GH-Pro Geared Head

I've been using geared heads for decades now for product/still life type work. Or if you are into landscape or architectural photography, there really is nothing better than a geared head. They are bit slow to use, some worse than others, but they are  much better for critical/accurate composition.

Previously there was two sides to the geared head market with Manfrotto having a lock on the entry level and then companies like Arca Swiss and Linhoff offering heads pushing the cost towards $2k.
I've never had the need for a head as robust/accurate as the Arca Swiss Cube (~$1700.00) or the Linhoff 3D(~$2000.00), so I can't comment on those. But most of the others I have owed or used at one point. 

The head I have used the most/longest is the Manfrotto 405 Pro, but there is one thing I hate about Manfrotto Tripod heads... they use proprietary quick release plates that are not compatible with any other heads (at least none I own/have owned). As a matter of fact, many of their QR plates are not even cross compatible w/ other Manfrotto heads! But that issue can be resolved fairly easily/cheaply by mounting the Manfrotto QR plate to a QR clamp of your preference... I use Arca Swiss compatible clamps on all of my heads, and every camera/lens has a plate (semi) permanently attached.
Ironically, I have similar issues with Arca Swiss brand heads in that I don't like any of their QR clamps either. Their "Arca Swiss" compatible clamps are actually two tiered with the lower level being for a proprietary plate and the upper level for Arca Swiss... it can make using the head annoying/clumsy. And they have a new QR clamp (the MonoBallFix) that is not "Arca Swiss compatible." 
This can all be very minor, or even irrelevant in a dedicated setup, but the more cameras/lenses/tripods/heads you have the more annoying this will become.

 

The next issue is functionality and capability in use. Previously it was a choice between the Manfrotto 410Jr and the 405Pro. Manfrotto has introduced another similar head called the X-Pro Geared... it's pretty much junk IMO. It might be marginally "OK" for supporting a compact camera/lens, but I wouldn't count on it... and it's overpriced IMO. But they all function pretty much the same way. The 405/410 have a larger spring loaded knob you have to hold open which allows rough positioning of the camera in that one azimuth, and releasing the large knob engages the smaller knob for finer geared positioning in that one azimuth. In case you're not counting, that's a minimum of six adjustments (usually more).


Then Arca Swiss released the D4(Geared). This head has the capability to be used almost like a standard ball head, you can adjust the friction levels so that coarse adjustment can be made in any azimuth while the geared function still works for fine adjustments. I can't really explain to you how much easier/quicker this really can be to use. Another feature of the D4 is that it has panning capability at both the top and bottom of the head... this is a great feature, especially for panoramic landscape photography. And like everything made by Arca Swiss (IME), it is extremely well made, functions very smoothly, has a massive load capability... and it's relatively expensive at ~$1150.00. 

And that brings us to the Sunwayfoto GH-Pro and this review. This head is essentially the baby brother to the D4, and it's identical in functionality. I'm not going to go into every detail of how it is used/adjusted... there are videos online that will do show that better. Instead, what I want to do is quickly cover what I see as being the plusses and minuses of the four heads I've mentioned so far.

Let's start with the Arca Swiss D4 because it will be quick... for me it is too expensive. It's as simple as that, my needs do not justify the cost and it's not really going to make me any more money. However, if you can justify the expense I would buy it instead of the GH-Pro. Everything I will say about the GH-Pro applies to the D4 except more/better... but that doesn't mean I'm really recommending the GH-Pro either. Or maybe the Cube/3D would suit you better.

Arca Swiss D4
Cost: ~ $1150.00+SH
Weight: 2.2lb/977g
Max Load: 75lb/34kg
Warranty: 5yr


Next is the Sunwayfoto GH-Pro. I'll go into the most detail about this one.

Sunwayfoto GH-Pro
Cost: ~ $399.00 shipping included
Weight: 1.7lb/756g
Max Load: 26lb/12kg
Warranty: 6yr

Pros:
Panning top and bottom
Best warranty period
Quick/Easy to set
Lightest
Very good load capability
Very fine adjustments
Main controls are large and easy to use
Arca Swiss compatible

Negatives:
Geared adjustments are stiff when new
None of the levers are indexible... if you don't like where they are when tight/loose you can't really (easily) change that.
Bottom pan lock lever is almost too low when mounted on a larger diameter platform... it doesn't bind up or anything, but it can be hard to grab/set, especially w/ gloves
No geared panning axis
Roll axis limited to ~ +- 60* (estimated, 45* marked)
Knobs/levers are plastic, the tilt knob has a slight bit of play but I've had no issues w/ them yet.


I've read comments that the load capability is way overstated, so I put my 400/2.8 with Nikon D5 attached on it... that's the biggest/heaviest setup I have at ~15lbs/6.8kg. It held without slipping even when tilted beyond 60*. Geared adjustments were not "smooth" because it's a nearly 3ft long setup with a lot of weight out at the ends, but it worked without any major issues. IMO, that's a pretty stupid test. With any camera/lens combination I will actually use it with it is smooth and accurate.

I really like the top panning capability, but the lack of a geared panning axis can be a fairly major negative. A lot of times when shooting products I will have the camera boomed out at an angle, like when taking a 45 degree overhead shot. And in a situation like that, the panning azimuth might not be "panning" any more... it might be pitch or roll instead. Additionally, it is somewhat limited in adjustment range, particularly in the roll axis. This is equally true of the Arca Swiss D4.
Initially the geared adjustments were very stiff, but they seem to be "working in" over time. This seems to be common with geared heads and I've heard the same of the D4 (the D4 I used was not new)... I think it's probably just the grease they use.

My main concern with this head is the plastic knobs... they may last forever, or they may only last 6yrs and 1 day. BTW, I have no experience w/ Sunwayfoto support/warranty service so I don't know what one might expect there. Otherwise I find it to be very well made/finished.

I suppose I should also note that this head is not widely available, and that might be due to Arca Swiss D4 patent claims. I've read/skimmed through the patent and there are some broad claims which this head may copy/violate. It's hard to say for certain as they are dependent on internal functions, and I'm not a patent lawyer, but I think it's probable. I didn't have to do anything sneaky to get one or anything, but it still leaves a potential moral dilemma.

Manfrotto 405Pro
Cost: ~ $535.00+SH
Weight: 5lb/2.3kg
Max Load: 16.5lb/7.5kg
Warranty: 5yr

Positives:
Finer adjustments than the 410JR
Larger knobs... rubberized metal
Better load rating/more stable than 410JR
3 geared axis
Greater adjustment range than D4/GH-Pro

Negatives:
Heaviest...almost 3x the weight of the GH-Pro
Costs more than GH-Pro and 410
Proprietary QR plates
Coarser adjustments than GH-Pro, and slower to use
Notably lower load rating than GH-Pro... but I've never had an issue with it.
Proprietary QR plates

 

Manfrotto 410JR

Cost: ~ $225.00+SH
Weight: 2.7lb/1.2kg
Max Load: 11lb/5kg
Warranty: 5yr

Positives:
It's a decent geared head (unlike the plastic X-Pro)
3 geared axis
Greater adjustment range than D4/GH-Pro
Lighter than 405

Negatives:
Smaller controls/cramped design
Heavier than GH-Pro
Coarsest adjustments
Lowest load rating
Proprietary Plates
Heavier than GH-Pro

 

So this leaves me kind of stuck as to my opinion or what recommendation to make. Overall the Manfrotto's are just "rougher." They're made of cast parts and comparatively roughly fit/finished. The GH-Pro (and more-so the D4) is much more refined with CNC precision and hard anodized finishes.
If you just want a pretty decent geared head for use with lighter equipment, and cost is a major factor, then I think the 410Jr is probably the best choice. I used one for years w/o issues.
If you do work where "straight and level" is a primary concern and you use heavier equipment, then the GH-Pro might be the best choice. Especially for panoramas. The price is right in the middle but it has better capabilities and finer control, plus
it's the lightest. When purchasing you may or may not get hit with import taxes (2.5% US)... I didn't.

If you do work where "straight and level" is not a primary concern and the third geared axis is important (i.e. product/macro), then the GH-Pro/D4 is a no-go... it has to be one of the Manfrottos. If it's for heavier equipment, you would prefer the larger knobs, or finer adjustments are important, then it has to be the 405Pro.

For me, I'm kind of in the middle. I want the GH-Pro for architectural/landscape field use due to it's weight and functionality, but the 405Pro for the studio when I just really need/prefer that geared third axis. If I had to choose only one it would be the 405Pro and I would just have to deal with it's weight and quirks.

 

 

 

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