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by Russell McMahon

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While to shooting in rather cold-weather (-14C), the ball-head on my tripod became very stiff and very hard to move. Even with the knobs at their minimum which normally cause the whole thing to drop completely, I had to apply force. Yes, I was partially frozen but two cameras (both freezeproof) I had with me kept working without any issues. The third one (not freezeproof) would no longer focus.

The question is what causes the ball-head to become so stiff?

More importantly, can anything be done about it?

Also, are there models which do not have that problem?

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Possibly related to metals contracting when it is cold? –  Vivek Dec 1 '12 at 4:52
    
Maybe but could it be some lubrication inside the head? Looking into this, I noticed that Acratech makes ball-heads with this in the description: Oilless and greaseless ball will not attract or hold dirt and debris. –  Itai Dec 1 '12 at 15:30
1  
I would bet it is due to lubrication. I have a Gitzo ball head, and while it uses teflon coatings to provide the primary means of lowering friction, it also uses a little bit of white grease. When it gets very cold, mobility definitely drops, and I've always figured it was the grease. –  jrista Dec 1 '12 at 18:15
    
In the case of grease/oil freezing, using powdered graphite might be a better solution as it won't freeze in the same way as a liquid. That said, you may have issues keeping it dry? –  Steven Craddock Dec 2 '12 at 4:43

4 Answers 4

If the ball and socket holding it are made out of two different materials, they may expand and contract at different rates as the temperature changes. I suspect that the collar holding the ball is contracting faster than the ball as the temperature falls, and 'grabbing' the ball, increasing friction. You could check this by putting the ball head in the freezer, in sealed plastic bag to eliminate any condensation/ice particles forming.

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That could be but I forgot to mention that the pan mechanism under the ball-head also got very stiff. –  Itai Dec 1 '12 at 15:27
    
That would still be consistent with thermal expansion if the base plate and/or fixing post of the pan mechanism and ball are one material, and the block is made of a second material. –  Steven Craddock Dec 2 '12 at 4:41

I suspect the answer is simply "it's a cheap ballhead." Or at least, I can tell you that my old Arca-Swiss B1 doesn't have this problem. I often use it at night in the middle of winter and I feel it moves just as easily as in the middle of summer.

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Definitely not cheap but not the most expensive. I use a heavy-duty Manfrotto ball-head. –  Itai Dec 1 '12 at 15:28
up vote 2 down vote accepted

While Steven's answer is a good guess, it turns out lubricants freeze long before metal contracts due to cold. This makes ball-heads with oil or grease not usable beyond a few degrees below 0C / 32F.

Grease-free and oilless ball-heads operate easily down to -40C / -40F. At some colder temperature, materials will eventually contract but that will be far below the lowest operating temperature of any digital camera.

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As first two have mentioned, quality of head and differnce in materials are most likely the reason.

Also, check to make sure there's no moisture and/or dirt already existing in the mechanism which would compound the issue.

Lastly, you may want to consider lubricating the ball head as mentioned in this SE post:

Cleaning/Oiling Ball-Head

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Could you be more specific about materials? What should I look for which would be better in the cold? Most manufacturers announce with pride the materials of their ball-head! –  Itai Dec 1 '12 at 15:35
    
All plastic or plastic/metal combination between the ball and socket would be bad. This dissimilar situation will not allow precise movement between the two surfaces. An all metal, preferably a high-quality alloy of some sort, that naturally resists temperature extremes. Like the post about using lubricants, don't just use WD-40, there are lubricants designed for cold and hot temps. Magnesium alloy is one that comes to mind which manufacturers like to promote as a better material. –  ISOTropic Pixel Dec 12 '12 at 2:10

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