It’s a showdown between ball heads vs pan head vs fluid heads! What tripod head will come out on top? Well, they’re all on top, actually. Top of the tripod legs anyways.
The competition is stiff (pun intended), and anyone of these contenders is worthy of the title.
Ball Head vs Pan Head vs Fluid Head Showdown, Which Is The Best?
A ball head is a simple ball and socket arrangement that offers the movements through all three axis with one simple locking lever. Some ball head tripods also use a quick acting pistol grip as the control for easier control. So would I choose a ball head as the winner?
- Simple and easy. One of the most simple designs in the entire world of photographic accessories, a ball head is so easy to use that you’ll almost forget you’re using a tripod or monopod.
- Smooth movement. Unless you buy a really poorly made ball head, the movement is nicely smooth. A poorly made ball head will just get thrown away, there’s few things worse.
- Speedy. Few set ups could be faster to adjust than a good ball head. That one control allowing you to change the position and orientation, and then lock it down, is so quick to learn, it almost seems intuitive. With a pistol grip type of ball head, you can get even faster.
- Mostly light duty. Yes, there are indeed some extremely heavy duty ball heads out there, but let’s be honest. If you’re using heavier cameras and lenses, there are better tripod heads out there than investing the cost and weight into one of the super duty ball heads.
- Not as precise. This is an odd thing to explain, but trying to get a position “just so” using a ball head for macrophotography or something similar, can be somewhat frustrating.
Pan/Tilt heads have three different controls for adjustments which make them highly sought after. These heads swivel on the base for the horizontal panning motion, and tilt up and down for the vertical adjustment. The simple pan-tilt heads will also flip the mounting plate 90 degrees to allow for vertical camera orientation.
This is one of the most common types of head out there. While talking about basic pan/tilt heads, I’ll also include the variation known as a 3-way pan-tilt, sometimes referred to as 3D or super 3D. They look very different from the regular pan and tilt, but they still qualify for the pan/tilt label.
- Sturdiness. Even a light weight pan/tilt head feels like a safe platform for many larger size camera rigs. Looking at some of the options out there, I can find some pretty heavy duty heads for very reasonable costs. The 3-way heads are even sturdier. About the only head more sturdy than a well made 3 way pan and tilt head is a gimbal, and those are not low cost, let me tell you.
- Reliably repeatable. Alliterative and informative! How do you like me now? Whether a regular pan/tilt or a three way, it is easy to set it back up in the same position. An important consideration for budget conscious studio photographers, for example, who need to move from one spot to another and back again to repeat the cycle for the next customer.
- No creep. By creep, I mean the tendency to have the head with the camera mounted slowly succumb to gravity and move. Ball heads have this tendency often, a decent pan/tilt head rarely does. Unattended rigs that creep can lead to tipping over, a catastrophe we enjoy avoiding.
- Slower operation. Having to work separate controls for vertical, horizontal, and camera orientation can slow things down a bit. Sometimes, following a moving subject and trying to adjust camera settings, make sure things are in focus, and working the tripod all at once can cause you to miss the shot. Those kind of situations would be better handed by a ball head or maybe even a gimbal.
A fluid head, sometimes also referred to as a video head, is a type of pan and tilt head that has the movements dampened by a hydraulic fluid. A video or motion picture head could also conceivably mean a geared or motorized version of a certain type of head, so I’ll just call a fluid head a fluid head, and nothing else.
- Smooth video or movie panning. Actually, this is the one most important reason to use a fluid head. If you have to pan horizontally or vertically while in the midst of filming a scene, having the motion be as smooth as possible is paramount. (Hey, Paramount is a movie studio! Another pun. Sorry…) Seriously, jerky pans are one of the easiest ways to ruin a movie’s viewing potential. If you are a YouTuber, vlogger, or any kind of videographer, you will quickly see improved results once you start using a fluid head.
- Specialized use. If you want to use a fluid head for regular photography, you can. But there is no gain to doing so. And it will slow everything down. Also, with some fluid heads, there is no way to orient the camera for portrait mode, so it limits composition.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Man, you guys are going to be so irritated… I can’t choose a clear winner. Each of these heads has pros that outweigh their cons. I consider each type a valuable photographic asset.
So, let’s break it down to what kind of photography makes one choice a winner over the others.
If I am a videographer, including YouTubers and vloggers of all ages, the easy pick is the fluid head. Nothing else in a reasonable price range comes close to the obvious advantages this type of head gives for motion pictures.
If I am an action photographer, the ball head becomes my go to tool. Whether on a monopod or a lightweight tripod, a ball head allows me to easily follow the action and not miss the shot.
If you were to look at my personal gear on most photo shoots, though, what tripod and head combo would you see me carrying most often? I won’t give brand or model number right now, but it’s a medium duty, very adjustable set of tripod legs coupled with a medium duty super 3D 3-way pan and tilt head. I use this on probably 75 % of all my own photography, outside of the product tests.
Did you all enjoy the showdown contest format for this article? Let me know if you did. Give me some ideas of other photographic contests you would enjoy seeing here. We’ll have some fun! If you want to learn more about the best tripods, check out my full list here.