The Differences Between Tripod Heads

Nature photographer Al Haley and his 600mm Nikkor on a gimble head

It’s no exaggeration to say I could write a book on tripod heads. If you can think of a specific need to have any kind of camera put in any imaginable position, there is someone who has designed a tripod head specifically for that job. It doesn’t matter if that camera is the size of a Subaru or a pocket-size point and shoot, the number of tripod head options is mind boggling.

Instead of trying to cover the universe of tripod heads, it might be better just to cover the broad general categories and let you search that sub-group for the particular model that suits your need.

The one key piece of information you will need is how much weight the head will need to support.

Ball Heads

Ball head with spirit level and quick release plate

Ball head tripod mounts have been around since the beginning of photographic time. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with and without quick release plates. Basically these are a ball-shaped swivel mechanism in a base that can be clamped into position.

The advantage to a ball head is they allow the camera to be set at any angle. The disadvantage to ball heads is…they allow the camera to be set at any angle. Sometimes it can be hard to get the camera back to level, especially in a low light situation.

Some models, like the one pictured, has a spirit level built in, just remember to take a flashlight.

Video and Combo Pan/Tilt Heads

Video pan heads and fluid heads

Video fluid heads are made to provide a more fluid motion for panning, not necessarily because they have any kind of fluid in the head itself, although, just to confuse the topic, some of them actually do have oil or some other type of dampening fluid in the head.

Others have two handles instead of one and are kind of a hybrid between a video head and a ball head.

Video heads are not made to cant over at odd angles, since there are few instances when a video DP would want to do that. I use a fluid head video tripod because the majority of the time when I have my camera on a tripod, it’s because I’m shooting video. And I very seldom want to shoot at odd angles and if I do, I’d just pop it off the tripod anyway.

Gear Heads

Geared tripod head

Gear heads are like ball heads expect they have a gearing mechanism that lets you tilt and pitch your camera at very precise angles. Most often you’ll see gear heads in the bag of architectural photographers and other who need fine control over the pitch and angle of their camera set.

The advantage to gear heads is if your sticks are level and the gears set on 0,0 your camera is level.

Gimble Heads

Gimble heads are for big glass

Gimble heads are for nature and sports photographers and the way they work is you mount your big lens on the pivot point and let your camera hang off the back of the lens.

You thought paying $10,000 for that zoom lens was your only expense? Not so, my friend, gimble heads can be really expensive.

The bonus about a gimble tripod head is it gives you very smooth control over moving that big glass around its center of gravity.