Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's perfect for detail-oriented control freaks.
The Long Version: Baseball and football have both been described as games of inches, which seems pretty generous to anyone who has tried macro photography. With high magnifications and low working distances, very slight changes in camera position make a big difference to the image composition. This is part of the fun of shooting close-ups, and anything that's meant to be fun doesn't need to be complicated. But there's a limit to what can be accomplished with a flower icon. On the other end from 'fun' there's a degree of obsession that leads to tripods and worse.
The Manfrotto 454 combines a base that mounts on the tripod with a plate that attaches to the camera which can be slid back and forth with a worm drive. Gross adjustments use a lever to disengage the gears, allowing the plate to slide fairly freely. When the gear is engaged a full turn from the thumbscrews on the ends of the plate slides the assembly 5/4 of a millimeter at a time; a comfortable twist of the screws on the front and back of the slider, somewhere between one-third and one-half of a turn, translates to about half of a millimeter. For readers in Burma, Liberia, and America, that translates into slightly over one-nothingth of an inch.
Our tour of the micrometric positioning plate ends with the brass knob on its side. This is used to lock the sliding plate firmly into position. When the screw is loose, the plate can be moved back and forth, but the slight wiggle is enough to change the framing of the shot. When the plate is locked down enough to prevent side-to-side motion, it doesn't allow any movement at all. Sometimes this doesn't matter, and sometimes it really, really does.
Changing the focusing distance changes the magnification, so an effective way to work with macro photography is to set the amount of magnification and then move the camera (or subject) until the desired part is in focus. The 454 plate makes this simple, and combined with a camera with live-view magnification, achieving critical focus has never been easier. The shallow depth of field that's endemic to close-up photography can also be beaten with judicious use of software like Helicon Focus or Photoacute, which stack vast numbers of photographs taken with different parts of the image in focus. But now we're back to the problem that changing focus with the lens changes the magnification, so precise adjustments in camera position becomes even more critical. The sample photo above is from eighteen images processed with Photoacute. Slight shifts in image position don't bother that particular piece of software - in fact it can help - so the slight wiggle in the Manfrotto 454 isn't an issue.
The setup that you see in these photos isn't just what comes in the box with the positioning plate. It doesn't include a quick-release, so I've added a Manfrotto 323 QR (with a spacer made from popsicle sticks) and a 341 elbow bracket. These are compatible with the RC2 plates that I already use, and the whole assembly is much cheaper than the equivalents from Kirk or Really Right Stuff. I've noticed that those call themselves focusing rails, while the manfrotto is merely a micro-positioning plate, but I don't know if that's significant. I'm willing to accept that things that cost several times more money might be better, have less play, and infuse the photos with a magical aura, but the extra hundreds of dollars are quite comfortable in my pocket.
Despite its flaws, the 454 is a very nice piece of work. I'll be buying a second one to stack perpendicular to the first, giving me full lateral control as well as fore-and-aft movement. I've always been something of a gear-head - and already use a Manfrotto 410 Geared Head - so this gives me a phenomenal level of control. It's exotic, but it's worth it when I'm in this narrow little slice of the photographic universe.