Talking heads: using video heads for stills


Generally speaking, video specific, aka “fluid” heads, tend to be bigger and heavier than their photographic counterparts.

Now, if what you use is one of those puny little ballheads of a couple of centimeters of diameter, then you really don’t have a fluid head that can even remotely compare, at least not a good one and at least not that I know of.

But assuming you are instead using a serious 3-way or ball head, something like an Acratech or an Arca Swiss of around 800-1000g, then you should really took a long hard look at video heads.

There are also models, like the one I am using, the Manfrotto MVH500AH, that not only are as light as a good ball head (and did I mention 3 times cheaper?), and more or less as bulky (and yes, you can remove the handle), but that have as well a flat base – so you can mount them on any photographic tripod – while generally video heads require a tripod with a “bowl”, a hole where a levelling ball (kinda like a reverse ball head) that is attached to the bottom of the video head goes.*

*If you are using a flat based video head without a levelling base, though, be warned that you will have to level the camera using the tripod legs. Not as difficult as it sound. Also the dovetails are not Arca Swiss compatible, but a simple 10$ clamp will fix this nicely.

The MVH500AH with its handle on, courtesy of
Click on the picture to go to their site (and no, I don’t get a commission)
By the way, it is waaay cheaper on Amazon!

Now you, like I did at first, might be asking: «Why? I don’t shoot video». It is a normal and understandable reaction. But. Yes, there is always a but… Video heads are called as well fluid heads for a reason. Their movements are dampened by the presence of, guess what?, a fluid – or, apparently in this case, a spring – in the head mechanism.

This is all well and good, but why should we care? Well, because it turns out that this let’s you leave the camera + lens combo, once you’ve balanced them (a matter of seconds), and no matter their combined weight and size, in whatever position on an unlocked head without them tipping down/up.

The same feature will let you shoot without the need of locking the movements: you can simply frame the scene to your heart content and shoot.

And, possibly the biggest one, that I really shouldn’t have left for last but what can I do I am too lazy to cut-and-past this sentence to the beginning: once you level the camera, and as long as you don’t move your tripod, it will stay level even if you change the framing! This is especially nice for taking panoramas.

DSCF0162As an added bonus, the fluid in the mechanism seems to tend to absorb vibrations way better than a ballhead, and please keep in mind my reference ball head is an Arca Swiss B1 that is as large as a mirrorless camera. For my limited experience with the Manfrotto MVH500AH + the Sony (I am working on a new project, using almost exclusively film these days, so the Sony isn’t getting much of a workout) I can now shoot with the original, shutter shake prone, A7r and long lenses – even 300mm and up – with impunity, at least in the horizontal position. There is still a small amount of residual shock using the L-bracket in the vertical position, if I am not careful, but nothing that cannot be worked around.

If you want to see a demonstration of how a video head works for stills you shoud check this guy’s video, he is the one that brought me to the dark side. As always: have fun.