My Quest for the Perfect Tripod Head
There once was a time when the Arca-Swiss B1 was the ultimate tripod head for "serious" nature photographers. While expensive, it was a reputation well deserved. There are still a lot of B1's out there and their system of interchangeable quick release plates became an industry standard. Over the years though, competition has resulted in an ever-increasing number of excellent alternatives.
First to be introduced was the Kirk BH-1. When it came out, many professionals rushed to buy one, mainly to rid themselves of the dreaded Arca-Swiss lock-up problem which occasionally inflicted itself on B1 users. Although not common, the problem can be annoying enough that many were glad to be rid of the possibility. The Kirk heads (they now have both the BH-1 and the smaller BH-3) also feature a captive knob on the quick release clamp so you can't lose the knob if it gets unscrewed too far. Kirk also sells a replacement knob for Arca-Swiss users, something I availed myself of after I found the knob missing on my B1 when I got back to the car after a hike. Let me tell you, a tripod with no knob on the head's quick release clamp is less than useful. Still, I never upgraded to the Kirk BH-1 since I didn't view it as being a significant enough of a change to warrant the cost. My feeling was that if I didn't already have the Arca-Swiss, I would have gotten the Kirk instead, but I could not justify the cost of upgrading. I have used a BH-1 for an afternoon and know many folks who use them. They are indeed nice ball heads. I never really liked having the extra knob for tension adjustment as I was used to the Arca-Swiss thumbscrew approach and feared I'd grab the wrong knob by accident at some point, but otherwise I have no hesitation in recommending them.
The next interesting option to become available was the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, a head that, while still having a clamp that is compatible with the Arca-Swiss standard, reinvents much of the design in a radical new concept. The ball is almost completely exposed, saving significant weight over both the Arca-Swiss and Kirk. While it's rated to only hold up to 25 pounds as opposed to around 90 pounds for the other two, this claim may be a bit modest. Regardless, it does do an excellent job of holding at least that much rock solid. I bought an Acratech when they came out to couple with a Gitzo G1127 for use on extended hikes and potential backpacks as it saves nearly a pound over the others. I find that in real life though, I rarely use it. The ball design definitely takes getting used to as it only allows you to tilt the head over on one side. The unique diagonal bracing of the ball clamping mechanism completely prevents it from being tilted to the other side, forcing you to pan the head around to get the same range of motion a more traditional ballhead affords. In fairness, it does allow more freedom of movement on the open side so it is likely something one would get accustomed to in time. Since my main head at the time was an Arca-Swiss though, I really longed for something closer to what I was used to. Another issue with the Acratech is that it requires more finger torque to adequately tighten both the ball and the panning bed. The company has addressed this by offering models with rubberized knobs (they used to only offer this for the main knob but now do so for all knobs, at an added cost). To me, the demand for offering this feature is akin to putting a band-aid on what can only be called a design defect. Still, it's a nice head if your overriding goal is to save weight.
So, I continued to use my trusty Arca-Swiss (with the captive Kirk replacement knob) for almost all my shooting. Along the way though, I became aware through the Nikonians discussion forums of a new alternative made by a South Korean company called Markins. Mr. BI Mah, president of Markins, started the company with a mission of bringing quality photographic equipment to the Korean market. In time, his quest for quality was so successful that word leaked out to the rest of the world. Their current M10 and M20 models are similar in size to the Kirk BH-3 and BH-1 respectively, but feature much sturdier ball clamping mechanisms. Indeed, the smaller Markins M10 is capable of holding as much as the larger Kirk BH-1. And these balls clamp amazingly well and without the need to over-tighten that Acratech imposes. While Kirk feels the need to sell snap-in collars to prevent their heads from flopping with heavy gear, Markins heads have been tested way beyond their rated load capacities with no slippage whatsoever. In terms of load capacity to ballhead weight ratio, the Markins have no equal. Markins also excells at vibration dampening.
To be honest, when I first became aware of Markins, I assumed they would be similar to the Kirk heads: excellent and perhaps subtly better than the Arca-Swiss, but not worth the cost of upgrading. I grew increasingly curious at each glowing report of someone who received one after being able to negotiate the difficult process of ordering from South Korea. Credit cards could not be used. One had to work though one of the few banks able to do an international wire transfer to Markins' bank in Seoul. My first opportunity to see one up close came at the Third Annual Photo Adventure Trip in Manitoba Canada sponsored by Nikonians. Mr. Mah, a Nikon shooter himself and member of the Nikonians community was in attendance. He brought along several heads and some of their other products to sell to those in attendance since many had asked him to. I was immediately impressed with how small even the bigger M20 was and how well machined it turned out to be. Borrowing a sample from him for a day of shooting I was even more impressed. While my Arca-Swiss operates smoothly, the Markins was a sheer joy to use. Yes, I was comparing my old B1 to a brand new Markins, a comparison bound to favor the Markins, but I also tested out Markins heads owned by a few other Nikonians in attendance, some of which were among the first to get one several years ago. They too operated effortlessly and received uniformly positive reviews from their owners. To save myself the hassle of overseas purchasing, I bought an M20 from Mr. Mah while on the trip.
Is the Markins perfect? Well, no, but nothing really is. It is close though. My only real criticism is that the knob on their quick release clamp is not a captive knob. Why Kirk is the only one who addresses this issue is a bit of a puzzler. I tried the Kirk replacement knob from my Arca-Swiss on the M20 and unfortunately the threading is different and it wouldn't fit. I figured it took me years to lose my Arca-Swiss knob so it probably wasn't a show stopper. Mr. Mah was even nice enough to give me a spare knob just in case.
After getting back home, I realized that what I should have done was to buy an M20 without the Markins quick release clamp and mount a Really Right Stuff B2-Pro Lever clamp on it, another promising gadget I had been eyeing for some time. I easily sold my first Markins head to a fellow Nikonian and then began my odyssey of buying the replacement without clamp directly from South Korea. Since it is now possible to easily buy Markins products online with a credit card, the details aren't as relevant now as the fact that I did eventually get it. When coupled with the RRS lever clamp, it makes a great head. Very cool indeed.
Choice is good, and photographers now have wealth of good choices available. In the old days, there was only Arca Swiss so everyone agreed on what the best head was. Now people have choices and hence, opinions. Sometimes strong opinions — a tripod head is a very personal thing. I sometimes think the ongoing debate as to what the best head is is turning into the next Nikon versus Canon thing, or film versus digital. My personal preference is Markins, but everyone gets to buy what works best for them. Just recently, Really Right Stuff came to market with their BH-55 ballhead which I had the chance to play with at the NANPA Summit in Portland, Oregon earlier this year. It certainly qualifies as the nicest looking head out there but I can't see any other reason to buy one I'm afraid. But maybe I'm biased towards my wonderful new Markins.
Update 2/10/2005 - I should have posted this update a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never: Markins now has a well thought out captive knob replacement available. All new Markins heads shipping from the Nikonians Pro Shop now come with this new knob.
Update 9/04/2005 - The quick release clamp on Markins heads generally comes with a "stop pin" sticking up in the middle of it that would engage into a hole in the underside of Markins plates. The pin is spring loaded and will depress fully so as to allow plates without this hole (Really Right Stuff, Kirk, etc.) to be used as well. This design does mean plates have to be dropped down into the clamp rather than slid in from the end so as to not run into the pin. Until earlier this year, the Nikonians Pro Shop sold special versions that did not have this pin but has transitioned over to sell the regular version — the one with the pin. Some users won't mind the change, some will. If you fall into this latter group (as I must profess that I do), the easy answer is to buy a Markins head without the clamp at all (their NQS version) and then add a clamp of your choosing from Really Right Stuff or Kirk.