In my quest for a new quality ballhead I searched and scoured the various photo websites/forums trying to glean as much information as I could. For my purposes (see below) the choice came down to either a Markins Q3 or a Kirk BH-3 ballhead. As luck would have it, two members of our local photography club had just ordered and received these very two ballheads, and I was able to borrow them to do a side by side comparison/review--something which I had not yet found anywhere. While many folks had one or the other I've not met many who have had both, much less both at the same time for an equal, side-by-side comparison--so hopefully somebody out there will find this useful!
Part A: My Purposes
I am using a Nikon D200 without vertical grip. I normally shoot landscapes with wide angle lenses (Tokina 12-24, Nikon 17-35 AFS, 20mm 2.8 AIS, and 16mm AIS,) but I also regularly use my 55mm macro 2.8 AIS, my 105mm 1.8 AIS, and Nikon 80-200 2.8 AFD two-ring which I will use w/my Nikon TC-201 2X teleconverter. I mainly use a Gitzo 1228 CF tripod. At this point I don't ever see myself wanting more than the 400mm 5.6 that I'll get with the 80-200 and TC-201, and so I'm basing my ballhead purchase decision on the above lenses and DSLR body combination(s).
For this review/test, I borrowed both heads for a day of shooting in the field using two Gitzo G1228's so the comparisons would be equal. I used a Kirk L-bracket on the D200 and a RRS lens plate on the 80-200mm. I started out in the AM when it was 19 degrees, and I used both setups all day--it warmed up to 55 by the late afternoon.
Part B: Markins Q3 Emille
In searching the forums just about everybody who has a Markins ballhead seemed to REALLY like them--I saw few, if any, complaints about them--especially now that they are easy to order/procure (http://www.markinsamerica.com/MA5/index.php
). Also, you can support the Nikonians site by buying the Markins ballheads in the PhotoProShop (https://www.photoproshop.com/index.php/cPath/21?osCsid=a72d2777a189eddf576407f082dc7549
The Markins Q3 Emille retails for $269. It weighs .84 lbs. and is rated for a maximum load of 65 lbs. It is 3.58 inches tall, with a body diameter of 1.89 inches. The ball diameter is 1.5 inches. Markins ballheads come with a 3 year warranty.
Opening the box I'm struck by how light the whole package is. The ballhead itself is nicely nested in a foam block which has been custom cut to fit the Q3 profile--well protected and a nice presentation. Some people may think "who cares how it's boxed" I personally think that sometimes little touches in the presentation can tell a lot about the overall quality of the merchandise--though not always.
Removing the unit from the foam I can see why people are so struck by these ballheads--some even calling them "works of art." The finish of both the ball and the ball head housing are top-notch--very uniform in coloration and a nice glossy finish.
Starting at the top with the quick release clamp, I like the large captive release knob (it won't come all the way out so you can't lose it!) with silicone grip. A quarter turn opens the clamp enough to slide the camera/lens plate out sideways, one full turn releases the clamp enough to tilt the plate up and out (NOTE: sideways removal works best with a lens plate--some of the Arca-Swiss style camera plates will lock on the built-in safety pin and thus the clamp will need to be opened up more to tilt the camera up and out). I very much like the spring-loaded safety pin that engages the camera plate when it is in the clamp to prevent your gear from inadvertently slipping off/out of the clamp when open--this is a key feature in my book! Most Arca-Swiss style plates from RRS, Kirk, etc. will engage the safety pin--your mileage may vary depending upon which plates you use. It works without you even thinking about it. Some people don’t like the safety pin feature, fortunately for them you can remove the safety pin on the newer Markins clamps. One thing that really bugs me about the Markins clamp is that while there is a spirit level on the clamp you can't see it when something is mounted on the clamp!! IMHO this just about completely renders the level useless and I hope that Markins fixes this soon!
The ball itself is a gorgeous black shiny sphere that is hard-anodized according to Markins. It is very smooth and the stem upon which the clamp is fastened is quite thick--thicker than any comparable ball I've seen. In theory this should cut down on vibration.
The ball head housing is also finished in black with bright white lettering denoting the Markins logo and the easy-to-read panning base degree markings. There are only two knobs--the main "ball locking knob" (with integrated torque limit/friction control dial) and the panning lock. The ball locking knob has a 1 1/4" diameter which is a nice size IMHO. The knurls on the knob are siliconized rubber and the knob itself has a very smooth/liquid feel to it. The knob is easily used with gloves on. One pet-peeve I have is that the siliconized rubber--while soft on your fingers--can also get pretty slick with any oil and/or moisture from your fingers. More than a few times I had to wipe my fingers on my shirt in order to grip the locking knob tightly. I can see this as a potential problem area and one that should be addressed by Markins.
The main locking knob has in integrated friction-control knob inside it that you adjust with the tip of your finger (very much like the Arca B-1). I found that adjusting the friction control was very easy and intuitive with the Q3 and finding the "sweet-spot" (the point where you can freely move your equipment on the ballhead without locking it down tight--yet have it stay where you want it after letting go) was very easy to find/achieve. The movement of the ball was very smooth--almost effortless. What really impressed me is that I started by setting the friction control using my smallest body/lens combination (D200 w/20mm 2.
and kept adding bigger lenses without having to re-adjust the friction control until I put the 80-200mm lens on! Even with my 105 1.8 (a big chunk of glass) the ballhead still did not move once I positioned the head where I wanted it--even when pointing down! When I mounted the 80-200mm I did have to tighten the friction control a bit more (which is very easy to do) to maintain the sweet spot, and the head held without being locked even with the ball stem in the vertical notch and pointing downward! I must admit one of my fears was that the Q3 would not be large enough to meet my needs and that I'd have to move up to the M-10, but given that I'm already using a lightweight tripod (Gitzo 1228) I really wanted to get as small and light a head as I could--and the Q3 fits that bill very nicely! My fears about the Q3 not being large/strong enough were quickly dispelled.
Somewhat disappointing was the panning lock. At first I thought maybe we had a defective one because once tightened down I could still twist/move it--albeit with some considerable effort. I didn't want to tighten it so tight so that I damaged it, so I called Markins to ask them about it. It was nice to get someone on the phone quickly, and they explained that the panning lock mechanism was much like a disc brake, and that short of using pliers to tighten it (hand-tightening only!) you really couldn't hurt it. With that knowledge I tightened the knob down as hard as I could--and it held just fine. Still, it would be nice to not have to torque down so hard to get it to lock--maybe this is something Markins can address in the future.
All in all I really like the Markins Q3. The movement of the ball is velvety-smooth, the fit and finish of the ballhead assembly is top-notch, the friction control is easy to use, the sweet-spot was easy to attain and very smooth (and very strong) and when locked down tight there was no movement at all--period (no dreaded "gear creep').
Part C: Kirk BH-3
I've bought many Kirk products in the past and I've always been very happy with their products, prices, and service and supporting a US based business is always a plus in my book. The BH-3 looks like a great ballhead, and many people seem to really like them. (http://www.kirkphoto.com/ballheads.html
The Kirk BH-3 retails for $255. It weighs 1.2 lbs. Kirk does not give a specific maximum load, instead saying “….the BH-3 is for use with lenses smaller than a 300mm 2.8 or 400mm 3.5" The BH-3 is 4 inches tall, Kirk does not list a body or ball diameter measurement and I did not measure the sample that I had. Kirk ballheads come with a 5 year warranty. One nice extra about the Kirk ballheads is that they ship with a free "universal" Arca-Swiss style camera plate that retails for about $30--the Markins ballheads do not come with any plates.
The packaging for the BH-3 was rather minimal--a cardboard box with the ballhead wrapped in a small sheet of foam rubber. Nonetheless the ball head is safe and undamaged from shipment. One of the first things that strike me is the BH-3 is quite a bit larger (and heavier) than the Q3, about 40% larger at least. The black finish on the ballhead body is a muted, somewhat dull black--it almost looks like slightly faded aluminum anodizing with a reddish/black appearance (this may be because it's a brass body--I'm not sure). The ball, clamp, and main adjustment knobs are deep black in color, while the ball housing, panning base, and friction control and panning lock knobs are all a "reddish-black." This obviously won't affect the ballhead performance, but it does leave me with a less than good first impression about the overall finish. The unit is very solid however and looks/feels indestructible.
The Kirk quick release clamp is solid and well-designed. For starters, the Kirk clamp also has a spirit level, but unlike the Markins you can still see/use the level even with something mounted in the clamp! The clamp release knob is large and captive, and is knurled aluminum which is very easy to grip. The clamp itself is 1 3/4" wide--the Markins clamp is 2" wide. The Kirk quick release clamp does not have a safety pin/stop device like the Markin’s clamp does.
There are 3 knobs on the BH-3, the main control knob, the panning lock, and the friction control knob. The friction control knob and panning lock knob are 5/8" in diameter, the main control knob is 1 1/4". All three knobs are knurled aluminum. The main control knob in particular was very easy to grip and easy to use--better than the Q3 main control knob IMHO. A big plus of the Kirk main control knob is that the ball can go from freely moving to totally locked down in about a 1/4 turn of the knob--the Q3 by comparison took 1 full turn to really lock down tight. Once locked down tight there was no "gear creep" at all--it is totally solid. One annoying thing is that there is a white plastic/delron washer between the main control knob and the ballhead body that just kind of flops around and seems to serve absolutely no purpose at all--indeed many people have wondered what this spacer is for......
One of the main complaints I'd heard about the Kirk design is that because the friction control knob is separate from the main control knob, in theory you could have your camera and lens mounted on the ball and inadvertently loosen the friction control knob which would totally release the ball and possibly damage your equipment via a "gear flop." Even though the friction control knob is located opposite the main control knob and is easily distinguishable from the panning lock knob, I still think that this is a valid concern. It's a not a deal-breaker for me, and I think once you got used to the Kirk ball you wouldn't make this mistake, but the fact is that a gear flop could be disastrous and this would be extremely difficult to do on the Q3 ballhead. It's also somewhat unsettling to me that Kirk sells a "snap collar lock" on their website that is meant to be used to prevent the ball from moving when carrying your tripod/ballhead with your gear still attached. To me, this implies that extra support is needed for the BH-3 over and above the ball lock to prevent the ball from moving while walking around. While my tests showed that both heads once locked down were very tightly locked, it does suggest that perhaps the Kirk ball lock is not as strong as the Markins ball lock and/or that over time the Kirk ball lock might be damaged if not for the added security of their snap collar.
The panning base degree index on the BH-3 is difficult to read. There is only one 3/4" wide notch in the base through which to read the markings, and the font size of the index numbers is not large enough to be read easily (and my vision is 20/20). Additionally the spacing marks that separate the various degree markings are very similar in size/font to the numbers themselves so that it's hard to tell the difference between say 15 degrees and 115 degrees. That being said the panning lock on the BH-3 was easier to lock down tight. The first time I finger-tightened it I was still able to move the body and lens, but another twist and it was solidly locked.
The "sweet-spot" on the BH-3 was not as easy to find or maintain as it was on the Q3. With enough tension to hold the gear in place without being locked down tight the ball movement on the BH-3 was not as smooth as the Q3. It was smooth, and not "sticky" or "jerky" just not as smooth as the Markins in large part because more tension was needed to maintain the sweet-spot. Also, as I added larger lenses I had to re-adjust the friction control every time to maintain the sweet-spot. Overall the friction control knob on the BH-3 was more "finicky" than the Q3 IMHO. I had seen some forum threads where folks had applied WD-40 to their new Kirk heads to make them smoother--my feeling was that I shouldn't have to do any cleaning/lubricating on these high-dollar ballheads new out of the box. I did check to make sure that both balls were clean and free of dust/debris before the test, but I did not lubricate either ball. So it's possible that the BH-3 would get smoother if lubricated but I didn't test that.
The Kirk BH-3 did lock down tight, and, once the sweet-spot was attained it stayed at that tension so you could move the ball but it would stay put once you let go. Re-adjusting the tension to accommodate larger lenses was easy via the separate friction control knob, but it didn't feel as precise as the Markins Q3.
All in all the Kirk BH-3 is a solid ballhead that performed well. The finish and overall feel was not at the same level as the Q3, but still a very nice ballhead that feels solid and tough.
Part D: Conclusion
I took over 200 images the day of the test, pretty much equally split between the two ballhead setups. I did not set up test charts, use varying focal lengths, test with MLU and without MLU, with timer/without timer, etc., etc., etc. to compare the heads in terms of the quality of images one could achieve. For one thing, many such tests have been done (see the Diglloyd website for the "Sharpest Image" paper, the Markins site for the "Tripod Vibration Tests" whitepaper, and several other studies). But more importantly it is my belief that when comparing two top-end ballheads like these that there should be little, if any, real world difference in how they perform in terms of image sharpness and that more likely than not any such noticeable differences would be due to user technique/error and not the ballhead's performance capabilities. In short, your mileage may vary! Indeed in looking through the shots taken the day I tested the heads I can see no "clear winner" in terms of which head produced a sharper image--they both performed admirably.
For me, the Markins Q3 came out ahead of the Kirk BH-3. From the quality finish to the the velvety-smooth ball motion, the safety pin on the clamp, and the easy to read panning index, the Q3 was a joy to use. It is lighter and smaller than the Kirk BH-3 and yet rated to carry a heavier load. The Q3, while not "tank-like" in feel like the BH-3 (and also not as heavy) is still very well-built and robust and should provide many, many years of service. While it did take more effort to fully lock the ball on the Q3 compared to the BH-3 (1 turn and 1/4 turn respectively) I believe that this is because the Markins ball head lock is designed with the pressure against the ball coming up from the bottom whereas Kirk and other ballheads apply side to side pressure. IMHO it is a small price to pay for the advantage of this design over other ballheads--a super smooth feel to the ball when unlocked in the sweet-spot and a very strong ball lock that once fully locked does not require an additional collar lock to prevent "gear flop" and/or damage to the locking mechanism over time.
At the end of the day to me the most important qualities in a ballhead should be its ability to lock down tightly, its ease of use in finding and maintaining the "sweet-spot' and the smoothness of the ball movement--and in those areas the Markins Q3 was the clear winner.