Really Right Stuff BH-40 and mounting plate with Hasselblad 2017 copyright Douglas Stockale
The review of the Really Right Stuff (RRS) ball-head system is the second part of my series on tripod systems and last week I discussed the Gitzo carbon-fiber tripods. To create a really good camera support platform, you need to use equal parts tripod and the means to hold and position the camera system. While the tripod provides the basic support I have found that a well design tripod head can make the photographic experience a lot of fun or if not well designed it can be a lot of frustration. Having used a both a ball-head and a pan-head, I do really, really do prefer the ball-head system for the following reasons.
First, I will admit that the pan-head systems have come a long way since I purchased my all-in-one tripod that included a pan-head camera mount. From my discussions with other photographers the pan-head seems better suited for those who need precision and are not in any big hurry, such as architectural field work. Essentially you have three levers to control changes; for the vertical, horizontal and tilt. I just found it frustrating to use a pan-head as a change to one of the three levers usually entailed adjusting the other two, which is why you better not be under a time constraint.
Since my field work is usually more dynamic and after frequent struggling with a pan-head I made the change to a ball-head support system and I am glad I did. I can vouch for all of the comments that I read about the Magnum photographers almost elusively using a ball-heads as I now realize that a ball-head makes a ton of sense. Set up is fast. And faster still if the ball-head is smooth as silk in operation.
After a lot of checking and reading reviews I concluded that the camera support system made by Really Right Stuff (RRS) was my choice, although a bit more pricey, these are made by a US machine shop which is run by photographers. They have created a really nice market niche and in my book have shown that they can create one of the best ball-heads in the market that is made in the US. Lots and lots of precise metal machining going on.
I acquired the middle of the line PH-40 which is predicated on the weight of the camera system, with the BH-55 meant for the really heavy cameras, e.g. a load view camera or DSLRs with some really long lens. RRS also has some lighter and more compact ball-heads as well. At the time I bought this ball-head I still had my Mamyia RB-67 with the prism, which is a heavy beast (since changed to the Hasselblad system) and a bunch of digital cameras including a full-frame DSLR.
The ball-head weight issue for long lens (my longest zoom is the Canon 70-200 mm f/4 L lens) is with all of that heavy glass hanging out at the end of the lens acts like a big gravity lever that can result in ball-head creep. This occurs once you lock the ball-head down for your composition (or a pan-head), there might be a tiny bit of moment in the camera/lens due to the amount of static weight being placed on it. Even with the relatively light 70-200 on my Canon, I still recheck the composition before committing to the exposure.
Although the ball head comes with a threaded screw, what makes this system work even slicker is when you pair a ball-head up with a quick release system. This also requires a matching mounting plate dedicated to the camera base. In my case I opted for a lever quick release base mounted to the ball-head and I have not had any issues with snagging this lever and inadvertently having the camera come off. The design of the lever does require some force to engage it, thus it does take some effort to open and close so a slight brush with your clothes is not going to allow a catastrophe to occur. For a square format camera like the Hasselblad a simple bottom quick-release plate will suffice, see above.
For a DSLR with a rectangle format, I would recommend acquiring an L bracket (see below) that once the camera is locked down for the composition, the camera body can be quickly changed to for an alternative framing. Although an L bracket does add a bit more weight to potentially an already heavy camera such as the Canon 5DMk3, I have found that the L bracket weight actually seems to act as a counter balance to the battery and hand hold aspects of most digital camera systems. The camera as a whole now seems more balanced and for hand holding situations, the horizontal framing process seems quicker now. Maybe it’s just me, but I get similar comments from other photographers when they pick up my rig.
I will be honest; the majority of my work is with horizontal framing, but when I wanted a quick vertical framing after the camera was set-up, it was lightening fast to change the body and quickly get the exposure. When you are working with a fluid situation, the amount of time to make a camera change can also make the difference in getting the alternative shot.
My one gripe; the quick release plate does include a leveling bubble, but this bubble is concealed when the camera is on the ball-head. If for an architectural composition in which the horizon and verticals need to be in alignment this would require removing the camera body and checking the bubble or setting up the tripod and get the bubble right before mounting the camera body. My work around for speed? I purchased an inexpensive bubble that slides into the flash bracket of my DSLR (regretfully not shown below).
All in all I have now used the RRS BH-40 for over five years through the US, Europe and Asia. It easily dismounts from the tripod to reduce size for travel and is an absolute delight to use; very, very smooth operation. It is really great that when you are engaged with a subject that you don’t find yourself worrying about your support equipment and it essentially becomes an extension of your creative imagination.
It’s also my option that Really Right Stuff is the top of the line for ball-heads systems. Not the most inexpensive system, but you only need to buy it once and you should consider this a valuable investment in obtaining great photographs.