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.