Tips for Choosing a Tripod Head

Tips for Choosing a Tripod Head



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.


All-in-one tripods like this are inexpensive and great for beginners.

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.

Ball Heads

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.

Pan/Tilt Tripod Heads

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 Grip Tripod Heads

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.

Pan/Tilt Tripod Heads for Video

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.

Using a ball head made positioning my camera for this shot much easier than if I was working with a standard all-in-one tripod head.

Using a ball head made positioning my camera for this shot much easier than if I was working with a standard all-in-one tripod head.

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!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Harry Lim

    You forgot geared heads. I suppose it’s like a pan and tilt but with a greater degree of precise control. I use it for interiors and would be lost without it. I tried ball heads and pan and tilts. No way could I do what I do without a geared head.

  • You’re right about geared heads, and perhaps I should have mentioned those in my Pan and Tilt section.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    I bought the most expensive Jusino Tripod and its head. But when i put D810 + the heavy Carl Zeiss vertically on it, it slowly tilt down… then i queeze the head as hard with alien key… but still moving.. That tripod cost me USD400. So test the tripod by putting your camera vertically.. then you know how well the head can perform. Use the heaviest lens you have.

  • This is a good reminder to try things before you buy then, Choo. I have made similar mistakes before as well.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    I stay in urban area, where the locals don’t sell tripod. To try the tripod, i need to buy flight ticket + hotel etc which cost more than the tripod ;). Even i went to try the tripod, it looks great when it is still new… the bad side is only shown after a few months use..

  • Sebastian

    What’s a good gear head to purchase or which are you using Harry?

  • Harry Lim

    The Manfrotto 405 is good. I use the smaller 410 Junior

  • Harry Lim

    The Manfrotto 405 is good. I use the smaller 410 Junior

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  • Rick

    You can’t go wrong with all American made Really Right Stuff gear (heads, tripods, etc.). Only downside is the cost, but you’ll never have to buy another.

  • Vladek

    Velbon PH-157Q is an variety of Pan/Tilt head. Good: vertical & pan can be controlled with handle, easy and quite precise. Bad: Tilt is only 90 deg, so in some cases need to fiddle with leg heights.

  • Rosco

    I Was fortunate enough to get hold of a brand new never used-second hand Manfrotto carbon fibre 055CXPro tri-pod with a MH555M8 Photo-Movie head of EBay for $500(Aud). It is sensational…It does everything I could ever want to do. It has adjustable Hydraulic dampening on the tilt so your camera doesn’t free fall if you let go of it, even with my heavy 70~200 f2.8 IS). It also has the ability to rotate for vertical or horizontal shooting at the flick of a switch. I just leave the long video pan handle of when I’m shooting photos or put it on to do video work. My opinion…10/10.

  • Paul H

    Try a piece of very thin rubber or foam sheeting between your camera and the tripod plate. Drill a hole for the bolt to go through. That should help to grip both the camera and the tripod head and stop slippage

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    thanks for the tip. but, i don’t want to drill a hole on very expensive tripod. Just bought a few woodworking machines and going to do my own better tripod at very low cost.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    American products are always good. Expensive but last for generations. I bought expensive China products (more expensive than basic manfroto), and only last for months.. ;_|. Sometimes, it is extremely hard to buy American products, especially power tools that have different voltage and frequency. Most of the time, the delivery cost is a few times of the product cost.

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  • Rapoes

    Hello, I question whether it is worthwhile to choose a cheap tripods. Many have heard that they are not good whether it is worth risking something like that and it may be better to buy something better?

  • I don’t like cheap tripods because I prefer something more solid and sturdy, but if you find one that you like and doesn’t cost much money than I say go for it.

  • IrishEyes317

    Hi, all. I’m quite new to the world of tripods. I purchased a Vanguard when I bought my Nikon D5100. I just upgraded to a Nikon D750 and would like some input on what tripods you suggest. I basically take travel, landscape, portrait photos…

  • I really wanted to get a ball head tripod because of ease and easy quick adjustment but the cost seemed over the top for me $500-$800. So I started with the affordable Gorilla-Pod DSLR Ball-head which I love, but it is short.
    I needed something affordable, taller, folding small, very light for travel & everyday.
    Finally, I looked at B&H on the web and found this tripod Sirui T-025X Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10X Ball Head at a reasonable price. Considering: height 54.5″(max), fold down length (under 12″), a weight of 1.5lb (big criteria), and ARCA Swiss foot that fits my big grip on my X-E2, it was perfect.
    No, it is not the most sturdy but I’ve had no problems with it except in big winds, it does have a hook under to anchor it. It holds my X-E2 with big lenses (55-200mm/18-135mm) it fits easily in my purse & backpacks and importantly it has not emptied my wallet.
    I bring it on all my trips, it is a good choice for me, had it two years now.
    Video review if you’re interested.

  • Pavan Yaragudi

    Please describe gimbal head for wildlife photography..

  • Elizabeth Krill

    Order one over the internet or phone store & have it delivered.

  • Peter Cleife

    Very poor article, no mention of L brackets and Arca Swiss release, as used by most now.

  • ????

    I own two cheap tripods and both came with standard thread removable heads.

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