But as my camera 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.