Manfrotto 294 Carbon Fiber Tripod
$319 (with Compact Ball Head - as tested) www.manfrotto.com
Carbon fiber is recognizable by its distinctive 'woven' appearance and useful because of its impressive strength-to-weight ratio. This makes it a great choice for structures and products that need to be light and portable, but capable of supporting a lot of weight. For this reason, carbon fiber is all the rage in the high-performance world of motorcycles, cars, boats and also photography.
Traditionally, one of the main downsides of carbon fiber from a consumer's point of view is its price premium, but Manfrotto is looking to change that with the introduction of the 290 Series tripod lineup, a more affordable alternative to the company's 055 pro line. Although the 290's price tag may seem intimidating when compared to its aluminum competitors (including the considerably cheaper aluminum version of the 294 itself), it's a far cry from the top-of-the-line carbon fiber tripods that can easily crest the $1000 mark.
Manfrotto 294 CF - Key Specifications
- Maximum load capacity (with Compact Ball Head): 5kg (11 pounds)
- Closed length (no head): 61cm (2 feet)
- Maximum extended height (no head): 1.7m (5.5 feet)
- Maximum extended height (no head - center column down): 1.4m (4.6 feet)
- Weight (no head): 1.6kg (3.5 pounds)
Some may balk at the price gap between the carbon fiber and aluminum 290 series models, but let's compare them. The 294 CF system is over half a pound lighter than its aluminum fraternal twin. Though that may not seem like a significant weight reduction, carbon fiber has a few other advantages. For one, the material is far warmer to the touch, making it much more inviting to handle during the frigid winter months than aluminum. Aluminum is also more susceptible to corrosion due to the elements than carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is also superior to aluminum when it comes to vibration dampening, which can be important in particularly extreme, windy conditions.
Manfrotto offers a few variations in the 290 lineup, including a choice of three or four section legs and with the option to bundle a ball mount or pan tilt head. I was sent the Manfrotto 294 CF model, which features three-segment legs and came supplied with the Compact QR (Quick Release) Ball Head. This model retails for around $320.
Not including head, the 294 CF has a folded length of 2 feet (61cm) and can extend to a maximum length of 5.5 feet (1.7 m) with the center column fully extended.
The tripod can reach 4.6 feet (1.4 m) without the center column extended.
The whole shebang - tripod and Compact Ball Head - weighs 4.4 lbs. For an intermediate to pro level tripod, the Manfrotto 294 CF is fairly easy to lug around. At just over four pounds, the tripod was not an obtrusive addition to the outside of my photo backpack. The 294 tripod is fairly rigid and can withstand up to 11 lbs. of gear.
I tested the 294 CF with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 24-105mm lens and Speedlite 580 EX II flash attached, which is roughly a 5 lb. (2.2kg) load - way off the maximum rated load of 11 pounds. I used this setup in multiple shooting environments, including commercial real estate, food photography, portraits and landscapes. Even with the Mark III cocked completely at a right angle facing downward toward a plate of gourmet food, I didn't have a problem with stability.
The legs of the tripod are locked with quick-release flip locks, which spring up instantly for fast adjustment. I was able to reduce setup time, thanks to the flip locks. The legs could also be set at two angles: 23 and 51 degrees by simply flicking the three flip locks near the base of the center column. The ball head I was sent with the tripod has a quick release plate system that allowed me to snap the camera right in place in a split second. The tiny release lever is a bit fiddly, but far from the worse I've used.
I'm not a huge fan of the Compact Ball Head itself though, mainly because ball heads don't allow independent control over pan/tilt. You have a single locking nut, and when loosened, the head moves freely in all dimensions. When the nut is tightened, it doesn't. As a result, precise alignment is very difficult - not aided by the lack of a leveling bubble in this budget model. The good news is that the head is interchangeable, allowing the 294 to be upgraded to a more advanced 3/8" mount head with levels and independent tilt and pan control. And of course, if you already have a better head, you can just buy the tripod on its own.
If there's one single thing that Manfrotto is known for, it's quality tripods, and the 290-series Carbon Fiber lineup is firmly in that tradition. Manfrotto has found a way to pack light weight, advanced functionality and ease of use into a highly attractive package, at a price-point that while higher than equivalent aluminum models, isn't prohibitively high for the average photo enthusiast. If this describes you, the 294 CF is definitely worthy of consideration.
What we like: Feathery weight, ease of use via flip locks and quick release mechanisms, versatile legs with two different angles and a maximum height of nearly six feet, interchangeable head, beautiful carbon weave pattern that glimmers in the sun
What we don't like: Not a lot - the price may be a little high for some, and the optional Compact Ball Head is on the basic side
Mike Perlman is a freelance photographer and writer, based in Bar Harbor, Maine. After a spell reviewing camcorders at Camcorderinfo.com, Mike moved to infoSync World as the Senior Photography Editor, before taking up a role at TechnoBuffalo.com as the head of the Photography department. These days, Mike runs his own photography business and contributes to dpreview between shoots.