Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
$410 / £250 www.sunwayfoto.com
|The Sunwayfoto XB-52|
Sunwayfoto has recently entered the photographic support market with confidence, and a full line of impressively engineered tripod heads, clamps, and accessories. All of the products are proudly labeled as "Designed and Engineered in China," and this is a market where Sunwayfoto has been quite successful since the company's beginning. Its products are gaining distributorship in North America, and such daring designs as the XB-52 ensure the company will get noticed.
|Ball diameter||52mm (2")|
|Weight||650g (1.4 lb)|
|Base diameter||65mm (2.5")|
|Maximum load||60kg (132 lb)|
Design and features
The Sunwayfoto XB-52 is the shortest and lightest ball head of its type, having a ball diameter greater than 50mm. This is due to both the low-center-of-gravity design, and its use of a slightly smaller ball than its direct competition (52mm vs. 54mm).
The Sunwayfoto XB-52 is still a relatively compact ball head, despite having a 52mm ball and generously large control knobs. However, the main locking knob and the panning base knob are attached to a rectangular hump on the main body, which increases the overall width and footprint. With a weight of 650 grams (1.4 lbs), it is also lighter than other heads in its class, but most heads with a smaller ball will be even lighter. In our testing, the XB-52 was the smallest and lightest head in the 52-58mm ball diameter class, while still boasting a very high (manufacturer-measured) maximum load, and characteristic large-ball action.
Ellipsoidal 52mm ball
The XB-52 has a ball that is 52mm in diameter and also slightly (in micrometers) larger on the vertical axis. While a perfect sphere will cause a consistent amount of friction against the locking mechanism in any position, this aspheric (or ellipsoidal) ball gradually increases the friction against the locking mechanism as the ball is moved away from the vertical axis. This reduces the need to adjust the friction while tilting the ball.
The large ball diameter also provides a very smooth rotation and greater locking power (and associated max load) due to a greater surface area for the locking mechanism to grasp.
Low profile design
This unconventional design provides the lower ball position, and keeps the control knob sizes similar to other heads in this category. The low-center-of-gravity design allows the weight held by the head to pivot around a point that is closer to the apex of the tripod legs, which is the most stable part of the camera support system.
Dual drop slots
Also shown in this image are the two 90° drop slots. They are perpendicular to each other, allowing for portrait orientation and an increased tilt range without requiring any panning-base rotation.
Customizable quick release
The quick-release platform itself has some nice features, including recessed "safety slots" to keep a loosened plate from sliding out, if the plate has the necessary safety screws on the bottom.
On the top of the platform are graduated millimeter markings for fine adjustments of a plate, useful for both macro and panoramic work, or whenever the exact placement of the camera is needed.
Finally, the bubble level that comes installed on the side of the platform can be unscrewed and replaced on either end of the platform, or completely removed.
Construction and handling
With a consistent matte-black finish on almost every surface, from the ball to the quick release, the Sunwayfoto has a very business-like look. There is no unnecessary bling, and the entire object seems even more compact with this single finish to the machined aluminum parts. Even the control knobs are machined from aluminum with a very fine knurl pattern for grip, rather than any rubber covering. While this makes them easy to grab and turn, they are a little rough on the skin during extended use, and feel cold to the touch in cooler weather.
A nice mechanical detail is the hard plastic collar around the ball stem, which keeps the ball's motion smooth when the stem is rotating in one of the two drop slots. This collar also prevents any scratching of metal on metal.
The panning base flares out from the body of the head just a bit, which makes the laser-engraved 5° index markings easily visible from above the head, while indents in the panning base every 30° provide both a better grip when attaching and detaching the head, and may also keep the numbered degree markings (0-90-0 in 30° increments) from being scuffed or worn off.
The ergonomics of the Sunwayfoto XB-52 are a bit of a mixed bag. While the knobs are generous in size, easy to grip and turn, and have very positive ranges of motion and control, their placement in relation to the drop slots creates some problems. If either of the dual drop slots is used to put an SLR into portrait orientation on the left side (so that the shutter release and controls of an SLR are accessible on the top), the main locking knob and panning base control will either be on the right side or out in front. This makes it very difficult for the "free" left hand to reach these controls without reaching around in front of the camera, and possibly obstructing or bumping the lens.
The simplest solution is to rotate the head so one drop slot is on the right and the other facing front, so that the XB-52 control knobs are on the left or pointing to the back. However, this puts SLR grip and shutter button at the bottom in portrait orientation, and even a very small SLR will risk hitting the tripod because this Sunwayfoto head is so short.
In general, the controls of the Sunwayfoto XB-52 are very positive and easy to manipulate, but if you frequently use a ball head's drop slots to get your camera into portrait orientation, either prepare for some creative hand gymnastics with the XB-52, or look for a different ball head. Naturally, if you use an L-bracket for portraits, use a remote shutter release, or have a square-format camera, then the second drop slot on this head will simply provide another tilt option.
A strange tri-lobed screw head stands out above the Sunwayfoto logo on the body of the head, in-between the two drop slots. This screw secures the interior ball padding on this small peninsula of metal, and is not user-adjustable. This is one of the few fit-and-finish failures on this head, since the prominent position and shiny metal finish make it seem like an adjustment screw of some kind. Just using a black screw would make it less noticeable and not like an adjustment screw. This is nit-picking, of course, but an exposed screw just above the logo is fairly obvious and should have been given some more thought.
Exterior finish durability
|No ball heads were abused in the making of this review. This was typical wear!|
The XB-52 test unit started to show wear in the corners of the quick release and on the locking knob after just a few weeks of average use. The matte finish that looks so good out of the box may not be that durable, and the contrast of the shiny aluminum underneath is very strong, which makes any scrapes or dings quite visible. Sunwayfoto provides a nice 6-year warranty, but surface wear like this is more of a "battle scar" and not a warrantable defect.
The ball motion of the XB-52 is extremely smooth and well-controlled, even under large loads. The use of the conventional locking mechanism makes friction adjustments very easy, particularly when compared to other low-profile heads which use a side-clamp design. There is simply more room for a gradual increase in friction with this conventional design, as opposed to a side-clamp design.
The ellipsoidal ball progressively adds friction when tilted, but the claim that "friction does not need to be constantly adjusted" is only partially true. If the friction level is set just enough to hold the ball at a slight angle and still be easily moved, the ball will droop when tilted much further. To really exploit the ellipsoidal ball, the friction amount has to be set a bit firmer than "just enough," but considering how smooth the ball action is, this is a minor consideration.
Large platform, low ball
With such a low ball position and short stem (for the lowest center of gravity), the quick-release platform can hit the locking knob when tilting in some directions, well before the 45° limit of the case is achieved. This becomes even more of a restriction when a very large camera is attached. One possible solution is to use a smaller quick-release clamp.
The standard screw-in clamp on the XB-52 has jaws that are only 48mm long, but there are two non-functional, bevelled extensions that add 20mm to the length. With the quick release knob on one side, the bubble-level on the other, and these two wings along the length, the overall size of the standard clamp is too much for the compact dimensions of the head underneath it. Luckily, Sunwayfoto offers many other clamps for this head that are either more compact or use their full length for clamping.
Use with a Wimberley Sidekick
All of the ball heads in this group were field-tested with a 500mm lens and a Wimberley Sidekick gimbal-style attachment. This device cleverly uses the drop slot and panning base of large ball heads to hold long lenses, and permit moving them in a very controllable way. Heads of this size and capacity are typically the last stop before switching over to a large and expensive full gimbal head, so this testing is appropriate.
The XB-52 panning base is smooth, but somewhat firm and requires some effort to rotate the head. In most field use, panning was still easy enough, but combine this precise, slow panning with the beveled quick-release that does not fit well with a Wimberley Sidekick, and this is not really the ball head to use in place of a full gimbal head. Tracking subjects would be a trial, and the lack of a firm shelf for the gimbal arm to rest on made using the Sidekick a bit nerve-wracking. One of the squared-off quick release platforms from Sunwayfoto would at least alleviate the last concern.
|The "default" screw clamp release platform does not work well with a Sidekick.|
We sent the above photo of the Sidekick "sliding down" against the bevel on the XB-52 platform to Wimberley for their reaction, and Clay Wimberley himself stated it would be fine when the clamp was fully tightened. However, this is still an unsettling sight when trusting a large lens to be held by this arrangement.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3.1kg, 500mm lens mounted on the Sunwayfoto XB-52, the friction was adjusted to hold the lens at a 45-degree angle without slipping, while positioned over a drop slot. The fine, incremental nature of the progressive friction knob made setting this amount very easy. Easier still, lining the big lens up with the target was a breeze thanks to the smooth ball motion of the Sunwayfoto.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
The XB-52 showed an acceptably small amount of sag in between shots taken 30 seconds apart, with an average change of just 0.3% of the frame. After the friction knob was turned to lock the ball, there was a fairly significant shift of 4.1% of the total frame, which puts the Sunwayfoto near the middle of the test group. This says the head can still handle large loads, but critical framing may not always be preserved.
Pan lock test
Next, the panning base knob was unlocked, and then re-locked to hand-tightness. The tripod was braced, and using a long lens plate as a lever, the panning base showed a significant amount of post-lock slip. The effect was a continuous sliding action, as if something internal was rotating. The panning base lock knob was then tightened further, with extra effort, and still the base would slip under a reasonable amount of torque.
Stress test aside, the Sunwayfoto panning base did not show this slippage during normal use, but if a long enough lens or other camera gear (such as a panoramic head) is on the head, there is a strong chance that the panning base will move when it should be locked. This was very disappointing in an otherwise wonderful head.
Cold weather* test
|*It should be noted that although the head was tested in Canada, it was during the summer. To compensate for this, the head was placed in a sealed bag with a desiccant for 2 weeks, then put in an industrial freezer at 14 F (-10° C) for 8 hours. The head was re-evaluated for ball and pan motion while cold, and for control use with heavy winter gloves on.|
During the freezer test (to simulate winter conditions) the Sunwayfoto showed a small amount of additional roughness in the ball motion, and the panning base remained quite firm and slow to move. The most surprising change was how stiff the main locking knob became, even when applying no friction at all. It felt like it was turning in a thick syrup, instead of the smoothly damped motion when warm.
Finally, the all-metal knobs were fairly easy to grab and turn with thick gloves on, but the sharp texture of the knurling did roughen up the nylon of one pair of mitts. Out of curiosity, the gloves came off and the knobs were turned bare-handed while the head was extremely cold. This was a bad idea, as the combination of rough texture and heat-sucking aluminum made even brief contact with the head uncomfortable. The XB-52 is a good head for cold temperatures, but only if gloves are always worn.
Sunwayfoto has brought an impressive and innovative piece of engineering to the camera support market with the XB-52. While it may look like an awful lot like another head out there, the use of a cleverly repositioned, conventional ball locking mechanism allows this head to have the best of two worlds - low-profile stability and compactness, with the smooth ball motion and progressive friction of a much larger head. There are a few negatives that might sway consumers from this daring design, but if a low ball and smooth action are required, the XB-52 is well worth looking into.
What we like:
- Very smooth ball motion in all situations
- Aspheric ball adds friction at angles
- Dual drop slots are very handy
- Smaller and lighter than other low-profile heads
What we don't like:
- Knurled metal knobs are rough on skin
- Matte finish is not that durable
- Screw-clamp platform is too big for the head
To read the next ball head review, use the arrows or table of contents below. On the last page, we recommend three that stand out from the rest of the field.