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A Guide To Different Tripod Heads and When You Need Them

Getting the perfect tripod for your style of shooting and the genre you most commonly shoot can be a little tricky. Here is a guide to the different tripod heads you can buy and what each of them is used for.

Tripods are a tricky area for photographers, beginners through to professionals. They aren't nearly as sexy as a new camera body or a new lens, and they aren't even as interesting as a new filter set. All you want a tripod for is to keep your camera still when you take a shot, so why would anyone want to spend time researching and then lots of money on a top of the range tripod?!

Well, it's difficult to overstate how important they are if you are using tripods regularly. When I first started out, my father-in-law went up into his loft and pulled out his tripod from when he did photography in the 1970s. Perfect, I thought, now I don't have to buy one. I attached my camera to it and it stood proud and tall in the living room, awaiting instructions. Then I took it out for an early morning landscape excursion.

I noticed a few things straight away. Firstly, it weighed an ungodly amount and didn't pack down very small either. Secondly, despite being cumbersome, it wasn't sturdy and in the strong wind, I had to brace it; funnily enough, I didn't want to be my tripod's tripod. Thirdly, it was really finicky to adjust, particularly in poor weather. Eventually, I just invested in a Manfrotto with a ball head and the difference it made was incredible. It was smaller, lighter, far more sturdy, easily adjusted, and so on. It felt like a boring purchase but few items you can buy in photography will impact your quality of life more than a good tripod.

Then comes the tripod head. I will let Mike Smith go through them, but a ball head — which is the most common — is far from your only option and it might not even be right for what you do!

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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A video EVERYONE should watch before purchase! One thing to add is the center post of a tripod or the top of the tripod just under the head, a leveling half ball. Not an immediate need but many times you find yourself on unlevel ground or hillside or slope it's better than working the legs getting level. Really a need if ever you are going to do panoramas. The nice thing with a fluid head is you tilt it up to see a level right on the top, also Manfrotto has a leveling center post along with the smaller travel Befree live in comes with it and a fluid head is good for the long run and single row panos but for multi row panos the nodal panorama pan head. A tripod and heads will fill a closet over the years so study before a buy!!

If you want a solid tripod for cheap with a fluid head look up the "Ravelli AVTP Professional 55" 65mm Video Camera Tripod with Fluid Drag Head" for $130 rated at 27 lbs (12.2 kilos) on Amazon. It has a 65mm bowl so if you want a half ball conversion to flat for a gimble or ball head you'll need to order that part from China since 65mm is much rarer than 75mm. Search "65mm Bowl Ball to Flat Adapter" on eBay for about $30. It's a solid tripod that doesn't even notice my 11 lb. video camera. You'll see some reviews against the fluid head but they're older reviews and mine works perfectly.

or a nodal head especially. you should make notes for each lens /camera combination as to the position relative to the markings on the mm scale on the arms