Selecting a Tripod: Tripod Heads for Nature Photography

This is the second of a two part article on selecting a tripod, and covers the selection of tripod heads and quick-release systems. The first part discusses tripod legsets and can be found here.

For most nature photography tasks, I’d recommend using a large, high-quality ballhead. The best of these feature a large ball, adjustable tension, and a can hold quite a bit of weight. The Kirk Enterprises KB-1, Arca-Swiss Z1, Markins M-20, and (if you can find it) the Burzynski Protec are all excellent choices for general-use tripods.

For tripods used for backpacking where weight is a concern, you might look to smaller offerings from these companies like the Kirk BH-3 or the unusual and excellent Acratech V2. While these heads won’t long telephoto lenses as solidly as a full-sized head, with careful use (mirror lockup, cable release) you should be able to get good results in most situations.

This still leaves the question of how you attach your camera to all this gear, and this is done with a quick-release (QR) system. QR systems consist of a clamp on the ballhead and a plate that you’ll screw to the bottom of your camera. Each of the ballheads I’ve listed comes with, or can come with, an “Arca-style” QR clamp, and all of those manufacturers make a variety of plates designed to fit a variety of camera bodies, as well as longer telephoto lenses. For those long lenses, you’ll want to mount the camera to the lens and the lens to the tripod, rather than the camera to the tripod, your goal should be to have the weight of your equipment balanced over the tripod to the extent possible.

Shooting vertical images presents another problem, while all of these ballheads except the Protect allow you to rotate the camera into a position to the side of the ballhead, rather than on top of it, doing so is usually awkward at best. Cheaper ballheads will “droop” a fair bit when you tighten the head locking mechanism and let go of the camera, but even the best ballheads tend to be a challenge to position carefully in this orientation, and once you do, the weight of the camera is no longer over the center of the tripod, which reduces stability. Fortunately, there’s a solution, and that’s the L-bracket. An L-bracket is a special type of QR plate that fits around the bottom and one side of your camera and provides the ability to mount the camera on top of your ballhead in either portrait or landscape orientation, providing excellent ease-of-use and maximum stability in either orientation.

While these ballheads and QR systems will handle the vast majority of your photographic needs, I’ll briefly note two special solutions that exist for macro photography and bird photography, resepectively.

For macro work, “macro rails” (also known as “focusing rails”) are a huge help. These rails fit into your ballhead’s QR clamp and provide an easy way to make precise adjustments toward or away from the subject, trying to move an entire tripod a half millimeter turns out to be a real challenge in the field.

Bird photography presents a second problem–that of supporting and panning heavy (as much as 10 lbs. or more) supertelephoto lenses. It’s pretty difficult to manage this on a conventional ballhead, gimbal-type heads, such as the Wimberley Head and the Kirk Enterprises King Cobra, do a much better job for avian work.

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