A Kirk L-bracket on a Nikon D300s connected to a Markins ballhead with an Arca-Swiss standard clamp
When I first started using tripods seriously, I had a Velbon aluminum tripod and Gitzo G275 ballhead
. The combination served me well for many, many years. The tripod was sturdy, but not very flexible, and the ballhead as good as they came when it was designed and made, which was probably sometimes in the 50's or 60's or maybe even earlier.
The ballhead had a flat top with four holes and a standard 1/4” screw that went into the bottom of the camera, and I simply screwed my camera body onto the ballhead when I used the tripod. The top plate was covered with cork, and did a reasonable job of clinging on to the camera.
My first real ballhead, the Gitzo G275, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod. No Arca-Swiss clamps or brackets here.
[Photo: Henning Eskol]
But as my cameras and lenses grew larger and heavier and my needs for more flexibility followed, I invested in a Manfrotto o55XB tripod and a Manfrotto 322R ballhead/grip combo. I loved the tripod and still use its larger brother 055XPROB as my primary tripod, but the grip wasn't really what I imagined.
The Manfrotto pistol grip in action. Still no Arca-Swiss, but alt least a quick release.
[Photo: Henning Eskol]
It's kind of a pistol grip, which enables you to grab the handle and quickly release the ballhead, readjust the camera and let go of the grip, locking the camera again.
This sounds very neat on paper, and works OK, but not fully as I'd expect, because no matter how I adjust the tension in the system, the camera can always be moved and has a tendency to tip a bit when I let go of the grip where it's supposed to immediately lock. Using a large camera and a large lens – like my previous camera, a Konica Minolta 7D with a battery pack and a Tokina 100-300 mm f/4 or later my Nikon D200 with a vertical grip and a 70-200mm f/2.8 – the head simply doesn't hold the gear when I let go, but “dips” or moves slightly. And I can move it by simply pushing on the camera or lens. Not good!
When I lock the camera on a tripod, I want and expect it to sit exactly where I set it – and stay there.
I'm also bothered by the flimsy quick release adapter system on the Manfrotto heads. While the concept of a quick release system really appeals to me, it has to be as sturdy as the rest of the system, and the small square Manfrotto camera plates just don't sit tight enough. If I turn the camera to a vertical position where the lens and body hangs on the side of the ballhead, the plates often come loose and the whole assembly turns vertically. Also not good!
When mounted on a tripod, the camera must be able to go to any position and simply sit like in a vise.
The Manfrotto 322R ballhead/grip combo
A photographer friend of mine used a Kirk L-bracket on his Nikon and had a ballhead with an Arca-Swiss clamp on his tripod. That was just as sturdy as I wanted, and soon after I ordered a Markins Q10 ballhead
and a Kirk L-bracket for my D200. And that was the start of a long and happy relationship to the Arca-Swiss standard. I have several heads and clamps now as well as brackets and plates for all my gear – SLR's, lenses, GoPros and other small cameras and accessories. The system is also sometimes referred to as the dovetail style, because of its shape and perhaps because some manufacturers don't want to give Arca-Swiss their well deserved credit.
The plates and heads are typically better made than the ones from Manfrotto, they all fit together between different manufacturers and first and foremost: the gear sits very tightly when it's mounted. And that's not least because the system is constructed like a small vise, which you use a screw to tighten.
To be fair, Manfrotto has just started making QR-plates and clamps that adhere to the Arca-Swiss standard, so you can get Manfrotto gear for this standard if you want.
The Manfrotto plate
A generic Arca-Swiss compatible plate
An Arca-Swiss plate made for the camera
An Arca-Swiss L-bracket made for the camera
Generic plates adhering to the Arca-Swiss standard
A small generic plate on the Fuji X100
The plates and brackets are typically custom made for each camera model and is different whether you have a battery pack mounted or not. They usually don't swap between different camera models, and that is one of the reasons for their sturdiness. They simply fit the camera and locks it perfectly. You can buy both generic and universal plates, but I recommend the tailor made ones for larger cameras and lenses. On smaller cameras and accessories you can use small, plain plates, and I have for instance made a quick release adapter to my GoPro video camera by sticking one of GoPro's adhesive clamps onto a small, square plate.
The L-brackets have two plate sections, and allow the camera to be tipped from horizontal to vertical without leaning the ballhead over to the side. That retains a good balance and keeps the ballhead oriented in its strongest position – upright – as well as keeping the camera and lens in the same line whether it's tipped or not.
You can also buy a host of replacement feet for larger lenses, which are swapped with the lens manufacturer's standard feet and offer the same crushing grip when mounted on the ballhead.
On the images below you can see why the L-bracket is to prefer when changing from landscape to portrait. The L-bracket keeps the camera vertically over the tripod with no extra strain on the arrangement, and it keeps the lens almost in the same spot. The plain bracket does not. It shifts the position and weight of the camera dramatically.
L-bracket, horizontal, landscape
L-bracket, vertical, portrait
Flat bracket, horizontal, landscape
Flat bracket, vertical, portrait
Standardizing on Arca-Swiss does not come cheap, because these accessories are mostly quite expensive.
One thing is the ballheads and clamps, which can be complex constructions with many precision made parts, but even the simplest camera plates seem to come at hefty prices in the 50.- to 60.- and even 100.- US$ range for the simple plates and 200-250.- US$ for the L-brackets. You can buy less expensive alternatives, but only the plain plates and rarely the ones made specifically for a certain camera or lens – which is definitely what you want, especially for larger pieces of gear. The whole idea is to get a really firm grip, and for that the custom made plates are a must.
Markins Q10 ballhead
Acratech Ultimate ballhead
My ballhead from Markins is also another league compared to both the Manfrotto grip and my old Gitzo head – both in price and quality. It sports a large ball and an extremely smooth and precise tightening system, which can leave the head in a position with some friction, grab it as tight as you can imagine or allow it to move totally freely. It can take a load of 40 kilos (80 lbs) and doesn't move a fraction of a degree once it's tightened, but also weighs in at a frightening 550.- US$. Of course that's nothing compared to the 2,000.- US$ titanium version!
Well, I settled for the less expensive alternative, which was still more expensive than the tripod.
Since I have more than one tripod, I wanted a second ballhead, and I managed to get my hands on a used Acratech Ultimate head for about 100 US$, which is very different in design, but equally well built and sturdy, and of course Arca-Swiss compatible.
Having started doing some video recently, I also acquired a fairly inexpensive, dampened Giottos video head, which has the same plate system and allows all my existing plates and brackets to be used. The construction and quality is far from Markins and Acratech, but fine for my limited use.
Lens plates - left a generic plate and right a full Kirk replacement foot
Many larger lenses have built-in tripod mounts, which enables you to mount the lens rather than the camera on the tripod. For the large and heavy telephoto lenses this makes very good sense, and puts less strain on the mount because the load is better balanced.
On the pro grade lenses the mount or plate can be removed, and many of the manufacturers make replacement plates that fit an Arca-Swiss clamp. You can in other words exchange the whole standard screw mount lens foot with a quick release foot that will fit in with all your other Arca-Swiss gear.
I bought a Kirk replacement plate for my Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 and the new plate is both Arca-Swiss compatible and much better built than the original that came with the lens from Nikon. On lenses where you can't remove the built-in plate, you can usually mount a generic plate, even trough the grip won't be nearly as good as with the specially designed plates.
A Manfrotto Magic Arm with an Arca-Swiss compatible clamp
I also bought a couple of Manfrotto arms – a Magic Arm and a Flexible Arm - plus a couple of Super Clamps. The arms both end in Manfrotto's very useful studs for flash brackets, but I also wanted to be able to attach a camera to these arms. The goose neck arm will only hold a small camera, but the Magic Arm is strong enough to hold a large SLR.
For that purpose I needed another Arca Swiss clamp, and luckily these are available in a horde of different shapes, sizes and qualities (and prices). I picked up a reasonably priced one on eBay (35.- US$), and have mounted it on the magic arm using a 3/8” thread bit. If I tighten them together and maybe add some Loctite, the head should sit firmly enough to be able to hold a camera upright. It might not hold when leaned sideways, but it will work. The system will easily hold a GoPro or a smaller camera such as my Fuji X100.
The whole idea with the unified clamp system and the many heads, plates and brackets is of course to be able to switch all the gear back and forth between all the different tripods, clamps and arms. By using the same standard, everything fits together, and by using Arca-Swiss I get a very sturdy connection.
It has taken me a little while to build up an arsenal of Arca-Swiss gear, but now that I have it I'm really happy with my choice.
Creating an Arca-Swiss clamp for a GoPro using a generic plate and an adhesive GoPro clamp
Using the clamp mounted on a Manfrotto Flex Arm to hold a GoPro camera
Acratech looks very futuristic, but works perfectly and is made to high standards.
Arca Swiss is still a brand, but they aren't that common in the shops.
Custom SLR makes a plate that is both Arca Swiss and Manfrotto compatible and at the same time doubles as a strap attachment for the popular bottom mounted straps like BlackRapid, Sun Sniper, Spider Holster, Cotton Carrier and more.
Giottos has a varied selection from the really sturdy to the really flimsy.
Fusion Photo Gear
Fusion makes a plate that is both an Arca Swiss compatible bottom plate and a bottom strap attachment.
Hejnar Photo has clamps, plates, L-brackets and more
Induro has both clamps and plates as well as ballheads and tripods and monopods, all using the Arca Swiss standard.
Jobu Design has plates, gimballs and other accessories.
Kirk does have some really nice stuff, plates, L-brackets and even tripods and ballheads.
Primarily known for its tripods and ballheads, but also makes a quick release system of its own design, and recently an Arca-Swiss compatible clamp and plate system.
Markins makes some really great ballheads, separate clamps and plates to fit almost all cameras and lenses as well as a whole row of generic plates and a few L-brackets. For Europe
Oben mainly manufactures tripods and monopods, but has a large selection of ballheads and plates. Some are Arca Swiss compatible and some look more like the Manfrotto system.
Peak Design Capture is a special type of clamp, which allows you to clamp the camera onto a harness or a belt. It's designed to carry the camera rather than to attach it to a tripod, but the camera plate is Arca-Swiss compatible, and will allow you to clamp the camera onto a quick release clamp. Their Kickstarter campaign
Really Right Stuff
Really Right Stuff also has some really nice stuff, but some of it is kinda pricey.
Different Arca-Swiss items
I have now almost religiously adhered to the Arca-Swiss standard, and clamp more and more of my photo related gear together using this system. That also means that I have invested in more plates, clamps, ballheads and lots of loose screws and bolts.
Since I wanted several more plates, clamps and even an extra ballhead or two I could see myself spending quite a bit of money if I were to buy brand name items. These come at a premium, and I thought I'd try my luck with something less expensive. There's a ton of medium and low price Arca-Swiss items available online on Amazon and eBay, and I tried ordering from different sources.
Most of the items work well and as expected. There's a big difference between the high end gear and the China-made stuff. A couple of examples:
I bought a ballhead called Pro Camera Ballhead at only 20 UK£ or some 35 US$ including postage. This works pretty well, but has an odd construction with two knobs to tighten the ball. I have no idea why this is done. It should in principle work quite well with just one, but has two. And you need to loosen and tighten both to get the ball loose and tight. I have it mounted on a Manfrotto Magic Arm and it works absolutely fine. I just bought a Manfrotto Friction Arm and have considered acquiring another similar ballhead for that.
Rail, clamp and plate ready to use and useless bubble levels
I also bought several loose clamps from different sources. They also do the job and seem to be mechanically well made and precise enough to grip whatever plate I put in there. The cheapest ones were just 2.50 UK£ or less than 4.25 US$ a piece. Each has three bubble levels. I never use bubble levels which is lucky because these are really totally worthless. Whomever designed them have no idea what they are supposed to do, and none of the six levels do what they are supposed to do: show when the head is level. The ones in the knobs are not level with the knob, so they show that the thing is askew to any side you turn it and has no useful relevance to horizontal. The ones on the sides are equally off and while such levels are supposed to be filled with spirit or some thin liquid to get a fast response these seem to be filled with oil and are slow as molasses in the winter. And the air bubbles are different sizes, so while one is smaller than the marks, another is bigger. As I said: I never use them anyway, so I don't care and will either ignore them or tape them over.
Update late 2014: the cheap clamps both revealed their true quality. Even though they grip as they are supposed to, both of them failed by one of the springs that press the clamp apart simply bending and peeking out between the parts. Now I have to poke this spring back in place every time I've had the clamp open. Not good at all! I have ordered a couple of more expensive and hopefully better clamps as a replacement.
I bought an 180 millimeter Arca-Swiss compatible rail for my newly built camera obscura and that will double as a sliding macro rail as well as a extension for different uses.
All these parts need 1/4 and 3/8th inch screws to keep them together and I ordered a whole bunch of 1/2, 3/4 and 1 inch button head and countersunk screws as wells as some headless grub screws to be able to connect everything. So now I can clamp and tighten basically everything I have in the form of tripods, arms and rails.