Monday, August 1, 2011

Tripod Ball Heads–Alternatives to the RRS BH-55

Acratech GP, Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp, Benro B3, Kirk BH-1, Oben BB-2 & Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballheads - Photo Copyright Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Acratech GP, Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp, Benro B3,
Kirk BH-1, Oben BB-2 & Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballheads

In my tripod recommendations article I threw down the gauntlet and stated that the Really Right Stuff BH-55 tripod head is “the” head to own. It’s the one I’ve seen most pros and serious prosumers recommend, and for good reason – it’s a great head. It’s also the one I’ve used for the past few years and I’ve only regretted the cost, not the purchase, during all that time.

Of course when I make a claim like that on my blog, I get a long list of people who will tell me about product X that they think is just as good and that I’m full of crap. I try hard to listen to my readers, so in the spirit of being fair and unbiased, I decided to take a look at the top 5 recommended heads from my readers and compare them to my Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head. It’s a ball-head shootout where the likes of Arca-Swiss vs. Really Right Stuff made for a fun comparison.

Long-Exposure Head Test

The primary reason why I have my tripod recommendations and encourage people to buy the best tripod head is because any place you’ve cut corners becomes obvious when you do a long exposure. Vibrations from the ground, the wind, or gravity can all come in to play and make your image a little softer than it should be.

Canon 1D Mark IV and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM on a Really Right Stuff L84 plate and BH-55 Tripod Ballhead
Test Camera and Lens Combo on a Really Right Stuff BH-55

For this test I used a Canon 1D Mark IV (41.6 oz. (1180g) ) with a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM ( 3.28 lb. (1.49kg) ) using the Really Right Stuff L84 lens plate on the lens (about 6 pounds total). Autofocus (AF) and Image Stabilization (IS) were disabled. I used Live View to do a 10x manual focus. The camera settings were f/16 for 30 seconds at ISO 160 with a 200mm focal length in one shot mode with mirror lockup used to take the shot after a 10 second timer.

Canon 1D Mark IV and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM on a Really Right Stuff L84 plate and BH-55 Tripod Ballhead
A modified view of the target subject taken in very low light

To test these heads I used the same tripod in the exact same position and simply changed the head for each shot. I would use the built-in bubble level to get what the head was said to be level, and then I used the camera hot shoe bubble level for the final adjustments. Only the Oben and Benro needed additional adjustments as the others all read level with the hot shoe bubble level when the head bubble indicated it was level.

The Best Result via Arca-Swiss Z1 - Photo Copyright Ron Martinsen - All Rights Reserved
Unprocessed In-Camera JPEG Test Image from the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp

I’m pleased to say that (as expected) all of the heads in this test did a decent job. At a quick glance it is hard to tell the differences of one over the other, but when you look carefully at the details you start to see subtle hints of softness from some heads more than others. I did two shots each to make sure that I had at least one good shot. In all cases the 2nd shot was slightly better than the first, so that’s what I used for my comparisons.

Here’s how I rank them based on massive pixel peeping with sharpness being the key test point here:

  1. Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp – I could even see when using Live View and focusing that this was going to be my winner as this is one seriously solid head. At 200mm (260mm effective) with 10x Live View enabled, focusing is a challenge because everything shakes so much. You really appreciate what things can go wrong when you do an exercise like this and why stability is so important. However, the Z1 was by far the easiest to focus as the head was just rock solid. The others were all focused well also, but it took a few seconds longer.
  2. Really Right Stuff BH-55 – Yes, the gold standard in heads came in second here as even it couldn’t top the performance I got from the Z1.
  3. Acratech GP Ballhead & Kirk BH-1 performed seemingly identical. They had only a slight edge over the others in the test.
  4. The rest – All of the other heads performed very well but slightly below the GP and BH-1 at some point in the test image. To be fair, given the margin of error for all of the variables involved, it could be easily argued that they are statistically identical. In fact the photo below shows the worst performance which is going to seem identical until you really start to pixel peep.

The Least Stable Result using the Oben BB-2 - Photo Copyright Ron Martinsen - All Rights Reserved
Unprocessed In-Camera JPEG Test Image from the Oben BB-2

When paired with solid legs in good conditions, all of these heads should perform very well. The real question is how would they perform over time?

I’d love reader comments from those with 6 months or longer regular use of these heads.

Usability Observations

In this section I’ll basically share my notes and thoughts on each of these heads based on my experiences using them. These go beyond stats and focus on how practical/usable the head was in field testing.

Acratech GP

Acratech GP - Photo Courtesy of B&H
Acratech GP - Photo Courtesy of B&H

The manual for this was pretty funny as they go on about it being usable as a gimbal on lenses up to 600mm f/4, but honestly that’s pure bullshit. This is a ball head like all the others in this test, and it has no magical gimbal abilities beyond other ball heads. It’s design might suggest otherwise, but I didn’t find it to be the case.

This head performed well and felt like the lightest of the bunch, but the neck between the ball and the base was pretty tall as shown in the side-by-side comparison photo at the top of this article. This had me a bit concerned, but in my limited testing it was fine. I’d probably worry if I started to near the max load, but I suspect few will ever do that as a gimbal head makes more sense at the 20lbs and up range.

Here’s my field observations:

  • Came with 1/4" stud adapter (good for tripods like the Velbon GEO E540 4-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod that only support 1/4”)
  • Felt like it sat a little high because of the long neck
  • Felt lighter than the others but also a little cheaper feel
  • Not even close to a gimbal head
  • Accurate level - was easy to read but the circle was too big which makes it harder to level with its small bubble
  • Expensive enough that I’d choose the superior Arca-Swiss Z1 instead
  • The most annoying to use knobs of the group

Price: $399.95 (8/1/11 at B&H)
Weight: 0.99 lb. (0.45 kg)
Max Load Capacity: 25 lbs. (11.4 kg)

Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp (Single Pan)

Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp (Single Pan) Ballhead with Quick Release
Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp - Photo Courtesy of B&H

Arca-Swiss is the brand that defined high quality pro photography performance heads, and its mark on the industry is still felt. Every head in this article uses the Arca-Swiss invented plate design to provide a snug fit and quick on and off access.

I immediately fell in love with this head for its precision and stability, but I quickly came to appreciate its simplicity as well. Everything is well engineered and tested like you’d expect from a Swiss watch or German Luxury Car. I love this head and wish I owned one!

Compared to the BH-55 ($415 as of 7/27/11), it’s price is actually amazing to think that it is actually $26 cheaper! The reason why so many other brands exist was because photographers couldn’t afford Arca-Swiss heads and needed something cheaper, but these days Arca-Swiss has lowered its prices to compete with the other pro heads featured in this article.

Here’s my field observations:

  • Easy to understand and use knobs with a wonderful precision feel
  • No variable tension knob as it simply isn’t needed
  • Very solid performance was super obvious when focusing in live view (much better than even the mighty RRS BH-55)
  • The built-in polished metal colored level is accurate and looks sexy but a little harder to see than the more green kind you find on the others
  • Very solid feel
  • The bottom knob to lock the rotation works very well and is not as obtrusive as some of the others
  • Insane max load support, but it feels like it can really handle the load
Price: $388.99 (8/1/11 at B&H)
Weight: 1.4 lb. (635 g)
Max Load Capacity: 130 lbs. (59 kg)
Benro B3 Double Action

Benro B3 – Photo Courtesy of B&H
Benro B3 – Photo Courtesy of B&H

This was the biggest surprise in this line up because its build felt very similar to the Arca-Swiss, but its value was fantastic. I suspect it might not look pretty for a long period of time as you can see in the full-size version of the side-by-side comparison photo that it already started to show some marks in the paint on the ball. However, many (including myself) will argue that looks are irrelevant if the product performs well, so I’d really enjoy hearing from readers about how these heads perform after 6 months or more of heavy duty use.

Here’s my field observations:

  • Came with plate
  • Adapter stud
  • Level not accurate - sexy like Arca
  • Easy to dial in like the Oben
  • Great knobs including quick release (QR) knob
  • Included PU-70 plate requires regular screwdriver, pocket knife or coin
  • One direction only in portrait mode. This means if the QR knob is up, you are good, but if the knob is down it collides on the base.

I think bargain hunters will really like this one and pat themselves on the back pretty hard for the money they saved.

Price: $217 (8/1/11 at B&H)
Weight: 1.5 lb. (0.7 kg)
Max Load Capacity: 66 lbs. (30 kg)

Kirk BH-1

Kirk BH-1 - Photo Courtesy of B&H
Kirk BH-1 - Photo Courtesy of B&H

I’m sad to say that this was the most disappointing head of the bunch. For years I’ve heard people sing the praises of Kirk heads, but the new unit I tested was the most stiff and clunky feeling of all the heads featured in this article. For its price, I expected much more but it didn’t wow me in any way. Even the fact that it includes a plate didn’t impress me as the plate was the most tiny of all the ones tested.

Here’s my field observations:

  • Rotating the base was way too firm even when loosened all the way. Made add/remove harder too. Unless my unit was defective, I found its performance to be unacceptable.
  • Very stiff plate release knob
  • The level was very accurate and easy to read
  • Ball head knobs felt very good
  • Perplexed as to why it is 0.4lbs (215kg) heavier than the Arca-Swiss, yet can only hold < 40% of the load of the lighter Arca-Swiss

I know I’ll catch heat for this, but this was the head I expected to love the most but I ended up liking the least in this bunch. While I think it is a competent product (i.e., it’ll get the job done), I’d honestly take the Benro B3 or Oben BB-2 over this one to save both money and weight.

I was very disappointed in this product after comparing it closely to the others featured in this article.

Price: $375.00 (8/1/11 at B&H)
Weight: 1.9 lb. (850g)
Max Load Capacity: 50 lbs. (22.6 kg)

Oben BB-2

Oben BB-2 - Photo Courtesy of B&H
Oben BB-2 - Photo Courtesy of B&H

This was the value leader of the bunch as well as the 2nd lightest head. However, it has a larger load capacity than the lighter Acratech GP for a fraction of the price. This was another surprise like the Benro, yet this head seemed to feel just as solid and well made – only a smaller. Like the Benro it also included a quick release plate which made it an exceptional value.

Here’s my field observations:

  • Came with quick release (QR) plate
  • Solid feel (preferred it over Kirk)
  • Close to Arca-Swiss feel and operation
  • Lower knobs were super smooth and great
  • Adapter stud included
  • Dark green level hard to read and obscured by the QR plate
  • Includes plate with no-tools required mount (much like Bogen-Manfrotto heads)
  • Level was not as accurate as the others
  • It was easier than the RRS BH-55 to dial in small adjustments
  • QR knob not as smooth and solid as other knobs
  • One direction only in portrait mode. This means if the QR knob is up, you are good, but if the knob is down it collides on the base.

While this head may have done the worst on the long exposure test, I don’t think that most people would find fault in the quality of results it achieved. In short, this is my ultimate bargain hunters recommendation to pair with a value set of legs like the Slik 700dx

Price: $169.95 (8/1/11 at B&H)
Weight: 1.1 lb. (0.5 kg)
Max Load Capacity: 33.1 lbs. (15 kg)

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Pro

This is the head that most pros I know today swear by. I own this head and love it, but after putting the heads in this test through their paces I’m even more convinced that the folks at Really Right Stuff have gotten rather snobby and overpriced.

  • Love the size and grip on the knobs, but they have more of a loose feel with less drag than the others
  • Ball sits low in the head so a tall stud on the tripod can damage the ball head (as I discovered when testing the Induro CT014 tripod
  • Heavy pig like the Kirk that doesn’t have the load capacity to support its heft
  • Insane price and RRS nickels and dimes you to death with custom plates that are product specific – plan to spend a few hundred dollars more on plates with this head
  • Outstanding 360 rotational performance – best of the group

It’s a great product, for sure, and I still highly recommend it, but I can no longer say it is so much better than the other heads here that it warrants the highest price. That simply isn’t true. In fact, if I were starting over again today I’d probably get the Arca-Swiss Z1 instead if I could afford it, or the Benro B3 if I was on a budget.

Price: $415 (8/1/11 at
Weight: 1.8 lb. / 816 g
Max Load Capacity: 50 lbs. / 23 kg

Comparison Table

Here’s a table that compares the key specs (taken from B&H on 8/1/11 for all but RRS BH-55):

Z1 sp
Really Right Stuff
BH-55 Pro
Price  $           399.95  $       388.99  $           217.00  $           375.00  $           169.95  $           415.00
Weight 0.99 lb (0.45 kg) 1.4 lb (635 g) 1.5 lb (0.7 kg) 1.9 lb (850 g) 1.1 lb (0.5 kg) 1.8 lb (816 g)
Load Capacity 25 lbs (11.4 kg) 130 lbs (59 kg) 66 lbs (30 kg) 50 lbs (22.6 kg) 33.1 lbs (15 kg) 50 lbs (23 kg)

Best in class is shown in green, and worst in class is shown in red. Heads in blue are my recommendations for reasons discussed in the previous section.

Major Hidden Costs – A Word About Plates

One topic I was unable to cover due to time considerations was the cost of those Arca-Swiss plates that all of the products featured in this article require. While half (the Kirk, Benro and Oben) included a starter plate (which is a great value), the other half did not and they will cost you dearly. In fact, if you go with a L-bracket design like my B1DMkIII-L from Really Right Stuff (for my 1D Mark IV and previous 1D Mark III) you’ll find yourself out $183 (as of 8/1/11) plus you still need plates for your telephoto lenses. I ended up getting the Really Right Stuff L84 lens plate which set me back another $55 (plus $6.24 for USPS shipping to my house) and the $55 B5D2 plate for my 5D Mark II since it can’t use the L-Bracket.

I’ve spent nearly another $300 in plates on top of the tripod head, and it only goes up from there if you have multiple telephoto lenses. Arca-Swiss is actually higher so be sure to compare shopping carts with your full configuration before placing your order to make sure you have the best choice for your budget.

I do strongly advise you not to be stupid and use one plate for both your camera and telephoto lenses (the ones with tripod rings like a 70-200mm) because you will get very poor long exposure performance out of your good head and expensive tripod legs by creating significant instability at the camera from too much weight hanging over the end.


All of the heads featured in this article are good enough to serve you well when paired with one of my tripod recommendations. A good head is important, but good legs are even more important. As a result, I’d say that if you have to cut corners then you should either go with one of the cheaper heads featured in this article like the Benro B3. If the Benro B3 or Oben BB-2 is still out of your budget, then I’d recommend that you don’t use a head at all (yes, you can mount your camera or long lenses to your tripods stud mount directly. I don’t recommend buying a crappy head that doesn’t work well, nor do I recommend photographers try to use videographers pan and tilt heads – as I personally think that they suck for photography (yes, I owned them before too).

If you can afford it, go for the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1. That’s what I’d buy today if I was buying again, and its huge 130lbs load capacity means it will be rock solid for whatever you would reasonably put on a ball head. Personally, anything over 20 lbs. means you should be using a gimbal head in my opinion (unless you have space considerations), so the overbuilt design of all the heads in this article will mean your lightweight gear won’t stress it in the slightest.

For those with the deepest pockets, I’d still say that the Really Right Stuff BH-55 head will not disappoint. But I recant my prior statement that it’s the only head you should consider.

Why didn’t you cover brand X?

Despite my best effort here, I’m sure I’ll get questions about why I didn’t cover other heads like those from Markins, etc…

The reality is that I didn’t have time, and those that are not sold by B&H mean that I’d have to purchase them (rather than borrow them) in order to review them. Like most of my readers, I don’t have the cash to buy all of these expensive heads, so I thank B&H for them fulfilling my request and loaning me all of the heads I reviewed.


I do not get a commission of any sort from Really Right Stuff. I cover their products because they are good and I have had great success with them. I may get a commission if you make a purchase from any of the B&H links from the other products mentioned in the article, so please show your appreciation of this blog by visiting here and clicking my links before making your purchase – THANKS!

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by making a donation or saving money by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


Chuck said...

I think it is fair to mention that the Acratech GP has a unique, and very functional, panoramic capability which eliminates the need to purchase (and carry around) an additional leveling base. For what it's worth, Acratech advertises the gimbal capabilities with a 400mm f4 lens not a 600mm. I won't be selling my gimbal head.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Well done. I have wondered if I needed the expensive heads or if one of the bargain brands would work. Your review opened the area of mounting plates. Please follow up on how to use and interchangeability.

Ron Martinsen said...

I won't be doing anything on mounting plates at this time. They are crazy expensive and suck, but if they are arca-swiss compatible they will work with any of these and the RRS head. Keep in mind though that some are too tiny so they may compromise support so don't try to use a little 2 inch square mounting plate on everything you own.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron,

Please note that the Acratech GP Ballhead's Gimbal ability comes from the pin on the back of the ball that engages a slot and a sleeve on the stem of the ball that simultaneously locates. It is very useful with (as Chuck and the instructions said)up to 400 F4.0lenses.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good report on the best ball heads available right now. I am a long term user of the BH-55, and really appreciate how well it works for me. One thing I would like you to explain further is your comment in the section on A Word About Plates, where near the end you say you can not use an L bracket on a 5Dmk2. I have been using Really Right Stuff L brackets on Canon cameras for many years, and the one they sell for the 5Dmk2 works perfectly. It has a slot to optionally move the plate away from the side of the camera body to allow more room for cords, and that allow easy use of the remote control. I look forward to learning more about why you mentioned that the L plate can not be used.

Ron Martinsen said...

Good catch - what I meant to say is that it can't use my L-Bracket for my 1D-Mark iii / iv. That was a typo on my part, so thanks for pointing it out - no one else has til now.

I have a 5dm2 in my hand right now with an L-bracket and agree it works fine.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron,

I have an older version of the Kirk BH-1 (no bubble level, no safety stops) and it is not stiff (unless I use the tension knob to make it so). It is very smooth and easy to use, and very strong. I've used it with up to a 400mm f/4 (my largest lens) and know I could trust it with a lot more weight (even though I'll get a gimbal when I get something larger, for the balance and safety factor). I don't know if the one you tested had a problem or if this new version just isn't as well made, but at least mine is great. I can't see myself ever replacing it unless it is stolen or dumped in the ocean.

I was pretty impressed with my friend's RRS BH-55 too.

But, if I were to start from scratch, I'd get the Arca-Swiss Z1.


Anonymous said...


Great overview. Thanks a lot. For the benro B3, how do you feel about the B0, B1 and B2. Same design but less load capacity. I'm looking for my first good/budget tripod head and the Benros are on my short list. Would like a head that I won't need to upgrade in year or two from now.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the overview, great stuff!

For the Benro B3, how do feel about the Benro B0, B1, and B2? That whole series is in my short list. I'm looking for my first quality/budget ball head that I won't need to replace in a year or two from now.

Thanks again!

Ron Martinsen said...

I haven't used the other Benro models, but I wouldn't be afraid to try them out after what I learned in this review.

Richard Vidutis said...

Great article, but since I was looking for ball heads with Arca Swiss quick release mechanisms (other than the RRS BH-55), what would your recommendation be in that respect?

Ron Martinsen said...


Hold your hand in a pinching position and rotate it 15 degrees. How long did that take? Less than a second right? That's how long it takes to use a knob to loosen or tighten. From there you just slide your camera out to the side and you are done.

Personally I've not found that the quick release really isn't any quicker. In fact, if there's too much tension on the QR then it will take longer, and if there isn't enough then it's not very safe.

If gone from Quick Release systems to knobs and will never go back to the QR systems again.


Dave Anderson said...

Ron, Thanks for your great articles - they really were of great help in what to look for in buying a tripod and head. I decided to look at the Oben BB-2, but found that it has been discontinued. Would you recommend other Oben modles in it's price range. Or should I consider the Benro B3?

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Dave,

Here's the replacement for the BB-2

Thanks for bringing this to my attention so I can try to fix this in the article.

P.S. To avoid massive spamming attacks, comments are manually approved. My apologies for Google's UI being poor about this reality. There's no need to post more than once.

Patrick Downs said...

I bought the Acratech GV2 after considering them all and reading a LOT, including this. I've read some reports on the Arca-Swiss separating from its base due to a poorly designed retaining ring. I agree with you here— RRS has become precious and overpriced. I'd love their tripod, but $900?

My Acratech is excellent, and in fact it does have a gimbal function that is better compared to other balls The shaft of the head has a machined collar and aligns perfectly with the notch, like a bearing in a sleeve, and is very smooth. No, it's not a true gimbal but for smaller lenses (especially ones w/o tripod collar) it works well up to about 300/f4. I don't use it much now that I have an L-bracket for my main D800. I also love that it weights less than 1lb, and combined with my Induro CT214, the package is under 5lbs. I take it almost everywhere now, literally.


Ron Martinsen said...

I've had my Arca Swiss for a couple years and haven't had any trouble yet. My RSS is in bad shape and in bad need of repair, but they told me it would cost more than I'm willing to spend to service it. Since it still works, I just used it and dealt with it being wobbly and unscrewed from time to time.