March 5, 2012

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head Review

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head unpacked closeup
The features that basically discriminate a Traveler type Ball head from a standard type ball head are the small size, light weight, knob placement and panning base diameter in order to be easily carried around and to fit unobtrusively between the reverse folding legs of a traveler tripod.

However, beside the above basic requirements, experience and personal preferences had set forth some extra prerequisites for a true Traveler ball head.
a. Maximum weight should not exceed 400gr,
b. Elliptical or ellipsoidal -as more appropriate- ball design,
c. One main locking knob with friction control for simplicity and easy handling,
d. Dual axis progressive locking mechanism, for smoothness of operation,
e. The maximum possible ball diameter for the size of the ball head, with short ball stem for better stability,
f. Arca Swiss® compatible quick release clamp with relief grooves for M3 stop screws.
g. Compatibility with Arca type rails from different manufacturers and last but not least
h. keep the budget at reasonable level without having to spend a fortune.

There are quite many choices between well known manufacturers like RRS, Gitzo, Markins, PhotoClam, Benro to name a few, producing Traveler Ball Heads close or within the above set specs, with prices ranging from USD 100 to more than 400.

After a little research I came up to the ball head that seemed to match all the criteria I had in mind, produced by a relatively new contender in the photographic support equipment market,  who by declaration aims to the high end segment.
SUNWAYFOTO® is a photographic equipment company founded in Shenzhen China in 2008, specializing in camera support systems with a quite large assortment of tripod ball heads, panoramic heads, multipurpose rails, L - plates, etc, with innovative designs and continuous improvements according to photographers' opinion, while maintaining reasonable prices.

Sunwayfoto produces a traveler version of their DB-36 ball head in two variations. The DB-36TR with a screw knob Arca Swiss® compatible quick release clamp and the DB-36TRLR DB-36TRLD with a Duo Knob/Lever Release quick release clamp. DB-36TR prices range from USD 189.00 170.00 to USD 215.00 180.00 according to the clamp. (Updated Oct 2013)

As the one with the Lever Release is more compact, I decided on that and proceeded in ordering one for a hands on test.

The Ball Head

Manufacturer Specification:
Ball Diameter :36 mm
Base Diameter :45 mm
Height:85 mm
Net Weight:380 gr
Max Load:18 kg
Mounting Thread:3/8"-16
Clamp Type:Lever

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head box
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head box with sleeve.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head box sleeve
By opening the well wrapped package, the first impression immediately declares the manufacturer's intentions to target the high end of the market. The "luxury" type, black mat -heavy carton- box has an outer sleeve, both sleeve and box are printed with golden lettering and logos. It reminds more of a gift box for an expensive watch than one for a ball head.
On one side of the box there are two stickers, one printed with barcode and the other shows the model type. Nothing special about that, one would say, but shows a Chinese firm with organized logistics.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Traveler Ball Head unpacked overview
The DB-36TRLR ball head travels in the box within thick foam padding together with ...
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR warranty card
A credit card sized warranty Card stating Model and Serial Number...
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR operating instructions
A fan-fold with Operating Instructions covering all Sunwayfoto ball head models...
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR customer info card
And a rarely met even with non-Chinese products "Customer Information Card" for use together with the Warranty card in case of applying for a warranty claim.
I should point out here, that Sunwayfoto offers a 5 year limited warranty extension, upon registration of certain products in their website within one month from the date of purchase.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR top front
The feeling when holding the ball head is of a very fine example of high quality finishing. The body shell and the quick release clamp are hard coat anodized in a very dark shade of gray with a satin finish. The friction control and panning lock knobs are black with silver rings. The ball head front is occupied by the white laser engravings of company logo, brand name, model name and company web address.
The 42mm quick release clamp fits well the narrow footprint of the total structure, and the minimized panning base is still quite visible due to the white engraved markings.
There is also an 1/4"-20 to 3/8"-16 conversion bushing, which was originally pre-mounted in the bottom hole.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR bottom
The ball head bottom has no visible screws for opening the head, other than the central 3/8"-16  threaded hole for tripod attachment. This can be converted by the included bushing to 1/4"-20 thread.
There are two laser engravings on the bottom, "Made in China" and the ball head serial number.
The verified weight of the DB-36TRLR ball head on electronic scales is 360gr, just a little better than the 380gr stated by the manufacturer.

The ball
According to Sunwayfoto their ballhead balls are ellipsoidal but closer to spherical form than balls made by other manufacturers. At present, on most ellipsoidal ballheads in the market, the Y-axis diameter of the ball is about 0.07mm longer than the X-axis, in order to compensate for the extra torque generated when the ball is tilted to the side, by increasing the friction and thus avoid the risk of drift or drag.
On Sunwayfoto ballheads the ball Y-axis diameter is 0.03mm longer than the X-axis, leading to a smoother operation, while retaining the previous advantage.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR ball detail
The 36 mm ball is very smooth both in appearance and operation. One can sense immediately the ellipsoidal form by moving the ball around by hand, since even with the friction control completely released the ball movement stiffens gradually the more it is tilted off the vertical position.
As all Sunwayfoto ball heads, DB-36TRLR adopts the two drop notch design. One for portrait, one for tilting, on a comparatively thin outer shell, hence the very low weight of the ball head.
However, Sunwayfoto claims that based on many shell-destructive tests, has strengthened the ball head shell and can fully ensure the shell durability.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR drop notches detail
Having two drop notches at 90o angle proves quite convenient and makes photographers' life easier. The ball preset friction can be maintained at all times, without having to loosen the ball, turn the base around -while holding the camera with one hand- so the drop notch comes to the side, go into portrait, set friction, point, shoot and then loosen again, turn... etc etc and go back to original position.
Another, not so obvious characteristic is the ball stem diameter, which is comparatively smaller than other ball heads with 36mm ball. In my opinion this permits the ball to sit deeper into the body shell while still permitting the ball to tilt 45o within the top rim. Further, the ball stem is smaller than the drop notch diameter, which attribute may prove convenient as it permits a small ball movement within the drop notch for better framing.
Sunwayfoto has also abandoned the application of rubber ring wrapped knobs, and all knobs are made from aluminum alloy with CNC cut patterns, in order to enhance long term reliability.
There are two discriminating points between the DB-36TR (TR for traveler) and the DB-36 standard version. One is the positioning of the Main Lock Knob at 90 degrees to the Panning Base Knob, and the other is the Panning Base diameter which has been decreased down to 45mm from 54mm.
Both alterations were made in order to avoid the interference with traveler tripod legs when folded back 180 degrees.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR lock knobs
Looking the ball head from the back we can see the main friction/lock knob on the right and the panning lock knob at 90o in the back. The main friction/lock knob grip has a CNC cut diamond pattern on its perimeter and a shiny silver ring with a reference scale engraved (or etched?) with an increasing width pattern and numbered from 1 to 12. However the scale is faintly visible under any lighting conditions but more on that later. The panning lock knob grip has a parallel line pattern and has a convenient size. Between the knobs, on the head shell, there is a small arrow pointer for the panning scale. The panning scale has marks every 5 degrees and numbers every 15 degrees ranging from 0 to 90 and back to 0 which are laser engraved on the panning base. In turn the panning base is very smooth and fluid in motion.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Main lock knob detail
The Main Friction/Lock knob drives a short thread bolt since it takes one and a half rotations from the completely  loose to the fully locked position. This permits a smoother, yet more precise friction control and one may find easily the absolute "sweet-spot" for his/her camera/lens combination. Minimum Friction control is accomplished through a limiting thumb screw on the Main Friction/Lock knob which is common to ball heads following the Arca Swiss® lock mechanism design. Once you set the desired friction then by tightening the thumb screw, the lock knob may not unscrew either intentionally or accidentally beyond that point. Needless to say that this is a more expensive mechanism to build but it is more precise as the locking force applied to the ball is bi-lateral and more even than other solutions.
Due to the fact that the friction control knob exceeds one full rotation the ring with reference scale can be rotated (not so easily though but it shouldn't be easy anyway) to a desired position according to the friction used for specific gear.
The panning lock knob is equally smooth in operation with quite a long drive as well, but it is the last half turn that is actually effective as a panning friction control up to a complete pan lock, and locks well.

The Lever Release clamp
Update Oct 2013: The current version of DB-36TRLD ball head features the more advanced Sunwayfoto DLC-42 Duo Lever/Knob Quick Release Clamp which does not present any issues.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Lever Release QR Clamp
The DDC-42 Quick Lever Release clamp is especially designed to fit the Sunwayfoto DB-36 series of ball heads since it is secured by an M5 screw, instead of the more common M6, probably to match the 36mm ball's narrow stem. The center hole is also threaded 1/4"-20 in order to match other manufacturer's heads, as the clamp is also sold separately. Its jaws length is 42mm, the width is 85mm and it is15mm thick.
There are 2cm decimal scales marked in 5mm increments and a Φ center mark on both jaws, as well as two safety stop screw relief grooves 4mm deep permitting a motion of 10mm into the clamp, for better camera/lens plate alignment.
The jaw opening may be regulated by a few mm via a thumb wheel in order to accommodate Rails or Base plates from different manufacturers. It can be fine tuned really well, but a lever release clamp is not recommended for users of rails/plates made by different manufacturers as it will become really frustrating to regulate the jaws every time you change a rail.
Further there is a special note by Sunwayfoto both in the their web site and the Instruction Manual, that care should be taken not to unscrew the thumb wheel too much, as the whole jaw might fall off. (More on this in the Using the ball head section).
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR QR Clamp bubble level
On the outer non-moving jaw exists a small but convenient bull's eye bubble level which can be removed if desired since it is held in place by two M3 screws.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Lever release QR Clamp lock
The release Lever is equipped with a locking mechanism protecting against accidental unlocking of the clamp. It utilizes a spring loaded dowel pin which blocks the lever from opening and can be manipulated by a small sliding plate on the side of the Lever. This sliding plate has a tiny lip to aid the gripping and sliding outwards but in my opinion the size is not enough for easy lever unlock. If you have big fingers like mine or wear gloves the least I can say is that the "Quick Lever Release" will not be so Quick.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Lever release positions
The release Lever stays in three positions. One is closed and locked (as in the lower left photo), two is half open and locked (as in the upper photo) in order to permit sliding a rail or plate for fine adjustment and three fully open and unlocked (as in the lower right photo) in order to slide in/out or install/remove a rail/plate from top.
The release lever while in the middle half open position (top photo) can be rotated on its axis, changing the orientation for right or left handed operation. This may be done by simultaneously pressing inwards the opening jaw with one hand while turning the lever with the other hand.

Mounting on a traveler tripod

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR on Triopo GT-3228X-8C tripod top As I have mentioned in the Triopo GT-3228X8C Traveler Tripod Review, I decided to enhance some of the tripod's strong points like stability and lack of vibration with a high end-ish ball head. So all reference for now will be for that specific tripod/ball head combination.

By fully tightening the panning base lock knob first, the ball head can be easily screwed on the 3/8"-16 tripod stud and securely tightened on the top plate.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR on Triopo GT-3228X-8C tripod folded
The Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR 's small foot print fits perfectly between the Triopo's 180 degree folding legs. The ball head weighs only 360gr adding very little to the total transportable weight.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR in Triopo GT-3228X-8C folded legs detail 1
The tripod legs fold fully and perfectly between the ball head knobs ...
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR in Triopo GT-3228X-8C folded legs detail 2
... while the quick lever release clamp has to be tilted a bit...
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR in Triopo GT-3228X-8C folded legs detail top as to fit in the remaining space between the legs.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR on Triopo GT-3228X-8C tripod overview
The outcome of the Triopo GT-3228X8C + Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR combination has proved a very stable and functional traveler solution.

Using the Ball head

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR bodyAfter having used the ball head for a few months now, I'm in a position to comment on some of the excellent and other not so excellent characteristics of this ball head.

First I can say that the hard coat anodizing on the ball head shell is excellent, it is non reflective, does not show hand / finger prints and is scratch proof, since I mount and dismount it quite often on the metal tripod top plate without any rubber flange in between, and without any signs of wear on the base up to now.

Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Lever release QR Clamp lock
The release Lever locking mechanism although safe is not so convenient when you are in a real harry to change equipment. I understand that Sunwayfoto designers have realized that already since their new DLC-42 clamp, with a combination of screw knob and lever release, has obviously a bigger lip on the release lever lock. However, I have to check before I comment on the possible improvement.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR Lever release QR Clamp thumb wheel
If one is to use the DB-36TR ball head equipped with the DDC-42LR clamp, with a specific brand of rails or base plates there will be no problem whatsoever. On the other hand if you intend to manipulate the thumb wheel often you should really take caution not to unscrew it too much. Otherwise you'll end up searching for little springs and small washers all around. If you find them, is not difficult to put it back in working order. This goes with a big grin imagining what will happen if you are in the field...
It could have been far easier if the designers had put a small circlip or retaining ring behind the thumb wheel just where the thread stops (position A on the photo above).
Another matter that came to my attention, is the smoothness of operation of the release Lever when tightened well. As shown by the usage marks on the inner side of the lever, if the radius (marked B on above photo) were a tiny bit longer and the angles formed by the flat section wider I think the operation would be much smoother.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR on Triopo GT-3228X-8C tripod closup
Despite the inconveniences previously described , I found myself wanting to use this ball head more and more  due to its smoothness of operation right out from the box. The friction control is so gradual that it is very easy to find the desired sweet spot for the camera/lens combination  loaded. The sweet spot is where there is no drift or movement of the camera at any angle unless you intentionally move it by hand. Mark the reference scale for future use and maybe you will not have to touch the friction control for the whole session.
The ball head operates well both with lighter and heavier camera lens combinations, without any jerks, but I shall elaborate more extensively in the DB-36TRLR Torque test, showing its behavior under different loads.
Sunwayfoto DB-36TRLR main lock knob closup
As I had mentioned in the beginning the friction reference scale ring is not visible due to its shiny texture and dull symbols. However, after using the ball head for a while and by not having to manipulate the friction control too much, I found myself not using it as much as on other ball heads, but only when changing gear. Nevertheless, it is something that Sunwayfoto has to take care for, as for photographers that exchange different gear camera/lens combinations during a shooting session it is a must have.

Excellent machining, finishing, fitting and build quality.
Very gradual ball friction control that permits fine tuning.
Very smooth operation in all aspects.
Excellent value for money ratio.
5 year limited warranty extension upon registration.

Small lever release lock knob, difficult to operate. Updated with larger lock knob.
Lever release regulating thumb wheel very easy to unscrew completely and be lost at the field.
Faintly visible scale on the Main Lock Knob ring.

Keeping track of Sunwayfoto product evolution in the past 1-2 years, I see a company that listens to photographers needs and continuously modifies and improves their line and their quality.
As a bottom line I would fulheartedly recommend the DB-36TR ball head for its smoothness of operation but either the version equipped with the screw knob quick release DDC-42 clamp or the DB-36TRLD version equipped with the newer and improved Sunwayfoto DLC-42 Duo Lever/Knob Quick Release Clamp clamp which features a combination of screw knob + lever release .
Still, if you don't use rails or plates from different manufacturers and don't like to play with thumb wheels, then DB-36TRLR is an excellent value for money. (Update Oct 2013: DB-36TRLR is discontinued).

This review and test was run on a single product sample, using the specifically described methods.  Although the findings are good and overcame the expectations for the product, it can not be used as a rule, unless more samples of the same product are tested. Furthermore, similar comparison tests should be run with comparative capabilities products so as to reach a solid conclusion.

I hope you found this review useful, thank you for viewing.
All Photos: © 2011-2012 S.C.Vlachos

DB-36TR,  DB-36TRLR,  DB-36TRDL ball heads are discontinued!

Referenced Articles:
Sunwayfoto DLC-42 Duo Lever/Knob Quick Release Clamp Review
Triopo GT-3228X8C Traveler Tripod Review

Relevant Articles:
Sunwayfoto FB-36DDH Lightweight Ball Head Review
Benro B-2 Ball Head Review
Triopo RS-3 Ball Head Review
Sunwayfoto XB-44 Low Profile Ball Head Review

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