A good tripod really consists of two components – the legs and the head.  Without the legs, you get no stability, and without the head, there’s no way to mount a camera to the legs.  With so many options out there not only in terms of vendors, but also in terms of head types and styles – there’s a lot to choose from.  One of the most popular types of heads is the ball-head. I’ve owned just such a ballhead for a number of years now – the Manfrotto 488RC2.

 

The Manfrotto 488RC2 Ballhead
The Manfrotto 488RC2 Ballhead

As with all equipment, a lot of research and engineering goes into the design, and you really do get what you pay for if you invest your money wisely.  Here’ the 488RC2 was no exception.  I bought it new, and paid $130 for it.  Don’t let the sticker shock fool you – as there is a lot that goes into it.  Take a look at several of the components:

 

Quick Release Plate Receiver
Quick Release Plate Receiver
Model Number Designation - 488RC2
Model Number Designation - 488RC2
360 Degree Markings
360 Degree Markings
Pan/Lock Measurements
Pan/Lock Measurements
Locking Arm Open - Pin Up position
Locking Arm Open - Pin Up position
Mounting threads
Mounting threads

As you can tell, I’ve taken shots here that show the full unit, the easily recognizable logo, the top of the quick release plate receiver, the 360 dial markings, the pan/lock directional arrows, the pin that snaps up to lock the arm open, the safety cotter pin that keeps it closed, as well as the design underneath that shows the wave pattern to ensure it grips tightly onto your legs.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that at 4130 retail, this is worth the investment.  But another part of the equation to be watchful for is warranty, service, and support.  I mentioned earlier that this unit has been in my gear bag for several years – the grand total is 5 years.  When you consider the R&D that has gone into this item, it is definitely structured well, and intended to keep in working form for a long time.  Given it’s heft, I also would have thought that it would still be under warranty coverage.  Such was not to be the case.

Check out the pin in photo number 8 – that is a spring-loaded pin and it actuates to both cock the locking mechanism open and closed.  This may not sound important, but if this spring-loaded pin were to say, pop out, the mechanism will no longer lock either open or closed – and your tripod quickly becomes useless:

Spring Loaded Pin
Spring Loaded Pin

Now while I grant you that all the elements that went into this design are impressive, but of any component in this system, my thought was that if anything could be replaceable, and cost effectively, it would be the spring-loaded pin that goes in here.  After all, it’s just a spring, right?  Wrong.  Without that pin, the locking arm flops open and closed easily and it has no tension to keep it in either position.  The problem is that not only is this likely the most easy and cost effective item to replace, it’s also the most replaced!  When I first went to ask for a quote, I was informed they were out of stock, and it would be two weeks before they were in stock again.  This was a big deal, because without the ball head, the legs are useless.  And when one element goes wrong with the ballhead that renders the entire unit unusable, that is a problem.  I would have expected them to not be out of stock of these.  It’s the most commonly replaced item for a reason – it’s likely the only item that would or could fall out of the system from extensive use.  Cock that arm open and up flies the spring with all the tension behind it.  You’ve got to figure that at some point either the tension will be lost, or it will exert too much force and push the retaining pin straight out.

Sure enough, the latter happened to me while on a canoe trip back in August.  After trying to tighten things down with my own Allen wrench set, I realized it was something that had to be replaced by the folks at Manfrotto.  I wasn’t too concerned…after all, the entire unit was only $130 and this was easily the lightest component of the system.  A couple bucks, at most right?  Wrong again – $45!!!

That’s right, it was considered “out of warranty”, and the cost of the spring, the labor (5 minutes), and return shipping was $45!  (They return shipped it via UPS ground, at what you know were heavily discounted prices.)  So, $45 for what was in all likelihood a 50 cent part.  And the entire unit costs $130.  The one little spring was a full third of the entire unit price – and likely the cheapest component and quickest to replace.  Yet, it was still cheaper than buying an entirely new unit, so what was I to do?

This will give me a moment of pause moving forward though…the carbon fiber material these days is much more expensive, and there are more options available.  I have seen knives with lifetime warranties, so if I am going to shell out over $200 for something of this quality, I’d expect a warranty longer than 1 year.  With their stellar reputation in tripods, heads, and camera equipment, I was stunned that Manfrotto would “stick it” to people to this degree when it comes to service and support.

The ballhead is back though, and I am now back in business!  But let my experience be a warning to all others – be sure about your ballhead!

*****

On a lighter note – this being the first Friday of November, you can expect a newsletter to be coming out shortly.  I try to get things out about now, but time just got away from me, so if you sign up for the newsletter by Sunday, you should see it in your mailboxes on Monday!  It’ll be full of free promotional codes, discounted items, an extended article, and the Flickr photo favorites of October…with much much more!  All this is free for the premium subscribers, so make sure you register before Sunday to get the latest news from here at the blog!  Simply send in your email via the form on the sidebar, or at the Newsletter Subscription Page!

Have a great weekend everyone and we’ll see you back here next week for more photo goodness, including the next LDP podcast!  Happy shooting!

ETA:  The 488RC2 has officially been replaced with the 498RC2.  For the most part it appears to be the same, but probably with improvements in engineering and design:

Bogen/Manfrotto 498RC2 at B&H

5 thoughts on “Be sure about your ballhead…

  1. That stinks! We’re Manfrotto users ourselves. We’ve never had a problem with our tripod, but if we do, I guess that at least prepares me for the $45 setback.

  2. That’s good to know about their service. I’m usually more interested in this side of a company than the products themselves. I just bought a tripod from Induro, they equipment all has a five year warranty. Hopefully I’ll never have to cash in on that 🙂

  3. William J Dougherty says:

    That receiver plate is not a fixed part of the ballhead. It can be purchased for 37.50 and easily placed on the ballhead. I put two matching QR assemblies on both of my tripods so i’d be able to mix n match easily.

    1. Yup, I have two myself…which is part of why I didn’t abandon the system completely. I have one that is always on my camera, and another that is on my long lens (70-200)

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