Category Archives: Gear Reviews

Long-Term Review and Comparison of Four Backpacks for Outdoor Photographers

If you’ve been an outdoor photographer for more than a few minutes you’ve likely already encountered the conundrum faced by almost every single one of us: how do I carry my photo gear while hiking?  Do I wrap it in a jacket and stuff it in my daypack?  Do I wear it around my neck and then work out the kinks later at the chiropractor?  Maybe I should pack it into a rolling suitcase and tow it down the trail?  Don’t laugh – I’ve seen it.  While you could settle for any of these solutions there are far better alternatives available to us these days.  In the last couple of years an assortment of backpacks have been brought to market that allow outdoor photographers to carry camera gear in an organized and protected manner while also providing room for hiking essentials like water, snacks and extra clothing.  So now the dilemma is, which photo backpack do I choose?  Well folks, I’m here to help you answer that question.

I obtained backpacks from four of the premier manufacturers of photography packs: f-stop gear, Lowepro, Clik Elite and Mountainsmith.  Each company agreed to provide me with a backpack to use, abuse and review.  That was six months ago.  Since then I’ve loaded up each pack with my camera gear and used them in the mountains, canyons and deserts of Utah and Wyoming.  I didn’t feel like I’d get to know the packs if I only used them once or twice.  I wanted to put in some time with each pack, hence the extended review period.

There are no winners or losers here.  Backpacks are a subjective thing and for me to say that you should all run out and buy pack “X” would just be silly.  We’re all built differently and we have different needs, so the point of this review is to help you identify a pack that is most likely to satisfy your individual requirements.

I tested four packs for this review: f-stop gear Tilopa BC, Lowepro Rover Pro 35L AW, Clik Elite Contrejour 35 and Mountainsmith Borealis AT.  For reference, I’m 5′9″ tall with a 32″ waist, 30″ inseam and a 19″ torso, which is the most important measurement when determining correct pack size.  I don’t travel light.  On any given day hike I’m usually lugging around a 25-30 pound backpack.  Finally, I always carry my camera with one lens attached in a Clik Elite chest pack.  I carry the rest of my gear in my backpack, including three extra lenses, a 550EX flash, a set of Pocket Wizards, three filters, extra batteries. a HoodLoupe, a collapsible 5-in-1 reflector, and a few small, miscellaneous items.  This set-up provides me with immediate access to my camera without first having to remove my backpack.

Before we dig into the comparison, let’s review some terminology and things to know when shopping for a pack.  The suspension is the overall system that attaches the pack to your body, which includes the shoulder straps and hip (or waist) belt, as well as whatever structure connects all the straps to the pack.  Some brands use plastic sheets while others use aluminum or plastic rods.  The hip belt is a belt (usually padded) that wraps around your hips and buckles in the front at a point that is typically just below your belly button.  A good backpack suspension system will transfer the majority of the pack weight to your hips – not your shoulders.  For a more in depth look at backpack technology and a great tutorial on how to properly fit a pack, check out “Backpacks: Adjusting the Fit” on the REI website.

Lowepro Rover Pro 35 AW ($299)

Lowepro is the grandfather of the photo backpack business.  They’ve been manufacturing packs for over 40 years and have outfitted some of the most influential photographers in modern history.  However, until the recent release of the Rover Pro 35AW and its bigger brother, the Rover Pro 45AW, I didn’t feel their packs truly met the needs of outdoor photographers who spend hours trekking through difficult terrain with camera gear on their back.  I’ve logged many miles with the Rover Pro 35AW and I’m here to say, Lowepro’s got a keeper.  The single most important factor in determining whether I love or hate a pack is how my back feels after a long day on the trail.  The Rover Pro 3AW fits me well and afforded a very comfortable carry.  An adjustable shoulder harness allowed me to fine tune the fit but the pack won’t provide an optimal fit for those with torso lengths greater than 19″.  The Rover Pro 35AW ships with one modular removable camera case that includes a second, small pouch for accessories such as extra batteries or filters.  On the downside, the camera case was too small to carry ALL of my extra gear.  An integrated rainfly is included and stows into its own compartment on the bottom of the pack.  It is easy to access and deploy.  A tripod attachment system on the side of the pack provides a stable method of transport for that critical piece of nature photography equipment.  If you prefer to carry your tripod in the middle of the front of your pack, you’re out of luck as there’s no good way to do it.  There are small bungee straps on the front panel that allow you to stow trekking poles or an ice axe when not in use.  If you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an ugly pack, fret not: the Rover Pro 35AW is quite handsome without drawing undue attention to itself and your expensive gear.  The pack includes a dedicated pocket on the side for a water bladder, which is cool, except that it will only fit a small bladder.  Pockets on the waist belt for the win!  I honestly don’t know why every single backpack on the market doesn’t have pockets on the waist belt as they are the perfect place to carry small stuff that should be easy to access like snacks, lip balm or even a point and shoot camera.  There’s even a stretchy shove-it pocket on the front of the pack.  A few things I wasn’t crazy about: the hip belt straps are excessively long and hang down to my knees when the belt is cinched tight.  The lid pocket is so small that it’s pretty much full with only a headlamp, a couple granola bars, a pair of gloves and a Leatherman stuffed inside.  Accessing your camera gear via the front panel requires you to lay the pack on the ground with the back panel and shoulder straps in the dirt, mud or snow, guaranteeing that you’ll get your back dirty when you put the pack on again.

All things considered, the Rover Pro 35AW is a top performer with many great features from a respected company with a reputation for building high quality gear.  The adjustable harness means this pack will fit a wide variety of photographers, excepting those who are really long in the torso.

Clik Elite Contrejour 35 ($359)

The Clik Elite Contrejour 35 is the only pack in this review that provides two ways to access your camera gear: from the side or via the back panel.  Side panel access allows you to keep the pack slung over one shoulder as you swing it around to retrieve your camera.  I didn’t use this feature because I carry my camera in a chest pack but for those who don’t, I can see how this could be a useful feature.  With no adjustable harness the pack is more limited in the range of torso sizes it will fit.  It was borderline too small for me as the waist belt had a tendency to ride up and off my hips while hiking.  The Contrejour 35 is rated at 29.5 liters (which is strange given the 35 in the name) but it seems much more roomy with a large, padded camera bay, a seemingly bottomless main compartment that can be accessed from the top or the side, a large front pocket with two memory card pouches and yet another small, zippered pocket in the main compartment.  There’s an integrated rain fly on the bottom of the pack for when the weather turns wet.  A dedicated bladder compartment on the back panel holds large bladders and is easy to access for refills but my Camelbak 100 ounce bladder gave it an odd, semi-rounded shape when full of water that made for an awkward fit.  I think a different bladder brand with a wider profile might mitigate this issue, though.  My Induro CT213 tripod carried well along the side of the pack with the legs tucked into a deep, stretchy mesh pocket.  If you’re a skier or snowboarder, the Contrejour 35 has straps on the front for attaching skis or a board.  There are no pockets on the waist belt nor is there any good way to carry a tripod on the front of the pack.

If the Contrejour 35 fits you I think you’ll be quite satisfied.  Access is the name of the game as all pockets and compartments are easy to get into and two of them even provide two ways to get to your gear.  Materials are top-quality, there’s a ton of room for camera gear and hiking essentials, and it’s all assembled into a nice looking package.

Mountainsmith Borealis AT ($189)

At $189, the Mountainsmith Borealis AT is the most affordable pack in this review.  The design team at Mountainsmith has learned a thing or two about how to make a good backpack over the last 30+ years and they’ve infused much of that knowledge into the Borealis AT.  It’s got the best tripod carrying system of the bunch with a fold-away reinforced pocket that seems indestructible.  The camera compartment is located at the bottom of the pack, is heavily padded to protect your gear and opens in a unique clamshell design that provides totally uninhibited access to your equipment.  But, since the tripod is carried on the front of the pack you have to remove the tripod to access your camera gear.  I appreciated that the interior is bright yellow, making it nearly impossible to lose small parts.  The Borealis AT has a padded laptop compartment and several additional pockets that will make even the biggest organization geek happy.  Sadly, none of these pockets are very big which means I can’t recommend this pack for all day epic outings.  I tried stuffing my Mountain Hardwear puffy jacket into the biggest pocket and after a bit of cursing it finally fit, but it took up the entire space.  My biggest misgiving with the Borealis AT is that it simply doesn’t fit my torso.  The waist belt wrapped around my belly – not my hips.  On a positive note, there are two small pockets on the waist belt and it is well padded.  The Borealis AT fit my wife’s 16″ torso perfectly, so it could be an ideal pack for anyone with a small torso.  The Borealis AT comes with a rain fly that fits neatly into its own pocket at the top of the pack but is a little more challenging to deploy because of a narrow zippered opening.  There’s no dedicated bladder pocket but the laptop compartment (without a computer in it!) worked just as well.

Bottom line: if you’re short of torso or budget you should take a hard look at the Borealis AT.  Very high quality materials, a super stable tripod carrying system, a reasonable price and several other thoughtful touches make this pack a worthy competitor.

The backpack reviewed was a 2012 model.  A new version is now available that is claimed by Mountainsmith to address some of the issues I mentioned. I have not tested this new pack and can not confirm their claims.

f-stop gear Tilopa BC ($405)

The f-stop gear Tilopa BC is the biggest pack in this review at a monstrous 48 liters.  At that size, you’re bound to see the pack weight skyrocket as you stuff it full of gear.  Luckily, the Tilopa BC is up to the task of carrying ridiculous loads in comfort – if it fits.  It’s a perfect fit on me but it’s way too big for my wife and since the harness isn’t adjustable if it doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck. The Tilopa BC utilizes a modular Internal Camera Unit, or ICU, to carry and organize camera gear.  Available in a range of sizes this modular approach allows you to customize the pack to suit your needs.  Access to your camera gear is through the zippered back panel, which helps to keep the area of the pack that contacts your body free of dirt and debris.  The lid pocket is big enough to hold most of the “Ten Essentials” and what doesn’t fit there, will surely fit in either the huge main compartment, the large front pocket or the other, smaller front pocket.  There’s an integrated bladder pocket on the inside of the main compartment and MOLLE straps on the hip belt that make it easy to attach extra pockets.  The bottom and front of the Tilopa BC is lined with Hypalon, an extremely durable and abrasion resistant material that stands up well to rough granite and slickrock.  Tripods can be carried on either side of the pack or the front but the side pockets are so shallow that my tripod feet frequently slip out.  There are two small bungees on the outside of the front pocket that allow you to carry trekking poles or an ice axe.  A small pocket on the bottom of the pack is designed to stash a rain fly, which does not come with the pack, but can be ordered for an additional $15.  Honestly though, when you’re paying $405 for a pack, I think it should come with a rain fly…and waist belt pockets.  Maybe even a llama to carry the load.

The Tilopa BC is a full featured pack that carries a ton of gear and heavy loads in comfort – if you’ve got a medium to long torso.  It’s well made, durable and offers many options for customization through the use of interchangeable ICU’s and additional pockets that can be added to the waist belt and shoulder strap.  If the price doesn’t turn you off, the Tilopa BC is an exceptional pack.

With all the great pack options on the market today it’s easier than ever to carry your photography gear into the backcountry.  I hope this post helps you find the right pack that helps you get even more enjoyment out of photographing nature!

Tripods – Should You Spend More?

A few weeks ago I was guiding a client whose tripod was one of those flimsy plastic drugstore kind that you can usually pick up for about $30 bucks.  I offered to loan her my extra tripod, an aluminum Manfrotto with an inexpensive but effective ballhead.  She graciously accepted.  At the end of our two days together she confessed that she was surprised how much easier it was to work with my tripod than her own.  Eagle eyed as she was, she noticed that my tripod wasn’t aluminum and that my ballhead differed from hers.  She asked about the differences and why mine cost so much more, and her query put my mind in motion.  Below you will find a somewhat more detailed version of my response to her.

First let me explain why you need a good tripod for nature photography.  Photographing during the “magic hour” usually results in slow shutter speeds and long-ish exposures.  Unless you’re built like a statue you probably aren’t going to create razor sharp images while handholding your camera during an exposure lasting several seconds.  Image stabilization is great but even this cool technology has limits.  Enter the lowly tripod to save the day.

Tripods serve one purpose: they’re a secure platform upon which to mount our cameras.  Sure, I’ve used mine to hold a lantern, maintain my balance while crossing a creek and, when I was single, it was abstract art in the living room.  But really, we buy tripods because we crave images that are crisp and sharp.  We also look really cool carrying them over our shoulder when silhouetted against a setting sun.  In theory, any tripod will serve this purpose.  In reality, those weak little tripods with plastic heads and one of those awkward cranks for moving the center column up and down just aren’t that stable.  Nor are they very durable.  I’ve had several clients break these tripods during a guided excursion.  A broken tripod serves no purpose but to frustrate the crap out of you.  It pays to spend a little extra cash and get a whole lot more stability and durability.  Here are some suggested options to start you down the right path in your quest for the perfect tripod.

For around $150 you can get a rock solid aluminum tripod like the Manfrotto 190XPROB.  Add a ballhead with quick release plate like the Manfrotto 494 Mini Ballhead for about $70 and you’ve got a stable, very workable tripod solution for under $225 weighing in at around 5 pounds.  Not too shabby!

Let’s say you’re of average height and need a taller tripod than the Manfrotto 190XPROB, which maxes out at 57.5″ with the center column fully extended.  The Manfrotto 055XPROB offers a maximum height of 70″.  Combine that with the more burly Giottos MH-1302 ballhead, which is capable of supporting up to 18 pounds, and you’re ready for almost anything.  This system will set you back about $300 and weighs in at nearly 6 pounds.

If you don’t often hike long distances with your gear or regularly operate in wet or dusty environments either of the aforementioned solutions should suit you well.  However, if you spend long hours on the trail or you’re like me and are downright abusive to your gear, an upgrade might be in order.

The Induro CT213 carbon fiber tripod weighs in at a scant 3 pounds but extends to almost 64″ in height.  Slap on the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, which weighs just 12 ounces but supports up to 25 pounds, for a go-anywhere in any conditions tripod package.  Total cost: about $700.  Yikes!  That’s a new lens, right?

What do you gain by spending the extra money?  Really, it’s not so much a matter of what you gain.  It’s about what you lose – weight.  Generally speaking, the more money you spend the more weight you shave.  For $700 you get a complete package that weighs less than 4 pounds and will withstand some serious torture.  A similar set-up for $300 adds 2 pounds.  If you’ve a strong back and legs it may not be worth it to you to spend that extra $400 on the Induro/Acratech combo.

Yes, there are additional differences.  Carbon fiber doesn’t transfer cold to your hands as much aluminum.  The Acratech ballhead will never need to be cleaned and will never fail on you.  The Giottos ballhead; not so much.  The Manfrotto tripods allow you to place the center column horizontally for strange angle photography while the Induro does not.  Manfrotto utilizes leg clamps, which many consider easier to operate than the twist-lock legs on Induro tripods.  The downside: they’re bulkier and may not fit as nicely in your backpack.

In the end, any of these tripod/ballhead combinations will work for most nature photographers.  Consider too that these are but a tiny sampling of the options available to you.  Is one better than the other?  I guess that depends on how much cash you’re willing to shell out to lose a little weight.

What tripod/ballhead system do you use and why?  What issues have you encountered in the field with certain products?  Leave a comment so we can all benefit from your experience!

Gear Review: Lowepro Toploader Pro 70 AW

After 7 years of hard use the zipper on my old Lowepro Topload 70 AW finally failed and can’t be replaced.  I used that good ol’ chest pack hiking, backpacking, canyoneering and climbing and grew to love the immediate access it provided to my camera.  It did take a little while to get used to hiking without being able to see your feet.

Naturally, when it died, I picked up a replacement.  Lowepro made some changes to their entire Toploader line and I was excited to get my hands on the latest model.  We were in Phoenix so I headed over to Photomark and picked up a spankin’ new Toploader Pro 70 AW.  I was disappointed to learn that the new Toploaders aren’t sold with a chest harness.  You have to order one, and they aren’t even out yet.  Lowepro gets a big ol’ suckola for that bonehead move.

The new design is a little more streamlined and the fabric seems to be tougher, and maybe even a little more weather-resistant.  There are two external mesh pockets that weren’t on the original model.  Lowepro kept the compression strap and an attachment strap for accessory pouches. 

New to this model are a Fastex buckle that supplements the main zipper.  I found myself leaving the pack unzipped and only fastening the buckle to allow even faster access to my camera.  Also, the main zipper now opens to the side of the pack rather than from the rear.  I’m not sure why this design change but I got used to it after only a few hours.

The rain cover now deploys from a hidden pouch on the side of the pack instead of from inside the front pocket.  This was a smart design change.

Lowepro added a small zippered pocket to the top of the pack.  I find this pocket to be perfect for my business cards, remote shutter release, microfiber cloth, hot shoe bubble level and the hotel room shower caps mentioned in this post.  They kept the front zipper pocket but it’s now considerably smaller.  In the old model I was able to carry 2 GND’s, a polarizer, a variable ND filter and a compass.  In the new model I have to cram the polarizer and vari-ND in and the pocket barely zips over them.

The main compartment is also smaller than on the old model.  Where I used to have room on either side of the attached lens to store additional small items, now there is none.  It’s a tight fit with my Canon 5D2 and attached vertical grip, and either a 24-105mm or 16-35mm lens, including hood.

Lowepro provides a padded 3 point shoulder strap that I promptly trashed.  Since the new chest harness isn’t yet available I attached the old harness for my field tests.  To date I’ve done 4 hikes with the Toploader Pro 70 AW, two of which were several hours long in rugged desert terrain.  The pack carries as comfortably as my old one, although I did note that it doesn’t sit as close to my body.  I suspect this is a result of using the old harness with the new pack.  After some use I grew to like the side opening design and I really like that I can use one buckle to keep the main pocket closed instead of having to zip and unzip it all the time.  My camera carries securely inside the pack, which is well padded, and was comfortable to wear for several hours at a time.

Overall, I think Lowepro has done a respectable job designing this new pack.  They should include the chest harness, and I hope it will carry closer to my body with the new harness attached.  I do wish it could carry a few more small items like my old pack.

Would I recommend the Lowepro Toploader Pro 70 AW?  Yep, I sure would.

Gear Review: Acratech Ultimate Ballhead

I’ve owned and used the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead for almost 5 years.  I think I’ve probably got enough experience with it now to write a fairly qualified and informed product review.  Here goes…

The simple fact that I’m still using the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead after 5 years probably says more than anything I’m about to write.  I’m a gear junkie and I’m very hard on every piece of equipment I own.  That my Acratech Ultimate Ballhead is still going strong is either a fluke or it’s just one hell of a solid piece of equipment.  I’m of the firm belief that it’s the latter.

What I like:

  • The open ball design requires no lubrication or cleaning.  Get it sandy, wet or muddy and it still operates smoothly.
  • Made of CNC aluminum, the Ultimate Ballhead weighs less than a pound.  Mated to my carbon fiber tripod, the whole thing weighs in just under 4 pounds.  My back likes that a whole lot.
  • Despite the flyweight, it’s about as durable as anything on the market.  Mine has clawed it’s way through slot canyons, been dropped on granite and dunked in lakes, rivers and creeks.  It’s beat to hell, but it just keeps working.
  • Super easy to use.  No complicated mechanisms – just a couple knobs covered in a pliable rubber that don’t hurt your fingers when it’s cold. 
  • Even with a pro camera and 100-400mm lens attached, the ballhead locks down tight and won’t budge until you need it to.
  • Top notch customer service.  This is huge to me, since most companies couldn’t care less about your business.  Acratech likes their customers and have always treated me well.  I have several friends who use Acratech products and they’ve all consistently received fantastic customer service.  Sooooo refreshing. 

What I don’t like:

  • The quick release mechanism is comprised of two tiny springs that push the clamp open as you loosen the knob.  If the clamp isn’t kept closed when not in use it is possible for the springs to pop out.  The ballhead still works, but requires a little extra effort to open the clamp.  When this happens Acratech will send you new springs at no charge.  I know this because in 5 years I’ve had to replace the springs 5 times.
  • The main knob is larger than the other two.  This is good.  What isn’t good is that the other two knobs are the same size.  One operates the quick release while the other controls the horizontal axis movement.  If you aren’t careful it is possible to loosen the QR when you intend to turn the other knob, which could result in your camera going skydiving.

As you can see, there isn’t much about the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead I don’t like.  It’s just a good piece of kit that I highly recommend for nature photography.  If and when mine ever dies I will replace it with another Ultimate Ballhead.

Do you use the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead?  What are your thought on it?  Leave a comment with your likes and dislikes.

Gear Review: Apple Magic Mouse

I’m a pretty big fan of Apple stuff.  I love my iMac, couldn’t live without my iPhone (I know, sooooo sad) and take my MacBook Pro everywhere I travel.  So when Apple came out with the Magic Mouse I thought, “Oh sweet, I need that.”  I mentioned it to my wife, who must have mentioned it to Santa, because lo and behold one arrived in my stocking.  Imagine my excitement!  I tore open the package, inserted the batteries and downloaded the latest version of software to run this magical device.

As I held it in my hand I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the aesthetically pleasing design.  So sleek.  So aerodynamic.  So minimalist.  So…Apple.  I knew it was going to be good.  Once the new software finished downloading I ran from the living room to my office so I could immediately begin testing this slick new device.  It was going to change the way I computed.  Life would never, ever be the same.

I really wanted to like the Magic Mouse.  I used it for about 6 weeks before I begrudgingly admitted defeat.  My aching wrist just couldn’t bear to allow me to keep using the Magic Mouse.  So, I went to Best Buy (110 miles away in Grand Junction, CO) and bought a Logitech Performance MX mouse that I will review here after I’ve had enough time to develop an opinion on its performance.

What did I like about the Magic Mouse?

Not a whole heck of a lot, unfortunately.  It looks really cool.  The multi-touch technology is neat…in theory.  Yep, that’s about it.

What didn’t I like about it?

  • The aerodynamic design bodes well if you mouse at very high speeds.  If you don’t the lack of support for your hand and awkward position openly invite carpal tunnel syndrome.  I just could not find a comfortable way to use the Magic Mouse.  I even invested in one of a mouse pad with a memory foam wrist support.  That helped a little, but not much.  Aesthetically pleasing, ergonomically ugly.
  • This one is more of a personal preference but it was one of my gripes so I’ll mention it.  Regardless of how fast I set the tracking speed, it tracked too slow.  I’m impatient.  I want that little arrow to move super fast when I move the mouse and it just couldn’t keep up.
  • I’ll admit that the Magic Mouse probably was not designed with the intent of pleasing those of us who are heavy Photoshop users.  If all you’re doing is surfing the web it’s probably acceptable.  For Photoshop, it’s a huge fail.  Precise selections are nearly impossible.  For example, the multi-touch feature makes it frustrating at best to drop a point at just the right spot when making curves adjustments.  I also found that when using Lightroom it was difficult to zoom in and out smoothly as the multi-touch was too sensitive.  Any unintentional side to side motion on the mouse resulted in panning the image rather than zooming in or out.

So, if you’re a Photoshop user and you don’t use a separate mouse or Wacom tablet for all your Photoshop needs, I simply can not recommend the Apple Magic Mouse.  It doesn’t matter how sleek it looks sitting there on your desk it just isn’t a good investment for extended use.  Sorry Apple, but the Magic Mouse is a fail.

Review: Nik Silver Efex Pro

When it comes to finding my way around the digital darkroom I’m a little on the lazy side.  I don’t mind doing things the hard way if the hard way is the only way.  But when an easy way exists it’s a pretty sure bet I’m gonna take it, so long as the results are at least as good as those gained from doing things the hard way.  Such is the case with black and white image conversions done using Nik Silver Efex Pro.

I started using Photoshop in 2002.  In the 8 years since I’ve converted a few color images to black and white.  Some turned out well, others not so well.  Okay, they sucked.  As Photoshop, and now Lightroom, have progressed it has become easier to do conversions with the built-in tools.  Even so, the results I’m getting with Silver Efex Pro are far better.  Remember that part about how I like things to be easy?  Well, Silver Efex Pro is pretty much idiot proof once you watch the free video tutorials on the Nik website.

Enough chatter.  Here’s what I like about Silver Efex Pro:

  • Film types – Waaaaaaaay back before digital capture we used this stuff called film.  Photographers were weird about film.  We all had our favorite films, in both color and black and white, and we used them religiously.  Silver Efex Pro has a library of black and white film types that includes 18 popular films.  Mouse over a film type and you see an instant preview of your image as if it were photographed on that film.  When you find one you like just click on it to select it.  Cool!
  • Here’s where things get super duper interesting.  Let’s say you select a film and you mostly like the results, but you’d like more or less grain, more or less contrast, a vignette, or a brighter or darker image globally or locally.  No problem!  All of this and more can be accomplished within Silver Efex Pro, making it easy for you to quickly customize your black and white image.
  • Remember using colored filters with black and white film to darken skies or brighten foliage?  No?  Me either.  But, Silver Efex Pro includes a selection of filters that digitally create a similar effect.  With film if you didn’t like the effect you didn’t find out about it until after you processed the film, which resulted in wasted time and money.  With Silver Efex Pro if you don’t like the result, just de-select the filter and you’re right back at square one.

Those are the technical bullet points.  From a less technical, more emotional standpoint, what I really like about Silver Efex Pro are the results.  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve never been all that good at conversions.  It was an area of the digital darkroom where I was certainly deficient and that’s a bummer because I thoroughly enjoy good black and white photography.  With Nik Silver Efex Pro, I can now enjoy my own good black and white photographs.

What don’t I like about Silver Efex Pro?  Honestly, I haven’t found anything I don’t like.  It’s intuitive, it works and the results speak for themselves.  It’s just a solid piece of software that does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

UPDATE: I had to call Nik regarding a minor issue I had with the software download at purchase.  I expected the typical tech customer service nightmare.  What I got was a friendly, knowledgeable and very helpful person on the end of the line who resolved the issue within minutes.  Say what?  Yeah, good customer service from a tech company!

Wanna see some black and white images created with Silver Efex Pro?  Okay…see below.

I have no affiliation with Nik Software.  I’m just a happy customer.  There are lots of us, too.  If you’re one of ‘em, or even if you aren’t, feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about Silver Efex Pro.

The iMac Calibration Conundrum

I’m a Mac.  I was a PC.  I switched about a year ago because I finally succumbed to all the marketing hype that Mac’s are just…better.  Now that I’ve been using my iMac for a year for all my digital darkroom needs I can say that I am genuinely pleased with the machine.  But I’m not one of those weird Mac freaks who wears all black and wells up with anger at the mere suggestion that PC’s deliver daily beatdowns to dainty Macs.  Nope.  I like my iMac, I like my MacBook and I love my iPhone.  I’m also rational enough to realize that you might just prefer a PC and that’s perfectly fine with me.  If that’s you this article isn’t for you.  Not because I don’t like you.  You just won’t learn anything since today we’re discussing how to properly calibrate the monitor on an iMac.  Check back tomorrow and all this Mac stuff will be in the past.

First, A Bold Statement

Post-processing your images on an uncalibrated monitor is a complete waste of time.  To put it simply, just don’t be that guy.  Spend a little extra dough for monitor calibration hardware/software, learn how to use it and then keep your monitor calibrated.

The iMac Calibration Conundrum

I’ve operated on a calibrated monitor for the better part of a decade.  I bought my 24″ iMac in March, 2009 and didn’t bother to research potential monitor issues prior to swiping the Visa.  Why would I do such a stupid thing?  I listened to the hype.  “Oh, Macs are made for image editing.  All the best pro’s are using them.”  That’s pretty much what the MacVangelists will tell you.  To their credit, they’re not that far off-base.  What they don’t tell you is that the super glossy and radioactively bright iMac screen is not easily calibrated using standard calibration hardware.

After much research, a lot of trial and error and more than my fair share of temper tantrums I finally got it all figured out.  I am now happily working on a perfectly calibrated iMac monitor.  The glossy screen is still annoying in all but the perfect conditions but at least I know the color I see on-screen is the color I will see in print.

How I Found My Happy Place

This blog has moved.  To read how I resolved the calibration issue and regained my sanity you can read the rest of the article on my new & improved blog.

Got questions about calibrating your iMac?  Don’t post ‘em here – go to my new blog, post your comment or question and I’ll respond promptly.

Gear Review: Oboz Men’s Yellowstone Light Hiking Boot

Anyone who knows me knows I beat the living snot out of gear.  I don’t do it intentionally.  It just happens.  One day it’s new and shiny and the next it’s covered in dirt, abraded by slickrock and barely clinging to a modicum of usability.  This is especially true for shoes.  Way back when, during my pre-photography adventure racing days, I was offered the opportunity to do a gear test on a pair of Nike “backpacking” boots.  The test was supposed to run for 3 months.  The boots threw up a white flag at 1 month.  Apparently the folks at Nike were impressed with my ability to wreak havoc on their shoes because I’ve been an official Nike gear tester ever since.

As you might imagine finding durable boots that don’t require weeks of break-in isn’t an easy task for me.  Last summer, on a trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons, I neglected to pack my waterproof hikers.  Upon arriving in Jackson we were greeted with abundant snow still lingering in the high country and muddy trails down low.  I needed some waterproof boots and I needed them pronto.  We stopped at Teton Mountaineering and I wandered to the back of the store to check out the selection.  All the usual brands were there on the wall – The North Face, Salomon, Vasque.  And then there was Oboz.  O-what?  Never heard of ‘em.  An employee came to help and I explained my dilemma.  He suggested I try the Oboz Yellowstone Light Hiker.  He explained that it would fit my narrow to medium volume foot and that they are immediately comfortable – no break-in required.

I tried on the Oboz along with three other boots from the aforementioned collection.  To my surprise, the Oboz fit my weird foot perfectly while the others paled in comparison.  After walking around the store with the Oboz on my feet for about half an hour I decided to give them a shot.  Now, seven months later, I can say with absolute confidence that it was a wise decision.

I would usually start with my “likes” but this time I’m going to start with my “dislikes”.  Why?  Because they are so very few I’d rather just get them out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff.

A Couple Things I Don’t Like

  • The hard rubber soles don’t provide great traction on the slickrock around Moab.  I can’t really say this is a design flaw or even a fault of the boot but it is worth mentioning.  If you do most of your hiking on slickrock, find an approach style shoe with a sticky rubber sole.
  • The proprietary waterproofing (called BDry) is good but not great.  Gore-Tex is better.  eVent is the best.  Whatever technology they use seems to vent perspiration well and doesn’t leak through if you’re intermittently splashing through creeks or slogging through snow.  Stand in the middle of a creek because it’s the best place to compose an image and your feet get wet.  Is it fair to knock the boot for this?  Maybe, maybe not.  I’ve worn boots with other waterproof liners and my feet seemed to stay dry longer in the same conditions. (Update: Oboz contacted me after finding this post to advise that they are aware of some issues with the BDry membrane and that those issues have been resolved.  A “higher quality membrane” has been developed and is now in use.  They also noted that a new, all leather Yellowstone II will be out in 2010.)

Now On To the Good…And There’s A Whole Lot of Good

  • Hiking boots this comfy right outta the box shouldn’t be durable.  Actually, they should be but they never are.  Until now.  The Oboz never gave me blisters or hot spots, they never felt too stiff and they never made my feet go numb.  What they have done is give me miles and miles and miles of super comfortable hiking in the mountains of Wyoming, the rainforests of Washington, the coast of Oregon and the deserts of Utah.  More importantly, after 7 months, they’re still going strong.  No delamination, minimal tread wear and all the seams are still intact.  Go Oboz!
  • As I’ve already mentioned, my feet are weird.  I have a low arch, a razor thin heel and a narrow to medium volume forefoot.  Athletic shoe shopping is not my favorite thing to do.  I usually end up wearing thick socks and custom lacing boots that are too wide for my feet.  Not so with the Oboz.  I slipped in my Superfeet insole and the fit was perfect.  No custom lacing.  No unusually thick socks.
  • Light hikers don’t usually offer much support when you’re carrying more than 15 pounds on your back.  I regularly carry almost twice that with all my photography and day hiking gear crammed into an abused pack.  The Oboz haven’t flinched.  I’ve not turned an ankle (knocking on wood at this very moment) and even after 10+ miles my feet don’t feel overworked.  I have no doubt these boots could be pushed into use for weekend trips.  Even with the support and durability these boots offer they don’t feel like big, fat leather bricks on your feet.  A men’s size 9 weighs 37.8 oz. per pair but they feel much lighter in use.
  • Oboz boots/shoes incorporate different outsoles on each model.  The Yellowstone uses what they call the “Sawtooth”.  As I’ve mentioned it doesn’t grip well on slickrock.  But stomp through mud, dirt or rocky terrain and the outsoles shine.  Even on steep downhill trails covered in scree they seemed to bite into the terrain with terrific traction.
  • Waterproof hiking boots aren’t cheap.  The Oboz Yellowstone retail for $125, which isn’t cheap but it is lower than the offerings of most of their competitors.  That combined with the fact that the Oboz will outlast the others means these suckers are a great value.

If you’re looking for a comfortable, reasonably priced, durable waterproof hiking boot and you’ve got a narrow to medium volume foot you should seriously consider the Oboz Yellowstone.  If you do and you feel like sharing your opinion stop back by my blog and leave a comment for all the world to see.

You can learn more about Oboz at their website, www.obozfootwear.com.

Disclosure: I have not been compensated in any way to write this review.  I am not sponsored by or affiliated with Oboz.  I just really dig their product.

iPhone Apps For Nature Photographers

As a new iPhone owner I found myself spending entirely too much time browsing Apple’s App Store.  There really is an “app for that”, no matter what “that” is.  I started to wonder if there were apps that could make my life as an outdoor photographer easier, better or more organized.  After a few weeks of downloading and using apps, some free and some not, I’ve found a few that really are helpful to nature photographers.  Some of these even came pre-loaded on the iPhone.  Here are my selections:

Compass (Free) - Yes, I have a digital compass on my watch, my GPS and an analog compass in my backpack.  So, why is the iPhone Compass so helpful?  It’s ridiculously easy to read and it even lists your current GPS location.  I like to use it with Sunrise & Sunset Pro as it makes it easy to determine where & when the sun will rise or set without introducing another gadget into the mix.

Sunrise & Sunset Pro ($1.99) - There are free apps available to determine that azimuth and altitude of the sun at any time of the day but none of the ones I tried were as easy to use as this one.  When used with the Compass it is amazingly easy to determine whether that peak before you will be frontlit, sidelit or backlit at sunrise or sunset.  Use it in conjunction with a topo map to pre-plan your photographic adventure before you even leave home.  Awesome!

Park Maps ($0.99) - Every single national park map, on your iPhone.  Zoom in, zoom out and scroll all around.  Each map is downloaded directly to your iPhone to be accessible even when out of cell service.  The maps are small and can be difficult to read for those with aging eyes like mine.  Even so, I find the app useful for identifying the location of campgrounds, visitor centers and most importantly, viewpoints and overlooks.

The Weather Channel Max ($3.99) - Current temperature, precipitation, wind speed, weather conditions, humidity and sunrise & sunset times.  Hourly, 36 hour and 10 day forecasts.  Severe weather alerts.  A radar map with past, present and predicted future movement of weather, i.e. rain, snow, clouds.  Tide information for coastal areas.  You can even save as many locations as you’d like for instant access.  I saved several of the areas I visit regularly.  It makes finding a weekend escape that much easier.

Google Earth (Free) - The same Google Earth on your computer in your hand.  Super cool!

Maps (Free) - Another app that comes pre-loaded on the iPhone.  Punch in any address and it uses the built-in GPS to provide directions from your current location.  Great when traveling around an unfamiliar city on your photography adventure.

Milog Lite (Free) - I use this handy mileage tracker to record miles driven on every photo excursion.  This is an easy and convenient way to keep track of mileage for tax purposes.

Notes (Free) - Yet another app that is pre-loaded on the iPhone.  I use it to keep notes of locations I stumble upon that appear to have lots of photographic potential.

Here’s an example of how I used several of these apps on a recent short trip.  While out four wheeling a new-to-me trail in the Moab area I discovered several sandstone peaks towering above a creek filled with green cottonwoods.  I recognized the potential for fall colors and broke out my iPhone to determine whether it was a sunrise or sunset location using the Compass and Sunrise & Sunset Pro.  It’s sunset.  I opened my “Locations to Photograph” note in the Notes app and added pertinent information about the location.  When I got home I transferred the trip mileage information from Milog Lite to my accounting software.  Awesome!

Have you found an App that’s great for nature photographers?  Leave a comment about it.  I’m sure readers of my blog would love to hear about it.  I know I would!

Gear Test: Clik Elite Large Hiker Photo Backpack

As an avid hiker I’ve long been disappointed with the backpack options available for photographers.  Dedicated photo packs organize camera gear well and are great when working not far from your vehicle.  However, none of them are designed for the trail.  Along comes Clik Elite, a new pack company whose tagline is “Performance Packs for Adventure Photographers”.  Hmm, I wonder – could this finally be the Holy Grail?

Ever skeptical I shelled out $310 on the Large Hiker pack from REI.com knowing that it could be easily returned if the product disappointed. Upon receipt I was immediately impressed with the pack’s build quality and features. Even more impressive is the fully adjustable harness. My long torso and freakishly short legs make it difficult to properly fit packs but I was able to quickly adjust the harness for a perfect fit. We’re off to a good start.  The bottom compartment is padded and divided to carry camera gear while the large top compartment carries your day hiking essentials and a Camelbak style water reservoir.  An extra pocket on the bottom uses weather-resistant zippers and contains an organizer for memory cards, hard drives, filters and other small photo goodies.  A second, larger external pocket on the top section is large enough to stow a first aid kit, headlamp, hat and gloves and most of the “ten essentials”.  The pack passed muster in the living room.  What about in the real world?

Fast forward after two months of use in the Pacific Northwest and here at home in Moab, and I’m excited to announce that the folks at Clik Elite got it right.  The Large Hiker carries as comfortably as any non-photo dayhiking pack I’ve ever worn, even after several hours on and off the trail.  Clik Elite’s designers gave this pack a real, honest to God waistbelt that does exactly what it should – transfer the weight of the pack weight to your hips.  Halleleujah!  Camera equipment stays well protected in the padded compartment and is easy to access when needed. I still carry my camera with attached 24-105mm lens in a Lowepro Topload Zoom chest pack for quick access. The padded compartment carries my 16-35mm and 100-400mm lenses, external flash, extra batteries and an extension tube with room left over for lenses I’ve yet to buy.  The large top compartment provides ample room to carry rain gear, food, diapers (for my son, not me!), a jacket and more.  The pack is hydration compatible with a reservoir pocket and hose outlet or, for old schoolies like me, mesh pockets on the side large enough to hold 32 oz. Nalgene bottles.  The pockets are even placed such that I can access my water bottles and put them back without assistance from another hiker or a kind trail stranger.  Nice!

Unfortunately, nothing in this world is perfect. Those mesh water bottle pockets are loose and there are no bungees or drawstrings to keep the bottles in place.  I’ve had many a Nalgene come flying out while scrambling up a steep slope.  My biggest gripe is with the tripod carrying system, or lack thereof.  Straps are provided on the top and bottom of the pack to carry a tripod horizontally.  Huh?  Nobody likes to carry tripods horizontally.  At least, nobody I know does.  Have you ever tried to squeeze through a slot canyon with a tripod mounted horizontally on your pack?  It doesn’t work.  I developed a jerry-rigged vertical carry by placing two of the tripod legs in the lower pocket and securing the ballhead with straps provided on the top of the pack.  It works well, except that you lose the ability to use that cool lower pocket.  That’s it for the negative.  Not bad, huh?

I contacted Clik Elite about my two concerns and was told that I am not alone in my opinion and that they have already resolved the issue.  The new & improved packs will be available in the first quarter of 2010.  I was not provided with details on the fix nor have I seen photos of the new packs so I can’t comment on whether or not “new & improved” really means “new & improved”.

If you’re tired of adapting regular daypacks to photo use, or just plain disgusted with the usual photo pack options you should consider the Clik Elite product line.  Their entire line of packs, pouches and organizers can be viewed at www.clikelite.com.

I will add photos soon…