Ball Heads and Quick Release Plates

My last post covered tripod legs, so now I’m going to rant on about tripod heads and the means of attaching the camera to them.

For still camera work, except for really long lens stuff (>300mm), the tool of choice is the ball head. A good ball head will allow a great freedom of movement and control, so that when you have the camera on target, you should be able to release it and it won’t move. Not even a little bit. I once tried a trigger grip type ballhead and couldn’t get it to stay on point. As I released the trigger to lock it, the camera would move – every time. Pan and tilt type heads are great for video, lousy for still photography as they have restricted movements. Trying to follow a moving object with one of those is frustrating. So ball heads it is, but before I go into the gory details of hard won experience, lets think about attaching it to a camera.

More after the Jump………

All cameras come with a 1/4″ or 3/8″ whitworth screw thread. All DSLR and smaller cameras that I’ve ever seen come with the 1/4″ variety. Screwing your camera on and off the head directly becomes very tedious, very quickly. You also find that if you turn the camera with the head locked down, the camera twists around the screw either tightening it or loosening it. To get around these problems a quick release system is needed. A good quick release system needs dedicated camera and lens attachment plates that are anti twist. These are usually CNC machined plates that are dedicated to┬áthe camera body you own, or the foot of a lens collar for longer lenses. There are a few manufacturers who make dedicated plates for popular cameras that fit proprietary quick release systems, but if you want something like an L plate, you are stuck. If you buy a different camera and they don’t make a plate for it, you’re stuck using a generic plate again.

Enter the Arca-Swiss quick release system. This is plate and quick release system that has been around for a long time and consists of a dovetailed plate that fits into the QR receiver and is locked by tightening the receiver. Although it’s called Arca-Swiss, there are many manufacturers of plates and receivers for this system. Two very popular manufacturers are Really Right Stuff (RRS) and Kirk Enterprises (KE). Both of these companies make a tremendous range of plates and receivers, plus ball heads. If they don’t make a dedicated plate for your DSLR camera, buy a different camera.

The beauty of the AS QR system is that it works. Very strong, simple to operate and plate availability is huge. The receivers can be attached to any head that has a removable support plate, or even screwed onto an existing plate (not recommended). I use plates from RRS, KE and Markins, plus a couple of genuine AS plates that I’ve modified for special purposes. I use KE and AS receivers, plus one that came with a ballhead from Acratech. All are interchangeable and compatible, so it doesn’t matter which tripod or head I’m using, I know my camera or lens will fit.

One interesting variant of the plate is an L-plate. This is an L-shaped bracket that allows the camera to be mounted on it’s side, in portrait format. While quite expensive, the L-plate is very useful when shooting in portrait mode as it keeps the center of gravity over the center of the support system, reducing vibration. If you want to shoot panoramics with the camera in the vertical position, then this is the best solution (or part of a solution).
Back to ballheads. These range from seriously expensive (around $500+) to the very cheap and pretty useless. KE, RRS, AS all make some gorgeous heads, all of which are not in my price range. The closest I got to spending that kind of money was on the Acratech GV2 which is a fantastic ballhead. Other heads I’ve purchased are the Giotto MH-1000 and a small Manfrotto head. My wife’s little Benro tripod that we bought in an emergency in Dubai has a small ballhead with a proprietary QR system that I really hate, so it won’t be discussed.

The first ball head I bought (off ebay) was the MH-1000. It’s a good solid head, but a bit light for long lens work. It has separate friction, lock and pan knobs, which any serious contender needs to have. I have had a problem with a plastic retainer ring rotating and blocking the side slot, but the head is quite old. Excellent value for money and we still use it today with an AR receiver mounted directly onto the head.

I wanted a head with more load capacity that would work for the McNeil River trip. That meant it needed to hold the Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens that I planned to rent for the trip. I wasn’t going to shell out for a RRS or KE top of the line head, the trip was costing enough as it was, so after a lot of research I bought an AcraTech GV2. This is an open design, beautifully made and would act as a gimbal mount for the big gun. It’s much lighter than the big closed head designs, which really matters when you are packing it around all day. It’s simple to use, tough as nails and it’s my head of choice. I used it with a 600mm lens with a 2x teleconverter and while it took some care, it worked. The only downside is that it’s too big for travel tripods. AcraTech now make one with a smaller base for travel tripods that’s reversible so you can use it as a leveling base, which is really cool if you want to shoot panos. Unfortunately it’s well over $300, so not in my bag.

For my travel legs, I bought a small Bogen head and mated it to a factory second receiver plate from KE. This plate has a level, which is nice, but is a little big. I can’t quite fold the legs closed around it. I’ll live with that as it was inexpensive. The head I’m having second thoughts on. it have a single locking lever. No separate friction control or panning lock. I can forgo the friction control, but the lack of panning base is getting to be really irritating. If I want to do a quick pano, it’s really difficult when you have to unlock the entire head. There are several solutions, one of which is to use a separate panning / leveling base, but I think it will be more cost effective to get a slightly more sophisticated head with a separate panning base. The head will be kept for using with flashes, as they are really useful for mounting off camera flashes in weird places.

The key to getting the right ballhead is to get it matched to the legs. A small travel set doesn’t need a BH-1 head bolted to it, but if you need better control than a single locking head will give you, then look at the Giotto line. The top of the line head for a travel tripod would be the AcraTech. For big lens work, up to 400mm, you should consider the GV2. Light, robust and a lovely bit of kit. Failing that, one of the bigger Giotto heads. For the really big stuff, a top of the line RRS or KE head is the tool of choice, either with a Gimbal mount or platform. I’ve seen and used the RRS head and it’s beautifully made. A Giotto head will wear out. An RRS head is for life. I’m not familiar with the KE heads, but they seem very well rated.

Like tripods, the learning curve on ballheads is expensive if you go the trial and error route. Unlike tripods, where there is a clear leader, you do have more choice. While we posses 6 tripods, we only have 4 ballheads, and while I haven’t yet reached ballhead nirvana, it’s close.

More to come……

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