Iceland and others

2014 was a really busy year, and I shot less with my camera than I have in some time.  I also posted less here on Enthusiast Photographer.  Part of that is (and continues to be) that my primary editing PC was in a closet for most of the 2nd half of the year.  I still have a few shots that haven’t made it to my secondary (travel) PC.

Anyway, here are a few 2014 shots that I like that hadn’t made it to the blog yet.  Some of them are touristy, which is fine with me 🙂

Quick scenic stop on our way to Akureyri, the 2nd largest city in Iceland

Quick scenic stop on our way to Akureyri, the 2nd largest city in Iceland

Another scenic stop on the way to Akureyri

Another scenic stop on the way to Akureyri

We were very lucky to catch the Northern Lights.  Tripod and very long shutter speed required!

We were very lucky to catch the Northern Lights. Tripod and very long shutter speed required!

The cabin we stayed at...

The cabin we stayed at…

In the museum in Reykjavík, there was a display that caught my eye...

In the museum in Reykjavík, there was a display that caught my eye…

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The opera house / theatre in Reykjavík

More sculptures from 798 in Beijing

More sculptures from 798 in Beijing

I thought this was an...interesting...contrast

I thought this was an…interesting…contrast

It is time to get back to some more creative shots, but I still really enjoy my travel photography!

What to take when you travel

TTUD60v2ContentsOne of the most common posts I see on the various photography forums is a question that goes something like this “I’m going to <somewhere far away>, what should I bring with me?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a single answer to that question.  What photography equipment you should take with you has a lot to do with what you’re planning to shoot, what your style is, how much space you have to travel with your equipment and what you’re comfortable carrying.  If you have a story to share, please feel free to leave it in a comment!

I travel extensively for work and do a fair bit of individual/vacation travel as well.  Personally, I tend to travel heavy – I’m a pretty big guy, and I prefer to have more than less.  That won’t work for everyone, and over time I’ve figured out what I do and don’t use.  I’ll pass on what I bring, and then offer some thoughts on how you might decide what to take when you travel.

Before I talk about what I bring, I wanted to tell you how I bring it.  Since over 80% of my travel is business (especially internationally), I’m almost always sharing space with my gear for work – a laptop (and sometimes more than one), power adapters and other various gear.  Generally my strategy is to carry the key stuff – the body and lenses – and pack the rest in the suitcase with my clothes.  Unless I’m protecting it or I need it while flying I try to put it in the suitcase – batteries, L-brackets, filters, chargers, etc.  For the most part, these things are a lot easier to pack in a suitcase where they’d take up valuable space in your shoulder bag. If that only adds up to the ability to carry one more lens, you’ve still achieved a significant benefit.

I’ve got a pretty nice kit of lenses these days – six total (see In My Bag for the list).  While I can get them all into my Urban Disguise bag, it is a pretty heavy carry.  Before I head out on a trip, I think about what kind of shooting I’ll have the chance to do and what my goals are – higher goals often drive more gear.  Travel photography generally boils down to scenes/candids, landscapes, creative shots and walk-around shots.  The good news is I can usually cover most of that with two or three lenses:

  • Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8:  Great for wide-open landscapes as well as capturing the most of tight interiors like churches and other historic buildings, this lens comes in awfully handy.  Since it has a fixed f/2.8 aperture, it does a nice job in those low-light interiors.  However, because it is a fairly bulky lens and little limited in overall usefulness it is the first lens I drop among my three core travel lenses.  The shot below could only be taken by my 11-16 – I would have had to stand in traffic with my next-widest lens.  It created a pretty dramatic angle, too… (click on the photos to see them larger)
La Madeleine church in Paris.

La Madeleine church in Paris.

  • Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-f/5.6 VRII:   This is the ultimate walk-around lens.  Pretty darn wide and pretty darn long, it offers a lot of flexibility.  A lot of lens-snobs turn their nose up at this lens, but it can be pretty darn sharp and has a moderate carry weight.  It does a nice job at the wide end for landscape shooting and has enough reach to allow you to bring back some texture.  As a variable-aperture zoom, it isn’t a low-light champ, but it pays you back with extensive range and versatility.
Tyn Church in Prague

Tyn Church in Prague

  • Nikon 35mm f/1.8G:  When it comes to creativity, I find it hard to beat my primes.  The ability to use shallow depth-of-field and shoot in low light gives you the ability to create a lot of mood and atmosphere in a shot.  While I’ve used my 85mm to get some good shots, my 35mm f/1.8 has yielded a big chunk of my favorite shots, including the one below (which will look familiar to return visitors), and is almost weightless.
Love locks in Prague

Love locks in Prague

Those are my three key lenses for travel.  When it is just the body, the 18-200 and the 35mm, the kit is reasonably light.  From there I’ll add lenses situationally – the 70-200 if I need reach and ultimate sharpness in low-light, the 85mm if I think I’ll do something portrait-like or a little more reach vs. my 35.

The first lens back in my bag for travel is the 28-75 though – it offers a lot of flexibility as a walk-around lens has has terrific sharpness, contrast and color along with f/2.8 creativity.  Occasionally I’ll substitute it for my 18-200 if I don’t think I’ll need the longer zoom capability.

The other thing you have to think about is whether you’ll need a tripod.  I bring my monopod on travel more than my tripod because of space and weight.  I don’t own a travel tripod (which fold down to a super-small size), and it is fairly heavy and bulky to walk around with, despite which it goes with me about half the time.  My monopod is small and fairly light, and has been really handy in dark interiors but only makes the trip about 1/3 of the time, mainly due to how much my tripod travels.

Sometimes I bring a bit more than I’ll need for a single situation and pack only the things I think I’ll need on a given day, leaving the rest in the hotel room safe.

So here are some questions to ask yourself before you travel:

  1. How much room do have to bring things with you?  You can optimize space by packing bulkier items with your clothes.  You won’t need your charger when you’re walking around anyway.
  2. What kind of shooting are you going to do?  along with “what lenses/filters/other equipment are necessary to get the shots?”  Be realistic here or you’ll wind up with almost everything you own.
  3. How much weight can you carry around for extended periods?  Generally I’ll choose to be a little more tired and sore to get the shots I want, but some don’t have that option.
  4. What else are you going to be doing?  If you’re on vacation and will do some shopping, it is  a good idea to leave some space in the bag for the things you pick up along the way.

The last thing I’ll mention is that sometimes not having the perfect lens means an opportunity to be creative.  If you’re faced with a situation where you think “I really wish I had that other lens”, the next thing should be “How do I create a shot with the equipment I do have?”

Travel photography should be fun and add to the experience.  If you’re frustrated, hurting and tired, you’ll probably remember that more than your shots and it may take you out of the creative zone.  Keep it simple, travel with reasonable comfort and plan ahead a little and you’ll find you like what you come home with more.

How skinny do you travel?  Anything you’ve found hard to live without when on the road?  Please feel free to share any travel stories below.  Thanks!

Really Right Stuff LC-A12 Collar Review (Nikon 70-200 f/4)

rrsf4collar-2One of my few complaints about Nikon’s new 70-200 f/4 was the lack of an integrated foot for mounting on a tripod. A lens of this length and weight is going to have best stability when mounted on a foot, and while Nikon is probably assuming most of these lenses will be in walk-around mode mounted to a D600 or D800, I really wanted a collar.

There are three main options: Nikon RT-1 ($170), Kirk ($160) and the Really Right Stuff LC-A12 ($195).  I rejected the Nikon collar because it doesn’t have the Arca-Swiss dovetail on the base.  Kirk does, of course, but the foot has to be removed with screws and has less flexibility than the RRS.  It has a lens support on the end I feel is unnecessary.  So I ordered the RRS LC-A12 package.

After a bit of a wait, I finally got it.  After having a chance to play with it a bit, here are my thoughts:     (you can also see my video review here on YouTube):

Features

  • Removable Foot Design:  Excellent for minimizing space consumed in your bag
  • Rotation Markings:  On the top and both sides (though Nikon doesn’t make good use of them – detailed below)
  • Dual-Dovetail:  The foot allows use of the very slick (but pricey) flash bracket (better explained in the video)
  • Hole in Collar Mount:  Allows mounting to a tripod or strap if you don’t have the foot
  • Slip-stop:  Helps ensure your lens doesn’t slide off your ball head when you loosen the clamp.  Handy.

Handling

Handling is very good, as you’d expect from RRS though surprisingly I did have a couple of concerns.

The Good

  • Removable foot:  Allows you to save space and weight in your bag when you don’t need the foot.  I toss the foot in a side pocket if I think I’ll need it.  Otherwise, the collar stays attached without the foot.
  • Dual Dove-tail:  Enables you to use RRS’s very cool (if pricey) line of flash brackets.  If you don’t have an RRS foot, you’ll have to attach a heavy bar on the bottom of your L-bracket, which is heavy and complicates switching between tripod and hand-held.  The spacing on the ring to the lens is less optimal, too…
  • Easy to remove:  True of both the foot and the collar itself.

The Not-so-good

  • Knob:  The big silver knob used to adjust tension is…well, big.  I really wish it could be smaller.   Mine also squeaks a bit when tightened (I’ll be calling RRS about that as their manual specifically says not to lubricate the parts)
  • Rotation:  Not as smooth as my 80-200 f/2.8 (which had an integrated, non-removable  collar).  It feels a little dry.  I’m not sure if that is the lens or the collar.
  • 90° Markings:  The RRS collar has great markings.  Unfortunately the Nikon lens only has one, so when you go to portrait mode you have to look a the side of the lens.  My 80-200 had markings that allowed me to look at the top of the lens to match up.

Build

What do you expect of RRS?  The thing is extremely solid and has all the hallmarks or RRS design. Entirely made in the USA, it matches colors of the lens perfectly.  Other than the squeaky knob, I’ve got no complaints or worries here at all.

Value

Value is subjective.  You can save $30-$40 with the Kirk or Nikon collar setups, and I have no doubts about their quality.  The extra money gets you a more flexible setup, and the removable foot in particular is a big plus for me.  Yes, you can find far, far less expensive ones on eBay, but remember the value of the lens and camera that depend on the collar to avoid a nasty fall.  A poor place to economize.  I’ve also heard reports that there is a little slop in some of those cheapie collars, which defeats the purpose.

Photos

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

LC-A12 Collar and LCF-10 Foot.

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The single alignment dot offered by the f4

The single alignment dot offered by the f4

Front View

Front View

rrsf4collar-7

LC-A12 foot with an RRS flash bracket mounted. Very cool.

rrsf4collar-8 rrsf4collar-13

rrsf4collar-1

A mounting hole is available for tripods or straps even if the foot isn’t connected.

Summary

I’m a fan of RRS.  I can’t say I find the “dry” rotation or the squeaky knob were expected, but I still think this collar/foot combination is worth having.  I wish they didn’t cost as much as they do, but for $30 more than the Nikon offering, I think RRS is an easy choice.  If I didn’t care about the removable foot, I’d still but the Kirk over the Nikon collar.

What do you think?  Anyone have the Nikon, Kirk or one of the knock-offs?  Please comment with any experiences or thoughts.  Thanks for stopping by!

Top 5 Pieces of Advice for an Enthusiast Photographer (100th Post!)

locks

I started Enthusiast Photographer because I thought it might be useful to someone to track what I learned over time about photography – tips, equipment, industry news, whatever.  This is now the 100th post on the site, so I thought it would be appropriate to boil things down a little.  Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Learn more about photography: What makes photography fun (and sometimes intimidating) is the vast amount of knowledge out there to acquire – there is always something to learn!  I’ve said many times that the best upgrade in photography is improving the person behind the camera.  Find some good books (Kelby, Peterson, et. al.), Blogs (byThom, PhotoFocus, etc.) or videos (FroKnowsPhoto) and always keep growing!
  2. Learn more about your camera (and lenses): I don’t think it is unfair to say most Enthusiast Photographers haven’t maximized the capabilities of their equipment.  I was astounded how much I didn’t know about my camera (especially the autofocus system) when I read Thom Hogan’s guide to my camera.  What I learned greatly expanded my understanding of the piece of equipment in my hand, my comfort level while shooting and ultimately my photography.  I’ve read it a couple times, and I’m getting ready to do it again – each time I walk away with more.  The same thing is true about some lenses.  Does your lens have switches or buttons?  Do you know what they do and when you should use them?  Generally we’re limited to the owner’s manual here, but read RTFM 🙂 and check reviews to make sure you’re getting the most out of your glass, too…
  3. Decide if you’re a tripod shooter or not (if so, get a good system): Kelby, Hogan and others say that you should invest in a good tripod off the bat.  I’m going to disagree with them…sorta.  If your thing is kids, street or travel photography, a tripod might not be as big a deal – modern lenses with vibration reduction give you much better hand-held results at slower shutter speeds, and your money might be better spent on glass.  If you love landscapes, portraits, macro or any other area of photography where the sharpest picture is key or you’re dealing with very low light (think dawn, dusk or inside dark buildings), then a tripod is one of the most important things you’ll buy.  If you do, spend money on a good one. That doesn’t automatically mean a super-expensive one, but don’t go cheap either.  Find a nice one used or save up for a good one.  I’ll have a post coming on buying tripods and heads later.  For the record, I love my tripod and use it constantly.  I also have a monopod that has come in extremely handy, too.
  4. Always prioritize glass over body when it comes to upgrades:   The latest “sensor” is always sexy.  More megapixels, better low-light performance (ISO), more detail in shadows (dynamic range), whatever.  But here’s the thing – A good lens is going to make any camera better.  An average lens is going to make every camera and photographer work harder.  Icing on the cake comes from the fact that your glass will probably work on your next body, too.  If it doesn’t (for example if you switch from crop-sensor to full-frame), lenses keep their value far better than bodies.
  5. Have fun!: There are so many details to remember and settings to fiddle with that you can wind up missing out on the cool stuff going on around you!  Frankly, if you’ve been diligent about #1 and #2 above, this is probably less of an issue.  One other way you miss the fun is when everything becomes a photo-walk.  During my trip to Europe last Summer, I went light in my bag and shot for fun as much as expression.  It was great – we had a ball and they camera never got in the way of my vacation.  I wound up with some shots I really love, like the one at the top of this post.

So there it is!  Honestly, there are probably more than those five, but that is what is coming off the top of this hair-thinning dome… 🙂

One last note – if you enjoy this content, please feel free to “Like” the Enthusiast Photographer FaceBook page or “Follow” @enthus_photo on Twitter

[EDIT:  It has been a day or so since I posted this, and I just happened to wander by Thom Hogan’s site – he has a very-similar 5 things on his site (called “Last Camera Syndome II)!!  All I can say is I didn’t see his until just now, but it makes me feel good that my thinking tracked pretty closely with Thom’s (though that might worry him!! 🙂 )

Sunwayfoto DDH-02 and DT-01 Review

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Quick Report for the impatient:  Pro-grade quality and handling in a very compact package at a very competitive price.  The unique design of the DDH-02 won me over in a hurry.  Almost any monopod shooter will appreciate the usability, quality and value of the DT-01 monopod head, while pano shooters or folks with larger lenses will love the small size but great shooting flexibility and handling offered by the DDH-02.  These two products turned my monopod from something I was dreading to use into an essential element of my kit, enabling some of my favorite shots from my recent trips to Asia and Europe.  Highly recommended.

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If you read my preview, you know my latest gadget is a monopod.  I got it knowing I’d be spending two weeks in Europe in a bunch of very old, very dark buildings, and I really wanted to be able to take photographs without using a flash.  Even if I wasn’t of the opinion that flashes ruin the experience for everyone in these kinds of places, flash is generally frowned upon and most often isn’t allowed at all.  I’m usually an available-light guy anyway.  Unfortunately, tripods are also generally not allowed, either.  Monopods, on the other hand, seem to be acceptable in lots of places, either by policy, indifference or indecision.  The only exceptions to this in my travels were the roof of the Mori building in Tokyo and Versailles in France.  Neither made much sense since I saw lots of folks with canes, walking sticks and other things directly similar to my monopod, but whatever.

When I tried a monopod for the first time, bolting the camera directly to the top of the monopod immediately raised the “fiddly flag” – I had to tilt the whole thing to adjust my field of view, and it was clear right away that this setup wasn’t going to work for me.  I knew I’d be seeing a lot of domed churches and shooting with very wide lenses.  I’m not enough of a contortionist to make that happen with a monopod alone, plus the stability benefit deteriorates quickly as the angles get extreme. The L-bracket on my camera and the foot on my long lens have threaded holes for mounting to a tripod or monopod, but on top of the angle and handling limitations, who wants to deal with screwing and un-screwing them all the time??  I figured my Arca-Swiss plates would give me the same benefit here they do on my tripod – easy and quick mount/un-mount.  Of course I knew about the RRS MH-01 head, but for something I thought would see only occasional use, it seemed like a significant investment.  I’d seen similar, less expensive offerings at CES, including one from Sunwayfoto – the DT-01, so I began investigating.

I had more problems than I knew.  One of my favorite lenses is my vintage Nikon 80-200 f/2.8.  It is a big, heavy lens, and I love using it on my tripod.  I have an RRS plate that allows me to attach it directly to my Sunwayfoto XB-44 head.  Something I’ve never thought much about is the direction the plate faces when I use it…

…until I started looking at the monopod heads.  As opposed to a ball head, a monopod head swivels on a single axis.  This gives you the ability to easily change the angle of the camera relative to the monopod leg (either up/down or a sideways angle), and lock it in for full monopod stability with much greater flexibility.  Adding an Arca-Swiss plate to the mix means you can attach/detach very quickly, but it also means one other thing: you have to pick which direction the mount faces.  This isn’t a problem unless you’re using a lens with a foot, because the plates for the foot run at a perpendicular angle to the plates for the body.  That means if you want the same kind of angle adjustment (usually up/down) for body and lens, you really have only three options.

  1. Just use the camera mount: This is inherently less stable.  The reason the big lenses have feet is to allow you have a balanced setup for better photos.  Hanging a huge lens off the body with this setup is not only going to be less stable, it is very awkward to handle.  This is a possible option, but not really a workable one.
  2. Use a hex key to move the mount 90 degrees when you want to use the long lens: To say this isn’t convenient is an understatement, and it is even worse when you’re on vacation with your lovely and generally patient spouse.  Exploring the boundaries of that patience isn’t something I want to do, especially on vacation.  It takes less than 30 seconds to change the direction of the plate, but that isn’t going to work if you do it a lot, and might cost you the shot if you need to do it fast.
  3. Get a head that pans or rotates: These give you complete flexibility and speed.  The only downsides are price and bulk.

The first two options just weren’t going to work for me.  Then Winnie from Sunwayfoto suggested I look at their new DDH-02 panning clamp.  I’d seen it on their site, but was worried it was too small.  I really thought the larger and more robust DDH-01 was a better choice.  Winnie surprised me by offering to send three options to me for review: the standard clamp (the DT-01 can be purchased with no clamp or a standard screw-type 50mm head), the DDH01 I (thought I) wanted and the DDH-02.  You can read my initial thoughts on all three and see lots of photos in my preview review – let’s get to the review of what I actually took around the world with me – the DT-01 with the DDH-02 on top.

Features

The DT-01 (no clamp)
click for larger view

The DT-01 is a pretty simple product.  A large, all-metal knob with moderate knurling (bumps :)) for grip.  A single beefy swivel rail that allows for 180 degrees of angle. (the RRS and Sirui heads have two rails, which seems more complicated and more likely to get bent to me, but is likely just a design choice).  There are degree markings on the head with major and minor notches, but there are no numeric values, which didn’t bother me at all.  The DT-01 is dovetailed at the base and top mount for compatibility with Arca-Swiss clamps.  This is useful when using the DT-01 in some fairly exotic head setups, but mainly is a big weight-saver for most of us.  There is a DT-02 that is essentially the same head with a panning base, which is great for very large lenses, but too much bulk for me.

The DDH-02 Panning Clamp
click for larger view

The DDH-02 is a unique product in the market today.  The best thing about it is that it is extremely small and light.  As I was hauling around a lot of gear through Beijing, Tokyo, Kamakura and lots of Europe, any reduction in carry-weight was a welcome thing.  It has index marks from 0° to 90° and back around the full circumference of the head.  There is a bubble level integrated into the base plate.  The clamp is a screw-type clamp and the clamp rails themselves are marked on each side with the center and offset markings up to 10mm on each side of center.  The screw-knob is all metal and has deep knurling to ensure easy grip.  The panning function is secured with a metal flip-clamp: turn it left to unlock the very-smooth panning.  Flip it a bit more than 180° to the right to lock the panning motion.  This means you have a very positive “down” push to secure head, and the hold is extremely tight.  Every aspect of the DDH-02 points to thoughtful and original design on the part of Sunwayfoto.

Handling

Smooth, simple and solid come to mind for both products.  Full lock to fully unlocked is about a half-turn on the large knob of the DT-01.  There is no slop in the DT-01 – even when the knob is fully open the head won’t fall under it’s own weight.  The DDH-02 is designed very well.  Since the knobs are generally going to be hidden under the camera while you’re using the clamp, the round knob of the clamp vs. the tear-drop shape of the panning knob are very intuitive.  Switching from the body plate to the big lens and back was almost invisible – it was fast and easy.  Flip the panning knob open, rotate, flip the panning knob to lock, done.

I guess the only thing I can find to criticize at all in either product is I wish the knurling on the knob of the DT-01 was slightly deeper. It is almost exactly the same size as the knob on my XB-44, but the channels are a bit shallower and it lacks the textured surfaces.  This is picking nits, since not once in any of the sweaty old buildings did I slip while handling the DT-01, but I do think it would be a useful improvement.

I was a little worried that the clamp rails on the DDH-02 weren’t beefy enough to securely and stably hold my body with the large 80-200 lens.  This proved to be unfounded – the whole platform is very solid.  If I was using huge lenses, I’d go with the bigger model with the built-in panning base and/or the beefier DDH-01.  But for a 300mm prime, the 70-200 pro zooms or anything smaller, the DDH-02 is easily up to the task.

In combination, these two products carry very well due to their light weight, and handle seamlessly.  They also make very efficient use of space without big knobs sticking out – another big plus in my crowded bag.

Build

What can I say?  Both products are built entirely out of aircraft-grade aluminum, mostly anodized and clear laser engraving for use shooting panoramas.  Movement is smooth, easy and positive, with a nice bit of resistance and no slop.  No plastic anywhere.  Just like my XB-44, I don’t sense any corner-cutting here.  Quality is excellent.

Value

The DT-01 sells for $112 at B&H and Amazon, while the DDH-02 lists for $99. That puts you about $100 less than the comparable RRS panning setup with less weight and arguably better handling.  I handled the DT-01 and the Sirui L-10X head within minutes of each other at CES and came away with “Pro” impressions of Sunwayfoto and “Consumer” impressions of Sirui.  Comparing the models that come with the standard screw clamp, the Sirui comes in about $47 cheaper, but isn’t all-metal, has some exposed bolts and generally just seems more of a consumer-grade RRS knockoff.  That isn’t to say it isn’t a decent product, especially for the occasional users. Of course, Sirui has nothing like the DDH-02, and that is the piece that sells the whole setup for me.  For this Enthusiast Photographer, that makes the choice pretty easy – I like pro-grade at an affordable price.  I noticed several ball heads were now offered bundled with the DDH-02.

Summary

I’ve been very impressed with the products I’ve seen from Sunwayfoto.  They are clearly shooting for RRS quality at a lower price.  They handle well and it is clear they aren’t doing knock-offs – they are designing with real-world use in mind and offering some great features.  I really appreciate that I was offered the opportunity to look at the DDH-01 as well.  It is clearly a product that is better suited to use with some of the more exotic head/gimbal setups as well as traditional ball heads for panoramas.  I may do a separate review on it at some point, or loan it to a buddy who does lots of pano-shooting and get some thoughts from him.

If you have a monopod and don’t have a setup like this, I think you’ll be delighted with how much easier it is to shoot with your monopod.  If you’re getting a monopod, I’d highly recommend the DT-01.  Folks who have adopted the Arca-swiss system who have long lenses with feet will love how easy the DDH-2 makes switching between body and lens-mounted plates.

Thoughtful engineering at a competitive price is a winning combination for me, and I’m looking forward to many years of use from the DT-01 and the DDH-02.

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.

Don’t fear the FUD

One of the most-viewed posts on Enthusiast Photographer is about my solution to the dilemma of using the Black Rapid Strap with the Arca-Swiss plate system, in my case my RRS-L-bracket on my Nikon D90.

For those of you who haven’t seen what I’m using, here it is:

A phone-cam picture of Black-Rapid/Arca-Swiss bliss…
Note that I’ve added a safety strap in case of some kind of strap/clamp failure (somewhat unlikely) or in the event I’m a forgetful doofus (somewhat likely).

Note I’ve attached my “safety strap” to the D-ring. That is the most likely of the very unlikely failure points on the strap.

On the various forums I frequent, there is invariably a mention of a series of e-mails Bosstail (a Black Rapid competitor) has on their website from Nikon and Canon support regarding the use of the tripod mount for attaching the strap. Predictably enough, they are negative on the idea.

Personally, I think that information from Bosstrap is disingenuous – Given the popularity of these types of straps, you’d think there would be an official word from Nikon/Canon, etc. on this matter, especially if there was risk to the equipment. As best I can tell, there is no official word or warning from Nikon or Canon on their website or in their user manuals referring to the use of straps in the tripod mount.

No – I’m not an engineer, but I don’t think the forces applied to the mount are significant compared to use with a tripod plate/clamp/head setup. It seems to me that a 70-300 lens (with no foot) mounted on a tripod would put significantly more stress on the mount than the lens hanging down on a Black Rapid or similar strap. I don’t think that is the common use case anyway – the biggest lens I’m using when mount to the BR strap to the tripod mount is my 18-200. When I’m running around with my 80-200, I’m using the mount on the foot for the strap, which I’d think would have the same benefit on the strap as it does on the tripod – more balance and less stress.

 

The massive 80-200 set and ready to go. I put the knob on the right side of the lens to keep it out of the way.

Unless I see an official warning from the camera OEM’s, I’m not going to worry about it. A copy/paste of e-mails (that might be legit, but sound more like CYA than policy) and 2nd-hand statements from “Nikon staff” aren’t very compelling arguments. Additionally, it seems like Black Rapid and similar guys would be opening themselves up to lawsuits if their design inflicted damage on the camera.

Lastly, on FredMiranda and Photograhy-on-the-Net (POTN) (and others) I’ve seen many, many comments from working pros who have been using these straps with big lenses and flashes for multiple years and reported no issues with damage to the camera base.

Net: I think Bosstrap is being a little shady and using FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to drive sales. Show documented, engineering-based proof or publicly official statements from the camera manufacturers, not anonymous e-mails from some pimply-faced Nikon support tech trying to keep his job and nebulous “Nikon staff”. If you can’t do that, innovate, engineer, market and compete fairly. FUD is a sign of the weak who can’t compete with a better solution.

I’d really like to see something official from Nikon/Canon on their site and in their user guides. I think my use of the Arca-clamp on the L-bracket further mitigates any concerns by spreading the weight and stress beyond just the screw-point of the tripod mount, but I doubt it makes any real-world difference. I strongly doubt there is an issue for anyone using the Black Rapid FastnR in their tripod mount (the standard way if your tripod mount doesn’t live on your camera).

I do wish Nikon and Canon would declare one way or the other. In the meantime, I love my Black Rapid RS-7!

(I did a quick check on Black-Rapid’s site – no mention of the Arca-Swiss-compatible solution they alluded to at CES…)

Sunwayfoto XB-44 Ball Head Review

I wanted to get a few hours under my belt shooting with the Sunwayfoto XB-44 before I put a review out there, so I appreciate the patience of the folks who contacted me about when I’d write it up. So many comparisons and reviews are done on paper rather than from use in the field that I wonder if people who read them are getting good information – how can Ken Rockwell declare a new camera “the best *insert-brand-name-here* SLR ever” when he has only looked at it on paper?? But I digress.

In my limited experience, photography products are highly susceptible to the “looks great on paper, but…” syndrome – what good are specs if they are poorly designed and/or implemented? What fun is it to get a great price on something that isn’t made with quality and won’t last as long as you want?

On paper, the XB-44 looks pretty interesting – design clearly inspired by the Arca/Markins heads but just as clearly a different overall direction: Dual drop notches similar to my Really Right Stuff BH-40. 88-pound capacity. All-metal construction. Low-profile design intended for the lowest center of gravity and stability. An included screw-type clamp with a bubble level that can be mounted in multiple locations on the clamp. All for $299 at B&H.

But how does it work in real life? In short: really well!

But before I get too far down that road, let’s check out some photos of the product:

Nicely wrapped in a foam cocoon…

A look at the included plate with a screw-clamp and a bubble level. The plate has laser-engraved markings and is notched for the safety screw in the plate. The head will, of course, accept other plates.

A look at the knobs – no rubber here, just raw, meaty, knurled goodness. Knob placement and function is very good.

Fully upright, with a good look at the tension adjustment integrated into the main knob.

Disclaimer: I didn’t purchase this head – it was given to me for review by Sunwayfoto. I responded to a request by Sunwayfoto on one of my forums for volunteers to review the heads. The unit I have is marked SAMPLE in the serial number. If you’ve read my other reviews, you know how picky I am about anything that is fiddly: I can’t stand it, and getting something free won’t endear me to any product. I’m not a talented enough photographer to overcome distractions created by poor products or bad design. I just won’t tolerate anything that gets in the way of my photographs, so I hope you’ll trust that my opinions here are entirely straightforward, honest and unbiased.

On to the rest of the review. I took my RRS BH-40 off my Gitzo 2531 and mounted the XB-44. First problem: there were no included hex keys. I still had the keys that came with my BH-40 and 2531, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me, but it seems presumptive that the customer will have one. Second problem: no user manual or instructions. I contacted Sunwayfoto and learned that the user manual was still under development when mine was shipped (so there will be one), but no hex keys will be included. Not a big deal for me, but something to know.

I played around with it a bit in my den, but the real test was taking it to my favorite car show for a four-day weekend. I spent a fair bit of time taking pictures, and with that crowd you often don’t get second chances – everything had to be quick!

So how did it perform? In a word, flawlessly. I really want equipment to disappear as much as possible, and the Sunwayfoto XB-44 didn’t disappoint. I was really surprised how much I liked the screw-type clamp since I’m used to my RRS LR-II with the quick release. The compact design is also nice – it looks very tidy on top of my tripod and makes packing it and lugging it around a little easier.

The knob placement is very natural and the knurling ensures positive contact. Where I’ve liked the flap-paddle design of the RRS BH-40 well enough, the knob on the XB-44 is just plain out of the way, literally and figuratively – I liked it instantly. The tension adjustment knob works as expected, and the progressive tightening of the main knob is smooth. The movement and action of the head feels just right. The tension/drag adjustment is built into the main knob. It operates fairly well with the tip of a finger, but can be over-tightened to the point it is pretty hard to move. I think the directions would have helped me here. It didn’t bother me too much since it seems to pretty much be “set and forget”, and I like how little real estate it takes up. I expect that once I get used to it I’ll like it fine, but it is the only thing that made the “fiddly” dog bark at all.

The XB-44 ball uses an elliptical design that reduces the “flop” that spherical balls have when you reduce the tension, but the movement is extremely smooth. If I understand correctly, the only other major ball-head company that uses an elliptical design is Arca. All I can say is I liked how it handles a lot. This includes the panning base, which glides nicely while keeping reasonable amount of tension – no slop at all. The panning knob, like all the knobs, is a “captive” design, which means it won’t fall out if you unscrew it too far. The panning base is marked every 5 degrees with the same laser etching found on the plate, and has a ridged design that I assume is intended to ensure a secure grip when mounting to the tripod.

Two drop notches give you a great deal of flexibility for portrait shooting as well as extreme up and down shots. One of the great thing about the Arca-Swiss plate standard is the availability of L-brackets for virtually any camera. This eliminates the need for the drop notch for portrait, but the notches are still very useful for extreme composition up and down. Like many heads (including my RRS BH-40) you can run into clearance issues in portrait mode – where the head contacts the base of the tripod. The ability to move the bubble level to any of three sides of the plate would come in very handy here. Personally, I’m a huge fan of my L-bracket – it makes switching from landscape mode to portrait seamless, avoids any issues with clearance and is a more more stable way to mount the camera since the weight stays centered over the legs.

The load rating is specified at 88 pounds, which sounds very impressive. Unfortunately, there isn’t an industry-standard way to measure load capacity that I’m aware of. I can say that with my massive 80-200 f/2.8 lens mounted to my D90 that the camera felt very stable. I think a 300mm prime could be used in this head, but if you use a lens like that or larger on a routine bases, I’d suggest a look at the big-brother model from Sunwayfoto, the XB-52.

I’m thinking of some “unfair” tests to run on the XB-44 vs. the BH-40 (for example, running my big 80-200 from the base as opposed to the foot on both and seeing which maintains its composure). Any recommendations on that would be welcome!

In summary, I liked the Sunwayfoto XB-44 a lot. Nothing on this head feels cheap. I don’t see any corners cut. I like the fact that is is a unique design overall – there are lots of elements incorporated from other heads in the industry, but in total the design and function stands out against most designs. At $299, nothing touches it for overall functionality, ease of use, load capacity, excellent handing and very good design. I can’t fault anyone for buying RRS – they make terrific products, but every dollar counts and if you want a premium ball head while saving a big chunk of money toward that prime lens you want, it is a fine choice.

Here are a few more photos of the product from the Sunwayfoto website, used with their permission:

A look at the XB-44 mounted on a Gitzo 2531 (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

Another view (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

The XB-44 with its big brother, the XB-52. I see the XB-44 as a Series 2 tripod and down, for use with lenses up to 70-200 and more, while the XB-52 can likely handle just about anything you throw at it, and will sit on a Series 3 tripod or above. (photo provided courtesy of SUNWAYFOTO)

Thoughts? Questions? Please feel free to leave any comments!

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/

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!