January 23rd, 2021
Eight months ago, I traded in my Acratech Nomad Ball Head for the Arca-Swiss D4. Geared tripod heads were always a curiosity considering the kind of precise functionality that they offer but as a niche product in photography gear, there aren’t many to choose from. This lack of choice helps narrow down your scope of decisions but if you don’t like any of the current range of affordable options, you’re left with exploring the premium priced options. In other words, there is very little middle ground. The Arca-Swiss D4 is an attractive option for two reasons. First, the D4’s form factor is considerably smaller than any of the other available alternatives (e.g., Benro, Manfrotto). Second, the D4 offers flexibility in movement. You can opt to use the gear driven movements, open movements, or a combination of both. The distinct disadvantage is the price. Do the advantages outweigh the giant dollar signed disadvantage? Let’s start with an overview.
If you are not familiar with geared tripod heads, the purpose of them is to offer directional movements through the use of geared action. In the case of the D4, there are two axes that are gear driven, left and right (x) and up and down (y). Movements are extremely precise and also stable. In other words, there is no need to lock in a position once it's been set (as you would with the tension knob on a ball head, for example). The gears are naturally locking. On paper this distinction may not matter but it’s in practice where the differences become apparent.
With the D4, these geared movements are satisfying. The knobs that control the x and y axis are robust and precise and allow for extremely small adjustments. If you require a greater range of motion, there are two quickset tension knobs for both axes that can be unlocked for open movements. However, you can choose to use the gear driven movements exclusively. I find this to be a great combination of functionality. The system is intuitive and quickly becomes second nature when making adjustments.
When using only the gear driven movements, my camera and lens are stable. I have three lenses: the Fujifilm 16-55, Fujifilm 55-200, and Fujifilm 100-400. I have yet to experience sag in any direction with any of these lenses, even at the maximum range of motion. The clamp is extremely well built. The D4 can be purchased with either a flip-lock clamp or a screw knob clamp. I purchased the screw knob clamp, and it has been great. Once my L-bracket has been slid into the dovetail quick release and tightened there is zero movement. Speaking of the dovetail quick release, it is, like the rest of the D4, precisely machined. To me it was noticeably better than any of the other Arca-Swiss style clamps that I have from other manufacturers. For those that might be unaware, Arca Swiss is the company responsible for this dovetail design that is known as Arca Swiss style or Arca Swiss type. The dovetail has a core set of dimensions that other companies have followed since Arca Swiss introduced the design in the 1990s. It stands to reason that the dovetail designed by Arca Swiss would also be manufactured to a high degree of precision by Arca Swiss. The fit between my L-bracket and the clamp is perfect.
I wish I could convey how well this all works out in the field, but you will have to take my word for it. It’s great. I feel it’s one of things where you don’t realize how much you appreciate precise movements when composing an image until you have a product that is built to do exactly that. You don’t have to fiddle with unlocking and locking the head to make adjustments as you would with a ball head. The geared movements allow you precise control, and it’s incredibly satisfying. In short, the D4 is fantastic. There are, however, a few things to consider before you decide to make the investment.
First, the D4 is only geared in the x and y positions. There is a small locking lever at the base of the D4 that controls panning. In practice, I have found this to work fine. The panning action is, like the rest of the D4, smooth and precise. However, it would have been nice to have the panning movement geared as well. Although, given the relatively compact form factor of the D4, it's possible that geared panning just isn't possible.
One advantage that I find ball heads have over the D4 are rapid movements. Depending on your scenario, you may need to quickly setup your camera and tripod or quickly change your composition. The D4, while allowing for open movements, isn’t as quick to operate. I find that the D4 is meant for more methodical approaches; it’s perfect for landscape photography. I would not recommend the D4 for action photography. I’ll revisit this in more detail shortly.
While the D4 is compact considering the functionality that it offers, it is not exactly light. According to my scale, it weighs 2.14 pounds (971 grams). If your goal is to keep your kit as light as possible, this is something to keep in mind. Especially when considering the weight of your current tripod. To give you some frame of reference, the D4 with my Gitzo GT553S weighs around 7.5 pounds. For me this weight is fine, but I can certainly understand how this may be too much for others.
Is the D4 durable? After a solid eight months of use I feel that it is, but then again reliability can be relative. The D4 has been reliable with what I have put it through. This includes rain, heat, snow and freezing temperatures and it has worked flawlessly. Based on my narrow use cases, and the D4’s robust build quality, there isn’t any reason for me to believe that the D4 wouldn’t be able to handle other inclement situations equally well.
So, is the D4 worth it? To help answer that question, let me loop back to what I said previously about who I think the D4 is for. If you find yourself occasionally shooting action photography the D4 is not for you. Ball heads, or gimbals, would be a far better option as the controls are suited for tracking subjects and making rapid on-the-fly adjustments. While the D4 does allow for open movements, it’s simply not the same. Where I feel the D4 excels is photography where your subject is largely stationary. Think landscape photography, macro photography, or architectural photography, for example. If your style of photography falls within any of these categories, then the D4 is worth your consideration. Also, if you bring a perfectionist like approach to framing your compositions then the D4 will certainly satisfy those needs. The level of control that the D4 offers is something that I appreciate every time I’m in the field. I’m confident that if you approach your compositions in a similar manner then you would likely appreciate it as well.
In my opinion, Arca Swiss spared no expense in manufacturing the D4. The functionality and features that Arca Swiss choose to include certainly reflects the premium price. If you’ve considered the D4 but questioned the high price, I can say with confidence that the high price is justified. Whether the D4 is right for you is a decision you’ll have to carefully weigh yourself. If you have identified with any of the advantages that the D4 offers, then it will likely be a good investment. On one hand it's a shame that the D4 costs what it does because I think it is largely overlooked because of the price. On the other, the price offers you something unique that can’t be easily had in other products to this degree. If you feel that you can responsibly afford it, I highly recommend the D4.