Uniqball - a Unique Approach to Levelling
by Nick Devlin @onelittlecamera
In1974, Ernő Rubik invented the Rubik’s Cube. A generation of us grew up twisting them happily (or not so happily) in our idle moments of teenage nerdom. Forty years later, yet another crazy Hungarian genius has brought us the Uniqball. Ok, to be fair, the analogy mostly ends there, but, my latent Hungarian pride notwithstanding, the Uniqball made me think of the Rubik’s cube for a number of reasons when Michael gave it to me to try out earlier this year.
Csaba Karai and his compatriots designed the Uniqball to solve the ever-frustrating problem of tripod leveling. This is neither a new nor previously unsolved problem, but their answer is a nifty one. The Uniqball is really two ball heads nested together, with an Arca style mount on top. And it works really quite well. This review is of the Uniqball 45 – their larger, heavier head. The smaller "35" model should be identical in performance, and even more suited for those using APS-C and under.
The Basic Idea
The big ball on the bottom is released by a tensioning lever and rotated till the built-in level is centred. This is then locked-down tight. A second ball is then loosened with a knurled metal knob, and set to the desired tension. This second ball then allows omni-directional movement…so long as it does not break the basic level-plane established by the master ‘bottom ball’.
The Unicball is Available From B&H Photo
The Uniqball is well made. It is very solid yet not too heavy, and has the pleasing feel of a hand-machined precision device. Anyone short of an Arca Cube user will be satisfied with its performance as a ballhead. The balls both lock down tight. The bottom is dead stable when fastened. The top one as well, though it has a far greater range of tensioning options, and can be left relatively free-moving, even with a very large and heavy load mounted.
The actual mounting plate appears to be made by Novoflex in Germany and is of high quality. While I prefer a spring-clamp, the fastening knob works just fine.
Algonquin Dawn, September 2014
Pentax 645z, FA 45-85mm, f11, 1/4 sec ISO 100, Uniqball on Gitzo Tripod
As mentioned, this is a nice piece of kit in all respects. Well made, taut, and to good tolerances. It is highly functional both as an ordinary tripod head, and in level-critical applications. It was useful to me as a good all-around ballhead, as well as a levelling head. One reason I have never been thrilled by panoramic stitiching is the need for a complicated levelling system (yeah, yeah, I know a lot of people freehand it). This head made me think the in the right circumstances pano-stitching is now workable for me.
The Uniqball is one of those products that serves its raison d-etre particularly well. The ability to have full free movement while maintaining level is the Uniqball’s real strength. This works flawlessly, though it is occasionally frustrating to not be able to go off-plane, because the head feels so much like a regular ballhead. This is a good thing, because it shows how easily many of us tend to wander from level in pursuit of our desired framing – most often to the detriment of the captured image if a horizon is in the image.
Put simply, the Uniqball keeps you level when you have told it to, despite your best efforts to screw things up.
Loosen the lever, level the bottom ball, tighten and go. Moreover, the Uniqball can actually hold up under some pretty extreme angles. While my tripod usually takes care of the acrobtic balancing, the Uniqball is definitely a team-player in getting you level even on extreme terrain.
The fineness of the tensioning adjustment on the upper ball also impressed me. This is the heart of the innovation in the Uniqball, and it is very well executed. Better than any description I can offer is the video linked here. It is a promotional video from the makers, but my experience confirms it to be accurate. For people who balance really long telephotos for long periods of time, but require free panning movement, the Uniqball could be a real godsend.
The Less Great
The one limitation on the quality of the Uniqball’s performance lies with the tensioning on the bottom leveling ball. With a professional-weight camera mounted, it is possible, but not always dead easy, to re-level the ball. The inertial weight of the load is obviously the problem. The bottom ball does not feel perfectly smooth when tensioned enough for fine adjustments to the levelling when under heavy loads and I occasionally wished I could have tensioned it a bit more while retaining greater smoothness in the re-leveling process.
To be fair, I am asking the almost-impossible. Leveling the head without a load works perfectly. Doing so with 10 pounds or more on top is asking a lot. The physics are just not on your side. The level of smoothness I am talking about under load is really the terrain of heads costing almost twice as much as the Uniqball. But, since I am the sort of photographer who repositions frequently without removing my camera, this was the one point at which I wished the Uniqball could work a bit better. But it's not a deal breaker.
Bonne Bay Cottage (homage to Colville)
Pentaz 645z, FA 45-85mm, 1/320th @ f7.1, ISO 100, Uniqball on Gitzo Tripod
I first shot with the Uniqball for a few days of fall colour in Algonquin Park with Michael, and found it served me well. It replaced my Benro Arca knock-off, and has stayed on the tripod since. I subsequently used it on a hiking trip to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, and never found it a bother to carry. I would get rid of it only to replace it with something like the ($1800) Arca Cube. Or, sadly, because I have to give it back.
Much of the time I used only the main leveling ball, so as to give me a full range of unimpeded motion. In this mode, the Uniqball operates like a regular heavy ballhead. The tensioning lever is very quick to use – the compensation for the lack of fine-tuning of tension that a knob offers. This was a wholly satisfactory mode of working. The mass of the head is such that it very effectively absorbs vibrations. This is a serious heavy-duty ballhead in its own right.
When I wanted level, the Uniqball really sang. The top ball has the requisite fine-tuning ability and really is the star of the system. Using the head in its intended mode really showed me how often I go off-level when free-handing a regular tripod head. My work was undeniably better for the use of it.
I have kept using the head in the same mode since, largely for studio type work. To my surprise, I have found myself using the leveling function almost all the time. I had no idea how slopey/sloppy I have been all these years.
The Smaller Brother - UHB-35
The Unicball is Available From B&H Photo
The Unicball 45 is not cheap. But neither is it as expensive as the super high-end heads. It is a really nicely made piece of kit. I think most people who are happy to spend around $500 for a good ballhead will be happy with it. A lot of good engineering and fine machining have gone into it. The smaller Uniqball 35 is priced very competitively for a higher-end lighter ballhead. If I shot with an APS-C or 4/3rds system, I would very serious consider one of these.
If you, like me, are a chronic slopey-horizon shooter, the Uniqball might be just the ticket .
Last but not least, I really like supporting innovative small companies in the photography sector. We have come to be so dominated by a handful of corporate giants, that finding true creative entrepreneurs making imaginative and successful products is always a pleasure.
And oh yeah - I loved the red accent on the head. Classy looking, and just a bit fun.