equipment reviews

novoflex classic ball 5

A ball head is traditionally the first-choice tripod head for wildlife photography. The main reason why we prefer ball heads is that they can be easier and quicker adjusted. There are at least two other advantages: The ball heads are more compact compared to three-way heads, geared heads and any other types of tripod heads and they are versatile, i.e. can be used in all situations — even adapted as a gimbal head. So when a nature photographer gets his first tripod, he usually also gets a ball head for it... and typically makes a mistake because he is acting with his current equipment in mind — which is often a consumer camera and a kit lens. As soon as it comes to wildlife photography and he tries to mount a different camera with a 400 mm telephoto or a 180 mm macro lens, he would discover for the first time that his tripod system isn't suitable. When he realizes this he, buys another tripod with another head that are more stable, and if he is more clever now, he would choose a tripod system not for the current day but for life.

Novoflex Classic Ball 5 on Quadropod with macro legs. (Click to enlarge.)

According to old wisdom, a tightfisted man pays twice. Unfortunately, it should be said about me too. My first tripod was a professional carbon fibre Velbon Sherpa — for general photography probably not a bad one. My first tripod head was Manfrotto 486 — a very popular ball head — so popular and highly recommended in many reviews that it made me buy it. As soon as I got a 2.5 kg lens and tried to use it with this setup, I realized my mistake: my very expensive camera and lens were in danger to fall down every minute when they were mounted on it. When I mounted a camera with a 150 mm macro lens on Manfrotto 486 in tilted position, it tended to jump a couple of millimeters down immediately after I removed my hands off the camera. Macrophotography was a pain with this setup! Just one year after I had bought the tripod and the head, I was desperately searching for an possibility to sell both. Fortunately, I managed to sell the tripod for good money, but of course I lost almost 100 € on it, compared to the new price. The used Manfrotto head was so cheap that I kept mine but didn't have a chance to use it anymore.

Well, a better and stronger ball head that I wish I had better got instead was at least 5 times more expensive, but I lost about 60 € when I purchased the Manfrotto 486 because it has proved to be completely useless for my purposes. I had better invested that money in a tripod system that I could use for many decades — with all my current and future equipment and in all shooting situations. Manfrotto 486 is an excellent head — with a very good price-value ratio — but it is only of limited use for nature photography.

Here you see my copy of Classic Ball 5 in its typical setup which I have on most of my trips — with an Arca-style quick-mount plate and a panorama plate. (Click to enlarge.)

After my bad experience with that poor men's tripod/head combo, I ended up looking for an all-purpose alternative. My requirements for the ball head were the following:

Of course, I was hoping to find such a ball head for a moderate price (i.e. around 200 - 250 €) that also would not be too heavy. But these two parameters did not influence my final choice: After very thorough analysis, I ended up with purchase of one of the heaviest and most expensive ball heads on the market — Novoflex Classic Ball 5.

Novoflex is a small German company that designs and manufactures a wide range of mechanical and electronic equipment for photographers. Most products are made in small quantities and therefore are very expensive. But their quality is outstanding. After more than 60 years of its history, Novoflex is a highly regarded company which occupies in Germany a similar niche as RRS in the USA. The very good reputation of Novoflex was among the reasons why I decided to get this ball head. However, when I was comparing various brands, my favourites were RRS and Arcratech whose heads are lower, but I couldn't find a good offer of them in Europe. Their ball heads cost about as much as Classic Ball 5 or even more after they have been imported from the US and all costs, such as shipment and tax duty, have been payed. For American buyers a Novoflex Classic Ball 5 would cost even more, however — over 700 $. It is much more than I paid for mine in its country of origin.


It is a pleasure to see and to hold a Classic Ball 5 in hand — not only to use it. It is quite heavy: Without mounting clamp and panorama plate it weighs about as much as a 750 ml bottle of wine. The colours of Classic Ball 5 are not black (as they are in almost all other tripod heads) but light grey and deep blue. This colour combination is distinguishing for Novoflex brand. The paint is extremely durable: Even after use in toughest conditions in Africa my Classic Ball 5 has not got any scratches. The finishing is matt and feels very pleasant.

The Classic Ball 5 is shipped like showed here — without any mount plate. It has three controls: a blue ring — for friction, a large lever — for fixation of ball, and a round knob — for fixation of panning. In this picture, only cut-out for vertical camera positioning is visible, but there are two more on other sides.

With 5 cm of diameter, the ball looks huge. It moves very smooth and needs no lubrication. The friction of the movement is controlled by a blue ring that rotates around the head. This kind of control is much more convenient compared to small dialers used in ball heads of other brands for this purpose. There are 5 levels of friction. Already at level 3 you don't need to tighten the fixation knob for a mid sized camera with a 50 mm lens to remain in position when you wouldn't be holding it.

The fixation lever is the only one large control on Classic Ball 5. You don't need to look away from the viewfinder of you camera to find it.

Of course, the Classic Ball 5 has a panning mechanism. It rotates on its base when a fixation screw is released. The rotation is very smooth and silent. Unlike in the equivalent models of Arca Swiss and other manufacturers, there is not rotation angle scale. In my opinion, no one needs it, because it is very difficult to achieve a completely horizontal rotation at the base of a tripod head. It is much better to have such a scale on top of it — at camera mount. For this purpose, there is a thin panorama plate that Novoflex sells separately, however.

Another extremely convenient feature of Classic Ball 5 is the cut-outs for vertical camera positioning. While there is only one such cut-out in other brands, Novoflex has three. It is easier to place the camera vertically due to this without looking at the tripod head.

load capacity

I was very confused having discovered that the comparison of the most important parameter — the load capacity — in various ball heads available on the market is not easy because their manufacturers appear to be measuring it differently. For heads with similar quality, some are claiming insanely high load values while the others indicate it 5 to 6 times lower. In the following table I compared these data for the top models of 5 main manufacturers of ball heads suitable for wildlife photography.

Manufacturer Model Weight, g Height, mm Load Capacity, kg
Acratech GP 450 104 11.3
Arca Swiss Monoball Z1 595 99 60*
Kirk BH-1 850 110 22.5**
Markins Q20 568 101 45*
Novoflex Classic Ball 5 860 115 12
Really Right Stuff (RRS) BH-55 726 89 23**
*  Breaking point measured.
** Probably measured in upright position.

You should not take serious the values of load capacity that are given in the last column. For instance, Arca Swiss indicates only the absolute maximum, i.e. the break point, which shouldn't be much lower in other brands. Though I didn't find an explanation why the value stated by Markins is so high, I assume that they do the same. When I was at Photokina in 2010, I asked a representative of Arca Swiss about the "real-life" load capacity of their Monoball Z1 but didn't get a clear answer. Since I am not going to load 40 or 60 kg on my tripod to try to break it, such high value isn't significant for me unless it reflects the stability of the ball head in tilted position. All heads listed in the table (except Acratech) are of similar construction, size and quality, hence I would expect their actual load capacity to be similar. This corresponds to the analysis and test results of 27 ball heads done by German photographer and book author Stefan Gross (see his publication (in German) "Kugelköpfe im Test"). Mr. Gross assumed that Arca Swiss Monoball Z1 should be able to support only around 8 kg when tilted. Unfortunately, Novoflex Classic Ball 5 wasn't among the heads that he had tested when I was going to buy it. Since I new other Novoflex products I expected that the load capacity that they were stating — 12 kg — was measured realistically.

tilt stability

For the purposes of wildlife photography, the only relevant measuring of load capacity of a ball head is when it is in tilted position. After I got my copy of Classic Ball 5, I used the same method as Stefan Gross to test it. I mounted my camera with 2.8/300 mm lens (i.e. about 3.5 kg) and brought the head in tilted position at about 45°. In that position I focused on a ruler that was hanging at the same angle and registered how far the equipment was sagging when I was taking my hands away. It wasn't at all! I tried it several times checking with LiveView if there was a motion, but there was none, i.e. the lens didn't move even a single millimeter down. This was better than I had expected.

I don't know for sure if Classic Ball 5 would perform that well with maximum load &mdash 12 kg — but I am expecting that it wouldn't sag too much. Certainly, this head is strong enough to be used with Wimberley Sidekick as gimbal head for a super telephoto lens up-to 800 mm. This is another reason why I have purchased such a heavy and sturdy ball head.

damping effect

I used this old Soviet banknote as test target. Below you'll see 100% crops of the marked area. (Click to enlarge.)

Another quality indicator of a tripod head is its ability to damp the shakes of an SLR camera when the mirror is closing. To assess this effect, the author of the above mentioned review of tripod heads was using three different camera-lens combinations, a Manfrotto tripod and a 5-euros banknote. He photographed the banknote with each of three setups mounted on bare tripod and on tripod with head and compared the results. I tried to do the same. For my experiment I took a Soviet 3-roubles banknote which has a similar size as 5 euro but a much thinner pattern. I started with the heaviest camera-lens combo that Stefan Gross was using in his test — a camera with Canon EF 300 mm F/2.8 IS L USM. Like in Gross's test, I mounted it on a bare tripod that was standing on stone floor and made two shots of the banknote — one with mirror lock-up turned off and one with it turned on. After that I made another shot when the Classic Ball 5 was between tripod and camera. The results surprised me: the photos taken without the head were at least as sharp as when the head was on the tripod. You can see it in the 100% crops showed below. I suppose that my four-legged Novoflex Quadropod was damping shakes too well compared to the Manfrotto tripod that Mr. Gross had been using. I tried it again — with a set of short macro legs: The sharpness was even better than when Quadropod was on long aluminium legs. (Compare the images provided below.) And there was no obvious difference between the shots taken with and without head.

Classic Ball 5 on Quadropod with 3-section aluminium legs Classic Ball 5 on Quadropod with 3-section aluminium legs, mirror lock-up
No head on Quadropod with 3-section aluminium legs No head on Quadropod with 3-section aluminium legs, mirror lock-up
Classic Ball 5 on Quadropod with macro legs Classic Ball 5 on Quadropod with macro legs, mirror lock-up
Quadropod with macro legs Quadropod with macro legs, mirror lock-up

Although my test failed to provide results for comparison of damping ability of Classic Ball 5 when the mirror lock-up is turned off and when it is on, it is possible to compare its results with those that Stefan Grass gather for other ball heads. The images in the right column were taken with mirror lock-up turned on. The effect is clearly visible: The MLU eliminates blur caused by mirror hit. Apparently, neither a very stable tripod nor a very heavy and stable head help to completely prevent blur. The same can be observed in the tests of Mr. Grass. Since so much depends on the tripod, I doubt that his method of shake damping assessment is correct. But if we would rely on this method and compare my shots of 3-roubles banknote with his shots of 5 euros, we would see that Classic Ball 5 is at least on par with RRS and Arca Swiss heads.

November, 2010