ACRATECH GP-SS BALLHEAD
After reading many reviews, contemplating many ballheads, I decided to go with a small company that has a reputation for great customer service. I had a lengthy chain of emails with Patty at Acratech regarding the 'cosmetic seconds' they could sell me and the day that the ballhead shipped I talked to her on the phone for almost an hour - shooting the shit about photography and photographers. Not that I ever expect this ballhead to need servicing - it is built like a flipping tank - but should something go wrong, again, I am confident that Acratech will do whatever needs to be done. They seems like a great company that limits production to ~ 50 units per day and holds high standards in every facet of their business.
As I alluded to above, the ballhead feels like a brick shithouse made of some hard aluminum and weighs close to nothing. Structurally, it is beautiful and positively engineered with brilliance. Acratech has a video on youtube showing the ballhead being dropped on concrete time and time again and I think the ballhead had one scratch. I don't see other ballhead companies doing that to their products...
But it isn't just about the build, it's also about usability and functionality. As you probably already know, the ballhead also serves as a leveling base when you flip it around (you could also just keep the ballhead inverted permanently if you do a lot of panos - apparently the owner of Acratech did that for quite some time according to my friend, Patty. The tension knob works perfectly - it holds position and keeps the exact amount of tension you want so your camera isn't flopping all over the place. The panning is smooth. And the main knob locks down on that ball like a crocodile jaw.
Lastly, yes my unit was a cosmetic second with the full warranty, but I have looked over the product for quite some time and cannot find any defect whatsoever. Either way, their quality control saw something they didn't like and they set the unit aside. What this tells me is that the standards of Acratech far exceeds that of most companies.
Note*** The modification that I made to the setup has since turned into a patent-pending quick release plate that can be applied to most tripod/ballhead setups.
What started as a desire to quickly be able to invert the orientation of the Acratech GP-ss without carrying around an allen-key has since turned into a method to convert any ballhead into a leveling base (along with the added benefit of being able to quickly attach and detach a ballhead from the tripod). The modification is comprised of an ARCA quick-release plate which has had the thickness milled down. This allows the ballhead-mounting bolt on the tripod to come through the plate and be securely attached with a lock nut (Shown in the first picture). By then adding an additional ARCA clamp to the base of the ballhead (that would normally attach to the tripod), the user can attach and detach the ballhead quickly and securely. The primary benefit that comes from this modification, though, is that it allows the ballhead to function as a leveling base. Instead of requiring the traditional leveling base mounted between the tripod and the ballhead, this allows the photographer to just switch the orientation of the ballhead which places the panning function of the ballhead above the ball itself - effectively leveling the panning function. As seen in the picture on the far right, the tripod is not level (to an exaggerated degree) but the panning function still works and keeps the horizon level. Lastly, as seen in that picture, it is obvious that using the ballhead as a leveling base offers much more freedom than the 10-30 degrees that traditional leveling bases offer.
The second ARCA clamp that I attached to the ballhead is the Sunwayfoto 60mm duo-lever clamp. I will likely get another Acratech clamp at some point because it is just the best quality clamp I've come across, but for now, I will use the SunwayFoto clamp as it is a fraction of the cost.
FEISOL 3442 CARBON FIBER TRIPOD REVIEW
Customer service is, to me, one of the more important aspects of a brand. Sure, you can have the best quality product, but eventually, something will fail and when it does, it is reassuring to know that you will be dealing with a small, customer-focused company such as Feisol. My experience with Feisol began with an inquiry regarding whether or not they could give me any sort of deal. They shipped me basically a brand new CT3442 tripod for 10% off and with free shipping. Since their products usually aren't on sale, this was much appreciated - Thanks Feisol.
I haven't had to make any warranty claims, obviously - as I've had the tripod for a couple months, but based on the quick responses I received in a 10+ email chain, I am confident that they would be easy to get ahold of and deal with. Based on other reviews, it sounds like they value their customers and are willing to send out parts or fix their products in a very timely manner should something go wrong.
I have so far used the tripod in snow, sand, and water. Unfortunately, I did need to take the legs apart and clean the threads after some sand got in (ad probably some saltwater too). After cleaning the threads, I re-greased them using white lithium grease. The reason for suing this grease is that my first venture into the snow with this tripod revealed that the factory-applied grease would not work in cold temperatures - it was getting pretty stiff at about 10 deg F. I am heading to Iceland this upcoming March and want to see which grease can withstand cold temperatures better and which has less affinity for attracting grit.
I have attached a small eye bolt where the included weight hook would normally attach (thread size is 3/16-24). This solution is not only smaller, but the eyebolt allows for a point to attach a tripod sling (since there is no other good point to attach a sling near the spider of the tripod) and also allows one to attach a weighted bag with something like a carabiner.
iOptron Skytracker Tracker
The iOptron skytracker has been on my laundry list of photography goodies to buy for some time now. After getting rid of my best astrophotography lens (the Rokinon 12mm f/2) and being left with a slightly slower, albeit much higher quality XF 16-55mm f/2.8, I knew I would need to allow for longer exposures. I somewhat regretted getting rid of the Rokinon’s field of view; however, once I started using the skytracker I started producing better quality images in terms of noise. And paired with a panorama setup sitting on top of the tracker (see image below), I can still capture a field of view as wide as the composition calls for.
Gripes (and Pros):
Let’s start off with the price point. I am not saying that this item is too expensive for what you get. After all, you are getting very accurate tracking with the degree of star trailing completely dependent on how well the polar scope is aligned. That said, this item is priced ~ $300 USD. So, being the cheapest effective tracking mount it’s hard to complain. However, I wish that the scope was able to adjust to a 90-degree latitude. Not because I am going to the North Pole, but because it allows for time-lapse panning. It would also be nice if the panning base was a little smoother.
Still, even though adjustments aren’t the smoothest, having an app to tell you where to align is fantastic. There is a specific iOptron app for the iPhone and for android (which is my international, travel phone), I use PolarFinder (free). Both give the same alignment point and both are very effective. Lastly, the load capacity of the Skytracker is 7.7 pounds. This allows me to stay well under capacity with a full panorama setup, a Fuji XT1, and the large 16-55 f/2.8 lens all mounted to it.
Because of the modification I made to the tripod/ballhead, I added an ARCA clamp on the bottom of the skytracker where it would normally be screwed onto the tripod. Because the tripod has its own quick release plate, the skytracker can mount quickly and securely to the tripod. Moreover, adding an additional plate to the ballhead mounting plate of the tracker allows me to attach the ballhead like I would with the tripod - with an ARCA release.