Gadget Bag: Hold It Right There

It’s a matter of precision. If the ability to point your camera exactly where you want and securely hold it in the same position is important to you, you need a ballhead.
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Really Right Stuff BH-25 Slik Pro 800 Gitzo GH2780QR

The ballhead is beloved by landscape photographers for its infinite adjustability and ease of use, combined with the ability to align the camera with precision. In its simplest incarnation, a ballhead is a housing with a sphere trapped inside. A connecting screw attaches a camera tangentially to the sphere, and both rotate together around a single point. All of this sits atop a set of tripod legs. Movement of the sphere is restricted by friction and controlled by a knob, cam or other mechanical means. Some ballheads are built on a flat base that can be panned, and some have sophisticated motion limiters that allow the camera to be shifted exactly 90 degrees to facilitate switching from horizontal to vertical orientation. It moves like a knee joint, but in more directions.


Induro DM-12 Manfrotto 322RC2 Giottos MH-1001

High-quality ballheads support heavy loads, move fluidly and lock firmly into position. They offer significant advantages over traditional three-axis tripod heads. Different brands provide enhancements and extra features, such as spirit levels, variable tension adjustment and even hydraulic vibration dampening. Many are smaller than their “pan-and-tilt” cousins, partly because ballheads typically have knobs instead of protruding handles. Many, pound for pound, cost more.

Ballhead specifications are similar to those used to differentiate tripod legs, so it’s often useful to consider the two components at the same time. Begin, of course, with a high-quality brand and decide how much you can afford to spend.

Then consider the following variables:

Maximum Load Capacity. Select a ballhead that’s beefy enough to support your camera and heaviest lens. If you shoot with a D-SLR and occasionally use a hefty telephoto zoom, be sure that the ballhead can handle the combination.

Carrying Weight. Lightweight ballheads won’t support heavy cameras, but on the positive side, ballheads that support less weight generally weigh less themselves. So if carrying weight is a major concern, take a close look at some of the smaller models.

Angle Of Motion.
Confirm that the ballhead can be locked firmly and can be smoothly rotated precisely 90 degrees. This motion allows you to quickly shift from landscape orientation (horizontal) to portrait (vertical). Some models have 45-degree-angle locking options as well.

Control Mechanism. Simple ballheads (like those found on inexpensive tabletop tripods) have only one knob that controls everything. More sophisticated models have more controls. Some do away with the knobs altogether and have a spring-loaded, squeezable handle instead. Since you have only two hands, look for a ballhead that’s easy to set up and adjust with minimum fuss.

Camera Attachment.
The basic way to attach a camera to a ballhead is by means of a ¼-inch threaded rod that screws into the camera’s tripod socket. This system is strong and has withstood the test of time, but it’s slow and sometimes difficult to secure in the field. Quick-release systems generally consist of a metal plate that’s first attached to the bottom of the camera and slipped into a matching notch or groove in the top of the ballhead. There are as many people who hate quick releases as there are those who love them, but no one can deny that they’re faster once they have been secured to the camera.

Leg Attachment. Attaching the ballhead to the tripod legs is a simple matter of connecting two flat metal surfaces. Nevertheless, make sure the ballhead you choose is compatible with the tripod you plan to buy. And confirm that the tripod can handle at least as much weight as the ballhead can.

Material. All high-quality ballheads are durable and will last a lifetime if used properly. Most are manufactured from steel, aluminum and magnesium. Some are made from lightweight metal alloys, making them easier to carry and resist binding. Buy the model that feels best when you manipulate it through its full range of movement.

A Selection Of Ballheads
If it’s load-handling capability you’re after—or just rock-steady camera control—the legendary Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 single-pan ballhead supports a remarkable 130 pounds and features elliptical ballheads, axial clamping and PMF (progressive motion-related friction control). Exquisitely machined, the Z1 combines strength and light weight (1.2 pounds) to deliver the yardstick by which other ballheads are measured. Estimated Street Price: $395.

Although it weighs in at barely 16 ounces, the Flashpoint F-3 can support up to 17.6 pounds of gear—a terrific weight-to-capacity ratio—and will handle most D-SLR-plus-zoom combinations. Made of magnesium alloy for durability and light weight, the F-3 is well finished. The ball locks tightly into position with a simple turn of the knob. Estimated Street Price: $75; $17 (optional quick-release plate).

Giottos offers a full line of ballheads in sizes ranging from smaller than a 35mm-film canister (MH-1004) to a whopping three times that tall (MH-3000). All are well made and provide smooth, reliable performance. The midsized MH-1001 supports 11 pounds and weighs just 0.78 pounds. It represents a great value if you’re looking for high-quality construction, high-end specs and a reasonable price. Estimated Street Price: $89 (MH-1001); $12 (MH-1004); $150 (MH-3000).

New from Gitzo, a series of breakthrough ballheads utilizes a patented hollow ball (called a Bubble Sphere) that helps reduce the weight by half, and a Spring Assisted Double Lock (SADL) system that nearly doubles load capacity. The new models also feature panorama lock, variable friction control, extra-large locking knobs and an advanced in-stem bubble-leveling system that will leave you wondering how you ever got along without it. Benefits include silky-smooth operation, minimized drift angle, low center of gravity, compactness and enhanced ergonomics. There are six models, with load capacities ranging from 22 to 46 pounds. The GH2780QR weighs just 16 ounces, but supports up to 31 pounds. Estimated Street Price: Starts at $200.

national geographic expedition
National Geographic Expedition

The Induro DM-12 ballhead supports 26.5 pounds and offers a maximum range of control. It’s a professional-level ballhead that features three independent locking knobs to separately control general positioning, panning and friction control. It utilizes a quick-release system for speedy operation and sports a classy black anodized aluminum body. A nice touch: The panning base shows degree markings in a cutout window.

The Kirk BH-1 is a marvelous piece of machinery—more like machined jewelry. The internal metal parts are made of stainless steel and brass, while the cup that holds the ball is self-lubricating Delrin, a low-friction thermoplastic. All external parts are made of aircraft aluminum. Although light for its size, it still tips the scales at just under two pounds. Operation is simple: One knob locks the ball, while two others control the 360-degree panning base and the amount of ball friction. Estimated Street Price: $355 (includes one Arca-Swiss-compatible quick-release platform with built-in spirit level).

Flashpoint F-3

Probably the single most useful innovation in ballhead design is the Manfrotto 322RC2 Grip Action. Instead of twisting a knob, you can squeeze a handgrip while simultaneously guiding the camera to point in the right direction. Let go of the grip, and the camera locks in position. The grip can be configured for right- or left-handed operation. The 322RC2 handles loads up to 11 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $125 (includes a built-in bubble level and quick-release attachment plate).

The National Geographic Expedition hydrostatic ballhead with RC5 Rapid Connect Plate uses an innovative hydrostatic locking system instead of metal-on-metal friction. The two-inch, Teflon-coated aluminum ball moves freely and smoothly within its magnesium-alloy housing and locks tightly in place with only a slight turn of the adjustment knob. Independent tilt lock allows 90-degree tilt movement. Load capacity is rated at about 26 pounds, and it comes complete with 1⁄4-20 and 3⁄8-inch camera-fixing screws.

Backpackers and urban trekkers, take heart: The precision-made BH-25 ballhead from Really Right Stuff weighs only 6.5 ounces (with clamp; 5.2 ounces with a round platform) and supports 8.8 pounds. Available with an easily interchangeable platform or a quick-release clamp, the ballhead glides through its full range. Estimated Street Price: $100.

The Slik Pro 800 uses a large (two-inch) circular quick-release plate to facilitate rapid camera attachment.

In actual use, it’s fast and easy to align, even in dim lighting, because the camera can be pointing in any direction during the connection process. This medium-sized ballhead supports 6.6 pounds, features adjustable tension control and is suitable for use with D-SLR cameras and most popular lenses. Estimated Street Price: $80.


Flashpoint (Adorama)

(800) 223-2500

Giottos (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373

Gitzo (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500

(914) 347-3300

 Kirk Enterprises
(800) 626-5074

Manfrotto (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500

National Geographic (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500

Really Right Stuff

(888) 777-5557

Slik (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141