The Gitzo GH5380S Systematic Ball head claims a massive 66 lb (30 Kg) capacity, and is designed to work with Gitzo Systematic tripods (both the 3 and 5 series). It also features a standard 3/8" x 16 socket, so it also works with other tripods and support devices (we even used it out on our Kirk Window Mount).
According to Gitzo, the GH5380S is the first ballhead to use a revolutionary hydraulic locking system placed inside the ball itself, which can create over 1,000 lbs of locking pressure. Since this unit is currently on loan to us from Gitzo, we decided disassembling it to find out probably wouldn't be wisest move. When used with a Systematic tripod (more on that later), this makes for an ultra strong and stable platform for even the heaviest of cameras and lenses.
This head provides a full 360° pan and +28/-28° tilt (so no, it does not flip over to portrait mode) and weighs in at only 1.5 lbs. At the time of writing, the GH5380S retails for around $350, which is competitive for a ball head of this quality and strength. Gitzo's marketing aims this head at sports, wildlife and action shooters as a ball head for long lenses.
Installation / Set UpThe Gitzo GH5380S comes as pictured below, complete with pouch, and screw-in hook for use with Systematic tripods (the hook screws into the 3/8" x 16 socket and allows you to add a weight to help stabilize the tripod).
If you are not familiar with the Gitzo Systematic line, instead of relying on the 3/8" stud to attach a head, the plate pops out of the top of the systematic tripod (as shown in the photo below) and the head drops into the hole, and is clamped very tightly in place with a rather large bolt (with help from a hex key).
The Gitzo GH5380S can be into clamped either a series 3, or larger series 5 systematic tripod: you can see the markings in the photo at the top of this article showing where the two clamp rings are. The picture below shows the GH5380S installed into a GT5541LS systematic tripod, with a Kirk Quick Release Clamp installed on top.
To lock/unlock the ball head, you simply turn the ring (with the white triangle in the top photo). A quarter turn is enough to go from completely loose to so tight you could park your car on in. To set the "friction" or "drag" on the ball, you line up the two triangles, push the button marked "Push" and rotate. This effectively changes how loose the ball can be set. Once you have the "friction" set to where you want it, release the button, and you can still lock down the ball by twisting the ring, but can't loosen it beyond your set friction point without pushing the button in again.
Fit and FinishThe GH5380S is made mostly from aluminum, and has the high quality finish you'd expect from Gitzo. If anything lets it down, it's the controls (button and ring) – the button in particular feels plasticky and weak on an otherwise impressively built piece of kit.
PerformanceStrength wise, this is probably the strongest head we've ever used. Once clamped in a systematic tripod and with the head locked down, it feels like it could support a large steel plate and have a helicopter land on it without missing a beat. Clamped down there is virtually no risk of the ball creeping under the weight of the heaviest of lenses – it is rock solid.
When we took it out of the box, fully loose the ball was noticeably harder to move tilted to one side than the other. Not sure why, and after a few minutes that went away and it became consistent. It is one of the smoother ball heads we've tested, and making fine adjustments to the level of friction is easy and linear.
The big question is, how does it perform with big lenses, and that's where it gets difficult. I've never been a fan of using ball heads with big lenses to track moving subjects. Big lenses on ball heads are top heavy, awkward, and gimbal heads just do the job better. However pre-judging is a bad thing to do, so I locked away the gimbal head, and committed to using only the GH5380S with a Nikon 200-400mm for the next few days to put it through its paces and see what it can do.
After using it for a few days, here are my thoughts, in no particular order:
The million-dollar question becomes would I want this head as part of my kit. In a studio with a systematic tripod, absolutely yes, and it would be excellent for a medium format camera too. For static shots with big lenses, again yes, the strength of this head is impressive. If I'm stationary with a big tripod and big lens shooting action, then I'm going to reach for a gimbal. If I'm hiking somewhere with both a long lens and wide-angle setup, then again no: because the GH5380S doesn't have an independent panning base and can't tilt to 90°, I can't use a gimbal adapter like the Wimberley Sidekick - I'd have to go with a different ball head that is compatible with the Sidekick.
- It's much faster/easier to set up than a gimbal (none of this balancing it while tightening the clamp in a side-mounted gimbal, or messing with raising or lowering the gimbals lens plate).
- For static shots, if there is any wind at all, the locked down GH5380S is noticeably more stable and gets sharper shots than a locked-down gimbal.
- It works very well on a bean bag or window mount with limited movement.
- If you are going to put a Quick Release Clamp on it, failure to use loctite could cause your next camera insurance premium to go up significantly.
- For tracking moving objects, while the GH5380S is as good or even better than any other ball head we've tried, however it's still a ball head and I keep finding myself wanting a gimbal.
Overall, I have very mixed feelings about the Gitzo GH5380S. I love the systematic design, and the incredible strength and stability this head provides. It's great on a beanbag or window mount. But it won't take a gimbal adapter, so it's always going to be at a disadvantage where I do the bulk of my photography. It would never be my primary head for wildlife work. However your shooting style is likely different to mine, and if most of my work was studio, architectural or locked down telephoto shots, the GH5380S provides incredible strength with the flexibility of a ball head, and it would warrant serious consideration.
You can get your Gitzo GH5380S Systematic Ball head from B&H or Amazon: