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Solutions: Fluid Heads For Still & Motion

For nature photographers, the three-way head is giving way to fluid heads that are purpose-built to be still- and motion-friendly­­
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Manfrotto MH055M8-Q5 Photo-Movie Head

The two most popular types of heads for nature photographers are the ballhead and three-way head. Gimbal heads are the choice for photographers capturing action and wildlife with long lenses as these items allow you to follow the action more easily while wielding a big telephoto. But for slower-moving subject matter like mountains, the ballhead and three-way head have been the items of choice for generations of photographers.

We’re in a new era, though, when DSLRs are multifaceted tools that can capture pro-level motion, as well as glorious high-resolution stills. Many photographers have found that motion can be a rewarding part of landscape photography. Even if you’ve never thought much about it, nor cared much for shooting video, having a camera that can do it so well simply invites experimentation.

Once you start experimenting with motion a bit, you’ll quickly determine that you want to move the camera, whether it’s a slow pan across a wide scene or a tilt from a foreground element up to a distant peak. Using this kind of slow movement in a scene adds visual interest because, in essence, you’re guiding your viewers through the scene as you want them to see it.

The Trend Toward Horizontal Compositions
We’ve recently noticed a trend toward horizontal compositions in nature photography. This is purely anecdotal and based on submissions to our online contests and galleries like Your Favorite Places and Assignments at, and if you spend some time in the galleries, you’ll see the trend clearly. We’ve speculated that this is due to the popularity of large wide-screen computer monitors and flat-screen TVs. What do you think? Is the horizontal format taking over? Do you still shoot vertical compositions, or do you find that most of your photography is horizontal these days? Send us an email with your thoughts on the subject to editor@

If you try to execute these sorts of camera movements with a ballhead or three-way head, you’ll realize that it simply won’t work. While both the ballhead and three-way head are ideal for holding a camera rock-steady, they fail at movement because they just aren’t designed for it. A gimbal head is an option, but it’s really built more for moving fast with action, which it does exceedingly well.

The ideal tool is a fluid head, which comes from the motion world. These pan-tilt heads are purpose-built to keep your camera steady when it’s staying still and to allow you to make smooth movements when you want to pan or tilt. There are a number of fluid heads to choose from, and we won’t list all of the manufacturers here. Instead, we refer you to the website of our sister magazine Digital Photo, which has a full resource listing on the website (

One of the drawbacks of a fluid head that’s designed for motion capture is that it’s built to have the camera in the horizontal (landscape) position. That’s all well and good if you want to shoot HD video, but if you want to switch back and forth from HD video to still capture, and vice versa, you’ll be restricted to horizontal still shots. To get around this, you have a few options. One is to use an L bracket so you can switch the orientation of the camera pretty quickly and easily. These L brackets are very handy, and some photographers even use them with ballheads to avoid the problem of an awkward tilt to the camera or running out of adjustment, which can happen when you switch to a vertical (portrait) composition.

Another option is to use a hybrid head. The Manfrotto 055 Photo-Movie Head is just such a device, combining the abilities of both a fluid pan-tilt head and a ballhead. You can go back and forth via a single switch on the head, and it’s rated for 15.4 pounds.

The final option is to go handheld with a steadying rig of some kind.
These are wonderful devices that come in a range of styles, anything from a shoulder-mount system of brackets to a counterweighted inertial device like a Steadicam or Glidecam. The chief drawback to these items is that when you’re shooting still images, they don’t give you the freedom to set the camera down and watch through the viewfinder for a perfect moment to press the shutter.