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Focus Rail (slide) Recommendations?

Krzysztof Hanusiak , May 12, 2011; 04:46 p.m.

Hello, any recommendations for a good reliable focus rail? I would be using Canon 5DM2 with macro 100mm lens. I need to fine tune while shooting insects and flowers. I need this for focus stacking.


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Joseph Wisniewski , May 12, 2011; 05:36 p.m.

Velbon mag slider. Honestly, it's cheap, reliable, and accurate. Remove the lateral (short side-to-side) rail, you won't use it much, if at all, and the main rail is much more stable without the extension. About $100.

I also am rather partial to the Novoflex Castle-L, but it does cost over $300.

In general, I avoid the Chinese generic rails (eBay, deal Extreme, Adorama, Kirk) as too tall, not having decent bearing blocks, and overall, wobbly. Rails are like sports cars, they're stable when they're low and wide, not tall and thin.

Edward Ingold , May 12, 2011; 11:56 p.m.

I use a long Arca-type rail from Really Right Stuff, that has a crosswise clamp at one end to hold the camera. That's good enough for government work, but you need some sort of rack and pinion or screw thread once you get near 1:1. The RRS rail also serves as a nodal point slide for shooting panoramas. It didn't cost a lot and is very portable. Arca-type clamps and rails are rigid and secure - the best choice for quick release systems.

Akira Sakamoto , May 13, 2011; 12:23 a.m.

I used Velbon slider but found it difficult to balance. According to the orientation of the mounted camera/lens, the problem is either that the combo is front-heavy, or that the slider mechanism protrudes too much towards the front. Also, the slider adds too much of hight.

I would rather look at one of the Novoflex Castel series or RRS B150-B. Both system accepts Arca-Swiss type quickshoe. Both are quite expensive, though.

Brad Clemmens , May 13, 2011; 11:58 a.m.

I purchased a Manfrotto 454 years ago that has served me well. It looks a little unconventional, but is extremely accurate and well built. Plus it is much cheaper than the Novoflex.

parv . , May 13, 2011; 12:50 p.m.

Joseph W, have you tried the Manfrotto rail that Brad C mentioned above? If so, how did that fare compared to the Velbon one (after removing the lateral rail)?

Akira Sakamoto , May 13, 2011; 03:48 p.m.

I briely played with the Manfrotto slider. It is built very solidly, but I found its movement a little rough. Maybe it's tricy to use it especially for the focus stacking.

Joseph Wisniewski , May 13, 2011; 04:00 p.m.

Parv, I have two of the Manfrottos (they were originally part of a VR rig). I find the rails to be pretty sturdy (they've got that wide, low thing I was talking about) but the control placement incredibly awkward. I like them for situations when I'm shooting substantially downward at the subject.

When you tilt a rack-and-pinion rail like a Novoflex or Velbon more than about 20-30 degrees downward, you're now "fighting" the rail, which wants to send the camera plunging into your subject every time you release the tension knob. A "worm screw" rail like the Manfrotto or the RRS that Al mentioned does not do this. It can easily work at angles all the way to having the camera pointed straight down at the subject.

Al is also right about the ARCA clamps. I normally mount a Markins ARCA clamp on top of whatever rail I'm using (Novoflex Castle-L, Velbon Mag Slider, or Manfrotto) and a Markins plate on the bottom of the Velbon or Manfrotto. You don't need to mount a plat on the Novoflex: it's entire bottom is one long ARCA dovetail. That's very handy. You can even factor that in as a $50 "savings" when you're pricing the rails.

So, I find that if I think I'm going to be shooting downward, I take the Manfrotto along, but generally, if I'm not shooting downward, I prefer the control placement and feel of the Novoflex or Velbon. Or the "built in" rail on the Nikon PB-4 bellows.

Joseph Wisniewski , May 13, 2011; 04:50 p.m.

Akira, I've found that it really helps to have the lens and camera well balanced before using it on any rail. In the case of the Canon 100mm macro, that means using a tripod mount collar on the lens.

I don't know if you actually tried yours on a Novoflex Castel, but the Castel jams if you have too much weight making the camera pitch forward. That's what happens when you use the 100m, but mount to the camera's tripod socket instead of a lens tripod collar. I've found dual tube rails (Velbon, Nikon PB-4) to be more "jam resistant" than dovetail rails (RRS, Manfrotto, Novoflex, Nikon PB-6).

Just another reason why I ended up keeping so many rails around.

Akira Sakamoto , May 13, 2011; 05:25 p.m.

Joseph, I agree that the balancing what is mounted on the rail is important.

I don't have any hands-on experience with Castel. I just didn't like Velbon because I found difficulty in balancing my rig regardless of the orientation of the mounted camera/lens combo. In my case I used Olympus 38/3.5 macro with some extension and PN-11 with either Nikon D40 or Panasonic G1. The whole combo itself is fairly well balanced at the tripod collar of PN-11, but not on Velbon. I didn't like the added hight either, which was the reason I was looking at Castel. Maybe I should give Velbon another try but with the lateral rail removed.

Canon 100mm macro doesn't come with the tripod collar which is optional, so I'm not sure if Krzysztof has the collar.

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