Choosing the best geared tripod head is not difficult – as there are not that many to choose from. But if you want precision control a geared head is a much better option than other tripod heads.
A decent ball head or 3-way head gives solid support for shake-free shooting, but they can be a frustration when you need to make precise adjustments. For landscape or architectural photography, where you need keep everything on the level, or for extreme close-ups, positioning is often critical. Try as you might to adjust a conventional head to your exact requirements, it can often sag or drift slightly after you tighten the clamp and release your grip on the camera.
A geared head offers the ultimate solution to the problem. Instead of conventional clamps, there are three separate screw-action knobs for adjusting front/back tilt, lateral tilt and panning position. Typically, a full 360-degree turn of an adjustment knob will result in a mere 7-10 degrees of movement in either tilting plane of the head. This enables you to make the finest of adjustments with ease.
It’s good to take the base diameter of the head into consideration, so that it’s a good match for the mounting platform on your tripod legs. Naturally, the maximum payload should be sufficient for the heaviest camera setup that you want to use with the head. Bubble or spirit levels are also usually featured, which can be a great help for leveling the camera.
The main construction material is typically aluminum, but some geared heads are made from technopolymer (high-grade plastic) or magnesium alloy. Some are horrifically expensive but we’ve rounded up the best geared tripod head models on the market that come at more affordable prices. Here’s what they have to offer…
One of the least expensive geared heads on the market, the 410 Junior is nevertheless very well engineered with an aluminum construction. It has a 60mm diameter base and weighs in at 1.22kg, with a maximum load rating of 5kg. As you’d expect from a geared head, three ‘micrometric’ knobs enable very precise and fully independent adjustments of front/back tilt, lateral tilt and 360-degree panning. Furthermore, each knob has a quick-release clutch at its base. This enables you to adjust any of the three movements quickly and easily, to get the position in the right ball park before using the relevant knob for precise final adjustments. A single bubble level is fitted to aid leveling
We are thoroughly impressed with Manfrotto’s XPRO magnesium ball head and XPRO 3-way aluminum head. This XPRO geared head is rom the same product line, but has a relatively lightweight construction, based on high-grade plastics. Indeed, it’s significantly lighter than the Manfrotto 410 Junior and less than half the weight of the 405 geared head. The downsides are that it has a lower 4kg payload than the other two aluminum geared heads, and is a little more prone to flexing, whereas the other Manfrotto heads feel more rigid. On the plus side, trigger-action quick-release clamps enable rapid adjustment of all three controls, while the screw-action knobs allow for very fine adjustments, complete with three bubble levels.
This geared head from Benro has a practically identical weight to Manfrotto’s plastic XPRO geared head, but the Benro is made from magnesium alloy and has a 50 per cent greater maximum load rating of 6kg. It also feels more solid in use, and less prone to flexing when attaching a camera via the quick-release plate. The plate itself is industry-standard Arca-Swiss type, rather than the proprietary plates of the competing Manfrotto geared heads. The gear-drive knobs for front/back tilt, lateral tilt and panning all feel very tactile and operate with smooth precision, while disengage wheels for each of them enable quick large-range adjustments. Three bubble levels are featured to aid leveling and the overall performance and build quality are exceptional, given the modest selling price.
Weighing in at 1.6kg, this geared head is 380g heavier than Manfrotto’s 410 Junior. Both have the same base diameter of 60mm and the same 410PL quick-release plate, but the 405 bumps up the maximum load rating from 5kg to 7.5g, making it more suitable for heavy camera and lens combinations. It also has three bubble levels rather than just one. Again, quick and easy disengagement of the gears is available, this time via rubberized twist rings which are mounted just in front of the main control knobs. The control knobs themselves offer marginally greater precision than those of the 410 Junior, with a lower gearing that equates to 6.55 degrees per full turn rather than 7.2 degrees. At about twice the price to buy, however, the 405 is considerably more expensive.
Built primarily for studio use, this is a real heavyweight of a geared head, tipping the scales at 3kg. It also has a particularly hefty maximum payload of 10kg. Particularly ideal for mounting on a studio column, the head has two knobs with fold-out crank handles to control front/back tilt and panning. There’s also a longer protruding knob to control lateral tilt, however with a comparatively limited range of adjustment, at just +/- 7.5 degrees. Again, this is more in keeping with studio shooting than being out and about. The head features a bubble level and comes with three quick-release plates of different heights. This is to ensure sufficient clearance between any camera and the rear crank handle. It’s a beast of a head in terms of size and weight but is particularly solid and robust.