Understanding and Selecting Tripods and Heads

Getting the Support Right

One of the last things that a student photographer buys is a tripod. For me this is a travesty as it should really be one of the first. To add insult to shaky images the tripod that is finally acquired is invariably the cheapest and lightest on the market, incapable of holding a camera steady on a windless day, let alone in a breeze. In this article I’ll be talking about tripods and what to look for in selecting the tripod that best suits your style of photography. This is a primer on the equipment available and is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on each and every style and brand of legs and heads.

The legs
A reasonable to good tripod tends to consist of two separate sections – the legs and a separate head. Any tripod that has the two permanently grafted together should be steered clear of. To deal with the legs first, traditionally a tripod should be a minimum of twice as heavy as the camera and lens combination. This sounds like reasonable advice but be aware that some of the newer cameras are like feathers compared to their older metallic brethren of yesteryear. These new cameras still need decent support. For me a good, but not conclusive test, is to have the legs at their maximum and press down on the head with my hand. If I twist my hand and the tripod legs buckle and twist or worse bend, then the tripod is probably not going to work very well.

leg locks

Tripod legs

Legs can be made out of various materials and tend to come in a range of tube shapes. Round is the most preferred as it has very little torsion in it. Tubes with open channels are the weakest and are usually found on the very cheapest tripods. Tubes are predominantly made from aluminium, steel, carbon fibre and now basalt fibre (Gitzo). Steel is the heaviest but cheapest. Most good manufacturers steer clear of steel as it rusts easily. They opt rather for strengthened aluminium. This is far heavier than carbon fibre, but is cheaper and more durable. Carbon fibre weighs less than half of aluminium, but costs almost four times as much in some cases. Basalt fibre, introduced by Gitzo is a middle area material costing less than carbon fibre and weighing less than aluminium.

Leg locks need to be as solid as possible when locked. There should be absolutely no flex in the lock when it is locked (cheap and nasty tripods actually bend at the lock). Good tripods tend to have locks made of magnesium or aluminium alloy. They come in either snap lock, or a twist lock. I personally prefer the newer Gitzo and Vanguard twist locks where the tubes can’t rotate (earlier versions with tubes that could rotate independently of each other were a pain to set up).

Most tripods will have a centre column. These are either geared or what is known as ‘rapid column’, i.e. they slide up and down and are locked with a screw or twist lock. Usually, the column should not be extended as this is least stable position for the tripod to be in. In fact, tripods without a centre column and far and away more stable than those with one (look at Gitzo's systematic range or Really Right Stuff tripods) As usual, the cheaper the tripod the more flex and give you will find in the centre column. An irony is evident in the fact that the lightweight cheap tripods have a geared centre column. This is purely a gimmick as a geared head is certainly not necessary for such a lightweight tripod. On this note, geared heads and legs braces are only required for extremely heavy cameras. Here we are talking about television cameras (a few exotic telephoto lens as well) which weigh upwards of 10kg

Another problem inherent in the centre column is the lowest possible vantage point of the tripod. The longer the column the higher you have to remain. To this effect, some columns can have a portion that can unscrew to enable the rig to go lower. As this is slow to do, some tripods are designed with columns that can turn 90 degree to the legs or even swivel completely (see images). As I shoot a lot of macro photography which requires me and my camera to be centimetres from the ground, Ioccasionally use a Gitzo Explorer tripod that has a centre column that can move independently of the legs. Regardless of the type of column though, try to find a tripod that will allow as close to ground level shots as possible. This means legs that splay at a range of angles (without a centre-brace) and a reversible or centre column or one that can be tilted.

In ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing’ Freeman Patterson points out that the traditional way of thinking regarding a tripod is: “My tripod is too large and heavy for my suitcase, so I guess I’ll buy a smaller tripod’. The sideways way of thinking which he argues is the correct way, for a photographer, is to say “My suitcase is too small for my tripod. Maybe I’ll buy a larger suitcase”! This is the way to think when it comes to tripods!

These are some manufactuers that I would recommend:

Gitzo, Manfrotto, Vanguard (the Alta series), Really Right Stuff, Benro

Tilt pan heads

Two pan and tilt head designs from Manfrotto.


Tripod Heads

In Photo Writing (subscribe on the front page) I looked at choosing a set of legs for your support rig. I have kept it to the basics as there are far more variables in choosing a tripod. After the basics, tripods start to enter the realm of specialist photographic applications (anyone who has ever looked at buying a Sachtler will know this). There are two basic head designs that I will discuss. The most important thing about whatever type of head is chosen, is that when the controls are locked there is no movement in the camera and lens. A good test for this is to look through the viewfinder and press on the lens. Does the image move? If so, the head is probably not strong enough for your camera/lens combination.

The two basic designs that most photographers choose from are a pan-and-tilt head (also known as a 3-way head) and a ballhead. The Pan and tilt head is based upon three independently moving axes – pan, tilt and swing. The three axes can all be locked, allowing one of the axes to be moved at a time. The ballhead on the other hand has a single ball joint between the camera and the head which can be moved freely so that the camera can be pointed in virtually any direction.

The advantage of the pan tilt head is the refinement of movement that is possible. High end pan tilt heads are sometimes geared so that precise increments can be made to the composition. For this reason many landscape and studio photographers prefer this type of head for their support systems. The ball head on the other hand has the advantage of speed and flexibility on its side. Many nature and wildlife photographers prefer the ballhead due to its ability to make fast compositions possible in one movement. However, refining a composition can be difficult as most ballheads have a little flex once locked down (meaning that there is a slight difference in the composition after the locking knob has been turned).

Choosing a Pan Head.
Lower end pan heads are usually considerably cheaper than their equivalent ballheads. They are often the head that accompanies tripod legs when sold as a set. More expensive legs though, need to have a head bought separately. When opting for a pan tilt head there are a few things to bear in mind.

Design. Some pan heads have a cantilevered design. This means that they are extremely flexible in terms of positioning, but can be tricky to set up. The one cantilevered design that I have used was difficult to tighten sufficiently and as a result tended to shift slightly, or even slide completely out of position. In the image above the head on the left is a light-weight canti-levered design, while the head on the right is a conventional 3 way pan tilt design.

Knobs. Sounds odd but look at the size of the locking knob. Large protruding ones lock down more easily, but tend to snag on things when the tripod is carried. Small unobstrusive knobs make for lighter heads, but tend to not lock as securely.

Material. This should go without saying, but look for a metal head (not plastic!!!). Some top quality heads are made of magnesium fibre, while the heavy cheaper heads are cast from steel or even iron blends.

Regardless of the type of head you select though, remember that it’s what works best for the photographer in question. David Noton, for instance, prefers geared pan tilt heads while Frans Lanting appears to favour a ball head.

Tripod Heads II—Ballheads

My current preferred choice of tripod head is the ball head. Below is depiction of some of the ballheads that I own, being a Graf Studioball, a Kirk BH-3, Manfrotto 3262QR and a number of tiny Manfrotto 482 ballheads that are used to hold flashguns.

Ballhead explanation
Ballheads are extremely versatile and are found in a far larger range of sizes than their pan/tilts counterparts. Because they operate on a ball joint they are quick and easy to set into position since they operate with a single knob rather than three different knobs. As with tripods, you get what you pay for. A cheap pan/tilt head locked down is likely to be more rigid than a cheap ballhead locked down.

When looking at a ballhead, consider a number of aspects starting with the size of the ball itself. The larger the ball the more locking power it has and therefore the heavier the load that it can carry. My workhorse head, the Kirk (I also have a Benro B2 which I use regulalrly), has a very large head in relation to it's size. I find it ideal for most of my photography but it is often a little small for long lens work which is where the Studioball comes in with a ball almost 2.5 times larger.

Good ballheads have a positive locking feel to them. When testing a ballhead, check through the viewfinder to see how much sag there will be after you lock the head into place. There is invariably sag regardless of the size of the ball—this is particularly evident with longer lenses. If absolutely critical framing is necessary a ballhead is probably not the right tool.

The size of the locking knob is also very important. Tiny locking knobs are difficult to tighten and even harder to loosen. Then there are the number of knobs to consider. Good ballheads have a locking knob, a pan knob so that the camera can be swung around even if the locking knowb is tight, and a tension or ‘drag’ knob. This last control partially tightens the ball so that there is tension. This makes critical framing a little easier as well as making very heavy camera rigs more manageable.

A number of manufacturers have their own tripod clamps at the top of the head. The clamp, or quick release platform, must grip the tripod plate (attached to the camera) as firmly as possible. For this reason I prefer the Wimberley/Arcaswiss style clamp that has a locking screw rather than a latch (ala Manfrotto and Gitzo). Another advantage of the Arcaswiss style clamp is that it has been adopted as a universal design by some of the best independent tripod head manufacturers. So if you use a Acratech, Arcaswis, Graf, Kirk, Really Right Stuff, Markins or Wimberley, the tripod plates are interchangeable (not that it’s much of a consolation considering how much you will pay for these heads).

A last advantage of the Arcaswiss style plate is that they are made to match lenses and other accessories. So I have a special long plate for my 400mm (to balance the lens on its centre of gravity), another for my 80-200, as well as a dedicated plate for each of my cameras. A separate plate can also be bought that has mounting points for a macro flash arm.

Getting a good support system is extremely important if you want the best quality out of your pictures. Although a bad tripod is better than no tripod at all, a good tripod and tripod head can become the most valuable piece of equipment aside from the glass on the camera.


Arca Swiss Cube C1

Arca-Swiss Cube C1 geared head

Gitzo Fluid head

Gitzo Fluid head

Acratech GV2

Acratech GV2 ball head

Specialised Tripod Heads

For most people a ballhead or pan-tilt tripod head is usually more than sufficient. For others these have quirks that need to be overcome and therefore invest in something a little more exotic. The heads I’ll briefly mention here are fluid heads, geared heads and gimbal heads. Each of these have unique traits that optimise their use for a specific application but make them about as useful as a flying brick in a china shop for anything else. Consider the ball or pan-tilt as the family sedan or even the go anywhere 4x4. The specialised heads are a 18 wheeler truck or drag-racer. Great for their purpose but difficult to use for anything else.

Fluid Heads
Fluid heads like those in the Manfrotto range are actually made for the video and filming industry. Most fluid heads have a long control stalk which the photographer can use to aim and lock the head in a position. The advantage that they offer is smooth panning due to fluid that acts as hydraulic braking system in the head. Video requires this so that long smooth pans can be created without the stop start motion that is often a result of user errors in a non fluid head. Basically, regardless of how much pressure is applied, the pan will take place at the same speed without any juddering. Before gimbal heads came onto the scene photographers shooting large lenses sometimes opted for fluid heads as it made panning shots easier to focus and frame. The downside is that the heads tend to be heavy and cumbersome. Moreover most only allow movement in two planes (up down and pan). An advantage is that they can handle extremely heavy camera rigs, and because of the fluid are easy to frame despite the camera rigs weight.

Geared Heads
This is for the obsessive landscape and commercial photographers who wants absolute perfection in their compositions. Conventional geared heads look like a pan tilt head but with gears in the axes. This makes them very slow to use (forget about panning with moving action or trying to lock down on a sporadically moving insect or animal) but extremely accurate. Like fluid heads they also handle heavier camera rigs as movements are made by twisting levers and knobs to slowly frame the shot. Apart from being slow to use, geared heads tend to be very heavy as well.

A true specialist geared head is the Cube C1 (pictured) offered by Arca-Swiss. It does not come cheap at roughly US$2000 but is lighter than other conventional designs with a weight of 994g. This is a large price to pay considering Manfrotto’s 405 Pro Digital Geared Head, which weighs 2.4kg, costs approximately US$480.

Gimbal Heads
Gimbal heads are an answer to the prayers of wildlife and sports photographers who weren’t satisfied with fluid heads as their support for long telephotos. The gimbal head is essentially a panning base with a cantilevered arm that holds the lens in its exact centre of gravity. This allows the photographer to rapidly frame the lens as if it were weightless. Again, speciality does not come cheap as the Wimberley head (version II) costs just under US$600. A cheaper alternative is to buy their Sidekick which slots into a conventional Ball head with panning base and Arca-Swiss style plate and which comes to US$250 (below left is the Gimbal, right is the Sidekick). I personally use the Benro version of the Sidekick which I found on the used market for about $70).


Wimberley Sidekick

Gimbal Head

Induro Gimbal Head


Today, if you spot a photographer with a long lens in the bush there’s a good chance they have it resting on a gimbal type head.

Other Odds
Apart from the heads mentioned above there are a number of variants of the conventional pan-tilt and ballheads. For instance Gitzo manufacturers an off-centre ball head which they claim increases the range of movements. Or there’s the very interesting Acratech GV2 Ballhead (pictured) with gimbal function for use with lighter telephotos (300mm f2.8 for instance).

Whatever specialised head you use, if you decide to use one, make sure it fits the purpose that you require it for. They are great to have if they are necessary, otherwise it’s simply more weight to lug around.

Then of course there are panoramic heads, but I’ll leave that for a future article.