There are two types of tripods. Well, okay there are more than two types of tripod but I’m keeping this simple so I don’t get confused (easily done). The first type of tripod has a built-in head, the second type is just the legs only and to which you have to add your own head on afterwards.
The first type of tripod is great. You pull it out of its box and it’s instantly ready to use. It can be relatively inexpensive too. The second type, not so much. (Ironically you often pay more for a tripod with fewer features!) Plus, with the second type you’ve got to make two decisions and two purchases. Isn’t life too short for this sort of thing? Yes. Yes, it is. But, I’d still highly recommend the second option. It’s a bit more of a faff admittedly, but it does mean that you can configure your tripod so that it suits your needs exactly. It also means that you can use different manufacturers for the two parts. If you want to mix and match Manfrotto legs with that oh-so sexy Really Right Stuff head, then there’s nothing stopping you.
So, what are your choices when it comes to buying a tripod head?
The most familiar type of tripod head has to be the three-way, which is the type that you typically find on tripods with a built-in head. This type of head lets you move your camera in three independent axes. (Or two, if you make the mistake of buying a simple video head by mistake. Don’t do this.) Each axis can be unlocked and altered by adjusting a lever, before re-locking to keep the camera steady. The great thing about three-way heads is that they’re really simple and logical to use, and they can be light in weight and are generally inexpensive. (Though of course it is possible to pay a lot for a good three-way head…) Where three-way heads fall down a little bit is in precision. It can be difficult to make very fine adjustments, which can be frustrating when mere millimetres’ worth of adjust is required.
Related to the three-way is the geared head. Just like the three-way, you can move a geared head in one of three different axes. Cunningly however, unlike the three-way you don’t have to keep unlocking and locking the axis controls every time you make an adjustment; a gearing mechanism lets you smoothly move the head as you adjust an axis. What this means in practise is that geared heads allow very precise control of movement, far better than a three-way. Sounds like the ideal head, doesn’t it? Possibly. There are, however, two downsides to geared heads. The first is weight. Geared heads are enormously heavy for their size. This means that you have to mount them onto a substantial set of legs in order to minimise the risk of the tripod toppling over. And of course, they make the tripod far heavier to carry. The second is cost. That gearing mechanism doesn’t come cheap, so be prepared to pay more than you would for a three-way or a ball-head. On the subject of which…
A ball-head is a ball and socket joint with a camera mounting plate on top, with the joint held in place by a tension control. To move the joint you relax the tension control so that it can then be moved freely around a huge range of angles. Most ball-heads also have a second control that allows a panning movement without the disturbing the angle of the head, which is very, very useful. The big advantage of ball heads is weight: they have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. This means you can use relatively heavy cameras on relatively small and light ball-heads. Now, I have to ad mit that until recently I wasn’t a fan of ball-heads. Release the tension control without care and it’s all too easy to get fingers trapped when the camera tips unexpectedly. What changed my mind was an L-bracket. An L-bracket is an L-shaped quick release plate that wraps around the bottom and one side of a camera. Using an L-plate I don’t have to adjust the angle of my ball-head anywhere near as often. If I want to switch from horizontal to vertical I just release the camera, turn it and lock the side bit of the L-bracket back into the head.
Finally, there are two things to think about when choosing a tripod head. First, what’s the maximum weight it’s designed to hold? DSLRs tend to be heavier than mirrorless cameras so a more robust, heavier head is often necessary. (There are exceptions of course, but it’s a good general principle.) Secondly, will you enjoy using the head? This is a bit trickier to determine, particularly if you buy your equipment online. If you can though go to a shop and have a play with their tripod heads, or ask around at a camera club if you’re a member of one. Get your choice right and you’ll be a-head of the game. I’ll get my coat.