Q) Recently I went shopping for a new tripod/head combo. At one store the salesperson told me that I should get a pan head because it gave greater control. At another store the salesperson said that the ball head is the only way to go because it’s quicker. What is your opinion of the two head styles, and how do they compare in stability, or is it just a matter of personal preference?
Cedar City, Utah
A) I’m not a fan of the pan heads, even though they will allow you to precisely position the camera individually on three different planes. Each adjustment affects the other in a seemingly never-ending sequence. By the time you’re ready, that moose—or even the sun—is gone! The reason that every pro I know uses a ball head is that the camera can be positioned from every direction at once and locked in place very quickly. Further, quality ball heads give you the option of a tensioning knob that allows you to make slight adjustments in position without flopping and offer a control that allows you to pan the camera/lens combination. So the ball head offers you all of the benefits of the pan head, but it is much faster and more versatile. In terms of strength and stability, both types work equally well as long as they are large enough for the load and securely tightened.
Even with the use of a fisheye at ground level to photograph tidy tip wildflowers, a ball head facilitates the quick positioning of the camera and lens. Canon EOS-1Ds MK II with 15mm fisheye, 1/180 sec. exposure at f/22 and ISO 200; a Gitzo Explorer tripod was used at ground level with a right-angle finder.