Macro focusing rails - a comparison of different market options

Discussion in 'Photography Equipment & Products' started by Overread, Sep 15, 2009.

  1. Overread
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    Overread has a hat around here somewhere Staff Member

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    Well if you use a tripod when shooting macro chances are you are also using (or are thinking on using) a focusing rail with the setup. A simple rail which lets you slide the camera back and forth whilst on the tripod to let you get the focus just where you want it without having to adjust your magnification (focus) nor having to shift your tripod legs backwards and forwards in tiny motions (something very hard to do when they are in grass).

    There are a few options on the market for these rails - from the very expensive to the very cheap.

    Manfrotto:
    http://www.manfrotto.com/Jahia/site/manfrotto/pid/3226

    Ebay *note this is a common item traded on ebay and there are many sellers of this product - search "macro focusing rail" for other retailers. Note there are also kits sold with a set of bellows if you want to experiment*
    http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/4-way-Macro-S...ries?hash=item41487c7ed3&_trksid=p3286.c0.m14

    Ebay - Velbon 4Way macro focus slider (again example trader here)
    http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/Velbon-4Way-M...orts?hash=item563528f2f2&_trksid=p3286.c0.m14



    Novoflex
    http://www.novoflex.com/en/products/macro-accessories/focusing-racks/castel/
    http://www.novoflex.com/en/products/macro-accessories/focusing-racks/castel-cross/

    Quite a shift in price there from the very cheap Ebay through to the reasonable Manfrotto and then into the very high Novoflex gear.

    The Manfrotto focusing rail --
    This is a sold and well built rail and is based around a wormscrew design, which differs from the other focusing rails on the market. The metals are smooth and well cast, with no sharp edges nor imperfections. Further the overall design of the rail is very low profile, ideal when you want to get as low as you possibly can with your tripod setup. The rail can also take a considerable weight at an angle and offer up no slippage at all along its length (unless of course you lift the pressure release - at which point it will slide, but this is not easily done so accidents are rare)
    The rubber grips of the rail which attach to the camera are decent, but if one is not careful setups can be prone to rotate round the screw and slip off. This is more of a worry with heavier setups, but not something you want to ever happen.

    Basic operation of the rail is to reduce the pressure on the screw thread via the gold pressure screw and then turn the knobs (at either end of the rail) to move the main body up and down the plate.
    This rail also offers a quick slide option, where the pressure on the screw thread is released, allowing the rail to be slid in its housing forward and backwards for quick adjustments to the focus - this is a very good feature when you have just setup the camera since it lets you quickly find the area of the rail that you need to be working in to get the focus on the subject.


    However there are some downsides to the design of the rail - firstly there is a noticeable wobble with the rail when the pressure screw is applied and released fully from the wormscrew. This is a feature not noticeable until your staring down the lens at macro magnifications and becomes more pronounced as the magnification increases past 1:1. Thus it is best to leave the pressure slightly on the screwthread so that it has a tight hold on the plate, but still allows movement of the plate to acquire focus.
    This wobble is the biggest downside of this plate and can make it very hard to use at the more extreme magnifications, and an annoying pain when working in 1:1 (regular) macro. There is also the chance of there being wobble (from the plate alone) as the plate is moved along the wormscrew - this being caused by slight imperfections in the roundness of the screw as well as the movement of the plate in the mount.
    A second downside for users with a battery grip or a pro end (1D) line body is that the adjustment knobs at the end of the rail where you attach the camera do push out quite far. This makes it impossible to mount a camera with a lens tripod collar to the rail when you have a grip (or larger body) attached. Though some lenses are just long enough to allow it (or with a teleconverter/extension tube in place) it is something which can be a great hindrance when using select macro lenses.

    Overall if you’re only working in 1:1 this is a solid and well built rail and should suffice well. The quick adjust feature can be invaluable when working with living subjects (bugs) in speeding up the setup phase. However if your looking for fine control and moving beyond 1:1 magnification I would not recommend this focusing rail.


    Ebay option

    This is the cheapest rail and this is clearly seen in the construction quality and choice of metals - with the twin set of rails having a similar weight to a single Manfrotto rail. Further there are burrs and some sharp edges to some of the metal castings, not dangerous and something that can be removed with a few moments and a small file, but not ideal.
    However construction and the overall design remain decent, the rails have free, smooth moment within their blocks and also have pressure screws to hold them in place; but I should note that even when the screws are fully in place the rail can still be moved along its axis by the adjustment knob. In practice though these rails can still carry a lot of lens weight at an angle without slippage along their axis, though of course adjustment of the knobs has to be more carefully done when a heavier setup is used at an angle.
    The grips on the rails (to each other and the camera/tripod) are solid and well made, with very little chance of slippage occurring (in fact in my tests it was the Manfrotto quick release plates which where the most likely to fail and cause slippage)

    Overall movement of the rails is the biggest bonus of these rails though, since because of their design there is very little wobble in the housing. Even when the lens setup used is greater than 1:1 magnification the rails themselves translate very little wobble at all when adjusted (wobble from handshake and touching the setup is far more pronounced).

    One downside to the rails is the clear height difference with the Manfrotto design - the rails do hold the camera higher up and the single rail (without the camera mount) whilst having a screwthread suitable for camera mount, it does not have a platform designed to take and hold a camera body or tripod collar (no friction grip so slippage would be very likely). Of course this heightened camera mount does get round the problem of the Manfrotto design rails and you can easily mount a camera using a tripod collar with no problems from a battery grip (tested on 400D + grip)

    Overall these are cheap rails and do show slight imperfections on their construction, but the overall materials and design are very sound. They offer a very good performance for a very cheap price and for 1:1 or greater magnification macro I would strongly recommend these over the Manfrotto model. The added second rail giving you the increased function of sideways movement as well - or your can split the rails into two single direction ones - letting you cut down on your load and weight if you only need the one adjustment direction.


    Ebay - Velbon

    A more compact design for a 4 way focusing rail setup than the other options and thus far easier to pack. I have not tested this make so cannot offer any real world experiences with regard to their use and functionality.


    Novoflex design

    I have not tested this make so cannot offer any real world experiences with regard to their use and functionality.
    These are a far more expensive rails and come in a range of different (though similar design) models - with the overall design similar to that of the ebay rails. Overall these represent about the most expensive option on the market and thus it is expected that build quality and materials will be superior to that of the ebay rails - though I would expect functionality to be very similar (though with the chance that they can take a heavier load at angle without slippage).


    Overall -- overall I would say that the best rails for budget are going to be your Ebay options, the tested rails offering far improved performance over the Manfrotto design. The Velbon 4way rails might prove to be a good choice for a smaller 4way option, though I have no test results to give a good opinion or evaluation of them.
    If your budget is not limited then the Novoflex would be the prime choice for the best build quality, though I would say that (Based on the build quality of the ebay rails) the Novoflex do feel overpriced for what you get.
  2. tirediron
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    tirediron Watch the Birdy! Staff Member

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    Great piece! I have one of the Manfrotto rails that you mention and your comments are pretty much bang-on. Well built, and suitable for general close-up work, and definitely not ideal for high-magnification work.
  3. gryphonslair99
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    gryphonslair99 New Member

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  4. Overread
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    Overread has a hat around here somewhere Staff Member

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    Its listed at $247.95 new on B&H though :(
    I know there is often a difference between shop and online prices -but normally its cheaper online and normaly the price difference is not that much!
  5. gryphonslair99
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    gryphonslair99 New Member

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    I think that the shop either had it in stock for a while or the owner didn't bother checking what he had in it, because when I asked for a price he quoted $35.00. That was my steal for the day. maybe even the month. ;)

    My other steal from there was a twin arm macro flash bracket. It was used and missing one hotshoe which I replaced for a couple of dollars. About a $200 bracket that I got for under $30.00. With a pair of 580's I can do virtually anything I need to do.

    My point was there was no representation of a tubular rail system. I find it quite stable, and very user friendly. The twin rails give me a lot of extension when needed, however I rarely need that much.
  6. andrewcollier
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    andrewcollier New Member

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    How did you get it for $35.00 new? Your link shows a price of $248, and it is considerably more in UK.
  7. Overread
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    Overread has a hat around here somewhere Staff Member

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    psst look one post up from yours for the answer ;)

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