A tripod is only as good as the head that sits on top of it. Arguments over which type of head approach the Mac vs. Windows level of fervor at times, with ball head fans swearing that three-way panning heads can’t touch them, and the reverse. Well, you’ve got plenty of choices no matter which way you go, but ball heads are clearly gaining in popularity with many more new options on display.
But my tripod already has a head
The vast majority of tripods are sold with a functional and very useful head atop its three legs. It's also possible to purchase a set of legs and center column assembly as a unit, and add a tripod head that exactly matches your personal requirements.
Certain applications, especially those involving video production, require very specific types of tripod heads. These are generally fluid heads that are capable of delivering silky-smooth pans and tilts. Other applications have different requirements. As it is with every other photographic accessory, it's best to determine your needs before searching for solutions.
Ball heads can be maneuvered into a very wide range of positions, and generally can solve the problem of aiming the camera lens in exactly the right direction without a lot of fuss. Theoretically, a ball joint can move in a 360-degree circle, thus delivering the upper limit of adjustability. However, most ball heads are relatively simple assemblies that do not include true pan or tilt adjustment capabilities. • Best for sports and nature
• Allows quick repositioning
• Good ones have adjustable tension/drag
• Don’t skimp and buy a small ball.
Bogen 3055 Entry level head, good price. Does the job. Not for heavy loads such as big telephoto lenses. About $50. Good choice for all around, inexpensive head. Uses Bogen Hex plate quick release system. Supports about 15 lbs.
Bogen 3413QR Proball Head with hex shaped quick release. Supports about 9 lbs. $50
Bogen 3265 Pistol grip ball head. Light duty only, $85
Arca-Swiss B1 Top of the line, rock solid, expensive. Supports up to 500mm lens, $400 with quick release.
Kirk BH-1& BH-3 Another pro quality ball head. Just as good, if not a bit better than the Arca-Swiss. About $350. BH-3 is a smaller version with same build quality, $250, comes with a standard plate.
Really Right Stuff BH-25 for very light equipment, $100-175
BH-40 for mid-weight equipment, $295-375
BH-55 heavy duty (up to 50 lbs), $355-455
(variations in price due to clamping system options)
Acratech Ultimate Ball Head Lightweight, strong and sturdy. Comes with Arca-Swiss type quick release. $270
For most photographers, this type is the best choice. The movements that are typically available from a pan/tilt head provide a very high level of control. They are also the most affordable solution in most cases (although some can be found at prices higher than many digital cameras). Grip-action type heads utilize a one-handed control to provide a new and easier way to make adjustments. This is useful when you're working quickly or when you must make a large number of small adjustments. Pan/Tilt (3D)
• Best for architecture & still life
• Not as good for sports & nature. Pan Tilt:
Bogen 3047 3-way pan/tilt, built in level. Uses hexagonal quick release plates. Supports 16.5 lbs. $80
Bogen 3030 3-way pan/tilt. Smaller than 3047. Uses a smaller, rectangular quick release plate. Supports 13 lbs. $60
Some pan/tilt heads are also classified as fluid heads. As the name implies, fluid heads use a sealed liquid to create a miniature hydraulic damping system that enables smooth, steady motion when moved through a given space. If you shoot video with a compact camcorder you'll find a fluid head to be exceptionally useful. Prices vary depending on the level of sophistication but there are many fine units that are quite affordable, including the
Giottos MH-5000 3-way Fluid Pan Head with Quick Release Lever, which sells for just $42.95.
So-called Video Heads are generally specialized combination pan/tilt fluid heads that incorporate additional features, such as geared rotation adjustments, extra heavy-duty load capacity, bubble levels, and greater adjustment lock options. Some models have adjustable counterbalance springs so they can be fine tuned to the exact balance point with a wide range of cameras of various weights. There are video heads that allow full adjustment of the fluid drag so that motion can be more precisely controlled, regardless what kind of video equipment is being used. Prices range from around $50 to $1,000 or more, depending on features.
Many pan/tilt heads have adjustable platforms that allow digital or 35mm cameras to smoothly shift between horizontal and vertical orientation. Camera rotators perform the same function when used with heavier medium format cameras. Of course, they also work well with smaller cameras.
Stroboframe's Vertaflip PHD On-Tripod Camera Rotator allows you to rotate the camera without changing the lens axis. Neat trick. It also keeps the camera weight balanced over the tripod center, something that is especially important if you use heavy medium format cameras.
Why do I need a panoramic head?
The purpose of a panoramic head is to allow you to accurately position your camera so that when you turn it you are turning it about the no-parallax-point of your lens. By rotating the camera around this point, you avoid parallax1.
Gimbal heads are single-axis heads used in order to allow a balanced movement for camera and lenses. This proves useful in wildlife photography as well as in any other case where very long and heavy telephoto lenses are adopted: a gimbal head rotates a lens around its center of gravity, thus allowing for easy and smooth manipulation while tracking moving subjects. • For large lenses only
• Camera is well balanced allowing smooth motion in all directions
with minimal force
• Excellent for panning with large lenses