Andy Westlake tests a lightweight geared three-way head from Manfrotto

Manfrotto XPRO geared headManfrotto XPRO geared head at a glance:

  • Three-way geared tripod head
  • Weight 750g
  • Max load 4kg
  • Adapto polymer construction
  • Uses RC2 quick-release plates
  • Price: £170
  • Website: www.manfrotto.co.uk

Geared heads are one of the best-kept secrets in photography. Rotating knobs that move the camera platform directly allow for extremely fine adjustment of composition, and by the nature of their design geared heads don’t suffer from any of the movement during lock-down of the head that can affect three-way or ball-and-socket heads.

A favourite with architectural and macro shooters, geared heads have previously been too heavy and expensive to see much use outside of studio environments.However, Manfrotto’s new XPRO geared three-way head (MHXPRO-3WG) is designed to change all that. Weighing 750g, it’s considerably lighter than the company’s Junior model, the 410, a feat achieved by the use of Adapto polymer for construction rather than metal. It’s also a bit smaller, partially due to the RC2 quick-release platform. The penalty is a lower recommended load of 4kg rather than 5kg, but this should still be fine for a full-frame DSLR with a macro or perspective control lens.

Manfrotto XPRO geared head backCamera movements are controlled by three large knobs, one for each direction, which have a rubberised grippy coating. These are placed on sprung levers, and for rough positioning the gearing can be disconnected by pulling them towards the large moulded grips beside each, enabling the head to move freely about the selected axis. Once the camera is set, the levers spring back into place.

The camera doesn’t sit directly over the centre column, but instead is diagonally offset by about 3.5cm. I’ve not had any problem with this, but it could be a consideration for more specialist uses such as panoramic shooting.

Manfrotto XPRO geared head – key features

Spirit levels

Three bubble levels help keep the camera straight and level, in both portrait and landscape format.

3⁄8in base thread

The standard thread connects to tripods from all major manufacturers.

Angle scales

These are marked in 1° steps on all three axes for ultra-fine adjustments, with larger ticks every 5°.

Quick-release interlock

A safety lever prevents the camera from being released accidentally from the head.

Manfrotto XPRO on tripod

Manfrotto XPRO geared head – verdict

I tested the XPRO head by shooting both 1:1 macro and heavy telephoto lenses, with the heaviest combination being an enthusiast DSLR and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 2.5kg. It worked pretty well, and crucially allowed me to point the camera where I wanted to within a fraction of a degree. The process of getting there, though, isn’t as smooth and as refined as with Manfrotto’s heavier metal heads. Sometimes the levers don’t reposition perfectly after the first quick adjustment, and jump back into place only when you’re trying to make fine changes. I also found that the vertical-angle adjustment works much better when you start low and pull the camera up, rather than the other way round, especially with heavy lenses. But once you understand and master these foibles, positioning the camera is a relatively quick and straightforward process.

Crucially, the XPRO is light enough to be truly portable, and I’d be happy to carry it around for extended treks. The XPRO isn’t top-heavy on a lightweight carbon-fibre tripod, either, so you don’t need a heavy support just to hold the head, let alone the camera. However, while it’s similar in size and weight to a three-way head, it’s very bulky compared to a ball head.

Overall, the Manfrotto XPRO is the first affordable geared head that’s light enough to be viable for work outside the confines of the studio, and beyond the reach of the car. It’s still a pretty specialist piece of kit, but I could see it becoming a favourite with landscape and macro shooters using the latest high-resolution DSLRs.

SCORE: 4.5 out of 5

You may also consider:

Manfrotto 410 Junior geared headManfrotto 410 Junior geared head

Price: £140

Website: www.manfrotto.co.uk

The 410 Junior, the XPRO’s predecessor, is reasonably compact, but it weighs in at 1.22kg and employs Manfrotto’s not widely used 410PL plate.

Manfrotto-405-geared-headManfrotto 405 geared head

Price: £330

Website: www.manfrotto.co.uk

Weighing a hefty 1.6kg, the 405 geared head can support camera kit up to 7.5kg, and uses 410PL plates. It’s a superb piece of kit for studio work.

Arca Swiss D4 geared headArca Swiss D4 geared head

Price: £828

Website: www.wexphotographic.com

The Arca Swiss D4 is a superbly engineered 3-wqy geared head that is relatively compact and lightweight, but like all the company’s products it’s phenomenally expensive.