Kevin Merchant Photography Articles


What is a ball head and why should I use one?

October, 2012

What is a ball head and why should I use one?

There seems to be an unwritten rule that any photographer worth his salt has a collection of tripods. I know I do. And, when you step up from the inexpensive tripods, you find that there are "tripod systems". Whenever you encounter that word "system" you can be sure that it's going to cost. The primary components of a tripod system are the "legs" and the "head". This article is going to concentrate on tripod heads; specifically the ball head.

For still photography, there are basically two general categories of tripod heads - pan & tilt heads and ball heads. As the name implies pan & tilt heads have individual controls for panning in the horizontal direction, tilting in the vertical direction and generally a control to level the camera with the horizon. A ball head, by the very nature of the ball and socket joint, provides the horizontal and vertical adjustments in a single control. The better ball heads provide a separate panning control.

No doubt, there are a lot of photographers who prefer the precise control you can get from the pan & tilt head. I am not one of them. For me the pan & tilt head was very frustrating to use; always fumbling for the correct knob(s) to make the desired adjustment(s).

Freedom came the day I bought my first ball head. I suddenly was able to set up shots much quicker and to me, in a more natural way. I had found a way to work in the field more efficiently and thus improve my workflow.

The word "workflow" is used a lot in relation to working in the digital darkroom. I believe "workflow" in the field is more important as it allows you to come back with those all important images to process. For me a ball head is critical to field workflow. But, there was still a point of frustration - the ball became very stiff to move, even with the stiffening control provided. The next discovery - not all ball heads are created equal. I had bought one that tended to have a characteristic stiffness that made it difficult to operate. And, it was very heavy.

Soon the hunt was on to find a replacement. An advertisement for a lightweight ball head from Kirk Enterprises popped up in an issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine. Kirk Enterprises was primarily known for making high quality plates for cameras and lenses for the Arca-Swiss bracket system, which I'll explain below. This brand new product offered a lighter weight, lower cost solution to what was on the market at the time. Remember, this was in the days of BI (Before Internet), so getting this kind of information was not as easy as it is today and Outdoor Photographer was the best source of information for the kind of photography I wanted to do.

Getting back to the workflow concept, equally important is how you attach the camera to the ball head. Many ball head manufacturers have their own proprietary system for attaching the camera/lens to the head. And if you buy into their system, you may find yourself limited to a particular manufacturer for certain solutions (or lack thereof). I have found the Arca-Swiss system (there goes that "system" word again) to be very good and widely supported by a number of third party manufacturers. The system is based on a dovetail joint design consisting of an open channel clamp securely attached to the ball head and a mating bracket bolted to the 1/4" tripod mount on the camera/lens. Today, Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises both make high quality ball heads and a variety of brackets for both cameras and lenses with tripod mount collars, using the Arca-Swiss design. The brackets that you really want to use are the ones that have a lip to prevent twisting. A feature that eliminates the annoying characteristic of the generic brackets. I recommend getting a bracket for every camera body and every lens with a tripod collar - it saves the time and hassle of swapping, a workflow issue.

1/4" thread hole Horizontal/Landscape orientation Vertical/Portrait orientation
1/4" threaded hole Landscape Portrait
L-Bracket L-Bracket L-Bracket
Happy shooting and let me know if you find this article useful. Also, let me know if you have questions or comments.
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