Gitzo GH1781QR

Street price: around £240

Gitzo heads have a long-established reputation for great quality, and the GH1781QR is built to a high standard. The firm proudly claims a drift angle of less than 0.1% once the head is locked off – which is essential for accurate composition – and in use this appears to be the case with no discernible drop-off. 

The ball is easily locked by using the large wheel-type knob, although there is no separate friction control. With four spirit bubbles, it is possible to check level shooting from a number of positions. At 350g this is a lightweight head, yet it can still support up to 10kg. It may be the most expensive head in the group, but it is very impressive.

Score: 5 out of 5 starsBest in group

Novoflex MagicBall 50

Street price: around £200

The Novoflex MagicBall 50 has been on the market for more than ten years. It has a unique design where its head moves around the ball, while all other designs work the other way round. A key benefit is that the head has a greater range of movement.

At 610g, its weightiness indicates how solid the head is, though it is compact with a scratch-resistant surface. There is a single lever that features a tension switch, locking the head off with minimal drift. This is the only head that does not use a separate plate, with the camera secured to the built-in screw. The MagicBall 50 is the middle of three models, with a load capacity up to 7.5kg. Its high quality does come at a cost, however, as it is the second most expensive head on test here.

Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Benro B1+PU50

Street price: around £120

There are six heads in Benro’s B series, with the B1 a mid-sized version. It is one of the smallest and lightest at 360g, and has a load capacity of up to 12kg. Two knobs on the side control the ball lock and panning, with degrees marked around the base.

Locking the ball off using the tension knob can be hard work when using heavier kit. Like most other heads in this test, the B1 uses an Arca-Swiss lock, which is secure but can be fiddly to remove. The head easily scratches, so a more durable finish would be good. All in all, though, the head is strong given its compact size.

Score: 4 our of 5 stars

Hähnel BH-40

Street price: around £27

Like most other heads in this group, the BH-40 uses an Arca-Swiss-style plate-and-lock system, but it also has a stopper that acts as a back-up. Unsurprisingly, given its low price, there are few ‘frills’ on the BH-40.

It does not have a spirit level or friction control on the ball’s locking knob. Also, its surface is easily scratched and the head has the lowest load capacity at 5kg. However, the BH-40 is a compact head and locks off tightly after a few turns of the knob. This is far from the best head in the group, but it is competitively priced and does the job for a mid-sized DSLR with standard zoom lens attached.

Score: 4 out of 5 starsBest budget head

Manfrotto 055 with Q2 quick-release plate

Street price: around £140

At 920g, the Manfrotto 055 is the heaviest head in this group, and the largest. Made from magnesium, it is marketed by the company as an ideal companion to its 055 carbon-fibre tripod. The curved design of the knobs for locking the ball and pan enable an easy single-motion turn and secure lock.

Manfrotto has revised its quick-release tripod plate design, and the Q2 is a notable improvement on the less secure designs of the past. It works by loosening the plate and then pushing beyond the back-up catch for full release. The company introduced its ‘unique’ 90°-100° portrait angle selector for precise control over these shooting angles. This is a good head, but it does feel large.

Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Vanguard BBH-200

Street price: around £153

Vanguard has introduced several improvements to its latest BBH series, with the BBH-200 the mid-sized version of three new models. It has an impressive maximum load capacity of 20kg, a compact head and is lightweight at 530g – its body has been stripped down to reveal more of the single-piece magnesium ball. Once locked off, there is just a minor drop-off for front-heavy kit.

Vanguard introduced its unique Rapid Level System with this series, which is controlled via the orange switch and can lock off the head at a precise 0° angle. In its vertical position, the head rests at 90° once locked off, which is another handy compositional tool. There is a spirit level for both angles to ensure a level position. All in all, this is an innovative and precise tripod head.

Score: 5 out of 5 stars