Tripod heads are one of the most important pieces of gear for photographers since they determine the camera’s angle and perspective. But do all tripod heads work the same way? And can any head be used with any camera? The answer to both questions is no – there are different types of tripod heads, each designed for a specific purpose.
So before you buy a tripod head, it’s important to understand the different types available and what each one can do. This article will explain the different types of tripod heads and help you choose the right one for your needs.
Are Tripod Heads Universal?
Long story short, the tripod heads are not universal and you need to understand what type of tripod you have and what head that tripod required.
Types of tripod heads:
1. Ball Head
A ball head allows you to quickly adjust the position and orientation of a mounted camera or lens. All Arca Swiss clamps have a ¼”-20 bolt for mounting a ball head directly. Some tripod manufacturers, such as Gitzo include a simple “ball head” in their product line.
However, ball heads are generally bulky and heavy compared to other types of heads, especially true with larger format cameras. Ballheads come in several different varieties, from miniature tabletop models to heavy-duty professional units designed for medium format cameras and long lenses. The fluid/air filled variety (like this Tamrac model) can give you more precise control than the platter variety found on smaller units like this Acratech GP.
2. Clamp-Style Head
A clamp-style head is most often found on cheaper tripods and monopods, although some manufacturers, such as Vanguard make a popular mid-range line with clamps instead of ball heads. These heads work by holding the camera in place with a flip latch or screw lock that tightens onto the mounting plate.
Although they are generally lighter than ball heads due to their simple construction, Clamp style heads are generally not recommended for serious photography since it can be difficult to quickly get your camera into shooting position without disturbing any other settings you may have dialled in beforehand.
Furthermore, unless you mount your camera vertically (such as when making panoramic images) all Clamp-style heads will block access to the side lugs used for mounting a camera strap, making it impossible to quickly detach your camera from the tripod while leaving the strap in place.
You can get around this by using a quick-release baseplate and then leaving that on your camera all the time, but these plates add bulk and weight and you will likely need to use a wrench (or pliers) to change lenses.
3. Pan/Tilt Head
Pan/tilt heads allow you to preset angles of rotation so that when you move your attached DSLR or lens, it only rotates to those fixed positions. This allows for very precise control of perspective and composition since you do not have to recompose after each shot during long exposures such as focus stacking applications or creating HDR images.
Pan/tilt heads also make it quick and easy to switch between vertical and horizontal orientations without having to readjust your tripod legs which is ideal for macro photographers who regularly work in both orientations. Like ball heads, pan/tilt heads come in different sizes depending on their weight rating to accommodate both large professional-grade DSLRs as well as smaller mirrorless cameras.
A mid-range Manfrotto model with a 486RC2 ball head can hold up to 8 lbs while this much larger Acratech GP unit will support up to 55lbs.
This Vanguard Alta Pro head incorporates an adjustable Arca Swiss style clamp mount so you have the option of using plates or clamps, however, it is not recommended to use both simultaneously.
4. Panorama/Nodal Slide Head
These heads are nearly identical to pan/tilt heads in their design and control, however, they incorporate a specific nodal slide system instead of the traditional rotating clamp found on Panheads which is used for stitching images together during multirow panoramic photography or creating vertical images with a small camera displacement from the previous row (such as when photographing underwater.)
Note that some manufacturers market this head type simply as “pan head” even though it does include a nodal slide system to allow for panoramic photography.
5. Dual Action Ball Head
A Dual Action Ballhead is capable of panning in one direction, while the separate tilt movement locks the ball in place along its axis for added stability when photographing with longer lenses or low camera angles. Examples include this 3 Legged Thing model or this Acratech GP head.
This Manfrotto ball head includes both a friction control knob and an adjustable tension locking knob that can be used separately or together depending on your shooting needs.
6. Three-way Head
A three-way head is similar to a ball head, however, it also has two separate axes of rotation: one for horizontal and one for vertical orientation. The main benefit of this style of tripod head is the ability to quickly reorient your camera from landscape to portrait mode by simply loosening one locking knob and rotating the entire head in place.
This is also convenient during panoramic photography when you need to constantly switch between landscape and portrait orientations.
7. Pistol Grip Head
A Pistol Grip head combines the capabilities of a pan/tilt and three-way head into one unit. It consists of a handle that contains the ball and socket joint which rotates freely around its vertical axis. This allows you to maintain position on your tripod while simply placing your hand under the grip, pushing up or down and then rotating your camera to the desired orientation.
The handle can also be used in conjunction with your camera’s tripod socket mount when shooting over a cliff, on uneven terrain or near water.
The short answer is no. Tripod heads are not universal because they need to be matched with the right tripod, and sometimes you will need a different head than what came with your original purchase. This is why it’s important to do research before purchasing any new photography equipment.