There’s no question that, when it comes to outdoor photography, whether close to home or far away, my go-to camera bag is a backpack. Which is why I welcomed the opportunity to field-test MindShift’s new entry in their PhotoCross lineup, the PhotoCross 15. So, did the PhotoCross 15 meet all my expectations? Will it become my go-to camera bag on outdoor adventures? And what features set it apart from the traditional sling or backpack? Let’s see…
Photo backpacks aren’t for everyone or every occasion. Even hardened backpack users find themselves turning to a shoulder bag or sling bag to carry their precious camera gear. And if you’re looking for a modestly priced shoulder bag that also delivers on quality, then a good starting place is Think Tank Photo. And you might want to consider the new Vision series.
Field Test Report: Nikon Z 7 FX-format (Full-frame) Mirrorless Digital Camera – Is This Nikon’s Way of Telling Us the DSLR Will Go the Way of the Dodo?
In what promises to be a growing lineup of mirrorless FX (full-frame) interchangeable-lens digital cameras for the pro and serious amateur, Nikon recently unveiled the 45.7MP Z 7 and 24.5MP Z 6. My mouth watered as I awaited delivery of a Z 7 test camera from Nikon – the “big kahuna” in the new lineup – (with Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S kit lens). While bad weather kept me from spending as much time as I would have liked with the camera, I did manage some quality time with the Z 7 on a number of outings, photographing wildlife, sports, architecture and landscapes, and came away with several clear impressions of this formidable mirrorless camera. (Z 7 firmware version tested: 1.03.)
The Burning Questions
The Nikon Z 7 is undeniably a professional tool. But does it have what it takes to bring countless photographers, especially pros, back into the Nikon camp? More to the point, will the Z-series put a big detour sign on future DSLR development from this manufacturer, perhaps stopping it dead in its tracks, as these new mirrorless cameras pave their own path? And will video shooters find in the Z 7 what they’ve been missing in the D850? Granted, the delay in the Z-series introduction may have weakened the initial foothold Nikon had hoped to gain, but time (and timely innovative product introductions, especially lenses) will tell if this icon in the world of photographic image-making will recapture the adoration of photo enthusiast and pro alike that this company once enjoyed.
First things first, however… How did the Nikon Z 7 fare in our real-world tests?
Even before that, allow me to add, for the most part, I am bypassing tech specs. You can read tech specs on Nikon’s website by clicking this link. Other reviews get bogged down in them. I won’t waste your time.
Test Report: Think Tank Photo’s Photo Accessories – Designed to Ease a Photographer’s Life on Location
For the most part, I’ve avoided writing about lens pouches and related accessories because, frankly, I rarely use them. But when Think Tank upgraded their lens pouches, protective covers, and photo belts, I thought, hmm, maybe it’s time to reevaluate my decision. Think Tank was generous enough to send a selection of these items for review.
Don’t get me wrong: I still prefer to travel light, unencumbered by anything that might weigh me down. But there are occasions when you need that extra something to make your life easier on the trails or even while negotiating the streets, byways and alleyways of a distant shore and, notably, to facilitate lens changes wherever you happen to be, even close to home. The problem becomes even more pronounced when you’re carrying gear in a backpack and the ground is muddy or wet and you can’t find a dry spot anywhere to conveniently set the pack down so you can get at that gear. Or when you’re in a tenuous situation where it might not be prudent to turn your back for the few minutes it takes to access gear from a backpack that’s sitting on the ground (watch out for that buck behind you!). The Think Tank products that neatly fit the bill here are the Lens Case Duo and Lens Changer series.
And, speaking of wet, we don’t all use cameras and lenses that have been waterproofed. Even if we do, some added protection against rain and snow and blowing debris couldn’t hurt. That’s when a water-repellent rain hood comes into the picture. And Think Tank offers two solutions to tackle these nasty situations: the Hydrophobia Rain Cover V3.0 and Emergency Rain Cover series.
Finally, you may need some means to carry all these accessories conveniently. Attaching lens pouches to a backpack that you’ll first have to remove is counterproductive. And you can’t depend on the backpack’s waist belt since, sooner or later, you’ll be unfastening it, if you even buckle it in the first place, which I rarely do. And shoulder/sling bags don’t all provide attachment points. Besides, the added weight may add to the strain of carrying the bag at your side. And, whereas you could use the belt that holds up your pants, not everyone wears pants – or a belt. And even if you do, carrying accessories on your belt can be a real drag. So a special belt might be in order. And here too Think Tank comes to the rescue - with the Thin Skin Belt V3.0. The lens pouches we’ll be reviewing are designed to be carried on this belt, as well as the more heavily padded Pro Speed Belt V3.0 (not reviewed here).
Test Report: SKB Series 2011-7 Case with Think Tank Padded Insert and Lid Organizer (Model 3i-2011-7DL)
There’s a good argument to be made for using a molded hardshell case, especially one with wheels. And for starters, let’s put it out there in the photoverse… the SKB case model 3i-2011-7DL with Think Tank insert will give you a pretty good ride. But is it a perfectly smooth ride? Read on…
Test Report: Think Tank Photo’s Retrospective 10 V2.0 Shoulder Bag – Same Chic Styling, Look and Feel, with Added Features
There is something about Think Tank’s Retrospective shoulder bags that has to be experienced personally.
I’d previously tested the leather version of the original series and found it eminently suited to my trip to New York. (Read about it here.) But that was a small bag that I chose because it would fit inside my luggage. And even before that I’d worked with the original Retrospective. Yet another small bag.
This time I thought I’d go for something bigger, but not quite as spacious as MindShift Gear’s Exposure 15. And I certainly wasn’t about to tote around an even bigger shoulder bag, although, if you are of that mind, there are two larger versions of this bag available.
I was especially curious to see what improvements were made to this series. I would not be disappointed, though I did find room for improvement.
The Handy Water Bottle Pocket
A water bottle pocket has been added. I would have preferred a stretch mesh pocket, but I can see Think Tank’s thinking behind the design they used. A nylon pocket would not be in keeping with the retro-canvas styling of the bag. Either way, it now means you don’t need to add an accessory pouch just for a water bottle. You can, however, add a lens case by way of the loop on the flip side of the bag (more on Think Tank’s new lens cases in a later review).
You could hold a lens in this side pocket, but I would hesitate to do so for any length of time. There’s no real way to secure the pocket, and a lens could slip out when you’re not paying attention. You know what would have been cool? A sealable lid, via Velcro, a zip, or even a snap or clasp. But, again, it could come in handy when changing lenses, if not already occupied by a water bottle. (Here’s a thought. Attach a carabiner to the opposite side and your water bottle to that, if the water bottle provides some means by which you could do that.)
The one thing that bugs me, and I found it to be somewhat of a nuisance on Think Tank's Signature 13 as well, is the tuck-away interior flap that has been added to the new Retrospective bag. As I’d commented previously, I would have preferred a double-zip system. But I’m not sure that would have helped. And here’s why… The pliable shell of the Retrospective, while imbuing the bag with that retro-chic feel, makes it difficult to close the flap.
I recommend either not zipping the inner lid all the way once you arrive at your destination, or not using it entirely. If you take the latter route, it means using the noisy and somewhat resistant Velcro system to keep the bag closed. There are noise-silencers built in, but using them (and not closing the inner flap) means you leave the bag entirely open – not a smart move in a crowded bus or subway, or while dashing around town, or putting your bag down on an uneven surface where it may topple over. So you’ll have to use one or the other once you start shooting. But let me make myself clear: Until you arrive at your destination, unless you expect to stop along the way to shoot, use both means to keep the contents secured. You’ll keep dust and dirt out, as well as prying hands.
It may be picayune to quibble over this, and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, one way or the other. But, hey, I like to quibble over the small stuff. If the world smelled entirely of roses, we wouldn’t have carnations. Okay, not sure what that means, but maybe you do. Anyway, none of that matters in the long run. The bag does the job it’s designed to do.
Oddly enough, I find myself lately taking a shoulder/sling bag out, even on my nature walks, preferring it over my backpacks for immediate accessibility to my gear, provided I’m not toting a heavy load or very long lenses, and don’t need to carry a trail kit or light jacket.
Would I use this new Retrospective V2.0? In a heartbeat. Regrettably, I miscalculated. I thought I’d be able to fit my D500 with attached Tamron 100-400, but it didn’t prove to be a comfy fit. A deeper bag would have done the trick. So I’ll stick with my Exposure 15 for that rig. It wouldn’t be a problem if I carried body and lens separately, but I prefer having my gear at the ready – hence my rationale for using a shoulder bag in the first place.
All in all, as with its progenitors in the Retrospective lineup, the Retrospective V2.0 looks classy, feels classy, and, in short, is a class act. You’ll look good with this bag hanging off your shoulder or sling-style and you’ll feel good knowing your gear is well protected and within your grasp when the moment counts.
Test Report: Tamron 70-210 F/4 Di VC USD Model A034 (for Nikon) – A Multi-Dimensional Zoom That Delivers - at the Right Speed, Right Feel, Right Price
The new Tamron 70-210mm f/4 telephoto zoom (Model A034) won’t break the bank to own or break your back to carry. Cost and heft aside, what really matters is performance. I used the lens with my Nikon D610 – a full-frame DSLR matched to a full-frame lens (although the lens could also be used with my DX/cropped-sensor Nikon DSLRs), photographing a variety of subjects large and small. How well did the lens perform? Let’s see. But first…
Why Do You Need an F/4 70-210mm Zoom?
Well, let’s imagine for the moment that you already own a variable-aperture tele zoom. What’s to be gained? We’ll put aside consideration of an f/2.8 lens, given that glass’s relatively high price and heft.
An f/4 lens is a workable compromise. Popularly priced variable-aperture telephoto zooms weigh in at a zoom range of 70-300mm with a corresponding variable aperture range of f/4-5.6, or, worse, f/4.5-5.6. These lenses are more than you need for that portrait session you’re shooting outdoors. Not to mention, those variable maximum apertures can be a royal pain when using a handheld meter to check exposures, especially with studio flash or manual shoe-mount flash. Knowing where you stand with your F-stops always gives you a leg up on your exposures.
The story doesn’t end there. Zoom out and that variable-aperture f/4-5.6 lens loses more and more light in the process. At just under 200mm, it’s at f/5, hitting f/5.3 at 200mm and f/5.6 at around 250mm. In other words, an f/4 lens is nearly a full stop faster at 200mm.
Photographing kids? You’ll definitely appreciate having a maximum aperture of f/4 to blur out annoying backgrounds as you zoom in, while shooting at relatively faster shutter speeds without having to crank up the ISO. But beyond that, autofocusing is faster with an f/4 lens when trying to capture a precocious toddler in an outdoor setting than with your other zoom, given that focusing sensors are designed around faster maximum apertures, for the most part.
And Now for the Nitty-Gritty – Optical Performance
I’ve used this lens on things you wouldn’t normally use a 70-210, as well as the expected. I shot street candids, landscape, and even birds, bugs, and flowers. With birds and bugs there is a caveat: you keep the subject near or at the center of the frame, expecting to do some tight cropping in post. And for that reason, the lens has to be really sharp, especially toward and at the center.
Still, I want good performance out to the corners and edges as well. And let’s not forget that vignetting and distortion, as well as chromatic aberration (color fringing), also have to be taken into account.
While we can use vignetting to frame the subject on rare occasion, for the most part we’d prefer to live without it. And shooting without any pronounced distortion would be welcome as well. So, to cover my bases, I also set up some test targets, in addition to my field shooting.
Vignetting. I primarily tested for vignetting by shooting at a uniform area of blue sky in the afternoon (with the included petal-shaped lens shade attached). On my full-frame DSLR, with the lens set to 70mm, vignetting was readily observable at maximum aperture (f/4), diminishing as you stopped down – until you reached the magic number – 2 full stops down (the sweet spot for many lenses), where it practically vanished. (Expect performance to be even better with a cropped-sensor camera, which cuts out much of the offending vignetting from the get-go.) However, the picture was a bit different as I zoomed out. At 210mm I noticed a faint trace of vignetting even at f/8. At f/11 it was no longer a practical concern.
In day-to-day shooting, I focused more on my subject than on vignetting, and often found myself shooting wide open, or close to it. Vignetting was not a practical consideration – or a problem. Where necessary, I was able to address it to my complete satisfaction in Capture One using the Light Falloff slider. (I found the lens profile in Lightroom less than optimum for this correction.)
The lens certainly felt solid in my hands. All operations were smooth. If you’re fishing for more details, we should note that, despite its relatively low cost, the lens also boasts moisture-resistant seals (get it, fishing, seals?). Beyond that, the front element features the same smudge-resistant barrier incorporated into Tamron’s costlier lenses, such as the 150-600mm G2 and 70-200 f/2.8 G2, via a fluorine coating. As I’ve pointed out in the past, I wish Tamron would add the fluorine coating to the rear element as well. Still, the front element is the one that fingers, flying insects, and the elements target first and foremost, so having this as a first line of defense, together with that moisture seal, is a welcome step.
Test Report: MindShift Gear Impresses Us with Two New Outdoor Bags - BackLight 18L Photo Backpack and Exposure 15 Shoulder/Sling Bag
A Quick Look at the New MindShift BackLight 18L
I’ve previously written extensively about the BackLight series, which, until now, consisted of two larger bags, first the 26L, followed by the 36L – the model number reflecting capacity, in liters. That makes this bag half the size of the largest version, at least in carrying capacity.
I still use the 26L, having gifted the 36L to a friend who routinely carries a load of gear, and when the 18L arrived, I thought it would be too small for my Tamron 150-600mm G2. I first tried the 18L out with my Nikon D500 attached to the new Tamron 100-400 (look for a review of this lens shortly). It was a perfect fit. Next came what I thought would be the impossible task.
On its own, the 150-600 settled in comfortably. But could I say the same when attached to the camera? Well, I did have to move a couple of the padded divers out of the way, but I managed a good fit. Of course, that shift in the partitions negated the use of the other half of the bag for a second camera with attached lens. Well, I could always carry a second body and lens separately – plenty of room for that.
In the backpack's factory configuration, when situating the camera with 100-400 attached (at the top of the bag, lens downward), there was plenty of room for that second body with attached lens (cradled from the bottom of the bag, lens upward). Long and short, I’ll still use my 26L for that monster glass and relegate the 18L for the D500/100-400 combo riding side-saddle with, say, a D610/90mm macro attached – and still have room for a Nissin flash.
You can read my earlier reviews by clicking these links:
BackLight 26L review
BackLight 36L review
I should point out that I was so happy with the BackLight 18L that I gave my trusty TrailScape 18L to a friend in favor of the new bag. I prefer the interior layout of the BackLight 18L, considering it will hold two cameras with attached lenses right from the get-go.
MindShift’s Exposure 15 Shoulder Bag
When it comes to shoulder bags, my preference runs to smaller bags. I find it more fatiguing when wearing even a small shoulder bag or sling bag than when carrying a fully loaded backpack. Still, a shoulder bag does come in handy on occasion. You won't carry a backpack to a formal occasion, or even when visiting friends. Not to mention, it's so much easier to stow a shoulder bag on the floor underneath or alongside your seat when dining.
I already own and use the perfect shoulder bag, Think Tank’s Signature 13 – elegant styling, functional, and small enough to carry just what I need for streetshooting. So I wasn’t about to make that bag redundant with the Exposure 13. Besides, the larger Exposure bag sported more spacious pockets – and I love pockets.
Still, the Signature bag lacks one thing that, to my mind, would have made it perfect: a waist belt to take the weight off my shoulder. It would have been very easy for Think Tank to have fitted the bag with a removable waist belt, but that probably would have run counter to the fashion statement that bag makes.
Fast forward to the Exposure series. These bags don’t feature a waist belt, but they come with the next best thing: a security tether, or what MindShift calls a "cross-body stabilizer strap." This keeps the bag from slipping off your shoulder – or swinging around and in your way when you bend down to shoot something low to the ground. It also prevents someone from pulling the bag off your shoulder. You can also wear the bag sling-style, which is how I’d been using it, and how it was primarily designed to be worn. The neoprene shoulder pad is sewn in and runs much of the length of the strap, rendering the strap well suited to either mode of portage.
This bag also features new materials that make it practically impervious to the elements, and the lid has flaps at either end to keep out dust, flying debris, and rain/snow. It does not have a zipped inner lid, a trademark of the Signature bags. However, the Exposure uses only a single plastic buckle for fast access. Some Velcro-type closure system wouldn’t have hurt, so you wouldn’t have needed to constantly snap the buckle shut. It’s a noisy prospect when you’re trying to remain quiet while focusing on birds or other wildlife.
As for the interior of the bag, it too lacks the finesse of the Signature bag, but, having said that, it does provide the needed protection. I was able to fit my D500 with attached 100-400, standing the rig lens downward inside the bag. With a shorter lens, the camera could have been supported by the dividers along both sides. Still, even with this long lens, the flap closed without any unruly bulge. BTW – carrying this combo was another reason, perhaps the main one, I’d opted for the larger Exposure 15. The Exposure 13 would have been too small.
I should also note that the Exposure 15 will carry a 15” laptop, along with a tablet. There are numerous other pockets, along with a luggage-handle pass-through so you can piggyback the bag on your roller luggage. A tripod is carried at the bottom – straps included. Also included is a rain cover, not that you’ll need it in a light rain, since the bag is sufficiently weatherproofed on its own. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s also a water-bottle pocket that will comfortably hold your average-size water bottle.
Test Report: Think Tank Photo's Airport Advantage Plus - Keep Camera Gear Protected and Organized in a Smaller Profile Roller
When I stand Think Tank Photo’s new Airport Advantage Plus up next to the Airport Security v3.0, the Advantage Plus looks svelte by comparison. In fact, even when standing on its own it looks slim and trim.
Unfortunately, you can’t say it looks stylish as is, but Think Tank has some accessories to lend it a hand in that department, such as colorful wheels with Roller Flair, which also adds other color accents ($35).
All Airport cases are considered soft-sided luggage, in contrast to hard-shell cases made of ABS, resin, or metal. As such, they utilize a zipped closure system, but are lockable. I keep TSA-compliant combination locks on hand for this purpose. The only thing to watch for is that you don’t over-expand the case with stuffed outer pockets. One added advantage to practically any soft-sided luggage is the addition of outer pockets to stow anything from a laptop (inside a protective sleeve) to a pair of flip-flops. The flip-flops might even serve to cushion the laptop against bumps, to a degree.
Each of these cases has a weather-resistant fabric outer layer, but also comes with a rain cover for torrential downpours. With the rare exception of 4-wheelies, each is two-wheeled, offering an exceptionally quiet ride, with sturdy telescoping handle, plus additional handles to make sliding the bag in and out of the overhead easier.
Once fully loaded, no camera luggage feels light. Still, if you can shave a few ounces off your burden, it should be welcome over the long haul. While you can’t go wrong with any of the Think Tank Airport luggage, the Advantage Plus has the advantage of a more compact size that affords you greater visibility of your gear, while keeping a lid on how much you carry. The point being, you take what you need and nothing more. Makes sense to me. It’s called planning.
It was nearly a year ago that I tested the progenitor to the BackLight series, the BackLight 26L, from MindShift Gear. That pack has become a staple in my stable of carrying gear, which includes a variety of MindShift and Think Tank Photo products. I’ve grown to rely on them for their utility and durability. And these days, I’ve been leaning toward smaller bags that limit what I carry. I prefer to arrive home after spending hours on my feet little worse for wear, and lighter loads allow me to do that. I also find I work faster and more efficiently if I can work economically.
Anyway, so this BackLight 36L arrives on my doorstep. It’s a full 10 liters bigger than the previous model, which I use mainly when shooting with my Tamron 150-600mm G2. In fact, what that translates to is, the 36L is taller, wider, and deeper. So the question you have to ask yourself when choosing between the two versions is, how much backpack do you really need?
But even before you go there, take a closer look at the pack and you’ll notice something different – something that sets it apart from other MindShift (and competitor’s) backpacks. Hint: it has to do with camera access. The name should give you a hint.
The Design - The Good and the Bad
In contrast to typical backpack designs, the BackLight employs a rear-access panel, rather than a front panel. (Front outer pockets hold a variety of other stuff, as we’ll see.). It’s a zipped, drop-down panel, but by giving you access to your gear from the rear, you keep prying hands away from your precious cameras and lenses. It may take a little getting used to at first if you’ve been using a more traditional pack, but, provided you’re not switching back and forth, as I am wont to do, you should have a firm handle on it after one or two outings.
MindShift will try to tell you that you can change lenses on the fly, without removing the bag from your body, thanks to this rear panel and a short neck cord found inside the bag. I tried it with the 26L. It didn’t fly. And with an even bigger and heavier bag, I’m not even going to attempt it. Frankly, I wish they would have removed that cord, since it always came undone on the smaller bag. And it was not very comfortable.
Room for a Laptop, a Tablet – and a Tripod
Rear access means you can carry a tripod centered over the front of the bag for better balance on uneven terrain. All the accoutrements are in place, but neatly tucked away top and bottom. Or you can carry the tripod on either side, with a water bottle on the opposite side. If you’re mostly traveling over flat terrain, side-carry is not a problem.
Keeping the tripod over the center makes more sense for the long haul, but it does get in the way when laying the bag down to get at gear. And if you carry a tripod, you definitely do not want to use that neck cord to change lenses while still wearing the bag.
I don’t know about you, but I never take my laptop into the field. Still, if that’s your preference, this bag lets you do that – inside a padded sleeve. Not only that, but you can also carry a tablet. The tablet sleeve isn’t padded, but the surrounding pocket is so voluminous that you’ll likely keep a jacket and other stuff in there to cushion against bumps.
While the Spectral series from Think Tank Photo may not share the same elegance as this company’s Signature series, the new shoulder bags do weigh in with a couple of nice features I would have liked in the Signatures. On the other hand, a few of the trademark elements found in the Signature would have been welcome additions to this bag. (Click this link for my review of the Signature Series.)
Still, all in all, the new bags have much going for them. I chose to review the smallest of these, the Spectral 8, since it’s primarily aimed at the mirrorless camera (as well as compact DSLR) user and I wanted to address a market segment I tend to overlook. The two larger bags, Spectral 10 and Spectral 15, address more robust DSLRs, but without grips.
The cover flap has a magnetic clasp. Nice touch. Pull a tab to release; just drop the flap back down and it should close on its own. I would have preferred this mode of closure to the metal buckles used on the Signature, although it doesn’t reflect the same level of chic. (I’m always afraid the metal buckles will come crashing down on the camera’s LCD when I use the Signature.)
Lift the flap and you come to a small outer sleeve that will hold a cell phone of any popular size. Behind that is a zippered pocket designed to hold an 8” tablet, or accessories, such as maps, a guide book, and such. Sleeves within the pocket will hold spare batteries and a memory card wallet. (The larger bags will carry 10” tablets, and the 15” bag will carry a laptop.)
Before we go inside, we encounter a secondary cover flap. As on the Signature, this one is zippered and designed to keep out prying hands, as well as the elements. Unlike the one on the Signature, it’s not pleated (which would have been nice – to accommodate lenses that protrude just a bit when standing on end).
Open this second flap to access your gear. You can leave it open and fastened to the cover flap via a Velcro-style hook-and-loop attachment, or tuck it into a sleeve inside the cover flap. To be practical, don’t tuck this inner lid away. Instead, use that additional pocket as a “secret” compartment for valuables (it closes with hook-and-loop fastener). By the way, I prefer this arrangement to the one used in the Signature bags.
If you use a sling strap that fastens to the camera’s tripod socket, you may be able to leave it attached, since there is enough room for it.
One convenience feature carried over from the Signature line of bags is the trolley sleeve (luggage-handle pass-through). This lets you easily piggyback the bag on your roller luggage.
Unlike the much more costly Signature series with its leather accents, the comfortably-priced Spectral series is low-key. Yet the Spectral does carry a certain degree of panache with it.
More important than looks is functionality. The bag wears well and is easy to work out of.
KEY FEATURES per Think Tank Photo
MATERIALS per Think Tank Photo
Exterior: All fabric exterior treated with durable water resistant coating while fabric underside is coated with polyurethane for superior water resistance. The bag also has YKK RC Fuse (abrasion resistant) zippers, 420D velocity nylon, double PU coated P600D, heavy-duty nylon tarpaulin, UltraMesh pockets, antique plated metal hardware, Fidlock mangetic buckle, 350G 3D air mesh, 3-ply bonded nylon thread
Interior: PE board reinforced removable closed cell foam dividers, 200D liner, PU backed nylex liner, 2x PU coated nylon 210T seam-sealed taffeta rain cover, 3-ply bonded nylon thread
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS per Think Tank Photo
This is how I ended up buying, and testing, the Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens.
My interest in bird photography took a decided turn earlier this year. Over the past few years, I’d been photographing deer, mostly with a Tamron 70-300mm on my Nikon D610. However, aside from the occasional waterfowl, birds were largely out of the question. Then I wrote a column for Shutterbug Magazine on the amazingly talented bird photographer Alan Murphy and I’d found the impetus I needed.
Alan’s bird photography is largely reminiscent of the paintings of John James Audubon. His images have this clean, uncluttered look, with a unique depth to them. I could only hope to achieve a modicum of his success. Anyway, you really should check out Alan Murphy's bird artistry on his website.
Alan conducts workshops on bird photography, and I had asked him what lens focal length he recommends to workshop attendees. He answered, 600mm. Numerous factors come into play that may affect that choice (species, time of day, situation, for example), but that 600mm is normally the go-to workshop lens for many scenarios.
And that got me thinking. My longest focal length until recently was 300mm (in a 70-300mm zoom for my Nikons, as well as a Canon 300mm f/4 fixed-focal lens when I was shooting Canon). Not nearly enough for those birds I wanted to photograph. Even attached to my Nikon D300, that only gave me 450mm – respectable reach, but not ideal, keeping in mind that birds in the wild keep a buffer zone between you and them – and that buffer zone translates to: I need a longer lens!
So I explored my options, namely, the cost of a long lens, its size and weight, and how I’d primarily be using it. I usually shoot handheld with most lenses, and largely by available light, resorting to flash only occasionally. When I’d finished crunching the numbers, the choice was obvious.
I bought the Tamron 150-600mm G2.
Poor AF with fast-moving subjects on the cameras I then owned, namely the Nikon D610 and D300, also meant I needed to update to a more responsive DSLR, and one that could easily work with the maximum f/6.3 aperture on this Tamron zoom. That soon resulted in the purchase of the Nikon D500 (look for a test report on this camera soon). Attached to a DX camera - specifically the D500 (APS-C format with a cropped sensor factor of 1.5x), this lens would give me 900mm out of the gate, and 1170mm when I applied the additional in-camera 1.3x crop factor without adding any converters. That gave me considerable reach, although I’d discover that capturing flighty subjects at nearly 1200mm would prove to be largely a frustrating task.
The Tamron 150-600mm G2: Optics
Optically the lens features low-dispersion glass to deliver crisp images, with proprietary coatings to counter flare and ghosting. Whereas both old and new versions of this lens feature moisture-resistant construction, only the new G2 can boast fluorine coating.
While not new in a Tamron lens, and certainly not exclusive to Tamron, fluorine coating, according to the company, makes the lens surface “easier to wipe clean and less vulnerable to the damaging effects of dirt, dust, moisture, and fingerprints.” I try desperately to avoid anything coming in contact with the surfaces of my lenses, so thankfully I didn't have to test for this feature.
The one question I have for Tamron is: Why fluorine-coat only the front element? Why not also the rear element? A lens can easily get smudged at either end. (A question I’ve asked before with regard to Tamron’s 15-30mm f/2.8.)
Tamron also improved close-focusing on this lens. The original 150-600 focused down to just over 106 inches for a 1:5 reproduction ratio. The new G2 version takes that down to under 87 inches (1:3.9), which is a considerable difference that you may not fully appreciate just from the numbers. Not a true macro lens, but very respectable – and it would prove to come in handy. I managed to capture some fairly tight shots simply by zooming all the way out to the 600mm setting and bringing the lens in as close as possible.
Adding a Matched Converter
This Tamron lens does have the option of a matched converter. The available converters are 1.4x (TC-X14) and 2x (TC-X20). Keep in mind that adding a converter effectively slows down the lens, by one and two stops, respectively, leading to slower AF response times.
I held off adding the converter because I was buying the D500 primarily for its AF responsiveness and didn’t want to hamper the camera in any way. One day I might yet entertain buying the Tamron converter. But not today.
In combination with the 1.5x and 1.3x crop factors built into the D500, a 1.4x converter would take this lens to over 1600mm. On top of that crop factor combo, the 2x converter would effectively give me a 2340mm lens. Either would also require a bright, sunny day and birds that remained fairly stationary for less than optimum shutter speeds or which I could photograph in flight, while I panned with the camera. And don’t get me started on handholding limitations. Suffice to say, a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head would be a practical addition to your field outfit at this point.
While this lens does employ Tamron’s proprietary Vibration Compensation (VC) technology, image stabilization only takes a lens so far. Although, it often comes to the fore in situations where neither a tripod nor monopod is a practical solution.
In Use: Handholding the Tamron 150-600mm G2
I own a Canon 300mm f/4 IS lens. I used to complain about handholding that lens. No more. This Tamron lens makes that one feel like a featherweight. Okay, I exaggerate. Still, the Tamron is about 2 lb. heavier, and when held for long periods, that literally begins to weigh on you.
I’ve taken to doing curls with a 10-lb. dumbbell to build up endurance and resistance in my left arm, the one supporting the lens – and I’m happy to say, it’s worked, though I don’t feel I’m quite there yet. Still, I’ve been able to reduce shutter speeds at maximum focal length and still achieve sharp results.
After all that handholding, I’d decided to make things easy for myself and bring a monopod into the picture. What a difference that made! Granted, it slows me down somewhat and now I have to be careful when moving about, unless I collapse the leg or, better yet, detach the monopod from the camera entirely – two steps guaranteed to slow me down further.
In Use: Image Stabilization
The lens offers three VC (Vibration Compensation) image stabilization modes. Mode 1 stabilizes the image when the shutter is released, but also maintains a stable viewfinder image while the shutter button is pressed halfway, or the AF button is activated. Mode 2 is used when panning. And Mode 3 foregoes the stable viewfinder image to deliver more certain stabilization of the image (which means, you’ll have to hold really steady to keep critical areas in focus). FYI – according to the official number crunchers, Tamron’s VC will deliver 4.5 stops of optimized shutter speed performance against camera shake when set to Mode 3.
In practice, I largely kept the lens in Mode 1. If you have trouble holding the lens steady, your compositions and focusing may be thrown off in Mode 3. Mode 1 at least gives me a good shot at controlling both.
One thing I’ve discovered is that I do much better getting sharp shots with the lens tilted downward to some degree, rather than straight on or upward. Apparently, there’s less tension exerted on the supporting arm this way. I did manage to get a camera-shake-free picture of a flower with the lens at 600mm (= 900mm/full frame) at 1/60 second, which translates to roughly a 4-stop gain for a handheld exposure – in Mode 3. The optimum for a handheld exposure at this focal length would be 1/1000 second.
When I was testing the Tamron 70-300mm some years back, I was able to go 5 stops slower than the recommended shutter speed to prevent camera shake, though not consistently. I really don’t like to rely on any image stabilization technology if I can avoid it, but I will resort to it in a crunch. When shooting with the 150-600mm, especially at the longest zoom setting, I often kept to fast shutter speeds, at most stretching to one stop slower. But these settings were also based largely on the fidgetiness and movement of my subjects, which mandated fast shutter speeds to begin with.
In Use: The Dual Role of the Tripod Mount
The lens comes with a removable tripod mount. Do not remove the tripod mount. You know what will happen if you do: you won’t find it when you need it. More to the point, I use the tripod mount as a grab handle when carrying the lens. And I’ve attached a sling strap to the mount.
Also, for better balance, at least with my D610 and D500 (without battery grip), I’ve used the rear screw thread on the tripod mount for this purpose. The lens's tripod mount comes with a built-in Arca-Swiss-style quick-release (QR) plate. There are two tiny screws (provided) that you should attach at the base for added security (hex wrench included). Periodically check them and tighten if required. (A little bit of clear nail polish should keep the screws in. A trick I learned from one of the nicest people in the industry, the camera repair maven, Marty Forscher.)
So, why do I carry the camera by the lens’s tripod mount if I’m using a sling? Whenever I use a sling, I always grab hold of the camera as I’m moving about so I can more quickly bring it to my eye. I usually grab the camera by the grip, but that’s not a prudent step with a long, heavy lens such as this. Hence my use of the tripod mount as a handle. (I strongly recommend that you steer clear of picking the rig up by the camera body, and especially in sudden, jerky movements, which may exert sufficient torque force to damage the camera.)
In Use: Zooming and Focusing
Zooming, while smooth, is not as fast as I might like. You have to grab the lens’s zooming ring with your whole hand when zooming from one extreme to the other, and it takes several turns or one or two really good twists if you’re a contortionist. When I’m running around, I often prefer to retract the lens so it doesn’t protrude as much and bump into things. But I’ve gotten used to it. A push-pull mechanism option would have proved handy, although I’m not sure that might not play havoc with the lens’s mechanics and long-term durability.
For minor focal-length adjustments, by cradling the lens in the palm of your hand and then using both your thumb and index or middle finger, you can easily zoom. The way you position the tripod mount will affect how you zoom. Without it, you may find zooming goes more smoothly.
Manual focusing or manual focus override with AF is more to my liking, and quite smooth. I can manage that operation with a finger or two on the focusing ring.
Autofocus operation in and of itself is reasonably good. That is, of course, due in large measure to the D500 that I’m primarily using with this lens now. It was not nearly as good with the D610.
The old and new 150-600 feature Tamron’s USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) ring-type motor, but Tamron does claim better AF performance with this lens. How much of that is a function of the lens itself is difficult to measure, but I’ll take Tamron’s word for it that it’s improved over the previous iteration of this lens, since I can’t compare them side by side. Either way, the G2 is fast but sometimes doesn't seem fast enough with flighty subjects. But I could also be to blame for not responding as quickly as I should in these situations.
Test Report: MindShift Gear's PhotoCross 13 Sling Bag Is a Natural for a DSLR with Attached 150-600mm Zoom
If the PhotoCross 13, from MindShift Gear, can hold my Nikon D500 with Tamron 150-600mm G2 attached, imagine what other combinations of gear it can carry! That’s the surprising discovery I made on the third day working with this bag. But first allow me to detour for a moment with some thoughts on choosing between a sling and backpack for your photo gear.
Sling vs. Backpack
I routinely prefer a backpack for my photo adventures into the wilderness, and even on the streets of Chicago. More to the point, I’ve never been one to wear or even favor a sling bag when carrying camera gear, except when testing these bags. They are favored by the younger generation, I’ll give you that.
Granted, when I wear a shoulder bag, namely the Signature 13, I do so largely sling-fashion, but that’s only because the strap on that bag lends itself to easy portage in this manner. And I carry a light load (read more on the Think Tank Photo Signature 13 here.)
The problem with bags that carry the moniker “sling” is, in my experience, that the strap always cuts into my neck, largely due to a shoulder pad that is too stiff and inflexible. And many of these bags try to be a photo pack minus the backpack harness, meaning they strive to fit as much gear as possible, to the point where your neck and shoulder will hate you 15 minutes into your trek.
So when MindShift announced the PhotoCross, I approached it with some trepidation. Little by little, the bag started to grow on me. In the end, I may have found the one sling that fits me to a tee.
Choosing the Right Size
I immediately opted for the larger of the two new PhotoCross sling bags. In determining what would be a good fit, I began with the product photographs on MindShift’s website – the pictures showing the bags decked out with a complete array of gear.
The second thing I did (and do routinely) before requesting a sample bag for testing and evaluation is to watch the product video. MindShift (as well as Think Tank) keeps the introductory video short and sweet. I try very hard to read between the lines, but, I have to admit, they keep the dialog tight and to the point. So the only thing left for me to do was to order the bag I felt would be the right fit. And that was the PhotoCross 13. It proved to be the right choice.
PhotoCross on the Surface
Aside from a choice in size, you have a choice in color schemes. More realistically, it comes down to a choice in color accents. I chose Orange Ember, the other choice being Carbon Grey (hey, MindShift – this is the USA; we spell it “gray”! No need to get hoity-toity on us.). I would have been happier still with a bag that was predominantly orange, with gray (not “grey”) accents.
The color accents around the front of the bag key us into the zipper locations. There is an outside pocket, which I wish would have been pleated to accommodate a light jacket. But, as is, it’s still functional enough to hold any non-bulky extras you may need. There’s also a pair of smaller pockets inside this outer pocket. The other zipper leads to the main camera section, with additional pockets.
There’s also some accent stitching on the back – not that anyone will notice while you’re wearing the bag. Still, a nice touch. And there are other subtle color accents besides.
Okay, color schemes aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The body of the bag maintains a fairly svelte appearance. That’s not a fashion statement. That’s a practical feature. In the woods there’s less likelihood that the bag will hinder your progress in tight spaces and it won’t bump into people on buses and trains. Well, the tripod hanging off the back might, but you can always hand-carry it till you reach a clear path.
The PhotoCross Harness System
This sling pack features a one-piece, adjustable shoulder strap, with thin, air-circulating, mesh-covered padding lining much of the strap. There’s a stretch of similar padding extending out from the base of the bag, which falls against your lower back. I wish this padding ran the entire length of the strap for added comfort.
That same mesh lines the back of the bag. However, lacking the raised shoulder and lumbar pads usually found on a backpack, this really didn’t provide much cooling. But there’s a way around that (read on).
The shoulder strap has no buckles to fasten and unfasten. While fasteners do make it easy to remove the bag when you’re seated, in every other conceivable situation, they’re a nuisance – and a potential hazard. With gravity and inertia taking over, you may lose your grip on one or both straps when trying to snap the ends together, or when unsnapping them, with the potential for the bag to come crashing to the ground.
And to sweeten the deal, there is even a set of compression straps – one at the top, another at the bottom – so you can better tailor the shoulder strap and ultimate fit to your comfort level. By this means you can separate the bag from your back a bit more for improved air circulation.
What’s more, there’s no sliding shoulder pad that you constantly have to readjust. The padding is part and parcel of the strap, so it moves with the strap. And, again, the soft padding on this bag ensures your neck won’t chafe from a stiff shoulder pad. You may still find yourself adjusting the strap to optimize your comfort level, but that’s something one does normally when wearing any bag.
There’s also a tuck-away waist belt. It’s largely there in case you’re negotiating treacherous terrain and want to prevent the bag from shifting and throwing you off-balance.
Couple that with a pair of hand straps to help you get a better grip on the bag. Add to that, the bag employs reinforced box-X stitching at stress points on the main handle. And the stitching on the bag overall is immaculate, with nary a loose thread that I could find.
The PhotoCross 13 in Use
The bag is meant for a casual walk in the woods or on city streets, with a modicum of gear. You’re not going to get a gripped DSLR and long, fast lenses in here.
The main camera section has three, fully adjustable modules, with movable padded dividers (via Velcro-type hook-and-loop fasteners). What will that fit? I’ve carried a 70-300mm attached to the camera, a flash in the second module, and various accessories including sling strap in the third. Actually, you’ll be surprised at how much you can squeeze into this bag.
What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to load my D500 and 150-600 zoom into this bag. It was a tight fit and getting this combo back in the bag while I was wearing it required a bit more of an effort than when removing the gear. It was also fairly easy to load this combo into the bag before donning it. I also managed to fit the Nissin i60 in a soft pouch on top when I'd started out.
If you’re wondering, if I had to remove the tripod mount on the 150-600, the answer is no. I inserted the camera into the bag lens first, camera grip upwards (portrait mode). And I rotated the tripod mount so it rested facing upwards, making it easy to grab the mount as a handle and pull up. Once out of the bag, the tripod mount was returned to its original position.
There’s also a tablet sleeve inside the camera section, lying against your back. I say “tablet,” not “laptop,” because I can’t see anyone schlepping a laptop of any size, unless it weighs no more and is no bigger than a tablet (contrary to specifications). I’m not even sure I’d carry a tablet, certainly not with the long-lens rig just described. Perhaps I would with a smaller, lighter load.
Because I wear hats, the hat does get in the way, requiring its removal when donning the pack, or removing it. A sling camera strap proved equally annoying when wearing this sling pack. I may try to sling the bag to the left and carry the camera at my right (for a fast grab – really, the only way to use a sling strap) and see how that works. Although I’ll probably just keep things as they are, being right-handed.
Given that the bag’s hand strap on top falls naturally in position for an easy grab with your right hand when the bag is carried to the left, I’m beginning to wonder if that wasn’t the intended carrying method. I gave it a quick try, but it didn’t feel natural, so back to the tried and true (subject to change without prior notice).
A third strap on the bottom would equal the score in terms of making it easy to grab and swing the bag around, but that may interfere with the integrity of the bottom panel, which is designed to be better resistant against wear to vertical placement and scraping of the bag on rocks and dirt.
All that aside, what’s important is that the entire time I wore the PhotoCross, I never felt as if it were choking me or cutting into my neck.
One thing I should point out. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the shoulder strap just the right length, while adjusting the compression straps for maximum comfort. For now I have the bag flush against my back at the top, but looser at the bottom, which seems to work for me.
Look for a review of the Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm G2 soon.
Test Report: Nissin i60 Compact, Multi-Mode Shoe-Mount Flash for On-Camera and TTL Wireless Operation, Including Radio TTL Wireless
Nissin introduced TTL radio wireless capability with the Di700A shoe-mount and Air 1 transmitter (reviewed here). Now this same wireless capability comes to Nissin’s latest flash, the i60A.
What sets the i60A apart from the Di700A is the new shoe-mount’s compact size and more extensive feature set. Does this mean it’s a better fit for you and your style of shooting? Let’s see…
But First a Few Words about Nissin TTL Radio Wireless Flash
Nissin labels its proprietary 2.4GHz TTL radio wireless technology NAS, for Nissin Air System (not to be confused with NAS, or network-attached storage, drives). Hence the “A” designation in both the Di700A and i60A – for Air-compliant. Out of the box, and without accessories, both shoe-mounts support on-camera and wireless TTL operation – but without radio triggering. It takes one key additional component to activate radio triggering, the Air 1 transmitter.
“Air” represents a key link in the system. An integral component (albeit optional) is the Nissin Air 1 transmitter, which sits in the camera’s hot shoe. The Air 1 controls and triggers the Air-compliant off-camera flashes, which are said to be slaved to the Air transmitter, or master.
All output and zoom settings are made on the Air 1. Only Group (and, where applicable, channel) settings are made on the remote units. You might want to designate different remote flashes under separate groups for better lighting control of subject and background. (Channel settings are rarely required and usually only come into play to prevent interference with devices on the same channel.)
If you use a TTL-dedicated, non-Air-compliant flash, whether Nissin or another brand, simply attach the optional Nissin Air R remote receiving module to the flash by way of the hot shoe and you’re in business, with camera, Air 1, and all remote components talking to each other to deliver reliable TTL flash exposures.
Radio control in this wireless system, according to Nissin’s specifications, will work with off-camera flash units to roughly 100 feet. Typically, radio triggering has the added advantage that it works even when those remote strobes are situated around corners or behind obstacles, in contrast to photo-optical and infrared triggering, which require a direct line of sight. And radio triggering is more reliable outdoors.
Keep in mind that these A-designated flashes will not trigger TTL dedicated strobes in any fashion (not even other Nissin strobes). They require a separate Master module, whether radio or optical/infrared, to trigger them in order to produce TTL flash exposures. However, they will trigger any flash that has a built-in photo-optical sensor, for conventional flash operation using manual exposure control.
Nissin i60A: A Closer Look
The i60A is rather odd-looking. Seated in the camera’s hot shoe with head down (default position), the i60A presents a remarkably low profile. It manages to fit 4 AA batteries and all the circuitry into a squat little form factor.
So, what’s odd about it. Sitting on that compact battery housing/control center is a ginormous flash head. At least that’s how I’d describe it. The base of the i60A measures roughly two-thirds that on the Di700A in height. But the flash head itself is a tad longer than the head on its older sibling – by about 1cm. The depth of the head on the i60A (measured at the face, top to bottom), is about 2cm less (not including that odd bump toward the back of the i60A - possibly housing the capacitor). But when you add it all up, the head looks out of proportion, judging by its size relative to the base. Nothing wrong with that, but the overall size does warrant closer examination.
Small, Yet Packs a Punch
Getting past the look of the flash, let’s see what this little shoe-mount is all about. For starters, the i60A is pimped up with all the shooting modes found on the Di700A, but with even more control. That means full TTL flash operation on camera and remotely. Remote operation extends to optical/infrared TTL wireless, photo-optical non-TTL wireless, and TTL wireless radio operation.
While we rarely use Guide Numbers (GN) in this day and age of TTL dedicated flash, the GN does give us a sense of the effective reach and power of the unit. And in that sense, it serves as a practical guide, hence “Guide” Number.
At ISO 100, the i60A will cover a distance of 89 feet (27 meters) at the 24mm zoom setting. At the 200mm setting (ISO 100), that jumps to 198 feet (60 meters). Compare that to any camera’s built-in flash. The i60A’s built-in diffuser panel and included dome diffuser will knock these numbers back a bit.
By the way, the i60A is a bit more powerful than the larger Di700A. At the 200mm zoom setting, the GN for the Di700A is 178/54 (ISO 100, ft/m). And the new flash is considerably more capable than the even smaller and older Nissin i40. The i60A is also the most expensive flash in the current Nissin lineup, even more than the flagship Di866 Mark II. The i60A draws on much of the functionality from the 866 Mk II while replacing more esoteric features and expanding on others.
The i60A adds one more feature not found on most shoe-mounts: a video light. This light, consisting of two LEDs (diffused), can be adjusted in brightness. And it’s bright! I didn’t realize it at first, but this video light would really come in handy at some point in a studio setup. And, if nothing else, it makes a great flashlight in a pinch. (You’ll also find this feature on the earlier i40.)
The Interface – User-Friendly… to a Point
The interface on the i60A consists of a color LCD panel, dials, and buttons. The LCD panel is small but easily readable, if you have fairly good eyesight, that is. It is, however, difficult to read under bright lighting. I recommend you shade the display outdoors when changing settings.
Somewhat disconcerting, the panel dims almost immediately and there’s no way around this. But you can bring it back to full brightness by a press of any button, except, obviously, the on/of switch, or when changing modes.
The control dials may be a bit harder to read for some, especially if you suffer from astigmatism. The lettering is tiny and the detent marker on the mode dial doesn’t precisely align with the mode settings - nor is it clearly marked (it's raised), so you may do better paying close attention to the LCD display to get a better sense of the flash mode than to the mode dial itself. And in dim light, that may be the only way to read flash modes, unless you bring a flashlight or a cell phone with you.
Speaking of Those Control Dials
The dial on the left is for flash modes, with the following options. For on-camera (hot-shoe) usage: the green “A” is for fully auto TTL flash, whereas “TTL” gives you more complete TTL flash control, with the added option of onboard flash exposure overrides (to +/-2, in 1/3-step increments).
For remote operation, the dial offers SD (for pre-flash digital), SF (non-TTL-flash exposures with any optical flash/trigger), and A/B/C. The A/B/C settings are used with the Nissin Air radio-controlled system. (More on wireless operation below.)
The dial on the right provides settings for wireless radio channels (1 to 8) and manual zoom. The other settings control audio (beeps) and high-speed sync for cameras that don’t have that option built-in (not applicable to Nikon DSLRs). The key problem with these controls is that they’re so small that you need a fingernail to access them. Hold down the button until the display changes to the required parameter, for example, zoom focal lengths. Then turn the outer wheel, which is also used to change output settings for the applicable modes. The central button locks in settings.
By the way, and this may confuse the issue somewhat, my D610’s built-in flash can be used to trigger the i60A in any wireless mode. In the absence of the Air 1 trigger, the A/B/C settings can also be used for non-radio (that is, optical/infrared) wireless TTL operation of either or both the i60A and Di700A, in the current example, with Nikon CLS controlling exposure.
You should also be aware that the i60A (and the Di700A) respond to the built-in flash on the Nikon D610 regardless of channel setting made in the camera or on the i60A. (There are no channel settings on the Di700A.)
In the final analysis, what’s really important is that TTL wireless control works reliably, whether via radio or optical/infrared control.
Now More on That Flash Head
The flash head itself raises, lowers, and swivels without the use of a release button. The detents appear to be well enough engaged that the head won’t drop easily when you’re running around with the flash head up at an angle. Adding heavy bounce panels or other accessories to the head may, however, cause a precipitous and unexpected drop if you jostle the flash too much. However, the flash appears constructed well enough to tolerate a bit of mistreatment.
We should point to one practical consequence of this disproportionate head on the i60A. When you raise the head fully erect and position it on the mini-stand, the flash will topple over backwards, owing to a high center of gravity. Either lower the head two or three notches or, better yet, reverse-mount the flash on the stand for better support while still maintaining the original stance.
The raison d’etre for this flash is its compact size. Compactness is one thing. But we do have to evaluate how this shoe-mount’s size affects performance. As it turns out, size does matter. But not as much as you’d think.
One of the reasons we avoid using the camera’s built-in flash with people (and sometimes animals) is because the on-axis light produced by the flash results in red-eye, where the pupils take on a pronounced blood-red color (due to bounce-back of light off the back of the retina). To mitigate against this possibility, we prefer to use flash off camera, or at the very least use a full-size shoe-mount flash. You could use a red-eye reducing pre-flash, but that destroys the spontaneity of the shot – not to mention the likelihood that your subject will move during that interval.
The i60A sits low enough that it could conceivably result in that same red-eye effect encountered with a pop-up flash. We can’t say that categorically, since numerous factors come into play – but I’m just throwing it out there as a possibility, perhaps even a strong probability.
We also have to consider the lens barrel and/or lens hood (lens shade) getting in the way and blocking the light. The good news is that tests with my Tamron 70-300mm lens, with and without lens shade, on my Nikon D610, bore out that, at normal shooting distances, you don’t get that arc-shaped shadow at the bottom of the screen, which would typically occur when the lens blocks the flash. So I decided to push it further. It proved to be true even when I moved in close with the lens.
I had even used a Tamron 90mm macro lens with attached lens shade on my Nikon D500 with no observable ill effects, shooting some very tight close-ups, I might add. I also tested the flash with my Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens (with built-in lens shade), which has an 82mm filter diameter – a wide schnoz going up against a compact head – with no ill effects to report in terms of light blockage.
However, and this is not directly related to size, further tests revealed that light coverage was uneven at very wide lens focal lengths, as tests with the aforementioned 15-30mm lens on my D610 bore out. In fact, I’d recommend you shoot no wider than 24mm, even with the diffusion attachments. You may not notice this in everyday subjects, unless you’re shooting a wall or other uniformly toned flat surface.
No Confusion about Diffusion
In contrast to the Di700A, the i60A does come with a dome diffuser (diffusion dome), or “soft box,” in Nissin’s parlance. There is also a built-in diffusion panel that you pull out of a slot (for use with ultra-wide lenses) – but, in contrast to other shoe-mounts, here this panel extends from the floor, as it were, not from the roof of the unit.
What’s more, Nissin cleverly separated the bounce/kicker panel so that it slides out from the top of the unit, somewhat like an awning. On most flashes, trying to extract this panel means first withdrawing both the diffusion and bounce panel together, then returning the diffusion panel to its default position. Much simpler this way when you quickly want to add a catch light to someone’s eyes when using bounce flash.
Take all this to the next level. Let’s say you want to diffuse the light further. Simply raise the diffusion panel in place, then snap on the diffusion dome.
Now let’s take this one step further. Shooting with bounce flash but feel you’re losing too much light? Simply slide the bounce panel in place – without even removing the plastic dome. This flash opens up a world of opportunities in lighting, and we haven’t even taken it off the camera yet or added other strobes to the mix.
Even after a few days, I’m learning new things about this flash. That’s not to say that there’s a long learning curve. Quite the contrary. I put the i60A to use as soon as I pulled it out of the box and installed batteries. But that may be easier for me, since I’ve only recently worked with the Di700A, not to mention a spate of Nissins in the past.
I first set about creating a tabletop set with a musical jewelry box in the form of a grand piano, with twirling ballerina on top. The initial setup used the i60A and Di700A as off-camera flashes triggered by the Nissin Air 1 transmitter seated in the Nikon D500’s hot shoe. I’d set the background flash – the Di700A – as Group B with a lower output setting, with the i60A at full power as the key light from in front and to the side. Everything worked as expected. Now came the next phase, capturing the ballerina performing a pirouette atop the piano. But, as is, there wasn’t enough ambient light to record the movement.
So the next day, I made a few changes. First, I draped black velvet inside the light tent. Black velvet has a way of catching the light as undulating waves, which adds depth to any still life set.
Then, just when I was about to set up the i60A as the key flash, with the Di700A again playing a supporting role, a voice in my head loudly chastised me, saying, Hey, use the video light! So I did. A few tests later and I had the light at the right brightness level.
I don’t know that I would call either shoe-mount the key light in this instance. After all, the contribution made by the video light was just as important to the shot as the flash illumination provided by the Di700A. By the way, to soften the light from the flash, which does not come with a diffusion dome, I added a small bounce panel.
What did the video light do? I set the exposure for slow-sync flash. That means, I used a relatively long exposure. At first I tried a half-second, then a full second. Still not quite what I wanted. So I pushed it to two full seconds – and that did the trick. The spinning figurine recorded as a soft blur of movement by the video light (which we’ll consider our ambient lighting) and was at the same time frozen in time by the flash.
I also added a silver panel directed at the front of the piano, notably for the legs and foot pedals (see the set shot). And if you’re wondering why I raised the piano lid all the way up, that’s because the ballerina kept bumping into it and getting knocked off balance – and the rod supporting the lid partially blocked the dancer.
I also took the flash outdoors. But I’ll let the pictures and captions tell the rest of this story.
Who Should Use This?
Any amateur just starting to use flash or who wants to add something extra to an existing flash setup.
Fairly easy to use and compact; multiple operating modes for both on-camera and off-camera use, including TTL optical/infrared and TTL radio wireless flash; digital LCD plus an array of dials and buttons (which may be difficult to see/use for some); dome diffuser included, along with built-in diffusion and kicker panels; powerful for its size; built-in adjustable video light.
The i60A represents a step up for Nissin. This flash builds upon the flagship Di866 Mark II and improves upon it, while doing all that in a smaller form factor.
For starters, the i60A is a complete package. It offers full TTL flash operation on camera and TTL wireless operation off camera, including radio triggering (as a slaved unit). The only thing missing is being able to use this flash to trigger remote strobes in a TTL configuration. Hopefully that will come in the next generation Di866, which is due for a refresh, complete with that “A” (Air) designation and radio control (both transmitter and receiver).
A welcome first for a Nissin flash, when the i60A is set to a non-wireless mode, which includes the video light, the flash enters standby when the camera is switched off, and is re-animated when the camera comes back to life. Previous Nissins failed to be put to sleep or awakened by the camera. (Wireless operation mandates that the flash remain in a ready state.)
Complete mastery of the controls does involve a bit of a learning curve – considerably more so than with the Di700A – but you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. I’d say this unit is better suited to younger individuals. Those with failing eyesight and arthritic fingers would do better with the Di700A.
Finally, Nissin stands head-and-shoulders above those cheap knockoffs of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) shoe-mounts. Some may argue over whether these Nissin flashes can go toe-to-toe with gear from the original manufacturer. However, given a very inviting price point combined with a full feature set that includes every practical mode of TTL wireless flash operation, Nissin gear can’t be beat. And the Nissin i60A shoe-mount is certainly a step in the right direction.
The Nissin i60A is available for Nikon, Canon, Sony, Micro Four Thirds, and Fujifilm systems.
SELECTED PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS (per Nissin)
Guide no. (at ISO 100): GN60 (in meters, at 200mm zoom head position)
Focal length coverage: 24mm – 200mm (16mm when using built-in diffuser)
Power source: 4 size-AA batteries
Recycling time: 0.1- 5.5 sec
LED video light operation time: 3.5 hours
Flash Duration: 1/800- 1/20,000 sec
Color temperature: 5,600K
Wireless mode: 2.4Ghz Nissin Air System radio wireless, Optical wireless TTL slave, non-TTL Slave (SD, SF mode)(*4)
EV compensation on flash: +/- 2EV in increments of 1/3 EV
Bounce/swivel: Up: 0°- 90°, left/right: 0°-180°
Operation panel: Color LCD with dial control
Manual mode power ratio: 1/256 - 1/1 (1/3-step increments)
Mode: Auto, Manual, SD, SF, Wireless with A, B, C & channel selection (2.4Ghz Nissin Air system & optical) (*4)
Dimensions: 112 (H) x 73 (W) x 98mm (D) / 4.4 (H) x 2.9 (W) x 3.6” (D)
Weight: 300g/ 10.8oz (excluding batteries and soft box)
Distributed by/Order From/More Info:
www.neidllc.com (order from authorized resellers)
How much is it?
I originally reviewed the Nissin MF18 digital ring flash several years back, for Shutterbug Magazine. I loved the flash back then, but, since I already had a ring flash that worked wirelessly with my Nikon D300, which at the time I’d paired with a 60mm Micro Nikkor, I had all the macro TTL flash lighting I needed.
Fast forward to today. We’ll skip past the phase where I was using the Nikon D610 also for TTL wireless macro flash photography and jump to the Nikon D500. But perhaps I should clarify. With the introduction of the D300, Nikon introduced CLS (Creative Lighting System), which involved TTL wireless triggering of off-camera flashes. The beautiful part of the system was that the camera’s built-in flash could be used as the trigger, or transmitter, without contributing to the flash exposure. But that worked great when the camera came with a built-in flash.
The D500 “D”-lemma
Now, with the D500 in hand, I suddenly found myself without a pop-up flash that I could use to wirelessly trigger that remote flash. Hence no CLS, leaving my wireless ring flash orphaned.
Yes, I could use one of my existing Nikon flashes as the transmitter but that would be more of a nuisance. And buying the Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander wireless IR transmitter, which costs more than some shoe-mounts and slightly less than my wireless ring flash by itself, would be a pricey option. Not to mention, it would be one more thing that requires a battery and which could easily get misplaced or lost in a tiny nook or cranny.
What’s more, as is, I always found wireless shooting with the built-in flash somewhat precarious. You see, I like to wear hats, and my hats would always push down on the pop-up flash. The upshot of this was: the wireless flash would fail to be triggered. So, even though I liked not having cables that sometimes get in the way, having a flash that I could depend on to fire 100% of the time, what’s more, without worrying about moving the brim of my hat out of the way was more important. What’s the wireless ring flash I’m referring to? The Metz Mecablitz 15 MS-1.
So, when you do the math, it made good sense to switch to the Nissin MF18. (You can get all the particulars about the Nissin macro flash in my Shutterbug review and tips about using a ringlight in those other Shutterbug articles listed below).
Since the MF18 comes with a variety of ring adapters to fit all popular lens filter sizes, there was little doubt I’d find the right adapter for the Tamron 90mm I was now using. You just have to make sure to bring it with you, and the way I usually do that is either by first attaching it to the flash ring housing before leaving home, or to the lens itself. The only problem with attaching to the lens is that it may block reverse-mounting of the lens hood. In fact, once you attach the ring to the lens, there’s no room for a lens shade any way you slice it.
One of the unusual aspects to the MF18 ring is that it elongates to sort of an oval shape. The original design was to accommodate larger-diameter lenses, but I use it with larger subjects, so the light fully wraps around them.
In use, the bright color LCD display proved easy to see in practically any light, even outdoors on a bright day. If you have a problem with strong sunlight, for example, simply turn your back to the sun so the flash housing is in shade. The large numerical display made it easy to read and set flash exposure overrides for subjects that may need it – perhaps a tad too distant from the camera/flash or highly reflective so as to cause the flash to underexpose. It was far simpler than with other ring flashes I’d worked with – and more direct.
The color quality of the resulting images, while difficult to compare without side-by-side comparisons, could be evaluated as quite satisfactory on its own, if not exemplary.
One other nice thing about the flash. The ring is very well diffused, further ensuring an even wash of light surrounding the subject.
Dedicated versions for Nikon, Canon. Tested with Nikon.
Distributed by/Order From/More Info:
www.neidllc.com (order from authorized resellers)
How much is it?
Why You Should Use a Ring Flash for Close-up and Macro Photography
You may be asking, why use a ring flash? And, if you’re not entirely familiar with the concept, you may also be asking, what is a ring flash?
Simply, a ring flash is a circular flash housing that sits on the front of your lens. The advantage is that the flash now has a direct line of sight with your subject. In contrast, the flash seated in the hot shoe experiences a form of parallax – aiming past the subject to some degree, if not entirely, and possibly blocked by the lens itself.
The other advantage is that the ring flash bathes the subject in a wash of light, more or less evenly. On many ring flashes, such as the MF18, you can actually assign a lighting ratio between two halves of the circular flash tube (it’s actually two semi-circular tubes) – for shadowing and depth, as opposed to completely even lighting.
On some ring flashes the flash tube is fully circular. This also means there’s no way to proportionately adjust output from left to right (or top to bottom, if you rotate the ring). That also means it’s an inexpensive flash.
That Metz ring flash mentioned earlier features twin linear flash tubes on opposite sides of the flash head assembly. That means the so-called “ring” is not really forming a ring of light.
In my experience, with nature subjects, I’ve often found it best to simply leave the output even on both sides, without setting ratios, since time is not always on our side to make these adjustments and the situation itself may not warrant it. Anyway, by encircling the subject, the ring of light fills in shadows, leading to what many describe as “shadowless” lighting. In truth ring lighting is really virtually shadowless at best, since some shadows can be seen and help to create a sense of depth with any three-dimensional subject. Light-toned areas behind the subject may still exhibit shadows, although these shadows tend to be soft-edged, rather than distinct.
The ring assembly may clip directly onto the lens, but more often than not, an adapter ring (supplied in most popular filter sizes) is required. The adapter screws onto the front of the lens much like a filter. The ring housing then clips onto this ring, which has a grooved channel that allows the ring head to rotate. Why rotate the head? If you’ve set output ratios for the ring, that lets you control where the stronger light will fall, just as if you had a key light and supporting light.
Additional Reading (click on highlighted links)
Read my review of the Nissin MF18 macro ring flash in Shutterbug Magazine (online).
Two reviews I wrote for Shutterbug on the Tamron 90mm macro lens.
- Tamron 90mm macro review 1
- Tamron 90mm macro review 2
An overview on macro ringlighting for Shutterbug (including LED and fluorescent lights – in short, don’t waste money on them; if you’re going to use a ringlight, make it a ring flash).
A more recent roundup of macro lighting tools for Shutterbug.
An early but very comprehensive introduction to using a ring flash for close-ups.
Read my introductory feature story on TTL wireless flash in Shutterbug Magazine (online).
Read my feature story on No Strings Attached With Wireless TTL Flash for multiple-flash photography in Shutterbug Magazine (online).
When Kata first introduced the Bumblebee photo backpacks (distributed by Manfrotto), they soon became a favorite – at least for a time. What I liked about one bag in particular – and forgive me for not recalling the exact name – was its light-gray reflective exterior and the bright yellow (or yellow-orange?) interior that revealed every piece of gear stored.
Fast forward to the present. These bags no longer come under the Kata brand, being instead not just distributed by Manfrotto, but manufactured under the Manfrotto brand as well. The Bumblebee backpack I received kind of resembles the old Bumblebee, but that’s largely superficial. So has Manfrotto improved the backpack in the redesign? (Spoiler alert: read past the first few paragraphs to find out how I really feel about the bag. Don’t be dissuaded by my introductory comments.)
Preliminary Observations: New Pro Light Bumblebee-230
The reason I’d requested the larger Bumblebee-230 was because the 130 was touted for CLC mirrorless systems. And since I’d planned to use the pack with either with my Nikon D500, possibly with battery grip, or D610 and various lenses, the larger bag seemed the logical choice.
So the bag arrives. And now I remembered one thing that had always bothered me about the original bag. The design of the backpack harness adds depth to the bag and it extends out in front like someone who’s had a few too many beers. What that means is, this bag will very likely not fit in the overhead bin on any aircraft I’ve been on, despite claims to the contrary. OK, technically it may fall under carry-on guidelines. However, you can’t argue with airport personnel or airline crew, especially if you’re among the last to board – what they say goes, and if they say it’s not a good fit, it’s not a good fit. And this is not the time when you can turn around and shift gears to a sleeker, more airline-user-friendly bag.
Okay, forget about air travel. What about everyday use? Well, try using public transit with a backpack that sticks out as far as this one does. You won’t get many smiles from the people you’ve jostled. Then let’s head to the woods. As you attempt to negotiate narrow trails and dense thickets you realize it’s going to be a tight squeeze and you approach the hike with some trepidation.
That aside, the interior design is a bit odd. There’s an upper shelf with an aperture for a lens to stick through. But the aperture is not centered over the central channel in the lower part of the bag, so how exactly do you fit things properly? You have to shift one of the main dividers over to align everything.
What’s more, the interior is dark. And the foam is thick – too thick, in my opinion. Yes, I like my gear cushioned and cuddly in a pack, but the thick foam kind of imposes itself and gets in the way. It takes on a cavernous appearance.
Okay, you’re saying, pull out the upper shelf and stretch the two main red dividers to their full length. Well, guess again. These were apparently fitted for the 130 and they’re too short to extend fully top to bottom in the larger 230.
So, where does this leave us? Well, all is not lost. In fact, there’s quite a lot to be said for this backpack.
Now, What I liked About the Bumblebee-230
The pack is well constructed and will deliver years of good use. The backpack harness works admirably. I especially like the padded pocket in the padded waistbelt – keep a lens or flash here (a 70-300 will fit, although a flash would be a better choice, just in case you hit a lot of bumps in the road).
And the bag is comfortable. Which brings us back to the backpack harness. The waist belt does a beautiful job of keeping the weight off your shoulders. More to the point, it puts it on the hips – exactly where it should be. Few photo backpacks (or I should say backpack manufacturers) understand this, or even among those that do, few follow it in all their backpack designs.
Carrying a tripod comes second nature to this bag. There’s even a laptop sleeve. And there are enough pockets to house all essentials. Well, except for a jacket. The outer front zippered pocket should have been pleated to allow more room. I tried getting a lightweight jacket in there without luck.
I should also mention that there are two ways to get inside the bag. The upper and lower sections zip open separately. However, there is a flap that stands between the zippers on one side. Lift this flap up (it uses Velcro-type hook-and-loop material) and you can gain access to the entire interior with one smooth zip movement.
Test Report: Nissin Di700A with Air 1 Radio Commander and Air R Radio Receiver Shoe-Mount Flash System for On-Camera & Wireless TTL Flash Photography
I’ve reported on Nissin flashes for years (see Additional Reading below). And these strobes never disappointed. The one thing that always struck the right chord with me about Nissin shoe-mounts in the past was their system compatibility with my Nikon gear, or, more specifically, with Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System).
Well, Nissin has upped the ante, bringing you a user-friendly, priced-right multi-mode wireless flash system that will take your flash photography to the next level – with radio remote TTL flash control as a featured mode in the Di700A. Don’t really care about radio control or wireless operation in general? Well, this flash doesn’t stop there.
Di700A and Air 1 Commander Combo
Out of the box, the Di700A can simply be used as an on-camera flash. As with its predecessor, the flagship Di866 Mark II (which remains in the lineup), it features a tilting/rotating head and full TTL-flash integration. TTL flash practically guarantees usable exposures.
Unlike that found on the flagship model, the control panel on the Di700A is simpler, yet stylish in its simplicity, as it’s an uncluttered color display. It certainly beats the uninviting display found on the Di600.
You can purchase the Di700A ($259) and Air 1 ($89) separately. However, you’ll save about $50 when you order the combo package at $299. The Air 1 commander/controller is only necessary if you plan to use the Di700A as a radio-controlled remote (off-camera) TTL flash. Otherwise, the flash is fully functional on its own or in other wireless setups. (Note: you can’t mix and match radio and non-radio triggering and still achieve full TTL flash exposure control.)
Separately, the Di700A is actually less expensive than the Di866 Mark II, which sells for $275, and in my book a much better buy than the older flash, unless you need esoteric functions such as built-in sub-flash (for fill with bounce lighting) and stroboscopic mode.
Di700A TTL and Manual Flash Modes
The graphical user interface on the Di700A offers up numerous operating functions. A, for Auto, is the most basic TTL-flash setting and doesn’t allow you any additional options on the flash itself. The flash takes over, but it remains tied to the camera’s settings, where overrides (such as ISO, f-stop, shutter/sync speed, and flash exposure compensation) still come into play.
For more control, use TTL mode. At this setting, you’re presented with the option to increase or decrease flash output on the flash unit itself, up to +/- 2 steps, in half-step (but not third-step) increments. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always found that setting flash compensation on the flash proved more reliable than making similar settings in the camera. And since Nikon cameras only give you +1 flash compensation (albeit going as far as -3), the maximum override of +2 on the flash itself may prove handy.
M (Manual flash output) lets you set output from full to 1/128, in whole-step increments. (If you need an interim setting, try diffusing the flash or moving the flash further away from the subject to decrease output, moving it closer to increase.) Manual mode should ideally be used in conjunction with a flash meter, but you can play around and arrive at usable settings without that handheld accessory.
Wireless Flash Modes: Non-Radio Triggering
Next we have the wireless settings that come into play with the Di700A as the sole off-camera flash or in tandem with other flash units positioned off camera. There are two modes for use with conventional (non-radio) wireless triggering. The first is SD (“D” for Digital). Use this setting when you use any TTL flash system that emits a pre-flash, which would typically be any camera-dedicated TTL-flash. The triggering pulse is infrared or optical/infrared. When it comes to Nikon, the Di700A supports Nikon CLS for non-radio-triggered TTL flash exposure control. The camera can be set to any of these modes: Manual, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority. You should manually set ISO.
SF (which I take to mean “Standard Flash”) wireless mode is for use with non-dedicated strobes that are used to trigger the Di700A, such as a studio flash (for instance, in this setup you might use the Nissin flash as a kicker for a highlight or as a hair light). That said, the built-in flash on my Nikon D610 did also trigger the remote Di700A. The triggering pulse for SF is photo-optical. Set the camera to Manual shooting mode for SF triggering, so that you have full control over both flash and ambient light components, via, respectively, F-stop and shutter/sync speed. You should also manually set ISO.
Radio-Frequency Wireless TTL Flash
The final, and newest for Nissin, wireless flash mode is radio-frequency wireless TTL-controlled remote, or simply TTL radio (radio TTL) remote. For this mode there is an icon, which kind of looks like the more familiar podcast icon. The working distance is about 100 feet, about three times the reach of typical infrared or optical triggering. What’s more, radio signals are not blocked by trees or walls, in contrast to infrared and photo-optical signals. So you can trigger a flash in another room, to prevent the space from being seen as a black void if it shows in the picture. However, electrical wiring, steel beams, and electronics may interfere with the signal. I’m told that even an intervening snow bank can limit the effective reach.
Important: this radio remote system operates at 2.4GHz and, according to industry sources, can be used around the world without interfering with other devices. (But when in doubt, check with local authorities.) Devices that use other frequencies may be restricted and categorically illegal overseas.
When in radio remote mode, the Di700A is not typically triggered by a camera flash. However, if there's no radio signal, Nikon CLS kicks in with the built-in flash on my Nikon D610, triggering the Di700A for full TTL flash control.
As with all radio systems, a triggering device, or transmitter, is required. For radio-controlled TTL flash, that trigger is the Air 1, which sits in the camera’s hot shoe, electronically carrying on a conversation between camera and flash. (Note that the foot on the Air 1 has all the needed pins to coincide with those in the camera’s hot shoe.)
When I first set up the system, I wondered why my Nikon D500 had the radio setting grayed out. Typically, when using Nikon’s own dedicated radio transmitter, this setting must be activated. Well, I learned that Nissin’s system, as with other third-party TTL wireless radio systems, bypasses such settings. In fact, you still get full TTL flash control. More to the point, in contrast with Nikon’s own system, which currently limits wireless radio TTL flash control to Nikon’s own system and the D500 and D5 bodies, the Nissin system can be used with any Nikon DSLR that supports TTL flash control. Which is why I ended up using it with the Nikon D610 – and did so without any hassles. It worked every time.
I tested the Nissin radio-controlled TTL flash system with both the Di700A and with a Nikon SB-900, in conjunction with my Nikon D610 DSLR. The only difference: the Di700A was triggered directly, without requiring any accessories, as it has a radio receiver built in. To trigger the Nikon flash, I had to attach the SB-900 to an optional Nissin Air R module.
The Nissin Air 1 is the radio trigger that was seated in the camera hot shoe, triggering both off-camera strobes – the Di700A and, via the Air R, the SB-900. Everything worked fine, with the setup reliably delivering usable TTL flash exposures.
When testing the flash in SD (pre-flash digital) wireless remote mode, I used the built-in flash on the D610 as the trigger, setting the flash internally so it wouldn’t fire and contribute to the flash exposure, but instead would simply trigger the remote unit. No problems here either, with everything working smoothly.
In short, when it came to shooting with my Nikon D610, I’d call my tests with the Nissin Di700A and Nissin dedicated Air system a resounding success. I’ll put the next Nissin flash – the compact i60A – to the test with my Nikon D500 when that flash arrives.
Field Report: Think Tank Photo's StreetWalker Series Photo Backpacks Take to the Streets as Version 2.0
I used my original StreetWalker for a long while, eventually replacing it with MindShift Gear’s TrailScape 18L when that bag came along. What I liked about the StreetWalker (version 1.0) was its small size: It could easily fit under the seat of a commercial airliner and would be a comfy fit in a puddle jumper as well. But when the TrailScape came along, I figured, Hmm, a bit bigger and a roomy outer front pocket for a light jacket – OK, I’ll use this one when I need a smaller bag.
Now that the StreetWalker V2.0 (SW V2) is here, I find myself switching back to this smaller pack. After all, if I need something larger, capable of storing a jacket and some extras, I still have my MindShift BackLight 26L, which I recently discovered will snugly hold my Nikon D500 with attached Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens (look for a review of both products soon).
Think Tank also sent me the new StreetWalker Pro V2.0 (SW Pro V2) – the larger sibling in this family, but not the largest in this series by any means. There’s an even more spacious pack, the StreetWalker HardDrive V2.0 (which fits a full-size laptop), and new to the lineup, the StreetWalker Rolling Backpack V2.0 (roller and backpack in one). The two largest bags looked tempting, but I felt that two bags was enough to deal with for now.
Inside and Out
The new SW V2 and SW Pro V2 are roomier on the inside than their original counterparts and slightly larger overall. Other than that, the new models add room for a 10” tablet on the bag. The tablet sleeve is the same size on both bags.
One of the problems I had with the original SW V2 (can’t recall if this also applied to the larger pack) was the small water-bottle pocket on the small bag. Think Tank addressed the issue in both V2 bags with an expanded, pleated zipped pocket behind the mesh pocket. Small water bottle? Use the mesh pocket. Large 32 oz Nalgene, use the zipped pocket.
I would have preferred that the pockets were pleated all the way around to the bottom. That would make an easier fit for a large water bottle and allow for a grommet at the base. A bottle with cold water subjected to a warm, humid environment will form condensation, and that condensation will pool at the bottom. A grommet allows the water to safely drip free of the bag.
The pocket on the left (with the bag on your back) has a small smartphone sleeve as well. I don’t know about you, but I carry my phone in a vest pocket, where I can easily reach it, not in the backpack, where it’s impossible to reach (unless you’re a contortionist) without taking the pack off your back. Some things appear cool on paper but are not very practical in the real world.
One of the more subtle changes revolves around the main padded partition. It’s now hinged toward the bottom to make room for a second camera with lens attached. Simply swing the hinged section over to the right to make room. When carrying two cameras with attached lenses, this provides for a well-balanced carrying situation, which your back will thank you for. Obviously, this reduces your ability to carry very long lenses, but, hey, you can’t have everything – unless you switch to a larger-size pack.
Any way you slice it, either bag is roomy enough to hold fast lenses attached to a DSLR, within limits. I would even venture to say that each bag could hold a medium-format camera, possibly with a lens, at the bottom. At the very least, the larger bag should hold two gripped DSLR bodies with attached lenses; the smaller one should accommodate one DSLR at the top and, on the bottom, one gripped body, each with lens.
Air-flow mesh padding in the back and shoulder straps was welcome relief on a hot muggy day as I found myself walking around several popular birding areas in the Chicago area, wearing the StreetWalker Pro V2, on a bird photography outing with a friend.
I had the SW Pro V2 loaded with my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm G2 – lens attached, I might add, and resting comfy, cozy, and snug inside the pack. I also added a Nissin Di700A shoe-mount (which I’m also testing) and sling strap, that I sometimes left attached to the camera – or more correctly, the tripod mount for better balance.
And yes, I kept the tripod mount attached to the lens. Otherwise, you tend to forget these things when you need them, or misplace them entirely. I also find it much easier to carry the camera by grabbing onto the mount, although at times I may cradle the camera, varying with the moment or the situation.
The tripod mount was positioned fully downward inside the pack, an arrangement I found raises the entire assembly to the point where camera and lens practically hug the closed lid for a snug fit so things don’t bounce around. Still, as a further precaution, I tend to secure lens and camera with either an elastic band that attaches to either side surrounding and hugging the lens, or I position an unused padded divider over the lens barrel for this purpose. I should add that I left the lens shade reverse-mounted on the lens.
The lens being this new, I take one more precautionary step – I slide the packing Styrofoam collar that came with the lens in place beneath the hood, just as it arrived from the factory, to prevent distorting the hood. It’s probably overkill, I know, and I may discontinue this practice, but it stands for now.
One thing that bothered me about both bags: the lack of headroom above the camera. The D500 has a very deep grip. The Nikon D610 not so much, but it still had difficulty being comfortably seated in the smaller V2 pack. I almost gave up, till I realized I could reshape the central divider somewhat to make room. And that worked. I have the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 attached to the camera, and there appears to be room for a bulkier and longer lens in its place. The fit in the larger Pro V2 was also tight with the D500 in place, but not to the point where I had to make any further adjustments to the main divider.
As for comfort level, I’m not sure why – and this will no doubt differ with the individual – I found the smaller of the two packs rides more comfortably on my back. Perhaps it’s due to the heavier load packed into the Pro V2. Then again, I’ve loaded the BackLight with the same gear, and it was a smooth ride – as good as it gets. It may have something to do with the added depth of the SW Pro.
As a side note, I should point out that the added depth on the StreetWalkers offers one distinct advantage: It lets them stand upright easily, unassisted and without having to lean against something for support, without fear of the bag tipping over, which is certainly a plus.
FEATURES (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Backpacks V2.0
WHAT FITS (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Pro V2.0
MATERIALS (per Think Tank Photo)
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Pro V2.0
Internal Dimensions: 9.4” W x 17.3” H x 7.5” D (24 x 44 x 19 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 9.8” W x 18.5” H x 8.3” D (25 x 47 x 21 cm)
Tablet: 7.7” W x 10.4” H x 0.4” D (19.5 × 26.5 × 1 cm)
Phone Pocket: 3.9” W x 7.5” H x 0.6” D (10 × 19 × 1.5 cm)
Weight: 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg)
Internal Dimensions: 9.4” W x 16.1” H x 6.3” D (24 x 41 x 16 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 9.8” W x 17.3” H x 7.1” D (25 x 44 x 18 cm)
Tablet: 7.7” W x 10.4” H x 0.4” D (19.5 × 26.5 × 1 cm)
Phone Pocket: 3.9” W x 7.5” H x 0.6” D (10 × 19 × 1.5 cm)
Weight: 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg)
Peak Design’s trademark, if you will, is out-of-the-ordinary photo accessories. They made their mark on the photo industry with the Capture camera and lens clips, which heralded a different way of carrying a camera and lens – essentially attached to your body. Now they’re looking to do the same with their line of Everyday line of camera bags, specifically the Everyday Backpack. Did they succeed?
Perhaps I should begin by saying that, while I thought the Capture clips were a clever idea, I never found them very practical. At least not for my style of shooting. And there’s the rub. We each have our own shooting style, so what works for one person may not work for someone else, or, to look at it another way, what doesn’t work for me may work for you.
A Little Background
I’ve been working with photo backpacks ever since Ultimate Experience introduced the very first one several decades ago, in the pre-digital age (look it up, I think museums have a hall dedicated to it). That pack was well-constructed and very lightweight, but it had numerous shortcomings, to the point where I was happy when new packs started to arrive on the scene. Back then Lowepro stole the show. Today MindShift Gear is setting the benchmarks in outdoor/wilderness packs and Think Tank Photo in travel packs.
Anyway, when the Peak pack arrived, the first thing that struck me was, hey, this is one stylish bag. I was really curious to see how well it would hold up under actual use. I took a peek (no pun intended, well, maybe just a little) inside the Peak, and, again talking to myself, said, hmmm, let’s load this baby up and take it for a spin. So I did just that.
Peak sent me the ash-gray pack, which features leather accents. Too early to tell how this leather will hold up, but it does add a modicum of refinement any way you slice it. The charcoal pack is entirely fabric (sans leather accents).
The backpack harness consists of thinly padded shoulder straps, with sternum (chest) strap and waist belt. The ends of the waist belt are hidden in the outside pockets. If you have arthritic fingers, you may have a tough time accessing them – get a friend to help.
In addition to the backpack harness, the bag features a handle on each side, as well as on top – nice touch. On the ash bag, the handle is a composite of fabric and leather layers.
There are stretchable pockets on the outside hiding compression straps. You can use one pocket and its respective compression strap for a tripod, the other pocket on its own for a water bottle.
What gives the side pockets their stretch are elastic bands. I was able to fit a 32 oz. Nalgene water bottle in the pocket, but I fear that over time the elastic may wear and break. (Other straps are hidden away under the front of the bag, in a hidey-hole, so to speak.)
There’s also a zipped sleeve, accessible at the top, on the back, which will hold various accessories, a tablet, and laptop.
The main zipped flaps afford you entry to the camera section, one zipped flap on each side. And that’s where the story gets especially interesting. You can access the bag through a side flap by swinging the bag around to the front, sling-fashion, while keeping the bag attached to your body via one shoulder strap. This way you won’t have to put the bag down, which is a decided plus when you’re standing in the muck or surrounded by water or snow.
But before we look inside, I should also note that there is a stiffened top lid that also leads to the bag’s interior. The top lid has a magnetic closure. There’s no way to lock the bag, although the side zips do provide a modicum of security. Still, most thieves will get at a backpack through the top, not the side, and they’ll have little trouble doing that here in a crowded setting. I would recommend keeping a rain cover on the pack to help keep prying hands out, but, alas, none is provided. That’s another point of contention.
The interior of the pack features three, what Peak calls, “FlexFold” dividers, with Velcro-type hook-and-loop fasteners. You position these three dividers as shelves. They can be modified to hold more gear in a somewhat unusual fashion, without adding more dividers: Each shelf end folds upward, forming a mini-shelf. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think of bookends. That’s kind of how they look, if not how they function.
It looks and sounds really cool, but here’s the problem…
The upshot of this divider system is that you can’t fully customize the interior. For starters, bookending either side leaves less cushioning on the remaining end section of the modified shelf/divider. What’s more, the end sections offer rather flimsy support. It’s even possible for something small to fall over the edge of a shelf, into the gap left between shelf and side flap, since the ends just float there, with nothing to secure them to the sides.
On top of that, the FlexFold dividers can’t be repositioned horizontally along the shelf – they’re locked in place at each end. You either use them or you don’t. But you can’t further modify the amount of space devoted to each piece of gear – that is without moving the entire divider up or down. Unless you wrap, say, a lens in soft foam or bubble wrap to keep it snug.
With conventional dividers, you can form a virtually unlimited array of shapeable modules, more with some bags than with others. And you can even shape dividers around lenses, so they don’t move, no matter how much jostling they undergo.
There’s another drawback to this system. Actually more than one. You can access some gear on the top shelf through the lid, but the rest of the gear must be accessed through one of the side panels.
So, what happens if you have one short lens on a mini-shelf on one side of the pack and a second short lens on a mini-shelf on the opposite side? You have to open each flap. And that assumes that you remember where you put which lens. Not to mention, there’s always the possibility of forgetting to close one of the two side flaps that you’ve just opened – unless you open and close them one at a time. (This is where accessing the bag sling-style can actually prove to be more of a bane than a boon.)
One more issue I have with this bag. The dividers use a very dense closed-cell foam. Open-cell foam absorbs vibrations and is ideal for dividers when not overly spongy (that Ultimate Experience pack used very spongy open-cell foam). Closed-cell foam is better shock protection, which works great for the exterior shell and to some degree for dividers. (I’ve always contended that a layered mix of open and closed would be the ideal.) The dividers here are so dense that things just bounce off them. So if there’s too much room, a lens will bounce around – and you don’t want that. You want the lens as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug.
I should add that there is a way to set this divider system up so that one very long lens can stand on end from the very bottom of the bag, but I found it highly impractical. And again, you’d have to cushion the lens against being bounced around.
I also need to point out that the side flaps each have pockets. However, don’t overfill these, as that may get in the way of the gear you can store on each shelf.
I strongly recommend you view the video on Peak Design’s website outlining all the features of the bag. But read between the lines. It’s not all as smooth-sailing as the video would lead you to believe. (Click here for video.)
I’ve already outlined all my issues with the interior design of the pack (see Design: Interior). So no need to repeat myself.
I like the magnetic latches, despite the fact that you can’t lock them. But what I don’t like is that the flap is open at either end, which, in a torrential downpour or with gusty winds at the beach, means water or sand will find a way in.
The bag desperately needs a rain cover. It was shortsighted of Peak Design not to include one, or at least optionally offer one custom made for this pack. Finding one online that fits just right is just too iffy. Not to mention, third party rain covers advertise some other company. I’d like to think that Peak Design would prefer to promote their own products, not someone else’s.
When I tried the empty bag on, it was a comfy fit. And I initially made a point of mentioning that to Peak Design. Fast forward to my experience after I loaded the bag up and the experience was radically different.
I found the shoulder straps with a loaded bag dug into my shoulders. To keep straps from sliding off, which is typical of most packs, I employed the sternum (chest) strap. I found this equally uncomfortable. The one-piece chest strap hooks onto each shoulder strap (instead of two pieces snapping together) – sounds simple in theory, more troublesome in practice.
Then I added the waist belt. Using a waist belt is supposed to take some of the weight off the shoulders. It didn’t do that. There was no added support whatsoever. And the waist belt is too narrow and neither contoured nor padded.
To make matters worse, I noted that, had I been a stockier fellow, the straps would not have fit. This bag is not made for someone with a stocky frame. I also wonder how it would do with layer upon layer upon layer of heavy winter clothing. I didn’t have to dress for winter to figure that one out. It would be a tight fit, if that.
There are occasions when even a hard-nosed photo backpack user like myself must resort to a shoulder bag. In these times, sadly, backpacks may be seen as something other than the innocent carriers of your photo gear. There’s even one institution here in Chicago, namely Shedd Aquarium, where I’ve had the unfortunate experience of a security person literally ripping through my MindShift Gear photo pack to gain access, instead of simply using the zippers as intended – or asking me to open the bag. Happily, no harm done, except for some frayed nerves on this side of the inspection table (good thing MindShift uses high-quality hardware that resists such mistreatment). It was more intrusive than past TSA inspections I’d experienced (although maybe not as bad as some recently reported).
In the past, I was very happy using my Think Tank Retrospective 5 Leather bag, although over time I’d come to realize the small size was both a boon and a bane, keeping me from carrying too much but often proving too small for anything more than the minimum of gear. Even a 15-30 f/2.8 or 70-300 attached to a DSLR was too much and the 24-70 f/2.8 on the camera just barely made it. So it was time to trade up.
Thankfully, the Signature series entered the scene. Here I had a choice between two sizes. And this time I opted for the larger bag for one very good reason: The bag was longer and deeper than the Retrospective, but it still maintained a slim profile. That would remove the temptation to overfill the bag and also meant it would ride comfortably at my side, without bulking out.
What’s more, as I was soon to find out, I could shift the bag around to my back when wearing it sling-fashion. Of course, as a shoulder bag, it lends itself nicely to being worn over the shoulder. In fact, this bag is almost perfect. Almost.
Think Tank seems to have reinvented camera bag fabric when it came to the Signature series. This is a softly textured polyblend with the feel of finely woven wool. Unlike the Retrospective, this bag does not use Velcro-style hook-and-loop fasteners on the outside. In fact, I’d caution you to keep Velcro away from the exterior, as it may ruin that clean look (and, no, I didn’t test it, out of fear of ruining the bag). And if you’re wondering, the bag has been treated with a water-resistant finish. That aside, there is a rain cover included, which came in handy when I found myself pelted in a downpour.
Enhancing this bag’s sophisticated appearance are leather accents. Soft leather graces the bottom of the bag. And there is leather on the carrying handle and shoulder strap, as well as the fastener straps. The buckle fasteners are metal, not plastic, further heightening the impression of quality.
Advancing the impression that this is a well-crafted bag is this: There is not one stitch out of place, not one loose thread.
This is where the Signature bag really shines, for the most part. The entire interior is Velcro-friendly. You can reposition the padded dividers to your heart’s content. Better still, they are more heavily padded than the typical Think Tank dividers. What’s more, the two central dividers are supportive enough to hold a camera upright, with attached lens facing downward. And if you feel you need more dividers, they’re included. I originally put these in storage, since I found the original set of dividers did the job well enough.
Two things I did not like about the interior centered on the bottom of the bag. Instead of one contiguous cushioning base, there are two, what are essentially, padded dividers lining the bottom. And the bag lacks a stabilizing bottom platform to help keep the bag’s shape and prevent a sagging bottom, while offering enhanced protection to gear. So, I pulled the three extra padded dividers from storage and lined the bottom of the bag with them. Now the bag is firmer at the base and offers even better protection for my gear.
Keep in mind that a soft-sided bag is intended to be pliable. A heavily padded, stiff outer shell would make the bag less convenient to carry. The back of this bag is the most heavily padded, enough so as to cushion you against bumps and practically prevent anything from bulging out intrusively. The front of the bag is more pliable, so keep the top of the camera to the front. That also places the grip on the right, for a quick grab.
There is enough room in the Signature 13 for me to keep a BlackRapid sling strap attached to my Nikon D610. BlackRapid straps tend to protrude more than most sling straps when attached to a camera body, which is why it’s worth noting.
A couple of more points worth noting. Unlike the Retrospective, the Signature bags feature an interior zippered lid. Keep this zipped when on the move, prior to reaching your destination or when in iffy spots to keep out prying hands.
In theory, the top flap fully covers the top of the bag. In practice, the sides bulk out just enough to leave a tiny bit of the interior exposed on each side. Which is why you may want to keep the inner lid zipped when moving about, or in situations where dirt or debris or errant water drops or snowflakes might enter the bag.
And speaking of this inner lid. I would have preferred two zippers to make it easier to open and close more rapidly. That aside, Think Tank thoughtfully designed it so that it could be attached to the main flap for quick opening when unzipped. And they’ve added another option: You can tuck the lid inside the bag, so it remains out of the way entirely. I prefer the first approach, since you can leave it attached to the main flap and still zip it open and closed. This inner lid, by the way, is pleated, making room for a lens that may stand taller than would ordinarily be accommodated.
KEY FEATURES per Think Tank Photo (with my comments in italics)
GEAR CAPACITY per Think Tank Photo (with my comments in italics)
MATERIALS per Think Tank Photo
Exterior: All fabric exterior treated with durable water resistant coating while fabric underside is coated with polyurethane for superior water resistance. The bag also has 240D wool-like 195G nylon/poly blend, full-grain leather, antique-plated metal hardware, highest quality YKK RC-Fuse zippers, 550D polyspun, nylon seatbelt webbing, neoprene, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
Interior: 210D silver-toned nylon lining, polyurethane-backed quilted Velex liner and dividers, high-density closed-cell foam dividers, 2x polyurethane coated nylon 210T seam-sealed taffeta rain cover, nylon binding, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS per Think Tank Photo
Not long ago, I reviewed the Airport Security V3.0 rolling camera case from Think Tank. I couldn’t sing its praises loud enough.
Well, the TakeOff V2.0 may unseat the Security as my favorite roller, and here’s why. (For reasons why you should use a roller for your camera gear in the first place, I direct you to that earlier review.)
At the outset we should point out that all of Think Tank’s Airport-series rollers are what we’d consider “soft-sided” luggage. That means it's fabric-covered and pliable yet quite rigid.
Airport TakeOff V2.0 vs the Original Airport TakeOff
On the surface, they appear to be very similar. You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. However, there are a few noteworthy design changes, from what I can discern in the specifications.
To begin, the new bag uses a 1680D nylon shell, which is better quality, higher density, and more abrasion-resistant than the 420D used in the original. Second, whereas both employ user-replaceable in-line skate wheels, V2 uses “high performance, 80mm super-quiet wheels with sealed bearings.” Not having used the original, I can’t speak to a quantifiable difference, but I can say that the new wheels are smooth-rolling and super quiet. The Airport Security uses the same wheels, so there was no need to put them through the same tests. Suffice to say, they pass muster on carpet, cracked pavement, and grass.
Aside from that, the pocket that was originally inside the cover flap has moved to the outside, for faster access, except that it’s fully opaque nylon, not see-through plastic. There are also some cosmetic differences and the included tethered lock has been moved to the side, underneath the side padded handle.
Airport TakeOff V2.0 vs Airport Security V3.0
The TakeOff has a smaller profile than the Security, so it should be a better fit in the overhead on smaller aircraft. That said, you should always check airline allowances before packing your gear and leaving for the airport.
The Security is designed to serve as the name implies. The primary lock is built into the case, with both zipper pulls (the metal tabs) locking in place inside the combination lock – it’s an ingenious design! The tethered lock, however, is a standard combination lock and removable from the tether. Both are TSA-compliant (meaning TSA can easily unlock them if needed).
The TakeOff features only a tethered combination lock, also TSA-compliant, but this lock is permanently attached to the tether. And the tether is much shorter here than on the other bag, if that matters. Also, as mentioned, the tether is found on the side of the bag, in contrast to the top-loading tether on the Security (not sure if that really makes a difference from a practical standpoint). The zippers to the TakeOff’s camera section are interlocking to accept the TSA combination lock.
The front pockets on the two rollers are different, yet similar in some ways. Both will hold a laptop plus tablet. The laptop sleeve on the TakeOff is a smidge larger and appears to have thicker padding in front. The TakeOff will hold my 17” Gateway with protruding battery attached. This laptop is quite thick. The fit was snug, and removing the battery would have been a prudent move. The TakeOff features an organizer pocket, whereas, oddly, this feature is missing on the other roller.
The biggest difference between the two cases is in how you access the outside compartments. On the Security, everything but the outer mesh front pocket, is zippered, with interlocking zippers – hence, lockable. The TakeOff lacks the large outer mesh pocket, and only the organizer pocket is zippered – but with no way to secure it. The laptop/tablet sleeves are accessible via a snap-closure mechanism – not at all difficult to get into when your back is turned. So you wouldn't want to leave the TakeOff with a stranger while you head to the restroom or while you step away for a quick cup of java.
An even greater overriding concern for some of you: If you work with pro-grip DSLRs, then you'll definitely choose the deeper Security over the TakeOff. A point that should not be overlooked.
The telescoping handle is fully exposed on the Security, whereas on the TakeOff it is hidden beneath a zippered flap, and for good reason. What really sets the TakeOff apart from the Security and other Think Tank Airport rollers is the built-in backpack harness.
Why a Backpack Harness?
Despite the fact that Think Tank does a really nice job with its padded handles, making them ultra-comfy and ultra-strong, there are times when you want to move more quickly and with better balance over uneven, perhaps gravelly, rock-strewn, or muddy terrain, and hand-carrying just won’t cut it.
Carrying a roller by the handle makes you kind of wobbly. Besides, you may need your hands free to carry something else or to help you negotiate stairs or rough terrain. Enter the backpack harness.
Unlike the traditional backpack harness found on rollers equipped with these straps, where you first have to attach the harness or go through some lengthy process of digging them out, using the harness on the TakeOff couldn’t be easier. Unzip a flap on the back, and voila! You’ve unveiled the backpack straps. They slide out and back in effortlessly.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the flap leading to the harness secures to the bottom of the case and out of the way via hook-and-loop material, popularly known as Velcro. What you will notice is that these shoulder straps don’t extend all the way down to the bottom edge of the case – at least not from the outside. That means there’s no waist belt, which is unnecessary in this kind of arrangement. There is, however, a sternum (chest) strap to help secure the bag so it doesn’t shift weight as you’re trekking over rocky areas.
Granted, this is a heavier setup than a traditional soft-sided backpack alone without wheels or cart handle. But you won’t be going on long hikes. You’re just donning the harness to negotiate a short stretch of difficult terrain, or to climb the stairs. (Advisory: never drag the case up stairs or lift it by the telescoping handle. Always hand-carry it in such instances, or use the backpack harness.)
Rollers traditionally have one failing. To allow for the wheelbase and telescoping handle, sections of the interior are raised, leaving what we might describe as wells or channels. You can simply work around that without it hampering you in the least. I arranged my gear in minutes.
The interior lets you stash two bodies sans pro-grip with attached lenses and a whole slew of additional glass and one or two shoe-mounts besides. There are more than enough padded dividers and many of these are hook-and-loop compatible, letting you configure the interior to your heart’s content.
As for the backpack straps… Well, keep in mind this is not a traditional backpack. Owing to the constricted way the straps extend outside the bag (not as loose as the traditional harness), the straps did pinch a bit under the arms, but not to the point of unbearable discomfort. You should try it out for yourself, as all body types are different. Remember: these straps are just a temporary means of traversing terrain that would prove difficult for wheeled luggage. In the main, wheeling this case along is just a dream.
Materials (per Think Tank Photo)
Exterior: For superior water-resistance, all exterior fabric has a durable water repellent (DWR) coating, plus underside of fabric has a polyurethane coating. The roller bags are also constructed with 1680D ballistic nylon, YKK RC Fuse (abrasion-resistant) zippers, custom designed extra tall skid plates, high performance 80mm super quiet wheels with sealed bearings, SpanKodra front pocket, rubberized laminate reinforcement, nylon webbing, and 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
Interior: 210D silver-toned nylon, polyurethane backed Velex liner and dividers, 2x polyurethane coated nylon 210T seam-sealed rain cover, closed-cell foam and reinforced
Specifications (per Think Tank Photo)
Internal Dimensions: 13” W x 18.5” H x 5.3 – 6.8” D (33 x 47 x 13–17 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 14” W x 21” H x 8” D (35.5 x 53 x 22 cm)
Laptop Pocket: 11.4” W x 16.3” H x 1.4” D (29 x 41.5 x 3.6 cm)
Tablet Pocket: 9.8” W x 9.4” H x 0.8” D (25 x 24 x 2 cm)
Weight: 7.0–8.7 lbs. (3.2–3.9 kg) depending on accessories used
Where can I get more info/order this product?
Think Tank Photo
Think Tank Photo
How much is it?
Field Report: Acratech Panorama System – Panoramic Head, Leveling Base, Nodal Rail, and Universal L-Bracket – Everything You Need for Wide-Ranging Panoramas
Until now my forays into panoramic photography were limited to what I could do with my regular Acratech ballheads. When I first set out to shoot panos, I didn’t pay attention to a certain feature on these heads—that being that you can remove the quick-release clamp from the top of the head and re-mount it to the bottom. You then effectively attach the head to the tripod upside down. I’m not quite clear on what difference it makes except that you somehow create a more efficient, built-in leveling base that works in tandem with the head as a whole. This feature is available on most Acratech ballheads, the notable exception being the new Nomad.
Anyway, so when I first set out to shoot panoramas I ended up making do with the head in its original configuration. I would level the head and visually determine the overlap from frame to frame. It seemed to work – at least when generating panoramas in Lightroom, using its Photo Merge/Panorama feature. But I wanted more – I wanted tighter control over my panos and I wanted to try dedicated pano software for this process.
So my next step was to talk to Acratech about their pano gear. It’s still somewhat of a learning process, especially in terms of the software – I opted to use PTGui (review to come). But I now feel that I have a much better handle on it, with a greater understanding and appreciation for what’s involved. And that wouldn’t be possible without this Acratech gear.
Note: be sure to click Read More for a guide to Determining the Nodal Point and 10 Tips to Successful Panoramas.
Chicago skyline viewed from Lincoln Park Zoo. To save on system resources, I didn't build this panorama as wide as I would have liked. It's constructed from vertical frames in 3 layers (top to bottom) - in PTGui pano stitching software (individual frames processed in Lightroom to restore the color and tonal depth to the scene and punch it up a bit, so it wouldn't look flat). All done using my Giottos carbon fiber tripod with Acratech panoramic head, Acratech leveling base, Acratech nodal rail, and Acratech L-bracket. I couldn't have done it without the Acratech gear! (Note the wedding party under that structure on the left.) ©2017 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.
The Acratech Armada
Acratech sent me their Panoramic Head, Leveling Base, L-Bracket, and Nodal Rail. Let’s address each in turn. While I could have added an Acratech QR plate as well, I opted to stick with my Giottos universal QR plate. I should add that Acratech makes plates custom designed around numerous camera bodies and lens tripod mounts with a special back lip that prevents accidental rotation.
Panoramic Head. This is a work of art in itself! Much like its siblings, it could easily be mistaken for a museum piece were it not so practical to work with. It’s sexy and solid. Movements are fluid and all the knobs work smoothly and effortlessly, locking firmly in place, with no fear that they’d come loose or shift my viewpoint upon tightening (something heads of lesser quality are known to do). Aside from etched markings for horizontal panoramic movement, there are also marked settings for vertical movement, so the head can easily be used for multi-row panos. For the horizontal panos, there is a movable indicator to notate your starting point. What’s more, the QR clamp rotates (for camera positioning as needed) but does lock in place. And the head is fully compatible with all tripods. This head easily fits on the Acratech Leveling Base (strongly recommended). Verdict: the Acratech Panoramic Head is the perfect tool for the job.
Leveling Base with stud. There are two types of leveling base that I’ve come across in researching the topic. One type uses three- or four-point leveling. The Acratech base uses one-point leveling, meaning, the base pivots around a central axis. Less to fuss with, as I see it. The base screws right onto the tripod. There is also a Large Leveling Base, for larger still heads and professional video heads, and a Leveling Base with QR Clamp, for direct mounting of a camera (with QR plate) to the base. A large bulls-eye spirit level makes it easy to level the base. Verdict: With the Acratech Level Base, I can get the camera level or at least to within a few degrees in a minute or two. May take a bit more finessing with the camera mounted, owing to greater torque, but certainly doable.
Universal L-Bracket. This bracket is a practical necessity to allow you to simply and effortlessly shoot vertical panos without throwing off camera alignment. It quickly lets you switch from vertical back to horizontal shooting. A larger version, the Extended Universal L-Bracket, is available for cameras with battery grip and oversize bodies. The bracket attaches to the nodal rail. For verticals, the raised L should be on the right, to allow enough room for the grip. When shooting horizontals, that part of the bracket resides on the left. Verdict: it’s so much easier to go from horizontal to vertical and back again with the Acratech L-Bracket, without spoiling the framing. My one concern – attaching the Nikon wired release MC-DC2 being hampered by the bracket – quickly dissolved, thanks to the open channel in the bracket.
Nodal Slide. This nodal rail is what you need to ensure accurate, parallax-free frame-to-frame alignment, regardless of which lens you use. There are two stops that you can lock in place to guide positioning of two separate focal lengths (the provided hex wrench lets you adjust them on the fly). Meaning, you don’t have to mark down the positions of the lens along the rail, as you’d ordinarily need to do with conventional rails. The camera, alone or on the L-bracket, just slides into the designated position marked by the stop. The clamp knob should be facing you. The clamp rotates by releasing the hex screw on the bottom (using the hex wrench) to orient the camera as needed. (Of necessity, the orientation changes when using the L bracket.) Verdict: those two stops along the Nodal Slide are a game-changer. Unless you use more than two focal lengths, you’ll find setting up for the lens’s sweet spot to avoid parallax is fast and effortless. And if you need to change it on the fly, that’s quickly doable as well.
This was my first time working with a panoramic head, L-bracket, leveling base, and nodal rail, despite my many years as a photographer. They’re just not tools I found I needed till now. And now that I’ve found them, I wish I’d had them decades before, although I’m not sure I would have had the wherewithal to make the best use of them back then. What’s more, for many years I simply preferred to shoot handheld. So all this extra gear would just have been gathering dust.
Not today. I’ve got my MindShift Gear backpacks configured so they easily tote the Acratech panoramic components along with my Giottos carbon fiber tripod. By “configured,” I mean, I’ve made sure they’d fit easily in the bag without bumping up against other gear or me having to dig for them. Granted, owing to its L shape, the L-bracket is the most cumbersome to carry. I do leave the leveling base attached to the head, since they neatly and snugly fit in one modular section in the pack. (Your mileage may vary.)
What I don’t do is leave all this attached to the tripod, because it makes for awkward portage, especially when carried along the side of the pack. And whether side- or front-carried, the head alone (or seated on the leveling base) sticks up, so that it might catch on something or bump into things along the way. Leaving the rail and bracket attached on top of that just compounds the situation. Sure, if you’re going by car or hand-carrying, then leave everything in place on the tripod, although that awkwardness does manifest itself when schlepping the tripod by hand from one location to the other. Remember, the added gear does make the tripod considerably more top-heavy.
As to actual use, once I got past the intimidation factor, it was smooth sailing. I’m still mastering the art of the panorama, but I’m confident that I have a firm handle on it, thanks to this Acratech gear.
Acratech is a master at designing and machining components that fit well together and fit well in your workflow. I did have to go back to the company’s online tutorial videos once or twice before everything clicked, but now, even in extreme cold conditions, I can manage to rig the tripod in moments ready to shoot panoramas. I’m still getting the hang of the stitching process vis-à-vis the software (specifically, PTGui) but mastering that phase of it is next on my agenda.
Zeroing out the bubble level on the leveling base proved fairly effortless. I’d recommend carrying out this operation before attaching the head, but certainly before mounting the camera onto this rig. The greater torque with the added load works counter to making easy adjustments.
A couple of points worth noting. When using my more stable tripods, I didn’t find it necessary, to lock down the panorama knob on the Acratech pano head as I panned with the camera. This way I could quickly move from one exposure or bracket set to the next. And you can avoid the nodal rail entirely when shooting fisheye panoramas. (Despite claims to the contrary, a fisheye lens can be used – just expect some distortion.)
Admittedly, when you add all the components together, shooting panoramas becomes an expensive proposition. But it also has potentially great rewards. And once you’ve got a handle on the mechanics of shooting panoramas, you next find yourself muddling over the software and trying to make heads or tails out of, why don’t these frames fit together the way they’re supposed to? Frankly, it’s a serious commitment in money, time – and patience.
There’s one thing in this Acratech gear that puts you on the right footing: Every component has a bullseye level, so you can start working on a level playing field – literally.
The pano head itself has a drag/friction knob. Ease back on this just a bit so it allows some movement as you twist the main knob and move the camera. It may take a while to find the sweet spot to control drag for your rig, but keep in mind that the amount of drag will have to be adjusted for different loads. Once locked in place, the camera stays put – there’s no shift when locking the knobs and no drift after the camera is locked in place.
In fact, if you’ve worked with any Acratech ball head, working with the pano head shouldn’t be much of a stretch. The only difference: the pano head tilts only front to back, not side to side, as would be the case with a regular ball head. This keeps you level. The forward/backward tilt, aside from leveling the head initially, is to allow you to build horizontal layers and add depth top to bottom so the panorama doesn’t begin to look like a strip mall.
Final word: the Acratech pano gear is an investment that will pay for itself before long. As with anything, mastering panoramic photography will take time and patience. But the Acratech gear will put you on the right path and put you on solid footing.
FEATURES (prices/features per manufacturer)
Made in U.S.A.
I’ve reviewed and worked with countless ball-and-socket heads on various tripods. These days my main tripod is a compact Giottos carbon fiber model – you know, one of those with the inverted legs. I love the tripod, but was never thrilled with the ballhead that came with. So I sought an alternative.
The nice thing about any quality tripod is that you can swap out the head that came with it. It stands to reason that this is a more prudent step when you just buy a set of legs sans head to begin with. But we don’t always think ahead, pardon the pun.
So I went on a quest for the ultimate head that would not break the bank. Well, let me start by saying that any good head will likely cost more than most aluminum tripods and will come with a reasonable expectation of doubling the cost of even a modest carbon fiber, or certainly adding substantially to the overall expense. Coming in at just under $300, the Nomad is no exception.
The real beauty of the Nomad is its dual functionality. It can also be used as a gimbal head with long lenses for wildlife photography.
Ever since owning the Giottos, I’ve principally relied on Acratech heads. So when Acratech introduced the new Nomad, I was curious to see how this head differed from earlier models, and if it would appreciatively affect how I’d work with my tripod, while providing the same level of confidence and stability.
About the Nomad
One key difference between an Acratech ballhead and ballheads from other manufacturers is the open architecture of the Acratech. What does that mean? The ball on an Acratech ballhead is exposed to the air, unlike other heads which enclose the ball inside the housing.
Translation: there’s no way for moisture, rain, and debris to get caught in the mechanism and gum up the works. This construction is also largely responsible for the lighter weight of these heads compared with heads of comparable size.
The lighter weight is in no way due to cheap construction or materials. Quite the contrary. Acratech heads reflect American know-how, craftsmanship, and quality control.
The Nomad vs. the GV2
If you’ve worked with Acratech ballheads before, you will notice a stark resemblance of the Nomad to existing heads, specifically the GV2. If you already own that head, then you probably won’t really need this one.
Acratech’s Scott Dordick had this to say about the new head: “The Nomad head has the same features as our GV2 head. The main difference is that the Nomad ballhead was designed to be machined on our (new) multi-axis machining centers. This has enabled us to perform more machining operations, faster and without having to handle the part between operations. We are actually able to do the turning (round work) and much of the milling (contour work) on a single setup. This has lowered our costs and we are able to sell the Nomad for $299.95, which is $70.00 less than the GV2.
“When you see the Nomad and GV2 together there are some differences in the shape of the body and there are some steel locating pins in the sliding mechanism of the Nomad quick-release clamp. The steel pins in the clamp have sped up our manufacturing of the clamps and although it looks a little different than the GV2 clamp, the performance is almost identical. The Nomad weighs 40 grams less than the GV2. The Nomad is only available with a knob-type quick release clamp, whereas the GV2 does have a (quick-release locking) lever option.”
In order to use my BlackRapid sling strap with a tripod without first having to unscrew the connector from the camera, I opted to connect one of BlackRapid’s QR plates as a permanent fixture on my Nikon D610. Owing to the design of the head that came with my Giottos tripod, this BlackRapid QR plate and the Giottos head were incompatible. Hence my need for a more workable solution. That and the fact that the Giottos kit head couldn’t adequately handle unbalanced loads without undergoing the tripod head equivalent of lens creep. Specifically, the head I refer to is the Tamron 70-300mm on the Nikon.
With any QR plate, you have to make sure that the locking pin on a tripod head will provide a secure hold on the plate, preventing it from slipping off, taking the camera in tow. The pin on the Nomad is spring-loaded, so if the QR plate is solid, rather than hollowed out, it will simply be pushed down and out of the way. With the BlackRapid and several other plates at my disposal, including Acratech’s own Arca-compatible QR plates, the underside of the plate is hollowed out, allowing for the pin to do its thing.
That said, this won’t do anything for you if the QR plate is not properly and securely seated in the first place. Once the camera is seated, use the locking knob to secure it. Jiggle the camera side to side to make sure there’s no give. And do a visual inspection to check that the QR plate is correctly seated and fully level. If you’re not careful, it’s possible to tighten the knob and give yourself a false sense of security, but a visual inspection will quickly confirm your error, even if the camera appears firmly seated.
Be careful when using a Giottos QR plate. At least in the case of the one I own, the underside will prevent slippage off the head in only one direction.
Many of Acratech’s own QR plates are designed around different camera models, with versions for lenses with tripod collars. The benefit to these is a raised back lip that prevents the camera/lens from twisting around. Universal plates are also available from Acratech.
So far, I haven’t found any Arca-compatible QR plate to be incompatible with the Nomad. However, I should point out that when a manufacturer, distributor, or reseller claims the plate is universal and Arca-compatible, that does not necessarily make it so.
One thing I should further note. The base, where the head connects to the tripod legs, will fit a full-size leg assembly with a wide mounting plate. Even though this means the head slightly extends beyond the mounting plate on my compact tripod, I didn’t find this to be a problem. (If you’re looking for a more custom fit, then check out Acratech’s GPS or GPSS, each with a smaller-diameter base.)
One of the reasons I especially prefer to use my Giottos tripod when testing heads is the way the Giottos pod locks down the head. There is a tiny retaining hex screw under the base that, when tightened, comes to rest against the base of the head seated on the pod. So when you’re panning, the head won’t come loose, regardless of the direction of movement. What’s more, the Giottos center column has an anti-twist feature that further prevents or minimizes unwanted movement if you leave the column unlocked.
Using the Nomad as Gimbal Head
One of the really cool features of the Acratech Nomad is its dual functionality. The Nomad can also be used as a gimbal head.
To use this feature, attach a long lens to the head via its tripod collar. Make sure camera and lens are fairly well balanced so gravity and inertia don’t take their toll. This is easily enough accomplished with the right-size QR plate or with an Acratech Nodal Rail. Then tighten the drag and locking knobs just enough to allow you to nudge the camera to its resting place, without the camera falling over on its own. Grab hold of the camera as you make these adjustments. It doesn’t take long to achieve the right balance. Note: the drag, or friction, knob is the smaller circular knob. The main locking knob is larger, rubberized, and shaped like a flower. Below these two is the panning knob, and at the very top, the QR locking knob.
Is this head as effective as a true gimbal head? Not having used a gimbal head myself, I can’t say with any certainty, but I doubt it would compete one on one. Still, this does beat having to carry around that bulkier head if you only use this function occasionally.
Unlike the GP head, the Nomad can’t be used as a leveling head. I misread the instructions and spent countless moments trying to figure out what I did with the hex wrench, only later to be made aware this function was not available and that the QR base could not be removed. The same goes for using the Nomad as a leveling base. It may be easier and preferable to use a dedicated leveling base (also available from Acratech). But if you only shoot panos occasionally, then why carry the added weight, and take up valuable space in your camera bag.
To use the head as a leveling head (and keep in mind, it’s still a head, not a leveling base to which another head is attached), simply remove the QR clamp at the top of the head. Use the supplied hex (Allen) wrench for this purpose.
The moment I unpacked this photo backpack and unzipped the main flap, I had a sense of déjà vu. I’d seen this bag before.
Then I took a look at my Think Tank Photo StreetWalker and realized where I’d seen this design.
The new TrailScape largely mimics the interior of the StreetWalker, or perhaps more correctly the StreetWalker Pro, since the dimensions more closely match that pack. But there are substantive differences. What are they? Read on.
The TrailScape – On the Outside
Gone are the two zippered side pockets found on the StreetWalker. They are wisely replaced by two roomier stretch pockets. Granted, some may lament the loss of these zip pockets, but I always found them a bit too cramped for my taste.
Instead, you now have room for a 32-oz. Nalgene water bottle on one side, counterbalanced by your tripod snugly secured by compression straps, with two feet (spikes retracted) resting inside the opposite stretch pocket.
On the front, there is a very spacious pocket that will hold a 13” laptop and a 10” tablet, not that I ever carry either into the field. But I do make use of these sleeves for maps, pads, and various accessories. There are also organizer pockets in this section.
In front of this large pocket sits another pocket, diminutive by comparison, designed to carry your sunglasses, with a very softly textured fabric lining that shouldn’t scratch. I’ve got a pair of those sunglasses that are so bulbous when closed that they require a custom case. They fit here. But I was so afraid they’d get crushed at some point, that I removed them and put them back in their hard case. In their place went my Giotto’s rocket blower.
The zippers run very smoothly. However, I would have preferred contrasting colors for the zipper pulls on the front pocket. Yes, the zip pulls, which are designed to be easily handled with gloves, are smaller on the pocket. But I did manage to grab them by accident. So my solution was to rest them on the side, with the main zips up top. Problem solved.
Because this is a trail pack, in contrast to the zips on the StreetWalker, the zippers are not interlocking (for the purpose of inserting a TSA lock). Besides, locking a bag only makes it that much more tempting to those looking to steal it.
There are four lash points on the front of the bag, but you’ll have to supply your own rope or bungee cord. If you need to carry stuff inside the front pocket to keep it safe from the elements, you can lash a jacket to the front of the bag. I keep a light jacket inside this pocket.
There’s a carrying handle on top – more of a strap, really, coming to rest on the back of the pack. While not nearly as substantial as the one on the StreetWalker, such straps have been used on other packs (I believe also from MindShift or Think Tank), and I’ve never known them to fail. Besides, in contrast to that other bag, this handle doesn’t add to the height of the bag – which could make a difference when you’re trying to squeeze into a tight overhead bin or under a seat. (By the way, if you’re going to carry the pack for any distance, by any means other than fully on your back with both straps, use one of the shoulder straps, not the carrying handle.)
On the Inside
This pack is not nearly as deep as even the original StreetWalker. What does that mean? Forget about carrying a pro-grip camera, unless you insert it face-up sans lens. That said, my Nikon D610 rides much more secure in this bag, because it’s less of a bouncy house (although, I must admit, I always secure the camera with a Velcro band over the dividers or I’ll seat another divider over the lens for a snug fit).
There are plenty of padded dividers. As is, this pack is fitted for a slew of lenses, accessories, and a flash. My dividers never sit in one place for very long, however. That’s the beauty of a customizable system.
There are also two mesh pockets inside the front lid for small, chiefly flat items.
The first thing I have to comment on is the backpack harness system and airflow/lumbar padding. In a trail pack, this is of utmost importance for your comfort and safety during long treks, especially over arduous terrain. While this pack is not meant for such outings, by its very nature, still, it’s comforting to know it will stand the test.
The harness system on the TrailScape feels better than the one found on the StreetWalker. The straps are wider at the shoulder. The straps on both packs are contoured top to bottom to fit the body nicely, but this one is decidedly a better fit.
As with the StreetWalker, the unpadded waist strap is removable. (Keep it inside the bag, or you’ll lose it. Better yet, leave it attached – reattaching can be a chore if you didn’t take notes on how the straps originally attached to the bag).
The sternum (chest) strap on the TrailScape is longer and a bit stretchy for larger chests or someone wearing lots of winter layers. On my initial outing, I didn’t find it necessary to use either the waist belt or chest strap. The pack rode comfortably on my back without requiring constant adjustments.
By the way, when you first get the pack, it’s important to loosen all straps. Tighten them when the pack is on your back, and adjust them once on the trail.
You’re probably thinking that it’s odd this pack doesn’t allow for a hydration bladder, whereas the more compact SidePath, which is essentially an enhanced daypack, will accommodate a bladder. I’m guessing, that, when you start with one basic design, namely the StreetWalker, it would be difficult to create a custom passageway for a drinking tube without destroying the solid fabric of that pack. And frankly, I’m not a fan of bladders, so this doesn’t bother me in the least. If you must use a bladder, MindShift has several alternatives available, currently the rotation 180 packs.
Back at Abraham Lincoln High School, in Brooklyn, I was captain of the AV Squad – might have only been for one semester, or for the full year. It’s a faint memory. But any way you slice it, yup, I was a geek or nerd, or whatever term was popular at the time. I didn’t really enjoy it. Mostly we were responsible for setting up film projectors. Admittedly, I was terrible at threading the projector, so I’d try to send someone out other than myself when that job was required. I don’t remember using a slide projector back then, but I’m sure that was woven into the fabric of the AV Squad.
It wasn’t till years later, as a professional photographer, that I started working with a slide projector in earnest – a Kodak Ektagraphic, to be precise. I became a whiz at running that projector. After all, I didn’t have to thread anything. And I didn’t have a bunch of strangers looking on making me nervous.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the digital age. Projecting digital files now required a digital projector. So when I tried my hand at conducting my own photo workshops, I turned to Epson. Little did I realize what a painless experience running a digital projector would prove to be. In fact, one might say it was fun.
When I sent Epson pics of the space I’d be using initially, they recommended a brighter projector than I’d at first requested. The projector they sent me on temporary loan was the EX9200. Along with it, they sent a screen. Again, they found a more suitable choice than the one I’d originally requested. They sent the ES3000 Ultra Portable Projector Screen.
Setting Up and Using the EX9200 Projector and ES3000 Screen
I removed the projector from its soft, padded case. (Note: if you’ll be carrying this around extensively, you might want to look into a more substantial case, with a better carrying strap system). Then I plugged the AC cord into an outlet at one end, the projector at the other.
With the projector turned on, the rest seemed to happen as if by magic. I connected the EX9200 to my iMac via USB and everything went smoothly after that. Absolutely no bumps or hiccups to report. Using the projector with a flash drive for that first workshop proceeded flawlessly. The only thing worthy of note: I recommend you get a separate laser pointer. The laser pointer built into the remote drags across the screen and proved counterproductive. Other than that, working with the wireless remote was a breeze.
Setting up the screen seemed more intimidating. It had been a very long time since I’d last set up a projection screen. This one was big and clunky, and the illustration that served as the only instructions that came with it didn’t help. But this thing is built so tough that it’s hard to do any damage, and eventually it stood tall and facing the projector squarely. For a test run, I’d set the projector up on a small step stool, making sure to leave room for the cooling air vents.
Since it was a sample, the screen arrived without its roller case. Luckily, the classroom I’d be using for my first workshop was right across the street. So schlepping it there was easy enough – and I had help bringing it back.