Alien Bees Vagabond Mini

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The Alien Bees Vagabond Mini is a lithium battery pack which gives USB and AC power, and includes battery, inverter, and charger. I originally bought it to run photo flashes (which it does quite nicely), but I also use it to run my laptop, and it will also run any AC device less than 300 watts.

After seeing the low quality available for other lead acid battery packs, I decided to build my own. Then this came out. The whole package is about $40 more than the price of an equivalent battery pack, and it is a complete package. Other people have verified that it has a “PureSine” inverter.

There are some reports of them not working in 120 degree ambient temperatures of the desert outside of Dubai. They can also apparently be burnt if you run them at 500 watts, and keep pulsing them at 2kw for several hours. I suspect that it is the continuous load and high temperatures internally when pulses are demanded which causes the failures.

Take a look, it really is a cool tool for portable power, and for powering strobes.

-- Michael McMillan  

[Photo guru Rob Galbraith has a very thorough review of the Vagabond Mini for those interested in specifics.--OH ]

Alien Bees Vagabond Mini Lithium Power Pack
$240

Manufactured by and available from Paul C. Buff



Petapixel

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This blog focuses on photography rather than just cameras. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the camera. It’s about the eyes, about seeing, about technical compentance, about tricks, techniques, creativity, and what you do with all the images you make or take. It’s about having fun with photography, as well as making money with it. There’s also a lot about the rights of photographers and the complex issues of copyright and “borrowing” from other photographers. There’s plenty about low tech pinhole cameras, and point and shoots, and phone camera photography. And yes, there’s bits about the newest cameras, but that part is not overwhelming. I’ve been reading it daily (about 3 or 4 short posts per day) for the past 18 months and it is continually helpful. The site is brisk, surprising, informative, current, and is not trying to sell gear. It’s one of the better blogs for enthusiasts of any stripe that I’ve seen. Almost anyone taking pictures will find it useful.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

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San Diego-based wedding photographer Aaron Willcox won 1st place in an engagement photo contest with this shot showing a feat of incredible strength. No Photoshop trickery or invisible wires were used in making this image (nor does the guy have Superman-esque strength)




Black Rapid RS-4 Camera Strap

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I’ve been shooting photographs for years and the common neck strap has always given me nothing but neck pain. My father though he had found a solution with a neoprene neck strap, but eventually it had the same shortcomings as its predecessor.

One day, while attending a convention, a friend pulled a Black Rapid strap out of his bag. Within an hour I had found and purchased one for myself. The strap slips easily over one shoulder and allows your camera to hang comfortably at your side with no strain on your neck.
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The camera attaches to the strap through a custom tripod mount and a carabiner connecting kit that allows the camera to be brought up to shooting position without having to shift the strap (the metal connection slides across the fabric strap). This makes it easy to swing your camera up and shoot in a simple fluid motion, and return the camera back down to your side the same way. Another benefit of this connection method is that it reduces strain on the camera body when shooting with large lenses that have tripod collars.
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The straps are sturdy, well built and come in a variety of sizes and styles including the RS-DR-1 which can hold two SLRs at once, although that’s really more for the professional photographer.

-- Tim Edwards  

Black Rapid Rs-4 Camera Strap
$53

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Black Rapid



Cotton Carrier Camera System

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This harness keeps large-lensed cameras (full sized SLR’s) tight to your body as you go through rough country. It prevents the camera from swinging wildly in a bag or around your neck.

I also use it when I am expecting to have a camera around my neck for a 10 or 12 hour day. I shoot locations for films. I have used it for about two months, and the reason for its superiority is that it keeps the camera tight to your body and quickly makes your camera accessible. Also comes as a two camera system. Great for long fashion shoots as well, I’m sure.

-- Dan McWilliams  

Cotton Carrier Single Camera System
$150

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Cotton Carrier



Hakuba Camera Neck Strap

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Most compact digital cameras come with a lousy wrist strap. I say “lousy” because they often lack a slider to fit them to your wrist (which makes them more prone to fall off). And in any case you can’t put them around your neck, which is often a better choice if you need both of your hands when you’re out and about.

That’s why I’ve replaced those straps on my compact cameras with this Hakuba neck strap. I first found one about six years ago when I nearly smashed my Nikon CoolPix 880 on rocks while on a hike with my newly wedded wife in the Virgin Islands.

The strap is thick nylon which feels sturdy around your neck. Wearing the camera around your neck gives you both hands free to hold onto rocks or your spouse (hey, we were newlyweds then!). It also has a slider so that you can turn it into a wrist strap (albeit a long one) when you don’t want to look like a dork with a camera around your neck, and it has a quick release for when you need to quickly detach it from the strap.

There are other straps that might be OK, but I like the durability of the Hakuba strap.

-- Ben Rothfeld  

Hakuba Digital Camera Neck Strap
$6

Available from B&H Manufactured by Hakuba



Rubber Band Lens Filter Wrench

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Recently, I read a photography blog that said that everyone needs to own a filter wrench (a specialized tool to help remove filters from lenses), because sooner or later you will need to remove a filter that has been tightened onto your lens and you can’t remove it without one of these special tools.

A few years ago I had a stuck circular polarizer filter. These are more difficult to remove than the usual filter because the front element rotates freely – it’s the back element that you need to grasp to remove the filter from your lens. For most people it’s a bit difficult to position your finger tips to just grab the back element without also grabbing some of the lens.

I went to the rental department of my local photography store to see if I could borrow a wrench to remove it. They didn’t have a filter wrench in their rental department tools, but instead of trying to sell me something I didn’t need, they showed me how to use an ordinary rubber band as a filter wrench!

The ideal rubber band will stretch some, but not too much, as you place it on the threaded edge of your filter. It provides just enough extra grip to your fingers to grab onto the slippery and thin edge of the filter for you to simply unscrew the filter from your lens. You just need to carefully place the rubber band so that it is only touching the edges of the filter and not the edges of the lens.

Now I keep several rubber bands with my lens filters, and haven’t yet had a filter that I couldn’t remove with a rubber-band wrench.

-- JC Dill  

Rubber Bands
75 for $3

Available from Amazon



Costco Photo Center

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Though I claim to be a photographer I don’t own a printer. I can’t stand dealing with ink cartridges or printer profiles. Instead, I rely on Costco Photo for most, if not all, of my photo printing needs.

Costco is the cheapest place I have found that prints on high quality Fuji archival photo paper in sizes up to 20″ x 30″. At $9.99 for a 20″x30″ print, it’s 1/3rd the cost of the previously reviewed Pictopia (though, admittedly, they lack the same range in sizes). You do not need a membership to use the Costco Photo Center service on-line but it necessitates that the prints are shipped to you. Larger prints are shipped rolled in a tube. If you are a Costco member you are allowed to use custom color profiles while also adding the option of picking up your order at the nearest Costco which can cut down on turn-around time.

I have heard on forums that Costco Photo Centers vary significantly in quality, and that some labs are run incredibly well and are capable of producing results equivalent to far more expensive services, while others have wonky colors with less than dedicated staff. In my experience, if I ever have a problem with a photo, no matter how minor, they are very, very quick to reprint while also letting me keep both (which is a nice bonus).

-- Oliver Hulland  

Costco Photo Center
20″x30″ print on Fuji archival photo paper
$10

Available from Costco Photo Center



Lensrentals.com

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If you’re a hobbyist photographer you know that you can never have enough camera lenses. Advanced amateurs can often justify the purchase of some of the more expensive, but very versatile, lenses such as the many variations of Canon’s 70-200 lens. The tricky part comes when you want to play with some of the more esoteric and special-purpose lenses, such as extreme wide angles or super long telephotos. If you only use the lens once a year it’s really hard to justify the many thousands of dollars the lenses can often run.

In my case, my favorite specialized tool that I don’t own for my camera is a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L. The magic is its ability to tilt and shift, so that it moves in relation to the sensor plane, similar to the movements you’d get with a large format camera. These lens movements can allow a photographer to control focus and perspective–for instance, keeping vertical lines from converging when photographing a tall building. For this reason a tilt/shift lens is often used when shooting interior and exterior architecture shots, but in my case I find it highly entertaining to use when photographing landscapes. Whether it’s the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park or the Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park, the lens is a ton of fun for me to use. Using the lens’ movements, it’s possible for me to achieve perfect sharpness from the nearest object in the frame all the way out to infinity.

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When I need a TS-E 17mm, which would cost about $2,500 to purchase, I rent it from Lensrentals.com. There are several lens rental companies with a web presence, but I’ve always had excellent results with Lensrentals. They have reasonable prices (far cheaper than renting from my local pro camera shop), offer insurance, don’t require a deposit, and don’t place a hold on my credit card. They always make sure the lens arrives a day or so earlier than you actually need it.

Their service is also incredible. A friend of mine once rented two lenses for a trip, and UPS lost them. He called Lensrentals and they immediately shipped out two new lenses via overnight delivery for no charge. They even offered to drop ship to my friend’s vacation destination to ensure he didn’t miss the delivery.

If you want to play with a fun lens to expand your photographic options, the TS-E 17mm from Lensrentals.com is hard to beat.

-- Neil Enns  

Lensrentals.com

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L
$93 + $25 shipping for 5-day rental

Available from Lensrentals



Calumet Multi Clip

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These double-sided clips from Calumet are perfect for controlling light within small-scale or tabletop photography setups. The sprung clips rotate on the steel U that connects them, so they’re easily manipulated to stand on their own, with one clip acting as a foot while the other clasps the reflector. They’re sized to hold small homemade reflectors (Mylar glued to cardboard is one of my favorites, see below) in order to bounce light precisely where you need it on your miniature set. They can be used with something like a small piece of black foamcore to block light (flag), as well.

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These little clips are among my most valuable tools for food photography; my ideal setup is a single large light source (often a window) and a bunch of 3″x3″ reflectors on these clips to redirect the light within the scene (see below).

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They’re superb for shooting jewelry, Lego constructions, anything small, putting highlights exactly where you want them or just bouncing bits of light to illuminate your subject.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Calumet Multiclip
$10
$9 (3 or more)

Available from Calumet Photo



PTgui

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Since I started shooting panoramas nearly a decade ago, I’ve been on a continual quest for the best stitching software. There have been many contenders, but my current pick – PTgui is so much better than my previous favorite, The Panorama Factory, that I’m not sure how much better it can get. PTgui isn’t the most creative name – it stands for Graphical User Interface for Panorama Tools, but its capabilities far outshine its name.

The tool easily and automatically generates a single panorama from a collection of photos, or it can be used in batch mode for unattended stitching of multiple panoramas. It includes a full set of tools to tune the resulting image, including a range of projection techniques, complete with previews and interactive controls. It can even handle HDR (High Dynamic Range) panoramas.

But my favorite feature is its ability to handle practically any handheld panorama sequence (see photos) you throw at it and stitch it seamlessly. I know you’re supposed to shoot these photos from a tripod – preferably a leveled one – and I’ve even purchased a fairly expensive mount that adjusts for the nodal point of the lens and has wonderful spirit levels and calibrations to turn out a perfect panorama. The problem is that it’s never on hand when the circumstances are right and the light is perfect. For those situations it’s great having a software tool that lets me just shoot, knowing that it’ll pick up the pieces and stitch them together for me later.

Hugin is a free, open source compositing option that works well, though it’s not as smooth or quick as PTgui. While Adobe Photoshop CS3 and CS4 are said to include serious improvements to that software’s Photomerge stitching function, I haven’t tried either, and therefore can’t make the comparison. I have used Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, and its stitching function is quite a bit slower and offers far less control then PTgui.

Unlike other photo stitchers I’ve used, PTgui usually gets the merge right on the first try, even with handheld shots. But there are times when handheld shots are so far off that some hand-tuning of the merge is required. PTgui includes a clear and intuitive interface for this task that is far better than other software I’ve used. PTgui also eliminates “ghosting”; in the overlap area, a problem with other software when people in the overlap area move between frames. In addition, making corrections by trying different projections can often mean starting over with other stitching software, but with PTgui, projection previews offer interactive control of their geometry through dragging and sliders.

The following sequence was shot — handheld — in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library when the reflected sunlight lit up the opposite colonnade. I shot two sequences across the scene, one at ground level and the other slightly above to capture the buildings and roofline. Looking at the individual shots, you’d think they could never be successfully stitched. But PTgui turned out a very neat panorama. The photos here are reduced in size for this review, but I’ve included a close-up of the clock on the right-hand wall, so you can see the kind of detail that is available when you zoom in.

Original photos:
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The finished panorama:
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Detail of the clock on the wall:
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The PTgui website has lots of fun samples to view, and they link to a panorama of Prague that claims to be the largest spherical panorama in the world. Weighing in at 18 gigapixels, it’s amazing not only for the view, but also for the incredible detail that is available when you zoom in on a feature. One of my personal favorites in their gallery is the Tandem Paragliding panorama.

PTgui comes from Rotterdam in the Netherlands and is available in standard ($111) and Pro (for batch mode and other features, $209) versions, supporting both Windows and Mac OSX. The website makes it simple to order, download, and unlock the software. Prices are set in Euros and I’ve noticed that the US Dollar prices do vary over time.

-- David Krathwohl  

PTgui panoramic stitching software
$111 (standard) and $209 (pro)

Designed by and available from PTgui