The Manfrotto BeFree Carbon tripod follows on from where its aluminum sibling left off, albeit with a new carbon construction that not only reduces its weight but also increases its stiffness and its carrying capabilities.
The BeFree Carbon is clearly aimed towards travel photographers for who weight and size is essential. When folded it is a tiny 40cm (15,7in) in length even with the included ball head attached and weighs in at just 1.1kg. This makes packing the tripod into your suitcase or even your hand luggage a breeze.
From my first impressions this tripod is certainly eye catching. It comes with red and white Manfrotto livery running down its upper leg section. I haven’t used the tripod over a long enough period to know how well the graphics hold up to use (and abuse) but so far they seem hardwearing.
The striking design certainly makes the tripod stand out when it’s compared with my current tripod of choice, the Gitzo GT1542T Traveler, which opts for a more traditional style.
One of the unique design aspects of the BeFree range is the leg angle adjustment system. On the BeFree carbon there are simple plastic twist caps that allow you to set the legs to two-predetermined angles as well as allowing you to invert them for packing.
This new style of leg angle lock takes some getting use to but actually once you master it, it allows you to easily flick between leg angles with one hand, which is always useful when you are trying to set your tripod up, especially if you are wearing big gloves.
The leg locks on the BeFree Carbon are the standard Manfrotto flip style, which for me is neither here nor there.
I generally prefer the Gitzo style twist locks as you can undo all three legs in a single twist but in terms of real term differences, you are saving all of about 10 seconds, so definitely not a deal breaker for me and actually many people prefer the flip style anyway.
With the legs fully extended the BeFree Carbon extends to a height of 144 cm. It certainly isn’t a tall tripod but when you are looking to save weight and size there have to be some compromises.
When fully extended the lower sections of the legs are quite thin and on first impressions this made me slightly nervous. Having used cheaper ‘travel’ tripods in the past that have been extremely flimsy, I am always wary of thin leg sections. So far however, it seems that the tripod deals with weight quite well and becomes much more sturdy with the extra weight of a camera on top.
The ball head that comes with the BeFree is fairly simple in build with just a single lever to control the movement. If I was using much heavier set ups I would quite like a small adjustment for friction as well but when carrying my Panasonic M4/3 gear, there isn’t really any need. The ball head is based around the Manfrotto 200PL-14 quick release plate but differs slightly compared with the standard base plate. The quick release baseplate on this tripod is cut away to allow the legs to slot in tightly against the tripod when packed up.
When I am giving talks and seminars, I often get asked a lot about a cheaper alternative to my Gitzo. For a long time I used to advise people that most cheaper travel tripods sacrifice a lot of stability for their reduction in size, but since using the BeFree Carbon I have been very impressed.
When you first receive the BeFree carbon, you may be extremely surprised at just how small it is, even compared to my trusty Gitzo traveler, this tripod is really small, almost toy-like at first appearance.
However when in use it is a surprisingly capable tripod. I recently switched my gear to M4/3 so I no longer own any really big gear, but I tested this tripod out using both Nikon DX gear and also Panasonic Lumix kit and there was no issue with it’s ability to hold that gear. The stated payload on the specs is 4kg, which means that it should manage just fine with all but the largest camera set-ups.
The tripod is extremely stable under weight and will be fine handling your gear in all but the most extreme weather (but it’s probably not a great idea to be outside then anyway).
The lightweight build of the tripod makes carrying it much more enjoyable than larger tripods and after a day of it on your back, you will be glad for the 0.5-1kg saving over most standard tripods.
The massive benefit of this tripod is in its small weight and size. When I am travelling, especially now with a smaller compact system set-up, the last thing I want to be doing is hauling a huge tripod that weighs as much as the rest of my gear. The BeFree Carbon is perfect for travel, as it easily slips inside a rucksack or suitcase to make transporting it really easy.
A lightweight tripod means that you are more likely to carry it with you, and less likely to wish you hadn’t left your tripod in your hotel room because it was too heavy.
My only concern over the long-term durability of this tripod is in the plastic leg angle adjusters. Coming from the metal locks of the Gitzo, they seemed a little less hardwearing, however in use, they have yet to be a problem. I have used them quite a bit and there is yet to be any wear apparent so I suspect more than likely they will stand the test of time
I also wish Manfrotto had fitted a small hook to the bottom of the centre column to allow the addition of some extra weight. I often find myself hooking my camera bag to the hook on my Gitzo to really weight it down when it is windy or I need the extra stability and it is something I do miss when using the BeFree. Certainly not a deal breaker but it would have been a nice touch.
If you are a travel photographer and you are looking for a new lightweight tripod set up then I would certainly take a look at the BeFree Carbon. What you get with the BeFree is 95% of the performance of the top of the range travel tripods like the Gitzo Traveler, in an even smaller form, for about 60% of the price. The BeFree Carbon is by no means a budget tripod, but if you are looking to invest in a tripod that is going to be suitable to travel with for years to come, then the BeFree Carbon will be an excellent addition to any kit.