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Tripod heads and which to choose

Heads up:
tripod heads and which to choose

  John Robertson

Why so many?

Two heads are better than one, but when it comes to tripod heads there are so many different types to choose from. Added to the mix is also the type or types of uses and also a very important consideration- personal preference. So how do you match a tripod head to your photographic needs?
Well, of course there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this and it may be that, like me, you need several different types of head for specific requirements.

Legs matter.

A tripod head shouldn’t be considered in isolation. There is absolutely no point putting a big heavy video head for instance on a flimsy set of tripod legs. So you need to bear in mind that the tripod legs should be a good match for the head. A panoramic head for instance is going to be pretty useless without a heavy duty and solid platform to attach it too. Manfrotto legs have easy attachment to the heads and locking screws to stop the head shifting around- make sure you tighten these properly!

Head Count.

So what are the options?
Pan and tilt heads come in various types, then there are ball heads, pistol grip heads, panoramic heads, fluid heads, video pan heads, geared heads and not forgetting the wildlife photographer’s favourite- the gimbal head.

Tripod heads come in a bewildering selection of sizes, shapes and costs. On the latter subject, it is possible to spend well over a thousand pounds just on one heavy duty professional head. Why so expensive? Because they employ clever engineering and are designed to last for years and years of constant use without any problems. Even the much cheaper heads are designed to give years of use if looked after properly.

Letting go.

Another consideration for which tripod head to buy if whether to go for one with a QR or quick release system. These use a plate locking device to firmly hold the camera in place or at the touch of a button and/or a lever, release it fast for hand holding the camera or switching to another lens or camera. It’s a facility I personally wouldn’t want to be without as there is nothing worse for me than the time wasted unscrewing a camera from a tripod and then having to laboriously re-thread it on again later.

My favourite- the ball head.

A great tripod head to start with is something like my favourite- a ball head. Manfrotto make the X-Pro ball head which is one of the most compact types of head available. It can cope extremely well with most types of shoot and I’ve reviewed that particular head elsewhere on this site here.

Ball heads are available in lightweight magnesium options as well as hydrostatic and built in grip types. They are very easy to use and quickly lock the camera into position. Manfrotto’s latest designs completely eliminate the old problem of play in the ball joints resulting in ‘operating drift’.

The pistol grip.

The grip-handle head is a derivative of the ball head. Squeezing the trigger results in releasing the tension on the ball joint, allowing movement in any direction. When you let go of the trigger it locks the ball joint at that position.

I’ve known professional photographers use pistol grip heads to support cameras fitted with big heavy lenses, but generally speaking they are not meant for such heavy duty uses.

Three way heads.

I used one of these for many years when I worked on local papers. One lever controls the movement in each of the axes and therefore offers more individual control of up and down tilt, and side to side tilt. This works well when there is more time and is probably more geared to studio use than for outdoors where I personally prefer a ball head.

The three way heads have another disadvantage for me when using them out and about in the countryside. Not only are they not quite as quick to set up, but also with three separate locking levers they are easier to snag on things when you are carrying them around without a case!

Fluid heads.

Whilst I sometimes use a video fluid head for stills, these and the fluid-effect heads are really meant for video use.

Try one and you will immediately see how much easier they are for getting really smooth pans and camera movements. You can vary the friction so that it’s easier to achieve very slow pans with it damped right down, or backed off for a faster whip pan. A quick release on these tripod heads is pretty much a necessity when I shoot with them. I need the versatility to quickly get the video camera off the tripod for hand-held following shots, etc.

Remember the longer the lens, the more chance of shake and I’d almost always use the tripod with it’s fluid head or a monopod to support my camera for shots on a lens longer than 100mm.

The longer you hold the camera by hand, the more shake becomes a problem too with video, (and stills for that matter). As a result if I’m doing an interview I much prefer to work from the stable platform of the tripod and fluid head.

Watch a TV interview where the cameraman hasn’t used a tripod and if it goes on for any length of time you will see exactly what I mean!

Sometimes I use a video head for a specialist still photo- an upwards pan during a slow exposure for instance like this one.

Gimbal heads.

These specialised heads are really intended for photographers using big, heavy and unwieldy long lenses. Whilst I’ve tried them, I haven’t used these extensively-so I asked my friend, wildlife photographer Stuart Shore,
why he uses one.

The Manfrotto 393 heavy telephoto lens support was produced as an ideal support for long lenses on a Monopod. It does, however, work extremely well on a sturdy tripod and that is where you will find most people using this system.

Built to a very high quality and with rubber hand grips, perfect for working the mount in all weathers, the 393 Gimbal head comes complete with a quick release plate which locks in place to prevent accidental movement. The dual tension adjustment knobs clamp up to a 600mm lens and camera setup very well and with a panning friction base, the photographer is able to pan and follow subjects with ease.

I have used the 393 with the Manfrotto 190 Tripod and have found this setup a good and stable mount for my Canon 1D Mk1v and 500mm f/4 L IS lens and it has rewarded me with many wildlife images in low light situations where I wouldn’t have been able to get as sharp and well tracked shots without such a stable system.

The panoramic head.

Panoramic heads vary from the simple and quick to set up types to the extreme precision and rather complicated looking ones. I used the Manfrotto 303SPH on a set of 058B legs for the header photo on this article which shows Harringworth viaduct, the longest masonry viaduct in Britain.

The 303SPH is a superbly engineered head and although it does look complicated, it’s really quite quick and simple to set up once you get used to it.
This head disassembles and also folds to make it easier to transport.
Once assembled it is a good solid and very adaptable platform for the camera.
Find the entrance pupil of whichever lens you are using, match it up with the two
axes of this spherical head and then enjoy another one of it’s features- adjustable notched settings as you rotate the camera. This ensures the camera is in the right place for perfect overlaps with no parallax errors. If you have set it up right then it should be easy to stitch together the results into a seamless panorama.

Geared heads.

A geared tripod head is a really precision piece of engineering designed for studio work, but also sometimes used outdoors for landscape or architectural photography. Why use one? The reason is the very precise control they allow. Perfect alignment of the camera and exact composition can be achieved much more easily with a geared head, like the new Manfrotto XPRO Geard head.

Be warned they can be very expensive. While the 410 junior geared head is reasonably priced and can support a camera and lens combo up to 5kg, a heavier duty head like the Manfrotto 405 will be close to £500. It is designed for heavier payloads-large format cameras. Fold away handles, fine adjustment and control for the ultimate in exact framing.

Summary

There is some crossover in the capabilities of many tripod heads.
Depending on the type or types of photography you do, it will affect your choices.
For me the XPro ball head is a great general purpose choice, but I also use other types as and when needed.

If you team up the right head with some suitable legs, it will be a pleasure to use and produce great results for many years to come.

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