Review: Manfrotto 504HD/ 546GBK Video Support System

As in my previous review of the Libec RS250 system, much of the technical specifications and figures relating to this system are in the Camera Support Database (F & F). [Note: the Facts and Figures section is forthcoming in yet another DVi article to be linked here.]

Manfrotto 504HD / 546GBK Video Support System

The standard system consists of a 504HD pan/tilt head, 546B tripod, 537SPRB spreader, MBAG90PN case and a set of 565 rubber boots to fit the tripods spiked feet.

504HD Video Pan / Tilt Head

Well, I have to hand it to the folks at Manfrotto, this thing looks a million dollars. The design and layout, is, er, unusual…

  • Front face: the “Bridge” and the front of the pan drag winder.
  • Right side: 4 position counterbalance knob, the slide plate lock lever and pan bar rosette.
  • Left side: large tilt drag knob, tilt lock lever, slide plate safety release and pan bar rosette.
  • Rear face: the “bridge” again, the pan drag winder, illuminated levelling bubble and pan lock lever.
  • Head plate: wide mouth slide plate slot, spare screw store underneath.

There is, most unusually, an awful lot of metal missing from this head plate, in quite strategic places. Whether this has any operational ramifications remains to be seen.

The slide plate itself is the 501PLONG, significantly longer than the standard 501P, giving a much longer screw slot, making it easier to balance long lens systems. Combined with the longer slide plate slot, the increase in the amount of adjustment over something like the earlier 503HDV is considerable. I simply fail to understand why this plate only has a fixed VHS pin.

The three levers, tilt, pan and slide plate lock, all have 6-position spring loaded lever arms allowing easy re–positioning at 60º intervals, although the latter two are not retained, so can easily be wound clean off the head. They all look readily replaceable in the event they take a fatal smack.

I have read somewhere that there is an issue with the slide plate lock lever swinging above the head plate and thus not allowing a “hippy” camera system to lock, or only with difficulty. As that lever only requires a 90º swing from full lock to off, and vice versa, and the lever arm is repositionable in 60º increments, if you can’t configure the lever arm not to swing above the head plate, you simply haven’t grasped how these levers work. This is a non-issue, and it’s simply not true.

The tilt drag knob is HUGE with an easy action and graduated markings from 0 to 9 + M (the M is for maximum, I presume), with audible clicks from positions #3 through #6 (why not for the rest? don’t know). Strangely, the viewing window opening is directed straight up and to the left of the head, not to the rear operator’s position.

The pan drag winder nestles directly in the centre of that “bridge” well and is not the easiest thing to get at, although the setting window does at least point towards the operator. Dialling in drag with a thumb is okay until about level #7 after which things get pretty tight. Whilst we’re down there, the illuminated bubble works fine and does have a cancel function if you want it off before it times out.

The last major control is the counterbalance (CB). With four positions, labelled #0 through #3, zero being no CB whatsoever, the head is basically left with just three steps of CB to stretch from 0 to 7.5 kg, which are huge chunks, and give rise to some pretty serious compromises down the track, which I’ll cover in the full system test.

One thing I must mention at this point is the “gotcha” with this control if you’re playing with it and a camera is parked on top and zero tilt drag set. Starting at position #0 and dialing in position #1 is fine, i.e., no counterbalance to #1 CB. You may well feel the CB pick up some slack and decide to let go of the pan arm or whatever else you’re holding, but don’t!

Going from position #1 to #2 disengages the CB completely, allowing an unrestrained head / camera combo to go into free fall one way or another. Position #2 won’t engage until the head has been returned to nearly level. Why it does this I have no idea, as it doesn’t do it from #2 to #3. It does, however, repeat this alarming performance going from #2 back to #1. It’s caught me out on a couple of heart stopping occasions, so be warned!

546B Tripod, Mid Level Spreader 537SPRB & 565 Boots

This is one nice looking set of sticks, with a receiver even chunkier than the Vinten. With decent 90mm tube spacing on the upper section of the 2:2:1 body and good diameter tubing as well, it’s the best looking twin tube unit I’ve ever seen from Manfrotto.

One of the things that makes this rig look even bigger is the gigantic mid level spreader. For reasons unknown, Manfrotto decided to attach the spreader to the bottom of the middle leg section instead of the more usual attachment at the bottom of the top leg section. Hence it needs to be considerably longer in the arms to give the full height tripod decent leg angles at full retract, which it does, at 74º. Given that it’s also got a heck of a lot of arm extend to play with (310 mm to 540mm each) it can achieve a pretty respectable 60º leg angle at full spreader extend. Just to add to its abilities, with the legs completely collapsed and the spreader fully extended, the legs can go down to an eye watering 24º.

The spreader attachment is an easy single push button. About the only thing I’m not terrible excited about is the spreader extend locks, which are concentric plastic winged sleeves on the inner arm ends. These need to be rotated about the central axis of the spreader arm to release the inner arm. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I go to adjust them, I end up trying to turn them the wrong way, even though they have “Lock” quite clearly embossed on one side of each wing to indicate the correct rotation (black embossing on black plastic with varifocal glasses is not a good mix).

Getting the arms to retract again is something of a mission, no matter how much the extend locks are undone. This can lead to a situation akin to wrestling with a slightly deranged nonopus (Google it!) thinking bad thoughts. This isn’t a battle that can be put off either, as the tripod cannot be closed until the arms have been retracted, unlike the Libec and Vinten. This is a pretty hopeless piece of design in my opinion and I can only pray they get easier to use with wear.

Leg locks, closed and open.

The leg locks are pretty chunky horizontal flips from right to left (looking side on) to undo and vice versa. They’re pretty stiff but I presume they’ll loosen with use. It’s not always easy to know whether or not you’ve pushed one fully home, as there’s no sound or indication that they have done so. As far as I can tell there appears to be an Allen key lock-tightening bolt on each of the six locks.

The tripod leg close restraint locks are the usual Manfrotto plastic clips on the outer tube of the mid level section. These simply rotate about the tube and the engage with the outer tube of the adjacent leg. Easy, but there are three of them. As these un-clip very easily, they can be repositioned to allow either right to left or left to right operation at the operators whim.

The feet are standard Manfrotto double spike, both spikes being steel, and the boots are the standard rubber thong fit.

Manfrotto System Case MBAG90PN

This is another pretty flash case from Petrol, difficult to describe verbally but I’ll give it a shot. It’s cylindrical but with a flat base (see what I mean?) and one end is larger than the other to accommodate the chunky receiver and head.

The full-length zip travels almost the entire circumference of the quite rigid head end case top, the idea being that you can either unzip the full length of the case, lift the support system out and gain access to the internal pocket…


…simply undo the section of zip around that rigid end panel, stand the case on the tripod feet end and lift the system out of the case “sleeve”.

Whether this latter mode works terribly well if the internal pocket is in serious use, I have my doubts. The zip track around that end panel/ sleeve junction is pretty fiddly but that may well just be due to its new and hardly used status.

The case has a full-length carry strap, an end handle at the feet end and the usual twin top handles and Velcro cuff. The top handles are balanced for this system, so it’s no problem to carry.

Next: Full System Operation, Summing Up, Conclusion.

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About The Author

Born in London, Ontario, Canada but transplanted to Tasmania, Australia at a tender age, where I spent most of my formative years. Decamped at 19 to “see the world,” and proceeded to hitch hike from Madras (India) to London (UK). Somehow surviving (despite many “life enriching experiences”), I spent most of the 70’s and 80’s in the UK computer industry, using my spare time to polish up my still photography skills. Quit the rat race for the first time in 1990 and spent 18 months travelling through China, Pakistan and India hauling round a monstrous bag of camera gear, somehow ending up back in Australia more or less by accident. Realized I’d taken a wrong turn 5 years later and headed back to Blighty for another decade. Finally fled the “big smoke” and headed to NZ with my Kiwi partner. Got into video with an XL1s but always knew HD would be the way to go, trading up to a Canon XH A1 (and a Nikon D80) December ’06. Have been throwing shed-loads of money at it ever since. Still coming to terms with this whole “moving image” thing. Despite my constant declarations of retirement, my shooting time is continually intruded upon by that 4 letter w**k word. A confessed perfectionist, I built a conservatory onto our London home with a micrometer being the main measuring instrument (true!). Despite my long computer association, have done more different jobs than I’ve had hot dinners, none of them as much fun as playing with cameras.

1 Comment

  1. Your experience with the noisy pan is not unusual. With a year’s use, mine now seems better.

    The 504HD is just barely usable with my loaded Sony EX1 at its near-max settings. Very disappointing.

    The plastic knobs are complete junk and the pan handle adjustment knobs must be twisted very hard to get them to not wiggle on use! The knobs are so heavily textured that they’re actually painful to tighten.

    The only saving grace is the illuminated bubble level.