The crafty barrel-based design at the centre of this three-way head enables tilt and panning adjustments using just a single locking arm, leaving a thumbscrew to operate for swivel adjustments. Overall, it's quicker to set up than a conventional three-way head, but not quite as fast as a ball head. One downside is that you can't make panning adjustments while keeping the tilt axis locked, and vice-versa.
Like the quick-release plates fitted to the Slik and Vanguard GH-100 heads, the Velbon has a square mounting plate which can be used in any of four positions, without you having to swivel the camera around on the plate. There's practically no sag after you make adjustments, but the quick-release plate is a bit spongy.
For a small three-way head, the Slik has a respectable 4.5kg load rating, but it still feels rather flimsy compared with the Benro, Giottos and Manfrotto three-way heads. It's fairly basic feature-wise, lacking any calibrated scales for pan, tilt or swivel adjustments, and there are no bubble levels. You can, however, remove one of the locking arms and screw it into the other arm for compact carrying and stowage.
The quick-release plate has a square base, enabling it to be fitted in any of four orientations. However, there's no safety lock on the quick-release mechanism, and the plate's locking clamp doesn't give a really firm hold, reducing overall stability.
Despite having a modest 6kg maximum load rating, the Giottos three-way head feels every bit as sturdy as the Benro HD2, which has an 8kg rating. The locking arms are rather longer than on the Benro head, but you can remove one and screw it into the other for compact carrying.
Dual bubble levels are incorporated in the base of the head and the camera platform, making it easy to level the tripod legs as well as the camera itself. The scissor-action quick-release mechanism works well, and the surface coating of the plate enables a very firm connection to the camera.
Most of the heads in this group have a tripod mounting plate that's about 60mm in diameter, which suits the majority of full-sized tripods. However, along with the Slik and Velbon heads on test, this Manfrotto has a smaller 38mm diameter plate, making it ideal for smaller tripods. Like its big brother, the Manfrotto 496RC2, it features a sturdy and excellent quick-release mechanism and plate, plus an adjustable friction damper, although both heads lack a bubble level.
Compared with other ball heads on test, the ball and socket are rather small. And while adjustments are quick and easy, there's noticeable sag after you've let go of the camera, especially with front-heavy camera/lens combinations.
The official maximum load rating of 4kg is meagre compared with similarly priced heads in the group, but the 804RC2 feels as sturdy as the competing Benro and Giottos three-way heads. Like the Benro, there's no facility for screwing one locking arm into the other for streamlined carrying, and the Manfrotto actually features a third locking arm for panning, instead of a more basic thumbscrew.
Handy pan, tilt and swivel scales have five-degree increment markings, and there's a bubble level on the camera plate. Annoyingly, however, adjustments feel very jerky unless you slacken off the locking arms considerably.
The predecessor to this head was the Manfrotto 486RC2, which was a firm favourite with many photographers. The newer 496RC2 adds an adjustable friction damper and a refined safety lock for the quick-release plate, which is spring-loaded so it can't remain in the unlocked position.
Frills like a pan-only locking knob and bubble level are lacking, but the overall stability of the head is simply superb. Unlike the 494RC2, there's practically no sagging post-adjustment, and a dual cut-out in the ball's socket enables quick and easy tilting of the camera in either direction. What it lacks in extras, this head more than makes up for in ease and speed of use, and rock-solid performance.
Read the full Manfrotto 496RC2 review