A good tripod head is far more than just a “support” for your camera and getting the right head for your equipment as well as your particular needs is very important. Get one that is not robust enough to carry you camera’s weight and it will drive you mad by continuously sagging as you are trying to take a photo. The tripod head that a photographer would use in a studio for shooting stills will probably not be the ideal head for a wildlife photographer who takes both video and stills shots with their camera.
When I sat down this morning to write this review, I really struggled to know where to start, this is because after testing the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball head over the past few days, I have found so many great features and uses. So what I think I will do is start by going over the basics and then go into some of it’s unique features and ideal applications.
The basic design is basically that of a ball head, with a pistol grip attached to it – this means that you get all the flexibility and speed of a traditional ball head with the added bonus of having much better control of your camera and it takes less time to get into position.
You can swivel your camera around 360° as well as tilt it 90° forwards to look directly at the ground, -8° upwards into the sky as well as tilt it about 35° to the right and 90° to the left for portrait shots.
The hand grip itself can also be rotated around the ball head, this I guess would suite different peoples preferences, for awkward shooting angles and for comfort. I must say though that for the most part, I only used it in the standard upright position.
One of the first things that I noticed that not only is it very flexible, but all this free movement is done with just the squeeze of the trigger and then you aim, and once in position you release. This is very quick and unlike 3-way pan heads for example with all their arms and knobs, it is just so intuitive making it far simpler as well.
For me this is a major point as I can’t tell you how many times in the field I have missed a shot (especially of birds) because of the time it takes to get your camera into position, so any reduction in time for me is a real bonus and something that can’t be over emphasised. The GH-100 is so far looking to me like on of the best ball heads available.
What Cameras can it take?
With a maximum loading capacity of 13.2lbs (5.9kg), this head will easily take SLR cameras even with large telephoto lenses. For example a Canon EOS30D or Nikon D200 with a 70-200mm lens and a 2x tele-converter with a camera-mounted flash and a battery grip weighs in at about 4kg.
I also really liked the “Friction Control System” which is adjusted via a dial behind the grip which then allows you to change the level of friction on the ball depending on the weight of your equipment and makes for easy adjustment if for example you were to change to using heavier lenses. Completely loosening it means that you can change the direction of your camera without having to even press the trigger for even faster tracking, yet your camera is still safe, because you are holding steady with the hand grip.
Once the dial is completely tightened, it is very sturdy and easily took my bridge camera with a Raynox 2.2x teleconverter and was very steady. Even though I didn’t have an SLR with a large zoom lens on hand to test it with, I am sure that it would handle it just as easily.
Spotting scopes too – This tripod ball head is also ideal for carrying a spotting scope as not only will it easily be able to carry one (eg: the Zeiss Diascope 85 T* FL 3.3″/85mm weighs 5.5kg), but once again the intuitive aiming will make finding and focusing on your target just that much simpler and quicker.
Panoramic Tripod Head
Another really nice touch is the 72-click point panorama that enables you to rotate your camera around a 360° plane for easy panoramic shots. To operate it you just unlock a lever on the side of the head and the camera will rotate in steps of 5°’s as there is a very fine notch to the mechanism that prevents the camera from accidentally moving as you are about to take the next shot. I don’t know of many panoramic tripod heads, especially ball head one so this is a really nice extra feature to have.
Panning – Video as well as Photography
If like me, you also either take a video camera on safari, or use the video function on your camera you need a head that can smoothly “pan” over an area for scenic shots and to track wildlife. This is where a traditional ball head is not ideal because trying to keep your camera level when panning is almost impossible. This is why I mostly use a three-way pan head, but once again this is not ideal as when you want to frame your subject they are a little tedious and time consuming to set up when compared to a traditional ball head. Also to be honest they can sometimes be a little confusing especially when you are in a rush: With the two levers and the release for the panning, I often move the wrong one, meaning that there have been many times when I have missed out on taking a video or photo of a timid bird for example.
With the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip you have a couple of options for panning:
1. Like any standard ball head you can release the “ball” and you have free movement, but because you have the secure grip and added stability that you get from of the pistol grip as well as the “Friction Control System”, your camera, even a heavy one, is far easier to keep level and you can make some pretty good panoramic video shots. It must be said though that this is not 100% ideal and a specifically designed pan head will still work much better.
2. Another option is to use another great feature on this pistol grip, what Vanguard call their “72-click point panorama” which allows you to rotate your camera around 360° with no vertical movement. It has a very fine notch and that moves the camera 5° per click. This makes the Vanguard GH-100 head ideal for 360-degree panorama shots as it prevents jumps in shots as you can accurately measure your rotation, but because of this it also makes video panning a little less smooth that what would be ideal.
Another Option for Panning
For this review, I used Vanguard’s Alta Pro 263AT Tripod, which I really love. One of it’s many great features is that you can unlock the central column keeping it at any height and swivel it around 360° for perfect and smooth panning. So whilst you can get away with pretty decent panning using the GH-100 pistol grip, if you combine it with a tripod like the Vanguard Alta pro – you can have the best of both worlds, the flexibility and speed of a ball head and the smooth panning of a pan head. Ideal for bird and wildlife photography and video.
Most quality tripod heads come with one or more spirit levels that ensure that your photos are nice and level with the horizon – something that is extremely important in landscape photography in particular. The GH-100 does have one, but it is located under the camera’s hotshot plate, meaning that to access it you have to remove your camera from the head. I guess that Vanguard have done this because it would have been difficult to position it elsewhere on the pistol grip. This is probably fine for in the studio, where once your camera is level you don’t have to check it often, but out in the field it is a little annoying.
I would suggest that if this will annoy you and your camera can take an external flash (it has a flash hot shoe), that you get yourself a hotshoe spirit level, that very easily attaches to your camera and can cost less than £5 ($5):
Like all good heads, this comes with a quick shoe that screws into your camera and then clicks into the head. It has a safety button that has to be pressed before you can remove your camera, preventing accidental release and damage.
Size & Weight
Weighing in at 1.65lbs (0.75kg), and with the hand grip, there is no denying that in terms of size and weight this tripod head is a heavyweight so if you are looking to for a very lightweight and compact tripod for travel this may not be the ideal head for you.
I pondered about this a lot mainly because I am actually in the process of selecting my own personal equipment to take with me on safari in a few weeks time and have decided that it’s benefits far outweigh … it ‘s weight and so will be taking one with me. Because it is a tough and a relatively inexpensive piece of kit, I will just put it in with my main luggage on the plane rather than with the rest of my gear as hand-luggage, saving me having to carry it around with me all the time. If you are interested take a look at all the equipment I am taking on my next safari.
The GH-100 is suitable for most standard full sized tripods with 3/8in or 1/4in threads
I have to admit that I love it. I review many pretty cool pieces of kit, the vast majority goes back to the manufacturer as I either already have something similar or as good, but this pistol grip ball head from Vanguard is definitely one that I am going to get and use for myself.
In terms of it’s weight and added bulk, I have to say that it is probably not the ideal tripod head to take travelling and on safari, you can get far more lighter and compact types, but it is just so good in so many other areas that I will definitely be making space for it in my luggage.
Update: I liked this Vanguard Pistol Grip so much that I decided to get one for myself and took it with me on safari in 2011, 2012 and 2013!
Today, it is still one of my favourite pieces of kit and definitely my most used tripod head.
Below is a video I took of the equipment I used on my trip in 2011, which includes the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball head:
For more on all the equipment I use on safari:
A weak point for me would be the location of the spirit level, under where you place your camera, that can get a little annoying to access if you are often on the move. Luckily this is only a very minor quibble and one that can be easily overcome.
The main highlight for me is the way you “aim” your camera that is so intuitive and therefore fast that you are far more likely to catch shots that you would otherwise miss as you fiddle about. It is very well made and easily sturdy enough to carry all my equipment and more – I feel that for it’s asking price of under £100 / $100 it is a real bargain and should be in every photographers kit bag.
Cost & Where to Buy
US Shoppers: Vanguard GH-100 on Amazon.com
Below is a really good video created by Vanguard, that points out many of these great features of the GH-100