What's The Best Tripod Head For Landscape Photography ?
A question I have asked myself and others many times !
Which is the best tripod head for landscape photography ? Is there really one that does everything ?
Spoiler alert, No !
A tripod head is a very personal thing and the situation you find yourself shooting in dictates which choice you make, but to make life a little easier for you I will list the pros & cons of each and the situations where one is suited over another and hopefully you will have a clearer picture of the type of tripod head that will suit you best.
This tends to be a firm favourite with most landscape photographers simply because its so quick and easy to use.
The ball head as the name suggests swivels in multiple directions on an elliptical or spherical ball housed in a socket for want of a better description.
It can be quickly adjusted via an unlocking lever to change any axis of movement in an instant and then firmly locked in place with a quick twist or flick of a lever.
Well suited to portrait or landscape shots due to the small recess midway down the housing so the camera can be moved 90 degrees over to give you a portrait orientation in an instant.
Ball heads can be very light and a good choice on a long hike if you buy a relatively small one but as the size increases so does the weight, but they will heavier weights.
They are capable of carrying heavy full frame DSLR's and long lenses and are fairly stable if you get a decent one.
I would say these are by far the most popular option for the landscape photographer today simply because they are an "all rounder" that is suited to most situations and the fact they are so speedy to operate.
The negative side of a ball head is the level of precision you can achieve with them isn't the best.
After perfectly framing your composition you can often find that as soon as you tighten up the lever the composition has slipped a fraction and you have to do it again and compensate for it, This doesn't happen with good top quality ball heads so much but as with everything you get what you pay for.
If you are trying to simply lower the angle of your composition for example you would want to just be adjusting one single axis (up or down) the ball head doesn't follow one single axis so therefor it can shift your whole composition because you went slightly off centre for example.
Now most people will accept this as a small detail for the all round convenience that a ball head provides and over time they will learn to adapt themselves to the ball heads quirks with a better level of control.
Ball heads can come with multiple adjustment, from single lever to panning base models and tensioned models.
Panning ball heads in my opinion are an essential option so you can adjust the left to right axis (well 360 degree pan in fact) easily and quickly without affecting the other axis.
The models that come with tension controls are also favoured so it makes finer adjustments an easier task.
Ball heads low centre of gravity make them pretty stable too but cheaper models can suffer with lens creep when you load them up with heavy gear and they lever isn't as tight as possible.
SPEED - Super fast adjustment
COST - Generally a good model can be picked up for reasonable money
WEIGHT - Ball heads are generally pretty light
SIMPLICITY - it doesn't get much easier than one lever control
PRECISION - Fine adjustments are harder to make with a ball head due multi directional movement
STABILITY - Ball heads can suffer with lens creep and vibration in high wind
3 Way Geared Heads (Pan & Tilt)
The 3 way geared tripod head is the complete polar opposite to the ball head really.
The main reason for using them is precision, geared heads offer the most amazing precision possible with minute ultra fine adjustment easily achieved with rock solid stability.
As the name suggested the 3 way geared head works on 3 different individual axis.
Panning (360 degree), Up & down, and then levelling.
Each one can be adjusted individually to give you the absolute finest element of control, the draw back, the speed is much slower than the ball head.
Geared heads have two levels of adjustment, the fine adjustment which is done with a geared twist lock, and then a quick release version which removes the gearing temporarily to allow it to twist on the single relevant axis you are controlling (available on all three axis).
The quick release is handy for fast adjustments but remember if you wanted to change the angle you are shooting you would need to pan then adjust the up & down axis too so it can be slow and cumbersome to some but the level of precision is simply unsurpassed.
Geared heads are rock solid and dont suffer from any lens creep at all or indeed wind vibration which is at a minimal amount if at all.
Geared heads are especially well suited for photographing panoramic landscapes because they avoid any possible variation in direction on the pan but they are completely dependant on the tripod being 100% levelled in order to do so, they ideally work with a levelling bowl base on a tripod. With this set up you can be as precise as its possible to get.
3 way geared heads tend to be quite a bit heavier than ball heads so they are quite taxing while hiking or out all day on a shoot.
They also tend to be a little more expensive too, especially when getting top quality model
3 way pan & tilt heads are also available in a non geared version but I'm not going to include them in this comparison simply because without the element of geared precision they are not the same thing and generally only found as a cheaper option.
PRECISION - 3 Way geared heads simply cant be beat for the level of fine adjustment
PANORAMAS - For panoramic photography, this takes a lot of beating
STABILITY - Rock solid set up, no lens creep or unintentional movement
WEIGHT - Generally these can be pretty heavy
COST - Usually a little bit more expensive than a ball head
SPEED - These are slower to recompose with due to the 3 individual axis adjustments
These are a bit more of a speciality tripod head. They generally aren't used for landscape photography too often, more favoured by wildlife and sports photographers.
The concept of a Gimbal head is to have the multi directional free movement of a ball head but on an axis rather than completely free movement.
Big heavy zoom lenses are especially at home on a Gimbal head and can be swiftly moved into position to capture fast moving subjects with ease.
There are only two axis of movement on a Gimbal head, the full 360 degree pan & the up and down movement. Side to side movements are via the pan system but they can all work together at once to enable the camera to point in any direction.
Gimbal heads can be quite expensive for a good one and are generally heavy.
SPEED - They are super quick to adjust
STRONG - They are very capable of supporting the biggest of lenses
WEIGHT - Again these can be quite heavy
COST - Not the cheapest option
PURPOSE - Generally better suited to wildlife or sports photography
Again another very specific head for a specific type of shot.
The panoramic head is solely focused on panos and the ability to find the correct nodal point on the lens to make sure they will be free of distortion on subjects close to the lens and thus enabling them to be stitched together far more easily.
The nodal point of each lens will be different so the slider rail will enable you to adjust each lens to the exact point, This might seem like over kill but if you are serious about panoramic landscape photography then these really are the best type of heads to use.
They especially come into their own with subjects in the foreground and are often used for interior panoramic photography too.
PANORAMAS - If you are shooting purely panoramas then this is a top choice.
PRECISION - Perhaps the ultimate in precision shooting
VERSATILITY - They are very much suited for the intended purpose only, Panoramas
COST - You can go crazy with the cost on these !
WEIGHT - Generally heavier than other heads
SPEED - Very slow to use, because of their precise nature.
So there you have a breakdown of the types of tripod heads available to you and for what purpose they are best suited.
For landscape photographers the Ball head is the natural choice, its fast, inexpensive and the easiest to operate and relatively light.
3 way Pan & Tilt (Geared) heads are also excellent for landscape photography and are for those who require more precision, stability and are less worried about speed and ease of operation, plus they offer a good panorama option too.
Gimbal heads are not really on the radar that much for landscape photographers although I do know people who use them and rate them highly but they tend to do multiple styles of photography and use it throughout.
Panoramic heads are suited to just that so unless this is all you are doing, its not right for you.
For my personal choices I use two heads, a Benro B4 ball head which is excellent and caters for around 70% of my landscape photography and also a Benro 3 way geared head (GD3WH) which nicely covers the other 30% of it. The reason for flicking between the two is very much for the situation in shooting.
The geared head just cant be beat for stability and precision, but the lightweight ball head has the speed advantage.
If you are new to landscape photography I would highly recommend starting with a ball head, If you are thinking of a geared head because you have found your limits on a ball head then think no further and get one.
I hope this helps you understand the differences and how they can help you in your landscape photography.
As always, Happy shooting