Seven of the best: Tripod Ball Heads for any budget!

by Jason Schneider

posted Friday, June 3, 2016 at 5:59 AM EDT


Versatile, compact, and flexible, ball heads deliver a unique combination of seamless control and convenience. With literally hundreds of models on the market, though, choosing the best ball head for your budget and needs can be a confusing process. To make that decision a little easier, we've picked seven of our favorites across a range of prices. Before we get to the list, though, a little background would probably be helpful for those of you who've never purchased a tripod head by itself.

Most good tripods will allow you to replace the head

Virtually all serious tripods have removable heads, so you can mount the head of your choice atop the legs by means of a threaded platform affixed to the center post, and secure it in place by tightening a 3/8-16 or 1/4-20 screw on the base of the head. Choosing a head that's optimized for your shooting style is a crucial decision, and that's why many serious enthusiasts and pros are opting for ball heads rather than the traditional two- or three-way pan/tilt head.

Ball head basics: The 60-second primer

The basis of all ball heads is a 360-degree swivel -- essentially an oversized precision ball bearing -- that can be loosened or tightened by means of a knob or lever on the side of the head. This allows you to move the attached camera freely in almost any direction, and lock it in place with a single one-touch control after framing the shot. Virtually all ball heads also have a channel or notch that lets you move the camera from horizontal (scenic) to vertical (portrait) orientation.

Simpler, less expensive ball heads often have a single control for locking the ball in place, and these lightweight units may be OK for smaller cameras like consumer DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and point & shoot models. Ball heads with separate controls for locking the ball's tilting and panning movements are more versatile, and are generally easier to operate despite their added complexity.

The most versatile three-knob ball heads let you control the ball and panning motions independently, and also have the added refinement of an adjustable tension (or drag) control that makes it easier to follow action, and which may decrease the likelihood of your camera falling over unexpectedly.

Ball heads vary widely in size, capabilities and price. We're here to help you find the best of the best, taking into account your needs and budget. Read on for seven of our favorite ball heads!


Shooting with a ball head: What subjects are they good for?

Shooting with a ball head is an interactive experience, and for many photographers making the switch from a pan/tilt head, the initial impression of controlling all movements at once may be a bit unsettling. But once you get used to it, you'll discover that it's a quicker and more flexible way to set up your tripod, especially when shooting still pictures.

Ball heads with separate panning and drag controls can certainly be used for shooting video as well, and many serious videographers use them to good effect, but the most popular heads for video are fluid heads with one or more control handles for tracking action.

However, it's worth noting that many nature and wildlife shooters are big fans of ball heads because they let you track the unpredictable motion of subjects like birds and small mammals. If you leave the locks and drag settings on the ball head slightly loose you can respond to quick action while retaining the stability of shooting atop a tripod.


4 Things To Look For In Selecting A Ball Head

  1. A quick-release plate: This is a small square or rectangular plate that attaches directly to your camera ,making it easier and faster to mount the camera on the tripod and remove it when you're done. They typically have slide-on fittings with safety locks, and some, like the Arca-Swiss type, are beveled for added security.

  2. A secure ball lock: A high-quality ball head will lock very securely and stay put without any slippage, typically by twisting a single knob to the fully locked position. Once locked the camera should be held very securely in position, and you shouldn't be able to move it even if its fitted with a long, heavy lens. The camera should not jiggle for more than an instant if you tap it or the attached lens to check its stability. 

  3. Sufficient load capacity: In general, the larger the diameter of the ball, the more weight it will support. If you use large cameras like professional DSLRs and large, heavy super-telephoto lenses of 300mm and up, by all means opt for a heavy-duty pro-caliber ball head. Remember that the torsional force exerted at the front end of a long telephoto or telephoto zoom is many times that of the weight of the lens itself, so the extra cost of a robust heavy-duty ball head is money well spent.

  4. Precision pan and tension adjustments: The panning and tension adjustments on a high quality ball head should provide a smooth, fluid panning action. The tension adjustment should also maintain some amount of tension when it's unlocked, so that the camera doesn't fall over or move around unexpectedly.


Best Ball Heads Under US$100


Oben BA-111T Single Lever Travel Ball head

The Oben BA-111T is a nicely-made basic ball head designed for compact travel tripods. It uses a single locking knob to control all motion, has a 90-degree notch for shooting verticals, one bull's eye and three tubular bubble levels to facilitate precise orientation, and a locking quick-release plate. It has a graduated degree scale for panning, but you can't lock the ball and pan separately, as you can with some of the models listed below.

Maximum load capacity: 11 pounds. Weight: 9.5 ounces.

Bottom line: As an inexpensive, small, and very lightweight ball head for your travel tripod, this Oben model is a good choice.

List price:
US$65 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Vanguard SBH 100 Ball Head

Featuring a magnesium housing, the Vanguard SBH 100 incorporates the ball and stem in one unit for enhanced strength, and provides fluid-like movement in a lightweight package. It has a dedicated horizontal control knob for 360-degree panning with calibrated degree plate (unusual at this price point), a double locking system on the quick-release plate, and two large bubble levels for precise orientation.

Load capacity: 22 pounds. Weight: 15.9 ounces.

Bottom line: If you can afford to spend just slightly more than for the Oben, this Vanguard ball head should hold most consumer or enthusiast SLR and mirrorless cameras with a reasonably large lens mounted. And thanks to the twin bubble levels, it will help you get the camera level for panoramic shooting to boot.

List price:
Unclear (street prices around US$75)
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Manfrotto 496RC2 Compact Ball Head

A sturdy die-cast aluminum ball head, the Manfrotto 496RC2 is strong enough to support DSLRs with medium-sized lenses, or even light medium-format camera setups. Its single locking lever can be relocated for convenient operation, and it provides +/-90 degree movements plus a friction control for precise positioning. It comes with an RC2 Quick Release, a 200PL-14 plate with standard male thread, and a safety system to prevent accidental detaching.

Load capacity: 13.2 pounds. Weight: 0.93 pounds.

Bottom line: This is a solid product from arguably the leading tripod manufacturer, but lacks the bubble levels and panning capability of the Vanguard. Still, it's a good choice from a very reputable maker. If you're already a Manfrotto fan, it makes sense to stick with the brand you know and love!

List price:
US$100 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Best Ball Heads From US$100 to US$200


Surui K-20X Ball Head

The Sirui K-20X is a robust, precision, high-capacity aluminum alloy ball head that's claimed to have a sphere tolerance of 0.01mm. It provides separate knobs for pan, tilt, and tension, with a tension knob that's integrated into the ball-locking tilt knob. The head tilts 90 degrees for shooting vertical and has an Arca-style clamp for the quick release plate, plus a degree scale and two bubble levels for precise positioning.

Load capacity: 55 pounds. Weight: 0.88 pounds.

Bottom line: Given Surui's reputation for high quality at reasonable prices and the high load capacity for the price, the K-20x is a great bargain. (If you need even more capacity, the Surui K-40x is rated for 77 pounds, at a weight of 1.5 pounds and street price of just US$220.)

List price:
US$170 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Benro B3 Double Action Ballhead

Fabricated of magnesium alloy components, this beautifully made, high capacity ball head features separate drag adjustment and locking knobs, an extended range precision friction adjustment, and a graduated panning scale. A circular bubble level adjacent to the quick release mount makes for quick leveling. It incudes an Arca-style quick-release adapter with a PU-70 QR plate with safety stops and a standard 1/4-20 camera/lens screw with 5/32" head for superior torque.

Load capacity: 66 pounds. Weight: 1.5 pounds.

Bottom line: With more than enough capacity to hold most anything you care to mount on it, this feature-packed Benro ballhead should prove long-lasting and easy to adjust. If you can't justify spending north of $200 (street pricing) for a ballhead -- and many of us can't -- then this is the one for you, with a great balance of features and cost!

List price:
US$322 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Best Ball Heads for US$300 and up


Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 sp with Quick Release

Arca-Swiss is probably the single name most thought of as the go-to maker of professional ball heads. This professional grade ultra-high-capacity ball head features the company's patented aspherical ball head and progressive motion related friction control (PMF), and provides a single panning base with a diameter of 2.7 inches, excluding knobs. Specifically designed for heavy equipment it has a tension adjustment thumb dial built into its indexed friction control knob, and a bubble level built directly into its Arca quick release clamp that includes proprietary detent pins.

Load capacity: 130 pounds. Weight: 1.4 pounds.

Bottom line:

It's often said that you get what you pay for, and with this Arca-Swiss ballhead, you're getting a lot: Jaw-dropping capacity, a high-end feature-set with precision build for really accurate adjustments, and brand cachet as well. If you can manage the price, we highly recommend the Arca-Swiss Monoball. Alternatively, if you're seriously into panorama shooting, the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 dp has a dual-panning ability. This gives you a second panning mechanism right below the camera mount, letting you swing the camera about its axis, however it's pointed. This supports vertical panoramas, as of a tall building or waterfall.

List price:
US$420 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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Novoflex ClassicBall 5 II Ball Head

With an impressive ball diameter of 3.07 inches (78mm) and a 4.6-inch height, this innovative top-of-the-line German-made unit can be used as a standard ball head or mounted upside down and used as a leveling base for panoramic photography, a setup that allows you to level the base precisely with the aid of a built-in bubble level. Another unique feature: it provides three separate 90-degree notches for vertical adjustment so you can tilt the camera a full 180 degrees in three different orientations, enhancing its versatility. An exclusive calibrated-friction Advanced Friction Control (AFC) lets you set or reset the precise amount of tension on the ball via a central ring on the head, and the precision machined ball mechanism requires no lubricant or grease, preventing contamination and wear, and ensuring long life.  A ball-locking lever instead of a knob ensures that the ball does not change position when locking, reducing setup time.

Load capacity: 26 pounds. Weight: 2.1 pounds.

Bottom line: This finely constructed head is premium priced reflecting the quality and durability built into it (a Novoflex quick-release plate comes with it at extra cost or is an optional accessory) but it’s a great choice for serious shooters that demand best in class performance.

List price:
US$880 (check our affiliates below for current street pricing)
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