Category Archives: gear

Explorer chic

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Sarah here. Andrew received his prize from the ViewBug contest: a very spiffy National Geographic camera pack. He asked me to take a still life of it (apparently I’m the household product photographer), so we pulled together the most explorer-appropriate gear we had around: Middle Eastern feedbag-turned-rug, Russian bayonet, Australian bush hat, desert boots, and a steamer trunk.

The pack is very retro-cool, and it’s got lots of organizational pockets and some great features, like a nice padded modular camera insert that’s similar to my Lowepro pack but smaller. Andrew hasn’t used it yet, but our first impression is that it feels pretty rugged. I like the map-printed fabric inside some of the flaps. Some parts are so retro that they’ll probably be annoying, like the chest strap; where any modern backpack would use a simple buckle/clip, here you have to loop the strap through two metal rings. It’s also not the lightest (it’s canvas instead of high-tech fabric, etc.). It’s obviously not meant to be the most high-speed-low-drag of gear, and it’s a bit on the small side, but it’s cool and reflects its NatGeo roots nicely. It looks and feels like it wants to tag along on some grand adventures.

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[And here it is with all its accompanying swag, and the picture that won it.]

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Support Gear Review: Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes

Andrew here. If you saw my “Preface” post, you know a couple of things about me already — I love “bad” weather, and I like to find gear that lets me go out and take photos in that weather. I took my Kahtoola Microspikes with me to Iceland and they not only worked perfectly, I’d never go to Iceland in the winter without them. They were crucial for getting around since most trails and paths, especially around waterfalls, were frozen over. Sliding around in boots is slow, dangerous, and just unpleasant. The spikes gave us a freedom of movement and a level of safety that made the trip much more enjoyable and productive. After my great experience, I figured they were worth a writeup.

For most people, most of the time, crampons are overkill. They’re also a pain to use. On the other end of the spectrum, my limited experience with Yaktrax was that they weren’t very durable and were best suited for walking the dog on icy sidewalks. What happens when Crampons and Yaktrax meet in the middle? Kahtoola’s Microspikes. And the result is awesome.

The Microspikes have twelve ⅜” spikes on each foot, chained together and attached to your boot with a heavy duty rubber strap. The strap is allegedly flexible to something like -70 degrees F. That’s way beyond where I stop being flexible. These are pretty much the perfect hybrid of real grip and convenience. Overall, these are extremely durable, comfortable, and convenient.

When walking with them, you eventually forget you’re even wearing them. You can just walk on ice like it’s pavement. (For science, I even went for a brief jog on a solid sheet of ice. No problems.) The spikes are short enough and the whole system is durable enough that you can cross mixed terrain without having to take them off. Most of our Iceland hikes involved interspersed icy and rocky areas and it was good that we didn’t have to take the spikes off every 200 meters. I’m sure heavy use on rocky surfaces will dull the spikes, but I’d bet you can sharpen them again. Even with the amount of hiking we did, I didn’t notice any wear on the points.

One concern I had was that they’d be great on ice, but slippery rocks would be a problem if the metal didn’t grip (back to my original use for these, walking in mostly frozen streams). A few tests (without the camera gear in hand) proved my fears were unfounded. They’re awesome for slimy wet rocks too.


This was Day 1 and an early win for the Microspikes which let me easily walk the frozen trail and up the frozen stream to get to this incredible spot.

So, what’s the catch? Just like normal crampons, you can potentially step in a way where they don’t grip. The sides and back obviously don’t have spikes, so if you get too complacent in uneven terrain and forget you’re relying on spikes for traction, you could find yourself without grip. If you’re even mildly attentive to what you’re doing, you’ll be fine… but because they’re so comfortable and easy to get used to, complacency isn’t an unfounded concern. Walking on ice on metal spikes also makes a fair amount of noise, so if you’re planning to sneak up on wildlife, I’d either get there well ahead of time or stick to the kind being eaten by vultures. Finally, they’re not cheap. At somewhere near $65, you’re going to consider how much you’ll use them, but if you’re traveling or hiking with camera gear in the winter, it’s probably a very good investment.

As an aside, check out FStoppers’ awesome video series with Elia Locardi in which they discover they probably should have gotten themselves a few pairs of these before their trip to Iceland. You can see one such instance here where the icy terrain stopped them from getting the composition they planned, but I’d definitely recommend checking out the whole video series.

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[Thanks to my friend Norm for taking the awesome shot of me on Skaftafellsjokull glacier sporting my spikes.]

You can, of course, buy them through Amazon (if you buy through the links on this post, we’ll get a small percentage which will go toward more photography and support gear):
Kahtoola MICROspikes

DIY Light Box

Sarah here. After fighting with speedlights in my last attempted portrait shoot (and eventually giving up in favor of window light), I’ve been spending a lot of time over at the Strobist. If you haven’t already heard of him, David Hobby is a genius with flash and a great teacher. I read through Lighting 101 and am now making my way through Lighting 102, exercises and all. I’m a bit stuck on an assignment right now, but more about that later, perhaps.

In the meantime, I poked through the Strobist page on DIY projects, and came across these instructions for a cheapo light box. It’s super easy to do (materials: one box, white tissue paper, tape), and makes lovely soft wrapping light for small objects. If you wanted more even light, you could put a second light on the other side (maybe the top and front, too, if you really wanted to go nuts?).  If I’d closed the barn doors (i.e. box flaps) a bit, I might have gotten some bounce on the front… especially if I lined them with white paper, too.

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I’ve told Andrew that I’m claiming any reasonably sized cardboard boxes that come into the house, because I have my eye on a cheapo softbox next…

Choosing Lenses

(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)
(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)

Andrew here. I originally wrote this as an email to a friend who just got his first full frame DSLR and was looking for advice on lenses. In his case, he got a Nikon so this is tailored to Nikon lenses, but the same principles apply across brands. If you use a Canon or Sony or something else, there is almost certainly an equivalent in each of these categories. A little research will help you choose the right one.

Choosing a lens is a very personal decision. It can be driven by preferred subject, budget, or priorities (are you a sharpness fanatic? a featherweight fan? a versatility virtuoso?), so one person’s plan may make no sense for the next guy to follow. If you are a studio portrait shooter through and through, there’s no reason to go through all the steps below. But if you’re a generalist, or still learning, experimenting, and finding your way, then this is a very good way to go.

This is my approach and it has served me well, but I encourage you to add your voice in the comments since your experience is going to be different than mine. What have you learned from buying the lenses you have owned? What would you tell someone just starting out?

So… you just got your first serious DSLR and you want to make the most of it. How do you decide what lenses to get?

First, a philosophy: Your lens is more important than the body. A great lens on a decent body is usually better than a mediocre lens on a high end body. Also, lens technology changes more slowly than body technology, so they retain their value a lot longer. That means that your major investment should be in lenses (or “glass,” if you prefer).

What you should get, and in what order, depends on what you’re doing. If you’re like me, this is what your lens stable will probably look like before long. Personally, I’d work in this order, especially if you aren’t starting out with a firm preference for subject/style:

1) Get one superzoom for flexibility. This won’t be the best lens for anything, but sometimes you just want something that is good enough at a lot, especially if you’re in a place where changing lenses often isn’t practical. Early on, it also gives you a sense for your shooting style and lets you experiment with a wide variety of subjects. For FX, you want the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s fine. It’s not amazing, fast, or weather sealed, but it serves its purpose — versatility — and it does it well enough.

2) Get one high quality specialized lens for whatever it is you like most. If it’s macro, get the 105mm f/2.8 macro (that was me). If it’s astrophotography, go for something really wide and really wide aperture like the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 20mm f/1.8. If it’s ducks, the 200-400mm f/4 with 2x Teleconverter. If it’s portraits, 70-200mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.2 depending on your style. If you’re a generalist, it’s now time to get the 24-70mm f/2.8. You’ll use this one a lot for stuff you’re really excited about, so this is a place to buy the best-in-class for whatever you’re most motivated to shoot.

3) Get one small fast prime. This is small, light, inexpensive, and very wide aperture. You use it when you want minimal size/weight/bulk. You might use it when shooting inside or in low light. The 50mm f/1.8 is the budget option, but choose something that makes sense for your subjects. If there were a 24mm f/1.8 that was small and affordable, I’d have one. This isn’t a big investment, lens-wise. If you’re like me, you rarely use it, but it’s handy sometimes.

4) Time to get into pro glass if you haven’t already in #2 (you should have). Nikon has the “holy trinity” of lenses that cover the focal lengths from 14mm-200mm in three sections – 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. They are all professional quality optics (best in class), constant f/2.8 aperture, weather sealed, and solidly made. They’re also very expensive. If you don’t have the 24-70mm by now, that’s where I’d start. Whether you go wide or long from there depends on what you already have and what your interests are.

5) If you make it this far, you’re probably getting into specialized things. That might be tilt-shift lenses for landscape or architecture, fisheye for different points of view, bazooka lenses for wildlife. By the time you get here, you’re not looking for my input anymore. You’re fully invested and you know what you want.

There are many factors in choosing a good lens, but hopefully this will narrow down a wide field and give you some structure. Don’t limit yourself to what I have here. I came to this by a ton of research and experimentation, but there are many options out there. If something intrigues you, do your homework on it and see for yourself if it’s the right tool for you.

First impressions: Lowepro Photo Hatchback 22L AW Camera Backpack

Sarah here.

After years of awkwardly stuffing my camera into random bags, I decided it was finally time to get a proper bag. A 20% off REI coupon gave me extra incentive to pull the trigger last weekend and pick up the Lowepro Hatchback 22L in slate gray. I’ve only had it a week, but I filled it up with my basic gear and marched around the neighborhood this morning to take pictures of the pretty pink flowering trees. Here are my first impressions (and a quick attempt at product photography).

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I almost got the smaller 16L version, but the 22L isn’t *that* much bigger and seems to hold a lot more stuff. I’m glad I went with the larger one.

There are two slim pockets at the front of the bag, which might hold a tablet or maybe a very slim laptop (don’t hold me to that, though). So far, I’m using one of them for a Rogue FlashBender.

I couldn’t get a good picture of the top hatch area, but it’s got a good amount of open space, plus a zippered pocket toward the back and two small elastic pockets in the front, which are the perfect size for two speedlights. I use the zippered pocket for all my normal small flash accoutrements, such as a pack of colored gels, a grid, remotes, etc. The hatch area isn’t padded and is more exposed to potential theft, but therein lies the compromise of a smallish, convenient pack.

The black lump on the side is a little Eagle Creek pack that I attached to the pack strap to serve as an SD card/battery/cleaning kit holder. I love the Hatchback so far, but it doesn’t have many little pockets for organizing, and I wanted a way to get to the small essentials quickly and without taking the pack off.

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The camera compartment is nicely padded and opens on the inside of the pack, so a thief isn’t going to shimmy open the zipper and walk off with your gear while you’re wearing it.

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The padded part is removable, and the section dividers are velcro’d and can be moved around to whatever configuration works for you. It’s a nice size for me and my gear… mostly. My D7100 with normal walking-around lens (Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8) fits comfortably, and I can arrange another 3-4 smallish lenses around it. However, if I want to bring the Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 with me, it would have to go in the less-protected top hatch. It *might* fit in the camera compartment with some creative rearranging, but not much else is going to fit in there with it.

If you use a very large DSLR, battery grip, or a lot of large lenses, this is probably not the bag for you.

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The flap even has a little SD card pocket.

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There’s a raincover in the bottom of the pack which fits nice and snugly over the pack… unlike some of our other hiking packs, where the raincover is forever sliding off or catching the wind and trying to be a kite. I think this one will actually keep everything nice and dry, and it’s easy to get to.

Pros:
–Looks like a normal backpack, not like a camera bag (other than the Lowepro logo)
–Camera compartment opens on the inside of the bag, making it much harder for a thief to get to
–Nice size for moderate walking-around equipment
–Comfortable for smaller-framed people
–Lightweight (before stuffing with gear, anyway)

Cons:
–Not so good for very large DSLRs and lenses
–No intentional tripod attachment (some people said they put smaller tripods in the top hatch or in one of the waterbottle pockets, and I usually just stick a leg through the backpack strap and let it hang)
–Top handle seems potentially flimsy
–Few organizing pockets

Overall, I’m very happy with the bag so far, and I’m looking forward to taking it along on some adventures.

Gear Reviews: A Preface

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Andrew here.

Let me start with a confession: I love bad weather. If it’s sleeting sideways, I want to be out in it. The reasons why may be a topic for a later date (or a visit to the Shrink), but a side effect is that I’ve developed a taste for good, reliable “support gear.” What is support gear? That’s all the non-camera-gear stuff that lets you get out there and make the picture. It’s boots, jackets, packs, poles, ropes or whatever else it takes to get out there and get the shot, safely and comfortably enough that you’re willing and able to do it again someday.

Having good gear gives you a certain freedom. It means you can go with confidence, knowing that you can handle the rain, sleet, or challenges of terrain. Of course, you have to stay cognizant of your physical or skill limitations if you’re really pushing that envelope, but that’s a separate topic. I’m not into gear for gear’s sake, but I do love what opportunities the right gear opens up for you. For me, that’s the draw of good kit.

The best gear becomes invisible to you. For example, a good hardshell keeps you dry without getting in the way. After a while you don’t notice the hardshell; your attention is on whatever it was you were outside to do, and you happen to be dry and comfortable when otherwise your attention would have been on being wet and miserable.

If a piece of gear is worth having, it’s probably worth having in high quality. There are exceptions, of course, for niche items that will not be relied on heavily, or cases where there really is no difference between the bargain one and the designer one. But in general, I’m a believer in getting the right tool for the job, once, rather than incrementally buying my way up, burning money along that path. You’ve probably heard this argument when it comes to tripod purchases. I believe it there too.

Of course, good gear tends to be expensive. As someone who gets huge buyer’s remorse when something doesn’t live up to expectations, I end up doing a ton of research before I buy anything more complex than a pair of socks. Unless they’re socks for a specific task — then those too. After the research stage is knowing how and when to find good deals on good stuff. That’s my Scottish side showing, I suppose.

As we go along our photographic journey, I will be adding mini-reviews on some of the support gear I use to get there, or have discovered along the way. Hopefully this gives you some context for where I come from when it comes to all that.