When you’re shopping for a tripod, one of the decisions you’ll have to make is whether to get a panhead or a ballhead. But, what’s the difference? Which one’s better?
Well, here’s a quick summary of each type of head, along with some thoughts on which one you might prefer:
Panheads work by controlling two hinges: one adjusts the vertical angle of your camera, and the other adjusts the horizontal angle.
The main advantage of a panhead is that they give you precise control of the camera’s position. They allow you to easily adjust your camera’s position in one direction, which makes them great for panning situations (such as shooting video).
However, panheads are typically larger (with long knobs sticking out that can easily get caught on tree branches while you’re hiking). It also takes a lot more time to position your camera on a panhead, versus a ballhead.
Ballheads work by securing your camera to a metal ball, which can move in all directions. To position your camera, you simply unlock the ball with a single knob, move the camera to where you want it, and then just lock in the ball with the same knob.
The main advantage of the ballhead over the panhead is that it’s a lot quicker to position your camera and lock it in place. They also don’t have any long knobs, like the ones you’ll find on a panhead.
The downside to a ballhead is that it’s more difficult to make precise adjustments of the camera’s position. Every time you unlock that ball, the camera will be free to move in all directions (whereas, with a panhead, you can adjust one direction at a time). But, most ballheads also come with a tension adjustment, so you can control how freely the ball moves when you unlock it.
Which is better?
Neither type of head secures your camera better than the other, so deciding between a panhead and ballhead is really just a personal preference. However, it seems like most nature photographers prefer the ballhead.
When I first got into photography, I started with a panhead (despite everyone telling me to get a ballhead). I’m a very precise person, so I was attracted to the panhead because of their precise control. I was afraid the ball on a ballhead would have a mind of its own and float too freely.
But, then I started to get tired of spending so much time adjusting the panhead to the precise position I was looking for. And, those big knobs kept getting in the way: they’d either get caught on tree branches while I was hiking or my camera strap would get tangled around them sometimes.
So, I switched to a ballhead and will never go back (unless maybe I get seriously into video someday). I discovered that my fear of the ballhead being too loose was exaggerated, since you can easily control the tension of the ball on most ballheads.
I also discovered that ballheads can be extremely useful in situations where you’re photographing a moving subject like butterflies or hummingbirds: just setup your tripod by a nice patch of flowers, but keep your ballhead loose, so when a butterfly or hummingbird moves from one flower to the next, you can quickly point your camera in a new direction.
Which do you prefer?
If you also have a strong preference for either type of tripod head, please share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below. Thanks! 🙂
Or, if you’ve found a particular situation where one type of head worked better than the other, please tell us about it!
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.