Many consider the Really Right Stuff BH-55 to be the ultimate ball head and it is perhaps the most-respected and most-loved ball head on the planet. Put a group of serious photographers together and the BH-55 head will likely be the most-represented and those who are most photo-gear-knowledgeable will likely have it or it will be at the top of their wish list.
Long ago, I purchased and used a BH-55 for a about a year. While it was a great head, I had another great head and ended up selling the BH-55 for a couple of reasons, including the slip-stick behavior it exhibited when locked nearly tight and the comparatively-strong amount force required to lock the ball head tight. When I learned that RRS had made multiple revisions to this head, I added a BH-55 to my shopping list and eventually purchased another one. That proved to be a good move as RRS completely resolved those two issues. This head is awesome.
Before proceeding into the review, let's take a quick look at the reasons for getting a ball-style head.
There are a variety of tripod head types available, including pan/tilt heads, geared heads, gimbal heads, fluid heads, etc. Some of these heads have features that make them an easy first-choice for certain uses, but none come close to the versatility of ball heads and for general purpose needs, I nearly always select a ball head.
Ball heads consist of a ball (with a neck and [usually] a clamp) that pivots inside a housing that is typically very compact. A ball lock knob is provided and when tightened, it quickly locks the ball in place within the body in whatever position it happens to be in at the time. The range of ball motion is significant and a drop notch is typically provided for up to 180° of overall vertical movement with a panning base typically rotating 360°.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a ball head is the speed and simplicity in which a camera can be set up and locked into place. Simply extend your tripod to the desired height without much consideration given to precise levelness (as long as it is not at risk for falling over). With the camera locked into the head's clamp, loosen the head's ball lock knob, pivot the camera to the desired position and lock the knob. Done. You are ready to photograph.
Ball heads are the best type of tripod head for general purpose use and they play a crucial role in my support kit. I own a handful of them, have been privileged to use the best available, know firsthand how much of a difference quality makes in this accessory and, especially because I have to use what I am reviewing, am always very reluctant to review anything but top-of-the-line tripod heads.
Ball heads come in a wide range of sizes, from models that can barely hold your phone safely to heads that can easily hold the largest DSLR lenses ever made. As a generalization, within product lines, the larger the head, the stronger it is and the more it costs. As with tripods, ball head selection involves finding a model that offers the right balance between load capacity, dimensions, weight and cost along with the features and quality it offers relative to needs.
Let's take a look at the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head's measurements and specs alongside its siblings, the BH-40 and BH-30.
|Load Capacity||50.0 lb||(22.7kg)||18.0 lb||(8.2 kg)||15.0 lb||(6.8 kg)|
|Weight||31.4 oz||(889 g)||17.1 oz||(485 g)||11.2 oz||(318 g)|
|Measured Weight||31.2 oz||(885 g)||17.21 oz||(488 g)||11.2 oz||(317 g)|
|Height||3.7"||(94 mm)||3.0"||(76 mm)||3.0"||(76 mm)|
|Base Diameter||2.9"||(74 mm)||2.1"||(53 mm)||1.6"||(41 mm)|
|Max Diameter||4.59"||(116.0 mm)||4.07"||(103.4 mm)||3.28"||(83.3 mm)|
|Min Diameter||2.86"||(72.5 mm)||2.08"||(52.7 mm)||1.61"||(40.7 mm)|
|Main Chassis Width||2.86"||(72.5 mm)||2.08"||(52.7 mm)||1.61"||(40.7 mm)|
|Ball Sphere Diameter||1.97"||(50.0 mm)||1.57"||(40.0 mm)||1.18"||(30.0 mm)|
|Ball Stem Diameter||0.79"||(19.9 mm)||0.58"||(14.7 mm)||0.50"||(12.7 mm)|
|Ball Stem Height||0.55"||(13.8 mm)||0.43"||(10.8 mm)||0.50"||(12.7 mm)|
|Ball Lock Knob Max Diameter||1.64"||(41.5 mm)||1.86"||(47.3 mm)||1.63"||(41.2 mm)|
|Tension Control Knob Max Diameter||0.74"||(18.8 mm)||0.71"||(18.0 mm)||n/a||(n/a)|
|Panning Brake Knob Max Diameter||0.81"||(20.4 mm)||0.87"||(22.1 mm)||0.92"||(23.4 mm)|
Let's take a closer look at this information.
The height of a ball head is an interesting aspect. The lower the height, the closer your camera and lens are to the tripod's apex and all other aspects being equal, that means a stronger and lower-vibration setup overall that is also slightly less-likely to topple over. It also means less vertical space is consumed by the head, an aspect especially welcomed when packing in a case (tripods tend to be long to begin with).
But, as the overall head height becomes shorter, the working space on the head becomes compressed and the clamp (and potentially the camera) more-readily impacts other parts of the head, including the ball lock knob. Also, sometimes a slight height addition to the tripod is welcomed, allowing your camera to be positioned slightly higher. Conversely, a taller head means the tripod setup cannot go as low to the ground as when a shorter head is in use.
One of the reasons that a head is made taller is because a larger ball and ball housing are desired and more space is required to make that larger size work. A larger ball and ball housing often translate directly into a stronger head with a smoother action. A longer stem on the ball is another reason a head can increase in height. A longer stem can provide more clearance, but the camera on top of the longer stem tilts farther left and right when leveling adjustments are being made (typically a minor detail). If not substantial enough in thickness, the longer stem will allow for more vibration.
The size of the ball and ball housing also mandates, at least to some extent, the width of the ball head. The head diameter becomes especially important when using a "traveler" style tripod that allows the legs to be folded completely back over the head itself with a too-wide head not allowing the legs to fold fully closed. On a standard tripod, I often find the head diameter to be a minor factor in my ball head choice.
Putting the height and width together results in an overall size and smaller is easier to pack. Weight is often proportional to a ball head's size. Because metals are typically needed for the required strength and rigidity, ball heads are usually very dense with the overall size typically making a noticeable difference in the weight spec. If I'm flying with a tripod, the head usually goes in my carry-on backpack, not only for security reasons, but because I usually need to save the weight in my checked bag and ball heads' size-to-weight ratio usually make them a top choice for stowing in my carry-on.
The BH-55 is a full-sized head, designed for handling the heaviest camera with ease and for being easy to use with all-sized gear. It is low profile, being relatively short, yet with a large-sized ball and a moderately long stem that has a significant diameter. The shortness of the head does enable the clamp to come in contact with the knobs and back of the head. This head is built like a rock and being rock-like involves some weight penalty. This is a relatively heavy ball head and that weight is perhaps this head's biggest drawback.
The base diameter can be a minimum factor in terms of a head's lateral strength. A wider base can be made laterally stronger than a narrow one, everything else being equal, of course. However, if a head's base is wider than the tripod's top plate, the latter becomes the minimum factor.
In general, ball heads are given a base dimension that corresponds to the tripod top plate size it is likely to be used on and that is generally what you are looking for in this spec. While a ball head with a base narrower than the tripod top plate can be used without issue, I do not like pairing a ball head with a base wider than the tripod top plate. The BH-55 base matches up perfectly with the Really Right Stuff TVC-34 Carbon Fiber Tripod's top plate and that is a perfect combination (shown above). The BH-55 is also a great match for many other 3-series and higher tripod models including the Gitzo GT3543LS.
With the size of the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head addressed, I'll circle back to the first spec in the above list, load capacity. As with tripods, I am not familiar with any ball head load capacity rating standards and how much faith we put in this number is related to how much we trust the source specifying it. I have said before that I have "loads" of trust in Really Right Stuff. Also as with tripods, an oft-used rule of thumb is for tripod head load capacity to exceed the weight of the gear intended to be mounted on it by at least 2x. While the stated load capacity can be placed on most ball heads, the amount of vibration experienced can become high. Don't underestimate the importance of vibration control as there are many causes of vibration including wind. Also, locking a rated-load down tightly enough for gear safety becomes another issue, especially when locked off-center.
I gave the BH-55 what seemed like an extreme test. With the clamp positioned to just-shy of its 90° limit and the ball lock knob tightened firmly, I put my entire body weight on the off-angle clamp. I weigh 170 lb (77 kg) and the clamp didn't move. That's impressive. Exceeding the manufacturer load rating may void the warranty and may cause damage to the head, but in this case, I think the load rating is a conservative one.
I'll provide more-specific gear capacity advice later in the review, but at this point, hopefully you know if the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head is appropriately-sized for your application.
I love simplistic product names and ones that are meaningful tend to be my favorites. It doesn't get much better than "BH-55" representing "Ball Head" and a "55" mm Ball.
Let's take the beautifully-designed Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head for a spin. Literally. Mouse over (or tap) the numeric labels under the product image to see a variety of views of this head.
Most ball heads share a similar overall design and the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head is included in that group.
Less normal is Really Right Stuff's meticulous attention to detail and uncompromising design. All components, including the knobs (all are captive), are machined from solid aircraft aluminum or stainless steel for a high-precision product. As with all of Really Right Stuff's products, aesthetics were not compromised. The Really Right Stuff ball heads are very sharp-looking with a much-desired clean, simple design. The quality black matte finish is very nice and optimal for avoiding reflections (though marks from fingernails, branches, etc. readily show). Silver knobs provide an attractive touch of contrasting color.
Ball heads, by definition, must have a ball and something has to hold that ball in place. Call it the body, chassis, etc., but it is a key component and typically the most significant part of a ball head. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head's body is included in the precision CNC-machined (vs. cast-molded) parts list, this one from aircraft aluminum. It is very substantial in size and attractive in shape.
The ball lock knob is generally the biggest knob on a ball head and it is probably the ball head feature that you will interact with the most. These knobs are generally rounded or in a lever shape. Levers provide more torque for the space they consume and they tend to have a longer radius though they often need to be adjusted (typically levers are spring-loaded and can be pulled out to change their orientation), at least initially, to avoid contacting the clamp. Round knobs generally have a smaller radius relative to the body size, but the I find this design easier to roll with fingers.
The RRS BH-55 ball lock knob is the rounded type and it is a huge 1.64" (41.5 mm) at its maximum diameter. The ribbed knob is machined from aluminum, is attractively integrated into the body and is shaped for an as-good-as-it-gets comfort in use. The knob is extremely smooth and effortlessly locks the ball into place.
It is easy to very quickly discern a great deal about a ball head's expected performance using only the ball lock knob. You will find me at trade shows gripping ball head clamps and applying significant torque while tightening the locking knobs. In addition to a bruised palm, this test quickly gives me several key indicators of the head's expected performance.
First, the test tells me the amount of main knob torque required to completely lock the ball. Some ball heads require very little pressure applied to the knob and others require very significant amounts of pressure with the ball never becoming completely locked under heavy load (sorry to say that I've even broken a couple of ball lock knobs attempting this). The former is my strong preference and the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head performs excellently in that regard. With the help of a relatively large locking knob relative to the size of the head, only a modest amount of force is required to lock the BH-55's ball. In this regard, the current revision BH-55 is noticeably upgraded from the model I previously owned.
Second, and closely-related to the first, the lock knob test tells me the overall strength of the head. As mentioned, some heads never completely lock and are limited to carrying lighter loads (heavier camera setups flop over too easily). To be fair, not all heads are designed for the type of load I'm applying, but with the weight (and cost) of DSLR gear, I'm very cautious about using a head that doesn't lock very tightly. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head locks down very tightly, again, with only a modest amount of torque applied to the ball lock knob.
The third attribute this test makes clear to me is the smoothness of the ball as it becomes locked. Ideally, the ball will continue to move very smoothly right up until the point where it locks completely, allowing precise adjustments until lock-up occurs. On the other extreme, some balls begins to exhibit a nasty slip-stick action as they become tight. Kinetic friction coefficients are lower than static friction coefficients and when a ball head reaches the point of changeover from kinetic (moving) to static (not moving, locked) friction, the slip-stick phenomenon can occur. The resulting jerky slip-stick motion makes fine-tuning subject framing a bit more challenging. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head has only a small/minor amount of this behavior when close to being locked and the current head revision works better than my first BH-55 in this regard.
One more important lock knob test: Most heads can be locked down tightly, but as they tighten, sometimes the ball moves slightly inside the housing – moving the camera position slightly with it. This drives me crazy. I'm using a tripod because I want to lock down perfect subject framing. If I have to guess where that framing will be after the head is tightened, I'm going to quickly get frustrated and the setup process becomes potentially time consuming. There have been some otherwise very nice ball heads on the market that I have avoided because of this issue. With the ball tension knob properly-adjusted, the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head's ball lock knob moves the ball only a tiny amount even with a narrow 600mm lens angle of view in use. This movement is not an issue. This head is a stellar performer in this regard.
The BH-55's body surrounds the ball with Delrin, a dimensionally-stable engineering thermoplastic ideal for high precision parts that require high stiffness and low friction. The Delrin provides a smooth surface for the ball to move against and protects the ball stem from metal-on-metal impact at the edge of the body.
Ball tension control knobs are a common feature on quality mid and larger-sized ball head models. These permit the minimum drag/friction level on the ball to be set.
The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head has a shaped machined aluminum tension adjustment knob with a very adequate 0.74" (18.8 mm) maximum diameter. Some heads include the tension screw on the ball lock knob instead of having an additional knob on the head. I like those compact designs that leave one less knob to confuse with the panning base locking screw and with many of us using a set-and-forget tension setting strategy, having this adjustment out of the way yet easily fingertip accessible makes a lot of sense. Still, RRS has designed the shape of the BH-55 and its knobs such that I have not confused any of the knobs to date and the tension knob performs its function very well.
I mentioned "properly-adjusted" in the ball lock knob discussion above. Often, when the ball lock knob is tightened, the ball moves slightly (as discussed above) and thus, subject framing changes slightly. Typically, the tighter the tension setting, the less movement is experienced because the ball starts out partially tightened. The movement is most-readily seen in longer focal length lenses and these larger lenses are typically more usable under stronger tension than smaller ones. So, that issue can work out somewhat.
With the BH-55's tension set lightly, the ball noticeably walks as it is tightened down (which might increase your own tension). Tighten the tension knob and that problem goes away.
Because the chassis must contain the ball, the chassis must extend adequately over the max diameter of the ball. The ball stem coming into contact with the chassis represents the limiting factor for the clamp's max angle of tilt, a 45° angle for this head (about normal). While an L-plate-equipped camera or lens plate-equipped lens often does not need a significant amount of head tilt, a base-plate-only-equipped camera needs to be able to tilt a significant amount, especially to accommodate vertically oriented image capture. And, even cameras with L-plates sometimes need more range of motion for photographing up or down at strong angles. To accommodate these needs, most ball head bodies include a notch wide enough to permit the ball stem to drop down to a 90° angle, effectively handling any situation encountered.
The position of the drop notch can be differentiating. Drop notches on the front of a head are optimal for shooting downward and the opposite is also true. The front-positioned drop notch is most common and shooting upward means that the ball lock knob is going to feel like it is on the wrong side of the head for most photographers. If not using an L-plate or lens-plate-equipped lens, visualize the camera and main knob positions when the camera is in vertical orientation to assess the design of a ball head. I seem to need both drop notch orientations with about the same frequency, so I don't generally pay too much attention to the orientation. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head has its notches in the front. If you didn't notice the "notches" in the product images, I'll bring that differentiating feature to your attention. While both of the BH-55's drop notches are located in the front, having two to select from provides a choice that can aid in main lock knob orientation in some situations.
Most ball heads feature a panning base, allowing the head to be rotated independent of the ball adjustment position. Reasons for rotating the base include orienting the ball lock knob for comfortable use, for panorama capture and for simply moving the subject framing side-to-side.
Surprisingly is that the panning base's brake feature is often a ball head design weakness, like it was not a primary design consideration. Issues include varying smoothness during rotation and very firm locking knob torque required for complete tightening. You may notice a weakly-locked head when you pick up the tripod with the camera still mounted and gravity causes the camera to swing downward.
The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head has a substantially-sized, 0.81" (20.4 mm) at maximum diameter, tapered round shaped (for easy rolling in the fingers) machined aluminum panning brake lock knob and, utilizing a drum and band design, it locks very tightly with only minimal torque applied.
Those who have used many ball head models will understand that this is a differentiating feature. This panning base rotates smoothly and evenly the entire 360° of rotation, though it shows modest slip-stick behavior when nearly tight. Speaking of the gravity issue, did you ever pick up a tripod with the camera mounted and have gravity twist the head loose? While the optimal answer is to use the tripod's set screw to lock the head into place, I am frequently removing my heads and don't want a wrench to be required to do so. The design of the base makes a difference in how tightly the head can be turned onto the tripod and of course, the tighter the head is, the less likely it is to twist loose. A wider base that provides some finger grip (often by extending beyond the body diameter) is optimal if the panning brake isn't to be completely relied upon for the installation torque. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head's panning base is flush with the body. While that is an aesthetically pleasing design, it does not provide enough grip surface and the panning drum brake must be used. Fortunately, this base easily locks so tightly that there is no issue with installation and removal.
Another common feature on the panning base is an index. Indexed bases are most frequently used for precision panorama captures and this head features laser-engraved index marks at 2.5 degree intervals.
The BH-55's thread mount size is 3/8"-16, the (substantial) size most commonly offered by tripods.
Ball heads minimally require threads on the ball stem and ideally have a quick release clamp for convenient camera mounting. Of very high importance to me is that the ball head clamp (or one that I can mount to the ball stem threads) is compatible with the Arca-Swiss standard. Components adhering to the Arca-type clamp and plate standard provide quick and solid attachment to each other with plate-equipped cameras and lenses being what is typically attached to a tripod head. The BH-55's clamps are standard-complying.
Also of high importance is how the clamp's locking mechanism works. This head is available with a lever-release or screw-knob clamp. The screw-knob is a large CNC-machined aluminum design that works great. However, I fell in love with the Really Right Stuff Lever-Release Clamp long ago and have these clamps on most of my supports. That the BH-55 is available with the RRS lever-release makes clamp selection a no-brainer for me.
Clamp size is somewhat of a differentiator. The larger the clamp is, the greater its potential gripping power becomes and the more rigid its construction can be. The BH-55 comes with full-sized clamps that are matched to the capabilities of this full-sized head.
Other clamp features include an index and a spirit level. While both of these options can be useful (such as when capturing precision panorama images using the nodal point), I mostly use the index to center my camera in the clamp and I use the electronic level in the camera for ideal leveling. The BH-55 clamp is end-user removable in case you change your mind or simply want to switch between the clamp types. RRS clamps are grooved to facilitate the use of safety stops on plates and brackets, helping to prevent gear from sliding out of a slightly-loosened clamp. The RRS lever-release clamps open to a position that permits gear adjustment without release and the safety stops are especially helpful in that position.
One more RRS BH-55 option is the panning clamp, offered in both lever-release and screw-knob variations. Ball head clamps can be leveled very quickly, especially with the aid of the spirit level or in-camera electronic level. The panning base makes it easy to rotate the head, but the tripod must be perfectly level for the panning base to meet the precise needs of certain applications, such as panorama capture. With a panning clamp, the ball can be used to quickly and easily level the head and the clamp itself can then be rotated above the ball for level camera movement. The downsides to this option are the additional cost (it is substantial) and the additional knob that will just be in the way if you are not using it. Getting both clamps resolves the latter issue.
Just because a ball head works well at room temperature does not mean that it will work well in the cold. Ball head operation is sometimes negatively impacted by very cold temperatures, so ... the BH-55 spent a cold night outside. The temperature had risen to 7° F (-14° C) by the time I brought it in the next morning and aside from the discomfort of the extremely cold head in my bare hands, it worked flawlessly – similarly to when it was warm. Check that box.
While mentioning cold in the hands, gloves help that problem and this head is easy to use with gloves on.
Generally, ball head manufacturers provide load capacity specs for their heads and expect you to figure out what gear will play nicely together with their respective heads. While that can work, I'm generally not comfortable with using weights approaching max load capacity with vibrations and load manageability being primary issues.
To gain my comfort level, I utilized a Canon EOS 5Ds R mounted to a Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II (weighs 12.0 lb / 5.4 kg) and a also Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens (a 6.3 lb / 2.9 kg combination).
I didn't need to bother with the 100-400mm lens. The BH-55 held the 600 combination solidly at any angle I could put it in, including nearly seated in the drop notch. Mounted on the RRS TVC-34 tripod, I felt the rig was very solid and would not hesitate to use this setup.
With the tension knob tightened properly, ball movement was only very slight when the ball lock knob was tightened and even strong vibrations settled out rapidly. The bottom line is that this head performs superbly.
No one buys Really Right Stuff gear for the low prices. But, RRS designs and builds very high quality products and those who understand and appreciate the value of quality buy RRS products without hesitation.
Really Right Stuff defines customer service excellence. It is very easy to reach an RRS representative via email, chat or phone and this company stands behind their products. RRS offers a limited 5-yr warranty on the BH-55 and I expect that this head will last a lifetime.
A useful RRS LB-55 Padded Cordura pouch with drawstring closure is included in the box. I frequently use this cover for ball head protection when carrying the tripod uncased in the field and simply leave it on when casing the tripod.
The reviewed Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head was purchased online/retail.
My first-choice alternative to the BH-55 is listed at the top of this comparison chart:
|Model||Load Capacity||Weight||Height||Base Diameter|
|Arca Swiss Monoball Z1||130.0 lb||(59.0 kg)||22.4 oz||(635 g)||4.0"||(102 mm)||2.7"||(69 mm)|
|Gitzo GH3382QD||39.7 lb||(18.0 kg)||27.2 oz||(771 g)||5.0"||(126 mm)||2.4"||(60 mm)|
|RRS BH-55||50.0 lb||(22.7 kg)||31.4 oz||(889 g)||3.7"||(94 mm)||2.9"||(74 mm)|
|RRS BH-40||18.0 lb||(8.2 kg)||17.1 oz||(485 g)||3.0"||(76 mm)||2.1"||(53 mm)|
|RRS BH-30||15.0 lb||(6.8 kg)||11.2 oz||(318 g)||3.0"||(76 mm)||1.6"||(41 mm)|
The Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 had long been my favorite ball head (with an RRS Lever-Release Clamp mounted on it) and I see it as a top competitor to the BH-55. The Z1 is rated to hold a crazy-high 130 lb (59 kg) off-axis and it weighs 9 oz (255 g) less than the BH-55. These two heads are very similar in performance and though a strength difference was hard to detect, the Arca-Swiss is at least as solid as the RRS BH-55 under heavy load. The Z1 has an advantage in its elliptical ball shape, causing friction to become tighter as the camera is positioned off-axis and gravity is twisting the ball harder. That the Z1's ball neck can only contact the top edge of the body (the clamp clears the knobs) is another advantage. The Z1 is narrower, though the RRS head is shorter. The RRS BH-55 has dual drop notches and it has a higher quality look and feel including a nicer-to-use ball lock knob and a much nicer panning base lock knob. The Arca-Swiss Z1 is notably less expensive.
I used the Z1 and an earlier-revision BH-55 equally for about a year and concluded that I would be very happy with either. The latest BH-55 revisions improve it noticeably and now my decision is whether or not to keep the Z1 around.
The Gitzo GH3382QD Series 3 Center Ball Head is another nice full-size head worth considering.
Those wanting a smaller and less expensive head should consider the Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head. While it has a lower load capacity, it performs surprisingly well for its size and weight.
Above, the BH-40 is shown mounted on the TVC-24L with the BH-55 and TVC-34 combo to the left and the BH-30 and TQC-14 combo to the right.
The Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head is, at review time, the 4th best-selling ball head at B&H. That fact is especially impressive when it is considered that the BH-55 costs more than 2x as much as the top 3 best-selling heads combined and more than 4x as much as the most expensive of the three. RRS's no-compromise approach to design and construction has earned it a stellar reputation and this head deserves its best-seller position.
Buy the Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head. You will likely not ever need to buy another ball head and you will assuredly love using it.
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