Time to change your head?
5 Dec 2008
When you travel a lot by plane, you will inevitably encounter flights where the connections are not seamless ... which means you'll end up with a lot of time on your hands. Rather than being a nuisance, such layovers tend to be a boon for a photographer. There are visions to be captured, irrespective of whether you're hitting a town you've never seen before or you're revisiting a place you've already been to.
Who hasn't walked a town and placed a camera on a mailbox or has dragged a rubbish bin into place to act as makeshift tripod. While previously passers-by would have just looked upon you with great pity or disdain, the security-conscious world of today immediately eyes you with deep suspicion. And more likely than not you'll be told to move on by people of authority who seemingly pop out of nowhere. You'd be lucky if you get the shot you want. So, you decide that next time you'll bring your tripod as a carry-on rather than having it tucked away in your check-in luggage.
And this is where many of us run into trouble. I use a Nikon D300 which when coupled with a good, but heavy all-round lens such as the Nikon 18-200VR requires both a substantive tripod and a good and sturdy head. Most three-way heads have removable handles which seems really wonderful as it allows you to pack them economically in your carry-on luggage. Unfortunately, airport security does not see it quite that way. The handles resemble screwdrivers and thus are deemed weapons. If you leave the head assembled, you may get it through or you may not, depending on how officious and suspicious the security staff are. If they refuse, you'll have to check the tripod in the hold. Unless you have a really well-padded bag with you, you will spend the entire flight fretting whether your precious tripod will re-appear on the baggage carousel in one or in many pieces.
So, the obvious solution is a ball head. While they have got no detachable handles sticking out, ball heads tend to limit your options of framing a shot. Looking round the web for the various ball head designs, I ran across the concept of an off-centre ball head.
In such tripod heads the faceplate is supported in a ball socket, which in itself sits in a ring that turns. The ball head sits off centre and is locked into position by a single, large-sized wheel. A graded degree ring with a second locking wheel allows the head to turn horizontally (for pan shots). Digging online through the French Patent Archives (I am heritage manager by trade...) I discovered that Gitzo invented the off-centre ball head over 50 years ago (patented in 1956). Since then the movement of the head has been improved and the use of magnesium and ultra-smooth surfaces ensure both a light-weight and an effortless operation.
I settled on the Gitzo GH2750QR, an off centre ball head with a quick release plate. It weighs less than 500 grams and can support up to 5kg (for the Imperial ones out there, it weighs about a pound and can carry up to 11 pounds). Admittedly, it's not a cheap piece of gear.
So, is it worth it?
Most equipment reviews you tend to read are based on a press release and the reviewer playing with the equipment for day or two. My comments are based on four months' experience of giving that tripod head a heavy workout in all sorts of situations from shooting landscapes to buildings to small objects.
So what can it do? Well, wrong question. The question is, what can it not do! Basically, you can twist and turn the head effortlessly in every imaginable direction. The only hindrance, effectively, are the legs of the tripod which can get in the way when you freely move the camera at extreme downward angles. But that's unavoidable. After all, it's a tripod and not a hover-board.
The Gitzo takes a while to get used to, if you are accustomed to the structured motions of a three-way head. When you first loosen the locking screw of the ball head the camera seems to go limp in your hand and move uncontrollably. Once you understand how the head works, though, this is a real bonus. With one hand you can twist and turn the camera to the angle you want, with the other you lock the head into position. And unlike many three-way heads, the design of the Gitzo off centre ball head does not disadvantage left-handed people!
Ok, so where is the catch? Well, the price for one. It ain't cheap. But I think every cent you pay is well spent given the build quality and what it can do.
The only setback is inherent in all ball heads. There is a tendency for the camera to drift immediately after locking. It only occurs when the camera is at right angles to the tripod (which means you are attempting a shot in portrait mode). With the Gitzo, that drift is truly microscopic. The drift does not matter in at all, except when shooting macro at very close range. There it can mess up your framing a tad. I have learned to live with that drift and can now judge its distance. If you consider the forces that are exerted by a camera with the ball head facing sideways, it is amazing how small that drift actually is.
When I got the Gitzo I kept my Manfrotto three-way head--"just in case"--but it has been in the cupboard ever since. Four months on, the Manfrotto is now looking for a buyer.
The French colloquially call the Gitzo off-centre ballhead 'tete de canard' ('duck's head'). If you think about the freedom of movement a duck has with its beak, then this is a very apt comparison indeed. And with the modern styling, the Gitzo GH2750QR is no ugly duckling either!
Oh yes..and what about the airport security? Can they still stop you with a Gitzo GH2750QR? Sure they can, but only if encounter a knuckle-dragger who deems that your tripod can be used as a war club...and as Neandertals are supposed to be extinct, that's a really remote possibility....