Tripod head talk….and our cutest mammal (surely!)

Red squirrel, Anglesey

For many years I used a Magicball tripod head which I thought was a brilliant and very versatile piece of kit. I had two, in fact, with a Mini-Magicball on my lightweight “walking” tripod. The secret of the design was that it was “upside down” and screwed directly into the base of the camera or lens plate. It wasn’t until I started using long, heavy lenses to photograph wildlife that I began to see the weakness in the Magicball design. It was VERY stable when the lens (even a heavy one) was aligned along the main axis of the head. When it was at 90 degrees for a portrait format image it tended to slip out position very easily. So it was time for a rethink…..

Then  I discovered the Uniqball, as its name suggested another unique design this time with one ball inside another. The outer ball was first locked to fix the horizontal axis; the inner ball then behaving like a pan-and-tilt head for an exact composition. About a year ago I got hold of one of the very first UBH35P models in the UK, and I really, really wanted to like it. Over a period of a few weeks I got to know it reasonably well and concluded that it was a qualified success as a piece of equipment. It had two weaknesses, but I thought I would get to grips with them over a period of time (to read the full review click here). The problem was, I just couldn’t. While using the head in  “landscape” mode I found it incredibly frustrating to have to re-set the outer ball every time I moved the tripod. This was particularly annoying on uneven and/or sloping ground, and I found myself cursing over and over again in such situations. The photographer should never have this kind of relationship with their equipment so I retired it and dug out a rather cruddy old ball-and-socket head while I decided what to do next.

Poseur? Moi?

After many hours of browsing the internet I came across an American brand called Acratech. Their ball-and-socket heads are distinctive in several ways, including their very light weight, and their astronomical price in the UK, but what really grabbed my attention was the claim that they could also be used as a gimbal head. I’ve never used one myself but actual gimbals are very specialised and bulky heads used by bird photographers. With a well-balanced camera/lens combination, all the locks can be slackened off to allow movement in all directions using only fingertip pressure.  I was sceptical that a lightweight ball-and-socket head could also include this functionality.  I worried particularly that with a heavy camera/lens combo tipped over to one side,  the tripod would become unbalanced and tip over. Manufacturers continually claim that their new gadget will solve all your photographic problems, and it may solve some. But at the same time it may have disadvantages which only become apparent when you get one in the field……. however, I digress: my b&s head was getting stickier and stickier and I was cursing it more and more. Things were looking desperate. I saw one final positive Acratech review and my mind was made up. It was time to click “buy”.

Last weekend saw the first outing of the new head (model code GPss) when I headed off up to Anglesey to have a go at photographing red squirrels. This lovely mammal was close to extinction on Anglesey in the late 1990’s when the Red Squirrel Trust Wales was set up. Its aim was through education and conservation measures – including the release of captive bred animals – to re-create a thriving population of red squirrels on the island. Grey squirrels had already arrived by using the bridges across the Menai Strait (or by swimming) but it was thought to be relatively easy to keep Anglesey free of them. The project has been a real success and it is thought there is now a population of about 700 on the island. They are beginning to re-colonise the area around Bangor on the mainland from this stronghold, and extermination of greys there will help to encourage this process. I had been told that the Newborough Forest – where there are some feeders – was the place to see them, although I failed to do so on my first visit last November.  This time, however, I was more successful and I spent several happy hours in their company over a couple of days.

Another red squirrel……

What lovely creatures they are! On a cuteness scale of one to ten, they must be at least eleven! They proved pretty elusive during the day but around breakfast time and before dusk up to five visited the area around the feeders. They are also kept well-fed with treats there by nature lovers and wildlife photographers.  They are partial to all sorts of nuts and seeds and at quieter times of the day will sit calmly feeding (and looking really, really, cute) just a few yards away from people sitting at nearby picnic tables. When more nervous they might scamper up a nearby tree-trunk and then stop, posing for all their worth for the photographer. Problems included trying to keep up with their erratic movements within the trees and occasionally high levels of contrast when stray sunbeams found their way through the tree trunks into the feeding area. It was sometimes difficult to expose correctly when an individual moved from a dark background to a light one, or vice versa.

And how did the new tripod head cope? I have to say very well. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to use the head as a gimbal; there was no real threat that the tripod was about to overbalance although one would always need to keep an eye on this. And even with shutter speeds down to 1/125th second due to the low light levels within the woodland I managed a high percentage of sharp images. This suggests the tripod and head combo was keeping the lens pretty stable, even at 600mm.

There was a steady stream of other photographers and wildlife lovers visiting the site over the couple of days I was there, and I enjoyed some interesting conversations. On Sunday morning I shared a long session of red squirrel fun with Martin and Jayne from Rhos-on-Sea.  We were entranced by the animals’ antics and, as our shutters clicked away busily,  it felt quite special to share the experience with other like-minded people. But the thought remains that if it wasn’t for those dedicated people, often volunteers, who worked on this conservation project we would have had no red squirrels to photograph and enjoy. So my thanks go to all of them.

UPDATE: A fter using the Acratech GPss for a couple of months, I exchanged it for the larger model – the GP – which holds the ball more firmly, although not always firmly enough……. However, I am otherwise very pleased with it. Many thanks to the importer, Bob Rigby, for the exchange.


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The Uniqball UB35P tripod head…….niche but nice ………

The UB35P - beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you're a Canon user)
The UB35P – beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you’re a Canon user)

Many photographers, it seems to me, are more interested in equipment than in photography. I don’t feel I have enough knowledge about photo gear, or a distinct enough voice, to make myself heard above the mass of reviews available elsewhere on the internet. But in the case of the Uniqball tripod head I recently purchased, I’m going to make an exception. So those of you interested in the images themselves and the subject matter, rather than what gear they were made with, might want to skip this post!

The Uniqball range of tripod heads were developed in Hungary by bird photographers and are still made there. They have received good reviews in the UK, notably from the wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. However, as he is one of the company’s very few agents here, it might be wise to take his recommendations with a pinch of salt. Late last year, though,  the Uniqball was recognised in the “accessory” category of 2015  TIPA Product of the Year Awards  – “…. the most influential photo and imaging product awards around the world”. So the Uniqball  must do something well! I thought it wise to investigate the Uniqball again more thoroughly.

The Uniqball’s most distinctive feature is that it consists of one ball head within another. The red outer ball is designed to be set at any one location using the spirit level to give a fixed correct horizon. The black, inner, ball is then adjusted to give the required composition. At first I was discouraged by one feature of the head. It only works correctly if the inner ball control knob (coloured red in the above image) is aligned with the lens axis. This might seem perfectly acceptable but consider this :

If you’re a bird photographer your long lens almost certainly has a loosely-fitting lens collar (within which the lens can rotate) and a foot running parallel with the lens axis. If you’re a landscape photographer your lens is fixed to the camera body and the body is attached to the tripod head either directly or using a L-plate (see above), running at right-angles to the lens axis.

Users of the original Uniqball got round this problem by either –

a) unscrewing the clamp using the supplied allen key, rotating it 90 degrees, and re-tightening it, or

b) inserting a right-angle adaptor (supplied with the head) into the clamp.

Neither solution appealed to me. Do small gizmos, tools and gadgets get lost? Yes, they do. Would I ever want to change from long lens use to standard lens in a hurry? Yes, sometimes.

Any thought of purchasing a Uniqball was therefore put on hold. But this spring I discovered that a new model was shortly due to be launched which also featured an “ultra-light panoramic clamp”. In other words the clamp could be rotated 90 degrees in a jiffy (or the full 360 degrees if required). I didn’t waste a moment in ordering one and must have had one of the first in the UK.

In a general sense this is one very attractive looking piece of equipment. It is very lightweight, noticeably less heavy in the field than the mid-range ball head I had previously been using. It is finished to a very high standard, although how well this finish will last after a couple of years use and misuse only time will tell. Some complaints were made of the earlier models that tightening up the inner ball caused the image to shift upwards by a degree or two. This has not been fixed in the UB35P.  Once the outer ball has been set using the spirit level, a Uniqball acts as a pan-and-tilt head, which is actually less flexible than a ball-head. One is restricted to horizontal and vertical movements. This would seem to be a disadvantage in most situations, to my eyes anyway. Apart from this, then, what is my experience of using one in the field? I’ll answer this from two points of view – the long-lens user and the L-plate user.

The bird photographer can ‘work around’  the apparent disadvantage noted in the previous paragraph by slackening off the lens collar and rotating the lens as required. If a correct horizon is needed this won’t help but in real life how often do we actually need a correct horizon when photographing wildlife? Panning, tilting and rotating the lens gives almost as much flexibility as a gimbal head with lens collar released – although I can’t be sure of this from personal experience. Using the UB35P  in this way is an absolute delight, and has one big advantage over a ball head: it will not collapse over to one side, potentially causing damage to equipment and fingers, if the ball is not fully tightened. The upward shift in composition  IS particularly noticeable, of course, using a long lens, and the bird photographer will just have to deal with it. But, on balance, it’s a thumbs-up for the UB35P for use in wildlife photography.

The landscape photographer using the UB35P has a different issue to deal with. It is impossible to rotate the lens, because it is fixed to the camera body. One is thus restricted to pan and tilt movements once the horizon has been set. So one either accepts this limitation or, as the manufacturer suggests, uses the outer ball to compose the image. The problem with doing the latter is that the outer ball does not really have variable friction control. It’s basically on or off. So once again it’s a bit of a ‘work-around’. However I feel sure that with time and experience using the Uniqball will become second nature. “Image-shift” (mentioned above) is much less of a problem with a wide-angle/standard  lenses and I would suggest well within the realms of acceptability.

Straight out of the camera many of my landscape images suffer from sloping horizons. They always have, I don’t know what causes it, and until the Uniqball I didn’t know how to fix it. But again I propose the following question: when photographing the landscape, how important is a correct horizon? And further, does the horizon even appear in the image? Speaking personally, it’s not that I look for it particularly, but the horizon is the first thing I notice in a landscape image. In other situations, in woodland, for example, technically speaking the horizon may not need to be correct; as long as the image “looks right” I’m happy . It is up to the individual to decide how important this feature is to them.

The manufacturer claims that the Uniqball is at the same time a gimbal head, a ball head, and a tilt/shift head.  I suppose so, but not really a shining example of any of them. Where it comes into its own is that it combines aspects of all three into one unit. It performs well enough as a gimbal head that many bird photographers will be happy. Landscape photographers will adapt to using it, even if its functionality is a bit limited.  For many years as a landscape photographer I used a Novoflex Magicball which really was my flexible friend. One control did everything. I would still be using it today if it could cope with the weight of a long zoom lens without slipping.  I rue the day when I had to retire it. My ball head did most things reasonably well.

For those who do both landscapes and wildlife, like I now do, the Uniqball UB35P is a very lightweight and versatile piece of kit. While it may always be a niche product,  it does have that little bit extra for the discerning user. The UB35P is available direct from the manufacturer and costs roughly £300 including delivery.

It is worth noting that in my “copy” there was an unreasonable amount of friction between the screw-in control of the clamp (long and black in the picture above) and the spring-loaded “jaw” which it pushes in. This was sorted with a little lubrication but I suspect adding a tiny washer at that point during manufacture would solve that problem more permanently. Uniqball have offered me a replacement when they have new supplies in stock.

UPDATE: I have just (August 16th) received the replacement part from Uniqball as promised. It is from a second batch of Ultralight Panoramic Clamps and as I suggested above features a tiny washer at the base the screw-in control. Definitely a case of “Great minds think alike……” and it was very generous of Uniqball to send me one.

UPDATE (Part 2): I discovered today (September 9th 2018) that this review of the Uniqball is still being referred to online. For those readers, please note that I eventually found that the disadvantages of the Uniqball noted above were just too great for me to overcome.  I replaced it with an Acratech GPss. (click here to read further)

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