As noted in my other entry,
on cameras and tripods, the number of small manufacturers and distributors
of useful accessories and "Weird Stuff"--all those things
that don't really fit into the usual categories--has fallen
gradually at every PMA I have attended in the last 15 years or so. Despite
this, there are still plenty of things that are either new, or just don't
get the exposure they deserve elsewhere.
The Hicks Award
The Roger Hicks "Really Useful Accessory" Award was won this
year by a product that is barely photographic, and wonderfully inexpensive.
This is the Cable Clamp, a glorious simple product that resembles half
a pair of handcuffs and does exactly what it says. You can coil your cables,
then clamp them in a way that pretty much removes the risk of them tangling
inextricably during storage. The smallest size works fine for sync leads
and the like, the biggest for extension cables and lighting cables. You
can also clamp cables to light stands, tree branches, table legs, errant
models, or anything else handy, and a nice little touch is a recess on
the swinging arm into which you can stick a label: the fact that it is
recessed means that the label is much less likely to come off. There's
also a hole through the swinging arm of the larger sizes so you can attach
ties or (big) split-rings or whatever: someone has really thought this
Cable Clamps are available in all kinds of hardware stores, in sets of
different sizes or in single sizes, and they are made in a variety of
colors so that you can color-code cables: you can tell an assistant, "Go
fetch the cables with the orange clips on," or whatever. The materials
are first-rate, with stainless steel pins, and the only change I would
like to see is to have them made in the US instead of China, a country
that troubles me because of its human rights and poor environmental policies.
I wasn't the only one to be impressed with the product, though:
apparently, they wrote more orders in one day at PMA than they have ever
written at any other entire trade show.
Switching to High Weirdness, The Photocube Levitator is about as weird
as it gets. Small pictures fit into four sides of a cube (the top and
bottom aren't used). This hangs in midair and revolves slowly thanks
to a powerful electromagnetic field between the top and bottom of the
free-standing frame, which slightly resembles a citrus juicer. Levitators
are not too expensive--expect to pay way under $100--and they
are the 21st century descendant of some of those 1960s and '70s
"executive toys" that will someday regain popularity as antiques.
A rather more obviously useful accessory is a series of camera brackets
from JustRight, distributed by Pro4. What I really like about them is
that they take account of the fact that even the hardest-working pro sometimes
has to set the camera on the floor or table. Four little feet keep the
camera upright and stop it from tipping over. Apart from this they have
all the usual camera bracket good stuff, with quick releases for cameras
and flashes. And they're nice people.
Equally straightforward, and equally useful, is the Cloud Dome, an opal
acrylic half-dome with an opening on the top for shadowless lighting.
The clever bit is that there is a bracket ready-mounted on the hole, so
you can put either digital or conventional cameras straight onto the dome:
this is as easy as small product photography gets. There's also
an extension skirt, for bigger products, and a reflector which can be
reversed to reflect light from above and exclude shadows on the side of
the dome. These are distributed by Omega Satter, but I've also given
Cloud Dome's address so you can go to their web site if you want.
Reverting to Weird Stuff, the first digital product that I have ever felt
inclined to cover is single-shot pano-ramics. These depend on what are
essentially high tech domed hubcaps. You set the camera on its back, pointing
straight upward, and suspend the "hubcap" (actually an extremely
precisely configured mirror) above it, dome downward, so that the picture
consists of the reflection in the mirror. With the help of some extremely
clever software, these packages convert the wobbly, distorted reflection
into a 360Þ panorama. There were several variations on this theme:
my favorite was from Egg, which came as a $1000 package with the hardware
(except the camera--they recommend Toshiba) and software, but I also
liked the 360 One VR from Kaidan and the Surroundphoto from Sunpak, distributed
by ToCAD. These products are not cheap, but if you have a need for them
(as might realtors and others) then they are a bargain.
Another interesting panoramic innovation, rather more conventional, was
the Canadian-built Rotascan 360Þ, a motorized pan head with full
microprocessor control to allow any choice of rotational angle from 1-360Þ,
and full adjustment on X, Y, and Z axes to allow rotation about the optical
node of the lens. Digital or scanned images can then be stitched together
using any high-end program. BKA had this priced at just under $1000; I
have also given the address of UltraPan Technologies.
By comparison, the new Arca-compatible Q-Base quick-release system from
Novoflex, distributed by HP Marketing, is almost prosaic. But like all
Novoflex kits, the system is superbly made and brilliantly thought out.
There is a single base plate, but there are several camera plates in a
wide variety of different sizes and shapes, including circular. Some have
user-set camera stop pins that screw into any number of holes drilled
in the camera plate, allowing custom fitting to specific equipment: all
have factory-installed base stop pins that stop the plates from sliding
straight out when the locking clamp is undone, which is an unnerving possibility
with most clamps of this type. And all this with one-handed operation,
again unlike most Arca-compatibles.
Confusingly, HP also carries the brilliant Q-Top, a 120 gm (41/4 oz) quick-release
system consisting of a 100 gm (31/2 oz) locking base, complete with spirit
level, and interchangeable 20 gm (2/3 oz) plates with built-in detents
for 30Þ panoramic rotation. It won't carry the weight of (say)
a 4x5" camera in the way that the big Novoflex Q-Base will, but
with 35mm and many medium format cameras, it is superb.
Base, Clamp & Clean
Another company that carries all kinds of good stuff, especially at the
bargain end of the market, is Dot Line Corporation (DLC). They do an excellent
$20 quick-release system, not as elegant as either Q-Base or Q-Top, but
solid, die-cast, without slop, and solid enough that I would trust my
cameras to it. For the same sort of money there's a simple but highly
effective car-window clamp, and for $11.95 there's a digital camera
cleaning kit which (like so many "digital" products) has many
uses with "real" cameras as well, though it's sold mainly
for cleaning the tiny monitors on digital cameras, with chamois leather
pads. DLC also do a really nice looking digital-read-out thermometer:
I forgot to write the price down, but I remember being surprised and impressed
at how little it cost.
I never know what to think about Off The Wall Productions, Inc., but I
like to visit their booth every PMA. In the wrong hands their 3D built
sets are impossibly tacky, but in the right hands the effects can be quite
magical. My favorites among the new introductions this year are "Rhapsody"
(a distinctly Gothic door, stairway, and balustrade set) and "Serenity"
(an arch-and-wall set).
A more conventional (and less expensive) studio accessory is the new Scrim
Jim Patterns from Westcott. These are effectively big gobos, allowing
you to project shadows in the shape of venetian blinds, Georgian windows,
foliage and more, and they fit on standard Scrim Jim scrim/reflector frames.
Glass Etch Images
When I first saw Crystal Magic I thought they were similar to the "put
your portrait in glass" product from Crystalix that I lauded so
much at photokina 2000, but in fact, they use the same laser technology
to "cook" 2D and 3D images into blocks of glass and play down
the 3D portraiture angle. The results are still attractive, and they are
a lot less expensive, but they lack the sheer "wow" factor
of the 3D portraits.
Options To Digital
Not new, but worth knowing about, is the Profectomat Special Effects Matte
Box. This is definitely an accessory rather than Weird Stuff, and it has
now been acquired by Tiffen, which should greatly improve distribution.
Numerous precut mattes are available, many in "positive" and
"negative" pairs which allow (for example) in-camera mattes
of the bride and groom against the background of the church. Why do it
this way instead of digitally? Because it takes seconds in-camera, instead
of hours at the computer--and film is a vastly superior archival
medium to anything digital. The Profectomat can also be used with square
"pro" filters and for real "idiot-proofing" with
inexperienced assistants the mattes and filters can be color-coded: put
the matte with the red dot in the groove with the dab of red paint...
Another "old technology" solution to a perennial problem--backgrounds
--is front projection. This relies on a super-reflective screen behind
the subject, and an image that is projected coaxially with the camera
lens via a 45Þ sheet of glass in front of the lens. Again, the big
attraction as compared with digital manipulation is that it's a
lot quicker, and the perspective is generally more convincing, too. The
projector for the new Spectravue kit from Virtual Backgrounds in San Marcos,
Texas, weighs just over 2 lbs and is designed to be hung on the front
of the camera. The projector is sold with a kit including a 4x6 foot (120x180cm)
screen, filter, and six backgrounds. Although $2695 may seem a lot, it
could soon pay for itself in the studio of an imaginative portraitist
or still life photographer. I'm hoping to get one of these later
in the year for a test report.
Corrected Viewing Lights
Something that is more and more important to me is "daylight quality"
light. It's handy with traditional silver-halide photography for
evaluating print color, but it is invaluable with digital photography
where prints all too often look completely different under different kinds
of lighting. In particular, some black (dye) inks look great under tungsten
but are a nasty, sickly green under daylight. And, of course, few if any
pros would dream of evaluating transparencies except over a color-corrected
Ott-Lites from BKA are well established in this field; GTI has a couple
of nice new brackets for mounting their superb kit on walls or desk edges;
and I was well impressed by Solux from Eiko, which uses truly brilliant
hot mirror coating technology to give daylight quality light from inexpensive
(under $10) 12v two-pin tungsten lamps. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
was even more impressed: they use it for lighting Vincent's pictures.
Eiko offers a lamp (with transformer) to use these little bulbs, which
are brilliant in all senses of the word. They sell it as a digital lighting
accessory, which may be a mistake: sure, it's excellent for that
purpose, but there's a lot more it can do as well.
Speaking of light, Lee Filters now sells their excellent optical resin
filters in the Cokin P (82mm) size: formerly, they had not gone below
the standard professional 100mm size. They also do a useful set of warming
filters with a slight red shift: the new "81+red" series consists
of 81 + CC05R, 81A + CC075R, and 81B + CC10R. They are subtle enough not
to be obvious, but strong enough to be perceptible.
ProEDGE systems, who make the quickest edging/framing system for backed
large format pictures, had a couple of new colors: not much to report,
but it's such a good product it's worth mentioning whenever
possible. Much the same is true of Logan Graphic Products, Inc., who were
at PMA for the first time, and recorded considerable interest in their
Mat Cutters--deservedly, as these are first-class matting and framing
cutters, for both professional and amateur use.
In the realms of the simply useful, NPC had a new Polaroid back that clears
the motor drive on a Hassel-blad--a seemingly minor point, unless
you are using the motor drive on a Hasselblad, when it is a major drawback
to have to remove the drive! This is made possible by a CNC-machined backplate
replacing the normal plate on the Polaroid holder. There is also the promise
of a very nice new product from NPC at photokina but I won't tempt
fate by revealing what it is before it comes out.
And for final weirdness? Imagine a golden Barbie doll, in the style of
an Oscar. The Barbie Cool N Squeezy Bubble Camera won one of these for
The Tiffen Company: Mattel (the "parents" of Barbie) gave
it to them for the Most Innovative Product Award of 2001. As Tiffen said,
it's very encouraging for photography that Mattel picked a camera
for this prestigious award. But as a piece of sculpture? Well, you had
to see that award to appreciate its timeless contribution to popular culture.