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



Ultrapod

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For years I used a PedCo Ultrapod II, which I bought at REI in San Francisco. At the time it was an REI-branded version; it survived years of being mounted on a motorcycle and many trips abroad until I gave it away to a good friend who fell in love with it. I recently went to replace my Ultrapod and looked at the previously reviewed Gorillapod extensively. Compared to my old Ultrapod, though, the Gorillapod seems fiddly, heavy and expensive. I re-ordered the Ultrapod II from Amazon (it was about $15), and am once again really pleased with it.

The Gorillapod is probably a bit better for mounting on the top of a pole (as pictured in the ads). But for mounting on the sides of poles, trees, chairs, as well as setting upright on rocks, tables, suitcases; for quick and accurate adjustments, and for supporting both light and heavy cameras securely (strapped to a motorcycle handlebar at high speed driving through the Bay Bridge tunnel between Oakland and San Fancisco–see photo), I like the Ultrapod best.

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There’s a difference between the Ultrapod and the Ultrapod II, I think the former is lighter and smaller, but less robust. I’ve only ever owned the latter. I used my first Ultrapod II with a Canon Powershot digital camera, a medium-sized model that would be large by today’s standards. That’s the camera I mounted on my motorcycle handlebars.

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The Ultrapod II has legs with triangular cross-sections for rigidity. In the collapsed positions, the tripod’s legs nicely cup a pole or handlebar. Using the (very securely built-in) Velcro strap, I was able to firmly attach the tripod to my handlebar grips. Because the tripod was mounted directly to the handlebar grip, my hand curled around both for added security while driving.

Now I use the Ultrapod II mostly with a Flip Mino HD, which is extremely small and light. I occasionally use it with a Nikon D40 digital SLR, which is bulky but still reasonably light. The Ultrapod II does an excellent job of holding both cameras in all kinds of settings (tree branches, rocks, chair legs, suitcases), and it’s also excellent as a table-top tripod. And it’s particularly on tabletop and other flat settings where I think the Ultrapod is really much more stable than the Gorillapod. When I was doing a lot of toy photography and animation, that stability on flat surfaces helped tremendously.

-- Ashish Ranpura  

Pedco Ultrapod II
$15

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Pedco



Strobist

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As a photographer who borrowed money to pay for a formal, technical photo education, I can tell you that Strobist.com is a must-see for the modern photographer who wants to increase his/her lighting skills. Photographer-publisher David Hobby shares a wealth of information regarding alterations/adaptations, so photographers without huge budgets can create awesome lighting with small portable Canon/Nikon flash units.

Strobist’s approach and instruction changed my life. Among the techniques that I’ve learned from the site and applied:Drilling holes into my very expensive Cannon flashes, so that I could hotwire them to fire by remote. (I did, however, run two units too hard and ended up frying them); building a softbox out of cardboard; extending the range of some cheap Chinese remotes by soldering on a few inches of wire; making gobos (go-betweens; anything used to block light) out of cereal boxes and gaffers tape; making bounce cards out of Coroplast that effectively reflect light and are light to carry; using Velcro on my flash to easily add gels and other light modifiers; using cardboard rolls as snoots (to precisely aim lights).

Among the Strobist features I’ve found most valuable are the modifications and reviews of modifications that offer practical and inexpensive lighting solutions. The site also presents examples of techniques and modifications that stretch for miles on Flickr, as well as excellent reviews of some of the newest and most practical photo tools. Strobist’s descriptions of a vast range of photo techniques, including illustrative photographs in every post and often instructional video, too, are generally clear and easy to learn from. For starters, check the drop-down menus for the Lighting 101 Archive.

You may find photo sites that are as good as Strobist, but you will find none that are better. Hobby’s creativity is honestly jaw-dropping, and his site is an outstanding resource for photographers ready to take their flashes off their cameras and delve into more advanced lighting setups.

Members of the Strobist Group on flickr usually post detailed information about the photos they take and techniques used. It’s a great place to get ideas, reviews and information.

-- Dominic Duncombe  

Sample Excerpts:

Lighting 101: Balancing Flash and Ambient, Pt 1
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More than maybe anything, the quality of light in a photo comes down to the lighting ratio. On one level, it creates the whole look of your photo. On another, your lighting ratio will likely be the key variable in determining whether your paper can reproduce the information in the shadows. It’s all about the shadow detail – either you want it or you don’t. And you want to make the call on what reproduces in the paper.

Balancing with ambient is the same process, whether you are lighting an interior portrait or fill flashing a headshot outside. Always think in terms of balance instead of fill. The concept is less limiting. And it will not predispose you to use the sun as your main light when the strobe might be the better choice in a given situation…

*

Lighting 101: Bare-Tube-Style Lighting
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One of the limits of using a small, shoe-mount strobe is that all of the pieces are integrated into the flash. Power, capacitors, flash tube and reflector – all wrapped up in a package the size of a small Subway sandwich.

Larger flashes tend to have a more “component” type of layout, with separate power packs, flash heads, tubes and reflectors. While this generally adds more weight and size, the fact that the reflectors are usually removable gives the big-flash guys the ability to shoot “bare-tube.”

Bare-tube (or maybe you have heard the more old-school term, “bare-bulb,”) means nothing more than having your flash tube sitting out there in open space pushing its light out into (nearly) a 360-degree sphere of coverage. I say nearly because there has to be some wire carrying power and triggering the flash. And that blocks some of the light in one direction….

Why is this cool? There are a couple of reasons.

First, you can light a room with one head, effectively spewing light in all directions. Two bare-tube heads, high and at 45-degree angles, will light one very crisp-looking group shot. (Just drop one of the heads down a stop or so to get a nice ratio.)