Choosing a Ballhead

Published June 6, 2009

My last blog was about choosing tripod legs, now we’ll move on to choosing a ballhead to complete the package. One thing to get out of the way first: I’m not going to consider pan-tilt heads (the ones with handles that stick out that you twist and rotate, often seen offered in eBay ‘package deals’—Comes with FREE GIFT!!! Cleaning kit, UV filter, and tripod!!!!) Yes, I know people take great photos using a pan-tilt head on a cheap tripod. I took a great photo once stabilizing my camera on a pile of rocks—what’s your point? There are high quality pan-tilt heads that are excellent for studio work, and pan-tilt fluid heads used for high-end video work, but for general photography use a ballhead is superior.

Like tripods, there’s an overwhelming number of ballheads on the market—well over a dozen manufacturers each offer 3 to 18 ballhead models in prices ranging from $50 to $1,000. Some look like high-tech parts from a Terminator robot, others are as sexy as a tin can. There is a lot of opinion regarding ballheads, but few direct comparisons. In online forums there are a few thoughtful discussions, and a lot of strident FLAOs (Fanboys with Loss of All Objectivity) screaming about “the very best ballhead ever” that they own (and they know its the best, even though they’ve never tried any others).

There’s a reason for the FLOAs, though: people are almost always happy with their first ballhead. Its so much better than the pan-tilt they moved up from that they’re thrilled. Later they may stress their system with heavier lenses, want a smoother action, or different mount and move to a better quality ballhead, but most people are fairly happy with whatever they get at first. So why bother with this discussion? Hopefully to help you pick a ballhead that you won’t grow out of for years and that will allow you to get the most out of your equipment.

What is a ballhead?

At its simplest, a ballhead is case containing a metal ball with a stem that attaches to the lens mount. The ballhead attaches to your tripod and the camera (or lens) attaches to the lens mount. Knobs on the side adjust how much friction is applied to the ball, allowing the photographer to easily aim the camera exactly where he or she wants and then lock it into position. There is usually a ‘panning base’ controlled by a separate knob that allows the ballhead to rotate from side-to-side to simplify shooing panoramas. Many ballheads can also be ‘flopped’ 90 degrees to the side to change from landscape to portrait mode.

Most ballheads are similar in appearance but there are a few that are very different with things like trigger grips or handles in place of friction knobs, partial casings, extremely long stems, etc. They all serve basically the same function, though. To be honest, in most cases these look cool but as a rule don’t function any better (or even as well) as a regular ballhead. The friction-grip or pistol-grip heads, especially, are generally suitable only for light weight equipment, not for use with heavy lenses.

With the exception of the ‘very different’ heads mentioned above, the major differences among ballheads are the size (and load bearing capabilities), construction quality and materials, and type of lens mounting plate used. Minor differences include the size and type of knobs and controls, presence of a bubble level or self leveling base, and other options.

Determining What You Need

The most important factor in deciding what you will need is load-bearing capability. If you’ll always be shooting with a fairly lightweight camera and use lenses weighing less than two pounds almost any ballhead will suffice. You can get one of the high—tech pistol—grip heads or a low—cost ballhead and you’ll be fine. If you’ll be using lenses weighing more than two pounds (a 70-200 f/2.8 lens or larger, for example) you’ll need a sturdier, higher quality head, but still can find a ballhead capable of meeting your needs for under $200. If you ever plan on using a large lens (300 f/2.8 or larger) you’ll want a heavy-duty high-quality head, and the choice of quick release systems will be critical.

The expected load will also be important in determining the quick release system (also called the lens plate or lens mount system) you choose. The quick release system has two components: The lens mount, which attaches to the top of the ballhead, and the quick-release plate that attaches to the lens or camera and fits into the lens mount. The Gold Standard of lens mount systems are ‘Arca-Swiss compatible’, meaning they are designed to accept all Arca-Swiss type plates. Arca-Swiss systems grip the lens plate only along the lateral edges, so the plate can be any length and can be shifted forward or backward in the lens mount. This allows you to maintain the center of gravity of the lens right over the tripod, balancing the system and making it easy to move around (very important for large telephoto lenses, not so much for standard size lenses). Additionally, there are a host of third-party plates and add-ons for Arca-Swiss compatible systems, including camera—specific mounting plates, L—brackets, and Wimberley and other ‘gimbal’ mounts for supertelephoto lenses.

The next-best systems are “Arca-Swiss like”, meaning they have the same general design as Arca-Swiss but are not exactly the same size. These do have the same advantage of variable lengths for large lenses and may be superior to the standard Arca-Swiss in some ways (safety latches, self-locking mounts, etc.) but Arca-Swiss type accessories aren’t interchangeable with them. The third type of quick release systems are certain manufacturer’s proprietary systems. These are usually smaller and work only with that manufacturer’s ballheads. They’re perfectly fine for light and medium loads, but not as good for large telephoto lenses and heavy cameras.

The third factor to consider when choosing a ballhead is more subjective; it’s the quality of the mechanism. The two factors most discussed are “creep” and “smoothness”. Creep is failure of the ballhead to maintain position after it has been locked into place. Smoothness refers to how easily the friction mechanism adjusts to allow you to move the ballhead and lock it back in place. A poorly designed and manufactured head may go from locked to completely loose in a fraction of a turn of the knob. A good one slowly reduces friction until you can easily move the camera position, then predictably tightens it back to full lock. Some ballheads are very smooth at a light load, but if the load approaches their ‘rated’ weight load they become rough and jerky.

The most common cause of both creep and loss of smoothness is placing a load on the ballhead greater than it’s capable of holding (especially if the load can’t be balanced over the center of the tripod). Its best to remember that all manufacturers are a quite generous when stating how much load their ballhead can handle. If they say it can hold 18 pounds it might. As long as the weight is perfectly centered and balanced and you don’t plan on moving the lens to aim at something else. I’d recommend never putting more than 2/3 of the manufacturer’s maximum weight on a ballhead to be safe.

Based on my own experience and the people we talk with, I roughly divide ballheads into three categories:

  • Light duty use: The camera and lens combination is under 6 pounds always (a standard SLR and 70-300 lens, for example). Usually the mounting plate will be attached to the camera (not the lens).
  • Medium duty use: The camera and lens combination will usually be under 10 pounds (a standard or pro SLR and a 70-200 f/2.8 or telephoto zoom lens, for example). The mounting plate will usually be attached to the lens, not the camera, for balance.
  • Heavy duty use: The camera and lens will often weight more than 10 pounds (a standard or pro SLR and heavy telephoto lens, such as a 500 f/4 or 400 f/2.8). The mounting plate will always be attached to the lens, never to the camera.

Light Duty Ballheads

This is by far the easiest choice to make and if a light duty system meets your needs there’s little reason to spend big bucks on one of the top-of-the-line heads. Several articles (1, 2 ) have shown that the tripod is much more important than the ballhead in minimizing vibration. With that in mind a reasonably priced ballhead on a decent tripod should keep a lightweight system very stable. Heads in this price range won’t be quite as smooth as a top-of-the-line head, and they’ll exhibit creep if you try to put a heavy lens on them, but otherwise they’re quite accpetable.

There are a number of manufacturers who specialize in the “under $150” ballhead (many are under $100): Smith-Victor, Benbo, Davis&Sanford, and Cullman to name a few. Several others including Slik, Manfrotto, Benro, Induro, FLM, and Kaiser have models in this price range too. You can get one of the fancy Pistol-grip heads in this class if you like, but the standard ones work fine, too. While there’s no real data I can find comparing quality among these makers, reading what reviews are available at online retailers show few complaints.

Medium Duty Ballheads

The medium duty range has the widest selection of ballheads. The better heads from Manfrotto, Slik, Benro, Giottos, Induro, Novoflex, FLM, and Kaiser all fit the criteria and can be had for $150 to $300. The smaller heads from 4 of the 5 top ballhead manufacturers: Acratech, Kirk, Markins, and Really Right Stuff are generally a bit more expensive ($250-$350) but should also be considered.

I’d better spend a minute here justifying my selection of the ‘Top 5 ballhead manufacturers’ before I go further. First, there’s no question that many top level photographers use a ballhead from a company I DON’T list in my top 5, so the selection is certainly arbitrary. The better heads (often labeled with ‘Pro’) from Gitzo, FLM, Giottos, Novoflex and some other companies are all good. But if you spend much time reading reviews, online discussions, and photographer’s equipment lists, you can’t help but notice that the Top 5 names occur over and over. Similarly, what ballhead reviews you do find generally are comparing among these five brands. While I consider them as the best quality, they aren’t necessarily the best-selling. In fact, two of the brands mentioned (Markin’s and Really Right Stuff) are nearly impossible to find at your local online superstore, they basically only sell directly through their own websites.

In addition to the general consensus there is one other factor that tends to separate the Top 5: they all use Arca-Swiss compatible plates. The Pro level ballheads from the other manufacturers sometimes use A-S plates, although most use an ‘A-S like’ plate that isn’t completely compatible with the third party equipment used for supertelephoto lenses. The reason I make a big deal out of this is simple, and it is the main factor I suggest considering if you are buying a medium duty ballhead. If you think you MAY want to shoot with a supertelephoto lens at some point, or eventually upgrade to a heavy-duty ballhead in the future, it is best to buy an Arca-Swiss compatible medium-duty ballhead now. Over time you will end up with a number of lens plates (the cost of which will add up). If they are proprietary plates, they aren’t going to be compatible with that heavy duty ballhead you buy down the road.. If you like a non A-S compatible ballhead, it may be available without a mounting plate and you could add an A-S plate instead, but this usually increases the price significantly.

At any rate, here’s a list of some of the various ballheads available in this category (weight and load bearing are both in pounds):

Ballhead price weight load plate Pan Tilts 90 deg
Induro DM-01 $176 1 17 A-S like no no
Giottos MH-3300 $212 2.2 28 A-S like yes yes
Manfrotto 468MGR $250 1.4 22 Proprietary yes yes
Kirk BH-3 $265 1.2 15 A-S yes yes
Gitzo 1378M $260 2.4 17.5 A-S like yes yes
Markins Q3 $270 0.85 60 A-S yes yes
Acratech Ultimate $280 1 25 A-S yes yes
RRS BH-40 $375 0.7 18 A-S yes yes

This is by no means a complete list, but its a reasonable overview. A couple of points become readily apparent. First the weight of the ballheads in this category varies from less than a pound to 2.5 pounds, which can be very significant if you’re carrying it a long distance. Second, while the Top 5 brands (in bold) are somewhat more expensive, the difference isn’t huge. Finally, the load bearing capabilities are manufacturer’s statements, not independently verified. Having used many of these I can say that some of the lesser brands are overly generous in their predictions. I’ve used several of these and I can promise none of them (except the RRS and Kirk) can handle the loads they claim they can. About 1/2 to 2/3 of the claim seems right to me for all of the others, but that still puts them all easily capable of handling a medium load.

Now for the more subjective opinions. My recommendation? The Markins Q3. I am a Markins fan, I’ve used all of their ballheads, left for other brands (for a better price or a neat feature), then come back to Markins again. They are simple, extremely well made, and support an amazing amount of load for their light weight. The Acratech Ultimate is also very light weight and very different looking compared to the others (perfect if you want everyone to know you’re on the cutting edge). Its not quite as solid as the Markins in my opinion, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use it or the Kirk BH-3 which is also quite light. The RRS is a great ballhead, but the price isn’t quite as attractive in this category. The Giottos and Gitzo have attractive prices and are solidly built, but they’re quite a bit heavier and not as smooth as the Markins, RRS, or Acratech. I can’t comment on the Induro other than its low price and light weight. I’ve never handled one and online reviews are nil.

Heavy Duty Ballheads

I should first mention that many photographers who shoot supertelephoto lenses regularly never use a heavy duty ballhead. Instead they take the ballhead off of their tripod and replace it with a gimbal head such as the Wimberley II for telephoto work. Others, though, use a heavy duty ballhead, with or without a Wimberley Sidekick which allows them to also use the ballhead with their regular lenses during the same shoot. For more information about the differences between ballheads and gimbal heads, see a video we put together here which compares the two. There is a lot less selection with heavy duty ballheads, and most of the choices are limited to the Top 5 manufacturers.

Ballhead price weight supports plate Pan Tilts 90 deg
Kirk BH-1 $365 1.7 50 A-S yes yes
Markins M20 $390 1.25 100 A-S yes yes
Arca-Swiss Z1 $410 1.5 122 A-S yes yes
RRS BH-55 $455 1.8 50 A-S yes yes

There are some other options: Giottos, Gitzo, and Novoflex do make ballheads rated to 50 pounds or more (meaning I’d trust them with 30 pounds), but I can find few independent reviews on any of them. Any of the four choices above, though, have extensive reviews available and all are very well regarded. I like the Markins M20 price point and light weight, but the Arca-Swiss, in particular seems to be almost perfect when bearing a heavy load (a good review can be found HERE ). The bottom line is you can’t go wrong with any of the four choices above, all are clearly up to the job.

A few links

Arcratech ballheads
Kirk ballheads
Markins Ballheads
Really Right Stuff ballheads

Brief overview of top end ballheads
Top end ballhead comparison
Another ballhead comparison
Dissecting a Ballhead

Disclosure: As always, someone will ask, so here you go! We do not have any relationships with any ballhead manufacturers. They don’t give us discounts, free samples, send Christmas cards, nor do we get any kickbacks or click-through-referrals fees (which is why we don’t link to retailers). Truth be told, most manufacturers aren’t crazy about rental houses. They think people don’t buy as much of their stuff when they could rent it. This article was written, like most of our articles, when I started researching items we were considering to expand our rental lines and thought I’d share what I found.

Roger Cicala
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Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Recommendations
  • John

    BTW, I have had a Kirk BH-1 for 10 years now. Compared to more modern heads, it is nothing fancy, but it is a rock-solid workhorse, and very smooth in use. The largest lens I have used on it was a 400mm f/4, and the BH-1 still felt like overkill. Based on what Roger said here, and my own experience, overkill isn’t a bad thing in this case. I tried the BH-3 first, and definitely didn’t feel as confident with my gear, even though in theory it should be fine.

  • John

    I always enjoy Roger’s posts, even when I find them years later. I always seem to learn something new from them.

    Now that we are into 2013, there are many more brands available, and quite a few sound like viable options. I hope to see more tests and reviews.

  • Mike

    Substitute ballhead for bullhead!

  • Mike

    The reason a bullhead is $400 is that the one priced less usually don’t work very well or very long. Buy a $400 bullhead and it will last longer than you.

  • Rich

    I have finally found my perfect medium duty MonoBall…
    An ArcaSwiss P0. Only one knob… sturdy… innovative design and SMALL!

    I love it!

  • Dave

    This is as painful as mattress shopping. Something that one would think should be fairly cheap to buy is way overpriced. Why should a ball head be 400 bucks? Ridiculous. It’s like dropping 2K for a mattress. Again ridiculous.

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