Which Tripod Head Is Right For Me?

After my recent blog about selecting a tripod, I thought it fitting to finish with a blog on tripod heads.

Back in the late seventies when I first got into photography, and you wanted a tripod you bought some econo model with a permanently mounted 3-way pan head or the step up model could have been a Tilt-All tripod. This was a better tripod, but still with an integral 3-way pan head. Next up the food chain was the Bogen tripod (Manfrotto tripods in the US where imported by Bogen and and labeled Bogen as well). These tripods were very beefy and many were sold with the Bogen 3047 3-way pan head. And the pro’s choice was the Gitzo tripod that featured a significant choice of legs and heads that were typically sold a la carte. You can see that most choices the prominent head was the pan head. At this time small practical quick release heads just didn’t really exist. This was about to change.

Ball Heads. In the early 1980’s a young Michigan maintenance man, that had machinist skills and a passion for photography named Mike Kirk enjoyed going to workshops put on by John Shaw and Larry West. Mike started making custom plates for John and Larry’s equipment and soon word spread and Mike Kirk went into business. In 1986, Brian Geyer, with nearly thirty years invested in changing semiconductor market bought an Arca Swiss Ball Head. Brian was quickly frustrated with the poor fit of the generic plates Arca Swiss provided for his cameras and long lenses, and being bored with his job decided the challenge was clear: Design really right stuff—make and market optimized plates that were all Arca-Swiss compatible. In 1989 Really Right Stuff was born. These two guys put the Arca Swiss Ball head on the map as the ball head to buy if you were serious about photography.

Novoflex Classic Ball 3

Novoflex Classic Ball 3

Today there exists a myriad of choices in the ball head market from brands like  Arca Swiss, Foba, Acratech, Novoflex, Gitzo, Linhof, Manfrotto, Benro and Induro to name just a few. These models will vary by size, capacity, controls and the type of quick release mechanism and in the case of Acratech an innovative clamping approach.  Arca Swiss, Foba, Acratech, Novoflex and some Benro utilize some type of Arca Swiss style quick release clamp. Others offer their own proprietary versions of quick release plates and clamps. The most obvious feature to the ball head is the ball itself. Most ball heads feature a locking lever that is connected to the ball by a cup. When you twist the locking lever the cup pushes the ball which pushes against the housing. This force is what “locks” the ball in place. Generally speaking, the larger the ball the larger the payload it can hold.

Benro HD2

Benro HD2 Head

Pan Heads. Pan beds haven’t changed much over the years. Although materials have changed, now we have aluminum and magnesium alloys. And smaller, better quality quick release mechanisms have been added. Manfrotto has added some innovation with their small 3D heads that feature articulated joints instead of axial controls and their larger gear driven heads such as the 405 or 410 heads are great for heavier loads.

Wimberley WH-100

Original Wimberley Head

Gimbal Heads. Another machinist changes the landscape of tripod usage. David Wimberley (at the time a practicing psychologist with a dormant Mechanical Engineering degree) started the business in 1991 with the invention of the original gimbal mount for long lenses, the Wimberley Head. The Wimberley head allowed its users to balance a heavy long lens camera combination and easily use them with just one hand. The popularity of this unique tripod head among the world’s top nature photographers quickly turned the backyard operation into a full-fledged business. David’s son Clay joined the business in 1996 after receiving a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Clay’s interest in nature photography and his compulsive drive for clever solutions added a new dimension to the business, and led to the development of products such as the Sidekick. David and Clay’s success has prompted many imitators in the market segment David Wimberley created.

Manfrotto 701HDV

Video Heads. Video heads are basically pan heads that have been modified for video usage. The most notable difference is the addition of fluid oil as a lubricant to add resistance and allow the head to pan very smoothly. Inexpensive video heads with “fluid effect” usually add grease to give the smooth panning effect. The professional heads use oil to give a consistently smooth movements.

Mounting the video head to the tripod can be with a conventional ⅜” stud or a 75mm or 100mm bowl. The bowl allows easy leveling of the camera without leveling the tripod legs. The type of tripod you are using will determine the type of video head mounting you will use.

LANC Remote Pan Bar

Video heads also typically feature a long pan bar. This is so you can conveniently pan a camera while taking advantage of the longer handles leverage to make a more controlled pan. Manfrotto also makes a replacement pan bar that features camera control via the LANC connection.