Use a Fluid Head for Stills

Discussion in 'Accessories' started by Ed_Ingold, Feb 2, 2019.

  1. I have found that a fluid head, designed primarily for video, can be used just as effectively as a ball head for stills, better yet for tracking and panning, and absolutely essential for video.

    I shoot a lot of video, often with long lenses, and invariably with a fluid, 2-axis head. With only two axes of rotation, the head must be leveled, so all of my tripods have a ball leveler of some kind, even those used mainly for stills. I have also begun using a still camera (Sony A7Riii) for video, with an external recorder for better quality, and no 29 minute clip length limit. I attached an RRS clamp to a video rail to make the connection.

    Gearing up for the recent "blood, wolf, super moon" eclipse, I found that a fluid head was the best way to use a telescope for direct observation, even astrophotography for short exposures, when a tracking devices was not needed. If you have ever tried pointing a long lens with a ball head, you find even the best ball heads have an unpleasant amount of slip-stick action, and worse yet, sag or spring back once you think the composition is fine. The same is true with nearly any lens for tight closeups, which magnify the effect of these issues. That's why nature and sports photographers prefer using gimbal head.

    3-Way heads are not a good solution. They have the same slip-stick issues as a ball head, and the handles are loose when not locked, adding lost motion to the mix. They still need to be leveled for panning, but have no counterbalance mechanism, and the handles seem to always be in the way.

    Gimbals work, but take more space when packing and are relatively heavy. Without fluid damping, you can't reliably pan a gimbal head for video.

    On reflection, practically anything I do with a ball head could be done with a fluid head. One or both axes can be locked without changing their position, for panoramas, time exposures or closeups. If I need an odd angle, such as framing a constellation (e.g., 90 mm for Orion), a small ball head is easy to attach between the plate and camera, or to replace the fluid head entirely.


    • Smooth, no stick action
    • Load is easily balanced fore-and-aft
    • No sideways flop as with a ball head. Once leveled, you can point it in any direction with one hand.
    • The high center of gravity can be offset using a spring or gas balancing system
    • Easy lockup, since there is no off-center loading when properly set up
    • Can follow action smoothly for both video and stills (as well as witha gimbal, nearly impossible with other heads).
    • Larger than a ball head with similar capacity (smaller than a gimbal head). The handle is easily removable.
    • About twice as heavy as a comparable ball head.
    • Only two axes of adjustment, no sideways tilt.
    • Must be leveled at the base for most operations (funk has no such limitation).
    • The plate attaches and slides fore-and-aft only. That's perfect for long lenses with a tripod foot, but base plates on cameras need a cross-wise adapter.
    • Fluid heads with good balancing controls (stay put at any angle without locking) can be very expensive.
    I have had a very good experience using a Manfrotto Nitrotech N8. The price is reasonable, and it's ability to balance loads up to about 10 pounds is excellent - the best I have used up to now. The downside is it is bulky (though light) with things protrude at all angles.

    ManfrottoNitrotech N8 Video Head

    You can spend less and find something that works for you, perhaps with less refinement. As with other things, if you want something smaller, lighter, and just as effective, the dollars start adding up (e.g., RRS FH-350, Cartoni, etc.)
    DavidTriplett likes this.
  2. I have attached photos comparing use of a fluid head (Manfrotto Nitrotech N8) vs a heavy duty ball head (RRS BH-55). The stack height is tall in either case, but stable. Using a Gitzo leveling platform would lower the height by over an inch, and attaching a video plate directly to the lens another inch or so. A smaller ball head, like an RRS BH-40 is also smaller and lighter.

    I have added an RRS clamp at the base to make it easy to change heads on the tripod, This adds about 1/2", but is well worth the effort. I also added a panning clamp to the top in order to accommodate both longitudinal (long lens) plates and lateral (base plate) plates. There are simpler ways to do this if you don't mind screwing and unscrewing things in the field.

    The Nitrotech head has a large, bulb-shaped knob just below the camera mount. This is used to adjust the gas chamber which counter balances the camera when tilted off center. It works very well and is continously adjustable, but sticks out about 3".

    This setup is works just fine near home or by car, but I'm looking for something smaller for air travel. That done, I probably won't need a ball head at all,



    Last edited: Feb 2, 2019
  3. The third photo shows an astrophotographic setup. At 1300 mm (32x), it is nearly impossible to use with a ball head. The field of view is a little over one degree.
  4. AJG


    Thanks for sharing--I have long used a fluid head for theater photography with an 80-200 f/2.8 and have been very pleased with the results.
  5. I guess I'm expressing an epiphany of sorts. Despite in-body image stabilization, I still use a tripod for certain tasks, including panoramas and closeups. The question is whether all the hardware associated with a fluid head is worthwhile. Typical application include ...
    • Panoramas: Level base (normalize turning axis); Point camera to establish the horizon; Level the camera side-to-side
      With a ball head, each step is separate and necessary. With a fluid head (or gimbal), only the base must be leveled
    • Vertical or 3D Panoramas:
      Ball head - forgeddabouddit. Fluid head (or gimbal) - piece of cake.
    • Following Action:
      Ball Head - ditto; Fluid head - piece of cake; Gimbal - jerky action, good for stills only
    • Bracketed HDR Sets:
      Hand Held - Okay, but leave space for cropping; Ball Head, Fluid Head or Gimbal - okay if position locked down or left undisturbed.
    • Stacked focus, exposure or pixel-shifting
      No camera motion tolerated. Any head works.
    • Long Telephotos or Closeups:
      Slip-stick action and spring-back make it hard to frame the subject, especially if you handle the camera to point it, as with a ball head. A key source of trouble is with tripod collars. A fluid head virtually eliminates that problem because there is very little strain exerted on the tripod in the process. A geared head might work better, but is almost useless for any other application.
    Your use for theater photography makes a lot of sense, especially with a long lens, or following action in general.

    Several times a year, I'm called on to set up for event portraits (informal) for various contests and events. I'm usually occupied elsewhere, and rely on volunteers to operate the camera. You can imagine how hard it is for someone only vaguely familiar with zoom lenses, much less focusing, to handle a ball head and keep things straight. Last time I set up with a video head. All the operator need to do was to frame the subjects, making my job in post a lot easier. I even clipped a shutter remote to the handle.
  6. I find that some types of fluid make my head go quite wobbly!
  7. Last year I replaced a Jobu Pro Gimbal with a Sachtler FSB10T to support my goofy heavy Sigma 300-800 f5.6. The Sachtler ball is mounted on the Gitzo 55 series' flat plate. I'm getting many more in focus images using my same hack technique. I didn't think the T mount would be practical but it offers all the weight shifting latitude I require. The in-and-out is fabulous and the lock out during mobility is absolute.

    Except for the $80 proprietary mounting plates I have no remorse whatsoever.
    Ed_Ingold likes this.
  8. You might think about getting a 100 mm bowl for the Gitzo. It's one less piece between the camera and the earth, still with +/- 15 degrees of leveling.

    There is a plethora of video heads (Sachtler is one of the best) with specialized plates, which can be attached to nearly any camera using a coin as a tool. HINT: The axis of the plate must be parallel to (or at right angles) within a degree or two, otherwise the side-to-side tilt of the camera will not remain level as you tilt the head.

    There are balanced heads with Arca type clamps, including a couple from Really Right Stuff and a Wimberly II Gimbal Head. The RRS FH-350 is in the same class as the Sachtler head, optimized for DSLR/MILC video.
  9. I'm looking for a small fluid head tripod for a light P&S like my RX100iv. For travel and home use. Any recommendations.
  10. I think Manfrotto has the best heads for the dollar. You might look at one of the smaller ones that actually have an adjustable fluid (grease/teflon) drag. The one below has features I like, such as left-hand tilt and pan locks, and a top-entry plate holder. The plate snaps in from the top and you can adjust the tension or loosen it to slide for balance. I don't own this particular one, but it's worth investigating. The fixed counterbalance might be an issue, but at least it would return to center with an RX100.

    ManfrottoMVH500AH Fluid Video Head with Flat Base

    Most of the things I mount are in the 3-8 pound category, and for video, where hands-off stability and smooth action are very important. The price accelerates very quickly with performance levels. It makes sense to start at the bottom until you find something that works for you. A lot of heads (e.g., Gitzo) have fluid drag, but most don't have an effective counterbalance system.

    The Manfrotto Nitrotech N8 is the smoothest, most adjustable fluid head I've owned. The counterbalance and drag are continuously adjustable over a broad range. Controls are on the left for ease of use. Except for its large size, I would say it is on the high end of something you should consider. Manfrotto plates are generally under $20, so you don't break the bank if you get one for each lens or camera.

    The downside is that Manfrotto heads wear out and develop slop, and the castings are exposed and fragile. Mine see a lot of use, and they're pretty much past prime after 5 years or so. I've had to replace the top castings on two heads due to breakage (falling off a car, in padded bags). One now squeaks when tilted, if the tension is set lightly.
  11. I should clarify some of my comments above.

    The cost of a video head depends very much on your personal needs and expectations. You should start LOOKING at the low price end and move upwards from there. Heads for cinematic and ENG cameras can cost $5K or more, because they handle heavier cameras, and attachments like monitors, geared focus and matte boxes. Video is my bread and butter, so I had to dig a little deeper in my pockets.

    I was unfair to Gitzo heads, based on experience more than 10 years ago. I looked briefly at this one, which has an Arca compatible clamp. The counterbalance is adjustable but not the fluid drag. Both locks operate with the left hand while steering with the right, which seems to work best. (The handle is reversible, if you prefer to switch hands.)

    Gitzo2-Way Fluid Head

    As always, read spec sheets carefully, as much for that is not said as what is. I also read as many reviews as I can find, by people using, not selling or working for the seller.

    When using a DSLR or MILC on a fluid head, you need a way to use a longitudinal (lens foot) or lateral mount. In the photos above, I used an RRS clamp on a Manfrotto plate. For an Arca style head, you need a long (e.g., nodal) plate with a built in clamp ($30 to $75) as an adapter.
  12. Hello Ed, I have a Really Right Stuff Long Lens Support and their B2-Pro Knob Clamp on a monopod, really great quality stuff which is why I considered the RRS FH 350 at the outset. Unfortunately, I needed to audition this new to me piece of kit and was unable to in my area. On paper the FH 350s load capacity is upwards of 50lbs. but its counter balance is rated at 10lbs. I'm humping over 18lbs without video.

    My Son is an Engineer at Comcast Sports and all you see there is big Vinten gear. My nearby Vinten / Sachtler servicing dealer had both the Vinten Blue 5 and the Sachtler FSB 10 to demo. They both worked well but the Sachtler top loading Touch and Go snap in mount instantly won me over compared to Vinten's dovetail plate slide in rear entry, balancing, and clamping down. The overall confident stability of the Sachtler Touch and Go when loading and unloading this heavy payload is simply more sensible, quick, and safe. The Sachtler FSB 10 has a 26lb. counterbalance rating. The RRS Long Lens Support offers location flexibility for the small Touch and Go proprietary mounting plate plus three inches of lateral adjustment on the head so I'm always right in the pipe 5X5 with no bounce back.

    The Sachtler uses a flat surfaced ball mount to be used on a plate or in a cup. I need the Gitzo's flat plates underside hook to weight down the tripod more than the quick leveling of the ball. I must admit I've become a Sachtler fan boy.

    I just noticed the RRS FH 350 fluid head is missing from their site menu but is displaying mounting clamps in their Cinema section. B&H shows them back ordered. Redesigning?
  13. The FH-350 no longer appears on the RRS website. I wrote to them, to find the lapse is temporary. It may be a consequence of their move to Utah, or perhaps they are re-designing it. The RRS website now has a video section, which is only sparsely populated at present. B&H had one, but it is now listed as "backordered." I may have the last one for a while.

    18 pounds would exceed the FH-350's ability to counter balance a top heavy load, which is specified as 10 pounds at 5" center of gravity. A lower CG would increase the effective capacity proportionately. Once balanced, the FH-350 will hold the camera, without locking or damping, +/- 70 degrees of center. With damping and partial application of the tilt lock, the FH-350 is much more forgiving.

    My heaviest lens is the Sony PZ-28-135/4, shown in my photos above. The rig is pretty well balanced over the lens foot. I had to crank the (continuously adjustable) counterbalance of the FH-350 nearly as low as it goes

    That said, 18 lbs is pushing the envelope. RRS makes a fluid gimbal head, the FG-02, in several configurations. It is fully adjustable so that the center of gravity of the load can be zeroed on the two axes of motion. Each axes has four levels of damping (including none). All of the sliding elements are marked with engraved scales. It would be easy to reproduce settings from a dope card, once set up the first time. The capacity of the FG-02 is 50 lbs, regardless of the settings, altitude or azimuth. Since the load is perfectly balanced, it will stay put with or without damping or locking. Each axis can be locked, with both controls on the same (e.g., left) side.

    The downside is that the FG-02 is large, roughly 9"x 9"x 3", and weighs nearly 7 pounds with all the bells and whistles. On the plus side, it is easily disassembled to take less space when traveling. It would be awkward to mount a conventional video camera on the FG-02. Most of the controls of a video camera are on the side, which would be obstructed by vertical members of the FG-02. Data ports of a DSLR or MILC usually are on the left, and would also be obstructed in configurations with short lenses.

    I looked carefully at both options, but decided the FH-350 was a better fit for my needs. In my conversation with RRS, they recommended the FH-350 as well. While their flagship fluid head is the FG-02, they imply they're not done with conventional fluid heads quite yet. In a recent show, RRS featured an FH-7240 head, with an 18 lb balance capacity. This is enough for a cinematic Arri, Red or Sony, complete with rails and rods, and priced accordingly (~ $7k).
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2019
  14. Interesting stuff. Thanks for the info.
  15. Sachtler, Vinten and Cartoni are some of the biggest names in video heads, found in studios and mobile operations world wide. I haven't use them personally, and don't wish to diminish their value in any way. Their prices start where Manfrotto leaves off. If you gasp at the thought of paying $500 for a ball head, it's best to stay away from video. In terms of performance, you probably can't go wrong with any of them.

    Among the features that distinguish them from lower grades is the use of ball and roller bearings instead of bushings for tight, frictionless joints. "Fluid" action can range from grease between teflon plates, to clutch plates sealed in a liquid-tight enclosures. The RRS FH-350 uses dual, heavy springs and pivots for counter-balance, wheres most heads in that price range and below use a single spring, bearing on a greased cam. It adds up to less unwanted friction, less wear, tighter joints and longer service life.

    There do not appear to be any castings in the RRS FH-350. Everything is machined from blocks of aircraft grade aluminum. I have dented RRS gear, but never had pieces fall off - back in business after filing off the burrs. I can't say the same about cheaper stuff. With the fluid damping turned off, the bottom of the panning base will spin for 10 seconds. I imagine that the big boys are made that way too. Perhaps someone can fill in where the specs leave off.

    A big question to ask is, "Will I have it with me when I need it?" I am confident I can travel with it, anywhere I would have a tripod and ball head. The FH-350, at 5.5", is about 2" taller and 2" wider (at the top) than a BH-55, and weighs 4.5 lb v 2.5 lb. I'll post a photo if it ever stops raining/icing/snowing in Chicago.
  16. I never thought I would spend this much on a head, but having used it, I probably won't leave home without it. This photo shows just how compact it is, compared to a Sony A7 and lens. If you were to stack two BH-55 heads, the top one sideways, you would be close to the size and portability of the FH-350, and about 1 pound heavier. I think I will manage in international travel, and definitely domestically. A ball head is faster for one-off shots, but for long lenses and panos, it's worth the extra effort to use this head.

    Without video, I can't show that it is perfectly balanced, statically and dynamically. That process takes about 30 seconds. For static balance, you slide the foot plate fore and aft until the camera stays level with damping turned off. You then adjust the counterbalance until the camera remains steady at any angle, still with the damping off. Turn damping up a notch or two, and you're good to go. Step adjustments for damping are more than sufficient. Continuous counterbalance (spring) control is almost essential, and even light fluid damping suffices.

  17. Ed, I haven't been to the RRS site in a while. I find this shot of your FH-350 actually mounted more informative than their previous website images. Was the RRS tripod base too small for this bowl and ball combination?
    It's a handsomely tactile looking head, very nice indeed. Did you forget the cost within the first few minutes of that high tolerance silky smoothness? I know I did and I ain't looking back.

    Here's a quick iPhone image of my rig in Santa Cruz Monday afternoon 3/11. Nikon D4, neoprene covered Sigma 300-800mm f5.6, RRS Long Lens support, Sachtler FSB 10T, Gitzo 5541LS, NatureScape safety plate.

  18. The Gitzo leveling platform is sized to fit "Systematic" tripods from #3 to #5. It is stepped, and only the smallest step fits a #3 tripod. The bowl is 75 mm.

    The pain is gone! Compared to this, my best Manfrotto head (Nitro N2) feels absolutely lumpy. I like the ability to use Arca QR without bulky adapters.

    My next quest is to find and install a motor to drive the zoom rings of non-PZ lenses, including the Sony 100-400 GM in the photo above. I don't like to zoom much in video, but a short, smooth zoom, slide or pan adds a little interest to a static shot.

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