Which Tripod Head Is Right For You?
I've said it before and I'll say it again. There are a lot of tripods out there. Each one fulfills the same basic idea of holding your camera in one spot and allowing you to make adjustments and get the shot you want.
If you're new to the world of photography, you've probably only seen beginner tripods in electronics stores. These are great for those just starting out, but when you begin upgrading your equipment, you'll start noticing that tripods are often sold as separate legs and heads. Today, we'll talk about the different types of tripod heads and their strengths and weaknesses.
Tripod Heads 101
Put simply, a tripod head is the upper section of a tripod with a platform that will hold your camera steady. Supported by three adjustable legs, the head often allows you to manipulate your camera into several different orientations and lock to your ideal camera position.
These heads nearly always come equipped with a screw mount to attach to your camera. Often times, they'll come with a quick-release plate to make your life much easier. Attaching a quick-release plate gives you the flexibility to quickly move back and forth between a locked-down position on the tripod to a more agile handheld operation.
Many of these quick-release plates are proprietary designs of the tripod manufacturer, meaning that one plate doesn't usually lock into multiple different manufacturer's tripods. Thankfully, many companies have adopted the Arca-Swiss quick release style. This type of plate locks down by being clamped between two metal jaws in an easy-to-operate system that's becoming widely adopted as something of a standard.
In fact, there are several accessory manufacturers that specialize in L-brackets. These are typically made of metal and custom-molded to a particular camera body, working as an Arca Swiss quick release plate on both the underside and left side of a camera. This makes it easy to mount the camera in both horizontal and vertical positions without making too many adjustments.
One last thing to mention before we dive into the various types of tripod toppers. Some heads attach onto the tops of legs with a 3/8" screw, and some others rest a large ball inside of a bowl-type mechanism. Make sure you choose a head and legs that actually work together as intended.
Easily the most prevalent tripod head, the ball head is typically both lightweight and compact. Allowing the user to rotate and spin in nearly any direction quickly, this option offers a lot of flexibility, usually locking down with a turn of a knob or screw. You'll often find these in travel tripods or beginner options due to the size and ease of use. However, it can be difficult to make minor adjustments or balance heavy loads on top of these heads, as they have a tendency to flop to one side if not held securely.
Occasionally, you'll find odd variations of the ball head, like the Novoflex Magicball or the head built-in to the PeakDesign Travel Tripod. These work essentially the same way as traditional ball heads with a reverse build.
Another common variation on the ball head is the pistol grip head. These use a tension-controlled mechanism to hold the camera platform in place. Wonderful for beginners due to their ease and simplicity of use, these allow a shooter to quickly reposition their camera with a squeeze of the handle. These do unfortunately have similar difficulties as traditional ball heads. A camera setup that makes the tripod excessively top-heavy can easily tip to one side or the other. Another downfall of the pistol grip system shows itself in their tendency to lose some of their grip over time since the locking mechanism is spring-based instead of screw-based.
Pan & tilt heads work differently than the ball head and pistol grip. These are usually based on a design with one or two hinges and one horizontally rotating element. The most common of these are three-way heads, allowing the operator to tilt the camera up and down, pan left and right, or rotate the camera into a vertically-angled position.
The multiple control arms for each axis lets the shooter make minor adjustments easily, but it can be slower to use, requiring a more methodical approach. They are typically heavier and more bulky than ball heads, making them more difficult to handle on-the-go due to the various arms sticking out.
You may occasionally see tripod heads labeled for panoramic use. These may have a ball head or a tilt head on top, but they take the rotating aspect of the panning head and often include precision marks on the rotating element. This makes it easy for a panoramic shooter to take multiple images and stitch them together while knowing exactly how much their camera has been rotated.
Fluid heads—sometimes just called video heads—are essentially pan/tilt heads built for video work. These introduce an element of drag into the head's movements. Using a viscous oil between the mechanical elements inside, these are designed to allow the user to make smooth, controlled camera movements without any shaking or hard stops during video recording. Advanced fluid heads may come with a leveling element that can be adjusted to give you straight horizons.
In higher-end fluid heads, this resistance can be adjusted depending on how quickly the camera movements should be. Many video heads also include an adjustable counterbalance to hold extremely heavy cameras upright, preventing the dreaded 'flop' of a loose tripod head. These video heads also often utilize a sliding quick release plate to allow for precise front-to-back balance when adjusting your setup.
The last option I'll cover is called a gimbal head. Not just used for video stabilizers, a gimbal head is typically strong enough to hold monstrous telephoto lenses like a Nikon 600mm f/4 or heavier. These hold the camera and lens in a type of underslung position, balancing the heaviest part of the lens toward the center of the tripod. Gimbal heads are often used to photograph wildlife, allowing for quick adjustments even when using wickedly heavy lenses.