Manfrotto 338 Levelling Base and 394 Quick Release

Concept:  3 out of 5
Execution:  2 out of 5
Yeah, but:  Scores are for the 338 base, reverse them for the 394QR.

The Long Version: If there's one thing that I really excel at as a photographer, it's my ability to find exotic hardware from Manfrotto. After just a few outings with my big Bearlebach tripod, I was imagining a better way to level a heavy camera than what a ballhead can do. Something using screws, one of the core simple machines, would allow ample adjustability and strength. I did seek it in the Manfrotto book, and lo, there is was: the 338 QTVR levelling base. Fancy that.

While the nomenclature sounds outdated – do people still say Quicktime Virtual Reality? – the 338 levelling base is 1.3 pounds of solid utility. Three heavy screws are used to adjust the angle of the top plate, and these are controlled by generous knurled disks while being restricted by range-limiting knurled nuts on the bottom. The design is essentially immune to the loads that it's able to carry; rated at a 15kg capacity - 33 pounds - this levelling base handles my Fuji GX680 like it's not even there.

The Manfrotto 338 would typically be positioned between the tripod and the head where it can provide a level platform for panning the camera. My somewhat unorthodox arrangement has me using two different levelling bases in combination, as the Berlebach 3032 tripod has a built-in limited-range ball head. While that seems doubly redundant, it lets me use the ball for coarse adjustments that need more and faster movement, while the screw mechanism of the 338 is perfect for the slower and smaller fine adjustments. Manfrotto naturally makes both types – the 438 is the other one – and it's always good to have a say about which compromise between freedom and restriction will be best.

The 338 base ships with only the larger 3/8" attachment screw, in the form of a decidedly unsexy bare bolt, and it would take some ingenuity to step that down to a 1/4" thread to directly attach a camera. A quick-release system solves that problem, and I went with the 410PL/RC4 system that my 410 geared head uses. This is a big plate that attaches to the 394QR, and it's both more solid and easier to mount than the smaller RC2 system that's used on the lighter Manfrotto heads. The quick release itself is typical mid-high Manfrotto quality: heavy, solid, and with a couple of small bullseye levels built into it.

The 338 falls down a bit with its attachment bolt. Unlike the three screws that change the angle of the platform, there's no way to lock it in place through only part of its travel. This means that whatever is attaching to the top ends up in a random position when it's tightened: there's no way to set the QR plate to be square to one of the levelling screws. While it wouldn't really matter if a panning base or ballhead was added on top of it, it makes it slightly more complex to level a big camera that can attach directly to the 338. This isn't a huge complication, but it's inelegant; while this fault doesn't even apply its intended use, if I wanted a product that could only be used the way the manufacturer wants it to be, I'd buy an iPad.

My only other hesitation with the 338 and 394 is their weight; using this combination puts almost an additional kilogram onto the pointy end of the tripod. That's not a decision to make lightly, if you'll pardon the expression, but life and photography are full of compromises. The additional refinement and control improves the heavy Berlebach enough that it becomes more pleasant to use and easier to adjust, which leads to better photos all around. The 338 is an esoteric piece of equipment, but it works perfectly for what I need it to do.

last updated 4 mar 2011


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