I recently popped into my local Camera outlet to get the firmware updated on my camera. Whilst this was in progress, I used the opportunity to browse. I spent a good deal of time looking at the variety of tripod heads available and sat down with the store owner to look at each type in terms of functionally.
When you buy a top-end tripod it comes with a pre-fitted head, the option exists to change the head when you buy the tripod. The price may vary and will be adjusted. So, we went through the tripod heads on display and discussed the most common types to ascertain which will be best for a particular purpose.
The most common type fitted to a tripod is one that we are all familiar with, the ball head. Fast and simple to adjust, it allows you to set the camera into almost any position at speed. They are more suited to lighter types of equipment with shorter lenses and are not entirely accurate when adjusting for a level position. This can be frustrating when you have levelled them and want to adjust a particular direction as they move around erratically.
Pan and tilt heads are popular sellers; they are far more accurate and allow precise adjustment along the various planes (vertical, horizontal and tilting). Slacking off a knob allows you to adjust the respective plane before tightening it to lock it into place. They are bulkier than ball heads with multiple handles and are slower but are far more accurate. If space is an issue though they may not be ideal. They are in many cases the tripod head of choice for landscape photography.
Many manufacturers offer the option of a geared head which is even slower than a pan and tilt head but allows for increments of adjustment, once again these are popular with landscape photographers using various format cameras.
Gimbal heads are very popular with wildlife photographers who use long lenses which are heavier and would cause a ball head to slip, causing frustration. They are well-engineered and balance lenses, the centre of gravity allows the lens to move freely without having to tighten anything.
Then we get pistol grip heads, very similar to ball heads except you have a grip to squeeze to unlock the movement and make your adjustments. They are quick, yet can get complicated if you are trying to adjust the tripod whilst composing and focusing.
So dependent on budget most head types are suitable for landscape photography whilst the more expensive gimbal heads are way on top for wildlife photography.
Lastly, remember there are a variety of considerations when buying a tripod, some photographers even have a colour preference. They may all look similar but the function is a key driver when choosing a tripod and head. Remember its main purpose is to give you a rock steady shooting platform – no movement or vibration. Most of the better tripods have a quick-release plate that you mount to the base of the camera and clip into the head when you want to shoot, never forget this when you take your tripod out as it is useless without the mounting plate.