Over at our sister site, Mirrorless Photo Tips, there has been some discussion about which tripods I like to use. Like you, I have more than one including a carbon fiber Sirui monopod, Manfrotto aluminum tripod and a classic (albeit custom made) red and gold Tiltall.
Some manufacturers offer a choice of leg and head types allowing you mix and match to find the best combination. You may even want to use one manufacturer’s tripod head on another manufacturer’s legs. There are two general types of heads: ball or pan-tilt. Take a look at the size of the head. It may not be obvious to the novice tripod shopper but the size of the camera platform should be appropriate for the size of the camera. The larger the platform, the more securely the camera can be seated and balanced. A larger head also provides the space for positive locking mechanisms.
While there may be some disagreement among photographers as to the best tripod legs, there’s quite a debate as to what type of head is “right.” On one side, there’s the ball-head aficionados, their opponent is the pan-tilt head team. The ball head folks tell you their favorite is quick, easy to use, and you don’t have to turn different levers to get it where you want. The pan-tilt head group, on the other hand, will tell you that it’s easier to level the camera, or follow movement, plus it’s faster.
Ball heads, like the Acratech GV2 Ball Head/Gimbal, are more compact and usually feature only one control. That single control is a knob, or lever, that locks and unlocks the ball mounted under the camera platform. By unlocking the ball, the photographer can move the camera freely and easily in any direction. When tripod hunting, ask yourself how it feels. Is it easy to use? When many people are exposed to a ball head for the first time say “Wow, I love it” The point is that you’ll never know unless you try.
If you’re a more traditional photographer, like moi, you may feel more comfortable with a pan-tilt head. They usually have three levers, like the Manfrotto 229 Super Pro Head, but also sometimes two, that control forward and backward motion, plus the ability to quickly change from horizontal to vertical position. Most two-lever models require you to reorient the camera on the platform for vertical or horizontal photographs.
Some two lever models provide three lever flexibility by using a small lever that provide for this flipping action. Each movement of a panhead requires a means of locking that movement. While this may be slower that a ball head, it usually provides an easier method for leveling. Unlike a ball head, one axis can be adjusted at a time, which can be especially important if you’re doing precise work like architectural photography.
All of which brings to mind the first rule while tripod shopping: Beware of bargains. Tripods come in a variety of prices but you generally get what you pay for. You may be tempted to cut corners with your purchase. Don’t do it!