Best tripod head: 12 tested
16th May 2012 | 13:32
Three-way head, ball head, pistol or joystick head. Which will suit you best?
Tripod heads explained
Even the sturdiest set of tripod legs can be turned into a rickety affair by a wobbly head, so it pays to invest in a good-quality one.
Many photographers will buy a tripod as a complete kit, but the smart money is on buying the legs and head separately, so that you can get the best combination to suit your needs. And if you've bought an all-in-one kit, it can make sense to upgrade the head to a more versatile and stable model - a new head is generally easy to fit.
Unlike heads for video tripods, which only offer pan and tilt adjustments, photographic heads need to facilitate triple-axis movement, so that you can shoot in portrait orientation as well as in landscape. This setup is often referred to as pan, tilt and swivel, and is the reason why conventional photographic heads are called three-way heads.
The main alternative is a ball-and-socket head, usually just referred to as a ball head, but there's also the pistol or joystick variety, which is a variation on the ball head theme. We put 12 models from leading manufacturers through their paces.
The traditional photography tripod head is three-way. In almost every case, you get independent adjustments for pan, tilt and swivel. The latter two are usually clamped in place by locking arms that extend from the head, whereas the pan lock is often a space-saving thumbscrew.
Even so, you'll still generally need to remove at least one of the locking arms when you fold the tripod for compact carrying and stowage.
The main strength of the three-way design is that it enables precise adjustment in any of the three axes of movement, while keeping the other two firmly locked off.
This makes these heads ideal for situations where you need to make very small adjustments while keeping the camera level, for example in architectural and landscape scenarios. They're also useful for close-up and macro shooting, where very small and precise movements of the camera are often required.
Ball heads are growing in popularity, their design being based on a large ball that sits inside a socket locked by a single clamping screw. Ball heads are great when you need to set up a shot quickly, and for portraiture and general shooting when the ability to make precise adjustments isn't critical.
One issue, however, is that with heavier camera and lens combinations, releasing the single locking screw can make handling a bit unwieldy. For this reason, many ball heads feature a secondary adjustable friction damper, which you can adjust to suit the weight of your camera and lens.
Some ball heads go further, with a separate pan-only lock. Release this, and you can pan the camera while tilt and swivel movements remain locked off. It's particularly useful, as with three-way heads, when you want to take a series of shots at regular angular increments for stitching into a panoramic image. Indeed, a rotation scale is sometimes included on the head to help with precise adjustments between shots.
Pistol heads and joystick heads
A pistol or joystick head is based on the same ball-and-socket principle as standard ball heads but, instead of using a locking screw, you squeeze a trigger to release tension on the ball so that you can make adjustments.
This system is quick and easy to use in theory, but can be problematic in practice, as you'll see in our reviews of the Manfrotto 324RC2 and Vanguard GH-100 heads.
Whichever type of head you choose, extra features to look for include one or more bubble levels. These are typically positioned in the camera platform to help you level the camera itself, rather than just the tripod.
All the heads on test feature quick-release plates for fast fitting and removal of the camera. Finally, it's crucial to ensure that the head you choose has a maximum load rating that matches (and preferably exceeds) the weight of your camera plus your heaviest lens.
Compatibility and best fit
When you're checking for compatibility between head and tripod, one of the first things to do is measure the diameter of the platform on the top of your tripod's centre column. You can then choose a head on which the tripod mounting plate is approximately the same size; a big mismatch here can result in a lack of stability.
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The primary connection between head and tripod is via an attachment screw on the tripod. There are two standard sizes, which have either a 1/4-inch thread or a larger 3/8-inch thread. Most heads have a 3/8-inch thread but often come with a 3/8 to 1/4-inch adaptor, so they can be mounted on tripods that use the smaller-sized screw.
If an adaptor isn't supplied, they're available for less than £5, so this isn't a deal-breaker. While there's no problem mounting a head with a 3/8-inch thread on a 1/4-inch tripod, you can't do things the other way around; if your tripod has a 3/8-inch mounting screw, you won't be able to fit a head with 1/4-inch thread. The Slik SH-705E is the only head in our test group with a 1/4-inch thread.
Fitting the head to your tripod
This can be done in three simple steps:
1. Fit a thread adaptor: If necessary, start by fitting a 3/8-inch to 1/4-inch thread adaptor required for fitting the head on tripods that use the smaller screw size.
2. Attach the head: Loosen the centre-column locking screw on your tripod so that you don't scratch the column, then screw on the head until it's hand-tight.
3. Tighten the screws: Most good-quality tripods will have hex screws accessible from the underside of the mounting platform. Tighten these to lock the head in place.
Tripod heads compared: £30-60/$40-70
The crafty barrel-based design at the centre of this three-way head enables tilt and panning adjustments using just a single locking arm, leaving a thumbscrew to operate for swivel adjustments. Overall, it's quicker to set up than a conventional three-way head, but not quite as fast as a ball head. One downside is that you can't make panning adjustments while keeping the tilt axis locked, and vice-versa.
Like the quick-release plates fitted to the Slik and Vanguard GH-100 heads, the Velbon has a square mounting plate which can be used in any of four positions, without you having to swivel the camera around on the plate. There's practically no sag after you make adjustments, but the quick-release plate is a bit spongy.
For a small three-way head, the Slik has a respectable 4.5kg load rating, but it still feels rather flimsy compared with the Benro, Giottos and Manfrotto three-way heads. It's fairly basic feature-wise, lacking any calibrated scales for pan, tilt or swivel adjustments, and there are no bubble levels. You can, however, remove one of the locking arms and screw it into the other arm for compact carrying and stowage.
The quick-release plate has a square base, enabling it to be fitted in any of four orientations. However, there's no safety lock on the quick-release mechanism, and the plate's locking clamp doesn't give a really firm hold, reducing overall stability.
Despite having a modest 6kg maximum load rating, the Giottos three-way head feels every bit as sturdy as the Benro HD2, which has an 8kg rating. The locking arms are rather longer than on the Benro head, but you can remove one and screw it into the other for compact carrying.
Dual bubble levels are incorporated in the base of the head and the camera platform, making it easy to level the tripod legs as well as the camera itself. The scissor-action quick-release mechanism works well, and the surface coating of the plate enables a very firm connection to the camera.
Most of the heads in this group have a tripod mounting plate that's about 60mm in diameter, which suits the majority of full-sized tripods. However, along with the Slik and Velbon heads on test, this Manfrotto has a smaller 38mm diameter plate, making it ideal for smaller tripods. Like its big brother, the Manfrotto 496RC2, it features a sturdy and excellent quick-release mechanism and plate, plus an adjustable friction damper, although both heads lack a bubble level.
Compared with other ball heads on test, the ball and socket are rather small. And while adjustments are quick and easy, there's noticeable sag after you've let go of the camera, especially with front-heavy camera/lens combinations.
The official maximum load rating of 4kg is meagre compared with similarly priced heads in the group, but the 804RC2 feels as sturdy as the competing Benro and Giottos three-way heads. Like the Benro, there's no facility for screwing one locking arm into the other for streamlined carrying, and the Manfrotto actually features a third locking arm for panning, instead of a more basic thumbscrew.
Handy pan, tilt and swivel scales have five-degree increment markings, and there's a bubble level on the camera plate. Annoyingly, however, adjustments feel very jerky unless you slacken off the locking arms considerably.
The predecessor to this head was the Manfrotto 486RC2, which was a firm favourite with many photographers. The newer 496RC2 adds an adjustable friction damper and a refined safety lock for the quick-release plate, which is spring-loaded so it can't remain in the unlocked position.
Frills like a pan-only locking knob and bubble level are lacking, but the overall stability of the head is simply superb. Unlike the 494RC2, there's practically no sagging post-adjustment, and a dual cut-out in the ball's socket enables quick and easy tilting of the camera in either direction. What it lacks in extras, this head more than makes up for in ease and speed of use, and rock-solid performance.
Read the full Manfrotto 496RC2 review
Tripod heads compared: £60-$95/$70-100
Benro BH2 (BRBH2)
Benro's ball head is quite a basic affair, having just a single locking screw and no additional, adjustable friction damper nor a pan-only release. However, releasing the locking screw by about half a turn enables adjustment while maintaining fairly high friction, and undoing it a full turn facilitates free movement, which works well.
The scissor-action quick-release lock is easy to use while offering good security against accidental loosening, and a bubble level on the camera platform makes for easy levelling. Our only complaint is that the mounting surface that connects to the camera relies on two fairly narrow rubber strips, which make the connection feel quite spongy, especially with heavier camera/lens combinations.
Like the Giottos ball head, this Vanguard model features a pan-only lock that also comes with an adjustment scale, calibrated in five-degree increments; this enables precision panning while the tilt and swivel adjustments are locked off. A downside of this, however, is that you need to release the pan lock as well as the main locking knob when switching to portrait-orientation shooting.
Other features include two spirit levels on the camera plate and a quick-release plate with its own locking screw. There's no D-ring for fastening the camera to the quick-release plate, however - you have to use a screwdriver or a coin. There's no adjustable friction damper either, and post-adjustment sag can be noticeable.
Benro HD2 (BRHD2)
With the same 8kg load rating as Benro's ball head, this three-way model is more than twice as heavy, at 840g. The extra weight is mostly due to the additional tilt and swivel locking arms, and the chunky thumbscrew for the panning lock. There's no facility for screwing one locking arm into the other for carriage.
Precise adjustments are aided by three calibrated scales with five-degree increments for each of the pan, tilt and swivel movements, and there's also a bubble level on the camera platform. The quick-release system and plate are the same as those used in the Benro ball head, which creates the same sponginess issue caused by the narrow camera-cushioning strips.
£75 (about $120)
A full-featured ball head, the Giottos has three operating knobs. In addition to the main locking screw, there's a separate, adjustable friction damper plus a pan-only lock. Panning also comes with an angular scale, marked in five-degree increments. Instead of a bubble level, the camera plate has two spirit levels, so you can check for precise front-to-back and side-to-side levelling independently.
The quick-release system features a scissor-action safety catch, and the surface coating offers a solid connection to the camera. Considering its hefty 10kg maximum load rating and wide-ranging features, the Giottos is still pleasantly light in weight, partly due to the ball being hollow.
Read the full Giottos MH1311-652 review
With its quick-action joystick design, all that's needed to facilitate the 324RC2's full range of adjustments is a squeeze of the trigger. At least that's the theory; in practice, if you want to swivel the camera clockwise for portrait-orientation shots, to avoid the danger of it loosening on its connecting screw you have to remove the quick-release plate from the camera and reverse its orientation.
The adjustable friction damper works well but, despite a relatively low maximum load rating of 3.5kg, the head lacks stability. It's much more prone to slipping than three-way heads and regular ball heads, and there's noticeable sagging after you release the trigger grip to activate clamping.
The maximum load rating of this pistol-grip head is nearly double that of the similar Manfrotto 324RC2, at 6kg. However, it's more prone to slipping than the Manfrotto, even when the locking tension is adjusted to its tightest setting. Unlike the Manfrotto, the Vanguard has a pan-only mechanism, with calibrated scale.
The quick-release plate can be used in four different positions, at 90-degree increments. The bad news is that you need to swap between these quite often, for example if you want to shoot at an upward angle or swivel the camera clockwise for portrait-orientation shooting. There's a bubble level, but it's positioned beneath the quick-release plate, so it can't be used when the camera's mounted.
Verdict: best tripod head
For general shooting, ball heads lead the way with the promise of supremely quick setup, and the fact that there are no locking arms sticking out all over the place is a bonus.
A pan-only mechanism can be useful but, in practice, this adds another knob that has to be loosened and re-tightened when you want to switch from landscape-orientation to portrait-orientation shooting, so that you can get the socket's cut-out section in the right place.
We actually prefer the brilliantly simple Manfrotto 496RC2, which is unbeatably fast in use, and solid as a rock when locked off; besides, you can generally enable panning by loosening the centre column's locking clamp on the tripod itself.
By contrast, both joystick/pistol grip heads in the group are disappointing; they lack sturdiness and stability.
There's still a lot to be said for a traditional three-way head when you want ultimate control over adjustments.
The Giottos MH5001 is the top-performing three-way in the group, and a steal at the price.