Tripod Heads

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.

Tripod Ball HeadsBALL HEADS
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

Tripod Pan / Tilt HeadsPAN/TILT HEADS
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

Tripod Fluid HeadsFLUID HEADS
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.

Panoramic Tripod HeadsPANORAMIC HEADS
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 Type Tripod HeadsGIMBAL HEADS
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

Ball heads versus Pan-tilt heads

There are two basic types of tripod heads: ball heads and pan-tilt heads.

Clamp PodsBall heads usually have two or three controls. The main control loosens the ball, allowing the photographer to move the camera in any direction. Another control the head may have will loosen only the panning base. This is a very convenient control to have. A third control will set the drag on the main control. What this drag control does is to allow you to set the tension on the ball head to a certain point. Once set, you can tighten down the control, locking the ball, but when you loosen the control, it will only loosen to the point where you set the tension. This is critical to have for large and heavy lenses. With the tension set properly, you can maintain free movement of the head without worrying about your big expensive lens taking a big “flop.”

Pan-tilt heads, sometimes called 3-Way Pan-tilt heads also have three controls. One control controls panning, another controls fore-aft tilt, and the third controls the horizontal/vertical tilt.

Both types of heads have pros and cons. With a pan-tilt head you can make very precise adjustments in one direction without changing positioning in other directions. However, you need to use a different control for different changes.

With a ball head, changes are made in all directions by using just one control, although by loosening the main control, the camera can move in all directions.

Ball heads tend to be quicker to adjust and use.

Quality ball heads tend to be more expensive.

Ball heads are often lighter and the also take up less space because there aren’t three controls sticking out in three directions.

Another type of head is Bogen’s pistol grip head. This is essentially a ball head. While convenient to use, the pistol grip head doesn’t support a lot of weight, tends to exhibit some “creep” when placed in any position other than straight up and down, and is vulnerable to damage. I’ve seen these heads break off right at the stem.