Can You Really Buy a Quality $35 Arca-Compatible Ball Head?
In the beginning there was the legendary Arca Swiss B1 ballhead, the dovetail-plate clamp system that became an industry standard. Then came Really Right Stuff, Kirk Enterprises and others. These days, you can buy Arca-compatible tripod heads and quick release plates from countless vendors on websites such as Amazon and eBay, sometimes at ridiculously low prices. So I started to wonder: can you really buy a quality Arca-Swiss compatible tripod ballhead for just thirty-five dollars?
My Personal Ballhead History
I still own my original Arca-Swiss B1 that I bought back in the 1980's. It wasn't my first tripod head of course. Spending that much on a tripod head doesn't come naturally to anyone. I knew I wanted to avoid the rickety department store tripods and did buy a good set of Gitzo tripod legs early on, but I just couldn't convince myself to shell out for the top of the line Arca-Swiss head. Based on advice from a couple of early John Shaw nature photography books, I instead opted to buy both a Manfrotto (Bogen) ballhead plus a Bogen pan-tilt head. The cost of both of these together was far less than a real Arca-Swiss did. And both fairly quickly got stacked on the reject pile as I plunked down more money for an Arca-Swiss B1.
Lesson learned. Some things really can't be skimped on, and if you wanted your camera to be easy to position yet lock in place without drooping, there really is no substitute for a good ballhead. Indeed, I took this axiom to heart so much that when I found something even better I went for it. I've been very happy with Markins now for quite a few years. The one real drawback to the Arca-Swiss was that it would sometimes seize up and refuse to function at seemingly random occasions. Though such problems were thankfully rare, until you learned that you had to actually try to tighten the ball even more for it to unlock and start working again.
I've been quoted as saying that I have a quick release plate on nearly everything I own other than my toothbrush. This is of course somewhat of an exaggeration, but I do have quite a bit of Arca-Swiss compatible plates and clamps from numerous manufacturers that I've accumulated over the years. In addition to being a solid, simple clamping mechanism, its increasing ubiquity has turned it into something that anyone even remotely serious about photography should be using. In my opinion, every other proprietary quick release system should be ignored. They may work for some gear in some situations, but no system apart from Arca-Swiss has such wide support and allows you to safely interconnect what you need to secure with such a minimum of fuss. Once you've started using the Arca-Swiss system, you too may find yourself putting clamps and plates on everything you own.
The XCSource 'Pro All Metal Camera Tripod Ballhead with Quick Release Plate'
So it has been with great interest that I've watched the growth of Amazon sellers dealing in cheaper versions of Arca-Swiss plates and clamps. Most everything the top of the line manufacturers like Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises make you can find at least a couple of versions claiming to be "professional quality" and so forth on Amazon and eBay. I have to admit, I've bought a number of cheaper generic plates this way for smaller stuff that Really Right Stuff will likely never create a dedicated, custom fit plate for. Anything I've felt a need to affix atop my tripod has some kind of plate on it, and at least some of them came from Amazon.
Lately, I've also noticed the trend of more Amazon and eBay sellers offering tripod heads with Arca-Swiss clamps on top. Having made my own early mistakes with cheap tripod heads though, I felt no compulsion to buy one of these cheaper alternatives. Fool me twice, shame on me, and all that.
But last week I saw a company called XCSource offering an Arca-Swiss head on Amazon for only $35.99. By comparison, a ballhead with specs similar to those quoted by XCSouce will run you at least $250 from Really Right Stuff, Markins or Kirk Enterprises. As a frequent Amazon junkie, they recommend all sorts of things to me, and there it was one day. It's listed as a "Pro All Metal Camera Tripod Ballhead with Quick Release Plate" and had great reviews. "It's simply professional and affordable" they claim. My curiosity got the better of me, and I bought one to find out for myself. Could this really be possible? For that price, how could I go wrong, I figured. Many of the cheap Arca-compatible plates I've bought from Amazon merchants of turned out to be surprisingly good for small stuff.
Evaluating a Budget Option
In just two days with Amazon Prime shipping, my new XCSource ballhead arrived in a cardboard box which I eagerly and curiously opened.
My initial impression was quite positive. It's definitely not complete junk. As with most of its competitors, it's made of black anodized aluminum and felt reasonably substantial in my hand. It's not plastic or anything like that. In terms of size, it's roughly comparable to the smaller Markins Q3 ballheads. The ball on the XCSource is 36mm diameter while that on the Markins is 38mm. For comparison, Really Right Stuff also sells smaller heads with ball diameters in that same range. Both the XCSource and Markins Q3 are around 3.5 inches high. Both have integrated panning bases with a degree scale and locking knob.
The XCSource with knobs removed.
Also note the visible inner liner surrounding the ball itself
There are notable differences though. Although overall quite respectable, the finish of the XCSouce is not up to the level of the Markins. When you look closely, the nylon (or whatever it's made of) cup the ball rotates inside within the aluminum outer body is notably visible at the margins around the ball. One can clearly tell the fit tolerance of the ball inside the head is not nearly as precise as with more expensive heads. The feel of the ball when rotating the head is akin to the original Arca Swiss and I'm guessing the ball has the same slightly off-spherical shape as the B1, intended to create "progressive drag" as you move the ball position farther from the vertical. In practice though, it merely creates a bulge around the midpoint of the ball that creates noticeably stiffer resistance as the ball is rotated and this region passes over the horizontal plane through the middle of the ball cup. Rotating the panning bed isn't as smooth as more expensive heads either. But this is the sort of detail you probably wouldn't probably notice if you hadn't experienced a better ballhead.
Curiously, the XCSource has two locking knobs for ball rotation, in addition to the third knob for locking the panning base. The manufacturer says the head has "independent adjustment knobs for precise locking, panning and tension controls, and each adjustment knob is intuitively positioned." I beg to differ. What I infer must be intended as the locking and tension control knobs are utterly identical and spaced 180 degrees opposite each other, with the panning lock knob 90 degrees between the two on one side, and the drop notch to rotate the ball to the vertical equally in the middle on the other side. These four key features are evenly spaced around the circumference of the head with nothing intuitive about them. Looking further at the two lock/tension knobs, they are so identical that they can indeed be removed by fully unscrewing them and interchanged one for the other. The screw thread pitch and diameter are the same. The knobs are identically labeled as "Free / Lock." Neither is labeled "Tension." I can loosen the ball with one knob and tighten it with the other, or vice versa. Indeed, one knob can be removed completely and the ball still locked with the other if screwed in as tightly as it goes. This means that the ball position can shift side to side quite a bit to allow locking from screw pressure from either direction pushing it against the opposite wall. The panning screw can be completely removed as well, although the clamp locking knob is captive and won't come off.
I remember hiking one time with my old Arca-Swiss B1 only to find that when I got back to my car the clamp locking screw atop the ballhead was missing. It had no doubt worked its way loose and come off as I walked. As you may have already realized, a tripod head with a clamp that will no longer clamp is basically useless. When I got home, I ordered a replacement knob Kirk Enterprises used to sell with a captive screw that wouldn't come off in the future. With it installed, the screw simply stops turning at the end of its travel range rather than continuing to rotate until it comes off. In my opinion, all knobs should be captive fasteners that won't come off. With this experience still ingrained in my memory, I'm not happy that three out of four knobs on the XCSource can be unscrewed completely and come off if not used carefully.
On the plus side though, the XCSource actually works quite well for general usage. Honestly. After reading all my criticisms above you might think I'm panning (pardon the tripod head pun here) the XCSource head, but not so. For the money, this thing can't be beat. I paid more than this for my first Bogen head back in the early 1980's. They don't make the same model anymore, but if they did, it would be even more expensive than today's XCSource. And that old Bogen had its own proprietary quick release plates that never really fasten adequately without slipping on heavy cameras. And it weighed twice as much as the XCSource does.
So is it possible to buy a quality Arca-Swiss compatible ballhead for just $35? Of course not. But in today's world, you can come a lot closer than when I started out, and the XCSource is worth considering. Don't think though that the XCSource head competes with the likes of Really Right Stuff, Markins and others. It doesn't. You do get what you pay for, but I would have been better off with the XCSource starting out than with my Bogen failures. Keep in mind too that there are other cheap Arca-Swiss compatible heads on Amazon that I haven't evaluated, even with Amazon Prime shipping.
If you can afford a "real" ballhead, please do so — you won't regret it. If you're serious about your photography, you shouldn't think of this whole topic as a choice between a cheap head versus a more expensive one. In the end, it's really more of a choice between buying an expensive one now, versus delaying that purchase for a while. You will likely end up buying a more expensive head eventually. Trust me. But if your starter tripod head uses Arca Swiss quick release plates, at least you won't need to replace all of them as well when you do upgrade. You can always put those old plates on your toothbrush.