Acratech Ball Head
By: Steve Kossack
The Ultimate Ballhead
This is not a statement, or even a question. It's the name of a new ballhead manufactured by a Southern California company, Acratech Inc. Acratech has just brought to market its new Ultimate Ballhead. Quite a name for quite a product.
Product photographs courtesy Acratech Inc.
For years I've struggled with a setup that had every drawback imaginable. You know what I mean. Legs that are heavy. A head that is not only heavy but has handles that stick out in every direction and that seem to get snagged on anything and everything. It's such a lousy design that sometimes the handles vibrate loose and are discovered gone when you reach for them while setting up. I've actually had to retrace my path on a trail to find one that had fallen off!
It got to the point where if there was a remote chance that I wouldn't need a tripod, I wouldn't take it anymore. Every time I setup I hated the fact that it just wouldn't go into the position I needed, so I turn the legs and start to move all three handles again. You get used to the fight and you think it'll go on forever! You say to yourself, "I won't consider a new and different setup because I have other more important things I need".
Well ....... you don't! Any piece of equipment that will help make photography better and easier is exactly what you need! If you can't get into position quickly what good is the rest of your equipment and talent? Once you have come to this realization, as I have, the question became which system? I think it starts with a good ball head. The Ultimate Ballhead fits all the qualifications.
I've found it to be everything advertised, and even a little bit more. The quick release jaws open to the point where I can twist the QR plate in. I've been able to insert the plate sideways as well as sliding it forward through the slot. I find not having to look as I insert the camera or lens a big help. It has a four knob design. The tension knob is factory set and holds the ball from falling forward when equipment is not mounted. You needn't touch it. The QR knob opens and is secured with a simple twist and once done will not loosen. The panoramic knob allows the head to move laterally. The only knob you need be concerned with (one knob operation is what a ballhead is about) is the Main Adjustment knob. Once this is secured it's not possible to move the camera again. It's what's promised and what's most important. All positions all available and easily locked down. Knobs can not vibrate loose! They never come off the ballhead.
Juniper & Cathedral Rock âï¿½ï¿½ Steve Kossack, August, 2001
Mounting to the tripod was a snap, or, should I say a twist. Acratech generously supplies a bushing that will allow you to use either a 3/8' or 1/4' stud. It comes with directions on do's and don'ts, and at every step informs you that if trouble arises anywhere to call them directly. This is a family run business with a personal touch that I found very helpful.
One of the maintenance tips is to simply clean the ball with a damp cloth. This is a feature not available on other ballheads. On most the ball is covered and you can't get to the ball itself. Not so here. The head resembles a gyro in appearance and all parts are easily viewed and accessible. A valuable feature.
On the personal side the benefits are many. Pride of ownership. This is a beautiful crafted piece. It's picture on the website doesn't do it justice. Black and CNC precision machined, it is sleek, almost sexy. It's engraved timing marks are exactly 1/2 degrees apart making a line corresponding on the ballhead body easy to use and a thing of beauty to look at.
Have you ever come to odds with a design and said out loud, "I'd love to talk to the guy who designed this". I had the chance recently. I asked simply, "How did you come to build this particular ballhead and what makes you most proud of it?"
The answer said it all:
"I decided to build this ball head after hiking far too many miles, feeling like a pack mule with all my camera gear. I knew there had to be a better solution. I decided to put my experience designing parts for top fuel funny cars and manufacturing aerospace parts to the test. It took about 2 years for the design and testing. I am extremely proud of the fact that I was able to come up with a completely original design, while maintaining my original design goal of creating a ballhead weighing less than 1lb with the ability to hold solidly any of my camera systems from 35mm SLRs to 4x5 field camera."
You have got to love a guy who tells you he can build anything. Just tell him what you want it to do! In this case he might have just built "The Ultimate Ballhead" I consider it a major addition to my gear and look forward to many years of use. I recommend it to you.
The Ultimate Ballhead sells direct for USD $269.95, including a mounting plate.
Â© 2001 Steve Kossack
Steve Kossack is a landscape and nature photographer who lives and works in the American southwest. He also provides services to fellow photographers by acting as a photographic guide to the region.
Update - September, 2001
The Ultimate Field Test
By: Steve Kossack
On the last two f/8 And Be There tours I had the opportunity to put the new Ultimate Ballhead though its paces. Although you never want to take an untested piece of equipment into the field, I'm not sure just how you test a ballhead anywhere else. In this case, it's what it won't do that is the ultimate test. You can get familiar with it, as I did, in your living room but you never want to take anything you are not sure of it's operation into the field.
After some time trying its adjusting knob and loosing the knob that allows the base to pan, I became aware that it took a lot of pressure to secure it and then was very difficult to loosen again. One of the rationales for my purchasing this new ballhead was the ability to communicate with its designer. A phone call brought the news that I was the second person that day with the same problem. It was the first that they had heard of this.
The problem, I was later told, was a supply manufacturer that had switched a different helical coil without notification. I was prompted to ship the head back at Acratech's expense and a new one would be send immediately. Heading to one of my photography tours, Acratech's machine shop was on my way, so I made the exchange in person. I was rewarded with a tour of the shop. I was instructed in every step of the process of the machining and construction of The Ultimate Ballhead. They make six a day! I also saw the beginnings of a new tripod that is still in its infancy. They are obviously proud of their products and they stand behind everyone of them. It was an enjoyable couple of hours.
So, into the field I went. Some new things are easy to use from the start. Some new things take getting use to. The latter case is true here. This is a new design. It's not a slot and knob as most ballheads are. In order to drop the camera to the other side from the one you are working, you must loosen the pan and twist the head so it can fall to that side. It's not a big thing at all, just different and it takes a little getting use to.
Death Valley, 2001
In the sand dunes of Monument Valley I had no problem getting the camera down to sand level. After the shoot I simply took my air blower and watched the sand fly off the ball. Remember, its design allows complete access to its moving parts. In the tight corners of upper and lower Antelope Canyon in Arizona I never found an angle that I couldn't shoot. This included crawling under The Corkscrew with a camera and 14mm Canon lens. Its knobs secures with a twist, and remains that way until loosened. A Canon 100-400mm IS zoom lens and EOS 1V with 2X extender was rock solid in the wind. I'm not sure I couldn't have perched myself on top of the rig!
For me its top feature remains the ability to easily attach the quick release plate. No matter which piece of equipment you need its a glance and twist operation. Slide it in and twist the knob and you are shooting again. Its jaws open wide enough so you can just drop it in. Any angle seems to work. I was comfortable with this from the first try.
In summary, I like this ballhead. I'm confident using it. I'm confident of its quality. I'm confident that its designer will stand behind it. My Gitzo tripod comes with a lifetime warranty. Although not specified in its sale, I'd be surprised if The Ultimate Ballhead doesn't ultimately have one too.
Acratech Vs. Arca Swiss B1
By: Michael Reichmann
Steve Kossack, who wrote the above review, was an early purchaser of the Acratech ball head. About a month after I first published his review Steve and I were shooting together at my Fall Colour Workshop in Great Smoky National Park. This was the first chance that I had to see the Acratech in the flesh. My initial impression was positive. It seemed very well made and very light weight âï¿½ï¿½ the ideal ball head for hiking.
When I returned home I ordered one, and a week later started using it and comparing it to the B1 head that I've been using for the past 5 years. Here are my hands-on impressions, particularly comparing it to the B1.
The head's light weight is the first impression. This is the ideal ballhead for hiking, and one of the main reasons that I bought it. At 1.75lbs the B1 is almost double the weight of the Acratech. Stability and smoothness of the controls is not an issue. The Acratech is very nicely machined and finished. If the B1 is a Mercedes, the Acratech is a Lexus âï¿½ï¿½ a lightweight Lexus.
I do have some concerns though. The control knobs of the Acratech are all-metal and coarsely ribbed. This means that they are rough on the hands when tightening and loosening them. The main large knob of the B1 is rubberized, and its smaller tension knob has very fine ribbing, making it much more skin friendly.
December, 2001: Acratech has updated the main control knob to one that has a rubberized surface. This makes the knob much more finger friendly. Previous purchasers can obtain a replacement knob by contacting the company. The cost is a nominal $10.
The B1 is able to tilt 45 degrees in any direction. There is a cutout in one position that allows the head the flop over to 90 degrees for shooting verticals. The Acratech, because if its design, can flop over to 90 degrees through a much greater arc, but through half of its arc it is limited to less than 45 degrees, and in one position is limited to just being vertical. Because the Acratech (like the B1) has a rotating base, you can easily move the entire head assembly so that the camera can be positioned as desired, but overall I find the B1 superior in this regard.
Price is the final issue. The B1 typically sells for US $399, while the Acratech is available from the manufacturer at US $269. This $170 difference appears substantial, but spread over many years of use shouldn't be a determining factor in which head you choose.
My judgment is that the B1 is the head to have if you'll own just one, and if the light weight requirements of serious hiking aren't of paramount importance. If you need the lightest and smallest high quality ballhead around then the Acratech is the one for you.
As for me, I'm going to be using the Acratech on a Gitzo 1228 carbon fiber tripod as my ultra-portable tripod/head system for hiking, and will continue to use the B1 on a Gitzo 1449 carbon fiber tripod, along with a 1321 leveling base, for normal use. The best of both worlds.