Must Have Photo Gear

A lot is written about photography and photographic equipment. Photographers are after all hopeless gear geeks (including me) and I’m a big fan of the Giottos line of air blowers. I have several Giottos blowers strategically located around the house so I don’t have to go looking when I need one. These powerful tools work equally well for film or digital photography work and have saved me a bunch of time and money since I started using them. They work great for removing dust and lint from film and that saves a ton of editing time after the film is scanned.

The newest addition to the collection is the Giottos Q.ball with an adjustable air nozzle that makes it the perfect choice to take with me in the camera bag. It has all the same features as the larger Rocket Blower in a slightly more compact and portable profile.  It weighs 2.3 ounces so you’re not likely to notice it until you need it. I use mine for cleaning cameras, lenses and film but the Giottos blowers are ideal for just about any sort of equipment, instruments or keyboards making these a perfect gift for just about anyone. Giottos has a lot of other cool gear like mini ball heads and tripods. Be sure to check out the whole line at www.giottos.com


Choosing The Best Batteries For Off Camera Flash

My Nikon D300 digital camera with an MB10 accessory grip and three Nikon Speedlight flashes use twenty AA batteries just to get started. After I throw a few radio triggers in the camera bag it adds six AAA batteries and at least one CR2 battery for the transmitter. That is a whole lot of batteries before considering the fact that you are likely to need that many more as backup units. I counted all the batteries I took on one recent photo shoot and came up with a total of 68.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to arrive at the conclusion that you will soon be bankrupted by using disposable batteries in such large quantities. In addition to camera equipment, you probably have many other devices around the house adding to your total battery consumption. Some people tell me they can’t be bothered with charging batteries before using them and they will not buy rechargeable batteries for that reason but for people like me who use batteries constantly and in power gulping devices like electronic flashes, the rechargeable option makes much more sense.

The good news is that you can now buy rechargeable batteries that come pre-charged from the manufacturer and can be used straight from the package. These batteries are often referred to as hybrids because of the way they combine the benefits of pre-charged disposable batteries and those of multiple use rechargeable batteries.

A big problem with traditional rechargeable batteries is their characteristic high self-discharge rate, sometimes referred to as “shelf discharge,” meaning that rechargeable batteries loose power even when they are not being used. The newer rechargeable hybrid or low self-discharge (LSD) batteries can retain up to eighty percent or more of their charge for six to eight months depending on the brand and the power rating of the battery.

Even though rechargeable batteries generally start out at a slightly lower voltage than non-rechargeable batteries, they make up the difference because they tend to use the power at a more consistent rate as the battery is discharged. The way a battery consumes power has a lot to do with how you use it, another reason why it is often difficult to do meaningful comparisons between battery types or brands. Testing may give you an idea of how the batteries perform within the parameters of the test and not how they will perform in actual use.

For example; one battery may do well in a device that draws power continuously as in a flashlight that is left on until completely draining the batteries, while other batteries are better at delivering large bursts of energy at random intervals in devices like cameras and electronic flash units. The problem is that you may use batteries in a way that is completely different from the way they were tested, making the test results slightly or totally misleading.

After doing a some investigation I came to the realization that I would need to test a lot of batteries in order to gather enough information to be meaningful. Testing four brand A batteries against four brand B batteries does not provide conclusive information because of the small sample size and because one bad battery can completely skew the test results. There is no simple battery test that will tell you if one brand is a significantly better performer for every intended use, especially when testing in very small quantities.

There are many online sources for battery tests including the battery manufacturer’s websites, which can teach you a lot about batteries (and marketing). You can also check out user reviews on retail sites like www.amazon.com It’s not a perfect decision making tool but it may provide some insight using other peoples experience.

There is a very good battery comparison at http://candlepowerforums.com/vb/showthread.php?t=79302 where you can compare the discharge rates of many different batteries.

There is also a pretty good discussion of low self discharge batteries at http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/readflat.asp?forum=1023&thread=26078814

An interesting result of all this testing is that the performance of rechargeable batteries seems pretty consistent between many of the top brands. What this means in practical terms is that you can choose the lowest cost battery that is readily available where you live and by purchasing locally you can pick up spares as needed. I was able to offset some of the cost of my initial rechargeable battery purchase by surfing local sales and using discount coupons. It may be more difficult to find a specific brand of low self discharge batteries locally.

So you’ve made it this far and may be asking what type of batteries a person who has spent way too much time researching batteries uses. I was pretty stoked about the Powerex Imedion 2100 (LSD) batteries when they came out but those have now been eclipsed by the recently released Powerex Imedion 2400 batteries. That’s a 14% increase in power! The best part is that they come pre-charged and ready to go right out of the package.

Don’t get me wrong, you can’t go wrong with Sanyo Eneloops or many of the other major players either. Right now I have the Powerex Imedions in my NIkon SB900, SB800 and SB600 flash units and the Sanyo Eneloop batteries in all my wireless flash triggers. I’m also currently testing some of the Rayovac Hybrid batteries in my Nikon MB10 battery grip. I’m using low self discharge batteries as my primary power source and regular rechargeable batteries as backups or for bigger jobs where I need to use more flash units. The biggest difference is that I have to remember to charge the regular rechargeable batteries a day or two before I use them.

I have run across a lot of other good resources and information about batteries that are worth sharing so here are a few in no particular order.

http://www.mahaenergy.com Buy direct or use the store locator on the website. The local retailer in St. Louis did not have Imedion batteries in stock when I checked (August 2010).

Maha Energy Corporation 1128 Coiner Court, City of Industry, CA 91748

Toll Free: 1-800-376-9992 Office: 626-363-9017 Fax: 626-363-9010

http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/ReduceWaste/power/rechbattinfo.htm This is a very good eco-friendly site put out by the state of California with loads of great information on batteries. Watch out, they may convince you that you don’t even need batteries.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low_self-discharge_NiMH_battery A short article on the basics of how a low self-discharge battery works.

http://climber.org/gear/batteries.html Battery wisdom from on high! Several mountaineers tell you everything they have learned the hard way about using batteries in cold and demanding environments.

http://www.rechargeable-battery-review.com/ All about rechargeable batteries and battery reviews. Do You Use or Are You Planning To Buy Rechargeable Batteries?

http://michaelbluejay.com/batteries/ A good battery guide and comparison. If you have no idea what to choose this guy will tell you. It’s a good plain talking guide about the good, the bad and the ugly battery.

One of the most consistently recommended sources for purchasing batteries and chargers online is Thomas Distributing.http://www.thomasdistributing.com/

For some of the world’s most powerful low self-discharge batteries you will ever see… as in, “Do you feel lucky punk?” go towww.horizonbattery.com where you can buy the Ansmann Max E 2500 mah AA batteries directly from the manufacturer.

I like also to use http://www.amazon.com for the service, convenience and customer reviews.

Lowepro Fastpack 350

This week the UPS truck delivered a Lowepro Fastpack 350. My initial reaction is love at first sight. I chose the Fastpack 350 over the slightly smaller 250 on the off chance that I might someday get a larger laptop. The Fastpack 350 can hold a laptop up to 17″ though it would probably be a good idea to test your laptop to make sure it fits. My little MacBook fits with room to spare for a small paperback book. Based on the specification at the Lowepro web site there is really not a very big difference in the size between the Fastpack 250 and 350.

The basic idea behind the Fastpack series of camera backpacks is that they use the same side opening panel of the Slingshot bags made by Lowepro. You slip off the right shoulder strap and then rotate the bag on the left strap around your side to the front to access the camera from the side panel, which is now pointing up after rotating the bag around your body. In practice, I found this to be a little tricky at first with the bag fully loaded with a MacBook, SB900 flash, Nikon D300, Nikon 24-70 zoom, Tokina 12-24 zoom, Nikon 70-210 zoom and a Nikon 20mm lens. I think I had a set of 77mm filters in there somewhere too and also a raincoat in the upper compartment. Yes, that’s a lot of weight and swinging it all around on one shoulder it a bit of a trick and I wouldn’t want to accidentally drop the bag when it is fully loaded with gear. Contrast this with the Slingshot bag, which hangs from your opposite shoulder making it impossible to drop accidentally. That’s not to say that you couldn’t accidentally dump the contents if you are a klutz but at least you are unlikely to drop the bag. The big difference is that you can’t carry a laptop in a Slingshot bag and carrying a laptop is something I need to do from time to time.

Like all things, I think any camera bag system takes some getting us to and the way you use any bag is likely  to change over time. There is no perfect bag for all tasks. The next test will be how the Fastpack 350 behaves on an airplane. It looks a bit large to fit under the seat of an airplane and that is where I usually like to keep my camera bag just in case I need to get in it during the flight. There is no way to remove or store the harness system on this bag and though the shoulder straps and waist belt do lay fairly flat I could see all that webbing getting caught on something. I wouldn’t mind a lightweight nylon or mesh bag to keep it clean, contained and camouflaged on the airplane.

The contoured shoulder straps and padded waist belt on this bag are first rate as you would expect from Lowepro. There is also a sternum strap including a cleverly designed rail system that make it adjustable for a perfect fit, The bag is very secure and should work well even if you are riding a bicycle or other two wheeled vehicle. There is also a loop on the shoulder strap for attaching a phone or sunglasses case.

There are lots of handy pockets including an exterior mesh water bottle pocket on the right hand side. I would be a little concerned about putting a heavy water bottle in that pocket when using the pack in the sling position and I wouldn’t put anything expensive in it or that I couldn’t afford to loose. Outside pockets are handy, sometimes they are so handy that other people try to help themselves to your expensive gear. On the Fastpack bags there is a clever security flap that covers the outside pocket on the lower section of the bag and keeps the camera compartment from opening all the way when using the bag in the sling position.

The Fastpack bags are basically divided into top and bottom sections with the camera gear in the lower half and personal gear stored in the upper half. A lightweight rain jacket fits easily in the upper compartment and there are several internal pockets for a smartphone, car keys, pens or cleaning brushes and a detachable zippered bag for your laptop and camera cables. These interior pockets also add an extra measure of security if you forget to close the exterior zipper all the way or someone gets curious about what’s inside your bag. There are other pockets that most people will find very handy but one thing that seems to be lacking is the All-Weather or AW feature found on many of Lowepro’s other bags. I would have preferred a rain cover in place of a few of those extra pockets, though in practice I have rarely used the rain cover on my other bags. I’m thinking of buying or making a lightweight rain cover for this bag that could be stored in the exterior mesh pocket and could also be used to set the bag on when the ground was wet or dusty.

This bag has a lot of neat features and it will take me a while to explore and appreciate all of them. Lowepro knows a lot about building camera bags and the experience shows in all the little details that go into their products. There are a few other bags out there with some extra bells and whistles but I think the Fastpack series of bags offer the best feature set for the money. If this is not the right bag for your specific needs then Lowepro probably offers another one that comes pretty close. All of the Lowepro products I have used have been of the same consistent high quality.

For product specifications visit – http://www.lowepro.com/

Lowepro Slingshot 200, 202 AW Review

I thought I would write a little bit about my experience with the Lowepro Slingshot 200 AW camera bag. I’ve been using this bag for about two years now. During that time it has gone just about everywhere that I have gone and spent a considerable amount of time under the seats of different airplanes. About a week ago the zipper on my Slingshot finally gave up the ghost, making the bag pretty much useless. I still remember the day that I bought this curious bag and thinking (or predicting) exactly where it would fail. To me the zippers seem like the weakest link (or tooth) on just about any camera bag and I wondered how many trips around the corner of the opening of this bag the zipper would make before it would stop working. The answer turned out to be about two years worth of constant everyday use, far exceeding what most people would subject a camera bag to under normal use. In spite of everything I put it through the Lowepro Slingshot 200 exceeded all my expectations.

About a week ago I went to my local camera shop looking for a replacement. I took my much abused loved Slingshot 200 AW with me to compare with some new bags. The salesman started chatting me up and reminded me that Lowepro has a lifetime warranty on their bags, a nice selling point to reassure skittish customers contemplating spending large sums of money on fancy camera gear. So I showed him my scuffed Slingshot and he gave it a skeptical look. It was missing a few zipper pulls, the zipper on the main compartment was dead and the interior dividers looked like victims of a monster truck rally gone wrong. The velcro inside the bag no longer had any actual hooks or loops to speak of and the exterior fabric was frayed like a pair of vintage blue jeans. The padding on the shoulder strap was finished too. The salesman filled out a form and gave me a copy. He didn’t seem too encouraging. After all everything wears out over time. Meanwhile, another customer was looking at the Slingshot 300 AW at the other end of the counter as a second salesman cheerfully explained that Lowepro bags have a lifetime warranty…

So I was thinking about camera bags for about a week when the phone rang yesterday afternoon and Jeff from the camera store said, “Your new Lowepro bag is here.”  I was a little dumbstruck at first, because the camera store manager told me I probably wouldn’t hear anything for at least a month and I was expecting that maybe they would just throw some industrial strength stitches on my old bag and call it a day. Lowepro basically credited me for a new bag and that is pretty cool. They really do stand behind their products and that is one of the many reasons I will always be a dedicated fan of theirs. The newest updated version of this bag is called the Slingshot 202 AW. It’s basically the same bag with several added features like a hideaway tripod (or monopod) holder, extra storage pockets and an updated divider system in the main compartment. My replacement 200 model also seems to have the updated divider system.

The first time I saw a Slingshot camera bag I was pretty skeptical. The smaller Slingshot 100 AW seemed a bit cramped for my Nikon D300 and the larger 300AW seemed like it would encourage me to pack way too much gear than I wanted to carry around all day. The Slingshot 200 AW seemed just right. One of the best things about this style bag is that you don’t have to take it off or set it down in order to get to your camera and lenses. If you work a lot in wet or dusty environments this is a very important feature. It also makes the slingshot bags superior as travel bags. If you are in a crowd or on a subway you can swing the bag around in front of you where you can keep an eye on it or just sit it in your lap until your next stop. The grab loop on top is handy for the times when you do want to set it down between your feet. The all-weather (AW) rain cover comes in handy for downpours and I have used it at times to cover the zippers and outside pockets for extra security in a tight crowd.

You can stuff a lot of gear into the Slingshot 200 AW or the new 202 AW. In fact,  you might stuff too much in and that can make it get heavy pretty quickly. I’ve been trying to pair down the kit that I normally carry in mine. Currently it holds a Nikon D300 with battery grip (a snug fit) and a Nikon 24-70 2.8 zoom lens (heavy) mounted on the camera. Right now I am carrying the Nikon SB900 flash in the top compartment. The flash needs to have the head tilted forward but then it is ready to use right away to mount on the camera. I have also started carrying an iTTL cord for the times when I want to use the flash off-camera very quickly without setting up the Nikon CLS system or pulling out my remote flash radio triggers. Right now there is a Tokina 12-24 wide angle zoom in the main compartment with the lens hood reversed. There is plenty of room for a third or even fourth lens like a 35, 5o or 85mm. I usually put the battery charger and all the cords in the back outside pocket if I am going on a trip but then take them out when I arrive at the hotel. I often put a 120 film camera in the top compartment instead of the flash if I know that flash is not going to be needed.

I had been accessing my additional lenses through the side opening of the bag by pulling up the velcro flap of the interior dividers on the left and right of where the camera sits. This tended to wear out the velcro after about a year and half of constant use so I may be rethinking that plan and opening the zippered main compartment all the way to access the interior. You need to be careful that you don’t dump the contents of the bag when it is all the way open and it is probably a good idea to set it down when you do open it up that way. Of course in practice I am always in a hurry and don’t have time to set the bag down carefully.

I talked to a lot of people last week about what camera bags they like and what bags they actually own. I found out that most serious photographers own several different bags because their needs and camera gear are constantly changing and that makes perfect sense. You should always buy a camera bag for the gear you plan to use and not try to stuff more equipment in a bag than it was designed to carry. In my case I need a camera bag that I can store the camera and lens so that it is ready to shoot with as soon as I take it out the bag. I have now moved most of my off-camera flash gear over to my Pelican 1510 rolling carry-on case, which can also fit the camera with zoom lens inside when I go canoeing or traveling out of town.

The Lowepro Slingshot AW continues to be my favorite camera bag for all day sightseeing and spur of the moment travel. Think about what gear you need for the day and resist the temptation to take more gear than you will use even if you can fit it all in. Your neck and back will thank you and you can spend more time taking photographs. I’m enthusiastic about anything that can help me get out and create photographs and about companies like Lowepro, who stand behind their products and constantly keep improving them.

For more information and technical specifications visit: http://www.lowepro.com/