The best ball heads for tripods in 2018: take seamless shots

ball heads

The humble tripod ball head is something most photographers take for granted. You’ll find one on top of most tripods – they’re often included with entry-level and mid-range models. However these bundled tripod heads are rarely the best examples of the ball head breed.

Compactness and light weight may be good for portability, but if you need to support your DSLR or CSC with a sizeable lens, a ball that’s too small can create a precarious balancing act. Lesser ball heads may also be plagued with fiddly locking knobs and tricky quick release camera mounting systems that’ll slow your flow.

But when the time comes to upgrade, don’t rule out ball heads in general. A high quality, beefed-up design will likely be more compact than a three-way head, and faster to use. 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 balls also tend to be smoother, while also being topped by more convenient quick release plates, often based on the universal Arca-Swiss mount standard.

Spoiler alert!

Right now, we think the best tripod ball head you can buy is the Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head with Top Lock plate. It's smooth, easy to use and great value for money. But the right choice for you depends on what sort of photography you'll be doing. That's why you'll find a range of other contenders in this list, each of which has a standout feature like compactness, ultra premium build quality, or an especially high load capacity.

Here are the best tripod ball heads you can buy right now...

Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head with Top Lock plate

1. Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head with Top Lock plate

A winning tripod ball head that nails the basics

Max load: 10kg | Weight: 520g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Extremely smooth
Ergonomic locking levers and friction dial
Less compact than some rivals

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.

Vanguard Alta BH-300

2. Vanguard Alta BH-300

Terrific value – and terrific performance

Max load: 30kg | Weight: 600g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Very smooth
Slim form
Friction system could be more finessed

It may be the least expensive tripod ball head here, but the Alta BH-300 is 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.

Novo LGH-40

3. Novo LGH-40

If compactness is key, the LGH-40 is the best tripod ball head you can choose

Max load: 8kg | Weight: 496g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Very compact
Dual portrait positions
Locking knobs aren’t the easiest to grip
Lower payload rating

The Novo LGH-40 is a low profile design with a short 82mm height, though this is less important if your tripod legs fold up to surround the head. Such compactness does at least help contribute to the LGH-40’s low 496g weight. Where most ball heads have a single slot to allow your camera to drop a full 90-degrees into portrait orientation, the LGH-40 has two. It’s a subtle but useful difference that enhances compositional flexibility.

Novo’s satin aluminium locking knobs aren’t the easiest to tighten, but they clamp well and, like the rest of the head, feel very well made. This quality extends to the 40mm ball’s smooth motion, which stays slick even when the friction is dialled up. Novo rates the head to support up to 8kg - a little less than some competitors – but still ample for most gear. Topping off the ball is a no-nonsense Arca-Swiss compatible mounting plate, flanked by a single but easily-visible bubble level.

Acratech GP Ballhead & Lever Clamp

4. Acratech GP Ballhead & Lever Clamp

Beautifully made, this is the money-no-object choice

Max load: 11.4kg | Weight: 450g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Uncompromising build
Light weight
Relatively pricey, especially in the UK
Obscured bubble level

Acratech’s skeletal design ethos certainly makes the GP Ballhead stand out, and results in its impressively low 450g weight. Ball diameter isn’t the largest, but it can support up to 11.4kg and clamps very securely using the grippy locking knob. The friction adjustment knob on the opposite side of the ball works well, making it easy to set consistent, carefully measured drag. The ball’s motion doesn't sound as slick as some other heads here, but the actual movement is smooth and it doesn’t jerk when making small movements with friction engaged.

Up top, the lever-operated quick-release Arca mount is very ergonomic and a pleasure to use. Our only niggle is the bubble level that becomes obscured when you mount your camera.

The only other issue here is cost, but build quality is flawless, plus the design adds value with its versatility. The quick release mount can be removed from the ball and remounted on the base, then with this assembly flipped, you get a levelling base for shooting stitched panoramas. Interested? Then head over to Bob Rigby Photographic to bag yours.

Benro G2 Low Profile Ballhead

5. Benro G2 Low Profile Ballhead

A sound choice if you're after a compact tripod ball head

Max load: 14kg | Weight: 530g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Compact design
Large ball good for use with heavier lenses
Friction control not immediately intuitive
Could be smoother when using high friction

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.

Gitzo GH5750QR Series 5 Off Centre Ball Head

6. Gitzo Series 5 Off Centre Ball Head GH5750QR

Great for maximum movement, and a biceps workout

Max load: 12kg | Weight: 1000g | QR plate: proprietary

Great freedom of movement
Signature supreme Gitzo build
Bulky and heavy
Less intuitive as a conventional ball head 

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.

Vanguard Alta GH-300T

7. Vanguard Alta GH-300T

A pistol grip head gunning for your attention

Max load: 6kg | Weight: 790g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Genuinely useful additional control
Inbuilt remote triggering system
Very bulky when packed
Limited load capacity for such a large head

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.

Manfrotto 057 ball head

8. Manfrotto 057 Magnesium Ball Head with Top Lock plate

A ball so gargantuan it practically has its own gravity field

Max load: 1kg | Weight: 1300g | QR plate: Arca-compatible

Very stable for a ball head
Ergonomic locking clamps
Extremely heavy
Gimbal head better suited to really heavy gear

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.

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.

5. Streamlining

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….

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