Manfrotto MVH502A Fluid Head – Long-Term Review with Video

Manfrotto’s MVH502A and its flat-bottom cousin, the MVH502AH, are amongst Manfrotto’s latest fluid tripod head designs. The model is no longer new, having been released earlier this year (2013), but I thought that it would be best to review them only after experiencing their reliability in the field over the past 7 months.

While it is true that Manfrotto’s prosumer fluid heads are generally very much on par with their professional broadcast cousins – given their relative affordability to Sachtlers and Vintens – the MVH502A/AH are not a part of this high point of professional quality.

To begin with, it is amongst the first of their Pro series of tripod heads to bear the dubious distinction of a “MADE IN CHINA” label – hidden under the body where nobody will find it unless they’re looking for it:

Now, contrary to what is popular to espouse when you are a blogger on his or her high horse, I have no problem with Chinese quality, when said quality is at a proper level (the labor and political situation is a topic for another blog).

Contrary to popular belief that all Chinese-made anything is garbage, such is not the case – the quality is up to the brand that designs the product and the price point they demand from the Chinese manufacturer. Case in point, Fotga’s 15mm rail systems are a perfect example of quality from China, just as most of the off-brands are a perfect example of the opposite.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is that Manfrotto designed and approved a substandard product to be manufactured by their subcontractors in China. This is an excellent summation of the few glaring issues that prevent this otherwise good design from being just that – good.

In the interest of fairness, the design does have the following high points:

  • Adjusting the tilt lock is very easy and quick. A very careful hand may be able to open it from a closed position when shooting and get away with it – if your lens has IS. This can save a take.
  • The control arm has virtually no give in it. The grip is also a nice piece, though it slides a bit.
  • Yes, it holds the weight of the 5D Mark II, and just about any other DSLR you throw at it. Even a 5D with an Anton Bauer battery pack will be supported, as will a JVC GY-HD110 – also with an Anton-Bauer battery pack.
  • For all of the faults, both of my MVH502A’s have survived harsh field treatment (even though one tripod did not) without developing any issues (no added slop, no stripped threads, etc.) – no more than when they were brand-new, anyway.
  • Very few other brands exist that produce an equivalent product at an equivalent price, short of used Manfrottos.

With that said, here are the negatives (not all of them – read on):

  • Adjusting the panning lock is the opposite – in terms of ease – to that of the tilt lock. Getting your fingers between the tripod head in front and under the unit is an ergonomic frustration. Don’t expect to do so in the middle of a candid take – IS or otherwise.
  • The following problem only affects users with external batteries or shoulder supports that hang from the back of their 15mm rail systems: You won’t be able to see the level indicator.
  • And the big one: Every single one of these MVH502’s have about 0.5mm of unobstructed play at the ball when the pan head’s resistance is at a minimum. This applies to both the 75mm A model, and the AH. This is unacceptable. Not even my simple (and by comparison, tiny) 701HDV ever had the slightest of play.

 

My very first MVH502A (quickly substituted with another) was also plagued by uneven drag in the panning function – panning in one direction was dampened far more than if the head were spun in the other, depending on the amount of resistance dialed into the head. Even heads operating properly seem to contain minute, uneven drag depending on the direction of one’s panning; possibly due to some friction with the drag adjustment mechanism itself.

Nevertheless, the 0.5mm of play in the ball head remained unacceptable. I contacted Manfrotto about this problem, at which point, they sent me a second MVH502A. If nothing else, this was a very courteous gesture to which I greatly appreciate – but the replacement was no better.

Since then, I found multiple flat-head MVH502AH’s in local stores, all of which with the same issue – so I had to conclude that this flaw affects all MVH502’s.

Luckily, I generally dial in a generous amount of resistance in my work, so this problem has yet to be a field issue for me. Nevertheless, this will not always be the case for all shoots.

The other significant complaint I have is with the tripod plate on these units. The deep, black satin finish characteristic of Manfrotto’s earlier tripod plates has been replaced with an interpretation of this same finish by their Chinese manufacturer; a beadblasted, flat black finish.

This finish is reproduced in grey on the top of the tripod head, and the combination of the plate and head results in the most friction-prone plate insertions I’ve ever had to work with. At times, I’ve had to struggle for 30 seconds just to get my 5D out – and the location of the release button doesn’t help.

Now that the finish and high spots have worn smooth after hundreds of cycles, I’ve had fewer problems with it, but it still does not come close to the smoothness of earlier Manfrottos.

I also had one case where the release button return spring jammed in its housing, which required disassembly of the top half of the unit with allen keys – with the camera still mounted on top – just to get the camera off of it. Luckily, this happened early on and only once, and I’ve put both heads through much abuse since with no further issues.

Admittedly, my MVH502A’s have worked for me in conditions ranging from quiet art galleries to dusty construction sites – though the perfectionist in me is far from satisfied. Whether the flaws of the MVH502 are of equal concern to your purchase of one is completely your call – the above is simply a guide as to what you should expect.

-Kurt
“Man with the 5D”

No monetary compensation was provided for the mention of any of the above products. One MVH502A head was provided to me as a courtesy by Manfrotto, following my complaints.

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