This is a comparison of four well-built tripod heads, each of which could serve the traveling landscape/architectural photographer well. If, by some improbable combination of circumstances, you are such a photographer visiting our blog and in need of a new tripod head, well, read on! But please note: this comparison is not meant to be exhaustive. This is just stuff with which I have experience. There are lots of good pieces of equipment out there I’ve never seen or used. If you find something you like better, props, and by all means, share it in comments below. If none of this is compelling, thanks for considering it anyway.
I don’t like ball heads. They can never be set just perfectly right. When you do tighten down whatever set mechanism there is to hold the ball in place, there is inevitably some amount of “recoil,” however small. The higher quality the ball head, the smaller the amount of recoil.
My idea of a tripod head is the Arca Swiss C1 Cube shown here:
I used to own two, but not any more. Not only is it heavy, and with its sharp edges something of a lethal weapon, but most importantly, it is geared. Gearing, well-made gearing, is much more precise than a ball head and affords the landscape and architectural photographer exacting and more easily repeatable control over composition. But generally, there is no better tripod head anywhere. It is rock solid stable, can handle huge loads, and can be adjusted precisely. And for it’s price, it ought too be that good. Unfortunately, the Cube is susceptible to dirt and other foreign material in its gearing. And it is difficult [technical term for “impossible”] to tear down, and expensive to get cleaned. Did I say it’s heavy? It’s heavy, and no convenient for backpacking or other lightweight travel. So, are there alternatives that come close to the Cube, but at more affordable price points and in more convenient form? Yes. Let’s look at a few:
1. The Really Right Stuff BH-40 (Gen 1) is RRS’s middle-of-the-line ball head. It’s got all of the classic RRS hallmarks of quality. It’s beefy, the control grips are large and easy to grasp and not difficult to operate with gloves in cold weather. It’s also USA-made; its price reflects its quality and origin. It has a rotational base that can serve as a rough panning function. My copy weighs in at 486g. It is an excellent, all-purpose ball head, but it’s not great for architecture or wildlife. It will make use of a long lens pretty miserable, and its lack of a leveling base—or perhaps I should say its need for a leveling base; the optional panning head doesn’t get you there—will require additional weight somewhere. RRS makes some beautiful tripods with leveling bowl capability, but they’re not compact, and they are generally heavier than non-leveling counterparts.
I’ve owned and used extensively a BH-55, the big brother to this head. It’s a superb ball head. But it’s still a ball head.
2. The Acratech GXP-SS is another American-made ball head, but it is significantly different from the RRS. It sports an open skeletal structure that makes cleaning it a breeze. It’s a jack of all trades, also offering the ability to stitch panorama and act as a makeshift gimbal. It has what is easily the best Arca-style lever clamp on the planet. Nothing that Arca, or RRS, or anybody else has, comes even close to the Acratech lever clamp. By itself, it is a good enough reason to buy the GXP-SS. The GXP-SS has a rotational base that can do in a pinch for panning, and it can save the need for a separate leveling base if you are willing to flip it over and use it that way. It’s not hard to do, but in the field, I am not sure how inclined I or anyone else is to do it. Still, it does work, and even in the inverted mode [shown at far right above], its pseudo-gimbal functionality still works. Like Dan Carr in 2020, UK photog Jack Lodge picked the GXP as the best landscape tripod head out there. I think they are probably correct, especially if weight is a significant factor for you. The Acratech has an impressive load-to-weight ratio, and it can be stuffed into almost any small space in your pack.
3. The Arca Swiss L60 and L75 Core-Levelers are, like their big brother, geared heads (the Arca P0, a “step-brother” if you will, is a hybrid ball/geared head; yes, this gets confusing, but I won’t be reviewing it here; I’ve bought it twice and returned it both times; to me, it just doesn’t feel right). Both are extremely well made, expensive and, if anything, even slower than the C1 and more limited in their functionality. They are, however, both superb, very compact heads. Being geared, and lacking the folding “flop over” capability of the C1 and a notch to orient your camera 90 degrees, the L60 and L75 are difficult to adapt to situations that call for shooting up or down. In other words, the very type of photography for which they ought to be superb—architectural—is highly constrained for anything other than mostly level shooting. If all you are shooting is straight elevations, they are great. And if your camera or lens has enough shift capability to accommodate your perspectives, they are great. And you can stuff them into even smaller spaces in your pack than the Acratech. But if you want to shoot anything like this, forget it:
I know, I found myself in Chicago with Julia Anna Gospodarou last fall with my L75 and Phase & Leica kits trying to shoot exaggerated perspectives. No flippin’ way. So to speak.I had to hunt down a used RRS BH-40 at the 120-year-old Central City Photo Shop on the South Side of the Loop, and pay an over-retail premium price for it. But I got my shots. For me, much as I love the Core-Levelers, they simply cannot justify their price point for my shooting. That L75 is at the 900 Euro mark.
4. The Flex Shooter Mini is a very interesting head designed with a counter weight and internal loaded spring. It was the first spring-loaded double ball head on the market, maybe still the only. Its camera-bracket clamp is unusual in its design, but it makes it possible for the FSM to accommodate a wide variety of L-brackets and long lens feet. Designed and built in Hungary; very well made. Its instruction booklet could benefit from some more time, attention, and detail, but it’s good enough to get you started, and there are several YT videos detailing its use and advantages. One of the niftiest tricks of the FSM is that it has a built-in leveler in those 496 g, so you save significant weight not having to duplicate that functionality on your tripod or by adding a leveling base. I wish its spirit bubble was as large and easy-tread as the Acratech’s, but it works well enough. Dan Carr once picked the Acratech GXP [big brother to the SS] as the best all-around ball head, but this year, when he scoped out his use case for a 50-50 landscape/wildlife trip to Tasmania, he picked the FSM, and now recommends it for travelers with lightweight traveling tripods. That is often me; maybe you, too.
5. Finally, we have the Rogeti RG-1. This head is made in China, and it’s made quite well This is the first head with which I stepped away from the Cube. It offers all the functionality and, as near as I can determine, all of the precision of the Cube, in half the weight [702g v. 1200], in a much more svelte form factor, at half the price, and with none of the clunkiness of the Cube’s other competitors. True, it lack’s the Cube’s Euro-cachet, but who are you trying to impress? All in, the RG-1 is simply a better device than the Cube. It is as well-made, while being far less prone to getting grit in the works (a notorious problem for the Cube), and it is easier to use. It’s got lots of levels built in, and because each operates on its own axis, you can instantly see which of your three axes is not in alignment.
Of all these heads, the Rogeti is actually my favorite. But . . . It’s also the largest and heaviest of the four. Still, it affords all the precision of the Arca geared models, plus some of the flexibility and speed of the ball heads, but with none of their disadvantages. There is a reason that Keith Cooper, a well-known UK architectural photographer, gave the RG-1 props in his print [and YT] review. You’re not going to shoot wildlife with a long lens on this head, but it’s not made for that.
Maybe not yet. I watched a couple of videos about the FlexShooter. I had initially misunderstood how its “gimbal” functionality works. So, I see what Carr meant. The Acra is best suited for a trip like my 2018 in Namibia: little bit of wildlife, much more landscape. The Flex is well suited to a more even split, because its gimbal is more versatile, and I can see why Carr recommends it as the all-purpose travel head. Tough call. But it’s interesting to consider. I do almost zero BIF, and even when I have, most of it was on that marvelous boat on the Chobe which was properly outfitted with individual seats and full gimbals. Both are fairly speedy to set up, the Acra may be slightly faster. The Acra is lighter by 74g which is more than zero but only ¼ the weight of an iPhone Pro Max. But every gram saved adds up. 🤔
I mostly shoot landscape and architecture, with an occasional bit of wildlife shooting. On those occasions, there tends to be a lot of it. For me, the best all-around—if I can carry only one head, and it has to cover all three situations—the choice is the FlexShooter Mini. If it’s an even split between landscape and wildlife, and weight matters, I have to agree with Dan Carr: I think the FSM wins again. But if, as is often the case, I am only shooting architecture and/or landscape, and weight is less critical—e.g., I am traveling by car and not limited by airline carry-on restrictions—I’ll choose the Rogeti.
For the Ultralight Crowd
This is me as well. When I made my cross-continent trip last year, I carried a beefier tripod, the Rogeti head, and both my Phase and Leica gear. Why not? I had an entire trunk for this stuff, and a 30-liter pack [Tom Bihn, of course] to carry it in. When I did carry the pack on my back, I typically left something behind in the car or in my hotel room. So, I was less concerned about absolute weight reduction, but when I am, the choice is actually none of these heads. If it’s all about weight, I probably won’t carry my Phase gear, and will carry the Leica M11 only, and maybe 2-3 lenses. And at that point, I also won’t be carrying an RRS Series 2, let alone a Series 3 tripod. Instead, I will carry either the RRS Ascend, or maybe even the Peak Designs Travel tripod. Both come with a choice of platforms, either a platform with a built in min-ball head, or a universal platform that can accommodate a separate ball head.
Pros tend to poo-poo these built-in ball heads, and as I said at the beginning, I hate ball heads in general. But, but, but, if you need to shave every gram, you can’t do better than either of these two choices. And if you have to choose one, well, much as I love—and I do mean love—my RRS gear, there’s no contest. The Peak Design Travel Tripod is lighter by 212 grams, more compact in length and circumference, just as functional and, on a lightweight kit, plenty stable. I can get the PD inside my Tom Bihn Synik 22, along with a complete Leica kit, and room for beaucoup other stuff. Even taking out the center column/head on the Ascend, it’s not an easy fit in the Synik. If you’re traveling with a full-size carry-on, either will fit comfortably. It is easier to deal with the RRS Ascend by taking out their center column, which is significantly easier to do than on the PD.