Tripod Review: Manfrotto 519 + 515MB

Times have changed when it comes to camera technology, and there have been changes in camera support gear as well. When I started out in video production, cameras weighed about as much as I did, and tripods were made of solid steel or cast iron. Later, when we got lighter cameras, we got smaller tripod heads, and were able to switch back to old-fashioned film sticks, made out of actual wood.

In fact, the cover of my book features my old tripod and head combo, which I still own, and it has served me well under many a clunky old BetaCam. I was glad to have such light and portable equipment then, but modern materials and even lighter cameras have led to some substantial changes. Here’s my new camera support system:

The Head
I’m not a big fan of Bogen heads, but this is partly because I’ve been spoiled by those big, heavy, and silky-smooth O’Conner, Miller, and Sachtler heads and I’d only ever used Bogen’s low-end, gel cartridge DV offerings. Until now. The Bogen/Manfrotto 519 Pro fluid head is a smooth and solid piece of kit.

It has a true stepped fluid system with eight levels of drag, and a full counterbalance system with an easily adjustable knob. Manfrotto ships the head with two counterbalance springs, one adjustable from 2-10 lb and the other from 11-22 lb. The springs keep the head balanced through almost the entire 180° tilt range, no matter where the camera’s center of gravity is.

The Canon XL-H1 with a few accessories sits just at the top end of the first spring. This means I have enough room to grow that I can add more accessories to the camera, or switch cameras. I can keep the head completely balanced even if I add filters, mattebox, audio adapter, sun gun, hard-drive recorder, on-arm monitor, follow focus, or other fun gadgets.

At only 5.9″ high, the 519 Pro is quite small, and it uses a 75mm bowl mount to attach to the tripod legs. I dislike center column tripods because it’s so much harder to level the camera than with a bowl mount, and because the column itself can be so unstable. This leads us to Manfrotto’s 515MVB tripod legs.

The Sticks
Even though the 515MVB have a 100mm ball mount, I picked them over the 525MVB, an identical tripod with a 75mm mount. This will give me room to grow if I need a larger head, and I use an adapter ring to mount the 519. Weight capacity is 33 pounds, and even at full extension the aluminum legs feel very solid.

Full extension lifts the Bogen head 65” off the ground, but they can also get it down to a mere 20” when all three leg sections are collapsed. Fast-action locks hold the stages firmly in place but are easy to adjust.

The legs terminate in double spiked feet, which come attached to a ground-level spreader. In principle I don’t like ground-level spreaders much, but the ground is pretty flat in Texas, and since it’s a quick way to set up and anchor the tripod I use it a lot. A mid-level spreader and larger rubber feet can be purchased from Manfrotto dealers.

Two-stage tripods are more usably flexible than single stage legs since they cover a wider range of heights and can pack down to a more compact piece of luggage (28” if I take the head off.) On the other hand, they can be more physically flexible because they have more joints than a single-stage tripod.

I haven’t noticed any give in the connections, but there is flex in the aluminum tubing itself. It’s slight, and only noticeable when extended, but present. Carbon legs, while pricier, can be much stiffer. At the end of the day though, this is an area where heavier tripods win the day due to sheer mass. During full-extension high-drag pans in heavy winds, I miss my old sixty pound sticks and megaton heads.

That said, the aluminum legs really do a great job. With a wide enough spread, especially when the spikes are firmly embedded in the ground, the 515MB sticks are very solid, and a good support for the 519 head. Together, they make a good team.

The Combo
The head weighs in at 6.4 pounds, and the tripod at 7.5. Fourteen pounds is a very easy load, and we’ve already added a homemade shoulder strap to make it easier to tote. Professional straps are available, but a simple nylon strap sewn directly around the tubing doesn’t have any hardware to clank against the legs in a stiff breeze.

Also, the legs are so compact when folded that it’s tough to get a fingerhold, but by not retracting the legs all the way, a hand-wide handle is revealed which balances the sticks perfectly with the 519. The legs also open wide enough to make leveling the bowl easily and there are advantages to getting heads and sticks from the same manufacturer.

It’s a very good package, splitting the difference between lightness and strength, portability and stability, and making the most of new technology and old techniques. Of course, for all the new materials, modern tripods still have three legs, and modern heads still contain lubricating fluid for smoothing tilts and pans. Some things never change.