Large Format Diaries #16
Setting up the Arca Cube; large-format equipment and tools
After much debate, I have come up with the following setup and solution for using my Arca Cube with my Linhof Technikardan. I’m also pondering the possibility of buying into the Intrepid brand with one of their new 10x8s, for shooting exclusively with black and white, which I might be brave enough to attempt to home-develop. Not sure about this yet…
Anyway, two things are important to me with the Cube: first, ease of setup; second, care – I don’t want to bash up the head, since it relies for its functionality on the condition of its parts, and its angular shape seemingly makes it quite easy to damage.
For the record, I’ve now owned my Gitzo 3540LS for ten years, with a variety of tripod heads (Manfrotto 393 and Wimberley mark 2 for birding; Manfrotto 410 for macro; Induro BHL3 for landscapes). In that time, I’ve reversed my car onto the Manfrotto head once (!), and dropped the Gitzo and Induro from the boot of my car onto tarmac once (!). In both cases, the heads suffered minor cosmetic damage, but I wouldn’t want this to happen with the Cube even once.
My Gitzo is still going strong, surviving these encounters and also being used in seawater on several occasions (though I do try afterwards to wash off with fresh water and remove any sand in the legs), so I don’t really feel that I want to refresh it quite yet. That being said, since it’s the older model, it doesn’t have the updated safety/useability features of the later versions (the thumb-screw plate-locking crank and the quick release button). This makes removing the top plate much more old-school, using the supplied lightweight (but not terribly good quality, it must be said) spanner to unscrew the locking bolt by hand.
What this means is that I can’t use the Arca head in the way that Ben Horne has recently recommended on his YouTube channel – he advocates simply unlocking the top plate and storing the cube with the plate attached in his bag. On the one hand, this seems like a good solution. On the other, I see a slight issue in that this means that, unless you have a spare top plate, you end up walking in to your location with the top of the Gitzo fully exposed without a plate installed. Any fall or mishap and resultant damage to the top of the tripod would mean that the plate would risk not fitting back in. Easiest solution would be to carry a spare top plate with the latest tripods.
Since I don’t have the latest tripod, and aren’t yet willing to shell out another £700, I plan to use the Cube slightly differently. Initially I had thought that maybe I’d use it on a quick release clamp bolted to the tripod top plate – I have a spare Wimberley C12 that will do the job. This is still possible, but perhaps not the best solution.
Having played around a bit, I decided that I’d use the Cube on a Gitzo levelling base. This way, I get even more freedom of movement with setting up a composition, especially as I have a tendency to angle the camera downwards quite a bit when I’m shooting intimate subjects. The question then is how to look after the setup and how to mount/dismount the head from the tripod when not in use to avoid damage.
What I plan to do is to store the Cube attached to the levelling base (simply screwed and clamped into position), in a neoprene lens bag – the combination together is about the width and length of a Sigg 1 litre water bottle. When on location and setting up a shot, all I have to do is unscrew the bottom of the levelling base, insert it in the video bowl that now replaces the tripod top plate, and screw it back up. When walking in the field on location, I can use the lens pouch to keep the combination covered up and protected.
What I want to avoid this way is walking around with the tripod and head attached to the side of my backpack. I did this recently in Derbyshire with the 410 attached, and it was rather precarious – rather side/top-heavy. I should be able to store the Cube/levelling base combo in the water-bottle pouch [correction: just slightly too fat to fit; will use ThinkTank Skin ChimpCage pouch instead] on the other side of the bag, along with my other Lowepro lens bag (where I keep my Nikkor 210 and 75 with lensboards and Lee filter adapters attached, or else my Fujinon 400 on its own). This way things will be a bit more balanced for the time being.
A while back I did a really positive write-up of my Lowepro Whistler 450AW backpack. It is and remains probably the best current photo backpack you can buy – and I’ve investigated quite a few of them! On the other hand, and for 8×10 in particular, it’s a) not quite big enough (!) – even for 5×4 I can only keep 6 film-holders in the lid pocket, and I now have 8; b) not quite as well designed in the harness area as the absolute top-of-the-range dedicated trekking backpacks.
If I move up to 8×10 for B&W, I would want to investigate those. Ben Horne uses a US-brand Gregory trekking backpack with a Vanguard 46 insert set, and this seems about right; in Europe we have the advantage of top-end Scandinavian gear, including Fjällräven’s Kajka backpack, which features front-opening zips perfect for accessing photography gear, seems about perfect, though not sure yet which size might suit. [Update: having cheked out the Kajka backpacks, the advertised dimensions for width are about 2 inches over-optimistic for the main compartment, so they will not fit the Vanguard insert – not even the 100L largest size – still looking for a solution; perhaps something by Osprey or LoweAlpine will provide a solution!] Suppose it depends how much backpacking will be done; I currently can car-camp with my Hilleberg Tarra tent, but can’t put that in a backpack since it’s pretty heavy. In autumn/winter in Scotland, a serious tent is required for wild camping; a smaller one-man variety might do the trick, but it depends on whether I can actually carry all the gear at once. Hilleberg Akto looks about perfect, though.
Current gear (not including dark cloth, notebook and pen, other dds, tools bag, Swiss Army penknife):
And here’s my unrationalised bag of tools – various allen keys, QR screws, filter screws, screwdrivers, spare battery for lightmeter, lens wrench, blower brush, lens wipes, etc., all kept in a makeup bag free with a women’s fashion magazine.
Other useful stuff that I carry in the backpack not shown here includes: small first-aid kit, compass, approx. 10 feet of paracord; approx. 2 feet of black duct tape, to be wrapped around a screwdriver; bungee chord for dealing with tree branches etc.; sheaf of small bookmark post-it notes for sticking to grads to properly visualize the transitions; extra large exped dry bag for covering camera in rain; large draw-string binliner with bottom cut off, for use as a rain cover for camera when shooting in wet conditions (use draw-string end to attach to lens-end, just like an Optech lens sleeve) – so far used only once, but worked well; merino buff, to wear like a ski-mask, to attempt to cut down condensation on ground glass when using loupe in cold weather; blank CDs for using tripod on sand.