Pros: Very stable, precise movement, quality materials, solid RC0 plate, reasonably priced.
Cons: Vertical adjustment handle is a little sticky.
I set out in search of a solid 3-way tripod head that could accommodate the newer and longer telephoto lenses that I was using. My ball head was stable under most conditions, but the combination of a long (300mm - 500mm) lens and strong wind made it clear that I need both more stability and precision for framing my shots. I tried the Gitzo G1570M, but this was a disaster due to its terribly coarse movement and lower quality materials. I almost hesitated to purchase this Manfrotto because its price seemed a little too good to be true for a real, pro-quality head. I'm happy to report that my concerns were misplaced.
From Manfrotto's website:
- attaches by 1/4" and 3/8" screws
- attachment type: 3/8" female thread
- bubble spirit level (no.): 3
- color: black color
- front tilt: -25° / +90° tilt range
- lateral tilt: -90° / +30° tilt range
- load capacity: 12 kg
- material: aluminum
- panoramic rotation: 360 °
- plate type: 030-14
- quick release: yes
- secondary safety system: yes
- weight: 1.9 kg
- working height: 16.0 (cm?)
As of early 2011, the Manfrotto (Bogen) 229 Super Pro Head is selling for approximately $200 from reputable, online dealers in the United States. Manfrotto includes a brief instruction manual, maintenance guide, and a two-year warranty (additional three years available with registration).
This head exudes quality from the moment it's removed from its box. Its first and most notable quality is its mass. This is one of the heavier tripod heads available and this is a good thing. Tripods need to provide not just support, but also stability, which comes mostly through mass. A lightweight tripod kit may be easy to hike with, but it provides noticeably less stability than a heavier kit of comparable build quality, making it more susceptible to wind and hand pressure.
On the Super Pro Head, three handles control each of three axis of movement: vertical, tilt, and rotation. The tilt axis is buttery smooth - I've never seen movement this smooth, even in heads costing twice as much. Rotation is also very smooth, and enough so for video work. Still, it can't quite match the Manfrotto 701 video head, but it is close. I would also qualify the vertical motion as smooth, but it had a few slightly tight spots out of the box. These have almost entirely disappeared after some use and the slight inconsistencies in vertical movement that remain never affect my ability to get the shot.
My only real complaint about the performance of this tripod head is a minor one. The handle that controls the movement of the vertical access sticks a little when tightened. I never have any significant trouble loosening it, but I wish it tightened and loosened as easily as the other two handles. Otherwise, these handles all have a large and comfortable cushion grip that makes them easy to operate in any weather and over a long period of time. The handles are forged from strong steel - no cost cutting materials on this head. Each handle can be easily removed for transporting or storing the head by simply unscrewing it. Tightening the handles slightly provides some friction control during movement, and this is helpful with longer and heavier lenses. The amount of friction control is similar to that found in the better ball heads (Acratech, Arca Swiss, etc.). For me, the biggest advantage of the handles on this 3-way head is that they act as levers for controlling the motion of long, heavy lenses. I find this to be a much superior approach to even the best friction controls on the best ball heads. I have precise control of each axis and this translates into precise framing of my shots, which is critical when using long focal length lenses that substantially magnify my subjects. It is argued that ball heads allow for faster positioning, but I'm less convinced of this after some practice with the Manfrotto 229. However, without question, this is a large head that is more difficult to transport in the field than even a very large ball head.
This head uses Manfrotto's large RC0 quick release plate, which enhances camera stability by contacting more of the camera body than smaller plates, such as the RC2. The included plate has the large tightening bolt and protruding thumb screw that is not designed to be held in your hand while shooting. Manfrotto also makes several "flat" versions of this plate that are tightened with a screwdriver and much more hand-friendly. I use both types and I've only rarely had a problem with the plates loosening from the camera body or lens collar. Realistically, this is something that needs to be checked from time to time, and therefore not really a design flaw. Once the plate is tightened firmly to the camera or lens, pressing the camera onto the head causes the release lever to snap shut. In many of the other Manfrotto heads I've used, an additional push on the lever was required to make sure the camera was secured to the head. In this case, no such measure is necessary. This release lever is larger with more spring, which combine for a more secure closure. Once the lever snaps closed, I never worry about it. This is the implementation of this quick release system that Manfrotto needs in its other heads.
Manfrotto includes a 3/8" pin that can replace the 1/4" pin installed in the RCO plate when using lenses and video equipment equipped with 3/8" sleeves. This pin is easily stored in the side of the head when not in use - nice touch. Three bubble levels (one for each axis) provide for easy leveling in the field. On the bottom of the head, large notches ensure solid contact with safety screws found on many tripod columns. Thanks to this feature, I've never had a problem with this head coming loose on my tripod. In comparison, I was surprised to discover Gitzo's best 3-way head had a smooth base with no option for a secure attachment to a tripod column.
There are more expensive 3-way tripod heads available, but none that are significantly more precise or stable. My one complaint about the sticky vertical adjustment handle is a minor one that has almost no effect on this head's otherwise superb performance. For only $200, this is a head that shouldn't be passed up.