Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
Cullmann Magnesit MB 8.5
$260 / £160 www.cullmann.de
|The Cullmann Magnesit MB 8.5 with included MX465 quick-release platform|
Cullmann has been a well-known German manufacturer of tripods, tripod heads, bags and accessories for over 40 years. It built its reputation with its nearly indestructible "Titan" tripods, and today they produce a wide range of photographic support products, with some of their headline products still made in Germany, like the ball head in this review.
The Magnesit MB 8.5 is the largest Cullmann ball head available in North America, and the ".5" indicates this model is equipped with the MX465 Arca-Swiss compatible, "dovetail" type quick release platform and plate. Smaller heads in the "Magnesit" range can be purchased with different, proprietary quick releases, although they all share the design and controls of the MB 8.5.
|Ball diameter||54mm (2.1")|
|Weight||900g (2 lb)|
|Base diameter||66mm (2.6")|
|Maximum load||32kg (70 lb)|
|Warranty||10 years (worldwide)|
Design and features
The Cullmann "Magnesit" name refers to the cast-magnesium components in their tripods, but the ball heads in the series are primarily made from aluminum. The external design of the head itself is a very tall and relatively slender cylinder, with a body finished in a stylish combination of matte-black paint and shiny, machined aluminum. Even the knobs on the body have brushed aluminum caps, completing the look. However, the dull gray of the blocky MX465 quick release platform looks rather out of place compared to the rest of the head.
The head comes nicely packaged with a soft-sided zipper case for storage, a large microfiber cleaning cloth, a 65mm plate for the (installed) quick release, a supplemental mounting platform for the ball, and the hex wrench used to switch them. The usual manual and warranty card round out the contents of the box.
54mm hollow ball
The largest Cullmann heads have a machined aluminum ball with an almost industry standard diameter of 54mm. This large ball promises a smoother rotation than smaller Cullmann heads, along with greater locking power (and associated maximum load capacity) due to a greater surface area for the locking mechanism to grasp.
Locking knob with friction selector
On the side of the head, opposite the drop slot, is a large, rubber-rimmed locking knob. A relatively large dial in the center of the knob is used to set the minimum friction that the "unlocked" position of the main knob will allow.
The dial clicks positively into varying levels of friction, and can be adjusted while the ball is either locked or unlocked (most minimum friction devices require a locked ball).
MX465 quick release
The MB 8.5 comes with a lever-action quick release platform that is said to be "Arca-compatible." The 65mm plate included with the package has plastic "anti-twist" stubs on one end, and fits perfectly within the quick release.
When unlocking the quick release, the plate is only released enough to slide in the clamp, and a spring-loaded pin on the bottom prevents the plate from sliding out. Pressing a plastic safety button on the side of the platform ejects the plate upward.
As a standby measure, Cullmann also includes a "flat" platform in the form of a reversible disc with a 3/8" and 1/4" threaded screw head on either end. This can be used for anything with a standard tripod socket, if it lacks a compatible quick release plate. The platform itself is a simple plastic disc around a central metal bolt with 3/8" and 1/4" standard threads on either end.
Construction and handling
The body of the MB 8.5 is made of machined aluminum with a powder-coated, matte black finish, while the ball is a bright, brushed aluminum with a smooth coating. The control knobs have rubber wrapped sides to make them easier to grip, although the rubber on the panning base knob is slightly slippery. Like most modern ball heads, the exposed ball is "greaseless," and would only need to be wiped off with the included (and very large) microfiber cloth.
Long-term durability is unknown for this head, but the ball, case and knobs of the head seem very tightly assembled, with no large gaps, exposed screws, or rough edges on the knobs or the ball. In fact, this impression of tightness extends to the ball friction and panning base, which needed some "breaking in" right out of the box. The included quick release, however, is not at the same quality level as the rest of the head, which we will get into shortly. Cullmann provides a 10-year warranty through its distributors, which is very good and quite reassuring.
The controls of the MB 8.5 are simple and well-sorted, with its two main knobs arranged at right-angles to each other around the cylinder of the head. Each is generously sized and easy to distinguish without taking an eye from the viewfinder, and the range of motion and tactile feel of each knob is consistent and a pleasure to use. Like the other two knobs, the friction selector dial is easy to grasp, and turns with a satisfying click at each new friction level.
The panning base lock knob is 90° to the right of the drop slot, so the panning base can easily be unlocked with the left hand, even with an eye to the viewfinder and the right hand on the shutter button. (It should be noted that all SLR cameras are "right handed" with the shutter release on the top right. So, to keep this accessible, the drop slot is traditionally positioned to the left of the photographer. Medium and Large-format cameras can be different, and some photographers may prefer to drop their camera to the right, or use a cable release in either hand.)
The ball lock and friction dial are 180° from the drop slot, allowing for easy adjustment of the controls when the drop slot is facing "forward" and the extra range of tilt (going into the drop slot) is available for pointing the camera down. The tradeoff, of course, is that to use the drop slot for extra tilt range upward, these same controls would be facing away from the photographer. This is a bit of a reach and requires some blind adjustments, and here the tactile "click" of the friction control knob is very reassuring. When an SLR is in the drop slot, locking the ball or adjusting the friction requires taking the right hand off the camera, which can be a problem when trying to rotate the camera vertically and also lock it there.
The main knobs
The large friction and locking knob takes about 3/4 of a revolution to go from "loose" to "locked," regardless of the minimum friction level set with the friction selector dial. When used in combination, these two friction controls were refreshingly consistent compared to most ball heads, where setting the minimum friction means a change in how far the locking knob must be turned. These common controls in the Magnesit line show that Cullmann can improve even the simplest things if they put their minds to it.
The pan-lock knob takes about 1/4 revolution to unlock the base, and locks very firmly when turned the other way to a hard stop. Unfortunately, this small knob is not "captive," which means it can be completely unscrewed off the head with enough rotations, although this isn't likely to happen in the field.
The quick release
Sadly, the MX465 quick release platform included with the MB 8.5 seems like a spare part from a much cheaper product. Aside from the exposed screws and large gaps, the cast-metal and plastic construction feels hollow and insubstantial. Comparing this to the simple, machined aluminum quick release platforms from other manufacturers (even on low-end models), the Cullmann QR platform does not inspire confidence. A support system is only as strong as its weakest part, and it is doubtful this QR platform will hold anything close to the stated "32kg maximum load" of the head, or even a fraction of that.
Adding insult to injury, the included plate is also very thin compared to other plates, with a surprising amount of plastic that will not last as long as a typical, all-aluminum quick release plate. Even this included plate was difficult to use with the lever release.
The "spare" flat platform, with its reversible 3/8" or 1/4" threaded screw tops, is basically a plastic disc on top of a steel screw. Far less could break or fall apart on this extra platform, but it's still a budget part that does not allow for quick equipment changes.
The MB 8.5 ball motion is a bit rough compared to other heads in this class, but it never felt sticky. When a long, heavy lens was put on the head with the friction increased, this roughness made the ball hard to control, and precise movements became nearly impossible. In addition, the friction needs to be increased almost continually as the ball rotates closer to horizontal (heads with ellipsoidal/ apsheric balls are designed to prevent this).
When the ball is in the drop slot for portrait-orientation shots, a rubber protection ring around the ball stem makes any rotation difficult, since the rubber catches on the rim of the case that it is supposed to protect. In any case, this ring started to show signs of tearing with just a few days of light use, so it won't likely be a long-lasting problem.
The panning base motion on this head is very smooth, with a bit more resistance (thicker damping grease) than some other ball heads, which makes precise pans easier. There is also a numeric scale on the base that goes from 0-90° (then back to 0) in 15° increments, with lines every 5°. However, the scale is revealed by a small window cut into the base with only an unpainted indent serving as a base line. That made precise pans somewhat frustrating, but still possible.
The friction selector dial
The minimum friction selector dial worked well to hold lighter lenses in place and allow for adjustments, but the friction amount could not be dialed in high enough to hold a heavy 500mm lens in place with the main knob completely unlocked. Because the main knob adds friction progressively as it is turned, heavier items can still be held under tension with a combination of these controls. However, needing to resort to this on a ball head this big is not a good solution.
The friction selector dial also has a graphic on it to show which way to turn for "+" (more) or "-" (less) friction, but there are no numbers or other visible indicators of just how much friction has been applied. This reduces the usefulness of this great system, as every lens or gear change means another round of "dial it in until it holds."
Begging for a quick release
|A partially locked quick release is not recommended for holding valuable camera equipment!|
Aside from its questionable build quality, the MX465 quick-release platform is only marginally "Arca-Swiss dovetail compatible." Like most lever-action quick release platforms, the width of the plate used with it will make or break the compatibility. This is why almost all other manufacturers include a way to adjust the lever to match the width of your favorite plates. Alas, the Cullmann lever cannot be adjusted, so it either works with your Arca-type plates, or it doesn't.
Out of 10 plates tested from various manufacturers, only two plates (aside from the Cullmann) would fit well enough to close the lever and consider the platform locked, but only the Cullmann-supplied plate would snap in. In fact, inserting and removing the supplied plate was never very easy, and the plastic release button to eject a plate even started to bend after mild use.
Finally, the image above, with a partially locked QR, is not a good situation to be in with the kind of heavy gear this head is supposed to hold, and what is pictured isn't even the heaviest lens tested. If you have heavier gear with non-Cullmann plates, the best recommendation is to buy a good, third-party quick release platform to completely replace the included one.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With a 3kg 500mm lens loaded on the only long lens plate that would fit safely in the quick release, a combination of the friction dial and the main lock knob were employed to keep the front-heavy lens at a 45° angle above the drop slot. Once in place with proper friction, moving the lens to frame the target was an imprecise and jerky affair. This might be due to employing both methods of friction control, but when the friction was enough that the lens wouldn't sag, the roughness of the ball action defied any fine movement. The MB 8.5 head fared much better with smaller lenses and lighter loads, but then any smaller model of ball head would be expected to do just as well.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
Once the test was under way, the MB 8.5 exhibited very little sag between shots while under tension (but not locked down), with just an average of 0.18% difference in the framing between images taken 30 seconds apart. This is close to negligible and demonstrates the friction amount was sufficient for the lens. When the locking knob was carefully tightened, there was significant shift in the ball that translated to the frame, with an average change of 4.6% of the total frame. This says the MB 8.5 can indeed hold this amount of weight at an angle, but careful framing might be affected when locking it down.
Pan lock test
Next, the panning base knob was unlocked, and then re-locked to "hand tightness." When bracing the tripod, and using a long lens plate as a lever, 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, although be careful when unlocking it, since that knob can be screwed off.
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 already rough ball action became definitely sticky at all friction levels, needing more pressure to get the ball moving from a rest than while in motion. Trying to frame a shot, even with a light lens, quickly became frustrating. The panning base showed no appreciable change in either smoothness or stiffness, although it was pretty firm to begin with.
One of the most striking discoveries was just how hard it became to grab those rubber-sided knobs with thick, winter gloves on. The size and shape of the panning knob and friction dial (just rubber-sided smooth cylinders) meant they could not be grasped with enough force to be turned with gloves on. Of course, on many other heads, the minimum friction is set with a screw that's difficult to grasp even bare-handed.
The main locking knob worked well and was smooth to turn, even with the thickest winter gloves. It should also be noted that the rubber around the ball stem, which makes the drop slot difficult to use when warm, did not harden up enough at -10° C to make portrait rotations any smoother.
The Cullmann Magnesit MB 8.5 is an innovative and well-made ball head that is dragged down by the sub-standard quick release, and certain details that prevent optimal function. For example, the rubber ring around the ball stem may prevent metal-on-metal wear, but it defeats the function of the drop slot. Similarly, the very nice, "clicking" friction selector on this giant head would be wonderful, if only it went high enough to be used on loads that a smaller head could not handle. Overall, the Cullmann Magnesit MB 8.5 ball head seems like a good product that has not been refined enough, and mainly serves to fill in the "largest size" box of their Magnesit ball head line.
What we like:
- Nice control layout & ergonomics
- Innovative friction click-dial
- Short throw for locking and unlocking
- Reasonable price
- 10 year warranty
What we don't like:
- Cheap and difficult MX465 quick release platform
- Rough ball motion
- Not good for cold weather