Why You Need High-Quality Tripod Ballheads

By Nick Zavalishin Back to


WHO NEEDS A TRIPOD? You do! Regardless of the camera you use, your photos will be sharper with a good tripod/head combination. Besides our own shakiness, cameras produce multiple vibrations every time you release the shutter. SLRs, the pro shooter’s favorite, are the most prone to vibration-induced image softness. Every time you release the shutter, the mirror swings up and comes to a sudden stop, the lens diaphragm is jolted to the selected aperture, and a shutter curtain opens, coming to a sudden stop. This sequence begins a fraction of a second before your exposure, and the vibration it causes continues even after the shutter closes. Professionals know this affects image sharpness; their use of a tripod often separates professional photographs from amateur snapshots.

A common misconception is that using a shutter-speed equivalent to the lens focal length produces sharp hand- held images equal to those taken using a tripod. That rule originated before SLR cameras became mainstream, when rangefinder cameras with leaf-shuttered lenses were most common. Some medium-format pro SLR cameras, when handheld, produce image blur above 1⁄125 second with an 80mm lens. Even with rangefinder cameras, it is at best a minimum standard to apply only when a tripod is unavailable, or shooting conditions make using one impossible. The difference between handheld and tripod-mounted shots may be less notice- able up to an 8×10 print, but by 16×20, it’s quite obvious.

Photographers who eschew tripods often sell or trade-in excellent lenses they considered inadequate but which, in reality, were victims of camera movement. If you are like me and use only prime lenses for ultimate resolution, then using a good tripod/head combination should be a regular part of your shooting technique.

Choose your support intelligently

Not all tripods and heads are equal. An inferior tripod is worse than no tripod; it gives one a false sense of security. Buying a top-quality tripod and attaching an inferior head still introduces a weak link. Poor-quality heads are unstable and can be so inconvenient to operate that the photographer simply avoids using the tripod. Many new photographers incorrectly assume the tripod head made and sold by their tripod manufacturer is the best for that tripod. Some of the best tripods are sold as leg sets separately from the heads; it is wise to look into tripod heads from manufacturers who specialize in them. Regrettably, it is common for photographers to buy several tripod/ head combinations in succession before they settle on the one that works best. If you go with the high-quality combination right from the start, it may cost less than the failed experiments.

Pan/tilt heads versus ballheads

If you use medium-format or 35mm cameras, you already know that pan/tilt tripod heads bristling with handles are just too slow for the faster shooting style of these cameras. The handles also tend to snag on things, and increase the bulk of a tripod—undesirable qualities for location shooters. Ballheads, on the other hand, are popular because they are uncluttered and ideal for fast shooting techniques. Unfortunately, finding compact ballheads that provide solid support is not easy.

Recently, I tested some equipment from a company named Really Right Stuff (aka RRS) that meets the challenge. RRS makes and sells tripod ballheads, quick-release clamps, camera plates, and other camera-support products. The company has an excellent reputation, and after testing their products, I have to agree it is well deserved.

Solid support and light weight

When I received the RRS BH-55 and BH- 40, I quickly realized these were unusual ballheads (figure 1). Fitted Op-Tech neoprene bags are included to keep them grit-free when traveling. Although smaller and lighter than either of my current ballheads, the BH-55 and BH-40 have a greater weight capacity. The smaller BH-40 has a 40-mm ball, weighs only 17.4 oz., and yet can support 18 lb.—five more pounds than my large magnesium/aluminum ballhead just replaced by the BH-55. The BH-55 features a 55-mm ball, weighs only 1.9 lb., and supports up to 50 lb.—almost four times the capacity of the head it replaced.

The surface area of the ball determines a ballhead’s load capacity, so a larger ball allows higher weight. By making the ball hollow, RRS drastically reduced the ballhead’s weight while keeping the surface area large. A Delrin bearing in the ball socket results in perfectly smooth motion, yet positive locking, without metal-against-metal wear, and eliminates lubricants that attract and hold damaging dirt, or worse yet, sand. Once that happens, a ballhead becomes unusable.

A flawless finish with crisp laser engraving immediately indicates uncommon quality. All metal components are corrosion-resisting high-grade aluminum or stainless steel alloys. The permanently lubricated knobs have O-ring seals to prevent dirt from entering the mechanisms. Attention to detail includes using ball bearings in the main locking knobs, thus minimizing the force required to lock a camera’s position. Both ballheads lock firmly without the creeping many other ballheads suffer from, yet when released, movement is extremely smooth without “rough” spots. Both ballheads have separate tension-adjustment knobs with a numbered scale for repeatable settings. The preset tension remains applied to the ball even if the main locking control is fully released. A panning base with laser-engraved degree markings connects each ballhead to a tripod. The markings stand out against the black finish and are easy to see under any lighting. Panning motion is very smooth, and like the other controls, locks securely with minimal effort.

Dual drop-slots located 90° to each other are another welcome feature (figure 2). This makes it easy to change from horizontal to vertical composition without disturbing the forward-drop alignment. Ballheads with a single drop-slot force you to rotate them to the side when you need to switch to vertical format; RRS removes that extra step when setting up.

Well connected for rapid setup

RRS ballheads are available with several options for fastening a camera. You can choose a standard threaded platform, or Arca–Swiss-compatible quick-release camera platforms. Unlike proprietary systems, Arca–Swiss-style camera baseplates are available from several manufacturers, but the custom-fitted RRS baseplates have several advantages (more on that later).

The BH-55 and BH-40 arrived with optional lever-locking quick-release clamps, and it didn’t take long to realize any substitute would be too much of a compromise. The ability to instantly attach or remove a camera without lining up threads or turning knobs removes one of the main excuses for not using a tripod more often.

The lever-locking clamps are just as secure—and faster—than the familiar knob-locking style that is also available. The lever has three positions. The first opens the clamp completely so the base- plate can be inserted from any position into the clamp. A second partially closes the clamp jaws so the baseplate can slide in or out from the side, but doesn’t permit the baseplate with camera attached to come straight out in an upward motion. This allows for sliding the camera left to right in the clamp without fear of it falling out if not perfectly balanced. The very positive click of the lever in the final position is reassuring, and once locked, the baseplate will not budge. I have used many quick-release systems, some crude, some elegant, but none felt as secure as this system.

The attention to detail again appears with the added bubble level built into the lever-locking quick-release clamp on the BH-55 (figure 3). It makes leveling a shot almost instantaneous. While I always pack a small camera level, this is much faster and more convenient.

Not all baseplates are equal

RRS has designed a number of non-twist camera baseplates individually machined for specific cameras. Once attached to the camera body, the camera remains aligned with the baseplate using minimal force to the fastening screw, and it won’t twist out of alignment. With generic quick-release baseplates, it is sometimes necessary to use damaging force when securing the camera to the baseplate to keep them aligned. The problem is com- pounded when using a heavy lens on such a baseplate with the camera in a vertical orientation; slippage becomes inevitable.

RRS sent a custom baseplate for a Fuji DSLR and an L-Plate for a Kodak DSLR for evaluation. Once attached, both acted as though they were welded to the camera and required no twisting at all. The L-Plate takes the quick-release baseplate to another level (figure 4). As the name implies, it is “L” shaped, with grooved locking-plates at 90° to each other. This allows you to go from horizontal format to vertical by simply releasing the locking lever, reinserting the camera in the vertical position, and locking the lever again. The lens remains centered over the tripod in either position, which definitely improves stability compared to hanging the camera to the side of a tripod’s center.

The RRS Web site has many more items and they sell Gitzo tripods to mate up with their ballheads. You could not ask for a better combination. These ball- heads are not inexpensive (with locking levers, the BH-55 is $455, and the BH- 40 is $375, but anyone who has struggled with a frozen bargain head or had one slip at the wrong moment, knows that reliability and bargain heads are incompatible. RRS has an extensive line of products; I suggest a visit to www.reallyrightstuff.com to see the rest of their offerings.

About the Author

Nick Zavalishin
Nick Zavalishin has been a commercial / advertising photographer for more than 30 years with many of his clients found among the Fortune 500. His articles and cover shots have appeared in numerous magazines. Nick adopted digital photography in its infancy and now almost exclusively shoots with digital cameras. Currently, Nick spends as much time as possible on his f irst passion, f ine-art photography.