Arca-Swiss Quick Release System Explained

Many new photographers are surprised to discover that the tripod feet provided by modern lens manufacturers are not compatible with regular tripod heads. They all provide non-standard tripod feet, regardless of whether they are Nikon, Canon or Sony, or any third party lens manufacturer such as Sigma.

It can be frustrating for new lens owners to find the right tripod head to fit their heavy lenses. Nobody wants to see a lens that cost thousands of dollars crash to the ground. A majority of tripod plates only have one mounting point so it is very unstable and potentially dangerous to mount any heavier than a few kilos.

Arca-Swiss developed the solution back in 1990s. It has since been known as “Arca Swiss Quick Release System”. This quick release system is simple and very effective. Nearly all professional photographers who use super-telephoto lenses use the Arca Swiss quick release system. More photographers are also switching to this format for stability, ease of use and compatibility.

Arca Swiss Z1 with Plate

What is the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System and how does it work?

Arca-Swiss’ quick release system uses a two-piece mechanism. The first piece, commonly referred to as a plate, is attached to a camera, lens or any other device. It is available in standard “arca-style”, 35mm wide forms with a 45deg dovetail. This is an example of an Arca-Swiss plate with two mount spots that can be used for super-telephoto lenses.

Arca Swiss Plate

The mounting base is generally known as a “clamp”. This is where the plate attaches and secures itself (generally, it is located on top of a tripod-head). You can either fully open the clamp to let the plate drop in and secure it, or you can partially open the clamp to let the plate slide into its place.

The best thing about the Arca Swiss quick release system is the ability to slide the plate and not have to worry about mounting or dismounting any equipment. As shown above, the 45-degree dovetail allows equipment to be moved across the clamp, and then secured using a side knob, or locking release.

Arca-Swiss Plates For Cameras

A standard screw of 1/4-20 is used to attach camera plates (per ISO 1222.2010 standard). Plates can be made to fit specific models of cameras. They can also come in different shapes and sizes on the mounting side. However, the bottom quick-release side must remain the same.

Nikon D850 Arca Swiss Plate

There are many types of Arca Swiss plates. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones.

Nikon D850 with RRS Plate

Camera Base Plate

The “base” plate is the simplest Arca-Swiss plate. It is a single-piece CNC machined component that attaches to the camera’s bottom. There are many generic Arca-Swiss bases plates that can fit most cameras. However, it is best to get plates that are made specifically for your camera body. These plates are more compatible with the camera’s shape and can attach more securely than generic ones. Camera-specific plates are more expensive and can’t be used with other cameras.

This is an example from Really Right Stuff of an Arca Swiss plate for the Nikon D850 DSLR.

Here’s how it looks when mounted to the Nikon D850

L-Bracket

Although generic or camera-specific bases plates are great, many photographers find them difficult to use when changing between vertical and horizontal orientation. The “L”-shaped bracket (also known as L-Bracket) is more practical because it allows photographers to release the plate from the side and reattach it from below the head of the tripod. This is an example for a single-piece L bracket that fits the Nikon D850 DSLR.

RRS L-Bracket for Nikon D850

Here’s how it looks mounted on the Nikon D850

Single-piece L brackets are my favorite and I have them on every camera that I own. They are lightweight and save me a lot of time when I have to quickly change from vertical to horizontal orientation or vice versa.

L-Bracket Nikon D850

L-brackets offer maximum flexibility in mounting cameras while still allowing for side panels to be accessed. Some cameras are difficult to design L-brackets because of large side panel doors or other issues. This is why modular brackets are recommended.

Modular Brackets

Modular brackets allow for flexibility in design and can be modified to suit specific requirements. A modular L-bracket is usually made up of two parts: a camera base plate and a sideplate that can be attached using screws. Really Right Stuff makes modular plates that can be attached and detached as necessary. They often include a Hex Allen Wrench in the base plate design, as shown below.

Arca-Swiss Nikon D850 Modular Plate

I recommend that you choose a single-piece or modular L-bracket when choosing between your camera’s L-bracket. It will be lighter, smaller and easier to use.

Collars and Lens Feet

These plates are great for cameras but not for tripod-foot lenses. Special replacement arca-style collars and feet are available for heavy super-telephoto lenses. While some of them can be interchanged (e.g., there are many Nikon supertelephotos that mount the same way as 300mm, 400mm and 500mm), most super-telephoto lenses require a completely different model.

You can buy replacement feet for each lens, so you don’t have to worry about changing your feet in the field. Kirk offers a replacement foot.

Kirk LP-46 Replacement Foot

Here’s how it looks mounted on a lens or on a clamp.

Kirk LP-46 Replacement Foot with Lens

Gimbal Heads

The long foot, which allows movement on the base clamp and balances the lens and camera combination, is visible as you can see. The Arca-Swiss quick-release system has another advantage: it can be used with a Gimbal tripod head, which allows for fluid movement of the setup to photograph fast-moving subjects.

After the tripod is balanced, you don’t have to worry about attaching the head. This saves you a lot of energy and time when out in the field. This is why wildlife photographers choose Gimbal-type heads over other types. The Jobu Design DMG-HD4 is a great alternative to Wimberley WH-200.

Jobu Design Pro2

After a super-telephoto lens has been balanced and secured to the clamp via its arca style foot, horizontal and vertical movements can be made without having to fiddle with numerous adjustments and knobs. The tendency of tripod ball heads to drop the setup towards their heavier side, even at slight angles, is not a problem with the Gimbal head system (provided it is balanced).

Clamps

Manufacturers have come up with new ways to design Arca-Swiss quick release clamps over the years. You can find everything you need for photography, from basic screw-knob clamps to advanced sliding and panning clamps such as those used for macro and panorama photography. This is an example from Kirk of an extended clamp:

Kirk QRC-4 Clamp

Here is my favorite Really Right Stuff panning clamp, which I have used for many years.

Really Right Stuff Panning Clamp

Panning clamps can be used for both general and specialized photography needs, such as panoramic photography. You can either buy a single row panorama maker like this one, or you could get a multi-row panorama system with multiple panning clamps that can be used for horizontal and vertical motion. For more information about panorama photography, see my article How to Create Panoramics.

Multipurpose and other uses

The versatility of the Arca Swiss quick release system allows it to be used for almost any type of photography, from 3D and panoramic photography to macro setups. There are many options for different setups because the plates can move up or down the clamps. There are many options for different camera gear, so there are many products and solutions available. The best thing is that you can mix-and-match different products without worrying about compatibility issues. Most plates are the same.