In Search of the Elusive White Unicorn
by Ken Doo
Photographers and camera bags are a lot like women and shoes. The endless search for the perfect camera bag is as evasive as the perfect pair of heels. Finding the right tripod head is not much better. And if you are looking for a geared tripod head with an eye towards using it outside of the studio, the choices are slim indeed.
In 2009, Jack Flesher, wrote a review for the Luminous-Landscape on the Arca Swiss Cube, a really remarkable geared tripod head, which arguably set the standard for quality and precision in a geared tripod head. But the Cube also came at an incredible cost: approximately $1,700 for the Cube in a corrugated box version to $1,900 for a Cube packaged in a luxurious “Coach” leather bag that no one has quite figured out what the hell to do with once they have removed its precious cargo. Pure insanity, I thought when I first read Jack’s review. No tripod head is worth nearly two thousand dollars! But then I tried the Cube, and then I understood. The silent enabler, responsible for probably the most Cube sales to date, was right. Simply stated, the Arca Swiss Cube provides precision geared movements making leveling a camera platform child’s play, all on an extremely stable and secure platform. When photographing in the shivering cold, a geared head makes leveling the camera much easier than with a traditional ballhead. Similarly, making fine adjustments in studio is also easier with a geared tripod head.
The Cube was a worthwhile investment to me. But the Cube is far from perfect. High price aside, the Cube is heavy, weighing approximately 2.25 pounds. Its profile is relatively stout and markedly larger than its non-geared heavy duty ballhead cousins. While the Cube promises precise geared adjustments, it also sacrifices the speed of a traditional ballhead. As good as the Cube was (and still is) mounted on a Really Right Stuff TVC 3 series carbon fiber tripod, I found that the Cube was top-heavy on my lighter RRS TVC-24 tripod which I use for hiking and travel. I wanted the quality and capabilities of the Cube, but in a smaller and lighter package. And so the search began for a geared tripod head alternative.
Before discussing the merits and shortcomings of the KPS T5 geared ballhead, I think it is necessary for me to first disclose the parameters for what I consider to be an acceptable tripod head. The tripod head must be capable of providing a secure and stable platform for a moderately heavy camera system, primarily a Cambo WRS technical camera, Rodenstock lenses, Phase One medium format digital back, and sometimes also supporting tethering with a Surface Pro tablet. Other alternate camera platforms might be a Phase One DF medium format digital DSLR, or a “professional” 1D series Canon DSLR with a long lens. These are heavier platforms, and generally much more expensive systems than may be considered typical, and worrying about whether your tripod head can safely support such expensive gear should not be even the slightest concern. Mounting and leveling the camera platform should be an easy task, with adjustments made smoothly and quickly. In short, the photographer should be able to focus on the process of photography and not have the slightest worry about the tripod head that supports his expensive camera system. In a nutshell, I want AS Cube-like quality and stability in a smaller, lighter package. I wanted a geared tripod head that bestowed all the Cube’s benefits afforded to my Cambo technical camera, and preferably less expensive too. Simple, right?
The Arca Swiss Cube is considered by many to be the pinnacle of quality for geared tripod heads. As such, the Cube naturally set the standard by which to compare other geared options, including the KPS T5 in this review. Manfrotto’s 405, 410, and their new xpro geared heads? Not in the running for this level of desired quality. The Manfrotto’s paltry maximum of 16 pounds of support (even less for their new xpro) falls far short compared to the Cube’s 100+lb rating. Sunwayfoto’s GH-Pro is a smaller, lighter, and less expensive version of the Arca Swiss D4, but its 26 pound capacity rating is rather optimistic and I found it much more acceptable for a small, mirrorless camera-sized platform. Both the AS D4 and GH-Pro exhibit lift inherent in their design and are not as stable as the standard set forth by the Cube. I did not consider the Photoflex Clam nor Linhof’s 3D Micro as both are very similar to the Cube in size and weight, not to mention expensive as well. Enter the KPS T5 geared ballhead.
The KPS T5 Geared BallHead
KPS Research & Design is a small Korean company, owned by P.S. Kang. Kang’s background as an engineer and designer of custom industrial machinery carried over into establishing KPS. An artist and photographer at heart, Kang started developing and making photographic equipment, initially with viewfinders for DSLRs and later introducing the KPS Slim Plate system. A T5 geared ballhead prototype was introduced at Photokina in 2010 and became available to the public in 2012 and recently in the US. The T5 geared ballhead is unique in my mind as it is not a knock-off or carbon copy of pre-existing technologies. There really is nothing else currently on the market quite like it. This is not a cheap or inexpensive head. With the T5, KPS has clearly set its sights on the higher quality end of the photography market. If I had to describe a point of quality reference, I would place the fit and finish of the T5 on par with products from Arca Swiss and Really Right Stuff. The U.S. distributor for the KPS T5 is Legio Aerium, located in Elkridge, Maryland. www.legioaerium.com Legio Aerium is a veteran owned business.
I received two geared ballheads from Legio Aerium to test: the T5D with screw clamp and the T5DV with quick lever release clamp. Both are Arca Swiss compatible, but the T5DV also uses KPS’ proprietary Slim Plates as well. The T5DV includes a generic KPS Slim Plate. Legio Aerium also included several other KPS Slim Plates for a mirrorless camera and professional DSLR body. More on the KPS slim plates later. The T5 head came well-packaged in cut foam placed inside of an elegant box. No “Coach” leather bag, but certainly better than a corrugated cardboard box. A small pamphlet is included that explains how to operate the T5. This is much better than the poorly photocopied instructions that came with my Cube! I used the T5 geared ballheads for a period of approximately five weeks both in studio and on location. I will be taking the T5 geared ballheads with me to Capture Integration in Lake Tahoe, a workshop I lead with Don Libby of Tucson, Arizona.
I related to Legio Aerium my disdain for the needless use of permanent red Loctite, making it much more difficult for end-users to install the top clamp of their own choosing. Users must resort to a heat gun to release the adhesive and risk causing damage to the tripod head. I do believe that Arca Swiss has lost many potential sales of their venerable Cube and D4 heads when they recently opted for the use of red Loctite to prevent end-users from using anything but the stock AS top clamps. This rather shallow approach really misses the forest for the trees. Legio Aerium agreed. KPS is sending me a T5 geared ballhead at my request without a top-clamp, and machined to my specifications, so that I can freely swap between RRS lever clamps and a panoramic lever clamp. Responsive customer service? Make that an emphatic, “yes.” Legio Aerium has informed me that KPS will offer the T5 geared ballhead in several clamp versions, including the same T5 that I requested without a top-clamp. Smart move. Having a choice is a good thing. Pricing for the T5 ranges from approximately $730 (without clamp), $800 for the T5D AS screw clamp, and $830 for the T5DV quick lever release clamp. The T5 geared ballhead is guaranteed free of defects in materials and workmanship for three years.
The T5 is a finely machined tripod head, approximately 5 inches tall, 2.5” in diameter, and weighs about 1.75 pounds. It has a 44mm ball with a rated capacity of 88lbs. The finish is a smooth matte black. It has a lockable panning base, with numerical settings marked every 30 degrees, and markings every 10 degrees between each numerical setting. There are three main knobs that control adjustments on the T5. The larger black knob controls the head much like any other typical ballhead. The friction lock may be adjusted as desired for the weight of the camera. Initial setting of the camera with the large knob is quick and easy. What makes the T5 unique is that the two smaller red knobs can make minute geared micro-tilt adjustments on two axes as much as 30 degrees total depending on the position where the ball has been locked down. Leveling the camera is as quick and easy as with the Arca Swiss Cube.
I found that once the T5 head was adjusted for the weight of my camera, I typically would only need to secure my camera onto the ballhead and could go directly to making minor geared adjustments to level the camera with the two red knobs. Only if large adjustments are needed did I resort to using the larger main control knob. The knobs are much bigger than those found on the Arca Swiss Cube, and when making adjustments with gloved hands, this is a welcome feature. Depending on the position of the head, however, it can take as much as half a turn of the red knobs before the T5 gears are engaged to make minor adjustments, whereas the response of the knobs on the Cube when making adjustments are immediate. This has no impact on the ability to make fine adjustments or on the stability of the platform, rather I think this is more the nature of the geared mechanism moving to engage the ballhead. The knobs on the Cube to make adjustments extend from one side of the head to the other, making adjustments easy whether the user is left or right-handed. Consequently, both hands can also be used together on the same axis control knobs, making very fine adjustments on the Cube easier than on the T5. Adjustments to level the camera platform with both the Cube and T5 are smooth and fast. The KPS T5 provided a very stable platform for both my Phase DF and Cambo WRS technical cameras. Movements and controls are smooth and refined on the T5 as should be expected.
Other than the numerical markers on the panning base, there are no other markings or numbers on the T5. In contrast, the Cube has numerical markers to note the amount of adjustments made along both the x and y axis. Because of the fluidity and movement of the T5 ballhead, like any ballhead, it would be impossible to note with any sense of accuracy the amount of adjustment made along the x or y axis with the T5. I do not find this to be a significant feature in my work. The T5DV lever clamp has two bubble levels. The T5D screw clamp has a single bubble level. The Cube has two bubble levels. I find that relying on the electronic dual axis levels, found on the Phase One IQ series medium format digital backs and other digital cameras, when making adjustments is easier than using the bubble levels found on the tripod head.
Of significant note is that although the KPS T5 weighs about ½ pound less than the Arca Swiss Cube, I felt that I had not sacrificed anything in terms of a stable platform for my cameras. The standard that I use for a tripod and head is that I should not have to worry about the stability of the platform nor the fear that my camera may crash to the ground at any given moment. I should not have to think about the tripod or the attached head. The photographer need only focus on the task at hand. I feel equally secure using the Cube and the KPS T5 geared ballhead. The biggest concern that I had was that the T5DV, like the Cube, might be top heavy when used with the smaller and lighter RRS TVC-24 carbon fiber tripod legs. I feared that although it was ½ pound lighter, that it still might not be light enough yet. My fears were not realized as I have found that the KPS T5 is well-balanced mounted on top of both the TVC 2 and TVC 3 series tripods. I installed RRS TH-DVTL40 dovetails on the Cube and the T5 heads which allows me to quickly swap heads and tripod legs using RRS quick release lever clamps (aka the Graham Welland quick lever release tripod head system).
The KPS Slim Plate System
The T5 comes in four variants: T5, T5M, T5D, and the T5DV. All are the same and only differentiated by the type of attached clamp (or no clamp for the T5). I did not test the T5M. All of the variants are Arca Swiss compatible. The T5DV and T5M also use the KPS Slim Plate system. Rather than clamping the outside rails as the Arca Swiss standard, the Slim Plate system is secured by clamping two rails along the inside of the plate. This novel design allows the system to have a much lower profile and take on a nice body hugging design. The clamping system is secure and clamp force is easily adjustable. The Slim Plate system is well-engineered and works well, but I decided that it is not right for me. I have multiple cameras, most with L-brackets, all of which by deliberate choice use Arca Swiss compatible RRS brackets and plates. This consistency allows me to easily use each of my cameras on all of my tripods with ease. KPS does not offer a “slim plate” L-bracket and consequently Slim Plates are not an option for me. As you can see from the photos above, the Slim Plate design is much smaller in profile. For those wishing to maintain a smaller camera profile, the KPS Slim Plate should be considered. A single Slim Plate attached to the bottom of a camera is substantially less obtrusive. I would estimate that the Slim Plate system is about half the thickness of a typical Arca Swiss compatible plate. The difference is more noticeable on smaller cameras such as a Sony A7r. The photo above shows the fit and finish of the Slim Plate attached to my Canon 1Ds Mark III compared to the bulk added by an Arca Swiss compatible RRS L-bracket. When considering its low profile fit, weight, and less bulk that the KPS Slim Plate has on a large DSLR like the Canon 1DsMark III, it really is remarkable. A line of sleek, low-profile, form-fitting, Slim-Plate L-brackets would really give a lot of photographers pause to reconsider.
The only issue I found, albeit minor, was with the T5DV clamp. Setting the clamp to be Arca Swiss compatible is easily and quickly accomplished by moving a single stainless steel pin from one setting to the other. However, in so doing, the camera plate is then slightly off center above the ball stem. This is not the case when using the Slim Plate system. This may or may not be an issue for some photographers. Regardless, the clamp does work well and overall I liked the speed of working with the T5DV lever release clamp better than the T5D screw clamp. My preference overall, however, is being able to attach the clamp of my choice using the base model T5.
Moss Landing Power Plant. ©2015 Ken Doo. Cambo WRS, Phase IQ180, Rodenstock HR70 t/s two-image vertical stitch. KPS T5DV geared ballhead on RRS TVC24. Thirty-four second exposure.
Over the past five weeks I have used the KPS T5 geared ballhead in a variety of situations including portrait sessions, products, and landscape photography. I rarely use the Cube during portrait sessions because making adjustments is too slow. The speed of a ballhead during a portrait session important, yet still being able to make small adjustments during the session with the T5 was a pleasant surprise. The T5 combines the benefits of a ballhead with the precision of a geared head. For those who already have the Arca Swiss Cube, buying the KPS T5 geared ballhead may not make sense unless your work requires a lighter geared head alternative that is capable of providing a stable platform for a larger DSLR or medium format camera system. For those that have not yet succumbed to the Cube, the KPS T5 geared ballhead is a great high quality alternative. It may not come with a “Coach” leather bag, but the T5 provides similar quality and features, and at half the price of admission. My search for a smaller and lighter, geared ballhead has ended.
—Ken Doo, April 2015
Ken Doo is a professional photographer with a boutique portrait studio located in Carmel, California. He is also is a fine art printer and recently launched his new fine art printing website, www.carmelfineartprinting.com