Battle of the titans: Top ball heads tested
$310 / £190 www.indurogear.com
|The Induro BHL3|
Induro is a relatively new brand of camera support products distributed and marketed by the US-based MAC Group, whose product offerings include a range of camera plates, tripods and ball heads. Although not specifically stated, Induro products are almost identical to many Benro items (with some parts being completely identical, such as quick-release platforms), and these brands are likely made at the same Yilee Precision Machinery Co. plant.
However, many items, including this low-profile ball head, are unique to Induro in the North American market, and even have a "Designed by Induro" label on them. The BHL3 is the top of the Induro BHL-series heads, which all share this same unique design, safety quick release, and large controls.
|Ball diameter||54mm (2.1")|
|Weight||670g (1.5 lb)|
|Base diameter||67mm (2.6")|
|Maximum load||40kg (88 lb)|
|Warranty||5 years, extended to 10 with registration|
Design and features
The design of the Induro BHL3, with a large ball positioned very low, and a huge locking knob, is somewhat similar to the Really Right Stuff BH-55 and their smaller BH-40. In fact, Induro also makes a smaller model with a 44mm ball, called the BHL2, and then a smallest-of-all BHL1 with a 36mm ball. Aside from the varying ball diameters, all of these heads in the BHL series share the same general design and controls, with the intention of lowering the ball as close to the tripod mount as possible.
The heart of any ball head is the ball that supplies the rotating and tilting ability along every axis. In the BHL3, the 54mm ball is set very low in the casing of the head. This brings the pivot location of any mounted camera gear much closer to the top of the tripod (which should be the most stable point), and reduces the height of the head compared to many other heads.
In the Induro BHL-series (and the RRS BH-series, Benro G3, and Acratech heads), the ball is clamped from the sides to add friction, rather than pushed from the bottom like other conventional ball heads. This side-clamping increases the locking power while decreasing the amount of moving parts that could fail.
Induro has supplied the BHL series heads with truly large and generously flared locking and pan knobs. There is no way to miss the BHL3 lock knob with your hand, or to be confused about which knob you are turning.
Next, while some ball heads have separate friction and locking knobs, many recent heads have integrated the two functions by placing a small thumbscrew on the main knob to set the minimum friction. The BHL3 follows this second design, but the minimum-friction screw is almost the same diameter as the main locking knob, so it can be easily turned without a special tool, unlike many other heads with tiny thumbscrews.
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 will not fall out.
Construction and handling
The Induro BHL3 is a very dense, relatively compact head, with a mix of smooth and textured black finishes. The split-back case and the large knobs are apparently made from cast magnesium alloy, with a machined aluminum base and ball that share a smoother finish. The quick-release appears almost identical to the release on the Benro B3, which has a very thick and smooth coating on top of cast components.
The fit and finish of the BHL3 is very good, with very small gaps, smooth corners and no exposed screws. The largest gap in the head is the intentional split at the back of the case, which is filled with a thick, black foam insert. This allows the friction and locking knob to slowly pull both halves of the case together, which will lock the ball in position. Really, the amount of compression needed to go from a "loose" to "locked" ball in this style of head is truly minuscule, so there is almost no visible expansion or contraction of the gap.
Sharing a heritage with the Benro B3 (also in this review group), the Induro head has the same turn-and-pull safety knob on an almost-identical quick release platform. In fact, both heads came with the same 70mm quick release plate, labeled PU70. The only difference is in the knob style, with the Induro knob being the better of the two designs.
As a low-profile head with such large and obvious controls, the ergonomics of the BHL3 are very simple and user-friendly in most situations. The oversized metal knobs, with their textured plastic coating, are very easy to find and to tell apart, even with an eye to the viewfinder. The safety-lock knob on the quick-release platform really needs the extra surface to grip, as there is a strong spring inside it that makes changing plates a bit of a struggle.
With a camera tilted to the left in the drop slot, to achieve a portrait orientation (on most SLRs), the locking knob ends up facing away from the photographer. This requires reaching around the head from the right, since the left side has a camera tilted in it, and the head is so compact that there is little room to maneuver beneath it. Once the right hand is off the grip and shutter button, a decisive moment may be missed, so it is a good thing that the ball can be rotated in the drop slot while under significant friction.
The main knobs
Thanks to their very large grooves and generous tapering, the knobs on the BHL3 are probably the easiest to grasp of any ball head in the test group. Even the minimum friction screw, in the center of the main knob, can be easily used without any tool or careful finger placement needed, since it shares an equally oversized dimension.
The feel of the knobs is smooth with just enough resistance to turn carefully and accurately. This comes in quite handy with the main locking knob's very fast threading and minimal travel (more on that later). One unfortunate aspect to the pan-lock knob is that it isn't captive, and can be completely unscrewed from the head. This happened more than once because it doesn't seem to have too many threads holding it in there. It took a while to remember that it only takes a quick twist to unlock the panning base, and anything more might result in a frantic search of the ground under the tripod.
The panning base
Aside from a non-captive lock knob, the BHL3 panning base is an excellent rotational platform. The action is smooth and consistent, and the degree markings around the base (going from 0 to 90, with only the 45° point also marked off) are legible and easy to track. There is only a single index dot on the casing above the pan base, so precise pans have to be made with this dot close at hand.
Unfortunately, the first test unit from Induro had a defective panning base, and had to be sent back for replacement. While it would rotate freely in one direction, any attempt to reverse course and pan the other direction would result in the panning base binding as it turned. This eventually led to a locked pan base in just under a single revolution, even while the lock knob was completely loose. A quality-control slip-up can happen with any manufactured item, and given that it took more than a cursory pan to discover the problem, it's not too surprising that this head left the factory with a QC approval. The extended, 10-year warranty from Induro is a nice reassurance for these occasional issues.
For a head with a low ball and wide stance, the BHL3 still seems surprisingly tall on a tripod. This may be due to the ball's long stem, or perhaps a visual trick from the compact profile of the case. In any case, the simple shapes and monochromatic design look very serious and fairly unique on top of a suitably generous set of legs.
The Induro BHL3 has a ball action that is relatively smooth, and consistent with varying amounts of weight. The 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, it just lacked the "coated" feel of many other heads. Considering the Benro B3 has the same feel, this could be due to the way Benro/Yilee/Induro constructs their heads, and how they perceive "smooth."
Uncommon locking method
The Induro BHL3 uses an uncommon method for locking and adding friction to the ball. There is still a large knob to turn, but instead of the gears and pads of a conventional ball head pushing up against the ball from the bottom and the sides, the entire case of the BHL3 becomes a clamp (with flexible padding) to hold the ball in place. The foam-filled channel at the back of the case indicates this need for movement, and the position of the locking knob is consistent with a very fine screw pulling on the opposite side.
There are a few other heads that work on this principle (notably Acratech and Really Right Stuff), and it has been proven extremely stable and reliable. The downside is that very tight tolerances are required to have any sort of progressive friction applied to the ball, as any slight change in the shape of the clamp surrounding the ball will have tremendous effect on the motion. With much less room to move than a cup pushing up from below, the friction on the BHL3 often seems either locked or loose.
Setting the friction
The friction amount can never be lowered far enough to allow the 54mm ball to flop easily in the case, which is reassuring, but also means there is only a small range of friction on this head. The threads on the BHL3 locking knob are not quite fine enough for this kind of lock, so getting the friction just right is frequently frustrating with varying loads. In the field, this was mainly a problem with heavier lenses and large amounts of panoramic equipment on the head. The slightly gritty ball motion did not help matters either.
This is rather unfortunate for the gigantic minimum-friction dial in the center of the locking knob. It is there, big and easy to turn, even with gloves on, but is trying to constrain a knob that is already heavily constrained in how far it turns. It will still allow setting a limit to how far the knob will turn toward the "unlock" position, but there is so much constant friction that it ends up being disused.
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 Induro (and Benro) 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, Induro 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
Mounting a 3.1kg, 500mm lens onto the platform of the BHL3 quick release was easy enough, but getting the friction just right to hold this giant lens was another matter entirely. The need for a very fine thread to the lock knob was never more apparent than when trying to set a starting point where the ball was under tension, but the load would not appreciably move after releasing it. This is how the sag results are tested, and getting a low value for sag indicates that any subsequent motion in locking down the ball when locking is basically "slop" in the locking mechanism. After many minutes of carefully turning the large knob and waiting to see if it would hold, the test finally proceeded.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
For all of its friction difficulties, the Induro BHL3 showed incredibly solid performance in the tests, with only a sag amount of .12% of the total frame between shots taken 30 seconds apart. Particularly nice, and indicative of the short throw and side-clamping action of the head, was the almost negligible change in framing of just .61% after locking the ball down. This is where the benefits of the design and engineering are reaped, and makes this head great for macro work and heavy lenses where careful framing is paramount.
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 slid a small amount, but it was not consistent, indicating the BHL3 pan lock can be expected to hold tight in most situations.
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 BHL3 was consistently smooth at all friction levels. Of course, the Induro ball was already a little rough, and this did not disappear. The panning base showed no appreciable change in either smoothness or stiffness, which means it remains very capable in the cold.
The BHL3 is a photographer's dream head when working with gloves or mitts on. The oversized knobs with large, raised grips are easy to grab and turn in the cold. Even the pan lock and the minimum friction dial are large enough to be operated with gloves on. Considering how hard the minimum friction dial is to operate on other heads, even bare-handed, this is quite an improvement.
The Induro BHL3 shows just what can be done with a ball head when conventional design is put aside. The comparable Benro B3 (in ball size and manufacture) is left way behind when the body of the head is used to clamp the ball. The use of generous control knobs is both visually distinctive and quite necessary for the very touchy nature of the friction on this head, but this also shows that "Designed by Induro" means some very good thought and testing was done before the BHL-series came to market. The unique properties of the BHL3 are its low profile design and incredible stability, and this is enough to make it a contender in the large ball head market.
What we liked:
- Generous, easy to grip knobs (even with gloves)
- Smooth, easy-to-read panning base
- Compact profile and lighter weight
- Rock-solid stability, both under tension and locked
What we didn't like:
- Very small progressive-friction range
- Safety lock quick release knob is slow and fiddly
- Panning lock knob isn't captive