Travel tripods: Comparing 5 aluminum kits
Manfrotto BeFree MKBFRA4-BH
$225 / £133 www.manfrotto.com
|The Manfrotto BeFree MKBFRA4-BH aluminum travel tripod kit.|
Perhaps the biggest name in tripods is Manfrotto, and this venerable company in the north of Italy has been supporting cameras of all types for many decades. When Manfrotto bought Gitzo in the early 90's, both brands were relocated to the same factories (with separate production lines), but needed some brand differentiation. Gitzo has focused on carbon fiber support gear using twist locks, while Manfrotto continues to offer both aluminum and carbon fiber legs with their lever lock systems.
The BeFree is Manfrotto's new foray into the reverse-folding, compact tripod market, and is the only tripod to use lever-type leg locks in our aluminum-legged review group. Unfortunately, the BeFree is not offered in carbon fiber at this time, so it is up against some rather hefty competition in the aluminum group.
|Folded size||15.7" (40cm)|
|Maximum height||56.7" (144cm)|
|Height w/ column down||48.5" (123cm)|
|Minimum height||13.4" (34cm)|
|Weight||3 lbs (1.37kg)|
|Load limit||8.8 lbs (4kg)|
|# of leg sections||4|
|Leg tube diameters||22.5 / 19 / 15.5 / 12mm|
|# of leg angles||2|
|Angle degrees||25 / 51°|
Below is a relative height comparison between the Manfrotto BeFree and a 6 foot (1.83m) photographer.
Design and features
Manfrotto is not shy about trying out new designs, and in typical Italian fashion, they push the envelope with bold shapes, interesting functions, and their signature red highlights. When looking at the BeFree, it is very clear that Manfrotto emulates no one but themselves. With features such as non-round leg and column tubes, extensive use of cast magnesium-alloy, and the lever-type leg locks, this is definitely a Manfrotto tripod. Perhaps the most striking feature of this compact tripod are its curious, half-button, half-switch, leg angle locks.
These type of leg angle locks were first introduced with the Manfrotto 290-series tripods, which shares the same style of tri-lobed central hub and side-swiveling legs. On the BeFree, however, these devices permit 180° of motion to stow the legs alongside the center column, and are also larger and more robustly made.
Side-swivel angle selectors
Unlike the hinge-type tripod leg connections on most other tripods, each of the BeFree legs swivel at a single side from the thick projections of the tri-lobed hub. When an angle is set, any upward rotation of the leg is stopped by the silver selector button hitting the flat side of the hub. This is why the hub and buttons are so large, and made of durable cast magnesium-alloy.
The two leg angles, and the 180° stow position, can be set by pushing up on the selector button and rotating it until it falls into the next slot. A tiny graphic beneath the button indicates the various positions.
Compact ball head
Manfrotto has put a 26mm diameter, aluminum ball in a slim magnesium-alloy casing to complete the kit. With only one knob on the side, this head is designed to fit easily within the folded up legs of the BeFree. This single knob locks and unlocks both the ball motion and the panning base rotation.
RC2-type quick release
Like most other travel tripod kits, Manfrotto includes a quick release platform and plate (200PL) with their ball head, except this one is the RC2 plate that is common to other Manfrotto products. The platform itself is shaped to fit compactly when folded up.
Lever type leg locks
This is one of those basic functions that can polarize opinions about tripod brands. Some photographers love lever locks, while some will use nothing but twist locks. Many tripod brands offer the option for either style, but Manfrotto only offers the option of a Gitzo.
That said, the lever locks on the BeFree are the tried-and-true design that Manfrotto is known for. They are solid and quick to use, and can be further tightened if needed. The lever itself is made of thick plastic, but the encircling lock is magnesium-alloy.
Other included features
|Converts to monopod||---|
|Carrying case||Yes, unpadded, with shoulder strap|
|Insulated leg grip||Yes, rubber on one leg|
|Non-rotating center column||Tri-lobed for anti-rotation|
|Short center column||---|
|Top plate/ head platform||Plastic|
|Ball head diameter/ max load||26mm ball, 4kg max load|
|QR plate included||Yes, Manfrotto square RC2-style|
Construction and handling
|The unique construction of the BeFree's magnesium-alloy central hub.|
While the most striking part of the BeFree tripod is the angle selectors, they would not work as designed without the massive, cast magnesium-alloy central hub to brake against. This one part contributes significantly to the overall weight of the package, which can easily be felt when holding the tripod at the midpoint. Each leg is also fixed to the hub at just one side, so even these pivot points need to be oversized.
The cast magnesium-alloy parts of the hub and leg pivots are very well finished in a subtly textured black coating, with exposed screws running from top to bottom to allow setting the stiffness of each pivot by compression. The angle selectors themselves may look like matte aluminum parts, but they are also cast magnesium-alloy with a bright finish, and use hex nuts on the ends for adjustment.
Out of the box, the legs require a bit of strength to rotate them out from the stowed position, but this can be adjusted to taste. The angle selectors must be pushed up before the legs can rotate to the next angle, and after that they snap back down into position and don't wiggle or move once set. This lift-and-rotate action is a bit complicated the first time it's done, but soon takes less effort. However, there are still some issues with the angle locks (as described in the field experience below).
The aluminum legs follow Manfrotto's preference for non-round tubes, with a D-shaped cross-section that both prevents rotation and makes the leg locks easier to close around them. Meanwhile, the center column has a triangular, but rounded, cross-section that fits within the unique, tri-lobed central hub.
Keeping with Manfrotto tradition, the leg locks are the lever type, and feel quite solid. This design has been perfected by Manfrotto over the years, and many photographers prefer them to twist locks due to familiarity and consistency with so many other support products. Sometimes lever locks are also more convenient and quicker to deploy than twist locks, but they also make it much easier for anyone with weak hands or infirm wrists to maneuver the locks and still be assured they are solidly locked.
No foam, please
The angular design of the BeFree is echoed in the molded rubber grip on one leg, which Manfrotto uses instead of the usual springy foam. This still insulates the aluminum leg in cold weather, but also provides a grippy surface that won't retain water if it gets wet.
At both ends of the center column, there are other molded rubber parts to prevent any banging if the column is dropped, and to seal up the bottom of the tube. This last little detail excludes a weight hook, or any other way to add weight to the tripod to lower the center of gravity. This is unfortunate in such a light and slim tripod, even with its very small maximum load capacity.
Center column screw-lock
With a triangular cross-section, the 22mm wide center column cannot be locked with a big twist lock like many other tripods. So, Manfrotto has put a flared knob on one side of the unique hub that screws in and locks the column in place. This mechanism is essentially just pressing against one flat side of the column, and requires quite a few turns to really lock things down. The knob is also not captive, and can unscrew completely off the tripod if turned in the wrong direction. Lose this part, and there is no center column action at all until a replacement is delivered.
|Manfrotto's BeFree on field duty, holding up a medium-sized DSLR.|
At only three pounds (1.37kg) and folding up into a very compact package within its bright red bag, the Manfrotto BeFree is quite easy to pack into the field or in smaller suitcases. The way the legs fit into place around the quick release makes it less likely to unfold even when out of the bag. In use, the lever locks make extending and locking the legs a very quick affair, and while the ball head quick release is proprietary, it's still quick and solid. Unfortunately, the very fancy angle locks present some immediate, and some eventual, problems.
Unlike the automatic leg angle locks that are becoming common on reverse-folding tripods (including Manfrotto's brand-mate Gitzo), these angle selectors do not "click-in-place" as the leg is pulled down. Instead, the leg must first be pulled down to allow the silver selector button to be pushed up and turned to the first or second angle position, and then the leg is pulled up until it brakes against the hub at the desired angle. Complicating this, the first angle that can be selected when unfolding the tripod is the narrowest, most upright angle. This means that a wide stance still requires pulling the leg down almost parallel with the center column first.
While this concern over the angle selector button may sound like nitpicking, it begs the question whether these angle locks provide any functional, or ergonomic, advantage over the designs used on many other tripods. As far as the field experience in this review, no real advantage was found. They are mechanically interesting and visually attractive, but far slower and less intuitive than automatic angle locks, and more difficult to use than the older push-pull manual angle locks. We're not sure how different the BeFree angle selectors are from the similar design on Manfrotto's 290-series tripods, but then those legs don't rotate 180° upward.
Mind the gap
More than once, a finger was pinched in the gap between a leg and the center column or the spider. In the studio re-creation to the left, a normal sized hand is caught in between the two metal tubes.
Before you can push the angle selector up, the leg must be rotated inward a small amount to break the contact of the spider. If you try to do this with one hand while the center column is down, you can very easily put a finger in harm's way as the thumb is pushing upward.
One knob, two functions, three problems
On their compact ball head, Manfrotto chose to use only one (non-captive) control knob to lock and unlock both the ball and the panning base. While there is very little room for a second knob to separate the controls, this combination presents some difficulties.
The head cannot be panned when the ball is locked, and with a non-rotating center column, the camera is therefore stuck looking in one direction unless unlocked. If the knob is loosened just a bit, the friction on the ball is reduced and the ball can be moved around or rotated, but that is fairly stiff motion and can accidentally tilt instead of just panning smoothly.
By the time the knob is loosened enough for the panning base to rotate easily, the ball itself is completely loose and flopping in the case. So, if the camera is intended to stay upright and only pan, one hand has to hold things carefully in place while the other operates the knob. Even when the ball stem is in the drop slot and the camera is at a 90 degree tilt, the camera still needs support during a pan or it will fall from any desired vertical angle.
Stress test results
Leg lock strength
To evaluate the overall strength of the leg locks, a single leg was extended and its lever locks were closed. Weights were then placed directly above the extended leg until either the stated load capacity for all three legs was reached, or when any leg lock began to slip.
The Manfrotto BeFree leg locks withstood the modest 9 lb (4kg) load limit without slipping or moving. However, there were a few times in the field when a leg section started to slip, even without a very large load on the legs. The levers need to be firmly pressed closed to insure they are completely locked.
Vibrations can make even the sharpest lens turn out mushy, blurred photos, and can ruin long exposures. Camera vibration can be mechanically minimized with mirror lockup, electronic shutters, and a remote shutter release, while adding weight to the bottom of the tripod (with the weight hook or a tripod stone bag) can help with environmental vibrations like wind, water, and passing trucks. However, not all vibration can be eliminated, so we tested whether the tripod will dampen them or transmit and reflect them to the camera.
The tripod legs were fully extended with the center column lowered, and our high-tech vibration analyzer (an iPad on a 3 lb (1.36kg) aluminum block) was mounted to the ball head with the included RC2 plate. An industrial solenoid valve with a plastic hammer was used as a source of vibration (a knock to the bottom of one leg). The resulting graph of all three accelerometers shows both the resistance of the tripod and ball head to the initial shock, as well as the rate of decay for residual vibration within the tripod.
|Manfrotto BeFree vibration resistance test results - click the image for a larger graph
For comparison, see the reference graph from the 6.4 lb, ash wood Berlebach 2032
The BeFree exhibited a shuddering effect after the initial knock, with residual vibrations tapering off gradually after that. Although the tripod did not ring like a bell with continued vibrations, the initial shock was transmitted directly to the camera mounting point with little resistance. Considering the center column lacks any provision for a weight bag or other way to increase the mass of the setup, this would not be the best tripod to use around environmental vibrations like strong winds, running water, or bass-heavy concerts.
Cold weather use
All of the travel tripods in this group were used extensively in one of the harshest and coldest Canadian winters in recent memory. In fact, the initial group photos were taken on a sunny day at -13° F (-25° C)! While this extreme temperature doesn't affect the function of the tripod legs as much as the ball head, there were still things to note.
In general, the Manfrotto performed quite well in the cold. The two knobs on the BeFree, for the center column and on the ball head, are both shaped to be easy to grab and turn with gloves on, and the ball head seemed unaffected by the extreme cold. However, with lever locks instead of the more common twist locks, the Manfrotto legs are both easier to open with gloves on, and harder to lock closed without pinching some cloth. Of course, taking a little extra care and time can avoid that, but that defeats the advantage of having a faster lock type.
The BeFree's stunning design combined with Manfrotto's signature construction and lever-type leg locks makes for a very attractive addition to the full range of tripods from this well-known manufacturer. The problematic new style of leg angle selectors, and the lack of some typical conveniences (weight hook, full-featured head), put the BeFree at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the competition. That said, the very compact size and easy setup still make this a good choice for anyone who prefers the Manfrotto way of doing things. The only remaining caveat is that the very small, single-knob ball head combined with poor vibration resistance means this is not an ideal head for longer focal length lenses.
What we like:
- Striking Italian design
- Very compact and portable
- Excellent fit and finish
- Convenient and fast lever locks
What we don't like:
- Questionable utility of the angle selectors
- Single control knob on ball head
- Not very resistant to vibrations
- Lack of weight hook