What Makes the New and Improved Manfrotto Nitrotech Head Special?

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The Manfrotto Nitrotech 612 Head supports cameras and rigs weighing from 8.8 to 26.4 pounds and replaces Manfrotto’s N12, while the 608 supports cameras and rig weighing from 0 to 17.6 pounds and replaces the N8 Nitrotech head. The Nitrotech system uses a nitrogen-filled piston, and not a fluid-filled chamber, to control tilt drag. However, that isn’t the only distinguishing factor of the 608/612 Nitrotech head, so read on for more.

The Piston
The Piston

A Little Bit of History

Back at the dawn of filmmaking, the cameras were all hand-cranked and, since most people are right-handed, early tripod heads had panhandles on the left of the head, allowing the cameraman to crank the film with their right hand and operate the head with their left. But once cameras were motor driven, panhandle attachments started to appear on the right. Pro heads tend to have attachment points on the left and right, as the Nitrotech heads do, which is useful when operating studio-style and using both hands. However, most of the time you end up operating with only one hand, so Manfrotto has taken the opportunity to outfit both left and right rosettes with ARRI anti-twist divots, as well as the locating pins for the Manfrotto Easy Link system. It is a nice place to attach an articulating arm or other accessory mount for a monitor or umbrella holder.

Improved Design

The 608 and 612 are similar to Manfrotto’s previous Nitrotech heads, but they feature some small yet significant improvements over the previous versions. The 608/612 boasts a lower temperature operating range, down to -4° Fahrenheit. While I wasn’t renting a walk-in freezer and comparing different heads at their lower temperature range, I did put the 612 through its cold-weather paces by shooting outside when the temperature was 37° Fahrenheit, which meant one thing for me—gloves. I’ve done a lot of operating with gloves in cold weather and working in the cold is hard enough without gloves getting in the way. However, working with the 612 was no different with gloves or without, which is nice.

Working the tilt lock with gloves on
Working the tilt lock with gloves on
Just a little bit cold
Just a little bit cold

A Word on Drag Settings

To be truthful, I always find myself operating at the highest end of the drag range unless I’m doing a whip pan/tilt. It was the same with the 612, which has a higher payload capacity than any to which I am accustomed. I was working with a GH5, in a half cage, on a rod system with a follow focus and clip-on matte box, I also shot stripped-down with a 500mm mirror lens (equivalent to 1000mm on a full frame camera) to really get an idea of how smooth I could pan and tilt.

Shooting on the dock of the bay
Shooting on the dock of the bay

Shooting cars from the other side of the East River
Built camera rig
Built camera rig

Camera move without following a subject

Just a little tilt down the side of a building

The Details

Gloves

There was no difference between working with gloves and working without. There is enough room to get at all the controls comfortably without catching on anything, even when wearing gloves, and most of the controls are covered in highly textured rubber, which helps you grip them without using an excessive amount of force.

Counterbalance Knob

The knob is on the left of the head and points forward, which is completely different from where it is on most heads. The counterbalance is stepless and the knob pulls out if you need it to clear your camera rig, though you can adjust the counterbalance when the knob is extended or collapsed.

The Tilt Lock

The design of the tilt lock is different from most other fluid heads. The lock is a ring around the tilt drag control knob and not the usual locking lever. The ring has three raised tabs set equidistant around its circumference. This is a huge improvement over the original N8 and N12 heads, which had a locking ring with many small raised ridges and wasn’t comfortable to use. The three raised tabs are very comfortable, and you don’t have to look away from the shot to find and work the tilt lock.

Tilt Drag

Another improvement is that the drag control knob now operates the right way. In other words, unlike the original Nitrotech tilt drag knob, which felt like it worked backwards, turning the tilt drag knob of the Nitrotech 608/612 clockwise increases the drag, while counter-clockwise reduces it. This means that now the tilt drag and the nearby counterbalance work in the same manner, which makes it easier to operate the head without having to think about how it operates.

Pan Drag

The rubber ring has been improved with a deeper texture, so it is now easier to adjust.

Side-Lock Mechanism

Just as with any side-lock system, you can pop the plate into the head from the top and then slide it forward and back to balance your camera on your head. However, while the head’s controls are meant to be manipulated with only the left hand, freeing you to operate with your right hand, the side-lock safety-release mechanism and lock are both on the right-hand side of the head, and can be operated simultaneously with one hand. The locking lever shows very little travel between locked and loose, for adjusting the sliding plate, but it won’t release the plate unless you press and hold the safety-release plunger. The safety release is out of the way, and it’s unlikely that you will accidental press it. This design allows you to use just one hand to loosen, lock, or release your camera. Being able to release the camera plate this way speeds up the workflow without sacrificing the security of the camera on the head.

Camera Plate

The Nitrotech 612 uses the longer 504 plate, which is great for balancing your camera. It includes both ¼"-20 and 3/8"-16 tie-down screws, as well as the locating pin assembly, if you want to use it. But what thrills me is that Manfrotto has brought back the little rubber plug that prevents the tie-down screws from falling out of the plate.

Musings

While overall, I enjoyed working with the Nitrotech 612, there are some things that I would like to see changed or improved.

  1. I would like it if the drag could be made stiffer, just a little. I think that would help when working with lighter gear and making long slow pan and tilt moves. This is a personal preference, of course.
  2. I like the idea of putting the ARRI accessory and Manfrotto Easy link system into the panhandle rosettes. However, I don’t know that is the best placement for them, and I’d like to see an accessory mount that doesn’t move as I tilt up or down. There might be a place on the right side of the head, just where the tilt axis pivots. This would not move as I tilt but would move with the camera as I pan. Now, that would be a perfect place to mount an accessory like a wireless transmitter, or additional monitor, or even a cup holder for hot chocolate, or something stronger, on those days when I’m out shooting in the cold.

Conclusion

Changing the layout of controls from what has become standardized can be a risky move, but I applaud Manfrotto for doing it, and for sticking with it. The new layout makes sense, and the tweaks made to the mechanical operation of the 608/612 head let me concentrate more on the shot and not on how the head functions, which makes it easier to get the shots I want. The 612 is a tripod head I’m looking forward to working with again.

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