Sometimes, you have to learn your own way…

Thanks for visiting Enthusiast Photographer! For those of you coming from search engines or links, the post below was my “First Look” review of the DT-01 and DDH-02 setup.  Since then, I’ve taken it all over the world and written a full review.  Please feel free to read the post below, but click the link at the bottom for the complete story.  Also, feel free to follow the blog, “Like” Enthusiast Photographer on Facebook or follow on Twitter if you’d like to join me on my photography journey or just want to read something different once in a while.

I’m not ready to post a review about the Sunwayfoto DT-01 Monopod Head yet, but I learned something tonight.  Women can be pretty clever.  Either that or Winnie from Sunwayfoto has been talking to my wife…

It all started during some correspondence about my XB-44 ball head review.  I mentioned to Winnie that I was going to be taking two trips soon, one to Europe and one to Asia, and was going to buy a monopod to use while traveling.  Since my 80-200 plate has a different orientation than the L-bracket on my D90, I was looking for a solution that I could quickly change to accommodate the orientation of whatever I was using.   Winnie suggested their DT-01 monopod head and the DDH-02 plate.  I’d noticed that head previously (it was on display when I visited their booth at CES) and the DDH-01, which looks similar to the RRS MH-02 setup – a monopod head with an indexing clamp.  Honestly, when I looked at the DDH-02 on their website, I thought it seemed too small and a little delicate to handle my 80-200 on the monopod.

Winnie surprised me when she suggested that I have a look at the head with three clamps – the standard DDC-50 screw-clamp, the DDH-01 I’d been looking at and the DDH-02 she had recommended.

The package arrived the other day, and I just had a chance to try out the various configurations.  I learned a lesson:  Listen to the people who do it for a living.

While I can’t fully speak to the handling and other features yet, I can say this:  if you want something more than the standard screw-clamp, the DDH-02 is the way to go.  When I fit the larger and more substantial DDH-01 on the monopod head, the whole setup is pretty bulky.  This is clearly the reason Sunwayfoto developed the DDH-02 and why Winnie was patiently suggesting that pairing to me.

So when I was failing to listen, Winnie took the direction my wife often does, which is to let me see for myself that she was right. 🙂

Let’s have a look at some photos:

The DT-01 with the standard screw clamp

The DDH-01 and DDH-02 side by side

The DDH-01 panning clamp mounted to the DT-01 Monopod head. I need to try to see if one of the standard screws fits directly to the head, but it doesn’t appear to. Mounting it using the standard clamp worked fine, but the package is bulky.

Last but not least, the svelte and effective DDH-02 panning clamp.

It will take a while to post a full review, but I’ll mention a few basics:

The DT-01 bears some similarity to the RRS monopod head.  They both have a pendulum design and an Arca-compatible dovetail at the base of the head.  Both are all-metal and stoutly made.  Sunwayfoto chose a single-arm base, where RRS has two outboard rails for the swivel base of the head.  The Sunwayfoto design appears to be beefier – my guess is they both perform well.

The Sunwayfoto DDH-01 is a panning clamp that offers similar function to the RRS PCL-1 Panning Clamp.  I thought that made a nice choice to rotate the clamp orientation for use with my 80-200.  As I mentioned previously, it is a fairly substantial clamp, and even directly attached to the monopod it is over-large for good ease of use.  It is a terrific solution to use when shooting panoramic shots on your ball-head, however, and the included dovetail makes using it very simple (you can add a dovetail to the RRS PCL-1 for  $30).

Then there is the DDH02:

It is small, clamps very securely and has a nifty flip-lever that allows it to rotate or pan in 360°.  As soon as I’d mounted it on the head, I knew I had the right solution.

I’m still going to take all three out on my trips so I can see how everything handles, and I’ll write up a full review in a couple of months.  But over and above some things I’ve already learned as a enter the world of monopod users, I learned again a lesson for so many of us:  Listen.   🙂

The DDH-01 panning clamp is available at B&H, but for now I can only find he DT-01 head on Amazon and eBay.  As a new product, the DDH-02 hasn’t popped up anywhere yet…
Update: My full review on the DDH-02 and the DT-01 can be found here.  Both products are now available at B&H and Amazon.

UPDATE:  I’ve completed a full review!  See it by clicking here.  Enjoy!

Note/Disclaimer:  You might have noticed these products have “SAMPLE” serial numbers.  As with the XB-44, these were provided to me by Sunwayfoto for review at no cost.  If you’ve read my blog, I hope you believe that I’m a very straightforward guy – I say what I think, I admit what I don’t know and I’d never let anything sway my review of a product: It works or it doesn’t.  I like it or I don’t.  I hate fiddly stuff and poor design, and I’ll never hold back on those issues.  I always try to be fair, whichever way that cuts.

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A bad habit…

I was sitting around watching March Madness and playing with my D90.  During a commercial break, I was goofing around shooting my DirecTV receiver that was ten feet or so away.  Since it was a black box with blue lights, it was obvious that I wasn’t cleanly pressing the shutter.  In fact, I realized I was “punching” it.  Maybe I’m guilty of skimming the books I’ve recommended here a number of times, or maybe the lesson on good shutter technique was too subtle for me.  So I shot at a deliberately absurd hand-held shutter speed of 1/2, played around with a couple lenses and experimented a bit.  Before get to what I came up with, let’s look at what I was doing until today:

Tokina Punch Big Crop

Tokina 11-16 @ 16mm, f/2.8 - heavily cropped (approx 300%).

80-200 Punch

Nikon 80-200 @ 200mm, f/2.8 - Re-sized only

So…now I know why some of my hand-held shots aren’t as sharp as I’d like – my technique is terrible. I have always tried to be smooth as I pressed the shutter, rolling my finger across the button (I do recall this from my first read of Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography series, but this made it pretty clear I was bouncing the camera.  It was clear after a few minutes that the biggest culprit was not pressing the button, but actually releasing it!  After a few minutes of trial and error, I found a style that made a big difference.

Net: I roll smoothly across the button and don’t move my finger at all until the shutter cycle is complete.  The improvement was pretty significant:

New technique with Tokina 11-16 @ 16mm, same crop, etc.

Better, right? The heavy crop and very low light don’t make this very sharp, but it certainly illustrates how much less movement is in the release. What about the big, heavy 80-200?

New technique with Nikon 80-200 @ 200mm, just re-sized.

I’ve still got room for improvement here, but I was still in my Al Bundy couch pose and the 80-200 really is a big piece of glass.  Net: the shake is reduced by at least 2/3, and I’d say good posture and a little more focus on my hand-holding technique would give better results – it ain’t bad for a hand-held shutter speed of 1/2 with a station wagon strapped to the front of my D90!  Realistic shutter speeds would help, too.

I’m sure there are photographers reading this and saying “Well duh!” and I’m hoping that when I re-read my Scott Kelby there isn’t a completely obvious tip on this.

In the meantime, I hope it is helpful to other Enthusiast Photographers.  For me, I’ll be doing a little more research and reading on the basics of shutter and hand-holding techniques!

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!

Patience is a virtue. I’m lacking virtue.

I got the chance to upgrade my tripod setup, and I jumped at it.  I was able to sell my existing Manfrotto legs and head for good money, and I found a great deal on a Gitzo 2531 with a Really Right Stuff (RRS) BH-40 ball head.  They are on the way.

And so now I wait.

I hate waiting.

I really, really, really do.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the new setup.  Honestly, it is probably what I should have gotten starting out, but lots of factors determined what I bought the first time, and now I’ve gotten a chance to take a big step up.  I’ll write up a full review with details, comments, photos and thoughts, but here’s a few things to chew on if you’re an Enthusiast Photographer thinking about tripods (hopefully you’ve already read my post “The least sexy upgrade, and it isn’t in your bag…”).

First – think ahead in your purchase.  If there is any chance you’ll wind up with bigger lenses later, take that into account now when you’re buying your tripod.

Second – buy the best tripod and head you can afford.  The good news is that these are pretty much like good lenses – they don’t tend to lose much value over time.  This isn’t to say you have to buy a $1200 tripod and head setup.  If you can’t afford carbon fiber, go with aluminum.  Manfrotto’s 055XPROB is a very nice, affordable, solid setup with great height and a nifty optional carry strap.  But as usual, I’m ahead of myself.  Look at your future potential weight needs and buy the best stuff you can.  Much like in the world of laptops, the lighter you go, the faster the price escalates.  Unless weight or travel size is absolutely critical, I’d go with a nicer head with heavier, less exotic lenses until you can afford nice everything.  A bad head will make you miserable.  More on heads and legs in another post – it is another example in the photography world of a subject that has huge dimension, learning curve and spread of opinions.

Third – don’t be intimidated by the brand snobs.  Some say if you don’t have Manfrotto, Gitzo or RRS, you’ve got a bad tripod.  Here’s the net: most of us aren’t professional photographers out with a bag shooting for paychecks and running our gear hard.  We’re Enthusiast Photographers, right?  That means we’re out mainly on the weekends (if we’re lucky) and on the occasional set shoot or vacation.  We don’t need the stuff built to survive a war zone.  Benro, Induro, Sirui and Vangard have pretty decent products and lower prices from what I’ve read and the limited amount I’ve been able to handle them.  Yes, the cheap ones are probably built in China.  There is nothing wrong with that.  You won’t get ultimate features or ultimate quality, but I suspect you’ll get a fine level of both.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider the nice brands.  They are great – I have no doubts I’m going to love my Gitzo.  The fact that Really Right Stuff is entirely made and sourced in the USA is terrific, and they are just plain beautiful – the pinnacle of tripods.  But I can’t afford or justify them at this point.  Net:  You can get a very nice tripod for reasonable money.

Fourth – start at the top and work your way down.  I’ll cover this more in the head and legs section, but you would do well to think about the plates you’ll be using to attach the camera to the tripod.  There are proprietary plates on the least expensive heads that will limit you later.  Manfrotto’s heads work only on Manfrotto tripods and have some limitations I’ll cover later, too.  Then there is the Arca-style plates used by Arca-Swiss, Acratech Kirk, RRS and others.  It is a standard, sort of, and it offers the broadest flexibility.  I’d venture to say it is the preferred platform for most of the most serious photographers.  Your plate decision is generally going to make your head decision (generally Manfrotto vs. the Arca crowd), and from there you are about budget, load and usability.

Fifth – for tripods, less sections is generally better than more sections.  Prefer three sections to four.  It isn’t an absolute, but it isn’t far from it.  The higher-end CF 4-section legs are fine (RRS, Gitzo, et. al.).

Anyway, this is a lot more than I intended to write.  Mainly I’m really hating that I’m waiting.  If you have tripod thoughts, suggestions or questions, let’s hear ’em and I’ll incorporate them into the head and legs post.  Which I’ll write after I’m finished waiting for my new toys.  In the meantime, Thom Hogan has a good read on tripods and the process most photographers go through when it comes to support.

New Gadget: Back Rapid RS-7 Curve

The Black Rapid in action. Of course, that is a model from their website, not me 🙂

If there is an industry full of gadgets useful and not-so-useful (witness the $300 gloves recently annouced by Manfrotto), photography ranks near the top.  Being and Enthusiast Photographer means almost by definition that you’re on a budget.  Balancing what looks cool and useful against what you need to successfully improve your images can be a mysterious process at times.

I’ve made several purchases recently, but the first I’ll write about is the Black Rapid RS-7 Curve.  This is one of those things that makes you wonder why someone didn’t invent  it long ago.

Is the standard camera strap something you find a useful part of your kit?  Do you actually hang it around your neck like the classic tourist in the movies?  Do you hang the camera from your shoulder and find it secure and comfortable?

I’m guessing the answer to all of those questions is “No.”

Enter Black Rapid.  It is a sling that goes over your shoulder bandolier-style, with your camera hanging at the bottom.  It is secured by a screw mounted in the tripod mount of your camera (or lens if you have big glass with a built-in foot).  The screw has a rubber gasket that prevents damage as well as the screw coming loose.  A couple clips limit the range of swing by the camera.

The result is that the camera hangs perfectly and very comfortably on your hip, and is very naturally ready for action when it is time to take a picture.  Your hands quickly find the grip and you swing smoothly up to a shooting position.  The strap also gives you a little tension to use to steady your hands for a sharp shot.

They have several versions.  The higher-end models have modules you can add for storage, etc.  I can’t speak to any of the accessories, but the strap itself is just plain terrific, and they start a little over $50.  The camera is inconspicuous, comfortable and ready.  Highly recommended.  You can buy it at B&H or Amazon.  I’ll add a few pictures of the Black Rapid on my camera in the next few days – I’ll spare you the pictures of me ;).

Upcoming are blogs on the Ona Union Street bag and the new (used) tripod and head that is on the way to me (that will be a big one, or maybe several).

What gear are you thinking about?  You know, Santa is coming to town…

The least sexy upgrade, and it isn’t in your bag…

In my post “Breaking Through the Wall“, I made the analogy that to make your car faster, the best upgrade is to make the driver better and said photography is the same.  That doesn’t probably sit well with people who think they can get newer, better equipment to solve their problems.

It is natural to want the latest thing, or to upgrade the camera or lenses you have, but I’ll throw another one at you:  most people need to buy a good tripod before they spend any other money on other equipment.  Unfortunately, tripods are like pretty much everything else in the photography world – you get what you pay for and the curve can get steep in a hurry.  The net of it is this:  buy the best tripod you can afford.  If you’re really mobile, a monopod isn’t a bad idea either.

Why? Simple.  Stable cameras make for much clearer, sharper pictures.  Shaky cameras make for blurry images.  Sadly, even a basic tripod setup with the head is going to cost you well over $200, and really nice ones that will serve most Enthusiast Photographers will get up where – $300-400 for the legs and another $300-$400 for the head.  If you want carbon fiber, you just added a few hundred dollars more.

But for most of us, the enthusiast photographers, we don’t need a $1200 tripod/ball head setup.  We just need a nice, non-consumer set of legs with a ball head capable of supporting the equipment in the bag.  Check some of the Buy/Sell/Classifieds on the more established photography forums.  Like good lenses, good support equipment holds value pretty well, but it is also generally something that doesn’t lose performance unless it is damaged.

I got the Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod with their interesting 322RC2 head.  In retrospect, I might have gone for the slightly heavier-duty 055XPROB (don’t ask me about Manfrotto’s product names/numbering – I’m sure it makes sense to somebody…) and a more standard ball-head.

I can tell you this – my pictures and photography have improved dramatically since getting on good support.  Yours will too…

[UPDATE:  I moved on from the Manfrotto to a Gitzo tripod and heads based on the Arca-Swiss standard.  My opinions have evolved a bit, and while I think Manfrotto’s tripods are an excellent value, I’d recommend just about any head based on the Arca-Swiss system over any Manfrotto head.  The “Why” is probably a topic for a later post, but check out some of my newer posts on Gitzo, Really Right Stuff and Sunwayfoto (you can search at the top right of the page)]