There are so many different types of tripod heads and it can get confusing on which one to use depending on what you’re shooting. I like it when my gear complements my photography, rather than getting in the way or making my job harder. Here’s a breakdown of the most popular types of tripod heads.
Ball heads are the most popular tripod head for photography. The rotating ball lets you position the camera in almost any way imaginable, with a locking screw letting you lock the ball in position. It gives you the most flexibility in how it interacts with the camera, but can be difficult to make minor adjustments in position.
Pan & Tilt Heads
These tripod heads have 2 axises allowing you to pan or tilt the camera independently. To move the pan & tilt head, you have to twist to unlock movement making it really easy to get your camera in position. They take up more space than a ball head, but are easier to make minor adjustments.
A fluid head is essentially a pan & tilt head, but geared for video work. While you can lock or unlock the pan and tilt, the fluid head also features “drag” which controls how much friction there is when panning or tilting. This makes it easy to get smooth moving shots when recording video.
Pistol Grip Heads
A pistol grip head is very similar to a ball head. Instead of having to use a knob to loosen the ball, you’ll use a pistol grip. Some photographers like how quick and easy it is to reposition the camera without fumbling with the tripod head. I personally don’t like pistol grips because they can loosen over time, unlike a traditional ball head.
The tripod heads we’ve gone through so far aren’t strong enough to hold an enormous long lens like a 400mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4 or a 200-400mm f/4. Most commonly used for wildlife photography, gimbal heads hold the lens centered to the tripod with the flexibility to move as if you were hand-holding the lens. It’s really not meant to be locked down other than to attach or remove a lens. Scott Bourne and I put together a quick video about how to use a gimbal head.
While not really a tripod head, I thought I’d make a mention of the monopod. If you’re walking around with your camera, it doesn’t always make sense to set up a tripod for the shot. Sports photographers use monopods rather than gimbal heads to support their long lenses as they chase the action. Wedding photographers might use a monopod to stabilize their 70-200mm lens from the back of the church or just to give their arms a break from carrying a heavy lens. Videographers use monopods to stabilize all of their lenses as they move around a venue to get different shots and angles.
What about Arca-Swiss?
Arca-Swiss actually isn’t a tripod head. It’s the type of plate the camera attaches to that’s mounted on top of the tripod head. Also known as the “universal tripod mount”, Arca-Swiss plates are usually long, straight mounts measured in millimeters. The L-Brackets made by Really Right Stuff feature Arca-Swiss plates and all of their ball heads feature an Arca-Swiss mount.
Each one of these tripod mounts has a different use depending on what you’re shooting. What’s your favorite tripod mount? Share in the comments below.