So you've chosen the best tripod to mount your DSLR on, but which tripod head should you buy to go with it? Come to think about it, what kind of tripod head is even best for you? This handy guide explains the different options, to help you decide which tripod head suits your needs best.
The most classic, conventional photographic head is a three-way head. In the vast majority of cases, these have separate locking mechanisms for pan, tilt and swivel. A simpler variation is a two-way head, which lacks a swivel facility, but this is only really used for video cameras, where you won't need to shoot in portrait orientation.
With three-way tripod heads, you'll often get three locking levers that extend from the head, although another common configuration is to have just two levers and a thumbscrew for locking off the swivel adjustment.
Even so, extending levers are a pain when you're carrying the tripod around, so the usual fix is to unscrew one lever completely and screw it into the other, angling them both downwards so they lie against the folded tripod.
A ball head is the main alternative to a three-way head. Based on a ball-and-socket design, these typically use a single locking screw, which tightens to clamp the head in all directions of adjustment.
Some examples feature an additional friction adjustment, so the head isn't too floppy when you release the clamping screw. This is particularly useful when you're using big, heavy lenses.
Another feature available in some ball heads is a separate pan-only lock. This is neat if you're taking a sequence of shots to stitch into a panorama, because you can keep tilt and swivel movements locked off and only allow panning adjustments.
The third type of head is the so-called pistol or joystick variety. This is really a variation on standard ball heads, since it still uses a ball-and-socket clamping action.
The difference is that, instead of loosening and tightening a clamping screw, you simply squeeze a trigger to enable adjustment of the head, and then release the trigger again for a spring-loaded clamping action.
Ultimately, three-way heads are best when you need to make very small and precise adjustments - in architectural or macro shooting, for example. Ball heads and pistol-grip heads are ideal for general photography, because you can make wide-ranging adjustments in any direction extremely quickly and easily.
Now you know what the different types of tripod head are, here are some of the models currently available, in price order from cheapest to most expensive.
Good for extremely precise adjustments, there's hardly any sag in this three-way head after positioning the camera and locking it off. Dual bubble levels at the base and on the camera plate enable easy levelling of tripod and camera. It's chunky and lives up to its 6kg max load rating.
Neat calibrated markings for the angles of pan, tilt and swivel complement the chunky lever locks. The max load rating is only 4kg, but it's still a robust piece of kit. A bubble level on the camera platform is handy, but adjustments are a bit jerky unless you unscrew the locks.
Adding an adjustable friction damper to the previous incarnation of this head reduces what used to be very pronounced sag after adjustment to a minimum. There's no independent panning lock, but the 6kg-rated head punches above its weight, with excellent stability.
Sturdy, and with an 8kg load rating, the BH2-M has a neat scissor-action on its quick-release plate lock and a bubble level. However, it lacks an adjustable friction damper or pan-only lock. The rubber strips on the quick-release plate are spongy, which impairs the overall stability.
With a 10kg load rating, this head features a pan-only lock and two spirit levels on the camera platform, but no adjustable friction damper. Sagging can be an issue after clamping the head in position, especially with heavy lenses. Annoyingly, there's no D-ring on the quick-release fastener.
With a full set of locking screws, adjustable friction damper and pan-only lock, this is a full-featured ball head with a hefty 10kg load rating. Dual spirit levels on the camera plate aid levelling and, with correct adjustment of the friction damper, any sag after clamping is minimal.
This head is suitable for loads up to 3.5kg. The bubble level is handy, but there's sag after releasing the spring-loaded clamp. Stability is lacking in portrait mode, unless you remove the quick-release plate from the camera, reverse its orientation, then use the grip left-handed.
Although rated at 6kg, this head failed to give a firm hold when clamped, even with its friction/locking-pressure adjuster screwed to maximum. You must remove the plate and refit it in different orientations to shoot upwards, or in portrait mode, which makes the head clunky to use.