There are no shortage of camera accessories out there all vying for your attention and hard earned money, it's hard to know what you'll need and when you'll need it. We've probably all made that ill-advised camera accessory purchased only to realize that we either didn't need it or it's actually not all that useful. As a professional photographer I'm not immune to this either, there is a reason that I have a Gary Fong Lightsphere that I hardly use because it's just not that useful.
In my arsenal of photo gear I have one accessory that has proven to be the most useful and I use it nearly every time I'm taking any pictures. The L-Plate. L-Plates are brackets for cameras used most commonly to attach a camera to a ballhead or tripod. Frequently, the L-Plate will have an Arca-Swiss plate that will fit the ballhead on the tripod. Photography Life has a great write up of what the Arca-Swiss quick release system is and its advantages. While I could write a whole blog about that subject, I'm going to focus on the benefits specifically of the L-Plate and why it's been so useful for my photography.
What is an L-Plate?
About six years ago I saw a photographer using a bracket with a tripod and I inquired with him about that system and its advantages. He told me that he had a Really Right Stuff (read: Really Expensive Stuff) L-Plate specifically designed for his Canon 5D Mark II. I had the same camera so naturally I went home and found out how much that L-Plate would cost me, and it was much more than I wanted to pay. I didn't think much more about the Arca-Swiss system after that and just figured that it wouldn't benefit me all that much.
Fast forward to 2017 and a friend of mine is using an L-Plate with his camera, I scoffed and said that he must have spent a fortune on that plate but he said that there was this company called Varavon out of South Korea and they had a reasonably price L-Plate. I researched the company and there seemed to be good reviews, so I dropped the $125 necessary to get an L-Plate for my Canon 5D Mark III. My hope in doing this was that it would be easier to take vertical photos because everything would be lined up already, I was used to working using my Manfrotto ballhead and coming away with photos that weren't at all level.
When my order arrived I was excited to use the L-Plate, and I was surprised to find that the premise of the L-Plate is very simple but highly effective. An L-Plate is a piece of machined metal that hugs the camera in an L shape and attaches to the camera via the tripod mount on the bottom. What made Varavon's L-Plate a little more unique is that the opening on the side of the camera didn't hinder accessing the HDMI, USB, or remote shutter port. This was one of the biggest selling points for me because I use the remote shutter port often and access to that port cannot be hindered. The access was enough to continue to operate the camera as I was used to which was a big bonus for me because I didn't really want to learn how to use my camera again just because I picked up a new piece of equipment. After my experience in Iceland, I didn't come home with the L-Plate and it was forever lost to the icy waters of Kirkjufellsfoss so it came time to purchase a new one. Varavon has since been out of stock of the L-Plate for most of their models so I turned my attention to Really Right Stuff. This was the first piece of equipment had I've purchased from RRS and I'm impressed with the build quality of the L-Plate. It would be easy to make something cheaply and sell it for a premium, but that is clearly not what RRS has done here. The link above will take you to their L-Plates and I'm not at all affiliated with RRS.
Advantages of Using an L-Plate
For years I have been using Manfrotto's RC2 system which helped get me to where I am today and at the time, it was the best system I could afford. It's easy to use and provides okay stability provided you aren't using heavy lenses. The system began not working for me when I was on a fall colors trip in southwest Colorado a few years ago. We were on top of a rugged mountain road looking down at the valley below us all lit up with these amazing fall color, I grabbed my Canon 70-300mm f/4L IS lens and zoom all the way in to 300mm to take "abstract" looking shots of the aspen trees and I'm getting pretty excited because the light is just right and should make for great photos. Days later when I'm back in Boulder and I'm reviewing the photos, much to my dismay I see that many of those photos are very blurry because I needed to take a slightly longer exposure. The weight of the lens and balance when it was all the way zoomed in caused the RC2 plate, though it was tightly locked down, to shift forward and thus creating these terrible images. That's when I started looking into more stability in my ballhead and a better solution for taking crisp photos with zoom lenses.
Another advantage is the convenience of using the Acra-Swiss system to shift quickly between landscape and vertically composed photos, since all you have to do is attach the L-Plate to the tripod on its side where there is another Acra-Swiss mounting option. Because I'm frequently switching between vertical and horizontally composed photos this was a big selling me for me, knowing that my lens will have the stability it needs puts my mind at ease too. The reason why this is more stable than using a system like the RC2 is that when using the RC2 I had to tilt the camera on its side and then try to ratchet down the ballhead as much as possible, shown in the photo below. It was a terrible way to use my ballhead and even if it didn't move, I would often come away with pictures that were far from straight.
Disadvantages of the L-Plate
Let's be real, there are disadvantages to this handy piece of equipment too and though they are not many, there is always one that is the factor. Since L-Plates are made out of machined metal and quite often fitted specifically for the camera body they are also expensive. My RRS L-Plate for my Canon 5D Mk. II cost me $160 and though I can certainly justify that price, it is still an expensive piece of metal. Especially if you're not using pro-grade equipment which usually means heavy glass, you can probably get away with using a different type of connection to the tripod.
There is an inconvenience to shooting with an L-Plate as well because one of my favorite camera accessories is the Black Rapid camera strap and you cannot use this L-Plate with the Black Rapid strap because they utilize the same attachment, the tripod mount. Now, this isn't a huge drawback for me because I'm rarely using an L-Plate when I'm shooting photojournalism or portraits. I am forgetful though and it can be a rude surprise when I have to go through the hassle of taking off the L-Plate and screwing on the Black Rapid strap. Such is life I suppose. You'll notice that I said "take off the L-Plate" instead of unscrewing it and that's the last inconvenience.
The L-Plate is held on there by a screw and you'll need a hex key (Allen wrench) to unscrew the L-Plate from the camera. This is fine if you always carry a set of hex keys with you like you're my bicycle-obsessed roommate named Karl, but for the rest of us I'm frequently forgetting to bring an Allen wrench with me when I head into the backcountry. It may seem like a minor gripe but not being able to unscrew the L-Plate from the camera without a hex key is beyond an inconvenience. To recap, the L-Plate is great but it's expensive and you'll need to start carrying a hex key with you.
I'm pretty passionate about the advantages outweighing the slight disadvantages and the price but I want to hear it from you all, do you use an L-plate? If so, do you agree that it is very useful? If you didn't like it, why?