Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
Really Right Stuff BH-55 LR
$455 / £280 www.reallyrightstuff.com
|The Really Right Stuff BH-55 with the LR quick release|
Really Right Stuff is a US-based manufacturer of camera support systems and accessories which has consistently set the pace with high-end, custom-designed solutions for demanding photographers. The company started as a family business creating Arca-Swiss compatible plates for various cameras, but has gradually branched out into ball heads, tripods and more exotic support devices. This has been done while maintaining a reputation for innovation, quality, and prices that are at the high end of the spectrum.
RRS (as the company is also known) does not use international distributors or even sell through any retail channels other than its own website, and it ships everything from its warehouse in California. While this simplifies its production and prices, it can also make Really Right Stuff products even more expensive for non-US customers who have to handle importing the products into their own countries. Meanwhile, American photographers can be proud of the "Made in the USA" label on many of its products, including the unique BH-55 ball head.
|Ball diameter||55mm (2.2")|
|Weight||862g (1.9 lb)|
|Base diameter||74mm (2.9")|
|Maximum load||23kg (50 lb)|
Design and features
The Really Right Stuff BH-55 set the world of ball heads on its ear when it was introduced, primarily due to its unusual, and visually striking, design. This is a low-center-of-gravity head, with the ball positioned as close to the mounting point of the tripod as possible. This allows the weight placed on 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. Beyond this obvious design choice, there are a number of other features that Really Right Stuff put into this head.
The BH-55 comes nicely packaged with a quality nylon and neoprene bag that doubles as a travel cover, made by the well-known US case company Op/Tech. Also in the box is a nice instruction booklet that covers not only the basic operation of the head, but also addresses some common questions and new user problems. This has probably been revised and added onto over the years, and is very reassuring to see.
Dual 90° drop slots
Aside from being a shorter and wider than most other heads, the BH-55 also features two drop slots to either flip a camera 90°, or to tilt beyond the normal bounds of the ball casing (which is typically about 45°). With these two slots at a right-angle to each other, this head provides both options without needing to rotate the whole head on its panning base. This can save time and add flexibility to framing a shot, without requiring complicated hand-gymnastics.
Oversized locking knob
Adding to the visual distinction of the BH-55 are the matte-aluminum knobs, with a particularly large locking knob sticking out to one side. All of these tapered knobs on the head are easy to grip and turn, and are captively held, meaning they cannot be entirely unscrewed from the head by accident.
While the locking knob is not physically much bigger than the locking knobs on other heads, the nature of the split case ball lock design means this knob is offset from the ball, and is much easier to find and manipulate. This also increases the footprint of the head.
Lever-action quick release clamp
The only custom option available for the BH-55 is what type of quick-release platform to put on top (or even the option of none at all). With RRS being known for their quick release plates and clamps, there are many proven designs to choose from.
The unit tested was a BH-55 LR which means it comes with the B2 AS II (that's two different twos in the name), which is an Arca-Swiss compatible quick release with a lever to open and close the clamp, and to lock it down.
Construction and handling
When held in the hand, the BH-55's origins as a solid block of aluminum are definitely felt. This is a dense "hand grenade" of a tripod head. Although the low-profile design makes the head shorter than conventional designs, it is still quite heavy and wide, with a base slightly wider than a 12 oz. (355 mL) beverage can and a weight easily double that same, full can. The very large locking knob and the roomy quick release platform also contribute to the overall size.
The head is machined from a large amount of aluminum alloy with a thick casing, a nicely finished, bright aluminum ball, and solid metal control knobs with engraved knurls that are both grippy and easy on the hands. The included B2 AS II quick release platform is similarly solid with a large, bright aluminum lever. The only non-metallic parts to be found on the outside of the head are the black plastic caps on each knob, and even these feel solid and scratch-resistant. The fit and finish of the entire head is exemplary, with very small gaps between pieces, and each knob nicely recessed into the case. While it seems very tightly assembled, every moving part is easy to turn and feels very fluid.
The long-term durability of RRS heads is fairly well known, with many professional photographers abusing their BH-55 heads, and rarely finding a reason to replace them. While the silver parts of the head can get scratched without showing anything other than more aluminum, any deep gouges in the black case finish will leave shiny, silver battle scars that will hopefully be worn with pride. This head is clearly designed to be beaten up and keep going, and seems quite durable. Really Right Stuff backs this up with a 5-year warranty, just in case of any problems.
With dual drop slots and all of the large control knobs offset to the back, the BH-55 has an ergonomic advantage over most other heads. The shape of the case is not a cylinder, so there is a definite front and back to the design, with the RRS logo on the front, and the controls facing the photographer at the back. This places the main locking knob on the left, where the free left hand (typically not on the grip or shutter button of an SLR) can easily manipulate it.
One area where the dual drop slots really shines is when the head is rotated to provide a portrait orientation slot on the left, and further downward tilt range at the front. The main locking knob remains within easy reach of the left hand, and the pan lock and drag knob are not so far forward that there is a need to reach around the camera to get to them. On such a low and vertically compact head, this is quite important.
The feel of the knobs is similarly excellent, with just enough resistance when turning to avoid spinning, or having them move on their own, and there is a nice amount of tactile feedback to know when the pan lock or main locking knob is near its limit. There is a dead zone on the lower range of the drag knob, where little if any change to the friction is applied (more on this in the field experiences). This improves once the higher values are selected, and the very fine threading of the larger locking knob helps immensely when setting the overall friction.
Shape meets function
|Ouch! Not all quick release platforms are this big, but the supplied B2 AS II is, and also almost square.|
There is a downside to this case shape and control arrangement, and this is shown in the detail photo above. With a long plate or larger quick release platform on the ball, the range of tilt is severely restricted at the "back" of the head. There will be a collision long before the 45° restriction of the ball opening is reached in this direction. This may not be a frequent problem, but if it happens at the wrong moment, it will certainly be frustrating.
The panning base
Around the base of the head is a pan scale going from 0 to 90 (and back down), with numeric labels every 15° and smaller marks at the curious amount of 2.5° each. This allows for precise panning, and the feel of the BH-55 panning base is excellent for this. It is not over-damped and stiff as some other heads, nor is it fast and too easy to turn. RRS got the amount of resistance just about perfect for both quick motions and small, incremental pans. The only slightly confusing part is the three index marks around the front and sides of the head to measure pans by, which means that large rotations may see a second starting point go by.
The panning base lock knob is also just below the minimum friction drag knob, and of a similar size and shape. Mercifully, the drag knob is inset into the case just enough, so blindly feeling for the right knob on this side of the head, with an eye to the viewfinder, is still fairly easy.
Reading the knob
If there is one immediate negative to the otherwise lovely and functional design of the BH-55, it is the choice of white numbers on the silver surface of the friction adjustment knob. While this knob may not see frequent use, the lack of contrast makes the numbers very hard to decipher, and this prevents quickly seeing what level of minimum friction the ball is set to. Adding to this, the numbers are seen through a deep "window" in the case, so they are hard to read no matter what lighting the head is under.
Related to this, the white markings for the panning base index (and logo) are not as bright as other manufacturers' paints, but they don't seem prone to wearing off, and still provide more than enough contrast to be easily read against the matte black surface of the base.
The Really Right Stuff BH-55 is not a small or compact head by any measure, although it is shorter than some other large ball heads of conventional design. This size is apparent when mounted on a tripod with a smaller platform than the Gitzo Series 3 seen in the photos and used in the tests. Weight is also a factor, as the BH-55 is among the heaviest heads in this review group, and it makes even substantial tripods feel top heavy.
While the feel of ball motion is a subjective thing, the BH-55 has a smooth but somewhat firm feel when there is friction applied to the ball. In fact, there is an almost continuous feel of resistance unless the ball is completely unlocked and floppy, which is similar to other heads that use the case to clamp the ball from the sides. Notably, this feel does not change when heavier loads and greater amounts of friction are applied to it, so any stiffness does not become sticky, or affect the ability to adjust framing to a fine degree.
In the user manual, Really Right Stuff advises that the ball motion will become smoother over time, as the head gets broken in. Considering the BH-55 that was loaned for review looked like it had seen previous use, there was no way to know whether the ball motion in the field was closer to new or after having been broken in.
Setting the drag
One area where RRS BH-55 shows its clamping method of ball locking is in the minimum friction, or drag set knob. The main locking knob has an extremely fine threading to very carefully adjust the clamp on the ball with increasing friction, but the drag knob apparently does not share this. The hard-to-read numeric range on the knob is from 0-9, but the first half of the range seemed almost decorative.
The supplied instructions say that the main lock knob should be used to set a desired friction level and the drag-set knob should be employed to keep it there. This is consistent with setting the minimum friction on many other heads, but this did not work for many lighter lens and camera combinations. In these cases, when the drag knob had just stopped turning easily, as instructed, the friction actually increased! If care was not taken to back off a bit on the drag knob, the ball could be almost immovably locked, and not kept at the desired amount of friction.
This kind of touchiness when rotating a knob seemed uncharacteristic compared to the rest of the head functions. Very quickly the lesson was learned, and the main locking knob was employed for all lighter gear choices, and the drag set knob only used when heavier lenses or larger loads were placed on the head.
The B2 AS II quick release
|Yes, everything is locked down and secure.|
Really Right Stuff indicates on their website that the BH-55 in combination with this particular lever-action quick release is the most popular combination for this head. This is not surprising, as a lever is much quicker and easier to lock or unlock than a knob, so why saddle such a premium head with a lesser quick release? Well, in many cases, the lever-type releases are set to lock at a certain width, and all plates that go into it must be that width.
Naturally, RRS suggests using their brand of plates for maximum capability, but they've gone an extra step, just in case. The B2 AS II quick release lever is "self adjusting" to different width plates, through some mechanical combination of the curvature of the lever's fulcrum and the spring and pushrod beneath it. This is a relatively new improvement to this platform, and a very welcome one. Out in our field tests, over 10 different manufacturer's Arca-compatible plates were put into the B2, and not one prevented it from locking securely. Compared to some of the other lever releases tested and reviewed, this is a very big advantage.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
A 3.1kg, 500mm lens was locked into the quick release of the BH-55, and the friction was adjusted to hold the lens at a 45° angle without slipping, while positioned over one of the drop slots. Setting the friction level for such a heavy load with the minimum friction drag knob was nearly impossible, so the main locking knob was used to apply progressive friction. Once the ball had enough friction to hold the lens in place and still permit movement, lining up the lens with the target was slightly jerky compared with smoother heads.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
Once the target was in line, the BH-55 showed an almost negligible amount of sag in between shots taken 30 seconds apart, with an average change of just 0.2% of the frame. After the main knob was turned to lock the ball, there was an equally small shift of the ball, resulting in a change of 2.5% of the total frame. While the RRS head is quite solid and stable, it is not quite as good as other "side-clamp" ball heads or even some larger "conventional" heads. Still, there is nothing to complain about here.
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 to apply pressure, the panning base showed only a slight amount of creep, and even this was uneven and not a sliding action. The panning base can be expected to lock and stay put in most circumstances.
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 wintry conditions) the BH-55 showed no appreciable change in the feel of the ball motion, and the panning base was as silky smooth as ever. The friction setting and pan lock knob became a bit stiffer to turn, while the large locking knob remained as nicely damped as when warm.
The large tapered and knurled aluminum locking knob was still easy to grab and turn with thick gloves on, but the smaller knobs were a bit slippery, perhaps due to their size and the subtle nature of the grip pattern. The lever release on the upper platform was particularly nice to use with gloves on, with a lot of room to grab and pull it open or push it closed. Overall, the BH-55 is an almost ideal head for cold conditions.
Really Right Stuff definitely tries to live up to its name, producing items that are a little different to "get it right." With the BH-55, they have succeeded in some very important areas, with easy-to-use controls and extremely solid performance. There are some aspects that are not quite as good as the competition, but these are minor compromises in a design that provides other advantages. While the ball motion may not be as smooth as some conventional heads, anyone looking at the BH-55 is doing so because it offers something more important to them, whether it is the low center of gravity, dual drop slots, or even the cachet that comes with having the head that many pros prefer.
What we liked:
- Large, comfortable control knobs
- Almost perfect lever-action quick release
- Beautiful construction and build quality
- Dual drop slots are very useful
What we didn't like:
- Ball motion is a little stiff with heavier loads
- Minimum friction range is very limited
- White markings on silver are hard to read