Maybe the most important part of your tripod is the head. That’s why many tripod makers give you options, and most tripod designs have removable heads so you can switch them out or upgrade. The type of photography you do—and whether you’ll be using your camera’s video-recording capabilities—play into the decision.
What Type Of Head?
The classic tripod head is a two-way or three-way head, usually referred to as a pan-and-tilt-style head. These heads have handles to control the horizontal panning and vertical tilting. The third direction in a three-way head is flipping the camera on its side for portrait orientation shots.
Ballheads are preferred by many photographers for the ability to move smoothly on any axis. This type of head consists of a ball that holds the camera and is able to pan, tilt or twist in any direction. Not as easy to use as a pan-tilt-style head, you do get greater flexibility and a more compact form factor.
The other popular style, particularly for sports and nature photographers who use large telephotos, is the gimbal head. Like a ballhead, there are no handles to help guide the camera. The mounting plate on the lens is attached to the gimbal and freely pivots up and down, while the base can pan horizontally.
What type is likely to suit your needs? If you shoot video, either with a video camera or an SLR with video mode, you’re best served by a pan-tilt head or the zero-gravity-style system from VariZoom. Both options give you the stable and smooth tracking that’s critical for video use. The best video heads are fluid heads, which use a lubricant for the smoothest panning. Still photographers will appreciate the flexibility of a ballhead system, thanks to its more compact size and solid locking abilities for sharp exposures. If you need a one-head-does-all solution, the pan-tilt head will serve you best—if you’ve ever seen a shaky video, you’ll understand why this needs to be the key feature.
Most of the tripod heads available today include a quick-release system so that you aren’t required to screw the camera onto the head. With these systems, you mount a plate onto the camera or lens. The plate then attaches to the tripod head with a knob or lever. If you’re using a number of different long lenses or camera bodies, it’s common to purchase a mounting plate for each to quickly change from one lens or camera to another. The Arca-Swiss style of plate is a standard used by many manufacturers and provides a solid locking system.
Acratech heads are easy to identify. While other ballheads are mostly enclosed by a healthy chunk of metal to protect them, the Acratech Ultimate lays it all out there for you to see. The result is less weight without sacrificing stability or loads. The Ultimate can handle up to 25 pounds while adding less than a pound to your tripod weight. The Ultimate is available with or without mounting plates that use the Arca-Swiss-style quick-release system. The V2 version adds a gimbal slot to give you a combination head that works well with long lenses. The Ultimate starts at about $269, with the V2 starting at $349.
Arca-Swiss has long been the standard for ballheads. Their Z1 represents an update to their legendary B1, reducing size and price, but retaining superlative construction and the same elliptical ball shape unique to Arca-Swiss. What’s special about the ball’s shape is that it actually increases resistance tension as the load shifts away from center. Practically, this means it’s self-tightening—you won’t have to worry about your camera falling against your tripod. The ball itself is coated to provide a smooth glide without the need for lubricants (which can gum up when exposed to dust). The Z1 with a single pan base starts at about $367, or about $548 with a double pan base.
If you’re looking for a gimbal-style head, Custom Brackets offers a few that are worth checking out. The CB Gimbal-LB weighs less than two pounds and will support telephoto lenses up to 400mm. The gimbal head uses roller bearings to make pan-and-tilt operations smooth, with adjustable tension settings and laser-engraved reference lines. The CB Gimbal-LB lists for $560. If you already have an Arca-Swiss-style ballhead with quick release, you can add the CB Gimbal Basic for about $300. Because the system is modular, you can upgrade to a full CB Gimbal for $450.
Flashpoint By Adorama
The Flashpoint F-4 is a ballhead made of magnesium for lighter weight than some of the other heads without giving up any stabilty or strength. With a weight under two pounds, the F-4 can support up to 44 pounds and includes separate locking, tension and panning adjustment knobs. It retails for $125.
For lighter load-bearing needs, the Flashpoint F-1 ($50) supports up to 8.8 pounds and weighs less than nine ounces. And, if size is a real issue, it’s hard to beat the F-9 compact head ($69). At only eight ounces and less than three inches tall, this is a great option for traveling and can support up to 40 pounds. All of the Flashpoint ballheads include a quick-release system.
You’ll need to look long and hard to find a wider range of heads than those offered by Giottos. With 23 ballhead and five three-way head models to choose from, almost any size camera system is supported. In the ballhead category, the MH 3300 offers both a mounting plate and a quick-release system that uses standard Arca-Swiss-style mounting plates or Giottos’ own plates, and includes a panning base and separate tension adjustment knob. Giottos uses a hollow ball to reduce weight without sacrificing strength.
With the standard mount, the MH 3300 sells for about $155, while the quick-release version runs about $215. If your needs are more modest, the MH 7000 series is a good choice. Using levers rather than knobs to control ball tension and panning, the MH 7001 doesn’t support as much weight (about 11 pounds), but is more compact. It sells for about $70, including a quick-release mount
For three-way pan-and-tilt heads, the MH 5000 includes a quick-release mounting system, anti-twist pan lock and double-catch safety system to ensure your camera stays attached to the head. The head is fluid through a full 360 degrees of movement and handles up to 18 pounds. The MH 5000 sells for about $85.
The VH 6011 series is a new set of three different pan-and-tilt heads on a smaller scale that’s suited to compact video cams weighing less than 10 pounds. These mini-heads all include quick-release systems, lever locking in all axes, full 360-degree fluid motion and light weight. Pricing isn’t available.
Renowned for innovations in camera-support technology, Gitzo’s ballheads are the only ones to feature an in-stem bubble level for accurate positioning in the vertical position. Gitzo offers two styles of ballheads: Off Center and Center. The Off Center heads are somewhat of a hybrid style, with the functionality of a pan-tilt head in a ballhead package. By moving the ball off-center, Gitzo separates the panning and tilting controls—you don’t have the handle of a three-way head, but the positioning of the camera works in the same fashion. The Off Center heads have been redesigned to reduce the weight while maintaining the same look and support capabilities. Prices range from $100 to $400.
The Center ballheads feature a hollow ball, giving them the highest strength-to-weight ratio. The oversized knob makes it easy to lock your head in position when working in cold weather with gloves, and a new lever lock controls the panning feature. Available in three sizes, the Gitzo Off Center and Center heads start at $250.
Gitzo also offers Fluid 3 Way heads, which are ideal for hybrid D-SLRs, featuring the flexibility of a three-way head and smooth pans.
If you’re looking for a gimbal head for sports or nature photography, the Jobu line is among the best. The lightest-weight model, the Jobu-Junior 2 Compact ($270) is able to handle lenses up to a 300mm ƒ/2.8, while the BWG-Pro ($600) can handle an 800mm lens. The heavier-duty mounts include a swing arm for finer control when using large lenses. Both models include panning bases. All Jobu gimbals utilize the Arca-Swiss quick-release plate system that permits safe mounting of heavy telephoto lenses.
Kirk Enterprises is a favorite among pro photographers, with a reputation for excellent engineering and quality. Kirk offers two ballheads—the heavy-duty BH-1 ($365), with a weight of 30 ounces and a load capacity of 50 pounds, and the BH-3 ($265), which weighs 19 ounces and can handle up to 15 pounds. Both heads feature separate tension and locking knobs and a locking panning base. The included quick-release platform is Arca-Swiss-compatible and includes a bubble level. Kirk also offers a complete line of mounting plates and brackets that are designed for each lens or camera.
Along with the ballheads, Kirk Enterprises makes the King Cobra gimbal head for $455. With an Arca-Swiss-style mounting plate, the King Cobra can handle any size lens with a rotating tripod collar.
Well-known tripod maker Manfrotto also offers a wide range of tripod heads, from three-way pan-tilt to ballhead, in a number of sizes and price ranges. The basic pan-tilt head, the 804RC2 ($73), includes a quick-release plate for Manfrotto’s own mounting-plate system and can handle up to 8.8 pounds. The 329RC4 ($110) is a compact-style, three-way head that supports up to 20 pounds. The three bubble levels make it easier to keep your camera level when creating panoramic shots, and the head also features their quick-release system.
On the ballhead side, the unique 222 JoyStick Head ($105) looks more at home with a video-game system than a tripod, but works surprisingly well. With a full-sized grip area that has the locking mechanism in the handle, the 222 is easy to position and keep in place. For a more traditional ballhead, the 468MGRC2 Hydrostatic Ballhead ($250) can support up to 33 pounds. Separate tension and locking knobs give you full control over the motion of the head, and the unique quick-release plate lets you shoot multiple images without moving the head at all.
Novoflex made a splash when it introduced the MagicBall heads. A unique blend of ballhead flexibility with panning head ease of use, the MagicBall is a popular option. The handle and mount give the user full range of motion like a ballhead does, with a quick-locking handle to keep your position. The MagicBall is available in three sizes, from $179 to $299.
The ClassicBall is a more traditional-looking ballhead, but even here Novoflex brings something unique: three slots in the ball housing for easier vertical positioning of your camera. The ClassicBall also uses a friction ring, an adjustable band around the housing that lets you easily set the friction level, even before mounting your camera. The ClassicBall is available in two sizes ($329 and $429).
If you’re using a lighter-weight system (less than 22 pounds) and don’t need the friction adjustments or panning base, the Ball 40 is an excellent choice ($89). Novoflex heads can be mounted with an Arca-Swiss-style quick-release system from Novoflex, Kirk or Really Right Stuff, or you can use the innovative QBase system that automatically locks the mounting plate to the head.
All Novoflex ballheads employ a design that prevents the ball from shifting when force is applied. This means nothing moves as the head is being locked. Also, Novoflex balls aren’t lubricated so they’re unaffected by dust, moisture or sand.
Really Right Stuff
With three ballheads designed for different loads and needs, Really Right Stuff is a popular choice for anyone interested in the Arca-Swiss quick-release system. The BH-25 (starting at $100) weights 3.7 ounces and supports up to 8.8 pounds, making it perfect for travel or other occasions when size and weight are factors. The BH-40 ($345 and up) is a midsized ballhead that weighs less than one pound and will support lenses like a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 or 300mm ƒ/4. The BH-55 ($415 and up) is the ideal head for all uses up to 50 pounds.
All Really Right Stuff heads are available with knob or lever releases for the mounting plates, or you can add a panning mount for panoramic photography. Really Right Stuff also offers a full range of camera and lens-mounting plates, flash mounts and macro systems for their ballheads.
If you’re looking for something to support your camera and give you ease of motion, a tripod-mounted system isn’t on your list. VariZoom offers a number of mobile support systems, most using your shoulder as the brace, to give you a stable shooting platform while on the move. While they will mainly appeal to those of you shooting video, as that becomes more common, this type of support system will have a wider appeal.
The VZ 1Shooter ($130) gives you shoulder support with a handle that’s surprisingly versat
ile for still shooters. The camera can be positioned forward and backward, as well as vertically, and both the grip and shoulder supports can be shaped to fit you.
For more serious weight and support, the Zero Gravity Rig provides shock absorption and distributes the weight of the system over your shoulder and waist. With two handles, you have full control over movement, and the system can be placed on the ground as a tripod support system. At $1,199, though, this one is probably only for you if you’re really getting serious about your camera’s HD video capabilities.
(HP Marketing Corp.)
Gitzo (Bogen Imaging)
Novoflex (HP Marketing Corp.)
Really Right Stuff