How can you work out which type of tripod head is the best match for you? What helps is to take into account both your particular spotting scope, and the circumstances in which you do the majority of your bird watching.
There are so many options to choose from, including gimbal, photo, ball and video heads. We’ll take a look at the ways in which each of these different tripod heads work.
For use with a spotting scope for birding, we would suggest either of the latter two choices. This is because ball heads and video heads have the features that most closely match most birders’ usual requirements.
We’ll explain what these important features are and how they contribute to easy viewing using your spotting scope.
The types of tripod head for spotting scopes
The ideal set-up is a tripod whose legs stay totally still, fitted with a moveable head. A moveable head enables you to angle the scope in whichever direction you want. These are available in different styles, which we will explain.
What you are looking for is a tripod head with a great range of movement that enables you to scan the landscape smoothly – up and down and from side to side.
Ideally, you’d be able to alter the angle of the scope quickly and easily to track a bird as it moves.
Pan or tilt heads
It’s essentially another name for the two-way tripod head.
Pan/tilt heads either pan across horizontally, or tilt the head up and down. Their reduced range of movement means these heads are simple, more stable, but less compact.
Tripods intended for use with video cameras work well for birding, with fluid movement. These are often called two-way heads.
It is important to find a head that suits the weight of your scope, especially for sizes upwards of 80mm. The weight capacity that a tripod head can cope with is usually referred to in optics specifications as its maximum payload.
The best tripod heads have a tangent arm attached that you use to move the scope, rather than touching the scope itself. It’s better to touch the spotting scope itself as little as possible. This minimizes vibrations reverberating through the body of the scope and disturbing the clarity of your image.
Therefore, it is a good idea to have controls and handles that feel intuitive to you to use. Especially as usually you would be using these controls blind, looking through the scope and reaching for the handles by feel rather than looking for them.
When a bird stops moving, it is possible to lock the tripod head into place. Then you can view it with the spotting scope held steady in a stationary position.
The tripod head might lock into place with a single locking mechanism, or it might have two different locks. If there are dual locks, there is usually one that controls the horizontal plane and another one for the vertical plane.
Here are our top picks for the best two-way tripod heads for birders to use with their spotting scopes: Which is the best two-way tripod head for birding?
These types of tripod heads also move across the horizontal and vertical axis, like two-way heads. But they can also tilt sideways, adding a third range of movement. Hence the name!
Ideally, the tripod head might lock all three ranges still independently, so that you have complete control over the positioning. This is more important for digiscopers than for people using spotting scopes ordinarily. But it’s useful to know.
There are some great options available, so to help you narrow down the short list take a look here > The best three-way tripod heads for birding
A video head can pan across the horizontal and the vertical plane. The long arm allows you to pan with a smooth movement for instances when you would like to follow a bird in flight.
Most of these heads have a resistance setting that is handy to temper the panning ease and speed. This adjustment of the tension means that it stays in the position that you prefer. It is also possible to lock the head into place for fixed viewing.
Video heads are the most popular tripod head to use in combination with a spotting scope. They are the easiest to use. Sometimes they are referred to as two-way heads.
Fluid heads are like pan heads. Their additional distinctive feature is a ‘drag’ or friction function. While they are meant for video use, they also suit many birders.
This kind of tripod head contains one or more fluid cartridges that dampen the movement of the tripod head as you pan or tilt it. The point of this is to create a more smooth and finely controllable motion.
This increases or decreases friction to allow for greater stability in the image as you move the head more smoothly. They are designed for video cameras.
One feature you’ll commonly see on a fluid head is a longer handle to control the motion, which decreases vibration and creates a smoother movement. Alternatively, other types of tripod heads tend to have much shorter, stubbier handles to move the head around.
So you might see products described as two-way fluid heads, or three-way fluid heads. Or fluid video heads or fluid pan head… The list goes on!
But don’t get confused about it. Really what these variations do is indicate which combination of features you can expect to find on that type of tripod head.
These are high quality fluid heads that will give you a good idea of what you can expect to find: Five of the best fluid tripod heads for spotting scopes
Other types of tripod heads
Ball head tripod heads have an excellent range of motion, allowing the scope to be moved smoothly in any direction. They are not limited to just being able to move along the horizontal or vertical axes at one time.
As the name indicates, they can be manipulated in a spherical motion, meaning that you have a choice of 360 degrees at which to aim them. While this is excellent for flexibility, the user needs to exert greater control.
They are great for the initial sighting of the bird as you can quickly scan the sky or ground in whichever direction you wish. Many of them incorporate friction, sometimes adjustable to add more or less drag. That bit of friction dampens the movement, maintains control and stops the ball head flopping around.
The smaller general size of the ball head tripod head is an advantage if portability is a priority for you. They tend to be slimmer and with a lower profile. If the ball is hollow then this also saves on weight.
Ball heads are typically used by photographers. Sometimes bird watchers include a ball head in their kit primarily when they want to cut down on the size and weight that they need to carry.
If you would like to try a model for birding – perhaps if you’re considering digiscoping – to give you that flexibility, we discuss further points to consider, plus we have some suggestions of suitable models here > The top 5 ball head tripod heads for birding
Pistol grip heads
A pistol grip head moves in a similar manner to a ball head, allowing for easy rapid adjustments to the angle of your scope. Instead of using a knob to move the head, as a ball head does, they use a pistol grip.
The pistol grip can take some people a bit more getting used to than just altering the angle with a lever.
Gimbal or photo heads
These are popular for wildlife photography. It doesn’t have the adjustable tension that video heads benefit from.
This kind of tripod head is best suited to photography rather than to spotting scopes. Its main feature is that it can be tilted in many different angles, for example, on one side to switch from landscape to portrait view. This is not necessary for a spotting scope.
How to attach the spotting scope to the tripod head
With this more basic attachment, the spotting scopes can simply be screwed directly onto the tripod head. This is a standard size, the same as most cameras as well.
The compromise is that they are a little less convenient to set up because it takes longer to screw the spotting scope onto the head. These types of mounts are usually cheaper than the quick-release versions.
Quick-release attachment (or ‘rapid connect’)
Quick-release attachments can be used instead of the simple screw-on method. A quick-release attachment allows for easy assembly and disassembly of your spotting scope and tripod.
Once screwed onto the mounting plate or threaded hole on the base of your scope, the attachment then allows the scope to be rapidly released or clicked securely into place.
So if you have this quick-release plate on your scope (recommended for ease and speed of assembly), the tripod needs to accommodate this too.
Time to choose: have you decided on a type of tripod head?
The most important things to bear in mind when you are deciding on a tripod head are the following:
Is the tripod head strong enough to support the weight of your spotting scope?
Which kind of movement would you like to have?
The first question is fairly easy to answer. It should be clear from the specifications of your spotting scope and the tripod head.
The second question requires more consideration on your part. Perhaps your physical capabilities and coordination will have a bearing. Like most activities, operating a tripod head takes practice. Whichever type you choose, with regular use smooth and fluid movement of the spotting scope will soon become second nature to you.
Equipped with this knowledge and understanding of how different types of heads operate, we hope that you are most able to narrow down your options.
Good luck in selecting a great tripod head to help you enjoy your spotting scope to its fullest. Maybe one of these options would be a good fit for you? >>> The best tripod heads for birding spotting scopes
- 1 The types of tripod head for spotting scopes
- 2 Other types of tripod heads
- 3 How to attach the spotting scope to the tripod head
- 4 Time to choose: have you decided on a type of tripod head?