Perfect for Each Other (Part 2)
This is Part 2 of the series in which I discuss the tripod and ball-head pairing I use. As I said in Part 1, I firmly believe that when it comes to tripods and ball-heads, you should buy the very best that you can afford. The enhancement in image quality, especially for your long exposures, that comes with having a good tripod-head combination, cannot be underestimated. An expensive carbon fibre tripod won’t amount to a hill of beans without a good head. Pairing a cheap head with a high-end carbon fibre tripod completely defeats the purpose of the expensive legs; you may as well save the extra money you spent on the tripod; you’ll get just as much camera shake and blurry images as if you had a cheap tripod. So do yourself a huge favour and don’t skimp when buying a ball-head.
In Part 1, I wrote about the fantastic Gitzo Mountaineer GT2542 tripod. But anyone will tell you that beautiful legs alone don’t make the whole package attractive. You need a beautiful head to go with them! Great as the Gitzo is, it’s the marriage with the Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 that makes this a killer combination. One that I hope will stand the test of time.
The Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 with single-panning base
Arca-Swiss have been around for a long time, are highly respected in the large-format and quick-release system world, and over the past several decades have built their reputation on quality, precision and performance. The Arca-Swiss dovetail is the standard by which all other manufacturers design their QR plates, and the clamping mechanism is considered the safest way to mount your camera on your tripod. The Z1’s simple, understated design, copied by several other manufacturers, hides the high-quality engineering within. Over the years, Arca-Swiss have introduced several technological innovations into their monoballs, but the one that stands out for me is the unique shape of the ball itself – an ellipse rather than a sphere. This brilliant piece of engineering is what separates the Z1 monoball from the rest. With other spherical ball heads, however well engineered, you will invariably need to increase the tension on the ball as you move the load off-axis, and gravity starts to take over. This is simple physics, and there’s no way around it with a spherical ball. This also leads to ball-head creep, forcing you to have to recompose your shot.
Over the years, Arca-Swiss have introduced several technological innovations into their monoballs, but the one that stands out for me is the unique shape of the ball itself – an ellipse rather than a sphere.
The Z1’s elliptical design allows auto-correction of the ball-head’s tension as the load is moved further off-axis. As the camera tilts towards the vertical, the friction increases on the elliptical ball, negating the effects of gravity. A tension adjustment thumb dial, built into the main friction control knob, allows you to customise the minimum friction depending on the gear you’re using. The movement of the ball itself is like butter, and once locked down it is immovable. The load stays exactly where you want it to. No creep, no recomposing.
The Z1 features a unique elliptical ball that increases tension as the load is moved off-axis. A tension adjustment thumb dial is built into the multi-function knob.
Thanks to the elliptical ball, the movement of the camera is smooth and the friction stays even as it moves from a horizontal position down into the drop-notch
The virtues of the Z1 become more evident as you use heavier equipment. Operation is exceptionally smooth and refined, and was certainly a revelation after the Manfrotto 498RC2. The elliptical ball with its axial clamping and PMF (progressive motion related friction control) ensures constant tension as you move the load around, and you can work with the security of knowing you're your expensive gear will not flop around or topple over. And heavy loads this beast can certainly handle. It has a load capacity of an incredible 59 kg (130 lb). OFF-AXIS! That’s well beyond even large-format territory, more than anything you can ever think of putting on it. You could mount your Rottweiler on this ball-head – off axis – if your Rottweiler came with Arca-Swiss dovetails on its paws. With the exception of the FLM CB-58, no other ball-head on the market comes close. Even the venerable Markins Q20 has a maximum payload capacity 10 kg shy of the Z1, and the RRS BH55 at 23 kg isn’t even in the same postal code. That something this small (about 4 inches tall and under 600 g) has such a high load-bearing capacity is testament to the quality of materials and engineering that goes into it.
The Z1 can handle an incredible 59 kg off-axis
The Z1 comes with either the old-school screw-type clamp or a newer flip-lock quick release system with a built-in safety catch. I opted for the former, for two main reasons. First, the clamp with the flip-lock is more difficult to adjust, and since I use QR plates from third-party manufacturers, I wanted a setup I knew would be secure with any plate I use without the need for readjustment. The simple screw clamp gives me the comfort of knowing that my camera will always be securely mounted. Second, from the reviews I read online, it seemed like the safety catch on the flip-lock could be a bit cumbersome to use, especially in the dark. Moreover, I didn’t want to find out after several months or years of use that the flip-lock springs aren’t as tight as they used to be when new. There is no appreciable price difference between the screw-type and flip-lock quick release systems, so price was not a factor in my decision. The clamp also features a built-in bulls eye bubble level, and a double-decker plate mount that accommodates standard Arca-Swiss dovetails as well as the smaller SlideFix plates.
The Z1 quick release system with the old-school screw-type clamp. A newer version with a flip-lock lever with safety catch is also available.
A bubble level is standard
The Z1 features a double-decker plate mount that accommodates both standard Arca-Swiss QR plates as well as the newer, smaller SlideFix plates
The ergonomics of the Z1 have been simplified, with all the controls on the operator's left hand side, leaving the right hand free to hold and position the camera, and recompose on the fly. It took me a while to get used to this, after being so used to the right hand friction control lock on my old Manfrotto. Both friction and pan lock functions on the Z1 are precise and smooth.
All the controls are on the operator's left hand side, leaving the right hand free to hold the camera. The large multi-function knob has a built-in tension control dial. The single lever panning base lock is located just behind the multi-function dial.
The only negative remark I can make about Arca-Swiss is their poor worldwide distributorship and service network. Arca-Swiss do not have a website, so you have to go through a retailer such as B&H. Their after-sales service is handled by Precision Camera Works in Chicago. I don’t understand why a company like Arca-Swiss has such a poor after-sales service network, especially for customers outside North America. The user manual is very poorly written and not properly updated for the latest models.
In addition to the Z1, I had also considered the RRS BH55, Markins Q20, Kirk BH-1, Acratech Ultimate GP, Cullmann TITAN TB8.6 and the FLM CB-58. All of these are great heads, but the elliptical ball, simple, no-nonsense design and Arca-Swiss reputation swung it in the Z1’s favour. I must admit I was also leaning towards the Cullman and the FLM, but the Cullman was too tall and heavy, and the FLM too new and expensive (while the company has a good reputation, there just weren’t enough reviews on the CB-58).
From an aesthetics point of view, there is something beautiful about the simplicity and elegance of the Z1’s design. A simple black cylinder with the Arca-Swiss logo embossed in white, a tough black ball with a diameter a shade over 2 inches, a simple silver band marking off the degrees on the panning base, a single drop-notch, a single lever panning-base lock, and an easy-to-use, well marked multi-function knob. That’s pretty much it. Nothing fancy. But a design that’s been copied by everyone from Markins to Kirk to most everyone else in the business.
In short, The Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 ball-head is one of the best available, at any price. It is rock-solid, precise and beautifully made, and will give you a lifetime of use.
My Nikon D810 securely mounted on the Gitzo Mountaineer GT2542 tripod and Arca-Swiss Z1 Monoball head