By Ellis Vener
The Arca-Swiss d4m tripod head is one of the more beautiful photographic instruments I’ve seen as well as being a pleasure to work with—the movements are smooth and there is virtually no head creep even with heavy off-balance loads.
Starting at the top, the head mount: You can order the d4m with a variety of mounting systems—a standard 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch screw, or several variations on the open-ended channel quick-release system Arca-Swiss pioneered back in the 1980s. The clamp that came with the d4m I was sent to evaluate is a dual-level model that tightens with a knob, which I recommend over the Arca-Swiss lever-locking design that is also available.
While Arca-Swiss’ original QR design is now the most widely copied quick-release design available, the problem is that not all brands that make "Arca-Swiss standard" quick-release components strictly adhere to Arca-Swiss’ specifications: some plates are a hair wider, some slightly narrower, and some use a different bevel angle. In my tests, the wider upper channel worked securely on every brand I tried with it: Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Novoflex, Acratech, Induro/Benro, Foba, Sunway Foto, Graf and Markins plates, brackets and rails all were secured with no slipping or binding.
The lower level in this clamp is narrower and works with Arca-Swiss’ new lighter Slidefix plates. I like the way the Slidefix system works, especially with smaller cameras and for keeping weight and bulk down when hiking long distances. The d4m camera platform also features two half-inch long bar type levels that are easy to read at eye level. One is on the back and one is on the left side of the round platform.
The next thing that Arca-Swiss got right in the d4m is having a panning mechanism built into the head mount. The base mount of the head also pans, but having this upper-level panning mechanism is a real plus even if you never shoot stitched panoramas. There are lots of reasons we see this as a plus.
One of the flaws of standard double tilt head designs is that unless you mount the camera at a 90-degree angle to the direction the head thinks you should mount it in, once you tip the top of the head on its side to shoot verticals you cannot adjust the pitch (fore/aft) angle of the camera. Having a panning camera platform lets you do that easily. It also lets you point the camera at angles only ball heads could previously reach. Once you have set the tilt angles to your liking—level or not—you can then pan the camera in the same plane you have set; unless the top and the base of the head are perfectly parallel that won’t happen. In short whether you shoot stills of people, architecture, and products or shoot video, having panning joints at the top and bottom of a tripod head saves you time, money and frustration.
The tilt mechanisms are the real muscle of a pan-and-tilt head. They need to do several things: securely hold the mass of the camera and lens, even when that mass is nowhere near being centered. The movements and locking mechanisms need to be smooth when unlocked and rock solid rigid when locked down. It should not take a lot of strength to lock or unlock the movements. The d4m design meets these criteria while keeping size and weight down. The lateral (roll) axis is centered in the fore/aft (pitch) mechanism, which is supported on both ends by a U-shaped cradle. This design limits the roll angle to a 40-degree arc (20 degrees to the left and the same to the right), while the pitch angle covers 90 degrees fore and 40 degrees aft.
The limitation to the lateral tilt movement would be a problem when shooting with a vertically oriented camera if not for the panning camera platform, but even with it, a better solution is to use an L-shaped quick-release bracket on your camera. Though Really Right Stuff, Kirk Enterprises and a few other companies make L brackets for specific camera models, I now mainly use Arca-Swiss’ adjustable and universal-body-fit L bracket. A base plate attaches to the bottom of the camera while the welded rods that form the L are detachable and interchangable. This design also makes it possible to adjust for different camera sizes.
In place of the long, cumbersome, and awkwardly protruding handles most pan and tilt heads use to set and lock tilt angles with, the d4m has teardrop shaped knobs that are close to the head. Unlike most standard heads, rather than squeezing together two pieces of metal to lock the head into place, the d4m internally uses the mechanical advantage of an eccentric shaped cam pressing against a shaft. This requires less strength on the part of the photographer and discourages over-tightening.
By intelligently using a few mechanical engineering principles and high quality materials, the Arca-Swiss engineering and design team have managed to design a very strong tripod head that is compact, light, easy to use, and physically beautiful. The sum of their accomplishment is that they have taken much of the user unfriendliness out of using a tripod. You can find cheaper heads of course, but since a tripod head should be one of those things you use for decades it is worth investing in a good one like the d4m or the more expensive geared-tilt version, the d4.
Arca-Swiss D4M tripod head, Product code 870204
Height: 4 inches (without quick release clamp) to 4.75 inches (including dual level quick release clamp)
Maximum width: 3.3 inches Weight: 1.48 to 1.6 pounds (depending on camera mounting options)
Maximum load capacity: not specified but easily holds an off centered load of 8.5 pounds of camera, lens and panoramic mounting gear.