If you pay it some thought, would you say that there are more portrait orientation or landscape orientation images used in all the media forms across the world?
All film media (movies & television) is shot and viewed in landscape orientation and the cameras are thus designed to be used that way, which makes sense. Stills cameras are also designed for use in landscape orientation even though most photographers very often shoot in portrait mode, which doesn’t make quite as much sense. The only exception to this is pro-body cameras that have an ergonomically designed bottom virtually identical to the right-hand-side of the camera, featuring a second exposure dial and set of shutter, focus and custom-function buttons. This allows the photographer to conveniently shoot in portrait mode – simply rotate the camera 90 degrees and (almost) everything still feels and functions the same.
Unfortunately, designing a camera this way makes it very expensive and bulky, so for most people shooting in portrait involves getting your elbow above your head and giving your right shoulder a workout. That is 50% of the reason why such a thing as a battery grip featuring that second set of buttons on the bottom exists – to make portrait orientation shooting much easier.
The landscape-mode design of cameras is passed on and emphasised (for the worse) when used on a tripod. Any camera is mounted on a tripod by means of a plate that screws into the bottom of the camera, as shown in the second image below. If you wish to mount the camera in portrait mode, there is no hole for the plate-screw in the side of the camera. Somehow the tripod head has to accommodate a 90-degree rotation to allow shooting in portrait. Most tripod head manufacturers have been able to offer some solution for this, but it just doesn’t work, because tripod heads are also designed only to be used in one orientation.
The (problematic) solutions
Before we go any further, lets look at what the market offers as far as tripod heads go.
Three-Way Lever Heads
Firstly, there’s the good ol’ three way lever head that we all started with. This product is a prime candidate for the world’s worst product design. I have broken my brain trying to figure out why someone would design something like this and I finally stumbled upon a solid theory – the inventor had three arms!
If, like me, you’re lucky enough to have two arms, you’ll know that it’s impossible to operate three levers at once in order to easily compose the shot that you want. Three-way lever heads are easy to design and cheap to manufacture, so the photographic gear market is totally flooded with them. Steer clear of these at all costs. These heads barely work in landscape mode, so I wont even discuss portrait mode.
The only exception is the high-quality geared heads that don’t require loosening and tightening of an axis in order to make an adjustment.
This is pretty much the same story. A poor and overcomplicated design made for an uneducated beginner market that doesn’t know any better. It looks convenient to use until you actually use it and realise it belongs in a recycling bin. I owned one nearly a decade ago; we’ve all been there so don’t feel bad. As long as you learn and move on, it’s all okay.
Both of the above-mentioned heads are very unstable when shooting in portrait mode as the tripod’s center of gravity is positioned dangerously off balance.
If you’ve seen the light and gotten to the simplistic excellence of a ball head then you’re not all that bad. Ball heads are compact, super easy to use and durable, thanks to a very simple design. They also leave the tripod’s center of gravity exactly where it should be – directly above the apex of the tripod.
But, there are a few problems that come with using a ball head in portrait orientation:
- Ball heads facilitate portrait shooting by means of a drop-notch, which is a notch in the rim of the cup that allows the clamp (part that the camera is mounted in) to be rotated 90 degrees vertically. The tricky bit is that in order to do so, you first need to rotate the head so that the notch is exactly 90 degrees (on a horizontal axis) to the direction you want to shoot in. Some heads have two notches to make it easier to position the head this way, but it’s a bit like plugging in a USB cable… you’ll always try it the wrong way around first. Similarly, your tripod head will just never be in a position where the notch is a perfect 90 degrees from the direction you wish to shoot in, thus requiring a setup change.
In the first image above you can see that my head is positioned so that the tighten/loosen knob is comfortably situated for a right-handed person, which puts the notch in the wrong position. In order to get the notch in the right place, I had to rotate the head on its base as shown in the second image. This takes time – enough time to miss a critical moment in nature.
- The second problem is that the tripod’s center of gravity ends up being off-balance, begging for an expensive disaster to happen. It might not look much that way in the below image as it’s on a large, well-setup tripod, but most people like using smaller tripods that fall over more easily.
- The sensible thing to do is always to set your tripod up so that the viewfinder is at a comfortable height, otherwise you’ll get back pain from constant crouching. If using the drop notch, the viewfinder ends up substantially lower than it is in landscape mode and that will lead to either a sore back or having to change the setup of the legs.
- When using the drop-notch, the camera is essentially hanging from the cup of the ball head instead of resting in it. This is a notorious source of blurred images.
The unexpected solution
The obvious solution to these problems would be to have another screw-hole in the side of the camera, so you can mount another tripod plate on the side of the camera. Luckily the actual solution is even simpler. Modern aircraft grade aluminum makes it possible to manufacture a tripod plate that wraps all the way around two sides of the camera, can comfortably and safely support the full weight thereof, and weighs just a few hundred grams.
The L-bracket is one of photography’s simplest, yet most genius pieces of equipment. It is useful in any genre of photography that involves a tripod, but because landscape photography is probably the one that makes the most use of a tripod, it is a piece of equipment that is much better known in the landscape genre than any other.
To mount the camera in portrait, simply release the plate from the clamp, rotate the camera 90 degrees and tighten the clamp again. The head can still be used exactly as it was intended to and the camera is mounted on the tripod with a safe and balanced center of gravity. It is very seldom that such a complicated problem has such a simple solution.
Anyone who has owned an L-bracket will tell you that they will never go without it again, with good reason.
L-Brackets aren’t without their cons – I like to think that I give people honest and transparent advice, so please read the below.
- One of the cons is the price. For a piece of machined aluminum they might seem expensive, but with good reason. The end product is a small amount of the material it’s made from, but it is machined from a much larger block of what is an expensive alloy. It is then coated in the best and toughest coatings to prevent scratching and corrosion. It’s really not ‘just a piece of metal’.
- The top priorities when designing an L-Bracket is that it must not obstruct use of the camera (all ports on the LHS must remain accessible) or make it much more bulky than it already is. Due to this, each L-bracket fits the camera it is designed for and usually no other models. Some manufacturers do make generic L-brackets that can be adjusted to fit any camera, but they waste a lot of space and just look sloppy compared to the streamlined model-specific ones that perfectly hug the camera.
- It is a very niche product seldom used by beginners, so it’s hard to come by L-Brackets for the consumer model cameras, especially in a country like South Africa. You’ll easily find L-brackets for all full-frame models, but once you go to crop-sensor cameras it’s usually a special order item from an overseas supplier. Some manufacturers don’t even make L-Brackets for anything other than Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras.
For a lot of people (myself included) it is one of their favourite pieces of gear. It really does make the life of photographers a lot easier.
- The Canon 1Dx MkII uses the same bracket as the 1Dx Mk I
- The Nikon D5 uses the same bracket as the D4
- The Canon 5D3, 5DS and 5DSr all use the same bracket
- The Canon 5D4 uses a new bracket – It is not available from any manufacturers yet as Canon was slow to supply them with a body, but we should have the Kirk version here before the end of the year, priced around R3 000.00.
Kirk or SIRUI?
An L-bracket is such a simple item that we don’t feel the extra 30-50% for the American product over the Chinese one is worth it. There is a bit more manufacturing finesse to the Kirk products, like more aesthetic rounding, but that’s about it. Unless you have money to throw around, go for the SIRUI.
- Canon 5D3/5Ds/5DSr
- Canon 5D3/5Ds/5DSr + Battery Grip
- Canon 1Dx/1Dx2
- Nikon D4/D4s//D5
- Nikon D800/D800e/D810