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Accessories Reviews

Arca Swiss B1 Monoball Review

Keywords: ballhead, non_nikon, arca_swiss, monoball, b1, tripod, manfrotto

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE ARCA SWISS B1

I first read about Arca-Swiss B1 in an early-1989 Modern Photography issue. That was when the Monoball B1 had just come out replacing the previous model, simply called Mono Ball.  Why was the replacement called B1? There were two replacements to the popular Monoball, the B1 and the larger B2, which was actually roughly the same size as the original Monoball.

 

The Walking Stick Monopod, aka

The Arca Swiss B1 Monoball head

 

What drew me first to the B1 were the glowing praises heaped upon it.  Adjectives like “silky smooth”, “highly precise”, “extraordinary strength”, “even and controlled”, etc.  As well, the fact that it was less than 2 lbs and so much lighter than my 4 lb Bogen 3047 head was a big advantage. 

On the other hand, two things turned me off on the B1.  There was the hefty charge.  My FM2 was only slightly more expensive!  In 1991, B&H asked for roughly $350 for a B1 with a quick-release clamp.  And that’s without the tripod.  People not in the know, and even a few people who know, would think it was quite larcenous! That amount alone was about three times what I paid for my complete Bogen setup, the trusty 3021 legs with a 3047 head.  And so, while I dreamed about the B1, I knew I could not afford it then.

And there was another issue that, to my knowledge, cropped up only in the Internet era.  News about the B1 locking up during field use was plentiful in photography newsgroups and mailing lists.  The problem was real enough.  I took consolation in the fact that there was an offered solution.  It was solution that may have exacerbated the problem in the minds of many because it was counter-intuitive (i.e. to turn the main knob about 1/8 of an inch clockwise, which is the universal direction for locking most knobs!). 

Although I could see the lockup as being a real problem, I could also see many long-time owners disproving each lockup complaint by claiming a problem-free usage.>  Arca-Swiss Customer Support claims:  “There was indeed a small number of Monoball heads in which a part (the “calotte” which clamps the ball) was used that sometimes changed its shape over time.”  Arca-Swiss also claims that the aspherical or elliptical shape of the ball has nothing to do with lockup or jamming. 

This led me to suspect that the problem was concentrated to a bad batch of B1’s made in the late 1990’s.  Whether that was true or not, word came out in early 2002 that a new and improved B1 was coming out, one that fixes the lockup problem.  These new models are identified by a silver serrated screw that locks in the minimum tension.  Note: all previous B1 models had black thumbscrews.

Hearing of the fix, I finally gave in to worldly desires and started looking.  Although the B1 was available locally in the previous years, it was no longer offered by stores in the Vancouver area.  The local dealer mentioned a story about the Canadian distributor having a fall-out of sorts with Arca-Swiss years ago.

 

The Walking Stick Monopod, aka "Merlin Stick". Click image for larger picture

The Arca Swiss B1 Monoball head

 

It is so rare around these parts, that when I came calling, a few store clerks in a local photography store chain never even heard of Arca-Swiss!  There was a display model of the B1 at Lens & Shutter store on W. Broadway, but it had no quick-release clamp and no panning base.  On and off, it was also out of stock in major online dealers, including B&H.  Robert White in U.K. seemed to be the only store that carried it.  Fortunately, it also had the least expensive price, at least temporarily beating B&H in New York by US$50!  And here I thought, B&H prices could not be beat.  As a side note, the people at Robert White were a pleasant bunch to do business with.  They were prompt with their replies to all of my queries and the transaction completed smoothly.

I picked up the small black box at the FedEx office.  It was so unassuming that a person would never think one of the best engineered pieces of photographic machinery lay within.  As I parted the box lids with expectant and nervous glee, the first thing that greeted me was the dark grey soft foam.  Underneath, I made out a glimpse of dark metal.

The metal was the famous Arca-Swiss clamp.  Pulling on it, the B1 was free and at last in my eager hands.  Twelve years of dreaming didn’t seem that long now.  My first thought was: Holy Cow, this thing is small.  I mean really small.  I’ve seen the display model at the store months ago and seeing it there again in my hands, I was amazed at its modest size.  There’s nothing to it, almost, and yet they claim this head can handle 90 lbs!

It was time to inspect that famous ball, or what I can see of it.  The ball looked sturdy.  It seemed to be a solid piece of milled aluminum, or whatever material they used. The next thing I noticed was its cleanliness.  It was spotless.  Made me wonder what would happen if some grit fell on the ball.  Would it get through the gap and ruin the head action?  Well, there’ll be time enough to find that out, I supposed.  In the back of my mind, I was thinking I soon better get that Zing pouch a pro recommended to me.  A medium-sized Zing lens pouch, which is made of neoprene, is all the protection his B1 needs.  Just to keep out the dust and guard it against minor bumps, he said.

The smooth black matte finish on the B1 was a labor of love, a work of art.  Each metal piece matched its adjoining part seamlessly.  There was no give, no gap, no play anywhere I could see.  Arca-Swiss claims that the B1’s are manufactured with tolerances less than 1/100 mm.  Truly a masterpiece of manufacturing and engineering.

The Internet is awash with glowing descriptions on how smooth the ballhead action is on the B1 and so after admiring it for what seemed like forever, I could not wait any longer.  I gave that clamp an excited push.  What a movement.  Right out of the box, it felt very well damped; it was oily smooth.  There was no dry feeling, and in fact, it felt like the internal ball was floating in very heavy oil.  The clamp stopped with confidence as well.  The reports on the Internet and those early magazine articles I read were dead-on accurate in their description."

GLANCING BACK AT MY PREVIOUS 3-WAY TRIPOD HEAD

Before going into the actual usage of the Arca-Swiss B1, let me take a nostalgic look at the Bogen 3047 (Manfrotto 029), the perennial favorite when it comes to 3-way pan heads.  It's popularity is partly due to the head’s very good design and (I believe) to its mention in John Shaw’s book “Closeups in Nature”. The 3047 had been my tripod head since 1987.

 

The Walking Stick Monopod, aka "Merlin Stick". Click image for larger picture
Bogen 3047 (Manfrotto 029) 3-Way tripod head

 

Before that, I had a Bogen 3025.  The 3025 (Manfrotto 056) was a small light head that I rarely used because for me it was hard to use, period.  It also did not have a quick-release mechanism and instead of buying the 3299 slim quick release adapter with plate (Manfrotto 323), I gave up on it after a few months, exchanging it for a 3047.

FEATURES OF THE BOGEN 3047

The Bogen 3047 is one of Bogen’s more upscale designs.  It has three large handles to control independent tilting, leveling and panning.  That means you can vary the amount of movement in one direction without affecting the setup of the other two.  This allows for very precise camera control and the long handles do ensure you have that precision control.  I find that this type of head lends itself very well to very tight framing of stationary objects.  Macro is one good application for it.

The three handles are removable for storage and travel, they just need unscrewing.  My version of the 3047 is the older type where the handles are leaner and longer than the new shorter and fatter versions you see today.   The length of these three handles allow for easy gripping and maneuverability.  The head has built-in bubble levels for both tilt and level orientation.  Honestly, I can count on my one hand the times I’ve used these levels, but many people find them useful.

 

Bogen’s quick-release method employs the fixed-cavity type.  The Bogen’s 3049 (Manfrotto 030-14) proprietary hexagonal plate fits into this fixed cavity and I am not aware of any third-party manufacturer for these plates.  Using their quick-release is very easy.  Simply cock the lever, slide two sides of the hex plate under two lips (Bogen calls them “bosses”) on the head, push the camera down so that the plate locks into the cavity and a satisfying “click” is heard.  The lever should snap back to its closed position and voila, you’re ready to take a picture.  

To remove the camera from the head, just flip the lever out and the plate is free.  One of the quickest quick-releases indeed!

 

 

DISADVANTAGES

Over the 15 years I’ve used it, I have found a few quirks with my 3047.  Some of them can be fatally dangerous to your camera and lens if unaware or careless.

 

  • When mounting the camera and plate to the head, ensure that the two sides of the hex plate slide under the two lips on the head.  If they don’t, the plate won’t be held captive.  There were many times I have heard that satisfying “click” of the lever snapping shut only to find my camera loose atop the plate.  Shudder.  I now have the habit of jiggling the camera a little to ensure the plate is solidly seated within the head’s cavity.

  • There is no anti-twist mechanism on the 3049 hexagonal plate. For that you need the 3267 (Manfrotto 030ARCH-14) architectural alignment mounting plate. Mine has a cork-like material atop the plate, which Bogen claims to be a “friction” surface, whatever that means.  It is certainly not anti-slip if not very very tight.  It can be quite frustrating to have carefully composed your shot and have it ruined by an accidental nudge that moves your lens a few degrees off kilter.  As well, vertical shots can be problematic with heavy lenses. My 105 AF-micro is not a very heavy lens, but when I tilt the head to vertical, the lens slightly droops because the weight of the lens makes the camera twist on the plate.  Due to this, I rarely leave the camera on the tripod and walk with it slung on my shoulder as I have seen many people do.

  • The three long handles can catch onto the most absurd things.  Better watch it when traveling.  I’ve had heads (human) knocked with it; I had it caught in other people’s collars, a woman’s hair, or another guy’s backpack, etc.   Personally, I have had a couple of my front shirt pockets ripped by the back handle.  Apparently, when I’m composing low-angle shots and looking in the viewfinder, it dips into my shirt pocket without my knowing.  Ergo, the pocket rips as I stand up.  If my hand were not on the camera, the whole rig would have toppled forward.

  • The head itself is heavy at 3.3 lbs (1.5Kg) and gets heavier on a long day of shooting.

  • The hex plate cannot be left on the camera for storage.  The whole underside is about 1 inch deep due to the main screw and huge locking knob around it.  I once left it on overnight in my bag and the plate made a huge indentation on the bag pads.  Some bags might not even accommodate the extra height it gives the camera.  I know my F4s won’t fit into my Mini-Trekker with the hex plate on.

  • The hex plate can dig into your chest as you walk around with the camera and strap around your neck.  There’s no way around this problem except to take the plate off or sling the camera on one shoulder.  Hex plates do have six sides and six points!  Due to the orientation of the head’s fixed cavity, the plate has to be positioned on the camera so that one of the six points would dig into your sternum, if you decide to carry it around your neck.

  • The 3-way action can be too slow for some type of photography.  There are many times I have loosened two handles at the same time to speed up my framing.  I have actually gotten quite good at it.  Mind you, it is not without its pitfalls.  There are also many times I have forgotten to tighten one or the other handle!  Only quick reflexes prevented the camera from flopping over.

 

Nevertheless, aware of its faults, it served me well for over 15 years, at a most affordable price.

MOUNTING THE ARCA B1 ON A BOGEN 3021 TRIPOD

Removing the 3047 was easy and mounting the B1 on my Bogen 3021 aluminum tripod was a breeze.  Just screw it on the 3/8” stud.  There is no lock on the 3021, however, so there has been one instance where the head had slightly unscrewed itself out of the platform.

 

Bogen 3021 - Manfrotto 055cl tripod
Bogen 3021 (Manfrotto 055CLB Classic) tripod

 

The legs do come with three short screws that you screw in from underneath the mounting platform to hold the head.  I have hesitated to do this just yet.  Because the underside of the B1 is smooth metal, the three screws will have nowhere to go but dig into the surface.  I’m not prepared to do that.  Not yet.  My B1 is too new.  For now, I have resorted to just manually tightening the head onto the 3021.  So far it’s working.  

A VISE-LIKE GRIP!

As opposed to the Bogen’s fixed-cavity design, Arca-Swiss employs a quick-release mechanism that is of an open-channel type.  It is nothing more than a basic clamp that secures a plate the camera is attached to.  The plate can be positioned and locked anywhere within the open channel of the quick-release clamp.  Companies such as Really Right Stuff (RRS), Kirk Enterprises and Markins have added a stop-screw at one end of the body plates to minimize the risk of the plate sliding through the clamp when vertically oriented.

 

The same paranoia I had when mounting my camera on the 3047 spilled over to the B1 clamp.  And for good reason.  It happened during one of the first outings I had with the ballhead.  I slid the plate in (or so I thought), then tightened the bolt on the clamp, and started to use the camera.  Imagine my surprise when the camera started to tip over, it was good I was slightly holding on to it!  

 

 

Apparently the plate had not engaged one of the clamp’s jaws, and the camera was practically simply sitting on top of the clamp!  Although I attribute that to my inexperience with the Arca-Swiss clamp, I would suggest for anyone to check if the plate’s seated correctly within the clamp before shooting.

As quick-releases go, the Arca-style clamp is a tad slower than the Bogen’s 3047 design.  After sliding the plate in (that alone takes some practice), you would have to turn the clamp’s locking knob a few turns to lock the jaws on the plate, whereas the Bogen (Manfrotto) only needed cocking the lever and snapping the plate into the cavity.  You can reduce the number of required turns by not unlocking the clamp too much when removing the camera, but only just enough to allow the plate to slide out.

RRS has recently introduced a new clamp they call B2-Pro LR quick release clamp.  This does away with the locking knob and replaces it with a cam-locking lever that can go from fully closed to fully open with one quick action.  No more turning knobs to lock and unlock the jaws.  On paper, looks like this may prove to be the ultimate quick-release clamp.

Once the clamp is tightened, it is set.  The rigidity of the ballhead + clamp + camera inspires confidence.  There is absolutely no chance of twisting since the clamp jaws act as an anti-twist feature. If used with body plates that have flanges, especially those that were machined to conform to the camera body, there is absolutely no chance of twisting. The clamp performs its function marvelously.  It would be very hard to move that camera from its base.  In fact, I now find myself slinging the tripod over my shoulder with camera and lens attached.  In this regard, I have more confidence with the Arca-style QR than with the Bogen QR I used.

TIGHTEN THAT KNOB, LOOSEN THAT KNOB...

Working with the B1 was like freedom redefined.  No longer was I constrained to changing the camera’s orientation in one axis at a time.  By unlocking a single controlling knob, the camera is let loose.  And so is the photographer.  After recomposing, I turn the same knob in the opposite direction and presto, the camera is rock steady again.  As well, it took no time at all to get familiar with the controls.

 

Bogen 3021 - Manfrotto 055cl tripod

Arca Swiss B1 Monoball head

 

After all those years with the 3047, one really big difference stood out right off the bat.  I am huge on the spot meter.  Using the spot meter on the 3047, if I was lucky, all I had to do was tweak the camera framing in one orientation, leaving the camera on the 3047 to do my spot metering.  But more often than not, it was common for me to remove the camera from the tripod, do my spot metering and then put it back on for the actual shooting.  It was a necessary evil and something I had learned to live with if I wanted to continue using the tripod.

With the B1, all that is needed is to loosen the knob, swing the camera any which way needed to point the spot meter circle, take the meter reading and re-compose, lock the knob and take the picture.  It is convenience at the tip of my fingertips.  It lessened a whole load of frustration.  This practice also allows me to scan the scene for potential other shots through the viewfinder without the camera leaving the tripod.  I never could do that with a 3-way pan head.  So refreshing and so enlightening!

HEAD ACTION

What about the B1’s famous smooth and controlled ball action?  With a real-world load on it, the ballhead behaved more smoothly than without.  Place a camera and lens on the A-S clamp, set the locking knob to minimum friction (more on that later) and camera seems to glide.  No wait, it does glide.  There are no sudden stops; you feel the ball brake with finesse.  You don’t feel any internal friction; there is no jerking or any rubbing or scratching of internal surfaces.  It is like slicing butter.  The Arca-Swiss B1 is a truly a joy to use.

The panning base has the same velvety smooth action.  I have this vision of the insides of the Arca-Swiss just swimming in heavy-gauge oil.  You move it and it gives but it gives with a smooth and even reaction.  That’s how best I can describe it in words.

After three months of use, the movement is even silkier than when it was brand new, if that’s at all possible.  There is one fault I find regarding the action.  One of the patented characteristics of the B1 (due to the aspherical or elliptical shape of the ballhead), is that the stiffness of the ballhead action increases the more the head is tilted to vertical.  There are two advantages to this design:  (1) it makes the B1 able to support more load consistently than other ballheads, (2) it also prevents your expensive camera gear from flopping around unexpectedly.  However, in my so far limited use of the head, it also makes working in vertical orientation harder.  When set to my pre-determined minimum tension, the more I push my camera to vertical, the more the B1 resists.  Fine-tuning compositions vertically can be frustrating due to the tightened condition of the ball.  This could be solved easily by using a lower pre-determined minimum tension setting or by employing an L-bracket.

ONE "L" OF A BRACKET

An "L" bracket allows you to switch the camera from horizontal into vertical position without tilting the ballhead.  It is an L-shaped piece of metal which has body plates that will slide into the head’s quick-release (QR) clamp on both of its horizontal and vertical arms.  Simply slide the bracket into the clamp using either of the two plates to achieve the orientation you need.

 

Bogen 3021 - Manfrotto 055cl tripod

Kirk's BL-F5 "L" bracket for Nikon F5

 

If you have multiple bodies and you see yourself using an L-bracket on all of them, it makes more economic sense to buy a generic L-bracket, one that will fit any camera body and that will fit on your Arca-style QR clamp.

If you have only one camera body, you are then better off getting an L-bracket made specifically for that body, since the benefits are many. They're lighter, and fit more snugly to the contours of the camera. You are also 100% sure no feature of your camera will be compromised by the L-structure.  Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff manufacture L-brackets for most late-model Nikon cameras.

Of course, if Kirk or RRS does not make a custom L-bracket for your camera (such as for my F4 and FM2), a generic L-bracket from these two companies would be the solution.  Here are the differences between these "generic" L-brackets:

 

The Kirk generic versions are the BL-1 (long) and BL-2 (short):


Kirk BL-1

- lighter at 5 oz  
- less expensive by about $70 USD
- made up of two pieces of aluminum joined together
- attaches to the camera’s QR body plate by a bolt, so it’s a little less convenient when attaching or detaching from the camera
- comes in 2 versions, short and long
- the L-bracket slides into the QR clamp from left-to-right (as normally done, i.e. perpendicular to the lens axis)  

 

 

 

The RRS generic version is the B16 converter clamp:
 
 

- heavier at 14 oz  
- milled from a single piece of aluminum  
-

comes with its own QR clamp. You attach your camera’s QR body plate onto the QR clamp on the L-bracket as you would on the ballhead’s QR clamp, making it very convenient to attach and detach from the camera

 
-

the L-bracket slides into the QR clamp back-to-front (i.e. parallel to lens axis).

 

 

This has one big advantage in that if you're working with macro, this orientation can serve as a "coarse" focusing stage. This is the reason why the RRS version is called a "converter" because it changes the orientation of the plates.

Arca Swiss was the first company to offer an adjustable tension control on ballheads for minimum friction.  The success of this design has stimulated competition and emulation.  The first that comes to mind is Kirk's BH-1, which is made in the USA. The most recent one is the Markins ballhead, made in South Korea.

 

Arca Swiss B1 Monoball head

Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball head

 

I believe these competitors have studied the Arca Swiss B1 design well enough that they have produced similar outstanding ballheads of their own, often at lower prices than the B1 (albeit still expensive than your run-of-the-mill tripod head).  One cannot go wrong with any one of these ballheads.

“Minimum tension” provides the photographer the ability to move the camera smoothly in addition to being able to let go of the camera without fear of losing his equipment to the ground below.  The idea behind the adjustable tension control is for the photographer to find the minimum tension the ballhead movement can be set at for each type of equipment he has. 

Obviously, a FM2 with a 28mm f/2.8 AI-S prime lens calls for a different minimum tension than an F5 with an 80-200mm f/2.8 AF zoom lens.  Arca Swiss recommends setting the minimum to the lightest equipment that would be used on the B1.  When the heavier equipment is mounted, the locking knob can be turned to the pre-set index for this equipment.  


HOW TO SET UP THE MINIMUM TENSION ON ARCA SWISS B1

The B1’s main locking knob has indexes from 0 through 12, with 0 having no friction and 12 being fully locked. Turning the knob and going from 0 to 12 increases the tension and here is the best part:  the change in tightening is a smooth linear progression.  I have read that other heads lock and unlock with a knob that feels almost like an on/off switch. Mount the lightest camera and lens that is to be used.  Turn the main locking knob to a setting that allows smooth movement of the camera + head, but does not flop over when let go.  Without moving the main knob, turn the small serrated screw located in front of the main locking knob.  Once the thumbscrew is locked down, the main knob cannot be turned past this point, i.e. it is now the minimum friction setting.  For example, with my F4 and 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, my minimum setting ends up just below index 3.  

 

Now mount the next heavier piece of equipment.  Since the heavier weight would make the ballhead easier to flop, the minimum friction setting would need to be higher.  For example, with my F4 and 105mm f/2.8 AF-micro, my setting ends up just past index 4.  If you locked the thumbscrew down, this would become your new minimum setting and would override the setting you had set earlier for the lighter equipment.  But the point is, do not lock in this new minimum setting.  Instead commit this to memory (or note it down).  Whenever I mount my F4/105 combo, I just turn the main knob to index 4.  Whenever I mount my F4/28, I turn the main knob to its minimum.  Other combinations might call for a different index.

There is one nitpick about this feature.  Locking the index does not necessarily give you that minimum setting.  Usually it is off by half the index.  Say I position the main locking knob to 4 and lock the thumbscrew.  The minimum setting ends up at 3.5.  One minor thing I have to keep in mind when using the indexes.  The good thing is that you only need to set this once (maybe to last forever), unless you get new cameras and lenses with different weights.

I had a hard time turning the serrated screw at first since it is placed flushed against the surface of the main locking knob.  Some people refer to it as thumbscrew.  It feels more like a nailscrew to me because it seems only my fingernail is the only part of my hand that can grab a hold of it and make it turn.

To unlock the minimum friction setting, turn the main locking knob clockwise about ¼ of an inch, i.e. towards the higher indexes.  This would release the serrated screw and make it easier to turn in the counter-clockwise direction.  Once fully released, the main locking knob can be reset to 0.  A lot of reports on the Internet recommend this setting when traveling long distances with the B1.  Arca Swiss simply recommends turning the main locking knob to its minimum, not necessarily to zero, before transporting.  It is a simple procedure and worth the price to pay for this magnificent ballhead.

CARE AND CLEANING OF YOUR ARCA MONO BALL

In the short time I have owned it, I have gotten the B1 wet with no adverse effect.  However, I would recommend that it should be dried off at once after use.  The ballhead should be kept clean and dry before storage.

 

Click for enlargement with camera

Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball head

 

That said, alcohol and a Q-tip is all that is needed. Arca-Swiss does not recommend any kind of lubrication. A neoprene pouch such as a Zing lens pouch can help keep it free from dirt and dust and padded during non-use or when traveling.

 

CONCLUSION

The B1 is one hell of a ballhead.  It is a highly precision instrument manufactured to very low tolerances and includes many benefits:  lightweight, high load capacity, smooth ball action, fast efficient shooting, precision panning and an aspherical dry-coated ball.  If you decide to get one today, ensure you get the version with the silver thumbscrew. You and your photography will be all the better for it!  Peace.  

.

Click for enlarged view

 

By Ed Alexander

 

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