Kevin Merchant Photography Articles

What is an L-Bracket and why would I want one?

August, 2012

What is an L-Bracket and why would I want one?

Most, if not all, SLR/DSLR camera bodies have a 1/4" threaded hole on the bottom of the camera body for the purpose of fastening it to a tripod head. This puts the camera in what is known as the landscape orientation on the tripod. In order to switch to what is known as the portrait orientation, the camera is flopped over to the side. The L-Bracket is designed to be bolted to the camera tripod mount, resembling the shape of an L. L-Brackets are designed to fit the Arca-Swiss quick release mounting system (I'll talk about that in a minute) in either the landscape or portrait orientation.

1/4" thread hole Horizontal/Landscape orientation Vertical/Portrait orientation
1/4" threaded hole Landscape Portrait
L-Bracket L-Bracket L-Bracket

What does this do for you? After you have gotten the tripod height adjusted for landscape mode and you want to make a portrait composition of the same scene, the camera has to be flopped over to the side, off center from the vertical axis of the tripod (I'll get to the significance of this in a bit). Not only do you have the weight of the camera body and lens cantilevered off the tripod, potentially making it unstable, now you are either bending over to look through the viewfinder or you must readjust the tripod height for the new camera position. An L-Bracket solves this problem by allowing you to change the orientation of the camera without making any adjustment to the tripod head, affecting the vertical height, and thus not requiring any adjustment to the tripod head or legs. This saves time when light is rapidly changing and in other time critical situations.

Vertical/Portrait orientation Vertical/Portrait orientation
Portrait Much better

What is the Arca-Swiss quick release? The quick release system consists of two parts - a tripod head and a mating bracket designed to attach to the 1/4" tripod thread hole found on SLR/DSLR cameras. The bracket mates with an open channel dove-tail joint clamp on the tripod head, which can be tightened or loosened, to clamp or release the camera bracket respectively. This design came from the Arca-Swiss company, a maker of high quality, very precisely made ball heads, but has come to be a widely supported method for camera mounting.

Arca-Swiss style clamp Arca-Swiss style bracket Bracket in clamp
Arca-Swiss style clamp Arca-Swiss style bracket Bracket in clamp

Since I switched to the Arca-Swiss system I haven't looked at any other system because it works well for me and my shooting style - using the tripod almost all of the time. Also, brackets that are designed specifically for a particular camera body incorporate a lip that prevents the camera from twisting on the mounting bolt. This sort of camera creep is most annoying when you have spent considerable time and effort to compose a shot only to find that the camera has rotated downward. In a pinch, you can rotate the camera back up into position to make the shot, but you will eventually need to tighten the bolt. Murphy's Law, being alive and well, says that the wrench to tighten the bolt will be in the most inconvenient place; hopefully not at home. This bracket lip also takes stress off the mounting thread on the camera body.

Camera rotated downward Camera rotated downward L-Bracket with lip
Camera rotated downward L-Bracket with lip

Besides keeping the mass of the camera body and lens from being cantilevered off the tripod, why is keeping the camera on the tripod vertical axis important? It allows the camera, and more specifically, the digital sensor of the camera, to be panned on the vertical axis of the tripod. If you shoot for panoramic stitches, which I do quite a bit, this is most important. As a matter of fact, this particular use is what prompted me to write this article. I recently upgraded to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and wanted the optional battery grip. But the availability of the battery grip lagged the release of the camera by a month or two. And, I wanted the L-Bracket for the camera/battery grip combination as opposed to the one for just the camera body - they are different and not exactly cheap. And, of course, the availability of the L-Bracket lagged the release of the battery grip.

Camera rotation for panorama
Camera rotation for panorama

So I had this new camera for several months with no L-Bracket (I've really become attached to my L-Brackets). I used a spare generic bracket in the mean time. The first time I went to make a portrait shot, I really missed my L-Bracket because not only did I have to flop the camera over, it had the dreaded tendency to creep downwards. When I went to set up for a panoramic series of shots, I really, really missed my L-Bracket. That's when it hit me how important it is to have an L-Bracket for making panoramics - the camera can be set up so that the entrance pupil (my article Shooting For Panoramas discusses this) of the lens rotates on the vertical axis. This prevents significant optical distortion, which becomes critical when it comes time to stitch the series of images together (you don't really want to fix this in Photoshop). Thankfully, I now have my new L-Bracket for the 5D Mark III.

While my initial reason for getting the L-Bracket was to make going from landscape to portrait mode easier, making panorama images has made it an essential tool. I have an L bracket for each camera body (they are not generally interchangeable). Additionally, I have specially designed Arca-Swiss style brackets, with a lip to prevent rotation, for each lens which has a tripod-collar mount. When I'm in the field working, I don't want to mess with swapping brackets.

Obviously, this article assumes that you have or will make the investment in a tripod head with an Arca-Swiss style clamp. Even if you don't want the expense/weight of an L-Bracket, there are also standard brackets designed for specific camera bodies giving you both the quick release ability and the lip to prevent camera rotation.

After a number of years of frustration and expense on equipment that now gathers dust, I believe an Arca-Swiss style ball head and appropriate brackets are the best in-the-field solution you can find for outdoor photography. Yes, it does represent a fair amount of investment, but the reward is worth it when you come back from a trip with the images you were after. For me, it is part of my craft of producing the best images I possibly can.

I personally use the original Kirk ball head (it was cheaper and lighter weight than the Arca-Swiss ball heads at the time of purchase) and Really Right Stuff brackets. Both manufacturers now make high quality ball heads and brackets, so you have a choice of systems and I can equally recommend them both.

Happy shooting and let me know if you find this article useful. Also, let me know if you have questions or comments.
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