It's time to talk about the best ball heads. While you may well be aware that you need a decent tripod in your kit bag, you may not have realised just how much you can improve your shooting with the addition of a high-quality ball head. While a tripod will generally come with a head bundled in as standard, these tend to be rather basic, and you can get a lot more performance and value from a ball head by shopping around.
So what to look for in a ball head? Well, while compactness and lightweight build may be key considerations for those concerned with how much they'll be carrying around all day, if you're planning to support a DSLR or CSC mirrorless camera with a sizeable lens attached, using a ball head that's too small can be risky. If you're not careful, your whole setup could come tumbling down and risk breaking your camera or lens! Cheaper ball heads can present other problems too, they may have fiddly or unreliable controls and mechanisms that slow you down or represent a hazard to your gear.
So it's time to upgrade, but to be intelligent about your choice. You want something with decent reliability and functionality, but also not to be weighed down too much. We'd say the trick is to pick a head with a larger ball diameter: around 40-50mm is a sweet spot for providing extra stability while maintaining portability. Fancy ball heads also tend to offer smoother panning movement, and will likely also have better quick-release mechanisms on their tops, often based on the universal Arca-Swiss mount standard.
- 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.
If bigger is better when it comes to ball head stability, then this supersized giant should be the ultimate ball head. The 057 Magnesium Ball Head is built around a whopping 65mm-diameter ball, though unsurprisingly this does come with a penalty, as at 1.3kg the 057 head is easily twice as heavy as even a high-spec ball head of more conventional proportions.
Size aside, this head operates very smoothly, and it sports Manfrotto’s lever-style locking knobs that are easier to tighten than most round knob designs. Another unusual feature is the red selector that switches the amount of portrait angle from 90° to 105° for extra framing versatility.
Up top is Manfrotto’s excellent Top Lock camera mounting plate that maintains Arca-Swiss compatibility and uses a simple yet secure release method. Should you be rocking a huge DSLR and telephoto lens, such a stout head does feel more stable than a typical ball head, but the difference isn’t obvious enough to compensate for carrying such a hefty lump. To get realty serious support for long lens wildlife and sports photography, it’s best to move to a gimbal head.
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….