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By Anand Muralidharan
June 2006

"Which 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 visit.

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 in tension/friction.

• 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 handy unit.

Acratech is priced at $270. It weighs about 450gms and supports 11.4 kgs.

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.

Kirk BH-1 is priced at $355. It weights about 850gms and supports probably 40 Kgs.

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.

RRS BH-55 is priced at $455. It weight 850gms and can hold 23 kgs.

I first heard of Markins from 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 buck.

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 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 with them.

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.

Markins M10 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. or

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 BH-25.)

A Footnote: My Experiences with the Arca-Swiss B1
(Vandit Kalia)

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.


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