Tripod Heads 101

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High quality tripods do not come with a tripod head. The reason behind this is that different tripod heads are designed for different applications.

Ball and Socket Heads

Ball and socket heads are the simplest and most compact tripod heads available. There’s only one knob or lock that controls the full movement of the camera, giving you the ability to quickly frame your shots. There are, however, trade-offs for this simplicity. The first is that you cannot precisely pan your shots if your shooting a moving subject since once unlocked, the head is free to move both in the horizontal and vertical axes. You also need to re-orient your tripod if you want to take a portrait format shot so that the ball and socket head can slip into the groove along it’s mounting base. Some models like the Giottos MH1000-652 have addressed these issues but they cost twice as much as your average ball and socket head.

Three-Way Heads

Three-way heads like the Manfrotto 808RC4 have independent locks for the horizontal and vertical movement as well as for tilting your camera between landscape and portrait orientation. The precision you get for these types of heads is unparalleled since you can just move the camera in a single direction while keeping everything else constant. This is specially helpful in panning shots most often used in sports photography. The biggest downside is that it can take you some time to re-orient your camera if the movement you want involves two or more of the locks to be adjusted.

Panoramic Heads

Most digital camera users make do with hand holding their camera when making panoramic shots. This is due to the fact that we can instantly see the previous shot taken on the LCD so we can just estimate the next frame in the panorama. The real strength of the panoramic head (such as the Manfrotto 303PLUS QTVR Precision Panoramic Pro Head), aside from keeping frames perfectly aligned is that it takes into account the camera’s focal plane. If the camera’s movement is not aligned along it’s focal plane when taking panoramic shots then you will get parallax problems specially if there are objects close to the camera.

Other Considerations

It is also advisable to purchase a spirit level like this Triple Bubble Level Spirit Level Mount if you want your photos to be perfectly aligned to the horizon. Even if you’re using a tripod, you’re never really sure if the ground it’s set up on is completely flat. This is where a spirit level comes in. Most spirit levels can be attached to a camera’s hot shoe and measure alignment both vertically and horizontally.

Also make sure that your tripod head matches the screw size of your tripod. The mounting screw on a tripod comes in two sizes, 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch. If you do not get the exact fit then you will need to purchase an adapter.

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