People ask me sometimes what panorama head they should get, and since my panorama head has gone through a strange evolution through-out the years (mostly making it stronger), I can only recommend getting a really good panorama head right away, and not waste money on things that won’t last at least 3-5 digital camera generations… that means no plastic parts whatsoever. If you are beginning with panorama photography, and not completely sure about spending money on a panorama head, I recommend building your own for $20 from wood and other cheap material, and then buy a real one. If you have problems with your no-parallax-point calibration, Alain Hamblenne has posted probably the best/easiest tutorial I’ve seen.
Here is my review of panorama heads that I think are worth the money.
Nodal Ninja 5
Despite the fact that the NN5 is discontinued (Summer of 2010), it is a great panorama head, especially when combined with the RD16 rotator base. It has no problems with larger workloads (no problem with a 100-300mm sigma or a 70-200 2.8 canon), and it’s quite good at vibration dampening from the mirror slap. If you are planning longer exposures (i.e. night photography), set the mirror lockup to 2 sec or longer, since it takes 2 sec for the vibration to dissipate. It is equally good with lighter/shorter lenses/cameras.
The Nodal Ninja 5 is a bit challenging in the camera bag, you have to decide for yourself how much assembly/dis-assembly you are willing to do, but you can quickly break it down into 3 elements: tripod – leveler, rotator and crossbeam – and leave the vertical and horizontal arm attached to your lens/camera. It shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes to be completely ready to shoot.
If you are new to (panorama) photography, the close-out discount on the NN5 is a great entry point. If you already have tons of acra-swiss style equipment, I would probably wait for the next generation of the Nodal Ninja (to be announced soon), and just augment your existing equipment to get a great panorama head.
Nodal Ninja 3
This is the little brother, and while it’s definitely not a beefy as the NN5, will actually work great for most smaller lens/camera combos, from wide-angle, UWA and fisheye to probably 70mm. it’s a quick setup, and for many things it does the job just perfectly. If you are shooting 360×180 degree panos, definitely get the nadir adaptor, it’s a great time saver.
Verdict: great panorama head if you are not planning to use it with long and heavy lenses, but with shorter lenses, and lighter cameras (i.e. 5D or lighter). Since the NN3 has a build-in indent rings that aren’t easy to change in the field, it is best to simply set it for your one lens/camera combo and run with it.
Nodal Ninja rotator and leveler:
I love the RD16 rotator from Nodal Ninja, it is better than the Bogen/Manfrotto 300N… Am I excited about the EZ leveler? Not so much, because I use various other ball heads (especially the Bogen 438), and I like the speed of ball heads. On the other hand, the screw-based EZ leveler is far more precise.
Other candidates to consider:
- The Nodal Ninja M1 (acra-swiss compatible, very modular)
- 360 Precision – especially the Aduste Giga: It looks great, works great, has a great reputation, but I have not tested it in person myself yet.
- Really Right Stuff (also acra-swiss based, very modular): I haven’t tested the full spherical setup in person, I can only assume it’s OK, but the rotator base has no click-stops. No click-stops means that you have to pay much more attention to what you are doing.
- Agnos: Well known for speciality adaptors, including pole panorama photography (also not yet tested in person)
In the long run I would go for the acra-swiss based setups, since the parts are highly usable for other things.
I can not really recommend any other panorama head than the ones mentioned. The Bogen/Manfrotto 303 SPH is interesting that it has many usable basic parts in it (compatible with other Bogen/Manfrotto elements), but the initial setup you buy is wrong in my opinion. The good part about it that it is so heavy that you can probably use it as a boat anchor. If you have one, and reconfigure it properly, it make a decent and very usable panorama head (still very heavy).