The best ball heads are arguably an unsung hero of photography. While everyone who's spent any time taking photos will recommend the best tripods, and probably fall over themselves to argue the merits of this brand or that, the humble ball head does get forgotten about. A good ball head can be transformative for your shooting, and it's worth investing in one rather than relying on the basic head bundled with your tripod.
If you've not thought about this too much before, you may be wondering what to even look for in a ball head? Well, to start with, you want something compact and lightweight, so it doesn't weigh you down if you're carrying it over long distances. It's worth thinking about the size of your setup and how much weight the head needs to support; if you're using a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a long lens attached, using a ball head that's too small could potentially be risky. The last thing you want is for your whole setup to fall over!
The best thing is to pick a head with a larger ball diameter: around 40 or 50mm is a good compromise between stability and portability. Of course, if you're using a small camera with diminutive lenses, you can probably get away with something smaller. But fancy ball heads will provide functionality like smoother panning movement and well-engineered quick-release systems, often based on the Arca Swiss standard. Once you get used to stuff like this, it's hard to remember how you got on without it!
- Jump straight to: 5 things to look for in a tripod ball head
The best ball heads for tripods in 2021
At first glance Manfrotto's XPRO ball head doesn’t look particularly special, but there’s more than meets the eye. The magnesium construction is rated to support 10kg: enough for almost any full-frame set-up, yet the head tips the scales at a reasonable 520g.
At its heart is a fairly large ball for good stability, and its grease-free polymer housing enables exceptionally smooth movement, even with a lot of friction applied. The friction is set using a tactile, clicky wheel that’s better than most systems for dialling in a precise level of drag. Rather than using rubberised or knurled knobs, the ball and pan movement is tightened using levers that lock securely with minimal user effort.
The XPRO ball head can be specced with several mounting plate designs. We went for the Top Lock system which is Arca-Swiss compatible, with the QR plate released using a simple but effective button. The top plate is surrounded by three individual bubble levels for precision camera levelling, and they’re all viewable with your camera mounted.
It's inexpensive for a big-brand tripod head, but the Alta BH-300 is still rated to support a whopping 30kg of kit. Build quality also feels reassuringly robust, although on close inspection we did spot they grey finish wearing slightly thin around the friction knob of our test sample.
Such a hefty payload capacity does mean this isn’t the most portable option, tipping the scales at 600g and measuring 119mm tall, but the overall shape is slim and should sit comfortably within a tripod with flip-up legs. The relatively compact quick release top plate helps with this, yet it still sports two useful, easily visible bubble levels, and maintains Arca compatibility.
Vanguard’s chunky, rubber covered locking knobs are all very easy to grip, though the conventional friction adjustment dial isn’t quite as tactile as Manfrotto’s clicky design. We’ve got no complaints when it comes to smoothness, however, as the decent sized ball with its oxidised anodised finish operates as smoothly as you could want, at any friction.
Although they tend not to come as cheap as other options, 3 Legged Thing's ball heads and tripods have a reputation for exceptional carrying capacity and stability. It's well-deserved. The AirHed Pro is the firm's flagship ballhead, able to handle a whopping 40kg of kit (really more than you're ever likely to need) without issue. It is milled from aircraft-grade magnesium alloy, meaning it's not only strong but also lightweight, weighing just 323g.
It comes with an integrated 360-degree clamp that allows for smooth panning even on bumpy terrain, and its quick-release plate is Arca-Swiss compatible. It's an extraordinary piece of kit that does everything you need from a ball head and more, and while it is definitely more expensive than other contenders on this list, we'd add that the AirHed 360 represents absolutely fantastic value for money.
Two product options are available: the standard AirHed Pro which has a knob to release the QR plate from the head, and there's the AirHed Pro Lever which, you;ve guessed it, uses a lever release instead. Both versions have the same asking price.
The main attraction with the Benro G2 is its compactness, being just 88mm from base to mounting plate, and the head’s 530g mass maintains this portability. Rather than using a dedicated friction control dial, Benro has opted to incorporate it into the large, grippy locking knob for the ball. To adjust drag, first clamp the ball, then loosen the friction dial on the end of the locking knob to gradually release the ball and set optimal friction. Then whenever the ball is clamped, this degree of drag is maintained.
With low friction, the relatively large, polished blue ball moves very smoothly, but up the friction and the ball’s glossy surface can cause it to stick slightly when attempting to make small compositional adjustments. There are no such niggles with the silky pan base, and we like the well-positioned bubble level alongside the Arca-compatible mounting plate. The pull and twist quick release system also strikes a good balance between speed and safety.
At 14.2cm tall and weighing in at a hefty 1kg, the Gitzo Series 5 Off Centre Ball Head is quite a beast. It’s to be expected though, as the head comes from Gitzo’s pro-orientated Series 5 range, and is rated to support 12kg.
But what you lose in portability, you gain in usability. The oversized quick release mounting plate and release lever offer unmatched ease of use, as do the large diameter pan and tilt locking knobs, both of which exude luxury. The size of the tilt knob also helps you to dial in just the right amount of friction.
The unusual off-centre ball positioning allows for a much greater range of movement than a conventional ball head, especially if you want to shoot straight up or down. The separate fore-aft tilt motion also adds a degree of stability not present on a typical ball head, and though the tilt knob releases both the tilt mechanism and the ball, you can tilt without releasing the ball as the locking knob disengages the tilt element first. There's no hiding this tripod ball head's bulk though, so if the off-centre design appeals, try Gitzo's significant'y lighter Series 2 version.
And now for something a little different. You won't find many pistol grip ball heads around, but Vanguard's Alta GH-300T is more than just a gimmick. By adding a handle you get significantly more leverage and control when adjusting your camera, compared to holding it directly. The handle helps your counterbalance the weight of a heavier lens that doesn't have its own tripod mounting foot, and it can be useful when panning video, or shooting stills for stitched panoramas.
Although the ball at the heart of the the GH-300T isn't particularly large, the extra leverage offered by the handle easily compensates, and helps keep subtle movements smooth, even when lots of friction is applied. Our only niggle is the ball's locking lever becomes increasingly difficult to engage when additional friction is applied.
Completing the pistol illusion is a small yellow trigger button. At the base of the handle is a 2.5mm socket, which can link the trigger to your camera's remote shutter input (Nikon N1 and Canon N3 cables are supplied). The only major drawback with a pistol grip head is its additional size, which will leave it protruding from a folded tripod.
Keeping things simple doesn't mean compromising on quality. You may just need an unfussy ball head that works but still want the reassurance of a trusted brand. Step forward the Manfrotto 494 Center Ball Head, which comes at a great price but still offers that Manfrotto dependability.
It can support up to 8kg of kit, and offers panoramic and friction control knobs for easy, intuitive operation. This version comes with the 200PL-PRO Quick Release Plate, and the head has an integrated RC2 quick release cam lock. The aluminium construction is lightweight but reasonably hardy, and there's a dedicated tension control dial for the ball-and-socket movements.
The amount of value you get with this shoestring-budget ball head is seriously impressive. It's well-constructed and able to handle a payload of up to 8kg, which is more than enough for most serious setups. Advanced photographers and videographers may find themselves surprised by how well this head works for the money. You’ve got three adjustment knobs, a quick-release plate (though not Arca-compatible) and vertical/horizontal spirit levels for accurate setup an shooting.
The head feels strong for the price - far from the kind of plasticky rubbish you might expect. It’s not the strongest head on this list, nor the most sophisticated, but in terms of sheer value for money, the Neewer Metal Tripod Head is pretty much unbeaten. Need a spare head, or a simple one to throw into a travel bag and take on your adventures? This is the one to go for!
5 things to look for in a tripod ball head
1. Dragged out
Mount a hefty full-frame body fronted by a long lens and you’ll want a ball head to be stiffer than if it was loaded with a featherweight mirrorless set-up. Variable head friction caters for all loads.
2. Smooth operator
The trouble with applying friction is some balls can start to stick, resulting in jerky movement and framing frustration. A quality ball coating and socket lining should alleviate this.
3. Get a grip
Clamping your ball and pan movement with locking knobs that aren’t grippy enough can result in unwanted camera movement. Rubber knob coatings and lever designs can really help.
4. Plating up
The Arca-Swiss quick-release mounting standard is great for maintaining interchangeable compatibility with other tripod heads, but some manufacturers still stick to proprietary designs.
Travel tripods that close with their legs flipped back to surround the head will require a slimline ball housing and top plate, otherwise legs could get splayed….