Manfrotto 460MG 3D Head

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's just fun to play with.

The Long Version: Tripod heads are one of those things that can completely ruin a pleasant day. Tripods themselves are bulky, heavy, and slow, but they're passive bordering on inert. It's the fiddly little heads that can cause real problems if they get an attitude and refuse to cooperate.

For several years I've used two different tripods: a 486RC2 ball head on a light tripod, and a 410 geared head on a heavy set of legs. This has worked quite well for me, even though – or possibly because – I never used my 'light' tripod for any extended period of time. I don't really like ball heads, I just like them better than bulky three-way heads, and tolerate them for the times when I need something smaller, or quicker, than the awesome 410 geared head. I only brought my light tripod and 486 back into regular service once I added a Hasselblad 500c/m to my collection, and I was reminded yet again just how little I like ballheads.

And then I accidentally tried my Hasselblad on an 804RC2 three-way head, and it was almost enough to make me like pan/tilt heads again. It doesn't have anyting like the precision of my geared head, but the ability to put the camera almost where I want it in each axis individually was much better than tying to lock the ball in place when all three were mostly right at once. The insurmountable problem with the pan-tilt option was its size: the height of the contraption itself, and the length of the control arms, defeated the point of having a compact travel tripod. Clearly, a special order was called for and shopping ensued.

The Manfrotto 460MG is what they call a "3D" head, which appears to designate one that can move the camera off-centre from the tripod. While they aren't entirely consistent, they also call the 056 a "3D" head, and it's what the 460MG would look like if it was designed to cost twenty-five dollars. Not particularly refined, but essentially the same interesting idea.

The 460MG is a three-way head without all of the space issues. It replaces the long control handles with simple knobs, and places its pivots on arms instead of in a column. The off-centre pivots gives it a lower profile than a traditional design, but it behaves differently than ballheads or pan/tilt heads. With the 460 there's nothing underneath the camera to stop it from swinging downwards when the locking knob is loosened, so making roll or pitch adjustments with the 460MG is always a two-handed job.

With that little quirk out of the way, the 460 becomes very easy to deal with. It's actually difficult to come up with positions that the camera can't reach – up, down, flipped, sideways – making it an economical challenger to the Gitzo off-centre ball head in the competition for the most adjustable camera support. While the 460MG is a good match for my light Sport-family Gitzo, it would be equally at home on their Explorer series or other tripods with centre columns that can be locked at odd angles.

The control knobs are easy to grip and large enough that they lock and unlock securely, but it did take me a while to learn to keep my knuckles out of their way. Having spent some considerable time 'in the field' (actually 'on the shore') with mine, I was pleased to see that it wasn't much of a knuckle-buster in actual use, even with gloves on. But do be careful to make sure that it's as tight as you think it is before picking up and moving the tripod, because the camera can be held in taking position even when it's not completely locked in place. I flopped the `blad into the tripod a couple of times before I really took this seriously.

Unfortunately the 460MG shares the very slight creep that afflicts almost every head that costs less than hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Simply put, it's the rule that the tripod head will sag ever so slightly when it's locked, except for when the photographer tries to compensate for that sag, in which case the head will hold exactly where it was stopped. What can I say? Tripod heads can have an attitude.

One of the words crowdsourced reviews often use to describe the Manfrotto 460MG is "Light". I have to admit that I found that puzzling. Manfrotto lists its weight as 430 grams, making it only a trivial ounce ligher than the popular 486RC2, and hardly anybody calls that ball head 'light'. Even worse, the 460MG has a rated load capacity that's only half that of the more popular ballhead. But in the hand the airy 460MG really does give an impression of lightness that the dense 486 can't match – I had to put them both on the scale to confirm than Manfrotto's published weights are indeed correct. If nothing else, it's a good example of how unreliable subjective opinions are, especially when they echo the marketing blurb.

The mounting system on the 460MG, and other three-way Manfrotto heads, is subtly different from those found on their ball heads. For the 460 the mounting plate is held in place within the base on three sides, and is locked in with the cam lever on the fourth. Ball heads use only the cam and a narrower tongue on the opposite long edge of the mounting plate for grip, which means that the plate only fits in one direction. The 460MG is bidirectional – allows the camera to be set up facing 'forward' or 'backward' – which is very useful because sometimes even the small control knobs get in the way. I wish my other heads could do the same trick.

Naturally, it wouldn't be a Manfrotto product without a bubble level, and the 460 builds one in where the camera mounts. I'm not sure how this could be seen with the camera in place, but when being level really matters I haven't hesitated to remove the camera and have a look. I've also added a large bullseye level to the non-rotating portion of the base, mostly covering the rotation indices, to ensure that I can level the tripod before panning the camera. I've only used that ability once in the twelve rolls of film that I've shot since modding the tripod, but it still would have been a nice feature for Manfrotto to build into a hundred-dollar head.

I've never been a huge fan of ball heads, but I always disliked three-way heads more. It turns out that I was trying to answer the wrong question. There is no perfect ballhead for quick and convenient use with a small camera: the solution is to just not use a tripod when speed or flexibility matter. Using the 460MG for the times when a tripod does matter, such as with macro or medium-format photography, has completely changed my opinion of pan-tilt heads. I suppose I'll keep my old 486RC2 head for the times when its higher weight capacity really matters, but I can't imagine using it very often.

last updated 31 mar 2011


Eye-Fi Pro X2 Wireless SD Card

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Incidentally, the card does work.

The Long Version: The Eye-Fi card seems so promising – photos wirelessly zipping from the camera to the computer, no cables, and no hassels. Ah, if only it was that simple.

The card can't be used without being registered, so the first step is to install the software and connect to the web server. This is 2011, and something as simple as creating a login ID shouldn't be a huge challenge. Supply an email address, type in the chosen password twice, and Robert's your mother's brother. Again: if only.

Following the supplied start-up instructions, I installed the included Eye-Fi Center software, upgraded to the latest version over the internet, and then I was greeted by the New Account screen. When I chose a password I was told that it couldn't be used, but no reason why. I'd try a different one, and then I'd be told that the card couldn't be initialized and would need to be ejected and reinserted. And again. And again. Different email addresses, different passwords, or any combination of information just failed over and over again with cutsey little error messages that remind me why I hate Flickr. On a lark I tried the "Forgot your Password?" option, and it accepted one of my email addresses and sent me a reset link. Okay, now we're in business – don't know how, don't know why, but it's progress.

(I need to interrupt myself with an aside about the handy supplied SD card reader, and note that the software needed is embedded in the card. This is great for my laptop, since it doesn't have an SD reader built in, and worked just fine. Plugging the Eye-Fi card directly into the combined USB hub and card reader that I use for my desktop produced no results at all. Plugging the card into one of the USB ports on that same hub, using the supplied card reader, worked just fine. So even if you don't think you'll need it, you need it: I'm not sure why, but it's magic.)

I used the supplied link to change my password (to one that I was trying to use all along) and got into the manager program and registered the card. It wanted to update the firmware on my card, and as Garfield once said, if the rope's around your neck you might as well jump off the horse. I start the firmware update, am told not to remove the card, and then my computer tells me that the card was improperly ejected.

Extremely worried that "I" might have just turned my expensive Pro X2 (now with twice the Pro!) Eye-Fi card into an ineffective paperweight, I logged back into the software service. Or at least I tried to: it wanted to do the bad password / reinsert card dance again, as it insisted that the card was unregistered and there was no possible way I could already have an account. After a couple more attempts to log in I gave the old "Forgot your Password?" trick another try. This time it swore it had never heard of me and refused to accept that I had ever existed.

I honestly don't remember what eventually worked. I spent a lot of time reading through the support forums, where pretty much every problem – and a lot of them sounded familiar – was met with a request to contact customer service. I formatted the card a couple of times and did a little dance, but essentially it eventually just worked when it wouldn't work before. It's not like I had that many options, or found some secret passcode: I wasn't really doing anything wrong, so there was nothing for me to fix. It just wouldn't work.

I bought the "Pro X2" model for two reasons: it transfers raw files as well as movies and jpegs, and it can link directly to a computer without needing to join a larger wireless network.

The second feature is a no-brainer. The point of a wireless connection is convenience and spontaneity; if I have to return to (or establish) a trusted network with a router then connecting while away from home becomes anything from difficult to impossible. I took and edited the photos for this review on my lunch break, which wouldn't have been possible without the direct-connection Ad Hoc feature that's only available with the most expensive Eye-Fi card. This is such a fundamental ability that the less expensive cards are just as hard to endorse as the most expensive one – there's no 'sweet spot' on the price/performance curve.

The other feature that's unique to the "Pro X2" model is the ability to transfer raw files. But here's my problem: the Eye-Fi Center software configures the card, and can't be set differently for different computers. I don't want raw files going to my laptop, which is slow with a small hard drive and itty-bitty screen, but having my GH1 automatically transfer its files to my Command Centre desktop while I'm still taking photos is really useful. My options are to either format the card before and after each use, and only have one computer running at a time to stop the card from transferring the same files to each one, or to accept that I will have to hunt down and delete the photos that I don't want to have littering each different machine.

This wireless thing is far less handy than I thought it would be.

last updated 30 march 2011


Twelve South's Macbook Air BookArc

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Make sure you have the right one.

The Long Version: The BookArc from Twelve South has been around for a little while. There is one version that fits many different Apple laptops, including the previous generation of Macbook Air, by using interchangeable inserts within the same frame, and there's also a model to fit the now-obsolete iPad. The current 11" and 13" Air laptops – the October 2010 release – need their own specific model of BookArc that's tailored specifically to the thickness of those machines. While they have much in common, my experience is only with the one for the Air.

The BookArc itself is quite simple: it's a curve of steel with four little rubber feet and a rubber-lined fajayjay that the laptop slots into. The Macbook is held vertically, snugly but gently, with a footprint that's much smaller than what a horizontal laptop would take.

The idea behind this vertical hold is that the laptop can be used in "clamshell" mode, which just means that the lid stays closed while the laptop uses an external monitor and keyboard – it has nothing to do with Scientology. Unfortunately this is a good solution to the wrong problem. It's still clumsy, with the computer needing to start open, and then the laptop needs to be closed and moved around with all of the cables in place. Not tremendously elegant, and the reward for managing it with the Air is to use an underpowered laptop as a desktop computer. That's not much motivation if you ask me, but it's hardly the BookArc's fault. A more powerful computer, such as any non-Air Macbook made in the last two years, might make this more useful.

My bookarc is simply a reserved parking space that lets my pretty little Air take up less room on my chronically over-crowded desk while hooking up with its power supply. The fancy stand could conceivably be replaced by just about anything from a pair of bookends to a plate rail, but the BookArc does it with style. A simple job done well is all that I ask of it, and it delivers. And who knows? If my iMac does fold up its tent, I can always run my Air in clamshell mode for a day or two.

last updated 24 mar 2011


Picquic Sixpack Plus

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's even Canadian.

The Long Version: I grew up with an interchangeable-bit screwdriver. It had a hollow plastic body with a spring-loaded top, and any time it was gripped overhead it would pivot open and cascade the loose bits down on the unfortunate user. Over time the bits got lost, and since they predated the universal hex-bit design they couldn't be replaced. I hated that screwdriver: it was the worst combination of bad design and minimal function that made it not quite worth replacing and miserable to use.

I haven't thought much about interchangeable-bit screwdrivers for years, and there's a good set of traditional screwdrivers that I theoretically keep in my tool box. They're nice to use, take up a lot of room, and are never where I need them. So they end up scattered around the house, with different sizes left where I use them the most; the #2 Philips is in my pencil mug on my desk, the red Robertson is on a shelf in the storage room, and the largest slot-head is around here somewhere. A screwdriver set is good, but it's not the ideal solution for household use either.

The Picquic is a multi-bit screwdriver done right. It uses three-inch long hex bits that fit into one of six slots inside the driver handle, and the seventh bit pushes out the next one. This makes it hard to lose the ones that aren't in use, but on the other hand if you lose the loose one then it'll be a challenge to get the next one out.

The screwdriver handle is just about perfect for me, so I wasn't surprised when I went on-line and discovered that I have average-size hands. The shaft meets the handle with a wrench-friendly hexagonal cross-section, allowing considerable torque to be applied. The bit in use isn't clamped into place, but rather is held by the magic of magnets, which let it wobble a tiny bit from side to side. Convenience wins out over that one-piece feeling, but that's really the point.


While I bought mine for home use, I have spotted one of these in the tool belt of a TTC maintenance worker, and Picquic makes additional models as well. Additionally, the different regions – Canada, USA, Europe – come with different bits that are tailored to the type of loose screws that are most likely to be encountered, giving them international utility.

There are similar designs out there from the big store names, but the original is frequently a few dollars cheaper. I have to say that I'm pretty tired of the mimics and clones that invariably emerge once someone else has had a good idea, so I'd probably stay with the Picquic regardless, but it's nice that it's an easy choice.

last updated 28 apr 2012: ratings increased.

Elsewhere on the Web: Anthony's Camera Considerations

The Long Version: Anthony, the writer and photographer behind the popular website Motojournalism, has an article looking at the differences between three superficially similar cameras, and how to choose between them. So if you're interested in the LX5, GF1, or X100, or simply curious about the factors that matter when choosing a camera, check it out.

last updated 19 mar 2011


Shopping with Apple

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's so pretty.

The Long Version: It's hard to argue with success, and Apple has been so successful recently that it's turned Microsoft into an afterthought in a couple of huge markets. (Zune? WinPho7?) The mass appeal of its slick-and-shiny products is hard to deny; even in a mostly vacant mall of chain retail, the Apple Store invariably risks breaking the fire marshal's Maximum Occupancy restrictions. The stores' design reflects the aspirations of the company, with the current generation being even more clean and minimalist than the original "GapComputer" look. It's just unfortunate that this is far better in theory than in practice.

During slow times there's actually a chance of getting attention from the twenty-plus staff who are on the sales floor at any one time. They're helpful and fairly knowledgable, and the way they use wireless electronic payment terminals means that the whole transaction can happen without anything as unstylish as a cash register. Very slick. But without their time and attention, as a customer there's not much you can do.

I'm not a shopper, I'm a buyer. I like to walk into a store, find what I need, pay for it, and get out again as quickly as possible. This doesn't work in the Apple Store, because after I find what I'm looking for unaided, I'm stranded. There's no cashier, no line, nowhere to go next. Sleek and stylish turns into isolated and ineffectual. My only relief is that their system has broken down so thoroughly at the Toronto Eaton Centre location that one corner of the "Genius Bar" has become a semi-permanent cashier's desk, but there's still nothing to indicate this to the uninitiated, and people waiting to pay are intermixed with those who are waiting for an opening for tech support.

What really made Apple different way back then – I've been owning and using Apple computers since the mid-80's – is the idea that if the person can't get the computer to do something, it's the computer that's at fault, not the person. So why is it that when I go into an Apple retail store, I often leave frustrated and feeling that I must be an idiot for shopping there?

Internet shopping was invented for people who want to shop without the whole human interaction thing, but my recent experience with the online store was no better. When making an online-only Apple purchase – which I've used to create this whole review – I saw that expedited shipping would cost only a modest amount more than the standard service. I checked their shipping policies, where it clearly says that shipping for Canada (and the US) is handled by FedEx. Seventeen dollars for FedEx is a non-decision, so I went ahead with it. Sure enough, when I get the tracking information sent to me six hours later, it's an unmistakable number from UPS.

For reasons varied, personal, and deeply entrenched, I would happy pay an extra seventeen dollars to have something not ship with UPS. So I looked for the customer support e-mail address to vent a little tiny bit, and the only contact option turns out to be a toll-free phone number. That's not the same thing at all: if I'm going to take the time to register a complaint that's not going to go anywhere, I'd really prefer to put it in writing.

While I like Apple's products, I'm not nearly convinced that they're the best place to buy their own products from. When I have a choice, the local non-branded computer store and the big-box store are both higher on my list of places to shop. There's something to be said for supporting the people who are easier to deal with, even if their stores aren't as pretty.

last updated 9 mar 2011


CSI Crime Scene Tape

Concept:  5 out of 5
Execution:  2 out of 5
Yeah, but:  It's too funny not to love.

The Long Version: The MGM Grand casino has an attraction based on the popular TV show "CSI", which is the original series about armed scientists and lab technicians who are lightly assisted by the police as they solve crimes. Fittingly, the theme attraction is in the namesake city of Las Vegas, while the show is actually filmed in Los Angeles.

Penny brought this tape dispenser home for me from a weekend in Las Vegas, and it took me quite a while to stop laughing. It's a standard-issue plastic tape dispenser, except for the graphics and the tape inside. As the "Crime Scene" version of Scotch tape, it's translucent yellow with bold black text, and mostly does a very good job mimicking the real thing.

If there's one thing that CSI:TV loves, it's spin-offs and crossover episodes. In that spirit I applied the crime scene tape to a brand-new plain black Mighty Wallet, where its translucent yellow field gets toned down by the black Tyvek. It still stands out quite well, and I've been impressed by how securely the tape has adhered to the textured-plastic surface. This combination has piqued the interest of some Mighty Wallet connoisseurs who think that I have a previously-unknown design, which I suppose it is.

The only disappointment with the CSI Crime Scene Tape is that it's branded for the TV show, with the logo appearing in between each reiteration of 'crime scene do not cross'. So it won't be mistaken for the real thing, or even a small version of reality – and yet it's entertaining nonetheless. What else can I say? It's a perfectly fitting souvenir for the show.

last updated 6 mar 2011


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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