Enthusiast Photographer at CES: Timbuk2

If you’ve read my blog, you’re aware that I’m the proud owner of two Timbuk2 bags: a custom Laptop Messenger (with a Snoop insert for travel) and a dedicated Snoop Camera Messenger bag I bought when they were on fire-sale recently (they’ve updated the Snoop to add a grab-handle on the top, a welcome addition).

Anyway, as I was wandering the outdoor area adjacent to the main convention center, I noticed a familiar logo…

Unfortunately, I’d left my custom bag back in the hotel and the Snoop bag hadn’t arrived, so no reunion was in store for me.  I wandered around a bit, checking out the various Timbuk2 wares:

Snoop inserts...

Medium and Small Snoop bags in the wild...

Since my Medium Snoop bag hadn’t arrived yet, it was a good chance to see how big this thing was.  The small seems pretty small – great for a body, a couple lenses and a few other things.  The medium is a nicely sized bag.  As I said in my review, it holds a lot of stuff and has a reasonable volume.

Anyway, a nice Timbuk2 employee introduced himself and I mentioned that I owned a Snoop-based bag.  He asked me what I thought about it.  You see this one coming, right?

If you’ve read my reviews, you know I had plenty to say.  I was trying not to throw it all out there, but I did go into a some detail on how I thought the Snoop insert would be a lot better with some pockets on the top (inside and out).  A co-worker of mine happened to walk up, and the guy introduced himself a little more full.  AsTimbuk2’s head of design.

So my face was roughly the color of the top of the tent at the thought of my blathering about the design of a bag to the guy who was in charge of the design.  The good news is he is an awfully nice guy, thanked me for the input and asked me other questions about what I liked and didn’t like.  Keeping your eats open is a great way to improve your product, and I was happy they were looking for the feedback.

Having had a chance to play with a lot of their bags, the quality and overall design is impressive.  They aren’t conventional in their approach to some things, and that is good.  One of these days, I’m tempted to try some of their roller luggage – you’ll never miss it on the belt at baggage claim!

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…  😉

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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?

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 – 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!

Lytro Light Field Camera – See the Unseen

I didn’t get to see it, but Scott Bourne of Photofocus.com did.

He put a few thouhts on his Flickr stream and he’s actually on the Lytro front page.  It looks like cool technology, and I’m guessing it will evolve into something interesting over the next several years…

Back to my CES write-ups…

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

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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!