Shopping Guide: Tripod Heads

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

The holidays will be here before you know it and to help you find a gift for yourself or a friend or a spouse who’s interested in photography, I’ll be posting these guides occasionally during the next shopping days till Christmas. I’m kicking it off with a look at tripod heads. Like you, I have more than one tripod including a carbon fiber Sirui monopod, Manfrotto aluminum tripod and a classic (albeit custom made) red and gold Tiltall.

There are two types of heads: ball or pan-tilt. While there may be some disagreement among photographers as to what are the best type of tripod legs, there’s more debate as to what type of head is “right.” The ball head folks tell you their favorite is quick, easy to use, and you don’t have to turn different levers to get it where you want. The pan-tilt head group, on the other hand, will tell you that it’s easier to level the camera or follow movement.

Take a look at the size of the head. It may not be obvious to the novice tripod shopper but the size of the camera platform should be appropriate for the size of the camera you plan to place on it. The larger the platform, the more securely the camera can be seated and balanced. A larger head also provides the space for positive locking mechanisms.

Ball heads, like the Acratech GV2 Ball Head/Gimbal, are compact and usually feature only one control. That single control is a knob or lever that locks and unlocks the ball mounted under the camera platform. By unlocking the ball, you can move the camera freely and easily in any direction. When tripod hunting, ask yourself how does it feel. Is it easy to use? When some people, like Mary, are exposed to a ball head for the first time say “Wow, I love it” You’ll never know unless you try.

Pan-tilt head usually have three levers, like the Manfrotto 229 Super Pro Head, but also sometimes two, that control forward and backward motion, plus the ability to quickly change from horizontal to vertical position. Most two-lever models require you to reorient the camera on the platform for vertical or horizontal photographs. Some models provide three lever flexibility by using a small lever that provide for this flipping action.

Each movement of a panhead requires a means of locking that movement. Unlike a ball head, one axis can be adjusted at a time, which can be especially important if you’re doing precise work like architectural photography.

All of which brings to mind the first rule while tripod shopping: Beware of bargains. Tripods come in a variety of prices but you generally get what you pay for. You may be tempted to cut corners with your purchase. Don’t do it!