Tripods And Various Weird Stuff

Tripods & Various Weird Stuff

Let's be honest: tripods are worthy but dull, so I'll dive straight in with the Weird Stuff--that is, with the products that defy ready categorization, but are either highly desirable or extremely unusual or sometimes both. Let's start at the top. If I had had $250,000 to spare, I'd have liked a Vitro Laser system. It uses similar ex-Soviet technology to Crystalix (my "hit of the show" in 2000) to burn portraits into a solid block of glass, but it is faster and there is the added advantage that you can actually watch the portrait being carved: from sitting down to holding the portrait in your hand takes under five minutes. There are two Crystalix setups (at a mere $120,000 each) already in use in Las Vegas, and a Vitro setup is going into the same city shortly, which should lead to some interesting competition.

But as you might suspect, I don't have $250,000 to spare. Nor do I have $120,000 for a set of Zeiss Digiprime lenses, which apparently are so remarkable that some Hollywood stars are having it written into their contracts that their movies are shot only with primes (non-zooms) and with Zeiss primes at that.

Inexpensive Shift Lens
If you find yourself in the same situation of financial embarrassment, how about $22 for a combination body cap and shift lens from Loreo? All right, the whole thing (except the three-glass f/5.6 lens) is plastic, and the maximum shift is only 3.5mm, but it's a real shift lens; the results are far better than they have any right to be; and the only thing that stopped me from buying one is that I don't need any more stuff. I'll come back to that later. But for schools in particular, or for anyone who wants to learn about how to use shift lenses at minimal expense, this product has to be unbeatable. Besides, it's so small that it really can function as a body cap, so you can keep your SLR camera in a pocket, but ready to use with a shift lens on it.

If even $22 is a bit much, how about a truly negligible $3 for the SpeckGRABBER from Kinetronics? This is a sort of super-deluxe cotton bud with a high tech sticky end for removing specks of dust from lenses, transparencies, negatives, and even image sensors in digital cameras. The reason it can be used safely for the last lies in the stem, which is very flexible so that it is almost impossible to exert enough pressure to break the fragile silicon of the sensor. I say "almost impossible" because nothing is ever truly idiot-proof, but you would have to try really hard. The SpeckGRABBER can be washed and reused repeatedly, and if you feel that $3 is somewhat beneath your dignity you can buy the Pro version for a massive $10. The tip is the same but it's bigger and has a fancier handle and it generally looks more, well, professional. There's also a single-use version called the EvidenceGRABBER for forensic use, which comes with a test-tube-like enclosure that can be sealed and labeled. I didn't actually have to buy a SpeckGRABBER: Bill Stelcher, head of the company, gave me one. But it's worth $3 (or even $10) of anyone's money.

Another product from Kinetronics that I almost bought was their ionizer for compressed gas. You know the classic problem with "tinned wind": it acquires an electrical charge as it leaves the nozzle, and although it blows the dust off your film, it also makes it likelier that more dust will settle. Of course you can't ionize the organic compounds that make up most "tinned wind" but you can ionize the air that forms in vortices as the gas escapes; and if you do, you can "kill" the static charge on whatever you are cleaning in a near miraculous way. Like the SpeckGRABBER, it is the subject of several patents. The reason I didn't buy one was that they had only prototypes at the show. The final version should be ready by the time you read this, with a target price of $50. Again, a bargain.

Humidity Be Gone
I did, however, buy a dehumidifying cabinet from Betty Tse of the China National Electronics Ima & Exha Zhuhai Co. The Wonderful Auto-Electronic Dry Cabinet (honestly!) lives up to its name. If you live anywhere damp (and parts of my centuries-old cottage are very damp), then a dehumidifying cabinet is sovereign insurance against mold; and mold in a $4000 lens is rather more than 10 times as depressing as mold in a $400 lens.

Silent in operation, with very low running costs, my cabinet is indeed wonderful. There are many sizes: mine is about 40x50x100cm (16x20x40"), the last dimension being the height. It has five shelves, and it holds an amazing amount of kit. If you live anywhere that mold is a problem or a potential problem--in other words, anywhere that humidity regularly goes above 60 percent for any length of time--then these cabinets are invaluable. They have no US distribution as yet but this can only be a matter of time. No prices, either, but you cannot be looking at more than a few hundred dollars, retail, for the size that I bought. Mine was a show sample, and dented to boot, so it was a staggering bargain at $100.

Too Much Stuff?
I said earlier I'd come back to stuff and this is also related to my "new" house. At the beginning of September my wife Frances Schultz and I made our long-awaited move to France. While we look for something bigger, we are living in a tiny cottage, something between 200 and 300 years old, in southern Touraine. Moving from a house with three floors to one with three rooms has demonstrated all too clearly how much stuff we have--though fortunately, we have a huge barn, which is stacked high with boxes. At this photokina we were therefore painfully aware of space constraints, which made Lastolite look even cleverer than usual.

Reflector Magic
The Lastolite folding hoop-type reflector, with a spring-steel frame that twists down to the size of a soup plate yet springs open to a meter across, is something I have used for maybe 20 years. But the same ultra-collapsible technology has now been extended to include, among other things, a triangular reflector with a handgrip at one end (the Tri-Grip, much easier to handle and to direct than the circular version); a collapsible version of the Tri-Flector (three reflectors on a frame used to create "surround" lighting in portraits); a "Cubelite" shadowless lighting enclosure, in three sizes; and even a series of softboxes, the Ezybox system, which have to be smaller, lighter, more compact and easier to set up and take down than any others I have ever used. An additional advantage of Ezyboxes is that there are no rods to break and no sharp corners, which makes them particularly suitable for child photography. Lastolite is distributed by Calumet in the US.

Boom Arm
Something else that saves a lot of space is wall-mounted boom-type lighting arms. I had a Manfrotto in my last house (and it came with me) but I was very taken with the products of Harisingh and Sons from the Punjab in India. Two brothers, one with a degree in mechanical engineering and the other with a degree in electronics (and an MBA!) are responsible for most of the design and for quality control--which is very impressive indeed. As well as lighting supports, background paper supports, and so forth, they also make electronic flash units which looked to be of a high standard. I have recommended them to an American distributor but I do not know whether or not he will take them up.

Studio Stuff
As an aside here, it struck me very much that electronic flash units are now made all over the world. I already use Thai-built heads alongside my old Paul Buff White Lightnings, and at the show I saw others from Korea, India (two manufacturers, KB and Harisingh), and even Iran. The Iranian "Taban" lights were particularly interesting as they were designed to be quickly and easily repairable, and the LED indicators were repeated on both sides of the flash heads. The Model 250 delivers 300 ws and is 250 Euros (call it dollars).

Staying in the studio, Paterson had a very fine (and at $229.99, very moderately priced) Interfit Shooting Table for small product photography, while Novoflex's "Magic Studio" (from HP Marketing in the U.S.A.) is an incredibly simple and very, very clever way of creating transilluminable backgrounds, shadowless coves, and more: check their respective web sites for details. Kaiser (again from HP) also sells the "Magic Studio" along with their own "Studio in a Box": small tabletop lighting setups, aimed principally at the digital user, were a feature of this year's show.

Another Kaiser product, a hint of the future, was a video light, the digiNova with 19 white LEDs rated at 100,000 hours continuous use (10 years non-stop!) with almost two hours running time per charge and a three-hour recharge. At 125 gm (less than 41/2 oz) they are incredibly compact and may yet appear as studio lighting for still (especially digital) use. No price had been set but they were expensive: white LEDs still cost a fortune, though one may hope for a fall.

In fact, one white LED product that inspired instant acquisitiveness was the Heiland magnifying glass with eight LEDs arranged around the periphery of the glass. Combining the charm of a traditional Sherlock Holmes-type glass with the high tech appeal of a mail-order toy shop, it was almost irresistible.

In more conventional lighting, I can't wait to get my hands on Paterson's 1300w fan-cooled Interfit Halogen Lighting. With twin 650w bulbs that can be run separately or together, this gives a serious amount of light for studio photography. With the standard 21cm (8") GP reflector, one lamp is $189.99.

Lens Effects
Other Weird Stuff? Well, Dreamagon was there. This is a superb soft-focus lens that I tested for Shutterbug after last photokina, and rated very highly. Since then I've had several letters and e-mails saying that the web site wasn't accessible. At the show I learned that they did indeed have a problem with their site for a while, but that they weren't aware of it until they discovered the problem by accident. It's all OK now so if you want one of these lenses, order direct from the web site. Again, I've suggested a US distributor but I don't know yet if it will come to anything.

Weirder than the Dreamagon, the Optrixx "Tricklinse fur Auge (eye) und Kamera" is a multifaceted plastic filter like a fly's eye to be held in front of the camera lens. The holder is shaped like an old camera: a choice of folding Retina, Leica M2, Zeiss Ikomta, and more. It's a piece of junk, but it's fun junk, and at under $2.50, someone has to pick it up as a novelty.

A more conventional filter system, but with a clever new way of using filters with point-and-shoot digital cameras (which seldom have filter mounts) came from Cokin: the filter holder itself is held on a frame that secures to the tripod socket of the camera. Most good Cokin stockists should keep this. Another good filter trick is the Hoya Handy PL-Cir, a circular polarizer on a stick, like a small lollipop. A rotation scale on the filter mount means you can hold the filter to your eye; rotate it for the effect you want; then hold it in the same orientation in front of your point-and-shoot (including digital) to take the picture.

From the same people as the $22 shift lens (Loreo) there was also a $50 stereo beamsplitter body cap with built-in lenses (!) though it was sufficiently bulky that "body cap" is a bit of an exaggeration.

Car Flash
Rather upmarket (for something under $2000 at the factory gates) came the first-class "Flash Feeder 2" system from Elektrona in Slovenia, a sine-wave inverter for running main studio flash off a car battery, complete with electronics that stop you running the battery too flat to start the car again.

An ultra-weird product, and one that I'm still trying to figure out, is one from Colour Town (HK) Ltd for turning ordinary 2D snapshots into 3D lenticular pictures with a real illusion of depth, all "while you wait" in about five minutes for a 4x6" (10x15cm) print. It's the equivalent, they claim, of using an eight-lens camera. The psychology of vision is a fascinating thing, and these guys are geniuses at rearranging visual perception. They sell the software for scanning and converting the original snap; printers (actually, I think it's just software for mainstream printers); lenticular screens; and even frames.

Buy It Here
Far more comprehensible is the Link Photokiosk, a vending machine for films, digital media, prepaid processing envelopes (with a slot in the front of the machine to put in your film, in the envelope, for processing), and touch-screen control. Essentially it's just the same sort of cool cabinet that sells chocolate bars at rest stops on the more advanced freeway systems, but with extra features. At present available only with the international standard voltage (220v), an American 110v model would be easy to make if there is a demand. And I'd far rather buy film from this than from a seaside kiosk where it's been baking in the sun for months!

VR Gear
One of the many attractions of photokina is the seriously specialized kit you find there, such as the JumboDrive microprocessor controlled turntable for rotating heavy objects precisely through any predetermined angle, large or small, and the Majak rotating panorama recording light, both with obvious applications for VR. These are from Dr. Clauss Bild-und Datentechnik GmbH.

Tripod News
As for tripods, quite frankly, it tended to be "more of the same." The usual suspects had the usual first-class gear: Gitzo, Manfrotto, Slik, Tre-D, and Velbon. There's more carbon fiber about every year, but there was only one tripod that caught my attention like the Velbon Maxi trunnion-style tripods last photokina or the Slik Snapman before that.

From bag manufacturers CCS (Camera Care Systems) in England, it was part of a system that embraced a backpack frame, interchangeable bags to go onto the frame, and a tripod that could go in between the two. As well as being a camera support system, the tripod can support a bag that doubles as a mobile office (with let-down shelf for a laptop) and there are accessory arms that turn it into a small hide for bird watchers. It's still at the evaluation stage at the moment but I've been promised one to test. CCS is imported to the US by Pro4; check their UK address/web site for US details.

Apart from that, I could plough through everyone's tripod introductions in detail, but I think you'd be as bored to read it as I would be to write it, so I'll give it a miss. Try the manufacturers' web sites if you really want the latest lowdown. All I'll say is that Paterson continue to refine their Benbo line, and still make them in England after an unsuccessful flirtation with prototypes made in the Far East, while the German-made Wolf and Berlebach wooden tripod lines really deserve to be re-introduced to the US. In fact, web site hunting can be quite fun with some of the less familiar makers, regardless of the product: try 10 Indian-built flash heads from KB (and their enlargers!) or first-class lighting kit from Harisingh and Sons, again in India.

Finally, two honorable mentions go to press releases from Hama and CCS respectively. The former offers "Presentations by Fingering" via a new computer input device--don't laugh, could you say it in German?--and the other opens with the memorable line, "You may be finding it hard to find a pouch that will fit your equipment..." Well, yes, but it's impolite to boast.