Sunday, July 29, 2012

Manfrotto 334B Monopod and Smith Victor BH2 Ball Head

I decided to start working on my shooting technique again. Stabilization has turned me a bit lazy and my keeper rate has dropped somewhat. That irks me. I like to be choosing from all sharp images, not trying to find the “sharpest” image of the bunch. That’s just annoying.

But I’ve had a monopod before and I did not like it at all. I had made the mistake of buying a super high quality Giottos, which really was a thing of beauty. But it weighed a ton and was very slow to adjust. This made it so awkward to use that I ended up shelving it after a couple of sessions. And I later sold it.

I have been eyeing the Manfrotto Neotec 685B, which is a single trigger adjustable monopod that is about as easy to use as it gets. Step on the little stand thingy, squeeze the trigger, and pull it up. But it is $200 for just the monopod and you still need the head. At the time the 334B did not exist, but this time I went looking and there it was.

The 334B is the little brother to 685b and is a simpler design. Which I prefer, by the way.

There is the familiar squeeze trigger at the top and it allows the top half of the monopod to be adjusted up and down. The bottom section can be twisted a half turn and pulled open to the desired length, then locked at that length while shooting. Since the trigger-adjusted section is about 2 feet long, it is an easy matter to get the bottom half just long enough to be useful at all required heights with the trigger only.

In other words, this is just about as convenient and it has fewer parts to break and is cheaper. A win in my book. I paid $92 at BHPhoto and my preliminary tests say that this thing works really well. I can get very sharp images at very low speeds on unstabilized lenses.

Of course, one must mount some form os attachment mechanism on the top. You could, of course, just screw your camera body directly to the top, but I don’t find it very common that I hold the monopod perfectly level, so to me this is not a useful option. The same reasoning says that mounting a quick release clamp directly to the monopod won’t cut it either.

So that leaves a ball head or a tilt head, which is monopod specific. I have tried the tilt head and do not like it. I like the full freedom of movement that you get from the ball head. So that’s what I went looking for.

Holy cow, are ball heads ever expensive! I didn’t want a micro, because I want to apply leverage to the pod and the head in order to lick in a super steady shot most of the time. That requires some strength. I looked on all the sites and prices for a decent low end ball head were quite high. So it was with some glee that I stumbled across the Smith-Victor BH2 ball head. I saw it as an arca compatible, medium duty ballhead that should be a perfect fit for this monopod.

And I was almost right.

Immediately upon mounting it onto the monopod (very easy, as their 3/8” mounting parts were a perfect match) I noticed that I could not top load any of my Arca plates. Oops. Turns out that this is Arca-like, not Arca-compatible. Grrr!

So my first inspiration was to install a spare Kirk clamp in place of the original SM clamp. This required removing the old clamp, which is held on by a sunken large headed screw. A screw should turn, right?

I took one of my many standard-sized hex keys and tried to loosen it. Not a great fit and no budging. Hmmm …

So I clamped the clamp itself into my workmate and gave it a try. I then tried it with a heavy duty drill and a matching attachment. The drill twisted in my arm. Eventually, the screw head basically stripped, rounding the internals. Very frustrating.

You can see the chewed up edges and the fragments of the screw that were torn out. No idea what they used to install that screw, but it is more than loctite.

So I gave up on that approach and decided to see what could be done about the original clamp.

There was one review where the comment was made “I had to remove the safety stop in order to use my other plates with this head. It is inconvenient, since it still won’t open wide enough to drop in from the top, but it works.

Good, I thought. So I too removed the pin.

But my Wimberley universal ball head still would no Ifit. It stuck about third of the way in. So I decided to go with Plan B.

I had already had the thumb screw’s little cover plate fall off, so I knew that there was a big screw head inside, to which I applied my heavy duty cordless drill from Ryobi. There was resistance; after all, the screw head only opens 1/4” and then stops. But it was unable to resist the power of this amazing drill and out it came. All the piece parts fell off as well.

It went back together very easily, and suddenly I had what I wanted Smile

But not for long. I was going to take the Tamron 500 with the Kenko 2x out for a walk in the woods to see what a telescope can do with nature, and as I tightened the thumb screw, I noticed it turning longer than it should. Of course, I realized right away that the soft metal had stripped. *sigh*

Is it just me, or is this thing the spitting image of Johnny 5 Smile


Anyway, you can see from my image that there is much dust and softness to the threads that I created when I undid the screw in the first place. This sucker is done for.

Having now destroyed the clamp, the only thing for it is to again turn my attention to removing the clamp. Since the screw is rounded inside, My only hope was to clamp the ball as tightly as possible and then clamp the remaining chunk of clamp tightly into my workmate and twist with both hands.

And that’s the name of that tune. The incredibly cheap plastic bushing that holds the ball into the head (as opposed to doing some decent machining) has been broken loose and now follows the ball head with any twist, which means that even if I could get it fixed, it has no convenience left and the stability is now completely compromised.

So I paid $44usd for an Arca-like quick release plate that has a non-standard (flat head) mounting screw. Whoopee …

So what should I have really done?

That one is simple … what I should have done from the get go was to attach the spare Kirk clamp to the quick release plate of the Smith Victor and then just used attached the SM QR plate permanently. Now I have an Arca compatible moinopod with a very nice ball head.

Of course, with all the soft metal and plastic in that ball head, it would have failed pretty quickly anyway. This ball head is for extremely light usage for people who don’t mind locking into a completely non-standard plate system. Most enthusiasts will want to give it a wide berth.

And what will my next ball head be for this experiment?

The Joby BH2-01EN ball head. We’ll see how that works out. It is supposed to be Arca-compatible, which makes far more sense than the Smith Victor approach.

Joby BH2-01EN Ballhead X for Joby Focus Flexible Tripod

Update: Well, that was a bust. The Joby was cheap … too cheap. All I received was an extra plate. Sheesh. Henrys took it back no problem (although the store would not cover the shipping, which was perfectly fair.)

So … plan C. I asked at Henrys if they had any decent but cheap ball heads. No. But they had the Manfrotto 234 monopod head that tilts in one direction. So I caved and bought it … which is probably what I should have done in the first place.

I find it cumbersome in two ways: The adjuster is actually a wing nut with only two prongs, so is often awkward for a quick adjustment. Second, I have to hold the monopod perfectly vertical to get a straight horizon. This is much more cumbersome than you might imagine.

So … the grand experiment fizzles. It works, but not smoothly enough for me to be in love with it. Great monopod, crappy head. *sigh* …