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One of the first accessories many people buy after getting a camera is a tripod, and most of those are the all-in-one kind with three legs on the bottom, and a top part called a head, onto which you mount your camera. Typically these heads feature a handle that juts out from one side that can be tightened or loosened to allow you to change the angle at which your camera is situated. These tripods usually cost about $25 to $50 which makes them quite attractive to photographers looking to invest in some gear to help them take better photos. However, one of their main limitations involves the head: it is usually non-removable, which means you are bound by its constraints, and you may soon discover that your creative sensibilities outstrip the capabilities of the tripods.
I remember the first time I walked into a camera store to look at a some tripod heads and was shocked to find that the sticker price was well beyond what I thought was reasonable. I thought to myself, “Why would anyone spend $150 on a tripod head alone, when a basic tripod could be had for less than half that amount?” Then I looked at the price of tripod legs and just about hit the floor. Over the years I came to realize that the reason these components are so expensive was because they are made of much higher-grade materials and built to specifications that demanding photographers need.
When you’re ready to take the step of buying a tripod head and set of legs separately, there are so many options from which to choose it can leave you in a state of confusion with no clear answers. When you’re thinking about spending hundreds of dollars you don’t want to make a bad choice. So, I’m going to take a look at four of the most common types of tripod heads and discuss how they would suit different types of photography. Hopefully it will give you a better idea of what to look for the next time you walk down to your local camera shop, or browse through some of your favorite online photo stores.
This is my favorite type of tripod head, and one that I think suits most casual or enthusiast photographers quite well–much moreso than the standard pan/tilt head that comes with all-in-one tripods. Ball heads are designed around a 360-degree swivel (basically a large ball bearing, hence the name, ball head) which you can tighten or loosen with a lever or dial on the side. You can turn your camera from side to side, rotate it in a circle, or change its orientation from portrait to landscape in an instant, all with virtually no effort on your part.
Some are specifically designed to let you change just one direction of motion at a time, which is useful if you are into special types of shots like panning. The first time you use one it can be a bit disorienting until you get used to the sheer amount of freedom they offer. But be careful to keep one hand on your camera while you adjust the locking mechanism on the ball head. If you don’t, your camera may suddenly flop to the side which can be a bit scary the first time it happens. This degree of freedom can actually be a bad thing if you only want to adjust one parameter at a time, and it can be tricky to operate ball heads when you want micro-level adjustments. But, as an overall step up from an entry level tripod, it’s hard to go wrong with a ball head.
If this model looks familiar to you, it’s because you might already have one like it, or have seen them on all-in-one tripods. Basic models have one or two adjustment levers, but if you spend a bit more you can get one with three levers to give you fine-tune control over specific adjustments. They are much more precise than ball heads in this regard, and it is not uncommon to find pan/tilt heads with built-in bubble levels to help you make sure you have your camera positioned exactly how you want. While it takes more steps to reposition your camera compared to a ball head, it can actually be a good thing because you can adjust just one parameter at a time. For example if you have your subject perfectly aligned up but need to rock your camera to one side, you can use one lever to adjust only the tilt. A pan/tile head is not as simple as a ball head, but the added control it offers is nice, once you get the hang of working with multiple levers.
Pistol grips are designed to give you the same degree of control as a ball head but some photographers find them much easier to adjust, due to their full-handed grip mechanism. Whereas a ball head requires you to turn a relatively small knob in order to alter the position of your camera, which can leave your camera flopping around like a wet noodle unless you keep one hand on it too – the pistol grip head, which is also available as a joystick style, gives you precise one-handed control over the exact position of your camera. To use it, just squeeze the grip and the head will unlock so you can reposition it. Most of these have tension dials to adjust how easily you can change things when you squeeze the grip, and more advanced ones allow you to rotate the camera along one axis which makes panning shots much easier. As you can see in the photo they are much larger than ball heads which makes them slightly less portable, but the tradeoff can be well worth it if you need precise control over the position of your camera, while maintaining a high degree of freedom, as well as quick access to a full range of motion with a squeeze of your hand.
Similar to the pan/tilt head shown earlier, these specialty heads are designed with video shooters in mind, and while they can be used for still photography, they are less than ideal due to some important limitations. As is common with most video heads, these often feature a long extension arm which allows for greater control and smooth movements for panning shots, but is not very practical when shooting still photography. Contrary to what you might think, the extension arm does not twist in your hand to let you adjust your camera: it is merely a lever that lets you swing your camera from side to side, and does not actually do anything itself. You lock your camera in place by turning knobs on the side of the head, and loosen them to gain access to movement. This particular head is designed for two types of movement: rocking back and forth and twisting from side to side. This means if you want to tilt your camera to the left or right (to shoot a vertical image) you simply can’t do it–at least not without spending much more money on a high-end version.
If you’re looking to step up from a basic tripod my recommendation is almost always to get a ball head, partially because it allows such a fantastic amount of control, but also due to the more intimate relationship it creates between you and the camera. Using a ball head with your eye to the viewfinder (as opposed to the LCD screen) while positioning your camera is an incredibly freeing experience if you have only used an all-in-one tripod, and might even help you find new types of shots that you had not considered before. While ball heads do not offer the same type of precision control as dedicated pan/tilt heads, some like the model shown here, do allow you to at least adjust the rotation of your camera separately from the other movements which can assist with motion or panning shots. If you like to shoot video with your DSLR perhaps a video head would suit your needs a bit more, and virtually all dedicated tripod heads feature solid construction and well-lubricated parts which make operating them much smoother overall.
What about you? What is your favorite type of tripod head, or do you have any other tripod tips to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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