Keeping Fast Company with Manfrotto’s 504X Head and FAST Legs

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Recently, I tested the new Manfrotto 504X Fluid Head on a variety of tripod legs. This included a kit with the 645 FAST Twin Leg Aluminum Tripod and 2-in-1 Spreader, as well as swapping the head over to the 635 single-tube carbon fiber legs and putting that combination system through its paces. I was a big fan of the 504HD when it was released and was very much looking forward to checking out the improvements to the pan and tilt controls. I expected to take some time to get accustomed to the differences, but little did I know how much those new features would influence operation for the better. In the era of film cameras, one huddled close to the tripod to operate, and even when shooting ENG, it was the same relationship—body tight to camera, eye glued to the eyepiece. In this era of lighter cameras, with flip-out monitors or on-camera monitors, getting in tight when tripod mounted isn’t necessary anymore, and operating from a tripod without having to wedge one’s head against the eyepiece makes the work easier, more comfortable, and much more relaxed.

Improvements on an Old Reliable Piece of Gear

The 504X supports cameras and setups up to 26.5 pounds and has a counterbalance range up to 14.3 pounds, which is similar to the counterbalance range of the 504HD, while the 504X weighs 1.5 pounds less than the 504HD. My camera rig did not approach the 26.5-pound weight limit, but the head handled it without suffering from a camera rig that was too light. The drag and counterbalance settings allowed me to go completely free for whip pans and tilts, while at full drag, I could easily manage smooth and slow pans and tilts, with feathered stops and starts. Although I wasn’t at the maximum load capacity of the head, even with counterbalance set to maximum, I didn’t find myself fighting the counterbalance during tilts. I was able to make smooth pans and tilts, and easily adjust the camera moves from slow pans to whip pans. The 504X head performed perfectly, and I was able to dial in just the right amount of drag or counterbalance easily and quickly, and didn’t strain at all when operating. This was not always the case when using the old 504HD. Manfrotto points out that their new fluid technology keeps the fluid drag effect constant throughout the head’s operating temperature range, from cold to hot.

Tilt-lock Mechanism surrounding the tilt-drag adjustment knob
Tilt-lock mechanism surrounding the tilt-drag adjustment knob
Pan-drag adjustment ring just above the red base
Pan-drag adjustment ring just above the red base

Redesign

Setting the pan-and-tilt drag on the 504X uses a very different interface than with the original 504HD, and this redesign extends to the tilt lock, as well. It is more intuitive and seems to borrow a bit from the Manfrotto Nitrotech 608/612 heads. The tilt lock is absolutely beautiful—it is easy to find and operate without having to grope or search visually. However, the best part about the tilt lock is that it locks and releases smoothly; there is no jarring or jerking of the camera. The pan lock is just as smooth in use, but it uses a traditional locking lever. The tilt-drag adjustment knob sticks out enough to give you a sure grip without having to think about which way to turn it to dial in the drag you want for the shot. The pan-drag adjustment ring is a wide rubber sleeve that features a lot of rotation, from loose to tight.

Baseplate release plunger
Baseplate release plunger

The Little Things Count

Let’s start with the quick release plate, and the return of the rubber stopper that prevents the captive screws from sliding out when the camera is not attached. I want to mention that the rubber stopper is back, because I never could understand why Manfrotto stopped including it. I applaud Manfrotto for bringing it back. What is also different, and a good change, is that now the sliding baseplate is also a true quick release plate. The plate pops into the top of the head, and then you press a release and it pops out of the head, much like the side-load mechanism, but now there is no more sliding the plate out of the head to remove the camera. It pops in and out. In fact, when the plate is in the camera platform, it can’t slide out because the stops are solid and not spring loaded. You still get 3.5" of sliding range for balance, but with added security. Another handy feature is that the tie-down screw for the head is shorter, or at least it feels that way. Removing the tie-down knuckle on previous Manfrotto heads seemed to take forever, and time is money, but now it takes less time to remove the tie-down knuckle to switch the head to another set of legs—more on that below. 

Some nice little touches have been added for mounting accessories to the head. The 504X incorporates both the Manfrotto easy link system and the ARRI anti-twist divots into the pan handle rosettes on each side of the head. They have also added a removable cap on the left-side rosette, to protect your hand from the edges of the rosette when you are not using it.


Locking and Unlocking the leg position lock and the single Tube FAST Leg locks

Legs, Legs, and Legs

Manfrotto’s FAST series of tripod legs are impressive, available in twin-leg aluminum and twin-leg carbon fiber, as well as single-tube carbon fiber. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of single-tube tripod legs, relegating their use for specialty shots, which are mostly locked off, or for B-roll and such, where I don’t have a crew to help with the gear. However, the Manfrotto FAST single-tube legs are robust enough to challenge the way I think about them. They are sturdy, resist twisting when panning, and the leg locks for adjusting the height really are fast, with one rubber-covered grip controlling each leg. Give a twist, the leg is unlocked, set your height, and twist the lock in the other direction (just follow the arrows) to lock. Fast, easy, and secure. The single-tube legs do not accept a mid-level spreader. Instead, a very simple spreader-less locking system at the top of the legs is employed, and each leg has three built-in presets of 20, 50, and 70 degrees. Really, it is as simple as push, adjust, and lock.

FAST Leg Lock Lever for twin leg tripods
FAST Leg Lock Lever for twin leg tripods

I received a set of the FAST aluminum twin legs, which are 3-section/2-stage legs. These legs utilize the FAST lever lock system, with a single locking lever on each leg that allows you to open it and set the height, then lock it down. Sweet and elegant, with no extra outrigger assembly for controlling all three sections. No more bending down to release the lock on the bottom section anymore. My back will appreciate that, especially at the end of a long shooting day. The Twin FAST aluminum legs came with a 100mm bowl that had a pre-installed 75mm adapter. I didn’t remove the adapter, but it is mounted on the legs with three screws, making it easy to remove if you want to use the legs with a fluid head that has a 100mm leveling ball. The single tube carbon fiber legs come with a standard 75mm bowl.

Spreader-less Locking positions on the twin FAST tripod legs
Spreader-less locking positions on the twin FAST tripod legs

It is worth pointing out that, like the single-tube FAST legs, you can use the twin FAST legs without a spreader, since the head fitting also has the 3-position stops built in and has the same locking mechanism in each leg as the single-tube FAST legs. The twin FAST legs are available with a removable mid-level spreader, as well as with a ground spreader. I worked with the aluminum version of the twin FAST legs, which came with a removable mid-level spreader and rubber boots for the foot spikes, but the carbon fiber version will be pretty much the same, just a little lighter.

The Extras

It is important to point out that when you get a kit with the 504X head and legs, everything you need for it to work is already taken care of. This means the 504X head is normally a flat base, but when part of a kit with legs that have a bowl base, Manfrotto adapts the head to a ball base to match the legs. I also want to point out that both the aluminum and carbon fiber twin FAST legs come with a mid-level spreader. However, Manfrotto has a new 2-in-1 mid-level spreader that attaches as a regular mid-level spreader, but it can also be removed and attached to the bottom of the legs and be used more like a ground spreader, and if you prefer a ground spreader, this will have you covered. I have become a convert to mid-level spreaders, but if you want to be able to work with either mid-level or ground spreader without carrying two spreaders, the 2-in1 is a good option, although you will have to pick it up separately. While currently there is no all-inclusive tripod kit from Manfrotto for the 504X head with FAST twin carbon fiber legs, if you are looking to upgrade to the 504X head while keeping your old legs, you will just need to add a half-ball adapter.

Goodbye, Old Friend

The 504X signals the transition away from the 504HD, which I have used a lot, for everything from corporate and music videos to automobile races, narratives, and documentaries. But there was always just a little bit of, “If only it would do this better.” With the 504X, the only thing I wish it would do better, so far, is make coffee. The 504X is available in a variety of kits in addition to those mentioned above, such as the 635 carbon fiber legs, as well as with a twin leg setup that does not have the FAST leg lock system. The kits all come with a carry bag, making it easy to carry your tripod system from location to location.

For more information on Manfrotto tripod heads, legs, and systems, visit the B&H Photo Website, or if you're in New York City, visit The Studio at the B&H Photo SuperStore.

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