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In The Practicing Photographer, photographer and teacher Ben Long shares a weekly serving of photographic instruction and inspiration. Each installment focuses on a photographic shooting scenario, a piece of gear, or a software technique. Each installment concludes with a call to action designed to inspire you to pick up your camera (or your mouse or smartphone) to try the technique for yourself.
- In a previous installment of The Practicing Photographer, we talked about tripods, and what you should look for when you're buying a tripod, and the tripod, of course, the legs go all the way to the ground, so we kind of worked, as far as the tripod question goes, we worked from the ground up to about here, and we stopped, and there's a very important thing that happens right here, and that's the tripod head, you need something on here to attach your camera to. Now, I could just screw my camera right here onto the thread at the top of the tripod, but it's stuck in one position. So if I had a head, I have the option of moving my camera around, so you're pretty much always going to buy a head for your tripod.
Now you can buy tripods that have a built-in head, that's a very inexpensive way to go, and there are some nice offerings out there, but I really recommend getting a separate tripod, buying your tripod legs and head separately. You'll get more flexibility for choosing what you want, and you can buy better quality components. Tripod heads fall into two major categories. Pan and tilt heads, and ballheads. Pan and tilt heads come in a lot of different designs, and they'll usually have big sticks or knobs coming off of them of one kind or another, and what they're for is for having independent control of the different axes on the tripod.
So, I can lock everything down except pan for times when I want to only pan the camera, or I can lock up pan and activate only tilt. That's great if you're shooting video, for times when you need to make a very controlled motion. But as a still photographer, I don't really care about that. So I would say if all you're gonna do is shoot stills, don't even bother looking at pan and tilt heads for the simple reason that they're much bigger. This is a pan and tilt head, this is a ballhead. This is much smaller and lighter, and gives me everything that I need as a still photographer. A ballhead simply is, it's like your shoulder.
It's a ball and socket arrangement, so all I have to do is loosen one knob and this whole thing moves around, letting me position my camera wherever I want. This particular head also has a separate pan adjustment, so I do have independent control of that action. All heads are gonna come with a simple screw thread on them that screws into your tripod. There are two different sizes, so you want to be sure that the head you're buying matches. Typically, two different sizes, I should say. You wanna be sure that your head matches the screw thread on your tripod. If not, as mine didn't here, you can usually get little shims to make them fit.
Mounting a head is as simple as screwing it onto the top of the tripod. And once it's there, as I said, I've now got all of this nice motion that I can do with the ball, the problem is now I gotta get my camera onto the head. Some tripod heads will simply have a screw thread on it, and I'll just screw my camera down. And that works fine, except that having to rotate your camera around like that and then unscrew it later is a drag. So typically, what happens is, or what vendors come up with, is they have a special mounting system here, and you attach a corresponding plate to your camera.
I don't have a plate on my camera right now, but I'm gonna add one. Plates nowadays come in one of two different kinds. Manfrotto, the tripod and tripod head manufacturing company, has their style plate, and then there's a style of plate called Arca-Swiss, that's what this particular head has. This is a head made by Acratech, this is the Ultimate Ballhead. I'm not saying that subjectively, I mean, that's the name of the product, they call it the Ultimate Ballhead, and I gotta say, it's pretty great. I've had this for years and not felt a need to replace it.
What I like about it is it's incredibly lightweight, this is carved from a single block of aluminum, or some lightweight metal, and it weighs under a pound for the head, which is very light. It's all open in here, as a desert shooter, I really appreciate how easily I can clean this out, it doesn't get gummed up. As I said, I've got ball action here, and then very easy panning here. So, lightweight, really durable, I ran over this with a car, it's scratched up and everything's fine.
I didn't do that on purpose, it's not like I test my gear by running over it with a car first, it was an accident, and the tripod head came out okay. Problem is, I need a plate for it. It does not come with a plate of its own, I have to go buy one. I buy most of my tripod plates, actually, I guess nowadays I'm buying all of my tripod plates from a company called Really Right Stuff, and that's just reallyrightstuff.com. And what's nice is they make Arca-Swiss compatible plates, but what I think is especially nice about them is they make them for specific cameras. This is a Fuji X-T1, and Really Right Stuff actually makes a specific Arca-Swiss XT-1 tripod plate, so it fits really well, it fits flush to my camera, I just need an Allen wrench to screw it onto the bottom.
This is also aluminum, very, very lightweight, so it doesn't add much to the weight of my camera. It's so easy to take on and off, that when I'm not using the tripod, I just go ahead and take it off. Then, all I have to do is this, and now my camera is mounted, now it pans and tilts around on its ball. To get it off, I just undo one screw, and it pops right off, this is the advantage of a tripod plate. That said, there are things to look for, even when you're shopping for a tripod plate. This one has a couple of features that I like, it's got a tripod screw socket of its own, so if I just leave the plate on here all the time, that's great because I can mount it to my tripod head, but maybe later I'm out shooting, and I wanna put my camera on a Gorillapod, or another little small tripod that I have with me.
I can just screw it into the bottom of this, I don't have to take my plate off, which is really nice. I've got a place to attach a lanyard here, in case I've got a strap that needs to attach to the bottom of the camera. So there are some nice features to look for when you're shopping for a tripod plate, the main one is you want it to fit your camera, you want the right kind of mount for the tripod head you're going into, and you want it lightweight, and affordable, obviously. So, when you're shopping for a head, it's pretty simple, you're gonna consider weight, sturdiness, that's really not that much of an issue, all these things are very sturdy these days.
You do want to consider stability. When I lock this down, this is another advantage of a ballhead, when I lock this down, it's there. There's no drift with this head, until I put on a really, really big lens, and even then, there's not that much. And by drift, I mean when I lock it down and let go of the camera, there's a tiny bit of motion, but not a lot. That can be a hassle with a long lens, but with this particular head, I feel like I get a lot of accuracy when I'm positioning the head. Same thing when you're looking for a pan and tilt head, and you would choose a pan and tilt head if you think you're also gonna be doing video.
Also, if you're doing macro work or something where you need really fine control, at that point you might want to go for a geared pan and tilt head, and you can see an example of that in my macro course. But same thing, you wanna look for weight, materials, and you wanna be sure that there's no extra motion in the head. And this is something you'll find when you buy a tripod with a built-in head, sometimes you'll find that the heads are actually a little rickety. You lock them down and you still get a wobble or a little bit of motion. This one's very, very sturdy. Same thing with a ballhead, it's such a simple mechanism, it's very easy for it to get sturdy.
So, something that seems simple, like a tripod head and plate, is actually something that you wanna put some thought into. This is one of my favorite pieces of gear actually, this tripod and this head, it's really well made, I really like using it, the controls are exactly where I want them, and they really provide the functionality that I want. So you're gonna wanna do a little bit of research before you go shopping for this very critical piece of gear.
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