We shoot almost all our work tethered (i.e. directly to a laptop, on location). It’s not just a great way of making sure that we have everything right on location and that everything worked, but it’s also become an indispensable part of our workflow and creative process. When a draft of the image we’re producing comes up on a big, bright laptop screen, it’s a good way to get other people on site involved.
We love this kind of on-site collaboration—there have been many, many images that have been made so much better by us lining up an image, and an architect or interior designer noting “hey, I have an idea for making this even better”, us putting it in place together, and then making a few more creative improvements to really make the image sing. At the end of the shooting day, everyone knows they got the images they need, and we all go away happy. It’s a win for everyone.
But there’s one little problem: we like to move pretty quickly on site, and because we often work in small spaces (it’s Vancouver, after all…), lugging a laptop around on site can be a real pain because there’s nowhere good to put it. The standard solution to this has of course been TetherTools’ plates that are designed to mate your laptop to a lightstand, but this doesn’t make the problem go away: in fact, it makes it worse because when you have to move that lightstand around, that’s more opportunity for your expensive laptop to come crashing down, ripping the wiring out of your camera and causing everything to come to a screeching halt…a risk we really, really don’t like. (Thankfully, it’s never happened, but it’s a fear we live with).
Surely there has to be a better way: why can’t someone come up with a way to securely hold a laptop, and ideally do it in a way that we can just attach it to a tripod and get on with life? You’ve been able to do this with an iPad or Surface for ages, but we wanted the speed of wired tethering (scratch the iPad), and didn’t really want to deal with administering a finicky Windows machine that’s going to decide to install updates in the middle of your shoot. (scratch the Surface).
While we’ve for years suffered with dragging a MacBook Air along in a Thule semi-hard case to protect it from the elements (and since I’m usually in socks on location, hitting shortcut keys with my toes), when Apple came out with the 2018 MacBook Pro’s, we decided it was time to upgrade to a 13” MacBook Pro, which is both physically smaller than the old Air was (it positively swam in the old Thule case), and approximately the same weight. Chalk one up for Apple’s thin-and-light obsession.
The only thing left was to find a way to rig this onto a tripod securely, so that when you move the tripod, the laptop comes with (and you don’t have to get your assistant to move the extra stand around). In an ideal world, the laptop rig should be relatively light, easy to grab and pull off the tripod where necessary, and be riggable with inexpensive grip—ideally, stuff that’s already in the gear crib so we’re not out a bunch of cash if it doesn’t work.
Enter the Inovativ DigiPlate Lite, which seemed to tick all the boxes. That, plus a Magic Arm and a Mafer clamp (both of which we had in the gear crib), and we should have a tethering system that works, right? Asking Inovativ about this via email yielded dead silence, and the DigiPlate Lite is new enough that our friends at Capture Integration, while they list it as something they’d soon carry, didn’t have any information on it yet…so the only option was to go buy it and try it out. The idea is solid: take a film-style “cheese plate” design that’s customizable, and put solid clamps on either side so that your laptop is firmly supported to the plate, and then mount the cheese plate itself onto your choice of mounting arrangement. Inovativ gives you two “preferred” mounting arrangements, the DigiBracket (which hangs off your tripod), and the DigiBase, which gives you industry-standard 3/8 (or 1/4x20 with the usual reducing bushing) and baby-pin mounts. While in theory the DigiBracket is made for our usual use of direct tripod mounting, it mounts on the tripod by friction, which means you have to pull your laptop off it when moving your tripod around…and we move the tripod around a lot on location. The DigiBase got the nod, begrudgingly, because we figured that what we’d really want to do is just screw it right into the top of the Magic Arm and get on with life. We bought the DigiPlate Lite kit from B&H in late August, since they were the only ones who seemed to have it in stock.
The DigiPlate arrives as a “kit of parts” vaguely reminiscent of a kid’s Meccano Erector set. Unfortunately, the kit we ordered from B&H was defective: we got no DigiClamps, and two DigiBases instead. So we got the RMA and, with the Jewish holidays approaching and B&H showing no other stock available, we reordered directly from Inovativ instead, shipping it to our US package drop. Thankfully the second kit showed up complete (as well as giving us an opportunity to order and try out the DigiHanger for extra cable support; B&H didn’t stock this either). You get a box with a lot of parts bags (which include various hex screws, thumbscrews, hex keys, washers, stick-on rubber shims, etc) and a few little sheets of documentation to get you on your way. The documentation for individual parts is just barely adequate, and a bit of extra guidance—possibly on video—would be really useful for getting everything put together quickly and giving you an idea for what you can customize. If you’re mechanically inclined, a lot of things are fairly obvious despite minimal documentation and assembly is a fun challenge, but if you’re the sort of person who has trouble assembling Ikea furniture, you’re going to want to give yourself some time to build everything. It took us an hour to get everything all set initially, with a few little tweaks after our first test run on location.
The plate itself is designed to easily handle 13” and 15” laptops, and the clamps include a set of shims to deal with thicker laptops, and a set of rubber pads to hold everything in place. Inovativ intends for you to either keep the shims stacked up under a longer thumbscrew (which we’d do if we were teching and didn’t know what laptop would live on the stand at any given time), or use the smaller supplied thumbscrew and leave the extra shims in your gear crib (which is what we do). For a MacBook Pro 13”, the clamps are actually slightly too large to begin with, so we installed all the rubber pads, which locked the laptop down nicely. You have to install the supplied rubber padding on both the inside side, outside, and inside (two pieces go on the inside top, because the MacBook Pro 13” is thin). With all this installed, we’re pretty confident walking around holding the DigiPlate and knowing that the laptop is unlikely to slide out of its mount (and if it does, it won’t slide far anyway). One little quibble: that the clamps stick up a little high, so if something forcibly closed the laptop (or it dropped) and landed on the pads, we’d be very worried about a bent/broken screen. Inovativ stocks a set of ‘MacBook Air’ clamps, which with a shim or two would possibly be a better option for the new MacBook Pro’s. There’s no documentation on Inovativ’s site in this regard, so we don’t know for sure. (We’d be happy to test them if Inovativ shipped us a set, of course).
With a 13” laptop, the ‘ears’ of the DigiPlate actually stand proud by a few cm’s on either side, which gives the impression that the plate is oversized for the job, which it is—making it more likely to bang the corner of the plate into something on location accidentally. Everything is very solidly built from hard-anodized aluminum (in fact, it’s a little heavier than we’d have expected it to be) and inspires confidence that it’s going to survive many, many years of getting banged around, dropped, and otherwise will survive the abuse that we routinely dish out to grip equipment on location…and probably look fairly new when it’s finished.
In an ideal world, Inovativ would supply a set of ears just for 12”/13” laptops that are a bit more…form-fitting. However, the extra space gives you a good place to hang a DigiHanger, an accessory we’re glad we got. Since all of our tethering cables have Velcro straps, we’ve taken to hanging the Velcro straps off the DigiHanger, providing some strain relief, a very neat install, and drastically reduced likelihood of ripping a cable apart if something bad happens. (Inovativ shows a carabiner hanging off the DigiHanger, which we’d recommend if you aren’t already using Velcro ties on your cables). Sometimes we’ve just pushed the end of a USB tethering cable through (it fits, just), connected to a USB-A/USB-C dongle—which means that if the cable rips out, the dongle should take the force leaving the MacBook Pro’s USB-C port intact.
Underneath it all is the DigiBase, a solid block of aluminum with a twist-preventing stud. This gives you a very deep baby-pin mount as well as 5/16 and 1/4x20 screw holes. It’s intended to be installed atop a light stand. There’s a major annoyance: the security screw seems to be placed too low for this to work well. On most of our stands (even the ones with built-in 1/4x20 screw tops), and on the Magic Arm, you have to lift the whole assembly up in order for the security screw to lock onto the thinner body of a baby pin spigot, which means it’s less secure and very prone to working itself loose. We’re constantly checking and retightening this screw as things move around on location. If we were using the plate atop a lightstand that doesn’t move much, this wouldn’t bother us nearly as much, but we’d very strongly recommend installing a spacer of some sort (a round rubber adhesive ‘foot’ or two carefully inserted into the bottom of the baby pin receiver would probably do it) if you run into this problem. We’d probably install one ourselves if we planned to keep using the DigiBase, but more on that later.
With everything assembled, did it work as planned? In a word: absolutely! Our current tripod is an older Manfrotto 055XPROB, which will happily hold a Cambo Wide RS (or DS) atop an Arca-Swiss C1 Cube. We’ve equipped it with a Matin Tripod Butler, which we’ve found is a near-perfect (and foldable and almost weightless) tray for holding things like LCC plates, filters, and flash triggers. That lives on the tripod at almost all times. Adding a Mafer Clamp to that whole rig is a bit Macgyver-ish, but it gets the job done…especially since we already had a Mafer Clamp and a 10” Magic Arm hanging around. Here’s what it looks like in use:
It’s a nearly perfect one-tripod tethered capture setup. The 10” Magic Arm is a bit bigger than we’d like, but it provides a lot of support and means we can move the laptop to either side (or behind) the tripod easily and securely, making it easier for us as well as our clients to see what’s on the laptop. Clients have also noted how cool and convenient everything is, which is always a plus as well.
We’ve been using this rig for both interior and exterior work on numerous locations for the last month, and it’s performed beautifully. Finally, we have a setup that puts the laptop at a good working height, holds everything securely, and really speeds up tethered capture on location because the entire laptop is within easy reach. Most importantly, the whole thing can be easily moved around by one person. I often find myself grabbing the tripod by one leg and the Magic Arm. This grip lets one person get around a floor, up and down stairs, and through some fairly marginal outdoor terrain (‘tis the season for wet dirt in landscape projects!) without any risk of pulled cables, and providing a lot of safety for all the gear.
We love the solidity of the whole rig, and the fact that the plate is also very easy to carry and store (it nicely slips into a flat area in our grip case). It’s also incredibly cost-effective, even considering the extra Customs fees because none of the local Canadian distributors seem to carry it yet. The “cheese plate” design is awesome, because you can customize it to fit your workflow easily—Inovativ offers a variety of clamps for dealing with cables, external hard drives, etc., most of which can be installed anywhere on the flat plate that happens to fit the way you work. And did we mention it’s really secure…outside of the issues with the DigiBase? (Inovativ actually shows laptops being held upside down from light stands on their Instagram feed—go check it out!)
Places For Improvement
All that said, there are a few things we’d love to change.
1. Inovativ needs better pre-sale support! When you sell a system that’s this customizable, it takes a bit of research (and some “local knowledge”) to get the system you want (and for non-US folks, cross-border shipping and returns are a real pain so it’s important to get things right the first time). Most suppliers in both the photo and design industries (including us!) are happy to answer questions and make sure you get what you need. Inovativ didn’t answer email or phone calls, which meant we were on our own to figure out what was likely to work. Go hire some good people for this, Inovativ! You have a great product, and people are going to need a bit of hand-holding and documentation in order to get the best bits that will fit their needs.
2. We’d like slightly less tall clamps. The current clamp arrangement works, but we’d like about 1.5mm less risk of bending/bashing a screen in if the rig falls screen-side-down. This might mean either Inovativ providing slightly shorter clamps as their regular Universal clamps (which, given the shim arrangement they use, would make things much more friendly for new MacBook Pro users without making things much more difficult for others), or providing a custom version of the MacBook Air clamps. (We’ll happily beta-test).
3. It would be really nice to have shorter “ears” available for us users of 12”/13” laptops. The plate ears could easily be a few cm’s shorter on either side without losing functionality, and it would make things more flexible, lighter, and easier to deal with for those of us using smaller laptops.
4. We really dislike the DigiBase. As we mentioned, it’s too deep on a stand to be securely attached as shipped, and on a Magic Arm, it’s even harder to attach securely and be confident about its attachment. It’s also heavy and awkward. While we could easily remove the DigiBase and just screw the DigiPlate into the top of the Magic Arm, we’d lose the ability to leave the Magic Arm on while removing the DigiPlate from it, which we find ourselves doing a lot.
What would be ideal: screwing an Arca-Swiss plate to the bottom of the DigiPlate, and screwing an Arca receiver into the top of the Magic Arm. If Inovativ offers an Arca plate (perhaps with the same anti-twist pin that the DigiBase has), we’d love to try it; otherwise, we’ll probably buy a generic Arca plate and receiver and re-rig this part of the setup; thankfully, with the ‘cheese plate’ design this is trivial to do and will give us an even more usable rig than it’s providing us now.
This setup has very rapidly become indispensable, and apart from some quibbles, we’re keeping it and recommending it to others!