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Best Tripod Head | A Face Off: Ball Head vs. Pan Head

By Michael Henson on March 21st 2015

Best Tripod Head Face Off

Ball head or pan head? No, I’m not talking about weird looking fish that probably taste okay, but you’ll never know because the crazy thing just looks too weird to eat. In this article, I’m going to be discussing two of the popular types of tripod heads. If you are anything like me, when you first went tripod hunting, you thought that a tripod was an all encompassing item. Little did you know that, if you want quality, you have to pick the legs, head, brackets, and other various accessories and piece your setup together. Not only that, but splurging on a tripod doesn’t necessarily constitute a $50 investment. Splurging on a tripod setup runs you more than I paid for my current Swagger Wagon (’02 Pontiac Montana, woot!) with room to spare.

Naturally, you don’t have to spend that much and there are countless quality options out there for much less. The point I am trying to make is that there is more that goes into a tripod purchase than simply picking one up at Walmart, and there are some things that you need to consider so you end up with the gear that you will get the most use out of. That being said, one of the most important components of a tripod is the head. This is the piece that your camera connects to and going cheap, or purchasing the wrong kind, can turn your tripod into a hindrance with legs.

Best Tripod Head: Ball vs. Pan Head

The two types of heads I’m going to discuss are the ball and pan style heads. These tend to be the most popular for photography for various reasons and are the styles I would recommend you focus your attention on if you are going to be purchasing or upgrading your tripod in the future.

Ball HeadBallhead-Sirui

This one gets its name because the ancient Egyptians used to carry the royal sketch artist on a platform built for that purpose. The men that carried the artist around were called ball heads…kidding! It’s, um, basically a ball in a socket with a screw upon which you mount your camera. Pretty straightforward!

Pros of a Ball Head

Easy to use/adjust – These typically have a screw to tighten the head to hold your camera still, and a tension/friction adjustment to make it easier or more difficult to move the head around. The simplicity of this design allows you more “intuitive” control of your camera while it’s attached to the tripod.

Quicker to operate – Due again to its simplicity and intuitive design, the ball head is quicker to use and better suited to photographing movement if action or sports (and even fashion or portraits) are the genres that you will be using it for.

Cons of a Ball Head

Less precise – This is possibly the biggest gripe when using a ball head. When you loosen that screw you aren’t just adjusting one angle or plane, you are moving and adjusting everything. This can be very frustrating in photographic genres where you spend a good deal of time ensuring that your camera is level. If you do so and realize that you actually need to aim a bit higher, you’ll have to reinvest that time to ensure you’re level before taking your shot.

Less sturdy – This is based on the quality of the head you purchase, of course. Due to their design, there is a bit of room for a ball head to be less sturdy than a pan head tripod that has the camera resting on a platform rather than what is essentially a raised platform.

Pan HeadManfrotto Head

This head is essentially a sturdy platform that rests on top of your tripod legs with a screw on top to hold your camera.

Pros of a Pan Head

Precise control – This style gives you precise control over each plane of movement that your camera may move through. Typically, they have a knob or handle for each plane (vertical, horizontal, and tilt) that allow you to precisely change each without impacting the other.

Price – In order to purchase a ball head that will support the same amount of weight as a pan style head, you will spend a decent amount more. Pan heads are relatively affordable in comparison.

Cons of a Pan Head

Slower to adjust – While with the ball head, you can adjust the camera from the camera after loosening the head, you have to change each plane individually with the pan head. This approach is more precise, but also more time consuming.

Size – Since each plane is adjustable, there’s a knob or short handle sticking out to make the adjustments easier. Unfortunately, having those handles also makes the head more bulky and difficult to store or transport. Not necessarily a huge deal, but for those focused on portability, this could make a difference.

So, Which Is The Best Tripod Head?Sirui-Tripod-Ballhead-Review-2

You know my answer already! Whichever works best for you! If you are shooting something with a lot of movement or tend to be a hand-held shooter that’s looking to remove the camera shake element from your photographic game, then I’d say that the ball head might be the best bet for you. You’ll get that intuitive, ease of control while enjoying the added stability of a tripod. On the other hand, if you are a landscape photographer, shoot real estate, or just really want precise control of your camera, then the pan head is probably something that you should check out.

I’d first recommend checking out some of the reviews we have here on SLR Lounge on tripods:

Then head down to your favorite camera shop or rental site with a better understanding of the options and features available so you can make as informed a decision as possible.

Not convinced that you need a tripod? Check out this article about why I’ve come to love my tripod. Or, to take your love of tripods to the next level check out this video on 4 reasons to travel with one.

Once You Have Your Tripod Needs All Sorted…

Get out there and SHOOT! Share your favorites with us on your favorite social media platform, like us on Facebook, drop by our critique section, and be sure to sign up for email updates to stay up to date on the latest and greatest news, products, contests, reviews, and photography articles!

CREDITS : Photographs have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

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Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ron Pruitt

    Will the Manfrotto MH804-3WUS 804 3-Way Head fit on the Fotopro C5i Tripod?

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    • Matthew Saville

      Yes it should work, the FotoPro tripods all offer a reversible center column ballhead screw that allows you to go from 3/8 to 1/4-20.

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  2. Andy Schaub

    I have a couple of ballheads from Really Right Stuff and I like them very much; however, I sometimes want the control I get from a pan head but with the compactness of a ball head and a sense of precise movements. Although it was terribly expensive, I wound up with a Linhof “geared head”, which is the best of both worlds. It’s main limitation is that you can angle it up or down so much. However, you can bias it to a given range of motion my asymmetrically adjusting the length of your tripod legs. I have an RRS TVC-34L without a center column, and I have to say that I like the modularity of the system plus its stability. My images are actually sharper by having such a tall, sturdy, light, vibration-free tripod. Again, though, we’re talking about a once in a lifetime investment.

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  3. Michael Servis

    Pistol Grip

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  4. Ralph Hightower

    I had a Slik U212 tripod with pan/tilt head that finally gave up the ghost after years of use. I replaced it with a Manfrotto 294 tripod and their pan/tilt head. Pan/tilt is what I’m used to.

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  5. Nick Viton

    I use the Manfrotto 222 Joystick. I like it, but apparently no one else does – it’s discontinued!

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    • John Cavan

      Works okay until you put some weight on it and then it gets very, very, hard to position accurately or, which is worse, maintain it for long. I loved the concept (had 2 versions of the Manfrotto one), but I wouldn’t try again.

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  6. norman tesch

    i have a ball head, pan and nodal have to consider what you are doing also. one of each gives you more options

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  7. Brandon Dewey

    Great article, I love my ball head for landscape but have been looking into getting a fluid head because is starting to shot some more videos.

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  8. Graham Curran

    This spam is still coming?

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  9. robert garfinkle

    first off…

    run down to my nearest photo store, uh, help? they’ve all but up and left the area, at least the north shore area of chicagoland… the only one I know of is calumet / wolf – in my opinion, not the calumet I used to know ( just like the song… ). photo places are getting scarce…

    but, having said that, that’s why this article, right… guiding me to the right thing / choice… this helps a great deal…

    and while we are talking about it – got a D810 on an MBD12, and you know what that means… even without a lens, its a bit cumbersome to deal with.

    I have a setup, big honkin ball mount my quick release attaches to, on a carbon fiber based tripod both the items are calumet branded however I’m pretty sure one of the big name tripod makers was behind at least the tripod, not sure of the ball mount…

    at any rate – it’s hard to manipulate, seems to have precision, yet feels somewhat un-trusty – I sense this from the quick release how it attaches to ball mount, the camera / battery pack is so top heavy, it almost feels like it’d release on it’s own the minute I walk away from it…

    I am interested in the pan head…

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    • Michael Henson

      Robert, thanks for your response and I’m glad this helps a little bit! I understand that there are places where there’s not a camera store close. Have you considered renting one from somewhere like I just checked and the have a nice Manfrotto geared pan head for $25/week if you wanted to try one out before buying.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I think you must have a crappy head, Robert, if it feels “un-trusty” as you say. There are plenty of ballheads out there that can hold up the absolute heaviest of lenses.

      If you need any convincing, there’s always this “famous” video of the legendary Markins head: (Legendary, that is, among dorky landscape shooters who actually geek out about ballheads, lol…)

      A pan head is great, however only if you have the space and weight to accommodate it. (And the time to set it up!) That is why 99.9% of serious outdoor photographers use ballheads. A pan head adds a ton of weight and is incredibly bulky, if you’re carrying everything in a backpack for miles.

      A pan head does offer a killer workflow, though. The pictured Manfrotto pan head is awesome too in that it has semi-collapsible knobs, which save a lot of space.

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    • robert garfinkle

      thanks Matt

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