A second time this year I want to share a technical experience report with you. It's about a good tripod head for longer focal lengths of 600-1200mm.
First of all: why do I actually need a good tripod head?
Many animals can be photographed very well freehand, especially in the focal length range 200-600 and especially in rough terrain or with animals where most of the time is spent for an active search instead of taking pictures. Even when I photographed sea eagles from a boat in October (about 300mm), I did it freehand, of course. In addition, the image stabilizers are getting better and better, so it works really well.
However, a very "smooth" pivoting tripod head is clearly an advantage.
I personally use one for longer and less spontaneous bird-in-flight sessions, for swimming or running waterfowl, and for all kinds of video shooting, especially with 840mm focal length. Whenever the direction of flight, swimming or running is predictable for a few seconds, a good tripod head can be used properly.
The cleaner I pan along in this type of photography, the lower the waste because the subject is not too close to the edge of the frame. It is not so much about increasing the sharpness of the image, because if I take a picture of a tern at 2500th of a second, for example, it will usually be sharp freehand. But what is a sharp image if the tern is almost flying out of the frame?
This applies for example to such shots on Texel from last year, where I was able to photograph Sandwich Terns for several hours with 840mm and I was glad to have a fluid head with me. The swallows mostly had the same flight path. Is it possible without a perfect tripod head? Definitely yes! But with a good head you have less waste and more fun in my opinion.
But I personally need it even more often when animals are moving in the water or on land: for example with great crested and little grebes, avocets, oystercatchers, turnstones, all kinds of ducks and geese, herons, redshanks, black-tailed godwits, spoonbills, and many more. Especially at 600-840mm and still very soft light, clean panning becomes crucial.
By the way, I have made the experience that when you just look through the viewfinder, you quickly think that you are panning along precisely and smoothly. The differences often only become clear when viewing the image result on the monitor. Superficially, some of the tripod heads that follow can be panned smoothly, and when you look through the viewfinder, you don't see any noticeable jerks, especially during faster pans. However, appearances are often deceiving.
There is also a "self-test" to see how smoothly and a tripod head pans. To do this, simply focus on a slowly swimming duck at a focal length of about 600-840mm in the viewfinder at a lake. Not too large a magnification, but let's say the duck takes up a quarter of the image length. Then simply activate the smallest AF field and when it swims from left to right, try to keep the AF field exactly (!) on the bird's eye for 10 seconds. Then repeat this exercise with a Sachtler fluid tilt and many questions will answer themselves.
The Great Crested Grebe picture is a good example of this: if I pan just a tiny bit too far to the right, the diver is too close to the edge of the picture, the same applies to a pan down, the picture would be unusable, and if I pan left, it would be too far in the middle. Especially in this scene that would have been very annoying.
By the way, the reason why I also mentioned the video theme above and would like to expand on it is this: for one thing, I find slow-motion action shots totally fascinating when they're done well. On Instagram, for example, I always get stuck on such videos. On the other hand, I've noticed over the last two years that I regularly get to see interesting animals very close, but something in the habitat often bothers me or the bokeh doesn't look great precisely because of the animal's location. Photographically, I then have little interest and do not even release, but wait until the animal moves back to where the bokeh is perfect.
So although the light is just beautiful, I have set my equipment perfectly, my perspective is close to the ground and the animals just show action, it is not really interesting. I find that a pity. In the video, on the other hand, such little things in the bokeh don't bother me much. In the future, I would like to use this idle time on film and better capture my observations.
Now to the point: the perfect tripod head
To disillusion you right away: THE perfect head does not exist, of course. The perfect head would have the holding power of a very good ball head, be lockable with only one lever, move as smoothly as a sinfully expensive fluid head, have a 2-way option, a leveling option and would weigh maybe 500grams. It almost exists, but as we all know, close is also over. However, there is certainly a tripod head that fits you well -and better than others.
Since I have owned almost all available types (not models) of tripod heads over the last years, I would like to share my experiences.
I have been working with large fixed focal lengths since 2009 (starting with a 500/4 Canon version 1). Even then, the question of a suitable tripod and tripod head arose for the first time. On the tripod side, this was quickly answered: the non plus ultra at that time were the Gitzos, at least a "3", preferably a "5" (at the beginning, the 4 series did not yet exist). With a little luck, I was able to get them cheaply. With the head, however, the spirits were divided, then as now there was a wide spectrum.
Now came what had to come: one always thinks to be able to save money by particularly clever decisions and ignores the well-known motto "bought cheap is bought twice". For fun, I'll list chronologically in the following table what I have used for how long in the field of animal photography. This does not even include all the ball heads etc that I have used in landscape photography.
A note in advance: with the Sachtler FSB8 I should have just stopped or not sold it, however, I focused at that time circa 3 years very much on landscape photography and sold my telephoto equipment - not suspecting that I later get back into it. So here is the chronological order:
Now I would like to give you a short assessment of the tripod heads. However, no 11 differentiated reviews follow now, but a keyword summary of why I finally landed on the current head.
1. Sidekick: certainly a good entry with small pack size, if you already have a good ball head. I eventually switched to a gimbal because the fluidity of the pans was unsatisfactory due to the heavy weight of my gear, the overall impression was slightly shaky.
2. Gimbal: The classic in the field of telephotography. Also had the original Wimberly for a short time, but did not feel a significant difference from the Benro. Very stable and just right for quick position shots. Fluidity of movement better than with the Sidekick, but still not optimal. Just last week I have again "forced" to use a newer model made of carbon and find the solution still not good. Pack size / shape also bulky.
3. Fluid / Teflon tilt: quite smooth movement, but still not easy to lock, in addition, always a resistance noticeable, held the position not perfect in static motifs at a higher angle.
4. Two-way-ball-head-adapter: there are e.g. also from Novoflex, I had the Markins: small, handy, all-in-one solution with the Markins ball head. Lockable with only one lever/knob, but far from very precise and fluid movements. However, more stable than a Sidekick in my eyes.
5. Pegasus 3-way panhead: super stable, quick to position, even usable sideways, which was good when working close to the ground. At the end of its useful life, I then had the chance to test a Sachtler FSB and realized that the Pegasus was clearly away from the fluid movement and optimal damping of one. Especially with waterfowl and flight shots I was missing that.
6. Fluid tilting Head Sachtler FSB: heavy, bulky, additional adapter necessary and expensive. Performance for it top, with very fluid movement and good damping. Holds the position very well when released if you want (high relevance depending on the subject).
7. Novoflex ball head: here I did not like several things at once, but I do not want to bashing, because Novoflex actually has good and reliable products. Compared to my previous Markins q20i I was dissatisfied and after a few days of use I had an RRS (newer generation) sent to me and in direct comparison the Novoflex was disadvantageous from my point of view
8. RRS ball head: for a ball head, the RRS BH-55 is really extremely stable and copes very easily with heavy equipment. With a little practice, it also happened to me no longer that he bends during pans. However, fluidity of movement still not ideal, besides, of course, the horizon on my shots was often crooked because not leveled.
9. Ballhead-tele-pan Uniqball: that was a clever part! I only owned it for 5 months, but used it quite a bit: from my point of view, a good ball head and a good telephoto head in one. Builds very low (great!) and is very stable. The lever has not convinced me as the RRS knob. As an all-in-one solution m.E. the best option and ideal for travel, much more practical than the Pegasus and perform better than the ball head two-way adapters. Fluidity of movement, however, could not keep up with Sachtler fluid tilters especially at 600-840mm focal length (see test procedure above; if that were the case, Sachtler could also close their business 😅).
10. Fluid tilting Head Sachtler ACE: really a very good price-performance ratio. Significantly lighter than the FSB8. Good damping, but at much focal length or in videos the difference to the FSB8 was already clear. In the range 200-500mm he would have been quite sufficient. Also, depending on the angle, doesn't hold position like the FSB (totally crucial e.g. with the eagle owls at the quarry, so I used my RRS ball head intended for landscape photography there).
11. Fluid tilting Head Sachtler Aktiv8: Weight on FSB8 II level, also high priced. Performance slightly above FSB8 level (maybe the FSB8 II was on the same level, I only had the MKI) Significantly Better "Usability" due to lower ground level work, leveling directly on the head, mirrored bubble level (really well solved) and quicksnap function for removal. Ingenious damping and holds every position perfectly when I take my hand away.
In total, the price for Aktiv8 plus flowtech75 was 2.345 € by the way, Sachtler offers bundles that are noticeably below the sum of the individual prices. The 5 Gitzo/FSB8 II combo cost more. Here is a picture of it:
By the way, there is now another hybrid type, namely a "fluid gimbal", but I can not say anything about the performance and the dimensions are quite bulky.
I would now like to explain in more detail why I went for the latter variant, so 2 more comparisons to the alternatives that were the most obvious in my eyes.
A. Comparison to the typical previous high-end combo (Gitzo 54XXLS plus Sachtler FSB8 MKII):
The Gitzo-FSB8 combo builds up higher compared to the Sachtler combo with the flowtech75. This effect is exacerbated when working close to the ground by the fact that the Gitzo does not lie completely flat, since that is where the leveling device (star screw) is located and it must be minimally exposed. The Flowtech you get completely on the ground and since the leveling takes place "above" directly on the head, the active/flowtech combo is lower and also much easier to use. Here is a picture from above (next to the Sachtler as a comparison my previous combo with the Sachtler ACE):
And here the view from the ground: even the much simpler Sachtler ACE (right) builds up higher and you can also see the problem of the Gitzo - in the position I always came incredibly bad to the star screw for leveling. And to lift the tripod is somehow pointless during a leveling process 😅, that was always a fumble.
By the way, the "feet" of the flowtech can be removed with a lever within a second and mounted again just as quickly, which is cleverly solved.
There are spikes underneath:
In addition, the patented flowtech function of the tripod is ingenious once you have internalized it. After the experience of the first weeks, you should only pay attention to one thing: if you want to extend the tripod to full length, you should first put it down, open the brackets and then do not pull up jerkily. Because if you just let the legs shoot down from the top, it's a bit too loud in my eyes and can scare animals, you just have to know that.
The length of the legs (60cm) is the same or even shorter depending on the Gitzo model (60-68cm). It fits well in the suitcase, if you ever want to fly.
When it comes to weight, it's easy to make a mistake: the flowtech can be used very well without a center spreader (filmmakers use these), but this is included in the official weight specifications. The flowtech, including the head, weighs exactly the same (5.6kg) as the Gitzo with the FSB8 MII and the obligatory star screw construction for working close to the ground. If you use this tripod exclusively for "stationary wildlife photography" like I do, where I don't do miles of exploring, this is the most performant solution. But if I photograph, for example, bluebirds on Texel, where I first have to search for a long time, then I reach for my 3 Gitzo with RRS head, especially since I do not have to pan fluidly with a bluebird, as the last two years in Holland:
Finally, I also like this feature: the mirrored and illuminated bubble level of the Aktiv8 head - when I shoot fully extended in a standing position, it is very pleasant, here I could partly only inaccurately make the leveling with the previous FSB, because that is difficult with a bubble level if you do not look at it exactly from above.
B. Comparison to a 5 Gitzo with Uniqball:
"On the sheet", the Uniqball is THE all in one solution and, for example, the best option for travel or for longer hikes, I really enjoyed shooting with it and think it's really strong for travel. For m(an) accurate conclusion, however, let's take a closer look now. Because in my eyes, in wildlife photography, in each situation, it's like this: either it's just a very good ball head or a very good fluid tilt is advantageous, or you can shoot freehand. Personally, I rarely see places/subjects where the combination of ball head and tilt is required.
I am now deliberately looking for the possible exception. Let's take chamois photography in the Vosges Mountains. The Vosges are actually one of the very few spots where I have done wildlife and landscape photography during a session and walked long distances. So for me personally, a heavy fluid head was out of the question. But does the Uniqball give me such advantages over a ball head here? In this rough terrain and with the speed of the situations, I think: no. Let's take this picture:
This chamois ran in the morning to the sunrise quite suddenly and without advance signs behind me a slope highly. While I was still turning around, it accelerated clearly. I actually photographed down the slope and now had to put the tripod behind me very quickly: In this situation which lasted maybe 8 seconds, I can not set the leveling for 2-way use and would then use it anyway only as a ball head. Thus, the "USP" of the Uniqball is of little use to me. With the chamois I have not missed a tilt in any second.
Another example were the many sessions with the eagle owls last year. Like in this scene, where this young bird sat there for maybe 3 minutes, but I changed the position and height of the tripod about 8 times until the picture finally looked harmonious:
In the few good and mostly very short moments, when they came down from the quarry, I had to constantly optimize the tripod position and height to get a really good image composition. I can neither align the tripod exactly in this short time nor use the leveling and 2-way possibilities of a Uniqball, there is unnecessary time lost. So you can photograph this scene well with all heads, also with the Uniqball and the fluid head, but not leveled. With the fluid head, of course, you would have to loosen the tripod clamp.
If you wanted to get some flight shots on the other hand, then the fluid head would again be the more optimal choice - most flight scenes took place high up at the quarry anyway and were then hardly associated with 8 position changes in 3 minutes 😉
And I wasn't even at the strengths of the Sachtler fluid head over the Uniqball now. The damping of the Sachtler is better. But only if you look closely, but especially if you used it once on 600 or 840mm focal length and filmed a video with a slow pan, you saw the difference later on the computer, at 840mm clearly. Here the Uniqball lacked the final damping of a fluid technique, which is why I then switched back to a Sachtler. So in the end, I currently prefer the "specialist" and less the good compromise.
However, if someone goes on air travel, in no case wants to take two tripods, wildlife photography is in the foreground, longer tours are planned, but also other genres are practiced, exactly then I would make a recommendation here per Uniqball. It is a great all-rounder!
With a little wink I would like to bring in the following comparison, which I actually find quite apt: you can buy all-weather tires today with a clear conscience 😉 I personally, however, have decided against it and drive with summer or winter tires, just as needed 😅
I'm also not the type of photographer who runs off and doesn't yet know if he's going to photograph a butterfly, a bird or a landscape, so I personally don't really need an all-in-one solution. That's why I ultimately have 2 tripods lying in the car.
Thus I come to the following recommendation:
For smooth videos I can only recommend fluid heads.
For tele-photography with focal lengths around 800mm, I currently recommend a ball head and a fluid tilt for the specialized solution or just a Uniqball as an all-in-one solution.
Currently I use the first variant and if two tripods get on my nerves one day, I will go back to a technique like the Uniqball. Let's see what else is interesting until then 😉
So much for my experiences, I hope this has helped you!
Many greetings, Thomas