Points in Focus Photography

Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 Ballhead Review

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Arca-Swiss is perhaps best known for the for the dovetail quick release system they developed, which has since become the de facto standard for high-end photographic quick release systems throughout the industry. However, they’re no newcomer to the industry, having been a large format view camera manufacturer since the 1950s, and more importantly manufacturing ball-heads for those cameras since the introduction since 1964. The Monoball Z1 is the latest descendent of that line of tripod heads.

Without a good tripod head, there’s little point to using a tripod at all, especially the more expensive carbon fiber ones. Pair a wobbly low-end head with an expensive carbon fiber tripod, and you may as well have saved your money on the tripod; your camera will vibrate just as much as if you had a weak tripod.

The natural question then is, “what makes a good tripod head?”

Capacity

I would argue that stability or rigidity is the paramount requirement. All the fancy control schemes in the world don’t amount for a hill of beans if the head can’t keep your camera pointed where you pointed it and do so without undue vibration.

So how do you measure the strength of a tripod head? Well short of buying them and testing them until they break, you’re at the mercy of the manufacturers and their “load capacity” ratings. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there’s no standard for what it measures exactly, how it’s measured, or what it represents. Suffice to say, for what we have, it’s not very good. I tend to take load capacity with a grain of salt and aim for something with a liberal amount of overkill just to be sure.

That said, while I have no idea how conservative Arca-Swiss is in their load capacity rating, they have the overkill in droves. The Z1 is rated for 132-lbs (60Kg). That said, the Z1 is derived from ball-head’s intended for large format view cameras so there’s probably some truth to it. The table below compares the Z1’s rated weight capacity with those of other similar ball-heads.

Ball-head Rated Load Weight
Lbs Kg Lbs G
Arca-Swiss Z1 132 60 ~1.5 ~690
Markins Q20 110 50 1.2 555
Arca-Swiss B1 90 41 1.7 772
Acratech Ultimate Ballhead 25 11.4 0.72 327
Kirk BH-1 50 23 1.9 850
Really Right Stuff BH-55 50 23 1.9 862

In practice, a better way of looking at it might be the amount of torque the head can resist. This is considerably harder information to find published, in fact, only Markins publishes a torque rating. That said, due to a change in manufacturing around the time I bought my Z1, Wimberley was testing and selling Z1s to insure they wouldn’t fail when used with their Sidekick head. According to their testing, my Z1 was tested in excess of 200 inch-pounds (~4.9Nm) of torque. That matches Markin’s ratings for their Q20, which is in the same “load” class as well.

Build and Weight

For as much as the Z1 can hold, it doesn’t weigh a lot. Tipping the scales at 1.5 lbs (680g) with a QR clamp, it shaves almost 100 grams off its B1 predecessor. Fit and finish is very good as well, majority of the ballhead is matte finished metal, excepting the pan lock lever, tension scale, and the rubber grip on the Multifunction Knob.

All told, the build quality is every bit of what you’d demand from a $400 piece of equipment. More importantly, it’s sturdy enough that the head can take some pounding without breaking, even if Arca-Swiss says you should treat it like your cameras.

Range of Motion

The Z1 has independent control over the pan base and the ball’s orientation and the base can freely rotate though 360°. Additionally the ball can yaw though 360°. Pitch and roll motions are limited to ±45° from center, except when the neck aligns with the “portrait notch” where the ball can be rolled/pitched over 90° and rotated around it’s now horizontal axis.

In Use

Ball-heads pose a unique issue in their use and every manufacturer deals with it differently. What I’m talking about is the increase in torque applied to the ball as the load is moved off center, such as when tilting or rolling the camera. The increase in torque as a result of an off-centered load increases the amount of tension necessary to hold the ball in position, which can mean you have to continually adjust the tension setting when you’re using the head.

Arca-Swiss has attempted to get around this by using an aspherical ball. Instead of a perfectly round ball, the ball in the Z1 is more egg shaped (though it’s not visibly obvious). This has the effect of increasing the amount of tension in the clamping mechanism inside the ball-head as the ball leans over. As a result, the tension can be set once and the ball-head will hold the camera in position regardless of the orientation used. The aspherical ball does its job well enough too.

This may sound like a purely theoretical issue,  however, the ideal way to work with a ball-head is to adjust the tension once, so that the camera stays still when you let go, but can be moved around without having to release and reset the tension.

Controls

The Z1 has three controls, the Multifunction Knob, pan lock, and Friction Thumbscrew. Under normal use only two of these controls are ever used, the pan lock and Multifunction Knob. All of the controls are located on the left side of the tripod head, if you have the portrait notch facing towards you.

The Multifunction Knob is approximately 1” in diameter, and controls the “tension” on the ball head. Turning the knob clockwise (when facing the knob) increases the tension on the ball; turning it counter-clockwise reduces the tension. Adjustments are smooth and a whole turn gives quite a lot of control over the tension the ball is set to. Additionally, a user adjustable 13-position (0-12) scale can be set to your specific minimum tension range not that it’s useful in my experience but it’s a nice touch.

On the side of the Multifunction Knob is the Fiction Thumbscrew. The thumbscrew controls the minimum tension the Multifunction Knob can set. The friction thumbscrew, effectively sets the 0-tension point.

Arca-Swiss describes setting the friction thumbscrew as follows:

With the head tightened, mount the lightest combination of camera and lens you will regularly use.  Turn the small thumbscrew (located on the multifunction knob) by rotating it counter clockwise till it stops. Now turn the multifunction knob counter clockwise until you reach the desired minimum degree of friction. This can range from completely free or  to as little or as much drag as you desire.

The Friction Thumbscrew does contribute to one of the major problems some people experience with the Z1 and its predecessors, ball lockup. The ball isn’t actually frozen, though it appears that way. What’s actually happened is that the friction thumbscrew has tightened itself to the point that the Multifunction Knob can’t be turned and the tension decreased. The solution is simple enough, tighten the Multifunction Knob slightly, and then back the friction thumbscrew out. In an attempt to avoid this happening, I keep a piece of gaffer tape over the friction thumbscrew so it can’t be accidentally tightened or loosened.

The final control is the pan-lock. The current generation of the Z1 uses a small lever instead of a small knob. The pan-lock controls the fully independent panning motion of the head, and it doesn’t take much to set (pointed up) or release it (about a quarter turn). In fact I find this setup works very well on a tripod with a large base-plate, like the Gitzo’s Systematic series, where it would have been difficult to turn a knob and the plate is large enough that the lever can’t turn more than ~120°.

Though not an active control per-say, the base of the tripod has a rotation gauge built into it, along with 3 alignment points (white dots 120° apart on the non-rotating base). The major marks are in 15° increments, and minor marks are in 5° increments.

Camera Attachment

When it comes to attaching a camera there are a number of variations available with the Z1. There is a version with no quick release clamp, just a 1/4-20 threaded stud. That also happens to be the lightest version available at 635g.

Arca-Swiss offers both lever action and screw type clamps using their double-dovetail quick release system. This is the same QR system that Really Right Stuff, Wimberley, Markins, Kirk, etc. used as a base for their quick release clamps, and they are all generally speaking compatible with the Arca-Swiss clamps; both lever action and scew.

Arca-Swiss has gotten around the dimensional variations with a width adjustment mechanism in their lever-action clamp, and that will need to be adjusted for your brand of quick release plates prior to use.

Additionally, Arca-Swiss offers a double pan model that places a second pan block on top of the ball. This is especially useful for stitching panoramas where, the tripod can’t be leveled, or you don’t have a leveling base to level the head itself. Instead, the ball is used to level the top panning plate. The double pan versions can also be had in both lever-action and screw-type quick release clamps.

Finally, the quick release clamps are secured with an M6 screw, and can be replaced with clamps like those made by Wimberley (as mine was), Really Right Stuff, or any other QR clamp that allows a screw to be driven down though it into the stem.

TL;DR: Verdict

The Arca-Swiss Z1 may not be the pinnacle of bullheads, but I think it’s darn close. In terms of strength versus weight, it’s hard to find something that exceeds it, with only the Markins Q20 coming close—at least based on published specs. Moreover, I’ve found the Z1 to be very low maintenance and highly reliable; it doesn’t require lubrication and only minimal cleaning, wipe down with a damp cloth.

All told, the Z1 is strong, precise, and smooth in its actions and movements. It’s a quality ball-head that will last for a lifetime.

Comments

Andrew Clark

This was a very well thought out, scientific review of the Z1. Your blog post will do much to educate the photographic community on the benefits of the Z1 and long history of production by Arca-Swiss. As someone who works for Wimberley Inc. We specifically sell the Z1 with our clamps attached, as the Z1 is still after so many years one of the best ball heads on the market. And we have done extensive testing on the Z1. Very nice review.

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