Manfrotto have been making tripods for many years. Amongst photographers they have a very good reputation, but for video applications, here in Europe at least they have always been seen as a "cheap" alternative or second tier tripod. A few years ago I purchased a Manfrotto 501 to use with a Sony Z1 HDV camera. It was not the best tripod in the world but for the price it performed adequately and gave me many years of reliable service. For some jobs it's lightweight construction made it the tripod of choice and I often took it on my storm chasing trips where I needed to minimise weight and bulk to avoid crazy excess baggage fees. I only recently sold the 501, along with an EX1. It was still working just the same as when I purchased it, around 7 years ago. The old 501's biggest issue was that the grease used to dampen the movement of the head could lead to a sticky motion. You would gradually increase the pressure on the pan bar and then suddenly the tripod would start to move, not ideal for smooth pans. In addition there was no counterbalance spring. This was OK with very light cameras but not good if you added a camera with any bulk. At the last few trade shows that I have attended I noticed Manfrotto had a new line of tripod heads and legs. It's been a while since I looked closely at Manfrotto's offerings, but what I've been seeing lately has really impressed me. Before going any further you have to put things into perspective. The Manfrotto video tripods cost a lot less than the equivalent Vinten or Sachtler. They normally have 75mm bowls, not 100mm. Their newest heads use an interesting design that Manfrotto call "Bridging Technology". I have been playing with a pre-release one of these heads, the 509, which is the largest in the new range.
The first thing that struck me was that for a Manfrotto head, this one is quite big, about the size of a Vinten 10 or Sachtler 20. It is nice and wide which makes for a stable platform and the added bulk helps prevent vibrations and wobble. It has an indicator system that helps you balance the head quickly whenever you remove and the replace the quick release plate. Two LED's tell you which way to slide the plate until you get to the position you last set. I'm not sure how useful this really is, but it works and is simple to use. The only issue I have with this is that you can only insert the quick release plate from the front of the head, it's not possible to slide it in from the rear. As well as this there is the now almost standard illuminated levelling bubble.
For me the most important attribute of any tripod is the fluidity of the movement. In this area the 509 excels. A large knob on the side of the head adjusts the tilt damping and a knob in the very centre of the head adjusts the pan damping. On both axis it is possible to achieve a silky smooth movement with none of the "sticktion" of my old 501. It is easy to get nice pans with slow starts and gentle stops using this head. On the left side of the head there is a four position knob that adjusts the amount counterbalance the head provides. I'm used to Vinten's fully variable counterbalance, so 4 settings is not as flexible as this, but I found I could get an acceptable balance with a range of cameras from an EX1 handycam up to a full size shoulder mount PDW-700. I have even used the 509 with my 3D rig. This is pushing the head towards it's upper weight limit, but despite this it remains stable and solid. The pan and tilt locks are nice and big and very secure which is a huge boon when setting up the 3D rig as this can be very badly balanced until you get everything installed on it.
The 509 head has really impressed me. It's not perfect, but for the money you get a good solid head with a very smooth action. It also looks good, the red and grey colour scheme looks very smart. As well as their new heads Manfrotto now do a nice range of very light tubular carbon fibre legs. These legs collapse down to a very small size, yet can expand to over 6ft tall. They have a clever cam system at the top of the legs that controls the leg spread, eliminating the need to have a spreader. I'm considering a set of these legs for my storm chasing kit as size and weight are always an issue and these would make for a very compact tripod. In addition I also really like their clever monopods with a neat fluid rotation cartridge incorporated into the bottom of the monopod. There are 3 small fold out feet attached to the fluid damper and by placing a foot on one of these you can get really smooth fluid damped pans. A tilt head at the top of the monopod allows you to tilt the camera. My new Sony PMW-F3 is a heavy camera to use handheld, a monopod such as this could be a great aid to "run and gun" and mobile shooting. It's much lighter than a tripod and it's easy to carry around the F3 with the monopod attached.
So next time you are looking for a tripod or other camera support, don't forget to consider Manfrotto. Their new tripods are very nice and in my opinion represent excellent value for money. As many of my readers will already know, Genus are producing the 3D rig that I designed, the "Hurricane Rig". Manfrotto are distributors for Genus, so I do have some business connections with Manfrotto. However I was not asked to carry out this review, my work promoting the 3D rig on Manfrotto booths at various trade shows has allowed me to test their tripods and I have been genuinely impressed by their quality and design.
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