Ball Head Vs. Pan Head

Picking out a tripod for astrophotography can be challenging enough from the base down. Some tripods come with a head, and others don’t. This article looks at what a tripod head is, before learning about the differences between a ball head vs. a pan head.

Ball Head Versus Pan Head

What Is a Tripod Head Used For?

Tripod heads of three different types
Tripod heads of three different types. (Image credit: Johan Arvelius via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

A tripod head is essential for attaching your photographic device (camera or mobile phone) to the actual tripod. First and foremost, a head helps stabilize your camera so you don’t have to worry as much about jittery photos. These attachments also offer a strong anchor to keep your expensive device from crashing to the ground.

Once set up, a tripod head allows the flexibility to move and position a shot as permitted by the type of head you buy. There are two main types: ball head and pan head.

What Is a Ball Head?

A tripod ball head in white background
A tripod ball head in white background.

As the name implies, a ball head is essentially a ball that sits inside a base. The ball itself has an attachment point for your camera but otherwise has free range of motion. It’s possible to take photos or videos of the stars in a complete 360° range of motion while adjusting up or down as needed. Ball heads attach to a tripod with a screw located in the base.

With everything hooked up, a screw or knob is all that holds the ball in place. Loosening that screw or knob allows the ball to move freely with your camera attached to it. After you’ve lined up the shot you want to take, tightening the ball back down keeps everything from moving any more.

The Pros of a Ball Head

The Pros of a BALL Head

The most significant benefit of using a ball head is the ease of use. Your camera is easy to attach, and one screw or knob is all that keeps you from making the adjustments you need to capture the Moon or a starscape.

There’s no fancy gadgetry here; ball heads offer a simple concept that lets you quickly line up the shot you’re looking for. In the event of a meteor shower or a stellar panoramic, a ball head gives the flexibility and speed you need. This one adjustment point is a lot less of a hassle in nighttime conditions when it’s tough to see.

Ball heads allow for a quick transition from landscape to portrait mode. It takes seconds to move the camera 90° to change the scope of your image. These heads also tend to weigh less than other types of tripod heads, making transportation that much easier.

The Cons of a Ball Head

All this ease of movement does come with a drawback. Once that screw or knob holding the ball is loosened, there’s no longer any resistance keeping your camera where it was. This leads to less precise alignments and can be a nightmare for those spending a lot of time to get the camera level.

Fortunately, there are some higher-end ball heads with a tension knob that will bring in extra resistance and keep your device when you don’t want it to.

What Is a Pan Head?

A close up look of a tripod pan head
A close up look of a tripod pan head.

A pan head is a flat, sturdy platform that a camera attaches to. Under that platform are several gears and handles that you can use for adjustment. Similar to the ball head, a pan head attaches to a tripod via a screw that holds the whole thing in place.

These tripod heads are quite a bit more complex as a result, allowing for specific and precise adjustment as you line up your image. There are separate knobs for horizontal and vertical movement to dial each one in perfectly. Friction controls help provide smooth movements for pans or video.

With several adjustment points, pan heads offer stable shots for fantastic time-lapse images or simply when you’re leaving the shutter open long enough to bring in a lot of light. You can worry less about jitters that may turn a starscape into a blurry mess of light.

The Pros of a Pan Head

The Pros of a Pan Head

As mentioned above, pan heads are very precise in their adjustability and photo taking. Unlike a ball head, there’s no wrestling with a pan head. Course movements will bring you to the area you need, and fine-tuning will give you the perfect shot.

This makes pan heads excellent for video, but it works equally well for long exposure shots where you don’t want any movement. If you’re shooting a specific star, planet, or section of the sky, you can make subtle adjustments as the sky moves and not have to start back at square one every time.

The Cons of a Pan Head

Thanks to several knobs and handles, it does take significantly more time to dial in the part of the sky you want to shoot. First, you have to line things up horizontally and then switch to vertical movements before arriving at your destination in the sky.

Pan heads typically weigh more than ball heads and are quite a bit bulkier in a backpack. This can pose an added challenge when getting your gear out to the destination you want to shoot from.

Which Is the Better Option for You?

Each type of these tripod heads serves a different purpose, and both can prove beneficial for astrophotography. A better question would be to identify the type of astrophotography you’re most interested in.

If you’re looking to cover a lot of the sky in a single night or are hunting for faster moving objects, a ball head will track with you nicely. On the other hand, if your focus is on a specific planetary body, you may want a pan head to lock it in and fine-tune it as the night goes on.

Pan Head vs Ball Head - Which Is the Better Option for You?
Ball heads and pan heads serve different purposes, and both can be useful for astrophotography.

Either tripod head could serve you well for landscapes, as each has the capability to stay still for longer exposures. Pan heads ultimately do a better job, though, and most ball heads don’t come with a level to ensure you’re parallel to the horizon.

Other Features to Consider

No matter which tripod head you’re leaning towards, consider the following additional features before you make your purchase.

Thread Size

A tripod head needs to sit well onto the tripod body, and the camera needs a solid attachment to the head. Be sure to check the thread size your tripod and camera use, so you don’t have any issues with compatibility.

Quick-release Plate

Manfrotto Quick Release Plate Slot (receiver) on tripod head
Manfrotto Quick Release Plate Slot (receiver) on a tripod head. (Image credit: Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States on Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Attaching and detaching a camera can be one of the most time-consuming aspects of your setup. If you’re moving from location to location on any given night, it can be a nightmare to remove your camera every time. Leaving the camera on the tripod makes transportation difficult and can lead to breakage.

Tripod heads can come with a quick-release attachment, making camera removal a literal snap. With the push of a button, the camera comes free of the rest of the tripod assembly for fast storage. When you’re at your next destination, the quick-release plate snaps back in place.

Load Capacity

Tripod bases tend to do a good job of advertising how much weight they can handle, but that’s not always the case with tripod heads. It’s important to make sure that the tripod head of your choosing will support your camera, lens, and any attachments you may wish to use.

Final Thoughts

There’s no simple answer to the ball head vs. pan head debate. Although both accomplish similar tasks, they are designed to be used in specific circumstances. When it comes to astrophotography, ball heads allow for quick movement between bodies and following moving objects. Pan heads work well at dialing in a particular heavenly object or perfectly still time-lapses.

No matter which speaks to you more, either choice can net you some incredible photos if you have the patience and determination.

About Noah Zelvis

Noah is a content writer who has had a love of all things astronomy for as long as he can remember.
When not reaching for the stars, you’ll likely find Noah traveling or running.