Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

 

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head

A new “mousetrap”


field report by Paul Caldwell (9/3/2004)

 

 
 

If you were to stop and write down the top 5 tools you used on every trip in the field, depending on your shooting situation, your tripod/head combination would have to be number 1 or 2 on the list. I take about 97% of all my work mounted to a tripod, so the head I use is very important. For years I have used a Arca B1 Pro and have really had no problems with it. The Arca B1 is also a “standard” by which other tripod heads are measured. When Really Right Stuff (RRS) announced that they were going to produce a new ballhead, the BH-55, it immediately caught my attention as I use a lot of their products in my work. I was interested to see if they could “build a better mousetrap”. Well after a few field trips with my new RRS ballhead, I can confidently state, Yes!

Before I go into the RRS BH-55, let me briefly talk about ballheads in general.

With a ballhead, you have a very versatile shooting platform. The basic layout is to have a ball which has a shaft that is attached to your quick release platform, and a case around the ball. The case provides both a method to capture the ball and apply friction to the ball. You need to be able to have a friction mechanism that is variable. This will allow you to free up the ball to allow movement so you can position it for the next shot, but also then tighten down on the ball after the correct position is achieved. In addition it is a nice feature to have a panning base to the ballhead so that you can pan the camera independently from the ball. Most ballheads will have a cutout to allow you to move the camera into the vertical position. With the camera mounted in the horizontal position, this is done by releasing the ball and then dropping the camera into the cutouts, while never having to change the camera from the horizontal mount.

The attachment point for the camera varies by manufacturer but the most widely accepted design is the Arca Swiss plate. The plate is placed on the camera, and dovetails into the mount on the ballhead. This dove tailed design gives a superior fit and allows for no movement of the camera once everything is tightened down.

It gets interesting with the fine tuning adjustments. Most manufacturers will try to design a ballhead that has separate controls for the ball, the panning base, and a micro friction adjustment. The main control knob for the ball is like an on and off switch, when you release it, the ball is free to move. You control the amount of freedom or play of the ball with the micro friction adjustment. Each camera/lens setup is different so you will need to fine tune your friction accordingly. A ballhead design that has some form of numbered stops for the micro friction adjustment is a great asset.


Really Right Stuff BH-55

With their design, Really Right Stuff has truly laid new ground. Their design is unique in many areas. The BH-55 is machined from aircraft grade aluminum which gives the optimum strength to weight ratio. All of the lettering and numbering have been laser etched which will help to ensure that these critical marks are both sharp and will stay in place. There is a panning base with a separate control knob and you have several options for the camera quick release setup. On my BH-55 I chose to get the lever action quick release plate.

From this view you can see that the BH-55 is unique looking. Instead of a tall case around the ball, RRS opted for a much shorter case. But the first thing that you notice when you look at the BH-55 is the main ball control knob. It’s huge. You will have no problems locating it in the field while you are looking through the viewfinder of your camera. This view shows off the various knobs, and I have labeled them.

A—Main control knob
B—Micro Friction Control Knob
C—Panning base knob

The 2nd thing you notice is that the ball itself is quite large. This provides a large surface area as you move the ball round during placement of the camera. The color of the BH-55 is a grey-black and it has an anodized finish.

Now take a look at the camera mounting plate. Really Right Stuff offers several options here. On my BH-55 I picked the lever-release B2-Pro LR Clamp. Notice that it comes with a bulls-eye level to assist with leveling of your camera. You can pick from the following configurations when ordering the BH-55.

BH-55 with round platform
BH-55 with screw-knob B2-Pro clamp
BH-55 with lever-release B2-Pro LR clamp (shown in image no1)
BH-55 with PCL-1 panning clamp

If you don’t know which of these choices will work best for you, then give RRS a call. They are very knowledgeable and will help you make the right decision.

One of the key elements with control of a ballhead/camera combination is the micro-friction adjustment knob. The micro-friction adjustment is to allow you to fine tune the friction on the ball. With micro-friction adjustment you can quickly release the ball with the main control knob, move the camera to a new position and then retighten the ball. The micro-friction adjustment keeps the ball from getting too loose by giving you just the right amount of play in the ball.

You need enough so that you can move it easily, but not have the camera just drop free. As every camera/lens combination has a different weight, preferably the micro-adjustment knob will be numbered so you can remember which setting applies to each camera/lens combination. As you can see the micro-friction adjustment knob on the BH-55 is numbered and also recessed into the main case to help keep you from inadvertently hitting it. You will find that each manufacturer does this differently. The Arca-Swiss for example has a micro-friction adjustment screw inside the main control knob. I personally don’t like this design as I find that it’s easy to accidentally hit the micro-adjustment screw.

In this image you can see the panning base and how well it is numbered. The base is the same diameter as the case and has a separate knob to control locking. The knob has the same quality touch as the others. It’s has a slightly different surface than the micro friction adjustment knob so in the field you can find the knob without having to move your eye from the viewfinder. RRS claims to have designed a unique drum and brake to allow for a very positive locking.

With a camera mounted to the ballhead, you have plenty of room to reach all the knobs, allowing for easy adjustments. This shot shows a Canon 1Ds with the RRS L bracket mounted to the BH-55. Overall it makes for a very compact package which is very stable.

One item that I believe is a first in ballhead design is the creation of two cutouts for vertical placement of the camera. In this image you can get a better view of this. Most ballheads only offer you one cutout. If you use an L bracket, this may not be of much importance.

When you are making a decision on the quick release mechanism you pick, I would strongly consider the style with lever-release B2-Pro LR clamp. In the two images below you can see how easy it is to operate this clamp. Instead of a screw type clamp, with a simple pull back of the lever you can release the camera from the receiver plate on the BH-55. This may not seem like a big deal but in my case it’s huge. During a day’s shoot, I figure I clamp and release my camera close to 100 times. Each time you clamp it with a screw type clamp you have to take the extra time to screw down the clamp. In fact I never did understand why Arca-Swiss called their plate a “quick release” design. With the lever-release B2-Pro LR clamp, you truly have a “quick release”. I will note that if you don’t require a new ballhead, but want to take advantage of the lever-release clamp, it will easily fit on an Arca B1 Pro and many other ballheads.


One other key design point on the BH-55 is the overall height. As you can see in the following image, The Bh-55 is close to 1 1/2 inches shorter than the B1 Pro. What this means is your center of gravity is lower and thus you have by default a more stable platform. Note in this image, I have a installed a RRS panning clamp to the Arca-Swiss B1 Pro but this doesn’t add excessive height to the Arca B1 Pro.

BH-55 Field Usage

I have had two occasions to use my BH-55 and on each I was very pleased. Overall the design is excellent as all 3 knobs are placed in such a way that you will logically find them when needed. The ball itself is very smooth and when locked down has no play at all. The lever-release plate provides a much quicker and smoother release than the screw type. Since it’s a lever type action, you have a simpler yet more positive way to determine when the camera is fully locked to the ballhead.

Almost all my work involves some panning. The panning base on the BH-55 provides a smooth rotation for a full 360 degrees. The laser etching on the base provides for an easy to read scale. When locked down, the panning base was rock solid with no play.

Having a bulls-eye level built into the mounting plate makes the leveling process very simple. Just release the ball, move the camera until the bubble is centered in the bulls-eye, and then retighten. You will find that using a bulls-eye level makes leveling a camera much easier than using a straight line level as you can level in more than one plane at once.

The main control knob was hard to miss in the field and I found its control to be excellent. There wasn’t any guess work as to when it was tight. When you screw down the main control knob, you have an extremely solid working platform.

The only negative issue I have is that the cover pouch that is provided really isn’t going to do much good in the field. It’s a single layer neoprene pouch and will only protect your ballhead from getting scratched. The bigger issue is if you happen to drop the entire tripod/ballhead assembly. More times than not, the ballhead takes the main force of the blow and this thin neoprene will not protect your investment very well. I quickly developed a cover of my own design. Note, due to the large oversized main control knob, you will want to seriously consider a good case for this ballhead. When I carried mine, I noticed immediately that the main control knob stuck out farther than the knob on my Arca B1-Pro.


Conclusion

Simple, if you are buying a ballhead for the first time, definitely consider the BH-55. It is priced right around the same as the Arca B1 Pro with Quick release. The base price of the ballhead is $355.00 but depending on what options you pick, that price can rise considerably.

If you currently own a ballhead, such as the Arca B1 Pro, then this is a more difficult decision to make, however my B1 Pro will soon be on ebay! I highly recommend this ballhead.

Here is a listing of the various options and their prices:

BH-55 without clamp: $355
BH-55 with round platform: $370
BH-55 with screw-knob B2-Pro clamp: $415
BH-55 with lever-release B2-Pro LR clamp: $455
BH-55 with PCL-1 panning clamp: $575


You can find more information about the BH-55 on the ReallyRightStuff website. Note, currently RRS has about a 1 ½ to 2 month lead time on their orders for this product. The link below will take you to the RRS website.


http://www.reallyrightstuff.com/ballheads/index.html

My review was based on my own RRS BH-55 ballhead which I got delivered by RRS in August 2004.

Feel free to email any inquires to me at pcaldwe@aristotle.net

Additional Details

Since I wrote the article, several people have asked about the tripod or the red object shown in the pictures. I wanted to add some further information about both of these.

The Bogen leveling base includes a center column and is adjusted by a screw type knob at the bottom of the column. When you release the tension on the leveling base, you can rotate the base until its level, and then retighten the knob. The rotation is very similar to that of a ballhead in that it’s unidirectional and allows you to level the base in more than one plane at a time.

Currently in my work, I use a leveling base with all my tripods. In several of the pictures of the BH-55, you can see part of the Bogen Leveling base that I use. Bogen makes several different versions of their leveling base and each version tends to be tripod specific.

For example, with the Bogen Carbon One series, Bogen part numbers 3443 and 3444, Bogen sells a carbon fiber leveling base center column, part number 554. Bogen also sells an all aluminum tripod, the 755B which comes with a leveling base center column. This tripod is in their MDeVe series.

In my pictures, I am using a Gitzo Explorer, but instead of the Gitzo center column, I use the Bogen leveling base with center column that works with the 755B tripod. It’s my understanding that this is Bogen part number 555B.

Note, recently Bogen changed some of the design points in many of their tripods. One of the most noticeable is that the center column changed from being rounded to more of a hexagonal shape. Because of this some of the older tripods won’t accept the new center columns and you need to check with either Bogen directly or the reseller to make sure that the center column you order with fit your tripod.

Here is an example of some of the problems you can run into. I have a 5 year old Bogen Nature Trekker Tripod with the green legs. This particular tripod has a perfectly round center column. When you try and fit a 555B or 554 into it, the diameter of the Nature Trekker’s center column is too small and won’t allow either to fit.

 

Comment by Uwe Steinmueller

 

We also are currenly using this ballhead and will share our own experience soon. So far we are very excited about this new ballhead.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
   

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