- To tighten the quick release plate, thus ensuring the plate doesn't slide off the tripod
- To adjust the tension so you can easily adjust the position of the camera
- To lock the ball head in place, if desired, to prevent any movement of the head
- Weight limit
- Sturdy lock
- Ball tension
- Fluid pan adjustment
Believe it or not, one of the most important photography accessories you can buy to improve your photos is a tripod.
After all, it gives your camera a solid, stable base for getting sharp photos.
And by using a tripod, it helps slow you down a little and give more thought to your positioning and perspective before you compose the shot.
But a tripod doesn't exist on its own.
Instead, photographers use tripod heads on their tripods to get the most functionality.
In this guide to tripod head types, I discuss the ever-popular ball head for tripods and why you should consider buying one.
Editor's Note: Sirui ball heads are used as examples in this article because they build some of the most versatile, well-made heads on the market today.
What is a Ball Head, Anyway?
A ball head on a tripod is what allows you to attach your camera quickly (and securely) to the tripod.
It's called a ball head because there is a ball inside the head that allows you to move your camera.
But more than that, the ball head allows you to easily change the positioning of the camera to adjust the composition by adjusting knobs or handles on the head, as shown in the image above of the Sirui K-40x Ball Head.
Since the ball head screws into the tripod mount on your camera, and in turn is attached to the tripod, it holds it securely while you take photos.
Not only that, but a ball head typically comes with a quick release plate, which is a small piece of metal (shown above) that attaches to the bottom of the camera.
This allows you to slide the quick release plate on an off the ball head for easy changes between shooting handheld and shooting with a tripod.
Though there are many different styles of ball heads, one of the most popular varieties is the three knob type, like the Sirui E-20 Ball Head shown above.
These knobs have different functions:
There are other variations in ball heads, but you'll often find that these features are the most common.
Advantages of Using a Ball Head
As noted earlier, ball heads not only secure your camera to the tripod for safety, but they also allow you to quickly switch from handheld shooting to tripod shooting, provided there is a quick release plate involved.
When you're taking portraits or photographing wildlife or another subject that might move quickly, having the ability to make fast changes to your shooting position is critical.
That includes tilting the camera up, down, and even on a vertical plane as needed (as seen above with the Sirui E-20 Ball Head), which you cannot do if the tripod is attached directly to the camera without a head in place.
Granted, if you shoot a lot of video, a fluid head might be more appropriate, and if you shoot wildlife photos with a very long lens, a gimbal would be a good choice.
But for all-around photography in various situations, a ball head is the best tripod head for most photographers, simply because it is so versatile in so many applications.
Features You Want in a Ball Head
Not all ball heads are alike, so it's important for you to do your due diligence and make a purchase that makes sense for the type of photography you do.
In terms of tripod head features, consider the following:
Not everyone has a ton of gear, but if you shoot with a big DSLR, a big lens, and other accessories, you need to ensure that the ball head can support all that weight.
The Sirui G-20KX Ball Head shown above, for example, can support over 44 pounds of gear.
With regard to the locking mechanism and ball tension, you obviously want a ball head that makes it easy to lock the ball in place. On high-quality ball heads, this can be done with a single twist of the locking knob.
But when it's unlocked, a good ball head will have enough ball tension to keep your camera gear upright. After all, the last thing you want is to unlock the ball and have your expensive camera and lens slam forward or backward.
Lastly, a good ball head like the Sirui C-10S shown above should offer fluid pan adjustment, or movement to the left or right.
These smooth left and right movements come in handy when following the movement of a subject (i.e., a bird in flight) or when shooting video.
Ultimately, finding a good blend of these features at a price you can afford is where it's at.
And for my money, Sirui has the best features for the best prices when it comes to tripod head types.
I've used Sirui tripods and heads for years, and I can tell you that they are feature-packed and won't bust your budget, either.