Tripod heads for digital photography including Gitzo, Manfrotto, Arca-Swiss, Wimberly, KIRK, and more.
Don’t overlook the importance of a tripod (and a tripod head)
Students and enthusiasts always buy a camera first, and tend to forget about a tripod. Then, when they realize the importance of a tripod, they go low-bid.
In distinction, a professional photographer will use a tripod more often than not, and their tripods will be a professional brand (Gitzo, Manfrotto, Linhof, etc).
On low price tripods for weekend photography the tripod and tripod head are all one system. Most professional tripods have two different and separate parts: the tripod (with no head) and the tripod head (separately). In other words, many pros buy a tripod of one brand and a tripod head of another brand. Or, if they buy all one brand, they buy the tripod and head separately: first the tripod and then a specific head.
Price, cost, pros and cons of tripod heads
Price is an understandable consideration, but if you buy a cheap product, it may not last as long as a really well-engineered and quality control manufactured tripod head. If a product has a 5-year warranty, that is a good sign. If it has only a 1-year warranty, I would be careful.
Cost also hinges on the brand name. Some brands are inherently more expensive. But some brands are worth their cost. If you are a pro, people who visit your studio expect to see an international name brand on each item of equipment.
The pros and cons of a tripod head are primarily determined for what use you intend the head for: video or still photography, studio or out in a remote field trip. Some tripod heads weight as much as an entire carbon fiber tripod.
Introduction to the many different kinds of tripod heads: comparisons
- Ball heads (in an endless set of varieties and versions)
- Pistol-Grip heads, Action-Grip (rare, best known from Manfrotto)
- Geared heads (best one is the Manfrotto model 400).
- Tilt and pan tripod heads (pan-tilt)
- Three-way head (pan, tilt, and rotate)
- Gimbel heads (which is the next kind I wish to obtain)
- Floor level tripods
- Leveling heads (so far primarily Arca-Swiss and Linhof)
- Unique innovative heads (if you want to spend $10K)
You could also classify the panoramic heads as a separate kind of head class; most are L-shaped (for 35mm or smaller cameras). Be aware that most L-shaped pano heads wobble even for 35mm cameras. For a medium format camera, I long ago gave up even trying to use an L-shaped head. For my Hasselblad with Phase One P25+ I use a horizontal pano head from NOVOFLEX and get great results.
Let’s now look at the seven most common different kinds of tripod heads and learn more about them, based on a few decades of experience as a photographer.
Ball heads have been my favorite for decade after decade. But I can understand why other photographers will prefer other types of heads. Each person will have their own preference, though ball heads are very popular with pros and prosumers.
In bold font I list the tripod heads that the FLAAR Reports photography evaluation institute would consider to evaluate. But until we have these available, we will stick with what we have already received.
- AcraTech, Ultimate, ballhead
- Acratech GV2 Ballhead, Arca-Swiss style clamp
- Acratech GP Ballhead
- Arca-Swiss, their first Mono Ball head, which I still use daily and love
- Arca-Swiss, B1, their second head; most flawed ball head ever made
- Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 DP Double Pan.
- Arca-Swiss Cube (beautiful engineering if you like over-engineering)
- Berlebach Leveling adapter 33º (unclear whether this attaches onto tripods other than Berlebach)
- Burzynski – Protec, or Ball Head II
- Gitzo Systematic ball head
- Gitzo Series 1
- Gitzo Series 2
- Gitzo Series 3
- Kirk - BH1 or BH3
- Linhof - Profi III is the current series in 2011 going into 2012
- Manfrotto 057 series ball heads (at PhotoPlus 2011)
- Markins - M10 or M20
- NOVOFLEX ClassicBall (six models that look good (but we do not have any yet)
- NOVOFLEX MagicBall (for small point-and-shoot cameras)
- NOVOFLEX (many more models but mostly for home photography)
Since even Arca-Swiss tripod heads have rare defects or eventually wear out (after 30 years!), we do not yet list any ballheads designed in China. Of course the problem is that a cheap tripod will break no matter where it is made. We bought a Sony VCT-R640 and it was a piece of cheap junk (even when it worked). It broke after a few months.
Burzynski never exhibits at PMA or PHotoPlus (or if they did in past years I can’t remember them). And even at Photokina, Burzynski has not left much imprint on my brain. So if they were there, they were well hidden. Tough to review a product if we don’t know who the manufacturers are!
Same with Markins; this brand name (sorry) is not imprinted in my memory and my memory has Photokina 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 but I will check at Photokina 2012. Markins was definitely not at PhotoPlus 2011 and I don’t remember them from PMA (I skipped the last two years of PMA because they kept shrinking in size).
AcraTech used to exhibit at PMA, but first Epson pulled out; then when Canon pulled out there was not enough left to attract enough other exhibitors. Hence visitor interest died, and they cancelled 2011 if I remember correctly. For 2012 PMA will be soft of co-located with a popular consumer electronics expo in Las Vegas.
The brand NPC I have never noticed; this does not mean they are always absent from photo trade shows, but since most of the year I am out photographing in remote parts of Guatemala I can’t exactly drop in to B+H when I am in NY. And when I am in NY I rarely have time to go camera shopping. So if a company has no presence, or if their presence is not noticeable at a busy expo, I tend to focus on the companies that have a focus, such as Gitzo, Manfrotto, and NOVOFLEX.
I have visited the Linhof factory and have many Linhof cameras, but I would be content with other ball heads.
Summary on ball heads for tripods:
30 years ago Arca-Swiss was the king of the market. But they dropped their best head design and went to more complex engineering exercises. They lost sight of what a photographer was happy with. We want a functional head, not an engineer’s experiment.
Now, thirty years later, you can get more innovative (and more realistic) ballheads from Acratech, and more economical ballheads from Gitzo and Manfrotto.
Also, all the head manufacturers have their own web site, and tend to answer e-mails. Arca-Swiss is legendary for not answering e-mails and not even having their own web site. That was okay in the last century, but today we are in the year 2012, and Arca-Swiss is long ago past history (other than their nice dovetail plates, which are a world standard). But you don’t need a plate actually made by Arca-Swiss: today most other manufacturers offer this size and shape of attachment.
Many of the tripod head manufacturers never exhibit, or only in Germany. We understand the cost-savings, and obviously we are aware of the value of Internet-based businesses. But Gitzo and Manfrotto are at expos both in Germany and USA. It is so much easier to interact with them.
Another issue is that not all tripod heads attach without an adapter to all Gitzo tripods, since some tripod heads are intended to replace the entire top plate (which you remove to put on their head). So sometimes it is simply easier to stick with a solution that works more automatically on any of my faithful Gitzo tripods.
I tried a vertical and a horizontal action-grip head from Manfrotto. I preferred the horizontal one; another photographer preferred the vertical one.
These Manfrotto heads were the first generation action grip heads from Italy. They lasted several years and I was very happy with this innovative concept of head for general photography. This means for photographing at trade shows or on excursions. These heads are not intended for use in a studio (for our studios I had the Manfrotto geared tripod head, a really sturdy long-lasting achievement).
But after a few years the action grips would no longer clamp tight. I hope this aspect has been redesigned, since if you are on airplanes over a 414,000 kilometers as I was last year, I am so seldom home I have no way to send anything for repair (one tripod whose leg was broken in a crocodile infested swamp is still at its repair place three years later because I never had time to retrieve it).
Now Manfrotto indicates that the action-grip heads are redesigned, so you might want to try them. One new alternative is the Manfrotto 324RC2 Joystick Head (which replaced the model 222).
It is also helpful that Manfrotto carefully labeled the names of these as Light Duty Grip Ball Head. We really liked the two action grips that we had, but even though we are very careful in using them, we take thousands of photographs.
I have an original edition Manfrotto geared head (a model 3263). Actually I have two of them. I have used them for so long I think the current models have a different model designation for the last decade! The current model designation is Manfrotto 400 Deluxe Geared Head.
For any 4x5” camera, or even any medium format camera, the geared Manfrotto head is my favorite. But what I still need is a center attachment that can hold a Canon or Nikon camera, since these geared heads are understandably made for medium format (3/8”) and for large format (also 3/8” European thread).
Tilt and Pan heads
I cringe when I see someone offering me a pan/tilt tripod head. These are okay if you are stuck somewhere, the airline has lost your baggage, and the only tripod you can borrow in the destination city has a tilt and pan head.
Otherwise I rarely use a pan and tilt head. Yet thousands of photographers still buy these, thinking these are what pros use. And I am sure that many pro studio photographers do. But ever since I got the original Arca-Swiss head over 30 years ago, I have favored ball heads, though obviously for bird photography with a heavy lens I need to upgrade to a gimbal head.
But I will admit that I did use pan/tilt heads for years. And I am sure that for some applications this style of head has advantages. This is why a pro photographer will tend to have many different tripod heads.
Also, I noticed that Gitzo now offers a special tripod head for bird photography: the G2380 fluid head, for birdwatchers. Since we at FLAAR do bird photography in mangrove swamps and rivers, this head sounds like a great concept to evaluate.
Three-way head (pan, tilt, and rotate)
Sorry, too many controls for when I am in a crocodile infested swamp, or inside the crocodile pen at the zoo.
When I have pit vipers on the table in front of me (yes, carefully taken completely out of their cage by the helpful herpatologist), I need to keep my eye on the snake’s head (and look at their muscle movement and breathing pattern). So I don’t have time to twiddle with three controls on a tripod (sorry to be so blunt).
I use a ball head when I photograph dangerous or venomous reptiles.
But, when we did not have enough tripod heads for all our photographers (there are now about seven photographers on our team), we provided one of our photographers the 1570M head. She said it took a few days to get used to, but after she had experience, she said it did have some advantages.
Wimberley is the best known for gimbel heads but now you can get lower cost gimbel heads from Manfrotto (Manfrotto 393 Heavy Telephoto Lens Support)
Jobu Design was not at the PhotoPlus 2011 so tough to comment on their BWG-Pro options.
Custom Brackets was at PhotoPlus 2011. Their Gimbal heads are L-shaped. Traditional gimbal heads have tended to be semi-circular.
Manfrotto 393 gimbel head looks more robust because it has a frame on both sides. This is one I would like to try.
Floor level tripods
These are really a tripod not a tripod head; actually if you use them outside on the ground you don’t need a head (especially if you put them on a bean bag).
I have two Leica table top tripods and both are inadequate to hold the weight of a good camera; plus they are crotchety in how they behave when in use. This is the only Leica equipment I had that was unacceptable. Today Manfrotto and other manufacturers have similar products. I need something even lower.
The KIRK enterprise Low Pod is something I definitely would like to test and evaluate.
The Manfrotto Pocket DSLR Support is completely different but I would really like to try it (black Part # MP3-D01 or Grey, Part # MP#-D02)
Caption: Here you can see where I need a “low rise” tripod, out in the jungle, trying to get my camera parallel to leaf-cutting ants. We especially like to photograph them when the ants are carrying flower petels.
Leveling tripod heads
The Linhof 3D Micro understandably reminds me of the Arca-Swiss Cube. I estimate the Cube came first but would need to check. These are for use in a camera studio, but as a non-profit research institute I get National Geographic quality shots with my Manfrotto geared head (now the model 400).
And yes, my photos with tripod heads other than a leveling gizmo have indeed been published by National Geographic (about 11 of my photographs of 7th-9th century AD Maya vases and bowls).
I do not see any particular need for a leveling head for any of my work, not even in a museum. But I am sure that some highly specialized photography, that a leveling head would be nice.
Otherwise, these heads are obviously an exercise by capable engineers to entertain themselves in designing something remarkable (albeit not really very often needed, or even very practical).
Unique innovative heads
The Gitzo Ser.5 3 Way Electronic Head was clearly the most remarkable tripod head exhibited at PhotoPlus 2011 in New York. If I win the Lotto I would definitely consider this (the head costs a cool $10,000, not including tax).
My favorite is clearly the NOVOFLEX. I am writing this page in Milano, Italy, and don’t have my NOVOFLEX pano system in front of me to note the model #, but it is the top of their line. FLAAR covers pano heads on other web pages and in PDFs. Link to the other pages and show the mini-titles as hot links.
Features to look for
A standardized base plate is helpful if you have lots of cameras and lots of tripod heads. For serious photographers, Arca-Swiss is the standard worldwide for base plate width and height and bevel. Ironically the best base plates that fit are from companies in the US such as KIRK and others.
Ratings reviews, evaluations
Since FLAAR is not a commercial company, we don’t give ratings like the sham reviews, pseudo-reviews, or reviews that get a commission on click-throughs. Instead of a rating, we either use a tripod head, or not. We only use the tripod heads that really work. So if you see a tripod and head in our reports, you know this is because our 40+ years of experience suggests this equipment is effective.
Summary: Brands of tripod heads
Sorry, we do not yet evaluate Chinese tripod heads (until we have documentation from using them that documents they hold up adequately). However, be realistic, for even name brands are actually made in China and rebranded (but at least they are designed in USA or Western Europe). elow we list the important brands that you should consider. Most are still made in North America or Western Europe.
- Arca-Swiss, primarily extremely complex engineering concepts
- Gitzo (Bogen in past years), almost every kind of head you can imagine
- Manfrotto (Bogen in past years), every size, every shape, every application
- Wimberley, primarily specialized such as Wimberly WH-200
I did not see Acratech at Photo Plus 2011; don’t confuse Acratech with Argraph. It is Acratech which makes the impressive heads.
Berlebach also makes tripod heads
Berlebach is best known for their wooden tripods. But it is their tripod heads that I like: especially I like their
- Leveling Adapter, #111971
- and their 3-way-head Pegasus, #11128.
However, we lack these, so I can’t write a review until we actually have them to use in our photography of plants, animals, landscapes, and in museums and botanical gardens and zoos. We also photograph archaeological artifacts, Maya sculpture, and architectural history (especially Mayan palaces, temple-pyramids and ball courts (for their ballgame where the head of the defeated capitan was wrapped in native rubber and used as the ball in the next game)).
We have tested two Arca-Swiss tripod heads. The first one, the original “Mono Ball” has lasted over 27 years and still works (though it could use some tightening after all these thousands of days of use). This is probably one of the best ball heads every made.
The second-generation Arca-Swiss ball heads, B1, was one of the worst and most problematic tripod heads ever conceived. I used it less than 5 days before it locked tight. There was endless nonsense issued by the manufacturer on how easy it was to unlock, and claims that the locking was the fault of the end-user. Nonsense: it was inadequately engineered; was severely flawed. They should have simply politely apologized and replaced it with one that worked. Evidently they finally realized how much bad PR this first-generation tripod head was, and finally evidently corrected the flaw, but too many years too late. And they still blamed it on everything but the original design concept. I guess we are all human and understandably it is easier to blame something or someone besides our own family.
Acratech heads I have never used because none have been made available for testing. No one answered our e-mails. No problemo, since we have plenty of other tripod heads, but we would have enjoyed testing them.
Gitzo off-center ball head hold up several years but is now in need of tightening. We cover Gitzo tripods extensively on all the FLAAR Reports web sites.
Manfrotto three-movement geared tripod heads: the largest head they make, a geared head, the original 3263, was fabulous. I still have two of them. They have supported by 4x5 and 8x10 cameras for decades and still hold my cameras today. This Manfrotto head holds up to constant travel and constant use. Today the current model designation is 400.
The two nice Manfrotto action grip tripods were very popular with my staff photographers. But the “grip” wore out after several years. But they lasted much longer than Chinese tripods. The newer models I saw at PhotoPlus 2011 hopefully are more longer lasting.
It is impressive to see how many new models Manfrotto now offers (based on what I saw at PhotoPlus 2011 in New York recently).
NOVOFLEX tripod heads
NOVOFLEX makes equipment for hobby photographers (Magicball and Ball 19), prosumers (Classicball 3, Ball NQ, Ball 30, Ball 40), and also professional studio photography (Classicball 5). I rate the NOVOFLEX macro focusing rail and horizontal rotating pano head is at the full professional level. I use my Hasselblad with Phase One P25+ on NOVOFLEX pano system and get stunning results.
Botanists, zoologists, geologists, archaeologists, and architectural historians can also use ball heads from NOVOFLEX out on location.
Ries Tilt Head
I can remember seeing this head many years ago, when Ries still had a booth at photo trade shows. I admired their Ries J250 Double Tilt Head. This is an unusual engineering concept: it is not a normal pan and tilt head. I would need to have one in front of me to evaluate it (tough now that I don’t see them at recent PhotoPlus expos, and PMA has been not adequate even for attendees in past years).
Tripod heads for photographing animals
Wimberley is the company which most comes to mind when you think about a gimbel style tripod head for using with a telephoto lens for bird photography. But now KIRK enterprises has their King Cobra. The KIRK King Cobra would compete with the Wimberley Sidekick. The top of the line Wimberly head would be the WH-200 Wimberley Head Version II.
I have already mentioned the nice Manfrotto 393 gimbel head. It is H shaped (or could be considered U-shaped. I find these inherently more sturdy than L-shaped brackets (sorry, too many L-shaped pano bracket systems wobble).
When to use a tripod; when not to use a tripod?
I find that most students and weekend photographers either use no tripod at all, or use one that is either inadequate or inappropriate (pan-tilt). The photographers who have tried a tripod may give up and never use one again if they started with either an inadequate one (a tripod that whobbles) or one that is inappropriate (too many handles; too many options; too many controls).
Even with a tripod, use a cable release
When you push your finger down on the camera to take the photo, your finger moves the camera. Then the mirror flips up (causing vibration). So while the camera is trying to take the photo, it has vibrations from two sources.
Plus, I notice that most beginners are too close to their tripod: still figiting with controls or position of the head or simply standing with their own human legs next to the tripod legs. Result is that the entire tripod and head are being moved while the camera is trying to take a photo with two vibrations from the camera alone.
When I use my Hasselblad for a shot, 100% of the time I do a mirror release before I take the photo. With a Hasselblad ELX this is very easy to do, since these cameras are made for serious photographers who understand the usefulness of releasing the mirror before you take the photo.
Most after-market electronic releases that we have tried don’t work after the first week or so: pure junk. Though surely there must be a brand somewhere that functions a bit longer!
Most name-brand Canon electronic cable releases are not of professional quality either, and they fail long before they should.
Nikon electronic cable releases last longer than Canon, but eventually the wires pull out (even when I put electrical tape at the joint when they are new).
Summary: What do the photographers at FLAAR use?
Tripod Heads we already have:
Arca-Swiss Monoball, the original; greatest ball head every made
Second generation Arca-Swiss ball head: one of the most flawed over-engineered failures ever concocted.
Gitzo G1570 M, pan and tilt head; relatively new
Gitzo G1275 M, off-center ball head; many years old; so gradually a bit loose (according to Gitzo this issue has been re-engineered). This demonstrates that Gitzo does improve when a product needs improvement.
Manfrotto geared head; the large one; two of the original model, # 3263. Current model designation is “Manfrotto 400 Deluxe Geared Head.” I consider this a perfect head for studio work: medium-format or large-format cameras.
About half our camera equipment we have bought ourselves; another half was sent by manufacturers for evaluation. And yes, we do not write suck-up reviews. We received a Silvestri medium format camera that was improperly sized and we have not issued any review on it (we sent the improperly engineered portion back and never received a replacement).
We received a Sinar from Sinar that arrived in inadequate condition and fell apart during shipment and fell totally apart after a week or so of being used. In other words, “Made in Switzerland” is no guarantee of a good review by FLAAR. In our review we stated clearly that this super expensive camera obviously did not hold up well to constant use (it was a demo model).
Cambo then sent us one of their cameras to replace the Sinar. Cambo was intelligent enough not to send a 3rd hand old used loaner camera; Cambo sent a brand new model. We still have the Cambo today; we still issue reports on it; and it works fine. We now have a second different Cambo (wide model) and as soon as we have a lens for this we will initiate reviews.
- We do not get payment for click-throughs.
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If you want a review where the reviewer is paid, there are a dozen popular sites with reviews that reguritate the entire spec list. These web sites print most of the PR releases of the camera manufacturers too.
At FLAAR, fortunately or unfortunately, we do photography for scientific research, not for profit.
So the difference is that the tripod heads which we use, we use them because they are tripod heads that help us get our photography accomplished around the world.
We stopped using Arca-Swiss heads when their second generation head locked and their only response was that this was the fault of the photographer. It would have helped if they admitted they over-engineered it, or if they apologized. Only now, TWELVE or more YEARS LATER, did someone at Arca-Swiss admit that one of the components was defective (note they blamed it on the material (from another company of course), not on the engineer (in-house)).
We are intending to evaluate replacement heads, and will report back later in 2011 or early this coming year when we have new ball and gimbal heads from other manufacturers.
In the meantime, for using a heavy camera in the studio, my favorite head is the top-of-the-line Gitzo geared head. Be sure to get the big one (model 400, with the handles). The mid-size and small size lack cranks on their handles; skip them and go for the best one: the model 400 which replaces the Manfrotto 3263 deluxe geared tripod heads (we have two of the original ones).
Several web sites recommend the Markins TB-20 base plate, but frankly when I have enough Gitzo tripods out on a field trip with a team of several photographers and assistants I get used to the Gitzo style. I have never noticed Markins exhibited at any photo trade show (so if they are indeed present, it was not a presence I noticed). And I don’t remember them from many past Photokina expos, but if I have access to their heads, I will look at them.
Which tripod heads are we interested in publishing evaluations on?
Gitzo Systematic Ball, GH5380SQR
- with ¼” to 3/8” screw adapter
- “Arca style” plate adapter GS5160CDT
- Panoramic disk GS3750DQ
Gitzo, Off Center Ball Head GH3750
Our intent is to update our review of the older model, G1275M. The Gitzo catalog itself states they have re-engineered the system to remove “the small amount of play present in the previous versions have been completely removed.” Gitzo is correct; that was definitely an issue after the first two years of usage.
So we wish to write how much the new model GH3750 improves over the earlier model. We are using heavier cameras in 2012 than we had several years ago.
Fluid head specifically for bird-watching: Gitzo GH2720QR
In Guatemala we photograph birds such as herons and egrets. These water birds were frequently pictured in Maya murals over two thousand years ago.
We also photograph vultures, since these are sacred to the Maya peoples of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.
Plus we are writing evaluations to assist bird-watchers and ornithologists decide which equipment to buy when they wish to photograph birds.
Manfrotto 393 gimbel head for bird photography
We have received a Canon EOS-1DS Mark III and a 400mm tele-lens. As soon as the new 500mm Canon telephoto lens is available, this will be sent to us (by a Canon dealer). So the “bird photography tripod head” would be something we can test, evaluate, and publish, for thousands of bird-watchers.
A gimbell head is what most serious wildlife photographers use.
The Novoflex folks includes a family-oriented team and additional managers. Theya re hospitable and helpful in their booth.
AcraTech, Ultimate, ballhead, Berlebach Leveling Adapter, #111971, and their 3-way-head Pegasus, #11128, Burzynski Ball Head II, FEISOL, Markins M20 are products of interest to our evaluation program, but we can’t write about and publish reviews on equipment we don’t have, so we tend to focus interest on the companies which are more interactive: Gitzo, Manfrotto, NOVOFLEX. Now that Kirk is also exhibiting, we would definitely be interested in their BH3 head.
We have roughly 487,000 photographers reading our reviews this year (2011), which is about a 10.9% increase over last year. We deliberately focus on pros and pro-sumers (sorry, onrly rarely on point-and-shoot). And we keep our readership deliberately low by not issuing sham reviews, pseudo reviews, and not pumping sales in order to get kickbacks via commissions.
If we had fluff and puff “reviews” millions of people would fall into our web site via spam. Sorry, we prefer to have serious photographers who are intelligent enough to be suspicious of pseudo-reviews.
First posted December 1, 2011.