Ultimate Ballhead Review

One of many images made easier with an Acratech Ballhead...  this one titled "Utah Cave Camping" was captured at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.

Thanks to Acratech's high quality materials and innovative designs, I've been a huge fan of their ballheads for years.  I've owned and have been using the GV2 as my primary ballhead until just recently when I got a chance to test two of their latest, most popular ballheads: the Ultimate GP Ballhead and the award winning GP Ballhead.   With a few key improvements, I was very excited to give them both a try!

I'll be honest in saying that I didn't buy either of these ballheads.  As a loyal user of Acratech gear, they gave me the opportunity to review them and I was very happy to do so.  That said, I've been testing them both for a couple of months now and I'm including my honest opinions on them without restraint.  If there are areas where they did poorly, I won't be afraid to say so.

Why Bother?

I've been using the Acratech GV2 Ballhead for a few years and have been very happy with it.  It's very strong and lightweight and between the quick-release clamp and the solid ballhead design, I really like that I don't have to worry about the head accidentally dropping my camera.

Because I like shooting panoramic sequences, I've also been using an Acratech Panoramic Leveling Base which has also worked very well - although it adds a little bit of extra weight.  With the Ultimate GP and regular GP, there's no need for a separate panoramic leveling base.  Instead, we get to flip the head upside-down to serve the same purpose - something I've been eager to try.

Tale Of Two Ballheads

Ultimate GP Ballhead

GP Ballhead

What's The Difference?

GP Ballhead (left) and Ultimate GP Ballhead (right)

The Ultimate GP features an angled clamp that was designed for macro photographers who often shoot at steep downward angles where the regular GP features a horizontal clamp that works well in landscape situations.  I thought that as a night photographer, I might really like the ability to shoot at some of the steep upward angles that the Ultimate GP allows - which is why I decided to test both.

The two ballheads are actually priced the same but appear differently because the GP I tested came with the Quick-Release Clamp (per my request) where the Ultimate GP came with the less expensive standard clamp.

Key Features In Both Ballheads

Quick-Release Clamp
After having some frustrating experiences with other ballheads looking like they had my camera securely attached but didn't, I found myself searching for a solid way to attach my camera.  This brought me to Acratech's Quick-Release Clamp which I consider to be among the best in the business.  And now that I've used it for several years, I frankly don't care to use anything else.  Sure the standard clamp is good (which Acratech also offers), but the confidence I get when my camera is locked onto one of their heads with the Quick-Release Clamp is tough to beat.  Yes, it's that good!

Strong & Lightweight
Both ballheads weigh in at approximately 1 lb and yet they support more than 25 lbs - which I think is impressive.  All the other heads I've used before using Acratech were noticeably heavier and when I hike with my gear, this makes a difference.

Great Compatibility
The adjustable clamps fit both Arca-Swiss plates and Kirk L-Brackets which I like using most.

Bubble Level
One of my not-so-secret keys to panoramic success is getting my tripod (and if possible, the head) level before I shoot a panoramic sequence.  This helps to avoid the bowing and arcing that can be problematic when it comes to stitching the individual frames together.  Sure, I can stitch them together without it but a heavily curved scene will need to be fixed and this often leads to distortion and loss of content.  Getting it right when shooting can help to avoid a lot of that and the bubble level helps a lot.

Panoramic Leveling
This is the biggest reason why I wanted to review these two heads - as an alternative to having to use a separate panoramic leveling base between the tripod and head.  Both of these heads feature the ability to unscrew the clamp on the top and screw it into the bottom which lets the photographer use the whole head upside-down as a panoramic leveling base.  It's a very innovative approach that I didn't want to recommend until I was able to give it a try out in the field.  I had to see it for myself…  and now that I have, I think it works really well!

It provides the functionality I need for my panoramic sequences and it does it without having to carry any extra weight.  And in testing, I found it was easy to set up out in the field.  I think it's an excellent approach!

Panoramic Degree Markings
There are lots of ways to make sure I'm rotating the right amount before shooting each image in a panoramic sequence.  Perhaps the most accurate way is to watch the degree markings as this ensures that I'm rotating the right amount and the same amount in each frame.  And like most panoramic heads, these two Acratech heads provide this same capability, only they do it with laser engraved degree markings so they don't wear off with time.

Gimbal Head
To be honest, I'm only a little excited about this feature because I tend to use an L-Bracket that makes switching from horizontal (landscape) to vertical (portrait) shooting even easier.  But with my new Pentax camera that doesn't yet have an L-Bracket available, I'll admit that it does come in handy.

That said, I've used it in one key situation where it worked extremely well in combination with an L-Bracket.  When I needed to shoot a vertical panorama, it saved me from breaking my neck in shooting the Milky Way right up over the top from horizon to horizon.  I just attached the camera (with the L-Bracket) in the vertical position and then moved the head into the gimbal position.  This let me just shoot and rotate, shoot and rotate until I'd captured the whole scene - as you'll see in the image titled "Utah Cave Camping" shown above.

Oilless Greaseless Ball
I think it's great that this design doesn't tend to attract dirt & debris but what impresses me the most is how it doesn't creep under load when tightened.  For me, this makes it a professional piece of equipment and I very much enjoy using Acratech heads because of this.

Reviewing The Two Heads

Rating Approach: 1-10 with a 10 being excellent

Key Areas I Reviewed

Strong - 10 (for both heads)
I'm sure it's happened, but I've never heard of an Acratech head breaking.  They're extremely strong and durable.

Lightweight - 10 (for both heads)
Having tried a lot of ballheads, I can say that Acratech makes the lightest heads on the market.  And when I hike, I really appreciate having less weight in my pack because the weight really makes a big difference on how comfortable I feel toward the end.

Effective Quick-Release - 10 (for both heads)
Having seen my expensive DSLR pop right out of another brand's quick-release system before it smacked on a big rock, I'm now very aware of how a solid quick-release system feels.  Going forward, I want no chance of this happening again - which means I insist on a rock-solid quick-release system.

In looking at the ball heads from Acratech, they offer a few options including what they call a "Lever Clamp" - which is one of the best quick-release clamps available.  In-fact in my testing, I think it ROCKS as the Acratech Lever Clamp became one of the best things about their heads.  My advice is simple: don't buy a head without the Lever Clamp.

As a side note, the Ultimate GP I tested didn't come with a Quick-Release Lever Clamp but it is available and so it deserves the same high score as the GP I tested that did come with it.  It was nice to be able to test both and while the standard clamp is very good, in my view, I wouldn't give it a 10 - in-part because I've seen how well the Quick-Release Lever Clamp works.

Effective for Single Exposure - 10 (for both heads)
With great ergonomic design, both heads were very easy to use.   Dials and knobs were all right where I needed them.  Beyond that, I found no slipping at all from the ball once I tightened it up.  It felt very strong & secure and had an easy time holding my Nikon D800 tested with a battery grip or Pentax K-1 - both with a variety of lenses.

Effective for Panoramic Sequences - 9 (for both heads)
From the moment I saw information about the ability to turn a head upside down to use it for panoramic leveling, I was intrigued.  I thought this could be a way of shedding even more weight by eliminating the need for a separate panoramic leveler.  Sure enough it worked just like advertised and was very effective at leveling my panoramic sequences!

Ideally, I'd prefer to have the capability built-in without having to unscrew anything out in the field, but that's a minor inconvenience.  And with the trade-off being reduced weight, I'm very happy.

To get the Ultimate GP to point up at a steep angle, you'll  have the big knob for tightening and loosening the ball on the wrong side

Effective in Shooting Various Angles - 6 for the Ultimate GP and 9 for the GP
Although it's rare, I've had cases where I've struggled to shoot at some of the steeper angles with traditional ballheads.  And while I understand the angled clamp of the Ultimate GP was really designed for macro photographers looking to shoot down at steep angles, I was really interested to see how well it worked in looking up at steep angles as well.  Sure enough in testing, I found that it worked well but it had one problem.

This approach put the main ball clamp on the right side where I really wanted the clamp to be accessible from the left.  I spoke with Acratech about this and they said they could make one with the clamp on the left side for use when angling up to the sky but I hesitated with that because I wanted to pick a head that was readily available without having to ask for a custom order.  Call me picky but this little detail turned out to affect the usability of the head and for this reason, I gave it a lower score in this area.  Keep in-mind that this comes from a landscape and nightscape photographer.  I would expect  macro photographer would give it a higher score as it would likely be ideal for their needs.

In testing the regular GP Ballhead (with the horizontal clamp), I found it to work wonderfully.  In all but the rare cases where I needed to point up at steep angles, it fit my needs perfectly and everything was right where I needed it.  So as a landscape and nightscape photographer, I found that the GP was an even better head for my needs than the Ultimate GP.

Summary & Recommendations

Overall Scores

  • Ultimate GP Ballhead (with the angled clamp): 9.17
  • GP Ballhead (with the horizontal clamp): 9.67

Recommendations
At one time, I was interested in finding what I considered to be the perfect ballhead for my landscape and nightscape photography.  And while I stopped looking for more options when I found the Acratech GV2 years ago (because it was so good), I now consider their GP Ballhead to be the absolute best choice.

When it comes to pricing, I will agree that these tripod heads aren't cheap.  But when comparing them to similar professional photography gear, I found the prices are actually very reasonable.  And for me, the biggest factor that made the cost feel even more affordable is the long-term durability as it helps me to offset the cost with years and years of use.

With the strong and lightweight design that feels incredibly intuitive when I'm out in the field, I have an easy time recommending these ballheads to both amateurs and professionals alike.  I would just steer macro photographers toward the Ultimate GP and landscape and nightscape photographers toward the regular GP Ballhead.  And for a nightscape photographer like myself, I'm glad I had the chance to test them both because in my view, the GP Ballhead earned the top spot in my list of favorite ballheads - with two enthusiastic thumbs up!