Tripod Toppers

By Roger (8 May 2016)

Before we leave the subject of tripods, there are a few other things to consider to finish off your stability package. After you go through the struggle to pick your “legs,” you need to decide what you're going to put on top of them. You don't just set the camera on top; you need something that will allow you to adjust the camera to the perfect angle to capture the composition.

Naturally, there are competing opinions and a myriad of possible solutions to confuse you. As always, talk to your photography friends about what they like and don't like. The most common topper is a ball head, like the one below.

Typical Ball Head

Securely mounted to the ball head

You'll want a ball head that allows you to smoothly adjust your camera into the proper position, with no slippage once you have the camera exactly where you want it. When you're on ground or sand that is not level, you can put your tripod into a sturdy position and level your camera, adjusting it with the ball head. As I discussed in the choosing your tripod blog, you need to consider the weight of your camera and whatever lens you attach. A good quality ball head won't slip.

Ball heads have a slot on one side, so you can move your camera from landscape to portrait mode, without the need to remove your camera from the ball head. This will change the balance on your tripod, however, so ensure your tripod is balanced and your camera is securely locked into the ball head.

Ball head in portrait mode

Another tripod topper choice is the gimbal head. This is the most popular for use with long, heavy telephoto lenses. It is especially favored by nature and sports photographers. The ball head adjustments are not as easy to get to with a long lens attached, but the gimbal adjustments are out to the side. In addition, when the gimbal is properly set up, you can move the camera and lens quickly with just one hand. When you're trying to photograph fast-moving subjects with a long lens, this ability to move is very important.

Gimbal head

Gimbal head with a 5 pound lens

This doesn't mean that you can't use a ball head for long lenses. A sturdy ball head can support long lenses. As you can see, in the photo below, some photographers use long lenses and ball heads. I prefer the gimbal for long lenses and a ball head when I have shorter lenses attached. You need to make your own choices.

Ball head and long lens

The key to the whole system is a quick release plate that attaches to the bottom of your camera and long lenses. Many ball head and gimbal manufacturer companies have proprietary plates that work with only their tripod heads. The alternative, Arca Swiss, standard is more universal and less expensive. They are my preferred solution because they are available from many vendors and are strong enough to support all my equipment.

Proprietary or Arca Swiss, both work fine, but you should standardize your plates and buy enough to cover all your cameras and lenses. You don't want multiple systems, and you don't want to switch these plates from component to component when there are photographs to make. For many long lenses, you can even get Arca Swiss-compatible feet and switch out the one from your manufacturer that relies on a proprietary system. I put one on my Nikon 70-200mm. (You can see it in the second photo, above.)

Another component to consider is the L Bracket. This attaches to the bottom of the camera and goes up the left side. You can see some examples at this link and on the photos of my camera. This allows you to re-position your camera from landscape to portrait, without moving your ball head or gimbal. Since I use the gimbal for long lenses only, I use the L bracket on just the ball head. These L brackets are camera-specific, because of battery compartments and ease of access to camera interfaces, so buy carefully. It should surprise no one that my L bracket is has Arca Swiss compatibility for attaching to my ball head or gimbal head.

By the time you add everything together – tripod, monopod, ball head, gimbal head, L bracket – the cost may dissuade you. But you don't have to buy them all at the same time, and this good quality gear will outlast you. I've had the same stability gear for more than 10 years and use it more than most part-time photographers. They're all still in great condition and getting lots of use. Good equipment is a worthwhile investment.

I hope these blogs have helped you see the value in stability products. They'll increase the sharpness of all your photographs; help you slow down as you move from subject to subject; and open up more opportunities for low light photography. Once you become accustomed to using this gear, you'll find you enjoy them more out in the field than sitting in a corner somewhere. And they come in handy for self-portraits, too.

Different camera, but same tripod and ball head.