Thursday, December 30, 2010

Opteka TacShot TS-1 Ball Head (Part 1 of 2)


This is a review of the Opteka TacShot TS-1 Ballhead from the point of view of a family photographer who takes mostly photos of people.  Here's the lowdown: this $29 ballhead is not completely immune from stability issues (surprise!) but it's darn good and I would argue good enough for 99.99% of family photographers out there.

APOLOGIA; A FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHER'S NEEDS

Many experienced photographers will sigh with pity or snicker with derision if you say that your tripod budget is less than $100.  I suppose there's a good reason for that.  For anyone who uses a tripod often and who wants the ultimate in sharpness and precision in composition, the best advice in the long run is to buy the good stuff off the bat.  Here's my favorite article on tripods, by Thom Hogan: http://www.bythom.com/support.htm

As Thom said, the best stuff costs about $1000 in total and anything less than that will fail in some non-negligible way (roughly in inverse proportion to your tripod budget).  Thus, for many photographers, it makes sense to spend that much on a tripod setup -- astro, landscape, travel, and macro photographers come to mind.  Otherwise you will eventually spend much more than that due to the newbie tax.

As for me, I'm a family photographer.  I usually take photos of my family in spontaneous and candid situations.  By necessity, I almost always shoot handheld.  For sharpness, I rely on a high shutter speed, image stabilization, and/or freezing the subject with flash.  (Indeed, sharpness isn't even as important to my intended audience as much as capturing precious expressions, good lighting, etc.)

With respect to composition, mine is usually not precise at the point of capture as I chase my kid around, and I often crop in postprocessing.  Using a tripod is just not feasible most of the time, and I would argue that it may even do more harm than good if it "kills the moment." 

Because I don't use tripods very often, and when I do, it's rarely for long exposures, the ideal tripod is helpful for me but has lower priority than other things like a backup body, a pro-grade lens, software, or a second or even third flash.  My photo budget is not unlimited after all.

Recognizing that anything less than the best stuff will have defects, does that mean I should just not buy a tripod at all?  (Maybe I should just not bother to take photographs unless I have the budget of a pro photographer?)  Of course not.  A tripod is still useful for me - for family portraits for example.  On the other hand, does it mean I should just buy a consumer-grade tripod?  That wouldn't be wise either.  I have bought dirt cheap tripods -- initially out of ignorance and later out of convenience (I left my tripod at home and I needed one at the moment), and in retrospect I could have gotten better quality and saved money if I bought a better tripod to begin with: 
-  Vanguard Tourist 5 (around $20): Set up very quickly, was very compact, and came with a nice case, but legs weren't stable (could collapse even after being locked).  A leg brace later broke after the tripod was knocked over (camera was saved).  Due to its light weight, I still use it as a 'monopod' for off-camera flash. :)
- generic tripod (bought in Thailand, around $10): the knob for tightening the horizontal pan was falling off from time to time and eventually got lost.
- generic tripod (bought from Amazon, around $10): neither landscape nor portrait orientation is level (even without a camera mounted); prone to falling over in portrait orientation when I'm using an on-camera flash; knob for flipping to portrait orientation sometimes falls off (hasn't got lost yet though :) ).

Fortunately, I have found products for photographers (family or otherwise) who want something definitely better than consumer-grade, but don't have the budget for pro-grade or even prosumer grade.  Let's call it "near-prosumer" grade.  The products at this level cost noticeably more than consumer-grade, but still significantly less than prosumer-grade, while at the same time sharing many of the characteristics and functions of prosumer products.

In a previous post, I wrote about the Targus/Merkury Innovations TG-P60T, which I believe falls in the near-prosumer category.  Here, I'm reviewing another tripod product that I think also fits that category: the Opteka Tacshot TS-1 Ball Head.

BACKGROUND

When I got the Targus Black Label Kit from Costco, it came with a tripod (the TG-P60T) and to my surprise, the tripod was modular (the head was a separate component from the legs, like a professional tripod).  Although the panhead it came with was ok, it made me curious about getting a higher quality tripod head, which I never considered before because the total cost of a head and tripod legs was too high for me.

As I did a bit of research, I found out about some of the advantages of a ballhead over a panhead, and I thought that the speed of positioning the camera was more important for my kind of photography than the precision of a panhead.  I looked into ballheads and was initially considering the Induro SA-0 and the seemingly identical Benro BH00 but both gradually rose in price over a span of just a few days.  It made me consider getting the Manfrotto 322RC2 joystick ballhead instead (currently $115 at Amazon).

While I was looking for good deals for the 322RC2, I came across the Opteka TacShot TS-1 (currently $29 at Amazon), which seemed to offer similar functions to the 322RC2.  I thought that products in this price range could not possibly have the same quality as that of name brand products like Manfrotto.  However, because of Amazon's reasonable return policy, I decided I to give the TS-1 a shot anyway.  Less than 48 hours after ordering it, it was here!  (Did I mention I love Amazon Prime? :D )

STURDINESS:

The ball and the base are both made of aluminum.  The rest of the TS-1 is made mostly of polycarbonate, contrary to one of the reviews on Amazon which said that the TS-1 has an all-metal construction.  I can understand why that reviewer made a mistake because the polycarbonate appears to be a very dense and rigid type and can conceivably be mistaken for textured metal.  It looks very solid.  Not that I would recommend doing this, but it can probably survive use as a hammer (with some heavy scuffing).

Note though that I've only had the TS-1 for a day, and the TG-P60T for less than a couple of weeks, so I have no assurance that they are as durable as they appear but I would be very surprised if they did not last me at least a few years.

Perhaps as a consequence of being very solidly built, the TS-1 is a bit heavy - weighing 425g (0.937 lbs), heavy enough that you ought to factor it into the total weight of your gear when choosing tripod legs if you don't have a tripod yet.

ATTACHING THE TS-1:

The TS-1 has a 3/8-16 female mount and I had no problems attaching it to the tripod legs of the TG-P60T.
The TS-1 also comes with a bushing to convert the 3/8-16 to a 1/4-20, which would allow the TS-1 to be mounted on virtually any tripod (even one that doesn't have a separate head).  However, if you plan to use the TS-1 on top of another tripod head, be sure that the total weight is within the limits of your tripod.  The combined assembly may also become top-heavy and unstable.

Like most tripod heads, the TS-1 has a quick release plate.  The bottom of the quick release plate has a small handle to facilitate screwing the plate onto the camera.  The top of the quick release plate is made of a rubbery foam material to help prevent the camera from moving once attached.  The TS-1's quick release plate is octagonal in shape and is not compatible with the de facto standard Arca-Swiss type plate.  If you need additional quick release plates for backup cameras or other gear, be aware that I have yet to find one available for sale by itself.

Here is a comparison between the TS-1's plate (on the left) versus the common Arca-Swiss type plate.


FUNCTIONS:

The TS-1 can be adjusted and positioned in 3 ways:
  1. The normal ballhead movement, including portrait orientation.  The maximum tilt is about 45 degrees, except for one side that has a groove to allow complete tilting to portrait orientation.  As expected, you squeeze the pistol grip to allow movement, then release the grip to fix the position.  The effort needed to squeeze the trigger seems just right - not too stiff or too loose.  There appears to be little or no tension control in the movement.  Either it moves completely freely or it doesn't move.
  2. The quick release plate mount can be rotated for horizontal-only movement.  The rotation feels fluid-damped.  To allow rotation, a lever has to be flipped.  It takes quite a bit of effort to flip the lever.
  3. The part of the TS-1 to which the pistol grip is attached can be rotated to change the position of the grip relative to the ball-and-socket and the groove for tilting to portrait orientation.  This is useful, among other things, for changing the handedness of the TS-1.
Below is a link to a video I uploaded to show the possible movements with the TS-1:

In Part 2 of this review, I will post stability tests, specifically sag and creep.