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Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball


I must start this review by telling how I heard about this head. Right when I bought my Nikon N70 I was in Camera World with my brother. He was asking if they carried the Arca-Swiss B-1 head, but they did not. I had not heard anything about this head, so I asked my brother, "How much does that cost?" He said, "It's around $400." I exclaimed, "Are you nuts?!? Four hundred dollars for a tripod HEAD? Not even the tripod, but just the head? You'd have to be an idiot to spend that much on such a stupid thing!" Five months later I bought mine.

It's expensive, yes, but it's worth it! The controls are so precise, it's just amazing. Many other ballhead manufacturers (like Gitzo) use grease to make their balls move smoothly, but the Arca is just precision made. Once you use one of them you will fall in love with it and always use it as a bases to judge other heads.

I'll start by giving a rundown of all the features.

  • Variable tension knob: This is one of the things that makes the Arca stand out from the pack. Most all ballheads on the market have a variable tension knob, but most of them don't work like they should. Even on the most expensive Bogen head, the tension control isn't very progressive; it feels almost like there's an on position, and then an off position. With the B1, it is a very smooth, linear progression.When the tension of the ball is set to absolute zero, the head is completely free to move. One complete turn around will make it so tight that it won't move a millimeter. Many other heads on the market will still move if you try hard enough. Not so with the B1. At all the tension marks where the ball can still move the movement is still very smooth, which again is something lacking on many of the top heads. When you increase the tension of the B1, it doesn't feel as if something is digging into the ball to stop it from moving, it feels as if the whole inside of the head is tightening around the ball evenly.

    Also on the tension knob is a small dial to set the minimum tension. This is very useful so you don't slop. One of the features unique to the Arca-Swiss head is its elliptical shaped ball. This makes it so the tension increases as the ball is moved from level downward in all directions. Therefor, if your camera is on the head when you have the dial set at a low tension, when it starts to "flop" downward, the tension will slowly increase until it doesn't slam down against the guard. Of course you need to set the minimum tension for your setup so that you can still move the head when the head is at it's minimum tension setting, but so that it's tight enough that your camera won't slam down against the ridge where the ball is sitting. Does this make sense?

    Since you can set the minimum tension of your head, the tension index scale can rotate. This way, when you adjust your minimum tension, you can move the index scale so that point is 0. The problem with this freely movable scale is that often times when I grab the tension knob I accidently move the index scale. I think Arca-Swiss should have made it either harder to move this scale, or made it so you can lock it down. This is a minor complaint though, since I never really look at the scale. I just go by what "feels" tight, or loose.

  • Panning base knob: When I was first considering buying a B1 I thought I wanted the B1e, which is the same as the B1, just without the panning base. I figured I wouldn't use the panning base enough to justify the $100 price hike between the B1e and the B1. Eventually I decided if I was going to blow this much money on a head, I might as well go ahead and get the one everyone loves, which is the B1, with panning base. I figured maybe some day there would be something I wanted to track which moved only in a lateral direction... though I doubted it. However, now that I have the head I see that simply panning is not the only thing which makes the panning base useful. For instance, say I am taking a 1:1 picture of a flower where I have the camera pointed downward, fitting the ball down between the notch, so the ball is 90 degrees from its "north pole." Since this notch is in only one very small spot on the ball, this only allows the camera to be pointed directly down in one position. With the panning base, I can rotate where the camera is pointed. If I did not have this panorama base I would have to move the whole tripod in order to slightly change my composition! So this panning base is a must for anyone interested in macro work. I never thought of this when I was thinking about buying the B1e; it only came up in actually working with the head. I had figured that all "panning" movements could be done by just loosening the ball, and panning the head in the lateral direction. Sure, it would also move up and down, but as I said I doubt I'll be tracking anything moving along just one axis. The panning base is also nice when I just want to change my composition slightly in the lateral direction without risking slightly changing my vertical composition. By the way, when the base is completely free to rotate, like the ball itself, the motion is extremely fluid. In fact, it feels like a fluid head. It really is great.

    The one complaint I have about this knob is its tendency to be more a "on/off" knob than a variable tension knob like the main friction knob. Say the knob is completely loose and the base is free to pan. It takes about a half a turn before any friction is added; that whole half turn is wasted. Once that half turn is complete though, it takes just a quarter turn to make the base locked down pretty solidly. Unfortunately, unlike the larger ball friction knob, you really have to crank the panning base knob in order to make it hold the base tightly. Often in the field I will think I have tightened the base plenty but then it still rotates some. I then have to give it an extra hard crank, and put a lot of muscle into it to make it hold. What's so fantastic about the ball's friction knob is how rock solid the ball gets without putting much energy into turning the knob. Too bad they didn't make the panning base's knob the same way.

  • Quick Release Device: I'm sure you've heard about the fantastic Arca-Swiss quick release system. It really is very nice. The plates slide in and out with ease. It takes just a few seconds to pull the camera out of your bag, mount it on the head, and be ready to shoot. Hmm, well I suppose that's the point of any quick release system, isn't it? Well, what makes the Arca-Swiss one so great is the wide array of custom plates available for the system. Companies like Really Right Stuff and Kirk have made custom plates for virtually every modern camera and long lens (with tripod collar) on the market. These plates are custom made for your toy so that they will stay securely on it, not rotate, and be very unobtrusive. The plates are so unobtrusive that most people leave them on their cameras at all times, even while hand holding, because the plates simply don't get in the way. Well, the A-S plate system has been so beat to death that I'll just stop talking about it here. I'll just add that I doubt you'll find a better system by any other company either...
Well that covers the main "features" of the tripod. So how is it overall? Splendid! I firmly believe that there is not a better ballhead on the market today. Sure, maybe the Arca-Swiss B1G, or B2 is "better", but they are built with the same craftsmanship as the B1, and are just for larger setups. For most 35mm, and medium format work, the B1 is just fine. Some say that the B1 isn't adequate for a 600mm f4 lens though. At the same time, many other professional photographers use their 600mm f4 on their B1 and get stunning results. Since I do not have the pleasure of owning this $8,000 lens, I can not add any further insight to the discussion. All I can say is this is a beautifully crafted piece of equipment. You certainly will not regret it if you buy one

Before buying the B1 I researched all the other top ballheads. I really didn't want to spend $400, so I was looking for a cheaper alternative. There are many other fine heads out there (most of which simply try and copy the Arca Swiss design), such as the Graf Studioball, Linholf Profi II, NPC Pro Head, F&L, and Kirk BH-1. The last of these, the BH-1, is the one which sparked most of my interest. I asked questions in different photography forums about how the BH-1 compared to the B1. Most people gave me the worthless response of, "Everyone seems to love the B1, so you can't go wrong with that. Get the B1." I believe you that everyone loves the B1, but does anyone love the Kirk BH-1? I found a few people who tried both heads, and all of them liked the Arca Swiss slightly better. Since they are in the same price range (I consider +- $100 the same range with such a high priced item) I decided to go ahead and get the Arca Swiss. The main thing which intrigued me was that Kirk claims Gallen Rowell and John Shaw both use the Kirk BH-1, and not the Arca-Swiss. I admire both of these photographers, so I wondered what they knew that most others didn't. I never did find out... Anyway, if you really wanted to pinch your pennies, I'm sure you'd be almost as happy with the Kirk head as I am with the Arca-Swiss B1. :-)

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but you don't want dust and dirt to get in the ball. I didn't have a problem with this when I was hiking in forests, but once I started doing high elevation stuff where I'm mostly walking on volcanic rock and ash, I noticed dust was getting all over the head. If dust is on the ball, and you then move the ball around, you can jam that dust right underneath the ball, where you can't get at it to clean it. A very fine solution to this is the small Zing lens pouch. It fits snuggly over the head, and can be tightened with a draw string. Made out of neoprene, it is the perfect size, and provides some additional padding as well as dust protection. For $7, it's a must to protect your $400 head.

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David Paris
Last modified: Tue Apr 11 10:26:41 PDT 2000