In Search of Stability

December 21, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

A few months back, while on a trip to Caprock Canyons State Park, my geriatric Manfrotto 486RC2 ballhead took a nose dive out of the back of my 4Runner. It hit the asphalt hard, and a chip broke out of the ball. I was able to make it work for the duration of the trip by ratcheting it down tight with all my might, but it was clear this would be its last trip.

In truth, I'd been frustrated with that ballhead for the last several years. As my photography skills advanced, I'd come to see the deficiencies of that head. It was adequate for what I was now doing, but only barely so. The most onerous of its sins was its tendency to shift my composition. I'd get the composition just the way I wanted it with my right hand, then while holding it thusly, I'd tighten the knob with my left hand, after which I'd let go with my right. Almost invariably as I released it to its own devices, especially if I was using my workhorse 70-300mm lens, the lens would dip. Not much, mind you, but enough to change my composition enough to force me back to square one.

The workaround, of course, was to start above where I needed to be so that when the lens dipped I'd end up at the right place. This worked, to a degree, but felt a bit like rubbing two sticks together hoping for a spark. It'll work in a pinch, but there are better tools available. So, when she decided to end her life atop the caprock, I didn't really mourn.

​Upon returning home, I called my insurance agent (yes, Virginia, I have equipment insurance, and so should you!). Not two days later, with check in hand, I ordered the new and vastly improved beauty you see at the top of the post, the Really Right Stuff BH-55 LR.

So, let's talk about what the options were, what I needed, and why I ultimately bought what I bought. First, a needs-assessment. I needed (and I really do mean "needed" here) four things from a new ballhead:

1) First and foremost, I needed absolute stability. Once I lock down the head and remove my hand from the camera, I need it to stay there, unequivocally and without hesitation. There could be no compromises here.

2) I also needed a panning option. On my old head, if I wanted to pan, I had to loosen the ball itself which set the whole thing adrift. I made it work, but it was time to move on. On the new head, I would have independent panning and ball-tension knobs.

3) I also wanted the main tension knob to be on the left side of the ballhead with the drop slot(s) in the front. When I'm shooting, I hold the camera with my right hand, as is proper. I do not want to have to remove my hand from the camera controls to adjust the ballhead. I wanted to adjust the bullhead with my left hand. It just works better for me that way in the field. The image below shows what I'm looking for. Right hand on the camera controls, left hand adjusting the ballhead:

4) And then finally, I wanted a ballhead that would grow with me. At present, my longest lens is my 70-300, but I didn't want to have to buy a new head when I get a 400mm or even 600mm sometime down the line. Furthermore, I'd like the ballhead to support some kind of gimbal attachment for use with those longer lenses. This was going to be a last-for-the-rest-of-my-life purchase.

So, with that shopping list firmly in mind, what were my options? Over the last year as I'd been thinking about this, I'd narrowed it down to three heads. Yes, there are others, and I could belabor you with why these three made the list and others didn't, but I'm not going there. The three finalists were:

The Acratech Ultimate Ballhead ($299)

The Induro BHL-3 ($311)

And of course, the Really Right Stuff BH-55 LR ($455)

So, let's delve a little deeper. The Acratech is a fine head, and is the favorite head of one of my favorite macro photographers, Mike Moats. The Ultimate Ballhead has a lot going for it, actually. It easily met the most important three of my four requirements. It may not be the best head for really long lenses (which admittedly I don't have yet), but it makes up for it in flexibility. Because it's totally open in the front, you really can place it any which way you want. For macro photography, which is something I do a bit of, that's a really helpful benefit. And, the price is very attractive. Its only drawback is its upper load rating of 25 pounds. And honestly, nothing I currently own comes anywhere close to that. But one day I may hit close to that. And I want something overbuilt enough to handle that. That's a minor ding on what I think is an excellent head, but it's a ding.

I think the Induro is a fine head as well. I've heard really, really good things about it (see here, and here), and frankly, would have loved to try this head out. The big hitch for me was the fact that it's designed with the main ball tension knob to be used on the right. And yes, you can swivel it around and put it on the left, where you need it to be (and that seems to be what everyone does who uses one), but then the drop slots are facing you. That means you can tilt the camera up, but not down. Honestly, this seems to be a real design flaw to me. I wasn't going to spend a bunch of money on a new head only to have to deal with that kind of frustration every single time I used it. I need to be able to hold the camera the way I want to with the drop notches in the front, as the image below shows. The Induro will not let me do that.

In the end, I went with the BH-55. It really is perfect in every way. Just try to fine someone who's actually used it for any length of time - anyone - who has anything but high praise for it. It's pricey, for sure, but it's flawless. And, it works wonderfully with products like the Wimberley Sidekick, which turns your ballhead into a full-featured gimbal head.

And let me just say that I WANTED to find something other than the BH-55. At my core, I'm against paying lots of money for high end things just because our heroes use them and say they're the best. I think we're all swayed a lot of the time by hype. And I think Really Right Stuff gear is overpriced. So I wanted to find something that met all my needs that cost substantially less than the prices Really Right Stuff charges for their stuff (which are way up there). But in the end, I couldn't find anything that I was as confident would meet all my needs for significantly less. So I held my nose and ponied up.

I also had to buy a camera plate for it, because unlike my old Manfrotto, the Really Right Stuff doesn't come with a plate (that was another expense which I didn't appreciate). But I ponied up for an L-plate (found it used on KEH, which helped a bit), which I HIGHLY recommend.

But once I got over sticker shock and my wallet recovered, I've got to say that I couldn't be happier. I've used my new head for several months now and it's flawless. It does exactly everything I need it to do perfectly. There is a reason it's so popular among professionals. It's magnificently designed, beautifully finished, and built like a Sherman tank.

So there you go. That's what I've done and why I did it. I'm extremely satisfied. And while it's not made me a better photographer (gear rarely does that), it has made the kind of photography I do much easier.

More to come . . . .


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