In many ways tripods are just like knifes. Hold on, hear me out on this one!
While a single tripod could be used for almost any photographic or video purpose. You only get the best results when you use a specifically tool for the job. Just like knives, there are heaps of different tripod heads to choose from depending on what you plan on capturing. So without further adieu, lets jump in!
If I am already boring you, here is a quick reference guide for the different tripod head types in this list.
- Ball Heads
- Pan-Tilt Head
- Fluid Head
- Geared Head
- Pistol Grip
- Gimbal Heads
- Motorized Heads
- Rotor Heads
- Arca-Swiss plates
10 Different Tripod Head Types For Photography & Video
As the name implies, this is a simple ball and socket joint that is an addition to many entry level tripods. Unlocking the ball head allows movement in all three axis which provides great flexibility for composition.
An advantage to this type of head is quick adjustments however one can be limited in how heavy a rig can be used on a ball head. I know there are some really beefy ball heads out there, but I feel that is a direction most photographers don’t need to go.
If my equipment is substantial enough to require a heavy duty ball head, I would prefer to use a different type of head. Your mileage may vary. I find ball heads to be most useful on mini pods, travel tripods, and monopods.
This is one of the most common tripod head types you can find in the market, and for good reason. Pan-tilt heads swivel on the base for a smooth panning motion, and tilt up and down for likewise adjustments. This makes them great for micro adjustments for nailing the composition while also delivering great video results.
Also certain pan-tilt heads can also flip the mounting plate 90 degrees to allow for vertical camera orientation. A 3-way pan-tilt head allows for the adjustments to be both more precise and heavier duty. They are often paired with a set of legs as a complete unit, but there are individuals units out there as well.
A fluid head is a variation of the basic pan-tilt head with the motions dampened by a hydraulic fluid. I’ve also seen them marketed as a Video Head. Why would you want a dampened motion? Primarily for video and motion picture use.
One of the banes of amateur videography is jerky panning motions. Whether side to side or up and down, a jerky movement will take viewers out of a scene faster than a Tom Cruise character can run down an enemy agent.
In previous articles, I’ve talked a lot about limiting movement in video shots, since I think most needed movement is better accomplished by camera motion and editing. But if I must pan during a scene, a fluid head is one of the better options.
Another part of the motion picture and video equipment selection is a geared head. This tripod head type is also great for realestate, architectural and milky way photography.
Often configured in a similar layout to the fluid heads, these heavy duty heads use gears to accomplish the movements. Available in medium duty and very heavy duty, this is the type of head most likely to found under a high end movie or video camera rig.
In the field or in studio. Advantages are reliability, repeatability, and extremely smooth movements. Disadvantages are weight and high cost. Besides motion picture use, a geared head would be great to use for extreme close up photography. Scientific, medical, real estate and advertising are fields these heads would also be at home in.
Now here is a fun head to use in the field. The pistol grips I’ve seen or used are ball heads, but with the control release mechanism configured as a squeeze trigger instead of some sort of lever or screw. The primary advantage is speed.
Using a long lens on a monopod or a lighter tripod at a sporting event or on a nature shoot, having a pistol grip allows for rapid movement to frame the subject in motion, and then lock it fairly solidly by releasing the grip just before clicking the shutter.
It took me 80 times longer to write that than the actual event would occur in real life. One possible drawback is most of these heads are not sturdy enough for really heavy camera rigs. Where appropriate, though, these are a great tool for the action oriented photographer or videographer.
Okay, if you really want to talk about fun for action, the gimbal head is where it’s at! A gimbal head allows you to perfectly balance the camera and lens combination so that one can get the ultimate stability coupled with one of the easiest movements of any tripod head.
With a gimbal head, the center of gravity of the camera rig is set once, and then all the other movements can be accomplished within that stable setting. A real boon to nature photographers using very long lenses, it also is the primary design idea utilized for panoramic photography.
There is another type of gimbal head, the stabilized mount, that is extremely useful for hand held videography. Think SteadyCam, but pared down for less extravagant cameras. There is a vast array of gimbal mounts in many different usage categories and prices. This is easily one of the most fun and functional tripod head types I have used for video and photography.
There are at least two types of motorized heads. First, the geared head with the movements actuated by electric motors instead of a hand crank. I find this to be a rather specialized piece of equipment. Applications include motion picture photography and videography, scientific photography, and remote photography.
Remote photography is a genre that is getting more accessible by the day, with smart phone controls and other wireless options. Imagine, what once required a government grant can now be set up by a serious amateur with a limited budget.
Well, if several hundred or a couple of thousand dollars isn’t limited compared to multi millions, than I’ll stop writing right now.
This is the second type of motorized head I was considering above. What I have rented and may yet purchase is a computerized motor head will all the movements required for panoramic photography. The newest ones are of capable of 360 degree spherical panoramas. Panos are not just for real estate any more.
There are many wonderful exhibits online of panoramic photography that are truly outstanding. Some units are all in one, some have separate control panels. All are pretty expensive and new or updated models seem to be coming out monthly.
Hey! That’s not a tripod head! I know, but I like talking about monopods whenever I’m discussing tripods. The worst tripod for any shot is the one you aren’t using. So, I like to always have in my grab bag of gear a good monopod.
Just like binoculars are better than not having a telescope for backyard astronomy, using a monopod is going to be better than not using a tripod at all for certain situations. For me, those situations are likely to be sports, nature, and marginal lighting conditions.
Getting used to carrying a decent monopod may increase your ratio of good images to throw away files. Just saying…
Another tripod head types worth talking about in any tripod article is the quick release system that has become a virtual industry standard, the Arca-Swiss. A quick release does just what the name sounds like. It lets you quickly release and remount a camera or lens to a tripod head.
Some brands have their own proprietary system, but the Arca-Swiss is used by many different manufacturers as the mounting system in their better tripod heads. Having one standard set of release plates allows the photographer to not spend all their time trying to make sure you got the right plate for the right head. Leave the plate attached to the cameras or lenses, and then mount them on whatever head you are using.
Fluid, gimbal, pan-tilt, ball and socket, all can be found with this type of quick release. If you have a need for several different types of tripods and heads, this can really ease up your job.
If you want to learn more about tripods, check out my mega guide here on the best tripods for all budgets, uses and cameras!