Equipment Update & Informal Reviews

Life has been pretty busy and I’ve not been doing as much creative photography of late… at least nothing worth sharing on the blog. I’d intended to reverse that trend during the last 10 days or so of vacation over the holidays. Such is life. I’ve certainly not been bored and the holiday has been a pleasant and relaxing one for the most part. I’ve got a few days left. ๐Ÿ™‚

I did, however, realize I was more than a bit behind with updating my Equipment, Software & Tools List where I try to keep a running inventory of my bits of gear. I’ll write about a few of the items and my experiences here for anyone interested.

Click the “continue” link for the full barrage discussing backpacks, bags, a boom, DIY stands and cases and some words about high speed wireless networking the open source way… ๐Ÿ™‚

Tamrac Expedition 7 Backpack

A few months back I replaced my venerable Canon 200 EG Backpack (which I really did love) with a larger and more versatile Tamrac Expedition 7 Backpack. Basically, I outgrew the Canon bag with the addition of my most recent lens purchase. Packing the Canon bag was starting to become an intricate puzzle exercise and it was getting stuffed too tight to be either comfortable or particuarly safe if it got dropped. My Dad became the recipient of the Canon bag for use with his Fuji digital SLR and lenses.

The Tamrac had me intrigued for quite some time after seeing it in ads and it’s definitely a very well designed and capable bag. I carry everything I need now with ample protection and some room to grow. The size is a bittersweet issue, though. Yes, I needed better protection and more room, but I’m paying for it with a bag that is right on the threshold of being too big for convenient everyday use. It’s a tradeoff, though, and it’s not so large that I’d give up the newly gained capacity or the ample padding. You get the sense you could run it over in your driveway, wipe off the tire marks and not think twice about the equipment inside. I’m not going to test the theory, but you get the idea.

Carrying it on one shoulder works pretty well for me for general running around. Strapping it fully to your back works great if you’re humping your stuff over a long distance or need both arms free. In a crowded public place, though, having it on your back is likely to turn you into a somewhat bulky object of curious stares… I still have visions of turning around and clearing a table, but that’s probably just my imagination.

I won’t detail all the features… you can see them on the bag’s website. I will confirm, though, that it is versatile and very, very well built. My only complaint regarding the bulk, though, are the two hip straps. They are a great source of comfort when using it as a full backpack (when hiking, for instance). Otherwise, though, I find they are awkward and tend to jut out in an annoying way. I wish they were somehow removable so you could use them when you want them and keep them out of the way the other 90% of the time. They’ll probably add that feature in a future bag now that I’ve bought this one. ๐Ÿ™‚

Naturally, the fact that I needed a larger backpack means I’ve entered that phase where I have to start getting realistic about choosing what gear I really need in any given situation rather than having everything “just in case”. As a result, I’ve dug out my older, rather small LowePro MicroTrekker 100 left over from my pre-SLR days. I’m quite glad now that I didn’t sell it despite it collecting dust for a couple of years. I’m starting to toss it in the trunk of the car with my Tamrac bag and use it as a my “runaround” bag when I get to my destination and can gain a sense of what lenses or other doodads I might need. This way I can carry my larger array of equipment on a trip pretty easily and still have something sensible to carry on location without looking like an astronaut going out for an EVA.

And, yes, my wife thinks I’m insane. Of course, she’s loathe to carry her cell phone half the time and has a purse roughly the size of an Altoids tin. Efforts to draft her as my camera caddy have thus far failed. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Bogen / Manfrotto 3398 Convertible Boom Stand 420

As I’ve begun experimenting more with studio lighting, I quickly realized that a good boom stand for use with my softbox would likely be a wonderful thing. My friend Tom Marcais happened to have one he wasn’t actively using at the time and offered to let me test drive it for a while. I liked it enough that I snapped up an identical used one from a professional photographer via eBay. It came in the original box and was cared for well enough to be seemingly brand new, all the while saving me a decent bit of money.

The unit I borrowed and subsequently bought is the Bogen / Manfrotto 3398 Convertible Boom Stand 420. It’s rated to hold 11 pounds on the end of the boom when extended to its full length of 84 inches. Since my monolight and softbox comes in just over eight pounds, the fit was just right.

In addition to being a boom, it can fold in such a way that one can use it as a normal straight light stand with a pretty impressive height of 13 feet 5 inches. As with all things Manfrotto, it’s made in Italy, very well engineered and built like a tank. At six pounds, it’s amazingly light for its size and versatility. The only thing it lacks (in my mind) is air cushioning, so when raising and lowering the central column with full weight you’re going to need to grunt a little and never just unlock it without being prepared to take the load down carefully. For the price, I’d say it’s a superb stand and the lack of air cushioning is by no means a negative mark in that context.

Tom didn’t have need of a substantial counterweight, so I improvised when borrowing his by putting some bricks in a heavy plastic bag and hanging them from a coat hanger. For Christmas, though, I received a nice saddle-bag style heavy nylon sandbag with zippered compartments and velcro overflaps. It can hold up to 15 pounds of sand and clips very nicely to the end of the boom. The initial idea had been to buy a bunch of lead fishing weights for a less messy and more versatile means of filling it, but I quickly disregarded that when I realized that filling the bag to capacity would cost about $105. ๐Ÿ™‚ $2.50 bought me a 50 pound bag of playsand and I made use of a couple of ziploc bags to seal it into a few five and three pound sets.

I’m new to using a counterweighted boom, so I’ve been learning as I go. I’ve started to get a feel for how best to operate it and it seems pretty clear that not forcing things and seeking the natural counterbalance between the weight and light in any given configuration is the key. Under those circumstances you don’t put tremendous stress on the system and simply use the lockdowns to hold the natural balance once you have found it. I don’t have any documentation of any sort, so this is a learn-as-you-go process (which I enjoy immensely, actually).

Miscellaneous Transport Gear

Another nifty Christmas gift this year from my Dad was an On-Stage LB6500 Lighting Truss Carry Bag (I just randomly chose this link since I can’t find one at the manufacturer’s site… doubt this is where he bought it). It’s a pretty long, heavy-duty zipper bag that works perfectly for carrying my lighting and camera tripods and other random items.
I also obtained (by chance) a rather hardcore rolling aluminum transport case that was being discarded. My Dad had a chance to snag it before it got tossed and it has turned out to be the perfect thing for storing and carrying my monolights in a safe manner. This is one of those rolling hardcases made for carrying an LCD projector to tradeshows and is built to airline specifications. I imagine it would cost a small fortune for direct purchase (at least similar ones have always struck me quite pricey… justifiably so, I guess), so I’m quite thrilled to have one fall in my lap. The inside foam was cut for the projector and took some creative modification on my workbench the other night… but in the end I’ve gotten the two monolights and their reflectors to fit like a glove. Obviously, the case is bulkier than the two individual lights, but rolling around the one case is far easier and, above all, I don’t have to constantly worry about the expensive flash tubes or modeling lights getting shattered.

The last somewhat creative gear project I’ll mention is another result of my thinking out loud one afternoon about something I could use or might try to fashion. Again, Dad parlayed the seeds of my thinking out loud into a cool Christmas gift and I got my overall wish last night after futzing around with various pieces and parts for a while.

I often shoot things under my monolights with the camera tethered to the laptop. This allows me to see a large image almost immediately and eliminates the need to constantly download flashcards. I use a 15 foot USB cable to the camera for freedom (wireless would be great but costs entirely too much from Canon right now) and have gotten quite addicted to the versatility and speed of the whole arrangement. My only gripe has been placing the laptop in a good position where I wasn’t bending over constantly and trying to peer at the image at a decent angle. I had mentioned that I’d like a stand that would hold the laptop screen up near eye height and had described a platform I might try to fashion that could mount on one of my spare, heavier-duty tripod bases. Naturally, I didn’t get around to building it… just thinking about it a lot. ๐Ÿ˜‰

For Christmas, Dad gave me an inexpensive and versatile “On-Stage Universal 2nd Tier” with the thought that I might adapt it somehow in the manner I described above. Upon unpacking it last night, I realized it was designed for use with most X-style keyboard stands. I happened to have a cheap, generic one sitting around that I had replaced with a better keyboard stand in past years. After reversing the feet on it so it would fold open at a greater height (rather than the usual low, wide configuration for a keyboard), I paired it with the new second tier unit and – voila – a sturdy laptop stand that places my 17″ Powerbook screen at absolutely the perfect level. I’m going to add some velcro strapping for added peace of mind and a platform across the top of the X-stand below the tier. The whole thing folds up nearly flat, too, and is pretty easy to store when not being used.

Network Connectivity

One of the things that took a LOT of my focus and time during the last part of summer and early fall was the installation (and subsequent infrastructure changes I had waiting in anticipation) of a DS-3 circuit on campus for our Internet connectivity. For those not famililar, a DS-3 (T3) is a 45-megabit circuit which makes it roughly 30 times faster than a DS1 (T1) line. For reference, many DSL lines in people’s homes are either 768 kbit/s (abouth 1/60th of a DS3) or 1.5 mbit/s (roughly equal to a T1). The effect on the campus has been fantastic since the last couple of years of virtual data constipation from our clogged T1 lines was finally relieved in one fell swoop. After getting that settled, I turned on a more personal note to upgrading my link from work to home.

For a few years now I’ve been running an 802.11 wireless ethernet bridge at 11 mbit/s from work to home using a 130 foot tower I had erected to clear the trees over the 1.2 mile link. As the network administrator, this is a real boon for me since I have a view of things from home that is almost indistinguishable from my view in the office. Obviously, it also provides good, fast Internet access in the house. The gear has been aging, though, and constantly threatening to give out at some inopportune time with no clear means of quick replacement.

I recently (after a lot of exploring) settled on cheap and readily available Linksys WRT54G units modified to take power over their Ethernet cables and capable of running a constantly evolving open source firmware called DD-WRT (among several other choices). There has been some craziness in the conversion (including one unit – the one on the tower, of course – being flakey and requiring replacement), but I’ve had stuff settled in place for about a month now and am quite pleased. The big initial improvement is a jump from 11 mbit to 54 mbit… so a lot of the benefits of the new DS3 on campus are readily visible right to the house. I’m running my system locked into a 24 mbit mode right now but will start edging that up again as I finish some other changes. At the very minimum, though, I’m seeing more than double the throughput from my old system and a lot more versatility in the software.

Granted, it’s experimental software, but it’s reasonably stable and constantly evolving. The hardware is dirt cheap (but not crappy quality… a fine distinction to be made) which gives me the peace of mind of being able to replace bad units quickly and easily and even have some spares on hand for constant experimentation. I need to grab a few more (max cost of about $60 each when I get them new) so I can be testing new firmware releases before changing the running units on the tower and the campus.

There’s a lot more to write about on this topic, but I’ll save that for later. This has been an entirely too long and meandering bit of writing already. I just wanted to try to cover a lot of lost ground on the “gear” side of my site and now need to turn attention back to shooting and sharing photos. I also need to do some more writing on some of my recent photographic experiences that I’ve not had time to document.

Here’s hoping I can get my butt back in gear with the blog in 2006 and I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year’s eve tonight. ๐Ÿ™‚

Happy Holidays!
– Aaron

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