Sirui 30x ball head

A while ago, I converted my elderly 488 Manfrotto ball head from its clunky proprietory clamp to an Arca Swiss clamp. A great improvement as any camera with an Arca base plate or lens foot would now fit, but what remained was the 488 head.

During a trip to Norway, extensive tripod use convinced me change was overdue. Both tripods and ball heads have developed dramatically and whilst top end models: Gitzo, Promediagear, RRS BH55, Markins Q20 looked suitable contenders, their prices were somewhat prohibitive. If I used legs every day as a pro, such prices could be justified – but I’m not.

The search began for a close equivalent, a well engineered, super smooth head with the ability to handle a D750 with 70-200 f2.8 or any other mid sized lens. Whilst lenses such as a 500 f4.0 are into gimbal territory, a suitably large head should hold them steady if mounted via the lens foot. During this research I discovered The Center Column an excellent independant site testing tripods and ball heads for rigidity being a valid metric for comparison. TCC showed the Sirui 30x and larger 40x rigidity similar to the Markins heads. A post on Nikonians confirmed Sirui were highly regarded and in use by several pros.

The Sirui K series ball head range is as follows:

  • Mod – Ball dia – Weight – Rating – application
  • K10x – 33mm – 350g – 20Kg – for series 0 or 1
  • K20x – 38mm – 400g – 25Kg – for series 1 or 2
  • K30x – 44mm – 500g – 30Kg – for series 2 or 3
  • K40x – 54mm – 700g – 35Kg – for series 3 or 4

I know load ratings don’t reflect rigidity or smoothness in use, but plenty of on-line reviews support very positive comment. I dived in and chose the K30x on the basis it would provide more than adequate, secure support without being too big for my travel tripod. The K40x was considered too large

The Sirui 30x mounted on Manfrotto 190CX legs – iPhone 6s

Look and feel: The ball head was well packaged being supplied with a pouch which fits over the head when not in use. The finish and engineering seem exceptionally good at the price point, being very well made, its beautifully engineered to 0.01mm tollerance for the ball. It features an adjustment to the ball friction via a small screw in the lock ring although initially required no further adjustment – see below for adjusting.

Dimensions and ergonomics: The K30x has a height of 108mm, weighs 500 grammes with a ball head diameter of 44mm, the base diameter to mate your tripod is 60mm and it can support up to 30Kg. This loading must be considered to be acting vertically downwards from a single vertical point, which isn’t the case with camera and lens which applies a degree of force due to the length. it pans 360 degrees which is nice as some ball heads don’t do this with a single slot in the ball for downwards tilt.

Mounting: The ball head base of 60mm matched my tripod – a Manfrotto 190CX3 pro perfectly. The 30x quick plate is Arca Swiss style and grabs the camera by turning a screw as opposed to a lever like some RRS plates. It’s supplied with an excellent camera mount plate having an attachment screw long enough to grab the camera base very securely with an additional slot to attach a shoulder strap. I have found some cheap plates simply don’t have long enough screws, lacking sufficient thread to fit more securely. However, the Sirui clamp and camera plate are very good quality. The ball head Arca Swiss mount also features a security pin preventing camera slide if you omit to clamp adequately! This has saved me once so it’s already paid for itself.

In use: Once mounted the 30x performed admirably, friction controls were very progressive and very silky smooth in use, in fact it performed in away that I focussed less on the ball head and more on what I was doing. My overall perspective is it exceeds the price paid. My 190cx is an old but good carbon fibre tripod which copes with a D750 and standard lens. It’s rated for a 7.0 Kg load whilst I suspect it can handle more, It’s light, rigid and compact size is handy for travelling but a 600mm f4.0 would make it hideously unstable. Tripod load ratings are to be honest, fairly meaningless twaddle. It’s stability and rigidity that provide support for your camera, which the 190 does fairly well and this ball head gave it a new lease of life, a worthwhile upgrade to the 488 it replaced.

Adjustment to set minimum grip: The 30x and other models feature a panning base with friction control which works progressively, not much more I can say really. The ball friction is shown below being a larger control with a silver tension adjustment inset into it. Correct adjustment can be mis-understood to the detriment of its purpose. The silver inset is to achieve the minimum tension as opposed to desired tension or aligning the images on the tension band – blue on the Sirui.

How to set your ball friction control correctly:

  • Mount your camera on the ball head
  • Adjust the large friction control to achieve the minimum grip before the camera ‘flops’ forward
  • Rotate the small inset silver disc clockwise with your thumb until it resistance is felt – it should not be tight!
  • Rotate the blue ring so it aligns with 0 – not essential as I seldom look at it in use
Thats it!

Ball friction control showing inset silver tensioner and blue friction scale behind:

In use it’s exceptional, everything is super smooth and locks with near zero discernable movement. The arca plate security pin is great as it prevents accidental slide. In use, it’s a joy to operate, clamping reasonabley easily. The ball clamp grab is fairly progreesive providing a fine degree of control whilst locking droop is minimal. Panning is very smooth with graduations for those who like panoramic stitching and the lock engages quickly. The other really good news is price wise the 30x is just over a third of the cost for a Makins Q20 – is it as good? Well it certainly is very smooth to operate and extremely well engineered, time will tell.

My verdict: Highly reccomended, I can’t really find fault, if you can then please post below.

The image below clearly shows very clear detail

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Crop of cherry blossom image shows exceptional detail
Thw Sirui K30x mounted on 190CX3 showing its mount plate and spirit levels
Please note: I am not sponsored or affiliated to the Sirui company or any other company. The opinions and findings here are my own from first hand experience evaluating the product. Please post any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to answer below.

Northern Lights – Take 2

Anyone can photograph the Northern Lights with a smartphone, but unless you have a sophisticated one with night mode or similar for low light shots, the result can be poor. A DSLR mounted on a tripod with wide angle, wide aperture lens and the ability to take long exposures should provide reasonable images. But don’t hesitate to have a go even when conditions are less than perfect, you may be surprised! I consider myself fortunate to have viewed both Northern and Southern lights on several occaisions.

Here are my results, taken with Nikon D750 Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 at ISO 3200 and 6400. It was further complicated, shooting from a moving ship hence the use of higher ISOs to permit faster shutter speeds from 2 seconds upwards. However, I managed to capture some good detail.

Further information for night time photography below the images.

All images copy write and marked in the file – you may use providing you credit me in this blog. All images reduced so click to enlarge.

To photograph the northern lights or anything at night time, set up as below before you go outside:

  • Practise operating your camera in the dark, beforehand to remember where all the switches are located to change settings such as ISO. D850 owners rejoice in illuminated buttons!
  • Please switch off your onboard flash, It is somewhat thoughtless to use flash as it achieves nothing. It spoils night vision and may also ruin other peoples photographs.
  • A good solid tripod is essential The larger the better, with a decent ball head to hold your camera rock steady. I use a Manfrotto 190CX3 carbon fibre although a larger one would be desirable its handy for travel with a Sirui 30x ball head which is excellent.
  • Switch off vibration control, reduction or image stabilisation if your lens has it (VC, VR or IS) does not work with a tripod so switch it off, usually the switch is on the lens.
  • Use your widest prime lens or set your zoom to its widest: 15, 17 or 20mm to capture the most sky.
  • Set the widest aperture – f2.8 or f4.0 or as wide as you can set to let in the maximum amount of available light.
  • Turn off auto focus then manually focus to infinity the switch is usually on your lens.
  • Set the highest ISO that works best with your camera: 1600, 3200 or 6400. To find this you may need to expirement or just know that your camera works best at a certain ISO. Too high and your images will be noisy. I may try 12800 next time which is pushing it but the D750s high ISO performance is excellent.
  • Use Mup – Mirror lock up. The Mup setting lifts your mirror on the first shutter release press, the next press releases the shutter. This will help to reduce vibrations as the mirror lifts. If you have a remote trigger, use it as it avoids pressing the shutter release which may induce vibration.
  • Experiment with shutter speed, start at 5 seconds then check and adjust.
  • Nikon users with D750 or D7100 or similar may like to save their night time settings to U1 or U2 for instant recall.

Find a good place, away from any light sources with a solid base for your tripod, avoid wooden decking as it will spring if anyone walks on it. Ensure you make other people (if any are nearby) aware you are setting up your tripod, although regrettably some can be less than considerate and stand right in your way or kick your tripod then reach skyward, releasing a blinding flash! Did you get that Honey? – Nope, I can’t see anything. Sigh!

Take sharper pictures

Sharpness is just one of many atributes that make a good image. However, the lens is not solely responsible for achieving a nice crisp image, many other factors influence the image include those listed below:

Clean your lens
A dirty lens will affect sharpness, so clean it! Also clean any filters you may use. I prefer the q-tip with demin water method whilst others favour a lint free cloth

Use your lens hood
A lens hood will help prevent reflected indirect light affecting the image providing better contrast as well as preventing flare and it helps protect the front element.

Find the sweet spot for your lens
Most lenses are at their sharpest between about f8 and f11. It varies for each lens, so experiment to find which apertures return the sharpest images. If your lens has Vibration Reduction (VR) or Vibration Control (VC) turn it on when shooting hand held to permit slower shutter speeds in low light if desired.

Shoot at a higher f stop (smaller) aperture
This will provide greater depth of field, with more of your subject in focus. Whilst it contradicts the advice above, it’s useful in landscape photgraphy where quite often, foreground capture is desired. Whilst the MTF charts may show a decline in sharpness, having more ‘in focus’ generally over rides the negative effect.

Use a tripod
A good solid and rigid, low resonance tripod with a good ballhead like the Sirui 30x here will provide support reducing any vibration or movement. Consider using the MUP setting to lock the mirror up along with a remote release. If your lens has VR or VC then turn it off or set to minimum when using a tripod – again experiment to whats best.

Improve shutter release technique
Support your camera well, lock your arms to your body, press the shutter in a controlled manner, like pulling a rifle trigger.
Try shooting in burst mode, as after the first shot the shutter will be depressed making the camera steadier so shots from No2 onwards should be slightly sharper.

Use a higher shutter speed
If your shutter speed is too slow then expect blurred or softer images, VR or VC can help here. Using a speed of 1/(2x focal length) is a rough guide but increasing shutter speed at longer focal lengths is essential.

Shoot RAW
Please shoot RAW not JPG! JPG is a lossy and thus destructive file format, each time a .jpg is processed it degrades. Shoot raw then export to .jpg in pp maintaining your original raw.

Calibrate your lens
By applying the correct offset in camera settings for autofocus your lens will focus correctly – it does take time making it a rainy day job to calibrate your lenses. There are lots of ‘how to’s’ on line for different cameras and lenses. The Tamron G2 series and some Sigma lenses have a USB connected docks allowing focus point adjustments and new firmware to be applied saving a trip to a dealer.

Be aware large megapixel sensors have smaller pixel pitch and size. Which can make the camera slightly more prone to movement for which the D850 is fairly notorious! If you upgrade to a higher Mp camera it may require improved technique. Pixel pitches of some Nikon DSLRS below:

D300 – 12Mp – 5.51 µm pitch
D7100 – 24Mp – 3.9 µm pitch
D7500 – 21Mp – 4.2 µm pitch
D750 – 24Mp – 5.95 µm pitch
D810 – 36Mp – 4.87 µm pitch
D850 – 45Mp – 4.34 µm pitch

Making a D7100 less forgiving than a D850 with respect to pixel density. The D750 has the largest assisting its high ISO capability as the wider spacing helps cooling during long exposures.

D80 with 70-300mm @ 300mm hand held catching a slight propeller blur.

Please note: I am not sponsored or affiliated to any company mentioned in this post. The opinions and findings here are my own from first hand experience evaluating the product. Please post any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to answer below.

Reflections at Nieul Sur l’Autise

Nieul Sur l’Autise is the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitane around 1122 in the Abbey. Our recent visit took us along the river on one of the better days in late November where reflections and autumn colours were captured with the D750 & Tamron 24-70 zoom .

Click to enlarge – if clicked twice, each full sized image is 8-10Mb so may take a little while to load depending on your internet connection speed.
F9 50mm 1/125. Autumn colours from trees lining the river bank.

F9 62mm 1/60. A crop for detail on water falling from the wier. A slow shutter speed provided the foamy effect, a tripod would have allowed longer exposure.

F9 31mm 1/160. Tree reflections

F22 24mm 1/400. Straight into the sun from a bridge gave an almost monochrome effect with some nice cloud. F22 provided some star burst and few artefacts, which doesn’t detract too much.

F11 29mm 1/40. Amazing weeping willow.

F9 24mm 1/160. Amazing foliage in the upper canopy of this grand old oak.

F11 24mm 1/15. Exposure was difficult here, as the top is over and the bottom slightly under to resolve reflections in the black inky apearance of the water.

And no, the foreground leaves were not placed!

My understanding of camera noise

Noise in digital photgraphs is generally insignificant until you start shooting at higher ISO values with longer exposures or make very short exposures. Increasing ISO to provide an accpetable shutter speed in low light can result in ‘noisy’ images, caused by chromatic, luminous or shot noise.

Sources of noise:

Doubling ISO say from 800 to 1600 doubles the sensitivy to light by increasing the sensor voltage. The downside is that individual pixels are prone to influence from their neighbours and the sensor temperature increases hence the expression ‘hot pixels’.
Very long exposures will contribute to noise as a charcteristic of sensor design and unfortunately this can only be improved by changing to a later camera with less noise.

Later camera designs generally produce less noisy images, although as pixel density increases it can result in sensor noise from interference. The D810 with its 36Mp sensor produces excellent extremely detailed images and highly sought after by landscape photographers. However, the higher density pixeled D810 produces fractionally more noise than the D750 24Mp sensor, but is easily removed in post processing.

Noise is also generated by the random nature of light photons, it increases as the signal increases, but not by the same amount. More signal – longer shutter speed, should overcome to some degree the unwanted noise.

Examples: click to enlarge.

Bath abbey at night F9, a 5 second exposure ensures very little noise visible even at 200%


Jard Sur Mer, shooting at a high shutter speed F11 1/2000th resulted in a noisy image

Reducing noise:

Clearly you cannot just rack up the ISO without considering shutter speed, it’s important to optimise the signal to noise ratio. Slower shutter = more signal = less noise, however there is a point where the sensor heats up which introduces noise. Selecting the correct ISO to provide a reasonable shutter speed and ‘ETTR’ exposing to the right will help reduce noise. It’s a matter of experimenting with a bit of guesswork.

Keep your camera cool: a warm camera means a warmer sensor which induces more noise. Even on a cool night a camera can get warm from repeated long exposures.

Use a tripod: A tripod will allow slower speeds at lower ISOs.

Stacking: I’m no great fan of extensive post processing but multiple images stacked will produce an image with reduced noise.

Post Processing: Photoshop, Aperture and other post processing programs have noise reduction, also plug-ins such as Noise Ninja can be added to reduce or remove noise.

In camera noise reduction: I’ve found these (Nikon) seldom work correctly. The camera makes a guess at the noise reduction at the expense of fine detail and in doing so destroys the image. Turn it off and remove noise in post processing. There are two types & this is my understanding:

Long exposure noise reduction (LENR): A second exposure is taken after the first, this potentially captures the worst noise and subtracts it from the first. However if you are taking a series of images, turn this off to avoid excessive sensor heating.

High ISO noise reduction: This type of noise reduction just softens your image, this is best corrected in post processing.

Any comments welcome

Iceland

Land of fire and ice. Just one visit confirms it.
Vast waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, lava flows, geysers and hot sulphurous steam emitting from the ground. The air and light being almost pollution free is amazing, making it perfect for photography but it can be wild and changeable too.
Iceland gets over 90% of its electricity from thermal sources and at one point just about everywhere we looked there were clouds of vapour emitting from deep below. The earths crust is thin and fragile here, much of south west Iceland is newly formed.

All images best viewed if enlarged – click twice.

The blue lagoon was our first stop and although it was blowing a gale at 3 degrees, the water heated naturally to 38C was wonderful.

iphone 6s

Just before sunrise from our hotel

The white river which is actually green and 60 metres deep, lined with huge lumps of lava it had a dark and moody feeling, no swimming here!


Waterfalls:

Skogafoss

Seljalandsfoss

Gullfoss

Gullfoss


Hundreds of fish wait to swim upstream to spawn

We visited the Geyser park with the active Strokkur Geyser. This is the worlds largest naturally functioning geyser erupting every 7 minutes.

Just before it blows a huge bubble of water rises:

I took some sequence shots as the geyser erupted which are here.

Glaciers
This glacier: Mýrdalsjökull is 600 metres deep, with the volcano Katla underneath, it was 100 years to the day we visited since it erupted!

The blue face to the right or last shot to the left is where some has recently broken off – about the size of a house.

The Black beach
All Icelands beaches have black sand, this one is notorious because of its huge waves, the two basalt columns and wild wind make for dramatic shots.

Lake Laugarvatn
The people on the right 2nd shot give some idea of the scale of the lake, it was just after mid-day and the sun was already quite low.


Reflections

The Aurora

Firstly, my sincere thanks to our expert Astronomer:
Mr Andrew R Green BSc (Hons) FRAS, FBIS for his excellent presentation on the Aurora and extensive knowledge. His website is here

How I photographed the Aurora:

I used:

A Nikon D750 which is an Fx DSLR, a Dx is fine so long as it has MUP – mirror lock up
A Manfrotto C/F tripod
A 488 ball head – I modded mine to Swiss Arca clamps
A 20mm wide angle lens – the wider the better to get enough sky and a wide aperture to let in plenty of light
A remote trigger – Nikons ML-L3 was also useful

Camera set-up:
Turn off in camera noise reduction & high ISO noise reduction
Set a low f stop on your lens to let in most light
Switch to manual focus & focus to infinity
If your lens has vibration reduction switch it off – as always when using with a tripod
I started at ISO 1600 but 3200 or more may be neccessary
Exposure start at 10 seconds and adjust but more than 25 seconds gives star trails.
Switch to MUP
In menu settings, select the remote (if available), on most Nikons it’s:
Photo shooting menu, Remote Control Mode (ML3), 2s delayed remote (the shutter will fire after 2 seconds)
It’s difficult to operate a camera in the dark so practise or use the U1 / U2 settings to pre-load most of the settings.
Check your camera mount plate is secure and tripod solidly located

Note:
Try and choose a spot with minimal light pollution
When cold don’t change your lens outside! removing your lens risks internal condensation

Courtesy: Make sure flash is off, be aware night vision takes a while and people are easily blinded.

Unfortunately the tripod was mounted on wooden decking which may have been responsible for the slight blurring of stars but here are my shots, all look better enlarged 1 or 2 clicks.

Ile de Re

Some pictures of the salt marshes at the northern end of the Ile de Re one morning. Images taken with D750 & 24-70mm lens, double click to enlarge.

The area is quite flat with many small canals for drainage and salt pans some of which remain productive.

A dis-used salt lake, with the church at Le Gillieux in the back ground.

Snails cling to a post.

The area is a haven for wild birds D750 with 70-200mm lens.

Some salt pans remain in use and produce sought after Ile de Re salt.

Vente Direct, one of several salt producteurs.

Snail encrusted teazels.

Old winding gear on a sluice gate.

The 2018 Tour de France

Some 7 years on and Le Tour returns to the Vendee with the Grand Depart from Noirmoutier so we were waiting at Sainte Radegonde des Noyers some 47.5 Kms from the finish armed with the D750 & the excellent Tamron 70-200 f2.8 lens along with D7100 with 70-300 to avoid lens swapping.
All pics click to enlarge for better quality.

Here we go, first the parade led by the Gendarmerie






Three breakaway riders lead the field


Closely followed by the peloton


Some of team Sky line up

Hundreds follow

Finally more support vehicles