I spent $500 on a geared tripod head, and here’s why you should, too…

Photographer shooting landscape photography
(Image credit: James Abbott)

As a landscape photographer who uses square filters 98% of the time and often shoots in low-light conditions, a tripod is a staple for me. It’s something I simply couldn’t live without. 

Sure, the ISO handling and dynamic range of modern cameras are impressive and improving all the time, to the point where some landscape photographers shoot handheld and expose for the highlights to avoid needing a tripod and filters, but I prefer the slower and more considered approach where I do as much as possible in-camera.

Landscape photo of a river and waterfall with green mossy rocks in the foreground

(Image credit: James Abbott)

As a prolific tripod user, for years I’ve opted for ball heads because they’re quick to use, they’re generally fairly compact and lightweight compared to the other options available – the perfect combination for landscape photography. The only downside to many but the most expensive ball heads is that they can suffer from head creep, where the ball drops slightly on the horizontal axis after tightening the relevant knob. This means you have to overcompensate, so you’re essentially crossing your fingers and hoping that the camera will remain level and rest vertically at exactly the right level.

Like many things in life, there is an art to getting this right, and experience certainly helps. But there’s no denying that it slows you down and can be incredibly tedious when you have cold fingers. The way around this is to use a geared tripod head, where you can turn knobs to move the head incrementally on the horizontal and vertical axis, and thus achieve a perfect composition every time. The problem with most geared heads, however, is that they’re the three-way type, so they’re bulky and heavy. My dream, then, has been to own a geared ball head that combines compactness, light weight and maximum functionality.

Why I chose the Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head

Sony A7 RIII attached to a Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head in front of a white wall

(Image credit: James Abbott)

There are a handful of geared ball heads available, but they’re all pretty expensive. The Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head is a geared panning ball head that has been available for a few years, and even though it’s one of the less expensive heads of its type, it still took me a few years to get my head around the cost, which we’ll come to later.

The LH-40GR Ball Head is exactly what I’ve been dreaming of. It is not only an incredibly well-machined head with smooth and positive operation, but it also has a standard ball head design at the bottom, and where the tripod plate would usually be there are two geared sections for the horizontal and vertical axis that are controlled by two compact knobs. Above this, there’s a pan mechanism to which the Arca Swiss-type tripod plate attaches.

This means that the traditional ball head section provides the ability to compose shots quickly, while the geared sections allow for precise fine-tuning. What’s more, once the camera is level, it can be panned on the top panning section while remaining perfectly level. The head is also compatible with L-brackets, so I can attach my camera in landscape or portrait format, while still enjoying all of the aforementioned features.

The LH-40GR Ball Head is heavier than standard ball heads at 26.1oz / 740g compared to the Leofoto LH-40 Ball Head ,which weighs 17.5oz / 496g. However, an extra 8.6oz / 244g for the geared and panning elements is a weight price I’m happy to pay. It’s not that much, either, when you consider the additional functionality that comes with the geared version. I am, it’s safe to say, in tripod head heaven – something I’d never imagine myself ever writing, but it’s true.

You get what you pay for

The old adages ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ and ‘you get what you pay for’ can ring true with photography. Of course, there are some accessories that you can pick up for peanuts and they can be as good as, and in some cases better than, branded alternatives. But when it comes to tripods and heads, it’s the middle and upper range that provide the best value for money in the long term.

I paid £449 for the Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head, which translates to $570 at the time of writing. The head isn’t easy to come by in either the UK or the US, but it is available if you look around. Leofoto tripods and heads are typically less expensive in the US, so it’s likely that you’d be able to pick it up for around $500.

This certainly isn’t the most expensive geared ball head I could find, either, with the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube Geared Head with Arca Classic Quick Release with GP coming in at a whopping $1,820 / £1,699, and other Arca Swiss options sitting well above the $1,000 / £1,000 mark. So, in these terms, for a tripod head of such excellent build quality, fantastic handling and useful features, the Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head is an absolute bargain. Granted, it’s still not cheap, but it has greatly elevated my shooting experience without destroying my bank balance.

Why you shouldn’t be afraid to spend big

Sony A7 RIII attached to a Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head in front of a white wall

(Image credit: James Abbott)

Buying the photographic kit that works for you, rather than against you, is well worth the cost. Not only will your requirements be met with a carefully considered purchase, but you’ll also typically enjoy a higher-quality product that provides superior handling compared to less expensive options. 

Of course, as I said before, some of the cheaper and unbranded photographic accessories can be excellent, but when it comes to tripods and heads, which can be purchased separately and mixed and matched between manufacturers, you really do get what you pay for.

My advice, if you use a tripod as much as I do, is to think carefully about the features you need. Ask yourself a series of questions and if the answers lead you towards a specific type of tripod head, chances are that’s the one for you. And if it happens to be a bank account-busting model like the one I chose, take time to think about whether or not it’s worth it, while saving up if you don’t have the cash to hand. 

Fenland windpump next to a river at sunset with the sunset reflecting in the water

(Image credit: James Abbott)

The Leofoto LH-40GR Ball Head was first available on Amazon UK in 2019, so I had my eye on it for several years before taking the plunge. And now that I have it, I can only wish that I'd bought it sooner. Still, at least I got to where I wanted to be eventually – and by waiting for it, I can be sure that I made the right decision.

In the age of internet shopping, we’re all guilty of not trying before we buy; we see something we want and we just go for it. This can work for tripods and heads if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but if you have even a tiny amount of doubt, you'll be better off doing things the old-fashioned way; head down to a camera store or photography trade show where you can get hands-on and make the most informed decision. 

Trust me, in this situation, spending big on the best tripod head for you is an investment rather than a financial burden, and it could truly revolutionize your shooting experience.

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James Abbott

James Abbott is a professional photographer and freelance photography journalist. He contributes articles about photography, cameras and drones to a wide range of magazines and websites where he applies a wealth of experience to testing the latest photographic tech. James is also the author of ‘The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing’.