Recently I have been looking for a new tripod head. There was nothing wrong with the two tripods heads I was using, both worked well if used right. The Manfrotto 393 gimbal head for wildlife and a Manfrotto 498RC2 ball head are both great tripod heads. But that was the problem, I had to carry two tripod heads if I planned to photograph wildlife and landscapes on the same day. There was also the problem that both used different quick release plates, having two different plates meant it was no longer quick to change between lenses. The 393 gimbal was solely used for my long telephoto lens whilst the ball head was used for the wide angle and medium zoom. The problem was not only having to carry two heads but swapping between the two. My tripod, a Manfrotto 055, has 3 little screws to secure the head tightly to the centre column. This means I either have to undo these 3 screws every time I swap the heads over or carry both with a centre column attached meaning even more weight and increased size.
So I decided I needed to standardise on one quick release plate, I decided that this would be the Arca-Swiss plate as it seemed to be the photography standard. I then thought what else would I like in a tripod, so I decided to make a wish list, this was:
This is where my search problem started, was there one tripod head that could be used for both landscapes and long telephotos lens? I first looked at an Acra-Swiss ball head and add a sidekick gimbal for long telephoto use. This seemed to be a great compromise as it would mean the ball head could stay attached to the centre column and attach the sidekick when needed for long telphoto use. The only downside was it would mean carrying the sidekick. Although it was small, both together would weight roughly the same as the 393 gimbal, but it would mean less weight than carrying my previous tripod heads and centre columns.
By chance I head about the Uniqball before it was released. I had a look on their website, uniqball.com and read all about it. It looked good and seemed to meet all of my wish list points. One video that interested me was Andy Rouse's review, he had been using one for a while so it was good to hear a long term users review. What I saw impressed me, a pan and tilt gimbal style action in a ball head with a levelling base, it all sounded too good to be true. I ordered a UBH35 after having a look at what size lenses were recommended for each. The UBH35 was ok for all my lenses, the biggest being a 300mm f2.8.
When I received it I was quite impressed with the materials quality, finish, movement and tensioning, it looked very good and seemed to be very well made. As I have only used Manfrotto heads and a cheap gimbal before I can't compare the UniqBall to an Acra-Swiss ball head or Wimberley Gimbal head as I've never used one. So far I was impressed, the first thing I did was attach the 300mm f2.8 and gripped D7100 to see how well it did under the maximum recommended load for the UBH35. I have to say movement was smooth, tensioning was good from fully locked to loose panning motion.
Connecting a Lens/Camera
For the UniqBall head to work properly the Acra-Swiss plate has to be facing forwards in line with the red tensioning knob at the front. This is not a problem when using a long telephoto lens as the tripod foot is already facing in this direction. With an Acra-Swiss plate/L Bracket attached to the cameras base they supply a X adapter to alter the connection plates direction. All Acra-Swiss plates have to be straight, any out of line plates will mean the pan and tilt action won't level the camera properly.
Getting Straight Images
This is the one thing everyone asks, 'its a ball head, how does it ensure straight images?' The Uniqball acts like both a ball head (the red outer levelling ball) and a pan and tilt head (the black inner ball). The red outer ball has a bubble spirit on it to aid levelling this ball. Once red outer ball is correctly levelled it can locked into position, and the UniqBall will ensure straight images. The black inner ball only moves forwards and backwards and rotates on its axis, it is tensioned by the red knob at the front. This red knob can lock the black inner ball up tightly or allow a certain amount of tension to be applied to allow smooth panning and balancing of the lens. Unlike a normal ball head it won't fall sideways, and that was the reason why I moved to a gimbal style head for wildlife. I thought the easiest way to show how straight the images can be would by a video, sorry about the quality it was taken hand held on an iPhone!
I was impressed on how well the camera's horizon was kept level even when moved up, down, left and right. The only movement from the green level indicator is when I'm changing direction and I suspect some of this movement is probably from the tripod or from me moving the camera rather than the head. The 'out of level' movement is very minimal and the camera shows its level when it is stationary so I do not see this as a problem, there is no way I could get the same result from completing this test with a ball head!
My UniqBall arrived only a few days before a planned week away in the Lake District and the Peak District, it was the ideal opportunity to test out the UniqBall. I decided I would only take the UniqBall with me, this was there would be no way I would revert to either of my other tripod heads. First up was 4 days photographing Red Squirrels at Forest How, Eskdale. Here I used the UniqBall for the images taken on the wall with the 300mm f2.8. It was easy to pan and follow the Red Squirrels running along the wall and I was able to use slower shutter speeds than hand held. I'm not great at hand holding the 300m f2.8 so I always try to keep a high shutter speed or use VR.
The best test for the UniqBall was for landscapes at Wast Water in the Lake District and at Padley Gorge in the Peak District. At Wast Water once set up level it allowed me to worry about composition rather than if the image was straight. The UniqBall locked up nicely and gave a good base for some long exposures. What I did find out at Wast Water was I would need a L Bracket for the camera to be able to take portrait orientation images. This is not a problem really but is another cost consideration that you need to take into account. Many who are enthusiastic about landscapes probably have these already or would need them to get the best out of an Acra-Swiss ball head.
At Padley Gorge the levelling ball came into its own, I was able to set up the tripod legs at different angles and not worry about the centre column base not being level. Below you can see how I set up the tripod with two legs on a rock and one leg on a tree to get closer to the waterfalls, yet I was able to level the red outer ball without any problem.
This gave a nice stable base for a long exposure using a 10 stop filter (ISO increased to decrease the time the shutter was open) and allowed me to concentrate on composition which I'm not great at for landscapes. I changed composition several times and I never need to worry about whether the images were straight or not.
So far I have found the UniqBall works very well for me, so well in fact that I have sold my previous ball head and gimbal head. I may in the future purchase a gimbal style head again, maybe something like the Lensmaster if I do need a gimbal head but I cant see a need for one at present with my style of photography. The UniqBall is not a replacement for the gimbal style head, both have their uses. A gimbal head is perfect if you are sitting in one place like a hide as you can leave the lens at any angle, the UniqBall is suited to moving about more or where you want to carry only one tripod head.
I have summed the pros and cons of the UniqBall below:.
So there you have it, my review and thoughts on the Uniqball. For me the UniqBall is ideal and exactly what I was looking for, this may not be the same for others.
Disclaimer: I am in no now connected to UniqBall. I have not been paid for this review, I'm just a happy user who gets asked about it on forums. I decided to do a blog entry to make it easier to point people this way rather than keep writing/saying the same thing all the time!