Incense

by Bart Arondson

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It's been suggested to get a hot-shoe bubble level for use with a ballhead tripod, when the camera doesn't offer a digital level (and the tripod head doesn't have its own).

Name brand levels, like this one from Manfrotto, cost over $30. In fact, even brands I haven't heard of cost that much. But generic models cost under $10 — Adorama's "house brand" is $6! Although that's just a single bubble, I've seen double-bubble levels for low prices in local stores.

Do I get better quality for the money? Am I just paying for the brand? If I save the $20, am I getting a deal, or am I actually wasting $10 on a level that isn't likely to actually be level?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Expensive bubble levels are quite accurate and display an independent level for each axis. While the cost is certainly low to manufacture, there is a higher cost to getting consistent quality control.

The accuracy of cheap bubble levels is not very accurate. They sometimes do not even have the bubbles parallel to the base of the hot-shoe! It seems like such a simple thing to make.

My daughter loves the bubbles so she used to take mine which I have 4 expensive ones for historical reasons (Dotline, Kaiser and 2 Jobu - which is a famous brand BTW), so I bought a lot of 10 for a ridiculous price for my daughter. She loves playing with them but none of them are correctly aligned on more than one axis.

The point is that those things - just like the levels inside cameras - have to be incredibly accurate otherwise they are useless. It is not good enough for them to be close because close can be done by eye. Without a level I get shots within 0.5° of accuracy. Any level less accurate than that is dead weight. The one on my Pentax K-7 and the Canon 7D were accurate to about 0.25° (although the specs on the 7D say otherwise) while I turned off the one on my K-5 because it was less accurate (about 0.75°).

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Thanks. Pentax customer service will calibrate the level for you, by the way. When I got my K-7, it was off by enough to be useless (about 0.75), but after sending it for (under warrantee) service, it's near perfect. (Haven't measured, but the horizon at the ocean comes out level. I'd say it's worth doing for your K-5.) –  mattdm Mar 30 '12 at 2:31
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How do you measure the accuracy? I've got a Manfrotto 055XPROB and 7D and would love to know. –  Vian Esterhuizen Mar 30 '12 at 3:32
    
@VianEsterhuizen - look at my answer. After rotation and comparison it's visually obvious –  Russell McMahon Mar 30 '12 at 9:44
    
@Vian - Setup a string with a symmetric weight hanging from its mid-point, so that you have a vertical according to gravity. Then, for each axis: (1) Start with the camera tilted and straighten it until the level indicates it is level. (2) Take shot A. (3) Continue tilting in the same direction until the camera is just passed level and back off so that it is level. (4) Take shot B. Tilt the camera from point B to A and take shot C at the mid-point. Continued in next comment.... –  Itai Mar 30 '12 at 11:46
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@Vian - Measure the tilt of shot C using imaging software (which shows you pixel coordinates) and basic trigonometry. The angle of shot C is your accuracy. Do the same for shot A and B. The difference in angles between A and B is your tolerance. –  Itai Mar 30 '12 at 11:47

Calibrating an El-cheapo-junko brand level:

  • Place level in one alignment on a flat board on an about flat level surface with camera siting square and flat on board. Board is a reference plan which you are going to rotate 180 degrees while keeping it paralllel to true local levelness.

  • Note bubble position.

  • Rotate whole camera setup 180 degrees by rotating board carefully.

  • Note bubble position.

    Midpoint of the two readings is true centre.

  • Adjust bubble position if adjustable.

  • Re re re check.

Small "lazy Susan" even better than board as long as it runs true and flattish.
Repeat with camera placed at different angles and any out of true of platform will soon be evident.

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