The Bogen quick release system. Courtesy of Bogen Photo.
A variety of custom designed plates made for specific cameras and lenses. Courtesy of Acratech.
A ball head with a quick release clamp and panning base with index marks. Courtesy of Markins.
A ball head without a quick release clamp or panning base. You can mount any quick release system on the platform. Courtesy of Markins.
Kimberly makes a generic plate, the P-5 that fits any camera.
Gitzo makes a unique clamp with a lever operated release. Courtesy of Gitzo.
Really Right Stuff makes a lever-release type clamp that can be used to adapt ball heads. Courtesy of Really Right Stuff.
If you have ever tried to mount your camera directly to a tripod or tripod head using the screw, you know how tiresome it can get after just a few times. To make mounting and unmounting the camera fast and easy, you need a twopart quick release (QR) system. Some tripod heads have clamps built into the head, and for others you can add one. You then attach plates to your camera and heavier lenses that have lens collars on them. To mount the camera on the tripod you just slip the plate into the clamp and lock it in place. To remove the camera, you just unlock the clamp and pull the camera out. It's fast and secure. There are two kinds of tripod heads on which you can mount a QR clamp—the traditional 3-way pan tilt head or a ball head.
The Bogen/Manfrotto System
The Bogen/Manfrotto quick release system uses a lever operated clamp on the tripod and hexagonal plates on cameras and lenses. To mount the camera, you press the lever to open a cam-like lock. You then slide the plate into the clamp's front flanges and press it down in back to push down a pin that closes the cam to lock the plate into position. The system is great with only one drawback. It is a one size fits all solution and some people feel you should be able to use a big plate for a big item and a small plate for a small item. Lots of people use this system and like it. I've used it for years. The only thing to be careful of is correctly inserting the plate into the front flanges that hold it in. It is possible to not seat the plate correctly and you risk losing your camera/lens combination. Once locked in, things are very secure.
The Arca-Swiss System
The Arca-Swiss quick release system uses a tripod channel with "jaws" that can be closed and tightened with the turn of a screw. The channel accepts camera or lens mounted plates that slide into the jaws to be locked in place.
No 3-way head that I'm aware of has an integral quick release system. However, most ball heads do. You can easily add one to any head that doesn't have one built in, although it adds a connection that can rotate on you. The advantage of mounting your own QR system is that you are not locked in. You can always use another quick release system without changing the ball head.
Head mounted clamps and camera or lens mounted plates are almost always Arca-Swiss compatible. There are some generic plates which work well with point and shoot cameras, but most of those designed for digital SLRs are designed for specific cameras. The reason is that camera manufacturers have
never responded to a major need of many photographers. No matter how much you tighten a generic QR plate to a camera body, the weight will cause a camera with a heavy lens attached to rotate,especially when the camera is in a vertical position.
To prevent rotation, camera specific QR plates have an anti-twist flange that prevents the camera from rotating on the plate. The spacing and length of this flange is unique to each camera. Since these plates are also longer, openings have to be machined into them so you can change batteries without removing the clamp. The result is a profusion of designs, the need for multiple plates for different lenses and cameras, and sky-high prices.
Arca-Swiss style clamps usually have an open channel design. You can slide a plate in either end of the clamp and out the other (bidirectional). On some clamps, a plate stopper screw, or other stop device keeps the camera or lens plate from sliding through (unidirectional). Some plates also have a safety stop that does the same thing. These unidirectional clamps and plates make the attachment somewhat more certain, but there are benefits to the bidirectional clamps and plates. Not only can you mount the camera from either end, you can also slide a long plate back and forth in the channel to adjust the camera subject distance in close-up photography. This reduces the need to move the tripod/camera. Some plates have been designed especially long for this very purpose. The ability to slide a long plate back and forth is also beneficial when it's mounted on a long lens. You can move the camera/lens combo back and forth to position it over the center of gravity. This makes it less prone to tip from a too heavy off-center load.
Most ball heads have a 90 degree slot that you use when positioning the camera in a vertical position. The problem is that this doesn't keep the weight of the camera centered over the tripod. For this reason an "L" shaped plate has been developed. With one of these mounted on the camera, you actually have two plates—one for horizontal shots and one for verticals. To change orientations, just remove the current plate from the clamp, turn the camera 90 degrees and insert the other plate. Not only does this keep the camera weight centered, it also makes it much easier to switch between landscape and portrait orientations.
Using an "L" plate, a camera mounted using the horizontal plate (left) or the vertical plate (right).