A Short Course Book
Curtin's Guide to Digital Cameras
And Other Photographic Equipment

Tripod Heads

 
 
A Gitzo 3-way tripod head. Courtesy of Bogen Photo.
 
 
Kaidan's Bubble Level attaches to a camera's hot shoe so you can tell when the camera is perfectly level.
 
 
Some long lenses have with a lens collar with a tripod mounting foot. To switch one of these lenses from horizontal to vertical, you loosen a screen on the collar and rotate the camera. This keeps the center of gravity of these heavy lenses over the tripod. Courtesy of Canon.
 
 
ClamperPod makes a miniature ball head for small pocket cameras.
 
 
The Bogen grip action ball head with quick release plate (Cat. No: 3265).
What we normally think of as a tripod, is actually a combination of parts. You've met the first two already—the three legs called the leg set, and a center column that you use to raise or lower the camera. This column ends at a flat platform through which projects a threaded screw. It's on this platform that you mount the next part¯a tripod head. There are two basic kinds of heads— the traditional 3-way pan tilt head and the ball head.

3-Way Pan/Tilt Heads

The classic tripod head is called a 3-way pan/tilt head. You can rotate (pan) it, tip it forward and back, and tilt it side to side. Movement on each axis is separately controlled so it's ideal for architecture and other work where placement of horizontal and vertical elements is critical. To move and lock it in each of these three axis, you use a separate twist handle. These protruding handles cause problems when hiking and packing and take time to set when photographing.

Ball Heads

Because of the size, weight, and complexity of 3-way heads, many photographers prefer a ball head. Not only are ball heads lighter and smaller, they are faster to use. You can compose an image with one motion and lock the camera with a single control. This makes them ideal for nature photography. It's also easier to carry and backpack a tripod with a lighter ball head because it doesn't weigh as much or have the protruding handles that a pan-tilt head has.

One thing is sure, ball heads are things of beauty. Beautifully machined and finished, they have the quality of Swiss clocks. They are also expensive—$250-400 and then you still have to buy quick release plates which aren't inexpensive. I hesitated for years because of the price, but finally bought three ball heads to compare. I have been converted! It's hard to go wrong since any ball head is better than a 3-way head for most photography.

They are so much faster and easier to use, that they should be considered the head of choice unless you are doing specialty photography such as panoramas or architecture photos where leveling and locking one axis separately from the others is a real advantage. One situation in which ball heads really shine is when paired with a tripod that lets you position the center column at any angle. Here the 3- way head can be not only frustrating to use, but its more limited range of movements prevents some camera angles.
 
 
The parts of a Markins ball head. Courtesy of Markins.

A ball head has a spherical or slightly elliptical ball that moves freely in a housing until you lock it to keep it from moving. Protruding from the top part of the ball is a shaft that holds the quick release clamp or platform. The housing has a slot into which you can drop the shaft when switching the camera to the vertical position.

The Arca Swiss ball head uses a ball that's slightly elliptical, reducing the need to continually adjust tension to keep the camera in position as you move it off-center. For example, if you've adjusted the tension with the camera horizontal, and then point it down, the tension holding it in place automatically increases so the lens doesn't crash down on the tripod. This prevents the crushed fingers you sometimes get with a 3-way head when one control isn't locked fully. Other ball heads use a friction adjust knob. Ideally you can adjust tension so you can move the camera to compose images, but when you release it, it won't move on its own. You can also lock ball heads so they don't move at all.

Ball heads come in two basic forms—with or without a panning bed and with or without a quick release clamp:

 
A ball head with a quick release clamp and panning base with index marks (left) and A ball head without a quick release clamp or panning base (right). Courtesy of Markins.
  • A panning head allows you to pan the camera in a 360 degree circle as you would for a panorama or when following a moving subject. This panning bed or rotational table, located at the base of the head, is separate from the ball and can even turn when the ball is locked. The one situation where this feature is essential is when you want to make left or right adjustments when the camera is turned in the vertical position using the ball head's drop notch. Without the panning bed, you have to loosen and rotate the tripod's center column to perform left-right adjustments. An index scale lets you rotate the camera in degrees. This is especially useful when shooting overlapping images to be stitched together into a panorama.
  • A quick-release (QR) clamp, often built in, lets you quickly attach and unattach the camera from the tripod. These are discussed in more detail on guide4-3.html.
When using a pocket camera, monopod, table top tripod, or car window mount, a big expensive ball head may be too much. There are lots of small, even miniature ball heads available to choose from.

Ball heads are manufactured by a number of companies. You'll find experienced people testifying to the superiority of each brand and model so it's more like religion than science.

Other Heads

In some circumstances, you may want to look into non traditional head designs. Some of them are quite unique.
  • Bogen makes a grip action ball head that makes it possible to compose the image and lock the ball with one hand. It operates something like a deadman's brake on a train. When you release the lever, the ball locks. There is no way that it can get away from you inadvertently.
  • Novoflex's MagicBall ball heads have a fixed ball and a moveable housing, exactly the reverse of traditional ball heads. This design lets you move the camera to a vertical position at any point on the head since there is no need for a vertical drop slot. An accessory 360 rotating panorama base with spirit level can be mounted on the top or the bottom (or both) for rotation without using the locking control.
 
The Novoflex MagicBall has a unique design.


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