Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Markins M10 Professional Tripod Ballhead Review

A ball head is a ball head -- right? I used to think so! I've always had the attitude that it really doesn't matter what ball head you use, since all it does is clamp the camera in the position you want. I figured any ball head that was big enough to handle the weight was good and all that really matters is the price. 
Well, I come before you today with a different attitude. As the old song says, “I've seen the light!” Until I actually used a pro-level ball head I simply didn't know what I was missing. I'm just glad I never wrote any articles about less-than-professional ball heads because I'd have to take them back.
Let me tell you how I came to this conclusion. Back in 2006 I was enjoying a nice photographic day in the Great Smoky Mountains. A couple of Nikonians and I were running around the Smokies bringing home lots of great early summer images. I stopped at a nice overlook on the Foothills Parkway West and got a few shots. I realized that the heavy workload of taking images had made me hungry so we stopped to consume a few sandwiches. I leaned my Bogen® 3021B Pro tripod with its massive 488RC2 ball head up against the back of my Jeep while we ate. That's the last I ever saw of it! 
Somehow, when we got in the Jeep and headed down the road, my tripod was no longer with me. Whether it was stolen or simply left behind, I cannot tell. We drove to a different part of the Smokies before I got out to take another shot and discovered that my dear tripod was gone. Back we went in search of it, but, no joy. I had no tripod, in the middle of the day, in the most beautiful spot on earth. 
Somehow I got through the day, and on the way back home I stopped at the local super-store and bought for myself a deluxe, crank-the-handle-for-maximum-height, $29.00 USD genuine plastic and metal tripod. I was set for the next trip!
That evening, I was sitting at home feeling particularly sorry for myself for losing my $250.00 USD tripod and ball head. I was Skyping with a certain famous SeƱior Palacios of Nikonians.org about my tragedy and he was very sympathetic. In fact, he told me he was going to send me a nice Markins M10 Ball head to test, and that we could make arrangements later about purchase if I liked it. Since I was currently almost tripod-less (still had the plastic and metal crank unit), I agreed that it was probably a good idea. A few days later the UPS man drove into my driveway with a box from a certain Nikonians Pro Shop. Within a short period of time, my photographic life changed. 
I opened that small box expecting “just another ball head” only to find that I had never truly ever seen a real ball head before. Every ball head I had used before that moment paled into insignificance. I had never spent over $100 USD for a ball head and had no idea what a few more dollars would bring to my photographic life. The first thing I noticed was the highly refined finish on the ball head. “This Markins M10 is clearly made to last,” I thought. Looking it over, I saw a thing or two that I had never seen before, and other things that were simply better than anything I had ever seen before. 
I am now going to attempt to express my enthusiasm for this Markins M-Series Q-Ball head. I'll discuss the various features I found important and tell you how I used the head during Nikonians ANPAT 2006 to bring home some of the best images of my life. 
I'll use a Markins M10 ball head as a reference point in this article, but remember that the Markins M20 is also available for a few extra dollars. It does everything the M10 does, plus allows monster telephoto lenses.

Look, Feel, Weight, and Support 

The Markins M10 is a smaller ball head than you would expect. It is no weakling however. In fact, for its size it supports more weight than many other heads in its class. The smaller size means that your very light carbon-fiber tripod will not feel top heavy like with some of the other big fat heads that support less weight. 

The Markins has a unique patented “bi-axial locking mechanism” that allows it to be smaller and lighter, yet support more weight. In fact, the weight to load ratio is 80:1, which means the Markins will support eighty times more weight than it itself weighs.
The M10/20 uses the industry standard Arca Swiss style dove-tail plates, so you'll never have problems finding extra plates for them. I bought four Markins plates for my M10; one for the D2X, D200, D300S and my larger Nikkor 80-400mm lens. 
You'll want to get a plate for each camera body and any lenses with collars, since they're designed to attach semi-permanently. 
Other tripod heads I've used in the past were simply too tall. Some of the squeeze type heads can be so tall that you can't fully extend the legs of the tripod and still look through the camera viewfinder. The Markins M10 is not overly tall at 3.9 inches (98mm). I am slightly less than six feet tall (1.83 meters), and I can comfortably extend my tripod to full height and still see through the camera viewfinder. 
Some low cost ball heads have an oily or greasy substance smeared on the ball, and since your hands are always touching the area you will invariably get the grease on your hands. This substance always seems to attract dust too. 
Fortunately, the Markins ball heads do not have any oil or grease on the ball. The Markins is designed to be used in a wide range of weather conditions and will not attract a lot of dust to the ball area. It is basically a “maintenance free” head. You'll be able to use it for years without worrying about oiling the thing. Just clean it every once in a while with a dry rag, and you are ready to go.

Why the Markins Ball Head Tension System?

Of all the features found on the Markins Q-Ball heads, the tensioning system alone makes the heads well worth their cost. It is vastly superior to any other ball head I've ever used and makes the use of the head much more flexible and fast. 
On my previous ball heads, I would use my left hand to control the tension knob while using my right hand to position the camera at the best angle for the image. When I was done with one picture, I'd loosen the tension knob and hold on to my camera carefully until I had it positioned for the next image, then retighten the tension knob. For obvious reasons, I had to be very careful not to let go of the camera at any time the tension knob was loose. 
I was perfectly happy with that process, since it was simple and fast enough. However, once I used the Markins tensioning system, I was a changed man. 
I discovered a principle that I later discovered was called the “sweet spot.” What is a sweet spot, you ask? Well, let me rave a little about it!
With the Markins, instead of moving my camera with one hand, clamping with the other, and hoping I didn't forget to hang on to the camera while the tension is loose, all I had to do was tighten the ball head until the tension allowed me to move the camera at will and then go shoot. 
In other words, I found I could set the ball head tension so that it kept my camera from moving, but I could then just reach up and move the camera to a new position without touching the tension knob. What a concept!

The “sweet spot” is the place where the tension on the ball clamp exactly equals the mass of the camera so that it does not move. Without touching the tension knob I could use one hand to move the camera to any position I'd like. 
No more was I a slave to the tension knob. No longer did I have to worry about my camera flopping over forward because I had not set the tension correctly. I simply put my camera on the ball head, set the tension so that it would still move without flopping, and then go shoot pictures. I would not have to touch that tension knob again unless I put a much heavier lens on the camera and needed to adjust for the extra weight. 
To me this was a revelation. I had tried tripod heads of all sorts for years and never really been happy with any of them. I've had heads with so many positioning knobs that I'd have trouble remembering what they all did. I've used heads with all sorts of squeeze-and-position ideas too. None of them ever satisfied that inner desire for a simple head that was easy to use but very flexible. 
I almost found tripod head happiness with a standard ball head, but was aggravated with how the camera flopped around so easily if I did not get the tension just right on the ball clamp. It only took me a few minutes with the Markins M10 to realize that I had honestly found what I had been looking for in tripod heads. To me it is the ultimate ball head!

How Does the Tension System Work or, How Do I Find the Sweet Spot?
It is a very simple system requiring only a thumb. Huh? That's right, you do need to have at least one thumb to use a Markins M series ball head. Well, If you have no thumbs, you could simply use a fingernail to set a special “ friction limit control dial ” (tension lock) on the side of the “ progressive friction control knob ” (main tension knob).
After you select your camera and lens combo for your shooting session, you'll mount the camera on the ball head. Then, just like with a cheaper ball head, you'll then hold your camera with one hand, and tighten the tension knob with the other.
The only difference is that you do not set the tension knob so tightly that the camera cannot move. You only tighten it up enough so that the camera does not flop over in any direction. Then you turn the little tension lock with your fingernail or thumb clockwise until it stops. (see Figure 1) At this point, your camera will move to any position the ball head allows, without creeping or flopping around. 
When you are done with a shot, you don't have to do anything except move the camera to a new position for the next spot. You've got the sweet spot set for that camera lens combo. That's all there is to it! 
One nice thing about the tension lock that also takes away a measure of aggravation is that, once you have it set, you cannot loosen the ball head enough to make the camera flop over. You can loosen it enough to let it creep under its own weight, but not flop with catastrophic results. This is a marvelous protection for your expensive camera and lens and takes away the most difficult part of using a ball head. No more too loose settings. 
Later, if you decide to use a bigger camera body, or a much heavier lens, you'll need to readjust the tension ball and lock. First you'll use your thumb or nail to release the lock in a counterclockwise direction. Then you'll reset the tension on the main knob to match the weight of the new camera lens combo, and then you'll turn the tension knob lock back clockwise until it stops. Another sweet spot located! 
This is a really simple system of adjustments. It takes all of two minutes to learn how to use. I cannot begin to tell you how much time it saves, and how much faster you can use your camera with this Markins Q-Ball head.

Which Markins® Q-Ball head Should I Consider Buying?

I use a Markins M10 ball head myself, because my biggest lens currently is the AF Nikkor 80-400mm VR. (see picture on right) If you have a larger camera, like the D2/D3, and use a big lens like the 300mm f/2.8 or larger Nikkor, you might want to consider the Markins M20 instead.
It is not so much a matter of weight, since the M10 will support up to 88 pounds (40 kg) and I don't think many of us have a camera or lens that weighs that much. The problem is that the tension required for a very heavy camera lens combo makes it harder to find a smooth sweet spot that does not allow creeping. The heavier weight of the large lenses causes such a tight tension to be set to prevent movement, that it is hard to move the camera as smoothly without loosening the knob. 
From my experience with the D2X camera and the medium sized 80-400mm Nikkor, the M10 works just fine. If you are using anything smaller than a D2X, like a D300S, D7000, D90 or comparable camera, and normal lenses, you will not need anything bigger than the M10. The only time I'd consider the M20 is if you have a D2/D3 camera and a really big fast telephoto lens. Or, you might just like to own the M20 in case you ever buy a big lens and camera in the future. That is a consideration because I can't imagine wearing out one of the Markins ball heads in a lifetime or two of use.

Camera and Lens Plates

Another feature of the Markins system that I really appreciate is the design of the camera and lens attachment plates. 

Since the Markins heads have the sweet spot feature, you'll find yourself moving the camera around a lot. There is a little bit of torque involved in moving the camera so the plates are designed to wrap around the body to prevent unscrewing themselves when you move the camera. 
How often in the past have you moved your camera on another type of tripod head and had the blasted plate turn on the bottom of the camera? Then you have to remove the camera from the tripod and over-tighten the plate to keep it from coming loose again. This is not good for your camera since all that extra tension of over-tightening the mounting plate is pulling against the threads in the camera's bottom side. It is only a matter of time until something breaks. 
The Markins plates solve that problem by extending the plate with a lip or flange around the bottom of the camera in at least one, and often two directions, so that they are securely fastened and will not rotate loose when moving the camera. 
Using the other ball heads, I have often left my plate on the bottom of the camera, but it was an aggravation because they were thick and caused the camera to not sit on its bottom very well. That can't be avoided completely, but the Markins plates are much nicer in that respect. They are very thin plates and fasten to the bottom of your camera or lens with an Allen head screw. They are very attractive looking and blend in well with the camera body. If anything, they add to the coolness of the camera with their distinctive look. 
Everything about the Markins ball head system speaks quality! When someone sees this ball head and camera plates, along with your Nikon and Nikkors, they'll know without a doubt that you are a serious photographer.

Panorama System

Many of us like to experiment with panorama imaging. The Markins ball heads have a very smooth panorama control on the bottom of the tripod.
There is a small lock knob for the pano system just below and to the right of the main ball head tension knob. When you loosen the knob, the entire head will turn in a full circle. I don't know how they accomplished it, but it has a very smooth, almost fluid-like feel to it. It is not dampened like with a fluid head, but is super smooth in the way it turns. 
The pano system is marked in degrees so that you can accurately make a turn to a particular degree mark. You might start at 0 degrees, and then turn to 30 degrees, then to 60 degrees, then to 90. At each point you can take a picture that overlaps the last and next one, so that you can use computer software to connect or “stitch” the images together into one long panorama image.
You could get really technical about it and learn how to find the nodal point of your lens and then use a sliding plate that allows moving the center of rotation directly under the nodal point. Then you can make undistorted rotations. Or, you could just put your camera on the Markins, loosen the pano lock knob, and take a series of overlapping pictures without worrying about the technical aspect. 

Either way, with the Markins panorama features, you can get the images you want. You can just have some fun or get really serious about panoramas. The important thing is, you'll need a head with pano features to even attempt panoramas. The Markins Q-Ball design does the job exceedingly well.

My Conclusions

During the ANPAT 2006 I used the Markins M10 for seven days of exciting shooting action. In fact, of the 25 Nikonians on the ANPAT, 20 of them were using Markins heads. I find that to be a telling number. Why do so many Nikonians use Markins ball heads? 

I can only speak for myself and I'll tell you what I think. One very cold morning on top of the Smoky Mountains at Newfound Gap, we were shooting a sunrise. It was about 6:45 AM, very dark, and 17 degrees F with the wind blowing small icy particles. Needless to say all the Nikonians surrounding me were at least double their normal size from the layers of clothing. I had on a pair of gloves that would have made it very difficult to use any tripod head. However, with the Markins, I was set to go. 

Before I headed up the mountain, while still in the warmth of the motel room, I set my tripod up with the camera and lens I was going to use. I put the D2X and 80-400mm lens on the Markins, set the sweet spot, then removed the camera and packed everything up. When I arrived at the top of the cold dark mountain, I simply unpacked my tripod and camera, attached it to the Markins, and I was ready to go. I could simply reach out and move the camera to whatever position I needed to get the shot. I didn't have to touch the tension knob. I just grabbed the camera and moved it. Even in extreme cold the Markins performed like the professional ball head it is. I got the shots I wanted!
Later I took the Markins over to the Tremont area and returned that evening with some of the best shots I have personally ever taken. It might have had something to do with the fact that I was surrounded by world-class Nikonian photographers that I could imitate, but I came away from that ANPAT with images that make me very happy. The Markins was part of an overall photographic system that performed flawlessly in all of the conditions I found myself in. 
Does it take a Markins to get images like this one? Maybe not, but, it sure helps when you don't have to think about fiddling around with your tripod ball head. When you can just set it for the lens you are using and then shoot, it makes images like this one come easier than ever. 
Do I like my Markins? Yes! Could I ever go back to a cheap ball head? No way! I use Nikon cameras, Nikkor and Sigma EX Pro lenses, and now Markins ball heads. What's in your bag? If you don't have a Markins, ask yourself, “Why not?” They're not overly expensive. You use professional camera equipment, why not a professional ball head.
The Markins® M10 certainly changed my mind on why I need a pro-level head. Get one to try out and see if it you don't see the light in new ways too! 

Keep on capturing time…
Darrell Young 

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