Every photographer worth their salt knows you need a tripod in your kit bag, but it's important not to neglect the humble ball head! Heads are often bundled with tripods as standard, however these generally aren't the best ones you can get, and it's worth looking for a specific ball head that suits your needs.
Compactness and light weight may be good for portability, but if you need to support your DSLR or mirrorless camera with a sizable 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.
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
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 dialing in a precise level of drag. Rather than using rubberized 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 leveling, and they’re all viewable with your camera mounted.
Vanguard Alta BH-300
Terrific value – and terrific performance
Max load: 30kg | Weight: 600g | QR plate: Arca-compatible
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 oxidized anodized finish operates as smoothly as you could want, at any friction.
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
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 aluminum 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 dialed 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.
Andoer AD-10 Aluminum Alloy Ball Head
Cheap and cheerful to say the least, this is a solid budget head
Max load: 3kg | Weight: 374g | QR plate: 1/4-inch
Not all of us have hundreds of pounds to spend on a ball head, and sometimes we just need something that works. The Andoer AD-10 ably fits the bill here; it’s a perfectly functional ball head that can be picked up for less than £20! That’s a bargain however you slice it. Okay, in terms of functionality and durability it’s not going to compete with a Manfrotto or a Gitzo, but its aluminium alloy construction is reassuringly solid, and it finds room for two built-in bubble levels.
The three control knobs are a little small and fiddly, so it’s not one to try and operate with gloves, but otherwise this is a solid head that’ll fulfil all your basic camera-support requirements. It’s small and light, too, perfect for travel, and the scale on the bottom allows it to be used for 360-degree shooting, expanding the versatility of this pleasingly good-value ball head. The maximum payload of 3kg will handle any mirrorless setups and most lighter DSLRs with a decent-sized lens (nothing too enormous).
Acratech GP Ballhead & Lever Clamp
Beautifully made, this is the money-no-object choice
Max load: 11.4kg | Weight: 450g | QR plate: Arca-compatible
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 leveling base for shooting stitched panoramas.
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
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 Series 5 Off Centre Ball Head GH5750QR
Great for maximum movement, and a biceps workout
Max load: 12kg | Weight: 1000g | QR plate: proprietary
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
A pistol grip head gunning for your attention
Max load: 6kg | Weight: 790g | QR plate: Arca-compatible
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 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
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.
Neewer Metal Tripod Head
Another budget-friendly option, this head offers smooth movement and generous capacity
Max load: 8kg | Weight: 445g | QR plate: 1/4-inch
The amount of tech you get for your money with the Neewer Metal Tripod Head is seriously impressive, as this is a well-constructed and durable ball head able to handle a payload of up to 8kg! That’s more than enough for most serious setups, and 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, it’s worth noting, and vertical/horizontal spirit levels for accurate setup an shooting.
The head really feels strong for the price as well, 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!