In the Field: Manfrotto 546 Tripod System with 504HD Fluid Head
Posted Jan 28, 2011

Aside from a smaller tripod I bought for my Sony FX1 (backup camera) a few years ago, the only tripod I’ve really used in the past 17 years has been my Bogen/Manfrotto 3068 tripod with the 3066 head. It has stood under my Panasonic AG-455, AG-456, AG-DP800 Supercam, AG-DVC200, and Sony HVR-S270. Until the recent switch to smaller camcorders, this was the most popular tripod system with my local video association. It was inexpensive and pretty much indestructible—for me, it even remained standing through the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake, which was a magnitude 6.7. The controls on the head are simple: pan-lock, tilt-lock, and drag. On the tripod, there’s an elevator crank that can raise the camera up about 14" quickly.

The new Manfrotto 504 head/546 leg system, which Manfrotto recently sent to me for review, is a much different system. The most obvious thing you notice out of the box is the legs. The 3068 has two-stage, aluminum telescoping tubes. The 546 has a three-stage system. The upper two stages have two tubes each, and the lower third stage is a wider, single tube. At the bottom there are spiked feet with two spikes per foot. The majority of the time they will be covered by a rounded, triangular, removable foot. Moving up to the top, things get really interesting.

There are a few more controls on the 504HD head than I’m used to. Aside from the pan-and-tilt locks and resistance controls, there is a knob for counter balance allowing you to balance heavy cameras, without having to lock it down, allowing you to respond more quickly to action. There’s also a resistance knob in the “tunnel” under the camera platform, as well as a bubble level with a built-in LED light to help with this.

Another feature that I love is the claw ball mount for the head, which allows you to set up the tripod on uneven surfaces and pivot the head so it’s even. The only tradeoff to the claw ball is that there is no rising-camera pedestal for extra height such as the one on my older tripod system. There have probably been more times I wished for the claw ball than I’ve been grateful for the pedestal, but the extra-height option is nice to have too. If you’re accustomed to a pedestal mount, I would highly suggest you spend a good couple of hours going over all these controls before taking a claw ball-mount tripod system out in the field because this “ain’t your grandpa’s tripod.”

Another interesting feature of this system is that there is a threaded hole on each side of the tripod head. With the proliferation of VDSLR rigs that use different Erector Set-like accessories, these threaded holes allow you to attach various accessories that you buy, or if you make your own, you can easily attach it to the tripod.

My First Shoot With the 546
So what is the 546 like out in the field? The first shoot I took it on was a bar mitzvah reception. My assistant quickly noticed how much lighter it was.

I did most of the shoot from my shoulder, except the speeches, which I did on the tripod. For the speeches I was easily able to pan the crowd and move back to the speaker very smoothly. A bit better than what I’m used to.

That Sinking Feeling
The second shoot was supposed to be a simple bar mitzvah reception in a restaurant—no DJ or band, just dinner and a few speeches. I had the 546 set up in the back of the room with the Sony S270, pointed at the podium. I went to check the wireless transmitter at the podium.

Then, I heard the words, “Marc, come quick. It’s sinking!” I turned around to see my assistant hugging the tripod. After removing the camera, I checked all of the leg locks. They all appeared to be engaged, but one was a little loose, causing the leg to sink ever so slowly. I managed to adjust the tripod so that the two good legs bore the brunt of the weight, and I stood close to it for the rest of the evening without any incidents. When I got the tripod home, I tried to adjust it to no avail. After a few back and forth emails, Manfrotto sent me a replacement unit.

I did the first test with the new legs in my living room, where I really wanted to put some weight on the tripod before risking another real-world shoot with it. I took my retired AG-DVC200 and piled on an Anton/Bauer Pro Pack 14, which added about another 5 lbs. I left it on the tripod for about 12 hours. When I was satisfied that nothing was sinking, I took the camera off and leaned on each leg with my full body weight (185 lbs.), and it held. I was now satisfied that I wasn’t going to lose my new camera and that the previous legs were just an early production aberration. You’d be surprised how often that happens to reviewers.

Would the New Sticks Stick?
I tested the new sticks in the field. Shooting a talk by Wall Street Journal writer Brett Stephens, the tripod didn’t sink, but that was a simple shoot.

Would the new legs survive recording Sunday’s bat mitzvah reception, plus the recording and projection at a synagogue fundraiser banquet 30 minutes after the scheduled end of the bat mitzvah? Also, I didn’t have an assistant with me all day, which meant things were going to be thrown around and dropped.

I didn’t rely much on the tripod during the bat mitzvah, but the banquet was a different story. I was booked for this event at the last minute, and the banquet client didn’t leave any room in the hall for the camera or a projector. While there were a few segments I shot on my shoulder, when I realized how many speeches there would be—a stand-up comedian, a 15-minute speech from the rabbi, plus a few more—I found a place for the tripod. When it came time for the video presentation, I had to quickly fold up the 546; I practically dropped it in haste. I had to do that a couple times during the evening, but I was able to quickly set it back up with no problems.

The only issue I had was that the piece of plastic with the Manfrotto logo kept popping off, exposing a nut on the left side of the head. But I’m happy to report that the tripod still functions perfectly after being dropped and kicked and enduring lots of other hard use.

Final Thoughts
Overall, my final thoughts on the Manfrotto 504HD/546 tripod system are positive. Aside from the defect in the first tripod I tested, the replacement performed great. Once I got the hang of the myriad of controls, I was able to smoothly pan and tilt to my heart’s content.

Despite all of its features, the tripod is lightweight and easy to carry in the included padded tripod bag. This system is very robust. I expect it to survive many years of abuse in the field, with nothing more than the occasional scrape.

I highly recommend the 546 system, and with a street price of only $730, you can’t beat the value.

Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com)< has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and TV Technology, and has written for Studio Monthlyu, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.