If you are like me, your first tripod (or couple of tripods) had the standard ¼”x20 thread. And if you are like me, at some point you’ve looked at Quick Release (QR) clamps, quickly got confused (“Arca-Swiss Style” vs. proprietary systems like Manfrotto etc. - hint: you need the Arca-Swiss compatible), and came to the conclusion that spending hundreds of dollars on clamps and plates just doesn’t make sense. It’s not exactly difficult or time consuming screwing the ¼” thread into the bottom of the camera now is it? Plus do I really want an extra piece of metal attached to the bottom of the camera all of the time?
For a lot of people, the short answer is no. But if you get to the point where you are using tripods seriously, then they can quickly become invaluable.
What turned me to the dark side, was trying to balance 10lbs+ of lens and camera on one of the higher end Manfrotto ball heads (in this case, a 468MG, shown above). This particular ball head is rated to 35 lbs, however when holding a 10lb+ weight above it, setting the friction is not easy: It gets heavy fast if the column goes off vertical, which can be somewhat unnerving when the equipment being supported costs more than your car.
After battling this particular ball head for a couple of years, I eventually broke down and acquired a Wimberley Sidekick (which necessitated a QR clamp on the ball head, in this case the Wimberley C-10MG, and replacing the foot on the lens with a Kirk Arca-Swiss compatible one). This resulted in an instant “Halleluiah, I have seen the light!” moment, followed by kicking myself - why on earth didn’t I do this when I bought the lens? The transformation in usability is spectacular to say the least: in less time than it took to screw the old foot onto the ball head, you have a perfectly balanced lens that can rotate 360 degrees and pan up/down with minimal effort, and without the fear of the head being too loose and damaging your gear. How did I ever cope without it before?
Great, my big lens is now sorted and suddenly a joy to use on a tripod, so the next step is camera plates. Since I use primarily both a gripped D300 and D700, the Kirk BL-D300G L-Bracket was the perfect choice. Suddenly I can switch from Landscape to Portrait orientation in seconds – no more raising the center column, tilting the ball head to the 90 degree position, re-composing the shot, only to reverse the process to switch back. In a studio situation, it’s now easy to take the camera off the tripod, rattle off a couple of shots, and put the camera back exactly where it was in mere seconds.
But the real advantage didn’t reveal itself until I was halfway up a mountain, knee deep in snow, subzero temperatures, wind howling – no more taking gloves off with your fingers going numb, bending over and fumbling around trying to line up the ¼” thread: instead everything is locked down in seconds, gloves still on, and more importantly your hands are still warm.
So back to the original question – do you really need to invest in quick release clamps? For most people, the answer is probably not. However if you are using big lenses with tripod collars, then a gimbal style head setup like the Sidekick is verging on the essential. If you get to the point where you are looking at heavy-duty tripods, then you are probably also looking at ball heads from companies like Wimberley, Kirk, Really Right Stuff or Markins which come with Arca-Swiss style QR Clamps anyway. For everyone else, if you use tripods a lot, they make a huge difference; they literally make tripods less of a burden to use - sooner or later you’ll get there.
Besides, once you've started down this slippery slope, it adds a whole new avenue to your raging case of "gear acquisition syndrome" - there are compatible flash brackets, panoramic gear, macro focusing rails and so forth, it never ends.