Since my last post was on travel tripods, I thought I might as well follow-up with a short post on ballheads. This is not for those of you who already know all this; it’s for those who wonder why anyone would want to buy a separate tripod head at all. Why not just buy a tripod-head combo and be done with it?
There’s one basic reason: choice. You might not want whatever head the manufacturer deems best. It might be too big, too small, too flimsy, or too limiting for your needs. If you buy a tripod with a removeable head you can attach the exact head you want and change later if you need something different. There's a lot to be said for adaptability.
The reason I prefer a ballhead for travel is that it’s a lot more compact than the comparable pan-tilt head. A pan-tilt has handles that extend outward and compromize portability. The controls on a ballhead are compact knobs or levers that are also less likely to snag on branches, brush, and other people.
Although you can get by with just one control—a locking screw or lever for the ball—this is less than optimal because the only way to pan is by unlocking the ball. If you then let go of your camera it will drop downward and perhaps even strike the tripod. You may also find that when you lock down the head the added tension on the ball will make your framing will shift a bit. Some heads compensate for this by adding a heavy-duty spring that places the ball under constant tension. In practice, the spring will be too heavy for some camera/lens combinations and too light for others.
That’s why it’s better to use a ballhead with an adjustable friction control. Better yet, make sure it has a separate pan base too; that way you can pan the camera without having to unlock the ball itself.
The final factor to consider is how to attach it to your camera. Some heads have a standard tripod screw, others use quick-mount plates that attach to your cameras and lenses. The benefit to a standard tripod head is that you can use it with practically any camera or lens that has a tripod socket. The drawback is that the heavier your lens, the more it acts as a lever that pulls your camera downward, thereby loosening it from the tripod. This can happen with some quick-mount plates as well. The better plates have a “lip” that fits along the base of your camera or lens to prevent it from twisting.
For speed and convenience you’ll need a separate plate for each item you want to attach, which can get pricey. Make sure that if you do opt for a quick-mount head it uses standard Arca-Swiss style plates, otherwise you’ll be limited to a smaller, less flexible selection of proprietary plates.
The final factor to consider is size. The more weight you need the head to support, the bigger the ball should be. You don’t want to try to support a Canon 1DX with 400mm f/.28 telephoto lens on a ball the size of a marble. By the same token, a 2-inch diameter ball is overkill for an Olympus OM-D with a 20mm pancake lens.
That’s about it, folks. The rest becomes a matter of what design you feel most comfortable with. Choose a head with controls where you want and expect them to be and that feels built to last decades. Make the right choice and you’ll be enjoying your ballhead—and tripod—long after your current camera is a distant memory.