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.
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.
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?
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:
- Oben Aluminum Tripod Review
- FotoPro Tripod Field Review
- Benro’s “System Go” Tripod
- Our Favorite 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.