When I purchased my first tripod many years ago I thought why spend all that money for something to hold my camera every so often? So, like many others before me, I bought a cheapo tripod and head. I remember those days and how I bought other tripods to replace the one I had previously purchased. Finally, I bit the bullet and purchased a quality tripod and ball head, and I still have it today. Assuming you have a good set of legs I assume you wish to upgrade the ball head to support your photography.
Finding a good quality ball head that matches your photography needs can be a challenge with all the knock-offs and look-alikes that are out there. Like buying a cheap Tripod buying a cheap low-quality ball head is also a waste of your money. I say that just because it is expensive does not mean it is better. I have three ball heads that I use for 90% of my photography needs. The two I use most are the BH-40 and ArcaTech GPS, the other is a special Gimbal for wildlife that supports large lenses - a Wimberly Gimbal (not shown).
In this article, I compare three very good ball heads from Really Rights Stuff aka RRS, and Acratech.
Common among all Ball Heads mentioned are quality and craftsmanship with a rotating base, tensioner knob, and a gimbal type slot.
All about the RRS BH-55. It is truly a large and heavy duty ball head, and when I say large I mean large. If you did some youtube searching, some people are totally surprised when they open the box and find this monster inside, and on a small tripod, this ball head would be overkill. As with any ball head, It is important to match the ball head to the tripod you plan on using it with, I can tell you this head fits nicely the Gitzo series three sized tripods. So, if you are thinking about buying the BH-55 you may want to consider the ball head base size - in this case, is 2.9".
Nikon 400mm & Nikon 600mm
How does the BH-55 handle out in the field? like a champ. I have been using this ball head for 3 years and had zero issues. The fit and finish are exquisite and all the controls are easy to use and feel the very high quality.
Although I have not tried to load 50 pounds on this I think it would handle the weight, my heaviest setup I used on the head is about 15 pounds with no slippage or problems, everything stayed exactly where I put it.
BH-55 What I liked:
- The BH-55 is very smooth as nicely engineered with 0 slop.
- Tension knob allows you to dial in the right amount of grip to prevent your gear from flopping around if you loosen the ball
- Has two slots to allow gimble like operations or placing the camera in portraiture mod
BH-55 What I did not like:
- Weight - This ball head by far outweighs others in its class - it is large and heavy, you need to consider the tripod mounting platform if you go with a BH-55
- Price somewhat matches the quality - nice way of saying it costs a lot
The BH-55 is best suited for the very serious photographer who demands perfection and does not mind the weight or price, Great for holding your gear rock steady, with an ability for panoramics. RRS offers many optional accessories, making this a lifelong photographer's partner.
All About the BH-40 The mid-sized BH-40 ball head is in fact very similar to the bigger brother in both quality, build, and performance. Those who I mentioned about who bought the BH-55 and passed out at the size and weight, normally return it for this model and they give up noting in quality. What you gain is a cost saving over the BH-40 and carry weight. Everything else is pretty much the same.
Nikon 400mm & Nikon 600mm
How does the BH-40 handle out in the field? like a smaller champ. Although I have not used this model extensively, the four times I had it out, I was quite impressed with the Silky smooth operations, and how it provides very secure dependability, nothing slipped or moved as I carried my gear around. I use the BH-40 on my smaller Gitzo Explorer Tripod and the fit is near perfect, and does not overpower the tripod and matches the tripod's ability for weight carry. A very good match for your lighter tripod and general photography needs.
BH-40 What I liked:
- Carry Weight, very reasonable for the amount of weight it can carry and secure
- Quality - Like most RRS products, the engineering and quality is wonderful and has a satin finish
- Tensioner - The tensioner knob allows you to dial in the right amount of drag to prevent your camera from flopping to the side if you loosen the ball
BH-40 What I did not like:
- No leveler available from RRS - I bought mine from Acratech and use it on the BH-40
- I would be nitpicking, there is not much not to like; I did notice the amount of up and down movement may be a bit limiting.
The BH-40 is best suited for your general photography needs when you do not plan on loading a 20-pound system on the ball head. RRS does have a number of accessories that can augment this head, such as a nodal rail. This head is engineered to last a lifetime.
All about the Acratech GP Ball Head. This is the underdog, that has the big red S on its shirt. I personally do not think the company does enough to promote their products, which are ALL excellent. I have owned the Acratech GP ball head and has been in steady use for a solid 7+ years and in that time I never experienced any troubles. It has been through everything, in the water, under the water, in the dirt, sand, and freezing winters and everything in between. What is unique about the Acratech GP is the open ball system, and quite frankly is a smart design that does not collect dirt or debris down into the ball area. Like the other two ball heads mentioned here the Acratech is just as high quality and well engineered, no slop, wobble, or creep when using this head.
Nikon 400mm & Nikon 600mm
Acratech GP Ball Head What I liked:
- Open ball design - dirt has not a place to collect
- Compact with a reasonable weight - less than one pound - amazing.
- Securely grips and holds my gear
- Tensioner to allow setting drag to prevent the camera from flopping around if the ball is loosened
- Not shown but available is a quick release lever that has indent locks that prevent accidental openings = RRS does not have this feature but should.
- Optional Leveling base available for you Pano Heads.
- This ball head can be turned upside down and used as a leveling base and Pano
- Rubberized knobs for cold weather comfort
Acratech GP Ball Head What I did not like:
- The knobs work well but are a bit small with gloves on, otherwise no worries
- The ball head is rated for 25 pounds, but I found it difficult to tighten the knob that much, I feel this ball head is more like 20 pounds.
The Acratech GP ball head is well suited for anyone looking for a TOP NOTCH ball head with ambitions of actually using it out in the wet, dusty areas. I love this flexibility that Acratech brings to the table with all the accessories. This ball head also does a very good job for macro photographers, as well as when you need a gimbal type movement. Acratech has engineered this GP Ball Head so it can be turned upside down and used as a leveling base and be rotated for Panoramics Acratech also offers dedicated panning bases, nodal rails, levelers with large visible bubble level, and a very nice quick release that actually has a safety. I have my Acratech mounted on a Gitzo Series 3 Explorer - this combo ensures I can point my macro setup at any angle all the way to the ground.
On-Line Specifications Map Click Here
Recommendations: For the medium sized needs it is a toss-up between the Acratech and Really Right Stuff BH-40, I like almost every aspect of their design and other accessories all at a reasonable cost. For larger needs over 20 pounds when weight and money is not a concern - nothing finer than the BH-55, but requires a larger platform to match the head. Gitzo Series 3, 4 or 5 seems to be a perfect match.