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The best pan and tilt tripod heads in 2021: 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.

Best pan and tilt heads in 2021

1. Manfrotto X-Pro 3-Way Head

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

Specifications
Height: 13.5cm
Weight: 1kg
Payload capacity: 8kg
Reasons to buy
+Compact when packed+Easy to use+Well priced
Reasons to avoid
-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

Specifications
Height: 9.5cm
Weight: 0.57kg
Payload capacity: 5kg
Reasons to buy
+Good, reliable build quality+Larger sizes available
Reasons to avoid
-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: Jamie Carter)

3. Manfrotto Befree 3-Way Live Head

A travel-friendly three-way fluid head for stills or video

Specifications
Height: 15.5cm
Weight: 720g
Payload capacity: 7kg
Reasons to buy
+Dual purpose stills & video head+Smooth fluid drag system+Compact and versatile
Reasons to avoid
-Some plasticky knobs-Can be tricky to change camera battery

This pan and tilt head uses a hydraulic damping system to help videographers make the kind of smooth, steady movements that conventional mechanical pan/tilt heads just aren’t built for. The system works well, allowing for small, predictable and consistent movements across all angles, tilts and pans - essential for videography, but the roll axis easily puts it into a valuable portrait mode for stills photography.

The Befree 3-Way Live Head ships with a 200PL-PRO plate but works with all kinds of plates; it’s compatible with Manfrotto RC2 and Arca-Swiss type head attachments. 

Downsides? There are a couple of knobs that are a tad plasticky, and one of them can interfere with a DSLR’s battery cover, making it impossible to change a battery without first removing the camera from the tripod.

But these minor quibbles don't really detract from what's otherwise a superbly versatile head that works just as well for shooting stills or video.

(Image credit: Gitzo)

4. Gitzo 3-way Fluid Head GHF3W

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

Specifications
Height: 11.5cm
Weight: 955g
Payload capacity: 13kg
Reasons to buy
+Uncompromising quality+Very smooth to use+Retractable handles
Reasons to avoid
-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.

5. Vanguard Alta PH-32

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

Specifications
Height: 13cm
Weight: 0.68kg
Payload capacity: 5kg
Reasons to buy
+Very competitive price+Light and compact+Chunky, ergonomic handles
Reasons to avoid
-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. Velbon PHD-66Q Revolver Head

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

Specifications
Height: 12.5cm
Weight: 0.64kg
Payload capacity: 5.5kg
Reasons to buy
+Clever lateral tilt system+Surprisingly light
Reasons to avoid
-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

Ben Andrews

Ben is the Imaging Labs manager, responsible for all the testing on Digital Camera World and across the entire photography portfolio at Future. Whether he's in the lab testing the sharpness of new lenses, the resolution of the latest image sensors, the zoom range of monster bridge cameras or even the latest camera phones, Ben is our go-to guy for technical insight. He's also the team's man-at-arms when it comes to camera bags, filters, memory cards, and all manner of camera accessories – his lab is a bit like the Batcave of photography! With years of experience trialling and testing kit, he's a human encyclopedia of benchmarks when it comes to recommending the best buys.