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Macro focusing rails - a comparison

Overread 9 4.1k 19 England
15 Sep 2009 4:04PM
Well if you use a tripod when shooting macro chances are you are also using (or are thinking on using) a focusing rail with the setup. A simple rail which lets you slide the camera back and forth whilst on the tripod to let you get the focus just where you want it without having to adjust your magnification (focus) nor having to shift your tripod legs backwards and forwards in tiny motions (something very hard to do when they are in grass).

There are a few options on the market for these rails - from the very expensive to the very cheap.

Manfrotto: link

Ebay *note this is a common item traded on ebay and there are many sellers of this product - search "macro focusing rail" for other retailers. Note there are also kits sold with a set of bellows if you want to experiment*

Ebay - Velbon 4Way macro focus slider (again example trader here)


Quite a shift in price there from the very cheap Ebay through to the reasonable Manfrotto and then into the very high Novoflex gear.

The Manfrotto focusing rail --
This is a sold and well built rail and is based around a wormscrew design, which differs from the other focusing rails on the market. The metals are smooth and well cast, with no sharp edges nor imperfections. Further the overall design of the rail is very low profile, ideal when you want to get as low as you possibly can with your tripod setup. The rail can also take a considerable weight at an angle and offer up no slippage at all along its length (unless of course you lift the pressure release - at which point it will slide, but this is not easily done so accidents are rare)
The rubber grips of the rail which attach to the camera are decent, but if one is not careful setups can be prone to rotate round the screw and slip off. This is more of a worry with heavier setups, but not something you want to ever happen.

Basic operation of the rail is to reduce the pressure on the screw thread via the gold pressure screw and then turn the knobs (at either end of the rail) to move the main body up and down the plate.
This rail also offers a quick slide option, where the pressure on the screw thread is released, allowing the rail to be slid in its housing forward and backwards for quick adjustments to the focus - this is a very good feature when you have just setup the camera since it lets you quickly find the area of the rail that you need to be working in to get the focus on the subject.

However there are some downsides to the design of the rail - firstly there is a noticeable wobble with the rail when the pressure screw is applied and released fully from the wormscrew. This is a feature not noticeable until your staring down the lens at macro magnifications and becomes more pronounced as the magnification increases past 1:1. Thus it is best to leave the pressure slightly on the screwthread so that it has a tight hold on the plate, but still allows movement of the plate to acquire focus.
This wobble is the biggest downside of this plate and can make it very hard to use at the more extreme magnifications, and an annoying pain when working in 1:1 (regular) macro. There is also the chance of there being wobble (from the plate alone) as the plate is moved along the wormscrew - this being caused by slight imperfections in the roundness of the screw as well as the movement of the plate in the mount.
A second downside for users with a battery grip or a pro end (1D) line body is that the adjustment knobs at the end of the rail where you attach the camera do push out quite far. This makes it impossible to mount a camera with a lens tripod collar to the rail when you have a grip (or larger body) attached. Though some lenses are just long enough to allow it (or with a teleconverter/extension tube in place) it is something which can be a great hindrance when using select macro lenses.

Overall if you’re only working in 1:1 this is a solid and well built rail and should suffice well. The quick adjust feature can be invaluable when working with living subjects (bugs) in speeding up the setup phase. However if your looking for fine control and moving beyond 1:1 magnification I would not recommend this focusing rail.

Ebay option

This is the cheapest rail and this is clearly seen in the construction quality and choice of metals - with the twin set of rails having a similar weight to a single Manfrotto rail. Further there are burrs and some sharp edges to some of the metal castings, not dangerous and something that can be removed with a few moments and a small file, but not ideal.
However construction and the overall design remain decent, the rails have free, smooth moment within their blocks and also have pressure screws to hold them in place; but I should note that even when the screws are fully in place the rail can still be moved along its axis by the adjustment knob. In practice though these rails can still carry a lot of lens weight at an angle without slippage along their axis, though of course adjustment of the knobs has to be more carefully done when a heavier setup is used at an angle.
The grips on the rails (to each other and the camera/tripod) are solid and well made, with very little chance of slippage occurring (in fact in my tests it was the Manfrotto quick release plates which where the most likely to fail and cause slippage)

Overall movement of the rails is the biggest bonus of these rails though, since because of their design there is very little wobble in the housing. Even when the lens setup used is greater than 1:1 magnification the rails themselves translate very little wobble at all when adjusted (wobble from handshake and touching the setup is far more pronounced).

One downside to the rails is the clear height difference with the Manfrotto design - the rails do hold the camera higher up and the single rail (without the camera mount) whilst having a screwthread suitable for camera mount, it does not have a platform designed to take and hold a camera body or tripod collar (no friction grip so slippage would be very likely). Of course this heightened camera mount does get round the problem of the Manfrotto design rails and you can easily mount a camera using a tripod collar with no problems from a battery grip (tested on 400D + grip)

Overall these are cheap rails and do show slight imperfections on their construction, but the overall materials and design are very sound. They offer a very good performance for a very cheap price and for 1:1 or greater magnification macro I would strongly recommend these over the Manfrotto model. The added second rail giving you the increased function of sideways movement as well - or your can split the rails into two single direction ones - letting you cut down on your load and weight if you only need the one adjustment direction.

Ebay - Velbon

A more compact design for a 4 way focusing rail setup than the other options and thus far easier to pack. I have not tested this make so cannot offer any real world experiences with regard to their use and functionality.

Novoflex design

I have not tested this make so cannot offer any real world experiences with regard to their use and functionality.
These are a far more expensive rails and come in a range of different (though similar design) models - with the overall design similar to that of the ebay rails. Overall these represent about the most expensive option on the market and thus it is expected that build quality and materials will be superior to that of the ebay rails - though I would expect functionality to be very similar (though with the chance that they can take a heavier load at angle without slippage).

Overall -- overall I would say that the best rails for budget are going to be your Ebay options, the tested rails offering far improved performance over the Manfrotto design. The Velbon 4way rails might prove to be a good choice for a smaller 4way option, though I have no test results to give a good opinion or evaluation of them.
If your budget is not limited then the Novoflex would be the prime choice for the best build quality, though I would say that (Based on the build quality of the ebay rails) the Novoflex do feel overpriced for what you get.

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Pete Plus
17 18.8k 97 England
15 Sep 2009 4:09PM
That's a useful overview for our members. Would you like us to add it to the buyers guide/reviews section?
Overread 9 4.1k 19 England
15 Sep 2009 4:27PM
If you think its good enough then yes you certainly may add it to the reviews section. I would be more happy with the review if I had the velbon and novoflex rails to try out, but sadly my budget won't reach to the lofty heights of novoflex Wink
Leif 13 722
18 Sep 2009 11:08AM
What you say about the Manfrotto rail matches my experience. It is quite bulky, and heavy, and that side to side wobble when you move the platform makes it hard to use in my opinion. I would not recommend it based on my experience.

The Velbon macro slider is better. The second mini rail is best removed as it wobbles. But the main rail used on its own is much better than the Manfrotto. The movement is smooth, and fairly fine, and the build is decent, albeit there are some plastic components that reduce the perception of quality. I would recommend it.

By all accounts the Novoflex rails are very good. There are also rails by Really Right Stuff, and Kirk. I am told that the Kirk rail is basically a Chinese ebay rail, with a few components such as the focus knobs replaced with better Kirk ones. I once had a Contax rail which looks like the Kirk, and I did not like it, as it is bulky and the motion was coarse.
justin c 14 5.0k 36 England
5 Oct 2012 2:01PM
I've just been thinking about getting a macro focusing rail and came across this thread. Very useful indeed and thanks for taking the time to do the review Smile

brian1208 Plus
15 11.4k 12 United Kingdom
5 Oct 2012 2:10PM
If I can add to this thread, I had the manfrotto worm drive macro rack and found it had too much back-lash for my use so ended up selling it and getting the CASTEL-MINI Focusing rack (in your link A).

It doesn't get a lot of use (as most of my macro work is hand-held) but I find it a very solid piece of kit and very smooth in use with litle or no back-lash in the movement
Ade_Osman 15 4.5k 36 England
5 Oct 2012 2:23PM
I can speak for the cheap Ebay option and the Velbon.

The very cheap Ebay option model are very good if you're only going to use on an occasional basis. they work well but are very heavy and not geared very well. They can also move quite a fair amount unless screwed really tightly to the tripod.

As for the Velbon Mag Rack, it's an excellent piece of kit that allows you to make quite precise movements on all the axis. There have been rumours of early models gearboxes failing, but mine is still as smooth as silk and has so far not proved to have any problems, it's very fluid in it's action and once screwed on top of the tripod very secure with very little free play....

oldblokeh 7 1.2k United Kingdom
5 Oct 2012 4:42PM
+1 for the Velbon.
CaptivePhotons 14 1.7k 2 England
5 Oct 2012 7:56PM
One for the lottery winners amongst us (and Pete Tongue)

Ade_Osman 15 4.5k 36 England
5 Oct 2012 8:36PM

Quote:One for the lottery winners amongst us (and Pete )


I've been toying around with this one Tongue hard to justify the cost though! Even if it would get used to within an inch of it's life.........No Ade, behave, you need a new camera body first .....Anybody know when the 70d is being released, that's what I'm waiting for!

CaptivePhotons 14 1.7k 2 England
5 Oct 2012 8:39PM
Perhaps we should do something like a timeshare. Send me a cheque and I'll make the arrangements. Dibs first go Grin
Ade_Osman 15 4.5k 36 England
5 Oct 2012 9:05PM
Not a bad idea, we could start EPZ's very own member only rental service.......Anyone got a spare 50-100K capital to start us off with Tongue Would have to be cheaper/better than going to Calumet though Smile

Scutter Plus
10 1.7k 6 United Kingdom
6 Oct 2012 9:30AM
Another minus 1 for the Manfrotto 454. The wobble is infuriating and is a real pain if trying to stack images. From the comments here I think the Velbon looks promising!

Anyone want to buy a Manfrotto 454 in perfect condition?! TongueTongue

Thanks for the review Alex Smile
justin c 14 5.0k 36 England
8 Oct 2012 10:50PM

Quote:One for the lottery winners amongst us (and Pete Tongue)


That's an interesting idea. Just watched a good Youtube video on how that device works, intriguing stuff. Just had a route around to see what sort of price it was, about 600 Euro's. Expensive, but I was half expecting it to be much more.
Overread 9 4.1k 19 England
11 Oct 2012 12:07PM
Oh this is a blast from the past Smile
Thanks for the compliments guys - and I think the Stackshot wasn't on the market when I wrote that up, but yes its certainly a very good option to consider if you've got the pocket for it! One day I will get a hold of one to use, stacking from a tripod is always a slow affair and there is nothing worse than ending up with a series of shots where you've missed out a frame. Plus you can use a sharp, but very creamy wide aperture with the stackshot and not have to worry about all the shots you'll need to get very accurately.

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