Brian's Photo Blog — Article 265
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Really Right Goodies!
Friday 19 July 2013   —   Category: Equipment
During the past couple of years as I read photography magazines and attended photography seminars, I kept hearing about the high-end camera-support equipment manufactured by Really Right Stuff (RRS). They are located in my old California stamping ground of San Luis Obispo, where I lived while completing college at Cal Poly.

For the most part I didn’t pay too much attention to RRS’s products, as I didn’t really seem to have a need for any of them. But that changed at the end of 2012 when I had a negative experience with a cheap macro focusing rail. It’s all too true that you generally get what you pay for. Because I love macro photography, I realized that some sort of macro focusing rail would be a very useful tool to own. Therefore, I investigated the possibilities on Really Right Stuff’s Web site.

Once I had decided to purchase their focusing rail, I quickly discovered that I needed a few more pieces of the puzzle to create a complete, ready-to-use package. For the rest of this article, I will give an item by item explanation of all the RRS equipment I have obtained, and how they work together as a system.

It all started with the B150-B Macro Focusing Rail. This high-precision tool is practically a work of art! I am definitely not frustrated with this device as I was with the much cheaper Velbon rail I had tried last year. Unless you are a very casual user, you will absolutely want to go with top-quality gear from Really Right Stuff or some other reputable manufacturer.

In order to use this focusing rail, you need two things: a way to mount it on your tripod, and a way to mount your camera on the rail. All of RRS’s equipment conforms to the Arca-Swiss system — which I will henceforth refer to as “arca-style.”

The entire bottom of this rail is an arca-style plate, which can be mounted on an arca-style clamp. On the bottom there is also a threaded hole so you can mount the rail on any standard tripod camera plate. The moveable stage on top of the rail integrates a quick-release lever clamp which accepts an arca-style camera plate.

If you really want to go whole hog, you can get two of these rails and mount one crossways on top of the other, so that you have precise geared focusing motion both forwards / backwards and left / right. Of course, it will cost you a pretty penny!

The buttery-smooth lead screw slides the stage in minute increments for super-fine focus — the stage travels only 1.25mm per full revolution of the focusing knob. This kind of precision is essential for getting good results from software focus stacking. How I wish I would have had this rail last year when I rented a high-magnification macro lens!

To move the stage further faster, there is a quick-release lever which, when pressed in, disengages the stage from the central screw drive, so that it can slide easily over the rail and be quickly positioned at any point. Releasing the lever locks the stage into place again.

I haven’t had opportunity to use this excellent tool very much, but that’s definitely on my to-do list for the future! Even though I love macro photography, the big challenge seems to be finding suitable subjects to photograph. But rather than racking my brain, I’ll probably just wait and see — opportunities often arise unbidden.

The next question to answer was how to mount my camera on this focusing rail. Just as I had been dreaming of a focusing rail for quite a while, I had also been eyeing some sort of camera L-plate. These kind of mounting brackets facilitate easier composition and greater tripod stability when changing the camera from landscape to portrait orientation.

Because I needed some sort of arca-style plate in order to mount my camera on the rail, and because I had already been dreaming of an L-plate, I decided to go with the L-plate instead of a smaller standard plate. Furthermore, because I always have a small horizontal grip attached to my camera — which would have to be removed in order to use the L-plate — it seemed best to go the whole nine yards and add the optional grip to the L-plate. The whole assembly is called the BOEM5 Set: L-plate and Grip for OM-D E-M5.

I have a lot more to say about the advantages and disadvantages in using this L-plate grip instead of the horizontal grip made by Olympus, but that will have to wait until a future article.

For those occasions when I want to use the Olympus grip instead of the RRS grip, or when I want to use no grip at all, I decided to go ahead and purchase a small arca-style camera plate. The B9: Multi-use bi­di­rec­tion­al plate works just fine on my OM-D E-M5 camera.

One thing I do NOT like about either of these plates is that you have to use the provided 5/32” allen wrench in order to tighten the plate screw into the camera tripod socket. I find it VERY irritating to always have to dig out an allen wrench each time. Even a screw head with a slot for a coin with which to loosen or tighten it is preferable, as I would rather carry a quarter around in my pocket than an allen wrench.

The best design, which Manfrotto and other manufacturers use, is to add a foldable handle to the screw head so you don’t need any tools at all. It’s beyond me why all manufacturers don’t use this convenient system for ALL of their plates! Click on the small plate above to see what a Manfrotto one with a screw handle looks like. If only...!

Well, at this point I had three different Really Right Stuff mounts / plates, all arca-style, but my existing tripod did not work with arca-style plates. When I purchased my primary photography tripod about two-and-a-half years ago — a Manfrotto carbon fiber — I was happy to get a joystick head rather than a more tradition ballhead. And I've been pretty happy shooting with it all this time. But I did always wonder if a regular ballhead would be better, since that is what professionals seem to use.

So, seeing that I now had all this arca-style equipment, it seemed like it was time to take the plunge and get an arca-compatible, traditional ballhead. Because my Micro Four Thirds camera equipment is not very heavy, I chose the Mid-sized BH-40 Ballhead, shown to the right.

To accompany it, I picked up a B2-40 LR Lever-Release Clamp. As with all Really Right Stuff equipment, it is a high-quality, precision piece of equipment which operates as smooth as butter.

I've tried out this ballhead a bit, but to tell the truth I much prefer the Manfrotto joystick head. With a traditional ballhead, the clamp and whatever is sitting on it — your camera, lens, and any other photographic equipment — is balancing on the narrow column at the top of the ball. On the BH-40, this column is only 9/16” (14mm) in diameter. This results in a set-up which is VERY top-heavy and hard to control with precision.

In contrast, the joystick head seems to distribute the center of gravity a bit, making the camera feel more balanced. Fur­ther­more, because I’m holding a handle in my hand, it feels more natural, like using many other tools humans have developed. With the trigger release built into the handle, it is quick and easy to make position adjustments without having to fiddle with the knobs on a traditional ballhead.

I’m sure professionals would give me a lot of flack for this preference, but what can I say? Perhaps I simply haven’t used it enough to discover it superiority?! If and when I do, I will be sure to write another article!

So now there was only one more problem to solve. Seeing that I prefer the Manfrotto joystick head, but that it does not accept arca-style plates, I had to find some way to make these plates mount on that head. I checked the Manfrotto Web site, but they don’t seem to have made a switch to arca-style heads recently. I searched around to see if there was another manufacturer that made a joystick-type head with an arca-style plate, but no such luck.

It seemed the only way forward was to mount an arca-style clamp onto the existing Manfrotto clamp. Therefore, I ordered a Really Right Stuff B2 LR II 60mm LR Clamp with Dual Mount, which just arrived today!

With the appropriate reducer bushing I can attach this clamp to my Manfrotto camera plate, and then mount that assembly onto my beloved Manfrotto joystick head. Problem solved — and now I have the best of both worlds! I've shared more details about this solution in Converting a Manfrotto Head to an Arca-Style Clamp.

My hiking-friendly Sirui tripod already has an arca-style head, so now, after all of this RRS equipment acquisition, I've completely standardized my camera support system around arca-style gear, so that everything is in­ter­change­a­ble. This gives me maximum flexibility with a minimum amount of stuff — and Really Right Stuff played a major role in making all of this possible. Oh goody!
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 265
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