Tripod Armor

This is the kind of shot I love, and the kind of setup that makes me cringe...I just ordered a set of these, and before I’ve even laid eyes on them I know I’m going to love them!  No, it isn’t the head and tripod legs, it is what is protecting them from the sand and salt.  These plastic sleeves are my favorite kind of photography product – one that is invented and sold by a photographer.

These re-usable sleeves are what I’ll use the next time I go to the beach or the lake or pretty much anywhere where I’ll wind up washing things like mud, grime or sand out of the tripod.

There is a pretty good tutorial on the internet on how to disassemble your Gitzo tripod to clean it out, but for 15 bucks, I’d much rather do this.  I’m very careful about my equipment – I want it to stay as clean and happy as I can, and this is a terrific way to let me fully utilize the tool that my tripod can be without worrying about what I’m doing to it.  Anything that helps the equipment disappear from my mind and let me concentrate on the photograph is a great thing.  Bliss for $15.

They are on the way tomorrow, but I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to get them out in the wild and do a full review.  I have no doubts about the function, so in the meantime, I didn’t want to wait to put a little light on this product.

A couple other photos (used with permission from the creator of the product):

You can order them here: http://www.tripodcovers.com/

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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!

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!

Legs or or no legs?

Maybe it is the specter of Scott Kelby telling me the first step to sharp photography is a tripod, the kind of photography I do (lots of landscape/cityscape shots) or just the plain great results I’m getting when I use one, but I’m a pretty big fan of my tripod.  I look for excuses to use it, especially since I got the RRS head and L-bracket (which is still a post for another day).

But what about you?  Do you use one?  I’d love to hear comments on why you do or don’t, if you love it or hate it!

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!!!

Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Review – Part 1 (Snoop)

I’ve been waiting…patiently this time…for my custom-made bag to arrive.  After trying the Ona Union Street Bag and finding it terrific but with a single, fatal flaw (that wouldn’t bother most people, but I’m a little whack about certain things), I went in search of another messenger-style bag that would fulfill my needs.

This review is going to be long enough that I’m breaking it up into 2 parts, so let’s get an overall summary out of the way for the short-attention-span crowd who are already dying to be done:  I got the large Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the medium Snoop insert.  The bag is very roomy with lots of pockets, and holds literally everything I own from a photography and mobile technology standpoint.  The Snoop insert is well-padded and fairly flexible.  The bag carries well and looks terrific, especially if you get a custom-built bag like I did.  The quality appears to be fantastic.  I have a few minor quibbles – It isn’t perfect, but it is highly recommended.

Now that those folks are playing on their xBox again, let’s get to some details on the Snoop, and I’ll do a bag writeup in the next day or so.  You might want to read the Ona review, but here’s my recent list of what I’m looking for in a bag:

  • Versatile – lots of easily accessible pockets and places to put stuff.  Travel well.
  • Spacious – hold my body and 4-5 lenses.   One lens would be replaced by a flash (when I own one and decide to carry it…).  It needs to hold my laptop and various cables, notebook, pens, etc. so I can have a single bag when I travel.
  • Protective – don’t let me break my stuff.  Please.
  • Comfortable – my equipment felt more comfortable to carry in the Ona bag vs. my current LowePro 202 AW, and actually felt lighter.  Also, don’t have fiddly designs – be simple and easy.
  • Attractive – as I mentioned in my other article, I travel in the corporate world, and I want something that has some style and design.  The very serious and pro photographers roll their eyes at this, but I’ll steal my own quote: I don’t want a bag that looks like it belongs on “That 70′s Show or “Star Trek” – I want something that looks good.  Attractive design and high function aren’t mutually exclusive. They just seem to be in the world of camera bags…

After scouting around, I came upon Timbuk2.  They are famous for their messenger bags.  As it turns out, a buddy of mine has their “Commute” bag for his laptop and is a big fan.  They have just recently announced a “camera bag.”  I put that in quotes because they didn’t announce a bag so much as they announced a variant of their current messenger bag with straps for a tripod (on the bottom) and an insert for camera equipment that slips into the bag.  They call it the “Snoop” and there are two sizes: small and medium. These correspond to the same sizes of their bag or +1 size (small Snoop in medium bag, medium Snoop in large bag) if you are customizing want some extra room.  I’d recommend the +1 strategy.  You’ll see what I mean later.  Since I was looking for a laptop case and a camera case, I went with the Laptop Messenger and added the Snoop insert instead of the standard, dedicated Snoop Camera Messenger.

While I was considering my order, I e-mailed and called Timbuk2 more than once.  The people were friendly and helpful.  Their website is excellent, and the customization process is almost too fun.  If I have a criticism, it is that the build-your-own experience has taken over their website a bit, but whatever – it is a very nice website with a lot of cool products as well as a fair number of videos about the products.

I decided to go with a custom bag and stick with the waxed canvas theme I liked so much with the Ona bag.  I chose black with an olive center panel, black trim and logo and a light blue interior.  Yes, you can choose a different color for all of those things.  There are a lot of colors and fabrics, so you can end up with something uniquely yours.  There are, of course, pre-made bags in a variety of colors.  I configured away and had a merry time, also adding Compression Straps so I could cinch the bottom when I wasn’t using it as a camera bag.  They also provide a handy place to tuck my tripod in a pinch, too. Ultimately, I stuck with a conservative look, but you have lots of options to add color and texture to the bag.  The Snoop itself does not customize.

I’m not sure how their process works, but build/ship took a little longer than I expected.  I think expedited shipping might get expedited build as well.  I ordered on Dec. 5th, it shipped on Dec. 9th and the bag itself arrived on Dec. 19th (original arrival estimate from UPS was 12/16).  Poor performance on the part of UPS, holidays notwithstanding.  Especially if you live much farther east than the Rockies, upgrade the shipping.  The Snoop arrived several days earlier, so I’l make that the focus of Part 1 of this review:

Cool bag - it is a map of San Francisco, and it encourages you to cut it out and keep it.

All four lenses, my D90, my FlipCam and various other stuff in the bag. Not sweating space at all...

There is a carry/pull handle on the top of the Snoop that allows you to pull it out of the Laptop Messenger or light portability.  It is for moving it from storage to the bag and back, not for transportation.

The Snoop is gray nylon canvas on the outside.  They call the color Gunmetal, and it looks great – if I ever build a laptop-only case and go custom again, it is high on my list.  The interior is blue soft terry lining with minimal padding on the outside and nicely padded dividers.  Since the insert is inside a bigger bag and has multiple layers of protection, I’m not worried about the side padding.  Interior room is excellent.

I got the Medium Snoop, and it carries my D90, four lenses (a large one, two med/lg. and a little prime), my filter case, Black Rapid strap, FlipCam and other various stuff with room to spare.  In an insert this size, a few extra dividers would be a good thing, but you can get extras from them separately.  The top of the Snoop zips shut to make it a self-contained unit, which works great for me.  When I’m not using this as a camera bag, I can store the Snoop an make the bag my daily laptop case.

Other than additional dividers, my only criticism of the Snoop is that it has no pockets or accessory storage at all.  They could make use of the top flap for a couple memory card slots and a small pocket for a cable release, etc.  Some slide-in pockets on the side wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either.  Yes, there are plenty of pockets on the bag itself, but if the idea is to make this a modular piece of a carry-system, I’d like to see the Snoop be a little more self-contained for my photography equipment.  A minor point, though I’d love to see them update the design.

Outside of that, I can’t find much to fault with the Snoop, especially as part of the overall system in the bag.  I’ll be carrying the bag in three modes: Laptop, Camera and Laptop+Camera (travel only).  I’ll cover it more in Part II, but I think the fact that the Snoop is removable will make this bag much more flexible than anything else I’m aware of, which is fairly cool.  It isn’t without drawbacks – I’ll cover more in Part II, but I’m very happy, which is a good thing:  Custom bags can’t be returned…

I’ll get the second half of the review up as soon as I can, holiday duties and preparation call, and I’m going to try to get out and take some photos, too!

When Gadgets Collide…

It all looks so innocent, doesn't it?

If you’re following the blog, you’ve heard me talk about two things recently:  my new tripod and head setup and the Black Rapid Strap.  I’m loving both of them:  The Arca-Swiss platform and L-bracket are just plain functional with a healthy dose of awesome, and the Black Rapid strap makes carrying your camera more comfortable and available.

One problem.  They don’t work together.

It isn’t so much that they can’t work together as they step on each other if I try to use them as they sit.  Here’s the issue:  If you look at the picture, you can see the fastener for the Black Rapid on the bottom of the camera (they cleverly call this the “FastenR-3” – sometimes marketing guys should restrain themselves…),  There is a handy hole in the bottom of the Really Right Stuff L-bracket for exactly that kind of thing.

Here’s the issue:  With the FastenR screwed into the L-bracket, I can’t mount the camera to my tripod unless I take the FastenR off.  That means I’m having to choose between quick and easy use of my tripod (which I love) and the easy-carrying strap unless I’m willing to unscrew the thing every time I want to put it on a tripod.

I don’t like that because:

  • (A) it is very inconvenient,
  • (B) it causes handling that puts me at higher risk of dropping my camera,and
  • (C) I’m worried that after a certain number of times through this cycle the threaded hole won’t hold as well as it should, and back out, dropping my equipment.  That may not be reality, but I don’t want to worry about it.  Half the point of the strap is to make the camera “disappear” when aren’t using it.

I have some ideas to fix it, and set the pieces in motion today (literally), so look for an update early next week.

In the meantime, have you had any gadgets fight each other?  Let’s hear some stories (and solutions)!

Gitzo 2531 and RRS BH-40 First Thoughts

The magic of easy portrait shooting, courtesy of the BH-40 and the RRS L-plate.

The new setup finally arrived Wednesday, and from the first moment I’ve been wowed by the quality and overall excellence of both the Gitzo 2531 and the RRS-BH40.  A full review with some photos and maybe even a video is coming, but I’ll net it out: Awesome.

It is more stable, it feels…right…and the L-bracket make portrait shooting easier.  Unlikely I’ll ever out-grow this setup, and that is a good thing.  There are too many things in the world of photography where you’re always looking at the next-generation.  No more of that here.  Unless I wind up winning the lottery and decide to invest in big, long glass (bigger than a 300mm prime lens), I’m done.

Done feels good.

My advice to you, if you’re starting out and serious about photography as a hobby:  Think about your tripod as seriously as you did the camera itself.  You might want to check out some of my thoughts on tripods and heads gathered while I was hunting for this setup.

Visit your local camera shop (and when I say camera shop, I don’t mean the retail store at the mall where the teenagers work, I mean the one staffed with a bunch of real photography geeks where the pros in your area get their stuff) and find a deal on a used tripod.  It might be old and heavy, but it will probably work better than the cheapie stuff.  Or grab the Manfrotto 055XPROB.  If you can afford it, the Sirui N-2204 is an amazing tripod for $400.  Not chump change by any means, but it is a solid, travel-ready carbon fiber tripod that comes with a nice case, seems very sturdy and even has a trick monopod capability.  I checked it out at my local shop yesterday.  I’m not sure I can say it is equal to the Gitzo, but it is certainly up to the needs of the Enthusiast Photographer, and it definitely isn’t junk.  If I hadn’t lucked out with the Gitzo, I’d probably be raving about how nice the Sirui is for the money.

I just noticed that B&H and Amazon prices on the Gitzo 2531 have gone down quite a bit – less than $500 after a rebate.  I can only guess they are getting ready to come out with a 2532 since the list price on this at Gitzo.com is $778!

My complete thoughts on tripods and heads, the review of my new setup are in the works, and I just got a notice that my new, custom-made Timbuk2 bag is on the way, so lots to do this holiday season!  Maybe even a few photos!