Benchmade Stryker 910

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's pretty.

The Long Version: There are plenty of good reasons to buy a knife. Solid construction, quality steel, natural balance, strong lock, great design, reputable maker - those are all valid reasons. Buying it because it's pretty probably isn't one of the better reasons, so it's a good thing that the Benchmade Stryker has those other reasons, too.

The practical stuff is that the Stryker has fiberglass-composite scales and titanium liners, one of which provides the locking mechanism. My pre-2006 blade is 154CM, which is the same as ATS34, and is an excellent steel for working knives. The pocket clip is a darkened steel that attaches at the pivot end of the knife; the 'thumb stud' is actually a disk that's easier to use and doesn't snag the way my Cold Steel studs do. It's beautifully made, opens smoothly, and is comfortable to hold and use. It's also the only work knife that I use that I haven't cut myself with - my 4" Benchmade AFCK is the leader in that particular contest.

Compared to its AFCK sibling, the Stryker has a blunter butt - I've always wanted to say that - which is much friendlier to pockets. I'm still not completely sold on the mis-named 'tanto' blade design, but I do like the secondary point that it provides, and the Stryker still has a very fine point. My only real complaint about the 4" 910 model is that it's four inches long - a touch too large for normal use in front of mixed company. While this is a great size for utility and general work, these days I'm finding that 3" knives are more practical over all. But if I could only have one knife, this would be the one.

And it's easily the prettiest knife I own.


The Elements of Graphic Design, by Alex W. White

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's more esoteric than eclectic.

The Long Version: With the full name of The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Type, this book by Alex White doesn't hesitate to let you know what its four section titles are. (Hint: the first one is "Space".) Published in 2002 by Allworth Press of New York, it's a book that's slim enough to carry easily and substantial enough to be worth having nearby.

The endpapers have repeating hand-drawn images of pitch forks and shovels on them. On the next page, all is explained with a caption that notes: "The functional difference between a shovel and a pitchfork is the metal that is missing." The emphasis on missing is key, because the role and use of white space is the underlying theme of the book.

The Elements of Graphic Design follows a pattern of samples and examples on the right-hand page, with captions, quotes, and occasionally additional small images next to the body text on the right. The total effect is a dense layering of information, and I was amazed at just how much time I spent on each page. I would read, look at the samples, read some more, ponder, and repeat. It's the book that led me to finally redesign my business cards and website, and while I had the basic idea of the format already, Alex White's writing about the use of space and boundaries are what gave me the final push. It was a productive month.

What I do have a hard time with is deciding who this book is for. It's too dense and elaborate to be an introduction, but not elaborate enough to be a stand-alone textbook; it deals too much with fundamentals to be an advanced designer's guide, but presumes too much knowledge to be accessible to complete beginners. Perhaps it finds its niche (rhymes with quiche) as a remedial source of inspiration for the professional, as well as being appealing to the enthusiastic amateur. I'd consider myself one of the latter, and have found The Elements of Graphic Design very useful. If you're someone who reads reviews of books on graphic design for entertainment, then perhaps it'll be useful for you, too.


LumoPro 606 Light Stand & 633 Umbrella Swivel

Concept: 2 out of 5 (Nothing original about light stands)
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Affordable Quality is rare but it DOES exist

The Long Version: Less than a year ago my lighting accessories consisted of a rain umbrella modified with a can of white Krylon spray paint and a bunch of microphone stand and boom parts cobbed together.
It worked, but using it was a pain and letting other photographers see my rig was embarrassing.
The stand was too short, didn't collapse into an easily-transported size, and liked to tip over if someone breathed heavily.

For yours truly's birthday my girlfriend dug out her credit card and told me to call up the pertinent web pages for what I wanted.
I clicked twice on the Midwest Photo Exchange (MPEX) banner atop The Strobist blog and within a few minutes my new toys were on the way.

My choice of light stand was the LP606, an economy model 8' air-cushioned 4-section stand that retails for around $30.
Impact also makes an 8' stand in the same price range, but the air-cushioned feature of the LumoPro appealed to me.
I even asked about both in a discussion thread at the Strobist Flickr Group, and while Impact took an early lead the LP soon prevailed.
Interestingly, Moishe (the head guy at MPEX) even left his thoughts, which tipped the scales both for brand and supplier.
When you go the extra mile to help educate your potential customers (and those of your competition!) I notice and appreciate the great service.
MPEX didn't disappoint--it was a painless order with full tracking of the shipment and sturdy packaging.

I like the wide spread of the legs for stability, and the reversed middle locking collar (2nd photo) is a nice touch that keeps everything from being jammed together in finger-confusion, so setup is easier.
The air-cushioned feature is great--if you forget to tighten a segment, your flash won't come sliding down to end with a jolt. In fact, it takes a few seconds to fully collapse the stand as you fight the air pressure.

The LP622 umbrella swivel/flash mount is better than many I have seen, and is also worth the $18 charged.
Very solid construction.
There are a few on the market that are more compact, to get the flash head an extra half-inch closer to the centerline of the umbrella, but they are hard to find.
I like how the cold-shoe has a big groove under the flash's foot, which eliminates the chance of a short-circuit or the need for tape as an insulator.
It holds my flash tightly.
The big swivel knob has both a spring and large detents on the mating surfaces, so it only takes half a turn to loosen it enough to adjust the angle, yet if you forget to tighten the knob again it will usually hold position.
Nice touch!

I haven't owned or even played with any other brands of light stand or umbrella swivel, but I have read many complaints about some of them and their various features as well as looked at pictures of them from all possible angles.
As someone who understands form and function and construction in mechanical devices I feel like I got exceptional equipment for the price.

My photographic style dictates travelling light and compact on the rare occasions that I take flash equipment out of the house, and both of these LumoPro products fit my needs perfectly.
On the other hand, a busy professional's preferences might lean towards extreme durability and size. There are certainly stands that fit their needs but at prices I'll never be able to justify.

This stuff does the job for little money, and I have really enjoyed using them.
Thumbs-Up! to LumoPro and Midwest Photo Exchange.


"Running Longer" TTC Advertisement

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: If it was creative, it would stand out too much.

The Long Version: The ad headline reads: "TTC buses and streetcars are running longer than before. We're staying up later for you."

Nobody has ever used longer in that context before. The vehicles are the same size; there's no wholesale fleet replacement with articulated buses and ALRV's. The right word to describe something that happens at a time that's past the time when it used to happen is later.

But the Toronto Transit Commission can't say that it's service is running later than before. People might laugh.

And so the TTC misses another chance to be hip, edgy, funny, self-depreciating, clever, memorable, and interesting. Coupled with their uninspiring text, they've gone with the ever-popular clock image to illustrate the idea of Time. After all, it's hard to have banal without the cliché.

'It could have been—a bird out of season, dropping bright-feathered on my shoulder... I was prepared. But it's this, is it? No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this.'


Mirrycle Mountain Mirror

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Seriously, how do you spell that?

The Long Version: I've had many bikes, and each of them has had a mirror on it. It's not so much a matter of vanity as self-preservation - I'm always in traffic. The past three mirrors that I've bought have been from Cateye, and they're decent. Not great, but decent. I was planning on buying another one for my new Swift, and it was only because I spent some idle time on MEC's website that I didn't. The Mirrycle Mountain Mirror is more expensive than the other mirrors, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it was for me. I'm a sucker for creative typography, and the packaging crops off the end of the line "wide field of view". Clever.

When the Cateye mirror barely breaks the $5 mark, it's not a huge financial catastrophe that the Mirrycle mirror costs almost three times as much. On the other hand, they've clearly put the added resources to good use. It's very solidly made, secured with some of the longest hex bolts that I've seen in ages, and the reflector is convex and very effective. To assemble it, I genuinely needed the instructions. And like flat-pack furniture, it comes with its own 3mm hex wrench, just in case your bike tool kit doesn't already include one. (It probably does, but it's still a nice touch.)

The Mirrycle mirror mounting system gives it a lot of flexibility in its positioning. Any bar-end mirror will be low, probably too low to be in the rider's normal line of sight, but the curved reflector has such a great field of view that it's easy to forgive. I like to have it set up so that I can just see myself in it, and I can still see the curb behind me and across several lanes of traffic. The solid construction means that it stays put and doesn't shake and vibrate when I'm moving, like some of the others that I've used would do. About the only actual downside of having the mirror installed is that it makes the bike harder to get through doors. I've found one other person with this mirror, and we both agree that we wouldn't want to ride our bikes without them.


Comparison: Nikon D700 and Olympus E-3 in Low Light

Nikon: 4 out of 5
Olympus: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: What are numbers when we have pictures?

The Long Version: Go on any internet camera forum, and there will be 'what should I buy?' questions. Someone will start a thread with a message that reads "I'm choosing between X and Y, and would like insightful comments from people with experience using these two thingies." It's guaranteed that someone, usually the first person to reply, will start their message with "I've never used either thingy, but _________".

My mother always said, "Why would I want the opinion of someone dumber than me?"

So with that in mind, here's my disclaimer:

I've never claimed to be an expert on anything in this blog: if you do a google search on "reviews of dubious consistency", thewsreviews is ranked second. (Disappointing, actually, I was hoping for first place.) I'm just a guy who uses various thingies and writes about them. Secondly, I don't generally "test" anything. I use things. In this case, I've compared these two cameras with the lenses that I have in the way that I usually use them. Different people will differ, and that's not anyone's fault. (My other blog has almost five years worth of photos - 600+ posts - and is almost entirely composed of hand-held static subject photography.) People who need to freeze action, or who are smart enough to use a tripod, don't need to read any further.

Finally, this whole experiment is personal and the interpretation of the results is subjective, so don't expect any Authoritative Numerical Values (ANV™) to neatly summarize the conclusion.

Meet the Contestants:

The Nikon D700 is currently DxOMark's top-rated camera for low-light ISO performance, with an ANV™ of 2303. I doubt that many people would dispute that it's the camera with the lowest noise on the market right now.

The Olympus E-3 is about a year older than the D700, and has an ANV™ of 571 for low-light ISO from DxOMark, putting it in 37th place - tied with the Canon 10D, but slightly ahead of the Nikon D60. Some people might argue with that, but an equal number would probably be surprised that it ranks that highly. Four-thirds ("4/3") format cameras have traditionally had higher noise than the slightly larger 'cropped' cameras. What the E-3 offers is in-body image stabilization, which I will be abbreviating as IBIS to make this review go faster.

My goal is to get the best results for low-light hand-held photography for static subjects from two different technologies, high-ISO and IBIS. My best autofocus Nikkor is the 85mm f/1.8, so I matched it with the Olympus 50mm f/2.0 macro lens. They're nearly the same weight, have a similar field of view, and B&H even sells them for the same price. The E-3 came out to 1.22 kilos, while the D700 checked in at 1.47kg. It's interesting to note that while the lenses cost the same amount, the difference in the body price means that I could buy two of the E-3+50mm kits for less than what the D700+85mm costs at B&H right now, but it's not really relevant to how I evaluated their results.

The Setup:

I shot two different angles on an abandoned car in an underground parking garage. The lighting is consistent throughout the test, and each camera had a custom white balance set. Both were set to continuous shooting at five frames per second, and I kept the second photo from each setting. Both were only using their single central AF point. I stepped through the apertures from wide open until I was getting shutter speeds around 1/5 of a second, bumped the ISO up one stop, and then repeated until I maxed out the ISO on both cameras. For the Nikon, I shot at f/1.8 and f/2.2 before picking up the traditional whole stops at f/2.8; for the Olympus I just shot the whole apertures.

The tail-light test was shot from about 20-25 feet away from the subject, using my best hand-holding technique while standing upright and unsupported. I set my Sekonic meter to a shutter speed of 1/100, which is about the reciprocal of the focal length, and ISO1600. It told me that I should shoot at f/1.4. My focusing point is the yellow turn signal lens.

For the second test, I was leaning against a pillar that put me 10-12 feet from the subject. My Sekonic-metered exposure was 1/100, iso1600, and f/3.6 - eight-thirds of a stop brighter than the tail-light test. The focusing point is the lock in the door handle.

The Cull:

I took many, many photos. Once I'd reduced them to only the second frames, I made another three passes to select the best images. For the first pass, I magnified the images to 100%, centred on the focus point, and selected them based on sharpness. I was surprised to see that I cut all of the shots taken with the Olympus 50mm f/2.0 wide-open: in my years of using this lens, I've never felt that sharpness was lacking. The cutoff for shutter speed with the IBIS-equipped E-3 fell at about one tenth of a second. The D700 wasn't as clear-cut, with some of the photos at f/2.2 being acceptable and some were rejected; likewise some photos taken at 1/30s were acceptable for motion blur, although most needed to be at 1/60 or higher. Naturally, I wasn't looking at the exif data while sorting through them.

For the second pass I was looking only at noise. I set the magnification to 50%, as this is still far larger than web display and more demanding than printed output. I found that I cut all of the E-3 photos taken at iso3200, and all of the D700 photos taken above iso6400. I may have been a little more forgiving with the Olympus, but I also think that Lightroom does a better job converting the D700's noise to monochrome. So count this as a two-stop advantage to the D700, since DxOMark consistently measures the D700's actual sensitivity below its nominal rating. ISO6400 is actually 4871, while the E-3's iso1600 is measured at 1587 - to the D700's 1277.

Finally, once I had photos that I considered good for both sharpness and noise, I went through them again. Rather than judging them only on their own merits, I took only the top six from each test, regardless of which camera they were from. I cropped a section from these in an agnostic 4x5 ratio and printed them out, with the average DPI being in the low-to-mid 300's. Then I took them to the camera store where I work part-time, and let a half-dozen other photographers pick their favourites for detail, sharpness, and noise.

The Results: Tail-Light Test

Nikon D700, 1/25, f/4.0, iso1600

The photo above was consistently picked as the best for sharpness, detail, and noise. It's not a surprise that it was shot with the Nikon. I didn't tell my judges which was from what camera, and even I didn't know the shooting settings for each one, but these are camera-savvy people and could usually figure it out.

Olympus E-3, 1/13, f/2.8, iso400

Coming in second overall, but with less enthusiasm from the judges, is this shot from the Olympus E-3. The differences are obvious: darker exposure, the tonal range is more compressed, and there's less variation in the colour. Compared to the original scene the Olympus is more accurate, but the Nikon's file is going to allow more modification with less deterioration. From the exposure data we can see that the Oly has a shutter speed one stop slower and an ISO two stops lower, showing that IBIS isn't making as much of a difference as it's supposed to. Theoretically I could get a faster shutter speed or lower sensitivity from the Olympus by opening the lens up one stop for equal depth of field, but I had already rejected the f/2.0 shot for lacking sharpness. This goes back to the witticism that in theory, theory matches reality, but in reality, it doesn't.

My co-worker image evaluators didn't get to see these, but the previous two photos are the full images after being put through Lightroom's Auto Tone feature. It has brought down the D700's highlights, and shows just how little real difference the E-3's extra depth of field makes in the full-sized picture. It may also explain a bit of the metering difference, and shows a how the colours are rendered even after setting the white balance with my Ezybalance. Once again, I'm going to say that colour is more accurate and consistent from the Olympus, but anyone who really cares about colour should be profiling their cameras and not relying on the default Adobe profiles the way these images are. They would also be editing the raw file to get the most out of if, which I haven't done. Look for that in a future comparison.

Two more Nikon photos were mid-pack for the tail-light series. One was 1/50, f/5.6, iso6400; the other was 1/160, f/2.2, iso3200. The other two Olympus photos were considered the least technically adequate, and were shot at 1/25, f/4, iso1600; 1/50, f/2.8, iso1600. These two were pretty much interchangeable as the weakest, so the one above the one shot at f/4. I'll say that the best of the Olympus results are close to the best Nikon image, and there's more variation in the quality within each camera than between the brands. But that on average and in particular, the Nikon does produce superior files.

The Results: Door-Lock Test

This test was less extreme, being both brighter and shot with a bit more support. I expected this to be the place where the Nikon stomped the Olympus, but in a reversal from the first test, it just didn't happen. Overall these photos didn't get as much attention, and two photos were picked as the better ones but without a clear preference between them.

Olympus E-3, 1/40, f/2.8, iso1600

Nikon D700, 1/30, f/2.8, iso1600

Once again the Olympus has metered the scene darker, with a shutter speed 1/3 of a stop faster. Shot at the same aperture, the greater depth of field is obvious in the Oly image; shot at the same iso sensitivity, there's not much difference in noise. The second tier of photos were another Nikon-Olympus tie, and shot at 1/160, f/2.8, iso6400, and 1/15, f/4.0, iso1600. It's not a big leap to guess which camera produced which file. The photos with the lowest approval rating were shot with the D700 at iso12800, one at f/2.2 and 1/400, the other at f/2.8 and 1/160. It seems like the E-3's high-iso results suffer more dramatically in the lowest light, and there's also a clear degradation in the colour and clarity of the D700 above iso6400. In fact, one of my judges singled out the Nikon's photos as inferior because of their lack of colour, even though he mistakenly thought that meant that they were taken with the E-3.

Choosing a Winner:

I'm lucky - I don't need to choose a winner. I own both cameras, and have no vested interest in proving one superior or defending the underdog. I didn't buy the D700 for its high-iso ability, and don't need to freeze motion: I'm a stationary-object kind of guy. Since this is a subjective evaluation I'll leave choosing a winner to each individual, and can even supply the gallery link and password to the full-sized photos if anyone wants to write their own conclusions in a comment.

But I won't cop-out completely - the D700 is better in low-light. Its files also have much greater latitude and can be modified more extensively. There's no surprise there. The surprise is that the E-3 remained competitive, and captured better colour. If I had to take photos that would be well-served by a short telephoto, then I'd immediately reach for the D700. But if I had some low-light needs that would benefit from my Olympus 7-14 or 35-100, I would use my E-3 without hesitation. I'd just keep it at iso1600 or lower, and be more careful with the exposure.

Choosing a different lens, for either camera, would naturally change the results. The previously mentioned 35-100 would make the price of the Olympus kit match the Nikon, and its greater weight makes it easier for me to hold steady. If I had chosen the Nikon 105/2.8 VR Micro lens as a better spiritual match for the Olympus 50/2.0 Macro, then the Nikkor's image stabilization would have completely changed the outcome. While this has been a comparison of ISO vs. IBIS, the combination of the two technologies would be unbeatable. But if a camera that's twice as expensive also needs a lens that's twice as expensive in order to be definitively and unquestionably better than a camera with a sensor that's one-quarter the area and a year older, is that still a win?

If you know that a camera will give you a specific ability that you need, buy it. If you want a particular camera and can afford it, buy it. But if you feel like you need the latest and greatest because it scored better in a test, don't forget to look at the rest of the picture. There may be a whole lot of other things that are as important, and possibly more important, than any one single factor.

And don't forget that the point of having a camera is to take pictures.


JJC/Gadget Infinity JR-Series Infrared Remote DSLR Controller

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Works better than the low price might suggest

The Long Version:One of my main areas of interest as a photographer is long exposures, mainly at night but also during the daytime to capture the essence of movement.
A tripod is mandatory, but I have long known that some sort of remote shutter release is also recommended.
Using the camera's timer is a free solution, but isn't always the best solution.
So I have kept an eye out for a wireless shutter release that won't abuse my wallet.
Sony's RM-L1AM Alpha Remote Commander is a simple button in a box on a cable that has an MSRP of $69.99!
I could build one for $10, but it would take time and look a little unprofessional despite my fabrication abilities.

Recently I noticed a wireless IR remote for Sony Alpha DSLRs at Gadget Infinity, my favorite source for strange far-east camera products.
I bought my Cactus remote flash triggers from GI, and trust them more than I do the similar eBay stores. 3 orders and never a problem so far--fast and reasonably priced shipping, and the products are always what I ordered and work as advertised.
One important note--this isn't name-brand stuff (and is priced accordingly) so you get what you pay for but might need some tools and skills to make it "perfect".
(More on this later).

As shown in the top photo (click to enlarge all pics) the JR set includes a receiver module with a standard iso hotshoe mount made of plastic, a transmitter, the specific cable required by different camera brands, and in my case a little plastic hotshoe adapter because Sony/Minolta uses an odd proprietary mount.
Also in the box were two CR-2032 button batteries to power each device, of the Star-Bully brand. As with most similar items from across the ocean these are described in the instruction manual as being "for testing purposes only" meaning they are crap and will die within days of being installed (using the tiny Philips screwdriver supplied).
The instructions are typical bad translations, but have many pictures and are relatively understandable.

Here is the JR system mounted on my Alpha300:

I wrap the excess cable around my lens because I like things to be neat.
The Sony-type hotshoe adapter didn't accept the shoe mount of the receiver, but a few quick passes with a small Dremel file (folded sandpaper would work) cleaned-up the excess molding flash that caused the problem.
This is a Sony-specific detail, and since most serious Alpha owners probably have an
FS-1100 hotshoe adapter already it's of minimal concern.
When also using off-camera flash the hotshoe might be occupied by a radio transmitter, so finding a new place to mount the IR receiver will become a problem--I have yet to solve this for myself.

Note that between the first and second photo we have seen both ends of the receiver, and there is a red-tinted IR window on each side. You can trigger the shutter from behind or in front of the camera.
Very nice!

Not so nice is that when set-up this way, my Alpha's controls were completely locked. Changing iso or shutter speed or aperture or white balance, etc, was impossible without pulling the little 2.5mm plug out of the receiver!
Not cool, but at least I didn't have to remove the other end of the cable from the camera as this is a less-convenient connection to deal with.
Also, the advertised half-press AF (auto-focus) feature didn't work, nor did AF activate with a full shutter press. Totally blurred photos.
After switching the camera to "Continuous AF" mode this became a non-issue except for slightly increased battery drain, but I was surprised that something so important to proper function didn't work.
This may be a Sony-specific compatibility issue, but then again it might not.
You've been warned, and supplied with the fixes, so don't complain to me.
My main reason for wanting a wireless remote is to do group shots of my band, and since I can set those up from behind the camera all settings and focus will be finalized long before I step in front of the camera to pose.
Depending on your needs it may or may not be a deal-breaker.
I'm okay with it, especially at the incredible price.

An interesting feature is an optional 2-second delay, which is perfect for self-portraits as it allows you time to hide the remote before your shutter trips.
(Timer does not work with Panasonic & Leica cameras, according to the instructions).

Having said all that...
If a simple wired remote is all that you need, it takes mere seconds to unplug the cable from the receiver and plug it into the transmitter.

And this restores the camera functions that were previously locked during IR wireless mode!
My Alpha300 works normally in wired mode--all buttons and menus do what they are supposed to do again.
Even half-press AF using the transmitter's button works just fine.
All for much less than the price of Sony's wired version.

Since I'm mainly going to use this remote system at night to reduce camera-shake during the start of long exposures, I already feel like I got my money's worth.
(Actually my brother's money--it was a birthday gift).

As long as you understand the odd limitations of this remote system and keep my recommended work-arounds in mind you shouldn't have any problems getting it to perform in your favor.

Here is the first page of GI's listings for wireless camera remotes so you can search for your specific model.

Please note that the instructions for 'Bulb' mode seem complicated and I haven't had time to try it yet, but then I never use bulb anyway.
I will update this entry should anything important come up in future testing.

contact me...

You can click here for Matthew's e-mail address.