Product Review: Acratech GV2 Ball Head (updated)
For years I’ve been using the Manfrotto 488RC2 ball head with only one complaint: when used with a large lens, the single screw quick release plate tends to spin because it has insufficient strength to support that much weight. For landscape work the Manfrotto has been fine. It pans and holds all of my gear from the 70-200 f/2.8 on down with no trouble. But its tendency to lose its grip when I’m lugging a large lens around the racetrack finally became bothersome enough for me to switch to something else.
I decided to get a ball head that uses the Arca-Swiss style connecting plate because this style not only allows the use of more than one screw to attach the lens to the ball head, but clamps down into the connecting plate more securely, offering two levels of slip resistance. I’ve heard great things about both the Really Right Stuff and Kirk ball heads, but was intrigued by the Acratech and its claim that while weighing only 1.1 pounds, it can support up to 25 pounds. I’ve been suing the Acratech GV2 Ballhead for some time now and am very happy with it. At first I had only one complaint, but that turned out to be due to my own inexperience with the product, which I’ll describe shortly.
The GV2 is a bit odd looking in that the clamping bits are all exposed rather than concealed inside a case. Four clamps control the position of the ball, the amount of force needed to move the ball when the main clamp is loose, the plate clamp, and the panning movement.
The first improvement over the Manfrotto is that the panning gauge numbers are noted with white paint, making them much easier to see than the numbers on the Manfrotto, which are merely etched into the gray panning ring. Those are easy enough to read when the light is good, but as it gets dark, they become nearly invisible without putting a light on them. The Acratech’s panning movement is very smooth, and like all of its other movements, makes clear that the item is expertly machined and assembled. The GV2 is made here in the USA, by the way. Yay!
The friction control clamp stays pretty much where I set it, and requires only occasional adjustment to keep the same tension on the ball’s movement inside the main clamp. This turns out to be a more important part of the ball head’s operation than I first understood, because not only does the this small knob determine how much force is required to move the ball when the main clamp is loose, it also determines how tightly the main clamp secures the ball when fully tightened. In other words, if the friction clamp is too loose, allowing the ball to move freely inside the main clamp when the latter is backed off, then the main clamp doesn’t hold the ball really tightly when it’s fully tightened. This is where my initial complaint cropped up; because I had to crank it so hard to get it to hold a large lens I felt that the knob on the main clamp was too small. But I’ve since realized that the only time I’ve had trouble with undesired ball movement has been when the friction control clamp has been set too loose. So I’m learning to adjust it to different settings depending on what size lens I’m using. When I’m at the track and have a long telephoto lens on the monopod, I tighten the friction control knob, which makes the main clamp really secure the ball. As long as I remember to do that, I’ve not had any problem with the ball moving. When I go back to landscape work and am using nothing larger than the 70-200mm, I loosen the friction control clamp a bit and all is well.
The quick release clamp is smooth and secure when tightened. The Arca-Swiss design is much more secure than the Manfrotto quick release plate, and now that I’m using a ball head with the Arca-Swiss style plate, I see why manufacturers like Acratech, Kirk and RRS have gone with Arca-Swiss’ design rather than create their own as some other companies, like Manfrotto, have done. It works beautifully and I see no way to improve it. A huge benefit of this style of plate is that the clamp can work with mane sizes of plate, from small single screw plates to long multi-screw plates for huge lenses. It will also work with the L-shape brackets for camera bodies that allow you to change your camera quickly from landscape to portrait without having to re-align the ball head itself.
The GV2 model also functions as a kind of gimble head due to the 90 degree slot on the side of the ball head. Have a look at Acratech’s video on YouTube to see how this works. I have not yet used this function, but it’s nice to know it’s there is I ever need it.
I give the GV2 high marks for lightness, strength, quality of design and construction, and overall workmanship. Its design makes it a bit bulky for packing, but it works very well and holds a lot of weight considering how light it is. If you’re considering an Arca-Swiss style ball head, definitely give the Acratech products a look.
It has now been several years that I’ve been relying on this ball head for my work in MotoGP. So I thought I’d add some remarks based on this more extensive experience. Before I comment on its performance at the track, I’ll say that for landscape work it continues to be an excellent choice.
At the track I’m still using it with the Nikon 500mm f/4, and while the GV2 does the job fairly well, there are some things about it that I wish were different.
The main problem I have with it is the design of the knobs, and then mainly with the largest knob that provides the final clamping power. The problem with the way I use this bullhead is that I’m often riding on a scooter with at least two cameras/lenses hanging over my shoulders. My attention is on the road, whether I’m in control of the scooter or a passenger.
The weight of the 500+D4+monopod equals a fair bit of tension on the shoulder straps. As my weight shifts on the scooter, sometimes the straps press on the knows with enough force to loosen them. Sometimes it’s my vest, or my body, rubbing against the knobs and loosening them.
Sometimes it’s the main knob that loosens, sometimes it’s the knob that clamps down on the mounting plate. Both of these are rubber and grip straps/vest/shirt when there is friction in the direction that will cause them to loosen.
I always use a strap that is attached to the 500mm lens when riding on a scooter so if if a knob does loosen enough to sever the connection, it’s only the monopod/ball head that would fall. But that would be not good, as one or both are likely to be damaged from such a fall off a speeding scooter.
The design of the knobs also makes for some painful jabs in the ribs/back!
I don’t count this problem as a flaw of the GV2 as much as a problem with the way I happen to use it most. On a tripod, being carried from car to scenic view and back it’s great. But when hanging over a shoulder and attached to a heavy rig like the 500/D4 it’s less than ideal.