What goes around: 6 mid-sized ball heads put to the test
KPS GimBall G5D
$410 / £250 www.kpsrd.com
|The KPS G5D GimBall ball head, in normal ball head mode.|
KPS Research and Design is a Korean company that specializes in small-volume, highly engineered photography equipment. While known as a premium brand in Asia, KPS has only recently made inroads to North America and Europe with new distribution and sales channels. Along with their range of conventional and GimBall (more on that below) heads, they also produce a unique device that is a combination of a ball head and geared head (the T5). KPS has also created their own extremely slim, proprietary quick release system, with a full range of plates and platforms.
The G5D GimBall head under review is the company's mid-sized offering, in between the G7 and G4 heads, which are visually very similar but have 48 and 40mm balls, respectively. All of these heads come with a pin to constrain motion to a single axis, which KPS calles the GimBall pin, in a playful combination of gimbal and ball head nomenclature.
|Ball diameter||44mm (1.73")|
|Weight||482g (1.06 lb)|
|Base diameter||58mm (2.28")|
|Maximum load||40kg (88 lb)|
Design and features
KPS has designed a head that looks almost exactly like many other ball heads on the market. The only hints of something different are the small holes in the case, and across two axes of the ball. These holes are where the GimBall pin threads through the ball to restrict the rotation to a single axis. Meanwhile, the panning base provides a second axis of rotation, for a complete pan/ tilt setup within an otherwise standard ball head. Even without this feature, there are aspects of the G5D that make it a very well designed piece of support equipment.
Construction and handling
|Smooth black surfaces abound on the KPS G5D, with the addition of a bright GimBall pin.|
The G5D GimBall head does not disappoint in terms of fit and finish, with a matte black, hard-anodized finish on the case, and a glossy-coated aluminum ball, equally finished in a deep black. The knobs are all made of metal and completely captive, moving with a gently greased resistance that is still quick to use and reassuringly solid in the hand. In fact, the whole head has a dense and premium feel to it, despite the rather conventional looks.
Given the specifications and design of the KPS G5D, the most natural comparison is to the Markins Q10i, made by its better known Korean compatriots. Side by side, the heads are almost indistinguishable, although the KPS has a narrower base and smaller quick release, along with the widely spaced control knobs. There is also the little detail of a hole passing through the case and the ball on the KPS, but may also be a liability in terms of dirt or moisture ingress.
With an otherwise conventional design, the G5D has tried and true ergonomics. The main locking knob provides tactile feedback of the friction amount with increasing resistance as it turns, and the panning base knob is quick to lock and unlock (even if it is smaller and smoother). The 120 degree separation of the these knobs allows for reverse-folding tripod legs to easily close around the head, maintaining its very compact profile, even when stowed.
With the drop slot positioned on the left to put an SLR in portrait orientation (with the grip and shutter release up), the main locking knob faces the photographer, with only the pan lock knob off to the right and somewhat forward on the head. This arrangement is fairly common because it works well, and limits the need to reach around or take a hand off the camera to adjust things.
The GimBall pin
While the entire head is impressively made from well-finished aluminum, the first question that pops to mind with the gimbal function is just how strong that pin really is. When asked, KPS replied that the stainless steel pin has a shear strength of 57kg (125 lbs) and is obviously supported on both sides of the case, increasing the load it can withstand. This means there is no change in the maximum load the head can carry, either with or without the pin in use.
While the GimBall pin is a wonderful and practical idea, it also hinges (pun intended) on not losing that small steel rod. KPS has added a threaded slot in their D-type quick release to store the pin. Since the pin is screwed into the slot, it won't wiggle free and fall out.
Of course, if the pin does disappear, a replacement can be purchased for about $30 from KPS, or the company's distributors and resellers.
One interesting mechanical feature of the GimBall pin is that it threads not only into the quick release, but also directly into the ball itself, when used to constrain the tilt. So, not only is the pin very unlikely to come out of the head during use, but also that it rotates with the ball. This may explain why it can only be inserted in the larger hole with the white dot over it, opposite the locking knob. If it could be inserted the other way, the rotating, knurled metal cap could easily pinch a finger during operation.
Quick release choices
|From L to R: the G5V with the V-type quick release, M-type, and the G5D as reviewed.|
KPS also pioneered an ultra slim quick release plate system that relies on clamping their custom plates at two inner channels, instead of the outer channels of an arca-type plate. In the photo above, the V and M-type quick release options are set to accept these KPS slim plates, while the D-type screw knob release is only compatible with the thicker, and more common, dovetail plates. In a nod to compatibility, KPS provides a way for their M-type clamp (the center screw knob platform) to be retrofitted to accept arca-type plates. Unfortunately, the very nice V-type lever and cam release is currently only compatible with the KPS slim plates, but a DV release is coming to bring lever-action arca compatibility.
|The G5D showing off its GimBall capabilities with a 50-500mm zoom lens.|
With a small profile and relatively light weight for its ball diameter, the KPS G5D is no problem to pack into the field. The convenient addition of the GimBall pin stored in the quick release means even less gear to pack into the camera bag if long lenses or a pan/tilt head are needed. While this size of head is not terribly compact, it balances the need for solid support nicely with minimal bulk, which comes across as right-sized for this group of heads.
Aside from the obvious similarities in size and country of manufacture, the KPS and Markins heads also share an extremely smooth and capable ball motion. One area where they differ is in the resistance of the main locking knob. The KPS G5D knob gets progressively harder to turn as it approaches a locked state, and seems to have a shorter throw, which means a tiny bit less precision for the amount of friction applied to the ball. When a heavy load of camera equipment is mounted on the G5D, the smoothness does not decrease or become rough and sticky. Even with the GimBall pin installed there is no change in the smooth rotation of the ball in that axis.
Another nice touch is the very smooth and fluid motion of the G5D panning base. Many heads opt for a very thick and stiff grease on the pan base to allow for slower, more precise pans, but the KPS head moves a little bit faster and easier, with just enough resistance to prevent spinning. This is quite welcome when using the head as a lens gimbal, or pan and tilt device.
Pin in, lenses out
In testing out the GimBall pin, both a smaller 50-500mm zoom lens (1.9kg, 4.2 lb) and a 500mm f/4.5 monster prime (3.1kg, 6.8 lb) were mounted on the head and used to track birds and fast moving watercraft at the lakeshore. The quick movement of the G5D panning base made tracking horizontally very easy, while the pin and friction of the ball allowed for precise vertical tilt adjustments. The vertical motion was much stiffer due to the lack of a perfectly balanced lens and camera setup, which required increased friction. While not ideal, the pin solution did work quite well with these longer and heavier lenses.
Once a smaller lens was used, even without a weight-balancing lens plate, the smoothness of the ball and the pan base worked in concert to provide a very nice pan and tilt head. This could be ideal for casual video work if the tripod is level, but for more dedicated cinematography, there is still the characteristic hard stop of the ball under friction, and of course the lack of long control arms to affect more gradual changes in direction.
While the screw knob on the supplied quick release is very cross-compatible with the varying width of plates from different manufacturers, it has an agonizingly fine thread. This means 4 to 5 complete revolutions of the knob to go from fully open (to accept a plate from above), to completely locked and secure. The addition of the (retractable) safety pin on the surface of the release both prevents a plate from sliding out, and also prevents equipment changes before the knob has been turned and turned, and turned.
Compared to the screw knob action on the other heads in this group, which range from 1.5 turns (Markins) to 3 turns (Vanguard), this is not very conducive to quick changes. As mentioned above, the lever action quick release that KPS currently provides as an option is strictly for their own, proprietary slim plates. For those who work quickly or change cameras and lenses frequently, that new DV lever release platform cannot come soon enough.
Stress test results
Sag and lock test
A 1.9kg (4.2 lb), 50-500mm zoom lens was mounted in the G5D’s quick release with an arca-style, dovetail lens plate, and the friction was set to hold the lens above the drop slot at a 45-degree angle. Adjusting the position of this large lens required very little effort, even with the substantial amount of friction applied to keep the lens from slipping.
|Starting point||30 sec. sag result||Post-lock result|
The G5 GimBall showed a negligible amount of sag in between shots taken 30 seconds apart, with an average change of just 0.18% of the frame. After the friction knob was turned to lock the ball, there was a relatively minor shift of 3.8% of the total frame, which puts the G5D in the middle of the test group. This says the head can definitely handle large loads, but critical framing may not always be preserved on locking.
Our sag and lock test was repeated with the GimBall pin inserted, just to check for a difference, and while the pin should have restrained the motion even more, there was the same slight shift in framing after locking things down. Apparently, the ball is either rotating a small amount, or the pin has just enough room in the case to allow for this locking motion.
Pan lock test
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 panning base of the KPS head remained solidly locked, even as the tripod underneath it started to creak. Once locked, there is little chance of accidentally (or intentionally) rotating this head.
Cold weather test
When used in a very cold (sometimes as low as -11° F, -24°C) Canadian winter, the G5D had a ball motion that felt just as smooth and confident as when warm. The panning base slowed a bit in the extreme cold, but it remained smooth and never sticky.
While the controls of the KPS G5D break little new ground, operation them with thick, winter gloves on was occasionally frustrating. The main control knob was easy to grab and turn with its thick rubber grip, but the inset minimum friction screw became decorative (as with so many other heads). Still, the most troublesome part was the slippery all-metal knobs for both the quick release and the pan lock. The knurling on their surfaces was insufficient to grasp with a thick glove on, and when the head is very cold, putting a bare hand on these metal surfaces is a shock.
Finally, the GimBall pin, although small and entirely made of steel, was still easy to screw in and out of both the release and the ball casing when very cold. This means that the extra tilt control and gimbal-like function of the G5D does not disappear when things get cold or wet, which is a relief. Caution should naturally be used to insure that snow, sand or dust does not build up in either the case holes or in the ball itself, since these are always open to the elements.
While the KPS G5D may look, at first glance, like almost every other basic-black ball head out there, that conventional appearance belies some well-thought out engineering within. In common with another Korean brand, this KPS head has one of the smoothest and most satisfying ball motions available, and it really shines when under friction. On top of that, the simplicity of the GimBall pin provides a very convenient and cost-effective way to turn this high quality ball head into a gimbal-like device or a 2D pan and tilt head.
With a fit and finish that is right up there with the well-known (and high end) brands, the G5 GimBall head can easily justify its price, and puts KPS in some very good company as they become better known outside of Asia. The few negatives we found for this head are so minor, that it's only the sameness of the overall design that keeps it from a full 5-star rating.
What we like:
- Extremely smooth ball motion
- Ingenious gimbal and pan/tilt solution
- Very compact and light for a 44mm ball
- Well built and nicely finished
What we don't like:
- Very slow quick release knob
- GimBall holes could possibly trap dirt or moisture
- Some knobs are hard to handle with gloves on
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