Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
$220 / £135 www.benrousa.com
|The Benro B3 "double action" ball head|
Benro has become a well known brand outside of its native China, with a reputation for providing a high level of quality for reasonable prices. In fact, there are some other reputable brands that are made by the same parent company (Yilee Precision Mfg.) with only minor differences from the Benro products, but typically at higher prices.
Many smaller Benro ball heads are usually found in bundles with suitable tripods, with the most popular being their "Travel Angel" series of very compact tripods. This does not mean these ball heads are of inferior quality, but we note that the largest B-series ball heads are rarely found in a bundle with a tripod, perhaps because the perceived cost would be greater.
|Ball diameter||54mm (2.1")|
|Weight||700g (1.5 lb)|
|Base diameter||72mm (2.8")|
|Maximum load||30kg (66 lb)|
Design and features
The B-series is a rather old design from Benro, and in fact, the B3 has been superseded by a new V3 head. However, the Benro V3 only has a 44mm diameter ball, and while it can purportedly handle a greater load, the B3 remains the largest Benro ball head currently sold in North America. While this may not seem fair to compare it to some of the newer heads in this review, consider that some other heads being reviewed have a design even older than the Benro brand itself.
The double-action part of the B3 name refers to the (now common) separate minimum friction and locking controls. In most current heads, these functions are placed on the same knob, but the Benro B3 has two different knobs for these actions. There is, of course, a third knob on the body to lock the panning base.
With the almost industry-standard dimension of 54mm in diameter, the B3 has the largest ball that Benro ships with any of its heads. The ball itself is coated for smoother rotation, and should provide greater locking power (and associated maximum load capacity) due to a greater surface area for the locking mechanism to grasp.
It's interesting to note that the "replacement" for the B3 in the Benro catalog, the V3, has a 44mm ball. Perhaps Benro has decided that size isn't everything, or that a lighter weight and smaller size will go better with their increasingly compact (and very successful) travel tripods.
Both the larger "locking" knob, and the slightly smaller "friction" knob, have a numbered scale on them to indicate just how much friction has been added with each control.
Unlike the "index rings" on other heads, these numbers cannot be adjusted or aligned by the user. The understanding is that the "0" position is when the knob is applying no friction to the ball at all; however, the knobs can turn more than one revolution while in use, so these numbers will come up again and again!
Safety lock quick release
The installed Arca-Swiss dovetail-compatible quick-release platform features a safety lock on the knob used to loosen the clamp. The knob must be pulled out and turned to fully release the clamp and allow removing a dovetail plate from the top.
Just turning the knob only allows the clamp to open enough to slide a plate back and forth within the clamp, and if the plate being used has "stop screws" on the bottom, like the included 70mm plate, it will slide within the clamp until it hits the safety stops, but not fall out.
With a satin finish to the all-aluminum exterior casing, the Benro B3 looks quite nice and feels solid. The knobs on the body of the head are similarly made of metal with beveled grips on them, made from hard rubber. The panning base is also a machined aluminum part with a recessed plate in the bottom to allow the security screws on some tripod platforms (such as Benro's) to press against the bottom without damaging the finish of the rest of the base.
The included Arca-compatible quick release clamp may look like any of the machined aluminum clamps from other companies, but it is actually a cast metal part with a very thick and smooth coating. The knob for the quick release clamp is made from hard plastic, and hides the interesting mechanics of the Benro safety clamp within it. This quick release is used on a multitude of other heads, and while its manufacture is different from the rest of the head, it functions well and may be just as durable as any machined aluminum releases.
Despite having been on the market for a while, the long term durability of the B3 is still relatively unknown, and Benro provides only a 3-year warranty on their heads. This seems fairly modest, considering other companies provide 6, 8, or even 10-year warranties on their ball heads within the same price range.
With the minimum friction and locking functions as two separate knobs, and the smaller pan lock knob also sticking out, the exterior of the B3 is a somewhat busy place. By giving each knob a slightly different size, there was some attempt to prevent confusion when grabbing for one knob over another. However, the larger locking knob and slightly smaller friction knob both have numbered scales on them, and telling them apart takes some time. In perhaps a positive twist, both of these knobs really seem to do the same thing, so in practice there is no need to tell them apart.
The feel of the knobs is rather poor, with very little resistance to help when trying to turn them a precise amount. This is acceptable for the panning base knob, which is a lock/unlock toggle, but the two friction knobs want to go quickly from their highest to lowest values, with very little feedback for how much friction they have added. All of the knobs are captive, and have very solid stops when they have reached their turn limit.
The ball lock knob is 180° from the drop slot, while the smaller friction knob is 90° off, 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. When an SLR is in the drop slot (and the ball is tilted to the left, with the shutter release facing up), the smaller friction knob faces the photographer, so, oddly enough, locking the ball or adjusting the friction is made easier by the dual nature (see below) of the locking and friction knobs.
Two knobs better than one?
Old design, but still going
Nothing shows the age (and perhaps budget level) of the B3 more than the separated controls for locking the ball and setting the minimum friction. This is rarely seen on current heads, since most have integrated the two controls into the same location. Even Benro's newer V-series heads use a small minimum friction dial on the end of a larger friction and locking knob. The B3 "older style" really just takes up more space, but it can work equally well (and some photographers might even prefer it).
The basic problem with the Benro approach on the B-series heads is that the two knobs do pretty much the same thing, adding friction, but end up competing with each other. If the smaller knob is used (as intended) to set a minimum friction level, the larger knob will turn loosely until it gets up to that friction level and starts to add to it. Conversely, if the larger knob is used to lock the ball, the smaller knob can now spin freely, and there is precious little resistance to doing so! This is because they are both pushing the same locking mechanism, but neither knob constrains the other (as a minimum friction dial does on a "single knob" design ball head).
So both can add friction and both can lock the ball, and using only one is the best way to keep from getting confused. However, they also have numbers around their bases, apparently to allow remembering what friction setting was used for a particular gear combination. Normally this is quite welcome, except that the smaller knob will turn so many times the numbers go by like a slot machine display, while the larger knob shows a number that can mean "locked" or "completely loose" depending on where the smaller knob lands. This double action leads to a double headache, and is the primary failing of this head when it comes to its intended use.
When using the B3 in the field, the conflicting nature of the "double action" knobs becomes even more of a nuisance, taking attention away from photography and putting it on the cantankerous equipment. No where was this more evident than when trying to keep a relatively light 50-135mm f/2.8 zoom in position to shoot nearby butterflies. To set the desired friction level so the camera and lens can be moved easily, but still stay in one place when hands are taken away, one knob was turned and then the other. Every time the tilt angle changed (up or down, since butterflies are erratic creatures), these knobs had to be fiddled with again, or the ball would "droop" at just the wrong time.
Once the lesson of using one knob or the other was learned with this lighter lens and camera combination, a heavier (1.5kg) zoom was put on to get a greater reach. Now neither knob was sufficient by itself to add enough friction to both hold and move the lens controllably, so it was back to fiddling with both controls.
On the plus side, once the friction was set (with a single knob) and the ball was only moved a small amount, the action was relatively smooth and consistent, despite varying loads. The Benro B3 ball moves with a kind of fine, but slightly gritty, smoothness (a bit like sliding something across rough paper). This never felt bad or hard to control, but it lacked the "coated" feel of many other heads. Considering the Induro BHL3 has the same feel, it may just be indicative of the way Benro/Yilee/Induro constructs their heads, and how they perceive "smooth."
The safety lock release knob
Using a quick release system is supposed to make mounting and dismounting camera gear faster and more stable, but it also presents an opportunity for such calamities as a plate sliding out of a loosened release when gear gets too heavy to control. Apparently this is enough of an insurance risk that all kinds of safety measures are built into various brands of Arca-Swiss compatible, dovetail-style, quick release platforms and plates.
The Benro (and Induro) method of insuring your plate will not slide out is two-fold. First, they carved two channels into either open end of the quick release platform so any plate (like the included PU70) that has safety-stop screws on the bottom will only slide as far as the end of the channel before stopping. The only way to take it entirely off is the open the release jaws all the way. Second, Benro made it fairly slow and difficult to open the release jaws all the way!
Pulling out the knob and turning it does not sound like much of a trial, but it really can slow you down when you want to do a quick change of a camera or lens. That might just be the intention, to prevent a situation where gear goes tumbling. The downside is that the spring and knob are quite stiff, so while more concentration is needed to fully unlock it, so is more force. Applying more force to the knob can take away from holding the equipment that is about to be free of the clamp.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
With two knobs competing to add friction and lock the ball, the sag and lock experiment tested both the Benro head and our patience. In the end, the larger locking knob was loosened completely and the friction knob was tightened until it provided most of the friction needed to hold a 3.1kg, 500mm lens. The locking knob added the final friction to test for sag, and was the only knob used for post-lock shift testing.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
The Benro B3 exhibited very little sag between shots while under tension (but not locked down), with just an average of 0.24% difference in the framing between images taken 30 seconds apart. When the locking knob (the larger one) was carefully tightened, there was a shift in the ball that translated to the frame, with an average change of 3.9%. Although this amount of post-lock shift is not much compared to smaller heads, a larger ball head should be a bit more solid than this.
Pan lock test
The panning base knob was turned to hand tightness to lock the base, and with the tripod braced, a long lens plate was used as a lever to try and turn the head. The panning base slipped in small amounts while under pressure. This was not a consistent sliding motion, so the pan lock will probably hold up quite well under normal conditions.
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 ball motion of the B3 was consistent at all friction levels, without feeling sticky or constrained. Of course, the smoothness of the Benro ball was already a little rough, with a gritty feel, and this did not disappear. The panning base showed no appreciable change in either smoothness or stiffness, which means it remains excellent in the cold.
Working the B3 with thick, winter gloves on was fairly easy. The knobs have enough room between them that they were still easy to find and turn, and the hard rubber grips provided just enough shape to grab onto. Operating the quick release knob was a bit trickier, and completely removing a camera or plate from it required taking the gloves off to pull the knob out and turn.
Benro may have come up with improvements in their ball heads since the introduction of the B3 (most likely in the V3), but for the largest ball head they sell in North America, the B3 is still it. Benro knows how to make a head with fairly smooth ball action, an excellent panning base, and more-than-acceptable build and finish quality. The B3 has all of this, but is let down by the primitive-feeling double action controls. This is probably the kind of head to be bundled with a very large tripod, except that Benro tripods deserve better. We look forward to testing the V3 someday.
What we like:
- Solid build quality, with a durable finish
- Large ball provides smooth, if "papery" motion
- Excellent panning base - smooth and solid
- Quick-release plate is included
What we didn't like:
- Dual friction knobs are redundant and confusing
- Safety lock quick-release knob is slow and fiddly
- Somewhat brief warranty period