The Tools For Travel

The Photo Traveler’s annual collection of gift ideas

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photo traveler
Pirate’s Alley, New Orleans

It’s the time of year to leave some gentle hints for friends and family as to what toys a traveling photographer might want to receive during the holiday season. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to another year of cute photographer ties and little statuettes of elderly bearded photographers sitting behind ancient view cameras (and, believe me, they’re harder to sell on eBay than typewriter ribbons). Once again, the Photo Traveler has tracked down inexpensive (if you’ve just been good) to more expensive (if you’ve been very, very good) items of interest to shooters on the road.

Let There Be Light…Modification. I’m a big flash fan, and I find that one or two small units can help me create interesting photographs wherever I go. A lot of times, though, I like to modify that light, either spreading and softening it with an umbrella or diffuser, or concentrating it with a snoot or a grid spot.

Up until now, there have been many choices of aftermarket accessories that spread and diffuse the light from a small flash, but if you wanted to concentrate, or restrict the angle of that light beyond the zoom range of the flash head, you were left to a lot of inelegant DIY remedies, usually involving large amounts of gaffer’s tape, paper tubes, Velcro® and Blackwrap foil.

Photojournalist David Honl stepped in and created a great modular system of light modifiers for small flashes that are elegant, durable and save you from covering your expensive unit in sticky adhesives ( First, you have Velcro®-lined Speed Straps that wrap around your flash reflector (with no tape or sticky adhesive!). To those straps you can connect one of two snoots (a long one and a shorter one) or grid spots with two different spread patterns, or a couple of gobos (“go betweens” or light blockers). He also has a series of precut colored gels that attach to the straps or the grids. The most exciting of these are the grid spots. Experienced light jockeys know that a honeycomb grid in front of your flash provides a nice, smooth-transitioning light restriction. Previously, you could only find these made for big, professional AC flash units. The Honl grids are exceptionally well made and lightweight and a welcome addition to any shooter’s lighting bag of tricks. Estimated Street Price: Speed Strap ($9.95); Speed Snoots ($19.95 and $24.95); Speed Grids and Gel Kits ($24.95 each).

Pop Goes The Radio. Don’t you just love the wireless TTL control on the Canon and Nikon flash units? To have cordless control of our flashes is one of the great joys of the digital age, and yet like a true photographer, you always can wish for more! That’s because of two limitations of these systems: 1) the distance from the controller to the remote is limited (to the 16- to 40-foot neighborhood, although your results may vary); and 2) the requirement that the remote flash be within line of sight of the controller.

Traditional radio remotes, of course, overcome both those obstacles for firing flash units, but at the cost of losing your TTL control, your ability to change the exposure value of the remote flash from your shooting position. Not a big deal, you say, until you try tweaking your exposure for a remote flash that’s set up, say, high in a tree so you can do fill-flash of a bird feeding its young in a nest. Do you want to tweak that output? If you do, you’re climbing that tree a few times!

Or, in a situation that I run into more as a travel shooter, say you’ve set up a few remotes in a disco in Rome or Ibiza for that killer nightlife shot that your editor craves. When the action heats up, (usually in the wee hours) and it’s shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor, do you really want to slither through the crowds to tweak your flash ratio? (Well, actually, maybe some of you do, but I’m too old for that kind of stuff anymore!)

An ingenious fellow named Kevin King at RadioPopper has given us the best of both worlds ( RadioPoppers are radio remote units that take our flashes’ TTL remote signal, convert it to a radio signal and send it to the remote RadioPopper unit on the flash, which in turn decodes it into the cordless TTL signal again. The result? Cordless TTL control, with radio remote range and no need to stay in “line of sight.”

I’ve owned my RadioPopper P1 (there’s a P8 on the drawing board, which will offer eight different radio channels for those who have to shoot in pack situations like press conferences) transmitter and receiver for a few months now, and it works extremely well. There’s a bit of awkwardness and touchiness in the way you have to mount both the transmitter and receiver (and you’re back to gaffer-taping and Velcro®-ing things onto your flash, like the fiber-optic cable of the receiver over your flash’s receiving eye). So I don’t keep the units permanently mounted on my flashes. Instead, I break them out only when I get into a situation where I need to “hide” a flash around a corner or in the next room, or if the distances between me and the remote flash are too long for the visual signal.

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If I was a wedding shooter, who must deal with pops of a million point-and-shoot cameras from other wedding guests, I’d keep these RadioPoppers permanently mounted. I still prefer the easy convenience of the Nikon system in most situations, but RadioPoppers are good to have when you need them. Estimated Street Price: $360 (transmitter and receiver set).

Big Little Backup.
With luggage limits becoming more and more strict, and people being forced to pay to check their bags, it only follows that carry-on space will get tighter and tighter. That’s really bad news for those of us road warriors who already are fighting for carry-on space for our delicate electronic gear.

But with the prices of flash memory getting cheaper, the prospect of laptop-free travel becomes less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. Helping it along, are the compact storage devices from Epson and others. Epson’s latest entries, the P-6000 and P-7000, boast 80 and 160 GB drives, respectively, and in the age of 12-megapixel and up cameras and two- to three-week shooting trips, those capacities look very good indeed, especially, for me, the P-7000 (

There’s another reason these units look so good, and that’s the improvement in the LCD displays. Epson calls it Photo Fine Premia. I just call it the sharpest, smoothest and most wide-ranging color I’ve seen on a four-inch LCD anywhere. Now, you can pixel-peep on one of these units to check sharpness, etc., and be looking at the same-quality image as (or maybe even better than) your computer screen at home.

Both the P-6000 and P-7000 retain the ability of the earlier P-3000 and P-5000 to back up onto other USB devices, like small USB hard drives, so you can make multiple backups of your work with just one of these units. This is an often overlooked, undermarketed feature and one that every digital wallet of this type should have, but some brands do not. Just keep in mind that your small USB drives will need to have their own AC adapter (usually small, light five-volt, two-amp multivoltage jobs that weigh an ounce or two), and be formatted to FAT32, the PC standard.

I’m planning a laptop-free assignment in South America this month, with enough SDHC cards for my Nikon D90s to last me for two weeks of shooting and a P-7000 and another small drive to back them up. It has lightened my usual load by about 10 pounds of computer gear and peripherals, and I may actually be able to make it onto the plane with one carry-on. Estimated Street Price: P-6000 ($599); P-7000 ($799).

Be My Baby… Just when you thought it was safe to call your Lensbaby 3G—that cute little lens with the “martian antenna” look that gives you the ability to play with narrow depth-of-field effects—a lifelong companion, the Lensbaby designers improve on it again (

They have kept the original “accordion” squeezebox Lensbaby (now called the Muse) and the 3G (now called the Control Freak), but they have added a very smooth, tilting version, the most lens-like and easiest to use of the bunch, called the Composer. The Composer eliminates the dexterity requirements that the other two models require of users (some shooters love the process as much as the result; I prefer to get the results with more ease, as you can with the Composer). It’s essentially a tilt lens in a rolling pivot (these Lensbaby guys are ingenious), and it allows you to fully exploit the narrow depth-of-field look that, rather than being a fast-fading fad, seems to have become an enduring look in creative photography.

But wait, there’s more. Now, besides choosing the type of Lensbaby, you also can choose the sharpness of the optics you use. The Optic Swap system allows you to pop out the standard-issue optic (the Double Glass, which provides the sharpest results in the focused portion of your picture) and replace it with the Single Glass (which is less sharp, more dreamy) or, to go even softer, the Plastic optics that came with the first generation of Lensbaby. There’s even a Zone Plate option, which is a pinhole-type setup for really dreamy results. The Lensbaby empire grows!

Since I’m a shooter with clients who mostly want the sharp parts of my pictures to be sharp, I’m a Double-Glass guy. But just in case, deep in my creative soul, I want to explore my dreamy pinhole side, now I have that option! Estimated Street Price: the Composer ($270); the Muse ($150); the Optic Kit ($94.95).

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.