Manfrotto 393 (Bogen 3241) Gimbal Head

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     First of all I should note I have not used (at the time of this writing) any brand or model of gimbal except the Manfrotto 393, so I cannot make any quantative comparisons with other gimbal mounts except for the cost. The Manfrotto 393 can be purchased for 30%–80% less than other comparable heavy-duty gimbals mounts. In other words, those gimbals cost 3 to 5 times the price of the 393. This cost difference is significant, amounting to several hundred dollars. Any perceived difference in quality or stability of the more expensive gimbals can hardly justify that much extra expense. I do not believe they are that much better in practical terms, if any better at all. They may, however, offer advantages to some photographers because of matching attachment brackets for flash or other such accessories which could make them of particular interest. The Manfrotto 393 gimbal doesn't offer such accessories.

   Single post gimbal The 393 two post gimbal
      The major difference between the 393's design and other gimbals is that it has two vertical posts and the others have one vertical post. You might think two mounting points would automatically make the 393 sturdier or more stable, but in practice I don't think that necessarily provides any real mechanical or stability advantage. The other gimbals are apparently well made and do the job admirably. In fact, I would say the single post gimbals have a bit more elegant appearance - curvy and molded - while the "U-shaped" 393's simple flat bar design looks rather industrial and functional, with no particularly aesthetic attributes. It seems though that this simple design is the another difference (and advantage) which likely makes manufacture of it much less costly, and those savings are passed on to the photographer.

     The one other advantage of the 393 that greatly appeals to me is its method of mounting the lens. All the other gimbals use the popular "Arca-Swiss" style clamp, which works with a variety of compatible mounting plates from various manufacturers. The Manfrotto 393 comes with its own style of mounting clamp and plate - the 357 Pro Quick Release adapter. I frankly find it to be far superior to any brand of "Arca-Swiss" compatible clamp/plate combo for heavy lenses. This clamp and its matching plate - 357PL - is the very same as I used 20 years ago to mount heavy three-tube video cameras, which weighted even more than the super-telephoto lens I use them with now.

357 adapter (clamp)
      The 357 Pro Quick Release adaptor and plate are quite simply foolproof. You cannot accidently loose a lens using these because they have a safety catch (brass pin on right in the left photo). When you slide the plate into the clamp, it snaps in and is locked from sliding out, even if you fail to tighten the clamp against the plate. The "snap" is loud and distinctive so you know it's been engaged. This heavy-duty, failsafe plate and clamp is my mount of choice.

     For awhile I owned an "Arca-Swiss" style clamp and plate on an Acratech ballhead that I bought for lighter lenses. When I first tried it out though, I was immediately struck by the frighteningly minimal amount of clamping surface contact between the clamp and the sliding plate. I was not particularly comfortable with it and I continually double-checked it every time I used it. Based on my experience with it I would never trust it with any lens in the weight class of the Canon 400mm f/2.8, 500mm or 600mm f/4's, or larger.

     Even though the "Arca-Swiss" style plates I used with the Acratech had stop screws to keep them from sliding out, it turns out the stop screws also keep them from sliding in. Therefore, the "Arca-Swiss" style clamp jaw had to be opened all the way to insert the plate. The problem there was that you may think the plate is safely clamped when it isn't. If it falls out, it will take your camera and lens to the ground with it. So much for safety stops. When using the 357 clamp and plate I simply have no such concerns. The clamp on the 357 does not hold the plate in, it only locks the plate from sliding. The plate slides into the non-moving part of the clamp, and will not slide out unless the safety catch is released. Because the jaws do not open, the plate cannot fall out. The Manfrotto 357 clamp system is simply a safer to use mount, and comes standard on the 393 gimbal.

357 clamp with plate inserted
Off-center clamp  
      An important point to consider is balancing your lens/camera combination in the gimbal. Manfrotto uses a smart design of placing the 357 adapter clamp off center front to back. The left photo shows how it extends out to one side. By reversing the direction that you mount your lens on the 357 clamp you can alter your balance point by an additional two inches over the 357 plate's already generous 3-1/2 inches of slide range. Thus you get a whopping 5-1/2 inches of total adjustment. This should easily accomodate even the largest monster lens and camera combinations.

      If you use the "Arca-Swiss" type mounts, you will recognize in the enlargement of the right photo how much thicker the 357 plate and clamp are compared to them. This gives a deep wedge to the clamp making for a very secure connection. The two shiny knurled screw heads on the right of the clamp are actually a 1/4 inch and a 3/16 inch stud. The clamp provides a place to store a spare stud of each size. Since the mounting foot on my 500mm lens has both a 1/4 inch and 3/16 inch mounting hole, I actually use both studs to hold the lens to the plate, providing extra security. The brass pin in the top of the plate is spring-loaded. You can use this instead of two studs to provide the anti-twist action against the plate. Otherwise the spring-loaded pin just pushes down below the plate out of the way.

     You might also note the internal (or upper) "U-bracket" has three mounting holes for the tilt pivot point (the "see-saw" hinge point). This is the one failing of the 393. These are intened to allow the best-match of the tilt point to the centerline of your lens, however, they completely miss the mark. A 500mm or 600mm f/4 is too large to match the centerline, even pivoting in the very end hole as it comes from the manufacturer. The other holes would only work smaller lenses. There is no adjustment the other way for larger lenses. The result of this is the lens tends to be a little "top heavy" and always tends to tilt one way or the other, even when evenly balanced. Maintaining even minimal tension with the tilt knobs will dampen this tendency and avoid the slight annoyance otherwise.

Panning for flight shots
is silky smooth
      As to the 393's useability, I have been quite satisfied with it. It does just what it's supposed to do - balancing my heavy 500mm lens so it tilts and pans smoothly and effortlessly. I find the tilt tension easy to adjust with the two knobs provided. In fact, having two knobs probably makes fine adjustment easier than with a single knob, and lets you lock the tilt with whichever hand is free. Balancing the lens is easy with the generous sliding adjustment range of the 357 plate and clamp. WIth the built-in safety lock pin, I never have to worry about the plate accidently slipping out of the clamp while adjusting the balance point.

      Panning is smooth, and pan tension can be adjusted if necessary, but the factory setting is usually on target. This is not meant to be a frequent adjustment, as it requires loosening a hex screw and twisting the base tension knob. There is no "lock" function on the panning. The panning knob has a form-fitted rubber grip that snaps over it, but the cover is prone to working loose and getting lost. I knew about this problem and kept a watch on mine, but it got away from me despite my vigilance. It's not really a problem since you should seldom need to adjust the base tension, and the base knob is well knurled for a good grip. However, I thought the rubber cover served double duty as a rubber bumper in the event you tilt the lens down too far, so I velcroed on a small cloth-covered foam pad in place of the missing rubber knob cover. This has actually proven not to be a necessity.
Comparison Chart of
26 Gimbal Heads

A Guide to
Your Gimbal

      All in all the Manfrotto 393 Gimbal head does the job well, delivering a smooth, sturdy and reliable gimbal mounting for even the largest of super-telephoto lens at a very reasonable price. The simplicity of its design and build means there are no complex mechanical parts to give trouble. I don't see how you could have anything go wrong or give trouble with this gimbal. The plus is its much safer and more reliable clamp and slide plate as compared to the "Arca-Swiss" compatible plates. Dollar for dollar I believe it is a much better value than any of the other gimbal heads. True to the Manfrotto line of equipment, you get strong performance and good value with the 393 gimbal.

     After six years of looking, I have finally found a single post gimbal, the Lens Master RH-2, that rivals the 393 in "bang for your buck"......and, I can have my cake and eat it too, because I was able to convert its Arca-Swiss quick release to a Manfrotto 357 Pro QL, just like the 393. Here's my review of the Lens Master RH-2.