Geared Tripod Head Roundup

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When photographing situations that require exacting camera positioning, a geared tripod head should be at the top of your must-have list. Why a geared head? In a word: precision. When photographing architecture or similar venues in which it’s imperative that the camera and lens be level to the ground, if your camera is even slightly askew on the horizontal and/or vertical planes, you’re skunked.

What separates geared heads conventional ball and tilt-pan style tripod heads is that geared heads enable you to position your camera independently and incrementally along geared tracks on the vertical, horizontal, and rotational planes. Traditional pan/tilt and ball heads can be leveled and locked down, but they’re more squirrelly and, in some cases, can drift or shift slightly out of alignment when being locked into place. For added measures of precision, most geared heads feature two or more spirit levels. Each of the geared heads in this roundup features dedicated quick-release systems, which quicken your workflow while minimizing the likelihood of accidentally moving the tripod when mounting or unmounting your camera.

Alas, everything has a price. In the case of geared tripod heads, the price of precision is speed, or lack of. To speed up the process when you’re trying to tilt the camera more than a few millimeters one way or the other, many geared heads feature overrides (Manfrotto calls its overrides “Spring-Clamp Controls”) that enable you to tilt the camera on the vertical or horizontal plane quickly, followed by fine-tuning the position in geared mode.

The following is a selection of geared tripod heads listed according to their selling prices, which range from around $150.00 to $8,757.50. The good news is that even Manfrotto’s XPRO 3-Way Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with 200PL-14 Quick Release Plate, which is the least expensive geared head in this review is, in fact, an exceptionally good camera support. It’s reliable, well designed, and quite affordable.

Manfrotto XPRO 3-Way, Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with 200PL-14 Quick Release Plate

Manfrotto’s XPRO 3-Way Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head is made from tough technopolymer materials, measures 2.36 x 5.1", weighs 1.65 lb, and can support up to 8.8 lb. All three axes can be adjusted using spring-clamp controls for quicker adjustments and integrated, incremental geared movements for finer adjustments. The top plate tilts up to 90° for quickly switching from landscape to portrait positions. You can also tilt the head 90° forward and 20° backward, and the base rotates a full 360°. Other features include, a ¼"-20 mount, an RC2 Quick Release Cam Lock, and a 200PL quick-release plate. Manfrotto’s XPRO 3-Way Geared Pan-Tilt head is also available as a B&H kit containing a 200PL release plate and a 200PL-14 release plate.

Benro GD3WH 3-Way Geared Head

A bit heavier (1.9 lb) but about an inch shorter (4.3") is the Benro GD3WH 3-Way Geared Head, which has a load capacity of 13.2 lb. All three movements are geared and there are pull-knobs for quick positioning and secondary knobs for fine-tuning the camera position. Benro’s GD3WH 3-Way geared head features three spirit levels, magnesium-alloy construction, and is compatible with Arca-type QR plates.

Manfrotto’s 410 3-Way Geared Pan / Tilt Head with 410PL QR Plate is a beefier version of Manfrotto’s XPRO 3-Way Geared Pan-Tilt head. It has all of the features found on the XPRO, but it can support a heavier load—11 lb vs. 8.8 lb, to be exact. Manfrotto’s 410 3-Way Geared Head is also available in a B&H kit that includes a second 410PL QR plate.

Manfrotto 410 3-Way, Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with 410PL Quick Release Plate

If an 11-lb maximum load isn’t enough for you, the Manfrotto 405 3-Way Geared Pan & Tilt head with a 410PL QR plate is your ticket. Manfrotto’s model 405 has all of the features found on the lighter-weight Manfrotto geared heads, but can handle loads up to 16.5 lb. The Manfrotto 405 is also available in kit form—one containing a second 410PL quick release plate and the other includes a Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 aluminum tripod.

Manfrotto 405 3-Way, Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with 410PL Quick Release Plate

Manfrotto’s top gun in the geared head arena is the Manfrotto 400 3-Way Geared Pan & Tilt Head with Select Quick Release Plates, which can support camera rigs weighing up to 22.1 lb. Incorporating heavier-duty cranks in place of the knurled knobs found on smaller Manfrotto geared heads, these cranks provide 30°, 90°, and 360° in incremental movements at the rate of 8.6° tilt-rotation for every turn of the handle. Other features include 90° forward and 30° backward tilt with 7.5° of tilt left or right, 360° rotation, built-in spirit levels, and ¼"-20 & 3/8"-16 mounts. Included with each Manfrotto 400 geared head are 13mm, 23mm, and 42mm-tall quick-release plates.

Manfrotto 400 3-Way Geared Pan-and-Tilt Head with Select Quick Release Plates

Weighing a smidgeon over 2 lb is the Photo Clam Multiflex Gear Head with Universal Plate. Sturdy enough to support an 8 x 10" view camera or comparably heavy rig, the Multiflex geared head features brass, abrasion-resistant gear tracks, a panoramic disc for compensating for diagonal drift when shooting panorama photographs, dual spirit levels, a 3/8"-16 camera thread, and a full 360° pan range. For better tactile traction when adjusting the control knobs, easy-to-install dial grips are included with each head.

Photo Clam Multiflex Gear Head with Universal Plate

With decades of experience designing and manufacturing large format field and studio cameras and related accessories, it’s no surprise Cambo also manufactures a gear head that’s up to its level of standards. The Cambo PCH Precision Controlled Geared Head weighs 2.7 lb, stands 5.1" high, and can support camera systems weighing up to 8.8 lb.

Cambo’s PCH geared head provides geared and manual movements with a pivot of -30° and +110° on the Y-axis, -30° and +110° on the X-axis, with full 360° panning at the base for panoramic imaging. In order to minimize having to refocus, all axes rotate over the same focal plane. A total of four spirit levels better guarantee a level shooting platform when shooting architecture and other subjects that require precise camera and lens positioning. All movements are self-locking. Cambo’s PCH geared head accepts Arca-type QR plates.

Cambo PCH Precision Controlled Geared Head

Created in Switzerland and manufactured in France from a single billet, the Arca-Swiss C1 Cube Geared Head is designed for heavy lifting. How heavy? Up to 85 lb worth of heavy, and the head itself is only 4.3" tall and weighs only 2.2 lb, which makes it a favorite among travel photographers who require precision in a small form factor.

The C1 Cube was designed in a way that keeps the image plane stationary regardless of how you alter the three axes, which is critical when shooting macro imagery. The C1 Cube provides for geared X-Y axes with adjustable gear tension and 28° of motion with a third 62° tilt-only axis underneath the geared adjustments. Rubberized knobs make it easier to control the adjustments when working under colder temperatures or when wearing gloves.

The Arca-Swiss C1 Cube geared tripod head is available for use with a choice of quick-release systems including Arca-type QR plates, Arca-type Flip-Lock plates, and MonoballFix QR plates. Each of these models is also available with fitted leather cases.

Linhof’s 3D Micro Geared Pan & Tilt Head with Quickfix Tripod Adapter features dual precision adjustment controls for tilt and lateral leveling and 12° self-aligning micro movements front, rear, and on both sides. Other features include dual spirit levels, 3/8"-16 threads, a low-profile design (it’s only 3.7" tall) and a 22 lb load capacity. Linhof’s 3D Micro Geared Leveling Pan and Tilt Head is also available with a dovetail track for producing exacting panoramic images.

Linhof 3D Micro Geared Leveling Pan and Tilt Head with Quickfix

If you own a Linhof Heavy Duty Pro or Profi III tripod and you plan on working with tracking telescopes or über-long telephoto lenses weighing up to 65lb, you might want to check out the Linhof Precision Micro Cradle Head. Weighing a hefty 11 lb, Linhof’s top-of-the-line geared head features micro drives that provide +/- 5 minutes of arc pan and tilt micro positioning and -21° to +21°of vertical tilt for exacting camera positioning. For quicker, less critical movements, you can disengage the micro drives, which enables you to make rapid positioning changes. Other features of the Linhof Precision Micro Cradle head include an oversized dovetail plate and a 90mm base.

Linhof Precision Micro Cradle Head

Do you have any experience with geared heads? If not, do you wish you knew about this type of camera support sooner? Let us know in the Comments field, below.

3 Comments

I have owned a Manfrotto 410 for many years, and it is quite well made and fairly durable. I think any photographer who has never worked with a gear head should try one out . . . in all likelihood they won't go back to their three-way heads.

There are however some really serious design flaws in the 410 which don't exist with their other gear heads. First and foremost, not all of the axes move over the central point . . . which makes the head virtually worthless for landscape panoramic stitching work . . . a place where it should shine. There is a cure however, Hejnar Photo Store sells a replacement offset plate which moves the centre back over the pivot/rotating point. The other point which in my case is really annoying is that the lowest control knob is flush with the base . . . on the same level with the base . . . which means if you are mounting on a studio stand or large tripod with a large mounting plate, the control knob will either jamb against the mounting base or you might have just a millimetre or two of free space. I simply went to my hardware and bought a giant sized (2 inch plus) washer, and a longer mounting bolt to accommodate the extra depth, raising the head about 1/4". Simple and cheap . . . but in both counts the designers???? at Manfrotto should have paused a minute or two before they finalized their design.

All in all a great head, with the two exceptions I mentioned. Keep in mind if the weight is not an issue, the extra cost of buying a Hejnar offset plate puts the price of the 410 very close to that of the 405 which moves on the same axes for all three movements.

I have used the head successfully with slrs, dslrs with medium telephotos and all the way up to a sinar 4x5 without any difficulty (other than what I mentioned). A good head . . . 

I have been using the Manfrotto 410 for the past two and half years.  Love the precision, but the lack of speed is painful at times.  Great for landscape or architecture.  Terrible when your subject is moving.  The 410 has either a design or quality flaw.  One of the knobs is only effective turning in one direction.  I read online that repair will cost $200+.  I will probably buy a Benro before giving Manfrotto more business.

I've been a very happy user of a Manfrotto 405 on a Manfrotto 475 tripod for the last several years--my only regret is not getting this system 15 years ago. I do a lot of product photography and I really appreciate the steady support and the ability to make small adjustments that stay put once they're made.

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