By the tone of the question, you might conclude that I dont recommend the idea of a tripod without the ability to remove the head. You would be right. Dont do it. Youll only regret it later.
There are three major types of tripod heads. They are:
- The Pan Tilt Head
- The Gimbal Head
- The Ball Head
The Pan Tilt Head
Youve seen these heads. They come as the fixed on every cheap-ass unsteady tripod youve ever seen. They have three independent adjustments. One for horizontal pan, one for forward / backward tilt and one for orientation for portrait or landscape. Even though they have been sold for years as perfect for stills, they are actually a lift from the cinema industry which required very precise 3 axis orientation. They didnt flip from portrait to landscape but used the third access for levelling out. This head is perfect for video work. Its precise and the good ones are all damped, mostly fluid damped to make movements extremely smooth because no cinematographer wants a bunch of jitter during a pan or tilt. In fact the really good pan / tilt heads dont flip for vertical orientation at all, they use a levelling system at the attachment point to the leg set. If you are using a pan / tilt head for stills, you probably dont use the tripod a lot because all the levers turn out to be a real pain, really fast.
Manfrotto is well respected for their higher end pan tilt heads.
The Gimbal Head
You have a very heavy, very long lens. If you mount the camera to the tripod head you end up with a very out of balance condition. If you use the foot on the lens to the tripod head you are in better shape but pans and tilts become exercises in muscular strength and lots of back and forth. In this case, you want a Gimbal head. The Gimbal is often L shaped and uses adjustable plates so you can balance the camera lens combination to be level when the Gimbal lock for tilt is released. This makes smooth tilts very easy and makes it easier to hold a position to make a shot without locking everything up tight. The pan is a separate locking control and is more often used as a friction control than a lock so you can pan quickly and smoothly. If you are shooting wildlife or birds with a big lens, you deserve a gimbal head.
Really Right Stuff has a great selection of Gimbal heads and the Wimberley line is really well respected. Canadas Jobu is also doing a really nice gimbal and is a great value.
The Ball Head
The ball head is the simplest head. Its a ball with a post that you attach the camera to. The ball in the better heads is coated to move smoothly without catching and in practice one knob locks and unlocks all movement in all three axes. Its incredibly fast to use and perfect for stills. If you shoot mostly stills, your default head should be a ball head, without question. The bigger your camera lens combination the larger the ball you want to have. A larger radius ball gives you better fine movement. Some ball heads have separate friction controls so you can regulate how fast the ball moves with different camera - lens weight combinations. Some ball heads also include a separate release for pans, so you can keep the ball orientation tight and still pan the head. Your choice here, but there is real advantage to a single locking mechanism. Youll find good ball heads cost more than decent pan tilt heads and they should be. With only one major locking control, they are dependent on high quality.
For ball heads, go with Manfrotto at the low end, Gitzo or Really Right Stuff at the high end.
Using the right head for the kind of shooting you do will make your photography more fun, youll get better use from your tripod, and you might even start making better images. Enjoy!