photo by golubovy via iStock
When you’re shopping for tripods, one thing you should consider is tripod heads. Many tripods come with one anyways, but not all tripod heads are made alike.
There are a ton of types of tripod heads too. While videographers may need to understand these tripod heads the best, still photographers can still greatly benefit from understanding the difference between tripod heads.
So, I decided to build a tripod head comparison to walk you through the benefits and detriments of each type, as well as to recommend good options for each.
One of the most popular types of tripod heads are fluid heads. Fluid head tripods use liquid to create a hydraulic system within the head to ensure you can move the head with great ease.
For this reason, fluid heads are one of the most popular tripod heads for videographers. Fluid heads prevent your camera from shaking and allow smooth tracking. They come with a long handle to ensure you don’t accidentally prevent the head from working properly. If you purchased a cheaper fluid head, you can always make it work much better by sliding a piece of PVC piping over the handle to make it longer.
Fluid heads are also usually heavier to allow videographers to work with heavier cameras.
Fluid heads also have a pretty sophisticated counterbalance system to keep your camera at whatever angle you set it at.
Of all the types of tripod heads, fluid heads are typically the most expensive, so if you are a still photographer on a budget, you could probably opt for a pan/tilt head instead.
Ikan’s 75mm Pro Fluid Video Head (shown in the images above) is a great option for professional videographers. It can hold up to 11 lbs of equipment, it comes with separate pan and tilt locks, and is priced very competitively at $160.
A ball head is known for one specific trait: it can rotate 360 degrees with great precision. But, of all of these tripod heads, ball heads come in the widest array of quality. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can end up with a ball head that doesn’t function the way it should.
When you’re looking for a ball head, you want to find one that locks tightly. If you hit your camera during shooting, you’ll want your ball head to prevent as much shake as possible.
You’ll also want to make sure that your ball head allows you to pan and tilt fluidly, quickly release your camera, and carry as much equipment as you want.
For this reason, I believe Manfrotto’s 494 Aluminum Center Ball Head is one of the best ball heads on the market.
It can carry up to 17.6 lbs of equipment, features one of the best quick release plates I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and comes with a 10-year warranty.
You can pick this ball head up for $80 on Adorama.
If you’ve ever worked with any of these tripod heads, you’ve likely worked with a pan/tilt head because they’re everywhere.
Pan/tilt heads are typically the most affordable tripod head. They feature 3 different axes for horizontal, vertical and panning motions. So, pan/tilt heads are great for precision photographers because they allow you to line up angles down to the centimeter.
Pan/tilt heads are also one of the most user-friendly types of tripod heads.
When you’re shopping for a pan/tilt head, you’ll want to look for clamps that tighten progressively to ensure your heavy equipment can be handled well.
Whereas most tripod heads come with bubble levels, these are an especially important quality for a pan/tilt head. Make sure there are at least a few of them and that you can read them easily when your camera is mounted.
Pan/tilt heads can also get pretty bulky. It will cost more, but a tripod head that allows you to unscrew the handle will be easier to carry.
I work with Studio Assets Magnesium 3-Way Pan/Tilt Tripod Head. It costs just under $60, can carry 7.5 lbs of equipment and features an easy-to-read bubble level. Plus, it’s relatively small at 4” x 5”.
photo by Natalie_magic via iStock
A gimbal head is built specifically for photographers and videographers who are working with heavy cameras and lenses. Instead of fighting gravity, a gimbal head works with your camera gear to find its natural center of gravity.
Sports or wildlife photographers use gimbal heads for this exact reason. You can track action quickly while still supporting heavy equipment.
Most gimbal heads don’t come with a fluid cartridge, although gimbal heads with a fluid cartridge are available if you don’t want your head to move too easily.
When you’re looking for a gimbal head, you’ll want one with vertical adjustment. This isn’t a requirement, but
Wimberley’s WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II is one of the best in class when it comes to gimbal heads.
This gimbal head uses an elevated tilt mechanism with an adjustable platform to ensure the camera’s center of gravity perfectly lines up with the tilt axis of the head. What this means in practice is that you can move the heaviest equipment with just one finger.
And since Wimberley heads are built for telephoto lenses, you can carry up to 20 lbs of equipment with it.
All of this doesn’t come cheaply, as the Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Tripod Head II is $600, but you’ll also get a 5-year warranty with your purchase.
The final tripod head in this tripod head buyer’s guide is a pistol grip, or a joystick head. A pistol grip allows you to squeeze a handle to adjust the position of your camera. In this way, your camera can move pretty similarly to the way it would on a ball head.
Pistol grips can be a little tricky to use while tracking subjects, so they’re best for still shots.
This is why Vanguard’s ALTA Magnesium Alloy Pistol-Grip actually pairs pistol grip technology with a ball head, so that you can track fast-moving objects.
It comes with a remote shutter release, can carry up to 13.2 lbs of equipment, and can pan 360-degrees.
You can purchase this pistol grip for $165 from Adorama.