Tripod heads for Large Format Photography
By Q.-Tuan Luong for the
Large Format Page
A survey of pan-tilt heads, ball heads, and quick release (QR)
systems, with a discussion of the merits of each system, and a few
specific recommendations based on user's experience. Updated Oct. 2008.
Ball heads, from left to right: Arca-Swiss B1, Acratech Ultimate Ball-head, Slik Standard, Velbon PH-253
Three way Pan Tilt heads
A three way Pan Tilt head gives independant control of movement over
each of the three axes (pan, forward-backwards, left-right), using an
independant locking mechanism. It gives you precise control.
Most users find that they would be the
most appropriate type of heads for large-format use. While universally
used in the studio, in the field, they
suffer from two drawbacks:
(a) they are quite heavy and bulky
(b) they tend to be
slow if you also use them for a smaller format camera.
- The Bogen 3029 (less than 2lbs/900g)
is one of the smallest PT heads sturdy enough for
a light LF. It has no QR. The Bogen 3030 is identical except for a
QR system which uses a very small rectangular plate, which
might not be enough for most LF cameras.
- The Bogen Compact Gear Head 410/3275
has geared movements in 3
directions, making it easy to make minor adjustments. A
disengagement clutch mechanism allows for quick positioning. Unlike
most PT heads, it has no big
protruding handles. Although advertised as a small and medium
format head it is functionally one of the best PT heads for a
4x5. However, so people have reported some creep and
wiggle. The QR system is incompatible with the Hex system, but
has been reported to work fine:
"The quick release is one of the desirable things about this head. It takes two motions to
release this plate, one is to push in a button and the other is to move the lever the button
is on in the opposite direction. I haven't been able to figure out how you could accidently
release the plate and I have tried, the quick releases on most Bogens is a real weak point
in my opinion but this is a big improvement. Also, to place the camera on the head
everything goes into place with a definite release noise from the lever or else it doesn't go
together at all. I have also put it through its paces with a 20+ pound monorail to check to
see if there would be any movement or drift from the gears and found none. I could
imagine smacking the head against a rock and breaking it in 2 or 3 pieces but otherwise
mine has performed very well for me."
- The Bogen Deluxe 3047 has bubble levels and the hexagonal plate QR system, and
is sturdy enough for most cameras. It's pretty cheap ($60).
The Bogen Heavy Duty head 3057 and the Bogen Super Pro
Head 3039 are better made heads which will easily support a
8x10 ($120). Rated to 20lbs+. All are bulky with those handles
sticking out, and heavy 4.2lbs/2kg.
"I've used the 3057 head on a standard Zone VI tripod legset with 8x10
for years. It is a seriously heavy and solid combination. If you
intend to go very far on foot to make your image it's likely not the
On the plus side: it handles very heavy LF cameras with ease, the large mounting plate
for the 3057 (which can also be used with other hexagonal head QR Bogen units)
provides excellent support for heavy 8x10 and larger field type cameras with a large
wood (or metal) beds, the quick release system makes mounting and dismounting large
and heavy cameras very easy, its locking device is quite secure, and the adjustable
two-way bubble levels make camera levelling simple if your camera does not have these
On the negative side: the side-to-side movement locking mechanism is a large, metal
wheel-type device that is not very deeply ribbed and requires a lot hand strength to
tighten and loosen, the fore-and-aft tilt movement has a rather short rubber-coated
locking handle that tightens and loosens much more easily, but neither of the two
mechanisms afford much in the way of leverage to smoothly or accurately position the
camera. And, of course, it's heavy as hell, though it looks like you could take a sledge
hammer to it with no adverse effects." Sergio Ortega
The Arca B2, a double axis ballhead,
in spite of its name and appearance, is a PT head
control of the different axes.
unique in that the pivot points are directly centered under the center of the
" It is a double tilt
rational head. It consists of one "ball" (for lateral tilts)inside another larger "ball" which
controls fore and aft tilts. The Arca Swiss B1 Monoball has a variable tension "drag'
controlled by a thumbscrew which allows the user to set just how loose you want the
head to get when loosened (the B2 Monoball also has this feature on the outer ball) and
when using a view camera with this head it is possible to set just enough drag so that it
is possible to more easily (than with a conventional ballhead) level the camera in all
directions." Ellis Vener.
It's much more compact than other
PT heads, using knobs instead of handles, It weights about the
same as the Bogens (3.5lbs) but has a considerably higher
carrying capacity, being rated at an astounding 150lbs. It's
also astoundingly expensive ($650).
- The Arca Cube uses an innovative design with double stacked goniometers.
It is geared, lighter (300g less) and more compact than the Bogen 410. The operation
is very smooth. The main
problem is that it costs $1300. There is a Korean company
Photo Clam, that offers a similar product
for half of that price. Arca Swiss claims that said product infringes on their patent, while
the Korea company denies it does.
- Other heads worth looking at include the
Linhof 3-way leveling head (compact without protruding
handles, 2 lbs/900g, $700, yes it's a Linhof), and
gear head (6lbs/2.7kg, supports 35lbs, $270 but can be bought used for cheap).
Two-way pan-tilt head (leveling heads)
Those heads have independant control of movement over
two axes (forward-backwards, left-right), and are used to level the
camera. They have a large mounting surface, making them secure for
large cameras. The Ries is considered by many to be the best, but
Gitzo also makes a leveling head worth checking out.
Panning ball heads
A panning ball head has two independant controls: one for the ball
itself, which you can move freely in any direction, and the
other, generally a smaller knob, for the panning base.
A pan bed is a separate rotational table, which permits free
movement even when the ball is locked.
medium-sized balls have
some sort of frictioncontrol, which let you adjust the resistance
the ball to movement. This way, you don't have to hold firmly
the camera while making adjustments. A good ball head should maintain
smooth motion, even with a high friction. Inexpensive ball heads
do not seem to be able to do that.
Generally, with the ball head it is faster to frame your shot
but more finicky when you
want to refine the framing because trying to tweak tilt without
upsetting side-to-side level can be difficult,
particularly with heavier cameras. What you gain in speed, you loose
For smaller cameras (35mm and MF),
is generally acknowledged to be the tool of choice
Ball heads are much more compact than PT head, having no protruding
handles, and generally lighter, making them a good choice for
field photography, where you'd level using bubble levels.
- Acratech Ultimate Ballhead (420g, $270)
This ball-head uses an innovative design where the ball is locked by an open
diagonal collar. There are two advantages of this design (a) the weight savings over
a classical design with a cup and walls, (b) the ease of cleaning, especially since there is no
grease or oil. The ball's lock can be very positive, given it an outstanding strength to weight ratio.
I write "can", because for that to happen you have to tightened with excessive torque. With a large
format camera, the head slipped all the time, and I got my fingers pinched quite a few times too.
The other drawback of the design is that
while with a classical design you can tilt in any direction by about 45%, with the Acratech,
you cannot tilt or tilt only very little in one direction since the ball's stem would
be blocked by the collar. You can use the panning base to change the orientation of the
collar, but it is not as convenient, since a second knob has to be released and locked.
Compared to the Arca, the tension control is not as
useful, since there are no calibration marks for it. The Acratech comes with an Arca-style platform installed
- Linhof Profi II (550g, $250).
One of the smallest ball-head of classical design
that you should consider for general use with LF.
A well-proven, smooth ball-head. Mine
served me well for 7 years. However, it is not made of
corrosion-proof materials, and got severely rusted inside
after a very wet month in Alaska. Marflex asked for repair the
same price as a new unit bought in Europe. The standard
platform can be unscrewed to adapt a QR system.
a similar, but much cheaper ball head, but it doesn't seem to
have the same track record.
- Really Right Stuff BH-40 (494g, $295 without clamp, add $15-$95 depending on clamp chosen).
Really Right Stuff uses a different clamping mechanism where compression is appied sideways instead of
from the bottom. Compared to the classical design (examplified by the B1 and Profi II), the RRS has two main
advantages: a larger and much more usable pan locking mechanism, and an independent knob for setting
the minimum drag on the ball. The main drawback is that the locking is done by a lever rather than by a
knob. The lever can get on your way in some configurations. RSS has thought about this problem, by
providing the ability to reposition the lever with a spring-loaded mechanism, yet when the need to
reposition the lever occurs in action, it can be a little frustrating. The only other problem is that
the two knobs are quite close, and although they are shaped differently, could sometimes be confused.
- Arca B1 (750g, $400). The standard by which all other
ball-heads are judged.
Under a load, it is
significantly more smooth than the Profi.
What makes this ball unique is a
patented elliptical ball which gets stiffer further
away from the centered position. The drawback is that in some
circumstances, the ball can lock-up.
" The small friction screw defines the stroke of a disk in the multifunction knob. If you do
loosen the multifunction knob onto this "limiter" the disk puts a high pressure onto the
friction screw. Therefore you cannot loosen it until you have tightened slightly the
multifunction knob and released the pressure. Another common mistake is that although
the ball is unlocked, the multifunction knob is turned counter-clockwise onto the stop. (
pay attention which direction is clock- respectively counter-clockwise.) If you force the
multifunction knob onto this stop, you will need the same power to tighten the
multifunction knob again (as when you turned counter clockwise)
If you experience a "lock-up", simply tighten (clockwise ! ) the multifunction knob
approximately 1/2 turn and loosen the small friction screw if possible. That's it. There is
no need to always alter the friction screw when changing the camera/lens weight. Use
the index ring on the multifunction knob.
Arca-Swiss Monoball tripod heads are serviced in the USA through our Office in
Chicago: E-mail: email@example.com, Phone: (773) 248 2513, Fax: (773) 248 2774
" Arca-Swiss Customer Support.
Recently (late 2000),
there has been serious availability and quality control problems.
The two competing products are the Kirk BH-1 (900g, $325), and
the RRS BH-55 (820g, $370-$450). Differences with the Arca are
a separate knob for controling tension, a spherical head resulting in no
progressive tension, but no lock-up too. Both are said to be very
smooth and will support plenty (90lbs/40kg).
Other ball heads with the
same carrying capabilities are significantly heavier.
- If you need even more support in a ball head, there are the
Linhof Profi III and Arca B1g.
Only one knob to control the ball, and no panning base. The ball has to
be unlocked, or the tripod center column used, in order to perform
left-right adjustement. When using a small-format camera, the head's
vertical "drop notch" cannot be easily relocated. I don't particularly
recomment them, except for the smallest balls, since the weigth and
savings are only around 25%.
- Velbon PH-253 (165g, $60) Magnesium construction saves a bit of weight.
Probably the the lightest ball-head
one can use with LF. Adequate or lightweight LF cameras such as the Toho or the Tachihara
- Slik standard ball-head (350g, $45) Among the small ball-heads,
this one has the largest ball, making it quite usable for
LF. I used it
extensively with my 5x7 on light trips
and also as
my main ball-head while waiting for a new B1.
It is on-off only, although some friction can be obtained, which
makes adjusting more delicate, but it locks solidly
enough. The standard platform can be removed (destructively)
to add a QR system.
Quick Release systems
There are two universal QR systems, the Arca-Swiss system and the
Bogen Hex system. Despite of some commonly heard claims, having used
both I think they are equally good.
While obviously AS heads come with the AS system and
Bogen heads come with the Bogen system,
you can buy the
clamp independantly to retrofit several heads (unlike the old B1, the newer B1 can be
easily converted to accept the Bogen).
A variety of plates is
available for each system, although because of the "open channel"
nature of the AS system, there are much more offerings for it. Some
Bogen heads also come with a dedicated plate which is not
compatible with the Hex system, while the AS system has been
embraced by several manufacturers.
The Bogen system is quite inexpensive, being a steel casting.
The clamp costs $30, and each standard plate is $15.
The AS can become pretty costly, with each plate
starting at $50, especially when you get custom plates which are not interchangeable.
This higher price reflects the better fit and materials.
In the Arca-Swiss system, you line up and then
slide the mounting plate between two opposing jaws and then
tighten them using a knob. The Bogen system is spring-loaded: you
position the plate, and press it in place, which causes a lever
to lock the plate. The basic Bogen plate is hexagonal, however
there is also a 4 inch square quick release plate, which works with
the clamp designed for the hexagonal system, and gives more secure
mounting with large cameras.
The Bogen system, being spring-loaded and aligned from the top,
is clearly the faster.
The main advantage of the AS system is the availability of several
plates in all shapes and sizes to fit exactly your camera and
collared lenses. Kirk enterprises and Really Right Stuff make
custom plates. Being produced in a larger variety of models,
RRS plates are generally acknowldeged to have a better
fit. If you use several cameras and formats, that's a very nice
thing. The Bogen plates are quite bulky and tend to stick out on
small cameras and lens mounts.
On the other hand, if you use only LF, the Bogen plates would work just fine.
The second advantage of the AS system is that the
clamp is smaller (Kirk makes the smallest) and lighter
than the Bogen clamp. This is significant only if travelling
very light. A third advantage is that you can slide the plate
back and forth in
the clamp to better balance your camera.
RRS claims that plates which have flat tops will twist on the camera
body. In practice, I have not found that to be a problem,
provided you tighten your plate with a screwdriver. For small
cameras, plates with a ridge for the Bogen system are actually
available from Bogen and from Kirk. There is nothing which would
prevent someone from making plates for the Bogen system with the
same quality materials and fit as the RRS plates.
It is not clear which system is the safer, since the failures modes are
In the AS system
you must turn the knob to grip the camera plate. Friction is
holding your camera, so there is always
the danger of not tightening it enough. In the Bogen system,
when you hear a click, it is locked. However it could be easier
to release the locking lever by accident (although there is a pin
which you could flip to prevent that from happening).
The hex plates resist torque equally about all axes.
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