Sachtler vs. Zacuto vs. FOTGA -- or Why the HECK Would Someone Spend Five to Ten Times as Much on a Freakin' Baseplate When You Can Get a Perfectly Usable One for $60? THIS is Why.

Actually, this is why it makes sense to find the optimal compromise between price and performance for the core components of your gear (camera and lenses): you're going to need a pile more dough for everything else. But "pile" is a relative term. Welcome to episode 2 of what I'm now calling our Goldilocks series, where this time we look at baseplates - a category I used to think was beyond mundane. I was wrong. Video at end of post.

In the Beginning

A few years ago I learned the hard way that I needed a matte box. But I was shooting with a little Canon Rebel SL1,  $400 a pop, and I needed the cheapest usable solution I could find.

A $20 Neweer Matte Box  did the trick once I connected it to a 15mm rod system by FOTGA for another $60.

Amazing what you can do with very little money: Canon Rebel SL1 with Canon EF-S 55-210 STM lens  [B&H|Amazon],  CamRanger wireless controller feeding an iPad as a monitor, FOTGA DP500 rod system, Neewer matte box, and a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro; a friend's '54 GMC pickup; and a friend of the family as the on-screen talent.

Amazing what you can do with very little money: Canon Rebel SL1 with Canon EF-S 55-210 STM lens  [B&H|Amazon],  CamRanger wireless controller feeding an iPad as a monitor, FOTGA DP500 rod system, Neewer matte box, and a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro; a friend's '54 GMC pickup; and a friend of the family as the on-screen talent.

It worked, and back then I thought it (the gear) looked PRO-FRESHIONAL.

Yeah, it wasn't remotely mounted correctly (though it is set up perfectly for a catastrophic metal fatigue failure).

Yeah, it wasn't remotely mounted correctly (though it is set up perfectly for a catastrophic metal fatigue failure).

I used a hair bandy thingy as a donut; the stray light stayed out; contrast improved dramatically;  and we were a finalist in the competition for a major auto parts retailer commercial.

Screen grab: matte box made things much better, but yes, I know how much of  a difference a high quality lens would have made.

Screen grab: matte box made things much better, but yes, I know how much of  a difference a high quality lens would have made.

Screen grab: still, not bad for a $300 zoom lens!

Screen grab: still, not bad for a $300 zoom lens!

Screen grab: telephoto compression and a dissolve with camera, lens and editing software (Final Cut Pro X) which together are much less expensive than some matte boxes. I make no claim to competence.

Screen grab: telephoto compression and a dissolve with camera, lens and editing software (Final Cut Pro X) which together are much less expensive than some matte boxes. I make no claim to competence.

Make no mistake: if I'd had the money, I would have done the usual "geeks gone wild" routine and bought something nosebleed beyond my capabilities like I always had up until a few years earlier.

But this time, with more common sense than money (well, some common sense and NO money), I was forced into being a recovering gear-aholic, sober at that point for more than a year.

Time Moves On

The great thing about doing what you love is that you just keep getting better at it. We outgrew the SL1s, moved on to the Sony a6000, and the little matte box and rod system that could kept on trucking.  

Even if they were a pain in the butt to adjust.

Who were we to be picky?

But then the projects and gear reviews got more sophisticated -- and heavier. Real shoots became higher pressure, and futzing around became less a good way to economize than false economy when it got in the way.

Oh yeah, and then there was the time a Sony FS7 went crashing to the floor because one of the quick releases on one leg of a pretty darned expensive and robust (to me) tripod slid a few millimeters under the weight, leading the whole thing to topple over.

Taken with my Sony a6000, moments before the FS7 with FE PZ 28-135 f/4, Zacuto Gratical HD and Atomos Ninja Assassin went crashing to the floor. Amazingly, other than a demolished lens hood, everything worked perfectly. The massive Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate did the business, but I found the upper weight limit on my Cartoni Focus the hard way.

Taken with my Sony a6000, moments before the FS7 with FE PZ 28-135 f/4, Zacuto Gratical HD and Atomos Ninja Assassin went crashing to the floor. Amazingly, other than a demolished lens hood, everything worked perfectly. The massive Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate did the business, but I found the upper weight limit on my Cartoni Focus the hard way.

Just recently, a long-term Sony FS5 loaner looked very unhappy perched atop the FOTGA system as I attached one follow focus after another during a comparo (video here). The FOTGA system was not up to the task of mounting a heavier camera, with a monitor and a heavy duty, high torque, wireless follow focus like the Cinegears it flexed along multiple axes.

Sony FS5 with Veydra 85mm T/2.2 in E-Mount with Cinegears wireless follow focus. The FOTGA was just a little too bendy, a little too...scary to try this again. Love the camera and the lens, though.

Sony FS5 with Veydra 85mm T/2.2 in E-Mount with Cinegears wireless follow focus. The FOTGA was just a little too bendy, a little too...scary to try this again. Love the camera and the lens, though.

Heck, just going back to the camera to change a setting required me to wait a moment for the camera to settle down on the FOTGA.

It's not as much fun reviewing gear when you're constantly waiting for something dramatic to happen and worrying about how you're going to break it to the vendor who's expecting their gear back in perfect condition.

The Opportunity

It was at NAB 2016 that I met the good folks at famed German gear company Sachtler while gawking at their precision iron. Their fluid heads and tripods made my Cartoni FOCUS HD look uncomfortably like the skinny kid in a Charles Atlas ad (does anyone reading this know what I'm talking about?).

But they were all too expensive, without a justifiable ROI for me to do anything other than drool.

"Would you like to check out some of our gear for review?" the Sachtler folks asked me.

"Yes, please."

The saving grace? I'd learned to do more with less, and I figured the drool would quickly evaporate once the loaner stuff arrived.

If I'm honest with myself, I didn't expect the prices to be justified.

The Sachtler Ace Baseplate Takes on the Little FOTGA - and the Monster Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate

Like much expensive gear these days, it looks like Sachtler has taken a page from the Apple playbook: the packaging for the Sachlter Ace baseplate is heavy and beautiful.

But really, who cares?

I took the base plate out of its box and thought: this is big and heavy, too. Not as big and heavy as the Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate, but then again it's half the price of the Zacuto.

I decided I needed to call up the friendly folks at Zacuto and get that VCT monster back to do a little Three Blind Men and an Elephant action: try to better understand the essence of baseplates by taking at least three different perspectives.

The Zacuto would arrive a couple of days later, in time for the product shots.

Left to right: Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate and Tripod Plate, Sachtler Ace Base Plate, and FOTGA DP500 equivalent (notice that the FOTGA locking clamps are separate assemblies).

Left to right: Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate and Tripod Plate, Sachtler Ace Base Plate, and FOTGA DP500 equivalent (notice that the FOTGA locking clamps are separate assemblies).

Left to right: Zacuto, Sachtler and FOTGA. They all use 15mm rods, they all rise to about the same height -- but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Left to right: Zacuto, Sachtler and FOTGA. They all use 15mm rods, they all rise to about the same height -- but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Left to right: FOTGA, Sachtler, Zacuto. The differences in robustness and intended payload are pretty clear. The FOTGA is two basic assemblies: rear rod clamps plus combo tripod and camera plate with riser, and front rod clamps with adjustable lens support.

Left to right: FOTGA, Sachtler, Zacuto. The differences in robustness and intended payload are pretty clear. The FOTGA is two basic assemblies: rear rod clamps plus combo tripod and camera plate with riser, and front rod clamps with adjustable lens support.

Left to right: FOTGA, Sachtler and Zacuto. Increasing number of mounting points, larger surface area to spread the weight.

Left to right: FOTGA, Sachtler and Zacuto. Increasing number of mounting points, larger surface area to spread the weight.

But as I turned over the Ace in my hands and inspected it from all angles, I saw how much forethought and engineering had gone into it, clearly with just one objective in mind: making it disappear from the mind of the operator.

The Details

What does THAT mean?

It means eliminating the possibility of a weak link in the chain of gear, so that you as the camera operator can concentrate on the important stuff - getting the shot.

Worried about losing the 1/4" or 3/8" mounting screw? Don't: the Ace base plate has two of each screwed in on the side so that even if you lose a second one, a third is right there. That's on top of the one that's already in the quick release plate.

An extra pair of 1/4" 3/8" mounting screws, screwed right into the Ace just waiting for you in the event you lose yours.

An extra pair of 1/4" 3/8" mounting screws, screwed right into the Ace just waiting for you in the event you lose yours.

Whoa.

Annoyed when the QR plate locking knob hits the bottom of the camera and you have to pull the spring-loaded lever out two or three times to tighten it in place? You won't be with the Ace: the lever on the Ace is flush with the top of the QR plate so that it will never be an issue.

Differently shaped and sized locking levers for different purposes on the Ace: smart, appropriate.

Differently shaped and sized locking levers for different purposes on the Ace: smart, appropriate.

Ever get crabby when you have to remove the camera from the base plate and forget to mark exactly where you had it, and now the shot is going to be just a little off from where it was? Thing of the past: the QR plate and the base plate are each indexed. Snap a pic with your smartphone if you don't have the time or inclination to write it down, and you're good to go.

Are there even better ways to retain precise location when you remove camera from tripod? Yes (how are you going to see this when the camera obscures the view?). But the Ace is a heckuva lot better than many. Stay tuned for episode 4 on tripods.

Are there even better ways to retain precise location when you remove camera from tripod? Yes (how are you going to see this when the camera obscures the view?). But the Ace is a heckuva lot better than many. Stay tuned for episode 4 on tripods.

Do you get fidgety when you have multiple locking levers to secure a pair of rods in place (the FOTGA has four) and worry about one of them sliding before you can get to the others? Won't happen with the Ace: a single lever locks both rods at four different clamping points.

I'm not quite sure how Sachtler did it, but one lever tightens all four rod clamps - and even when set at its lowest, it doesn't get in the way of the camera body. 

I'm not quite sure how Sachtler did it, but one lever tightens all four rod clamps - and even when set at its lowest, it doesn't get in the way of the camera body. 

Do your fingers scream in frustration when you have to adjust the height of a base plate (say, to fit a wide diameter geared cine lens) and the design of the base plate requires you to stick them in spaces too small for mortal fingers to go?  Fretting that you may inadvertently turn the locking screw too far to the left and have it separate from the base plate altogether? Not happening here: another single locking lever makes it easy to adjust the height of the Ace on two robust diagonally opposed risers.

One small lever locks the adjustable height Ace, securely clamping two very substantial, diagonally offset riser posts. Beautiful.

One small lever locks the adjustable height Ace, securely clamping two very substantial, diagonally offset riser posts. Beautiful.

The Goldilocks Analysis

But do you need this kind of attention to detail and robustness?

Can you afford it?

If you're not a daily shooter, you don't mind futzing a bit to save money, and you're happy to stay with a little camera (and there are some amazing little cameras out there, most notably the Sony a6300 [B&H|Amazon]  which is my daily shooter, though I remain intrigued by the Panasonic GX-8  [B&H|Amazon] and  GX-85  [B&H|Amazon]), I think the answers are: "No," and "It doesn't matter." 

There are better things to do with your money, like pay for gas and maybe a nice B&B to road trip somewhere beautiful and capture footage. Gear come and go, but experiences remain with us forever.

$80 for a matte box and rods to mount it on is more than enough; the Neewer and FOTGA kit are fine (just remember to slip on and tighten that cross brace, even if you're not going to use the lens support).

Simple, robust enough for small cameras -- the FOTGA is perfectly adequate .  It can work with Super35-designed lenses like the Veydras and a manual follow focus like the edelkrone FocusONE, but I wouldn't recommend it for use with large or full frame geared cine lenses with high torque follow focus motors. Matte box comparo coming up in Goldilocks episode 3.

Simple, robust enough for small cameras -- the FOTGA is perfectly adequate .  It can work with Super35-designed lenses like the Veydras and a manual follow focus like the edelkrone FocusONE, but I wouldn't recommend it for use with large or full frame geared cine lenses with high torque follow focus motors. Matte box comparo coming up in Goldilocks episode 3.

The FOTGA is even elegant in its own way -- but only when it comes to aesthetics.

The FOTGA is even elegant in its own way -- but only when it comes to aesthetics.

The fact that the FOTGA uses a separate set of clamps for the rod attached only to the rods -- as opposed to part of the baseplate itself -- contributes to its limited utility for all but the lightest cameras. Which is fine, if you're using a light camera. But having the locking lever mounted between the rails is sub-optimal. Which is also fine if money is tight.

The fact that the FOTGA uses a separate set of clamps for the rod attached only to the rods -- as opposed to part of the baseplate itself -- contributes to its limited utility for all but the lightest cameras. Which is fine, if you're using a light camera. But having the locking lever mounted between the rails is sub-optimal. Which is also fine if money is tight.

The camera baseplate and tripod plate are held in place by this single locking lever with also doubles as the locking lever for the height adjustment. The good news is that you can reverse their orientation so that they sit over each other to better balance the load. The bad news is that it makes it even tougher to tighten the tripod screw or adjust the height. I'm not knocking the FOTGA - it and others like it will do the business under the right circumstances. You just need to be clear about what those circumstances are.

The camera baseplate and tripod plate are held in place by this single locking lever with also doubles as the locking lever for the height adjustment. The good news is that you can reverse their orientation so that they sit over each other to better balance the load. The bad news is that it makes it even tougher to tighten the tripod screw or adjust the height. I'm not knocking the FOTGA - it and others like it will do the business under the right circumstances. You just need to be clear about what those circumstances are.

On the other hand, if you are running anything like the Sony FS5, Canon C100 II, or Blackmagic URSA Mini, I think you DO need this much robustness -- and you'll be delighted by that attention to detail.

The Sachtler Ace baseplate is industrial art.

The Sachtler Ace baseplate is industrial art.

I think $288 for the Ace baseplate is cheap insurance and easy peace of mind.

Then again, if you've got something like the Sony FS7 or Blackmagic Design full-boat URSA, I think you probably need to pony up for the big boy in the group, the $574 Zacuto VCT with its companion VCT Tripod Plate, another $270.

That combo is MONSTROUS.

Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate (with built-in shoulder pad) atop the matching VCT Tripod Plate are the papa bear of this trio. Even so, there are dramatically bigger heavier-duty, vastly more expensive things like this out there for even heavier payloads.  I can't go there.

Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate (with built-in shoulder pad) atop the matching VCT Tripod Plate are the papa bear of this trio. Even so, there are dramatically bigger heavier-duty, vastly more expensive things like this out there for even heavier payloads.  I can't go there.

It makes the Ace look dainty. It makes the Ace feel light. It isn't industrial art like the Sachtler, but it's not trying to be. The VCT basically screams "Who gives a crap? Are you looking at the baseplate or do you want to look through the viewfinder and nail the friggin' shot? You gonna whine about busting some knuckles because you have to lift and turn those levers? Call the wahmbulance!"

"Four clamping points? We don't need no four steenkin' clamping points! Two for the front, two for the back if you need them." The Zacuto is a beast in every way (including requiring hex drivers to change the height of the front rod clamps. But once they're in, they're IN(. 

"Four clamping points? We don't need no four steenkin' clamping points! Two for the front, two for the back if you need them." The Zacuto is a beast in every way (including requiring hex drivers to change the height of the front rod clamps. But once they're in, they're IN(. 

Interestingly, the rear rods on the VCT -- which are likely to carry  heavier loads  like a V-mount or Gold-mount battery -- need to be threaded. Makes sense to me.

Interestingly, the rear rods on the VCT -- which are likely to carry  heavier loads  like a V-mount or Gold-mount battery -- need to be threaded. Makes sense to me.

For the people who are likely to need it, that's absolutely right. I know. I had it underneath that FS7. Even after falling a little bit in love with the Ace, it would still be the VCT that I'd put underneath an FS7 class machine, especially when kitted out with accessories.

This is the Zacuto VCT Tripod Plate. It makes standard quick release clamps look inadequate. Go back up to the first or second photo in the article to see just how big this sucker is.

This is the Zacuto VCT Tripod Plate. It makes standard quick release clamps look inadequate. Go back up to the first or second photo in the article to see just how big this sucker is.

The Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate is YUUUUGE compared to the FOTGA and even the Sachtler. Those 1/4" and 3/8" screws will break before the VCT does.

The Zacuto VCT Universal Baseplate is YUUUUGE compared to the FOTGA and even the Sachtler. Those 1/4" and 3/8" screws will break before the VCT does.

But with this written, errr... I'd get annoyed with those levers. I'd get annoyed about having to whip out a hex driver to change the VCT's height. There is an undeniable elegance to the Ace that the Zacuto lacks.

Maybe there's a reason I spend more time writing screenplays than shooting footage.

Closing Thoughts

Back in the days when I only did photography, an Arca Swiss monoball head with quick release lever was da bomb.

THE Arca-Swiss, a standard in the ball head world.

THE Arca-Swiss, a standard in the ball head world.

When you move into the world of moving pictures it's a whole other level of complexity and spend. At my current level, the Ace base plate is a compelling piece of kit.

But the bigger picture is this: each one of these baseplates represents a reasonable price/performance trade-off, appropriate to the people to whom they most appeal.

At $60 for the FOTGA rod system, beginning DSLR and mirrorless filmmakers can graduate to using a matte box for flare control beyond what a lens hood can accomplish. Of course, you can MAKE one out of cardboard and duct tape, too -- but then again you can do an awful lot with a smartphone in one hand and shielding the lens with your other.

Taken on its own terms, the FOTGA can contribute to superior footage.

Taken on its own terms, the FOTGA can contribute to superior footage.

If you're looking to support a sophisticated matte box which includes holders for larger glass filters and/or a heavy duty follow focus on a camera up to and including the weight class of the Sony FS5, $288 for the Ace baseplate and another $40 for the rods seems an eminently reasonable price. We're talking about an allocation 10% or less of the purchase price of the camera body like the Sony a7R II, Sony FS5, or Canon C100 Mk II.

The underside of the Sachtler Ace base plate is the best angle to appreciate the forethought and complexity that goes into its design: many mounting points, robust, solid metal riser rods, differently sized and shaped levers fit to purpose, elegantly shaped core block - wow.

The underside of the Sachtler Ace base plate is the best angle to appreciate the forethought and complexity that goes into its design: many mounting points, robust, solid metal riser rods, differently sized and shaped levers fit to purpose, elegantly shaped core block - wow.

Interestingly, that's about the same percentage allocation I'd expect for FOTGA-appropriate cameras.

At the high end of this trio, that under 10% figure for the Zacuto VCT combo seems about spot-on when you think about cameras like the Sony FS7, the Blackmagic URSA, or the Canon C300 Mk II.

You really do get what you pay for.

Special Thanks

As always, special thanks to the folks who made the gear available to me -- you guys are great! In this case, shout-out to Sachtler, Zacuto and Sony.

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