A little bit of history: the M20
Seven years ago I wrote my first review on the Markins M10 ballhead. Shortly after that I upgraded to the M20, and I have been using it ever since. It is still in perfect working condition, and my guess is that it will easily outlive me. From the moment I turned pro a couple of years ago, the M20 has been used and abused almost daily in various ballheadhostile locations all over the planet.
|The Markins M20 on a Gitzo GT3530LSV|
Each year in february I lead a photo workshop in Japan, where we photograph in sometimes seriously cold conditions, often with snow, and this is a recipe for disaster with many ballheads. Low temperatures can cause the ball to 'stick', turning it into a completely useless metal ornament on top of your tripod. Snow and sleet can make things even worse, but the M20 has never let me down.
|No matter how cold it was, the M20 always performed perfectly. This image of sleeping whooper swans was shot on Hokkaido, Japan, in mid winter. The M20 kept moving smoothly, my fingers did not.|
|Bryce Canyon, USA. I know, it looks nice and sunny, and I'm smiling. Half an hour later I was in my car trying to thaw my painful, near frost-bitten fingers. The M20 was a lot tougher.|
Earlier this year I spent over three months in the Sahara of Northern Africa; Algeria, Chad, Libya and Egypt, and later Namibia. The circumstances there were the exact opposite of those in Japan, and possibly even worse. It may come as no surprise that there is some sand in the Sahara, and photographers don't like to get it on or in their gear because we know it will cause trouble. But what can you do when there is sand everywhere, there is more dust than oxygen in the air, and when sand storms are a daily routine? With the M20 the answer is simple: you do nothing. Never did I try to protect the head from sand or dust, and it never stopped working. The tolerance in the moving parts is so small and precise, that dust and sand simply cannot get into it. Even after falling in the sand on numerous occasions, or staying outside during a sandstorm, it needed no special attention before using it again. Needless to say that I consider this one of the best investments that I have ever made. So why did I want to get the new Q20? I simply needed a second ballhead to be able to work with different setups.
Back in 2004, my Markins ballhead was still quite exotic. Most photographers used the well-known leading brands at the time, and most of them had never heard of Markins nor seen any of their ballheads. A lot has changed since. Serious photographers all over the world now use Markins ballheads, and I regularly see them on my workshops. When I saw the first Q20, my initial response was that it hadn't changed much - which to me made perfect sense. Why change something that has already proven to be the best in its class? On closer inspection though, I noticed some interesting design changes.
|The Markins Q20 on a Gitzo GT3530LSV tripod|
The main knob
First, there is the knob. On my M20 the knob is made of metal with very little relief. In normal conditions this works fine, but when you're photographing with gloves on, the metal knob doesn't offer enough grip and it is difficult to unscrew and open the clamp. The new design features a slightly larger knob that has a rubber part with ribs, offering way more grip - a serious improvement in terms of handling. But also without gloves the new knob offers more grip, it doesn't get as cold, and is much easier to open and close.
At first, the clamp on the Q20 seemed larger to me than the one on the M20, but on closer inspection they're the same size. The design has changed a little bit, making it look larger, but it isn't. The clamp now also features a spirit level.
I'm not using this new feature for three reasons. First, most of my cameras have built-in spirit levels. Second, when I'm not using those, I use a small hot shoe mounted spirit level. And third, I don't really get the placement of the spirit level - it's right on top of the clamp, where the camera is going to be. That means that you first have to level the clamp, and then mount the camera. This makes very little sense to me, because I like to be able to move the camera around to fine tune my composition so I need to be able to check the spirit level constantly, and I would have to remove the camera from the head in order to do that. It doesn't bother me that it's there though, so I just ignore the little green eye.
The clamp is of the dovetail style - in my opinion the most stable connection. Markins offers a large variety of camera plates that will fit the Q20, just make sure you pick the right one for your specific camera body. Personally, I prefer to work with L-brackets. They're much larger and heavier than regular plates, but they are rock solid and never ever move one bit, they're much faster when you want to switch from horizontal to vertical and vice versa, they're better for the stability of the whole setup (you don't have to flip the head, the camera remains right on top of the center of gravity), and they offer great protection for the camera. I got mine from Kirk, but you can get them from Really Right Stuff as well.
|The L-Bracket for the D3 series. I have two of them, made by Kirk. Much better than regular plates|
Another change I noticed right away, is that the numbers around the base of the head now have little indents. I don't think it will make much of a difference, but it does look slightly better.
When I put the M20 and Q20 next to each other, I noticed something very interesting - they're a mirror image. I can vaguely remember that you could order the M20 for right handed operation and for left handed, and apparently I have chosen the left handed version. The Q20's got everything the other way around. It's funny that I hadn't really noticed this straight away in the field, and to be honest I don't really care; I can fasten a knob with my left hand and my right hand.
|The Q20 (left) and the M20 (right): mirrored versions|
|The Q20 with rubber grip and spirit level (left) and the M20 (right)|
But there's more - important changes that you can't see:
- Stronger: the Q20 now offers 250 kgf-cm/217 lbf-in of torque
- Higher load capacity: Measured to be 50kg/110 lbs for a load offset of 5cm/1.97in from the center of gravity
- Lighter: the Q20 weighs only 555 g/1.22 lbs
- More efficient: The load capacity to weight ratio is 90:1
That means the Q20 is no Jaws 2, Terminator 2 or Aliens 2 - it is actually better than version 1.0