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