There are as many ways to shoot a landscape photograph as there are landscape photographers. The very best of these images all have one thing in common, however: when the exposure was made, the camera was on a tripod. We just can't overemphasize the simple fact that using a tripod results in better images. Okay, so you get that. But between the tripod and the camera, there's a critical component that's every bit as important as the tripod: the tripod head.
Heads come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations. Almost to a person, the masters of landscape photography employ ballheads. What is it that makes a ballhead so special? It's a combination of solid support, ease of use and speed. While specific designs vary, all ballheads have some common properties. Essentially, the head consists of a cuff that has a spherical "ball" trapped within it. By cranking a tension knob, you adjust the amount of pressure on the ball, allowing it to move or lock into place. When loosened, the ball can move freely in any dimension, making adjustments in camera position and image composition extremely fast and convenient.
When it comes to choosing a ballhead, there's a range of sizes and prices to consider. The size head you choose is determined by the weight of your camera setup. You'll want to choose a head that can easily support your largest and heaviest potential setup. If you regularly shoot with a 400mm ƒ/2.8 (about 12 pounds) on a professional-level D-SLR, you'll probably want to look for a ballhead that can easily handle something on the order of 20 pounds. If you have a more compact digital SLR and you never use anything heavier than a four-pound lens, you can save a significant amount of money by going with a less heavy-duty ballhead.
We all fall into the trap of not wanting to carry heavy gear into the field. Seriously, how many times have you left the tripod in the trunk because you decided that it's just too heavy? If you buy a ballhead that can support a 30-pound setup, you'll be adding a significant amount of weight to that tripod and we're fairly confident it won't make you more inclined to haul it around on a hot summer afternoon. Sure, the mondo ballhead looks good and you might get some appreciative stares as you pull it out at the parking lot, but if you don't need that level of support, it's overkill and you'll just be carrying extra weight or, more likely, leaving that extra weight in the car. There's a saying that the most expensive piece of gear you carry is the one that's never used. Don't let your tripod become your most expensive piece of gear because the ballhead is too heavy.
Using a tripod is a guaranteed way to improve your photography. The head is the tool that makes it possible for you to get the most benefit from the tripod. Ballheads are easy to use and, with a little practice, you'll find you can make a full range of adjustments to your camera position in a matter of a second or two. It's no wonder so many of OP's top contributors never head into the field without one.
Arca-Swiss has been making professional ballheads seemingly since the dawn of time. The B1 uses a unique shape in the ball itself—an ellipse rather than a perfectly round sphere—which works a bit like a self-lock. When you tilt your camera, there's more pressure on the ball, but with the ellipse shape, you don't need to add tension in order to maintain stability. A large thumb dial is easy to operate, and both the thumb dial and the base are indexed for precision-oriented shooting. The heavy-duty head weighs 1.4 pounds and is capable of supporting up to 90 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $399.
Italian tripod and accessory manufacturer Giottos produces a range of ballheads. The MH2000 can support up to 26 pounds. The head is unique in that it incorporates a pair of balls each with its own lock. Essentially, the MH2000 works like a three-way head, but with the speed of a ballhead. A pair of large thumb knobs control tension on each ball. The unit weighs 1.44 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $165.
The Gitzo G1276M has an atypical look, in that the camera mounts in an offset orientation to the head. This design keeps the ballhead low-profile and makes it possible to get the camera into particularly low places. The G1276M features magnesium construction and weighs 1.25 pounds. Adjustments are made via large, easy-to-manipulate knobs, and the head can support up to 11 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $215.
Complementing the venerable Kirk BH-1 is the Kirk BH-3 ballhead from Kirk Enterprises. The BH-3 weighs 1.2 pounds, and it has a quick-release platform with a built-in spirit level; the platform is compatible with Arca-Swiss-type release plates. Kirk Enterprises is a comparatively small American company (compared to many of the large European manufacturers), with a loyal following of users who have come to appreciate the company's five-year warranty and the fact that the heads are made to order. Estimated Street Price: $255.
The latest high-tech design and materials are built into the Manfrotto 486MGRC4. Instead of using a simple helical device to tension the ball, the 486MGRC4 has a hydraulic system to lock things down. The trick construction allows the head to lock tightly with minimal turning of the lock-knob, yet the system still has the smoothness you'd expect from a quality Manfrotto ballhead. The 468MGRC4 weighs 1.6 pounds and supports up to 35.3 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $349.
At a glance, the Novoflex MagicBall is fundamentally different from all other ballheads. Instead of a collar that bolts to the tripod and an articulating ball, the MagicBall has a ball that bolts down while the camera platform rotates around it. This unique design provides access to more of the sphere for a broader range of adjustments. The sphere itself is scratch-resistant, and the camera locks via a large, machined control knob. The MagicBall weighs 2.2 pounds and supports up to 22 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $399.
Really Right Stuff manufactures the BH-55 ballhead. The unit is described as being "the culmination of two years of iterative development." Part of that development was building a head that's functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. The tension knobs are attractively built into the collar, and the ballhead locks via a thumb level instead of a rotating knob. The BH-55 weighs 1.85 pounds, with a capacity of 50 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $355-$575, depending on options.
The Slik SBH-320 Professional ballhead can support up to 15.4 pounds. The head is secured via a large thumb knob, and an indexed base helps keep you aligned properly. The ballhead weighs 11.9 ounces and comes in a quick release or non-quick-release version, too.