This is an in-depth review of the Linhof 3D Micro Leveling Head with dovetail track, a high-end precision geared tripod head specifically designed for handling medium to large format cameras and other specialized rails for macro and architectural photography. Fitted with an Arca-Swiss compatible screw-knob clamp, this specific version is designed to fit any kind of Arca-Swiss plate or rail (there is also another version of the same head, but with a quick-release “Quickfix” adapter that can be mounted directly to a camera).
After testing out the Manfrotto 405 Pro geared head, I realized that I needed something more precise and stable with no “play” whatsoever. Unfortunately, when it comes to professional gear heads, there are not that many options on the market today. Once you get into the high-end geared head territory, there are only three products on the market – the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, the Photo Clam Multiflex (which is basically a Korean copy of the Cube) and the Linhof 3D Micro. When I pointed out that I was planning to review the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube and see if it would be suitable for my needs, one of our readers sent me some information about the Linhof 3D Micro and pointed out the fact that it uses an Arca-Swiss compatible screw-knob clamp. This immediately caught my attention, because the C1 Cube has been known to have an odd quick-release clamp that went through several revisions. I always prefer to use screw-knob clamps instead of quick-release versions, because some manufacturers like Really Right Stuff deviate from the original standard, which can create problems. As a result, I decided to test out both the C1 Cube and the Linhof 3D Micro to see which one would best suit my needs.
In this review, I will summarize my findings from about a month of use of both heads and discuss pros and cons of the Linhof 3D Micro, particularly when compared to the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube.
Let’s take a look at the Linhof 3D Micro in more detail.
Here is a quick rundown of the specifications:
Maximum Camera Supported: Large format
Load Capacity: 10 kg / 22 lb
Dimensions: 121 x 104 x 101mm
Quick Release: Yes
Quick Release Type: Arca-Swiss
Tension Control: No
Tilting/Leveling Rotation: 12 degrees
Panning Rotation: 360 degrees
Tripod Mount Thread Size: 3/8″-16
With an impressive load capacity of 10 kg, the Linhof 3D Micro will support pretty much anything you throw at it, including large full format cameras.
2) Build Quality and Packaging
Without a doubt, the Linhof 3D Micro is a very fine instrument that is made to last for ages. At close to a kilo in weight, the all-metal head is built like a tank. The integrated Arca-Swiss compatible clamp is easy to operate and has a large mounting base for maximum stability and security. There is a small safety pin on the clamp to prevent compatible plates from sliding out completely when working at angles. The metal finish is smooth, but mine had a little bit of texture to it in some areas (and very light surface scratches), while other areas were covered with a little bit of grease – not something I expected from such a high-end head. After mounting a couple of quick release plates, I could see some surface paint coming off, which is again something that I normally do not expect to see early on.
There are a total of 5 knobs on the head. The knobs are also made of metal and seem to be pretty sturdy. However, I do have a couple of negative observations here. First of all, three of the five screw-knobs can be fully removed from the head, as can be seen from the below image:
Not sure why Linhof designed it this way, but I definitely prefer to see non-removable knobs instead (RRS, Kirk and others often use non-removable knobs) – less risk of potentially losing parts. In addition, the center of each knob is wrapped in rubber, which does not look very convincing quality-wise. Take a look at the two knobs from the above image:
You can clearly see extra rubber parts sticking out, which just does not look good for such an expensive head. Another negative point is the fact that the rubber does not appear to be securely glued to the metal. So if you tighten the knob enough, the rubber part will continue to rotate. Because of this, I prefer to use all-metal knobs that have built-in textured resistance as seen on RRS, Kirk and Hejnar Photo clamps.
The Linhof 3D Micro comes in a relatively small box that contains the head, a small booklet (same as this PDF file) and an extra screw:
3) Operation and Adjustments
When it comes to basic operation, the smaller bottom knob controls the panning motion on the base, which moves smoothly once loosened. The second larger knob from the base allows for side to side tilting motion up to 12 degrees each way and the third larger knob controls tilting front to back (depending on the position of the head), also up to 12 degrees. The two large knobs require a lot of movement to change angles – a full 360 degree rotation moves the head by approximately 1 degree, so you would need to turn the knobs quite a bit to get to each end. This is both good and bad. Good, because there is a lot of precision here and you can apply very fine adjustments. Bad, because it takes a lot of work to get the head to tilt, requiring a lot more time when working in the field. The fourth smaller knob from the bottom serves the same purpose as the one on the base – to provide panning motion. This way, you can tilt and pan the head in any direction, independent from the base.
Two bubble levels are provided for each side for proper leveling. I measured the precision of the bubble levels against the ones on my RRS rails and they seem to be quite accurate.
When working with the head, I had four important requirements:
- Allow for precise adjustments for both tilting and panning
- Handle heavy loads on either side of the head when tilted, since I use a specialized macro rail setup and can potentially move the camera side to side or front to back
- Have zero “play”, no matter how much it is tilted or panned
- Allow for secure locking/tightening to prevent potential tilting/panning
While the Linhof 3D Micro did an excellent job with the first three, I had a hard time with fully tightening the panning knobs. It seemed like no matter how much I tightened the screws, the head would still allow for panning motion. Although I was probably applying more power than needed/practical with my long rails, the C1 Cube that I compare the Linhof 3D Micro to below tightens very securely and stays that way. Not sure what the differences are – perhaps the switch-type knobs on the C1 are more effective for better tightening of the panning base.
4) Weight and Size
The Linhof 3D Micro is a pretty heavy geared head. Measuring 985g on the scale, it is a tad lighter than the C1 Cube and the RRS BH-55 ballhead that I frequently rely on. Size-wise, it is smaller in both width and height than the C1 cube (as pictured below in the comparison section), and shorter than many high-end full-size ballheads. It is obviously much smaller and lighter than the Manfrotto 405 Pro (which is a beast at 1.6 kg). If you align the knobs, the head should fit in most camera bags, although the larger knobs might be somewhat painful to deal with.
5) Linhof 3D Micro vs Arca-Swiss C1 Cube
When compared to its direct competitor, the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, the Linhof 3D Micro has a few major weaknesses:
- The Linhof 3D Micro only allows up to 12 degrees of tilting and lateral leveling, while the C1 Cube is much more flexible and versatile, allowing for up to 30 degrees movement.
- Build quality of the C1 Cube is superior, with smooth finish and no cheap rubber parts.
- The Linhof 3D Micro requires a special “angled device” adapter plate in order to switch to vertical mode. The C1 Cube, on the other hand, has a special base that can be unlocked, allowing the head to be tilted to vertical position.
- The Arca-Swiss C1 Cube has a tension adjustment dial (+ and -) on both axes, while the Linhof 3D Micro does not.
- The Linhof 3D Micro is much slower than the C1 Cube, because it requires 1 full 360 degree turn to move by 1 degree. The C1 Cube moves to about 8 degrees with a similar 360 degree turn.
- The Arca-Swiss C1 Cube is significantly cheaper in the US compared to the Linhof 3D Micro ($1,572 vs $2,160), a difference of almost $600.
The only drawback of the C1 Cube pictured below is the flip-lock quick release clamp, which Arca-Swiss has been gluing to their heads to prevent people from using third party clamps. However, you can now buy a screw-knob Arca-Swiss version of the C1 Cube, so it is no longer an issue. Still, even the flip-lock clamp on the C1 Cube worked well for me and I had no problems using specialized RRS / Hejnar Photo plates and rails – all of them fit just fine.
Here is a side by side comparison between the two:
As you can see, the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube is wider and longer than the Linhof 3D Micro. But more importantly, look how much more the C1 Cube can tilt – and that’s in both axes!
While the Linhof 3D Micro is certainly a nice head, I struggle to see much value in it when compared to the legendary Arca-Swiss C1 Cube. As pointed out above, the head has limited ability to tilt – only 12 degrees compared to the impressive 30 degree tilt of the C1 Cube. In addition, it requires another heavy and expensive adapter to be able to go vertical, while that capability is built into the C1 Cube. So if you compare all the features, build quality and versatility of the two, the C1 Cube is clearly superior in every way. On top of that, there is a significant difference in pricing between the two in the US – a $600 delta, which could cover the cost of tripod legs or a top-of-the-line BH-55 ballhead from RRS. I have already made my mind on what I will be using for my lab, and unfortunately, it will not be the Linhof 3D Micro. Stay tuned for a detailed review of the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube!
7) Where to Buy
The Linhof 3D Micro Leveling Head can be purchased from our partner, B&H Photo Video for $2,160 (as of 03/01/2014).
Linhof 3D Micro
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
- Packaging and Manual
- Ease of Use
Photography Life Overall Rating
I am amazed that your “in-depth review” totally ignored the single most important aspect of these heads – performance. The higher the stiffness of a head, the greater its stability, provided that the stiffness of the head is also matched to the stiffness of the tripod it is mounted on. A ball head like the RRS BH-55 is more than 3 times as stiff as an Arca C1 cube. If you are shooting with a Phase One IQ4 150 MP back and taking long exposures, an Arca Cube is no match for a BH-55.
I don’t know where The Linhof 3D Mirco Dovetail ranks in stiffness, but I expect it would rank much higher than an Arca C1. The Linhof is much more dense as an object and is shorter than an Arca C1 cube, with a lower center of gravity. The Linhof is closer to a BH-55 than it is the an Arca C1. It also has a wider base than the Arca C1, and if you mount the Linhof on a tripod like a Gitzo GT5543LS, you will have a set up that is far more stable than an Arca C1 mounted on any tripod.
I own both a Linhof and an Arca C1 with the geared panning, which I find very useful, something the Linhof does not have. I am also far more efficient with my Arca Cube, when it comes to quickly reaching my composition. The Arca Cube is just fine for 35mm cameras, even a high res camera like a Sony A7R IV. It is also good enough for a Phase One IQ4 150, for casual use. I would also use the Arca Cube on a lesser tripod, like an RRS TVC-34L or FLM CP-38 Series II or Novoflex Triopod PRO75. All superb tripods, but not quite in the same league as the Gitzo. But if I wanted the ultimate performance, I would use my Linhof head with my Gitzo.
The other thing your review failed to mention is usability in the field. The design of the Arca C1 cube makes it very vulnerable to collect dirt and debris, and it is not a good tool to use in the field. A better choice for that would be the Arca D4, which also has geared controls, but it is even less stiff than the cube.
So while both the Arca Cube and D4 have impressive load capacities – you could really throw 50+ pounds of gear on them – neither comes close to the stiffness of the Linhof. For still photography with ultra-high resolution sensors, the Linhof is the best choice, if you want a geared head. The only thing better are a handful of the very best ball heads.
I should also mention that the latest version of the Linhof 3D Micro geared head with the Arca-compatible dovetail clamp now comes with panning lock rings that are built into the body of the head, so they are not handles sticking out. They are now much easier to use and frankly, a pleasure to use.
It is important to keep in mind that the Linhof is a tool to make adjustments to the level. It is not a substitute for a ball head that can angle your camera in arbitrary directions. For that, you would be better off with an Arca D4 or a high quality ball head.
I have used a 3D Micro for several years for architectural photography, and much prefer it to the Arca-Swiss. I use it as a leveling head, not a tilting head, and therefore never use more than 5 degrees of adjustment. The Arca has a tension adjustment because of its rack and pinion design — without the tension adjustment, the head will back drive. I like the Linhof because it’s smaller and lower, and it just feels a lot more substantial to me. The newer 3D Micro model from Linhof has a different panning lock that absolutely won’t budge. Finally, the US distributor has priced the head way too high. The Arca-Swiss is about the same price in Europe and the USA, while the Linhof is available for about $1200, including shipping, from Linhof Studio in the UK vs $2160 from B&H. I’ve bought two 3D Micro heads, as well as a 3D Leveling Head II from Linhof Studios, and I am very happy with their service. Just an opinion…
I also have used a 3D Micro for many years. I purchased it from Linhof Studios in the UK for much less than the Arca-Swiss Cube. Since I use a 100mm leveling base with my RRS tripod and my cameras have both horizontal and vertical dovetails, the 12º movement range is sufficient. I prefer the movements of the 3D Micro over those of the Cube. Both are good though. The service from Linhof Studios is beyond superior. I would highly recommend them.
I have a Wimberley hall head but I am not using it much! I was suppose to buy a 400 2.8 but it never happen! Maybe one day :)
I use a 200 f2 with d800(battery grip attached) and didn’t have a problem! It is lighter then 400 2.8 but not by that much. With my macro rail/nodal slide working together it is really good for macro. I can make adjustments both ways without moving my tripod. I guess geared head are better but I am highly satisfied with my set up. Your mileage might vary! :)
Eric, yes, mileage definitely might vary. For long supertelephoto lenses, my personal preference is to use a gimbal head – a geared head is not a good choice for those, unless you are testing them in a lab like me :)
I shoot medium format in three formats – 67, 645, and 617 – and I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to shell out 2 grand for any ball head. Ridiculous. Please, pocket that money and purchase a good set of multi-coated filters, a few months’ worth of good film, a refurbished 35mm camera for fun, and/or a used large format camera. You’ll thank yourself later. :-)
Please do keep in mind that this is a very specific tool for specific needs. First of all, it is not a ballhead – it is a geared head. As I have pointed out above, there are literally only three products on the market that offer ultra fine precision and the Linhof 3D Micro is one of them. The other two are not cheap either. For your particular needs, the Manfrotto 405 or 410 would most likely be plenty – and those are very reasonably priced…
Geared heads are much, much more precise than ballheads, especially if you’re doing any sort of architecture, interior, or macro photography. I bought a beautiful Photo Clam PC-48NS ball head and a second hand Manfrotto 410 Junior geared head last year as I moved into food and interior photography and the 410 hasn’t left my tripod since. The Photo Clam, on the other hand, has hardly been touched and will likely end up on eBay.
I can’t stress how invaluable geared heads are, they are absolutely essential for any type of photography requiring fine movements or alterations and positioning.
Jonathan, totally agreed! For any type of work that requires precision (and architecture / macro certainly do), a geared head is the way to go. Manfrotto’s 405 and 410 lines are amazing. I would have kept the 405, but I needed something ultra precise for testing lenses, so I had to go for the best tool for the job…
Wow, I thought the cube was already expensive!! I guess it must be nice to have but with Z1 arca swiss with RRS macro rail and nodal slide, it is a nice set-up. when are you using your Cube head, and what can you do that you woudn’t be able to do with a normal ball head?? 22lbs is bot much compare to the Z1 60 kg load.
Eric, as Jonathan pointed out below, geared heads are extremely precise when compared to anything else on the market, especially ballheads. While I love my RSS BH-55 ballhead, it just does not work for very fine adjustments that are needed for lens testing. If you ask medium and large format photographers, they swear by geared heads and prefer those over anything else. Fine adjustments with precise controls are important when working with high-end setups.
A ballhead can lose balance and potentially damage equipment if you have something heavy on it and the ball is loose. This has happened to me before, where equipment would fall on one side, hitting the side of the tripod and damaging heavy equipment. And if you are not there, the whole setup could collapse as a result. With geared heads, there is no such threat, since you do not have that potential to make things too loose. That’s why a lot of people love the Manfrotto 405 Pro – a wonderful head that always stays locked. It did not fit my particular needs, but I would consider it for serious work in the field. Its biggest problem is size and weight, but if those two are not a concern, it is a superb tool for the job.
At the end of the day, it is not all about the weight capacity either. Some ballheads advertise crazy specs, but in reality, they are just not designed for heavy equipment. Try to use a heavy superzoom on a ballhead and you will see exactly what I mean :)