Nathan Griffin Photographs

why you need an l-plate for your camera

inn at the mill

One of the more frustrating aspects of using a camera on a tripod is taking pictures vertically.  Whether you are using a cheapie walmart tripod, or a $400 ballhead, taking a vertical picture brings several problems that can hinder getting the camera in the right position and capturing a sharp image.

The Problem

With most ball-heads, you orient your camera vertically by tilting the camera so that the stem of the ball drops into a slot in the head's body.  "Flopping" your camera over in this manner creates several problems. First, the center of the lens is moved away from your subject. If your subject is a long way away, then this is not that noticeable. However, with macro or wide-angle shots with close subjects, this displacement can totally screw up your composition. You basically have to start over by raising your tripod, then scooting the whole rig to the right.
The second problem is that once the stem of the ball hits the bottom of the slot, you have no more room to adjust.  If the tripod is perfectly level and you flop the camera fully into the slot, your camera should be level. However, what if your tripod is not exactly level, which it won't be when you are in a hurry to set up. This can lead to your camera being just short of level with no more room to adjust. Even if you can get the camera level, you may prefer to rotate a little more to fit your composition; if you are at the end of your travel with the ball head, you can't accomplish this without fiddling with the angle of the tripod.  

Side Flop

Roll your mouse over the image to see what happens when you "flop" your camera into the drop slot of a ballhead.

 Another problem with using the drop slot for vertical shots is that the camera is canted out away from the head and off to the side.  This creates a more unstable platform.  Depending on the weight of your body and lens combination and the size of your tripod, tipping and falling could be a risk.
The Solution

The three problems listed above all point to one fact; a ballhead offers greater control and versatility when operated with the stem pointed up and not in a slot.  What you need to orient your camera vertically is a second attachment point on the side of your camera.  This is exactly what an L Plate accomplishes.

L Plate mounted on camera body and attached to ball head in the verical position.
RRS L-Plate Bottom

 An L Plate is just that - an L shaped bracket that offers two sets of dovetail slots for mounting to an Arca Swiss type clamp.  The first mounting slot is on the bottom of the camera.  The second mounting slot is at the short "L" part of the bracket on the camera's left side.  In lieu of the tripod and head dance when you want to take a vertical picture, simply loosen your head clamp, remove the camera from the head, rotate the camera and remount on the head.  It takes longer to read this description than to actually do it - I can go form horizontal to vertical using an L Plate in about 3 to 5 seconds. Quick and easy! 

Side with L-Bracket

With an L-Plate: Roll your mouse over the image to see a better way to take vertical pictures.

In the Roll-over image above, notice that the lens stays centered when you flip the camera into the L-Plate? There is a bit of a shift, but it is very manageable with only a slight movement to correct and get the subject back in the center. This slight shift is only noticeable on macro or close-up photography - with a longer distance between camera and subject, it is not noticeable. Below are a few more illustrative pictures showing an L-Plate in action:

Front Flop
Front L-Bracket

Bad: Roll your mouse over the image to see what happens when you "flop" your camera.

Good: Now roll your mouse over the image to see the RRS L Plate in action.

In the examples above, it is apparent that the weight remains very centered when mounting the camera with the L Plate (right picture). The left picture shows how flopping the camera to take a vertical picture makes the whole rig unstable. Again, note that the lens stays much more centered helping your composition stay centered when changing from horizontal to vertical.
L plates are only useful when using lenses that don't have collars.  Many longer lenses have their own mounting feet with a collar that allows the camera body to be rotated 90 degrees while keeping the head upright.  If you are only going to use your tripod with longer lenses, you don't need an L Plate.  If you use your camera with shorter and wider lenses that don't have a mounting foot, an L-Plate will be greatly needed.  In my opinion, there is no excuse to purchase a high dollar tripod / head combination and not buy an L Plate for camera body at the same time.
Purchasing an L-Plate
L Plates are almost universally "Arca Swiss" type connections, which is a dovetail type interface as seen on the L-Plates shown on this page.  Really Right Stuff (RRS) and Kirk are two companies that make Arca Swiss compatible plates, heads, clamps, and L-Plates.  I have been very pleased with the RRS products that I have purchased. The L Plate shown on this page is manufactured by Really Right Stuff - see my review here.  RRS products are distributed from their headquarters and they can be directly contacted for prices and for ordering information.