Field Tested [ TANNA ]
The best place to test a new
product is on foreign soil.
Once the comforts of home
are removed, we are left to
rely on the contents of our
luggage. A new accessory
must prove itself before it
earns a place inside my
— What is the Mini-L Bracket
The release of the M9 solved a long standing problem with the Leica film cameras. The tripod mount was no longer offset to one side, but placed in the middle of the base plate. For tripod users this small change greatly affected the balance of a Leica on a tripod head. The outstanding issue was, “How do you keep the camera located on the tripods center of gravity while shooting the camera in portrait format?”
French camera and accessory maker ARCA-SWISS created a solution to the seesaw effect of tipping a Leica on its end. The Mini-L bracket allows the camera to switched from portrait to landscape while maintaining a perfect balance. By combining a small base plate and an L shaped bracket ARCA-SWISS offers Leica users (and other small format cameras) a travel solution for landscape photography.
— The Feel
The tools we select as photographers are important. Once it is time to take pictures, we need to operate our gear as if our eyes were closed. The feel of a tripod leg or a aperture ring tells us everything we need to know about its quality. Ask any Leica owner about the first time they held an M camera. It may sound silly, but everyone remembers how it feels.
When ARCA SWISS sent me the Mini-L Bracket, the first thing I noticed was the entire bracket is metal. There is no plastic insight. Every part of the Mini-L is either screwed or welded together. The weight of the entire unit is kept down by using aircraft grade aluminum. The matte black finish will age nicely over time and develop a patina like a vintage watch.
The base plate is made from solid aluminum, painted matte black. They provide a small wrench to connect the base plate to the tripod head. The center of the plate is machined with a groove allowing for sliding adjustment. At either end of the groove is a small metal pin that keeps the camera from sliding off of the head. The pins are drilled through the entire plate and provide a positive stop at the end of the track.
The tab which locks the bracket into place closes with the security of a submarine hatch. One press of the thumb and there is a better chance the threads would rip out of the camera than the plate detach from the tripod. When you strap a seven thousand dollar camera to a tripod, its good to know there were no short cuts made during fabrication.
— The Function
Most tripods allow for a camera to be turned on its side, so why would we need a specific head for the portrait format? A typical tripod head is designed with a slot that allows for portrait format pictures, but the movement is limited. The Mini-L allows you to take advantage of a tripods strength. Any tripod will allow for easier adjustment in landscape format for two reasons.
1. If the camera is located directly over the center of the tripod legs it is the most stable position. If you have every tipped a camera on a tripod, you know the horrible feeling when a camera pole vaults itself to the ground. It is usually a mistake we only ever make once in a lifetime. But when we are shooting in landscape the offset weight can be a problem for SLRs and rangefinders.
2. The full range of ball head movement is only allowed in landscape, not in portrait. There are some exceptions to this, but my Gitzo Traveller has its limitations in portrait. As a result the Mini-L was an exciting addition that tweak the tripods function to a new optimal level.
— The Release
The Mini-L is designed with a quick release so we can change from landscape to portrait, while retaining all of the balance and adjustment freedom of the landscape format. The simple “one touch” release tab worked very well. I could change the camera position in pitch black conditions. Landscape work is often set up before the sun rises. Without any natural light, I practice setting up new equipment until I can do it with my eyes closed. Setting up a camera on volcanic rock in the darkness, with only a head lamp can be tricky. The last thing I need is a piece of fussy gear. But the Mini-L is very easy to use. It only clicks in one way, so there is no mix up of backwards set ups or something going wrong.
— The Attachment
The one thing I was on the fence about was the allen key attachment of the bracket to the camera. ARCA-SWISS provides a small allen key as a precision alternative to the slotted screw technique on many base plates. The advantage of the slotted screw is that you can use anything from a coin to the edge of a key to tighten your camera. It is more universal than an allen key.
In their defense the allen key is a nicer piece of hardware, but if you lose the allen key you need a back up. This becomes a potential headache abroad. To combat this, you can actually slide the bulk of the bracket out and just leave the tiny plate attached to the camera. When you want to use the bracket again you can just slide the rails back into the base plate, which is quite easy. But it is the one area where ultra specific hardware can work against us. My working solution was the attach the base plate in my bungalow. This way I could leave the allen key at home and not worry about dropping it in high grass or the coastal rocks.
— The Conclusion
When it comes to selecting gear, specificity is paramount. For the photographer who hunts evening cityscapes or hikes out to a secret canyon, the Mini-L bracket may be enticing. Its small enough to fit in any camera bag. It performs one task and does it extremely well. I find that when companies design products to satisfy every need, they end up solving nothing.
In my mind, multi tasking is a myth. The result is lots of buttons, degraded quality, and illusion of utility. The robust build and simple design of the ARCA SWISS Mini-L caught my attention and made it to the South Pacific and back. All I ask of my gear is that it is reliable and light weight. It does not need to be exotic or flashy, it just needs to work. If you are in New York this October ARCA-SWISS will be at the PDN PhotoEast Expo. You will be able to see one for yourself. And if you are planning on being there let me know, I will be there too.
The ARCA SWISS Mini-L is compatible with the following camera systems:
- Leica M
- Olympus E-PL1 & E-PL2
- Samsung NX-100
- Canon G Series
- Panasonic LX Series
Smaller SLR systems