I purchased my first Markins Ball Head after I had returned from a day of winter photography on Lake Superior. My cheap tripod had broken in the cold weather. It had a built in head so I also needed a new head. I spent several agonizing months reading reviews of ball heads and trying to find just the right one. I finally chose Markins because it seemed to provide good value for the price. The head supports large lenses with a light weight head. It is maintenance free except for routine cleaning. Markins uses an Anti-twist flange type mounting plate which is compatible with the Arca-Swiss type quick release clamp. I’ve been using Markins ball heads for a number of years and have been very happy with them.
I do a wide range of photography including avian, landscape, and macro. The Markins ball head works very well for avian photography. It has a very smooth movement and I have no problem following birds in flight using the Markins head. Using it for landscape photography poses no problems other than cold weather which I’ll address later. My main problem with it revolves around macro photography in the field. I’ll also discuss this in greater detail later.
In this review I’m actually reviewing two different Markins ball heads because they are essentially the same the only visible difference being the size of the head although the interworkings are different and have improved over the intervening years.
I won’t go into the technical details regarding the Markins ball heads because Markins has an excellent website that covers that ground. In addition to the ball head you will also need to purchase a plate for your camera and or lenses. The website has a plate finder feature that quickly lets you determine what you will need.
A number of years ago I purchased a Markins Q3 ball head which I have continued to use. A year ago I purchased a Markins Q20 ball head because I purchased a much heavier lens to use for bird photography. In retrospect I could have probably continued to use the smaller head because it worked with the heavier lens but I didn’t want to risk damaging the smaller head when using a heavy lens. I now use both heads with the smaller one mounted on an older tripod.
The Markins ball heads are easy to setup. The first thing you need to do is screw the ball head onto the 3/8 inch screw at the top of the tripod. I’m using a Manfrotto tripod and it has three screws that tighten to the bottom of the head to prevent the head from unscrewing. That’s all there is too it.
Once the head is firmly mounted on the tripod the next step is to adjust the torque limit dial. The torque limit dial limits the range you have to turn the ball locking knob to loosen or tighten the ball. You are going to want to set the minimum friction. To do this you lock the ball tightening the progressive friction control on the ball locking knob. You also want to lock the panning disk by tightening the panning lock knob. Unscrew the torque limit dial using your finger nail. Mount the camera and lens on the ball head. You then slowly loosen the progressive friction control on the ball locking knob. The goal is to find the setting (sweet spot) where the camera and lens stays in place on the head and can still be moved with ease. Once this position has been found you can tighten the torque limit dial to set the position. Then if you want to lock the camera/lens into position you can do so with only a slight turn of the ball locking knob.
Once the torque limit dial has been set you are ready to start taking photos. This is a unique feature with Markins and justifies some additional comments. The use of the torque limit dial is intended to allow you to adjust the tension on the ball locking knob so that the camera/lens combination stays in place and yet can be moved with ease. This is called the sweet spot. Even when using my Nikon camera and Nikon 500mm lens I’m able to set the sweet spot so that the camera and lens remain in position even if I’m not holding on to them. If the shot changes I can easily rotate the camera and lens without adjusting the tension control ball. Markins has a video on their website showing how easy it is to move the lens and camera once the torque limit has been set. If, for some reason, I want to lock the camera into position I can do so with just a slight turn of the tension control knob. I can even physically move the tripod without locking the head and the lens will stay in place. However, I usually don’t do this with a large lens on the camera. This works well if you are using the same or similar camera/lens combinations. If you are using vastly different camera/lens combinations you will likely need to change the torque limit dial to adjust each to combination. As an aside, once you are familiar with the Markins ball head and are using a variety of cameras and lenses you may want to fully unscrew the torque limit dial and control the head movement using only the ball locking knob.
Cleaning and maintenance of the Markins ball head is relatively simple. Unscrew the torque limit dial, if you set it previously. Unscrew the ball locking knob and remove any visible objects. Lower the quick shoe into the notch for vertical use. Put a little WD-40 on a cloth and apply it to the ball.. You can rotate the ball in all directions to spread the WD-40. I then use a lint free cloth to remove any excess WD-40. I sometimes repeat this sep several times. Markins also suggests tightening the ball locking knob slightly when rotating the ball.
The Markins Ball Head is a precision instrument and, in my case has taken some abuse and still continued to work. On one occasion my tripod fell into a small stream with a sand filled bottom and was there for several minutes before I could rescue it. I thought for sure that it was done for. However, I brought it home and dried it out. I then used a vacuum cleaner to remove any dried sand on the head. Once it was dried I cleaned the ball a number of times over the next few days using the instructions noted earlier. After cleaning it worked fine.
I typically clean the head periodically to make sure it is working smoothly. One of the problems I’ve had involves photographing in really cold weather. When photographing in cold weather If the ball has any moisture in the mechanism it will freeze up making it difficult to rotate the camera and lens. I always clean the ball with WD-40 prior to heading out in cold weather. WD-40 removes the moisture from the ball mechanism. If I’m going to be in the field several days I will bring cleaning supplies along with me so I can clean it at the end of the day. I once spent a day out on Lake Superior photographing the Apostle Islands Ice Caves when the temperature was well below zero. Each time I leaned into the camera to take the photo the moisture on my breath froze onto the ball head including the ball. By the end of the day the head was difficult to work.
Another issue I have with the head is that it only has one notch for vertical use. In my case this most frequently is a problem when I’m doing macro photography in the field. I should point out that I am using a Manfrotto tripod with a center column that swings up and horizontal. This allows me to spread the legs and place the camera very close to the ground. When I place the camera into this position I find it is very difficult to maneuver the camera into position. In these situations I need to raise the camera into a vertical position using the vertical notch. I also usually need to loosen the panning knob and rotate the entire head in order to get the camera and lens into position. This is can be frustrating particularly if I’m working on a hillside. This is as much of a problem with the tripod as with the ball head since I wouldn’t have this problem if I didn’t have a tripod with a center column. Because this type of photography is a small portion of my overall photography I’ve decided to live with the problem. If I were going to be doing a lot of macro photography in the field I would probably consider a different ball head or, most likely, a different tripod setup.
The flip side of this is that the head only has one notch for vertical use. I’m extremely absent minded and when I get really focused on a shot I sometimes forget to tighten ball locking knob when I’m going to move the camera. If the ball is loose the camera and lens can flop forward. If conditions are just right the lens could fall against one of the tripod legs. This would happen if one of the if the tripod legs is lined up with the vertical notch. Since there is only a single notch the likelihood of this happening is reduced. I have had several times when the tripod head has flopped forward but it stopped because it was not lined up with the vertical notch.
The other problem I’ve had is the quick release clamp knob and the panning lock knob have a similar feel although they are slightly different sizes. On several occasions I have gotten so focused at finding a great subject to photograph that I’ve loosened the quick release clamp knob rather than the panning lock knob. Markins does have a safety pin which is designed to prevent the camera/lens from sliding out of the clamp if the clamp is not fully secured. This has saved me on a number of occasions. Unfortunately one time it didn’t and it turned into a disaster. I was photographing at Willow River State Park in the winter and found some incredible ice. I had loosened the panning knob because I was shooting down and needed to move the notch to allow me to do so. I also inadvertently loosened the quick release clamp knob. Apparently I loosened it a lot because when I picked the tripod and camera up to move to a different location The camera and lens slid forward out of the clamp and fell into the river. This was one of those events that I was able to watch in slow motion. This was clearly user error but the knobs are similar enough that I’ve made this mistake several times. Usually the pin saves me but not this time. Proof once again that not everything can be made idiot proof.
When I purchased the second Markins Head I had the choice of purchasing a quick release leaver rather than a quick release knob. The former would eliminate the above problem. I finally decided to continue with the knob because most of the time I’m out doing photography I carry the camera attached to the tripod and I felt this provided a more secure attachment. This is just my opinion and may not actually be true.
The Markins Ball Head comes with a bubble level mounted on the back of the quick shoe. The value of the bubble level is debatable. When using my Nikon camera and with the camera mounted using the camera lens plate you can see the bubble level. Unfortunately, I’m short so most of the time I have trouble looking down at the bubble level unless I lower my tripod. If I mount my camera on the head using the lens plate on the lens it is impossible to see the bubble level. I typically use a hot shoe double axis bubble level mounted on the camera and find this is a much better solution.
As I noted earlier Markins has a wide variety of camera and lens plates available. Markins has done a good job of designing the camera plates. They have a raised flange on the plate that wraps around the camera in two places and prevents the plate from rotating loose. I’ve never had a camera or lens plate become loose. They are also relatively thin so they are not in the way when storing your camera.
Markins has a panorama system included on the head. I don’t take a lot of panorama shots but I occasionally use this feature. There is a locking mechanism and by simply turning the panning lock knob you can rotate the entire head 360 degrees. It’s easy to use and I’ve been able to create some great panorama shots.
Overall I like the Markins ball heads. I’m retired and I’m out doing photography on most days so I use my ball heads almost daily sometimes under difficult conditions. They have held up well under heavy use. I’ve mention several issues I’ve had with the Markins heads and I will leave it up to you to decide if they would be an issue for the type of photography you do. I should add that each time I’ve had an issue or question the staff at Markins has been very helpful in resolving it.