A good tripod head will save you lots of frustration. For still photography I recommend two types of tripod heads. If you do a little of everything you will want a quality ball head. If you only do landscape of architectural photography and you want precise separate controls in each axis of motion, you will want a 3-way head.
3-way heads have separate controls for camera movement in three different directions: left-right, up-down, and horizontal-vertical angle (and any angle in between horizontal and vertical). These heads are ideal for landscape and still life photographers who want precise control and the ability to change the camera in one directional axis, but not the other two. They are slow to work with if you want to change the camera in 2 or 3 directions, but that usually isn’t a concern for landscape and still life photographers. .
The current model Manfrotto is the X-Pro 3-Way head which will hold up to 17 pounds of gear. The older model Manfrotto 3-way heads 056 3D or 3025 (if you can find one used) will hold a film or digital SLR and normal lenses in sizes up to a 70-200mm or 75-300mm with apertures of f/4 and f/5.6 (or even a 70-200 f/2.8 lens).
If you want the ultimate in 3-way control, get the Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head.
Ballheads swivel on a ball and socket joint. Release one control knob and the camera can point in any direction. They are fast to use and are preferred by wildlife photographers and any other photographer that wants to quickly change camera directions. Photographers that do several kinds of photography (landscape, still life, wildlife, portraits) often prefer ballheads for their speed and flexibility. Ballheads are more expensive with quality brands costing $250 – $600.
My favorite inexpensive ball head is the iOptron 3305A Sky Tracker Ball Head. Currently selling for around $60 it is as well made as tripod heads costing two or three times as much. It was designed to work with an iOptron Sky Tracker for astrophotography but it works just great by itself as an all purpose tripod head. It is Arca-Swiss compatible and comes with an adapter plate to go on the bottom of your camera.
The Slik Pro Ball 800 head works well and costs about $100. I used one for a number of years before it finally began to wear out and slip. The Pro Ball 800 has a quick release disc that screws on to the bottom of your camera. Drop the disc into the top of the head, close the clamp and you are ready to go.
If you are ready to step up in price and quality, I recommend ballheads by Kirk Enterprises and Really right Stuff. Both companies use the excellent Arca-Swiss quick release system. You buy a mounting plate or L-bracket that mounts to your specific camera model. The grooves in the bottom of the mounting plate or L-bracket fit into grooves in the tripod head. It is quick and very secure.
The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 and Really Right Stuff BH-40 are the smaller, lighter, less expensive models and the smallest I would recommend for a film or digital SLR. The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 (photo above) is currently my favorite ball head due to the excellent construction and the Arca-Swiss style quick release system. Both heads will easily handle an SLR with lenses up in size to 70-200mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. If you are using really big lenses like a 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 or larger, you will need to go to the larger Kirk enterprises BH-1 or Really Right Stuff BH-55.
Kirk Enterprises and Really right Stuff sell directly to the consumer via their web sites (links below). I use products from both companies. They both have excellent customer service and I recommend them highly.
For the photographer on a tight budget, you can get by with a smaller tripod like the larger models in the Gorillapod series, like the Gorillapod GP3 with the matching Joby BH1 ballhead, or the Gorillapod Focus with the matching Joby BH2 ballhead. Just make sure you get a size that will handle the weight of your camera and heaviest lens. You can find Gorillapods in this section of my photography store.
You can buy tripod heads from Manfrotto, Gitzo, Slik, and Joby in the tripod section of my photography store (which is powered by Amazon.com with Amazon’s great prices, efficient ordering system and excellent return policy). You can also buy tripods at the same place.
My article on highly recommended tripods.
My article on the best quick release system.
Information from Manfrotto tripod heads is here.
Kirk Enterprises ballheads are here.
Really Right Stuff ballheads are here.
This is one in a series of articles that will guide you to the best of all things photographic. The rest are here: Buyer’s Guide: Recommendations For The Best Photography Equipment, Software, Books, Magazines, DVDs, Online Photo Labs and More.