Many of our readers frequently ask us questions about tripod heads and accessories to support heavy camera and lens combinations. Those that are especially new to super telephoto lenses quickly discover that tripod feet supplied by all manufacturers on modern lenses are simply not suitable to be mounted on regular tripod heads. Unfortunately, whether it is Nikon, Canon, Sony or a third party lens manufacturer like Sigma, they all supply non-standard tripod feet with their lenses. For new lens owners it can be a rather frustrating experience trying to figure out which tripod head would fit their large and heavy lenses, because nobody wants a lens worth thousands of dollars to end up crashing on the ground. And since most tripod plates are only equipped with a single mounting point, it can be extremely unstable and even potentially dangerous to mount anything heavier than a few pounds on them. The solution, which has become somewhat of a standard nowadays, was developed by a company called Arca-Swiss back in 1990s and since then has been popularized as “Arca-Swiss Quick Release System”. The idea behind this quick release system is quite simple, but very effective. Almost all professional photographers that use super telephoto lenses have adopted the Arca-Swiss quick release system and more photographers are converting even their regular cameras to this format for ease of use, stability and compatibility reasons.
1) Arca-Swiss Quick Release
The Arca-Swiss quick release system is based on a two piece mechanism. The first piece, generally referred to as a “plate”, is attached to a camera or a lens (or any other device). It comes in a standard, “arca-style” 35mm wide form with a 45° dovetail and can vary in length (a sample plate is illustrated above to the right of the tripod head). The second piece is the mounting base, generally referred to as a “clamp”, where the plate gets attached and secured. The clamp can be fully opened, allowing the plate to be dropped in and secured, or can be partially opened to allow the plate to be slid into the position. The biggest advantage of the Arca-Swiss quick release system is this ability to slide the plate without having to worry about mounting or dismounting anything. The 45° dovetail on the plate, as pictured below, allows equipment to be moved across the clamp and secured in a specific location using a side knob or a locking release.
2) Plates for Cameras
Camera plates are typically attached using a single standard screw of 1/4-20 (per ISO 1222:2010 standard). Since plates can be made for specific camera models, they can vary in shapes and forms on the camera mounting side. The bottom quick-release side, however, must always stay the same. Some camera plates allow cameras to be mounted on the bottom, or on the side using special “L” shaped brackets, as illustrated below:
L-brackets allow for maximum flexibility for mounting cameras, while still allowing access to side panels.
2) Lens Feet and Collars
While such plates work quite well for cameras, they are not suited for lenses with a tripod foot. For heavy super telephoto lenses, there are special replacement arca-style feet and collars that are also specifically designed for each lens. Some of them are interchangeable (for example, a number of Nikon super telephotos like 300mm, 400mm and 500mm mount exactly the same way), but mostly, you have to purchase a different model for each super telephoto lens. It is best to buy such replacement feet for each lens though, so that you don’t need to worry about changing feet in the field with a potential of losing screws and other parts. Here is an example of a replacement foot from Kirk:
And here is how it looks when mounted on a lens and on a clamp:
3) Gimbal Heads
As you can see, the long foot allows for movement on the base mounting clamp and is designed to balance the camera and lens combination. This is another huge advantage of the Arca-Swiss quick release system, as it could be used with a Gimbal-type tripod head that allows for very fluid motion of the setup for photographing fast-moving subjects. Once fully balanced, one does not have to worry about securing the tripod head, which saves a lot of time and energy when shooting in the field. Wildlife photographers often choose Gimbal-type heads as their top choice for this reason alone. Here is Jobu Design’s Pro2 (a great alternative to the famous Wimberley WH-200):
Once a heavy super telephoto lens is balanced and secured on the clamp through its arca-style foot, both vertical and horizontal movements are possible without the need to constantly fiddle with various adjustments and knobs. While tripod ballheads have the tendency to quickly drop the setup towards the heavy side even at a slight angle, the Gimbal head system does not do that (provided that it is balanced).
Over years, manufacturers have been coming up with more creative ways to design their Arca-Swiss quick release clamps. Today, you can find everything from the most basic screw-knob clamps to more advanced panning and sliding clamps for different photography needs such as panorama and macro photography. Here is an example of an extended clamp from Kirk:
And here is my favorite Really Right Stuff panning clamp that I have been using for years:
Panning clamps are great for general photography, as well as specialized needs like panoramic photography. With a panning clamp like above, you can buy a nodal slide for creating single row panoramas, or you can get a complex and expensive multi-row panorama setup with multiple panning clamps for both vertical and horizontal motion. See my article on how to create panoramas for more details about panoramic photography.
5) Versatility and Other Uses
Thanks to the versatility of the Arca-Swiss quick release system, it can be effectively used for pretty much any photography needs – from panoramic and 3D photography, to complex macro setups. Since the plates can move up and down the clamps, opportunities for different setups are practically limitless. As a result, there are many different products and solutions on the market for all kinds of camera gear. And the best part is that you can mix and match different products without having to worry about compatibility issues, because the standard for the plate is mostly the same. Personally, I use a complex custom setup that involves 6 to 8 different components from different manufacturers for testing lenses (more on this on a separate post). It allows me to move my camera side to side and front to back for fine tuning and focus bracketing, which saves me a lot of time and frustration, especially when dealing with de-centered lenses.
6) Most Popular Brands
Here is the list of the most popular brands that manufacture Arca-Swiss quick release plates, clamps, ballheads and other accessories:
- Arca Swiss (Buy at B&H Photo)
- Really Right Stuff
- Kirk Enterprises (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Acratech (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Giottos (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Jobu Design (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Wimberley (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Novoflex (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Hejnar Photo
- Sirui (Buy at B&H Photo Video)
- Sunwayfoto (Buy at B&H Photo Video)