Flying Saucer Ball Head

Shown with tripod ring
from a Canon 300mm
     I often photograph birds from the window of my vehicle in situations like a wildlife refuge, in which case I use bean bags for support. But whenever I panned left and right, the tripod foot would bind in the bean bag, and the lens wanted to flop over on one side all the time. When I panned right, the side mirror was at the same level as the lens and in the way. It made following the action a bit of a hassle. Spinning the tripod foot up out of the way helped, but I lost what little height advantage it offered, making the lens sit even lower.

     The solution seemed to be something like the "Molar Bean Bag" by Vertex Photographic with their V2 Plate and a gimbal head. That would have been a solution ranging in the hundreds of dollars. I wasn't ready to spend that much for another gimbal and bean bag when I already had one of each. Neither was I going to hassle with swapping my gimbal between the Gitzo and the bean bag. There had to be a better way. I got the old creative juices working and came up with the insanely simple and inexpensive "Flying Saucer Ball Head".

The Flying Saucer Ball Head?
Two views of the ball head with my
favorite quick release clamp attached

     Yup, that's what I call it. I think you'll agree it's an apt description. I never would have thought a 6-inch piece of 2x6 pine stud with a bolt in it could be so useful, simple and effective, but I believe this idea is the epitome of simple design form and function. It's really only half a "ball", but that's all it takes to make my big, heavy telephoto lens pan and tilt smoothly while resting on a bean bag. It screws on and off the lens tripod foot with the flick of a wrist. Even if you have to go out and buy a stainless steel 1/4-20 or 3/8-16 bolt to make one of these, it'll only cost a couple of dollars. For larger lenses you will want to add a clamp to allow some balancing adjustment with the plate on your lens mounting ring as in the photos at right. With my clamp attached I have 3-1/2 inches of slide range to adjust the balance point, which allows perfect balance with the 500mm lens.

The Flying Saucer Ball
Head with 500mm lens
used on a bean bag
     To the left are photos of the top (showing the 1/4 20 stainless bolt I used), and the bottom (showing the countersink hole). You may instead need to use a 3/8-16 bolt, depending upon what sort of head or clamp you will be attaching. At the very top left you can see the edge-on side view with a lens collar attached. I have provided a large diagram explaining how to make the Flying Saucer Ball Head. It's relatively simple to make with simple tools, although a wood lathe is by far the easiest and fastest way to make one. Even making one the hard way with hand tools took me less than two hours. As a supplement to the diagram, the series of photos below shows the same manual method of shaping the wood to create the ball head. The only thing I haven't done is to seal or stain the wood, or paint it. Unless you think it will get wet, you won't really have to do that.

     If you should decide to put any kind of finish on yours, I recommend leaving at least a one-and-a-half inch to two inch radius area on top (around the stud) clear of any paint or finish. This is the area that will rub on the bottom of your lens tripod foot , clamp or head when you screw on the Flying Saucer Ball Head. The paint or finish here would probably get rubbed off anyway. Just leave the wood natural and unfinished in that area.

(1) Draw a circle on the bottom
2.75-inches diameter as a guide
and saw off sections at an angle
(2) This provides a start
to the bowl shape
(3) Using a wood rasp, begin
removing the "corners"
and rounding the bottom
(4) Soon you should have a
smoother bowl shape
(5) This is close, but the bottom is
too flat. Keep working until it
looks like image #7 below.

(6) A large metal file can
help smooth and shape
(7) This is the desired shape
you're working toward
     I made a second one for use with a small arca-swiss clamp. Here's a short video showing how smoothly these work with a bean bag.
The Flying Saucer Ball
Head with ground pod
     Besides using it on bean bags, I also use this with a ground pod I designed for it. This saves me the expense of another gimbal mount. I could have just set a bean bag in an old frying pan and used the ball head on top of it, but that would have been unnecessarily heavy. A lightweight plywood cradle holds the ball head for those great low angle bird photos. Check out the ground pod project article.