Of plates and balls

I hate quick release plates.

I really do.

I’m talking about the quick release plates built-in the modern day camera tripod pan and ball heads, of course.

In theory, they are a marvellous idea, allowing the photographer to disconnect and refit the camera quickly and easily from/to the tripod without the need to fumble with thumbscrews and the like. But, in current head designs there are so many downsides and design failures that they drown out the original “good idea”.

First, even among a single manufacturer’s tripod heads, the QR plates are mostly incompatible with each other, i.e. they can be used only on the same make and type of head they came with. A notable exception is the Arca/Swiss mount, but even that is such a loose standard that not every manufacturer’s plates fit properly on every Arca/Swiss type head.

Second – and this is really annoying me – it seems that almost every head designer seems to assume that

  • a) Every photographer owns only one camera (or at least, one for every tripod).
  • b) Once fitted, there shouldn’t be any reason to remove the QR plate from the camera, ever.

Well, as for point a), I have 2 digital cameras and 10+ classic film cameras in regular use, and only one proper sturdy tripod (not counting the old, collectable tripods, which are either too flimsy or too heavy for practical use). On both my digital cameras (Panasonic & Olympus) even the smallest of QR plates partially obstruct the battery / SD card compartment, forcing me to remove the plate every time I need to change the battery (point b). Which leads us to the third, and IMHO the worst, design failure…

To fit the QR plate firmly and securely to the camera, almost every design demand either the use of a tool (coin/screwdriver, hex key or pliers) or stronger than average fingers. Even the otherwise excellent Arca/Swiss mount suffers from this problem, the standard plate is too small to allow the use of a big enough thumbwheel or similar… And if you look at my objections to the design assumptions a) and b), you’ll see that this creates an infuriatingly inconvinient impossible situation!

At this point you might like to shout: “There are still head designs without QR plates, too!”. Correct, but from my personal experience – at least those on ball heads – are, from usability point of view, even worse than QR versions; if you want to remove the camera from those without losing the settings, you need to spin the whole camera around! I like to use ball heads, so I haven’t really looked into the traditional pan head designs.

In the rant above, I have used the word “almost” quite often. That must mean that there are some designs which does not have the design oversights described above. Yes, fortunately, after quite a long investigation, I’ve found at least one (I hope it is not the only one) such ball head design: Slik SBH-280 DQ and its big brother SBH-320 DQ. It feels like its designer actually uses cameras… The QR plate has a built-in huge, ⌀52mm thumbwheel; actually you can fit the plate to the camera without first removing the plate from the ball head. Also, the head has two spirit levels and a nice, large round knob for tightening the ball joint.

Slik SBH-280DQ with Kiev 4A
Slik SBH-280DQ

So far, SBH-280 DQ is the first ball head design I feel like using for a long time to come…

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