11 Best Ball-Heads under $500

This is a continuation of my article from a few days back, featuring the best tripods under $500.  This time I will take a look at eleven of the greatest ball heads available on the market right now.  I have tested each of these extensively, and will share my impressions of each one's strengths and weaknesses, and at the end I'll reveal the ball head that I have chosen to use, and I'll explain why.  As a matter of full disclosure, some of the companies sent me ball heads to test and then to keep/use as I see fit.

Other companies sent them on the condition that they be returned upon completion of the review.  In some other cases, I have been invited to help create content for the manufacturers in exchange for keeping the gear that I wish to keep.  None of the conditions of loan/use have impacted the review at all.  As I showed in the article last week, when it comes to securing many thousands of dollars of my camera gear, I would rather pay to purchase a product that was on loan, than to use a freebie.  For me, it's all about quality, and getting the best I can possibly afford.

The manufacturers are presented here alphabetically, and if they provided multiple ball heads, they will be then listed by price.

3 Legged Thing

Price: $199

Material: Anodized Aluminum

Weight: .9 pound

Height: 3.94 inches

Base diameter: 1.7 inches

Max Load: 35 pounds (in portrait orientation.  More if directly vertical)

Friction Control: No

Plate type: Peak Design Capture Plate & Arca-Swiss compatible

The Air Hed is hands-down the most distinct looking of all the ball heads reviewed.  It is also by far the strongest half of the pairing of the Albert tripod and Air Hed kit, which was included in the tripod review.  The greatest feature of this ball head is the fact that it is a double panning head for just $199 USD.  There is a panning hinge where one would normally expect it, at the bottom of the ball head, but there is also a secondary panning mechanism at the top.  When you drop the ball head down into portrait orientation, the camera is able to be panned up and down, to do vertical stitched panoramas.  This can be accomplished with most ball heads by purchasing a separate leveling base or panning extension, but it comes included with the set-up for the Air Hed.

The plate that comes on the head is a Peak Design Capture plate.  If you happen to use a Capture, the exact same plate can be used moving back and forth from the head to the capture device.  The folks at 3 Legged Thing are in fact the UK distributors for both Peak Design and for Mag Mod accessories.

The main shortcoming of this ball head is the absence of either a safety lock mechanism, or a separate friction control.  Both are nice added touches and helpful safety tools to protect camera gear.  The Air Hed is a really great option for the $199 price point!  The Air Hed was not listed on Amazon at the time of this publication, but it can be found at the 3 Legged Thing site for their US store.


Acratech Nomad

Price: $299

Material: Aluminum

Weight: .9 pound

Height: 3.74 inches

Base diameter: 2.375 inches

Max Load: 25 pounds

Friction Control: Yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

The Acratech nomad is an exceptional ball head.  It is slightly smaller than the flagship “GP” bullhead, but maintains the ability to support a 25 pound load.  There is a tension control knob on the opposite side from the main control knob.  That tension control selector controls how much friction is applied to the ball while the head is “loose.”  The head offers 360 degree panning.  The quick release plate does not use the lever design that is available on the GP.  Adding a custom option of a lever release is somewhat possible, but not necessarily logical because the lever release on the GP would actually be a more affordable option.

One of the best design features of the Acratech Nomad is the open ball design.  The unit does not require any grease or lubrication at all.  If the ball attracts any dust or sand, it can be cleaned off directly, since it is not seated in an encasement.

Acratech is very proud to support small dealers, and therefore they do not sell through Amazon.  If you are searching for an Acratech ball head, you will need to buy one from an authorized retailer, or directly from the Acratech website.


Acratech GP

Price: 399 regular/$429 Lever Release

Material: Aluminum

Weight: .95 pound

Height: 4.1 inches

Base diameter: 2.375 inches

Max Load: 25 pounds

Friction Control: Yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

The Acratech GP is their flagship model, and it is also the favored ball head by a substantial number of the Improve Photography podcasters and writers.  This ball head comes with either a twist knob for the quick release plate, or the lever release.  The lever release includes a safety mechanism which is one of the greatest things about the ball head!  The lever mechanism has a small insert button which must be depressed in order to slide the lever into the “open” position.  In my opinion, everyone should spend the extra $30 and get the extra security for your camera and lens.

The main control knob and tension control knobs are identical in operation to the Nomad.  The open ball design is also the same, and the unit is just as easy to clean and maintain as the smaller Nomad.

One option that is unique to the GP is the ability to reverse the bottom part of the unit to use the head as a panning gimbal head.  This will be a fantastic utility for landscape photographers.  As with the Nomad, Acratech does not sell through Amazon, but you can purchase the GP directly from them, and here is the page for the GP.


Benro IB2

Price: $120

Material: Aluminum

Weight: .9 pound

Height: 3.9 inches

Base Diameter: 2.2 inches

Max Load: 22 pounds

Friction Control: Yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

This is an exceptionally good value based on the price point.  The Benro IB2 and the Benro B2 are only $10 difference in price.  Given that the B2 is rated for 13 pounds of additional weight-baring, I would be strongly inclined to spend the extra $10 for the extra strength.  That being said, this ball head certainly does not disappoint for a $120 item!

The IB2 has a separate friction control knob, as well as a panning lock knob, both near the bottom of the base.  A design element that I particularly appreciate is that the two knobs to operate those features are different diameters.  Hands-down my favorite detail on this ball head for the price point is the inclusion of the P&T (pull and turn) safety mechanism for the quick release plate.  This is a superb offering for a ball head that's barely over $100.

Obviously there tends to be some difference in items that are less than half the price of other competitors.  In this case the overall feel of the head does tend to be a bit “light duty.”  The knobs are also not rubberized.  They are molded with ridges in them to make them as grippable as possible, but they don't have a silicone or rubber coating, nor a serrated gripping surface, which seem to be quite prevalent on the other ball heads being reviewed.

The Benro IB2 is available here on Amazon.com.


Benro B2

Price: $130

Material: Aluminum

Weight: .9 pound

Height: 3.9 inches

Base Diameter: 2.2 inches

Max Load: 35 pounds

Friction Control: Yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

The Benro B2 carries over the most notable feature of the IB2, meaning that Pull & Turn safety mechanism.  The safety works by not allowing the quick release plate to disengage from the platform, until the user has pulled the knob out an extra fraction of an inch, and turning it an additional fraction of a turn.  This prevents accidental dislodging of a camera, and it's a wonderful feature.

The B2 also has an upgraded feel to it in comparison to the IB2.  The knobs are all given a rubberized grip.  The unit feels a bit less ‘light duty' than it's closely related cousin, and it will hold an additional 13 pounds.  It doesn't have the heavy-industrial feel of the Acratech or Really Right Stuff heads, but it's one third the price of those heads.  If I were seeking an option under $150.00, this would definitely be the ball head that I would go with.  It's a superb value.

The Benro B2 is available here on Amazon.com.


FLM CB-38FTR

Price: $429

Material: CNC-machined Aluminum

Weight: 15.4 ounces

Height: 3.5 inches

Base Diameter: 2.3 inches

Max Load: 55 pounds

Friction Control: Yes – Friction Memory Ring

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

FLM is a German-made ball head which is magnificently engineered and built.  There are a number of features available in this ball head that are unavailable in competitors products.  It has an extremely impressive “feel” in the hand, and it truly functions as a superbly manufactured device.

The first control that I will discuss is the Friction Memory Ring.  This is a system that is essentially “dialed in” via a setting sequence.  Once you have set your desired friction level on that control knob, it will remain at that same amount of resistance until you repeat the setting sequence again, and replace the desired setting.

The “R” in FTR stands for a 15 degree control knob.  The 15 degree stop dial turns on a very noticeable “clicking in” option, where the panning base snaps in every 15 degrees.  This is definitely designed for photographers that intend to do stitched panoramas.  Rather than guesstimating the amount of movement of the head from shot to shot, it will actually regulate that distance for the photographer.  This is not an essential function item, but it's certainly an extremely helpful one!

Tilt Lock is another proprietary technology.  This basically prevents the ball from tilting left or right, and keeps it moving in a track that is only going to allow vertical movement of the camera.  When you loosen the tilt lock button, the ball can move freely in any direction, just like any other ball head.

The folks at FLM build everything in a modular way.  They do extremely small production runs, just 200 units at a time, so availability can vary depending on supply and demand.  The unit that I had to test, and the one that is displayed in both of these photographs, includes an SRB-40 quick release head.  This combination is currently available on B&H for $429.  Other quick release plates are available, including a lever release unit, and they are also available on B & H.


Gitzo GH1382QD

Price: $370

Material: Tungsten Disulfide

Weight: 1.164 pounds

Height: 4.41 inches

Base Diameter:1.65 inches

Max Load: 31 pounds

Friction Control: Yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

The Gitzo ball head had to be returned very quickly, and I overlooked getting a photo of the unit before sending it back to the rep.  The photo above is an image I found online, and not my own.  This ball head is the first of two where I feel that the quality is absolutely phenomenal, but the features leave me somewhat hesitant to consider them against a couple of the upscale contenders with very specific advantages to them.

Let me be exceptionally clear, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with this amazing ball head.  It worked beautifully.  The diameter of the base is a very small 1.65 inches, and the finish is extremely refined and distinguished looking, with the Tungsten Disulfide ball head.  It would surely pair perfectly with a set of Gitzo legs.  Unfortunately I did not have a set of Gitzo legs to pair it with, and so I shot the head on an unmatched tripod.  My gut instinct is that the only real situation where I would look seriously at this ball head is if I owned the matching legs, and I wanted the set for consistency.

The Gitzo GH1382QD is available on Amazon.com.


Induro BHL2S

Price: $299

Material: Anodized Aluminum

Weight: 1.1 pounds

Height: 3.5 inches

Base Diameter: 2.28 inches

Max Load: 26.46 pounds

Friction Control: yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss compatible

The Induro BHL2S is a wonderfully solid ball head.  If it were priced much higher, I fear it would fall into a similar category as the Gitzo right above it on this list.  But in this case it's actually priced very well at $299.  The ball head is extremely sturdy and stable.  The knobs are easy to operate, with useful shapes for each knob in terms of grip ability.  There are two features to this ball head that in my mind make it a far more desirable ball head for the price.

First, there is a Pull & Turn safety lock on the quick release plate.  As I mentioned before with the Acratech and the Benro, this is a feature I personally value very highly.  Providing a measure of security over an accidental release of a camera and lens could truly save a photographer thousands of dollars in losses.

Second, the main control knob is a VERY short turn.  There is a friction control device inset into the main control knob (pictured right.)  The actual engagement/disengagement of the control knob is roughly a quarter turn from completely loose to completely tightened.

The Induro BHL2S is available on Amazon.com.

 

 


Novoflex Classic Ball 3 II

Price: $475

Material: Titanium

Weight: 1.1 pounds

Height: 3.74 in.

Base Diameter: 2.36 inches

Max Load: 17.64 pounds

Friction Control: Yes – Automatic Friction Control

Plate type: Modular – doesn't come with QR plate

The Novoflex Classic Ball 3 II is a titanium super-strong ball head.  There are a couple of unique differences to this ball head that make it a spectacular option in the high-end market, especially when paired with the Novoflex macro equipment.  The ball head doesn't come with a Quick Release plate, so you would need to order a separate plate for the top.  I do not have a separate quick release plate, but I have been using this ball head daily as I am exploring the Novoflex Castel-Cross Q macro focusing rack, the Balcan AF bellows, and a few other items that I will be reviewing in the future.

One of the really unique features of the Novoflex head is that there are three portrait orientation cut-outs instead of the usual one.  Two of the three are on exact opposite sides of the equipment, so you can literally maneuver your camera from facing straight down on one side of the ball head to facing straight up on the other side.  This is made possible by the extreme strength of the titanium alloy they use in manufacturing.

Another unique feature is the five-position Automatic Friction Control (AFC) selector.  The blue ribbed band that goes around the center of the ball head functions as your friction control, and there are five available tension levels.  So, if you know that your DSLR alone maneuvers appropriately at a resistance of 2 or 3, and you know that your full macro rig needs to be set at 4 or 5, all you need to do is give a twist to that center belt, and it will instantly lock in at the new amount of friction.

Novoflex is superbly engineered and crafted.  They are available directly from Amazon.com.


Oben BC-139

Price: $159

Material: Aluminum

Weight: 1.4 pounds

Height: 4.2 inches

Base Diameter: 2.3 inches

Max Load: 39.6 pounds

Friction Control: yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss Compatible

The Oben BC-139 is priced very affordably.  It is a a fairly huge ball head, and also rather heavy.  It has a very impressive load capacity of nearly 40 pounds.  There aren't any real “surprises” with this ball head in terms of features.  It's fairly basic in its design and construction, but it does function well.

My main thought regarding this product is that I can't quite figure out a reason why I would opt for this over the Benro B2.  The Benro offers the safety mechanism that is not present on the Oben.  The Benro is about two thirds as heavy, and holds practically the same capacity.  The one situation where I could envision someone opting for the Oben is if they are matching it up brand/cosmetically with an Oben set of legs.  There is absolutely nothing “wrong” with this basic ball head, its just out-featured and out-priced in this category by a competitor.

The BC-139 is available here, on Amazon.com.


Really Right Stuff BH-40LR

Price: $415 (and up)

Material: Aluminum

Weight: 17 ounces

Height: 3 inches

Base Diameter: 2.1 inches

Max Load: 18 pounds

Friction Control: yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss Compatible

First of all, it is very unusual for Really Right Stuff to send their gear out for a review.  I'm deeply appreciative of their willingness to loan me not only this ball head, but also an amazing set of legs, so that I can review the ball head when partnered up as the manufacturer intends.  When I first received the ball head, I created a YouTube video review, and almost immediately got some unhappy feedback from the Really Right Stuff fans out there.  Let me begin my discussion here just as I did on the video, with the observation that this is a phenomenally well designed and constructed piece of photography gear!  It's extremely solid, operates as smoothly and as flawlessly as one could ask.  My observation/criticism came on just one factor, and that is the absence of a safety mechanism to keep your Arca plate secured to the head.

Human beings make mistakes.  We obviously try really hard to be careful with our camera gear, but in a moment of distraction or perhaps just accidentally catching the lever release, there is nothing on the Really Right Stuff BH-40 to prevent the lever from disengaging, and dropping the contents of your tripod on the ground.  Several RRS fans pointed out that they have owned this product or others over a long period of time, and this has never happened.  I'm sure the overwhelming majority of owners have never experienced that kind of problem.  BUT… knowing my luck, I would be that guy.  For almost exactly the same dollar figure, I could get the Acratech GP, and with their lever release I would have a safety mechanism.  For a substantial amount less, an Induro or Benro would also offer that protection.  So, there is my criticism of the Really Right Stuff head, in comparison to other items.

Now let me back up and explain what I think is absolutely terrific about the BH-40LR.  This ballhead is extremely compact, at only 3 inches tall.  It pairs beautifully well with the TVC-24L that Really Right Stuff sent along a few days later for me to test.  The two similarly sized knobs on the same side of the unit are shaped differently to help facilitate use in the dark, or by “feel.”  The bottom of the two is for pan locking/unlocking.  The upper knob is for friction control.  The hefty and smooth-operating locking lever is a great system for anchoring the ball head.

The BH-40LR is available through B&H for $415 as pictured here.  There is an option with a second panning head for $575, available here.


Sirui K30X

Price: $129

Material: Aluminum

Weight: 17 ounces

Height: 4.3 inches

Base Diameter: 2.4 inches

Max load: 66 pounds

Friction Control: yes

Plate type: Arca-Swiss Compatible

The K30X arrived in my hands almost a full month or more ahead of any other product.  I was absolutely thrilled with how much better it was than the really junky ball head I had been using for several years.  It was vastly more solid, reliable and sturdy than what I had been accustomed to.  If I hadn't ever tried more ‘high-end' products, I would have surely considered this a fantastic upgrade, and moved forward happily.  In many ways, I almost feel badly that my opinion of this has changed quite a bit since getting to know many of the other competitors with products in the market place.

First of all, if I wanted to spend $130, I would get the Benro B2, for the reasons I listed up in that description.  True, the Benro only supports 35 pounds, but I haven't managed to figure out how I could make my 5D Mark IV and a lens weight 60 pounds.

All that being said, there of course is the issue of having a matching set.  If you are interested in the cosmetics of a matching set, and you have Sirui legs, then by all means, you aren't going to be hurting yourself with this option.  It doesn't have a safety mechanism, but it is very solid, and the quality level is certainly very appropriate for the price point.

The K30X is available through Amazon.com.


Best Ball Head for the Lower End Budget

My money goes for the Benro B2.  This ball head is a superb combination of affordability with safety and stability.  If you checked out my partner Tripod article, the legs that I would pair with this head are the TAD-27C, also by Benro.  The full set-up will be under $400, and you will have an great budget-friendly option for a tripod/head combination.


Best Mid-Range Budget Ball Head

The middle of the pack is a very tricky area to navigate with ball heads.  The Induro BHL2S jumps to mind since it's priced at $299, and it has the pull-turn safety lock that I have mentioned several times.  I would weight and consider that versus the Acratech Nomad.  Either of those options will be a wonderful addition to a camera bag!   I really appreciate the open ball design of the Acratech, and the safety of the BHL2S.  I will leave this category as a two-way tie.  The individual priorities of each buyer will have to be the deciding factor between the two of them, because they are both rock solid options.


Best Upper-End Budget Ball Head

The Acratech GP.  Period.  The locking mechanism, the open ball design, the ability to reverse it and use as a panning head… they win on numerous fronts.  I will be proudly sporting my Acratech GP from here on out.  It's a fantastic product, by an great manufacturer.


Runners Up

There are two ball heads that I really can't leave out of the final recap.  The 3 Legged Thing Air Hed is a really great option at $200.  The dual panning option at that price point is super helpful if that is on your list of “wants.”  The other ball head that would be in very serious contention for the best upper-end budget if it only had a safety lock mechanism is the FLM.  The engineering, design and build quality of that ball head is just magnificent.


 

 

3 thoughts on “11 Best Ball-Heads under $500”

  1. the Sirui does have a safety mechanism. In fact for me, the safety on the Benro and Induro is of little value. I shoot landscapes, and like almost any landscape photographer, I use an “L”, and not the plate that the ball head manufacturer sells. The Sirui has a pin that stick up that is released with a red button on the side. All the L plates have an “open” bottom. If the camera slides. the “L” bracket edge will run into the pin, keeping it from falling out. The Benro and Induro options would offer no additional safety to someone using an ‘L” bracket. Maybe you got an old version, because all of the K-series ball heads have this safety feature.

  2. Hi Mark.
    Thanks for the excellent comparison of these ballheads! Though I already have/use tripods and heads from Oben, MEFOTO, Promaster, (and a 35 year-old Gitzo used for large format work), I was considering the Novoflex Classic Ball 3 II as well, for my Fuji X-System kit, primarily for its fantastic build quality and the unique Friction Control. One feature you may have missed on that ballhead, is its ability to be inverted into a panoramic head! I believe there is a bubble located in the base specifically for that purpose. I think that’s a clever feature, especially appreciated by us landscape shooters. In any case, thanks for the article, and have a happy Holiday Season! Regards, Steve

  3. While I mostly agree with your rankings, I do want to share that the locking mechanism on the GP is not as reliable as one would think. On the pacific ocean I had my D810 and 24-70 f/2.8 fall into the ocean. I had just driven 4 hours to get to this place, booked a room for the night for all to be lost. I sent the GP for repair/review and they replaced the lever. I then went out and purchased the BH 40 and have never had a problem. Just to say, NOTHING is 100% reliable!!!!!!! Anything the could happen, will or might happen. It simply can go either way.

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