Accessories And Weird Stuff
From The Really Useful To The Odd Lot

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 product through.

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.

High Weirdness
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.

Seatable Brackets
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.

Shadowless Lighting
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.

Single-Shot Panoramic
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.

Quick Release
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.

Studio Stuff
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 light box.

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.

List of Manufacturers/Distributors