Product Review: Manfrotto 504HD Fluid Video Head
Sept 2, 2010
By Dan Havlik
Once the domain of the broadcast market, the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show is featuring more and more of these, ahem, crossover photo/video products as HD-DSLRs and small camcorders catch on with an array of imagemakers. And while most photographers know about Manfrotto's heads and tripods for the still camera market, the company's presence in the video market has been strong and its new 504HD head is a good example of a product that bridges the gap between the two. (Doh!)
I recently tried out the Manfrotto 504HD with my co-tester Jason Groupp, who is adding more and more video to his work. We paired the 504HD ($400) with a 546BK tripod; the combination is sold together as a kit (with a bag) for $730. It's a highly mobile set-up by videography standards but for still photography it's on the heavy side, weighing just under 20 pounds combined. There's a reason for that heft: load capacity is 16.3 pounds, so even if you intend to use your HD-DSLR with your longest telephotos, you'll have no problem with support.
It was sort of overkill for the work Jason was doing, which was mainly self-promotional HD video shot in his studio with a Canon 5D Mark II. The key to this tripod head and why video professionals will love it, is its fluid drag technology which gives you pans and tilts that are smooth as glass. Engineered with ball bearings to cut down on vibration, we got rock steady results while creating crisp HD clips with the 5D Mark II.
You can control the head's fluidity via two adjustable dials which let you choose the friction for your pans and tilts. This gave us great precision and was easy and intuitive with each point locking in with a satisfying click. You can also block rotation on any access point of the head via the head's "pan and tilt disk breaks" which are really a series of locking knobs. It's a nice touch, giving you meticulous control over movement.
We also liked the head's easy-peasy four-step counterbalance system which will lock your camera in at the right angle and prevent it from flopping around. Again this is probably more important if you're shooting with a big rig like the Red One than an HD-DSLR but it's nice to have if you ever want to upgrade to a more serious video camera.
Adding accessories such as an extra monitor or a video light (Lite Panels, anyone?) can be done via the head's two Easy Link connectors which have two standard 3/8-inch threads for attaching flexible arms. We also loved the built-in bubble spirit level which lights up with the press of button so you can easily check it even in dim conditions. The light automatically switches itself off after ten seconds to save battery life.
As a tripod, the Manfrotto 546BK is big but it's a beut. Its mid-level spreader lets you easily bring the tripod to the ground for low-level shooting; while its spiked feet with removable rubber shoes keep it from sliding away. And since it's a Manfrotto, design and build of the head and tripod are stylish, rugged and highly functional.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Tired of hearing all these buzzwords about video and still photo "convergence?" If so, you may be in the wrong business. Today, photographers have to think even of the prosaic tripod head as a potential video delivery device. One of the best heads we've tried so far is Manfrotto's new 504HD which will give you effortlessly smooth pans and tilts while shooting HD video. While the 504HD head/546BK tripod combo may seem to be overkill if you're just messing around with your new HD-DSLR, it's a very solid set up to "grow into" if you find yourself bit by the video bug.
Pros: Will help you create effortlessly smooth pans and tilts with your HD-DSLR or video camera; stylish and durable build.
Cons: May be overkill if you're only experimenting with shooting video.
Price: $400; $730 as a kit with the 546BK tripod and travel bag