Pistol Grip Heads: Ready For Action
Slik introduced the first pistol grip over 25 years ago, heralding an innovative adaptation of the ball socket head. Still in production, that head has not changed, but today there are numerous variations on this basic design. Several are fashioned along the lines of a video game joystick. Two other types included here are the collar lock ball head and what I call the “vice grip” head.
We’re all familiar with the trusty ball head. Simply stated, it consists of a camera mounting platform mated to a pivoting ball joint, and, often but not always, an independently moving panning base. But it’s not what we would consider action-oriented.
A pistol grip head’s chief purpose is to let you keep your eye on the subject without distracting you with adjustments to the head. The benefit is that the pistol grip makes it easier to shoot action, although many extend the head’s utility to a much wider range of applications.
This head departs from the basic ball head in several ways. First, the pistol grip head replaces the locking knob/lever with a squeeze trigger/handle. Second, the moving ball joint is replaced with one that remains stationary (when mounted to a tripod), unattached to the mounting platform. That platform now becomes the revolving element (like the earth revolving around the sun). Finally, the handle also serves to assist you when following the subject, akin to any panning handle. The heads we’re looking at that employ a pistol grip or joystick variation are the Calumet Quickgrip (CK7033), Cullmann Cross CB10, Flashpoint PB-70 Pistol Grip Head, Kruger Optical Pistol Grip (65306), Manfrotto 322RC2, Slik AF-2100, Smith-Victor GH-100, Sunpak Pro 423PX2, and Vanguard GH-200.
The ease with which the head moves governs how easily you can track subject movement or align the subject in the frame. Head movement is primarily controlled by that squeeze trigger. Squeeze more tightly on the trigger to increasingly release tension (drag/friction) and thereby allow the head/camera to move more freely. Release that trigger to lock in the position.
Controlling drag provides for smoother, more fluid head/camera movement, especially with heavier rigs. With longer, heavier lenses, a separate friction control is handy to better balance the load. Of the reviewed products specifically labeled pistol grip or joystick, only the Vanguard, Manfrotto, and Calumet have a friction lever or knob. The Manfrotto, Calumet, and Flashpoint heads add a fine-tune tension adjustment.
Pistol grips fashioned after the Slik head have a panning platform at the very top, governed by a dedicated locking/tension lever. Panning is often fairly fluid (although not to video head standards). The Vanguard GH-200’s panning platform does double duty, also serving as a guide for stitched panoramics, via marked click-stops (which do not interfere with smooth subject tracking).
The Flashpoint, Manfrotto, and Calumet heads do not have a separate panning platform. With these, you’ll have to follow action by rotating the head itself. It may take some practice to master squeezing the trigger for just the right amount of drag. Once mastered, you may find this approach preferable with any of these heads.
Angle, Rotation, And Orientation
Remember, on a pistol grip, the platform is moving, not the ball joint. However, as with a conventional ball head, you have a fairly narrow window in which to pivot the pistol grip, with a slot making 90˚ tilting possible. On a pistol grip, this slot is located in a rotating base encompassing the ball joint. The movement of this base is controlled by the trigger, so squeeze gently, then, with your free hand, rotate the base/slot to the desired position. Place the slot to the rear for upward tilts, or, when shooting verticals, rotate it to either side and reorient the camera.
The Manfrotto 322RC2, Flashpoint PB-70, and Vanguard GH-200 let you change orientation of the grip handle to a vertical joystick, but Manfrotto and Vanguard go one step further, adjusting for right/left-handed use. However, the Vanguard head does not have a rotating base, but instead has fixed front and side slots, and shooting at steep upward angles becomes a bit awkward (not ideal for birders).
Size, Weight, And Load Capacity
We pay particular attention to size and weight on a pistol grip. Despite their heft, they’re not built for very heavy loads—less, in fact, than a ball head of smaller size and weight.
Added to that, many pistol grips are tall, raising the center of gravity to the point where it may become destabilizing. With a lightweight tripod in windy conditions, it might be necessary to hang a stabilizing weight from the hook at the base of the center column.
The Novoflex MagicBall 50 and OSN Collar Lock Ball Socket Head (PH-15) stand apart from this crowd in that they do feature an active locking mechanism, not a squeeze trigger, although each still employs a ball joint at its core. What they have in common with the pistol grip is that the ball joint remains fixed in place as the platform tilts and swivels.
The Novoflex clenches the ball joint in a vice-like manner. Locking the head involves a singular handle, as on a pan head, which governs movement in any direction, practically without limitation. This head also features a dedicated tension control. The OSN head has a collar (grabbed by the left hand) to control drag and lock the head down, but no separate handle. Like the pistol grip, the PH-15 features a rotating base with a 90˚ slot.
Depending on the size and strength of your hand, you’ll find one pistol grip works better than another. The original Slik pistol grip is the most comfy to use, with a full-size trigger and the best squeeze-trigger action. However, the Flashpoint head has smoother head movement, while nearly as ergonomic. The Kruger head was a more comfy fit but not as smooth. But if you want really smooth movement, look at the Novoflex MagicBall, which felt like a top-quality ball head.
Triggers on the Manfrotto and Calumet are full-size, with the Calumet action being more user-friendly. The Vanguard features a full-size, rubberized trigger, but trigger action felt quite stiff. Trigger action on the Smith-Victor, Cullmann, and Sunpak heads felt equally stiff—perhaps better suited to someone else’s hand. The OSN PH-15 scored high for ease of use. They all did fairly well when panning, with heads employing a panning platform taking the lead.
For my testing, I mounted a Nikon D300 with a 70-300mm zoom (3.5 lbs total) on each head. The vast majority of heads were best suited to landscape mode. Some heads exhibited slippage on the mounting plate. Best performance in portrait mode came from Vanguard, OSN, and Kruger. But keep in mind that you’d rarely be shooting verticals with these heads.
We also have to consider QR (Quick-Release) systems. The Novoflex lacks a QR facility, which is regrettable (although available as an option). Slik, OSN, and Kruger all have cork-surfaced quick plates; the others are rubberized. Only the Flashpoint and Vanguard heads sport an Arca-style universal plate, but Flashpoint adds a secondary active safety mechanism, not just a safety catch. The majority use variations on the spring-loaded locking lever/release, with a secondary safety mechanism. The Kruger must be manually returned to the locking position and lacks a safety catch. The Slik head uses its own QR system. Cullmann and Sunpak feature identical QR systems with a secondary catch. With any of these systems, make sure the locking mechanism and safety catch are fully engaged. You may have to apply some pressure to return the lever to its fully secure position.
Finally, judging from appearance and feel, I felt especially confident with the Novoflex, Slik, Vanguard, Manfrotto, Calumet, Flashpoint, and OSN heads, although the Kruger and Smith-Victor heads both felt solid. The Sunpak pistol grip adds one enticing feature: a full-grown carbon-fiber tripod base at a very reasonable combo price. But when talking about price and value, the Flashpoint head can’t be beat.
Maximum load capacity for the majority of these heads is adequate to handle the needs of the average D-SLR and zoom lens. I would think twice before using one with a long, fast optic, such as a 300mm f/2.8, even with a tripod mount, and even if the head is rated to support such loads, unless the head had a separate tension control.
Granted, the pistol grip may take some getting used to. It’s not for everyone. But when employed correctly and mated to a suitable tripod and load, it could give your wildlife and action photography a boost and generally play a broader role in your nature and travel shooting.
Products In This Roundup
Calumet Quickgrip Action Head (CK7033) (Calumet Photographic). Height w/QR plate: 8.4”; weight: 1.4 lbs; max load: 5.5 lbs. Price: $95.
Cullmann Cross CB10 (R.T.S. Inc.). Height: 4.7”; weight: 0.9 lbs; max load: 6.6 lbs. Price: $69.
Flashpoint PB-70 Pistol Grip Head (Adorama). Height: 5”; weight: 1.8 lbs; max load: 9.5 lbs. Price: $49.
Kruger Optical Pistol Grip Tripod Ballhead (65306) (Kruger Optical). Height w/QR plate: 5”; weight: 1.2 lbs; max load: 6.6 lbs. Price: $45.
Manfrotto 322RC2 Joystick Head (Manfrotto Distribution). Height: 10.3”; weight: 1.5 lbs; max load: 11 lbs. Price: $169.
Novoflex MagicBall 50 (HP Marketing Corp.). Height: 3.5”; length: 5.9”; weight: 1.4 lbs; max load: 16 lbs. Price: $419.
OSN Collar Lock Ball Socket Head (PH-15) (OSN USA). Height: 6.25”; weight: 1.8 lbs; max load: 8 lbs. Price: $98.
Slik AF-2100 Pistol Grip Head (THK Photo). Height: 5.5”; weight: 1.9 lbs; max load: 10 lbs. Price: $109.
Smith-Victor GH-100 (Smith-Victor/Promark). Height: 5”; weight: 1.1 lbs; max load: 5 lbs. Price: $64.
Sunpak Pro 423PX2 (ToCAD America). Seven-layer carbon-fiber tripod (three sections w/flip-lever locks; extends to 65.8”); includes removable pistol grip (height approx. 4”); weight: 3 lbs; max load: 15.4 lbs. Price: $129. Note: specs/price are for tripod w/head.
Vanguard GH-200 (Vanguard USA). Height: 4.5”; weight: 28.4 oz; max load: 13.2 lbs. Price: $169.
Using A Pistol Grip Head
While your approach may vary, essentially using a pistol grip or variation involves grabbing the squeeze grip or handle with your left hand while the right hand controls the camera. If you first lock in focus, you can shift to your right hand on the handle, with your free hand releasing the shutter via a remote trigger.
Calumet Photographic: www.calumetphoto.com
HP Marketing Corp./Novoflex: www.hpmarketingcorp.com; www.novoflex.com
Kruger Optical: www.krugeroptical.com
Manfrotto Distribution: www.manfrottodistribution.us
OSN USA: www.osnusa.net
R.T.S. Inc./Cullmann: www.rtsphoto.com
THK Photo/Slik: www.thkphoto.com
ToCAD America/Sunpak: www.tocad.com
Vanguard USA: www.vanguardworld.com
Product photos are courtesy of the respective manufacturer/distributor.