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Choosing a Tripod Head


Article © 2006-09 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from our staff at F-11 Photographic Supplies


In mid-April at the MSU Pow Wow, I packed a bag of five shawls to share with friends who wanted to dance. Then I toted along another bag loaded with my camera and a new telephoto lens. There were so few inter-tribal dances that none of us danced much but I did take a lot of photographs, enthralled with the fine detail of the beaded outfits. When I loaded those digital files onto my computer, many of them were just enough out of focus to ruin the shot. People move when they dance. It’s one thing to get a lovely blur of movement that expresses motion. Mine were just out of focus and murky.


I could have changed that by using a tripod except that I haven’t learned to use one. I tell myself that setting one up is too much work. But, I really would like to get photographs that are in focus.


Investing in a good tripod means selecting one with parts that can be replaced, and making a separate investment in the head -- the piece that actually holds your equipment. The head allows you to make a lot of adjustments to camera angle without re-adjusting the tripod itself. As with the tripod, there are a lot of options when choosing a tripod head, including the importance of being able to purchase additional quick release plates to attach to your equipment. I’ll remind you about that later.


The most common and well-known tripod head is the three-way pan head. It allows you to "pan" left to right, to tilt it up and down, and it has a vertical mechanism to hold your camera perpendicular to the ground so that you can photograph the sky. So all of that can be done without re-adjusting the tripod itself. This kind of tripod head has been around forever. It’s been improved on and updated over the years and a lot of the heads that are this style now have really smooth action on them. The pan action is so smooth it can be used with a lightweight video camera. It’s a fairly inexpensive head.


When you buy a head to use with a 35-mm or digital SLR, you want to be sure has all three actions. Many of the video heads do not offer the vertical action. So if you’re buying it for multi-purpose, make sure it has all three. There’s been some variations on 3-way pan heads over the years – you can buy them in REALLY large sizes to support gigantic equipment. Those are called "geared heads" and they are generally special order heads.


The best-known and most reasonably priced tripod head is the three-way pan head. First, it allows you to "pan" left to right, then tilt your camera up and down, and has a third vertical mechanism to allow you to flip your camera perpendicular to the ground so that you can so that you can make a vertical composition. Many three-way pan heads have such smooth action that they can be used with a lightweight video camera in addition to still photography, though many dedicated video heads do not offer the vertical action that you need for still photography.


Sealed pan heads are for video cameras. They actually have oil inside the head that slows the movement of the head and allows it to turn smoothly so that if you’re shooting video you don’t get a jerky start or stop. It also allows you to use the head without being totally locked down so that if you’re following a goose in flight, you can track it, leaving the head unlocked, and get smooth tracking.


The next head that people are most familiar with is called a ball head. It typically has at least one control on it where you can loosen a single control and then you can go any direction you like, relock the head, and off you go. They’re very fast but I think you should look for a ball head with two controls on it. A single lock for every control is inconvenient sometimes because you’ll have the camera positioned where you really want it, and then you need to pan slightly to follow a moving subject, and you have to start over. So you want to look for something with two controls on it.


Ball heads have one or two controls you can loosen to move your camera angle any direction you like. Then you re-lock the head and start taking photographs. They are fast but a single lock can be a problem when it controls every aspect of head angle. Imagine you have your camera positioned just like you want it and suddenly your subject moves. If you don’t want to have to set up your shot all over again, look for a head with a seperate pan control lock.


Now imagine a ball head that uses a squeeze lever-lock that looks a little like a ski-pole handle, with a cozy spot for each finger to rest as you grip. It’s the grip-action head and the fastest one of all – squeeze, rotate it where you want it to go, and release. It does have a weight limitation so you can’t use it with a super telephoto lens. It is great fun with a spotting scope because you can readjust the scope’s angle so quickly.


The new version of the grip action head moves the grip control to the side like the handlebars of a bike lower the center of gravity. The most efficient design of all, its simple to use and has less drift. Drift? That’s when you put a heavy camera/lens combo or large scope on the head, lock it, let go and . . . gravity plays gentle havoc with your set up as everything slowly drifts down, down, down. . . . settling back usually just far enough that your subject isn't in the frame any more.


For heavier equipment, like a super telephoto lens (that's 300mm and up), a ball head with friction control allows you to set a resistance level that keeps your equipment from dropping over on the tripod when you loosen the lock. Instead, you can make a fine adjustment and relock the head.


The ultimate solution for super telephoto equipment is the Wimberly "gimbel" head. It allows you to balance your equipment perfectly on the head in such a way that the head can be totally unlocked and yet, wherever you let go of the camera, the camera stays. These show up on the side lines of sporting events and with people who shoot wildlife or birds-in-flight. If your subject is going to move a lot, this is the ideal head because it won’t fall over like many heads do when you unlock them quickly. If you’re photographing birds with your camera angled skyward and let go, it will stay where you pointed it.


Gimbel heads weigh in at about four pounds and cost between $500 and $600. The Wimberly is the best of them all. When you’re putting $6000 or more worth of camera equipment on a tripod you want to make sure you have not wasted your investment in your camera and lens by putting it all on a tripod and head that won’t hold the equipment still.


As with tripods, there are several materials being used in the manufacture of heads. If you’re going to be working in the field, check out the magnesium heads that are designed specifically to go with the light-weight carbon tripod. Though the head looks hefty, it weighs almost nothing. Some magnesium heads can be totally disassembled and cleaned in the field.


If you buy a head that does not have a level on it, you can purchase a dual-bubble level that will fit in the "hot shoe" of your camera, where a flash would go. It fits in two different directions so that it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting vertical or horizontal. This is particularly handy with ball heads because you often don’t have anything that tells you if the head is level.


Ideally when you go shopping for a tripod and or head, you want to bring the equipment you intend to use on the tripod to test the support you want to buy. Tripods and tripod heads are weight-rated so check the combined weight of your equipment against the weight-rating of the leg and head combination to make sure it will do the job.


Too much effort? Too long to set up? Will it all interfere with the spontaneity of your photography? Then remember these tips: make sure you can buy additional quick release plates for each part of your equipment that you might attach to your tripod head so you can change lenses quickly. Invest in a tripod that you can actually carry with you to eliminate the excuse of "Oh, its too heavy." If you will be traveling, make sure you buy something you are willing to take with you. Then practice setting up and taking it all down until you know the drill and can perform it effortlessly in the field.


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