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Simple Photography Tips | What Tripod Head is Right For Me?

By Max Bridge on June 23rd 2016

Tripods are an essential tool for photography. Every photographer, at one point or another, will have to purchase one. Like many photographic purchases (like the batteries I just bought) Tripods are not a particularly glamorous purchase. Despite this, getting one which suits your needs is essential. Most decent tripods are made up of at least two main parts: the legs / sticks, and the head. In this article, I’ll be covering the tripod head and it’s many, many variations.

Tripod heads come in many forms and, arguably, are the most important part of the tripod. So long as you’re not going for some dirt cheap legs, most will be adequate for the majority of requirements. The tripod head, on the other hand, has many features which benefit different types of photography

The Ball Head

Best-tripod-head-for-portraits

Pros:

Speed – The main knob on a ball head can be quickly loosened and tightened for fast adjustments to camera position. With a good ball head you’ll also be able to use varying degrees of tension, which will allow you to move the camera without always needing to fully loosen and tighten the head.

Versatility – It’s this reason which makes ball heads so common. For any photography which does not require pinpoint accuracy, a ball head can be very useful. If your subject is moving then you can simply loosen the knob and freely move the camera in any direction you want, while still reaping some of the benefits of being on a tripod. If you then find a shot that needs a locked off positon, you can quickly tighten the head. I’ve used a ball head for portraits, headshots, family photography, wildlife, product photography (in a pinch).

Cons:

Precision – if precise movements with small adjustments will be necessary, a ball head may not suit your needs. While lots of the more expensive heads will not sag very much after you tighten the head, many do. As a result, ball heads are not generally the choice of product or interior photographers.

[REWIND: HOW TO REMOVE BANDING IN PHOTOSHOP]

Weight bearing – For the majority of circumstances this won’t be an issue, especially if you purchase something expensive like the BH-55 pictured above by Really Right Stuff – That’s a tripod head I have drooled over for some time. However, if your budget won’t stretch that far then you may run into issues when using heavier kit at more extreme angles. Ball heads can take a lot of weight but if they’re not good quality, you may get some movement at particular angles with heavy lenses.

The Pan And Tilt Head

what-tripod-head-for-general-usePros:

More precision – Pan and Tilt heads, I would say, are the next most common type of tripod head. Rather than only having one main knob which controls most movement (like the ball head), pan and tilt heads have separate arms which allow the user to adjust the pan and tilt separately.

They can take more weight (generally), compared to ball heads, and especially at the extreme angles mentioned above.

Cons:

Bulky – Some versions have arms which retract thereby reducing their size for transportation, but most don’t. With the arms out, a pan and tilt head can become quite cumbersome.

Lack of precision – While they are more precise than a ball head they’re not the epitome of accuracy. To adjust a pan and tilt head, you loosen the handle, adjust and then tighten again. By the very nature of having to loosen and then tighten again, there will be some movement. So while it is far more accurate when compared to a ball head, they pale in comparison to geared heads.

Slow – If speed is required, a pan and tilt head is not for you.

Generally speaking, the pan and tilt head is a compromise between a ball head and a geared head. It hasn’t got the speed or versatility that a ball head provides, nor the precision of a geared head. A jack of all trades, master of none; if you will. For that reason, I have never been much of a fan.

[REWIND: WHAT GEAR DO YOU REALLY NEED FOR PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY?]

The head pictured above is the Manfrotto MHXPRO-3W, you can find it here.

The Geared Head

Pros:which-tripod-head-for-product-photography

Ultimate in precision – I own the Manfrotto 410 junior pictured above, and absolutely love it. For many people it won’t be necessary, but for any photographer that needs precision from their tripod head, a geared head is heaven. No longer do you perfectly frame your shot, tighten the head and the camera moves slightly! With a geared head, you never need to loosen the adjustments knobs. Instead, you twist them and the camera slowly moves. Let go, and your frame will stay exactly where you left it.

Weight at angles – Because of the way geared heads are designed, they will not move at those extreme angles I have been mentioning. They normally aren’t rated to bear as much weight as other types of heads but once locked in, they will stay there.

Cons:

Slow – As you can imagine, turning knobs to move the camera can be very slow. There’s usually a feature to fully loosen each knob but geared heads can never match a ball head for speed. However, if precision is what you need, then a geared head will speed you up significantly. That’s a fine but important distinction.

Bulky and heavy – Just like pan and tilt heads, these are bulky and heavy; in my experience, heavier than pan and tilt heads. Although, if you are using one of these I imagine you won’t be moving too much.

I haven’t used every tripod head under the sun and never recommend things I don’t have direct experience with. If you’re in the market for a geared head, I can, however, fully recommend the Manfrotto 410 Junior. It’s a good compromise between price and performance. Find it here

The Gimbal Head

guide-to-tirpod-heads-for-wildlifePros:

Can support a lot of weight – Gimbal heads are mostly used by photographers with BIG lenses, think sports and wildlife. They make using large lenses comfortable and fast.  Using a BIG lens is difficult or damn near impossible without a tripod. With a gimbal head the weight of that ginormous lens is taken away and it becomes perfectly balanced. That balance makes movement almost effortless.

Modular – Some gimbal heads, like ones from Really Right Stuff, can have additional items added to them to extend their uses, for panoramas for instance.

Cons:
Weight a ton – These guys are big! As we all know, the bigger something gets, the more it weighs.

Very bulky – Along with their weight, gimbal heads are also very large, though given that some heads are made from multiple pieces, you can collapse them. The biggest negative to that being speed.

Not for precision work – Gimbal heads still use locking knobs which you have to loosen and tighten. As we’ve learned, that does not make them ideal candidates for precision work.

The Gimbal head pictured above is one of the most popular out there and is called the Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II, you can find it here.

[REWIND: WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY: WHAT GEAR DO YOU REALLY NEED? {DEER HUNTER SERIES PART 1}]

The Pistol Head

tripod-head-for-portraitsPistol heads are, in many ways, very similar to ball heads. The mechanism still revolves around a ball, the only difference being the way in which the position is changed. Rather than having a knob which you must loosen and tighten, you have a grip which allows you to adjust the camera with one hand.

Pros:

Easier to compose shot – When compared to ball heads at least. The design of pistol heads means you have an additional, sturdy contact point to aid you in somewhat a more precise movement. Again, it does not compare to a geared head, but it is a little better than a ball head.

Fast – Given that the pistol head is a variation to the popular ball head, it should come as no surprise that it reaps the same speed benefits that ball heads do. As a result, it’s a great head for portraits and studio photography but is also very versatile.

Cons:

Bulky (ish) – It’s not as bulky as a pan and tilt head, and nowhere near as bad as a gimbal. Compared to ball heads, however, that arm adds size and weight.

Can sag – The design of balls heads, as we’ve discussed, can lead to cheaper versions being susceptible to sagging. The same can be said for pistol heads, anbd with them you get what you ay for.

The head pictured above is the Manfrotto 322RC2, a very good pistol head. You can find it here.

Summary And What Head Is Right For Me?

If you’re trying to decide which head is right for you, I encourage you to consider exactly what you need. Unfortunately, no head is a one size fits all. If you need the ultimate in portability, speed, and versatility, go for a Ball head. If precision is more important to you, I’d suggest going with a geared head. In the end, you’ll probably find yourself needing at least two tripod heads over the years. I’d recommend getting one for precision work and another which can be your everyday workhorse.

For loads more simple photography tips like these, and so much more, check out SLR Lounge Premium, click here. Not only does SLR Lounge Premium include all of my favorite tutorials (Lighting 101, Lighting 201, Photography 101 etc.) but more and more content is being added all the time. I honestly cannot think of a better way to take yourself from beginner to pro. And, if you’re already a pro, there’s tons of useful info contained within the more advanced tutorials like Lighting 201 and future courses. Click here to learn more.

[REWIND: WHAT GEAR DO YOU REALLY NEED TO START A PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS?]

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Kamely Martinez

    After this I think I’m going to become a good youtuber

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  2. Bill Bentley

    After doing some research a few years ago I also came to the conclusion that the 401 geared head was the best choice for me. I love it’s accuracy and the clever gear release levers actually make large adjustments fairly quick imo. If you’re on a tripod you’re usually working intentionally anyway so you’re not missing a shot by taking an extra second or two. Mine is mated to a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod so it’s a heavy combo but I carry it almost everywhere I need to except for long walks/hikes and travel. Love this combo.

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  3. adam sanford

    I caught the landscape bug five years ago and went completely overkill with my tripod and head purchase. I got the Arca Z1 dp head and never looked back.

    It’s waaay too pricey, but it’s exceptionally well built, and does everything I need it to do. Highly recommended if you want a one shot, one kill sort of 20+ year pickup without messing around.

    Just like Max said, however, it’s ‘rightness’ for you will vary heavily depending on what you shoot. If you are shooting video or slinging enormous superwhite teles, this is not the droid/head you are looking for.

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  4. robert s

    I understand the need to advertise companies where their sales have fallen due to excellent inexpensive alternatives/offers for much less money today. I understand trying to help those companies keep milking people for a lot of money. because today there are tons of offers from other companies, just like SLRL didnt mention yongnuo flashes in their latest ads for flashes.

    but why do you only list expensive items? looks like a nice advertisements for expensive gear. many here are amateurs and spending $200+ for a head with many excellent alternatives to the big names isnt required .

    you should also list inexpensive stuff as well. like benro , mefoto, sirui or induro

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    • Nick Viton

      Looking for cheap head?

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    • robert s

      I have 4 tripods/heads. im noting that today, you dont need to spend more than $250 for an excellent tripod/head combo and even thats too much. so many fantastic offers available besides the gitzo/manfrotto/rrs offers that wont dent your wallet and offer excellent quality. in photography, like many things, money does not mean “you get what u pay for”far from it today. look at slaves battries grips flashes and even lenses.

      but what you meant was inexpensive with excellent quality.
      but no, not me, I got all the gear I want. my sister is though. but ill guide her to what she needs.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Robert. Max gave specific examples of pieces he is acquainted with, but nowhere did he mention to limit your choice to this list. The insinuation that we are helping companies milk people for money is both harsh, and unfairly misguided. We frequently speak of and recommend particulars from the brands you mentioned, and this is certainly less about the brands than it is about type.

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Robert. Thanks for the comment.

      I use cheap stuff all the time. Most of my gear would be more on the cheap end. In fact, I just ordered two more Yongnuo flashes today. That said, I ordered more so I have backups should one or two break during a shoot. I’d definitely prefer more expensive and reliable ones in the future. Not to bash Yongnuo but there’s always that niggling worry that they’re going to go wrong some time; I’ve heard stories from other people.

      With the tripod heads here, it was more about listing the types then giving specific recommendations. Most of the ones I linked to are best sellers, hence why they are included.

      The thing I want people to take away is a better understanding of the differences between tripod head types. I fully expect people, having decided on a type, to heavily research it and purchase something that works for them and their budget.

      I hope that addressed some of your concerns.

      Thanks again Robert

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    • Karen Borter

      I actually got a lot out of this article. There are so many different types of heads. Rather then assuming you’re a shill for these companies, I got definitions for different types of tripod heads and what their uses are. Once again, I learned stuff from SLR Lounge

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    • Kamely Martinez

      I don’t get it

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    • Alex Kartashov

      Not all the inexpensive versions are good. I’m assuming Max posted examples of what he has experience with, this article was about explaining the different types, not telling you which models you should get.

      I learned the hard way that 3rd party isn’t always good. I bought a Yongnuo 568EX, good flash, love it, cheap too. The problem? I bought a set of Strato TTL triggers and guess what, they don’t work with YN flashes. The problem with 3rd party equipment is that it really is hard to find proper stuff that work with it, unless you go for their own triggers which aren’t nearly as good as Phottix ones.

      EDIT: sorry meant for “robert s” at the top.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Definitely, tripod heads are really quite hard to judge without trying them with your gear. Often even fairly good ones will slump a bit after being set, especially ball heads. Geared heads tend to slump the least, though cost as much as a good ball head anyway. Pan-tilt heads are a good compromise, ones in the $100-$200 range tend to slump much less than similarly priced ball heads, but of course there are likely some outliers for all types.

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    • Donna Macauley

      I didn’t get that impression from this article. It defined different tripod heads. I didn’t read anywhere in the article stating that you should buy any of the brands mentioned. With that said, I’ve had good and bad luck with cheaper brands. I’ve gone through 5 different tripods before finally spending the money on Manfrotto. Sometimes, not always, you end up spending more by having to replace the cheaper items frequently.

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    • Max Bridge

      I run the risk of fanning the flames here but one of my favourite phrases has always been “Buy cheap, buy twice”. It’s not always possible to get the “best” (not necessarily most expensive) option straight away. But I often find myself eventually edging toward it anyway. Queue the inevitable selling, saving and rebuying.

      Thanks for the comment.

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