Sunday, January 4, 2015

Thoughts on My New (to Me) GRAF Studioball

Just recently I was given the chance to film an interview for my employer which, to me, meant eight hours of playing with my camera and video editing software on company time. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Thinking through how I was going to shoot in the given location, it became clear that my Gorillapod Focus was not going to be sufficient and I was in need of a traditional tripod. By this point I was already well past all the stages of tripod denial and I needed an excuse to get one so out I went and picked up a used Manfrotto 055PROB. Legs in hand, I began to scour the classified ads for a ballhead and the only serious contenders that came up were an Arca Swiss B1 and a GRAF Studioball.

Graf studioball
My new (to me) GRAF Studioball.

Before I continue I would like to point out that most ballheads support two to ten kilograms. Both of the aforementioned units support north of twenty kilograms. Consider the weight of the following combination:

5D MarkII Body:                                    810g
BG-E6 Battery Grip                               315g
LP-E6 Battery  x 2                                 158g
Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II                       1490g
Canon 600EX-RT                                    425g
AA Batteries (4)                                      90g
Joby Ultraplate                                       47g
Blackrapid R-Strap                                 170g

TOTAL:                                               3505g

Outside fast super telephoto territory, that is about as heavy a system as I will be likely to shoot with. Since we're talking numbers, the ballhead itself weighs 1300g and the suggested maximum capacity of the legs is 7kg. The aforementioned camera rig is 17% of the load capacity of the ballhead. Together with the head the rig is is 4.8kg which represents 68.5% of the load capacity of the legs which sounds stable and secure to my ears.

Why then, you ask, do I need such a formidable ballhead? I probably don't. What I did want to ensure was that I was nowhere near the limit of the ballhead so the chance of slipping or developing a problem would be minimal. Additionally, if I ever did want to mount a super telephoto lens or a heavy video system I would have the option. Future-proofing makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Besides, I've always wanted to experience shooting wildlife with a giant off-white bazooka.

I had already done some reading on ballheads in this wonderful post on the blog which I found extremely helpful. Information abounds about the quality of Arca Swiss ballheads but unfortunately not so for the GRAF Studioball. What little information that was available online seemed promising however, and the technical specs and sparse reviews suggested this was the droid I was looking for. The fact that it was $100 less expensive than the B1 closed the deal for me and I went out to pick it up. The seller even threw in a QR plate!

When I examined my new ballhead I was seriously impressed. The GRAF Studioball is tank. The online reviews suggested just as much but nothing prepared me for the substance of this unit. The construction is solid and the head can withstand a mind boggling amount of force without slipping. I tried to pull the head to one side while it was under tension and I could not get it to budge. The secondary tensioner provides very fine increments of adjustment and can hold the ballhead steady without the need of the main tensioner. The plate holder is generous in size and clamps with enough force to inspire confidence. The pitch of the jaws is such that most plates need to be slid out rather than pulled out of the top. Many consider this an additional safety feature and I agree with them.

My wonder quickly turned to frustration when I was turning the panning base and the top of the ballhead slid right off of it. As I examined the mechanism I noticed that the ballhead sits unattached on the panning base and the unit is unfit to be mounted horizontally or upside down. Nowhere in my reading was this design feature mentioned. I like to shoot a lot of macro and the fact that this ballhead can only be used upright was a bit of a disappointment for me. I'm not totally convinced that this is the way the units ships originally as the bearings for the panning base seem to have been replaced DIY by a low friction plastic ring. I have for weeks now been trying to contact the North American distributor for this ballhead but I have not been successful at reaching anyone who might be able to offer technical assistance or repair for this unit. Consider this in your purchase decision if you should chose to buy one of these units.

Graf Studioball
The panning base dissasembled. I didn't realize it at the time but that plastic ring should actually be a bearing cartridge and this unit has suffered some less than ideal DIY repair.

Graf Studioball
You will notice inside the pin receptacle there is a collar meant to tension the panning base, controlled but the adjacent knob. With the plastic ring serving as a bearing the fit isn't correct and there isn't enough tension on the base. 

Was this a total waste? Not really. A lot of what I use a tripod for is done upright. Aside from being unsuitable for horizontal or reverse mounting this is a great ballhead and I paid less than I would have for most equivalent rated units. Though I may eventually sell it off I have to say for the moment I am very pleased with the purchase since it, along with my new tripod legs, have opened up a whole new realm of photographic possibilities to me. Stay posted as I explore the capabilities of this ballhead with different lenses and rigs throughout the coming year.

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