Off to the Farmer’s Market

Things have been a little hectic on all fronts around our household, so last Saturday we decided to change things up a little and head to our local Farmer’s Market.  Since I hadn’t done a lot of shooting lately, I grabbed my camera.  My wife asked me what I was going to take pictures of, and I aid “I don’t know.”  Sometimes I think I spend too much time thinking about what I’m going to shoot, what time of day, what the weather will be like, etc.

Ultimately, what is important to do is just shoot, and let the rest just come to you.  So I did, and it was great fun.  Here are a few samples from the day:

Loose Candy
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Dried
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Farmer’s Market Jars
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Old Door at the NC Farmer’s Market
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Horrified Birdhouses

Contrast at the Statuary
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Self Portrait at the Statuary
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Grumpy Cupid
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It was nice to do some easy shooting, without any real pressure of losing the light or any hard-core theme – it was fun to just shoot!  Most of the time when I do this I’m drawn by color, texture or a story and there is a little bit of all of those here for me – hope you enjoyed them!

As a note, it was my first real day out with my bargain-priced Snoop bag and I had the camera on my Black Rapid Arca rig all day, and both performed flawlessly.

An open letter to Nikon: Where’s MY full-frame?

The Nikon D800, from the Nikon home page

Dear Nikon:

Congratulations for introducing two two terrific products, the Nikon D4 and D800/800e! Both products are new benchmarks of DSLR performance, and worthy members of Nikon’s pro lineup.  Given the terrible tragedies in Japan and Thailand, I commend and congratulate you for what must have been a Herculean effort by your employees to persevere and deliver.

Now, I must ask you – where the heck is the full frame camera for the Enthusiast Photographer?

In truth, I personally can’t afford a brand-new full frame camera.  I’ve got three spawn and enough demands on my income that a $3,000 camera just isn’t going to happen.  Since plenty of Enthusiast Photographers bought and loved the D700, and I greatly covet one, I figure it is worth exploring what I’d really like to see in a full-frame camera targeted at me, because today I’d take a D700 over a D800 if someone offered me a free choice between them.  What I really want is something in the middle.  The D800 seems kind of like the D700 when it came out: a baby version of the flagship, except in this case the downsized camera was the D3x.  I definitely don’t want one of those.

So what would my full-frame camera look like?  Here’s my list (which admittedly ignores the realities and technicalities of the sensor platform):

  • Full frame sensor with 16MP-18MP.  I don’t need or want to deal with the file size that 36.3MP creates (even for JPEG).  Storage is cheap, but as a guy who takes a lot of photos on family occasions, business and personal travel and my general creative photography, the downstream burden on the rest of my technology overall is too much.  I don’t want to watch my PC wheeze an more than it already does while I try to load and edit the files.  I like very much that my backup system (an old ReadyNAS Duo with two 1TB drives in it) hasn’t maxed out yet despite a fair bit of photography since I purchased it. My 16GB cards hold plenty of photos, I don’t want to buy bigger cards any time soon…
  • D3s ISO performance.  I don’t crave more megapixels, but I really do crave ISO.  I think a lot of folks are “available light” shooters like me, using a little fill flash here and there, but the lower light I can shoot in the better.  So call it ISO 100-12,800.  You can remove the LO and HI extenders.
  • Dual SD card slots.  Don’t make me collect two completely different kinds of cards.  As a pro, that would be completely infuriating – who needs the complexity of managing different kinds of storage with different performance levels?  Maybe one (probably Compact Flash) is the primary and the SD is secondary/safety (or one for RAW and the other for JPEG) on the D300s/D800 for the pros, but I want one technology.  As a non-pro, I prefer the cost and availability of SD, but I’d take Compact Flash.  Just make ’em the same, broadly available technology.  Sheesh.
  • D700-class autofocus.  All that great ISO performance is wasted without great AF.  This isn’t a D7000, so give me the really good stuff.
  • D7000 build.  Let’s face it – lots of buyers of the D700 weren’t professionals, so the weight and size of the D700 is wasted on most of us.  I do want a rugged metal chassis with good weather-sealing, but for the most part my equipment stays cozy, warm and safe.  I’m out and about, but not in a war zone, a jungle or the Himalayas.  Give me survivability but not a tank.
  • Lighted buttons.  Please don’t tell me this is such a high-dollar design that it is affordable only on the flagship.  We’ve got the ISO to shoot in low light, give me buttons to help.
  • Same viewfinder as the D800 with virtual horizon, etc.
  • Same metering, shutter and flash of the D800.  If you must separate the products somehow, an evolution of the D700 would work.
  • U1/U2 buttons like the D7000.  In a rare moment of agreement with Ken Rockwell (who can’t seem to figure out if he thinks megapixels are useful or not), how the heck was this left out of the D800???
  • USB 3.0.  Or even better, whatever is cheaper between in-camera USB 3.0 and throwing a USB 3.0 card reader for SD/CF in the box.
  • 6-8 Frames per second is fine.  You don’t have to improve the FPS with the grip, especially to keep it to a reasonable price.  $616 list (which still translates to $449 at B&H) is a shameful price when the grip for the D7000 is $219 and the grip for the D700 is $234 (at B&H, the list prices are $297 and $334, respectively).
  • Same video and audio as the D300s.  It will give folks a reason to buy the D800, and I use my Flipcam or smartphone for most of my video.  If you really want to create some product separation, take video off (along with a couple hundred bucks…).

I’m sure there are things I’ve missed.  I’d love to see simpler menus, a touch-screen and a few other things, but that is the main baseline.  As far as price, it would have to be more than the still-hypothetical D400 (which I’m guessing will be $1999) while not cratering your D800, though I think the build and other features I’ve described here are enough to keep the hard-core pros up there.  Let’s call it $2399 – about what the D700 was selling for new just before the terrible events in Tōhoku/Sendai or $2199 for a no-video version.

Here’s another thought for my friends at Nikon:  Create a “Build Your Perfect SLR” web-app in DX and FX editions, and even “what kind of shooter are you” categories.  Build in enough logic that users have to keep it real as a user in terms of manufacturability, sales price and family structure.  In other words, you have a “budget” to spend in the app for the design and features trade off against each other.  Put an “other” box in there somewhere for suggestions.  It would be a lot of fun, and my guess is you’ll learn a lot about what people really want.  And for Enthusiast Photographers like me and a lot of others, it isn’t a D4 or a D800 for full frame…

Readers:  Comments on your dream full frame or DX?  What features are you wishing for?

Draftee Enthusiast Photographer Shoot Results

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue

My favorite shot of the day...

As I posted a few days ago, I was asked to shoot some photos for a company event.  Since I’m much more of a kids-and-landscape shooter, usually using available light with maybe a little of fill from the on-board flash of my D90, I was a little intimidated.  Arming myself with a borrowed a SB-900 flash, I re-read a lot of Scott Kelby’s words of wisdom, surveyed Flash 101 from Dave Hobby at Strobist and even reached out to some pals in the BMW community in the photography subsection of the Off-Topic forum for some very useful practical advice and experience.

The good news was I had a chance to go see the venue the day before and test some things out.  The bad news was it was a tough environment: a vaulted area of a high school library with a mix of fluorescent, incandescent and muddy, cloudy light from a window.  I shot a number of test shots, trying to dial in the best combination I could come up with of exposure, reasonable shadows and an editable file to work with.  I had a large, white vertical wall about 12 feet to the right of the podium I could use to bounce, which was useful.  I entered the day stressed – I’d dreamed about flashes and focal length during a restless night.

So how did it go?  Overall, I’d call it a success.  The team got the photos they were asking for and I came away with a few shots I liked.  One of my least-favorite (a group shot with a throng of other cameras around me a and a wilting SB-900), got picked up in the business wire story about the event.  My favorite shot of the day was the one at the top of the page.  I was shooting Manual, mainly at ISO 400, with a shutter speed of 100 (to get a reasonable freeze with the flash) and aperture of f/8 so the background was clear.

A few lessons learned:

  • (with a nod to Scott Kelby) Charge everything the night before.
  • Pack the night before with the idea of accessibility for whatever you’re likely to use or might need quickly (like spare batteries).
  • Before you leave the house, check that everything successfully charged, and take one practice shot with your camera (another Kelby nod :)).  Look at the settings information and make sure it agrees with what you intended.  If you don’t have your camera set to lock unless there is a memory card in it, double-check that you have a card and an extra.
  • Get there early.  There is no substitute for having a chance to look around a bit beforehand, not to mention the value of staking out your spot 😉 – things got awfully crowded when the real press guys showed up with video cameras…
  • Bring three sets of batteries, or maybe better said one set more set than you think you’ll need.  This is especially true of the batteries for the flash.  I brought only one extra set.  It was enough, but I was sweating it…
  • Shoot JPEG or JPEG+RAW if you need to give something to someone else quickly.  Since there were multiple press offices involved, I was asked to hand over photos before I left.  A real pro would probably be shooting JPEG only in this situation and be done with it, but I also shot RAW since a fair number of the photos I shot will become internal stock photos, and I wanted the change to make them look as good as possible.  Plus, as an amateur, I wanted the defensive depth of a RAW file in case I missed something and had a quick chance to edit on the fly.
  • Watch the flash carefully.  I’d heard about the SB-900 thermal shutdown, and wondered if it was as bad as described.  I’d have to say yes.  I could have made things easier on the flash by shooting at higher ISO, but I was only shooting at 80-100 focal length – I didn’t think I was taxing it very hard.  I was wrong.  About halfway through, I’d shot enough pops to wear out the batteries (which I’d done some test-shots with the day before), and soon after swapping in the new ones, the thermal switch popped in.  I moved to a slightly higher ISO, and shot with the on-board flash while the SB-900 cooled off – I removed it, turned it off and set it aside.  I’m sure more than a little of this was due to the photographer – I don’t know flash well, I probably could have shot with different settings to ease the load on the flash and I was probably over-eager to get a lot of shots.  Getting good facial expressions is a trick, so I compensated with more snaps.  There is a reason pros shoot with a D3s in machine-gun mode :).  The SB-900 cooled down fairly quickly, and I shot with a little more discretion once it was back in action.

Overall, I’m happy with the results and everyone else seems to be, too.  I edited the photos I had and felt like the results were very reasonable, though even the shot at the top of the page could use a little white-balance adjustment.  I wish I’d had a little more positioning flexibility so the logo of National Academy Foundation wasn’t partially blocked.  I debated moving and decided to stay put.  I have to say I’d avoid the SB-900.  I’d opt for the Enthusiast-Photographer-level-and-price SB-700 or maybe the pro-quality and apparently more graceful SB-910 used or when the price comes down a bit.  For now, the SB-900 goes back to my buddy Kevin with my sincere gratitude and I’ll go back to more more normal photography pursuits.  For the future, I’ll add a flash to my “want-in-the-bag” list, and continue to learn about off-camera photography.  Of course, if I can wangle a D3s from work to be an on-call photographer…

Any C&C, suggestions or tips on the photo above or the shoot in general are welcome!

The Threat of Being an Enthusiast Photographer

Have you ever seen the term “GWC” on photography forums?  Usually, you’ll see it if you hang around the places where they talk about wedding photography.  It stands for “Guy With Camera”, and generally it isn’t a positive term.  It is what the pros call a guest (and apparently usually a guy-guest) who brings his DSLR to a wedding and/or reception and shoots photos.  Some photographers don’t like GWC’s, while others seem not to worry about it.

I have to admit that I have been a GWC at a number of weddings.  I’m proud of it – my friends have some photographs they treasure, and generally my photos are more candid-type shots that I hope wouldn’t compete in any way with the official photographer’s ability to make his/her money.  My shots are personal, and they clearly aren’t professional, especially since in those days I wasn’t at the level of knowledge I am now about my equipment and especially exposure and composition.

I’ve also always made a point to stay out of the official photographer’s way, and I’ll usually try to find a quick moment to let them know that and that they are free to let me know if I need to move, stop shooting, whatever.

Then there is the other side.  For example, when your workplace knows you like photography and have some decent equipment.  I got asked to shoot a company event that will be attended by a senior executive and the Governor of our state, and I said “yes” before I even thought about it.

Now I’m thinking about it, and I’m worried.

Firstly, I don’t own an off-camera flash.  The good news there is my buddy is loaning me his SB-900, which was Nikon’s flagship pro-grade flash until a recent update to the SB-910.  The bad news is I haven’t used anything other than my pop-up flash for…ten years? YouTube has some help, but sorting through YouTube isn’t much fun.

Secondly, I won’t have much of a chance to see the venue before the event.

Thirdly – well, even if their expectations are low (they’d hire a pro if they weren’t), mine aren’t.  I want to do well.

So what is a nervous Enthusiast Photographer to do?  I go back to Scott Kelby and his Digital Photography series.  I’m guessing the sections on weddings will be the most helpful, but I’ll be scanning for flash techniques, too.  I’m also going to re-read Lighting 101 on Strobist.com, which is a great resource.

I’m probably worrying too much about it, and I’ve got great equipment, but photography is about getting it right, and I want to do that!  Suggestions welcome!

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?

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.

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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 – 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.

My favorite photographs of 2011

Apologies for a long post, but I thought I’d throw some of my favorite images from 2011 out there along with the lessons they came with. I hope you’ll find it worth your time!
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I’ve tried not to make this blog too much about my own photography, but I took some time today to reflect on my journey this year and how far I’ve come. I got my D90 around Christmas last year, and shortly after that I read the two books that really opened the door to the world of photography for me. I don’t think I can overstate the impact Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography books and Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure had on my ability to understand what my camera was capable of and how I could get out of the “Auto” and scene modes and really take control of what I was doing. It has been really satisfying, and a source of great fun for me in a year when a lot of things weren’t so fun. I doubt they’ll ever see this, but I’m extremely grateful to both of them.

I was finally brave enough to try out a Photoshop tip in Scott’s first book on my favorite photos of 2011, and I was really pleased with the results, so I’ve posted them all here. I’ve added a few comments about each photo, what it meant and what it taught me. I hope they’ll be of some use to you, or at least that you enjoy the image! (The WordPress photo hosting leaves a little to be desired, so clicking on each will link you to the Flickr page.). On to the photographs!
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Harbor Pilot - Charleston, SC - February 2011

This photo was one of a set I took not long after finishing Scott’s books and really having some time to digest them. My mother-in-law lives in Charleston, and I got out before dawn one morning while we were visiting. I had no idea what I was going to shoot or really where I was going, but this boat was one of the first things I shot. It showed me how valuable my tripod really was to getting a shot like this! I was determined to shoot manual, and I must have taken forty photos, with varying shutter speeds and aperture settings. I hadn’t read “Understanding Exposure” yet, but when I did, I was thinking about getting this photo the whole time.
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Battery Park - Charleston, SC - February 2011

Something about this statue and canon eternally facing out to the harbor struck me, and I had to take a picture. What I remember most about taking this photo was that I kept the tripod legs folded – the composition standing up lost the searching feeling this image has, and brought the trees into play. It was an early lesson in thinking about up/down dimensions when composing.
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Cristo Redentor from Sugar Loaf - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - April 2011

I’ve been so lucky to have been a lot of places in the world (mainly on business), but Rio was my first big trip after rediscovering photography. Not a bad place to go! I actually struggled a great deal. Knowing I wasn’t likely to ever return to this iconic place and with tough, hazy conditions, I was a little stressed out about getting the shot. Coming home, I wasn’t immediately happy with many of my photos, but these photos helped show me the value of shooting RAW and learning my editing tools. This image has come a long way from the first time I saw it out of the camera, and I’ll treasure it for my whole life.
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Cristo Redentor - Rio de Janiero, Brazil - April 2011

This photo probably gives you some insight to how difficult the conditions were. It was very hazy and bright. What I finally learned here was that I needed to relax, enjoy the moment and recognize than an Enthusiast Photographer is shooting for fun, not a paycheck. This isn’t a magazine-quality picture, but it means a lot to me. I wasn’t exactly feeling it photography-wise, and I was a little flustered, and I decided that was OK. Things went much better from that moment on!
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Old shed - Cary, NC - May 2011

I liked this view of the shed since it seems like the tree is almost part of the structure, or maybe vice versa 🙂

I’d been driving by this old shed for years, and it suddenly occurred to me it has all the texture and color I look for when I want to take photos. I got out to shoot early one morning to a very disappointing dawn sky, which forced me to change what I’d expected to do that morning. The lesson here is you can’t always predict the weather or conditions, so you have to go with the flow. Instead of a blazing orange sky I have long, wispy green grass, which I think is a great counterpoint to the building.

A couple other notes here. First, this shed isn’t in a remote area – there are lots of developed neighborhoods all around it, and I’m standing in the shoulder of a fairly large road to take the shots. Sometimes you create an illusion with composition, and that is a lot of fun. I composed them to take the newer house off to the right out of the frame and ensured the power lines and other modern elements can’t be seen. Also, this building was boarded up and sealed not long after I took these photos, so it was a very good reminder not to dawdle when you get some inspiration – the chance might not be there tomorrow…
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Flare of Dawn - Carolina Beach, NC - July 2011

I spent every morning of our week at the beach watching the sunrise from the porch with my 9-year-old son. The composition was limited to the porch where I was drinking coffee and talking with him. When I posted these on various forums, I inevitably got comments about the two old posts from the pier that was taken by a hurricane years ago. The suggestions were that the posts are distracting and that I should Photoshop them out. But sometimes photographs serve just to remind you of a special time or place. Those posts are like an old scar on the face of a wizened man, and I’m not taking them out. They remind me of those conversations with my son and the nice old house we stay in every year. In other words, sometimes you just have to listen to yourself. 🙂
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Fountain on Charleston Harbor - Charleston, SC - November 2011

This was one of the images that benefited a great deal from Scott Kelby’s instructions on using the Unsharp Mask tool with Lab Color and the Lightness Channel in Photoshop. Now if it sounds like I know what I’m talking about, don’t be fooled. I’m just parroting what I read in Scott’s book, and true to form, he doesn’t bog you down with a lot of jargon and details, he just tells you how to do it. It was easy and the results are good. Sometimes the “why” can come later, and that isn’t a bad thing.
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Harbor Pilot - Charleston, SC - November 2011

The outing during my November visit to Charleston was a bit of a bust. I was so busy getting out to shoot at dawn that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was shooting or where I was going. The result was I wound up back where I’d been before. The good news is I got a shot that is a nice example of exposure. My first visit with the boat had much better color, but this time I was more aware of getting the exposure right, and the result is a better and sharper image. The wisdom gained from that day was to have a particular goal in mind every time you go out: shoot for color or texture, unusual shadows, whatever.

Even if you don’t stick to it, no plan up front runs a high risk of an aimless and unproductive outing.
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Heading out - Charleston, SC - November 2011

This is another image that saw great improvement from the “Unsharp Mask” technique, but also a reminder about being ready and aware. I was taking shot after shot of the pilot boat that I completely missed the sounds of this other boat pulling away from the same dock and heading for the rising sun. The focus was pretty soft, but the benefits of the full RAW information and Scott’s Photoshop tip helped recover most of an image I really wanted to capture but wasn’t quite ready for…
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Reach for the Sky - Jordan Lake, NC - December 2011

This was the last frame of my last shoot of 2011, and it is already one of my favorite photos ever. There were several lessons on that shoot, a few of them detailed in my previous post “Deep in the Woods” (net: carry a flashlight and think about darkness when you’re off the beaten path), but there were a couple more lessons I took away from that day.

In my haste to get back to my car before it got really dark, I noticed as I was driving out of the park that the light was still getting better and better. I wavered, but finally pulled over and went looking for a clear place to shoot over the water at the marvelous colors in front of me. The moral here is don’t be afraid to stop and grab a few quick shots. Anyway, as I hurriedly fought my way through the brush and brambles again, the scene above just struck me. I immediately stopped, set up my tripod and started shooting. The branches set against the sky were just so visually interesting that I couldn’t pass them up.

It cost me the opportunity to get the clear shot across the lake, but I’m positive that that shot wouldn’t be nearly as compelling (at least to me) as what I did get, and it reminded me that I have to keep my eyes open even when I’m on the way to the shot I think I want. The unexpected can be more powerful, and while the colors of the photograph I missed would have been really nice, the image itself would have been a little pedestrian. What I got was a lot more fun, and I knew it as soon as I saw it!

I’ll also mention that my new tripod and especially the L-bracket came in very handy here. My spot was on a very uneven set of ground, and I don’t think hanging the camera over in the drop notches of a standard ball head would have been much help to sharpness during the long exposure. The RRS BH-40 and the L-bracket were heroes for this shot!
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I hope these have been useful and enjoyable! Among other things, I’m busy writing up my 2012 Photography Goals and Resolutions. I’ll publish mine soon – what are yours? What were the big lessons of 2011 for you?

Thanks for reading, and please let me know if you have any topics or questions I could use for a blog!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Riding the light

There are a few universals in the photography world. One of them is to get good, fast glass before investing a lot of money in a body. Another one is if you’re interested in learning about flash photography, you should go to Strobist.

I’m not kidding – the span of people who recommend this site/blog amazes me, and the blog itself is engaging and has a very wide range of content. It isn’t arcane and down-talking, just plain useful and fun to read.

I’m always trying to find places that can expand my understanding of photography, and I’ll share them from time to time. Strobist is easily one of the best resources out there. If you aren’t subscribed, I highly recommend it. Click below to head over there.