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Gadget Bag: Ballheads Deconstructed

See how this staple of nature photography works, plus how to choose the right one for you
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Manfrotto 054 Magnesium

Most outdoor photographers use ballheads because they’re ideal for landscape photography. A ballhead lets you move the camera to just about any position with a twist of a single knob, then lock it solidly in place with another twist of the same knob.

There are two basic types of ballheads. In the traditional type, the housing attaches to the tripod and the ball moves. In the other type, exemplified by the Novoflex MagicBall, the ball attaches to the tripod and the housing moves. The advantage of the latter is that you can position the camera anywhere within a 120° range in any direction without hunting for a notch as is generally the case with conventional ballheads.

Induro BHS2

When looking at ballheads, consider smoothness and security. The camera shouldn’t move as you tighten the lock, nor should it move thereafter. A friction lock lets you adjust the degree of friction to suit your needs. Also consider the weight of your camera and lens. Make sure you get a tripod and a ballhead capable of handling your gear; both come in a variety of sizes and strengths. A larger-diameter ball generally will support heavier gear than a smaller-diameter ball and makes it easier to position your camera precisely. We suggest a ballhead that can hold twice the weight of the heaviest camera/lens combination you intend to use with it.

Novoflex Magicball

Heavy lenses, such as super-telephotos and fast zooms, generally come with tripod mounts to save stress on the camera’s lens mount: When the lens is a lot heavier than the camera body, you should attach the lens to the tripod head rather than use the camera’s tripod socket.

If you frequently switch from tripod-mounted to handheld shooting, you’ll want a ballhead with a head with a quick-release feature. You attach the quick-release plate to the camera’s tripod socket, then just slip the plate into and out of the head’s quick-release slot to lock and release the camera quickly and simply.

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Drawing

We’ve selected and present here a sampling of ballheads that can handle at least 18 pounds. We chose 18 pounds because, for most nature photography, a nine-pound rig will be the heaviest you’re likely to use. That would be a pro DSLR with a large, heavy supertelephoto.

The Acratech Ultimate Ballhead ($289.95, weighs less than one pound, yet can support more than 25 pounds at any angle. It’s available with right-side or left-side controls.

Weighing just 9.9 ounces, the Arca-Swiss Monoball P0 ($299, can support 44.1 pounds. It features a unique knobless geared locking system, panning capability and a Slidefix QS quick-release mount.

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The Benbo BEN306 Professional Ball & Socket Head ($109.99, weighs 11.6 ounces and can support up to 27 pounds. It has three control knobs, a large lock knob, a smaller knob to adjust tension and a third to lock the revolving base.

The Benro B1 ($166, weighs about 13 ounces and can support more than 26 pounds. It provides separate knobs for locking, drag, panning and the Arca-Swiss type quick-release plate.

The heavy-duty Cullmann MB8.3 Ball Head ($199.95, weighs 28.5 ounces and can support 66 pounds. It features two bubble levels, a quick-release system and separate pan lock.

The Feisol Ball Head CB-50DC ($169, features an outer layer of carbon fiber, which is strong, light and feels pleasant even in cold weather. It weighs 20.1 ounces and can support 41 pounds.

Acratech Ultimate

Acra-Swiss Monoball P0

Benro B1

Culllmann MB8.3

The Flashpoint F-9 Compact Tripod Ball Head ($69.95, is economically priced, yet the 14-ounce, magnesium-alloy unit can support up to 40 pounds. It features a quick-release plate and a quick-lock knob.

The Foba Mini-Superball Plus ($447.95, ) weighs 28.8 ounces and can support 26.5 pounds. It includes an Arca-type quick-release unit and has a long-handled locking knob for easy operation.

The Giottos MH1000-300 ($85.99, weighs 18.8 ounces and can hold 22 pounds. It features a calibrated base and tension controls.

The stylish Gitzo GH1780FQR Series 1 Safari ballhead ($279.99, weighs 12.3 ounces and can support 22 pounds. It features magnesium construction, a big and solid locking knob, a quick-release system and three bubble levels.

The Induro BHS2 ballhead ($76, weighs 12.8 ounces and can support 18.7 pounds. The ballhead features single-lever operation, a built-in bubble level and a secure dual quick-release locking system.

The Kirk BH-1 ballhead ($375, weighs 30 ounces, can support 50 pounds and comes with an Arca-style quick-release plate. External parts are made of 6061-T aircraft aluminum, and internal parts are made from brass and stainless steel to avoid corrosion.

The heavy-duty Linhof Profi-III 1 ($807, weighs 2.8 pounds and can support 22 pounds. It features separate ball and pan locks, and a 360° panning scale.

The Manfrotto 054 Magnesium Ball Head ($224.99, weighs 24 ounces and can support 22 pounds. It features a 90º-105° Portrait Angle Selector, a QS quick-release system and three bubble levels.

Flashpoint F-9

Giottos MH1000-300

Gitzo GH1780FQR Series 1 Safari

The Novoflex MagicBall ($539, features a unique design in which it can be positioned up to 120° in virtually any plane, then locked there with the same large handle. The MagicBall weighs 2 pounds and can support up to 22 pounds.

The Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR ($375, weighs 16.9 ounces and can support 18 pounds. The low-profile unit features a compact release-lever clamp (requires a Really Right Stuff quick-release plate) and separate knobs for locking/unlocking the ball, tension adjustment and panning.

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The Redged RT-3 ($110.70, is the company’s strongest RT-series head, weighing 15.2 ounces and able to support 22 pounds. It features smooth operation and a 360° ruler for panning.

The 10.7-ounce Sirui G-10 ballhead ($94.95, can support up to 39 pounds. It features aluminum-alloy construction, an Arca-type quick-release and separate knobs for main lock, pan lock and friction control.

Featuring anodized aluminum construction and single-knob operation, the SLIK SBH-550 Pro Ball Head ($189.95, weighs 20.8 ounces and can support up to 22 pounds. It features a panning base with degree markings.

Kirk BH-1

Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR

SLIK SBH-550 Pro

The economy-priced Smith-Victor BH2 ballhead ($44.95, weighs 14.4 ounces and can support 18 pounds. It features separate knobs for ball lock, pan lock and tension adjustment, and a quick-release system.

The 3LT AH1 AirHed from 3 Legged Thing ($132, doesn’t quite meet our 18-pound weight-bearing requirement (the 14.1-ounce magnesium head can support 17.6 pounds), but it’s available in sharp blue with a copper-colored quick-release plate (also magnesium), as well as in basic black. It features a dual-control knob, separate pan lock and double bubble levels.

The Vanguard BBH-100 ($169.95, weighs under one pound and can support 22 pounds. It features a rapid-leveling system and two bubble levels.