Libec RS Series Tripods review by Nigel Cooper
THE LIBEC RS SERIES
The Libec RS series are the latest professional tripods from Libec. What’s different about the RS series is that they have a ‘continuous balance’ system; and unlike lesser tripods, it works as it should and to perfection. I’ll be talking more about ‘balance’ and how it works later in this review as it would appear that there is a lot of misunderstanding of what ‘perfect balance’ actually does; even some dealers either don’t understand it, or are misinformed.
There are three RS models in the series; all of which are 75mm ball diameter.
Libec UK were kind enough to loan me all three of them for a month; I like to spend time actually using equipment on productions whenever possible, which allow me to really test the products. For me, this is the only way find any little annoyances. The primary difference between models is the payload they can carry, but there are a few other tiny differences too.
The three models are as follows:
RS-250 with a balance range of 1.8 to 5kg and costing £699 plus VAT.
RS-350 with a balance range of 3 to 7.5 kg and costing £899 plus VAT.
RS-450 with a balance range of 4.5 to 10.5kg and costing £1,099 plus VAT.
The actual payload for each tripod is as follows:
RS-250 = 6kg / 13lb
RS-350 = 9kg / 20lb
RS-450 = 12kg / 26.5lb
The actual physical height/weight of these tripods is as follows (based on mid-level spreader versions, which are slightly heavier than the floor-spreader versions):
RS-250 = Weight 5.6kg / 12.3lb. Height 80 to 164.5cm / 31.5 to 65”
RS-350 = Weight 5.8kg / 12.8lb. Height 81 to 165.5cm / 32 to 65”
RS-450 = Weight 6.8kg / 14.9lb. Height 81 to 166cm / 32 to 65.5”
Starting with the top of the range RS-450 working down the series, the differences are as follows:
The RS-450 has 3 step of drag control for both pan and tilt, plus a zero setting with no drag at all. It also has a button for illuminating the spirit-level bubble. The RS-450’s balancing range is from 4.5 to 10.5 KG.
The RS-350 also has 3 settings for drag control for both pan and tilt, with a zero setting for no drag whatsoever. However, although the 350 has a spirit-level bubble, there is no button next to it so it cannot be illuminated; shame as I’m sure this is only a cheap commodity at the manufacturing stage. The RS-350’s balancing range is from 3 to 7.5 KG.
The RS-250 has just 2 settings for drag control for both pan and tilt. There is no zero setting for no drag on the 250 at all, so there will always be drag on this model, either setting 1 or setting 2. The 250 also has the spirit-level bubble, but like the 350, it also has no button to allow illumination of it when shooting in dim conditions; again, a shame, but not the end of the world. The RS-250’s balancing range is from 1.8 to 5 KG
All three models are available in Mid-Level spreader or Floor spreader versions. The Mid-Level versions simply have the letter ‘M’ at the end i.e. RS-350M. The Mid-Level version comes with a neat Mid-Level spreader as well as three additional rubber shoes that clamp tightly and securely onto the bottom spikes via the usual industry standard thick industrial strength rubber lever. The mid-level spreader version is my personal preferred option. I can’t see the point in having to get down on your hands and knees in the dirt while you fanny around with floor spreaders; it’s beneath me ;)
The RS-450 is the top of the range model and is aimed squarely at the professional ENG cameraman with a typical shoulder-mount camcorder weighting between 4.5 and 10.5 KG; to give you an idea think Sony PDW-700 or DSR450 and the like. If you are familiar with the Vinten line-up, the Libec RS-450 is equivalent to the Vinten Vision 8; only the Libec cost over a grand less The RS-350 is also aimed at the ENG cameraman, as well as the corporate and independent filmmaker who still has a shoulder-mount camcorder, or a larger semi-shoulder mount model such as the Sony EX3, Canon XL H1 or JVC GY-HM700 (though this model is actually shoulder-mount, it is quite small and lightweight), maxed out with large batteries, matte box etc. The RS-250 is aimed squarely at those using smaller camcorders such as the Sony NX5/Z5, Panasonic AG-HPX171 for example. What is unique and special about the RS range is that they have a ‘continuous’ counter-balance system. Unlike the very twitchy ‘step’ balance systems that have a dial that simply switches in the counter-balance in ‘steps’ be it 4, 6, 8 or 10 steps, all are inaccurate and somewhat twitchy at best and you will never achieve ‘perfect counter balance’ with these step systems. This is one reason I’m a massive fan of Vinten’s Vision 6 and 8 tripods and more recently their 5, 8 and 10AS systems; and now the Libec RS series are on my list of favourite ‘continuous’ counter-balance tripods that work as they should. You really do have to be aware of cheap imitations claiming to have a counter-balance system; many do, but most just don’t work properly.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Vinten, Sachtler and Libec tripods, and for good reason too. I like my tripods to be build like the proverbial brick house, with little if no leg twist or ‘torsional rigidity’ issues, beautifully engineered heads with a silky smooth action, total reliability year-in-year-out, no flimsy plastic parts to fall off, well laid out levers and dials for pan/tilt drag controls and a nice balancing system that does what it is supposed to do. It is for this very reason that my professional tripod of choice has always been the Vinten Vision 8 single-stage carbon model; not cheap at £2,400, but it is a beautiful piece of engineering with ‘‘continuous’ counter-balance’ that really is perfect, that just continues to work after many years of abuse.
So, with my usual high expectations I asked Libec UK if I could hold onto these three RS models for a month. I don’t like to just play around with a tripod for 5 minutes. To make a valid evaluation of a tripod it has to be used in anger on an actual production, unless of course the tripod is so cheap and nasty that you can tell from across the room, which has been the case with some of the truly ‘mince’ examples I’ve looked at in the past; usually very low budget irrelevant Chinese brands that simply don’t count. Quality engineering doesn’t come cheap, and yes, I’m afraid it ‘is’ rocket science; something certain manufacturers simply don’t get. You can’t take a beautifully engineered design and ‘cheaply’ copy it and expect it to work the same; especially when they only cost a few Renminbi each to manufacture and produce.
So, as a Lighting Cameraman with over 15 years experience of using most cameras and tripods from mid-level to high-end and an avid fan of the Vinten Vision 8, would this new Libec RS series tripods coming in at less than half the price of their Vinten equivalents measure up to my high standards?
The three camcorders I used to test these tripods were a Sony DSR450 (with RS-450) a JVC GY-HM700 (with RS-350) and a Sony NX5 (used with RS-250). I also borrowed an engineering weight/balance system to test the weight range of the counter balance on these three tripods as accurately and scientifically as possible; the results of which are later on in this review.
Out of the box my first impressions of the RS series tripods were very good indeed. The overall build quality is as absolutely excellent. All the fixtures and fittings are precise and well engineered, while the aluminium legs feel solid and workhorse like.
The drag settings for both pan and work to perfection. When in use, one gets a sense of pure Japanese fastidious engineering. All RS models use a ‘fluid’ drag system for both pan and tilt. Some other budget brands cut corners and have a ‘friction’ system for the tilt, which is absolutely useless when it comes to tilting up/down while panning left/right at the same time, it just fights itself and causes a ‘stepping’ effect during the move; totally unusable footage is the final result. On the RS-450 and 350 drag settings 1, 2 and 3 are well-spaced and silky smooth in operation with no ‘dead spots’ at all. It is one hell of a tricky process vacuuming out any tiny air bubble in the fluid. Using these RS series there is no evidence of air bubbles whatsoever; Libec have really pushed the envelope with these heads. The drag settings are ‘tight’ with absolutely zero take-up ‘slack’ at the beginning of a pan or tilt movement. To be honest, 3 settings plus zero is more than enough for anyone (RS-450 and 350 models only). Some manufacturers might be quick to say you need 6 or 8 settings, but this is rubbish. I’ve never known any ‘professional’ Lighting Cameraman who required such an infinite number of adjustments for pan and tilt drag. What is usually required is a zero (off) position for quick ‘whip’ pans, a ‘light’ position for fast motion work, a ‘stiff’ position for those smooth Hollywood movie ‘block and stage’ type moves, and a ‘medium’ setting for general work such as your average corporate or ENG affair; the RS-450 and 350 both have all these settings, and above all, they work absolutely precisely with fastidious engineering of the highest Japanese standards. Note, the RS-250 only has the two settings for drag over pan and tilt with no zero. Oh yes, all three RS models are ‘Made in Japan’, which should inspire total confidence in build quality, usability and total reliability. For me, these three RS tripods are the ‘Lexus’ of the Tripod world, the ‘RS’ part of the series even sounds like a flash Japanese car.
There is a spirit level bubble built right into the head with all three models, with a decent (easy to find in dim conditions) button to press for a temporary light to allow you to level the head in dimly lit conditions (RS-450 only). This temporary light remains on for exactly 11 seconds; I tested it 3 times in a row; total accuracy from the internal Japanese quartz timing electrode. The RS-350 and 250 have the bubble, but no light. Levelling the heads on all three models is very smooth and easy, just as smooth as the Vinten Vision 8 in fact. The pan bar is just the right length; none of that silly telescopic nonsense, which simply adds take-up ‘slack’ to any serious pan due to the typical tiny movement that one usually finds at the joint of the telescopic pan handle. It is for this reason that I prefer single-stage legs as apposed to 2-stage, the latter simply adds another joint in the legs, which makes torsional rigidity less effective. Why bother screwing up the perfect ‘torsional rigidity’ just for the sake of saving 6-inches of space for your tripod case in the boot of your car; does ever Lighting Cameraman in the UK drive a Mini Cooper? Unfortunately, the RS range only come in 2-stage leg versions; so Mini Cooper owners will be pleased, but the professionals amongst us are ‘ever so slightly’ disappointed about this quality reducing factor. Please please please Mr Libec, bring out single-stage versions of these beautiful RS series tripods.
FILMING WITH THE RS SERIES
Apart from shooting a stack of ‘stock footage’ over the course of a week with these tripods, I also have some other methods of testing, some scientific, some rather unorthodox. Either way, my methods for testing tripods are the only ones that ‘really’ work. As I’ve already explained, shooting an actual production or other ‘real’ footage is paramount to testing, it’s the only way to find any shortcomings. During the week of ‘stock footage’ shooting I found myself in safari parks filming Cheetah’s, an indoor tropical butterfly house, in the country filming windmills and lots more.
During all this, I spent most of my time with the RS-350 with a JVC GY-HM700 perched on top. This camera and tripod are a marriage made in heaven. The JVC sits perfectly at the RS-350’s mid-balance point. After finding the camcorders ‘mid balance point’ setting up and balancing the RS-350 is very quick and easy. I like my footage to look very smooth so I chose the drag settings of 3 for both pan and tilt to give me a very stiff setting; which is the kind of setting I am used to working in. Executing a move that involves tilting down while panning across is a breeze due to the superbly engineered fluid head; it really is smooooooth.
I also did some filming with drag settings 1 and 2 for comparison purposes; all work equally as well. Whatever the drag setting, there is virtually zero ‘drift back’. Drift Back is what can happen with certain tripod heads when you get to the end of a slow (or fast) pan, stop, and then remove your hand from the pan bar. At this stage, the head will ‘drift back’ a millimeter or so, which shows in the footage and ruins the shot. The Manfrotto 503HDV525 is notorious for having this flaw. The ‘drift back’ on the RS series is simply non-existent from what I could tell, in fact I’d even go as far as saying it’s on a level with the Vinten Vision series in this regard. These RS heads are quite remarkable considering the low retail price; you simply won’t find better at this price; not even close so don’t even bother looking.
As for the sticks (legs), they are almost as awesome as the heads. They are made from tough lightweight aluminum that is finished in a very dark brown/grey colour. All RS models are 2-stage i.e. three sections to each leg with two locking levers. When fully extended with the mid-level spreader extended to maximum, the ‘tortional ridigity’ is very minimal. Let me explain. A little known attribute of tripods is “torsional rigidity.” The best way to explain this is to imagine your tripod legs were made of rubber. Now, consider setting the feet of this rubber tripod into the earth, locking the head off and then applying panning pressure to the pan handle. The twisting force against the pan handle would be absorbed by the rubber legs of the tripod, which would twist, storing up that energy until you let go of the handle. The result would be a powerful “snap back” action as the stored energy in the legs is released. The twisting motion is called, “torsion.” Tripod designers, employing new, lightweight alloys and carbon fibers, which are flexible by nature, attempt to engineer as much torsional rigidity into a tripod as possible, in order to eliminate the ‘snap back’ effect. Torsional snap back can be seen, quite clearly in most tripod legs, even though they are obviously not made of rubber. To test your equipment, examine the image of a camera equipped with a telephoto lens, mounted on your tripod. Using a moderate amount of pan drag, execute a long pan to a specific target and then release the pan handle. Most tripods will exhibit a small degree of snap back, such that your image will not center on the target, but will settle a few degrees back along the pan path. This is because your tripod’s legs have stored up torsional energy, which is released when you let go of the pan handle. These Libec RS series tripods exhibit virtually no snap back; at least none that I could see. I always do the ‘lorry driver’ test on tripod legs, which involves removing the head, then extending the tripod to its maximum height and then grabbing the bowl with a tight grip and then turning it as if you are turning a lorry’s steering wheel. If the legs twist and creak under this test, there is something seriously wrong. Even under this unorthodox tripod torture (something you would never encounter in any shooting conditions) the RS series show only very minimal (and I do mean minimal) twisting, and I was really ‘leaning’ into it. Many budget tripods would have simply broken at the joints under the pressure I was exerting onto the RS. This superb tortional rigidity is virtually on a par with the Vinten Vision series, but it is so close many won’t be able to tell the difference; I’m very fussy about these things and I felt that if the Libec RS series had a slightly better (more ridged) mid-spreader, they would be 100% equal to the Vinten Vision series.
A MATTER OF BALANCE
It’s amazing how many people don’t understand what a ‘counter-balance’ feature on a head is supposed to actually do. Vinten have their ‘perfect balance’ system, now Libec have their ‘counter balance’ system; both are different names for the same thing. Counterbalancing a tripod head has nothing to do with drag settings; it also has nothing to do with preventing the camera from tilting forward under gravity and banging into one of the tripod legs; though it does prevent this. It also has nothing to do with the camera sitting perfectly horizontal on the tripod. It is something else entirely. If you know what it is, please forgive me, if you don’t, prepare to be educated.
Basically, you find your camcorders centre of gravity by holding it with just one or two fingers by its handle. You move your finger back/forth along the handle until the camera hangs from your finger perfectly horizontally; your finger is now at the cameras central balancing point. Next you draw an imaginary line from this ‘finger’ point down the side and to the bottom of the camera. Then mount the tripod plate so the middle of the plate is in the middle of your centre of gravity line. You then fit the camera to the tripod and set the drag settings for tilt to zero (or the minimal setting available) and make sure the counter-balance dial is turned down to minimal (anti-clockwise on the RS series). Next you move the camera back/forth within the tripod head by fine-tuning the sliding plate a few millimeters until the camcorder sits perfectly horizontal without falling back/forth. With this done, you then tilt the camera down about 45-degrees and hold it there to prevent it falling, and with the other hand you dial in the counter-balance spring until there is just enough spring tension to prevent the camera falling. When you tilt the camera down forwards, or up towards the sky and remove your hand from the pan handle, the camera will stay in that exact position without falling or ‘creeping’ up or down. Now you can set your drag for pan and tilt. With the counterbalance set this way, you can tilt up or down into a shot (like those establishing shots on the TV news) and remove your hand from the pan handle and the shot will hold by itself. Tripods that don’t have this feature require you to hold on for grim death as steady as you can for the duration of ‘handle’ that the clip requires; very hard indeed. The RS series of tripods balance to perfection and work just as well as any Vinten or Sachtler I’ve ever tried, which makes the Libec RS series about as good as you can buy in the counter-balance sector.
Comparing the Libec RS series to Vinten’s and Sachtler’s is a real compliment. For me, the latter two are the best tripod makers in the world so anything that comes close deserves to be commended highly, which is what I’m doing with the Libec RS series. They beat the Manfrotto range by a mile, the are better built and work so much better than the Cartoni models and the heads and legs are ahead of Miller; by light-years. If you are in the market for a new tripod, or if you want to be introduced into the wonderful world of counter-balance (from which there will be no turning back), look no further. The Libec RS range is a world-beater. Incredible state-of-the-art innovation and engineering. They are lightweight, tougher than Ray Winston and smoother than Pierce Brosnan. What’s more, they are incredibly affordable with a surprisingly low retail price and they are Made in Japan and not some cheap labour saving country where quality usually takes a nose-dive.
There is also a range of accessories for the RS series tripods including two superb wheeled dollies, a LANC
controller, cases and floor or mid level spreaders and feet.
I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to give all three of these amazing RS series tripods 10 out of 10; this is a first for me and DVuser. The price/quality ratio is spot on.
UK distributor: www.ianirouk.com
©2010 Nigel Cooper
Model: RS Series
Reviewed by: Nigel Cooper
Review Date: 05-03-2010
Summary: This is the first time in DVuser's history that 5 out of 5 stars has ever been given to any product; that says it all.
Pros: Great quality, balance works to perfection, very reasonably priced, Lightweight, made in Japan.