Choosing a Tripod Head
Types of heads
Choosing a tripod head can be even more difficult than choosing a set of legs. There are a tremendous number of heads available, and several different types. I’m going to briefly go over a few types of heads here, and then concentrate on the one type that most photographers are going to end up with.
There are four main types of photographic tripod heads. There’s the Pan/Tilt head, the Ball Head, the Geared Head and the Gimbal Head.
Pan/Tilt: Pan/Tilt heads provide a flat platform to mount the camera, and then the camera position is independently adjusted in three different axes. One pans, or rotates horizontally, the others ’tilt’ or move up an down and over to the side. Pan/tilt heads are commonly found on the ultra-cheapo tripods you get at Wal-Mart, but you can also get really nice pan/tilt heads as well. Pan/tilt heads are generally preferred by videographers, as control over one axis of motion is very desirable. Fluid pan/tilt heads are ideal for video. They also can provide some degree of deliberate control. I personally find them to be too fiddly in the field for still photography and they make fine adjustments slower than with a Ball Head.
Ball Head The ball head is the most popular type of head, and the one that I would recommend for the vast majority of photographers. A ball head uses a platform mounted on a metal or resin ball that is within a cup. The locking knob, when released, allows the photographer to move the camera in any direction in all axes simultaneously. This aids in precise framing and speed. Twisting the locking knob locks everything down tight. Most ball heads also have a separate panning control, which is used when positioning the camera to utilize the drop notch for horizontals, as well as for easy panning once a composition has been made for panorama shooting or for quick horizontal adjustments without releasing the ball. Ball heads are fast and secure and very easy to use.
Geared Head A geared head is a fairly specialized head that is used for extremely precise positioning of a camera, and is especially useful with large and heavy cameras, such as medium and large format systems. Geared heads are similar to pan/tilt heads, but instead of a locking position and general movement by the photographer, the movement of each axis is controlled by a geared knob, which allows for pinpoint precision in adjustment, at the expense of speed. A good geared heads is generally very expensive, but can be worth it if you need its capabilities or the support it can provide.
Gimbal Head A gimbal head is also a specialized head, but one that can be essential for wildlife shooters. Gimbal heads are made for use with large supertelephoto lenses, and provide a pivoting ‘cradle’ if you will, that allows for extremely quick adjustment of position with lenses such as a 600mm f/4. The lens can be balanced in the head to allow for adjustment with very gentle pushes on the camera and lens, but yet retain strong and steady support.
Choosing a Ball Head
I am not particularly well versed in the many varieties of the other tripod heads mentioned above, and since the vast majority of serious photographers use ball heads for everyday use, I’m going to stay focused on this type. A quality ball head is going to cost you generally between $250 and $500. Ball heads come in all sorts of sizes and capabilities, but there are a few key considerations when purchasing. First, you want to buy a head that is well made and locks solidly. Cheaper ball heads can sometimes have a bit of movement after locking the ball, and at worst, they can slip out altogether. A good head will hold the rated load rock solid at any angle that you wish.
A key feature that I view as very important is a separate friction control All ball heads have a main locking knob and a panning lock, but not all of them have friction control. Friction control is a third knob (or sometimes a dial inside the main locking knob) that sets how loose the ball head is when the main lock is fully released. A ball head without friction control will release the ball to complete slop when unlocked. This isn’t ideal, as it can cause your camera to slam down suddenly, hitting the lens against the tripod legs or another object, or even worse, causing your tripod to go over if it isn’t solidly positioned. The knob allows you to set a friction that you like that will keep some tension in the head, preventing the camera from flopping, while still allowing you to position the camera where you need it deliberately.
Quick Release System
In my opinion, one of the very most important things you can do when choosing a head is to choose one that uses the Arca-Swiss style quick release system. There are many head manufacturers that use proprietary quick release clamps and plates, and I don’t recommend using those QR systems. First of all, the plates are often awkward in size, or they don’t grip very well on some bodies or lenses, and can cause shifting and rotation in the quick release plate. If you like one of the heads from these makers, it is often possible to replace the clamp. I did so on my first ballhead, which was a Manfrotto 488RC2. I replaced the RC2 clamp with an Arca-Swiss style clamp from Kirk.
The Arca-Swiss style quick release is used by most of the top-tier ball head manufacturers and for good reason: The plates can be custom-made to fit your specific camera or lens, which allows for direct metal to metal contact and absolutely zero flex between the tripod and your camera. This reduces droop after locking down the tripod and prevents the plate from twisting off your camera in use. It’s also extremely secure.
The Arca-Swiss style quick release uses two jaws that clamp onto an angled dovetail plate to securely mate the camera and the head. Generally the jaws are tightened with a screw-knob, though lever style releases are made by Really Right Stuff. The custom plates for an A/S style system can get somewhat expensive, with body plates starting around $50 and moving up to $150 or so for some L-bracket styles, but in my opinion, it’s not worth getting a serious tripod without an A/S style quick release system.
There are many great ball head makers, and most of them have a similar style to the head. In my opinion, the manufacturers with which to start your search for a good head are Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Markins, Arca-Swiss, Photo Clam and Acratech. All of these makers have quality heads that should last years and years and hold the gear solid. All of them also use Arca-Swiss style quick releases.
It’s worth noting that while all these brands are good, many brands, even the excellent ones, tend to exaggerate the load capacity of their heads a bit. Take some of the extreme capacities with a grain of salt. It may be technically capable of holding such a load, but not without a bit of creep or poor handling. Kirk and Really Right Stuff seem to be exceptions to this rule: they generally are right on with their expected capacities.
The two ball heads I use are the Really Right Stuff BH-40, which sits on my main tripod, and the Photo Clam PC-36, which I use on my MeFoto Road Trip. Both are very good heads. The Photo Clam is a bargain price with great stability, silky smooth action in most environments and decent capacity. It’s not perfect: it can get a bit sticky in extreme cold, and the pan lock isn’t super strong, but it does a nice job. The BH-40, on the other hand, has a few ergonomic concerns, but it simply locks down like a rock with a quick 1/4 turn of the locking lever. It’s great for the moderate loads I use with my mirrorless systems. For those who use heavier gear, especially larger telephoto lenses, the BH-55 may be worth a look as well. When I purchased the BH-40, the Kirk BH-3 was also very high on my list. The Kirk heads are simple, with no frills, but from all accounts, they are absolutely rock solid and last forever.
While I really like the two heads I use most often, I definitely would recommend exploring the options in this space. Read reviews and if you’re lucky enough to live near a photo store that caters to pros, see if you can get your hands on some of them. Unfortunately, many of the best brands only sell direct, so trying before buying can be difficult, but research can help a lot here.
There’s a lot to consider when buying a tripod. It can be a significant investment and the number of choices is mind-boggling. Exploring all the options is daunting, but take care to research and find what works for your gear and your shooting, and dive in. A good tripod can not only enable sharp pictures in most any situation, but it can make the experience of shooting easier and more fun as well.