Toys For the Photographer, Part 2

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August 2, 2008

This week I’ll suggest some additional “Toys” you might consider to add to your photography equipment.  By the way, you might want to check the first article on this subject published a couple of weeks ago.

Ball Head – When you purchase a high end tripod (see my article on tripods for why you should) (and see Thom Hogan’s Tripods & Ball Heads article on which you should buy) you are going to need a head for it. Most high end tripods provide a platform, but no head.  You have two choices –  Pan/Tilt heads are more likely to come with less expensive tripods – they usually have 2 handles, one for moving the camera left & right, the other for tilting up & down. A ball head is more flexible – the camera can be rotated in any direction then locked with one lever. What’s more, the better quality ball heads can be adjusted for the weight of the camera & lens so that they can be panned or tilted but stay in position when you let go. Generally, the more expensive heads move smoother than the less expensive ones, but any of them will let you position the camera faster than a pan/tilt head.  They come in a wide range of quality & price –

The Manfrotto 486 on the left @ $75.00 is an entry level ball head.  It will swivel to almost any position, and with a quick twist of the locking lever lock firmly in position.  It has a notch (actually, two notches) so the camera can be tilted for vertical shots, but when it is loose enough to move the camera you can’t let go of the camera without taking a chance that it will tip all the way down. It is an inexpensive way to learn the advantages of a ball head, and I have used one for many years for posed photographs.  The disadvantage is you must lock & unlock it every time you reposition the camera.

The Markin M20 is an example of a high end unit (at a high end price – $385.00). When adjusted for your camera & lens you can move your camera into position, let go and it will stay there.  If you want to completely lock it in position, just turn the knob. Another advantage of the more expensive heads is they usually include a pan adjustment.  You must loosen the entire ball to pan the inexpensive versions.  If you are using it to shoot panoramas, you will lose your horizon between shots. With the pan adjustment, the ball stays locked during a pan. By the way, many manufacturers of both expensive & inexpensive versions make light weight versions that will work well with point & shoot cameras.

Teleconverter – A teleconverter is a device that goes between your camera & lens.  They are usually available as a 1.4, 1.7, 2.0 & 3.0 multiplication factor, i.e. they increase the effective focal length of the lens they are attached to by the number. Of course you don’t get something for nothing.  They will reduce the amount of light reaching your film or sensor; the 1.4 by one-half a stop, the 1.7 by one & one-half stops, the 2.0 by two stops & the 3.0 by three stops. Most camera & lens manufacturers make them, and like any device come in a range of qualities. Even the best will reduce the quality of the lens used with them.  The higher the multiplication factor the further they reduce quality. Although many photographers are comfortable using the 1.4 & 1.7 versions, the 2.0 & 3.0 degrade the image quality enough that I would be hesitant to purchase one.  Still, this is a less expensive way to increase the reach of your camera than purchasing a telephoto lens. A couple of points – unless used with a very fast lens, it is likely they will reduce the light enough that your auto focus will stop working.  In the best case it will take longer to focus if it does at all. They don’t fit all lenses.  Most manufacturers have a list of the lenses that will work with each teleconverter.  In some cases they are not recommended because you will lose auto focus, but in other cases they won’t physically fit the lens, so it is worth checking before purchasing. Finally, they are available as an auxiliary lens that can be added in front of some point & shoot cameras.
Better Beamer – When you use an external flash with a telephoto lens, much of the flash output is wasted. The flash head spreads the light at a wider angle than the lens covers. Even an adjustable flash head covers a wider field than a 300mm – 400mm lens.  This is where the Better Beamer becomes a useful tool.  It consists of a fresnel lens placed in front of your flash head.  It narrows the beam, so more of the light from the flash head hits your subject. Basicly, it boosts the output of your flash head by 2 – 3 stops. If you use it with a flash that has a zoom head (the flash, not your lens) experiment to see what flash zoom setting matches your lens.  Some examples of this are shown in an article by T. David Griffith at the Nature Photographers online Magazine. It works wonders providing fill flash when photographing birds & animals, even at distances over 200′.

Light Meter – Since your camera already has a metering system built into it that can automatically set your exposure, you might ask why you need a separate meter.  The simple answer is you don’t, but there are a number of situations where one can be useful.  The Sekonic meter in the picture does a number of things.  It can measure incident light, reflective light, and the amount of light produced by your flash. It also has a built in very narrow (1°) spot measurement. Some uses:

  1. Use the spot mode to determine the dynamic range of your image.  Aim the spot at the brightest part of the image, save the reading, then take a reading from the darkest area you wish details to show. The number of f stops between these readings is your dynamic range.  If it is over the capability of your camera’s sensor (typically 5 – 8 stops) you are either going to burn out the highlights or have the details in the shadows end up black.
  2. Use the incident meter to measure exposure rather than the camera’s metering system. The advantages of an incident reading are described in an earlier post on Camera Metering.
  3. If your meter is capable of measuring flash output, it provides a quick method of determining if your flash is powerful enough to illuminate your subject.  A slight downside – to make an effective measurement you need to position the meter at the subject; a difficult problem in most landscape photography.

That’s enough for this week. I’ll probably have some more “Toys” in a future post.

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  1. Ian and John –

    Thanks for some good information. We’re talking about a bit of an investment on these items, so it’s helpful to have some comments from those who have “been there” in case I ever decide to make such purchases.

  2. You might take a look at a Kirk or Markin. Either can be adjusted so that you can move the camera, but let go of it & it will stay. I agree that the less expensive versions have the problem you describe, but I have seen the Markin with a D3 & 500mm f4 lens adjusted so that it moves smoothly when you want it to, but stays when you let go. I do it all the time with a D200 & my 50mm – 500mm zoom.

    I agree on the Nikon 2X. An awful amount of money for something that really does not work very well. It is too soft to be useful with my 70mm – 200mm zoom. It might be better with a prime lens, but I don’t use it anymore…

  3. 1.The trouble with a ball head is, when you release the tension the ball can go in any direction and usually does. I speak as a 4×5, 5×7 and med format shooter.
    The best head I’ve found ( a little light for the large format) is a pistol-grip head sold by Bogen. When you press the release you have full control.

    2. I have a high quality teleconverter (Nikon 2X) which works well with film. Not so good with digital. Why, I don’t know and I haven’t spent a lot of timw trying to pin it down.