Review of the Manfrotto 190MF4 MagFiber tripod.
Copyright © 2007 NK Guy
The Italian-made Manfrotto 190MF4 MagFiber tripod is a reasonably small carbon fibre tripod intended for hiking and other activities when portability is paramount. Its sold under the Bogen/Manfrotto name in the USA, but seems to use the same catalogue number worldwide.
Carbon fibre tubing is a lightweight composite material popular in aircraft construction and the like. Its made from thin carbon filaments in the form of graphite, usually bound together with an epoxy. These filaments are woven together in successive layers to form lightweight hollow tubes or flat sheets. Franco-Italian maker Gitzo was apparently the first firm to release a carbon fibre tripod in 1994, and many other companies have followed suit. In fact, its becoming increasingly common in tripod design, and a number of Chinese firms have entered the market lately with aggressively priced CF tripods.
The advantages of carbon fibre over traditional materials are numerous. First, CF legs tend to be lighter than metal or wooden legs for the same degree of stiffness, second, CF legs are very rigid, and third, CF does not transmit vibrations as easily as metal. Aluminium tubes tend to vibrate like fat piano strings when tapped. Wood and carbon fibre legs tend to absorb such blows, reducing motion blur accordingly. Finally, carbon fibre tends not to get quite as cold as metal, which can be important when carrying around tripods outside.
The main drawback with CF is the expense. Also, some of the early CF tripods had issues with the material delaminating, but these days thats not generally a problem.
The Manfrotto tripod reviewed is a fairly traditional design, and has four segment legs. The fact that it has this many leg segments mean it takes longer to extend and collapse. But obviously if it werent a 4 segment tripod then itd be longer when fully collapsed, so this is one of those portability tradeoffs. The leg angles are individually adjustable, locking at four angles, and the legs have large silver-painted metal sprung retaining sliders at the top that allow you splay them out until the tripod is nearly touching the ground if you like. There are no bracing stays joining the legs.
Fully collapsed the tripod is 46cm/18" long. With its legs fully extended but the centre column lowered its 114cm/45" tall, with the centre column extended its 131cm/52" tall and fully lowered with the centre column removed its 11cm/4.5" short. The maximum height is fairly short for most people - youre probably going to have to lean over to peer into the viewfinder unless youre below average in height. It weighs 1.6kg/3.5 lb, and Manfrotto claim that its rated to withstand a 4kg/8.8 lb load.
Each leg is held together by springloaded clamps and quick-release (flip lever action) locks made of metal (black-painted magnesium alloy) and plastic respectively. Since each clamp is a sort of U-shape with screw tension user-adjustable they should be stronger than the rather weak and easily broken clamps used on the Manfrotto 714 series. Hopefully, anyway. I do like quick-release clamps, though, since theyre easy and fast to flip open and closed. The worst are the rotating end cap things that have to be unscrewed for each segment. The tubes are polygonal and not round in cross section, so they cant rotate inadvertently. The centre column attaches to a metal hemispherical top piece. Notably the centre column is made of aluminium tubing and not of carbon fibre.
The legs have simple rubber feet which are held on by friction. I was photographing in a field at night and extending the tripod when one of the feet flew off and vanished into the darkness. Never found it again. So I had to buy a three-pack of replacement feet from Manfrotto, which was sort of annoying. This time I put a little dab of contact cement on each foot before putting it back.
The roughly hemispherical top section (tripod shoulder), also made of black-painted cast magnesium, is split into two halves (eg: each is a quarter sphere) which clamp down on the centre column by means of a large thumb screw. Its a fairly flexible design, shared with the 190PRO tripod, which allows you to remove the centre column and install it horizontally (parallel to the ground) or install it upside-down if you wish. This can be theoretically handy for setting up complex macro shots where you need to position the camera close to a small subject or near to the ground. However, to move the column you have to unscrew the rubber knob at the bottom of the centre column, detach the top tripod mounting plate and lift the column out. This takes a moment and is kind of a nuisance, which does limit the utility of this option. Also, being a short tripod, there is the risk of the whole thing toppling over if you mount the centre column horizontally and put a heavy camera on the end and dont splay the legs out far enough. You can also remove the centre column altogether and just substitute the small and lightweight tripod mounting plate for the entire centre column, though you obviously lose the ability to extend the centre column by doing this.
The hemispherical top section has a small circular spirit level for levelling, and there are small square attachment points to clip on the included carrying strap. There is no hook at the bottom for hanging a sandbag or anything, though the small metal attachment point for the carrying strap could be used. The strap has a rubberized hand grip and a circular strap at the end for keeping the tripod legs together.
The top mounting plate has a 3/8-16 bolt for mounting larger (medium format typically) cameras and heads. Note that this is a larger bolt than the 1/4-20 fitting typically found on most cameras, so you wont be able to screw your 35mm SLR or point and shoot camera directly to the tripod itself - you will need an add-on head or, as shown in the photo at the bottom of the page, an adapter plate. The mounting plate also has three recessed headless grub screws (set screws) that you can tighten to prevent the camera mounting head from rotating once its attached. I use the tripod with a Manfrotto 488RC2 ballhead to good effect.
- Quite sturdy and solid. Reasonable weight for carrying around.
- Reasonably compact and short.
- Large, easy to manipulate flip lever locks. I like this kind of lever lock - I really dislike the ones you have to rotate as theyre too time-consuming.
- Flexible, if time-consuming to use, top design. Note that in the photo to the right the centre column has been mounted so it is parallel to the ground - it isnt at angle as the picture makes it look.
- Easy to carry with the rubber-handled short carry strap. (ie: this is a strap designed for holding the tripod; its not long enough to serve as a shoulder strap)
- Not as light as you might want from carbon fibre, particularly when the a ballhead is fitted. However, it is more rigid and stable than an equivalent-weight aluminium tripod.
- Its a bit fat when folded up. It doesnt have the most compact hinges and the leg clamp levers are also large and sturdy, and so it cant fit easily into a travel bag like some more slender tripods. This is, of course, because its more stable and rigid than a slender travel tripod. All about priorities again.
- 4 segment legs means it takes 50% longer to extend fully when compared to 3 segment legs.
- Rubber feet easily lost.
- The centre column design is flexible, but its annoyingly time-consuming to rearrange and move, since you have to unscrew the bottom rubber screw and slide the centre column out. Frankly I hardly ever bother with putting it in a horizontal position just because it takes too long and is a pain.
- Not the cheapest tripod in the world on an amateur budget.
- You cant use the carrying strap if you remove the centre column or mount it horizontally.
- Requires a head or adapter plate since you cant attach most cameras to it directly. This is the case with all pro tripods, but still something you need to keep in mind.
I find this is a pretty decent tripod for the size. I would be happier if it were lighter, given that I use it mainly for travelling, but it is built to be sturdy and not flimsy and cheap. You can save a little weight by removing the centre column and using just the top mount, but that also means the carrying strap has nowhere to clip to. And I do wish the legs could easily be detached, since its easier to pack up a dismantled tripod for travel purposes - three legs laid out flat are often more convenient than a tripod bulging out in one direction. Manfrotto bill the tripod as airplane carry-on legal, but I find that really unlikely in todays heightened security environment. I dont know of any airline that lets you take a tripod on a plane, regardless of how short it is - its too club-like. Still, its really handy to be able to tuck the tripod away in a backpack when walking around a city and you want to pop in a museum or somewhere. At least a museum that doesnt have a bag search policy.
I also find the design of the centre column to be somewhat inconvenient. Its certainly more flexible than a design which doesnt let you remove the centre column at all, but its still too fiddly to be useful on a regular basis. The new Manfrotto 190X tripod design looks very promising in this respect, since it lets you swing the centre column out horizontally or any angle you like.
Price-wise its reasonable value for money, compared to other European-built CF tripods. But if youre looking for something on a tight budget, aluminium tubing is the only real way to go.
A note about the photograph - the folded tripod is seen here with a Manfrotto adapter plate on the top. This striped metal plate is used to convert the tripods 3/8" bolt to a 1/4" bolt used by most cameras. I use this adapter plate when Im not using a ballhead on the tripod.
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