In the past panoramic images could be quite tricky to get right. The software that was available tended to be rudimentary at best, and the hardware expensive and difficult to use. For the past few years though professional quality panoramic images have been very easy to create. Adobe’s Lightroom even has a fairly robust ‘merge to panorama’ feature included (although this is just a simplified version of Photoshop CC’s ‘merge to panorama). It really does mean that creating large format stitched panoramics is as simple pressing a button.
A wide angle panoramic taken in Deadvlei – easy work thanks to a good leveling base.
So the software exists, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it can perform miracles. Poorly executed sweeps still result in badly aligned panoramics. A true panoramic head is a still going to produce a better panoramic image than sticking your camera on a tripod head and simply rotating it. However, a panoramic head is heavy, cumbersome and often quite complicated to use. So photographers have a habit of leaving it at home. To me, the levelling base is a good compromise between the full panoramic head and no head at all. This is because the first step to any half decent panoramic image is a perfectly level base from which to create the series of images that make up the panorama.
The SIRUI LE-60 with a large K-40x ballhead attached.
A levelling base is essentially a ball-head that sits between the tripod head and the tripod legs. The idea is that you can quickly set up the tripod and then adjust the levelling base to achieve a perfect levelled base for the tripod head. This is significantly easier and faster than attempting to adjust the individual legs into a levelled position (tricky as anything and extremely slow in getting right). Once the levelling base has been levelled, rotating the tripod with the pan control will result in a perfect level pan of the scene. If you are into shooting video this is particularly important. Without the levelled base any pan would slide either into the sky or into the ground. In a stills image panoramic, the horizon would end up severely slanted, meaning that there is ultimately less usable image left after straightening and cropping the image.
There are a few levelling bases on the market, but they aren’t exactly common. Most photographers tend to not even think about the need for a levelling base. Quite frankly if you find yourself shooting panoramic images a lot (as I do) you should probably permanently graft a levelling base to the top of your tripod legs as they are that useful. For the most part I have been using a Acratech levelling base for the past few years. About ten months ago, The Sunshine Company in Cape Town asked if I would take a look at Sirui’s version of the levelling base; their LE-60. Since then I have seldom left the studio without it attached to my tripod.
The Sirui LE-60 Levelling Base
The SIRUI LE-60 next to the Acratech’s standard leveling base.
Not having had a world of experience with many levelling bases, I am going to have to resort to comparing the Sirui offering to the Acratech levelling base that I have been using for some time now. The LE-60 consists of a solid aircraft grade aluminium ‘bowl’ with a single locking control. The unit mates to the tripod via a 3/8” socket (pretty much standard for any professional grade tripod). Resting in the ‘bowl’ is a 1/3rd ball, also presumably from the same dense aluminium material. The ball is fitted with a standard 1/4” thread with a 3/8” adapter thread around it. To ensure that the tripod head can solidly mate to the surface of the levelling base, there are three angled grub screws that can tightened. This stops any unintentional rotation of the head on the levelling base. The screws are adjusted with a small allan key which is provided with the levelling base.
A close up view of the LE-60 showing the spirit level and grub screws that firmly secure the head on top of it
There is a small circular level indicator that sits out from the ball itself. Oddly it is a silvery white rather than the usual neon yellow that you find on all the other Sirui products’ levels). It sits out far enough so that it is still clearly visible when a K-40x ballhead is attached (the widest diameter of the ball-heads that Sirui produces). The diameter of the platform (top of the levelling-base) is 66mm (with small extruding bumps where the grub screws are, while the base is a smaller 60mm. The 1/3rd ball allows the base to swivel 15o degrees in any direction.
The LE-60 weighs 280grams (279g according to my electronic scale), although Sirui themselves claim that it weighs 290grams. Again, it’s hard to figure out how much weight the unit can handle since two different Sirui webpages claim 15kg and 27kg (here and here) respectively. Personally I would accept the more conservative of the two, especially as any camera rig over 15kg should really be using something other than a standard tripod and ballhead. Out of interest, the Acratech that I use is rated to 11,4kg, so slightly less than 15kg that the Sirui is rated to. Suffice to say, I never had any problems or issues using the unit with a Nikon D3x and heavy lens attached (80-200mm f2.8 AFS as the heaviest lens that I have used it with).
A view of the LE-60 mounted to a tripod.
The control on the base of the levelling unit consists of a single small tear-drop shaped lever. The lever turns a full 360 degrees, but has a clutch system so that you can pull it out and change the orientation of the lever itself. I found it really easy to use and it seemed to lock the semi-ball down nice and tightly. What I really liked about it though was the dampened movement of the semi-ball – more on that in a moment.
Build, Handling and Features
There really isn’t a lot to write about in something like the Sirui LE-60 Leveling Base. They are fairly self-intuitive to work. The differences come in how well they are built and how easy they are to manipulate. From a build point of view, Sirui’s offering really seems bombproof. I have written before that I think their system is built to a very high standard of durability. This thing though feels like you could hammer nails with it. That said, the anodised aluminium does scuff a little bit, but this is purely cosmetic.
Creating complex panoramas can be tricky, especially with wide angle lenses. Setting up for this 13-image panoramic stitch of the milky way was quick and easy thanks to the use of the LE-60 levelling base.
The bit that got my attention was the the actual handling. As I have mentioned I usually use an Acratech levelling base. To put this into context, the unit is almost identical in size to the Sirui LE-60, weighs a 16grams less and uses a screw to tighten a clam-lock design around an almost complete ball. It looks quite different to the Sirui, but essentially does the same thing. The only overtly noticeable difference apart from the bowl/ball assembly of the Sirui and the clamp assembly of the Acratech is the very large neon yellow levelling indicator on the Acratech.
Using the Acratech can be somewhat finicky. Since it uses a clamp to lock the ball, it means that when unlocked it is extremely loose and floppy. The Sirui, which uses a friction gear or some sort, maintains a fair level of stiffness, even when full unlocked. Personally I prefer the feel of the Sirui. Unlike a ballhead you actually need a bit of friction for the levelling base as you are usually making quite small adjustments in order to actually level your attached ballhead. The looseness of the Acratech makes this quite trying whereas the Sirui, although seemingly slower to move, is more accurate and therefore faster to set up as a result. The Acratech, on the other hand, has a far nicer to use (and see) level. Due to its size you get a far better idea of how much to move the levelling base. The Sirui with its rather small level is a little harder to see and tell whether you have lined up perfectly with it’s centre.
Being out of alignment by just a small amount would have made this image virtually unusable. This is the merged image without any post-production. This also makes the use of graduated ND filters easier and more accurate as you know that your graduation will stay exactly on the horizon as you pan.
The Sirui also allows you to lock the ballhead into place with the tiny grub screws. Not so for the Acratech. Funnily enough this does make a difference as I have found myself having to retighten the ballhead onto the Acratech, whereas once the ballhead is locked onto the Sirui very little is going to get it off again without loosening the grub-screws.
Finally there is the price between the two units. At the time of writing the Sirui cost around R2250 (be warned though that this can fluctuate between dealers and whether the Rand has taken another politically inspired nosebleed) locally. The Acratech is around US $150, but isn’t available locally (South Africa). This means delivery and import duties would have have to factored into the final cost.
It’s hard not to like Sirui LE-60 Levelling Base. If I didn’t already have a perfectly usable levelling base I would instantly order the LE-60 for myself. It works superbly well, handles heavy loads of gear, isn’t particularly heavy and is very simple to operate. Best of all, it makes complicated panorama’s extremely easy to execute. Using a levelling base and a vertical L-bracket clamp you can get as close to a panoramic head as possible without actually resorting to a panoramic head. In fact, add a rail and you can get perfect nodal point single row panoramas!
As I mentioned towards the beginning, if you shoot a decent amount of simple panorama’s, but don’t use a levelling base, you will find that the use of such a base will simplify your shooting immensely. Just the ease with which it possible to set up for a panorama will make the levelling base a sound investment. Already using an Acratech means that I don’t actually need another levelling base. That’s the thing about levelling bases. Once you have one, it will outlast any heads and legs that you already have. It’s is truly a future investment in your images. Two thousand and something Rand, sounds like a lot, but in the scheme of what decent equipment costs today, it really isn’t. If I didn’t already have a levelling base, hands down I’d buy the Sirui. Already owning one, means that although there are handling improvements on the Sirui, they are not strong enough for me to switch to a new levelling base. Starting from scratch and confronted with the option between the Sirui and the Acratech, I’d probably recommend the Sirui. Part of the recommendation comes from the excellent 6 year warranty that is offered on Sirui equipment (the folks at The Sunshine Company will honour this). As an added bonus, if you shoot video, the levelling base is pretty much essential if you don’t already have a self-levelling tripod. Overall, I would firmly recommend the LE-60 levelling. It’s an excellent piece of kit that I have thoroughly enjoyed using.
Emil von Maltitz is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.