At some point, almost every photographer ends up needing some support. Sympathetic friends are helpful, but what you really need is a tripod to accommodate longer shutter times, heavier lenses, careful compositions, and panoramic vistas. There is no denying the advantages of a tripod for improving your images in the studio or in the field, but it's the tripod head that lets you point your camera wherever you'd like. Too many are content to stick with the head that comes with their tripod, but there are a variety of head types that can improve your experience with the best set of tripod legs.
In the reviews that follow, we are going to start at the top, with the largest and most capable ball-type tripod heads produced by various manufacturers. Like any gear choice, these heads will not strike the best balance between price, capabilities, and features for every photographer, but they can show us what each company considers to be their benchmark.
The common elements of the ball heads in this group are a ball diameter between 52 and 58mm, and an Arca-Swiss style, dovetail quick release platform (the most common quick release type used by professionals). By limiting the field to heads with these specifications*, we can fairly rate each head in comparison to the others.
In addition, almost every head in this review represents the pinnacle of a line of similar ball heads that descend in size (and price), and much of what we discover about these top-of-the-line heads will be true of their smaller siblings. So, if your needs don't include working with a heavy camera or large lenses, you might look at a smaller version of the heads we consider here.
- Photo Clam Pro Gold VI
- Novoflex Classic Ball 5
- FLM Centerball 58 FTR
- Cullmann Magnesit 8.5
- Arca-Swiss Z1
- Sirui K-40x
- Benro B3
- Induro BHL3
- Sunwayfoto XB-52
- Really Right Stuff BH-55
Notably absent are four big names in professional ball heads: Acratech and Markins heads have smaller ball diameters (with 38mm and 48mm balls respectively), Manfrotto did not have their new Arca-Swiss compatible "Top Lock" quick release system ready for testing this past summer, and Kirk was a no-show.
*One spec you won't find affecting the ratings or general reviews is the often-quoted "maximum load capacity" of each head. This is not a standardized measurement among manufacturers, and therefore could mean how much weight the head can hold at some angle, or before a critical component fails, or even what it takes to shatter the head into shrapnel. Without a standard, this (sometimes extreme) marketing number loses much of its weight.
Mechanically, it is the ball diameter and lock design that determine how well various loads are handled, but the best number to consider is the weight capacity of the tripod beneath the head.