Leviton Decora Light Switch

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: If I stopped to think about everything that's amazing, I'd never move.

The Long Version: Tell me what you think of this design brief: make something that needs to conform to strict dimensional standards, be approved by dozens of national standards boards, will work reliably for tens of thousands of actuations over the course of decades, can cause millions of dollars in damage - or kill people - if it fails, and must be manufactured in the USA so cheaply that even when all of the distributors and resellers have made their cut that it still sells for less than three bucks. Canadian.

Ah, the humble light switch. Not too shabby.



Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: YMMV.

The Long Version: I want to call them Greyhound Bus Lines, but like Bono, Cher, and Liberace, they seem to be going by only one name these days. So just to be clear, this is a review of the transportation company, not the dogs. I like the dogs, and may have one someday, but for now I'm just looking at the buses.

One of the most amazing things is that Greyhound goes almost everywhere. The idea of the photographer's road trips appeals to me, and since I'm not much of a driver, I need to find other transportation. The train hardly goes anywhere useful, and flying is far too much hassle to do for fun. And in the spirit that the journey is part of the trip, instead of an inconvenience to fast-forward through, there's something very earthy about getting there by bus. And Greyhound is synonymous with buses in a very fundamental way. So when a city or town piques my interest, Greyhound's tickets page is the first place I look. I know that I can get from Toronto to Moncton, New Brunswick, in about a day with four transfers. That's where my Nikon F100 lived before I adopted it. A day is also enough to get me to Roanoake, Virgina, which is mentioned in a catchy song (@3:02). Even if I never go to any of these places, it's nice to know that I can. I could leave tonight and be in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for lunch. How cool is that?

Yes, the world is full of potential, but the reality is a bit different. The seats are small and inevitably become uncomfortable: there's a reason why airlines call their cheapest, most confining seats 'coach' class. The window seat's claustrophobic and the aisle means being bumped and having nowhere to lean. Unlike a train, getting up to walk and stretch isn't a realistic option, and the rest-stop bathrooms start to seem like a blessing. Unlike a plane, the three hours you'd spend being scanned, poked, and waiting in rows are spent swaying from side to side. Okay, so maybe that's not a bad thing, but my point is that a full bus can feel like a holding cell and sound like a high-school cafeteria.

Even the comparatively short six-hour jaunt to Ottawa is something that I'm only thinking of fondly now that time has dulled the actual experience of feeling uncomfortable, crowded, restless, and bored. I haven't had this level of self-imposed experiential revisionism since I saw the movie Magnolia, and for much the same reason. It's been a decade, and now I think I actually liked Tom Cruise in it, and I'd be okay with renting it some time. Ottawa was two months ago, so maybe I'll do Chicago in the spring.

My longest trip was a one-way from Omaha, Nebraska, to Toronto. It was over thirty hours, but I was exhausted and slept most of the way. I took some photos at one of the transfer points, and always need to dig up my old itinerary sheet to see what city I was in. A blur, to say the least. I was invariably in a window seat, and usually had the pair to myself, but occasionally I'd wake up to find someone new sitting with me. Later they'd be gone, and I wouldn't remember them leaving. I do remember that the Omaha bus terminal was right next to the jail, and it seemed like most of the dodgiest individuals in the station were taking the same bus that I was. Someone once compared taking a train into a city as being like entering a house through the basement: you see all the industrial, utility, and storage areas instead of the presentable facade. Bus stations can take that and throw in some elements of a backpacker's convention as well.

A more practical and common Greyhound trip for me is short intercity hops to visit family; two round-trips aren't any more expensive than renting a car for a day, and there's less time pressure. The stations that are downtown are a real plus for me, despite my Nebraska experience, since it's where I live and it's where I want to be when I visit. There's no hassle with luggage, and I know it's handled reasonably well even if there aren't any claim tickets when it's pulled out at its destination. Pretty much everyone there is on the road for functional and practical reasons, and problems are very rare. Despite all of the negatives, it's still a cheap and interesting way to travel. If I have enough time to get there on the ground then I'd rather not fly; if there's no train then I'm happy enough to take the bus.

But I reserve the right to update this review when I get back from Chicago.


Manfrotto 341 Junior Elbow Bracket

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Warning: Choking Hazard-Small parts. Not for children under 3 years.

The Long Version: The Manfrotto 341 is an "L" bracket that's compatible with the popular 200PL / RC2 quick-releases. There are two plates that can attach to the tripod head, and the camera is screwed onto the long arm of the L. It also comes with all kinds of little brass bars that are designed to stop the camera from rotating under heavy loads, but in a stunning move from the Manfrotto engineering team, the screw for the camera itself isn't captive to the plate. Or more simply: it falls out. When the plate isn't attached to the camera, I need a little spring-clamp to hold it in place. Ridiculous.

The bracket is heavy but strong, and like a lens collar, it's a great way to keep a camera's weight centred on the tripod in a vertical composition. I use it to hold the camera vertically on my 454 positioning plates, which are heavier than I'd want to tip to the side. The elbow bracket is sized to accommodate cameras that are much larger than the typical DSLR, and when used as directed (photo above) it places the camera quite high on the bracket. I typically mount the camera so that it's facing against the "Lens" arrow puts it lower, but that does block the grip-side memory card slots. The plate will also block most cameras' bottom-loading battery compartments no matter which direction it's facing. The Manfrotto 341 is a generic one-size fits all product, and it shows.

There are many companies that make custom-tailored brackets to fit individual cameras, and I have no doubt that they're excellent. They're also designed to use the Arca-Swiss mounting plates, which isn't what the popular and common Manfrotto heads use. The price penalty of jumping systems is huge: to replace my 410/2x454/323/341 head assembly with one offering similar functions from another brand would cost as much as buying another D700. There's the best, and then there's good enough: Manfrotto offers a functional and useful product, even if it does have some compromises and one glaring fault. All told, I'm perfectly happy with it.

But seriously, how could they make it so that the attachment screw just falls out?


Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a great budget choice for a niche product.

The Long Version: Many macro photographers think that their images lack depth - and it's not because they're more honest than average. Getting enough depth of field, and getting the right focus placement, can be a real struggle. So for everyone who uses a tripod to improve their close-up photography, I'll recommend a fantastic accessory that's generically called a 'focusing rail.' Far cheaper than the (reportedly excellent) products from Kirk and RRS, the Manfrotto 454 Micro Positioning Plate is affordable enough to be used by non-specialists and still good enough to do the job.

Getting enough depth of field is a huge challenge in macro photography. Focus stacking - combining images with different areas in focus - is an excellent solution, but simply changing the focus on a macro lens also changes the magnification and composition. Walking the focus with a stationary camera may work, but using the 454 positioning plate gives a better solution. Simply focus to the desired magnification, position the camera for the best framing, and then move the camera front-to-back with the 454 while taking photo 'slices' through the subject. Combine them in software in post and the results can be quite striking.

Naturally, even single images will benefit from your being able to place the plane of focus in exactly the right spot by simply shifting the camera with absolute precision. No more nudging the tripod legs and hoping for the best.

The assembly in these photos is a DIY project. Two 454 plates - sold separately - are attached perpendicularly, with a 323 quick-release on top and an attachment plate for my 410 geared head on the bottom. The 323 QR was a bit of a problem, since its bottom isn't flush, but a couple of cut-down stir sticks solved that problem. It's my way of putting the pro back into improvised. Without the added quick release the camera would need to be screwed directly to the 454 plate; that's just barbaric.

Making the system compatible with the 200/rc2 plates also means that a Manfrotto 341 L-bracket can be used on the camera. The 454 plates weigh about a pound each, so this whole assembly is over a kilogram and isn't something to flop sideways on a ballhead. But by placing mine on a 410 geared head, it gives me precise control over five axes of movement. Weighing six pounds without a camera, that's a substantial addition to the top of a tripod; but for focus-stacking and/or precise compositions, it's totally worth it.

Front-to-back movement is controlled by a the dual thumbscrews (black) that move the assembly less than a millimeter with a comfortable 5/8ths twist. For quick adjustment, the black lever disengages the mechanism and allows the plate to slide. The brass thumbscrew beside it does the reverse, and locks the plate into place. There's enough play in the sliding plate that the framing will change slightly, but if it's tightened down enough to get rid of that movement, then all movement stops. If I'm shooting a stack of images then I'll just factor a little wiggle room into my composition - literally - and forget about it. Life's a barter system.

In an entertaining first for Thewsreviews, I completely forgot that I'd actually reviewed the 454 plates six months ago. (Naturally, there's a lot of repetition, but the earlier article is here.) While I was more enthusiastic back then, my basic conclusion is unchanged: They're not perfect, but the 454 plates are a solid and reliable way to get better close-up photos. I liked my first one enough to add a second, and I wouldn't want to do my product photography without them.


Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's good, but I don't actually like it.

The Long Version: Crumpler is one of those interesting companies - hip, trendy, and edgy - that make me hit the "no flash" option as soon as it pops up on their website. While I'm always partial to any quirky Australian brand, a quick perusal of their site is all it takes to see that their 'Home' series of camera bags is one of the more sensible nomenclature choices that they've made. Ranging from One to "Brazillion", the Six Million is the second-largest of their sensible sizes. These messengeresque Crumplers are a welcome relief from the sea of black nylon boxes, and their names with numbers in them, that make up the majority of carrying cases at the local camera store. It's a department that desperately needs some colour, even if the black Crumplers are the ones that sell the best.

Camera bags are highly personal. Some people, almost certainly most people, like heavily padded bags that protect the expensive gear inside. Check out Tenba's Black Label collection for an extreme example of this, with a full inch of foam at the bottom. The Crumpler doesn't go that far, but it's still quite firm-yet-flexible with padded dividers, bottom, and walls. The fabric lid is a thick two-layer construction, and the inside is completely lined with soft grabby material for the velcro-enabled dividers. It's closed by an unzippered flap, and with its latching combination of velcro and nylon quick-snap (or two, for the current style) the whole thing feels like I could stick a whack of postage on it and drop it in a mailbox.

(Not that I would do that intentionally, but I've actually had my camera gear shipped to me, loose in a large box, protected only by a bag with less padding than this Crumpler. It survived both Purolator and DHL with no problems at all, but then again, it was my Olympus E-1 and 14-54. You could use that combination to nail up plywood in a hurricane and then spend the rest of the storm taking pictures of the horizontal palm trees. I'm using that camera to this day, many years later, and it's never seen the inside of a service centre - but I digress.)

The Six Million Dollar Home is my mid-sized bag: the one that I use when my Domke F-6 is too short for a tall lens, but my F-1X would fold in half with so little equipment. Here it's tightly carrying my Nikon kit, with the D700+MBD10, Sigma 180 with its collar, an SB900, and two SB600's - one with an Omnibounce - stored nose-to-tail. If I had taken this photo with my Nikon, then it would show my Olympus E-3 with grip, 35-100 f/2 lens, FL-50, and either 7-14, 12-60, or 50-200 depending on my mood. That's some pretty big gear, but at the same time, the bag holds far less than I think it should for its cubic volume. That's largely because the bag isn't a cube: there's a reason why a van and a sports car look so different.

While the specs say that there are another four pockets on the bag, they're vestigial. Anything thicker than a wallet - cash, cards, or filter - will bulk up the front pocket and make the bag impossible to close. The two side pockets are so discreet that it took me months to find them; because they're narrow and the full depth of the bag, a camera battery can disappear down there and needs the bag to be emptied to retrieve it. The mesh pocket across the underside of the lid is more accessible, but anything hard in it will be across the curved top of the bag and can stop the bag from closing smoothly. This is not a utilitarian bag, and that's the tradeoff to it being one of the sleeker camera bags on the market. Essentially, if it doesn't fit in the main compartment, don't plan on carrying it.

But it is really, really well padded.

I said earlier that I don't actually like my Six Million Dollar Home, and I mean that on an entirely personal level. Compared to my Domkes it leaves me unenthused and makes me feel like I'm carrying a styrofoam cooler on a strap - but that's just me. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the bag itself, especially if you expect a camera bag to be constructed from foam and velcro. The build quality is superb, and the design is something that's hard to find from the nylon box companies. Crumpler bags are popular for a good reason, even though their price point is a barrier for the casual photographer.

My Six Million Dollar Home is actually the oldest camera bag that I'm still using; I bought it as a step up from the Tamrac and Lowepro bags that I still have stuffed in the closet. Most people will be thrilled with the design of the Crumpler, the same way that some of us enjoy simple, softer bags. I've been on the verge a couple of times, but I still haven't quite brought myself to buy a Domke to replace my Six Million. Coming from me, I suppose that's almost an endorsement.


Product Rumours and The Next Big Thing

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: What do we have without anticipation?

The Long Version: We live in an electronic world, and one that's constantly changing. The first day of January's 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show saw forty-five new cameras introduced - and before winter ends there's still PMA in February and CIPA's show in Yokohama in March. The only real news to come out of the 45 new me-too buzzword-compliant press releases is the tidbit that both Sony and Olympus are finally moving to SD cards in their point-and-shoots. Otherwise it's just a collection of new numbers to remember, whether they're meaningless product names or meaningless product specifications.

Press releases that do nothing but announce upcoming announcements are a continuing source of annoyance for me. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the real cameras that actually exist to bother with the constant swirls of rumour and expectations. In November (of 2009) someone told me that they weren't going to buy a Nikon D700 because Nikon had announced that there would be a product announcement in early December. The purpose of this meta-announcement wasn't clear, but the rumour mill went into overdrive. Naturally, people were expecting a replacement for the D700 - with Nikon risking decimating their sales if ample replacement product wasn't ready - just weeks before christmas. It would be either the D700x, with 24 megapickles, or the D700s, with video. The D700x has been anticipated for longer, as people would like a high-resolution camera to undercut the sales of the top Nikon in the same way that they undercut the D3 with the original - and still only - D700. But then the video-recording D3s came out, with the same resolution as the D3, so now a smaller video-capable camera is needed. Exciting times, except that 720P video just isn't good enough any more, and anything less than 1080p will make people wait for the next one.

As the eighteen-month-old D700 remains Nikon's only small-bodied pro camera, I've read one web pundit saying that it's now too late for a simple x/s model bump, and a full-fledged model number increase is in order. No doubt people will continue to not buy a great camera that would do everything that they want simply because there might be another one some day. Personally, I don't understand the willingness to not take pictures between now and then: I know that there will be another strawberry crop in July, but I'll still eat while I wait for it. Naturally, if the tools available won't do the job, or aren't affordable, then find another solution or reframe the problem. People have been taking photos, and even making videos, for years now. They must have been doing it with something.

My biggest consolation is that for everyone who's refusing to buy the right tool now because there will eventually be a new one, there's someone else who's looking for the old model because they heard that it's better. I hear requests for the 40D, D40, and/or G10 on a weekly basis. Oh, and remember that December 2009 Nikon product announcement that was supposed to be an eagerly-but-prematurely expected camera? They were taking the $5000 AF-S 300mm f/2.8VR to version 2, and their 2.0x teleconverter from version 2 to version 3. Exciting stuff.

The champions of product anticipation, and home of the RDF since 1981, is the company formerly known as Apple Computer. They have an Apple Media Event - a term which currently generates 1.23 million hits on Google - scheduled for the end of January (of 2010). There's rampant speculation and eager anticipation, among other cliches, for an Apple Tablet. Apparently that's a new form of computer whose mere possibility makes stocks hit record highs. Regardless, an Apple Tablet is something that was anticipated all the way back to early 2006, when the crowd was wowed by the iPod Hi-Fi. It was even eagerly anticipated back in 2001 when we were calling them Personal Digital Assistants. I still remember the crushing angst of the rumour sites when Apple announced a going-nowhere knockoff of Creative Labs' Nomad instead of reviving the Newton. Who knew?

If only to finally make the experts predict something else, I hope that Apple does produce a tablet computer. But if they update the Apple TV, iPod Hi-Fi, or announce a revival of the LaserWriter, I'll enjoy that too. There's always going to be another Next Big Thing to look forward to, so it's no loss either way. I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing.


Sand, by Michael Welland

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: 'The Never-Ending Story'? Seriously?

The Long Version: Sand is a beautiful book: set in Adobe Garamond, it's on quality matte paper and is an easy size to hold, carry, and read. And it's a good thing, because the contents are fascinating.

Sand seems like a small subject, and hardly worth reading a 300-page book about. But Mr. Welland draws on an enormous breadth of material, from the formation of the Earth to our favourite of Saturn's moons, Titan. Mummification, milpatjunanyi, and the shape of Manhattan's skyline is all within the scope of the book. The text itself is extremely approachable; it reads with the appeal of a novel. I tend to gloss over figures like "1500x magnification", but when it's explained as "would make your thumbnail the size of a tennis court" it's a different impression altogether.

Sand is one of the books that has changed how I think about things. I'm now absolutely fascinated by sand. I can see differences between the sand from the shore of Lake Ontario and that from other nearby lakes. I can't pour anything granular without looking at how it sits and how it flows. I now keep little tubs of sand, and some of very small rocks, to use as props for product photography. And I never, ever, would have thought of pushing the magnification of my best macro lens to take photos of plain 'unremarkable' sand if I hadn't read this book.

When I travel to somewhere with beaches, I know I'll be taking a closer look, even if it means a special trip. Now that the city's locked in the grips of winter, I'll be taking the ferry to the Toronto Islands to visit Hanlan's Point, which is both the location of the only sand dunes near the city as well as our only clothing-optional beach. I may bring a camera, but really I'd just be going for the sake of going. While I'm currently re-reading Sand for only the first time, I know it won't be my last.

The only off note that the book hits is a prominent one: a bold, black, 'The Never-Ending Story' written on the front cover. The book would be cheapened by any subtitle: a simple "SAND" would be a powerful stroke of brevity, matching the deceptively diminutive subject. Having any subtitle feels like a publisher's attempt to increase the books' sales appeal, which is even more strikingly out of tune because otherwise Sand feels very well edited. But picking this specific subtitle is particularly painful, as it's already taken by an excellent book and a bad movie franchise. Michael Welland does mention the tale of Fantasia when discussing the 'world in a grain of sand' meme in popular culture, but that's still no excuse.

With the dust jacket removed, there's no reason for me not to recommend this book to anyone with a technical, scientific, or geological interests. It's not just for the arenophiles on your gift list. It's worth adding to your book-buying list for the next time you're trying to hit the free shipping threshold, or even looking for in your local library, should you have one. It's a deceptively fascinating book.

Sand- Amazon.com


Buying a Second Monitor

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not the getting, it's the having.

The Long Version: I still remember when having a monochrome monitor that was green and yellow was the height of cool, and I still enjoy the computer games that I played on my Commodore 64 and Mac Classic. I'm hardly cutting edge; in fact, I'm of the "never too late to have a happy childhood" school. And in this case, I have a long-held envy of a friend's wicked-fast Mac IIfx that was running dual monitors. Yes, I know that my mid-2007 iMac with its 24" screen completely stomps that historical footnote, with power and pixels that are straight out of science fiction. I've still wanted a second monitor for many years.

I'd find myself standing in front of the displays in the happiest place on earth, trying to decide if I had enough room on my desk for a new toy. Invariably, I'd decide that I didn't know enough to make a good monitor choice, and would wander back to the flash drives and paper shredders. (Look for reviews of those soon as well.) The final straw was when I found some really good 'boxing day' deals on a local store's website. I started researching a few models, and that's where the trouble really started.

I'm a reasonably technical person. I know what Linux is, worked for a couple of IT companies, and enjoy finding highly complex solutions to simple problems. Within photography, I'm swimming in a sea of technical information, and even though much of it is meaningless and/or hype - Samsung calls the processor in its newest cameras "DRI Me II Pro", I kid you not - an abundance of information is out there. DPReview takes 27 pages to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the model bump of the model bump of the entry-level Nikon D40 - one of the most straightforward cameras on the market. People who think a lot about buying cameras truly did wring their hands over the Canon 50D dropping to 6.3 frames per second from the 6.6 of the 40D, and the image-quality ramifications of more megapixels. Photographic technophiles could even make the overclocking quake-benchmark-addicted slashdotter shout: "17'5 1RR3L3\/4|\|7, dUD35!". Eris knows I've come close to losing it a time or two myself.

Shopping for an LCD monitor was like hitting a wall, except that the wall is solid, impenetrable NOTHING.

Forget about trying to learn the differences between TN, IPS, and PVA technologies. The manufacturers websites wouldn't even tell me if the panels were glossy or matte. I abandoned one possible purchase after fifteen minutes of hunting for information because of a minor aside in a user review. It mentioned that not only was the height not adjustable, the panel didn't even tilt. Isn't that worth mentioning on the products' web page? It should probably be right under the note: "May Not Be Suitable For Normal Use". Perhaps my frustration is because I was mostly looking at Samsung, as I have found more useful manufacturers, but it should never have been this difficult. The best source of information, virtually by default, were the single-paragraph "I bought it and it's the most awesome / it broke and sucks in every possible way" tragicomedy of aggregated user reviews. Trying to find a decent screen was the most frustrating thing I've done since choosing a cell phone plan.

I did eventually find an affordable matte-screen PVA monitor that tilts and swivels. (Model "F2380".) Its image quality, in terms of sharpness, contrast, and nuance, isn't a match my iMac; and I've yet to be able to calibrate it to get rid of a cool shift to its mid-tones. I actually expected that last part because of something I read somewhere, and partially expected the other attributes because of my price range. The aesthetic of the display is greatly improved by some black electrical tape to get rid of a cosmetic light that flashes obnoxiously when there's no input signal. And maybe it's just me, but for some reason it doesn't use a half-inch of its screen when it's horizontal, but uses it all when it's vertical. Such is life. At least it tilts.

Since it's not good enough to be my reference screen, I've discovered that I prefer it set vertically. It takes up less room on my desk, which is no small mercy, but it's also a useful way to work. For Lightroom, I typically keep the second screen in Grid view, which speeds my sorting and ranking immeasurably. In Survey mode (top photo) it gives jumbo previews of two horizontal images, and in Loupe mode it lets me see a vertical image in all its glory. For Final Cut, it lets me mix ten stereo audio tracks in the timeline viewer without reducing the other windows to nothing (second photo), and the custom configurations can be quickly flipped to put the Viewer in the main window and still have lots of room to work. Even Spaceward Ho!, which I first played on a 9" screen, benefits from the tall arrangement. After only a week, I know I'd suffer if I had to give it up.

Mac IIfx, eat your heart out.


Starfrit Can Crusher

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I can just see it screwed to one of the bare studs in a garage.

The Long Version: Starfrit is a Canadian company that's making its way into the American market, one infomercial at a time. They're the bilingual force behind battery-powered potato peelers, push-choppers, and folding cutting boards. If it has "as seen on TV" on it, there's a good chance that you'll find in on their website. It's not guaranteed, of course, and I can't find the can crusher at all. Rather anticlimactic after this big introduction.

The can crusher is designed to flatten beverage cans, and does so admirably. Its construction is solid, with a soft foam handle topping a lever that delivers plenty of power. I'm a little tentative applying force to mine, since it's attached to a cupboard door with double-sided tape instead of (the included) screws. But even with that hesitation, it does the job. My only addition has been a couple of rubber bands that I've wrapped around the base to hold the cans in place as they await their fate. Traction, you know.

There is a question about why anyone would want this particular job done. Without reenacting the Frantics' 'Worshipers R Us' scene (again), it's something to have just because it's there. It's fun to use, and the crushed cans do take up less space in the recycling bin. Crushing them by hand isn't as effective or as entertaining. It even includes a built-in bottle opener, just in case there are ever any bottles that don't have screw-tops. I wouldn't recommend running them through the crusher when you're done, though.

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