Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

October 2003

Tip of the Month

A one-pound ball head?

Yep, it's true. For years the ballhead I used was a Arca-Swiss Studio Ball. Eventually the head 'wore out,' losing its fluidity of motion from grit, dust, and whatever. The large plastic locking knobs cracked and split from too much rough handling and it was time to replace the head. Over the years I've tried several -- with varying degrees of success. The FOBA head was the least satisfactory for me. My model locked up and was jerky from the day I bought it. Other folks, including someone on our last photo shoot to Yellowstone, have had better luck, but my model was a wreck. I still have it (I couldn't in good conscience sell a lemon), and whenever I try to use it I literally have to use two hands to unlock the frozen ball joint.

Arca-Swiss replaced the Studio Ballhead with the B1 and B1G ballheads. The B1 was a much smaller head than the first model, but it was prone to freezing up and required special efforts at times to unlock a frozen head. While small, the head was still around 2 pounds, and, more importantly, it was unreliable by locking up when I least expected it.

A few years ago a photographer-backpacker disappointed by the weights and the unreliability of his ballheads decided to make his own. The result, the Acratech ball head, which weighs less than a pound and can hold a 25 pound camera-lens system. Although I use the ballhead with my shorter lenses -- usually a 120-300 Signma 2.8 zoom or smaller, when the head was mounted and I didn't have time to switch to my Wimberley, I've used the Acratech with my 600mm lens!

When I use a heavy lens like my Canon 600mm F4 lens, I'm not locking the head in place. Instead, I'm using the Arcatech head as a good, stable, and fluid lens mount where I'm supporting the camera with my right hand and some of the lens's weight with my left hand. With smaller lenses, which I'm usually using for scenics, I don't need a mobile, fluid head and I'll lock the Arcatech firmly in place. On our recent Yellowstone trip I used my Wimberley for my 600mm, but I used the Acratech for everything else -- including the 120-300mm F2.8 lens.

The Acratech head is an open architecture style, so that the ballhead is enclosed by a locking ring, not an entire casing. In this way, gunk -- dirt, grit, salt water, etc. that may eventually gum up a traditional ballhead -- won't jam up the ballhead.

The pro model cannot flip to the side for a vertical orientation. However, using an L-shaped camera bracket
like those offered by the Really Right Stuff gives a vertical or horizontal axis. More importantly, using an
L-shaped bracket also maintains a consistant perspective. Flipping into a vertical slot changes the perspective
slightly and if this is critical, requires adjusting the tripod's leg height and even moving the tripod a bit. With an
L-shapped bracket, the perspective doesn't change and these adjustments are not necessary.

There are two models -- the Standard and the Pro model. The Standard has a slanted design so that a camera can be flipped to a vertical position. The Pro model does not have this design and was originally designed as a light weight ballhead for birding scopes. However, if you have a lens with a tripod collar, or you have an L-bracket like the excellent one now being offered by the Really Right Stuff, the Pro model works great for cameras too. In fact, I use and love the Pro model since all my cameras have L-style brackets and my longer lenses have tripod collars. For more information on the Standard or Pro models of the Acratech ball head, check their website at


Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


  DIGITAL- Digital Birding

 DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future

DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II

 DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values

 NPN- Nature Photography Network - a digital forum for nature photography

 Digital Pro Image Management Software

 Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography

 How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari

 The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Padding Your Wimberley
Tripod Head

  Specular highlights and the flashing frog
 Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds  Testing your Flash's Aim
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not neccessrily the same thing!  If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation  How do you shoot the Moon?
  Low level tripod work  A great depth of field guide  Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate
  Take a Workshop First   Luck, what is it?  Don't take in baby wild animals

  Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

 Disconnect -- travel precautions

The Nature Photography Network - a super website for images and information
 Wildlife Portraiture

 Obey the Rules
The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites Busnell Night Vision Optics  Adobe Photoshop 7 for $300

 The Sibley Bird Guides

 Removing Cactus Spines

 Drying out boots with newspaper

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