Really Right Stuff
"The Finest Ever"?
Long-time readers of this site, and also subscribers to The Video Journal, know that I believe that accessories such as ballheads can be as critical to successful field work as the finest cameras or lenses. Maybe even more so, because these are the foundation devices that can make or break a location shoot. Two of the most important devices that photographers need are a first-rate tripod, along with a versatile ball-head and quick mounting plate system. My choice in tripods is the Gitzo Carbon Fibre models, and for the past 9 years I've primarily used an Arca Swiss B1 ballhead.
The B1, as everyone calls it, has long been the most popular pro-grade ballhead on the market. It's expensive, but it is rugged, and handles heavy cameras and lenses with ease. It has its foibles (such as a tendency to lock up unexpectedly, usually at the most awkward times), but in almost a decade of regular use, from Arctic to the desert, to tropical jungles, it's never let me down.
Now there's a challenger that may well be the finest ballhead ever made, and which is going to replace my trusty B1 head — the Really Right Stuff BH-55. There are some fine alternatives in the full-sized ballhead sweepstakes, but the brand-new BH-55 looks like it's ready to become the new category leader. Is it, as RRS claims, the finest ballhead ever?
It Really is Right Stuff
Firstly, you should know something about Really Right Stuff — aka RRS. This is small online firm that designs and manufactures a wide range of camera mounting products, including mounting plates, rails, flash arms and more; all the things you need to properly mount your cameras, lenses, and flash units. These items are of the highest quality, and have developed a huge following among pros and advanced amateurs alike.
But for the longest time RRS was a very difficult company to do business with. They didn't conduct business over the Net, and they didn't accept payment by credit card. You had to write to them, order a printed catalog and then place your order my mail. Not a formula destined for success in the current environment. But nevertheless their products were so good that people (myself included) put up with the hassles of doing business with them.
But that was then, and this is now, and the company's new owner Joe Johnson has within the past two years transformed the company into one that's a pleasure to do business with. He also has continued the tradition of quality which RRS is so well known for, and now, after a lengthy development period, Joe has brought forth the GH-55 ballhead.
The first thing that greats you as you open the box is a fitted neoprene stuff-sac into which the head is packed. This is designed to hold the ballhead when traveling between locations. My habit is to pack my ballhead in a sweater, but hey, a fitted bag is a welcome attention to detail.
The next thing that you notice as you remove the BH-55 from the sack is its almost jewel-like finish. This is the machinist's art carried to the highest level. Every detail, from the turning of the knurled knobs, to the laser etched scale engravings are of the highest quality. There doesn't seem to be a detail that has been overlooked.
From a practical point of view I immediately liked the fact that the head has two cutouts for vertical positioning. This makes it much easier to drop the camera into a vertical orientation without having to release and then retighten the panning base knob. It also has the side benefit of reducing the weight of the head.
All knobs are captive, which means that they won't fall off if they accidentally happen to unscrew. This is vital, because more than once I had the shoe locking knob on my B1 vibrate loose. On one occasion the screw collar became lost, and I spent the final two days of a location shoot attaching the camera to the head's mounting plate with gaffer tape.
I particularly liked the heft and feel of the main ball release knob. It incorporates stainless steel ball bearings and operates as smoothly as buttered teflon.The ball tension knob and panning base knob are smaller and of different enough feel from each other that there is no chance of mistaking them. The tension knob has micrometer settings with a laser-etched scale, whose settings are reported to be highly repeatable, so one can have different tension settings for different camera and lens weight combinations.
The entire ballhead is of low profile design. RRS wanted to get the ball as low in the cup as possible so as to lower the center of gravity, thus increasing stability. The piece de resistance is a small bubble level built into the top mounting plate. Ballheads have always been problematic for shooting stitched panoramas because the actual angle of the camera atop the movable plate mount can't be determined. But with this nice little touch you just remove the camera, level the ball, and now with the camera replaced simply swing the panning base (having leveled the base first, of course).
The RRS head is rated to support 50lbs. This is about as heavy as any camera / lens combination that I can imagine wanting to mount on a ballhead. The Arca Swiss B1, by way of comparison, can support up to 200lbs (though whether your tripod can handle this weight is another question). The reason for the ability of the B1 to handle greater weight without the ball slipping is because the ball's cup is of an elliptical design, which means that the greater the pressure put on it, the tighter it gets. Unfortunately this is also the cause of the lock-ups that some users experience with that model.
My only real complaint about the RRS BH-55 ballhead is that the base panning knob and the main lock knob are on opposite sides of the head assembly. This means that if you position the head so that the main knob is on the left, allowing the right hand to control and move the camera, then to pan the head you need to change hands, using your right hand to loosen and tighten the panning knob while the left hand is used to stabilize the camera. The B1 head, on the other hand, (and also the competitive Kirk BH-1), places both knobs on the same side of the ball, so that one hand can control both.
According to RRS this particular mechanical design precluded such an arrangement, but the practicality of the BH-55 would have been greatly enhanced if it were more like the B1 in this respect.
The "Finest Ever"?
So, is the BH-55 the best ballhead ever? Based on its quality of materials and construction, I would have to agree with the RRS copy writer. Indeed, if it wasn't for the somewhat less than ideal placement of the panning knob I would have given it an A+. As it is the BH-55 rates a solid A, and thus goes to the head of the class. My Arca Swiss B1 head is now in retirement.
The question is going to be asked; how does this new head compare to the Acratech? The answer has to be that these two ballheads are apples and oranges. The RRS head is almost twice as heavy. If ultra-light-weight in a ballhead is what you're after, then the Acratech is the way to go. I've been using it when hiking since it was first introduced, and though I find it somewhat frustrating to use because of its design, the weight saving is always appreciated. The BH-55, like the B1 and Kirk head, while heavier, is a more versatile designs; So when absolute low weight isn't paramount, these are what I'd recommend, with the RRS head now at the top of that list.
The BH-55 is available from RRS for a price between U.S. $350 and $450, depending on the type of plate clamping system selected. My suggestion is that you go with the lever clamp system, as this offers a real advantage in the field when it comes to secure and quickly removable camera and large lens mounting. Pick up some matching RRS plates designed specifically for your camera and long lenses. They offer safety retaining screws, are designed to perfectly fit a wide variety of camera / lens systems, and are built to the same high specification as are all RRS products.
After being promised for nearly two years, and now (August, 2004) finally being delivered, you'll find that the BH-55 is in a backorder situation. But if a superior ballhead is on your shopping list, do place your order now, because this really is the best ballhead ever!