Manfrotto 303SPH

Manfrotto 303SPH
Built like a tank, looks like a tank, works like a charm

Manufacturer:  Manfrotto
MSRP:  USD $650.00

The Manfrotto 303SPH multirow panoramic head is a bit of an odd beast coming from a company that’s always had that Italian flare for design in their products.  It’s a bit like a Frankenstein product, a collection of other things collected into a single monster: someone took a 300N rotation unit, an L Bracket RC4, and a 454 Micrometric Positioning Sliding Plate, tossed it all into their CNC milling machine, and voilà:  instant panoramic head.

It’s big, it’s bulky, with a lot of protruding knobs that can make it difficult to pack.  In comparison, the Nodal Ninja breaks down into a sleek little case that you can toss into any backpack.  But, unlike the Nodal Ninja, the 303SPH travels fully assembled, and everything that might fall off is either on a lanyard or has an arrestor mechanism, so you’re unlikely to drop anything.  The 303SPH  is a complete product, there are no detent plates to insert or arms to assemble.  That makes it appear bulkier, but it’s well worth it if you operate in cold climates and have to wear gloves, or work around water where dropping anything means another expensive visit to the camera store.  Generous clearances all around mean no problems with sand that might get into closer-tolerance slides.  The 303SPH is fully adjustable all the time, with no need to break anything down to change any settings.

Playa Carazalillo panorama, Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Quebec city skyline high resolution panorama, Quebec City, QuebecTop:  The sand of Puerto Escondido’s Carazalillo beach proved no problem for the 303SPH.  Bottom:  carried in a kayak for weeks, the 303SPH performed flawlessly with a Canon 20D, battery grip and extra battery, and EF 70-200mm f/4 L for this panorama of Quebec City.

The 303SPH is rated to a load capacity of 4 kilograms, that’s almost nine pounds of camera gear.  I’ve used it with a Canon 5DmkII and EF 300mm f/4 L IS, and can attest to its solidity.  But, like all panoramic heads, the vertical arm will sag under weight.  A set screw, used to secure the vertical arm during transport, does double duty to help adjust the vertical positioning and negate sag, keeping your setup true to your original alignments.

The integrated 300N rotation base uses a set screw (again on a lanyard, so you can’t lose it) to determine your horizontal angle of rotation in either 90, 60, 45, 36, 30, 24, 20, 15, 10, and 5 degree increments.  I’d prefer one more 2.5° stop for shooting  with long lenses, but that’s neither here nor there.  If you decide to change a lens, changing your degree of rotation is as simple as threading the ample set screw into the corresponding hole.

The 303SPH is machined out of aircraft-grade aluminum, and years of damp kayak touring haven’t impacted it at all.  Beach, desert, and winter photography have left no trace, this is a unit with some cojones.  As stated above it’s big and heavy, but that’s the tradeoff:  it’s impervious to everything, and completely indestructible.

Claudette Abrams' Flight Path, Ward's Island, Toronto IslandsMoonrise over Manarola, Cinque Terra, ItalySTS-134, space shuttle Endeavour multirow panoramaLife’s ups and downs.  Left:  a polar panorama photographed with a Canon 20D and EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5.  Centre:  part of a multi-row panorama of Manorola in Italy’s Cinque Terra region, photographed with a Canon 5DmkII and EF 35mm f/2.  Right:  a multi-row panorama of  space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, on the launch pad for the final time, photographed with a Canon 5DmkII and Canon EF 300mm f/4 L IS lens.

There is a bit of play in all degrees of rotation, but I’ve found that to be true in all panoramic heads that I’ve used.  I haven’t met a pan head yet that I would trust to rotate to exactly the same position time after time.  Close, sure, but not exact.  For certain applications a pan head with vernier-style graduations would be a welcome addition to the kit.

Sunset over One Tree Island, Churchill Islands, Georgian BayToronto at dusk skyline panoramaAbove, going wide.  Top:  A high dynamic range multirow panorama of sunset over Georgian Bay’s Churchill Islands, kayaked into the field and photographed with a Canon 20D and EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5.  Bottom: a traditional single-row panorama of the Toronto skyline, shot with a Canon 5DmkII and EF 50mm f/1.4.

Compared to other pan heads, the Manfrotto 303SPH isn’t going to win any beauty contests.  It’s big and bulky, and takes up a lot of any camera bag.  But it’s proven itself against the elements, especially cold weather work when wearing bulky clothing.  If you want a light-duty vacation-style pan head look elsewhere, but if you want a unit that can take a beating and not gripe under harsh circumstances, the 303SPH is for you.  Highly recommended.

Product:  Manfrotto 303SPH multi-row panoramic head
Best uses:  multi-row panoramic photography
Strengths:  indestructible, good with rain, sun, sand, snow, and ice
Weaknesses:  heavy, bulky
Final verdict:  highly recommended, if you need something bombproof

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