Welcome back to another Product Review here in the blog. I have been doing a lot of reviews on some of the specialty products that I use such as filters, but not a lot on the products that I use for every type of shooting that I do. I am going to rectify that oversight with this follow up to the RRS L Bracket that I reviewed about a month ago. I talk a lot about how this plate fits in the head of the tripod, but don’t really get into much detail about the head that I use. Since I started using a “real” tripod and not a cheap one that you can buy at a box store that comes complete with a head attached, I have been using an Acratech GP-S Ballhead. Before getting too in depth with this review, I do want to mention that I am not being paid for this review, and have received nothing in exchange. In fact, I have purchased this ballhead at full price…twice actually. Acratech is not even aware that I am completing this review, and it is just something that I want to share my experiences with.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to explain the two purchases real quick. This was not a replacement purchase, and it was not due to any failure. I had sold my first GP-S with all of my camera gear many years ago when I decided I would give up on photography. We see how that worked! Well, when I was getting back into it again, I needed to get the gear. I was so impressed with the first ballhead, I didn’t even consider a different one. At $400.00 each time, that is a product endorsement in its own right I think. So why did I like this ballhead so much, and does that love still hold true after a combined 10 years of use?
Way back in 2007, I was beginning to up my photography game by entering into the world of a DSLR camera rather than a pumped up point and shoot. I had used many different cheap tripods over the years and had gotten used to the pan and tilt heads that they all seemed to possess. One by one, these tripods had failures after only a year or so of use. They weren’t stable, but they were getting heavier and heavier. I had to get a “real” photographer’s tripod and I hated to do that since that meant shelling out money. I ended up getting a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod that was supposed to be light and stable, but it didn’t come with a head attached. That meant that after spending several hundred dollars on a tripod, I still had no way of mounting a camera to it. I had to research heads to find what I wanted to spend my money on.
My biggest requirement was that the head be light so as not to throw off the balance of the light tripod while carrying it, and capable of keeping my rig stable at its heaviest. At the time, I was shooting with a Canon 40D using a battery grip. I had a telephoto lens, and occasionally used a flash. That was a lot of weight. My best option was another pan and tilt head which would allow the same movements that I was used to, but I was getting tired of the handles protruding and catching branches as I moved through the woods. I wanted something more streamlined. The majority of ballheads that I looked at were either not up to the weight of my system, or they had a lot of very complex adjustments to be made with many knobs. None of them looked like what I was after.
I happened to read an advertisement for a new ballhead by Acratech that was looking quite versatile. It appeared to be well designed and was warrantied for 10 full years. Weighting in at less than a pound and capable of supporting 25LBS I was sold on this ballhead. Now, on the second identical product, I am well versed on the operation and don’t even have to think about it. The adjustment knobs are very intuitive to use and I have them labeled in the image above. You can actually special order this ballhead with the knobs on the opposite side if you like, but this works out very well considering that you will be holding the camera with your right hand while you adjust it.
Tell Me More About This…
Let’s look at how this head is built. At the top you have the receiver for a quick release plate. It takes the standard Arca Swiss dovetail plates so you are not restricted to any particular manufacturer when it comes to the connection between the camera and the ballhead. The clamping is simple with a thumb screw on the front of the place, opposite the spirit level. Realistically, you can make the knob on the rear of the receiver, but you would lose the ability to use the level as intended which is a nice touch. The knob tightens down positively on the plate and there is no guessing whether or not your camera is locked in, but I always recommend give it a good wiggle before letting go. The brass pin you see is something that is sprint loaded so depending on what plate you are using, this can act as a security device to keep a loose plate from sliding out of the clamp. If your plate doesn’t accept that feature, it just automatically retracts into the receiver. Nice, huh??
Moving down, you will see the main part of any ballhead…the ball. This allows for a wide range of movement in every direction so you don’t need to make sure that the tripod is perfectly level. It has no lubrication so it will not attract dirt, and if it does, it is so very easy to clean out without any disassembly. The clamp around it come with two different knobs which look confusing to begin with, but make total sense when you get right down to it. The large knob (on the left) is your primary knob. It is rubber and easy to grip with gloves, or even numb hands. Just a quick twist will relieve the pressure and allow you to fine tune your composition before clamping the ball back down again. The smaller knob is actually the adjuster for your tension. I like having a bit of resistance when I am moving the camera so I keep that fairly tight, but everyone will be different and I applaud Acratech for doing it this way. It will also allow you to tailor the drag of the movements between light and heavy camera and lens combinations.
The bottom part of the head is the panning feature with its own knob. This is nice for doing small adjustments let to right in your composition and a mandatory feature for shooting panoramas. There are laser etched degree marks on the collar which will help you get even spacing in your panoramas should you decide to shoot a multi image capture. Below the panning ring, you will have the standard mounting surface that will accept any standard tripod mounting screws. The base is a reduced footprint which allows it to work with travel tripods as well. This is all a very compact package when you get right down to it.
One of the unique characteristics of this ballhead is the relief that is molded into the right side of the main structure to allow the head to flip on its side. This is great for shooting vertical shots and just requires a twist of the main adjustment knob. You do get limited movement in this position though as you can just tilt up and down and adjust the angle slightly with the main knob. To pan at all, you have to use the pan knob which is a bit different from when the camera is in landscape orientation. This is where the “L Bracket” comes in very nicely as you can just leave the head pointed strait up to shoot vertical. However, if you choose to use this as a Gimbal head for your larger telephoto lens, you will actually use the head flipped over in the side position. This is not something that I have had to do, so I can’t really speak on the execution of this particular use. You can also see the laser etched degree marks around the lower collar. Notice that they are visible from the top and bottom. This makes it easy to use down low if you reverse your tripod center column and mount the camera under the legs. There are just so many different ways of using this head.
Use in the Real World
If you are a photographer, you have read countless reviews and product descriptions when putting your kit together. I know I have, and they all get me excited about the product. That is what they are supposed to do after all. As I mentioned, I have used this head for roughly 10 years now, give or take. It has been through rain, snow, beach sand, mud, and even the occasional bump on a rock. It hasn’t missed a beat in all of these years. I have used it in just about every condition I can think of with temperatures in the single digits and above 100. The only thing that I can say affects this head is rain. That rain provides lubrication for the ball causing the clamp to be less effective. That just means that I have to remember to twist just a little harder on the adjustment knob to lock it in place. It is really only an issue when I am shooting with my 70-200mm lens though as it has a good deal of weight to the front.
While I love this ballhead for general purpose photography, I think that it excels when doing panoramic images. That panning knob is just perfect as long as the tripod is level. You can rotate the camera from left to right with ease while not disturbing the position of the camera. By using the degree marks on the lower section you can get precise overlapping images which are needed for the stitching process. It all just works so well for the panoramic images.
Maybe you need to shoot something straight down on the ground, or straight up in the air? That is easy to do with this head. Just use that relief on the right hand side and rotate the camera to face up or down and you will have your angle. Maybe you are getting down really low to the ground and you have the center column out and extended to the side hugging the grass. The same thing will apply here, just use that relief and you can get the camera back horizontal with no problem. If you are using that “L Bracket” though, you can keep the camera extremely close to the ground as the head doesn’t need to rotate up at all. The possibilities are endless with this head.
I can’t really compare the Acratech GP-S Ballhead to any other ballheads out there since I have only used this one. However, having come from the pan and tilt heads which are very precise for affecting just certain angles at a time, I can say that I haven’t looked back using this head. It is quick since I can adjust all axes at the same time and get the composition just like I like it before locking down a single knob. I have heard that many ballheads are not as easy to use as the Acratech, and don’t last nearly as long. Grit is a big enemy of any kind of ball joint and if you are a landscape photographer, you will find that grit gets into everything. This ballhead is almost self cleaning, but should you need to clean it, a damp rag and some free movement of the ball will get you taken care of. There is no need for any lubrication on any of the parts, and it is advised not to add any since this will just attract dirt.
This is a very smooth ballhead and has remained as such through the years over both copies that I have received. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this ballhead to anyone looking for a great all around unit that is capable of doing panoramas, acting as a Gimbal Head, and just about everything else in between. It is as comfortable in the studio as it is in the middle of the woods. It looks great in the satin black finish on the CNC Machined surfaces. The hardware is stainless steel and I’ve seen no signs of any corrosion. It is light, which is wonderful when carrying a carbon fiber tripod. It makes the whole piece of equipment very balanced, and the total weight of the rig easily is transported on the side of my Lowepro Whistler backpack.
Would I recommend it still after all the years that I have used it? Absolutely I would. I can’t imagine using anything else, and as well as this one has held up I doubt I will ever need to use anything else. I have used this head for just about every shot that I have taken over three different cameras. It has been flawless except when very wet. I have never experienced a failure with it, and it has not lost a camera yet. In fact, I have had two cameras hit the ground while still attache to the tripod via this head. The camera and lens took the punishment, but still stayed attached to the GP-S Ballhead like nothing had happened. I have total confidence in this head to keep my gear secure. If only I had the same confidence in myself.