It's the time of year when someone in your household may be looking for a good but reasonable gift idea for you, the family's "visual artist" (as I insist on being called). Assuming you've been good (you've been good, right?) and not naughty, the following nifty items for traveling photographers are really cool, but won't break the bank.
Into Each Life...
...a little rain must fall. Maybe it's just me, but I seem to be drawn to moist, rainy climates, and what's worse, I often like to shoot in those conditions, too. For a traveling photographer, rain protection has traditionally presented a special problem: the excellent, commercially available camera raincoats are so big and heavy that they almost outweigh the gear they're supposed to protect. That's because they're designed primarily for the massive teles used by sports and wildlife shooters (two other types of photographers who have the good sense not to stop shooting when the rain begins). That left us traveling photographers with the other extreme: flimsy plastic-baggie or shower-cap protection. It's lightweight, yes, crude even, but alas, rarely effective.
Enter the whimsically named Shutter Hat. Designed by Maryland-based photographer Ferrell McCollough, it's an ingenious, adaptable camera raincoat that folds up to about the size of a deck of cards. Through clever use of Velcro® and a tab that slides into the hot-shoe, it keeps the cover seated perfectly, so the viewfinder is accessible, but the camera is protected.
It's sized to protect any D-SLR mounted with a lens up to about a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, but also adapts well to shorter zooms. There's a longer-lens version coming, which may be called the "Ten-Gallon Shutter Hat," for the long-telephoto crowd. But the current version is convenient to have with you at all times because it weighs next to nothing, even with its carrying case and an enclosed microfiber cleaning cloth (for those pesky raindrops that may find their way to your lens). It's a breeze to stash in a tiny corner of your bag or vest. At $39, it's a small price to pay for protecting your expensive gear and opening yourself up to the wild, wet world of rainy-day photography (www.shutterhat.com).
Camera Support Gone Ape
Earlier this year, OP readers were introduced to the Gorillapod from Joby, another ingenious design. Basically, it's a mini-tripod with flexible plastic legs made up of interconnected ball and socket joints, and it looks like a robotic spider creature. The original Gorillapod was designed for small point-and-shoot cameras. As soon as I saw the design, I had to have one, and I wished for a larger, more robust version.
The Gorillapod SLR is just that. It's at least twice as big and will support most medium-sized D-SLRs (rumor has it, a Gorillapod SLR Pro version is in the works, which will allow you to add your own favorite small ballhead to the legs). The Gorillapod excels at securing a camera (or a strobe) to previously impossible surfaces, such as a tree branch or a chair back, thanks to the grippy wraparound legs.
It comes with its own proprietary ballhead and quick-release system, and extra plates are available (the Pro version will allow you to use the QR system of your choice). I'm finding the Gorillapod SLR to be superb for placing strobes like the Nikon SB-800 in wireless, multiflash setups.
Recently, I was shooting a room interior and hung one of my flashes upside down from the paddle of a ceiling fan (it was off, mind you!) using the Gorillapod SLR—no lightstand, no fuss. I've also been able to place lights on doorjambs and even (on a bet) wrapped around a wine bottle at a dinner table. The Gorillapod lets you feel like Captain Kirk himself—boldly (but carefully, please) putting cameras and lights where none have gone before ($49, www.joby.com).
Baby's All Grown Up
You have to love the innovation and imagination of those guys at Lensbabies, makers of the funky little squeezebox lens that lets you create those edgy-looking, super-shallow depth-of-field pictures so beloved by photo editors and art lovers. If you thought the 2.0 version of the Lensbaby was ne plus ultra, wait till you see the latest version, the Lensbaby 3G.
One of the toughest things about using the previous incarnations of the Lensbaby was maintaining the focus of the "sweet spot," the narrow band of sharpness, from frame to frame. That's because you focus this lens by actually squeezing the rubber tube-mounted optic with your fingers and holding it in place, a technique that takes some practice and patience.
The new version is outfitted with three weird focus rails (think Martian antennae) and a locking mechanism that lets you lock in the focus when it's achieved, allowing you to shoot frame after frame with the exact same point of focus. Not only that, there's a rotating element on the front of the lens that allows you to fine-tune that focus after the fact. The addition of these two actions makes using the Lensbaby 3G as simple as, well, focusing a grown-up manual-focus lens.
But wait, as they say, there's more. The Lensbaby 3G, like its predecessors, is a single-focal-length lens, a 50mm, and many of us wished for a wider-angle version (especially those with a digital SLR with a 1.5x magnification factor, turning the Lensbaby's focal length into a shorter telephoto of 75mm or so). Apparently, some wanted a tele and a wide-angle with macro, too. So now, you can buy auxiliary screw-on lenses, in a kit of two, or a single wide/macro, and they're optically corrected to maintain the same-sized "sweet spot" as the Lensbaby without the auxiliary attachments.
I use the wide-angle attachment on the Lensbaby 3G just about all the time, and the resulting setup gives me that 50mm normal-lens perspective that seems to work well with this lens. The strange-looking lens-on-Lensbaby 3G combination, with its weird "antennae," makes it a conversation piece as well as a photographic tool. This third-generation Lensbaby is growing up fast, sailing through puberty and well on its way to becoming a full-grown Lensman (or Lenswoman). It's a mature image-making tool for the kid in all of us (Lensbaby 3G—$240; auxiliary wide-angle/tele lens kit—$89; auxiliary macro wide-angle lens—$59; www.lensbabies.com).
When my camera is on a tripod, I often find myself wishing that I could look straight down for a picture. Whether it's an interesting flower close-up in a dewy meadow or a dramatic overhead angle of a piazza in Italy as seen from a bell-tower overlook, if you're on a tripod, there's only so far down you can point your camera before you begin shooting your tripod's legs—and your own shoes.
Enter Gitzo, the innovative tripod makers, with an ingenious solution: a center column that not only rises, but can also flip over to go parallel to the ground. Combine this with a unique leg-locking mechanism that allows you to place your tripod's legs at independent angles, and you've got the ability to bend at angles that would make a contortionist green with envy.
Now, all of those occasions when you were jammed against a railing, trying to aim down but never getting the right angle, or you struggled to figure out a convenient way to shoot straight down without literally taking your tripod apart, are handled easily by the G2258 Explorer Carbon, a carbon-fiber beauty that features this unique center-post design.
Gitzo is on the verge of introducing a new super-stable leg-lock design, the G collar, and it's likely that all of its current tripods will be offered with the new leg locks sometime next year. So if you have the patience, you may want to hold off and wait for the new version. I've been happily using the current version, however, and it may be available at a discount when the new tripods are introduced ($570, legs only, www.bogenimaging.us).
Well, start dropping those holiday hints now, and hopefully, you'll be able to start the new year with one of these photographic toys.