April 20, 2011

DIY Quick Release Plates, or, How to Put a $5 Camera on a $500 Tripod!

If you have a lot of plastic and toy cameras and like me want to use some of them as pinholes or use them on bulb mode for long exposures, then you've probably tried to device ways of putting them on a tripod. If the tripod quick-release system you are using is something like the Arca-Swiss then the cost of plates at about $50 or more a pop can become a major concern - especially on cameras which usually cost under $5!

I used Bogen's clamp system for a while and now use the Arca-Swiss system. They both share the same basic design although the sizes vary widely. The only pieces of equipment I wont put on a tripod without solid metal plates are my 'real' cameras - the Chamonix 4x5, and ยต4/3 Panasonic. But for most of my other cameras (I never seem to shoot rangefinders from a tripod, somehow) I have devised a simple way of making my own plates - modeling clay!

It's available from most art supply stores. I recommend the kind that hardens on baking. Cut out a block that has approximately the cross-sectional dimensions of your quick release plates but is slightly larger. For Arca style plates this should be about 38mm wide at the bottom, with 45 degree angles and at least 3mm high. That's it - that's the basic Arca-Swiss design. Beyond that you can put in whatever improvisations, anti-twist lips and other cool Really Right Stuff tricks. Now to do the fine shaping, open your clamp as wide as possible, slide the slice of clay in and tighten it gently. The clamp will act as a mold to shape the clay. I suggest spraying the clamp with a bit of talcum powder before you put the clay in so that it doesn't stick or get distorted when you take it out. Now put it in the oven and bake it as per the instructions. And voila! You have a quick release plate to fit the Arca-Swiss clamp that's perfectly suited for cheap and light cameras. If you have a sander bit for a dremel tool, you can also sand out any imperfections.

Most of these cameras don't have tripod mounts, so I just stick them to the camera with epoxy glue and allow it to set - works great. But it's easy to go one better and install a tripod mount. Just buy a 1/4"-20 hexagonal nut and embed it in the middle of the plate while soft. You can put a longer 1/4"-20 screw through this to mount to a tripod socket, if your camera has one. Bake the whole contraption together.

Remember, do not use these plates for any heavy and/or valuable equipment! Scrounge on EBay until you find the proper Kirk or RRS plates. But for having fun with cheap cameras, this method works for me!

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