Tripod Head Maintenance for Smooth Operation
I've been a tripod user for a fair number of years now, and I shoot mostly outdoors. Put those two things together and you can guess my tripods have had a workout. Here's what to do to keep yours operating smoothly.
First off, you need to start with a quality tripod head. There is no such thing as a good, cheap tripod head. Really. I would suggest sticking with brands that have proven themselves such as Markins, Really Right Stuff, Kirk Enterprises, or Arca Swiss. If you've been reading my PhotoTips for some time, you probably already know that my current favorite is Markins.
Don't bang your tripod head around. While it is made of extremely hard aircraft grade aluminum, it is not indestructible. Some photographers go to extremes, padding their tripod head with a neoprene cover and putting the legs in a carrying bag when not in use. I don't subscribe to this regimen myself simply because it's more bother than it's worth in my experience. But I do look out for my tripod just as I would any other tool. It's built for rugged use, but there are practical limits. Just use a bit of care and you should be fine.
Most good ball heads are lined with self-lubricating Delrin composite or similar material and should provide years of trouble free, smooth operation. Eventually though, you may find that yours don't move quite as smoothly as it did when new. No matter how tight the tolerances to which it was manufactured, small amounts of dust can work itself into the bearing, causing the ball to stick slightly. This is not a design defect in the head but rather just a fact of using it outdoors in the real world.
The solution to this is easy. Spray a small amount of WD-40 on a towel and wipe the ball with it. Work the ball around to distribute the lubricant. Only a very small amount is needed so don't overdo it. Never spray WD-40 directly on the head. You want the smallest amount necessary to restore smooth operation. Wipe the ball off when finished to remove any excess. You want to leave the ball dry with no trace of the lubricant left. Never use any thicker lubricant either as they will only serve to attract more dust.
You should not need to do this but once every year or two to retain proper operation. Some manufacturers will tell you not to do this at all and you are free to follow their advice if you wish. But I've done this will heads from multiple companies with nothing but the desired outcome. And I'm all for anything that will keep things working smoothly when I'm out shooting.