What is a Fluid Head? – A Must Have for Movie Makers

Hello Everyone

My last post was about video tripods and in that post, I had explained the fluid head briefly. I thought it might be a good idea to write a full-length article on fluid heads as these heads are very essential for filmmaking. Fluid heads are among the many heads which one can employ for capturing photos and videos but these are generally preferred over other heads for shooting videos.

In this post, I’ll be explaining in detail as why is it so and what is a fluid head basically. So put up with me a bit longer and in the next few minutes, you will have substantial knowledge of this piece of equipment.

Fluid Head – Definition and Meaning

Fluid heads are named so because they use fluid cartridges to give a nice smooth panning motion of the camera. Well, that’s how they should work but many heads including some very expensive ones do not have fluid cartridges. Instead, they are well-oiled plastic parts that move against each other. The oiling in them is bound to get dry and eventually the motion will get jerky and useless.

Manfrotto MVH400AHUS Travel Fluid Head

These days, instead of using actual oil, companies make use of gas cartridges like the Manfrotto Nitrotech N8 Fluid Head. Fluid heads dampen the movement of cameras and reduce vibrations which leads to steady videos. The fluid-filled chambers are used to adjust the amount of drag which you want in your shots. If you need to move your head quickly into position, set the drag to zero or if you need to shoot something moving like a car or a ship, up the drag a couple of notches.

Fluid head costs anywhere between $30 to more than $10,000! Yes, that’s right A fluid head can cost more than 10 grand. But I am neither experienced nor qualified to review those products. OConner tripods and their heads are often used by top experts in the filmmaking industry and you may even see one lying around on a film set. 90% of all videographers make do with other heads which work fabulously and don’t burn a hole in their pockets.

Features of A Good Fluid Head

A good fluid head is the one which gives you complete control over its functioning. The features of a good fluid head vary depending upon the model, make and price. Generally, a high-end fluid head gives more precise controls over the counterbalance, drag, and tension (lock). Let’s look at them one by one.

LOCKS
All the fluid heads including the entry level ones have locks! Locks are used to fix the axis so that you can pan or tilt your camera. Once locked, you cannot move the head along that axis. It might be tempting to use locks to adjust for drag but it isn’t appropriate.

DRAG
Drag is adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of dampening in your head. In a fluid head (not the one with oiled plastic parts), the fluid chambers are used to adjust the drag by resisting the torque applied while panning. Note that friction does not come into play. The amount of drag depends on your need and preference. Some prefer no drag at all while others make full use of this feature.

COUNTERBALANCE
Counterbalance as the name suggests helps in balancing the camera/camcorder on the tripod. In many fluid heads counterbalance if fixed and the user has no control over it which can be a pain sometimes but some have counterbalance adjustments which go up to 90lb (40kg). In simple terms, counterbalance stabilizes the camera when you fix it in a position where it is tilted at an angle. The concept of relative weight comes into play here. The relative weight shifts as you move the camera back and forth, the counterbalance nullifies that making the setup stable. Impressive, right!

The counterbalance works closely with the amount of drag and it is completely up to you how you use it.

Nifty Trick: To check if the counterbalance is properly set or not, set the drag to zero. The camera must stay in place even if you tilt a little. If it doesn’t you need to balance the camera properly.

A good fluid head will have multiple positions to screw the handle on. This again totally depends on your preference. Also, cheap fluid heads come with a manufacturer exclusive QR plate which is not very good since you want all your equipment to work perfectly with each other. I recommend the Manfrotto system as its QR plates are widely accepted by other makers.

How is it Different From Your Regular Head?

Manfrotto Junior Geared Head (410)

Regular pan/tilt heads are very different from the fluid heads. Although both are used to pan or move the camera, the difference is in their purpose. The 3-way pan/tilt tripod head used in photography is not meant to be used to capture video. The pan videos won’t be as smooth as with a fluid head. Photography heads are to be used in situations where you lock a camera in place and shoot still images.

There are many types of pan/tilt heads like the automated ones, geared heads, etc. One cannot expect to shoot video from these heads. Geared heads are for precise adjustments in frames because the gear mechanism pans the camera slightly for each turn on the knob. Fluid heads reduce the shake especially while starting and stopping the pan.

Unlike the gimbal head or ball heads, fluid heads are restricted to move along fixed axes. Gimbal and ball heads motion can be termed random but this is not acceptable in the case of videos. The horizontal level has to be maintained at all times in videography.

Look Out for These

The fluid head market is very big and there are tons of cheap ones out there in the market. The cheap ones will cost you somewhere around $30-$50 and you don’t have to do a lot of research before buying one. They have many disadvantages such as the built quality, functioning, etc. The parts are made of plastic, no fluid chambers, no advanced controls, etc but on the plus side, they are great for starting out.If you have just begun shooting videos, a cheap one will be a definite upgrade from your photography head. Be sure to read the maximum load capacity before mounting your camera, you don’t want your head to collapse!

FOR THE MORE SERIOUS ONES

Manfrotto-502-Video-Head

People who are already familiar with shooting video and want to upgrade your cheap heads, I would recommend the all-time favorite Manfrotto 502. They make it with and without half bowls, it’s up to you to decide. These heads are excellent in terms of built and functioning. It is made of high-quality aluminum and has actual fluid compartments. The only downside is that there is no control over counterbalance. Though the 4kg fixed counterbalance is more than what you will require but then it would have been a nice addition.This head has separate drag controls for pan and tilt movements and the head can support up to 15.4lbs (7kgs).

PROFESSIONAL FLUID HEADS

Sachtler FSB 8 T 75mm Fluid Head System

The Sachtler Ace series fluid heads are some of the best which you can lay your hands on. These heads are quality products and are used by skilled professionals. They offer complete control over the countermeasure and drag. The maximum payload is just about 4kg. The snag is that they aren’t sold separately. Ace series is a part of their flowtech tripod range. Check out the Best Video Tripods here.Another great head is the Cartoni FOCUS 22. It has a maximum payload capacity of 49lbs (22kg) and is a great option to look for. It features the Sachtler’s touch and Go style QR plates which makes it compatible with a wide range of products.

Final Note

The fluid head is bulky and delicate gadget and it is always wise to loosen the locks before packing up the shoot. Remember taking care of your equipment will reward you many times over. Fluid heads are a must for any videographer and one can start even with a $30 one from Amazon then as you master the nuances of videography you might feel the urge to upgrade your tripod/ head.

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this article, feel free to drop in a question or some feedback below in the comments section and I’ll be more than happy to answer you.

 

Shashwat

Founder

Tripods For All

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18 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing the information about fluid head!

    I personally have not came across the name “fluid head” before, and this article is pretty informative for me! Now I only what is actually a fluid head!

    I know there is accessories such as “motion absorber” something like that which videographers are using when capturing videos on the go. But I didn’t know what is the actual term of it until I read your post!

    Great explaination on the features of fluid head. Keep it up!

  2. I did not realize there were so many variations available when setting up your tripod.  It is good you have put enough information on here so that those of us who are still learning about cameras and making videos will be able to understand the choices.

    Do you believe that someone without a lot of experience would be wise choosing a fluid head?  I notice you said that even some of the expensive ones do not use fluid heads, but use oiled plastic.  Does the piece you are buying give you that information?  I would suppose they would have to.  I’d just like to be sure I bought the best one I could afford.

    1. Sadly, no they do not give that information. If you bought it from a store, try asking their salesperson or the customer service if you got it online. I hope that helps 🙂

  3. Hi

    I can understand using a fluid head if you are watching something with great speed, as you will need to pan across the scene. I cannot imagine one costing 10000 as you wonder if the joints are made out of a precious metal or they the electronics have something  extraordinary associated with them. I can imagine that if the head stops moving if you do not regularly maintain it but at 30 it is cheap enough to replace.

    Do they have an electronic version that will keep automatic track of a moving object, but no human input will be required?

    Thanks

    Antonio

    1. Hello

      Actually, electronic heads are available. They aren’t as useful as the manual ones cause you have rely on the wizardry inside for panning. But yeah, as you said once you set it up, it will pan on its own.

  4. It is very a nice article, Another area of photography where you will want a tripod is if you’re exploring light painting. 

    This time, not only are you going to be using longer exposure times, you’re also going to need to rest your camera on a stable platform, while you either stand off to one side with a flashlight, painting light into your scene

    However, your article is one of the top I never heard about it.

  5. I know a bit about photography and filming but I am no expert and had never before heard of a fluid head, so I find this post informative and interesting. What I like about the fluid head is that it provides a nice smooth panning motion when it comes to filming. I imagine this is utmost important and could make or break a film, so this product is really a must-have for filmmakers. Some of the best television shows and movies out there rely on a smooth and sometimes slow pan inward or outward. Thank you for pointing out the differences between fluid heads and regular heads. The pangshi VT-1510 really sounds like a solid choice at a reasonable price. I’ll save your post and forward it along to a few videographer friends, well done!

  6. Hello Shashwat; thank you for sharing the extensive research you have done; I’m thinking of buying a smartphone and a tripod to make video for my business (I do not have too much money). I also recommend a Tripods, do you think it is useful? Keep in mind that I’m just starting out.

    best regarsds

    Carmen

  7. Great explanation of what a fluid head is for movie-makers who have to shoot a professional level video for their business or personal use. I had not really checked into all the nuances of the different heads as I am just now starting to produce more videos but I am so glad I came across this article.

    The different terms now make complete sense as does the reasoning behind securing a fluid head like this for video shoots. Most definitely the setup I have now for images and my cameras will not work. There is a real difference too in results, as I did try and compared to what I see with videos that are using the proper tripod and heads can produce.

    The investment is quite high for a professional model such as the Sachtler Ace series, and for me, that would be nice to have, but I need to start with a mid-level fluid head, so likely I will get the other one that you highlighted (I did check bot out), the Manfrotto 502.

    Are these fluid heads advisable to pick up second hand and is so, what kind of price should I expect to pay? I am thinking that maybe I could get the more expensive one for a little more than the mid-level one new and have a better kit if that is possible. What do you think? 

    1. Hey

      I won’t recommend going in for a second-hand one because of a number of reasons. There might be some reason why the owner is letting it go, the piece might be defective, or some part may be missing also there might be some warranty issues. You may not get any warranty even though you will be paying a good amount for it.

      And if you are very serious, it is always a good thing to buy an original product because these things will last you a long time if you care for them.

  8. Hi Shashwat!

    I find your article very entertaining in fact. The video makes me better aware of what these products are all about and easily so… By the time I’m finished with the video I am basically onto choosing which fluid head to buy… One of your headings is “Look Out for These”. It helped me read on with interest!!!

    I remember seeing cameras with tripods and observing how they tilt foward once you let go of them. The feature that prevents this is nifty! I like the topic. 

    Perhaps you could number the different fluid heads. By the time I am ready to buy one I will know how many I have rejected.

    It seems like you know a good amount on your topic if not much more. If you want further input let me know! My comment might be inadequate…

    Eric

    1. Hey Eric

      I appreciate you taking the time out and going through the entire post with such enthusiasm. I hope you enjoyed it.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Great explanation Shashwat,

    It uses oil, no wonder mine got useless and jerky! Reading through, I guess mine would be one of that plastic with oil friction ones and not the fluid one. How long do you think the plastic head can last considering it’s of lower quality than the fluid? I use mine quite rarely though, about once in 2 weeks and it lasted for a year.

    1. Hey

      It totally depends on the use. I mean if you use it quite a lot, it will last you for a year or two. But if you don’t, the oil dries up and it won’t be of much use. 

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