The Beginner’s Guide to Tripod Heads

When you’re serious about photography, you need to keep your head about you. But first, you’ve got to buy a head. A tripod head, that is. Let Ashley Kramer explain.

Serious photographers, especially those with a thing for the great outdoors or for prowling around at night, eventually end up contemplating buying a tripod. There are choices aplenty out there, ranging from humble cheapies that can just about manage to keep a compact camera stable for a moment or two, to expensive and very slick looking professional models using ultra-light materials.

Regardless of which tripod you choose, you’ll need a tripod head of some sort because the head allows you to attach the camera to the tripod and aim it at what you’re intending to shoot. Cheap tripods often come with a simple integrated head, or there might be a very basic plastic job bundled in as part of the package, but any tripod of consequence comes with a thread on the top and that’s your lot – choosing the head is up to you.

Here’s our primer for those who are new to tripod heads:


There are three main types of tripod head:


Pan and Tilt


There are other specialised versions available including panoramic, macro and gimbal, but they’re beyond the remit of this article and generally of interest only to advanced photographers who work a particular niche.

Ball Heads

Ball heads use a simple ball and socket arrangement that allows the camera to be rotated in three planes, while a slot on the side of the socket allows the camera to be rotated until it is in the vertical portrait position. A threaded screw of some sort, adjusted by a knob or lever bears down against the ball and locks it in place, thereby locking the camera in a fixed position. Some ball heads have an independent locking base that rotates through 360 degrees for panoramic rotation.

Advantages of ball heads include simplicity, light weight and compactness. They offer quick ease of movement in all three axes – so the camera can be moved up and down, left and right and tilted using only one control. They’re very stable when locked and can deal with heavier camera loads than pan and tilt heads.

The main disadvantage of the ball head is ironically that camera movement is so easy; a movement in one axis may affect others, so a camera that only needs to be shifted vertically may end up pointing in an unwanted horizontal direction after the adjustment. They’re also accident prone – if the locking screw is loose and the user lets go of the camera, gravity will immediately slam it down as far as the ball will move in the socket.

Some derivations of the ball head use fluid systems to increase their weight capacity and to make locking very secure. They work very well but at an increased cost. Then there are pistol grip based ball heads that use a handgrip with a trigger system – squeeze the trigger and the ball is free to rotate in all three axes, let go and it locks solid. These are easy to use because they allow for one handed control of the camera’s movement.

Pan and Tilt Heads

Pan and tilt tripod heads use a separate control for the different axes of rotation – there are two way and three way versions and the controls are usually handles or knobs that are tightened to lock and loosened to allow movement. Advantages of this system include the ability to apply fine control to one direction of rotation, while the others stay firmly locked.

Again, the major disadvantage is directly linked to the advantage because freedom of movement is restricted. Movements in multiple directions require adjustments of the various levers and this can be quite slow, especially if one direction affects another, requiring further adjustments. Pan and tilt heads aren’t able to take as much weight as ball heads and they can also drop a camera down to the end of a specific direction of rotation if one of the levers is loose. This won’t necessarily dislodge the camera, especially if a reputable quick release system is used, but it can be an alarming experience.

Geared Heads

Geared heads are pan and tilt heads where the locking handles have been replaced with gears, which are controlled by rotating knobs. The movement is very secure and precise but the gears are slow, which doesn’t allow for speedy changes to camera orientation. Some get round this limitation by allowing gears to be disengaged, allowing for swift movement before re-engaging for precision adjustments. Geared heads are also comparatively expensive because the mechanisms are necessarily more complicated than ball or tilt and pan heads.


Quick Releases

Cameras are attached to the tripod head in one of two ways – via a thread directly from the head to the camera base or with a quick release plate, which screws into the camera base and clicks into the head.The thread is the cheaper and arguably more secure method but it’s time consuming to thread the camera in or out every time it needs to be mounted or removed. Well made branded quick releases have close tolerances in the components and are secure, often using multiple safety systems to prevent an inadvertent camera release, which can be catastrophicSystems from certain manufacturers are often interchangeable over multiple heads; for example any of Manfrotto’s heads with the RC2 base can accept an RC2 quick release, so a tripod and a monopod could use a single plate, which just stays on the camera.

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