Every now and then, someone turns up on a workshop and shows me a great piece of camera equipment. I'm in the fortunate position to have access to a wide variety of camera lenses, bodies and also things like tripods and ball-heads.
The Acratech ball-head is one such piece of equipment that I was keen to try out. I was shown the original ball-head by my friend Raynor Czerwinski whom I got to know on one of my workshops here in Scotland in 2013.
About a month ago I bought the most recent version of this ball-head - the GV2, which they claim acts as a Gimbal as well as a standard ball-head.
You might be asking why I decided to buy yet another ball-head when I already own a few. My reasons were that this is the lightest ball-head I've come across - it weighs almost nothing ( 0.43kg to be specific).
But weight is only one aspect of a good Ball-head. The main criteria I always check when using one are:
1. Does it creep? When I lock down the ball-head, does the camera sag?
Some ball-heads do that, and it's incredibly annoying. When you buy something to do a specific job, it should do it well. It shouldn't put the camera in a position where you didn't want it to be (otherwise known as fighting with your equipment). Equipment with a mind-of-its-own are items that I quickly get rid of because they begin to act as a barrier to what I'm doing. So making sure that a ball-head does not 'creep' or do anything unexpected is vital.
In this regard, the Acratech ball-head is fine. There is no 'creep' when you lock down the ball.
I only use ball-heads that accommodate 'arca-swiss' plates. In the above picture you can see that my camera has a black metal plate attached to it. The design I prefer is an 'L-bracket' as it allows me to quickly mount the camera on its side. I've never liked having to turn the camera sideways on a ball-head for a few reasons. One, the camera is now off-centre gravity, and two, you can't always get the camera level with the ground when it's tilted on its side, so I often find myself having to adjust the tripod leg length. In short - not using an L-plate makes things more complicated, time-consuming and just plain gets in the way of the images I'm wishing to make.
3. Are there any annoying things that will get in the way?
I think when using new products, they need time to get familiar with. I'm acutely aware that anything I buy to use in my photography may have a possible detrimental impact as well as a positive one. Sometimes I find that I need a prolonged period of use before I can determine whether anything I found frustrating or annoying with the product was simply a case of me getting familiar, or that it really is a bad design choice.
With that in mind, I took the Acratech ball-head to Iceland with me this July. I used it for about three weeks and during that time, found that sometimes when I thought I'd locked down the ball-head, it was still free enough. It seems I always need to give the friction knob a little extra tightening than I normally would with most of the other ball heads I used. This is a minor gripe because it was only a problem when I chose to sling the tripod and camera across my shoulder while walking around. I sometimes found the camera would flop to one side when I did this. Otherwise, with standard use, it was perfectly fine. So I guess this is a case of me getting familiar with this aspect of the ball-head.
Perhaps the biggest problem for me in using this ball-head is with the clamp design. Sure, it clamps to the base of the camera and keeps the camera there, but the knob for tightening the clamp has a very short travel and sometimes I found myself thinking 'I don't think the camera is clamped properly'. To my dismay, even though I was convinced the clamp wasn't holding my camera, I double-checked it, and let go, only to find my camera fall off the ball-head and into the nearest river.
This is something that I was bound to do at some stage with any ball-head and it's certainly something to be wary of when using a new clamp for the first week or so. It takes a lot of time to get that muscle-memory working so you 'just know' when something is seated correctly, or in my case - incorrectly.
If I could ask Acratech to do a design change, it would be to lengthen the travel of the clamp. It never feels right to me, and I'm curious to see if I will still feel that way in years time. For now, I will be double-checking the camera body out of paranoia as I ruined a Mamiya 7II body and 150mm lens through this design quirk.
And what did I like about the Acratech?
For the strength of the ball-head, it's one of the lightest designs (if not the lightest) out there. It's also very cost competitive with the alternatives from Really-Right Stuff). It doesn't 'creep', and I like the tactile knobs - when I reach for them in any kinds of weather (dry or wet hands), they grip to my skin and I'm able to take control of the ball head.
In summary, I'm going to keep on using this ball-head for the foreseeable future. It's much lighter than anything I've used to date, is strong enough to hold any of the equipment I own, but I think it just needs a bit more time to get used to.
If only I'd followed my own advice on not taking new pieces of equipment on my trip, I might not have had issues with the clamp if I had been more familiar with the design. I can't say for sure if it was my unfamiliarity with the clamp that caused the demise of my camera, or whether it's a design flaw, but my hunch would be to go for the former rather than the latter.
If you want a very cost-effective tripod ball-head, that is much lighter than most of the competitors out there, this is it. Just be wary of the short-travel in the clamp design.