Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
Novoflex Classic Ball 5
$625 / £389 www.novoflex.com
|The Novoflex Classic Ball 5, with optional Q=Mount quick release platform|
Although the actual Novoflex motto is "Precision for Professionals," an equally appropriate phrase would be "Dare to Be Different." For over 60 years, the company in Memmingen, Germany has been making camera accessories with unconventional designs, like its modular, four-legged "QuadroPod" instead of the usual tripod. The company is not only known for its bellows, macro rails, lens mount adapters, and camera support systems, but also that they are typically among the most expensive options in each category.
Novoflex proudly labels its products as premium photo accessories, and the large and unusual Classic Ball 5 lives up to this as one of the most expensive ball heads of its size, at least in North America. The big question is whether the benefits and features of this unique head justify the premium.
|Ball diameter||56mm (2.2")|
|Height||115mm (4.5"), or 126mm (4.9") with quick release platform|
|Weight||860g (1.9 lb), or 960g (2.1 lb) with quick release platform|
|Base diameter||80mm (3.15")|
|Max load||12kg (26 lb)|
|MSRP||$625, or $740 with Q=Mount quick release platform|
|Warranty||2 years (in the USA and Canada)|
Design and features
With a striking, matte-grey finish, three drop slots, and a very unique friction setting ring encircling the whole body, there is not much classic in the design of the Classic Ball 5, despite the name. This is the largest ball head made by Novoflex, and it only shares its design with the smaller Classic Ball 3, making them fairly exclusive products, even within the Novoflex range of support gear.
For such a premium product, it was odd to receive the head bolted to the bottom of a thin-walled box, with only a brief (English and German) instruction sheet included. At least the bolt is nicely made, and came with a 3/8" to 1/4" adapter bushing.
Another surprising (and expensive) detail is that the current models of this head come with no standard quick release system at all, only a platform with a reversible 1/4" or 3/8" threaded stud. Novoflex does offer many types of quick release platforms, while the platform can accept a camera directly, or use the threaded quick releases from other manufacturers. For this review, a Novoflex Q=Mount, Arca-compatible quick release platform was added.
Although Novoflex does not publish the ball diameter for this head, the drop slots allow the entire ball to be measured to 56mm. This large ball provides a very smooth rotation and greater locking power (and associated max load) than other ball heads made by Novoflex.
Related to this, the official maximum load specification is simply "the head supports up to 12kg," which suggests Novoflex isn't going to compete on the (sometimes outrageous) maximum load numbers quoted by other companies.
Advanced Friction Control (AFC)
When looking at this head, it's apparent the Novoflex engineers decided to rethink almost every common ball head control. Rather than use a separate knob or a tiny set-screw to set the minimum friction on the ball, the Classic Ball series features a ring of thick, knurled plastic, which rotates to preset friction levels. This makes it quite easy to apply a repeatable amount friction for a camera and lens combination to insure the ball will not droop or flop over, even when unlocked.
Another difference from most other ball heads is the use of a lever to lock or unlock the ball, instead of a rotating knob. With the minimum friction level set by the AFC ring, this lever can be treated as an on/off switch for any ball movement, with no loss of preset friction.
One big advantage of this type of ball lock control is that it is easy to tell whether the ball is locked or unlocked, either visually or by feeling with your hand when your eye is looking through a viewfinder.
Three 90° drop slots
The typical drop slot (or portrait notch) on all ball heads allows the stem of the ball to tilt 90 °s from the vertical position. Most heads only have one drop slot, so they must be rotated on their panning base to use it for tilting forward or back, or to the side for portrait orientation.
The Classic Ball 5 permits all three of these movements without any need to rotate the head. The two opposed slots allow 180° of tilt range between them, while the third slot still provides a quick portrait orientation.
Construction and handling
The Classic Ball 5 is made from machined aluminum with a thick-walled, almost monolithic construction, and a unique titanium grey finish. All of the control knobs are similarly made from aluminum, with the exception of the blue plastic AFC ring. The feel of the whole head is quite solid, and the Q=Mount quick release extends this even further.
While some heads are designed to look as compact and light as possible, this Novoflex head seems to go the other direction, and appears even heavier and bulkier. At 860g, without a quick release, the Classic Ball 5 is a substantial piece of equipment on top of any tripod, and nearly the heaviest head of this size.
The fit and finish of the whole unit is simply stellar, and everything feels very tightly assembled, yet easy to manipulate. While the long-term durability of the head could not be tested, the very fine construction and materials suggest it will hold up to many years of use. During the testing period, the CB5 sustained many (accidental) drops and knocks without even a scratch showing up on the finish. Beyond this, Novoflex provides a fairly modest 2 year worldwide warranty for normal use.
With so many unique controls and features, it is difficult to compare to other ball heads, but nothing on this head feels inadequate or cheap. The blue AFC ring is fairly grippy, and turns easily with a subtle stop at each number, so there is no question that a new friction preset has been selected, even without looking at the ring.
The ball locking lever protrudes just enough to be easily grasped and turned, without requiring too much force to lock or unlock the ball. This lever is also well rounded and tucked against the base so it won't catch on clothing or other gear to turn on its own.
Finally, the panning base and the quick release use a fairly conventional, knurled metal knob to lock or unlock them, with both turning very smoothly, and being completely captive (they cannot be completely unscrewed).
Using three drop slots
The basic functions of the Classic Ball 5 are made simpler by the inclusion of three drop slots, which reduce the need to rotate the head to gain either a portrait orientation and greater tilt range. With the locking lever on the left (under the "non-shutter release" hand) and the friction setting numbers visible to the photographer, there is still a full range of fore and aft tilt (180°), but the portrait orientation slot ends up on the wrong side, if your camera has its grip and shutter release on the right (like most).
With the locking lever facing the photographer, a camera can be tilted 180° either left or right allowing for a conventional portrait orientation, and still tilt 90° forward. This kind of flexibility is priceless, and it is a wonder no other manufacturer offers this kind of design.
The panning base knob
This discussion of rotation exposes one annoying problem with the Classic Ball 5 controls: the panning base knob does not rotate with the rest of the head, but rather is firmly attached to the base that gets screwed onto the tripod. Again, this is different from pretty much every other ball head out there, and while Novoflex might have a very good mechanical reason to put the knob there, it leaves the location of this one control up to wherever the threads end when screwing the ball head onto the tripod. This may be nit-picking, but it seems like quite an oversight on a head as otherwise well-thought-out as this one.
On top of this (or rather not on top), the panning base lacks any degree or index markings at all. This makes precise pan adjustments basically impossible. However, for pans that need to be precise along any axis, or level with the horizon, an additional panning base above the ball is generally recommended. Not surprisingly, Novoflex also offers a few of these to choose from, at premium prices.
The Advanced Friction Control ring feels quite solid, although it is the only external part made of plastic. The ring is slightly inset into the body, but the ribbed texture makes it easy to find and turn without taking an eye from the viewfinder; and, of course, the ring can be rotated from any side of the head. Best of all, the ring gives a tactile click when it hits one of the preset friction numbers, so changing the friction can be confidently done at all times. As a safety precaution against "dropping the ball" with expensive camera gear attached, the AFC ring can only be rotated when the ball is locked.
The preset friction levels from the factory are generally very good, allowing for easy movement (under tension) of a DSLR and smaller lenses when unlocked on Preset 2, with each higher level providing significant amounts of additional friction. Naturally, not everyone's gear of choice will fit nicely into these five preset friction levels, so Novoflex provides a way for the user to adjust the entire ring so that all presets can collectively have more or less friction.
Taking the Classic Ball 5 out on a tripod for some field testing was a bit daunting due to the unconventional nature of the head. The Novoflex system of a friction control ring and a ball locking lever (instead of the familiar knobs on other ball heads) did take a little time to get used to, but after that initial familiarization, they were consistent and easy to apply when shooting with various lenses.
With the heavier 500mm f/4.5 lens mounted, the AFC ring was set to 5, and moving the lens around under the unlocked tension still took very little effort, and there was almost no change in position when the locking lever was engaged. For any heavier gear (greater than 3kg), the AFC ring would need to be adjusted to allow friction amounts beyond the factory default, but for larger telephoto lenses, a full gimbal head would be a better tool for the job.
The Classic Ball 5 has extremely smooth, consistent ball movement when under any friction amount. There is a delicate balance between the drag of the friction that keeps gear steady, and the ease of moving the ball in the cradle. Novoflex has struck this balance perfectly. As loads increase, the feel of the ball stays buttery smooth, and fine positioning of even heavy, longer lenses was quite easy.
When using a preset friction amount and tilting the ball a significant amount (offsetting the load, which requires even more friction), there were instances that the preset was not quite enough to keep the CB5 from drooping under the weight. This shows that the ball is perfectly spherical and not ellipsoidal (or aspheric) as some manufacturers use. A simple solution to this was simply to apply more friction with either the locking lever, or the next higher preset, since the ball remained easy to manipulate even under tremendous loads and tension.
Three drop slots and a Sidekick
With an unrestricted tilt range of 180° in one axis, the Classic Ball almost begs to be pushed beyond the 45° limit of the case, but not every photographer is going to need or even want three drop slots. Some ball head users never use the drop slot at all, and many may only find it useful in a pinch. Also, exposing the ball like this can increase the accumulation of dirt or debris, and add a bit more risk of something striking the ball and scratching it, both of which could undermine the smooth feel of the ball motion. However, as already noted, having three drop slots means less need to rotate the head on the panning base to gain tilt or a portrait orientation, and just having the choice of tilt directions makes the head seem more flexible.
|Using a Wimberley Sidekick on the right of the Classic Ball 5|
There is also a choice of directions and sides to mount a gimbal attachment like the Wimberley Sidekick on the head, which transforms this from a simple ball head to a capable platform for quickly moving larger lenses around. The fast and smooth panning base helps tremendously when using the CB5 this way, although the round quick release is not quite ideal for the short plate and flat stop on the Sidekick.
After some slight complaints that this head (and another pricey German head in the group) did not come with any quick release at all, the Novoflex Q=Mount was fastened on top and the combination seemed somehow closer to complete. The fit and finish of this simple screw-clamp quick release is just as tight and solid as the Novoflex head, and it shares the same grey finish and thicker-than-necessary construction.
There is no wobble or sideways motion in the sliding wedge of the clamp because it fits so nicely within the platform, and it only takes one-and-a-half turns of the knob to go from open to securely locking an Arca-compatible plate in place. The platform has a round profile that does not get close to interfering with any of the controls of the head, but this shape makes the amount of clamp area a minimal 30mm.
One final detail is that there is a bubble level on this latest version of the Q=Mount, but it's embedded in the slot of the platform where a camera or lens plate will go. Leveling a head without the camera on it, which the location of this bubble level requires, is not the most the accurate or expedient way to do it.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3.1kg, 500mm lens locked in the quick release, and the minimum friction set to hold the load at a 45° angle above one of the drops slots, the camera and lens were still easy enough to move that framing the target for sag and lock testing was quick and precise. Notably, preset #5 (the highest on the head, with factory default settings) was not quite enough friction to hold this monster lens so far off-axis in the unlocked state, so the locking lever was employed to get just enough friction to hold the lens and still permit motion.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
During the testing, the Classic Ball 5 showed only a small amount of sag in between shots taken 30 seconds apart, with a total change in the frame of just 0.3%. When the locking lever was pushed all the way over to fully locked, the shift in the ball was slightly less than 1% of the total frame. Because the locking lever was already employed to hold the lens steady for the sag test, a larger amount of shift may occur going from a completely unlocked state. In any case, the results are very good for a head of this size, and the Novoflex Classic Ball 5 can confidently handle this size lens.
The panning base knob was completely unlocked, then re-locked to hand-tightness. With the ball locked and the tripod braced, a long lens plate was used as a lever to torque the panning base. The first time this was done the panning base slid almost continuously under the pressure. When the pan knob was unlocked after this, there was a mechanical "pop" felt in the knob, which was a new feeling. The second time the pan base was locked and pushed resulted in a much firmer lock, with really only a slight stutter as it moved a small amount. This says the pan base lock does work to lock things down, but tightening the knob has to be done with more care (and perhaps more muscle) than usual.
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 Novoflex Classic Ball 5 retained its characteristic smooth ball action, and only the panning base showed signs of slowing down (although it was fast to begin with). With heavy gloves on, the quick release and pan base lock knobs were easy to manipulate, and the ball locking lever could just be pinched to lock or unlock the ball. The small knurling of the AFC ring, however, became a bit slippery to grasp with thick gloves, so it was necessary to grab the ring with the thumb and forefinger extended halfway around the body cylinder. In the end, the AFC ring did turn easily in the cold.
The Classic Ball 5 is a big head that is uniquely Novoflex, with everything that name implies; from the premium price to the unusual features and controls, with incredibly fine construction to top it all off. Everything on this head works, and works well, with the ball motion, in particular, being the smoothest and most confident of all the heads tested in this group. Features like triple drop slots and the AFC presets may not appeal to every photographer, particularly when the price is calculated with a quick release added in, but the Novoflex Classic Ball 5 really is a piece of functional art, in every sense of the word, engineered to hold up a camera, and those who desire this will probably not quibble over the price.
What we like:
- Smoothest ball motion in the group
- 3 drop slots for flexibility in tilting
- Innovative and useful controls
- Bombproof build quality
What we don't like:
- Quick release sold separately
- Panning base knob doesn't move with the body
- High price in North America