Tripod Heads: Ball vs Joystick Pistol

Tripod Heads: Ball vs Joystick/Pistol

Choosing a tripod head?  This is not an easy decision as there is a dizzying array of cool stuff for sale.  In this blog piece, I will try and help you with what I think is the biggest decision for a tripod head: Do you choose a ball head, pistol-type, or the old school 3-way pan/tilt type system?

I did a review on some heads and a tripod here.  This blog piece is a supplement to that.  Check it out here for more information.

My Quick Take – buy a pistol and shoot!

I prefer a pistol system also known as a joystick head over all other systems.  Period.  I used both a ball and pistol extensively over the past 12 months and now am completely sure about my preference.  They are faster to adjust and more intuitive than anything else out there.  Just taking your hand off the system will grip the camera and lock it into position.  No accidentally flopping your camera over and painfully pinching your fingers… something a knuckle head like me will always do with a plain ball head. 

Just by holding the pistol grip, you are also holding the camera making adjustment as easy and moving your hand.  Then, by varying the strength of your grip, you control the friction over the internal ball to position your camera.  Most of what I need to do is done with one hand.  Most of the time with a ball head, I need two hands to operate where one hand will hold the camera in some odd position and the other to find, then loosen/tighten both the ball and then pivot mechanism.  Pistol grips are mostly one hand operators.

Here is my quick summary of system types:

  1. 3-Way Pan/Tilt – This is the old school system usually of two wands operating two swivels.  These suck.  Forget ‘em.  I could never figure out how to use them properly when they were the only game in town.  Ball systems were a gift from the gods to a clod like me. Spend the extra money and leave the past behind.
  2. Ball Head, my second choice – I love ‘em but you have to program your brain to consciously tighten the friction screws down or you will keep flopping your equipment over.  I still can’t get used to them and am constantly pinching a finger.  When the camera flops over, it is pretty violent and clunking your equipment over can’t be a good thing.  However, they are absolutely wonderful for position flexibility, low in height over the tripod, provide a solid grip when you screw them down, and positioning is very quick.
  3. Pistol/Joystick, my first choice – Fastest, most flexible, and clod-proof method for positioning your camera.  To position your equipment, just squeeze the pistol and move.  One squeeze releases all rotation mechanisms.  To tighten and lock into position, just let go.  Some pistol grips will position your camera higher over the tripod than plain ball heads and therefore you get more drooping from the added torque, and the two different Manfrotto pistols I used are prone to slip with the weight of a large lens like a 70-200 f/2.8.  Not all pistol heads slip, the Slik is just fantastic.

I tried out three different head types consisting of two models of Manfrotto pistol/joystick heads, one Really Right Stuff ball head, one Manfrotto ball head, and one Slik pistol head.  To be fair, I cannot recommend any one manufacture’s product as I have not tried them all (there are way too many to choose from), but I do have what I think is good, hands-on experience in the field with each system type.  At a minimum, you can use my commentary to assist you in choosing what it right for you. 

What I Use

Ok, I will make a recommendation:  I think the Slik pistol heads, models AF-2100 or AF-1100E, are the best!!  But their plate systems are not interchangeable with my other equipment… remember, you are buying into a system… and I am in love with my ridiculously configurable Manfrotto 190 CXPRO4 tripod.

For daily use, I use the Manfrotto 222 Joystick head.  While I am generally satisfied with this unit, I find it unnecessarily heavy, difficult to squeeze, and can slip with the weight of my 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens when I drop it vertically or place the system into really odd positions.  More information here.

I liked the Manfrotto 498RC2 ballhead…. I was very impressed with the unit but just could not get develop the little habits to keep from flopping over my equipment.  This unit has all the adjustments you need and a nice lever that can tighten everything up with just the pressure from your hand.  Nice.

A quick comment on Really Right Stuff stuff.  Boy, this is the Swiss precision watch of camera gear.  If you have the bucks, check them out.

So, no perfect system yet for me, but right now I am happy with my all-Manfrotto rig.

Too Many Options

Even a single manufacturer like Manfrotto can have way too many to choose from.  A simple search of “Manfrotto Ball Heads” on a popular on-line photo equipment retailer listed 44 Manfrotto heads!!  Sheesh!  These folks should take a lesson from the “Burger Shake Fry” menu and keep it simple.  After talking to folks out in the field where I see all these different models of Manfrotto ball heads, I honestly can’t see why one model is better than the next for amateurs like me, except maybe for holding differing weight loads.

The one recommendation I will make, in general, is stick to one manufacturer’s system so the quick release plates are interchangeable across your tripods and other equipment.  You are not just buying a head, but you are committing to a system so you may want to look across the company’s other stuff.  As my pile of gizmos and technologies painfully pile up, I learned that saving a few bucks on a cool thing here and there is just not worth it when it comes to interoperability.  Staying with the big name-brand guys is usually the best path to take even though you will pay more for a given product.

 Common Issues with any ball head

Pistols are actually ball heads at their heart.  So consider the following when you look at either of these head types:

  • Drop notches: to drop your camera down 90 degrees to the ball mount, the ball stem will have to fall between gaps in the friction collar.  Select only a head that has at least two drop notches, usually on opposite sides, as this will give you the most flexibility for camera movement.  To drop your camera down, you most likely will have to spin the mount (sometimes called a pan rotator) to align the notch to the ball stem, but having two notches make this quicker and less complex.
  • Drag setting:  No, this is not a man sitting around in a dress.  This is a knob or other mechanism to add friction to movement and should be easy to set but rather hidden or small. 
  • Tighten/loosen mechanism:  For ball heads, they are either a levers or knobs.  The Manfrotto I own has easy to position levers but I think I like the big knob design best like the very expensive Really Right Stuff (RRS) head. 
  • Easy to tighten/loosen pan rotation:  This feature is a bit tough for me to describe but it is really important.  You would think just loosening the ball will get you any position you want, but as I noted above, occasionally you will drop the camera to the side and therefore have to use the drop notches in the ball housing collar.  You will always be doing this if you are putting your tripod down near the ground or in odd positions like I do.  What if these notches are not lined up properly?  Well, you have to loosen some other adjustment, spin it a bit, then re-tighten.  Access to this operation has really frustrated me as all ball heads that I am familiar with have a separate knob or lever for this.  This is one of the many reasons I like pistol grips as a single squeeze will release all friction systems in the head.  Ball heads require two operations for this more extreme positioning of the camera.  To be fair, this is no issue if you are standing upright with the tripod vertical in front of you.  But, if you are down on the ground and your inflamed disc is shooting pain down your leg, this extra lever can be anger inducing.
  • Maximum weight supported:  Pay attention to the weight-supporting specification of the head!!!  If you are on the border with one of your bigger lenses, then just get the bigger head.  You don’t want slippage.  If you don’t have a big lens but suspect you will buy one someday, a safe approach is to check the weight of a 70-200 f/2.8 lens, and then add this to the weight of your current camera body.  This total weight should represent the high side of a future lens purchase.  If you are planning to buy a lens monster like a 500mm log, you will be buying a new specialty tripod and head for this bugger so don’t worry about supporting it.
  • Quick release system:  As I’ve said over and over, you are buying into a system.  Make sure the quick release system you are buying into will work with other stuff, or at least, the manufacturer’s other products.  To matters worse, some companies have multiple quick release systems that are not interchangeable with each other so beware.
  • Weight:  I actually don’t care if one head is lighter than the other, but I do care if it is heavy.  The Manfrotto pistol heads are way too heavy than they need to be.

How are you going to use it?

I use my tripod and head in the goofiest positions you can imagine.  So much so, that I now slug down three Ibuprofen gels before I head out to shoot.  When I purchased my Manfrotto tripod, I took my camera and heavy 70-200 f/2.8 lens to my local store to try the stuff out.  I got down on my knees, twisted, and pushed some heads around.  Even then I was not sure exactly what would work for me but there is no substitute for this hands on learning in the store.

Support your local camera shop

Look, I buy a ton of stuff over the ‘net to save some bucks, but I do use the local brick and mortar stores to touch and feel stuff before I buy.  So, I do the right thing and buy from my local store when I use their resources.  I purchased my tripod and two heads from my local shop because I spent time there, talked to their experts, and closely inspected this equipment.  While the store didn’t have the variety you find on the internet, they did carry a nice selection of brands and options.  Yes, I could have saved some money by walking out and clicking, but I can’t do that.  It is just not moral in my book.  A great store East of Philadelphia where I buy stuff is The Camera Shop in Bryn Mawr PA and their staff actually know something about photography.


Galleries: Camera Tech. Tags: Manfrotto Tripod & Head.

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