Getting it right in the head

Long exposure of Singapore skyline

In my last post, I spoke of the importance of getting a good tripod. Many people skimp  on their tripod and consequently do not get the best use out of them. Most importantly, a light and compact tripod will be more likely to be on hand when you need it. It’s a case of any tripod is better than none.

I mentioned another oft neglected item and that was the tripod head. It connects the camera to the legs and should be sufficiently adjustable yet still rigid. One thing to remember is that the load ratings of heads are to be taken with a very large grain of salt. There is no standardised way of specifying the acceptable load that a head can handle. It is actually the torque that a camera+lens exerts on a head that most needs to be resisted.

PHD-41Q pan and tilt head. The horizontal arm controls the roll, the other controls both pan and tilt. Built-in spirit levels keep everything straight. A large quick release plate completes the package.

There are two main types of head, pan and tilt heads (panheads) and ballheads. Panheads have two or three separate axes of adjustment, pan, tilt, and roll (video panheads will omit the last). There will usually be three different knobs or handles, one to control each movement. Sophisticated versions will have geared mechanisms allowing fine adjustment of each axis. In contrast, a ballhead will use a single locking mechanism to control the motion of a ball and socket joint allowing all three axes to be adjusted simultaneously. A separate pan  movement is also usually added to the base of the ballhead. The advantages of a ballhead is that it is often much quicker to adjust. They are often smaller than a comparably rated panhead.

Centre: Benro B-0 + QR plate and 1/4″-3/8″ screw adapter. Clockwise from top left: Novoflex Ball 30, Manfrotto 494, FLM CB-24, Gitzo G075.

For panoramic use, the footprint of the head becomes crucial. Looking down from the viewpoint of the camera rotating around the no-parallax-point, often you’ll have the baseplate and various knobs taking up valuable area in the nadir region. It can be tricky to find the right ballhead which minimizes the nadir hole. My current favourites are the Novoflex Ball 30, FLM CB-24, and Manfrotto 494 (with the friction knob removed). The 494 allows the locking knob to be adjusted so that it can point down in the locked position, useful for reducing the nadir footprint. The same can be achieved on the Ball 30 by unscrewing the knob and reattaching it in the right position.

FLM CB38FT with Power Quick Release. This uses very small quick release plates on the camera

To reduce my equipment load, I have dispensed with quick release (QR) plates. These simply add bulk, especially if I need to attach the camera to both the panohead or the tripod ballhead so requiring extra plates and locking mechanisms. I find it takes little time to screw on the camera or panohead. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to find higher end heads without a quick release system. It may be a fashion trend since having Arca-Swiss plates on everything looks “more professional”.

A good ballhead will be secure when locked down. It should be rigid so that vibration is minimised. For large and heavy lenses, these should be mounted to the head rather than the camera. For the extreme telephoto lenses, a gimbal mount may be warranted. These place the rotation point near the centre of gravity of the camera lens, reducing the torque and giving a more stable platform.

Note that there are two commonly used screw sizes used to attach tripods, heads, and cameras. These are 1/4″ and 3/8″ screw sizes. Most camera tripod sockets will be 1/4″, but tripod screws can be either. You can get adapters between the two screw sizes, it is usually not a problem to adapt a 1/4″ male screw to a 3/8″ female socket, but the reverse adapter is quite bulky.