I used a Bogen ballhead for over a year and hated it. It had many drawbacks including shifting during lock down, binding and refusing to move after releasing the tension, and very rough movements when trying to reposition the ballhead. Cleaning the ballhead helped temporarily with the latter two problems, but it quickly returned to its degraded state. I decided to purchase a new ballhead to avoid these problems and I had three requirements. First, I wanted a ballhead that was light but strong enough to hold a moderately sized telephoto lens such as a 300mm f/4. Second, I wanted a ballhead that was resistant to dirt and able to operate smoothly in less than ideal conditions. Finally, I wanted a ballhead that used standard Arca-Swiss style plates for clamping lenses and camera bodies.
After much research I decided on the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead.
I ordered the ballhead directly from the manufacturer with a rubberized main control knob ($10 extra) and an Acra-Swiss plate for a Nikon N80 camera. The ballhead arrived in a small box which was crushed on one side (courtesy of UPS). Luckily, the ballhead was well protected by foam padding that was cut to match the ballhead’s shape. Acratech is a precision machine shop that specializes in C.N.C manufacturing of aerospace parts and it shows in the fit and finish of the ballhead which is extremely well made.
The Acratech ballhead is open ball that is clamped at 45 degrees between two semi-circular arms. Each arm is lined with a plastic sleeve that grips the ball. The arms and other structural components are made from aircraft 6061-T6 aluminum. I believe the sleeves are made from Delrin, which is a DuPont plastic that similar to nylon but is much harder and tougher. The ballhead has a standard Arca-Swiss style clamp and according to the manufacturer’s specifications it weighs only 15.9 oz and is rated to hold over 25 lbs. My ballhead weighed only 15.1 oz so the weight specifications were conservative. To compare, the Kirk BH-1 ballhead weighs 2 lbs and the Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball weighs 1.7 lbs.
The ball came with a matte finish (early versions have a smooth reflective ball). The panning base is marked in 5 degree increments and one section has finer markings to give 1 degree resolution. All knobs are captive and cannot be unscrewed.
The Acratech Ultimate Ballhead has four knobs: (1) main adjustment knob, (2) secondary adjustment knob, (3) panning knob, and (4) clamping knob. The main adjustment knob is used to lock down the ballhead. The secondary adjustment knob located at the top of the arms sets the maximum force that the arms grip the ballhead.
When unlocked, the ballhead moves freely and smoothly. A half turn of the main adjustment knobs locks down the ballhead and it won’t move without great force. The ballhead does not shift during lockdown, but there’s enough give in my tripod and camera that for 1:1 macro photography with a 105mm lens (no tripod collar) I have to compose the image slightly higher as it will drop after I let go of the camera.
When loosened, the ballhead will flop over to side unless it’s restrained by the user. It’s possible to set the primary and secondary tension controls so that the ball always experiences some load. However, this is not adequate to let a heavy lens stay up by itself. Thus, one needs two hands to operate the ballhead: one to control the main knob and another to position the camera and lens. Other ballheads in the Acratech’s price range have an adjustable tension setting that allows one handed operation.
The manufacturer claims that the ballhead can hold 25lbs in any direction. I believe this is a conservative estimate. I can lock the head down and put enough force on it so that the tripod starts to give without the head slipping. However, even when fully locked the ballhead the ballhead exhibits some creep. Thus with longer lenses I need to set my focus slightly above where I would like the final composition.
The open two arm system allows a wider range of motion than the standard slotted design. This is great for macro photography. However, there’s only a limited amount of backward tilt and occasionally this requires reorienting the ballhead by rotating the base.
The maintenance instructions for the ballhead are simple: Clean the ballhead
with a damp cloth, and do not store the ballhead with the knobs fully tightened. To date, I have had no problems with dirt collecting on the ball and affecting the operation. After several years of usage, the screw on the clamp began to squeak and exhibit rough operation. A quick squirt of WD-40 solved this problem.
- extremely light
- increased range of camera motion
- open ballhead does not attract dirt
- right and left-handed versions available
- no tension control
- limited backward tilt without rotating the head
- some creep when composing with longer lenses
I am extremely happy with my Acratech ballhead. For me, it is the perfect combination of weight and strength, and if I were to lose mine, I would purchase another one. The ballhead stays clean and always operates smoothly. The lack of tension control is not an issue as the biggest lens that I regularly use is a 300mm f/4.
Update – June 14, 2010
I think I finally reached the limit on the Acratech. This past weekend, I used my ballhead with a Hasselblad H4D and 300 f/4.5 lens. This camera and lens combination is a beast weighing about 9 lbs and at times was difficult to lock down. Generally, horizontal images were fine but vertical shots where I rotated the ballhead/camera on to its side (I did not have an l-plate) caused problems as the ballhead kept creeping even when I tightened the main knob considerably. It appears that the ballhead has different resistance to slippage depending on the direction of force – I did not notice with a lighter camera but with the H4D it was obvious. In addition, when walking with the camera (with any lens) and tripod resting on my shoulders, the Acratech would slip somewhat and I would have to readjust when I reset my tripod.
|max load||25 lbs|
|tripod thread||3/8″-16 (1/4″-20 reducer brushing supplied)|