Tripod heads for Large Format Photography

By Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page

A survey of pan-tilt heads, ball heads, and quick release (QR) systems, with a discussion of the merits of each system, and a few specific recommendations based on user's experience. Updated Oct. 2008.

Ball heads, from left to right: Arca-Swiss B1, Acratech Ultimate Ball-head, Slik Standard, Velbon PH-253

Three way Pan Tilt heads

A three way Pan Tilt head gives independant control of movement over each of the three axes (pan, forward-backwards, left-right), using an independant locking mechanism. It gives you precise control. Most users find that they would be the most appropriate type of heads for large-format use. While universally used in the studio, in the field, they suffer from two drawbacks: (a) they are quite heavy and bulky (b) they tend to be slow if you also use them for a smaller format camera.

Two-way pan-tilt head (leveling heads)

Those heads have independant control of movement over two axes (forward-backwards, left-right), and are used to level the camera. They have a large mounting surface, making them secure for large cameras. The Ries is considered by many to be the best, but Gitzo also makes a leveling head worth checking out.

Panning ball heads

A panning ball head has two independant controls: one for the ball itself, which you can move freely in any direction, and the other, generally a smaller knob, for the panning base. A pan bed is a separate rotational table, which permits free left-right movement even when the ball is locked. Most medium-sized balls have some sort of frictioncontrol, which let you adjust the resistance of the ball to movement. This way, you don't have to hold firmly the camera while making adjustments. A good ball head should maintain smooth motion, even with a high friction. Inexpensive ball heads do not seem to be able to do that.

Generally, with the ball head it is faster to frame your shot initally, but more finicky when you want to refine the framing because trying to tweak tilt without upsetting side-to-side level can be difficult, particularly with heavier cameras. What you gain in speed, you loose in precision. For smaller cameras (35mm and MF), the ball-head is generally acknowledged to be the tool of choice

Ball heads are much more compact than PT head, having no protruding handles, and generally lighter, making them a good choice for field photography, where you'd level using bubble levels.

Non-panning ball-heads

Only one knob to control the ball, and no panning base. The ball has to be unlocked, or the tripod center column used, in order to perform left-right adjustement. When using a small-format camera, the head's vertical "drop notch" cannot be easily relocated. I don't particularly recomment them, except for the smallest balls, since the weigth and price savings are only around 25%.

Quick Release systems

There are two universal QR systems, the Arca-Swiss system and the Bogen Hex system. Despite of some commonly heard claims, having used both I think they are equally good. While obviously AS heads come with the AS system and Bogen heads come with the Bogen system, you can buy the clamp independantly to retrofit several heads (unlike the old B1, the newer B1 can be easily converted to accept the Bogen). A variety of plates is available for each system, although because of the "open channel" nature of the AS system, there are much more offerings for it. Some Bogen heads also come with a dedicated plate which is not compatible with the Hex system, while the AS system has been embraced by several manufacturers. The Bogen system is quite inexpensive, being a steel casting. The clamp costs $30, and each standard plate is $15. The AS can become pretty costly, with each plate starting at $50, especially when you get custom plates which are not interchangeable. This higher price reflects the better fit and materials.

In the Arca-Swiss system, you line up and then slide the mounting plate between two opposing jaws and then tighten them using a knob. The Bogen system is spring-loaded: you position the plate, and press it in place, which causes a lever to lock the plate. The basic Bogen plate is hexagonal, however there is also a 4 inch square quick release plate, which works with the clamp designed for the hexagonal system, and gives more secure mounting with large cameras. The Bogen system, being spring-loaded and aligned from the top, is clearly the faster.

The main advantage of the AS system is the availability of several plates in all shapes and sizes to fit exactly your camera and collared lenses. Kirk enterprises and Really Right Stuff make custom plates. Being produced in a larger variety of models, RRS plates are generally acknowldeged to have a better fit. If you use several cameras and formats, that's a very nice thing. The Bogen plates are quite bulky and tend to stick out on small cameras and lens mounts. On the other hand, if you use only LF, the Bogen plates would work just fine. The second advantage of the AS system is that the clamp is smaller (Kirk makes the smallest) and lighter than the Bogen clamp. This is significant only if travelling very light. A third advantage is that you can slide the plate back and forth in the clamp to better balance your camera.

RRS claims that plates which have flat tops will twist on the camera body. In practice, I have not found that to be a problem, provided you tighten your plate with a screwdriver. For small cameras, plates with a ridge for the Bogen system are actually available from Bogen and from Kirk. There is nothing which would prevent someone from making plates for the Bogen system with the same quality materials and fit as the RRS plates.

It is not clear which system is the safer, since the failures modes are quite different. In the AS system you must turn the knob to grip the camera plate. Friction is holding your camera, so there is always the danger of not tightening it enough. In the Bogen system, when you hear a click, it is locked. However it could be easier to release the locking lever by accident (although there is a pin which you could flip to prevent that from happening). The hex plates resist torque equally about all axes.

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