Choosing a Tripod Head
The main criteria is often cost but you should be choosing a head based on your specific applications.
If you never shoot anything but landscapes in a conventional landscape orientation and aren’t often in a rush to adjust the camera, then a basic tilt and pan will do the job perfectly well, as will a ball head or a geared head.
If precision and micro adjustment is something you must have, then a pan and tilt or geared head is the answer. The deliberate nature of these heads can be an advantage as it forces the photographer to think before shooting, and that’s seldom a bad thing.
If you often change the orientation of your shots, moving from landscape to portait or recomposing the shot to take in different parts of the scene, then a ball head is the solution. The same applies if you’re into general night photography, where the flexibility and speed of movement of a ball head comes into its own. Shooting a number of shots of a building or a street scene at night from different angles can be an exercise in frustration with a pan and tilt head.
The ultimate in speed and convenience, if not in precision are the aforementioned pistol grip heads such as Manfrotto’s 322RC2 and 222RC2, which allow the entire camera/head interface to be controlled with with one hand. If you like having the ability to recompose an entire scene in a second, this type of head is perfect.
Whatever head you choose, check that it’s solidly built and that all the controls operate smoothly. It needs to lock up tight without any movement and without having to have the locking levers or knobs too tight. Check for sag with your camera fitted i.e. when you lock the head after composing the shot, is there a tiny bit of movement when the controls are tightened, forcing you to recompose the shot? This is extremely frustrating and it’s not acceptable in a good head.
Weight and size are also important considerations. There’s nothing as compact or as lightweight as a small ball head, which helps when you’re pushing your baggage allowance and space limits on a trip (a common photographer’s problem). A pan and tilt head might not be much heavier, but it will chew up an unwieldy chunk of space in a suitcase or backpack.
The all-up weight of your camera and lens combination is also relevant, although most branded tripod heads will deal with a semi-pro DSLR and a sizable lens. Even Nikon’s large professional DSLR, the D3S with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens weighs in at around 3kg, which most branded heads beyond the smallest and lightest will cope with. If you’re unsure about the weight capacity of a head, check the manufacturer’s website or ask your dealer before you buy.
In fact, if you’re unsure at all, most photography shops have tripods and heads set up in store. Pop in with your camera and ask to be allowed to try a few out. It only takes moments to swap quick release plates and you’ll soon get the feel of what works for you and what doesn’t. Better to spend half an hour trying out a few options than cursing your way through a trip or an excursion.