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.