Nikon SC-28 TTL Coiled Remote Cord

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's an essential part of my kit.

The Long Version: There are only so many things you can do with an off-camera flash cable. Nikon's kind enough to provide two main versions, which adds to the variety: the SC-29 has a red auto-focus assist light, while the simple SC-28 doesn't; the SC-28 can daisy-chain the plain SC-27 cable, while the SC-29 can't. Aside from that the two are identical and pretty basic. The camera connects on one end, the flash connects on the other, and the wires in between just do their thing.

Nikon's published length for the SC28/29 is nine feet, which may be true but certainly isn't practical. The pig-tail coils are essentially springs, and exert increasing pressure as the length extends. Longer stretches are only possible when the flash is secured in place with stands, clamps, sandbags, or similar. Even when the speedlight is secured, the coiled cable exerts pressure on the camera, making long distances unergonomic. Within those constraints, the flash cord is flawless and absolutely reliable.

For a little added challenge, I checked the flexibility of the SC28 after it had been in the freezer for a couple of days. (I have to admit that I forgot it was in there – who keeps a flash sync cord in the fridge?) Plastics often stiffen in low temperatures, but I'm pleased to say that the Nikon cable did just fine. Interestingly the Olympus cable that I put in the freezer also retained its spring, and I suspect that they may have some common ancestry somewhere in their supply chains.

The strength of Nikon's Creative Lighting System and iTTL control means that the SC-28 cable remains something of a specialist product. I'm a huge fan of the system, and continue to use to it make my gaggle of flashes play together, but adding the sync cable gives me another option as well as increasing the versatility of my SB900. I can now put my most powerful light where it can do its best work, effectively giving me an extra light without the expense of another flash, and still control three additional groups remotely. I can't say that the SC-28 improves my photography – that's my job – but it certainly gives me better options that I'm happy to use.

last updated 28 may 2011


Umbra Saddle Sink Caddy

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: No matter where you put it, there it is.

The Long Version: It seems like a really good idea. The Umbra saddle sink caddy is designed to go across the centre of a twin sink, with a compartment on both sides to hold sponges, scouring pads, and similar. It comes in different colours, but I picked a dark one – "smoke" – that would look the least grungy the longest. (White is also available for those who want the opposite effect.) Realistically there's not much chance that a silicone spongebra will add to the decor, no matter how cute it is in the store, so I wish I'd picked the red one just because it looks like it has more fun.

The problems with my sink caddy started very quickly. The saddle doesn't straddle my sink very elegantly, leading to a bulky fit that takes up more room than it should. Next I discovered just how much I use the dividing wall between the sinks, for everything from bracing cooking sheets to balancing the big 4L water-filter jug. And when I actually use the sink for dishes and cooking, the sponge caddy blocks a surprising amount of it. All this I could live with, even though I often end up having to move the caddy to one side or just drop it into the half of the sink that I'm not using. The biggest problem is that the Umbra caddy keeps sponges wet for a remarkably long time.

Each side of the sink caddy has four dainty little drainage holes, which serve to let most of the water out when it gets flooded by the faucet, but aren't enough to let it drain completely or allow proper air flow. So instead of keeping my kitchen organized, the Umbra sink saddle leaves me with chronically damp sponges sitting in a holder that's inevitably in the way. I have to admit that I was hoping for more than that from this simple little thing. Umbra usually does a very good job with product design, but this one just doesn't do it for me.

last updated 24 may 2011



Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I liked it even before I knew the story.

The Long Version: Afterquake is a short album – 7 tracks, 18 minute run time – created by Abigail Washburn and David Liang, the latter doing business as the Shanghai Restoration Project, and the former being one of the most interesting clawhammer banjo players in America. Designed as a fundraiser for the reconstruction in China's Sichuan province following the 2008 earthquake, Afterquake is music primarily composed of "found" audio: children's singing, sounds from the reconstruction, and other local sources. There's no way to tell from the results that the entire project was completed in just a few weeks.

While the "genre" field in iTunes is notoriously inaccurate, it flags Afterquake as Electronic, which is reasonable enough even if it isn't exactly true. Irredeemable Metallica fans may not care for it, and anyone with an extensive opera collection is likewise better off elsewhere. But people with more diverse tastes in contemporary music will probably find it perfectly listenable, and any other modern bluegrass fans out there – I know there are a few of us – should check it out just to appreciate the amazing range of Béla Fleck's better half. It may not be something for non-Mandarin speakers to sing along to, but it's catchy just the same.

On an irrelevant aside, I also have to admit that I was pleased to see the distinctive shape of Sony's PCM-D50 audio recorder in a couple of the Afterquake videos. It's the same device that I use for field recordings, and while I'll never review it, I have looked at its case and some furry wind blockers. (For what it's worth, indoors they seem to prefer the Sony original, while outdoors it looks suspiciously like a Røde "Dead Kitten".) It's amazing what some solid but basic equipment can do when it's combined with tremendous skill and talent.

last updated 19 may 2011


Quick Look: Nikon ME-1 Microphone

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It introduces a good idea.

The Long Version: The Nikon ME-1 microphone is a cute little thing, complete with a foam wind sock and a gold-plated right-angle mini-jack connection. It draws its power from the camera, and it's cheap. It's quite promising on paper, and I wasted no time in trying one out. I've only spent a few minutes with it so far, but I was able to make a few observations.

Microphones are like lenses: they do different things and they cost different amounts. The ME-1 is the 'kit lens' of mics, being better than the built-in type that it supersedes, and can give decent results when used in the right circumstances. But with that out of the way, I have to say that the ME-1 is a disappointment.

Nikon's website says that the ME-1's pick-up pattern is "unidirectional", but testing the microphone through my Sony PCM-D50 shows strong pickup from every direction, including behind. Despite its suggestive shape, the ME-1 is no shotgun, with off-axis sensitivity being greater than my D50 when its microphones are in the classic XY stereo configuration. Its lack of selectivity must be why Nikon will only say that it will "significantly reduce autofocus noise" – not eliminate it.

The other big advantage of having an external microphone is its isolation from handling noise. Here again the ME-1 disappoints, as it still caught every time I shifted my grip on the D7000. (As with the stereo test, the mic was plugged into my Sony D50 field recorder, which lets me monitor the sound in real time. The cameras themselves don't allow this level of self-awareness.) This is quite a bit more objectionable than its failure to reject off-axis sound, and will have a bigger impact on the audio recording.

So the question is: why buy an inexpensive microphone that doesn't focus the audio pickup where the lens is looking, and doesn't get rid of handling noise? I'm not sure I have the answer to that one. The ME-1 is a big improvement in the quality of the audio, even if it doesn't fix the nature of it. When sitting on a tripod with the lens focused on one spot it will do much better for recording interviews, even though it would mostly capture crowd noise at the school play or big game. But then nobody expects a kit lens to do everything – well, some do – so it should be little surprise than an inexpensive microphone isn't the equivalent of a professional lens. Good mics cost more for a good reason.

last updated 18 may 2011


Kikkerland Camera Case

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm not sure if cleverness is worth an extra 'concept' point.

The Long Version: Kikkerland Design is one of those companies that makes paperclips in funny shapes and little speakers that look like rubber duckies. They're fun, for sure, but it's not a brand name that leaps to the front of my mind when I look for something that's practical and functional. I bought their camera case that looks like a Rollei 35 as a lark, something cheap and fun, so you can imagine my surprise at just how much I like it.

The case itself is simple enough. It's two panels of neoprene – yes, the famous wetsuit material – joined with a zipper along the top half of their perimeter, and a piece of nylon around the bottom half. The seams provide some cushioning and keep the camera away from the unpadded parts, and the whole thing works surprisingly well to protect the camera from scratches and bumps.

The Kikkerland camera case is more of a 'padded sleeve' design than the typical nylon pouches that sport lots of velcro, secondary pockets, and a belt loop. This is something to put a camera in before the whole thing is put in something else, and trades off some of the utility of a hard-core case in exchange for a lot less bulk. And while on the subject of not being hard core, the playful graphics make most people who see it – friends, family, photographers – laugh.

My Panasonic TS3 is big and boxy for a contemporary point-and-shoot camera, and the large flat design of the Kikkerland case manages to provide a perfectly acceptable home. That means it will be too big for most of the little snappers on the market these days, but it would be a good choice for the new style of compact 10-15x zoom cameras out there. It's just a simple case, but it's proven itself to be far more useful and durable than its novelty brand and its price point would suggest. I've been using it for a couple of months, and I've been impressed – but if that changes I'll be back for an update.

last updated 15 may 2011


The word "Get"

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's me versus "about 9,700,000,000 results".

The Long Version: I can't remember his name, but I do remember the lesson: one of my high-school English teachers banned the words "get" and "got" from his classroom. His argument was that it's a lazy word choice, and that there is always a better option that's more specific and appropriate. He's absolutely right.

I do slip sometimes, and given the coloquial and idiomatic style that I prefer for this blog there are times when "get" is the appropriate choice. But those times are rare, and I have to admit that I was shocked at how often I've been seduced by the easy availability of this forbidden word. The good news is that it's simple to replace, and the results are invariably an improvement:

"Camera bags are one of those things that get outgrown as equipment changes…"
…that are outgrown…

"It's also relatively easy to find for sale online, where the option to get a powder cuts down on the shipping cost."
…where choosing/buying a powder…

"All you need to get it to work is four double-A batteries."
…to make it work…

"This lets me use any body and still get very similar colour results."
…use any body with very similar…

"That also makes it really easy to not get much sleep that night."
…to not sleep much…

As one of the most common English verbs, "get" has at least a dozen definitions in each dictionary that I've checked; the one that's installed on my computer burns through over 1600 words even without including the origin, derivatives, or usage notes. No verb can be that vague, and that ubiquitous, without being a gateway to lazy and imprecise communication. It's an extremely popular and versatile word, but it's still a good habit to get out of.

last updated 7 may 2011


Swipe Books, 401 Richmond street, Toronto

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: How can you beat that logomark?

The Long Version: Swipe is one of those special places in the world. As a bookstore in downtown Toronto that focuses on advertising and design, it's a hidden gem that's actually fairly well known. Located in the large arts-centric building at 401 Richmond street west, it's a stone's throw from Spadina avenue just a little south of Queen street west. Go in through the doors on the west side of the building, hang a right, follow left, down the hall, and take another right past the elevator: it's just down the green hallway and you can't miss it.

Inside are some of the hip and trendy non-book objects that can also be found in many of the stores on Queen West or in the Annex, but Swipe's not in danger of being mistaken for the Umbra store and there are no cheeky greeting cards anywhere to be found. Their collection of interesting non-books does include a lot of design objects that I haven't seen elsewhere, so while it's no replacement for the shopAGO store, it's worth browsing even if your bookshelves are full. But their books – ah, those books.

Most giant bookstores think they have a graphic design section because they have a book on a billion and one business cards, but Swipe has shelves set aside just for typography, industrial design, urbanism, packaging, illustration, and design theory. They're particularly strong on architecture, and even have a kid's section. While it doesn't delve into Fine Art, there is a huge range of material here for anyone interested in the creative arts of design, graphics, and communication.

Being small gives Swipe both the ability to specialize and the need to only carry the good stuff; this is the place to go to find specific books that other stores won't have as well as to discover a depth that can't be replaced by an on-line "you may also like" auto-suggestion bot. I can't confirm their website's claim that they have "room enough for every graphic design and advertising book worthy of shelf space" – which is a self-contained circular argument – but their current location is vastly better than their previous space at 477 Richmond. That place was mostly a hallway, while the 401 Richmond shop is a more friendly rectangle.

Swipe's prices are sometimes higher than what I may pay elsewhere, but for me it's an easy concession in exchange for their continued enthusiasm. Ballenford and David Mirvish Books have shown that it's important to encourage the businesses that add to the arts and culture of the city. In return Swipe has a thriving program of discount tags that puts Canadian Tire 'Money'™ to shame.

I'm neither a graphic designer nor directly involved in advertising, but Swipe Books is one of my favourite non-camera stores in the city. As a source of interesting material and items it has very few rivals; these photos show three different things that I've already reviewed this year, and they don't even include the display of Spacing's subway buttons that sits by the counter. Swipe is a tough store to beat, and there aren't many other places I can say that about.

last updated 6 may 2011


On Sight Equipment's Money Belt

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It only costs eight bucks.

The Long Version: There are two completely different things that are called a "money belt", and it's important to choose the right type. Some are large flat pouches that are sized to hold passports and a considerable wad of euros. These go under various articles of clothing, and aside from having a strap on them, look nothing like belts. The other style is, deceptively, an actual belt: they just have a long flat pocket on the inside, closed with a really long zipper.

The On Sight money belt is the second type, and holds bills when they're folded into quarters lengthwise. It has a minimal capacity, so don't expect to hide much more than a half-dozen pieces of your favourite currency, and it won't hold any ID or travel documents at all. Instead I keep a small strip of paper in mine with the numbers of my important documents, a mnemonic sequence for my credit card, and the phone number for the Canadian government.

The belt is made from nylon webbing material with a simple cam-lock buckle, and its ability to securely lock at any position is a kindness for travelling. The inner compartment runs nearly the full length of the belt, ending before the portion that threads through the buckle. When closed, the zipper pull is at the buckle end of the belt, making it easy to check but hard to get into. A little privacy goes a long way if you ever need access to its contents.

While there is some metal in its zipper, it's hard to imagine it setting off a metal detector. That's not to say that it's a good idea to wear clothing with concealed pockets though a security checkpoint, but since some scanners can see through clothing anyway, I'm sure we're all safe from every threat if we ever take the risk of leaving home. Use your judgement and remember just how complicated life becomes if you break the rules. (If you're not Canadian, make that "how complicated life can become if you're caught breaking the rules.")

If you typically wear clothes that need to be ironed, the On Sight money belt isn't an appropriate stylistic choice. Aesthetically it's very casual and nondescript, suiting backpackers and the sneakers-and-jeans crowd without drawing attention to itself. There's no external branding, and just the faintest wisp of visible stitching to give away its true nature. I've used mine for a couple of weekends, and the diagonally cut end that fits through the buckle is showing some minor fraying, but I choose to think that it adds to the nothing-special camouflage.

I'm comfortable with my current level of paranoia to keep me safe within North America. Rather than depending on a Type I money belt to secure all of my valuables against pickpockets or muggers, the On Sight belt serves as my last-chance get-out-of-trouble kit. It doesn't hold much, but that's enough for what it needs to do: remember to stay calm, be brave, and wait for the signs.

last updated 4 may 2011

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