2010-02-28

New URL - thewsreviews dot com



Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: No further action required.


The Long Version: Almost 24 hours ago, thewsreviews dot blogspot dot com became thewsreviews dot com. The transition seemed to go well, with just a short amount of downtime for people who avoid the 'www' prefix. (It's lame, I know.) All previous links from google searches and bookmarks redirect seamlessly to the new address, and if you see this through a feed, then that's working too.


Ultimately, though, nothing else has changed. The site is still hosted by the Blogger branch of Global Internet Domination, Inc., the same people who drive most of the traffic to this site and provide the advertising that's not expected to actually pay anything until mid-2012. But everyone needs a retirement plan, and I'm going to be starting the slow process of copying the HTML of each review into my own archives just in case there's a need to move. While Strobist redirects their dot com to their blogspot address, I'm still haunted by The Online Photographer's need to shift services mid-stream, giving it both blogspot and typepad incarnations.


The biggest real changes are the new header, a new contact e-mail, and a shorter web address to type and remember. Well worth it, as long as I didn't break the feed links.




2010-02-26

Maha Powerex MH-C801D Charger



Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Dinosaur not included.

The Long Version: There are certain things in life that are basic necessities. For photographers, flashlight collectors, and general electronics junkies, those ubiquitous AA batteries are inescapable. Unfortunately, so are cheap chargers - the sort of thing that comes in a set for an extra ten dollars. These chargers aren't terrible, and that's exactly what's wrong with them. They do the job well enough that they take the place of better ones, without being good enough for serious use.

The Maha C801D is the grand-daddy of hard-core chargers. It's been given rave reviews by Imaging Resource, Digital Dingus, and pretty much everyone on Amazon; it's even used by Joe 'Speedlight' McNally. It can fully charge eight AA batteries in an hour, or do a 'soft charge' that's easier on the cells but takes a little longer. There's also a button to do a full discharge-charge cycle to condition the batteries and keep them in their best condition. Each battery is on its own circuit, ensuring that they get their ideal treatment. While I don't have the ability to run any tests, I do get the distinct impression that my flashes are giving me more pops per charge.


Besides having the largest AC power brick in the known universe, the other distinctive feature of the C801D is its two identical buttons on opposite sides of the LCD. One of them will do a two-hour soft charge, and should be pressed whenever there's enough time for a more leisurely pace. The other button is for the conditioning cycle, which can take 12-14 hours to complete. The functions are marked in the plastic, but it's not the most visible or clear. Fortunately, I have a handy pack of stickers that I bought to let me distinguish between my two SB600's. It turned out to be an easy fix.

If only more of life's problems could be solved with the judicious application of dinosaur stickers.



2010-02-23

Elsewhere on the Web: Bill Beebe reviews the Olympus E-P2



The Long Version: Longtime friend of thewsreviews Bill Beebe has posted an excellent review of the new Olympus E-P2. Whether you're interested in this specific camera, or just want to see the current state-of-the-art that Samsung and Sony are aspiring to, head over and check it out.




2010-02-20

Billingham Hadley Pro


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: At what price, beauty?

The Long Version: If a camera bag that's made out of canvas with a removable insert, expandable front pockets, and no noisy velcro closures sounds familiar, it should: it's the description for the Domke F1X and F6 that I've written about before. They're great bags, and until last Tuesday, I thought they were pretty expensive.

Last Tuesday, I met my first Billingham bag.


The Hadley Pro, the subject of this review, is possibly Billingham's most popular bag. It's the replacement for the Original (medium) size, and the line is also available in Large, Small, and the even smaller Digital. (The 'Pro' has a couple of distinct features that I'll get to later in the review.) On paper, it reads very much like a Domke bag, making it yet another example of gear to try in a store instead of shopping by the specs.

Both bags are canvas, but the tighter weave of the Billingham's fabric and the attention to detail in its construction leaves the Domke looking a little like a burlap sack. They both have removable inserts, but the Domke's is held in by velcro, while the Hadley has a single snap button. Domke uses metal carabiner-style clips to keep the lid closed, but its British counterpart uses elegant adjustable leather over brass or nickel studs. The F6 and the Pro both have grab handles, but one's a fabric strap attached to D-rings, the other is a shaped handle sewn and riveted to a fiberglass stiffener that's placed within the double-layered fabric top.


"What will fit in the bag" is a popular subject on camera-gear forums. Normally, people will want to know if a particular synthetic box-on-a-rope will hold their Canon 30D with its accessory grip, or their Nikon D300 and 18-200 f/dark. When people talk about the size of Billingham bags, the metric is invariably how many Leica rangefinder bodies and lenses they can carry. There's a reason for that: Billingham's Hadley Pro costs triple what the Domke F6 does, and they hold about the same amount of gear. Compared to the more similarly-styled Domke F803 Waxwear, it's still over twice the price.

One of the grand achievements of camera bag design may be getting them to not look like camera bags. Crumplers and Domkes are the ones usually included in this group, but even the Lowepro 'Slingshot' series gets credited with this ability, and Think Tank's built a whole series around the idea of an 'Urban Disguise'. This black-on-black Hadley is probably the second-least camera-bag-looking-bag I've seen, but that's because it doesn't have contrasting trim. The Billingham khaki-tan bags are very distinctive, and anyone who knows them will know what's inside. Even worse, because the bags themselves are expensive, they imply a higher value for their contents which is bound to make them more popular for smart camera thieves. (Dumb camera thieves will just have to make do with stealing Lowepro Slingshots.) No camera bag is really going to provide anti-theft protection, especially if you actually use your camera.


This photo shows what the Hadley Pro was carrying in the third image of the review. There's a D700 with Stumpy attached, an SB900, 85/1.8 and 35/2.0. Being a satchel-style bag, the D700 is about as big as it can hold without bulging, but its deep-but-narrow design means that the big 105VR doesn't need to be detached from the camera. The front pockets are still empty, and they can hold quite a bit as well. The SB900 could sit in one, as can my Sony PCM-D50, which isn't a small audio recorder. They even have a second snap-button that lets the front pleated pockets expand, and the buckles on the straps let them lengthen to hold the lid securely closed. It can even have accessory pouches attached to the sides, creating extra room for phones and compact cameras.


During one recent outing, I had the D700 and F100 down each side, with the 50/1.8 and 105/2.8VR stacked down the middle. A 35/2.8, with the awesome HN3 metal hood attached, was underneath the F100 body; I probably could have put a similarly-sized lens under the D700 as well. (Substitute any large body without a portrait grip for the D700; the F100 is a solidly mid-size camera.) I couldn't have pushed it much farther than that, but I also had my big iPod, Blackberry, and wallet in one front pocket; a spare roll of film and an 8oz flask - for water, honest - in the other. The result wasn't light, but the bag looked like there was nothing in it.

But buying a Hadley and stuffing it to the gills is an exercise in missing the point. (That's what the other Billingham styles are for.) It can hold a lot, but it's easiest to work from - and looks better - when it's more modestly encumbered. My typical load for it is shown in the photo below. My GH1 has the 14-140 lens attached, and two more lenses are stored down the side. Beside it is my audio recorder, leaving room in the front pockets for batteries, iPod, sunglasses, and so on. It makes for a great working kit and travel bag. It's nondescript but stylish, small enough to carry into MoMA, and pretty much indestructible. About the only way to improve it for travel would be to add a slim compartment inside one of the front pockets to hold a passport.


The Hadley's insert is fully padded and takes up the entire main compartment, and is held in place with a single snap. That's plenty to keep it in place when the bag is being used, but it's worlds easier to remove and set aside than Domke's partial-compartment insert that's secured with velcro. I'm not convinced that I'd actually use the Hadley as a satchel, aka 'murse', as I have other bags for that purpose, but it's always nice to have options. Perhaps I can use it for job interviews. How many other candidates will have bags with serial numbers?


There are two real differences between the Pro and amateur Hadley bags. One is the top handle, with its fiberglass stiffener in the lid, and the other is the zippered pocket across the back. These are huge improvements over the original design, and I wouldn't have bought the bag if it didn't have them. When I'm out with my Domke F6, the rear slash pocket is where I put handy little things like my blackberry or color checker while I'm shooting. It's also able to carry books, papers, and tickets when I'm waiting in line to board. It's so useful for quick and easy access that I'm not sure that I like the Billingham's flapped and zippered closure. It makes the pocket waterproof, but it's at the expense of spontaneity and capacity - no matter how well it's designed, it's not quite what I want it for.

The zipped pocket itself isn't wide or deep enough to hold a magazine; with the possible exception of Time or Newsweek, few of them lack enough substance to fit. Even a simple sheet of paper needs to be folded before it can be carried, which is acceptable for maps, but the Hadley is nobody's briefcase. Fortunately, magazines - even the fairly thick B&H Catalog - will fit behind the divider in the main compartment, making the current flight restrictions a little more manageable, if no more understandable.


In actual use, it's easy to forget that the bag's even there. Its slim profile makes it easy to slip through crowds, parked cars, and other narrow spaces; its small size means that it probably won't weigh very much once the camera is in hand. The fit and feel of the satchel style is very different from the boxy bags that I'm used to, and while stacking lenses means that fewer are immediately accessible, it's a fair trade.

The leather lid-release tabs needed a little familiarization, and I do wish that there was a hole half-way between the second (aka 'too tight') and third (aka 'too loose') positions on the adjustment buckles. I've left my understuffed Hadley at the slightly tight position, which keeps the lid fully closed when I lift the bag by its handle, and once the leather has broken in it should be easier to use. Reaching my phone in a front pocket is possible with only one catch undone; when it was time to change lenses, the lid folds back on itself instead of needing to be fully flipped up and out of the way.


I started this review by emphasizing the cost of the bag, so it's a sensible place to end as well. When sorted by price, Billingham takes up the top seventeen spots out of the 567 items that B&H lists under "shoulder and gadget bags". The Hadley Pro model currently first appears as #42, and all of the first 41 are considerably larger. There's no doubt that it's a premium product, and we all need to pay the internet bill and all of our other necessities. Absolutely nobody really needs to spend this much on a bag.

But looking at it the other way, photography isn't a cheap pastime. The Hadley Pro costs less than the price of a modest prime lens or a basic telephoto zoom, a good compact camera, or a few of the cheaper bags that the gear-obsessed photographer will accumulate but not use because they're just not quite right. Far more affordable than a high-end tripod system, a Billingham bag is also an investment that relatively few photographers will make, but it's one that will last for years and be a pleasure to use. If there's some photography money that's been declared surplus, it's a relatively cheap thing to buy the best of. You won't regret it.


Updated 10 February 2011: After another year's experience with this bag, I've written a follow-up article that you can read by clicking on this gratuitously long link.

2010-02-18

Behringer Tube UltraGain MIC200 Preamp/Direct Box



Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: The Price Is Right


The Long Version: One year ago we were at a party and after a few too many whiskys I suggested to my friends that we “put the old band back together” but that instead of running sound, I would play bass.
They called my bluff, and it’s been going great.
But I still don’t have a bass amp of my own, and borrowing got old after the second time.

As a professional sound engineer for over 20 years, I have dealt with almost every bass amp on the market and have come to a few conclusions as to what would work for me.
Foremost in my mind was to get the most accurate sound straight from the bass sent to the mixing board. Most bass amps have an output for this purpose, and it’ll usually be switchable so as to bypass the amp’s graphic EQ or other tone modifiers, but none of them are as close to the source as I would like.

When confronted with the ugly tone many amps are forced to produce as a crutch for bad players, the next best option is to use a “Direct Box” between the instrument and amp.
This is a simple box with a transformer that converts a high impedance instrument’s signal to the low impedance preferred by mixing boards, while also providing a hard-wired ¼” output to the amp. They don’t affect the player’s tone onstage, but they also don’t give the engineer a surplus of signal to work with and are as low-tech as it gets.

While taking a crap a few months back I was reading my B&H PhotoVideo catalog and stumbled upon a neat little device I had never seen before, the Behringer Tube UltraGain MIC200 Preamp/Direct Box.

Getting right to the heart of the matter, this little box rocks.
It has ALL of the features of the very best direct boxes, then goes to 11 by not only including a 12AX7 vacuum tube in the signal path but also giving the user voicing options and a limiter.
For those who don’t know about such things, a 12AX7 tube is the heart of most of the greatest sounding guitar amps since the 1950s.
If you crank up the input gain and send too much signal into one of these, it’ll get a bit hotter to the touch and might distort a bit, but the distortion will be very pleasing to the ears compared with what happens in a solid state device: even-order harmonics instead of the much harsher-sounding odd-order harmonics.
I already have some speaker cabinets, so all I need now is a power amp to complete my rig.

Glowing Tube = Tone!

For people who have a ProTools-based recording environment, this is an easy and affordable way to get some analog warmth without sacrificing signal integrity.

Using mine in both a recording and live environment I can report complete satisfaction.
Since I only play active basses with 3-band EQs, it was easy to get an amazing tone through the front-of-house system while also enjoying better sound than usual through my borrowed stage amp.
Standing in front of my band Loud Nine’s Crown-powered Peavey FOH speakers (SP4 & FH18) I noticed that my bass tone was far superior to anything I had heard previously. Clean, precise, solid, and I can get it to growl with the twist of one retro-looking knob.

Negative Points are awarded to the 8 voicings that use Behringer’s limiter (right side of the knob).
It is much too slow to respond, so the first 4 notes of a song will be way too loud before it clamps down on the output level.

If you buy one of these I strongly recommend visiting your local Goodwill or other thrift store to locate a spare 9vAC/1.3amp+ wall-wart power supply with the proper connector and polarity.
Because I use several Alesis products I’m very aware of the need to keep spare power supplies with me when they are 9volt AC compared to the more reliable DC units.

I have used many of Behringer's products over the last 10+ years with great results. They do what they're supposed to do and at much lower prices than the competition.
However, their gear doesn't stand up to the abuse of touring very well.
Mixing boards have had multiple channels die, stereo compressors have become mono compressors, and a failed crossover nearly ruined a show.
Bottom line is that the German design is fantastic, while the Chinese manufacturing can be improved.
My MIC200 travels in a padded case and sits on a sticky rubber mat to keep it from vibrating off the amp and hitting the floor.

Price?
Got mine from B&H for $40 with free shipping.
(ART sells a similar unit for more, and plain direct boxes with none of it's features also can cost more).
The MIC100 model omits the voicings knob, and goes for $30.

These units represent a significant value, and I recommend them highly.

2010-02-16

Valentine's Day (Movie)



Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: A favourable review. More or less.


The Long Version: For me, this is a very odd review to write, so there's a bit of a back story that I need to share. I usually have a real problem with this genre of movie, and I don't mean 'chick flick' - I have a hard time with any movie with a large ensemble cast. If there's such a thing as an anti-photographic memory, I have one; I'm especially bad at remembering faces and recognizing people. Women in movies and on TV is a particularly weak point for me, since there's so little variety in what seems to pass for beauty these days. For example, I'm hopeless at watching that television masterpiece "The Bachelor." There are either too many people running around for me to keep track of any of them, or the selection process has reduced the crowd to only five or fifteen interchangeably tall, skinny women with a particular hair colour that he's formed some spiritual connection with. Rubbish - but I digress.


I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, with only a few slips, I was able to follow the plot of Valentine's Day. And I'm being neither snarky nor sarcastic here - while I wouldn't recognize Taylor Swift or Jessica Biel if I saw them in another movie, and couldn't identify them in a police lineup, the cast had a healthy range and used enough individual environments that I could usually keep track of who was who. It also helped that the movie looked a bit like a collision between Grey's Anatomy and Alias; and of course even I recognize Julia Roberts. I've known who Queen Latifah is since she remixed Bowie's Fame, and there was the guy from the Nikon ads, so I actually did pretty well at following the action.


There's really not a whole lot to keep track of in terms of the plot: it's a day in the life of a handful of people with some tenuous connections that I was mostly able to put together. Some break up, some hook up - and some do both - while others stay as they are. It's entertainment rather than art, and it's light, fun, and generally upbeat. 'Fluff' isn't a bad thing; if I wanted mean and nasty, I'd watch reality TV. I'd rather choose to include happy things in my life, especially when I'm out on a date. And while I think 90% of movies are too long, I wouldn't have minded if this one took another ten or fifteen minutes to play out a bit more.



When I watch a movie or TV series, I pay attention to the first shot. It's an interesting distraction - with all of the editing decisions to be made, what gets chosen for the first impression? In this case, what struck me is the opening song. "Say Hey (I Love You)" is by Michael Franti & Spearhead, which is a great upbeat number that's been a favourite of mine since the album 'All Rebel Rockers' came out. It set the tone for the movie, and may account for some of my fondness for the show. If I'm ever in the mood for something simple to rent for a lazy afternoon, it's one I might actually be able to watch again.


... and this concludes the example of why I rarely review anything from popular culture. The regular postings about camera gear and subway stations will resume shortly.




2010-02-08

Wenger EvoGrip 18 Swiss Army Knife




Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: "11 implements, 15 functions" - so why the "18" in the name?

The Long Version: Wegner is the other maker of the Swiss Army Knife; this is one of the rare instances of two companies sharing a single brand. For what it's worth, Victorinox calls theirs 'Original' while Wegner brands theirs 'Genuine', and the logos on their knives are different. I'm not convinced that one is better than the other, but all of my other SAKs have been made by the higher-Google-ranked Victorinox.

The EvoGrip18 is an interesting piece. Its novelty is that it has inset rubberized panels and a subtly contoured grip instead of simple smooth plastic scales. It is an improvement over the original, but had sharp edges around their perimeter until it had worn in a bit. Otherwise, this is a great little knife, and has almost exactly the tool mix that I've been looking for for years. The knife is tremendously sharp, the scissors are more robust than the little springy ones on the Victorinox knives I've owned, and the little saw is amazingly effective. For the screwdrivers, the Philips head is useful for most screws, and the slot-head is useful for most things that aren't screws. I wish that it had a red Robertson as well, but no matter how useful that might be to me, 85% of the world probably has no idea what that is.

As a light multi-tool for minor tasks, just about any Swiss Army Knife is a good choice, and the mix of styles that are available means that there's bound to be the right one to have just-in-case. For any more serious jobs, they're not a replacement for a single-purpose tool. A real screwdriver, a locking knife, or an 18V reciprocating saw will always win the fight. A decent Swiss Army Knife is just the right tool to have when there aren't other tools handy, which makes them almost essential.



2010-02-02

Nikon F100 fSLR


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


The Long Version: The F100 is the D700 of the last century. It's the smaller pro body that undercut the top-of-the-line F5 by offering nearly identical performance - and some improvements - for significantly less money. It has the same autofocus, and naturally takes the same film, so the fundamental image quality is the same. There are certainly differences between the F100 and the F5, but even for most professional photographers the smaller camera is the one to choose. An when I adjust the Canadian price that Edwin Leong quotes from 2000 for inflation, the F100 would be selling in 2009 for about $2600, about where the D700 is today. Plus ├ža change, eh?


And just in case any digital people think that spending that much for a film camera is an historical anachronism, well, maybe that's true. But check out the price of the Nikon F6 some time.






Since this is almost certainly the first F100 review of this decade, I have to say how nice it is to have depreciation work in my favour for a change. I bought the penultimate Nikon of the last millennium for about ten cents on the dollar. It's a shocking price considering what a great camera it is, and the one that I bought second-hand is probably in better shape than my year-old D700. It's compatible with all current Nikkors, including those upstart VR doohickies, and is perfectly happy with AF-S and HSM motors as well as driving lenses with its own AF motor. The F5 is a bigger camera that's still more expensive, and the F6 costs a fortune: the F100 is still the best 135 film camera for a digital photographer.




Compared to even a 'beginner' digital SLR, the F100 is an incredibly simple camera to use. There are less than twenty buttons to choose from, and most of them can be safely ignored. One of them serves no known useful purpose, and another is used to get to the Custom Functions menu that appears on the top - only - LCD. That's where the camera can be customized with many useful-but-set-it-once options. The only controls that I actually use when taking photos are no different from the current digital SLRs: AF mode switch on the front, focus point selector on the back, command dials for the aperture and exposure compensation, and shutter.


The Mode button is in a different place than on my D700, and the three buttons on top of the drive selections are also a little different. The F100's includes flash control (but doesn't have one built in) and a bracketing button. That's one that I miss on my 700; I still can't believe that such a useful feature for a digital camera needs to be assigned to a custom button function. Amusingly, the one button that they do share is iso selection, as the F100 has the option of taking its setting from DX-coded film or letting the photographer override it. Otherwise, there is remarkably little difference in the working handling of the two cameras; my Olympus E-1 and E-3 have less in common than these Nikon designs that are a decade apart.



The complexity of selecting a focus point was one of the big complaints about the F100 when it was new, and the word 'Nintendo' was used a lot. While multi-point pads and four-way controllers are now common, the F100's setup still feels primitive and awkward. Its five focus points should have been selectable with five direct buttons. With the gamepad, if the AF point is on the far right then I need two 'left' presses to move it to the far left, but if the current AF point is the bottom, top, or centre then it only takes one press of the 'left' side. Worse, to return the AF point to the centre - the most important setting to be able to get to quickly - the photographer needs to see/remember which point is active and then steer it back to the middle. The only way to centre it without looking at the camera is to press one side of the controller pad twice and then the opposite side once. Very little annoys me more than having buttons behave differently based on conditions that aren't obvious, making this my biggest complaint about the F100.


It's a good thing that Nikon fixed that problem on its later cameras by adding a central 'return to home' button option many, many years ago. Otherwise, I'd continue to be annoyed.




There are two things that tell me when I'm taking a photo with my F100. First, the autofocus isn't nearly as clever as I'm used to. The subjects that I shoot, which are often made up of repeating patterns or essentially featureless areas, can confuse it in ways that just don't happen with modern cameras. My E-3 and D700 can both lock focus on the texture of the paint on my living-room wall with nothing but a 60-watt bulb for illumination, while my F100 can be stumped by stucco on an overcast day. Secondly, when I actually take the photo with the F100, I enjoy it more than I do with any of my (many) other cameras. For the actual experience of making the exposure, mentally and sensory, shooting with the F100 is absolutely wonderful. The only digital camera that comes close is the solid and subtle Olympus E-1, and its shooting experience is dulled by my compulsion to review the photo immediately. That takes me away from the scene and breaks the moment in a way that film doesn't allow; even the "I just spent fifty cents to take that picture" reaction of hearing the film advance can be unlearned comparatively easily.


Granted, it did take me about two rolls of film before I stopped automatically reaching for the 'play' button on the back of the F100. Old habits and all that.




Naturally, the experience and pacing of using a film camera is completely different from digital capture. Anyone who has read this far - or even bothered to skim through and has picked it up again just now - doesn't need to be told about the many valid reasons why film cameras are now only used by people who make a point of using them, such as art students and Freeman Patterson. (Smart man, him.) I'm not someone who's romanticizing the notion of 'analog' photography, either. Even film photography is digital: minilab prints are typically made from scans, not optical enlargers. My film camera is the start of a digital workflow, and that's okay. It gives me another tool and a different look in this digital age, and is another way of enjoying this hobby. It's a beautiful machine. I can't say that it has improved the quality of my photographs, either technically or artistically, but that's not really the camera's job. Its ultimate purpose is just to make me happy, and it does that perfectly.

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