Camera tripod heads – improve your image sharpness and camera control

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Everyone wants sharp images, right? To maximize sharpness your setup needs to include a quality camera tripod head that gives you total control of the camera position, rock-solid steadiness, and minimum transference of vibration. This will also depend upon the quality of the tripod upon which the head is attached, but we will address that in another post. One purpose of this gear is to eliminate camera shake with shutter speeds below 1/125 or 1/60 second. A second purpose of camera tripod heads is to give you as the photographer complete control over composition in any situation, framing, and holding a specific camera orientation until the image is captured.

What type of head?

3-axis tilt/pan head

There are basically two general types of camera tripod heads:

  • a 3-axis tilt/pan,
  • or a ball head.

The 3-axis tilt/pan head gives an impression of an inherent ability to precisely control position in each axis. It does give precise control over vertical and horizontal positioning, but multi positional adjustment can be troublesome. In practice this translates to interacting with a triad of controls that can be cumbersome and always takes more time.

a ball head

A ball head, however, gives a photographer a continuum of positions just by using a single control. Aiming at your subject and leveling with the horizon can be done in one simple motion. Locking down for rock-solid stability is done with a simple twist of the control knob. In addition, the ball head configuration has a better coupling of the camera mass to the support – meaning that there is less “stuff” between the camera and the support. The center of the ball head is positioned at the apex of the tripod. This is at a lower position than the 3-axis tilt/pan head and it improves stability.

Save money and choose the best first

With a ball head mount preferred for your camera support, selecting the best ball head (not necessarily the most expensive) in terms of design and manufacturing quality, will save you money in the long run. There are several products that fall into this category:

  1. the Arca Swiss B1,
  2. the Kirk BH-1,
  3. the RRS BH-55 Pro, and
  4. the Markins Q10i.

    (There are many other models from these and other manufacturers. This list of ball heads serves as a mid-range benchmark)

Differentiating factors

Several factors differentiate these ball head models:

Really Right Stuff RRSBH55 Pro
  • load capacity,
  • overall size and weight of the head itself,
  • and of course the price.

In terms of performance in load carrying capability the RRS BH-55 Pro supports the least of the bunch, rated at 50 pounds load carrying capacity. In contrast, the other three heads can carry 88-100 pounds! If you shoot with heavy pro gear and big lenses the top three should now be your focus.

Kirk BH-1

The next consideration is size and weight. The bulkiest of the bunch is the Kirk BH-1which measures 4-1/2 inches in height and weighs a full 2 pounds. This head is beefy, and yet it doesn’t offer more support or stability than the others. It is priced at $385 (B&H, as of this writing).

Arca Swiss B1

The Arca Swiss B1 head is a bit lighter weighing in at 1.7 lbs, is the same height at the Kirk BH-1, and claims to support a hefty 90 pounds of gear, priced currently at $387. Anybody out there have 90 pounds of camera and lens to mount?

Markins Q10i

The Markins Q10i weighs a mere 1.1 pounds, measures just 3.9 inches in height, has a load carrying capacity of 100 pounds, and is priced at $370.

With these considerations it’s clear that to get the most performance for your dollar, the Markins ball head outperforms the others at the lowest price point. Granted the price differential is not great, but at about half the weight of the other heads it is clear that size does not matter!

Attaching the camera

Most cameras have a 1/4″ screw thread at the bottom center of the camera. This is a secure connection, but is slow and for some people may even be difficult to do repeatedly. A better solution is to use a camera plate or bracket – screw the bracket on once, and then click it in place and snug the attachment to the head. Depending on your needs, there are even “L-brackets” that allow for a quick change over from landscape to portrait orientation. Simpler designs are just a plate that is fastened to the camera that provides a quick attach and detach function.

L-Brackets
Camera plate or “bracket”

The mounting bracket must adequately fit your particular camera model, even within the same brand. Brackets are available from various sources including Kirk Enterprises and Markins. I happen to use Kirk L-brackets on a Markins ball head – so mix and match to get the setup that you are most comfortable with.

Ease of use

Using a ball head that is stable allows you to quickly attach your camera and lens to the support. Adjustment of the ball head before first use (and re-adjustment if another camera/lens setup is significantly heavier or lighter) is required to find the “sweet spot.” What’s that? It’s the adjustment of the tension of the ball assembly to hold the camera steady without slipping, but still allow smooth movement for final adjustments. This is a huge time saver and major advantage over other types of mounts. Once you have adjusted your setup with the sweet spot to your liking, you can re-frame your composition as much as you want and upon releasing your grip on the camera, the mount holds it securely in place. You want to have this adjustment capability – remember this is a ball mount, not a vise!

Conclusion

The best setup to achieve razor-sharp images with your Nikon gear must include a quality ball head and camera bracket for quick use in any situation. Set up your tripod, attach your camera with a simple twist or lever snugging mechanism, compose your image with the camera mounted, and capture that great image you see in your mind’s eye. By the way, be sure that the gear you select has a built-in bubble level. This simple addition allows you to ensure that your images will be plumb and level with any buildings or walls that may be in your images.

Happy shooting!

Do you use a tilt/pan head? Disagree with my advocacy for ball heads? Add your comments below and let’s discuss it!

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