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The best pan and tilt tripod heads in 2020: precise camera control for your tripod

 best pan and tilt tripod heads
(Image credit: Digital Photographer magazine)

The best pan and tilt tripod heads are the ideal way to upgrade from the standard ball head that was likely bundled with your first tripod. 

While the best standard ball heads will do a decent job, offering extensive movement in a compact body, they don't make it easy to do subtle angle adjustments, especially once you upgrade your camera and/or lens and the whole setup starts getting heavier. They also don't allow you to tweak horizontal and vertical pitch independently. For these kinds of more sophisticated adjustments, you need a pan and tilt or 3-way head.

A pan and tilt head separates horizontal, vertical and panning motions into three separate axes (hence, "3-way"), giving you control that's more sophisticated, subtle and user-friendly. When you're shooting architecture and landscapes you can precisely line up your horizons and angles, and they're also useful for shooting in studio and being precise to the millimetre. Great for video too, these heads allow you to pan smoothly while recording.

They aren't perfect of course, as panning will tend to be slower, and shooting straight upwards will likely require you to remount your camera. They're also not as portable as standard ball heads..

We've picked out a few of the best pan and tilt heads on the market right now, and below have also listed five factors to consider when picking the head that's right for you.

1. Manfrotto X-Pro 3-Way Head

A feature-packed, quality head at a sensible price - it's our top choice

Height: 13.5cm | Weight: 1kg | Payload capacity: 8kg

Compact when packed
Easy to use
Well priced
Slippery dials for friction control
Proprietary mounting plate

We’ve long been fans of the X-Pro head, thanks to innovative features like adjustable friction resistance that means you can precisely balance cameras large or small. The adjustment is slow but precise, although the shallow, slippery dials themselves aren’t the easiest to grip, especially in the cold.

Thankfully the three main handles are much grippier and more ergonomic, while the two tilt handles are also retractable. These don’t shrink quite as effectively as the folding handles on Induro's PHQ1 Panhead (below), but they still enable the head to pack into a compact 13.5cm cube. Manfrotto’s push/pull handle retraction is also quicker to use and isn’t prone to loosening over time. The X-Pro’s quick-release camera plate is one of Manfrotto’s proprietary designs so limits interchangeability with other heads, but it attaches and releases very smoothly.

Factor the ergonomic two-lever quick release mount, easily visible triple bubble levels, as well as a reasonable 1kg weight, and the X-Pro is our top pick for a pan and tilt head.

(Image credit: Benro)

2. Benro HD1A

An excellent Arca-Swiss head series, lightweight but reliable

Height: 9.5cm | Weight: 0.57kg | Payload capacity: 5kg

Good, reliable build quality
Larger sizes available
Some controls awkwardly placed

Benro's HD1A is a solid example of an unshowy but dependable 3-way head. It gets the job done just as you need it to for setups weighing up to 5kg, and is also Acra-Swiss-compatible for smooth quick-release action. Three bubble levels also allow for precise, accurate camera positioning. Smooth 360-degree panning gives the user real flexibility and opens up loads of shooting opportunities in both stills and videos. Ergonomic handles make the head easy to pick up and transport, though its diminutive size can make some of the control knobs a little fiddly to handle at first.

The HD1A is actually one of a series of three: if the 5kg capacity of this model isn't quite enough to handle your camera setup, then it's also worth considering the HD2A or HD3A, which can support 8kg and 10kg respectively, though are also physically larger and cost more. 

(Image credit: Gitzo)

3. Gitzo 3-way Fluid Head GHF3W

A sublimely well engineered - if pricey - pan and tilt head

Height: 11.5cm | Weight: 955g | Payload capacity: 13kg

Uncompromising quality
Very smooth to use
Retractable handles
Expensive
Hard to justify cost over similar Manfrotto X-Pro 3-Way Head

Until recently, Gitzo had an extensive but confusing range of pan and tilt tripod heads, and they left a lot to be desired in terms of ergonomics. Thankfully this 3-way Fluid Head GHF3W changes all that, as it replaces all the previous and outdated models with a much more modern and user-friendly design.

It borrows engineering features that are found in sister brand's Manfrotto X-Pro 3-Way Head (our number one pan and tilt head), but thanks to aluminum and magnesium construction, it's a shade lighter at 955g, yet supports even heavier camera gear - 13kg, versus the X-Pro's 8kg payload.

You get similar retractable tilt handles for a more compact folded profile, plus the addition of a twisting bubble level that allows you to check for both vertical and horizontal alignment simply by rotating the level upwards after you've tilted your camera into portrait orientation.

The head comes with a 7cm rubberized Arca-Swiss type plate, and the quick release holder can be rotated through 90° (essentially giving you a fourth controllable movement. This helps you switch from portrait to landscape, and makes it easier to shoot overhead and below.

4. Induro PHQ1 5-way Panhead

Supremely well made, this head just falls short on ease of use

Height: Not stated | Weight: 0.9kg | Payload capacity: 11.5kg

Premium feel
Compact on-the-go
Highly adjustable
Folding handle design isn't the best
QR plate could be more secure

The PHQ1 isn’t your usual pan & tilt head. In addition to the usual trio of adjustment axes, the camera mounting plate can slide 1cm either side of centre to help find a lens’ nodal point when shooting a spherical panorama. The fifth axis is a secondary pan base directly under the camera mounting plate, allowing easy vertical panning and rotation to straight-up shooting.

With so many variables, it’s good that there’s an abundance of bubble levels, along with accurate degree scales. Joint movement isn’t quite as silky smooth as with the very best competitors, but it’s not far off.

Two small knobs lock each pan base and help keep the head compact, while the main handle arms are hinged and can fold inward for streamlined packaging. Wide nuts lock out the arms during shooting, though these can work loose after a while. You really need a spanner to tighten them properly - textured, rubber-coated nuts would be more convenient.

5. Vanguard Alta PH-32

This is the head to go for if travelling light is your top priority

Height: 13cm | Weight: 0.68kg | Payload capacity: 5kg

Very competitive price
Light and compact
Chunky, ergonomic handles
Works best with lighter camera setups
Slightly awkward panning control

Vanguard’s baby is just that, tipping the scales at a featherweight 680g. Consequently the rated max payload is a modest 5kg, falling short of the X-Pro’s 8kg capacity, but still a match for the much pricier Gitzo G2272M head. However, the Alta PH-32 doesn’t feel quite as controllable as more substantial rivals, so you’ll need to be very precise with the locking handles to modulate friction when making subtle angle adjustments.

The Alta PH-32’s crash diet also means there are only two locking handles, as the usual panning clamp is strangely absent. Instead, you get a selector that allows you to set the longitudinal tilt handle to lock only the tilt axis, or both tilt and pan simultaneously. It’s a neat trick that works well, although it’s not quite as convenient as dedicated panning adjustment.

Up top is a traditional Arca-Swiss style QR system. It’s a more versatile design than that used by Vanguard’s old PH-32 (non-Alta) head, but it lacks the same super-secure release procedure.

6. Calumet Heavy Duty 3 Way Quick-Release Head 7064

A big friendly giant of a pan & tilt head, and quite a bargain

Height: 18.4cm | Weight: 1.5kg | Payload capacity: 20kg

A joy to use
Good build and material quality
Precise, secure mounting plate design
Heavy and bulky
Mounting plate isn't Arca-Swiss

While many manufacturers are producing clever, compact pan & tilt heads, Calumet doesn’t seem to have got the same memo. The 7064 is an old-school monster, which at 18.4cm is twice the height of a low-profile pan and tilt design. It’s built with medium format cameras in mind - everything from the locking handles to the well-positioned bubble levels is oversized - but this head also works a treat with any DSLR or full-frame mirrorless camera.

Aside from the travel drawbacks, such stoutness helps make this head exceptionally robust and a pleasure to use. You don’t get dedicated friction adjustment like on a Manfrotto X-Pro head, but the smoothness of the 7064’s joints means you can easily modulate friction and balance all but the most front-heavy camera set-ups.

Up top, the beefy mounting plate lacks Arca-Swiss versatility, but its hexagon shape means it can be quickly remounted if you want to shoot straight upwards, and it’s safely released using ergonomic dual levers.

7. Velbon PHD-66Q Revolver Head

An intriguing concept, but cost-cutting blunts this head's overall appeal

Height: 12.5cm | Weight: 0.64kg | Payload capacity: 5.5kg

Clever lateral tilt system
Surprisingly light
Feels cheap
Not that nice to use
Bulky

It’s not easy to revolutionise pan & tilt heads, so kudos to Velbon for having a go. The Revolver employs a nifty hinge system for lateral tilt that centralises your camera’s weight, rather than tipping it from side to side like a regular design. The result is an excellent sense of balance, achieved without needing to increase friction.

However, the Revolver system’s locking knob can be awkward to use, and the hinge itself only rotates through 90 degrees, where traditional designs can tilt further. Plus, while the side-side tilt is well balanced, front-back movement feels precariously top heavy on account of the big revolver hinge being so high on the head.

You can fine-tune the camera base independently of the Revolver mechanism beneath to set it absolutely level, but this extra adjustment is crude and hard to clamp precisely. Longitudinal tilt and panning adjustment also lack finesse, which stings a bit, given the PHD-66Q is now priced higher than some more polished rival heads.

Pan and tilt tripod heads: 5 things to look out for

Tighten down: You’ll want a stiffer setup when manoeuvring a big, heavy camera. Dedicated friction adjustment - or quality clamps that tighten progressively - will keep things under control.

Level up: Precision is the name of the game here, so the more bubble levels, the better, and be sure they’re visible once your camera is mounted. A degree scale on each axis can also be useful.

Slot in: Quick release mounts can sometimes be anything but. An ideal design should live up to the QR moniker, while incorporating an ergonomic safety catch to prevent a dreaded drop.

Keep it compact: Pan & tilt heads with collapsible handles are relatively rare, but thankfully most models will at least let you unscrew the handles for more streamlined transportation.

The next step: Want the ultimate in precision adjustment for macro or architectural work? Geared heads use the basic pan & tilt design, except you wind the handles to fine tune each axis.

Read more:

The best tripods

The best gimbal heads

The best ball heads

The best panoramic tripod heads