The continuing saga of the Enthusiast Photographer at CES: Sunwayfoto and Sirui

In the name of torturing you with fewer posts, I’m combining some of them to make things easier on everyone ;).  I’m leading up to my two final posts, which are my visits to Timbuk2 and Nikon, so bear with me.

A few stops down from Acratech was Sunwayfoto. I remember seeing some things on various forums about them a while back – a company based in China that  made ball heads and various other products, had a website in English and Chinese and shipped to the US.  For a period of time, it seemed like their website dropped off the web.

Now they are back, and even have some of their products on B&H.  But they had a much broader product line on display at CES.  Among other things, they showed me their medium (44mm) and large capacity (52mm) ball heads, which are very similar to the Markins design – pan and lockdown on two big knobs, with tension adjust in a mini knob embedded in the lock knob.  They have a newer product line – noted by “X” in the product name – that is a lower-profile version of their head, which keeps a lower center of gravity and hopefully offers more stability.

Same size head and weight rating, but lower-profile "X" model on the right.

From an Enthusiast Photographer perspective, these seem very sturdy and well made.  They exhibited no creep at all, but I didn’t have an opportunity to see a camera mounted on one.  But when I compare these to the new Manfrotto Magnesium heads, I find myself liking them better, especially since they include an Arca-Swiss clamp and will probably sell for less.

Are they Really Right Stuff (RRS) quality?  I doubt it, but I do think they offer a very reasonable option for the serious amateur working on a limited budget.  I spent a fair amount if time handling the products and came away impressed.

The same is true of their panning clamp.  Since my lens and camera plates face different ways on my head and I was thinking about getting a monopod for an upcoming trip to Europe, this is interesting to me. The Sunway DDH-01 sells for almost $100 less than the very similar RRS PCL-1 ($235 vs. $137). We’re talking about amazing-quality, USA-made vs. likely-decent-quality, Made-in-China here. Since I own an RRS head, L-plate and lens plate, I can attest to the RRS workmanship and quality. If I was a working pro, I probably have a lot of their gear. If money is a challenge or you are an Enthusiast Photographer, I think Sunwayfoto is a viable option.  The monopod head is tempting for the trip to Europe I have planned for the Summer…

I also saw a monopod head that looked pretty beefy, but isn’t available at B&H (yet):

I didn’t notice the price, but my guess is it will be close to the $139 price of the Sirui head in the next section, though this one doesn’t have a plate included.  It does, however, include a panning function, which might or might not be handy.

On to Sirui.

Sirui is one of a number of made-in-China makers of carbon fiber and other tripods that have popped up on the market in the last year or two.  I’ve seen several of their aluminum and CF tripods and monopods at my local camera store, and come away impressed.  My visit to their booth at CES was no different.  The large tripod on the left is taller than me (and I’m 6’1″) and seemed extremely solid while offering airy carbon fiber weight.  Again, the true test of a tripod or head is in the field, and I’m a big fan of my Gitzo.  I’d love to have an RRS tripod.  I can’t help but like the Sirui products I’ve looked at – they aren’t dirt-cheap, but they are affordable for what they are and seem to have very good stability and quality.  I can’t say the customer service is much of a risk against anyone else other than RRS (who is excellent) – I’ve heard a fair bit of grumbling on various forums about Manfrotto’s service and support, and they now own Gitzo, too.

Net: I liked the Sirui tripods and monopods a lot.  If I get a monopod, these guys are likely to get my business.

They were also showing off a really attractive monopod head:

There is no mystery here where the design was inspired from (think RRS), but it is pretty compelling for a casual/occasional user at $139 including the head.  The unit was very solidly built, has an integrated Arca plate on the bottom and felt very comfortable.  I almost hope they sell a version without the head – that base plus the Sunwayfoto panning head would be a really nice combo for reasonable money.

Should you buy from Sirui or Sunwayfoto?  I think the answer depends on a lot of things, but ultimately I think they represent very reasonable quality for very reasonable money.  There are a lot of brand snobs who are going to tell you that unless it is Manfrotto, Gitzo or RRS (or add Acratech, Markins and Arca-Swiss to the list for ball heads) that you won’t get quality or durability.  I think that is untrue, at least for the Enthusiast Photographer.  If you’re a pro, they are probably a marginal, or at least risky, choice.  For those of us who aren’t generating income with our photography, I think they represent a good budget alternative.  The challenge is that they aren’t well distributed so there aren’t lots of hands-on reviews and experience to draw from.  In the giant money-sucking vortex that is photography, it comes down to a risk assessment.  I think it is a decent bet that the Sunwayfoto and Sirui products will serve you just fine.  Of course, Vegas is where all the bets seem to be made…  😉

——————————————————————————————-

I saw lots of other vendors last week and took lots of other photos, but I think I’m down to three more CES posts after this: LensPen, Timbuk2 and my visit to Nikon and Canon.  Hopefully I’ll wrap it up before the weekend so we can get back to the fun stuff!

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Acratech Part Deux

One other quick note on Acratech.  After getting the cool demo on their spiffy ball heads that can do gimbal and pano, the owner showed me something they are bringing out soon:

The key...

Apologies for the terrible phone picture.  In my tech-industry-day-job that is called a “Mr. BlurryCam” shot – usually a poor backroom photo of an unannounced product.

In this case, the product is pretty obvious – a small hex-key for your Arca plate to make removal/swapping easy.  I have three L-shaped keys in my bag, and I hate them.  They take up too much space and they are awkwardly shaped.  I told him I’d buy a set tomorrow if he’d make them in three sizes: my camera/lens plates, the set-screw for my ball head and the legs of my tripod.   I’d order immediately and just have them hooked to my bag by that handy strap.

What do you think?

CES Diversion – Snoop Camera Bag

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. But hey, I just like a bag now and then – there’s nothing wrong with that, right? I mean, a man shouldn’t have to limit himself to just one bag when there are so many really cool bags out there. Right? Anyone?

OK – so the fire sale that was going on with the Snoop Camera bags was too good to pass up (as of the time of this writing, they had a number of sizes and colors available, starting at $59 – over 45% off!), and I ordered a Medium Snoop bag for $79 (regularly $150). My rationale was that while I love my current Laptop Messenger, (A) it is a pretty big bag, (B) I liked the idea of a dedicated bag I could keep loaded and ready to go without unpacking my work stuff and (C) was made of ballistic nylon that would tolerate my shoots in the woods, etc. better than the waxed canvas of my other bag.

At least that is what I’m telling myself.

(If you’re a new reader, check out the review of my custom-made Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger as well my separate review of the Snoop insert that goes inside the custom bag – I make a lot of references and comparisons below)

It arrived today, in the now-familiar Timbuk2 bag/map.

My map collection grows…

Out of the…um…bag, the Medium Timbuk2 Snoop bag was clearly smaller than the Large Laptop Messenger Bag – they both have the Medium Snoop insert, and both seem very snug, so somehow the Snoop looks a lot smaller but appears to hold nearly as much the Large bag.

Snoop Unleashed...

Open view, note the clear pocket for cards, etc. and the standard velcro silencers

A quick view inside

Snoop Camera bag - loaded and with a ThinkPad T420s on board

View of the insert, loaded other than my camera

My bag-o-many things fits fine all loaded up

So how does the Snoop bag compare to my full-size Laptop Messenger? Clearly, these bags are sisters – the overall exterior design is very similar – same trio of zippered pockets on the front, along with a drop-in pocket at the top. In contrast to the Laptop Messenger, the bottom of the zip-pockets has a clear plastic front, presumably so you can see the memory cards, etc. you tuck inside. Like many bags from Timbuk2, the Snoop also has the “Napoleon Pocket” – a long pocket accessed from the side which doesn’t require opening the messenger flap – very handy.

The overall outside design is two colored panels instead of three. My bag is the black and gunmetal ballistic nylon, which looks great and feels really sturdy and durable.

The shoulder strap is the same very heavy-duty affair with really strong hardware. In contrast to my custom Laptop Messenger bag, the shoulder pad is included, as are the velcro “silencers” that were an add-on to my custom bag. These are used when you don’t want the “RRRRIIIIIiiip!!!” sound of velcro on a nature shoot, during a quiet event shoot (wedding, etc.) or during a meeting when you just don’t want to be loud. It does take away a layer of protection – the velcro ensures the bag doesn’t fly open if you don’t clip the flap down and later drop or tip the bag. Since I don’t shoot wildlife or weddings, I don’t think I’ll use them often, but I’m glad I have them. The shoulder pad has excellent padding that makes even a fair amount of wear bearable and regular weight very comfortable.

The other big differences on the outside are something gained and something lost. This version of the Snoop Camera bag does not have the handy “grab strap” handle at the top. I happened to talk to the lead designed of Timbuk2 at CES (post coming soon) and he seemed to say that newer versions of this bag would have the handle. I hope so – it is a very handy feature (no pun intended…), and I’m sure I’m going to miss it.

The added element(s) are the two tripod straps on the bottom of the bag. This is a feature I was excited about, since I’m a tripod guy, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of the execution. First, it is very difficult to get the tripod in and out of the loops. There are no snaps or connectors. You have to open the strap loops very wide, slide the tripod through and then tighten the straps around the tripod. My Gitzo almost slid right out because I went for balance, placing the tripod in the middle, and the legs are very slick – when I picked it up, it almost fell. Ultimately, I had to tighten one loop around the neck between the base and the head, with the other loop around the legs, which left a considerable amount of the legs exposed. The tripod is light enough that it didn’t affect the balance of the bag, but I think it is going to be awkward. I think the “compression tabs” on my Laptop Messenger will work better, and might well be more reliable, too. The tripod loops on the Snoop bag are each sewn at one 1″ spot, which seems like a lot of stress on the fabric. The compression straps on my Laptop Messenger are sewn at the outside edges of the bottom forming a cradle that I can use for the tripod – easier to use, seeming as secure and spreading the load across four points vs. two. Lastly, I wish there was some sort of padding on these straps. I’ll likely wrap my tripod to avoid any wear from the straps, and may rig something different altogether to carry my tripod. A disappointment, if a small one.

Snoop Camera bag - using the tripod loops

To keep the tripod from sliding, I had to tighten one loop at the neck, leaving a lot of leg exposed at the other end...

Inside, the differences are a lot greater. Outside of a tall sleeve for a laptop or tablet on the back of the cavity, there are no pockets or other storage at all inside the bag. Of course, the camera insert itself has compartments for lenses, the camera body etc., but no other mini-pockets at all to tuck things into. I’d really like to see some storage on the top flap of the Snoop insert – a couple zippered compartments on the top and maybe a mesh one on the inside. As you can see in the pictures, I do have a separate bag I tend to use, and Timbuk2 has an array of small bags with funny names they are happy to sell you.

At the end of the day, the bag has a very reasonable amount of storage, but storage in a camera bag is like closet space when you’re married – there is never too much.

The bulge on the flap. That's technical...

One other difference from my other bag is the Snoop bag does have the bulges at the base of the main flap that fold inward to seal the bag from moisture, dust and other nasty stuff. There is even velcro that you can pinch as you’re closing the bag to make it extra secure. I wish my Laptop Messenger had this design, and I wonder why it doesn’t.

The bags share the waterproof “TPU lining” which seems to be a slightly rubberized nylon. Whatever it is, I like it – it feels tough and the protection from water is peace of mind.

Since this is a dedicated camera bag and to make access easier, I tucked the top flap of the camera insert away. Since I’ll have the snaps and the velcro protecting things from falling out, the flap will only be used during actual travel if this is the one I take on a trip or during storage.

Tucked away - the zippered top of the Snoop insert is folded over and hidden to allow better access.

I’m amazed at how much less volume this bag has while still carrying the large majority of what I had in the much-larger Laptop Messenger:

Side by side, Snoop Right, Laptop Messenger left. Both loaded with Medium Snoop inserts

Top view

I’m picking a lot of comparative nits here, so let me be clear – I’m thrilled with the Snoop Messenger bag. For $150, it represents a lot of function, flexibility and style in a package that carries very well. It has a lot of capacity, has a very reasonable amount of pocket storage and protects the gear very well. If my time with the Laptop Messenger is any indication, the bag is great to walk around with – it is comfortable and convenient. Is there room for improvement? Surely, but my addiction…er…quest for the perfect bag has been lulled into a passive state by this excellent bag. For now.

At the $59 to $79 they are selling for at the moment, they are an absolute steal. I’m hoping it ends soon so I’m not afraid to go on the internet any more. It isn’t a problem though. Really.

———————————————————————————————-

As an aside, in case you are wondering, I’m just what I say I am – an enthusiast photographer. I don’t make money on this in any way, I don’t get free stuff and I don’t have any ties at all to any products or companies I write blogs about. I don’t have a PayPal account for donations like Ken Rockwell. I’m just passing things along as I see them and hoping they are useful, entertaining or both. Thanks!

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Acratech

Acratech's quick-release head

If you’ve ever shopped for an Arca-Swiss-based ball head or other equipment, you might be familiar with Acratech.  They are a US company making professional ballheads that have some really unique features.  I’ve noticed their videos on YouTube, which inevitably feature their very…mellow…owner with the somewhat acerbic voice.

I walked up to their booth at CES, and the owner was there.  Honestly, I was pretty shocked – he’s very different in person – warm, friendly, very easy to talk to and of course very knowledgeable about this products.  I hadn’t seen the Acratech in working in Gimbal mode (which is a side-mounting that is especially useful with big lenses shooting moving things like birds or cars), and I was amazed to learn you can invert the head and use it to make completely level panoramas!  Especially if these are things you want but only occasionally, the Acratech heads become a super-strong choice because to get those functions on most standard ball-heads, you’re investing big money in additional equipment.

A true gimbal setup like a Wimberly head is almost certainly more stable since it keeps the weight directly over the tripod, but they also cost nearly $600 and are pretty large.  The Acratech head offers a very nice solution

Panorama mode: the ball head is flipped upside down so the panning base allows you free rotation once you've leveled the camera by the ball-head base. It looks a little funny, but appears to work great! Click the photo to see Acratech's demo (skip to 3:10)

Gimbal mode - note the collar on the head that allows the Gimbal mode

Another view of gimbal-mode

Make no mistake – Acratech isn’t selling inexpensive heads here – they are fully a competitor for Really Right Stuff in terms of quality, target market and Made in the USA credentials.  But they offer some interesting features for the serious enthusiast that might save you a few bucks while making your photography life easier (while shooting panoramas, etc.).  Add to that a clean design that eliminates any need to worry about dirt or water and you’ve got a compelling option.

I’d also mention they have a quick release head that has a safety built in, so the lever can’t get caught on a cord or piece of clothing and accidentally opened.  It is still a one-hand operation and their heads have a nice, big level built in, too..

Check them out on the web.  Also, both of my local camera stores carry their products (and when I say camera store, I don’t mean a retail store, but one that smells like cheese whiz and canvas, is crammed with stuff and has a lot of guys in it who are either unsure about facial hair or should be).

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Beta Shell

From the Beta Shell website - all of my CES photos were phone-terrible...

I came across something that might be really handy if you ship your lenses or travel with them packed in a suitcase.  I’d never seen Beta Shell before, but it is a pretty cool product line.  Essentially they are hard plastic cases that have memory foam at the top and bottom with close-cell foam collars to stabilize the lens from the hardest shocks.  The top is a screw-in affair that is water-sealed – and I mean capable of submersion and all kinds of dastardly conditions that would normally ruin your lens.  These things seem almost military-grade.

Cutaway view showing the rubber-gasket-sealed top and foam at top and bottom.

A view inside - note the neoprene lining on the inside of the barrel

Inserting the lens...

Ready to go...

Another cutaway view

Quick view of their banner at the show

I talked to the owner/inventor of the company for a little while – he seems like a good guy who has thought through his product very well.  If the water-tight lid becomes a little sticky due to pressure/altitude changes, there is a flat bar across the lid that can be leveraged against a table or counter-top.

They aren’t available from B&H or your local camera store yet, just directly from the company, but that is something he’d clearly like to change – ask about them at your local camera shop (and I don’t mean the mall, I’m talking about the places that has a whole corner devoted to light stands and a case full of nothing but 1970’s-vintage film cameras.  If you don’t know the closest one of these, I suggest you find it – they are great fun and a valuable resource).  Beta Shells start at $45 for the smaller ones and go to around $90 for the biggest lenses.  That isn’t cheap, and probably is a lot more useful to a Pro photographer who ships his/her lenses or a camera store that rents them than an Enthusiast Photographer, but I could see getting one for my two 2.8 lenses for secure storage and the off chance I mights ship them instead of travel with them.  They also seem to be very well-made – my guess is they would last for years of hard use.

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – ThinkTank

I guess it is pretty obvious by now that I’m a bag junkie, and my second stop at CES was the ThinkTank booth.  After looking at their modular component systems for hanging lenses and other equipment off their belt or bag, we started talking about my Ona and Timbuk2 experience. They were extremely attentive and interested.  One of them gave me a tour of his personal bag – the Urban Disguise 60.  I have to say it is one really impressive design.  It holds an amazing amount of photography equipment with up to a 17″ laptop, is very efficient with volume and keeps things very available.  If you don’t mind black ballistic nylon, this is a highly attractive bag.  If it was available in a nice black waxed canvas, I’d be all over it. If I ever need a pro-quality travel bag, this is going to be at the top of my list.  Heck, I might wind up with one anyway…  🙂

Especially cool was the optional backpack harness that converts this sorta-messenger to a backpack in a way that looks very natural to carry.

Amazingly, B&H doesn’t carry the Thinktank line.  I’d love to know the story, but you can get it all from Amazon.

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – First stop: Black Rapid

BlackRapid at CES

I walked into the CES convention area located in the Venetian, which had quite a focus on the smaller photography vendors.  Among the first things I saw was the Black Rapid booth.

There weren’t any official announcements, but I mentioned to them my Arca dilemma and my eventual solution.  They were nodding from the start, and mentioned they had a solution that was just about ready to exit the development phase.  Expect to see something from them before the Fall.  My guess is that it will be significantly less than the setup I wound up with – I hope to get a chance to play with it!

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Prologue

Unfortunately, my time at CES wasn’t my own and I had only a limited opportunity to kick around to check some things out.  I did get one opportunity to get out there, and spent from 9AM to 3PM checking things out in the Venetian and the main convention center.  I saw lots of cool stuff, learned a few things and met some interesting folks.  I think the easiest way is to break it up into each place I visited to cover my CES adventure.

First, a word about traveling with the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the Snoop insert.  I stuffed that thing to the gills (body, 4 lenses, ThinkPad, tablet, charger, accessories and much more), and it ate it all up and carried very reasonably.  Having the ability to pull the Snoop was a savior though – it would never have fit under the seat otherwise.  I’m pretty sure the medium bag would be a stretch, too, the small would probably be fine without removing the Snoop.

The Snoop all tidy in overhead - the bag then fit fine under the seat

The shoulder pad is a great thing – it made carrying all that weight bearable.  It also has a knack for staying on your shoulder where it belongs when you swing the bag around or readjust.  I’ll say it again – it should be standard.  I actually got a chance to talk to Timbuk2’s lead designer, and passed along a few comments (before I knew who he was).  But we’ll get there in a bit.  Based on this first trip, it should serve the purpose I bought it for perfectly: it holds a lot, travels flexibly and didn’t attract any attention at all from the airport staff.  The huge variety of pockets came in handy, too.  Net:  I’m happy with the way the bag travels.

CES is pretty amazing.  I’d love to have maybe a full couple days to kick around to check out all of the photography stuff.  I didn’t get to Fuji, skipped Sony and didn’t see the Lytro Light Field Camera I was hoping to (though based on Ed Baig’s article, it wasn’t on the floor anyway).  A recommendation:  If you ever come to CES, wear really comfortable shoes… 😉

On-site at CES

20120112-142930.jpg

20120112-142948.jpg

CES is, in a word, overwhelming. I saw some really cool stuff to write up and met some really cool folks. Posts are coming, but I wanted to show you quick shots of the new Nikon 1D X and the Nikon D4.

From a stupid, non-specs, non-scientific point of view, I liked the D4 better. It feels lighter, is more comfortable and seems a little less complicated.

Shooting these sounds like a machine gun. It is addictive. Given the frame rates, it is good they have such high-click shutter life.

Got to get back to the grind – more later!!

Facing Vegas (off to CES)

So the Enthusiast Photographer is off for CES, the famed Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  That probably means it will be a quiet week for the blog, though I may do some quick mobile blogging – who knows?

I go for work, not fun, but I should get a chance to swing by the area that hosts the photography industry.  One obvious target is the new Nikon D4, but what would you like to see?  I’ll try to get to anything you post as a comment and take a few photos and/or post a few thoughts, though my time isn’t my own, so I can’t make any promises.  Let’s hear some ideas!