During the Spring of 2017 I undertook a massive research project to review and test ball heads and tripods. Throughout my search I tested ball heads from:
3 Legged Thing
Really Right Stuff
I will go through and offer some thoughts on each of the ball heads. I'll just state at the outset that there are a LOT of fantastic products on the market in terms of ball heads. Having tested a more than a dozen different models from ten different manufacturers, I am generally extremely impressed by the quality and caliber of the products in the marketplace today. There really aren't any ball heads in the list that I would say: "Avoid this one!" That's actually pretty impressive given the price range that is covered. What I will say, though, is that in general, you are getting what you pay for. The products that are in the $400 or $500 price range truly are a vastly better product than those that are in the $120 price range. With that in mind, I would strongly suggest leaning toward the upper end of your budget limit when considering the purchase of a ball head. This is a tool that will be holding thousands of dollars worth of photography equipment. If it fails, your camera falls. It is positively worth an extra couple hundred dollars to be completely confident in the product that is holding your very expensive gear. With that, here are the ball heads, and my thoughts on them...
3 Legged Thing - Air Hed
The Air Hed is a $200 ball head that is incredibly funky looking! This ball head is incredibly well built, and my biggest positive comment about the Air Hed is that it is a double panning head at a very modest price. By double panning, I mean that it has two different panning devices. Every ball head in this review has a panning head at the base of the ball head. There is a little knob that you loosen/tighten to enable the head to spin horizontally, 360 degrees. However with the Air Hed, there is a second panning head right at the very top of the device, where your quick release plate attaches. The main advantage to that second panning head would be if you were to drop the top into portrait mode, you would then have a vertical panning option, as well as horizontal. The two panning heads in conjunction with each other almost give you a gimbal effect.
The down side to this head is the absence of friction control. Friction control is a pretty valuable feature, in that it puts some resistance on the ball itself. When you loosen the main control knob, this particular head will go from completely tight to very "floppy" all at once. Most of the other heads in the review have a friction control, so that if you have very heavy equipment, you can increase the resistance on that boll, making it more rigid under a heavy set-up.
While I don't have a discount code for 3 Legged Thing, I do have an affiliate link. Hopefully you will get some added benefits from using that link!
The Acratech GP retails for $429, including the lever release, which is pictured to the right. There is a twist release option which is $399. If you had read the initial comments I had written about the GP, you would have seen an extremely different set of opinions. Initially I was obsessively in love with the lever release. At this point, I have moved 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and can only recommend the Lever release. Why? Because the lever release dropped my camera - twice. The first time I thought that somehow, just in some bizarre way, I had mis-aligned the arca-swiss plate. I actually fashioned a tether for my camera, and kept using it. Sure enough, about 2 weeks later, it happened again. I had been so obsessively careful about mounting the camera to the lever release plate since that drop, I am 100% certain it was a defect in the lever release.
I'm still a great fan of Acratch, and the GP overall, but I no longer would use the lever release. The thing that I still love about the Acratech GP is the open ball design. While most of the other ball heads encase the ball inside a metal casing, this design keeps it almost completely exposed, except for a ring that extends around the 'equator' of the ball. That ring allows you to set both your friction control, and it allows the main control knob to lock down the ball in place.
The GP also has a reversible feature which I honestly have never tried, but you can take the bottom plate off and mount it upside down, in a different manner, which is primarily for panorama photography. I don't realistically see myself ever doing that. I could envision adding another panning surface to the top of the head, but even that is not terribly likely. Unless I get really serious about doing vertical panoramas at some point in the future, I think I will most likely just use this head exactly as it comes out of the box. It's worth mentioning that a number of the high-end brands keep all of the components of their ball heads standardized, so you could use a Really Right Stuff ball mechanism, but an Acratech lever release, or an FLM, or Novoflex. This is absolutely wonderful. As you progress with your photography and your equipment, there are plenty of options, and the better companies haven't overloaded their gear with proprietary items as an effort to prevent you from mixing and matching.
One thing I really respect about Acratech is that they truly try to protect their retailers from a lot of the internet craziness. In that spirit, they don't offer discounted pricing. But, they have set up a discount code to offer my readers free shipping in the Continental USA. Just purchase from the Acratech website, and use the code ROADSHOW.
The Nomad is a very similar design to the GP. The bottom part is the same open ball design, and the quick release plate is basically like the non-lever release version of the GP. It's a slightly smaller ball head, just about 1/4 of an inch shorter than the larger GP. This is a phenomen
al value at $299. The build quality and strength are absolutely identical to the GP, and the only thing you are really giving up is the lever release version of the top plate, and the ability to reverse the bottom panning head. Honestly, if I were in a position to get an Acratech ball head, I think it's DEFINITELY worth the extra $130 to get the GP. But we are all working with a specific budget, and if $299 is already a bit of a stretch to your high end of your price point, this is one of two heads that I would say is your best option. If you are sticking to that $299 price point, compare this to the Induro BH25. One of those two would be the best bet at that price.
Remember, if buying an Acratech product, buy from their website, and use ROADSHOW for free shipping!
Benro IB2 & B2
I am including both the IB2 and the B2 as one entry, even though they are two completely separate products. The reason I'm including them together is that from a function and design standpoint, they are essentially the same. The IB2 is priced at $120.00 while the B2 is priced at $130. The holding capacity goes up dramatically with the B2. It's rated to hold 35+ pounds, while the IB2 is rated at 22 pounds. The also upgraded the quality of the knobs a tiny bit on the B2.
The best feature of both of these ball heads is the "Pull and Turn" safety mechanism. When you loosen the knob for the quick release plate, it stops shy of actually releasing the plate. In order to release your camera, you need to pull the knob out a tiny fraction of an inch, and twist another quarter turn. At that point it backs the plate guard away, and lets you remove your camera. That's a seriously helpful safety mechanism in a pair of ball heads that clearly come in at the lower price point for ball heads!
If I were looking for a ball head at the lowest possible budget point, the Benro B2 would definitely be my choice. It's an extremely solid, sturdy, reliable head. If you visit the Benro website, use MORRIS17 for 10% off and free shipping!
The folks over at Feisol were kind enough to send me three ball heads to test. Unfortunately, two of the three were damaged when I received them, and I genuinely don't feel that I can offer a strong recommendation for their ball heads. They had a video head that I LOVED, and it was a great value for the price. But for their straight-up ball heads, I think they have a ways to go in order to compete with the other mid-tier ball head manufacturers. I would not opt for a Feisol ball head with the options of Benro, Induro and Sirui out there in that same price range. I absolutely love the guys from Feisol, and it really pains me to offer up something but a super-positive comment, but the whole point of a review is to help folks spend their money wisely, and so there it is.
The FLM CB-38FTR is the biggest surprise for me out of everything I took in for this comparative review. FLM was not a company that I had ever seen in person. I had probably heard the name once or twice in passing on a podcast or something, but frankly, I was VERY unfamiliar with their products.
I mentioned up with the Acratech GP that there are three ball heads I have gone on to use since writing my article. This is one of those three. I absolutely love the engineering of this head! There are a couple of features that I absolutely adore on the FLM head that I have never seen anyplace else.
The first of those is a 15 degree stop knob. You can see that knob in the photo on the right up above. When you tighten that knob, the panning head 'clicks in' every 15 degrees. If you are doing a stitched panorama, this takes all of the guesswork out of how far to move the pan each time. You simply click over one notch, and take the next photo in your sequence. If you a are shooting video, or just want a smooth pan instead of the clicking, just back off the tension of that knob, and the head moves with a smoothness of an expensive video head.
The other feature that I have never seen elsewhere is the Tilt knob. When that knob is in the loosened position, the ball rotates 360 degrees in its socket, just like any normal ball head. But as you tighten the tilt knob, the axis narrows to the point where eventually the ball will only tilt in a vertical direction, nothing side-to-side. This would be great for vertical panorama work.
FLM is a 'status brand' product. It's precision German engineering, and their products are made in extremely small lots. It's directly on par with the "Gitzo" and "Really Right Stuff" level product. They are also completely modular. When you order FLM gear, you select every aspect of the item individually. They have a locking lever type quick release plate. I haven't tested that yet, but one thing that I do know is that it is not Arca-Swiss compatible. I actually haven't even discussed Arca-Swiss compatibility to this point, and the reason is that EVERY ball head that I tested was Arca compatible. This is a huge advantage, because most photographers already have a wide array of plates mounted to their various camera bodies and lenses. It would be an annoyance to need to go back and replace every plate with a proprietary plate. It would also be limiting in that you could then no longer pop your camera onto a friends' tripod, since your plate would no longer fit the majority of items on the market. The non-lever version of the release plate, however, is completely Arca compatible.
There is one control that takes a little bit of getting used to. The main control knob has a 'drag memorization' feature. You set the friction control on this ball head very differently than on any other head that I have used. It isn't completely intuitive at first, but they have a 2.5 minute video on their website that shows how to set the tension. Once you see how it works, it isn't complicated at all. Just a fair warning, you will want to read or watch the instructions for that before you trot off with your new FLM.
The FLM CB-38FTR is $350, and it's worth every penny. I am doing a series of gear shows throughout the summer of 2017, and the FLM ball head and travel tripod have absolutely stolen the show at a couple of them. If you are interested in this head or the tripods, email me, and I can put you in direct contact with the rep. He has agreed to offer a 10% off offer on all FLM gear to my readers. They don't have a discount code system in place, so you will need to email him to get that special pricing.
Some time after writing my ball head review article, I received a review copy of the FLM CB-48FTR. I ended up buying that ball head (and the accompanying CP-30 legs,) and that has become my permanent tripod and ball head combination. The "38" and "48" refer to the size of the ball. The 38mm ball head pairs beautifully with their travel tripod, and the 48mm is a much beefier, larger ball head that pairs perfectly with their full-sized tripod. The functions and features of the 48 are exactly the same as the 38, just a larger ball, for more holding power with heavier cameras and lenses. After a year or more of really exhaustive testing and searching for "my" perfect choice, my choice was this ball head.
As of this writing, the CB-48 FTR is listed on B&H for just over $400 USD, when including the QR plate. It's $358 without the release plate. As with the other FLM products, I can put you directly in touch with the FLM rep, and he will offer you a discounted price! So many of my readers and viewers have purchased FLM, I am now receiving a small commission when folks purchase them. I just want to be completely transparent that I now receive a little revenue when folks buy FLM through the rep.
The BHL2S is the other $299 ball head that is the serious contender. I mentioned it up in the Acratech Nomad segment. This is a much more traditional design than the Acratech, with the encasement around the ball.
The most notable 'feature' with the Induro is the Pull & Turn safety release for the quick release plate. That feature is one that I put a premium on, because it goes directly to the safety of your gear. It works identically to the Benro mechanism. The main tension knob on the Induro has a very surprisingly short 'throw.' You don't need to twist that knob around several times in order to fully tighten or loosen the tension on the ball. In fact, it's very much the opposite. About 1/4 turn is all you need to go from fully tight to fully loose. It takes a little bit of getting used to, because so many other manufacturers design theirs to require many turns. This speeds up and simplifies your work flow. I'm a fan!
If you go to the Induro website, use MORRIS17 and you will receive 10% off and free shipping!
Novoflex Classic Ball 3
Novoflex is another of the very 'upper end' brands covered in this review. They are a status brand, and their equipment is absolutely stunningly made. Obviously the number one thing that you are paying for is the build quality. This ball head is SUPER strong and reliable. They have a couple of features that I was also incredibly fond of. This is the third ball head of the collection that I spent a LOT of time shooting after testing was complete. I love this ball head! When it was time to either purchase this $475 ball head, or return it, I made the final decision to return it, but only because it's impossible to justify owning numerous very high-end ball heads.
So the first thing that you may notice in the photos above, is that you don't just have one single portrait mode 'notch.' In fact, there are three of them! Two of the three are exactly opposite of each other, so it's possible to take your camera and point it straight down on one side of the ball head, and pano upward until you are facing straight up, all on the same axis. That's a fantastic design element.
The other thing that's somewhat unique about this ball head is that instead of a tension knob, you have the blue ring around the center of the ball head. That ring snaps into 5 different notches, each providing a different amount of tension on the ball head. It's a great system, and if you know that your full frame camera and big lens need a tension 4 setting, you just snap right to it. If your mirrorless camera with a small lens needs tension 1, just click around and you are set. It's fast, and it's extremely simple.
As with FLM and Really Right Stuff, Novoflex is entirely modular. You will need to order a Quick Release plate if that is the intended use. Personally I have been using this head with an amazing macro set-up also from Novoflex. That will be its own article in the future.
If you are interested in Novoflex product, go to their website, and us MORRIS17 for 10% off, and free shipping!
The Oben BC-139 retails for $160. It's a solid ball head, and I wouldn't have any fear of using it. At the same time, it is essentially occupying the same price point and positioning in the market as Benro. My own opinion is that the Benro is a bit better value because it's $30 less expensive, and it has the safety mechanism in the quick release knob. For a mid-priced ball head, this ball head does a fine job, and I would never shy away from it, if you are looking in the mid-price range. At the same time, if you are considering this ball head, I highly recommend checking out the Benro B2.
Really Right Stuff - BH-40LR
Initially Really Right Stuff was not going to send a review copy for my article. I was very disappointed, because clearly I had a vast representation of the finest equipment available in the marketplace. As the number of manufacturers grew, I reached out to RRS again, and much to my delight, they changed their minds! I really want to give them a shout out and thanks for participating. Traditionally I don't think RRS sends out review copies very often, and I don't really think a tripod or ball head article would truly be complete without this manufacturer in the mix.
The ball head that they sent me was their BH-40LR (Lever Release.) As pictured, this is a $415 ball head. In my mind that is essentially identical to the $429 price tag on the Acratech GP. When you are looking at top quality gear, and there is a difference of only $15.00, you disregard the price difference, and purchase exclusively on the quality and features of the gear.
When I first wrote my ball head review, my recommendation was to purchase the GP with a lever release. At this point, my recommendation has completely changed, based on the lever release failures I mentioned above.
I can't dispute the amazing build quality of the Really Right Stuff ball head. The moment you lay your hands on it, and operate the controls, you know that you are working with a superbly designed and manufacturers piece of equipment. There were two determining factors why I ultimately opted to purchase the FLM CP-48 FTR instead of the RRS.
1) I absolutely LOVE the 15 degree knob on the FLM. That feature is something that is extremely useful to me, since I do like to shoot panoramas. The "tilt" option on the FLM is also innovative and extremely useful. Where the RRS does things elegantly and simply, the FLM has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that I just loved.
2) The two small knobs that control the panning base and the tension control are incredibly close to each other. While they did a great job of making them different shapes, so you don't confuse them in the dark, but for me, they got in the way of each other a bit. I suggested that one of those two knobs be rotated around to the other side of the device, so they no longer are so close.
In all the time that I have been doing reviews, I don't know if I have ever felt that a manufacturer "heard" my concerns as actively. As a matter of fact, in their loaner agreement, there is a contractual clause that REQUIRES a reviewer to tell them every weakness, every type of improvement that you could envision for their product. That's incredible. That's why their stuff is so darned good! I'm really eager to check out the "version II" of this ball head, or the next thing that comes out, that might incorporate those adjustments.
Would I buy and use the RRS? 100% yes. I decided to go a different route based on the time I spent shooting a number of high-end options, but the Really Right Stuff is a beautiful piece of gear.
Sirui (pronounced Sue-Ray) is a brand that I was quite familiar with from my local camera store. They have a very broad catalog, and they offer a lot of great options at fantastic price points. The K-30X is their 3rd largest out of four ball heads. It's extremely solid, sturdy and reliable. There wasn't anything exceptionally innovative or unique about the features, but it's rock solid for the price point. It's a superb ball head for the price point.
At $130, it is priced exactly in competition with the Benro B2, and at that price point, I would personally recommend the Benro, due to the safety release mechanism. The Sirui is rated to hold 66 pounds, so if you happen to be mounting a very heavy load on the ball head, that would definitely skew over to the Sirui option.
So having gone through the entire list, here are my choices by price point:
In the $100-$200 price range: Benro B2 In the $200-$300 price range: Induro BHL2S In the $300-$400 price range: FLM CB-38FTR In the $400 and above price range: FLM CB-48FTR