Sunwayfoto XB-52 ballhead
Sunwayfoto is a Chinese brand specializing in tripod heads, clamps, plates and other fixtures. Its products are of high quality and modern finishing, and apparently designed to directly compete with the best US and European brands like Markins, Really Right Stuff, Hejnar etc. Common to these brands is the CNC machining used to form the main aluminium-alloy parts, and the high degree of functional and cosmetic finishing.
I use several Arca-compatible clamps, plates and rails made by Sunwayfoto, and find their quality excellent, while their price is competitive against other brands (especially European), and their availability in Europe better than US brands. Therefore, when I decided it was time to get a better ballhead than my current set of Manfrotto 468MGs, after reading a number of positive reviews of Sunwayfoto ballheads I went for their top model with a degree of confidence. The price difference between Sunwayfoto ballheads and the best US brands is less dramatic than for simpler products like clamps and plates, but still attractive.
There are two types of ballheads: normal (i.e., the traditional type) and low-profile. In normal ballheads, the casing is typically cylindrical, with the ball contained in a socket at the top of the casing and the internal mechanisms under the ball. Low-profile models place most of the internal mechanisms on one side of the casing, which becomes asymmetrical, and lower the position of the ball. This allows the center of the ball to sit closer to the top of the tripod, and in this way to achieve a more stable position. The drawback of low-profile models is that the protrusion housing the internal mechanisms restricts the amount of tilting possible on this side of the casing. Gitzo should probably be credited for marketing the first low-profile ballheads, although they used a sideways locking mechanism that performs less well than the bottom locking mechanism available in more modern low-profile heads.
Typically, high-quality ballheads have three controls:
A few ballhead models have additional, specialized controls (e.g., to lock the ball movements about one of the horizontal axes).
The XB-52 uses a 52 mm ball and is a low-profile ballhead. All controls are placed on a box-shaped hump on one side of the casing, CNC-machined as an integral part of the casing. All knobs have a finely knurled surface, which can feel sharp on the fingertips, especially after prolonged use. It works well with gloves, but don't wear fashion skin gloves when you use this ballhead, because the knurling can make short work of them. In principle, it is possible to make the knobs more gentle on fingers and less vulnerable to accidental damage (but also more slippery) by covering the knurling with a piece of heat-shrink tubing.
The head is available with a number of different clamps. I prefer to use square or rectangular clamps with only screw tightening. Circular clamps with or without panning are also available, as well as lever- and dual-operated clamps. Some types of clamp have removable bubble levels. Weight is 683 g, and height only 91 mm. The model discussed in this review is equipped with the DDC-60X clamp shown above, also available separately.
The head is packaged in a well-padded box, together with English and Chinese instructions, a microfiber cleaning cloth and a 1/4" to 3/8" bushing to mount the head on a 1/4" stud. The English instructions are clear and error-free.
These ballheads are certified for use down to -40° C. Most ballheads reportedly cannot be used below -20° C. This is more cold-proof than I am ever likely to test.
The ball rotates in a rigid plastic sleeve, or gasket, without metal-against-metal contact. A small amount of oil is present on the ball when first taken out of the box. The oil is easily wiped off, does not come back during use, and wiping it off does not seem to change the performance of the ball. There are unavoidable gaps around the edges of the drop slots, but a plastic sleeve around the bottom of the ball seems to form a reasonable seal against contamination of the inner mechanisms. Between this sleeve around the bottom of the socket, and the upper sleeve that retains the ball within its socket, there is ample room between ball and casing. I do not see it as a problem, since a wide gap here makes it less likely that dirt particles will become wedged between ball and casing and scratch the ball surface. This gap should be easy to keep clean with a blower.
The ball has a wide, open hole at its bottom. Because of the orientation of the drop slots, this hole is never exposed. The hole can be glimpsed through the 3/8" socket at the bottom of the head, and a thin plastic pipe connected to a compressed air bottle can be inserted through this socket to blow clean the interior of the ball, potentially avoiding the need to disassemble the ballhead.
Two small hex screws fasten a hatch at the bottom of the "control box". One of them is apparently locked with thread sealant and prevented my prying attempts. A serial number and brand markings are also visible at the bottom. I guess that G is a model denomination, 13 means made in 2013 and 047 an individual or batch serial number. Some of the other Sunwayfoto items have more complex serial numbers, but always ending with 1 letter + 2-digit year + 3-digit number. The year, in my items, is always 11, 12 or 13.
All controls are captive, i.e., none of them can completely unscrew and fall off.
A small knob locks the panning base. This base is well dampened, displays no detectable play, and feels very reliable. Its friction is even a bit too tight to be used for fast-panning, so this head may not be the right choice for using together with a Wimberley Sidekick, Benro GHA or a similar gimbal-type attachment for long lenses. My general opinion about these attachments is that, if you need a gimbal head for frequent use, you should purchase a complete one designed for this purpose, rather than cobbling up one with parts meant for different uses, including a ballhead.
Ball locking and friction adjustment
The ball locking knob is relatively large, and carries a friction adjustment on its top. The locking knob has also the function of friction adjustment, and tightens very gradually. In other words, it is not meant to be used as a quick-action lock (e.g., like in the Manfrotto 468MG).
The friction adjustment knob is mounted almost flat with the surface of the ball locking knob. It carries a number of machined slots, too narrow to be operated with even the thinnest coins currently available in my country. Citizens of other countries may be luckier. A special screwdriver for this use is mentioned in the user manual, but was not supplied with my head. With some effort, the adjustment knob can be operated by hand, although it is not gentle on fingertips. The blade of a normal screwdriver is too thin and likely to damage the knob. To avoid sharp corners and prevent the use of undersized screwdrivers, almost certain to damage the knob, the latter has a machined circular dimple in its middle, which is a nice detail.
The friction adjustment knob rotates less than one turn, and has no click-stops. It does not actually change the friction. Instead, you need to do the following:
At this point, the ball is a bit overtightened. Move it by hand a couple of times to loosen it up, and the friction should be about right. In practice, the friction adjustment knob sets the lowest friction, but you can still increase the friction by slightly tightening the ball locking knob.
It is necessary to set the friction to an appropriate level for a given lens, and if you prefer a low friction, remember to release the ball locking knob gradually to avoid "flopping over" with a heavy lens. Despite the aspheric head, it is often necessary to manually increase friction when pointing a heavy lens up or down.
The ball locking knob requires only a small torque to lock the ball tightly. Avoid over-tightening it. If you are used to a low-quality ballhead, you need to lose the bad habit of screwing the ball lock and panning knobs as tightly as your hands are capable of.
This ballhead has two drop slots placed at 90° from each other, and as far away as possible from the "control box" and ball locking knob. As far as I can tell, the amount of tilting allowed by the drop slots is exactly 90°.
A curiously shaped, brightly chrome-plated "mystery" screw is placed between the two drop slots, just above the Sunwayfoto logo (Figure 3). Just leave it alone. It is not a control or an adjustment screw, and its unusual shape makes it clear that you are not supposed to play with it. Early specimens had an ordinary slotted screw in this position, and users who could not leave it alone discovered that it is necessary to keep in place an essential piece of the plastic sleeve between head and casing.
Ball and ball neck
The ball is slightly aspheric, and friction against its sleeve increases with tilt angle. Its surface feels very smooth, with the same type of finishing as the casing of the ballhead, and shows no machining traces.
The neck of the ball is surrounded by a hard plastic sleeve that allows smooth rotation of the ball about the axis of the neck when the latter is lowered into a slot. This sleeve does not freely rotate around the neck, but it feels very slick and is probably made from the same plastic used for the ball sleeve. Removing the clamp via its bolt allows the plastic sleeve to be removed for cleaning. This bolt is a full 30 mm long and occupies a threaded hole that reaches through the whole neck and surface of the ball. The neck appears to be machined as an integral part of the ball. Its top carries two ridges that fit a slot at the bottom of the clamp, preventing its rotation. Therefore, if you want to replace the clamp you should use another Sunwayfoto clamp, or a third-party one with a similar slot.
Depending on the type of clamp and its orientation, the clamp may end up touching other parts of the ballhead when fully tilted into one of the drop slots. The tightening knob of the clamp is especially likely to do so (Figure 6), and the clamp should be rotated with this knob uppermost or sideways.
As mentioned above, the "control box" of low-profile ballheads restricts the maximum amount of tilting. The XB-52 does a better-than-average job at this, and the main source of collisions is the ball locking knob, while the control box itself is not in the way with this clamp (Figure 6). There is no practical solution to this problem, since adding a spacer between neck and clamp to avoid collisions negates the principal advantage of low-profile head designs. If you decide you want this low-profile head, you must learn to live with this shortcoming.
A possible design modification could include a raised "bump" in the edge of the socket holding the ball, in correspondence of the ball locking knob. This could entirely avoid collisions between the clamp and the ball locking knob. However, the extent of collisions depends on the type of clamp mounted on this ballhead.
This ballhead is evidently designed to be operated with the control box facing toward the user. The ball locking knob is supposed to be operated with the right hand, while holding the camera and lens with the left hand. In this orientation, the drop slot on the left slide allows turning the camera in portrait orientation, and the drop slot at the front of the camera for pointing the lens downward. There is no drop slot at the back of the camera, but tilting in this direction reaches a good 50° without collisions with the control box. This is more than enough for most situations. To tilt even more, rotate the head half a turn about the panning base and use the front drop slot.
This ballhead moves very smoothly even under a heavy load. Only time will tell if it will retain this characteristic after prolonged use. With properly adjusted friction, this head can be used even with a 500 mm lens on Micro 4/3 cameras, which is equivalent to 1,000 mm on full-frame. However, I prefer other types of head for this specific use. If this ballhead is left unused for a few days or weeks, the ball tends to slightly "lock" in position, even when the tightening knob is left unlocked. Moving the ball by hand back-and-forth a couple of times restores the normal friction.
I strongly recommend that the locking knobs are untightened when the head is not used, and that heavy equipment is not left mounted on the head. This will avoid deformation of the plastic gaskets in the long run. These precautions will also make it less likely that accidental tipping or dropping of the tripod will cause serious damage to the head and equipment.
Durability of finishing
Dpreview judged the external finishing of this ballhead as easily damaged. Their illustration of this problem seems to show dings caused by impacts with sharp objects on the ball locking knob. Other ballheads reviewed in the same article apparently were not exposed to the same type of damage, so it may be the result of careless handling. I cannot judge the durability of this external finish (yet), but I cannot help wondering whether this is a fair criticism. Of more concern is their report of the finishing starting to wear off on sharp corners in this model, although this is only a cosmetic issue.
The XB-52 is Sunwayfoto's top-of-the-line low-profile ballhead. It operates smoothly and securely even with long and heavy telephoto lenses. It looks and feels like a high-quality, durable product worth its high price, and competitive with products from more established brands. The ball locking knob is also used to increase friction, and not meant as a quick-action control to only lock/unlock the ball. Like in other low-profile ballheads, depending on the type of clamp, attention must be paid to collision of the clamp with the ball locking knob and, to a lesser extent, panning base.