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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sirui K-30X Ball Head Review - The Middle Ground Master



In a relatively short period of time Sirui have entered the photographic equipment market and created something of a name for themselves. Unlike a lot of copycat Chinese firms, they create their own designs (although often inspired by some of the traditional European and American tripod companies, but not directly copied) and try and innovate in interesting ways. The result is a competent set of equipment that punches way above its price tag. There are quirks admittedly, but quirks exist in the long historied Italian and German tripod brands too. Sirui have definitely become a tripod and tripod head brand that is worth considering for prospective users. In particular they have become known for their high quality attached to a ‘reasonable price’.

Importantly I say ‘reasonable price’, since the Sirui brand does not necessarily produce ‘cheap’ equipment. If the sign of being one of the top manufacturers is to be copied, then Sirui are up there with Gitzo, Manfrotto and FLM since a quick scan of eBay will unearth several Sirui clones at a fraction of Sirui’s own pricing. From having used and reviewed several Sirui tripod legs and heads, I can attest they make decent (and in many cases excellent), affordable equipment that - very importantly - stands up to the rigours of professional use (and abuse).


The K-30X supporting a Nikon D800e atop the aluminium N-3004X tripod and LE-60 levelling base during a workshop at Namibia’s Spitzkoppe Mountains.

Recently I was sent a copy of Sirui’s K-30X ‘professional’ KX series ballhead. I have used extensively and reviewed Sirui’s K-40X ballhead which is their largest and most stable ballhead that Sirui make, with a ball diameter of 54mm. The K-30X which I review here is essentially a smaller version with a ball of 44mm, 10mm smaller than the big K-40X ball head. That 10mm adds up (or subtracts down) in several important ways. The smaller K-30X head is also 250g lighter and significantly smaller that the big K-40X. It is also shorter by 15mm. Yet, the small head can in theory handle equipment up to 30kg; only 5kg less than the K-40X is purported to be capable of handling. That is a lot of weight for a ball head to handle. Far more than one should really consider to be honest. To be frank, if you are expecting to manoeuvre more than 10kg on a tripod one should really consider gimbal, fluid, or geared heads rather than a ball head.

In my review of the K-40X I concluded that the K-40X wasn’t exactly a ball head to get excited about. It was a workhorse; a tractor of a ballhead. Not exactly sexy or interesting, but very stable, reliable (with it’s slight niggle of accumulating dirt at the bottom of the ball) and a definite workhorse. In some ways the K-30X is a more interesting proposition. The lighter, smaller but almost equally specified K-30X is probably an easier ballhead to come to grips with for most photographers than the large and heavy K-40X.

Build Quality


Despite the size and weight, the K-30X feels like it has been hewn from a solid lump of metal. In fact there is almost no difference to the way that the K-30X is made and finished to that of its bigger sibling, the K-40X. The body of the head is solid machined aluminium with an anodised finish, while the ball itself is glossy coated aluminium. Sirui apparently uses aviation quality aluminium alloys (7075-T6 and 6067-T6 in particular). I suspect that the ball it manufactured from the harder of the two alloys. Regardless of the materials, the head appears to be solid and rugged. The abuse I have put the heads through in testing seems to indicate that they will last a long time.

The fit for all the moving parts is tight without any undesirable movement. Even supposedly finicky pieces like the safety stop on the quick release clamp are durable and tough. There are no exposed screws, springs or levers, meaning that the ballhead has been designed with durability and toughness in mind, I think. Sirui also use something that they call a ‘double bevel lock’ for the main locking action of the ball. They claim that other manufacturers usually only use one. The result is the extraordinarily heavy weights that the Sirui heads are capable of locking in place; far more than the tripods themselves are designed to support incidentally.

In the end I used the K-30X on an extended workshop through Botswana’s Tuli Block and then Kubu Island, while my assistant continued to use it on a 14 day workshop through Namibia (both with Natures Light Photographic Workshops and Tours). Considering the amount of use and the rough way it was often packed or carried, it shows little signs of wear and continues to work as it did out of the box.


Features

Sirui’s excellent double safety lock feature: the small red button need to be depressed to allow the bronze pin to slide out of the way so that the Arca-Swiss compatible plate can be removed.

The clamp has a total of three spirit levels recessed into it’s anodised aluminium surface. On the top plate is a round bubble level, while on the side is a horizontal and vertical level. It makes levelling the head’s clamp very easy if you need to.

There are only two control knobs on the body of the ballhead itself. These are a rubber coated main friction control and a ridged surface metal pan knob at the base of the body. Panning movements are marked with 5 degree increments. I found the increment marks weren’t exactly precise since the actual line markings are done away with at times and replaced by numerals. This doesn’t make exact positioning that easy. However, very few photographers need that level of accuracy, and if they do would probably buy a panoramic or geared head in any case.

The ball itself is a glossy finished black ball with a 44mm diameter. One of the principle reasons a photographer would choose a larger ballhead is that the physically larger circumference makes manipulating the weight of the camera rig simpler. This means that small incremental changes to compositions can be made more accurately. This is not a flaw of the K-30X, but the same micro adjustments that are possible with a physically larger ball, are just that much harder to do with the 44mm ball size of the K-30X. Yet, despite this concern of mine, the actual head size is still smaller than most other 44mm head designs. Like the K-40X Sirui have actually made the head with an odd tapering design to accommodate its size yet keep the diameter of the base at 51mm (5,5mm slimmer than the widest point on the body which is the beveled pan ring itself).

There is a single 90 degree drop lot on the opposing side to the pan control. This allows the head to move into a vertical orientation. When you do so the main friction control rests at the back of the ball head if you have the pan control on the right. Personally I prefer this type of setup, but I do know that some photographers prefer the main control to be in the front of the ball (facing away from the photographer) with the pan control to the right. This is a matter of preference really and shouldn’t really affect the choice of the ballhead (unless you really have an issue with the control and its positioning at the rear when shooting vertical).

As with the rest of the Sirui ballheads, the K40x has an Arca-Swiss compatible quick release mount. The mount is a simple clamp, but has their innovative locking pin that stops the camera from sliding off the clamp accidentally. It’s simple and fail-proof which I really appreciate. The clamp tightens with a rubber covered knob. As with some other Sirui kit that I have used it is possible to over-tighten this knob, making it difficult to unlock. You get used to it really quickly though, so know when to stop tightening.

The clamp has a total of three spirit levels recessed into it’s anodised aluminium surface. On the top plate is a round bubble level, while on the side is a horizontal and vertical level. It makes levelling the head’s clamp very easy if you need to. The provided plate is the TY-60X. Also made from machined aluminium, the plate plate has a nice broad surface with raised rubber inserts to improve its grip on the base of the camera. There is also strap slit in the plate so that the camera can be carried by the plate on a harness system like those from BlackRapid.

I would be remiss not to mention that included in the small box that the Sirui K-30X comes packaged in is a very good quality neoprene bag for the head. The generously sized bag easily fits over the ballhead and can be closed with the nylon draw-string and toggle. It does a good job of protecting the ballhead in transit and fit neatly over the head when attached to the tripod. It’s an excellent way to protect the ballhead from dust and scratches. Also included are two allan keys for tightening the base plate to the camera body. The plate has a D-shackle to be able to tighten by hand, but the added allan-key slot is the standard and far more secure way to tighten the base. Last but certainly not least - and something that to me is a very important ‘feature’ - is the six year guarantee that comes along with the Sirui ball heads. This is something that should definitely be taken into consideration if you are going to be using your equipment extensively. Buying ‘no-name’ brands and even some of the better known US, German and Italian tripod brands can occasionally leave you stranded when gear breaks from age or abuse. Having the knowledge that there is support from Sirui and their importers is extremely comforting. 

Controls

This is a really simple ballhead essentially. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out how to use it. There is a single large locking knob for the main ball and a small metal pan knob for the panning base. Both move fluidly and with ease. Not much to write about really.

The difference comes in with the main control knob. It offers the ability to adjust the friction of the ball when you loosen it via a small recessed screw in the main control knob. This in turn affects the amount of rotation required to lock the knob. It took some experimentation for me to get it right, but the beauty of the system is that once in place you can just forget about the friction control for the most part.
The main control dial with the small recessed friction control. A loose blue dial can also be spun to indicate where maximum tension is set.

To get the friction adjusted for your particular style of photography, you need to tighten the main control knob in a clock-wise direction for about a half turn. You don’t have to be precise. The idea is just to get the ball lightly gripped by the head. Next loosen the friction control screw head by rotating it counter-clockwise with your fingernail or a screwdriver (it’s actually easy enough to use the pressure from your thumb). Now, while moving the ball about with your one hand, slowly rotate the main control knob until you get the minimum level of drag that you want (the idea is not to lock the ball, but rather to set it’s looseness). Once you have this, rotate the small screw head clockwise until it is locked. You can then move the blue numbered band (Sirui refers to this as the Calibration Ring) to zero. Zero now indicates full unlock. Turning the control knob clockwise will lock the ballhead in place.
The pan control knob made of knurled aluminium sits close to and above the markings for the pan orientation
The panning base moves very smoothly a full 360 degrees. Angle numbers are  marked every 15 degree with lines marking 5 degree increments between the numbers. Numbers run from 0 to 90 and then back down again to 0. The dampened pan movement and the ability to gently tighten the pan control knob itself makes for some very fluid and controlled pan movements (although ball heads are not designed for this I was able to create passable video pans using the K-30X as an emergency video head on one shoot).  

Handling

Readers who have been through the review of the K-40X will have noted that the handling on the large ball head was something of a mixed bag. In particular, the Sirui heads have a tendency to collect dust at the bottom of the ball. This in turn causes a jamming up when trying pan the head on the ball itself (as opposed to the panning mechanism which is actually separate to the ball). If you know about this problem it becomes a non-issue since you know to simply clean the ball itself (drop the ball head into the vertical orientation slot and rotate holding a clean cloth, or even slightly damp cloth, to the base of the ball to remove any dust). Interestingly this was never an issue with the smaller K-30X. Despite using the ball head on Botswana’s Soa Pan where the sand is more like fine flour in it’s consistency, and in Namibia’s Namib desert, the K-30X never once jammed up. Just to paint the picture a little more, when I returned from Namibia I actually removed a good 1/4 cup of fine desert sand from my camera backpack. Traipsing up dunes, working in the ruins of Kolmanskop and simply being in the presence of one of the world’s biggest kitty-litter boxes guarantees that your gear is going to come into prolonged contact with fine sand that gets in everywhere. Despite this, the K-30X didn’t seem to be affected….at all. Either I was very lucky (which I tend to think is unlikely) or the K-30X is less prone to the sand jamming issue than it’s bigger brother. 
In order to give an impression of size, the K-30X sits in the middle between the larger K-40X and the diminutive G-20KX

The K-30X is a medium sized ball head. When it comes to handling a camera mounted on a ball head, the size of the ball is always going to become a consideration. That said, I personally had no problems using the K-30X. Its ball movement is smooth and dampened. When you lock the ball in place it locks positively and with non-discernible sag to the naked eye. This is a big thing. Countless ball heads that I have used have a pronounced amount of perceptible sag after tightening the main ball. The K-30X is not immune to this phenomenon, but the sag is very negligible to virtually unnoticeable. For any travel photographer this is a nonexistent issue. It is more of an issue for close-up product photography and the occasional macro still-life image. You can get around the issue with the excellent friction control on the ball head.

To do this, gently tighten the ball until you can manoeuvre the camera, but with some force required to do so. Shift the composition so that you are moving the camera in the direction of the sag (i.e. usually lens heavy/forward). The tension created by the friction control means that you can position the camera and lens, without actually holding the rig, and then lock the ball down properly. Using this technique the K-30X can still serve as a decent macro and product camera support.

Conclusion


There is no such thing as the perfect ball head. I need to state this up front. Ball heads that excel at fine movement by necessity need to be large and heavy. Small and light ball heads that are better equipped for travel photography tend to not be that suited to precision work. At first glance the K-30X falls into the latter camp. However, with careful use it can compete in the former.

In many ways the K-30X is actually a better ball head for the average photographer than the K-40X. It is small, light, has a reasonably sized ball which allows it to be something of jack-of all trades. In fact, it’s large enough that it can even be used with the Wimberley Sidekick gimbal arm. I tested it with the old Nikkor 400mm f3.5 EDIF lens (a hefty beast by today's graphite and composite construction standards) and it handled fine. The pan base was smooth enough and dampened enough that it felt like a far larger ball head than it really is.

Which brings me to why the K-30X is a better ball head overall to it’s bigger brother. The K-40X, handling issues aside, is the more stable. It is also easier to position for precise work and there is next to no sag from composition setting to locking of the main control. However, it is large and heavy. The average photographer is more likely to enjoy using the K-30X. More important, the average photographer is going to prefer the fact that the K-30X is lighter and has a significantly smaller physical profile to the K-40X. Basically, if you are going to have only one ball head, and require it for a multitude of uses, then the K-30X is a better bet. For its size and weight, it is a fantastic generalist ball head. 

Whether you use a Canon 5D or Nikon D800 sized SLR, or a smaller Fujifilm or Sony mirrorless camera, the K-30X is very good compromise ballhead. Go smaller and you won’t adequately support the larger DSLRs. Go larger and you lose the size and weight benefit of the mirrorless camera systems. My personal take is that you essentially have to decide between the K-40X and K-30X if you are looking for a Sirui ballhead. If you travel a lot, the K-30X is good bet. If you are studio based or use a camera larger than the 5D/D800 size, then the K-40X is possibly a better bet (although the K-30X can still handle this if used carefully). The average photographer is likely to prefer the K-30X. It’s the happy medium.

Summary


Identical design and features to the bigger and more expensive K-40X, but with lower price tag and lighter weight with smaller size. An excellent mid-range ball head that is well suited to both small mirrorless designed cameras and mid-size pro-level DSLRs

Technical Details


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