Today we are going to continue our tripod and head review series with another one of Manfrotto’s products (there are a few others coming in the near future as well). The head that we will be looking at is a very unique and specialised piece of gear that is going to appeal to a very specific target audience of professional photographers it is called the Manfrotto 405 Geared Head and it has been around for a number of years but it did not get a great deal of coverage online.
Before we dive into the 405 review I would like to briefly explain the concept behind a geared head and how is it different than other more common types of tripod heads.
The most common tripod head is a ballhead – typically it has a main knob which when opened let’s you freely move your camera in all directions. This is great if you are looking for fast big movements but it is not very accurate and gives you virtually no independent control over each axis. There are some advanced ballhead mechanisms that can be locked to move on just one axis like the FLM ballhead we tested here last year but they are still not going to give you full control over every axis.
To get this you will need a 3-way head. This type of head is larger and could be a little slower to operate as you might need to open and close each of the 3 handles to achieve perfect positioning of the head, however with a 3-way head opening one axis does not affect the other two which can be invaluable for more precise work such as landscape, architecture or product shots.
When the utmost precision is needed however, even a 3-way head might not be enough. To get perfect precision a geared head lets you change the position of each axis extremely precisely with tiny increments using – you guessed it – a built in gear system. These types of heads have been used for photography as well as some very large geared heads that have been used for decades in the film industry.
Now that we understand the reasoning behind the use of a geared head let’s take a closer look at the 405 pro geared head:
- Build quality / materials – the 405 is superbly built. It is almost entirely made out of metal apart from the semi hard foam on the edges of the handles which is a very interesting choice made by Manfrotto and it might be easier to handle with gloves.
- Weight – the 405 is a very, very heavy head. At over 1.6kg or 3.5lbs there are very few other heads which can compete with it however it also has a pretty heavy carrying capacity of 7.5kg or 16.5lbs (which we suspect could have been much higher but Manfrotto didn’t want to risk users damaging the gear mechanism).
- Knobs – The 405 has 3 very high quality rubberised knobs for controlling pan, tilt and rotation. These allow for 360 degrees pans and +90 to -30 degrees of frontal or lateral tilt which is pretty much what you would expect from this type of head.
High quality rubberised knobs
- Geared mechanism – the heart of the 405 is the geared mechanism. This mechanism is controlled by the 3 knobs and is extremely precise Manfrotto suggest that for each FULL rotation of the knob you get 6.5 degrees – but you can turn the handle far less of course – getting fractions of a degree if you like. We have done some tests with a 100mm macro lens just to show you how this looks (see the video). We would probably not be replacing a high end macro focusing rail with this head but when combined you can actually achieve outstanding results.
The second feature of the geared head is very useful. Each knob has and external part which allows the user to completely disengage the gear mechanism for a quick rough estimate of the position of the head. This is good if you have a large change you need to make and you don’t want to rotate the geared knob for a long time.
- Bubble levels – The head has 3 bubble levels to help you get a levelled shot anyway you look at the head. We found the top one to be the most useful. Also for some reason the bottom one was always showing a slight off axis – so either the tripod was not 100% levelled or maybe there is something wrong with our floors. At any rate, these days most cameras come with a built in virtual horizon so these bubble levels are mostly backups.
Three bubble levels
- Quick release – the 405 has a specialized and not very common quick release system based on a large plate called 410PL. To a degree this is a larger more robust version of our all time favorite quick release plate – the Manfrotto RC2. It is meant to support much larger cameras and setups including medium format and even large format cameras, however it is less convenient to use (it can be hard to release actually and can sometimes require force) and it comes with both 1/4″ 20 and 3/8″ screws, but these don’t have easy to screw in D-rings. We tried to replace them but this didn’t work very well.
The 410PL plate
- Angle markings – The head has angle markings for each of the 3 handles and they can be very useful for repeated precise positioning of the head. Just align the white dot with the angle markings and you are set.
Angle markings on all sides
Before we conclude I would like to mention that the 405 fits the Manfrotto 028B studio tripod we just tested here last week and they work perfectly together and gives the user the ability to control all 3 axis plus the height of the camera using ultra precise geared mechanisms.
So to some things up, the 405 is a specialized professional camera head which is extremely well made and well executed. The ability to precisely control the camera using the handles while also to perform large fast movements similar to a 3-way head is very helpful and easy to use.
There are very few drawbacks to this head. It is quite heavy although for what it does it is relatively compact and the quick release mechanism and the huge plate are a tad quirky. With that said, maybe the biggest potential drawback of this head has nothing to do with its build or functionality but with its cost. At around $450 (the exact number keep changing so check the link) this is going to be a major investment for most photographers (including pro ones).
At this point it is worth asking who is the potential target audience for this unique head. Our answer is basically any type of photographer who depends on high degree of compositional accuracy for their professional work. These can be product, architectural, landscape or even macro shooters. As long as accuracy is more important than speed this head will be on the top of our buying list.
We have used this head for several months now for product photography, food photography as well as some macro work and it has been a joy to work with. The way we see it – working with a geared head like the 405 is not just a question of the type of work that you are doing but also the state of mind you are in and the type of shooter that you are. Calculated, methodical and precise shooters will love this head while those who tend to work more freely and instinctively will probably want to stick with other tools.
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