There comes a point in every photographer’s journey where it is time to buy a tripod and a ball head to go on top of it. Most people make the mistake of buying a cheap setup that has flimsy legs, and a ball head that doesn’t lock solidly enough to support the weight of their equipment over the duration of a long exposure. Many years ago I made this mistake as well, so I’m all too familiar with the consequences and the frustration of broken tripod legs and creeping, or overly sticky ball heads.
The inevitable result is that you end up looking towards higher quality solutions because when the light is just right for two minutes, or the animal you have been waiting for finally decides to show itself, nobody wants to be messing with failing support gear instead of getting the shot that you likely spent so long waiting for.
People will happily spend thousands of dollars upgrading cameras and lenses for an almost imperceptible gain in image sharpness, without taking into account the massive effect that solid support can have in certain situations. Don’t waste time and money perpetually buying low-end support gear that does a bad job and needs to be replaced – spend the money once on a high-quality setup and then you won’t need to worry about it ever again.
- Discovering Really Right Stuff
- RRS Tripod Head Specifications
- Ball Heads
- Gimbal and Pano Heads
- Leveling Heads
- Monopod Head
- Dan’s RRS Frankenheads
- Where to Buy
Discovering Really Right Stuff
If you start to do some research into high quality ball heads, the name Really Right Stuff is going to appear pretty quickly. This is what happened to me all those years ago when I had thrown in the towel with my crappy, cheap setup and was looking for something that would potentially last the rest of my career. Mechanically, ball heads really aren’t that complicated, so yes, a well maintained and high-quality ball head can definitely last that long.
Back when I first encountered Really Right Stuff, it was the BH-40 head that caught my attention, and in particular it was a review by Scott Kelby where he called it “the ball head of the gods”. At the time of writing this, that was about 10 years ago and I still have that first BH-40 going strong, and pictured in this article.
I’m also going to walk you through what I call my “Frankenheads”
Since that first RRS purchase all those years ago, my career has developed and pushed me in many different directions. I’ve been lucky enough to purchase a variety of Really Right Stuff products to suit the specific needs of certain photographic projects and interests. An interest in wildlife photography lead to the purchase of several super telephoto lenses, in-turn requiring a gimbal head and a larger ball head. At the same time, adventure photography work that required increasingly lighter weight camera kits also pushed me towards smaller and lighter heads in the RRS lineup.
As it stands today I have have all of the available Really Right Stuff heads apart from the video-specific fluid heads, so it seemed like the perfect chance to perform a group test and thoroughly explain which heads are perfect for which kinds of photography or camera/lens combinations. I’m also going to walk you through what I call my “Frankenheads”, which are combinations of specific heads and RRS accessories that have solved certain problems for me over the years.
This is going to be a pretty huge post, but having used this gear for many years, I’m probably in a fairy unique position to be able to compare such a large range of their gear after such heavy usage. I trust RRS products implicitly, and whilst I’m friendly with several people in the company, have beta tested pre-production gear and have contributed to their magazine, I’m under no obligation to create this content. I buy all my RRS gear at full retail price just like you guys.
As usual, I may make a small commission if you click through my links and buy your RRS gear from B&H Photo. I really appreciate it when you do that because as you can imagine, this took me an incredible amount of time to create this content. If you found it useful, please consider using my B&H links because it won’t cost you a penny, and guarantees that I’ll be able to keep bringing you guys this kind of in-depth, free content in the future.
A solid support system (tripod + ball head) is becoming increasingly more important these days as camera resolutions continue to climb higher and higher. Critical pixel-level image sharpness is much harder to achieve when you have a camera such as the 50MP Fuji GFX, or the Canon 5Ds R. Every tiny little camera movement or vibration is amplified, and if you aren’t careful, images that appear soft when viewed at 100% are one of the first surprises you’ll get if you upgrade to a high megapixel camera.
Whilst the resolution of the average DSLR has increased dramatically in recent years, many people have not yet adjusted their perceptions of the stability they will require to get a sharp shot. If you are using a high megapixel camera, somewhere in the 50MP+ range, you might be leaving some of that available resolution on the table if you don’t have suitably solid support.
Really Right Stuff Ball Head and Gimbal Specifications
|Model||Height||Base Diameter||Ball Diameter||Weight||Tripod Mount||Capacity||Price (including lever clamp)|
|BH-55||3.7" (94 mm)||2.9" (73mm)||2.2" (55mm)||1.96lbs (890g)||3/8"-16||50lbs (23 kg)||$489|
|BH-40||3.1" (78mm)||2.1" (53mm)||1.6" (40mm)||15.7oz (445g)||3/8"-16||18lbs (8.1kg)||$405|
|BH-30||3.0" (75 mm)||1.6" (40 mm)||1.2" (30mm)||11.2oz (318g)||3/8"-16||15lbs (6.8 kg)||$295|
|BH-25||2.6" (66 mm)||1.3" (34 mm)||1 " (25 mm)||7.8oz (221g)||3/8"-16||8.8lbs (4 kg)||$188|
|BPC-16||2.0" (51mm)||N/A||0.63" (16mm)||4.4oz (125g)||1/4-20 thread & stud||5lbs (2.3kg)||$168|
|BC-18||1.8" (46mm)||N/A||0.71" (18mm)||3.7oz (106g)||1/4-20 stud||10 lbs (4.5kg)||$120|
|PG-01 with levelling base||7.75" (19.7cm)||6.6" (16.9cm)||N/A||1.2lbs (528g)||3/8"-16 / Arca dovetail||8lbs (3.6kg)||$335|
|PG-01 with flat base||7.5" (18.9cm)||6.6" (16.9cm)||N/A||1.1lbs (490g)||3/8"-16 / Arca dovetail||8lbs (3.6kg)||$285|
|PG-02||9.7" (24.6cm)||2.9" (7.4 cm)||N/A||2.4lbs (1.09kg)||3/8"-16||50 lb (23kg)||$747|
|FG-02||9.5" (24.1 cm)||Unknown||N/A||3.3 lb (1.5kg)||3/8"-16 / Arca dovetail||50 lb (23 kg)||$1235|
|MH-01||3.8" (95mm)||1.5" (38mm)||N/A||13.2oz (375g)||3/8"-16 / Arca dovetail||75lbs (34kg)||$240|
|MH-02||3.6" (91mm)||1.5" (38mm)||N/A||16.2oz (458g)||3/8"-16 / Arca dovetail||75lbs (34kg)||$370|
|TA-2U-LB||2.11" (53.56mm)||3.83" (97.21mm)||N/A||11.4oz (322g)||3/8"-16 thread/ stud / Versa 2-series||25lbs (11kg)||$345|
RRS Ball heads
This little, rather odd looking head is a tiny miracle, and I think it deserves more recognition than it gets at the moment. If you’re looking for a lightweight solution, perhaps to pair with a TFC-14 tripod, then I can’t think of anything else that comes close to the capacity of this head, in such a small package.
It’s not your typical ball head, so let’s talk about how it works… The BC-18 ($120)has a lever on it that unlocks the ball, and a screw clamp for securing the camera or lens. Rather oddly, it has a 1/4 20 stud on it instead of a threaded hole, which is the opposite to any other head you can think of. This definitely limits the ease of which you can use it on some tripods, but it’s designed this way so that it can be easily paired with the RRS TFA-01 table tripods, the Series 1 tripods or the Multiclamp – all of which do have a 1/4 20 threaded hole on them.
Instead of offering 90 degrees of movement in every direction, it only offers 45 degrees. This means that you really have to be using an L bracket on your camera if you want to get images in a portrait orientation. Clearly then, there are some compromises to having a head this small, but the huge plus point of this head is the incredible capacity that it can hold. The clamping force on the tiny ball is simply astounding. In terms of capacity, I put this far ahead of the BH-25 ball head. I used to use the BH-25 on my TFA-01, but it would often creep over long exposures with a load the size of a Canon 5D and 24-70. Not so with the BC-18. I use the BC-18 all the time to hold a 5D Mark IV and 24-70 f/2.8 for any length of exposure I can imagine.
As I said, the caveat is that you need an L bracket to make good use of this head, but if you have one on your camera, this is the head I’d recommend for the Multiclamp and the TFA-01. Personally, I love it on the TFC-14 tripod as well, but I’m in the lucky position to have that tripod as my designated ultralight tripod, whilst I also have another larger tripod for other days. The BC-18 is great if you want to shed weight on a long hike or climb, but if the TFC-14 was my only tripod, I’d want to pair it with a more traditional ball head, or at least just have the BC-18 as a second head to use on it when the time is right.
This smaller BPC-16 Microball ($168) was introduced a few years after the larger BP-18 and it adds a 90 degree drop-notch to the design, as well as full 360 degree panning once the head has been locked down by the main locking lever. Initially the drop notch excited me because I thought it might negate the need for an L plate when shooting vertically oriented photos. Unfortunately, the truth is that the head is just so tiny that any camera simply bumps into the top of your tripod when you try to drop it a full 90 degrees into the slot. This drop notch is therefore not used in the same way as you would usually use one on a larger ball head. It does allow a little more tilt if you angle the notch in the direction you need it to be, and thanks to the panning portion of the head that is nice and easy. When combined with an L plate, it also allows vertical panoramas to be captured.
The downside to this head is that it almost too small for its own good. The clamping force is not as high as the BP-18, and the clamp locking knob for securing your camera onto the head is not only tiny, but it also has very fine knurling on it which makes tightening it much harder than the considerably larger knob on the BP-18. I also found that the knob would get stuck easily in cold temperatures and it just generally lead to a lot of frustration.
In almost every situation, I would recommend the simpler, cheaper BP-18 over the BPC-16. You can always add the Panning Clamp to the BP-18 anyway (see Frankenhead section further down the page), which is something I have been doing for years. That solution is a touch more expensive but it’s leagues ahead of the BPC-16 in terms of ease of use and stability. The only person I would recommend the BPC-16 to is someone using a very small mirrorless camera who is absolutely obsessed with panoramic images. If you only occasionally shoot panos, it’s just not worth putting up with the compromises of this little head. I wanted to love it, I used it for months tying to love it, but in the end I went back to the BP-18 and I’m much happier with it.
I don’t have a huge amount of love for the BH-25 ($155). The BC-18 is better at holding heavier weights, whilst being smaller, lighter and cheaper. If you didn’t have an L bracket to use with the BC-18, and therefore felt forced into using a more traditional ball head with a 90 degree notch in it, I wouldn’t recommend using this with anything bigger than a medium-sized mirrorless setup with a small lens.
I’ve circled back to it many times over the 6 or 7 years that it as been in my kit, and every time I’ve come away wishing I’d used something else. It then goes back in my closet for another couple years until I forget why I didn’t like it last time. The step up in price to the BH-30 is not insignificant, at about $90, but the experience is entirely different. The BH-30 isn’t just a little better than the BH-25, it’s in a whole other league.
I also feel that the BH-25 somehow misses out on some of the RRS magic that most of their other products deliver. Everything else is unmistakably RRS. The feel of the beautiful machining, and the look of the products usually all come together in a package that just oozes quality and puts a smile on my face, even after paying the relatively high prices. With the BH-25 I feel like it could have almost any other brand name on it and it wouldn’t feel out of place, it just lacks that added sparkle that some of their other products have.
Having read through the positive reviews of this head on the RRS website recently, I’m aware that plenty of people seem quite happy with it. All I can do is relay my own feelings about it, based on my experience with it amongst the rest of the RRS ball head range. I think your money is better spent being saved up for the BH-30, or using the BC-18 if going ultra light is your goal.
This head pairs beautifully with the RRS Series 1 tripods, and of course others of a similar size from other manufacturers. As we work our way up in size on the list of ball heads, the BH-30 ($260) is the first one to have a dedicated panning knob which is definitely a handy thing if you want to do some basic panoramic photography without investing in more specific pano equipment.
This head is more than capable of handling a pro DSLR camera body with wide angle lenses for long exposure landscape photography. In fact, it’ll handle longer focal length lenses too, but at that point you’re really going to be more limited by the smaller tripod legs you’re likely placing the head on. For example, if I wanted to my 400mm lens on my BH-30, it would be the Series 1 tripod legs that would give me the most trouble with getting a steady shot, not the ball head.
For mirrorless users I think the BH-30 is the place to be in terms of capacity, but this head will also suit DSLR users who are placing a lot of importance on saving weight for travel, hiking and other athletic activities. As I mentioned above in the section about the BH-25, the BH-30 is a considerably better ball head and I think it is well worth the additional cost.
NOTE: The BH-40 in these photos is the original design that incorporates two 90 degree notches into it. A few years ago RRS updated the design to make it a little lighter, and in doing so they removed one of the notches. I don’t believe this will really make much functional difference, but several people have commended on my BH-40 YouTube review asking what this weird BH-40 version is. Answer: It’s the OG 😉
The BH-40 ($380) is a wonderful balance of stability and size, which I think it really key to its success. It doesn’t feel too big for a mirrorless setup if you had longer lenses, and it definitely doesn’t feel as though it’s not chunky and stable enough for professional landscape work with pro bodies – medium format cameras included. In short, it’s universally useable which is why it was the first RRS head that I ever purchased. I knew it would suit both my current-at-the-time setup, and also work just fine with anything larger that I purchased in the near and distant future. If you want to buy just one ball head for the duration of your career or hobby, this is going to be a brilliant choice. I wouldn’t be so definitive about saying that for the larger BH-55 simply because of its size and weight. Whilst the BH-40 isn’t a lightweight, I don’t think the weight would be too restrictive for people in most situations. You can definitely still hike and travel with this head.
I believe that RRS recommend it for lenses up to something like a 300mm f/2.8, but I’ve used it with much heavier lenses and it’s still solid. Most people will find that their tripod is the weak link in the stability chain when you get up to heavy setups like that. In reality, the majority of work with those heavy super telephoto lenses is done in sports and wildlife photography when a gimbal head is much more suitable for moving subjects anyway. For my long-lens mountain landscape work I use a Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II, and the BH-40 is a wonderful partner to it.
Having used both the BH-40 and the BH-55 side-by-side this past year, my conclusion is that the BH-40 is ‘enough’ ball head for the vast majority of people. Stepping up to the BH-55 ($455) doesn’t add any immediately perceivable stability in my book, and if you look at the numbers that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The BH-40 is rated to carry an 18lb load, and even a Canon 600mm f/4 is only 11lbs. In ten years of using the BH-40, I don’t think I ever experienced a moment where I thought “this isn’t stable enough”.
So why might you consider buying the BH-55? Why did I buy the BH-55?
The BH-40 is a great head, but the controls on the BH-55 are much nicer to use. They are more evenly spaced around the head, and the giant, main locking knob is such a pleasure to work with. I find that I simply have more detailed control over the tension and drag of the ball head. The larger, more spaced out controls are also much easier to operate with gloves on, and I seem to find myself in colder and colder climates every year.
Now I realise that some people are probably going to roll their eyes at this point, because none of what I just said makes any real difference to the photo that I end up taking, but it does have an effect on the overall experience of using the product. Whether or not such effects are worth the price premium over the BH-40 will be for you to decide. It’s maybe somewhat similar to using a nice Mercedes to drive to the supermarket, or using an Aston Martin. Both will get you to the supermarket in comfort, both are excellent cars, but the Aston Martin might just leave you with a bigger smile on your face. If you can afford the Aston Martin, and it brings additional enjoyment to the experience then why not?
Another small part of the reason for buying the BH-55 was the assurance that I had done everything I can reasonably do to get the most out of my camera. I know that technically the BH-40 is rated to hold even the heaviest of my camera setups, and I know that in the history of using that head I haven’t had any stability issues. But what if they first time I did wish for more was mid-way though a photographic expedition that had cost me ten thousand dollars to execute? The BH-55 is rated to a gigantic 50lb load, so there’s some serious overhead there for even the heaviest camera setup I can imagine. With the BH-55, I’m never ever going to think “would it have been sharper if I’d used a different head?”. Perhaps this is psychological, but it’s one thing less to think about and I’ve come to appreciate that, and put value on it as the years of work go by. The price difference between a BH-40 and BH-55 is about $80, and when I’m putting it on a $1000 tripod, and then putting over $10,000 of camera gear on top of it, you can maybe start to see why these small comforts and assurances are worth the relatively small amount of extra money.
One thing we haven’t yet talked about is the weight of this head… at 1.6lbs, it’s considerably heavier than the 13oz BH-40! All the stability assurances in the world aren’t worth a damn if you give up on your hike before you get to where you’re going because you are exhausted. I definitely don’t take this head everywhere with me, but that’s why I have my ultralight BC-18/TFC-14 combination as well. Generally speaking I’ll take the 55 when I’m just carrying camera gear, no matter how far the hike, but when it comes to also carrying additional equipment such as overnight camping gear or climbing gear, I’ll drop down to a lighter head.
Hopefully my honest thoughts on these heads will have given you some insight into which will be the one for you!
RRS Gimbal / Pano Heads
Currently RRS makes three gimbal/pano head: The PG-01 ($240+), the PG-02 ($735) and a fluid dampened version of the PG-02 called the FG-02 for video shooters. Careful thought has gone into these heads so that they can be used for both traditional gimbal usage with a super telephoto lens, and also as either a single or multi-row pano head. Most gimbal heads on the market cannot be used for multi-row panos as there is no way to adjust the horizontal positioning of the camera to make sure it’s rotating around the centre point. If you’re someone who needs a gimbal for wildlife photography, but also likes to shoot panoramic images, this fact alone should put the PG-02 at the top of your list for consideration.
The PG-02 was a revelation to me when I got it a few years ago to use for wildlife photography. It’s an absolute breeze to get it balanced with your super telephoto lens, making it effortless to swing the lens whilst tracking moving wildlife. Unlike most other gimbals, this one dismantles into several pieces which makes it much easier to pack into a bag, and it also means that you can just use the horizontal arm with a clamp on it to do single-row panoramas. It also means that you can choose to use the head in either “side-mount” gimbal mode, or “cradle mode”. I use the side-mount method because it cuts down on weight by not needing the cradle, and this also makes it easier to use the head as a multi-row pano head by simply adding a nodal-slide to that side clamp. The head is definitely strong enough to side mount any super telephoto lens, so to be honest I really don’t know why anyone would want to bother carrying the cradle around. Perhaps it’s a mental thing? To some people the side-mount method can look a bit sketchy, but I can assure you that it is rock solid, and it also saves you quite a bit of money by going that route, money which you can use to buy a leveling head instead!
If you have an L-bracket on your camera, you can also mount your camera directly to the side clamp. Assuming you are also using leveling head, it can also negate the need to even bother with a ball head at all. You have left and right panning motion, vertical panning and a leveling head for additional small tilt adjustments in any direction. It’s not as fast as using a ball head, but it almost slows you down in a good way and forces you to really take a methodical approach to you composition. If I’m headed on a trip where I plan on doing a wide range of photography, from landscapes to panos and wildlife, I’ve no qualms in taking the PG-02 as my one and only tripod head when space and weight allowance is at a premium.
Updated 2018 Version of the PG-02
In 2018 RRS updated the PG-02 vertical arm to include a new, smaller locking lever instead of the huge know that you see in the photos above. Below you will see some photos comparing the old version with the new version. The new version is a little lighter and I find it quite a bit easier to pack since the head width is smaller. The locking action itself is excellent, and easier/faster to engage than spinning the big knob on the old version.
The first thing to be aware of with the PG-01 is that it’s primary intended usage is as a multi-row panoramic head and not as a gimbal. It can be used as a gimbal with lighter lenses such as a Canon 100-400 and maybe up to occasional usage with something like a 400mm f/4 DO II, but the gimbal experience will be considerably less enjoyable than if you were using the PG-02, it’s simply too small and light to be used with the giant super telephoto lenses. If you want both a pano head and a gimbal for day-to-day usage, the PG-02 is what you need. If you primarily want a pano head, have a camera that falls within my weight recommendations for this head (more on this in a second), and plan to only use the gimbal functionality a handful of times a year with smaller lenses, this can definitely work.
Just like the PG-02, the PG-01 can be dismantled into a few different pieces which makes it extremely convenient for travel. As you can see from the photos, it is considerably smaller and lighter than the PG-02, making it ideal for folks that like to hike to their pano landscape locations. Unlike the PG-02, the the PG-01 is also available with the option of having a leveling head built right into it. This is great, because leveling heads on their own tend to be quite big and bulky, which would really counter the lightweight design of the head. The price difference between the version of the PG-01 with and without the leveling head is slight, so I would definitely recommend getting it as it makes the setup an absolute breeze.
There’s one feature about the PG-01 design that I definitely don’t like and that’s the knobs that tighten the panning base rotation and the vertical axis rotation. They are knurled to give you grip, but they don’t give you a lot of leverage and I find it hard to tighten them with a heavy load. This head is ideal with a lightweight mirrorless setup, but I have been disappointed with its stability when used with a regular DSLR, and you can absolutely forget about using it with a pro-sized DSLR. With a setup like a Canon 5D Mark IV and a 16-35 or 24-70, you are really pushing the limits of its weight capacity, and I think you’ll come away disappointed with the performance. I know I have ruined several shots by really pushing the limits like this and taking this head instead of my PG-02 when I needed a lightweight setup. Be wary of this, and only buy the PG-01 if your primary camera is a lightweight mirrorless setup, or if you now that you won’t be using particularly long exposures and the head is being used more for angular guidance and to augment handholding (plausible usage if you are trying to travel ultralight).
For the very occasional gimbal usage that I mentioned was possible with this head, the weight consideration is a little looser because you don’t actually lock the head when you’re using it like this. I have used a 5D Mark IV with a 100-400 on it in this mode, but such a setup wold definitely not lock solidly for long exposure landscape photography.
The FG-02 ($1398) is very similar to the PG-02, except that it has fluid dampening cartridges in both the horizontal panning base and the vertical arm. The dampening can be adjusted in three stages of resistance by pressing the small buttons – left, right or both. If you’re looking to shoot video with a long lens, this is the solution for you. Due to the more specialist nature of this head, note that they are built to order, so the lead time to get your hands on one would be at least a couple of weeks.
RRS Leveling Heads
A leveling head sit between your tripod and your ball head to allow you to perfectly level the ball head in a matter of seconds. Doing so without a leveling head can be tricky because you have to manipulate the three legs of the tripod individually. Whilst possible, it’s time-consuming.
A perfectly level tripod head is necessary for panoramic photography, as well as when using a gimbal or a video head. If the tripod isn’t level, the image in the viewfinder will dip up and down as the camera is rotated.
Really Right Stuff make several different leveling heads to suit their range of tripods, and all of them have the option of including a leveling-clamp on the top, to aid with fast switching between different types of heads.
TA-2U Universal and Series-2 Leveling Head
In 2016 RRS discontinued the TA-2 series-2 leveling head, and the Universal Leveling Head and combined them both into one new product called the TA-2U Leveling Head. It has a much lighter and lower profile design than the previous heads that it replaces. This combination design means it can be used in in the apex of a series-2 TVC tripod (see above photo), but it also has a 3/8″ 16 stud on the bottom to give it universal attachment to other tripod brands. Combining two such similar heads into one new head was a good idea, and leaves us with a much more functional product, as well as a less complicated product line. Watch the video below to take a closer look.
RRS Series 2 Leveling Head TA-2 (now discontinued)
To install the Series 2 leveling head you remove the tripod’s apex plate and slot the head into its place. The head has a hook on the underside, but the majority of it is all above the tripod legs, the importance of which will become more apparent when we look at the TA-3 in the next sub-section. The TA-2 offers 30 degrees of movement in all directions once the silver locking collar has been loosened.
I have a TA-2 mounted permanently to my Series 2 tripod because I’m forever switching between a ball head and my gimbal. Whilst it does the job, it’s not my favourite piece of RRS gear because the locking collar seems to get a big clogged with dirt and there isn’t an easy way to clean it out. I much prefer the design of the TA-3.
RRS Series 3 Leveling Head TA-3
The TA-3 also features 30 degrees of movement in all directions, but this time the locking mechanism is positioned under the tripod. The downside of this is that it means the tripod can’t be put flat on the ground, but RRS do offer three different handle sizes to allow you to work with that problem. If you go with either of the two shorter handles, you’ll lose having a hook on the bottom. Something to be aware of.
The benefit of this design is that it’s easier to clean, and it also features a standard 75mm video bowl as part of the design. If you have a video fluid head that has a 75mm ball on it, you can slot it right into the bowl from the TA-3. I love this leveling head!
RRS Series 4 Leveling Head TA-4
The TA-4 is one of the very few RRS heads that I don’t have in my collection, but the design is identical to the TA-3, just slightly larger in all dimensions. Like the TA-3, you can choose from a variety of bottom handles, and with this on the video bowl element of the head is 100mm in diameter instead of 75mm. It should also be noted that you can use a TA-3 leveling head on a series 4 tripod by using the series 3 to series 4 video bowl adapter. You might want to do this to save some weight, or if you have an existing TA-3 head in your collection.
RRS Series 1 Leveling Head (sort of)
RRS don’t make a specific leveling head for their series 1 tripod, but you can actually use the BC-18 Microball for the exact same effect. All you need to do is have a dovetail plate on the bottom of the head that you’re trying to level. An excellent option is to clamp the RRS panning clamp into the BC-18, with a panoramic rail in the clamp. The BC-18 takes care of the leveling and the panning clamp has the necessary bubble level in it to check that. Perfect panos in a relatively lightweight setup.
RRS Monopod Head
As you can tell from the photos, my MH-01 ($240) monopod head has been through a lot with me! Unlike a ball head, this head only allows you to move the camera in one axis and it works great with super telephoto lenses that have a tripod collar. The lens’ own collar allows you to rotate the camera between portrait and landscape orientation, and the monopod head simply allows you more freedom when aiming at something that’s much higher or lower than you are. What’s nice about the head is that the base of it features a dovetail, so that if you want to mount a quick release clamp on your monopod, you could add and remove the head as needed. If you want it to be more permanent, it has a 3/8 16 thread on the bottom.
If you shoot field sports where you’re pretty much always shooting something roughly at your level, there’s no good reason to buy this monopod head. On the other hand, if you’re shooting wildlife then you never really know where things will be. Without a monopod head, tilting the lens up at a severe angle requires an uncomfortable crouching movement that could very well mitigate all of the stabilization you were trying to add by using a monopod. Things just get awkward very quickly, so it’s particularly useful for people who want to photograph birds in flight using a monopod instead of a full tripod and gimbal. Also, if I was on a wildlife walk through a jungle, there’s no way I’d be without this setup! Monopod deployment is so much quicker than a tripod, and this would give you almost instant stabilization, including the ability to tilt the camera up towards the canopy without awkward body positions.
I personally found a huge amount of use for it when shooting action sports such as skiing and snowboarding, where I was often standing below an athlete on a steep slope, waiting for them to move down to me. With the MH-01 I could track that vertical descent without having to shift my body around and tilt the monopod.
I have always used the MH-01 version of this head that doesn’t have the rotating clamp on it, and that has been fine because I would only use this with a longer lens that has a lens collar and foot. If you wanted to use a shorter lens with your monopod, and attach the body of the camera to the head, you’ll have to figure out if you need to swap quickly between fore-aft tilt and left-right tilt. The MH-02 allows this on the fly, whereas the MH-01 requires you to loosen the clamp with a tool to rotate it 90 degrees.
The MH-01 is a very simple design that doesn’t have fancy bearings or greased up balls in it. This is a definite benefit because it means that you can throw it around in the dirt and not have to worry about it at all. If you do get it filthy, just stick it under a tap for a few seconds and it’ll be good to go again. For the work I’ve always done with it, that has been useful. One minute I’ll be using the monopod, then the next minute I’ll be lying in the dirt trying to get a low angle, having tossed the monopod quickly to the side. It has been muddy, sandy, frozen and regularly submerged in water as an extension pole for my underwater camera setup. After all that, it’s as smooth as the day I got it and I’ve literally done zero maintenance on it in 8 years of use!
When buying an MH-01 you’ll have the option to choose between a lever-release clamp and a screw clamp. Unlike all my other RRS heads, with this one I went with the screw clamp. The reason for this is that the screw clamp, when done up tight, is basically impossible to release accidentally. In regular usage with tripods I’m not concerned about accidentally releasing a lever-clamp at all, but it’s the way I often carry a monopod that has me more concerned. With a super telephoto lens on the monopod, I’ll often put it over my shoulder while I move to a new location. Most backpacks have a number of nylon loops on the shoulder straps and if one of these were to get caught around the lever of the clamp, it could potentially release it and send $15,000 of camera gear crashing to the floor. This is the only scenario that I’d ever worry about using a lever-release clamp.
Over the years, I’ve solved a number of photographic conundrums using odd combinations of RRS heads and Arca-Swiss compatible dovetail accessories. Some of them have fairly universal application so I’m presenting these ones to you here.
The Lightweight Pano Head
I use the BC-18 Microball on my Series 1 tripod when I need to travel light. Since there is no Series 1 leveling head option, I usually carry a PC-LR panning clamp with me to create this mini pano head. With a regular ball head the panning base is below the ball, which means you can’t use the ball to level the entire head head to ensure a level pan. With this magic little setup here, the panning base is above the ball, which means you can perfectly level the panning clamp using the ball, and then use it to rotate the camera for panoramic images. If I’m shooting wide, or with foreground objects then I’ll add a nodal slide to this setup.
If your camera has an L bracket on it, this little combination here is incredibly powerful!
The RRS Frankengimbal (PG-OHWHAT?)
If you don’t have the funds to buy a separate gimbal head, or perhaps you are limited by weight when travelling, this is an interesting option that combines a ball head with a MPR-CL II nodal slide and the PC-LR panning clamp. I wouldn’t go using this with my big super telephoto lenses, but it works really well for anything up to the size of a 70-200 f/2.8 or a 100-400mm as in the photo. In the photographed setup above, I’m using a BH-55 ball head at the base, but you can use any ball head that has a separate panning base. Simply flip the clamp of the ball head in to the 90 degree notch and lock it there. Then loosen the panning base lock knob to allow free rotation.
One thing you do lack, as compared to the proper gimbal heads (PG-01, PG-02), is the ability to adjust the horizontal positioning of the camera to get it directly above the point o rotation. Not an ideal option for those looking to make spherical panos.
Sometimes you need to get really low to the ground for wildlife photography, and particularly if you’re on a beach, it helps to have a setup that you can slide along the sand when you need to approach a subject quietly. A few companies make specific solutions for this, but you can achieve the same thing by using a cheap $10 frisbee from Amazon, and the RRS tabletop tripod with a BC-18 Microball ($221 for package) on it. Believe it or not, both the tripod and the head are weight-rated for this super telephoto setup with room to spare.
If you have a PG-02 gimbal for wildlife photography, you don’t need to buy a panning clamp and a nodal slide for single-row panoramic photography. All you need to do is add an FAS clamp to the horizontal part of the gimbal. The great thing about this setup is that unlike the nodal slides that have a fixed clamp on the end, like the MPR-CL II, this setup allows you to use both long lenses and short prime lenses that have a very small no-parallax point. You can even use a fisheye lens as seen in this configuration, if you’re looking to do full spherical imaging.
If you combine the RRS monopod head with one of their panning clamps then you have a very functional multipurpose setup, especially if you also a leveling head on the tripod. The panning clamp does the work of the panning base in a regular ball head, and the monopod head can give you fore/aft tilt. Any small amount of left/right tilt and horizon leveling can be done with the leveling head. If you have an L bracket on your camera, there’s actually very little you can’t do with this simple setup. If you’re on a trip where weight is a consideration, but you want to use both a tripod and a monopod, this is a very workable setup.
Wrapping it Up
I’m not going to talk about RRS alternatives, or pretend like these are all “reviews” of the products. I’ve purchased all of these with my own money, so clearly I think they must be pretty good. What I hope I’ve achieved is to help you guys figure out which of these great products might be the one for you. Aside from RRS employees, I doubt there’s many people out there that have as much experience with such a broad range of their products, so feel free to ask questions in the comments below.
Where to Buy
Really Right Stuff are an American company, and fine folks to deal with directly from their own online store. However, B&H Photo also stocks all their products, and likely offers cheaper shipping options for most people. I’m in Canada and B&H will ship any of these items to me for free, and also let me pre-pay all tax and duties, whereas shipping direct from RRS has always been incredibly expensive. The same can be said for many other international destinations and of course free shipping is available from B&H within the US as well.
RRS also have an Amazon store for those that prefer to shop with them, although certainly at the moment it’s more of a “greatest hits” store that just has the most popular products. That said, it does have the main ball heads such as the BH-55, BH-40 and BH-30.
If you do decide to buy from B&H Photo or Amazon, I’m always grateful if you click the links on this page. I may make a small commission when you do this, and that’s what allows me to dedicate so much time and effort into creating useful resources such as this one. Thanks for your consideration!
Part 2: The RRS Tripod Guide
Not unsurprisingly, many people who buy RRS tripods heads are also considering RRS tripods. Not only out of brand loyalty, but because the tripods are designed to perfectly match the dimensions of the various RRS heads described on this page.
To help the tripod hunters out there, I have also written an extensive Really Right Stuff Tripod Guide. The tripod guide covers all of the many tripod options that are available from RRS, as well as offering my advice on topics such as how tall of a tripod you should buy, and how many leg sections your tripod should have.