Different head designs offer advantages for the way you work
By Zachary Singer
Offset Ballheads Offset ballheads allow a greater range of movement than either a pan-tilt or traditional ballhead. When used conventionally, the head tilts forward and back through an unusually wide arc while providing rotation for vertical shots like a normal pan-tilt head. Similar to a ballhead, though, tilt, rotation and ball movement lock and unlock with one knob.
The head's ball has the ability to swing the camera platform through a complete circle. Using the ball in combination with the traditional three-way movements opens up possibilities unmatched by other heads. (A great trick is swinging the platform 180 degrees to cantilever your camera out over the railings at overlooks or on bridges, but be aware of the change in balance with the head in that position.) You'll likely find that an offset ballhead offers a lot of flexibility, but its unusual design will take a little getting used to.
Quick Release Many heads feature a quick-release system so that you can attach your camera in a snap. Quick release frees you from the often vexing task of screwing a camera directly onto a tripod head, greatly reducing both the time taken and the risk of dropping expensive cameras and lenses. Well-made quick-release systems are a huge benefit. If the head you otherwise love doesn't have one, high-quality, third-party adapters are available from a number of manufacturers.
Gimbal heads are designed especially for large, heavy telephoto lenses with built-in tripod mounts. The head supports your camera and lens firmly, but allows you to aim at will, without cumbersome locking mechanisms. The head's secret is positioning the lens and camera so that the center of weight is right at the head's pivot points. That way, the whole system stays relatively balanced regardless of where you point it, and requires very little tension to maintain image sharpness or camera position.
The head's design affords a nearly unrestricted range of pans and tilts, with rotation supplied by the lens mount collar. If your lens doesn't have a rotating collar, you'll need an L-bracket.
Fluid Heads Fluid heads are designed for motion picture and video work, but for still photographers with long lenses, the ultra-smooth pan and tilt movements of fluid heads have advantages similar to those of gimbal heads. Like the gimbals, fluid heads also accommodate a wider range of tilt movement than most three-way heads. Fluid heads provide variable tensioning to counteract the weight of your big glass; very high-end models offer counterbalancing, too.
Although they resemble three-way heads, fluid heads don't offer rotation for vertical shots. As with gimbal heads, that's no problem for users of telephotos with rotating collars, but it's a disadvantage to photographers who mount their cameras directly on the tripod head.