Different head designs offer advantages for the way you work
By Zachary Singer
There's a wide range of tripod head designs available today, including traditional pan-tilt (three-way) heads, ballheads, offset ballheads, gimbal heads and fluid heads. Do you need to upgrade? Would a different design work better for you? That depends. Each head suits a different way of working, with advantages and disadvantages for each type of photography and equipment.
Weight, rigidity and the feel of the head vary with the make and model, and as with tripods, there's a trade-off between a head's size and weight and how much gear the head will securely support. Usually, the heavier the head, the more rigid it will be, making it easier to have the head stay put without allowing the camera to shift positions.
Pan-Tilt Heads The classic tripod head, the pan-tilt (three-way) head provides separate controls for panning left and right, tilting up and down, and rotating your camera for vertical compositions. The beauty of this arrangement is the precise control over individual motions. If you've already tweaked your horizon, for example, and it's now perfectly level, you won't adversely affect the level if you pan a little to the right. In situations where precise composition is important, the three-way head allows you to concentrate on one axis of movement at a time. Unlike some other head designs, three-way heads offer their full range of movement regardless of whether you're set up for a horizontal or a vertical composition.
The deliberate nature of three-way heads also is a drawback in some cases. It's slower for quick setups than ballheads, which lock with a single knob. You'll also need to properly level your tripod for the head to work efficiently. (If you don't, you'll see your horizon rotate in the viewfinder as you pan.) Three-way heads aren't very good for following action, so if you're into super-telephoto shots of birds in flight, a three-way head may not be your best choice.
Ballheads The best thing about ballheads is that you can loosen one knob and the head will move in all directions. The worst thing about ballheads is that (you guessed it) you can loosen one knob and the head will move in all directions. More seriously, ballheads offer access to pan, tilt and rotate simultaneously, so camera positioning on the tripod is much more like the motions you'd use when hand-holding the camera than with a three-way head. A second, and no less significant, advantage is that unless you're shooting a panorama, there's much less need to level the tripod legs and center column, as the ballhead is free to move largely independently of the tripod.
The downside of a ballhead is that loosening the ball to move in one direction may allow unwanted movement in others; that is, after you've taken care to level your horizon, you may have to level it again after tilting or panning.
A ballhead's range of motion doesn't allow vertical shots unless you align the ball's neck with a slot cut into the side of the head. (A number of ballheads now offer more than one slot, simplifying things somewhat.) Some photographers prefer to use an L-bracket instead of working their ballhead vertically. The bracket allows the camera to be quickly attached to the tripod head in either a horizontal or vertical position.