Tripod heads come in various forms and the type you choose is down to the type of photography you take and your personal preference. Ball heads offer the most freedom; while pan and tilt heads allow greater accuracy and their ability to alter just one plane at a time can make them more suitable for panning. You'll find all the major series of heads listed here, plus some more specialist ones too.
Ball and socket heads, or ball heads for short, allow your camera to be quickly adjusted in all directions and then clamped still in one single movement. This makes them ideal for when speed is of the essence and when your subject, or composition, needs adjusting for across more than one plane. Better ball heads will often also offer a separate panoramic knob so that you can pan on a plane.
Over recent years the ball head has overtaken the traditional three-way head due to their flexibility and often that they are lighter units too. More advanced ball heads sometimes offer resistance control to allow for finer adjustment, spirit bubbles for levelling, and all now come with quick-release plates for easier attachment. The new universal quick release plates are compatible with 'Arca' Swiss.
Pan and tilt heads, as their name suggests, provide their principal adjustments with a horizontal pan and a vertical tilt, and often add a third sideways movement for levelling or portrait shooting (a three-way head). By loosening all the adjustment screws it is possible to move freely in any direction - much like the ball head - but by tightening one you can limit movement in a certain axis.
This makes these heads ideal for tracking subjects such as cars or wildlife. Their precise control over each axis also makes them suited to landscape and studio photography as well as videography.
Designed for the fast, long PRO lenses, such as a 400mm f2.8, they cradle the lens on the tripod bracket to allow a faster pan and tilt action, while balancing the lens at its centre of gravity. They make a massive difference to the speed that the lens can be used. Not to be confused with stabilized gimbals used for movie photography.
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