A little while ago we reviewed the then top-of-the-line Vanguard SBH-250 Ball Head, which is a very impressive ball head given its under $80 price tag. The biggest disadvantage of the SBH series ball heads are that they are not Arca compatible (see Arca Systems Explained for more information). That has changed now that Vanguard is shipping their new line of ABH Arca-style ball heads. Vanguard has kindly sent us one of the new ABH-230L Semi-Elliptical Ball Heads for review.
The new Arca-style ABH series ball heads are available in 3 sizes:
- ABH-120 rated for 44lbs
- ABH-230 rated for 66lbs
- ABH-340 rated for 88lbs
Each size comes with a choice of clamp style – if the ball head name ends in "K" (e.g. ABH-120K) it has a conventional knob-style quick release clamp, and if it ends in "L" (like the ABH-230L reviewed here) it has a lever-style quick release clamp. At the time of writing, the lever-style ball heads cost approx $20 more than the same sized knob-style head, and prices range from $199.99 for the ABH-120K to $299 for the ABH-340L.
The other major change to the ball head design is the introduction of a semi-elliptical ball, which automatically increases the tension with an off-center load (which increases the load capacity of the head, and makes for a larger 'sweet spot' – the area where you have the friction on the ball adjusted so that you can position the lens/camera combination easily, yet the camera stays where it is when you let go). The picture below, courtesy of Vanguard, illustrates how this works:
Controls and LayoutThe Vanguard ABH-230L features everything you'd expect from a high end ball head. At the bottom is a 360° panning base marked in 5° intervals, with a small locking knob (located at the back of the head, visible in the picture below). The locking knob has rubber grips for ease of use.
On the side of the housing is the large friction (also known as tension or drag) lock control knob, which also features rubber grips. It takes around one and a half full rotations of the knob to go from fully loose to fully locked-down, giving a very linear and precise control over the amount of friction on the ball.
Also on this knob is a silver control with a scale (marked 0 to 12) that allows you to set the minimum amount friction on the ball. This basically works by finding the 'sweet spot' (i.e. set the friction so you can easily move the camera around to compose the shot, but if you let go the camera doesn't flop to one side), then rotate the silver control as far as it will turn. This sets the minimum amount of friction on the ball – you can now tighten the friction control as normal, but you can't loosen it any further than the point you've just set it to, making it very fast to go between the 'sweet spot' and fully locked down, with no risk of the ball head becoming too loose and flopping to one side. Together Vanguard refers to these two controls as the CFFC or Combination Friction Forces Control.
The ball head also features a slot in the front, which allows you to quickly rotate your camera 90° to switch from landscape to portrait orientations.
As for the clamp itself, it has the following features:
- Bubble level to help level your gear.
- Spring loaded detent pin – this pops up into a pocket on the back of the camera or lens plate, and prevents your camera from sliding out of the clamp should it accidentally come loose.
- Two deep channels in the middle of the clamp to make it compatible with plates with Safety Stops from companies like Kirk, Hejnar PHOTO, Wimberley and RRS.
- Thumb wheel to adjust the width of the clamp – there is a surprisingly large variance in widths of Arca plates between different manufacturers.
- Orange safety button on the end of the lever clamp, to prevent the lever from accidentally opening.
Overall this is a very well specified ball head, featuring everything you'd expect from a high-end ball head plus several additional safety features.
Fit and FinishThe Vanguard ABH-230L comes packaged as shown below, complete with a quick release plate (retails for $35 on its own), bag for storage, and adapter to work with smaller tripods with 1/4" x 20 studs (as well as tripods with the more common 3/8" x 16 stud):
The general fit and finish are excellent, this looks and feels like a high quality product as you'd expect in this price range.
PerformanceThe first question everyone asks with any ball head is how smooth is the operation? The answer is very smooth. At the loosest setting, the ball movement is silky smooth. Once you put a little friction on the ball you really notice the semi-elliptical design: the further you move the ball from the center, upright position, the stiffer it gets, but the transition is still very smooth and controllable.
The panning base itself is textured to allow it to be gripped and tightened onto a tripod easily. The panning lock works reasonably well, but even with the panning lock fully tight it is still possible to rotate the panning base with a moderate to heavy force. Ball heads from other manufactures that have a similar layout (e.g. Markins, Photo Clam etc) have a very similar feel and strength to their panning bases also.
The friction controls for the ball are very easy to use, even with gloves on, and are linear and precise. The locking force on the ball is very strong indeed.
The panning lock is offset 90° from the friction controls, showing Vanguards usual attention to detail. This is actually very important if you are planning to use the head with a traveler style tripod (we've shown it below with a Feisol CT-3442) – the compact size and spacing of the controls allow the tripod to be folded back on itself with the head installed for easy storage and transportation.
As for the clamp, lever clamps generally only work if you buy all your plates from the same manufacturer due to significant variances in widths from different Arca-style manufacturers (we've detailed some of our findings in our Arca Style Lever Clamps article). As such, the lever clamp design definitely isn't for everyone, but if it will work for you, Vanguard has done a very good job with theirs.
The Vanguard lever clamp is adjustable, the thumb wheel that sets the width of the clamp is very easy to access and use. This Vanguard clamp is the easiest to adjust of any lever clamp we've tried so far. However do note that the adjustment control is not captive: while adjusting for one of our wider plates, I accidentally turned it too far, and the clamp came apart and a couple of springs dropped on the floor. It is very easy to reassemble (once I found the springs), but since lever clamps only make sense for people that only use plates from single source (and therefore they are all the same width), this should never happen to you – you would typically set the width once and you are done. If you have plates from different manufacturers, the knob-style clamp is a generally a better choice.
One of the biggest concerns people have about lever clamps is risk of it snagging on something (clothing, tree branch etc) while carrying your gear and releasing your camera. Vanguard approaches this problem by fitting an orange lock button to the end of the lever. Without fully depressing this button it is impossible to release the clamp, and in the closed position this button is located underneath either the camera or lens plate, so accidental release would be extremely difficult.
The spring-loaded detent pin and compatibility with Kirk/Wimberley/RRS style safety stops are very nice features to have should a plate ever come accidentally loose. The bubble level is useful, but would perhaps be more useful if it wasn't underneath the camera or lens plate.
Pictured above is the Vanguard ABH-230L supporting a gripped Nikon D700 with Nikon 70-200mm lens, a heavy combination that is easily within the impressive load capacity of the ABH-230L. In use, the semi-elliptical design really makes its presence known. Thanks to the precise control offered by the large friction knob, finding the 'sweet spot' is easy, movement is very smooth, and the 'sweet spot' is huge, offering a range of movement and performance you normally only find on much larger (and more expensive) ball heads.
The other question people often ask is about the "droop" when tightening a ball head that exists with virtually every ball head ever made. This is particularly an issue for macro shooters, where you carefully compose your shot, then the camera moves as you lock down the ball head and you have to start over recomposing your shot. The good news is the Vanguard ABH-230L is extremely good in that department. As pictured above, with the lens roughly balanced, there is virtually no movement when locking down the ball head. With the same setup clamped with the camera (instead of the lens) attached to the ball head, there is a very small amount of movement when locking down the ball head, but then that is with an extremely front heavy setup. We've yet to find a ball head that doesn't offer some movement in that front-heavy configuration.
Overall, if you are looking for a ball head in the $200-$300 range, the Vanguard ABH series warrants serious consideration. The fact these heads come with an Arca plate potentially saves you $35-$50 straight away, and their smoothness, strength and general performance compares favorably with similarly priced ball heads from other manufacturers. However what makes the Vanguard ABH series really stand out is the effect of the semi-elliptical ball: with the friction set, the ABH series give you the feel and control you normally only get with a much larger and more expensive ball head, but in a very compact and easy to travel with package.