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Put a Clamp On It!

With only a small degree of exaggeration, I once remarked that I had a quick-release plate on everything I owned other than my toothbrush. All those plates mean I also have a few quick-release clamps. And a few opinions.

There once was a time when mounting a camera to a tripod was mechanically simple, but time-consuming. Even today, nearly all camera bottoms come equipped with a screw hole for this purpose. But over time, various mounting systems of sprung up to simplify things. All such systems utilize the camera screw hole to affix a mounting plate permanently than can then quickly mate with a matching clamp atop the tripod head.

Equipment manufacturer Acra-Swiss developed what has become the most famous system, but there are others. The Manfrotto/Bogen "hex plate" saw some popularity with shooters back in the 1980s and '90s, and several other systems have been developed. But nothing beats the simplicity and reliability of the Arca-Swiss method. Arca-Swiss plates feature dovetail edges that mate with similarly sloped edges on the clamp, providing solid contact along the entire plate edge. Since the debut of the Arca system, a cottage industry making compatible plates has grown into an extensive marketplace of competitors, each vying for your business by developing just the right mix of quality, price, convenience, and other factors.

Early entrants in this field included Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff. The latter, started in October 1990, excelled at producing high-end products that were only available by mailing a purchase check to the founder, Bryan Geyer. RRS had no website and did not accept credit cards. Their products weren't cheap but were famous for being custom CNC machined out of blocks of solid aluminum and custom fit for each supported camera model. Joe Johnson bought the company in 2002 and took it online, where it became the industry leader for such hardened aluminum wonders.

These days, you can buy Arca-Swiss compatible plates and clamps from so many sources that it's impossible to keep count. New ones come and go every few months. I seem to always come back to Really Right Stuff for any clamps or plates that really matter. I may buy off-brand stuff for some items, but not for an expensive camera or a big lens. If I give Nikon a couple thousand for there latest and greatest, I can afford to buy the bits that securely hold it from a reliable source. People often forget to budget for such things, but that doesn't make them any less important.

Arca clamps excel in terms of rigidity. Aircraft aluminum isn't apt to bend or flex when milled with sufficient thickness. They also significantly depend on friction. Nothing holds your gear other than pressure from the jaws of life. The bigger the attached gear, the bigger the plate and clamp should be to hold it securely.

After initially appreciating the convenience of lever-lock clamps, I've mostly soured on them. They're just too sensitive to manufacturing tolerances to guarantee proper clamping pressure. They also tend to get caught on tree branches and camera bag straps than to traditional screw-lock clamps.

Some clamp and plate manufacturers add "stop" pins at alternate ends to decrease the likelihood of accentual spills. Even with the clamp only partially closed, a piece of gear with stop pins would be able to slide forward only to the point where the pin ran into the back end of the clamp. I don't put much stock in such pins and just make a practice of tightening the clamp fully. The problem with these designs is that they promote the very problem they claim to solve. When relying on stop pins, you develop a tendency not to close the clamp fully. Closed too far, the clamp jaws and stop pins prevent the attached lens from being removed at all. Such a setup no longer qualifies as quick release unless the clamp jaws remain slack. I want the clamp tight, both for safety and for vibration reduction.

A lever-lock clamp that breaks becomes immediately useless. A broken knob-based clamp is severely crippled. Check your knob clamps. Most manufactured more than a few years ago have knobs that can unscrew entirely and come off. I still carry a small hex nut that fits the screw threads on an old clamp, but most new ones feature captive knobs that can't be removed. When checking if yours can come off, be sure to hold the clamp itself tightly in one hand while you unscrew the knob with the other. If it does come off, you'll discover tiny springs inside that provide tension in the clamping mechanism. Drop one on the ground, and it will take you a while to find. Don't ask me how I know.

For your prized gear, avoid plates that rely on rubber or cork pads to create a tighter fit. Nothing beats proper metal-to-metal contact from a custom machined plate. Again, after spending that much on an expensive piece of equipment, it makes sense to budget enough for a plate designed for the contours involved. Go ahead and save some bucks when adding a plate to odds and ends like your toothbrush, but spend what it takes for the important stuff.

Fit and finish vary widely between manufacturers. Functionally, it may matter little if one clamp has a smoother surface than another, but it does serve as a gauge of the manufacturing tolerances of the company that made it. I also appreciate the thoughtfulness with which some companies approach their task. Cheaper plates are basic rectangles in shape. More detailed manufacturing methods result in curved edges and corners but a higher price tag. Some designs include cut out voids on the backside to reduce weight. Every little bit helps, so long as it doesn't sacrifice stability.

Innovations introduced by Really Right Stuff and other major players tend to find their way into the designs of cheaper knock-off imports within a few years. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's a curious situation. Some of the design features are under patent, and legitimate questions can be raised as to the legality of copies. Still, this entire after-market ecosystem began by copying Arca-Swiss designs. Generally, you get what you pay for, though, and I don't mind at all paying for legitimate products, nor can I expect innovators to continue making better products unless they get paid.

Date posted: October 4, 2020


Copyright © 2020 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
My Quest for the Perfect Tripod Head
Adding or Replacing a Tripod Quick Release Clamp, Part 1
Adding or Replacing a Tripod Quick Release Clamp, Part 2
Can You Really Buy a Quality $35 Arca-Compatible Ball Head?

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