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What Tripod Head Should You Use?

What Tripod Head Should You Use? - Here's an explanation on what tripod heads are available and what they are good for.

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General Photography

There comes a point where you realise that the tripod you want does not come with a head included. At first you may think that this is odd, not to mention adding to the expense of your outlay. It is however, with good reason. Tripods which come with an integral head are generally at the lower priced end of the market and are not sturdy enough to cope with a long lens for say wildlife photography.

Head Type

There are three basic types of head available, pan and tilt, ballhead and gimbal. We will look at each in turn and consider the advantages and disadvantages.

Pan/Tilt Head

This is often the style of head that is found on tripods where the head is pre-installed and what many beginners are used to. It is therefore considered the classic head since most people have used one at some time.

You can use the head to pan from side to side, tip the camera and lens back and forth and tilt left and right. Movement on each axis is controlled and locked independently by a handle and it is the protrusion of the handles that can make the head difficult to transport.

PH Mounts


The pan and tilt head can often be both complex and cumbersome to use. The design of the ballhead, such as those found in Vanguard's BBH range, eliminates these issues, by often having a single control. The tension is loosened to allow orientation of the camera and then locked to finalise the position.

There are two basic models, either with or without a pan base. The advantage of the pan base is in allowing you to follow motion from side to side, or to recompose without needing to reposition the tripod itself.

In general the ballhead is lighter and more compact.


The gimbal head is a specialist and expensive piece of equipment mainly used with heavy prime telephotos or the larger of the zoom lenses.

The gimbal head allows the camera and lens combination to be balanced in such a way that the photographer can let go of the camera body and the kit will not move, even if pointing upwards or downwards. This can be vital in following wildlife and retaining composition while the photographer waits for the moment to capture.

Quick Release Plates

All three styles allow for quick release plates, though in the gimbal head they are always present. The benefit of the quick release plate is in allowing the quick change to hand-held, or to put on a new camera and lens combination with the least fuss.

The style of quick release plate varies from the simple version which is generic and often secured to lens or body by a single screw. It is this single screw design that often provides the weakness as the camera or lens can easily work loose and thus not be held securely in place.

Gimbal heads and the more expensive ballheads use what is referred to as an Arca-Swiss plate. This is not to say that they are made by Arca-Swiss, though some are, but that they conform to an industry standard and are interchangeable between brand. These can be simple generic plates or complex designs such as the Kirk L-bracket which are specific to a lens or camera.

Considerations When Purchasing A Tripod Head:

  • Maximum weight supportable
  • Smoothness of operation, specifically for ball and gimbal
  • Allow gear to be mounted both in landscape and vertical orientation
  • Weight of the head itself
  • Control knobs, best if these are designed not to fully unscrew from other parts
  • Quick release plate
(Words by csurry, updated June 2012 by ePz.)


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6 Jun 2012 5:26PM
This was very helpful. I'm currently shopping for a Ball head.
AlanWillis 8 67 England
9 Jun 2012 11:38AM
I bought my Gimbal head second hand for 75-00 Manfrotto 393. going rate on e-bay, for use with my 300MM. excellent head.
I have a ball head for my other lenses.

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