ballhead" is a question that nature photographers
spend considerble time obsessing over. The problem,
of course, is that few people have actually had hands-on
experience with the various models. Anand is a top-notch
photographer and one of the few people I know who has
hands-on experience with all the main options out there;
he was kind enough to consent to write up his experiences
for sharing. His website, Imprints
of Light, showcases his work and is well worth a
After several years of using a pan-tilt
head, I saw some virtues in switching to a ball head
– especially when I started doing a lot of Macros.
I did not want to get the cheapest ball-head out there
– while one can still make do with a pan-tilt
head of average construction, a poorly made ball-head
can be an excruciating pain in the proverbial. So here
is the story of my search for a good ball-head.
I was willing to spend top dollar
for the head provided it met the following criteria:
• Excellent build quality, and a finish that was
worthy of its price.
• Smooth movement of the ball - a self-lubricating
design was preferable.
• Ability to lock tight with a reasonably small
turn of the knob, while still allowing for little adjustments
• Decent friction control mechanism.
• A rotating base with calibration in degrees
for that occasional panorama shot.
• An excellent quick release system, preferably
of the Arca-Swiss variety.
• Last but definitely not the least, it should
be light and yet hold the heaviest equipment that I
would ever use. I was looking for a load capacity in
the region of 25Kg or more – not that I would
be hauling 25kg of equipment but a higher load capacity
means higher stability that would reduce the downward
creep that is characteristic of many tripod heads. This
creep can break many precise compositions.
Based on reviews from a multitude
of websites, I narrowed my choices down to the Acratech
Ultimate Ball-head, Kirk BH-1, RRS BH55, and the Markins
M10. As I wanted to try all of these out before decide
on one, I began a process of sourcing these heads. While
I was able to try out a couple of these from friends
or other acquaintances, I ordered the others from their
respective websites with the hope of returning the ones
I didn’t like.
Acratech was the first I tried. It’s
got an offbeat design where half the ball was exposed.
That gave me the feeling that it could be unstable.
When I tried a macro shot in a vertical orientation,
I saw a lot of movement sideways. If the tightening
knob was left a little loose, there was a lot of opportunity
for the ball to tilt down (because most of it is exposed
without any support). This is different from a traditional
ballhead, where there is just one little slot for vertical
orientation, which reduces the chances of the ball dropping
sideways. Besides, the load capacity was around 11kgs
which was a lot less than what I wanted.
The thing with the Acratech Ultimate
is that some people swear by it and some others absolutely
hate it. After trying it out, I figured that it'd take
me more time than afforded by the trial in order to
get used to its nuances. As I didn't want to spend a
few hundred dollars to figure out which group I belonged
to, that rules out the Acratech for me. However, there
are lots of users who swear by this head, and if you
are looking for something lightweight, it is a really
priced at $270. It weighs about 450gms and supports
11.4 kgs. www.acratech.net
I got the Kirk, RRS, and the Markins
at about the same time. Since they all employ traditional
ball-head designs, having them all at the same time
helped me make quick comparisons. Do note that at the
time I had these heads, all I was concerened with was
deciding which one to buy, not with writing a review.
Upon initial inspection I found the
RRS and the Markins to sport a better build quality
than the Kirk. The Kirk, at close to a kg, was very
heavy. I think they’ve modeled it on the lines
of the classic Arca-Swiss ball-heads. They don’t
quote the load capacity and I would assume it should
be in the region of 40kgs. Since the head itself weighs
close to a kilogram, the load factor is pretty low.
However, I found the Markins to be much smoother than
the Kirk. I also didn’t like the friction control
mechanism of this head. While the Kirk is a very good
ball-head, I thought I’d be better off choosing
either the RRS or the Markins considering the reasons
mentioned above. It wasn't really basen on any strictly
objective evaluation - I simply found the Markins and
RRS to be a little more appealing, in terms of finish
and build quality. The Kirk does have the advantage
of being one of the cheapest ballheads of the "Big
4" ballheads (Arca, RRS, Kirk, Markins), and there
are lots of satisfied Kirk users, so your mileage may
vary, as they say.
is priced at $355. It weights about 850gms and supports
probably 40 Kgs. www.kirkphoto.com
Between the RRS and the Markins, it
was a tough choice. Both were very well made. However,
I thought the RRS was over-engineered. It has a separate
knob for friction control while the Markins has a thumb
screw embedded in the main locking knob. The thumb screw
on the Markins made sure that the main locking knob
didn’t loosen up entirely. As I really don’t
like to fiddle around with multiple knobs, this was
a big plus for me.
Besides, in the RRS, the pano-knob
and the friction knob were placed one below the other
in too close a proximity - this was another ergonomic
feature that I didn't like about the RRS, but again,
your mileage may vary.
The RRS unit also has two cut-offs
for the vertical positioning. Some might consider it
as being more versatile. To me, it made no difference
since I always tilt to the left. I also got an L-bracket
which obviated the need to use the cut-off. But if you
are using those cut-offs, there is an important point
to note in the RRS. The cut-off is actually about 45
degrees away from the front of the ball-head. Traditionally,
the cut-off is placed 90-degrees away at the side. Sure,
you could turn the hed so the one of the cutoffs is
one side, but then the knob gets moved to what, to me
atleast, was a non-intuitive location. It is hard to
explain but look at a picture of the RRS head and you’ll
know what I’m talking about. For me, I found the
90-degree placement more comfortable.
RRS is again quite heavy – at
850 gms it is as heavy as the Kirk. It holds 23 kgs
and that works out to a low load ratio. I think this
load capacity is fine (and probably under-stated), and
the RRS is definitely one of the best ball-heads out
there. If one likes the ergonomics, and is okay with
the weight and the price, I guess this is a fine choice.
is priced at $455. It weight 850gms and can hold 23
I first heard of Markins from Nikonians.org.
Quite a few people there were raving about it and I
thought I’d consider it also. Upon looking at
the specs, I decided that the M10 met my needs adequately.
Markins looked extremely well built, and the finish
was superlative. The ball was silky smooth and it required
only about a half turn of the knob for a rock solid
grip. Like I mentioned before, the friction control
is embedded in the knob and it works quite well.
The only problem I found with the
Markins was that the panning knob was not as tight as
I would like it to be. The unit can tend to move around
its base if a little bit of pressure is applied. However,
I did not find it to be a serious limitation. It's rock
solid for all practical purposes. Markins looks smaller
than the Kirk. RRS is a little stout. The most interesting
thing about the Markins is that it weighs just 500gms
and supports 40kgs. That’s an awesome load ratio.
Very stable and very light!
I decided to go with the Markins M10,
as in my opinion, at $340 it offered the best bang for
The QR clamp in the Markins is very
well made and compatible with the standard Arca-Swiss
plates. However, it's got this little pin in it that
prevents the plate from slipping down along with the
camera in the event that the QR knob is loose. They've
provided it as an additional safety. Markins claims
that all plates from Kirk, RRS, etc fit their QR clamp.
I have a reason to believe in their statement as my
RRS plate for the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5 – 5/6
L IS fits the Markins quick release clamp. Though I
haven't personally used the Kirk or the RRS QR clamps
enough to offer an opinion, some people on nikonians.org
suggest buying the Markins without the QR clamp and
then getting an RRS QR clamp. The RRS QR clamp has a
lever mechanism as opposed to a knob mechanism. For
me, both worked well enough, so I bought both the clamp
and the plate from Markins and I've been pretty happy
The other interesting point in the Markins is that they
sell their ball-heads in two flavors - L and R. In the
'L' flavor, the ball tilts to the left side for the
vertical orientation with the main knob facing the photographer.
In the 'R' flavor, the ball tilts to the right side
with the main knob facing the photographer. Based on
what one's preferences are, he/she could choose the
right flavor. However, with an 'L' bracket, this is
immaterial as one wouldn't tilt the ball at all.
Markins is made in Korea, so there
have distribution outlets in Asia. They also have a
Europe distribution outlet in Germany. Americas is served
by their office in Canada.
costs $340. It weighs 500gms and supports 40 Kgs. M20
has a slightly larger ball and costs $390. It weights
about 600gms and supports 45kgs. www.markinsamerica.com
Incidentally, while I was checking
out the Markins website for the latest prices, I found
that they’ve come up with a new head called “Emille”
Bell. It’s a smaller version of the M10 and I
think it’s more like the Kirk BH-3 and the RRS
A Footnote: My Experiences
with the Arca-Swiss B1
I bought my big ballhead prior to
reading Anand's comparison. My reason for getting an
A-S was that it was pretty much the industry standard
and reading the reviews of the other ballheads, none
seemed to offer any significant improvements over the
A-S. With the lockup problems being solved and the elliptical
ball appealing to me (I planned to use long lenses on
the head), I figured I'd get the original, as opposed
to those trying to succeed it - especially given the
lack of a clear advantage of any one over the others.
Every so often, one makes a decision
that they regret. This, atleast intially, was one of those decisions. After
I got the head, I was doing some work which involved
the 500/4 and the Wimberley, so the Arca stayed in its
box. A month later, when I tried to use it, it was jammed.
Not the lockup problem, but something else. So I shipped
it to Precision Camera Works, who were kind enough to
repair it under warranty and send it back to me. No
charge, but I was out a month, and $150 or so in shipping.
And after getting it back, I found the pano knob doesn't
lock well (it is possible to keep turning the head even
when the knob is locked down), and there is a little
bit of "give" in the body. So off to Arca it went - this time to their Swiss HQ.
However, since getting it back ,it has performed flawlessly. I have mounted my Televue 85 with extenders and barlows on it (giving an equivalent focal length of 3000mm+) on it with sharp results. That means that pretty much any lens you throw at the A-S, it can handle. The same seems to hold true of the other heads as well. What I like about the A-S is its elliptical ball, which means that even with stupidly long and heavy lenses and telescopes mounted on it, it never flops. Now that the unit is working perfectly, I have changed my opinion and am very happy I bought it.
And on a slightly different note, the main take-away
for me from Anand's article is that all the above ballheads
are excellent units. Each of these ballheads can support pretty much anything you throw at them. There is enough of a difference
in ergonomics between them to make the buying decision
a very personal one, but I think it is possible to get used to the ergonomics quite easily. As such, I don't think it is possible
to make a "wrong" decision here.