Sunday, July 20, 2014

Manfrotto BeFree (MKBFRA4-BH) Tripod Review

Small, strong, or cheap: when it comes to tripods the conventional wisdom is that you can have two but not all three. There hasn't been any product to definitively break this rule, but nevertheless there are whole hosts of photographers who are looking for a tripod that is small, sturdy and cheap. In economics this quest would be known as "rational behaviour." That is to say, it is rational for photographers to want a tripod with these three qualities, even if expecting that one exists is most likely irrational. The Manfrotto BeFree (MKBFRA4-BH) doesn't fulfill this ideal but it does shift the points of the Venn diagram inward by being unarguably small, relatively sturdy, and not exceedingly expensive. Depending on your point of view, that makes it either well-balanced for its price point or somewhat compromised in terms of its design. The truth, as always, is a little bit of both.

One thing that is not in doubt is that the BeFree is a stylish product. This is the way forward for Manfrotto, whose products are increasingly showing some of the flair that Italian companies are known for. The maximum height is 123cm (48.4"), or up to 144cm (56.7") with the center column extended.

The tripod folds into its most compact form by extending the center column and flipping the legs upwards. A carrying bag is included.  One of the legs is wrapped in rubber for handling in cold weather; this is a higher quality solution than what you might see on other travel tripods that use a less durable foam coating.

One nice design touch of the BeFree is that the baseplate of the quick release head is indented to allow for the tripod feet to slot into:

A visually attractive but functionally contentious aspect of the BeFree is the angle-selector locks. This operate like switches, and have three positions: folded, high position and lower position. While a tad bit unconventional, they are easy to use if you remember this one thing: always push the leg inward away from the stopped position to change the lock setting. This is actually how most tripods work, but with the BeFree design tends to create a temptation to toggle the switch regardless of position.

Though this is a Manfrotto tripod, it's not made to the same usage that you would expect from the stereotypical workhorse units. The leg sections are sturdy, but the clip locks aren't as rugged as you would find on an 055 or 190 tripod. For the intended use and audience, they will be adequate. Many people have a preference between clip-locks and twist-locks. A good rule of thumbs is that Manfrotto clip-locks tend to be more durable and trouble free than those found in lesser brands, but that twist locks (when not abused) are mechanically simple and generally trouble free on most value-branded tripods. However, the BeFree might be the exception to this rule; though not fragile, its leg locks are a disappointment if you've used other Manfrotto tripods.

The head uses the common 200PL quick-release plate. The design of the base-plate and ball-head are stylish but somewhat lacking in terms of functionality. There is no bubble-level; though not a necessity it is a missing convenience. The second missing feature is that the base of the ballhead does not have a rotation feature. Without this, any type of video panning is unfeasible, and it makes panoramic stitching difficult.

Manfrotto rates the Befree with a load capacity of 4kg (8.8 lbs). Though every manufacturer uses different criteria to determine load capacity, it is commonly accepted that the published number represents the maximum amount of weight that can be supported between the tripod becomes unstable from the weight placed on it alone. In other words, the stated weight capacity does not give you meaningful information about vibration. A rule of thumb that some use is that keep your actual payload to 1/3 of the stated load capacity. Using this rule, the maximum "safe" amount of weight that you could use without running into undo vibration frustration would be 1.3kg. To put that into understandable terms, that is just a little bit more than a Nikon D7100 with the 18-140mm kit lens. If that seems conservative, then yes, you like almost everybody on the face of the planet has a predilection to get the most out of tripod. There is no objective way to quantify what works and what doesn't, but in good conditions and solid ground it will (probably) work with a Nikon D610 or Canon 6D with their respective kit lenses and the center column not extended, but the ball head is definitely too small to support a Nikon D810 or Canon 5DmIII with their respective 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses.

Indeed, the biggest downside to this tripod in vibration damping, which is visually apparent (and has also quantified by DPreview). This would seem odd considering that the leg segments are as solid and weighty as anything manufactured in the travel tripod segment, but the susceptibility to vibration seems to be a weakness with many Manfrotto aluminum consumer-level tripods, including the MK393-HM and the MKC3-H01. (You can see this for yourself with a very simple demonstration. Extend the tripod and tap a leg section with a quick stroke, almost as if you were plucking a guitar string vigorously. On the BeFree, it takes a longer than average time for the vibration to settle down). The key to using the tripod is to make sure that you are mounted on still ground (no passing trucks or heavy traffic) and to be patient and mindful while you are shooting. Unfortunately, there is no bag hook on which to weigh down the tripod, but you could theoretically hang a bag off of the knob that locks the center column.

Though not the best featured travel tripod, the BeFree inherits the traditional Manfrotto virtue of being a dependable and known quantity. It's not a replacement for a full-sized tripod, but realistically, many photographers looking at the BeFree will be using it as their only tripod. To that end, it will do the job if you work within its limits.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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