Libec LS38 Tripod
After recently reviewing the new Cartoni Focus tripod and evaluating the Manfrotto 503/525 tripod and being very disappointed with both, I was starting to lose all hope of ever finding a budget tripod that actually worked.
Personally Iím a huge fan of the Vinten Vision range and the higher end Sachtler models; my preferred tripod is my beloved Vinten Vision 8 two-stage carbon model. When it comes to tripods Iím pretty fussy and I have very high standards. For me there is no excuse for a head that suffers from Ďdrift-backí or makes funny noises when tilting, or any other abnormal characteristics that make it unusable for any serious applications. The same goes for the legs; if anything more than a minuscule amount of Ďwind-upí is present it should be thrown in the nearest skip without delay.
So my hunt to find a sub £800 two-stage tripod that is actually worth the materials it is made out of was starting to look pretty thin. So, with Cartoni and Manfrotto well and truly out of the picture as far as a usable tripod goes, it was time for me to phone my next potential victim in search of a budget tripod that I could, hand-on-heart, recommend to people using modern medium size/weight cameras such as the Panasonic HVX200, Sony Z1, Canon XL H1 and JVC GY-HD111 etc.
I had heard that Japanese tripod manufacturer Libec were about to replace their LS37 with the all-new and improved LS38. The LS38 landed on UK shores late August 2006 so by the time you read this is should be starting to hit the shop floors of the usual dealers up and down the country.
I spoke to UK importers Nick Allan-Miles and David Archibold, who promptly got a brand-spanking- new LS38 sent out to me. I spoke to David about the new LS38 when we met up at the Broadcast Live show earlier in the year. He knew how I felt about the Cartoni Focus tripod as he had read my review, so he was somewhat nervous about sending me one of his LS38 tripods to review, which was understandable. He knows where Iím coming from. Although we are friends, and have a laugh in person and on the phone, he also knows that Iím not a sycophantic reviewer.
First thing on Friday morning, the UPS courier turned up with the Libec LS38, and I must admit that I was somewhat nervous when opening the box as I really wanted this tripod to be a usable one that was up to my high standards. I knew that if I was happy with this tripod, then everybody that I recommend it to would be too. Basically, if I canít find a fault with a tripod, it doesnít exist. The box felt reassuringly heavy, but not so heavy that it would be uncomfortable to lug around on location. After unpacking the tripod and removing all the cardboard packaging and plastic wrapping I was presented with what felt like a solid piece of engineering finished in a classy contemporary gun-metal-greyish colour that reminded me of my old BMW 7 series. Also in the box was a neat black padded zip-up case.
THE LEGS & SPREADER
The first thing I did was extend the two-stage legs to their maximum height and open out the floor-spreader to its widest setting. The legs are locked-off at any given height by 2/3rds of a turn of the chunky tough plastic dials, and when they are locked they are really locked. The floor spreader is also adjustable via the usual flat dials; again once locked-off there is no chance of the spreader slipping from its spread setting. I was also pleased to see position markers engraved into the spreader, which helps make sure you have each leg spread by exactly the same distance.
With the tripod extended fully and locked off I carried out my first usual test. Basically I remove the head and grip the bowl tightly with both hands and try and turn it as if trying to turn a stationary lorry with no power steering. What Iím looking for here is leg Ďwind-upí and rigidity. In the past Iíve done this with cheap Chinese tripods and the legs have twisted so easily it was as if they had power steering of their own. With cheap tripods I can turn the head about an inch in each direction, which is simply useless. If this happens I usually donít even bother looking at the head, Iíll put the tripod away and send it back. So how did the Libec LS38 stand up to my stationary-lorry-with-no-power-steering test I hear you ask. Brilliant! hardly any leg wind-up at all. Considering this tripod only costs £399 it is hardly even worth mentioning. Iíve seen tripods costing three times this much that had unforgivable legs that twisted all to easily. The LS38 legs get nine out of ten in the leg department. I think I know why these legs are so sturdy with virtually no twist factor whatsoever. On closer inspection of the bowl section, Iím inclined to think that these legs were originally of the 100mm bowl family of Libec legs, but have had a 75mm bowl modification. This means that you are getting 100mm bowl stability, in a 75mm bowl tripod kit. Although the legs come with a floor spreader to allow for some really low-to-the-ground filming, you can also buy an optional mid-level spreader if (like me) you prefer to work this way.
The head is finished to the same high standards as the legs. It feels solid and chunky and after playing roughly with it for 5 minutes I got the impression that this head is not going to fall apart any time soon. It is tough, durable and should last an age, even in the hands of the roughest film students, ENG guys, and even a rattled independent low-budget filmmaker on his last line of coke.
The head is a fairly basic no-frills design. In fact the only levers on it are two to lock-off the tilt and pan and another one to lock the sliding plate into position along with a safety button to prevent the plate sliding off whilst adjusting it; thatís it. Although there are no adjustments for pan and tilt drag, the factory setting for the pan and tilt drag was spot-on; not too stiff, but not too slack either, somewhere in that middle stirring-a-large-bucket-of-treacle area. From this last comment youíve probably gathered that this is a fluid head, and a nice one at that. The fluid motion works beautifully in both pan and tilt directions. Part of my tripod test is to draw a figure of eight with the pan-handle; pretend the pan- handle is a large magic marker and draw the figure of eight on an imaginary wall. With the LS38 head this test stood up really well. I could draw my figure of eight smoothly and precisely with no dead-spots whatsoever. Of course, with no camcorder mounted at this point, I could feel that the sideways (pan) movements were a little slacker than the up/down (tilt) movements, but this is normal for a head with no weight mounted on it, especially with this head, as it has a pre-loaded spring in the head to aid with balancing; so far very impressed with this well-engineered head.
The next part of my test involved doing some violently fast tilts from one extreme to the other. I had to stand on the spreader for this part to prevent the tripod lifting off the ground as it is quite a vigorous test, and any tripod in the world would lift off the ground in this situation. What Iím looking for Ė or rather listening and feeling for Ė are trapped air bubbles in the head, or any other defects or bad characteristics which show up by means of sticky noises that sound like there is a piece of sticky fly paper stuck inside the head somewhere. With the LS38 head no such gremlins showed up; great! These guys have actually put some thought into this head and road-tested it before going into production; well done Libec.
The pan-handle is reversible, so you can fix it to the left or right side of the head. This is one of the best designs Iíve seen, and once you give a quick twist of the locking lever, the pan-handle is going nowhere. The pan-handle is not a telescopic one, but it should be about the right length for most applications and it is solid and does not bend. I lock off the head and grip the bowl with one hand and try and break the pan-handle off with the other as I try and forcefully pan the tripod head, even though it is locked off. A naff pan- handle will either bend or snap during this test; the Libec pan-handle did neither, I could almost hear it say ďis that all youíve got mate?Ē. So the pan-handle test scores very highly indeed.
Next are the lock-off levers for pan and tilt. The head goes from unlocked to locked-off within about a 5mm turn of the lever. The levers are chunky enough that they donít hurt your fingers and thumbs as you lever them into or out off the locked-off position, and with moderate pressure, the head is solidly locked-off, well as locked-off as you would ever want it to be anyway.
The sliding plate is brilliant and it replaces the somewhat unusable quick-release plate found on the LS38ís predecessor, the LS37. This new sliding plate is just brilliant and it works like a dream. Libec obviously listen to customer feedback. The sliding plate has a lot of adjustment and can be locked-off anywhere within an 8 cm scale, which should be more than enough to balance an unloaded (no accessories) Canon XL H1 or JVC GY-HD111. If you are a Sony Z1 or Panny HVX200 owner, you wonít need anywhere near this amount of adjustment, but itís there if you have a fully loaded Z1 with an additional accessories/weight attached. The quick release plate has a neat spring-loaded locating pin as well as the usual fixing screw, the latter is screwed into the base of the camcorder using a penny. I was also pleased to see the ďMade in JapanĒ sticker when I removed the sliding plate; Libec are maintaining standards here and it is evident all over this tripod/head combo. Finally, the head also has a spirit level bubble, so you can level the head perfectly. It doesnít have a light to illuminate it, but I donít film bats in coalmines at midnight so I donít care. This is proof that Libec have spent the money in areas that count and have not compromised on quality by adding extras that people donít really need. This would have either upped the price of the tripod, or compromised on quality in other areas, so Iím glad Libec put into this tripod what you need and left off what you donít. Okay so we might need a decent balance system with amazing pan and tilt drag controls, but this is a £399 tripod, if you want perfect balance control and an amazing drag system, buy a Vinten Vision 6 for £1,600.
I tested the head with my trusty JVC GY-HD111 complete with Hawk-Woods V-Loc battery pack and Chrosziel matte box system and focus pulling rig. This set-up is about as heavy as you could go and still retain at least some balance with the LS38. The built in pre-tensioned spring appears to be built for cameras such as the Sony Z1 and Panasonic HVX200 with a few add-on accessories. With a standard JVC GY-HD111 camera with no matte box, but retaining the Hawk-Woods V-Loc battery battery, the LS38 did a great job of balancing it. I could tilt up and down approximately 30ļ and the head/camcorder stayed fixed in that position after I removed my hand from the pan-handle with no sign of it creeping up or down. Admittedly, I could not tilt the camcorder straight down to the floor without it creeping back up a bit, but I would never have the need to tilt down so far anyway so this didnít bother me. The same applies for extreme tilts up, donít expect to be able to point it up at a hovering kestrel and have it stay there without locking it off because it wonít, it will creep back down a bit. However, you will be able to tilt up about 30ļ above the horizon and it will remain there perfectly. This should be more than enough for most shooting situations. Again, you are paying £399 for a tripod that is really well built and engineered to do 90% of the moves perfectly. If you need the other 10% of moves that you will rarely (if ever) use, then youíll have to spend an extra £1,200 and look elsewhere. Having said that, there is a workaround, itís called your left hand. If you need the camera to stay in position at the end of an extremely high or low tilt, simply hold the tilt-locking lever with your left hand whilst carrying out the tilt with your right, then at the end of the movement lock the tilt lever off, voilŗ. As the tilt-locking lever requires only a few millimetres of movement and hardly any effort to lock the head off, I was able to carry out an extremely high tilt and lock it off once there with no noticeable movement at the end of the tilt. So there it is, an extra £1,200, your left hand, an extra £1,200, your left hand, erm, let me think about that for a minute. How many more times do I have to say it ďTHE LIBEC LS38 IS ONLY £399!Ē
Now for the critical part of my test, and this is where every sub-£800 tripod Iíve tested has come falling down miserably. I call it the drift-back test. I mount a camcorder on the tripod, zoom right in as far as the lens allows as I compose the image with a subject that has straight vertical lines in it, such as the edge of a building. Then I fix the camcorder in a nice horizontal position and lock it off. With just the pan available to me Iíll gently pan across the scene, then gently stop with the vertical edge of the side of the building lined up perfectly with the 16:9 safe area markers on the either side of the flip-out LCD display on the camcorder. When I remove my hand from the pan-handle, I expect my alignment of brick wall to safe area marker to say exactly there. With many other tripods it simply wonít stay put, instead it will drift back a few millimetres. This might not sound like very much, but when you are zoomed right into the side of a building it can be as much as 2 brick widths (depending on how far from the building you are), which is plain noticeable and totally unacceptable. I did not expect the LS38 to pass this test, not for a second. So you can imagine my total amazement when I took my hand off the pan handle to find that the head stayed exactly there with virtually zero drift-back. I think there were a few people in China that couldnít quite hear me when I yelled ďAT LAST, IíVE FOUND IT, A BUDGET TRIPOD THAT DOESNíT SUFFER FROM BLOODY DRIFT-BACKĒ. My partner Louise came dashing down the stairs to see what I was yelling about, she thought Iíd found the Holy Grail, I have I told her, well a budget one anyway. A few of my peers in the industry know that Iíve been looking for a budget tripod that I can recommend to people with limited funds. Well now Iíve found one so if you are the proud owner of a medium size camcorder such as: Panasonic HVX200, Sony Z1, Canon XL H1, JVC GY-HD111 and similar and you are on a budget for the tripod, look no further than the Libec LS38; it just works!!
In the 20 minutes or so that I spent filming using the GY-HD111 camera I found the Libec LS38 to be a dream to use. Itís quick and easy to erect and pack away, not once did I trap my fingers ;). Setting up the camera was really easy as the sliding plate has a lot of adjustment in it, even for the most front/back heavy camcorders such as the Canon XL range, which tend to be a bit front (lens) heavy. The sliding plate makes it easy to balance your camcorder over the dead center of the head, which in turn allows the fixed balance spring system of the head to work perfectly enough within reason.
Unlike the old LS37, which was only a single-stage leg design, the new LS38 is a two-stage leg design, so getting down low to the ground is easy, and you can get super-low, like eye-level to a rabbit if you remove the floor spreader altogether. Build quality? Ah yes, I do like testing products for build quality. Iíve been known to break the lids off flat-bed scanners whilst testing them for build quality before buying in PC World. Iíve broken plastic bottle holders from inside fridge doors in retail parks whilst shopping for a new American style fridge. When helping the mrs choose kitchen ware from department stores Iíve played Uri Gella with forks and spoons (with great success) and have snapped handles off bone china cups. Okay you get the point, Iím just a firm believer that if something can be perfect, why shouldnít it be? And if something can be built to a high standard, why shouldnít it be? There is a lot of cheap mass-produced crap filling retail park stores these days, and I refuse to subscribe to all this ďsorry sir, itís 3 weeks over itís 1 year warranty periodĒ crap, only to have fuels burned and the earthís natural recourses sucked away from her as factories churn out even more of this plastic crap for next years mugs to come along and buy. Okay calm down, calm down, too much coffee this evening, just trying to make a point, and I hope youíre getting it. What Iím trying to say is the Libec LS38 passed all my tests flawlessly. I pulled it, I tugged it, I dropped it from a great height, I tried to bend it, break it and I even kicked it over. I tried to force the locking levers way past where they were supposed to go in an attempt to break the mechanism, I tried to pull the rubber spreader retainers like my old Stretch Armstrong as I attempted to snap them. I slammed the legs open, I slammed the legs closed in an attempt to get a bit of plastic to fly off across the floor. This tripod simply would not break. If I was an extreme cameraman or had a shoot coming up in a war zone I would have taken my violent and rigorous test to the extremes by dowsing the thing in petrol and throwing my Zippo at it, someday Iíll actually do this with a piece of production equipment, but for now I had punished the LS38 enough, way beyond what any normal cameraman will ever put it through.
On the underside of the bowl there is a metal hook to allow you to hang a bag of bricks to help stabilize the tripod for those times that you are filming hurricanes in the US. Iíve already mentioned the optional mid-level spreader, which comes with 3 rubber feet to cover the spikes that are left exposed after the floor-spreader has been removed. Levelling the bowl is smooth and effortless via the large dial under the bowl. The large bowl section makes reaching this very easy. The pan-handle has an industrial-type hard rubber grip. Oh, and the sliding plate has ruler-markers so itís easy to balance your camcorder from one day to the next.
For £399 this tripod is simply amazing. Libec have put the money in all the right places and it just works. If you want a budget no-frills tripod that defies its price tag, the LS38 is it. It will give you years of trouble-free service, it will stand up to the rigours of tough shooting environments, and above all it will do your camcorder and your shots proud with its silky smooth head. Even if you have a budget of £1,200 or so, I would make sure the LS38 is in the equation and should be checked out; youíd be a fool not to just because of the price tag.
Dave Archibold of Libec UK was kind enough to have an LS38 sent out to me on loan to review, but if he wants his tripod back heís going to have to drive down here and get it; itís that good! ;)
Libec UK Ė Tel: 01527 596955 or visit: www.libeceurope.com
©2006 Nigel Cooper
Reviewed by: Nigel Cooper
Review Date: 11-09-2006
Summary: Quite simply the best sub £400 ENG tripod on the face of the planet. There is virtually no 'drift back' or leg 'wind up' whatsoever. The fluid motion of the pan and tilt is super smooth in all directions. It is well built and up to the usual high Japanese standards. It is quick and easy to erect and fold away. For the money, nothing else can touch it; not even close.
Pros: Tough and durable, fluid head, Japanese built, price, easy to use and set up.
Cons: I could say no balance controls or adjustments for pan and tilt drag. But trying to build features like that into a tripod of this price and they just would not work (see Manfrotto 503/525 kit and you will see what I mean). Libec have put the money in all the right places and have not attempted to put features such as 'Perfect Balance' onto a budget tripod. Perfect Balance mechanisms are very expensive and Libec realize the tripod costs would have been pushed to well over £1,000 had they put this feature on.