A Case for L-Plates
I have been using “L-Plates (L-brackets)” from over five years. I started using a Really Right Stuff (RRS) L-Plate on my Canon 5D Mark II and a Manfrotto L-plate for my Pentax P67II medium format camera and loved the convenience that came with these small but indispensable accessories. A few years later I upgraded my digital camera body to a Canon 5D Mark III. Guess what was the first thing I did after ordering the 5D Mark III online? I went straight to the RRS website and bought an L-Plate for the new camera. For landscape/nature/macro photographers, an L-plate is probably the most useful necessary after your tripod and ball-head.
Most “generic” quick release plates are designed to attach to the bottom of the camera body. They are good for shooting horizontal (landscape) orientation. When you try some vertical compositions (AKA the portrait orientation), you have to flop the camera and drop it to the drop notch (see the picture of right). This immediately creates two problems: first, the height of the camera and the horizontal position of the camera are both shifted by 5-6 inches, so you may have to re-adjust your tripod, especially if you are shooting something close. This is very annoying and time-consuming. Secondly, the load of the camera and lens are not centered on the supporting system anymore, thereby reducing the system stability and creating major problems for long exposures.
Moreover, many generic plates do not have anti-twist/anti-rotational features, so the body may slowly “twist” around the screw under load or after as little as a few hours of regular use. You can buy regular plates with anti-twist designs, but they are typically more expensive.
Enter the L-plate. It allows you to easily switch between the horizontal position and vertical position. The mass of the camera is always directly atop the tripod’s apex so you don’t need to worry about reducing stability. The position of the camera remains unchanged, so re-composition is much easier.
Moreover, most L-plates are custom-designed for specific camera models. While this means you need to purchase a new plate after getting a new camera, the benefit is that such system-specific plate provides much precise and tight fit comparing to generic plates; and the anti-twist designs of such plates work extremely well. My RRS L plate was on my Canon 5D Mark II for four years, and I never had to re-tight the screw after initial installation, not even once. Before that, I had to constantly re-tight the screws connecting the generic plates to my other camera bodies.
As of this writing, there are only a handful of companies such as Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises that manufacture this type of plates. Manfrotto also has a few L-plates for using with their ball heads, however they are not compatible with the most popular Arca Swiss-type clamps. I have never tried Kirk plates, although I believe they should be great. I just love my RSS plates. They were extremely well-made and they work well with my other support systems, including RRS nodal slides, RRS pano bases, and Markins ball heads.
There is another trick that is unaware by most people — using an L-plate allows you to put your camera closer to the ground on horizontal orientation, comparing to using a regular plate. Much closer, in fact.
As shown in the picture on the left, with a Gitzo 2541 tripod (center column removed) at the lowest possible position and a Markins M-20 ball head, the bottom of the camera is still 9.5 inches from the ground. You can get the camera much closer to the ground by removing the ball head and screwing the camera directly to the tripod, but you will lose much of your composition freedom. Not to mention all the troubles involved.
Well, with an L-plate, you can first mount the camera in the vertical position, and flop the system to the drop notch of the ball head. Now the camera is only 5 inches from the ground, a reduction of almost 50%! If fact the camera is of the same high of mounting it directly on the tripod without a ball head, but you still have the freedom of using a ball head!
This is very clever, right? In fact, if you slide the camera down in the dovetail of the ball head clamp (be very careful, though), you can position your camera about one inch closer to the ground than mounting the camera directly on top of the tripod can! In the configuration on the right, the bottom of the camera body is only 4 inch from the ground.
Why in world you want to place your camera with such a small clearance? For one thing: macro photography. The subjects are often very small and hiding inside grasses, and you really need to get low, very low.
Even in landscape photography I often have the need to position my camera as close to the ground as possible. Case in point: Nubble Light (Cape Neddick Lighthouse) is a very photogenic location in Maine. Its iconic images have appeared in countless calendars, postcards, magazines and books. When I was shooting the lighthouse, I had to find a very different point of view, something fresh and had not been done before. I found some small puddles of water on the rock, and decided to capture the reflection of the lighthouse. Unfortunately, on that particular day even the largest puddle was only 2-3 feet across. The reflection area was so small, I had to put the camera 3-4 inches above the water surface, and otherwise I could not see any reflections at all!