Smooth operators: 10 top video tripod heads for any budget
posted Wednesday, January 18, 2017 at 8:45 AM EST
Any photographer who tries shooting video using an ordinary tripod designed for still photography soon discovers the limitations of a standard 3-way pan/tilt head or ball head in achieving smooth panning and tilting motions. Indeed, if you're serious about creating professional looking videos, a high-quality video tripod and/or a fluid head optimized for video shooting, are basic essentials. One of the more cost-effective ways to upgrade your production value is to add a video head (or perhaps a more sophisticated video head) to your existing tripod.
To help you do just that, below are some basic guidelines for video heads in general, and then a selection of 10 video heads ranging in price from under $100 to over $1,000 that users have reviewed favorably, or are considered standards of the industry.
A Concise Guide to Video Head Features
All the video heads detailed below are so-called "fluid heads," ones that employ a viscous fluid in their pan and tilt mechanisms to provide a fixed or adjustable amount of damping action. This allows you to execute smoother panning and tilting movements that are clearly visible in the resulting videos. In general, the more sophisticated and costly video heads provide adjustable damping (drag) on both the pan and tilt controls, as well as other refinements including a fixed or adjustable counterbalance, so the camera remains stable when tilted without having to re-lock the tripod; adjustable, interchangeable panning handles; illuminated or non-illuminated bubble levels; sliding, adjustable mounting plates to accommodate a variety of camera types and sizes; and a wide range of security attachments to lock the camera and/or mounting plate in place. A good video head should also provide a full 360-degree pan capability and allow the camera to be tilted backward and forward by at least 75 degrees.
The ability to adjust the amount of drag (resistance) on the panning and tilting actions makes for smooth movements at a variety of panning speeds, to follow fast action at one end of the range, or execute smooth slow pans and tilts when shooting slower-moving or stationary subjects. Adjustments are in steps with some models, but are continuously variable with others, while some units provide a zero or null position. In general, the greater the range of damping adjustments, the more control you have in setting the amount of drag to suit different subjects and achieve the precise effects you want.
If the head lacks a counterbalance, the head will continue to move in a given direction when you tilt the head forward or backward, which can lead to instability and jerky motion, or even upset the tripod when you let go of the handle and risk everything tipping over. Having a counterbalance control basically means that you don't have to fight the camera when tilting it, and ideally, you should be able to select a setting that offsets the weight of the camera and lens and provides neutral handling so that you can tilt it up or down more easily.
A fixed counterbalance control can be effective if the strength of the spring corresponds to the weight and weight distribution of your camera and lens, but an adjustable counterbalance control is more flexible because it accommodates a wider variety of camera/lens combinations. (There's a huge difference between a light camera with a wide-angle, small aperture lens attached or a heavy body with long tele lens hanging off the front of it.) A good test of a properly counterbalanced camera is that it will stay put without falling over when set at any reasonable tilt angle.
Ball base vs. flat base
Video tripod heads come in two different styles, ball base or flat base. Ball bases (also known as half–ball or claw ball) allow quicker and easier leveling of the fluid head whereas flat bases require you to level the head by adjusting your tripod's individual leg heights. Ball base-style tripod heads come in a variety of sizes: A 75mm ball base is a good choice for DSLRs and moderate sized camcorders in the 6-12 pound range, while the larger 100mm and 150mm balls will accommodate large professional cameras with long/heavy lenses.
Video heads with ball bases need compatible tripod legs that include a corresponding bowl or opening for the ball base to mount into. If you're just starting out with video, it's likely that the set of tripod legs you already own for still photography has a flat base, in which case a video head with a flat base would be the way to go unless you plan on purchasing a new tripod as well. It's worth mentioning, too, that certain models of tripods, such as some from major manufacturers like Gitzo and Manfrotto, may offer video bowl head adapters, allowing you to mount bowl base video heads on your existing tripod legs. The reverse is true as well; some bowl-base tripod heads may offer the ability to convert the ball into a flat base. A nice advantage to a flat base video heads, though, is that they are easier to add onto other camera mounting platforms, such as sliders, without much, if any, extra equipment.
Sliding quick-release platform
Virtually every video head currently on the market provides a locking quick-release (QR) plate that lets you mount and detach the camera quickly and securely. Many higher-end units also offer a sliding platform on top the head that provides an additional positioning adjustment to accommodate cameras of different sizes, weights and shapes, and to achieve better inherent balance. Recently, hybrid heads that combine the advantages of both types of plates have appeared, with the Manfrotto 500-series fluid heads being notable examples of this.
Interchangeable pan bar
Most top-tier video heads have a rosette, a type of ridged attachment point, that accepts an adjustable panning bar that can be locked at various angles. A few have rosettes on either side, letting you switch it around for left- or right-handed operation. You could also mount two panning bars to each side and use both hands to control camera movement. Pan bars that telescope and can be set to different lengths are a plus.
The vast majority of video heads provide at least one bubble level for convenient leveling of the head platform and camera. A battery powered illuminated bubble level is a definite plus when working in dim conditions, and this feature is built into most high-end video heads.
Bubble levels are important, as you don't want the horizon to shift as you pan, or verticals to shift as you tilt. You generally want to keep the camera's pan/tilt axes horizontal and perpendicular, unless you're going for some unusual creative effect.
10 Top Video Heads: Specs and Evaluations
Sachtler 0707 FSB-8 Fluid Head
Designed for handheld camcorders and DSLR rigs, the Sachtler 0707 provides virtually frictionless sealed fluid damping with settings for five levels of drag on both panning and tilting actions, including the ability to disable drag altogether for fast panning of action subjects. It also features a 10-step counterbalance control that covers a camera weight range of 2-20 pounds, a Sachtler Sideload mechanism with an exceptionally large sliding range of 4.7 inches, and an illuminated bubble level. Tilt range: -75 degrees to + 90 degrees. Base Style: Ball (75mm); Bowl base can be removed and converted into a flat base. Weight: 4.7 pounds.
The majority of user reviews are very favorable, with many praising the Sachtler's 20-pound weight capacity, smooth fluid action and level of drag control. The overall quality and feel offer a major improvement over consumer-level offerings. While a number of reviews mention the high price-point, most recommend it regardless. As one user put it, "I'd rather pay once for a high-quality tool I don't have to replace for a long time."
Pricey but worth it! An outstanding pro video head by one of the top names in the business.
Miller 1034 Compass15 Fluid Head
Optimized for a variety of pro and prosumer camcorders and cameras, the beautifully made Miller 1034 will support payloads from 4.4 to 19.8 pounds and features adjustable 5-position drag controls with 'zero' settings on both pan and tilt functions, caliper disc brake pan and tilt locks, a replaceable tilt-end rosette (in other words, you can replace the ridged rosette connectors if they ever wear out over time), an illuminated bubble level, and a sliding 60mm quick-release plate with 1/4-inch and 3/8-inch mounting screws. Its counterbalance has four selectable positions, and its platform places the camera 6.7 inches above the bowl to enhance handling. Weight: 5.5 pounds. Base Style: Ball (75mm); Bowl base can be removed and converted into a flat base.
There aren't many complaints with this professional-level tripod head. Users applause its solid built quality and ability to easily handle larger, heavier camera rigs. Users also praise the video head's smooth motion, fine-grained adjustability and "rock-solid" stability even with heavy loads. Similar to the Sachtler, some point out the 1034's high price tag, but if you're a professional or serious video shooter, it's worth it.
Definitely on the A-list for shooting pro quality video and competitive with the Sachtler.
Vinten Vision blue Pan And Tilt Fluid Video Head
Designed for lightweight camcorders and DSLRs, the Vinten can accommodate payloads of 4.6-11 pounds, positioned at a +/- 2.2-inch center of gravity, and provides a 75mm ball for quick and easy leveling. The Vision blue provides an infinitely adjustable "Perfect Balance" system for setting the amount of counterbalance and uses a calibrated, infinitely adjustable Lubricated Friction technology system, allowing fine drag adjustments on the pan and tilt controls. The head can be tilted upward and downward up to 90 degrees and provides full 360-degree panning capability. Other features: The single fixed panning handle mounts on the left or right via rosettes, a two-way sliding quick-release plate with 1/4-inch screw and pin assembly, and an LED-illuminated bubble level. An optional blueBridge accessory lowers the payload range to accommodate smaller, lighter cameras. Weight: 5.3 pounds. Base Style: Ball (75mm); Bowl base cannot be removed.
Review point to many positives with the Vinten video head. They note that the "Perfect Balance system" works very well, even with larger, longer lenses; one user pointing out that it worked great with a 600mm lens. Users give high marks to its nice build quality and durability and note that it performs much like more expensive heads. Some uses point out that the pan and tilt locks require a firm twist and don't grab as confidently as other heads, like one user's Sachtler video head. The mounting plate is slightly wider than Manfrotto's widely popular one, so they aren't interchangeable. Others note that some lighter cameras under four pounds have difficulty balancing, though Vinten does offer an optional accessory to accommodate. Overall, it's a good head but make sure it will fit your setup.
A high-performance, high-quality fluid head at an attractive price -- if your video outfit is within the 4.6-11-pound range.
Benro S8 Pro Video Head with Flat Base
Attaches to tripods, monopods, sliders, etc. using a 3/8-inch x 16 threaded stud, can be adapted to 75mm bowl with optional Benro BL75. Provides continuous adjustment of both pan and tilt drag, rotates 360 degrees for panning, forward to 90 degrees, and backward to 70 degrees, features a four-step (0-3) adjustable counterbalance system, and will accommodate cameras up to 17.6 pounds. Other features: removable pan bar for left- or right-handed operation, accepts optional second pan bar for two-handed operation or when using zoom and focus remotes, sliding quick-release plate can be moved up to 1.5 inches forward and 1.7 inches back to achieve optimal balance, ratcheted locking levers for pan/tilt, and quick-release plate, illuminated bubble level. Weight: 5.7 pounds. Base Style: Flat; Can be adapted to a 75mm bowl with add-on accessory.
Owners are generally positive with this Benro video head, giving it an average around 4/5 stars. They note that it performs very well overall except for some occasional noise from its mechanism and some build quality inconsistencies. The head provides good high load capacity for the price, and its counterbalancing system worked very well for a user's 11-pound camera setup, for example. Some noted that the pan lock must be really tight to provide security and that the tilt lock can be difficult to lock down tightly as it's too close to the pan lock.
High load capacity and good quality at a modest price.
Manfrotto 502HD Pro Video Head with Flat Base
A full-featured aluminum head designed for compact camcorders and DSLRs, this flat-base version has a maximum weight capacity of 15.4 pounds. Its fixed, spring-loaded counterbalance will handle up to 8.8 pounds, and its balance plate has a 3.27-inch positioning range to accommodate uneven payloads and camera/lens configurations. Its lockable pan and tilt controls are continuously adjustable from zero to the maximum level, its pan bar can be mounted in two different positions, its sliding quick-release plates are secured by a secondary locking system, and it has a bubble level. Height: 5.1 inches. Weight: 3.5 pounds. Base Style: Flat; 75mm ball-base variant is also available.
Reviews are overwhelmingly positive for this popular head, with a majority in the 5-star and 4-star categories. Users praised its excellent handling and performance with lightweight cameras, noted its pan bar grip was improved over previous models, that the pan lock is inside the head and won't interfere with mounting, and that its Fluid Drag System is outstanding and allows smooth, ergonomic 360-degree pans. Downsides: Non-illuminated bubble level, non-adjustable pan bar length adjustment, no counterbalance adjustments.
A good, solid value for new videographers looking for great capability at an affordable price.
Surui VH-10 Fluid Video Head
This well made, beautifully finished forged aluminum head supports up to 13.2 pounds and features a fixed spring-loaded counterbalance to bring the head to a neutral position, and a step-less adjustable tilt drag with a zero position for tilting quickly when needed, and pan drag is pre-set at a fixed level. Other features include pan and tilt locks, a Manfrotto-compatible sliding Quick Release plate with a safety lock, an adjustable length pan arm, and two bubble levels. It provides a tilt range of +/- 90-degrees, plus full 360-degree pan capability, and accepts optional adapters for mounting on tripods with a 75mm bowl. Weight: 1.98 pounds. Base Style: Flat; Can be adapted to a 75mm bowl with add-on accessory.
Owners note good build quality and great features. The tripod head is compact and very solid with nice smooth movements, but some say it's not as smooth as the somewhat less expensive Manfrotto MVH500AH. Plates are not fully comparable with Manfrotto, and the fixed counterbalance and pan drag adjustment have some limitations. Overall, it's super-compact and a great choice for travel.
A contender in its size/price class, it earns a plus for portability.
Manfrotto MVH500AH Fluid Video Head with Flat Base
This robust aluminum alloy head provides a broad platform for DSLRs, with an 11-pound load capacity, a side lock system for safer mounting, a fixed drag fluid cartridges on both its pan and tilt axes to ensure smooth movements, and has a fixed spring-loaded counterbalance preset at 5.3 pounds. Other features: Tilt range: -70 degrees to + 90 degrees plus 360-degree panning capability, 500PLONG extended quick-release plate with security lock and quick top-mounting capability, Easy Link side connector for attaching accessories such as a video monitor, and a non-illuminated bubble level. Weight: 1.98 pounds. Base Style: Flat; Can be adapted to a 75mm bowl with add-on accessory.
Most reviews fall into the 5-star and 4-star categories, but with a significant number of 3-star evaluations. Tilt action is described as buttery smooth, but the pan action was too stiff out of the box, but by loosening the bolt and retightening it with less torque, it was much smoother. Other high points include praise for the fluid feel, but on the other hand, you can't adjust the pan and tilt drag to the same amount, making pan and tilt movements tricky to do at the same time.
Good quality at the price for entry-level video shooters.
Buy Now, $144.99:
Manfrotto 128RC QR Micro Fluid Head
An upgrade of Manfrotto's popular #3130, this straightforward, compact and lightweight head mounts via a 3/8-inch x 16 female thread, comes with a secure flip-lever-controlled 200PL-14 locking Quick-Release Plate, and has a load capacity of 8.75 pounds. It provides smooth, fluid movements and fixed damping on both pan and tilt actions, pans a full 360 degrees, can be tilted -60 degrees to +90 degrees, and features pan and tilt locks, and an adjustable pan bar. Weight: 2.2 pounds. Base Style: Flat.
A solid performer. Many users noted its lightweight build and smooth, easy panning capabilities, but pointed out the lack of a bubble level and counterbalance functionality. There are no drag adjustments: "Although there's no drag control, I could easily adjust the pan axis screw and the hex screw on the tilt axis to equalize the drag and get the amount I wanted." A few users, however, said they could not adjust the tilt drag to the degree they wanted.
No frills or dedicated adjustments, but well made and a good value.
ProAm USA Professional Fluid Tripod Head
With a hydraulic damping system that provides fluid drag on its tilt and pan controls, this robust, economical unit has a flat base that mounts with 3/8-inch female thread to video or hybrid tripods and sliders, has a sliding camera plate, and a load capacity of up to 13.2 pounds. Its quick release plate can be attached from either the front or the back. Other features: Pan handle adjusts from 15-23 inches in length to facilitate controlling the camera on a crane, has independent pan and tilt locks, 360-degreee panning rotation, a bubble level, and a quick-release plate. Weight: 2.6 pounds. Base Style: Flat; Also available in 75mm ball-mount version at the same price.
Ratings are mostly in the 4-star range, with only a few lower ratings. A well made, cost effective, well-designed head, comparable to more expensive units. Users noted the decent quality, but lamented its surprisingly heavy weight. Nevertheless, owners were impressed by how smoothly and fluidly it performed. Some noted that panning action was a little stiff out of the box, but it has adjustable fluid drag control so it can be dialed in.
Remarkably good basic fluid head for the price. A great buy.
Magnus VPH-20 Video Pan & Tilt Fluid Head
This lightweight fluid cartridge video head has lockable pan and tilt controls with separate tension control knobs, supports loads up to 11 pounds, and is claimed to provide well-damped pans to 360 degrees, with a full 180-degree total tilt range. Other features: Removable right-side pan arm, quick release plate with cork surface and locking pin, and 3/8-inch x 16 mounting thread that can be converted to ¼-inch x 20 with an included reducing bushing to mount it on virtually any slider. Weight: 1.8 pounds. Base Style: Flat.
Most user reviews fall into the 3-4 star range with a few 2- and 1-star ratings. It's not a bad deal for the money, but some users found the pan/tilt action didn't seem fluid damped with light cameras. Most found the tilting and panning functions worked well for the most part, unless you're panning over 90 degrees, and some also noticed amount of drag changed while panning.
Well worth a look if your camera is in the 4-11 pound range and you're on a tight budget.