Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
Photo Clam Pro Gold VI
$485 / £299 www.photoclam.com
|Photo Clam Pro Gold VI with Easy PQRS (Panoramic Quick Release System)|
Photo Clam is a relative newcomer to the photographic support industry, but has made a name for itself as a provider of robust tripods and ball heads, all designed and manufactured in South Korea. The Pro Gold VI (shortened to PG6), with its 54mm ball diameter, is the culmination of the Pro Gold series of ball heads that began a few years ago with the popular, 38mm Pro Gold II head.
All heads in the Pro Gold series are distinguished by their gold accent ring and a gold-finish plate on the end-cap of the main friction knob. The Pro Gold VI is presented as a luxury alternative to the more industrial, but similarly large, Photo Clam PC-54NS head. True to this aesthetic, Photo Clam packages this new head in an elegant (but sturdy) red, black, and gold clamshell box, with the head resting inside a lined, faux-leather bag, which doubles as a travel cover.
The particular head under review is an "Easy PQRS" (Panoramic Quick Release System) version, which comes with a second panning base on top of the ball, beneath the quick release. This increases the height, weight, and price, but also allows perfectly level panoramic rotations, even if the tripod is not leveled.
|Ball diameter||54 mm (2.1")|
|Height||109 mm (4.29"), or 122 mm (4.8") with PQRS|
|Weight||690 g (1.52 lb), or 780 g (1.7 lb) with PQRS|
|Base diameter||70 mm (2.75")|
|Maximum load||70 kg (154 lb)|
|MSRP||$485, or $540 with PQRS|
|Warranty||2 years + distributor extension (total of 8 years in US)|
Design and features
Similar to the smaller heads in the Pro Gold range, the PG6 is finely machined from aluminum alloy, with a hollow ball to keep the weight down. The profile of the case is slightly tapered to minimize the visual heft of the head, although it is very definitely a large and heavy piece of gear. Really, it is the PQRS system on top that makes the whole unit both visually and physically heavier than many other heads in this review.
When it comes to appearance, the matte black with gold accents is how Pro Gold heads are shipped to North American distributors. However, for anyone with an adventurous spirit and the willingness to order from Korea, these same heads are available from Photo Clam in some pretty wild color combinations, as seen below.
|Multi-colored Photo Clams! Definitely not your standard-issue, all-black ball heads.|
Construction and handling
Once the ball head is in hand, the Pro designation seems as appropriate as the Gold. The fit and finish of the case and ball is excellent, with very tight construction and a lovely satin black finish. The main knob is well machined from aluminum, with a rubber grip and plastic index ring to mark the levels of friction. On the end of the main knob is a gold-colored, plastic end cap and metal minimum friction screw.
The smaller knobs for the panning base and PQRS are not quite as nice as the larger ones, with little to distinguish them aside from being functional, metal, and captive (unable to be screwed off). The PQRS platform in particular seems a bit like a mash-up of various parts, with larger gaps around the knobs and panning platform, but not enough to affect the feel or function.
The long-term durability of the Pro Gold VI is unknown, as it is a very new product from Photo Clam, but their PC-series products have proven themselves to be quite durable. During the testing, the matte black finish on the PG6 took quite a few hits without even showing a scratch, so the same could be expected of the other Pro Gold heads.
With a simple control layout that follows the lead of many other ball heads, the PG6 distinguishes itself by having the main friction and locking knob (or multi-function grip) on the left side of the single drop slot. It may not be immediately apparent why other heads usually have this knob on the right, but when the stem of the ball is dropped into the slot to put a camera in portrait orientation, this Photo Clam head shows why.
Most consumer cameras are right handed, with the shutter release button on the top right of the body, above a grip. To keep this part of the camera accessible (and to avoid wrist contortions) when changing orientation, the head is typically rotated so the drop slot is to the left of the photographer. Of course, medium and large-format cameras may be different, and some photographers may prefer to drop their camera to the right, and/or use a cable release in either hand.
However, with the drop slot on the left, the main knob of the Pro Gold head is now facing away from the user. This requires reaching around to adjust friction or lock the ball, and with the camera taking up the left side, the right hand comes off the camera grip and shutter release to work the knob (so to speak). This may only be a minor inconvenience at some times, but it can certainly spoil a fleeting moment when trying to work quickly.
The size and feel of the main knob is exemplary. The knob turns with just enough well-damped resistance that small adjustments to friction are as easy to make as a quick lock of the ball, and the index ring maintains its position with the knob, which makes repeatable friction settings quite possible. These index rings turn with the main knob to show a number for the amount of friction being applied, but can also be rotated for user-adjustment, or zeroing. If the ring moves too easily on its own, any numbered friction amount cannot be accurately repeated.
Panning quick release system (PQRS)
|The Photo Clam "Easy PQRS" (panoramic quick release system); an option for most Photo Clam heads.|
The Easy PQRS clamp that Photo Clam provided with the test head is the sort of attachment that can be ordered as a factory-attached option with many brands of heads, or purchased later as an upgrade to a simpler quick release or mounting platform. Given that no other head in the review group was equipped this way, the PQRS does not affect the final rating of the head.
|When rotating a camera horizontally on a ball head, there is the hard way (turning the ball in the socket), and the easy way (unlocking the panning base on the bottom, if there is one). Each is done in different situations, but most often the panning base is unlocked only when a large rotation is needed, as this also moves the control knobs. This is unfortunate, since the rotation of a panning base is much smoother and more fluid than any ball.|
Adding a second panning base on top of the ball keeps the main head controls where they are, and allows the often-quoted "perfect panoramas every time," with a rotation that can be made level with the horizon. The index marks on the outside of the PQRS will help to get panoramic intervals precisely spaced, but the index arrow is quite small and hard to see. Truly, if panoramas are a frequent pursuit, a dedicated rotator with click stops for specific degree intervals will make the process much easier.
The lock knob for the panning release is large and easy to grab, even with a camera attached, but combined with the even larger clamp knob, these knobs can get in the way during normal ball movements. Of course, Photo Clam provides an option for a lever-action quick release, which would fold nicely out of the way, but a screw-clamp is generally more compatible with different quick release plates.
Very compatible quick release
Also of note for certain quick release plates is the thoughtful combination of both a retractable safety pin to prevent plates with a well-positioned recess on the bottom from sliding out, and also very slight grooves to catch any plates with safety-stop screws projecting from below. This makes Photo Clam quick releases very cross-compatible with the safety features on many manufacturers' plates.
Not quite a perfect fit
One unfortunate aspect of any ball head add-on is that it might not be a perfect fit. In the case of even this factory-installed PQRS, the panning base partially surrounds the stem of the ball, which puts it lower than a regular quick release. This was just enough to strike the side of the head whenever it was put in the portrait drop slot.
Some of the white logo was scratched off due to these collisions, but the platform was still 90 degrees off the horizontal. It may look like the platform is beyond 90° in the photo, but that is due to perspective and the round platform.
When the Pro Gold VI is put on top of a suitable tripod (a Gitzo Series 3, in this case), it seems smaller and a bit more compact than the dimensions would suggest. Part of this is due to the tapered profile, and part from the very minimal controls sticking out from the body. The addition of the panning clamp adds weight and height, and without this, the Photo Clam would almost be an ideal hiking or travel head for heavy equipment.
One of the most subjective, yet important qualities of a ball head is smoothness of operation, and the Photo Clam does not disappoint in this respect. The ball motion is quite smooth, even when under significant tension, making fine adjustments of a heavy lens easy. The main locking knob does add friction fairly quickly, so getting just the perfect amount of friction can sometimes be tricky.
The aspheric ball can be felt adding friction as soon as the ball is tilted away from the center, and it performs as advertised, reducing (but not eliminating) the need to adjust the friction when angling the camera. This is a mechanical feature that very few other heads have (only two others in this size range group), and Photo Clam has designed the ball of every head in the Pro Gold series to be slightly ellipsoidal.
Panning base performance
The PG6 has a very slow and firm panning base (at the bottom) which can make quick pans difficult, rendering an add-on gimbal attachment, like the Wimberley Sidekick, very difficult to use. This type of panning base is better for precision panning, and there is a cut-out "window" on the panning base to show indexed degrees (from 0-90, four times), but there is no indicator line on the base to show exactly which degree you are at, only a slight groove that was nearly impossible to see (black on black). The lock for the panning base worked quite well, but considering how hard it is to pan when it's unlocked, this isn't surprising.
PQRS platform performance
The supplemental panning platform on top of the head, however, pans smoothly and easily. This combination of a panning device and quick release is set rather low on the ball stem, so when the 90° drop slot is used, the pan locking knob hits the base of the head. This is an annoying oversight compared to the rest of the fit and finish, but it's not a critical or functional showstopper, since the PQRS platform can be rotated to get the knob out of the way. Still, this makes rotations in the drop slot something to be wary of, since no one wants their camera movement to be blocked at an inopportune time.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3.1kg, 500mm lens mounted to the large quick release, the ball was rotated to a 45-degree angle above the drop slot. The aspheric ball helped out by adding some friction, while the smooth ball motion made it easy to frame the target for testing.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
The Pro Gold VI exhibited an acceptably slight amount of sag between shots while under tension (but not locked down), with just an average of 0.3% difference in the framing between images taken 30 seconds apart. When the locking knob was carefully tightened, however, there was a significant shift in the ball that translated to the frame, resulting in the largest change of any head in the test at 7.3% of the frame. The sag amount is acceptable for a head this large with this kind of load, but the relative shift after locking means this is not the head for critical macro work, or for anyone who "composes to the edge of the frame" every time.
Pan lock test
The PQRS platform was removed and temporarily replaced with a third-party Arca-type clamp, to ensure only the bottom panning base was tested, then the pan knob was unlocked, and then re-locked to hand-tightness. With the tripod braced, and using a long lens plate as a lever, the panning base showed no movement at all, despite a great deal of torque.
Because it could be done, this test was repeated with the upper panning base and clamp reattached, and there was some slippage of the PQRS locking mechanism. It took quite a bit of pressure to produce this slippage, so most likely this will not happen in normal use.
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 smoothness of the ball seemed completely unaffected. The panning base also showed no appreciable change in either smoothness or stiffness, although it was pretty firm to begin with.
With thick, winter gloves on, the main friction and locking knob remained easy to use, but the panning base knob (and the PQRS lock knob) became difficult to grasp. The minimum friction dial on the main knob became decorative with any kind of cloth between a fingertip and the small face of it, so some kind of tool would be needed for adjusting this in very cold conditions. The motion of the PQRS platform seemed just as smooth and fluid as when warm, and the quick release clamp knob is large enough to be manipulated by gloved fingers. In general, the Photo Clam Pro Gold VI is suitable for cold weather work, but may require "throwing down the gloves" from time to time.
The Photo Clam Pro Gold VI head is a very nice tripod head with gold accents, and a somewhat funny name. Getting beyond that, the fit and finish show Photo Clam is quite serious about producing premium-level products, and the presentation and feel of the head reinforce that. The shift in the ball after locking is something that usually only happens on smaller heads, so hopefully they can address this in their top product. The PQRS platform is really only recommended if you create multi-image panoramas and can deal with its somewhat supplemental nature. With a simple screw- or lever-action clamp on top, the Pro Gold VI would be an ideal head for serious photographers who demand simplicity and smooth performance.
What we like:
- Smooth, capable ball motion
- Aspheric ball adds friction at angles
- Simple controls feel very nice
- Fit and finish of the head is quite good
- The gold accents tend to grow on you
What we don't like:
- Significant post-lock shift of the ball
- PQRS is large, heavy, and thankfully optional
- Difficult to find these heads in North America