping occurring.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this ballhead as an excellent option for anybody who is looking to go light without too many compromises. It’s very nicely made and I don’t think there is anything quite as light as this on the market right now. It might very well be the perfect traveller’s ballhead.
The drawback I can find is it not having a separate panning tension knob, but this is a small price to pay for the advantage of an excellent ballhead that weighs 200g and stands only 7cm high. As I mentioned if you have a tripod with a circular centre column that drawback is obviated.
You can get the FB-28 from Amazon.com for only $109. Click here to buy it and help support this site.
All product images are (c) Dallas Dahms