Adobe Lightroom

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Adobe Lightroom is an imaging software that’s excellent for keeping track of large numbers of photos, and also provides an extensive range of processing and manipulation functions. I’m working on version 2.3 as I write this; the 3.0 beta was just released. The program’s broken into five intuitively designed modules: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, Web.

Making web galleries is ridiculously easy, and printing is much more intuitive in Lightroom than Photoshop (at least CS2, my current version). Now that there are graduated filters and advanced cloning/spot removal in Lightroom, I only do really serious retouching in Photoshop. I’m not sure if it’s as useful for processing jpegs as it is RAW files (I don’t shoot jpegs), but the RAW converter is comprehensive and a pleasure to use. The keywording and metadata functions are great for retrieval, and you also have the option of duplicating everything you import from your CF/SD cards onto a second drive for instant backup. It also converts RAW files directly to DNG (best for long-term storage) upon import, if you choose.

Lightroom’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of software. I don’t enjoy the pixel pushing aspect of photography a fraction as much as I enjoy taking pictures, but it’s less painful with Lightroom. I haven’t used its main competitor, Aperture, but have been told by friends who’ve used both that Aperture doesn’t offer image manipulation capabilities on par with Lightroom.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Adobe Lightroom 4
$150

Available from Amazon

Made by Adobe



QPcard

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This is the simplest, least expensive tool for reproducing accurate color in digital photography. I insert one of these 6-inch-long cards into a scene that I’m photographing as a reference with an absolute value. Back in front of my monitor, with the click of an eyedropper tool I’m able to indicate to Adobe Lightroom (my favorite imaging software) that the gray on this card is a neutral gray. In Lightroom, as with any worthy photo program, a “gray balance”; click on the card tells the software to identify this gray as neutral; the software then calculates the color temperature of the light hitting the card, adjusts the values accordingly, and the overall color of the scene falls into place.

In situations where there are multiple light sources with different color temperatures (say tungsten indoor lighting and daylight entering a window), I’d take two or more separate exposures with the QPcard positioned to catch each source.

I haven’t tried DataColor’s SpyderCube Calibration Tool, which performs a similar function, as it’s considerably more expensive, and offers much more than I need, which is really just a little touch of neutral gray. The SpyderCube does have two separate gray surfaces, but they’re at fixed angles relative to one another and won’t necessarily catch different light sources in a single exposure, anyway.

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The minimal QPcard is inexpensive because it’s just a flimsy adhesive-backed piece of paper. I’ve been able to keep a card alive for a long time by sticking it onto a piece of sturdy cardboard and stowing it securely in my Domke bag.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

QPcard 101 v2 (3 pack)
$19
Available from Calumet Photo

Manufactured by QPcard AB



Lenspen

One way to keep fingerprints off of a quality lens is to keep a filter on the lens at all times. If you prefer not to, or get a print on a lens while changing filters, this small tool will come in handy. The Lenspen offers two cleaning options. On one end, there’s a retractable dust brush. I just extend the brush, and sweep away any visible dust particles. I also use the brush every time I replace the lens. Dust particles almost always appear around the area where the lens and camera body meet. I make sure to clean up this area before removing and changing lenses, thus reducing the chance of getting dust on the sensor.

The Lenspen’s other end, has “a special non-liquid cleaning element” that can be used for more aggressive cleaning. Wipe it over the lens and magically watch fingerprints disappear. The manufacturer explains that there’s a carbon compound under the cap that cleans lenses much like the ink in newspaper works to clean glass. It does work. It can be used many times over, as long as every time you put the cap back on and rotate it, to clean and recharge the pad.

This has become my most used cleaning tool, second only to the Giottos Rocket Blaster. And the two complement each other: while the Lenspen works to clean the glass surfaces of the lens and the camera’s lens mount, I use the Rocket to remove dust from the sensor.

-- Anthony Marty  

[Some users may be more familiar with Nikon’s Lens Pen, which is the same product under a different name. Note the difference in Amazon customer reviews between the Lenspen and Nikon’s rebadged identical twin. –es]

LensPen
$8

Available from Amazon



Really Right Stuff Ballhead

What got me started on the Really Right Stuff products was just the idea of committing to a system that would work with everything. Their tripod head consists of three components: an L-bracket custom made for your camera model; a standardized Arca-Swiss-style quick-release clamping plate; and the ballhead base, itself. Committing to this system is a big expense. The fact that each new piece continually adds more value makes it easier to justify. This system’s advantages over something such as a simpler Manfrotto ballhead with a quick-release plate are increased stability and quicker changes from portrait to landscape mode.

RRS is big on system synergy. They are top-notch, beautifully made, perfect products. I have a BH-40 Ballhead on a Gitzo tripod as my main rig and a BH-25 on a Gitzo Traveler for an ultralight rig, perfect for backpacking. Each of my cameras — Nikon D200 and Canon G9 — has an RRS L-plate, which makes for a quick and solid connection atop both tripods, either in landscape or portrait mode.

Of the two ballheads, the BH-25 is my favorite for its super compactness. When I’m traveling or backpacking, I need a lightweight, minimal setup. The BH-25 paired with Gitzo’s Traveler is it.

I’ve been using the RRS products for about five years now, and I have to admit that part of the appeal is simply the joy of using perfectly made gear. Sometimes the tools can inspire us.

-- John Breitinger  

Really Right Stuff BH-25 Pro
$145
Available from Really Right Stuff

L-Plate for Nikon D200 w/ grip
$140
Really Right Stuff (discontinued)

B2-40 LR clamp with 1/4-20 screw
$105
Really Right Stuff



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Creative Labs Vado HD

The Vado HD by Creative Labs is an incredible gadget to have. With dimensions similar to an iPhone, the Vado’s an HD camcorder that is easy to slip into a pocket and take anywhere, always ready to take high-res videos wherever I go. I do carry an iPhone, too, though I rarely use it for video, as the quality is decidedly less than stellar. The Vado records twice the amount of video as its main competitor, the Flip MinoHD, for about the same price. And the Vado’s screen is 2 inches where the Flip’s is only 1.5.

With a slightly rubberized plastic housing the Vado feels grippy. It’s light, but the build is solid. Upon pressing the power switch, it’s ready to record video in less than a second and a half. The interface is simple, too. After powering the unit on, just press the button in the center of the control pad to start recording, and once again to stop.

The unit comes with 8GB of on-board flash memory, storing approximately 2 hours of 720p footage. Grabbing videos off the Vado is a breeze, too: just pop out the built-in USB dongle concealed in the bottom of the unit, plug it into a PC or Mac, and drag the files across. Video is recorded in H.264, and there is software preloaded on the unit itself that you can run directly off the camcorder when it is plugged into your computer to view, edit and create movies.

Creative Labs also offers some decent accessories, such as a waterproof pouch that will let you record up to 15 feet underwater, spare batteries and an external battery charger. They also include a silicon sleeve, which gives a little extra grip for the hands or some extra bounce if it’s dropped.

The only minor complaints I have are that the rocker buttons in the main keypad are a tad too sensitive, and the lack of optical zoom is disappointing. I’ve always messed around with helmet cams and such for filming road biking, mountain biking and snowboarding, and the Vado HD has me very excited about the upcoming snow season.

-- Josh Cain  

Creative Labs Vado HD 720p Pocket Video Camcorder
$75

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Creative Labs



Fuji Instax

If you recall Polaroid’s One Step cameras, Fuji’s Instax will be familiar. It’s the only game in town for consumer instant undigital photography now that Polaroid is defunct. There is Zink, which is digital, and which I haven’t yet tried. If you have, let us know.

If you like instant pictures, you’ll like the Instax. The format is a pleasing 3 7/8” wide, 2 3/8” high image, a more horizontal configuration than the SX70 (or Polaroid’s 600, for that matter) was. The Fuji Instax film’s dynamic range is broader than what I recall of Polaroid’s comparable offerings. Super-simple Lighter-Normal-Darker settings allow for fine-tuning the exposure, though unless the scene is backlit or very contrasty, the auto exposure is right on. Avoid dark situations for best results, as flash coverage is limited, and ambient light will always look better. Daylight photos look great.

I embraced digital photography more than a decade ago, but that doesn’t diminish the appeal of this kind of camera. The opposite is true. It’s great for bringing to a party and leaving pictures as a gift. At about $1 per image for the film, it’s not cheap to use, but the handful of family photos I take with it are more likely to be kept and enjoyed — seen — than are the thousands I have taking up space on hard drives. Those of us used to the scale of compact digital cameras or iPhones will find the Instax bulky. I haven’t found its size to be a bother, but it’s not small enough to carry around without noticing. Convenince isn’t the thing with this camera. To me taking, and giving, instant photos has been worth the trouble.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Fuji Instax 200
$72

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fuji



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Canon G10

I haven’t enjoyed using a camera this much in years, and I take pictures for a living. Smaller than a digital SLR but larger than an ultracompact point and shoot, Canon’s G10 is portable yet substantial enough to hold steady. I’ve had other point and shoots in the past, but this is the first that’s given me the right combination of intuitive exposure control and ease of use, so that I actually make the effort to grab it and use it every day. The big bright LCD allows me to forgo the optical viewfinder entirely (something I never imagined I’d do), and the exposure-indicating display is similar enough to those found on the analog cameras I used years ago, with the bonus of its histogram preview. Setting shutter speed and aperture manually makes sense as it would on a full-size DSLR. With the G10 I don’t have to be bothered to choose a lens to mount on the front of the camera before stepping out of the house, so I do step out of the house with it, daily. And yet when I’m pushing pixels later on, I’m not disappointed by files that are sub-par.

Traditional camera lovers tend to enjoy the subtly classic design of the G10, reminiscent of the Contax G2 35mm rangefinder, and those same photographers might also enjoy the Panasonic LX3, with its wide Leica lens and sleek body, which is more compact than the G10 and a close competitor. l prefer the G10, partly because its greater telephoto capabilities allow me to take snapshots of unfamiliar birds while out hiking, so that I can identify them later. And it is $200 cheaper than the LX3.

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Image quality from its 14.7 Megapixel CCD sensor is impressive, particularly in daylight settings. Movie quality is very good (640×480 px. @ 30 fps), though zooming capability while shooting would be a welcome enhancement. The macro feature is outstanding. Full manual controls are available, as are RAW files, necessary for getting the most out of any digital camera. The G10′s predecessor, the G9, is also a worthwhile buy (check eBay, since the G9′s no longer on the market), though the pending doom of obsolescence is one step nearer.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Canon Powershot G10
$450 (used, via Amazon)

Manufactured by Canon

Available from Amazon

Or $500 new via Google Shopping Note: The G11 has since replaced the G10, so supplies of the G10 are limited.



Manfrotto ModoPocket

Billed as the “World’s Smallest Tripod,” the ModoPocket is actually a quadrapod, but definitely just plain tiny: 1.5 x 2.5 x 1.25 inches and 2 oz. Mostly I have been using it to take indoor group photos with the self-timer, using face recognition to trigger the shutter when I jump into the group. Shoot it again? Much easier to repeat the composition than if the camera is propped on a book and/or tilted with a coin (either way, that method often results in a photo that includes the table in the shot). The ModoPocket simplifies these tasks, makes them more easily repeatable, and provides good stability. The photos posted on Amazon show how easily it tilts up or down, or turn it 90 degrees and it tilts side-to-side. It also folds very thin (0.25 inches), so it can be left permanently attached to the camera. In addition to shooting, I use mine as a work stand while I edit photos in the camera, and use it for easier viewing and huddling-around-the-camera (aka “chimping”).

With bigger point-and-shoot cameras like my Canon G10 (which weighs about one pound), I’ve found the previously-reviewed Gorillapod just jiggles too much. A fold-up plastic tripod like the Assia PocketPod is more stable, but clumsy. A full-size tripod or even a mini-tripod always needs to be attached/detached (unless you’re lugging it around that way). In addition to the fact that the ModoPocket can live on the camera permanently, one can actually attach a tripod directly to the ModoPocket without taking it off the camera.

Yes, there are compromises — it’s not very tall, it’s not great at handling uneven surfaces (to be expected from something so tiny), it’s definitely suited to a particular niche (not hardcore DSLR guys). But it’s very well made, easy to use and works great. I’m a minimalist and would never want to travel with a lot of gear. Looking back on all the impromptu photos I took with the camera on the ground, propped on a wall or table, I definitely would have preferred this.

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-- Evan Marks  

Manfrotto ModoPocket
$20

Available from Amazon

Or from Adorama Manufactured by Manfrotto



Strap Pod

The Strap Pod isn’t as steady as a monopod and nowhere near as steady as a heavy tripod or even a relatively light one like the previously-reviewed Tiltall Tripod. But when you want to pack something small, stealthy, quiet, and effective….voila! I’ve been using one for more than two years for when I shoot in low light and available light — which I do with some frequency (indoor sports, concerts, theater, etc.). The Strap Pod rolls up nicely, stashes easily in your pack, pocket or on your belt and — unlike a tripod or a monopod — it is very easy to deploy, use and remove quickly. Just drop the strap, step into the loop and shoot. No muss, no fuss, no twisting or flicking sections or wielding something that looks like a baton or a spear.

In the case of museums or some public spaces, tripods are simply not allowed (though you can sometimes get away with a monopod by pretending it is a ‘walking stick’). But hauling a monopod around is sometimes clumsy, frowned upon, or outright discouraged in certain environs. The Strap Pod is much less intrusive and bulky, so I’m more likely to toss it into my pocket or my camera bag and bring it along. If I go for an impromptu hike in the local woods as dusk approaches, for instance, my experience is that the Strap Pod seems to give me an additional one to two stops. This allows me to shoot without pushing the ISO too far, or shooting at too slow of a shutter speed as to blur any action. (Note: my 85mm prime lens is an f1.4 and my 70-200mm zoom is an f2.8 — the fastest lenses that allow ‘reach’ under low or available light ). Even with Virtual Reduction of shake functions in higher end DSLRs (in the lenses for Nikon, in the camera for Canon), having just that much more stability in your shot can open possibilities for a bigger range of useful f-stops. You could accomplish this with a classic, previously-mentioned “chain pod,” but if you’re in the woods shooting wildlife, the jangling of a chain is hardly stealthy.

Another benefit is that the Strap Pod is removed from a baseplate via a vice action — not the screwing and unscrewing of a threaded bolt — so it quickly and cleanly attaches/detaches. I have a camera worth more than the internal threading/tapped hole that accepts something like the chain pod. I’d rather not leave an eye bolt in my camera, because I often need to quickly shift from supported shot to free shot.

For serious support of camera and lens, I use a serious, lightweight, carbon-fiber monopod with a Kirk arca-mount plate, and a Gitzo Mountaineer model carbon fiber tripod with a Kirk ball head mount. I wouldn’t count on the Strap Pod to replace monopods or tripods, especially in critical shoots like weddings or commercial photography. That’s not the point. The Strap Pod is another tool for photographers to use to gain some helpful stability with their shots and maintain a more optimal ISO, while giving more options for creative control over f stop and shutter speed ranges.

-- Will Jennings  

Strap Pod
$30 – universal mount
$40 – quick-release mount
Available from Kirk Photo

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HDR

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HDR means High Dynamic Range. It’s a way of processing a photograph so that it captures the fullest range of highlights and shadows in the original scene. All camera film and digital sensors have restricted dynamic range: the difference between the whitest white and blackest black on the screen or print is less than real life. HDR is a trick to increase the spread between shadows and highlights in an image by taking more than one picture of the same scene — one shot maximizing shadows, one mid-tones and one highlights — and then merging them into one unified picture with tremendous range. Of course, in practice it is not that simple or direct, thus the need for this very clear PDF book which will tell you step by step how to produce an HDR photo using Photoshop.

The trick is useful especially for capturing photos of interiors, where, say, there is both a bright window and shadows on a face in one scene. With HDR you can see the patterns outside the window and details in the shadowy face. HDR is also used for twilight landscapes, and anywhere else where there is “tricky” lighting. My guess is that about half of the “best of Flickr” photos are ones that have been HDR processed. Indeed, the look of a high dynamic range is so common now that it is easy to detect, and some fuddy-duddies object to its “artificialness,” although all photos are artificial. Like any tool it can be overused and abused. Someday HDR may be built into cameras. Now, it’s a hack. A few websites, such as Stuck in Customs, give basic intros to the procedure, although the process described at that site requires an additional software package called Photomatix, which automates the method.

The better tutorial is available from O’Reilly publishers as a Short Cuts paid PDF. It gives superior step by step instructions, and does not require Photomatix software — it’s all done in Photoshop CS.

-- KK  

[This post was originally part of Cool Tool's Five Good eBooks. ]

HDR: An Introduction to High Dynamic Range Photography By Jack Howard 2007, 58 pages $8, PDF Available from O'Reilly
Sample Excerpts:

Why try HDR imaging? Imagine you’re visiting a cathedral with great stained glass windows, but there is low available light inside the building to show the ornate interior designs. There is also a sign stating “No Flash Photography.” Checking your meter, you see that there is a seven stop difference between the brightest highlight area and the deepest shadow detail. With traditional imaging, you are forced to choose and expose for the stained glass windows-turning all the interior to muddy shadows with little or no detail-or you can expose for the interior details, but overexposing the stained glass, which eliminates most of their detail and color. The final option is to pick a middle-range exposure and attempt to twist the single flat image into something that resembles your impression of the scene.

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The three bracketed exposures (over, under and normal) on the left are combined to make the well-balanced, very detailed image on the right.