Three, Lightweight Ball Heads

Tripods

I use tripods – often. It is, almost certainly, because I spent 25 years exclusively shooting view cameras. Even as DLSR’s have become better at hight ISO shooting, I still value the luxury of composing an image, carefully considering the components of the composition and then shooting when the conditions are right.

Yes. I am aware that using a tripod is, especially for a shot  like the one below, is both anachronistic and unnecessary.

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But I do it anyway.

 

Connecting the Camera to the Tripod Legs…

Tripod legs need tripod heads. There are two basic types.

 

Pan Heads

For commercial work I use a beefy carbon fibre Gitzo with a Gitzo, low profile pan head. For this type of work, total carry weight is not a particular concern. The Pan head quickly gets the camera level in both directions. The pan head allows accurate adjustments on one axis without affecting the other. Once everything is level left to right, the front to rear adjustment works independently. Getting to level and staying there is easy and fast.

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The Gitzo has one other important advantage –  it’s short. Pro DSLRs, which have the winder built in, or other bodies with a winder attached, can get pretty tall. Tall camera plus beefy TS-E type lenses (or a big zooms) plus a tall tripod head results in a tippy setup. Small movements get amplified as the mass of the camera tips as the head gets adjusted.

I only dust off my pan head for architectural assignments – it is easy to get the head level and it is the least “tippy” setup that I own.

 

Ball Heads

But, as post headline stated, this is a post about ball heads and which is worth owning.

Ball heads are quick to use and quick to adjust – if you are not particularly concerned about a dead level camera. The are popular as landscape heads and deserve to be.

I shot Large Format for nearly 20  years using the classic Arca B1 monoBall head. It’s a brute. It featured a big, encased ball and large adjustment knobs. 4 x 5 view cameras are brutish themselves (well, relative to DSLR’s anyway) so the B1 is a good match. The current Monoball claims it will hold 130 pounds (59 kg). I’ll bet that’s conservative.

When I jumped to digital, the Canon 5D / Arca B1 seemed a mismatch. The B1 likely weighted as much as the 5D and that seemed like unneeded weight. Also the B1, a mechanical thing after all, was pretty warn out after thousands of setups.

Since retiring the Arca B1 I’ve bought and used three different ball heads.

First – The Acratech Ultimate Ball head.

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Acratech Ultimate Ball head, at 1 pound (.45  kg) is a beautifully made, simple ball head. While the Arca B1 ball was inaccessible. the Acratech is easy to keep clean and never jammed in 5 years of use. Drag, that is the native friction of the system, is set at the factory. So the head really only has two operating knobs: Loosen / tighten the ball and rotate the ball. As I said, simple.

The design, with it’s diagonal ball mount, is a compromise.

 

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To aim a camera down requires that the diagonal ball mount be oriented with the open face forward. Likewise, to point a camera skyward requires a 180 degree rotation of the head so that the opening is pointed backwards. Not a huge problem, just a a minor irritation. The Acratech Ultimate, at 4.25 inches (11.4 cm), is tall or at least tallish.

 

Next – The Really Right Stuff BH-40 with LR II Quick Release

Two things missing from the Acratech Ultimate Ball Head is, as I mentioned, are a  ball friction adjustment and a quick release. So I bought a RRS BH-40 with a quick release.

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The RRS BH-40 is even lighter at 13 ounces (.37 kg) and is of a more conventional ball trapped inside a sleeve construction. This sort of ball head can, rarely in my experience,  get stuff in between the ball and the case.That said, the ball never froze during my use but did become stiff to operate once or twice until the foreign substance worked its way out of the ball/sleeve space. It does not have the capacity of the Acratech Ultimate (18 pounds (8.2 kg) for the BH-40 and an honest 25 pounds f11.3 kg) or the Acratech  Ultimate but both are adequate for most DSLR use.

It is compact and short – just 3 inches (7.6 cm) tall. Construction is first rate. I’ve graduated up to a 1Ds Mark III and the BH-40  is less tippy than the Ultimate Ball head.

The Quick Release isn’t all that much quicker than screw type systems but does offer better feedback as you load the camera. Wide open, a camera with an Arca style plate drops in. As the lever is brought towards the lock position more and more force is required. Typically, this is not the case with knob type locks. Some don’t open sufficiently to allow the camera to be dropped in (so the camera plate slides in) and the feedback that declares that the camera is properly mounted and locked down is missing.

The immediate downside to a lever operated ball head is accidentally snagging the lever as you move from point A to point B. Catch the lever just right and you will have a very bad day. I rarely left the camera in place when moving any distance with this head.

I used the RRS GH-40 for 3 years and never got used to how fussy the head is. Not shown in the above illustration is how close the drag and rotation knobs are – or how small they are. Also, Acratech’s knobs are rubber coated, the BH-40 is shinny, cold metal. The adjustable, right sized lever on the side, which locks the ball, is great. The small, cramped pan and tension knobs are just too precious and close together. The rotation knob gets used constantly – precious won’t do.

 

Third – The Acratech GP / GP-S Ballhead

The Acratech GP (and its close cousin the GP-s) improve on both of the above. This is my current favorite.

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The Acratech GP Ballhead

 

Like the Acratech Ultimate, the ball is mostly exposed and, after a year of use, has always moved smoothly. The GP / GP-s has a large ball drag set knob lacking in the Arcratech Ultimate. The knobs are larger and rubber coated when compared to the BH-40. Just as importantly, the pan knob and the drag knob on the GP / GP-s are at 90 degree angles to each other rather than stacked one upon the other as on the BH-40.

The Acratech GP / GP-s lack a lever type quick release (as of 2013, a quick release is available.) However the double speed, rubberized locking knob is nearly as fast as a lever type lock. The head opens fully so a camera with an Arca type plate can drop in the heads clamp area. There is positive feedback as the plate is locked into the head. This system is a close second to the lever type.

Both can be field modified to change from a typical ball head to one with a leveling base. This is useful for panoramic photography and works well enough that it the G / GP-s can largely replace a traditional pan head. This modification does require an allen wrench and the inevitable opportunity to drop the screw that holds the quick release platform to the head into the nearest mineshaft – never to be seen again. It also requires that you bring the allen wrench which is just one more  thing (tm.)

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The Acratech GP “Flipped” and Modified with Leveling Base

 

I’ve settled on the Acreatech GP. It’s lightweight, less than one pound, is very well made, and the leveling base makes it particularly versatile. It’s tall, at a bit over 4 inches (10.5 cm) but with the ability to adjust the ball drag, it is plenty stable while adjusting a heavy load. I often use a 1Ds Mark III with a 24mm TS-E Mark II lens and with this head, I can stiffen the ball drag so that there are no sudden movements and the rubber coated ball lock tightens nicely – everything stays where I aim it.

And for a small, light ball head, the controls never feel cramped. I’ve used this tripod while wearing gloves –  something I could never quite do with the RRS BH-40.