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The Very Best Quick Release System
Jim Doty, Jr.

Some cold dark night with numb fingers, probably in sleet or snow, you will be trying to thread the screw on top of your tripod head into socket on the bottom of your camera - mini-flashlight clinched in your teeth (if you remembered it). Things won't go well and you will be tempted to mutter things under your breath.  What you need is a first class quick release system that will make things much simpler and faster. Otherwise, you might miss your shot while fumbling in the dark.

The "Arca-Swiss" quick release system is arguably the best. Just ask countless photographers who have tried other systems and finally decided to go with the best. After trying other systems, I finally went the Arca-Swiss route a number of years ago and never looked back.

The system is simple in concept. On top of your tripod head is clamp with a pair of "jaws" (my nontechnical term) that grabs onto a matching grooved plate that is attached to the bottom of your camera. It is quick and secure as long as you have the grooved plate seated within the jaws.

I recommend two first class companies that make Arca-Swiss compatible systems, Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff. I order equipment from both companies and they are both excellent to deal with.

Arca-Swiss style mounting plate and clamp. Photo copyright Jim Doty., Jr.

Camera mounting plate (top) and tripod head quick-release clamp (bottom)


You can get started for less than $100 with a universal mounting plate for your camera and a clamp (with jaws) that screws onto your tripod head (see above). Screw the mounting plate securely to the bottom of your camera with the grooves running parallel to the back of your camera. Then screw the clamp on to your tripod head (see below) and tighten it down so the jaws run left and right (not front to back). The knob on the clamp should be toward you or away from you (your choice), not to the side. When you use a telephoto lens with a mounting plate (bottom of the page), you will want the knob to the left or right. The plate lives on your camera and the clamp lives on your tripod head. They are both easily removable.

Arca-Swiss style camp mounted on a 3-way tripod head. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Arca-Swiss style universal clamp (2 inches wide)
mounted on a 3-way tripod head

The weight of your gear determines the width of the clamp you will need. ("Width" refers to the width of the "jaws", not how far apart the jaws will spread.) For a small point-and-shoot camera, a clamp with jaws an inch wide is perfectly adequate. For an SLR with an 80-200mm or 100-400mm telephoto lens, you will want a clamp with jaws that are 2 inches wide (like the clamp in the photo immediately above).

To mount your camera on the tripod head, unscrew the knob so the jaws are wide enough to drop in (or slide in) the grooves on the mounting plate, then turn the knob to securely tighten the jaws into the grooves. Simple: unscrew, drop in, screw. You can do it quickly and securely on a cold, dark night!

For more money (and I highly recommend you do this), get a mounting plate that is made specifically for your model of camera. It will have a curved lip that fits against the back of your camera so the camera won't twist on the mounting plate. Even better is to get an "L-bracket" made specifically for your model of camera. Thanks to the grooves on the side of the L-bracket (in addition to the grooves on the bottom), an L-bracket allows you to mount your camera vertically or horizontally and in both cases the camera is directly over the tripod head (see below). This is much steadier (and more secure) than flopping the camera over to the side to do vertical shots which was always an inherently unstable proposition. Just think, no more problems with the camera turning on the tripod screw when you go vertical!

Really Right Stuff “L-bracket” in the jaws of a Kirk Enteprises ball head. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Canon camera and Really Right Stuff "L-bracket"
in the jaws of a Kirk Enteprises BH-3 ball head


You can also buy a ball head from either company with the clamp/jaws built right into the head (see below). Such a deal!

Ball head with built in “Arca-Swiss” compatible “jaws”. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Ball head with built in "Arca-Swiss" compatible "jaws"


If you have long telephoto lenses that you mount on the tripod head, you will need mounting plates made specifically for your lenses (below).

Telephoto lens mounting plate in the jaws of a tripod head. Photo copyright Jim Doty Jr.
Telephoto lens mounting plate in the jaws of a tripod head


If you adopt this system, it also makes it much easier to do panoramic photography with very minimal additional equipment.

Head on over to Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises and check out their gear.

December 3, 2010
Updated March 18, 2011

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