Why the Rotaball Connector?
As sling-style straps1 were just gaining popularity, I first encountered Sun-Sniper camera straps about four years ago at an expo, and the thing about them that stuck in my memory was the presence of a thin, steel cable running through the strap as protection against slash-and-grab thieves. It seemed like a good idea, but a few weeks later I ended up buying a BlackRapid (dual) sling strap instead, not so much because I preferred it, but because Sun-Sniper was still difficult to find in the USA2.
(No patience? SKIP TO CONCLUSION)
I was happy with the BlackRapid system in general; at least, as happy as one can expect… it’s just a camera strap, after all. But there was one major annoyance, and it was this (play video):
Squeaking caused by the strap clip rubbing against the loop of the camera mount could be pretty awful, especially while walking long distances. Now, the obvious remedy would be to simply oil it, and I tried a few different things, and they all worked, but only briefly. I tried light oils like 3 in 1 and WD-40. I tried thicker ones like petroleum jelly. But here’s the thing: the strap system is rubbing against my clothes as I walk, so I can’t grease it up heavily… it will get all over me. And because of the slick finish on the metal parts, light applications of oil didn’t last long.
So for years, I just lived with it3.
And then last month, a possible solution appeared: the new Rotaball joint on Sun-Sniper straps. Problem solved? As the name suggests, the Rotaball connector uses a bearing-loaded ball-joint to provide smooth, quiet motion in any direction. And, as you can see in the video clip above, it works.
Beyond the Ball: Comparing the Sun-Sniper and BlackRapid Straps
Now we know that the Sun-Sniper Rotaball is quieter than the metal-on-metal clip used in the BlackRapid. What else does the Sun-Sniper have to offer?
As mentioned previously, the nylon webbing of the Sun-Sniper strap has a steel cable running down the center for security. Different photographers have debated the wisdom of using this method of protecting your gear, with some concluding that it’s safer to let a thief get away with your camera than have a frustrated person with a blade standing next to you. I side with Sun-Sniper on this one, though: the thieves in question are not confrontational, as a rule. Instead, they are generally running or riding past you, or they’re working silently like good pick-pockets, and if the cut fails, they will keep moving rather than stick around and risk getting caught. As such, I view the steel cable as a good security measure.
That said, the nylon webbing of the Sun-Sniper is a lighter, looser material than that used by BlackRapid (perhaps a necessity to accommodate the cable). I have no doubt that it is stronger than anyone could ever need to support a camera (it will likely support several hundreds of pounds of weight), but the quality just doesn’t feel as high as the BlackRapid.
Also visible in the photograph above are the locking-clips that restrict the camera-connector from sliding too far back on the strap. The BlackRapid clips are easier to open and close, but in this case, that’s a problem. Since this is not something that requires frequent adjustment, it’s better to have a clip that you can “set and forget”, but the upturned tongue of the BlackRapid clip often gets caught on clothing or other objects and comes loose4. This has been such an annoyance for me that I ended up wrapping the buckle with gaffer tape rather than deal the loose clip sliding around on my strap. It’s a simple solution, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The sleeker Sun-Sniper clip does not seem to suffer from the problem; it stays locked and in place.
The New Shock-Absorber
Sun-Sniper’s Rotaball Pro strap also includes a built-in shock-absorber that is very similar to those found in their previous “Pro” straps but heavier, completely enclosing the strap in thick rubber. In theory, this should reduce the shock from heavy equipment bouncing on your shoulder and increase overall comfort, but in my experience, it does very little, even when carrying my heavy Canon 5D Mark III with a battery grip and 70-200 f/2.8L lens. The rubberized material of the shock-absorber is simply too rigid to flex under the weight of the camera in all but the most extreme circumstances, so it comes off looking like a gimmick rather than something helpful. I don’t feel any benefit (whereas, the neoprene and elastic of my older Op/Tech USA straps were wonderfully comfortable shock absorbers).
It is probably better than nothing, though, and perhaps it will become more flexible in hotter weather or when it’s more worn-in. Either way, I suspect that it will hold up well over time, which is not something I can say about every strap.
I won’t mince words here: as far as I can tell, the Blokker is a worthless piece of junk. First of all, it’s ugly and bulky and the sort of thing that’s sure to get lost during your first road trip. It’s uncomfortable if you’re trying to support your camera from below with your left hand. Who would want to walk around with this thing attached to her camera? More importantly, though, it simply does not help secure the camera. In fact, I’m not even entirely sure how it’s supposed to help secure the camera.
As you can see in the photo, when the Blokker is attached to the Rotaball connector, it covers about half of the grip area, and the protruding pin rests against the edge of the camera, keeping the Blokker from rotating around the axis of the Rotaball. Simple enough. What is unclear, though, is how that is supposed to help prevent “…your camera from being unauthorized unscrewed” as Sun-Sniper’s literature suggests.
With the Blokker in place, if you simply grip the exposed top-half of the Rotaball connector and unscrew it, the Blokker offers no resistance. The loose grip that it has on the teeth of the Rotaball is not sufficient to keep it from moving, since the Blokker’s grip is simply an open ring that releases its tension if nothing is putting pressure on it.
But if any unauthorized person were really interested in unscrewing the Rotaball, removing the Blokker entirely would be a snap (literally). The arm and pin of the Blokker make a perfect lever to simply lift and break away the unit from the Rotaball. I’ve tried it dozens of times, now, and in the worst case (when I’m gentle), the unit pops up above the ball of the connector and dangles out of the way, clearing the way to unscrew the camera. When I’m less gentle, the thing snaps off of the strap entirely and falls to the ground.
I emailed my contact at Sun-Sniper and asked what the Blokker was intended to do. Perhaps they’re not sure either… I never received a response.
Although the shock-absorber doesn’t seem to make much difference, that’s OK: the Sun-Sniper strap is already very comfortable, just like the BlackRapid. Both straps have padding that’s between 2.5 and 3 inches wide (the BlackRapid is slightly narrower, but also longer and widens out to 4″ in parts), but the padding is removable on the Sun-Sniper, which may be helpful when it comes time to wash the strap (though I admit that I can’t remember ever washing any of my camera straps before).
Both systems also have an under-arm strap that makes a huge difference in usability and comfort. When lifting the camera to your eye, the padded area of the strap tends to fall towards your back (particularly with the stiffer webbing of the BlackRapid strap) if you’re not using the under-arm strap, which defeats the purpose of this style of strap. When using the under-arm strap, both straps get high scores for comfort.
Back to the Ball: The Connectors
What really makes the Sun-Sniper and BlackRapid strap systems different from each other and from other straps are their camera connectors, so it’s worth spending a little more time on them.
The Rotaball does appear to be an upgrade from Sun-Sniper’s original connector, which I haven’t tested. With enclosed joints, it would have been easier to oil than the BlackRapid, but probably did not offer the quality of motion that the Rotoball does.
However, the BlackRapid system has one important feature that the Rotoball is missing: it’s quick and easy to disconnect a camera from the strap using the BlackRapid’s quick-release carabiner-style clips. For example, I can keep one mount attached to my camera body and another attached to the tripod ring on my 70-200mm lens, and if I want to change lenses while I’m out shooting, I can simply un-clip from the connector on the lens and clip-in to the body connector. Extra camera-side connectors cost about $13 each, or you can buy 3rd-party replicas for about a quarter of that price.
Being able to remove cameras or lenses from the strap quickly is very important to me (especially when I’m using the daul-strap system, in which two of these straps are used together to form a harness), and even now the feature might tip my preference in favor of the BlackRapid system. The fact remains, though, that the quick-release’s metal-on-metal grinding not only makes unwanted noise, it is self-destructive.
This type of damage will never occur with the Sun-Sniper system, but the possibility of quick camera/lens changes will also never be possible. For some photographers that won’t matter. If you use compact lenses that don’t have tripod mounts and if you primarily shoot with only one body, this will not be an issue. For the rest of us, I hope that Sun-Sniper will eventually move to a design that does not force the connector to be permanently attached to the strap.
In the meantime, I’ve found that the best way to silence and protect the BlackRapid clips is high-quality tape. Gaffer tape works for a while, and when it wears through, it’s quick and cheap to replace. If you want a longer lasting solution, there are specialty anti-friction tapes (or fiber/teflon) available that will also work, but some are very expensive.
The Sun-Sniper Rotaball Pro is the most expensive single-camera strap that I’ve ever run across5: it costs $89 at B&H photo. This is not entirely unexpected: it’s a German company, and we know that Leica cameras and Zeiss lenses, for example, carry outrageous prices. They get away with it because they produce stylish, first-rate quality, precision German-made equipment.
How does Sun-Sniper justify their cost? The straps are made in China; the quality is good, but nothing special. It’s not hand-crafted leather, for example. The Rotaball connector may be well designed, but there’s nothing particularly new or innovative about a ball-bearing joint. There are plenty of other straps that contain a steel cable for safety.
Much of the same can be said for BlackRapid straps. Though the Seattle-based company’s straps are somewhat less expensive ($73 for a comparable model), they are made in Taiwan. The fact that so many identical knock-offs can be profitably sold at less than 1/4 of the price ($15) should give us an idea of the margin that these companies are getting.
Now, it goes without saying that BlackRapid and Sun-Sniper are probably using some better quality materials where the cheap ones are cutting corners. It’s also more expensive to develop products than it is to copy them. Still, these prices are steep.
Conclusion and Recommendations
After using the Sun-Sniper Rotaball Pro for a couple of weeks, I finally feel like I have a pretty good idea of it’s strengths and weaknesses. This is how I’d rate it, in five categories:
Quality : 8.5/10
The quality of the strap and connectors is solid. The materials are sturdy and the workmanship is good, but it’s also not the best I’ve seen (ThinkTank equipment is even better). Nothing out there matches the Rotaball, but the rest of it doesn’t seem very special. (I’d rate the BlackRapid about the same)
Design : 8/10
The features and functionality of the Rotaball Pro strap are really top notch, missing a 10 only because there is no quick-release and because of the limited functionality of the shock-absorber. But I took off a full point for the Blokker.
Comfort : 9/10
Again, Sun-Sniper is a very comfortable strap system, especially when the under-arm strap is used. I do think that my older OP/Tech straps were more comfortable and better shock-absorbers, but with a sling-strap, this is actually less important than you might think, since the weight is distributed over the whole shoulder and chest more evenly.
Appearance : 7.5/10
Nothing wrong with the appearance, if you like black nylon. It’s a professional looking strap, and it looks like a quality piece of equipment. The Rotaball in particular looks great. However, there’s nothing stylish about it; it’s pretty utilitarian. Photographers for whom a fashionable or vintage aesthetic are important (Leica, Fuji, Hasselblad…) will probably not want to choose this strap over something like an ONA Presidio.
Value : 5/10
At about $60 (still three or four times the price of the cheap knock offs) I’d probably say this was a good value-for-money strap, and it would get a 6 or 7/10. At $90, this strap is just too expensive for the quality and features that it provides. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend the money, just understand that you’re paying the premium for the brand name and, perhaps, country of origin.
Overall, that’s a 7.4/10, which is a pretty strong score for this site. The Sun-Sniper is a high-quality strap that combines security and a strong feature set with comfort and solid looks. The price is perhaps a bit higher than is justified even by the product’s admittedly high quality, but some may find the premium acceptable.
If you’re the type of photographer that can live without a quick-release connector, then the Sun-Sniper may be the best sling strap available on the market, and I’m happy to recommend it, especially if price is no concern.
Other straps to consider would be the BlackRapid Sport (high quality and with quick release: $74) or the Gorilla Gear Sling (more comfortable, with a quick release, but won’t last as long: $35). Like the Sun-Sniper, the BlackRapid straps are also very rugged, but the clip will require some preventative maintenance.
- For those of you who are unfamiliar with the sling style of straps made by Sun-Sniper and BlackRapid, they function a little differently than traditional camera straps that are fixed to the camera body. With these models, a metal loop (of varying complexity) is screwed into the camera’s tripod mount, and that loop can slide freely over a plain webbing strap that is worn sling-style over the shoulder. Consequently, when you lift the camera to your eye from where it hangs at your side, the bulk of the strap does not move on your shoulder; instead, the camera and loop slide freely up a portion of the strap towards your eye. ↩
- Sun-Sniper is a German company (made in China). As all Leica/Zeiss owners know, German camera equipment can be outrageously expensive. Accordingly, Sun-Sniper strap is about the most expensive strap that I’ve seen, at about $90 for the Pro, but the one that I have was provided by the company for review. As usual, I’ve done my best to not let this fact influence my opinion of it. ↩
- Actually, I eventually found that there are some tape wraps that help, but I’m still experimenting to find the perfect compromise between cost and functionality ↩
- there are also TWO of these clips on the BlackRapid strap… one behind and one in front of the camera clip. The back clip I can understand, but the front one just gets in the way. ↩
- except some leather fashion straps, like ONA or other luxury brands. ↩