For some background, the things commonly called "camera plates" or "quick release plates" are flat metal plates that attach to the tripod socket of a camera body with a screw. The plate is often left attached for long periods, or even as long as a given person owns the camera, but it is easily removed with a single screw that threads into the tripod socket. The edges of the plate are shaped to fit a clamp that is mounted on a tripod head, allowing mounting and dismounting the camera much more quickly than otherwise possible. L-plates are similar, but shaped like an "L". They allow the same easy mounting of the camera in either portrait or landscape orientation while keeping the camera directly above the apex of the tripod for maximum stability. Most flat plates and L-plates are now gracefully sculpted to fit a specific camera while allowing access to various connectors, buttons, and the battery compartment.
I purchased my first Really Right Stuff (RRS) camera plate years before the current owner, Joe Johnson, bought the company. Mr. Johnson did a fantastic job of modernizing Really Right Stuff and growing it into one of the best and most popular camera support equipment companies in the world. Honestly, I love their stuff. The fit, finish, aesthetics and overall quality of their equipment is truly unmatched. I think most of their customers, me included, have developed some serious loyalty to the RRS brand. Unfortunately, for me and the cameras I use the recent modular L-plates are not really right, and that is the subject of this essay.
A while ago I pre-ordered a Really Right Stuff L-plate for a Canon 5DSR camera body. The plate would not be shipping for another month and a half, and Kirk L-plates for this camera were already shipping, but I was willing to wait for a Really Right Stuff model. I subsequently learned that this new L-plate will be "modular", similar to the Really Right Stuff L-plate for the Canon 1DX that I have owned for well over a year. Based on my 1DX modular plate experience I did not want another one. These modular L-plates are made of two parts that form an "L" when assembled. The two parts fit together with pins and sockets or a tongue and groove joint, and are held in place with a screw. This is a recent development by Really Right Stuff, and I honestly do not like it. The modular design is very clever and well executed like everything RRS makes. Quality is not the issue but the whole concept is. Adding joints to what would otherwise be a single piece of metal is not a great idea unless the ability to take them apart is paramount and worth the sacrifices that must be made to do it. There is no free lunch.
For me and the way I work the modular L-plates are a solution in search of a problem. They provide the ability to do something I have never needed to do; specifically they allow removal of the "L" section while leaving the other section attached to the camera. The rare circumstances that might require this are easily handled, with only slightly less convenience, by swapping conventional "L" plate with a conventional flat plate. A set of these conventional plates (flat and "L") cost only $10 more than a single RRS modular L-plate, so there is no real cost penalty for the few who may actually need both. In normal circumstances where a camera is used with a variety of lenses, many of which do not have tripod mounts, I can't imagine ever taking the L-plate apart. Having a modular plate and never using its modularity might be acceptable if the modular plates were not more expensive, heavier in any configuration than their conventional counterparts, bulkier, and more complex. The extra weight is there every time you use the camera, in part because modular L-plates like those for Canon's 1DX have Allen wrench cavities with strong magnets under the camera to keep the Allen wrenches in place. Holy utility belt Batman! It's no wonder these modular plates are more expensive, but the real question is whether any of this is really necessary. For me it is certainly not. At least the RRS modular L-plates are as sturdy as the conventional versions if you remember to keep the "L" section connecting screw tight and don't lose it.
In searching for a reason as to why modular L-plates might be a good idea I looked at a recent RRS catalog that came to my home. In it RRS states that their aims for producing modular plates instead of conventional plates are:
1. "Offer increased functionality". The modular design does offer increased functionality, but it is functionality I have never wanted, needed, or even thought about. Perhaps many others actually use the modularity of these plates, but for my cameras and the way I use them it is not the case. In poking around in the online photography forms I have seen quite a lot of criticism of the modular L-plate concept relative to the Canon camera models, so I know I am not alone. As a testament to the great designs created by RRS in the past, I have never had issues with access to the side ports on cameras using their one piece L-plates. I have often wanted to make my camera lighter and less bulky, but not more than I have wanted the ability to take vertical shots using the L-plate. Removing the L-section is not something I would do to save weight or bulk, and the ultimate weight and bulk savings comes in the form of conventional one piece flat or L-plates.
2. "Offer a less expensive L-plate." What the L? The modular L-plates cost $45 more than conventional versions and only $10 less than buying both a conventional L-plate plus a conventional flat plate for the Canon 5DS! Really Right Stuff claim these plates can be cheaper because they are machined from bar stock in less time using less material than machining an L-plate from a large block of aluminum. That makes sense and the modular plates may be cheaper for RRS to make, but they certainly charge customers a lot more for them. The only issue with conventional plates is that RRS does not make them to fit cameras for which they have designed modular plates, like the Canon 1DX and now the 5DS and 5DSR. They are now available only from other manufacturers.
3. "Make the jump from a conventional [flat] plate to L-plate easier on the customer". It is only $10 "easier" to buy the base section of a modular plate and later buy the "L" part than to buy a conventional flat plate and later buy a conventional L-plate. Doing the latter saves weight and bulk on the camera and is only slightly less convenient on rare occasions if swapping is ever required, and most people do not need both.
Cost seems to be a large part of the rationale for producing the modular plates, but given the selling prices it makes no sense. Regardless, low cost is not why people buy RRS equipment. Their products are widely known to be expensive and worth the price. Really Right Stuff equipment is so good that I would buy their conventional L-plate to fit my Canon 5DSR even if it cost more than their modular version. Unfortunately RRS plans to only offer a modular plate and that is the deal killer. The RRS modular plates provide people like me with nothing in return for their added weight, cost, complexity, and bulk. Why would I want that when previous single piece designs served all of my needs for decades without a single issue, while being lighter, simpler, cheaper, and less bulky? I only hope the new modular L-plates are not a sign that RRS is headed down a road of creating pointless gadgetry to fix things that are not broken.
P.S. Because I did not want another modular L-plate I thought it might be possible to buy the RRS L-plate for the Canon 5D Mark III and use it on the Canon 5DSR, but that turned out to be a bad idea. RRS claim to have tested their Canon 5D Mark III L-plates with the new Canon 5DS and 5DSR cameras and found the following problems:
1) The 5DS / 5DSR does not sit level on the 5D Mark III plate.
2) The 5DS / 5DSR does not sit flush against the 5D Mark III plate. (Depending on exactly what this means, there is a potential for camera damage if the attachment screw is tightened too much.)
3) Minor changes to the port side of the camera affect the L-portion fit of the existing plate on the new camera.
Full disclosure: I should fill in some details about my use of the RRS modular L-plate for my Canon 1DX. I hesitated to purchase it for the reasons I mentioned above, but never having had a modular plate it was mostly speculation. I actually wanted a conventional flat plate because my 1DX is always used with long tripod mounted telephoto lenses that have rotating collars, which might be a bit unusual. I ended up purchasing the RRS modular L-plate because I wanted to buy from RRS, they did not offer any conventional plate for the 1DX, and I convinced myself that I might want to use the “L” part sometime. I also thought my speculation about the drawbacks might be overblown. Except to try it out when it was new, I have never assembled both parts of the plate and would certainly have been better off with the lighter and cheaper conventional flat plate I originally wanted. Even if I did need the “L” part occasionally I would still be better off buying a separate and lighter one-piece L-plate with no additional screw to keep tight or lose for a slightly higher price. Cameras weigh enough already without adding stuff that serves no real purpose.
By contrast my Canon 5DSR is used with quite a few lenses, some with tripod mounts and some without, and I typically don’t know what lens I will use next. That seems to be a very normal situation and it gives me no reason to disassemble the L-plate. Every camera I have used for landscape or multiple purposes has had an L-plate always attached and I have never needed or wanted to divide it into two pieces. Perhaps I am unusual in this regard, but I know quite a few others feel the same way.
Plates for other cameras may use different joints and may not add as much weight, but if you don't have a strong need to take them apart there is no point in adding parts and weight. Modular L-plates make more sense on other camera models, such as those where a hand grip can be installed instead of the "L" part for hand holding. I am not familiar enough with those to comment on them, and I never hand hold cameras regardless.