Manfrotto Fluid Head (MVH502AH) – (not just) a practical Gimbal Head alternative: Equipment Review

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

The head with a full-size scope attached

I have been using Manfrotto’s MVH502AH for a few months now, replacing its smaller, less versatile cousin, the Manfrotto MVH500AH, which I had originally bought as I was exploring the delights of wildlife videography with the Panasonic GH5 mated to a telephoto zoom. The 500AH worked ok for this set-up, barring the lack of an option to adjust the friction of the movement and, worse, a touch of vibration, despite the stellar in-body stabilisation of the camera, apparent in the footage while panning/tilting, especially in the telephoto end of things. The 500AH also worked great with my Pentax 65mm spotting scope, the fluid head a big step-up in ease of operation from the ball head I was using for this purpose, until then. While it could support the weight a Canon 300mm 2.8 w/teleconverters, attached to a semi-pro DSLR, it could never balance the weight, with either the camera or lens end dropping, uncontrollably, unless the tilt mechanism was locked. Although I seldom used the Canon set-up for video, this imbalance, and the vibration that came through into the footage with the Panasonic set-up, was motivation enough to explore the 502AH

With the Panasonic M4/3 Set-up and with a Full Size Spotting Scope

The 502AH worked perfectly with the Panasonic GH5, telephoto combo for video, with no discernible vibration in the clips (this camera/lens (M. Zuiko 40-150 2.8), felt virtually weightless on this robust head). It also helped that I could now adjust the friction of the pan/tilt movement, and found myself preferring the highest resistance for ultra smooth pan-tilt movement, while recording video. I could, of course, change the settings to suit what I was filming, if needed, to less resistance, for quicker tracking in case of dynamically shifting action.

The head is excellent for video with this M4/3 system

I had also invested in a full size spotting scope around the time I bought this head. While I cannot say there are any compelling reasons to upgrade to this head from the smaller 500AH for this purpose, especially without a side-by-side comparison, I expect that there are some advantages with reduced vibration and overall stability in windy conditions and the like, with the weightier head. Once again, I this head felt perfectly (more than) capable for this set-up.

With the Canon Prime Telephoto Set-up

One can effortlessly manoeuvre this heavy set-up, mounted on this head

I found the biggest practical upside (compared to the MVH500AH) to this head when put to use with a big and bulky telephoto prime (EF 300mm 2.8 II with both 1.4x iii and 2x iii teleconverters attached), attached to a semi-pro Canon body. The head could easily support this weight, even balancing the weight very well, provided the set-up was level. With the “Fluid Drag” resistance set to a minimum, the head was a relatively compact, Gimbal Head alternative, allowing for effortless tilting and panning of this weighty set-up – great from following fast moving subjects like birds in flight with ease (and increasing the shelf-life of those creaky shoulders, by a couple of years, in the process). Increase the resistance, and it was a great option for video, with smooth panning/tilting movement across the resistance range.

Weighing it all up…

While still relatively compact as video heads go, this is still a heavy (1.7 kg) and bulky piece of kit, and only suitable for certain type of hybrid video/photographer (for me it hits a sweet spot as a mammal and bird photographer/videographer (albeit for small clips) and user of a full size spotting scope). If general nature (or any other genre) photography is the primary objective, and, unless used with heavy telephoto lenses for wildlife photography, this is a way bulkier option than alternatives (such as a ball heads). I am also an amateur astrophotographer and do miss the compactness and versatility (especially with angles) of ball heads for this pursuit. The size/weight could also be an impediment if you travel/hike with the head a lot and it would also necessitate an adequately weighty tripod for balance, with a large mounting plate, I assume, to make the best the head has to offer, in terms of stability (I find my Sirui w-2204 carbon fibre tripod, a bit too light for balance/with too small a mounting plate for optimum stability, for use with this head). In short, it is a great piece of kit, but you would only appreciate its qualities if you actually need it (like almost everything in life?).

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