Why are there so many different heads for tripods?
This isn’t a review or a comparison between manufacturers it’s my personal and professional experience with tripod heads in my work and when investing in a head some considerations other than price.
In its simplest form a tripod simply holds your camera, it can be to keep it steady or allow you to work remotely. It’s when you have a specific requirement that specialist heads come into their own, when you work professionally time is money and having to compromise is a choice we try to avoid.
Deciding on the quick release system
Before I choose a head I look at the release plates, for many years I used the RC2 type quick releases as this is the most common but it has its draw backs especially when fitting heavy cameras and lenses I changed to the much bigger RC4 type plates however the range of heads utilising the RC4 system is limited. In many ways this limitation makes it simple to choose the best head for the job.
This is probably the most useful of the tripod heads, most have a single locking mechanism that allows you to freely position your camera and lock it in position. Speed is the key feature you can work very quickly with a good ball head, accuracy and fine adjustments is the biggest failing of this type of head. When exact positioning is key the ball head may get you close very quickly but it will never be totally precise or take many attempts to do so. Some have a pan action while this is useful it would never compete with a pan tilt head.
Pan and Tilt Head
This 3 axis head is very common particularly with video tripods, having independent control over the positions with a simple twist to lock/unlock is appealing but it still lacks accuracy and precision when fine tuning a position. The use of arms allows for smoother movements when panning or tilting when shooting but it lacks the silky smoothness of a fluid head.
This is the choice of video shooters it usually has only 2 axis adjustments the tilt and the pan, levelling is either through adjusting the tripod legs or adding a ball feature although dedicated video fluid heads can incorporate a levelling bowl it needs a specific video tripod. These have a longer arm than most pand and tilt heads allowing for better control these also tend to be bulky heads with different camera support plates also these tend to only allow landscape positioning of the camera.
Bowl Centre Column
To add levelling without having to adjust the tripod legs I find the ability to exchange the centre column when I need to use a fluid head this allows me to quickly fine tune the head levelling and allows the flexibility to switch between the fixed or levelling column rather than have an additional tripod.
When it comes to long lenses a gimbal is the best head for handling large bulky lense, it gives you freedom to follow subjects effortlessly supporting the weight.
Another specialist head more suited to the videographer but also has its uses in the studio with product photography, where you can position and reposition without moving the tripod. This is a versitile tool one that with practice gives you flexibility and consistancy.
Whilst not a head it is a mounting device, when mounting your camera on the tripod head, it is always a good idea to use an L Bracket instead of a single plate on the bottom of the camera. With a regular plate, your camera will be heavier on one side in portrait orientation, which might not be secure.
When shooting panoramas getting it right in the field saves time in post production and being able to position the cameras nodal point ensures distortions are minimised when shooting the fames to later combine into the final panorama.
This is my head of choice, as a commercial photographer I want precision, accuracy and repeatability a good gear head is worth the investment especially when shooting architectural and studio products the quick setting allows quick positioning of any of the 3 axis them the precision of the gear adjustment allows fast fine tuning.
Taking precision control of the x y axis when shooting macro photography and image stacking in particular lends this type of head to commercial product photography.
Pistol Grip Head
These are in many ways an improved ball head, a single release and locking point and fully positionable but does not address the precision aspects of setting a position.