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Mention beauty dishes choices around a group of photographers– working or enthusiast– and invariably Mola Softlights will play a prominent role in the discussion.  One of the reasons that the Mola brand may be synonymous with beauty dishes is that they are the sole product the company manufactures.  Unlike most manufacturers who offer the “familiar” 16-22 inch product, Mola offers four sizes, from the 22” Demi to the 43.5” Mantti.  The unique stepped or undulated interior that is a signature of the Mola line makes their products easily identifiable.  Mola has expanded the current interior finish options beyond “white” to include silver finishes.  While there are lots of things to like about Mola products, one of the most attractive features is that Mola products can be adapted, via speed rings, to accommodate many different brands of strobes, and continuous lighting products.  If you change your lighting brand, and own a Mola product, all you have to do is change the mount. 

Mola founder Walter Melrose notes that each of the Mola offerings shapes the light in a unique way before it hits the subject, because they were each developed with a different use in mind.  “The 33.5 inch Euro was actually the first product we developed.  I designed it with versatility in mind:  It is a well-rounded, no pun intended reflector that can be used for beauty, fashion and product work; the Mantti on the other hand was designed to simulate window light.  The Demi is a smaller version of the Euro.”

Based on size and price and a well-established beauty dish market, I suspect that the 22” Demi is among, if not the most popular Mola product.  As a user of the Demi and the larger Setti, the Mola dishes have never disappointed.  While the interior of many beauty dishes including the Molas is characterized as being “white”, the interior finish of the Mola is a “softer white” than my Profoto beauty dish and the texture gives it a “pearl-like” appearance.  While the light wraps the subject in typical beauty dish style, I have always felt that the Mola stepped surface resulted in a larger surface area and increased the efficiency of the light.  The resulting light is slightly warmer, and in my opinion, it subtly enhances most skin tones.  I say “in my opinion,” because with lighting as with so many things there is always an element of subjectivity.  Some one is bound to be wondering how the Demi compares to the Profoto dish.  I really can’t tell you because other than both being classified as beauty dishes, a comparison would be apples to oranges.  The differences in size (22” verses  20”  or so in diameter) interior finish, and surface area are all going to impact optimal placement, amount of light and fall-off.

The 28” Setti is deeper than the Demi and more parabolic.  It produces a more focused light with greater contrast and more rapid fall-off.  While the Setti can be used close-in, in a similar manner as a traditional beauty dish, it is large enough to be used for full body applications.  If there is a downside to the larger Mola products, it is the fact that they do not collapse for transport.  You just have to be sure you factor that into your considerations when going on location.

Melrose also points out that while the silver finished dishes appear to be new, that Mola offered dishes with silver interior finishes 20 years ago. “The harder light was not as popular as the softer light, and we stopped offering the silver interior for a while.  We brought silver interiors back simply because the market asked for it.”  What sets the silver dishes apart from their white counterparts is a cooler light (color temperature wise) and a light with both greater directionality and contrast. 

So what’s new from Mola as we move into 2010?  Melrose says that they are now offering polycarbonate flex grids for the Demi and the Setti, which will give users another option for light control.  For the location photographer who uses, small flash heads from Lumedyne or Quantum, speedlights, and/or heads that do not generate a lot of heat as a result of modeling lights, an ABS version of the Demi is on the way.

As far as the Mola mystique is concerned, the products are analogous to the perfect storm:  that combination of shape, color, size, and interior finish that result in some amazing lighting.

For more information on the Mola line visit them on line by clicking here.

To see Mola products in use, visit their blog at: http://blog.mola-light.com/

Disclosure:  No consideration has been received in connection with this blog entry, nor has  any manufacturer and/or retailer offered any consideration. 

I often look at equipment with an eye on whether it will allow me to accomplish a task more efficiently:  More efficiently for me usually translates to mean easier to carry and easier to set up, as most of my work is on location.  So it was with great interest, and I’ll admit a healthy dose of skepticism, that I went to the Calumet Photographic Store on West 22nd Street here in New York, to spend some quality time with their Portable On-Site Background System (PBS).  I say skepticism because I have tried collapsible 8′ muslin systems, as well as the more traditional crossbar type background support systems and have yet to find one that has impressed me enough for consistent use. In fact one of my more embarrassing photo shoot  related stories centers around the difficulty I had trying to get a collapsible background back in the bag.

 

When I arrived at Calumet, I was greeted by Ron Herard.  Ron handed me the bag which housed the Calumet system and we headed upstairs to their second floor gallery space.  While Calumet lists the kit as weighing 12 pounds, it did not feel that heavy.  When we got upstairs Ron asked me if I would time how long it takes him to get the system out of the bag and up for use.  One of his colleagues doubted it could be done in less than five minutes.  Well for the doubting Thomas, it took Ron a grand total of 2 minutes and 40 seconds.  I watched in absolute amazement:  An adjustable stand, a central cylinder in which you insert 4 flexible rods with round ends, 4 flexible extension rods, an 8×8 sheet of muslin which fits on the “arrow” tips of the extension rods, and you are good to go!  It is simple and intuitive.  It took me 3 minutes and 12 seconds to take the PBS out of the bag and erect it.  Not bad for a first timer!  I was able to dismantle the frame as quickly as I erected it.

Also surprising to me was the fact that the system does not require any additional clearance beyond 8 feet to erect.  Unlike the traditional cross bar support systems which require additional space on each side to accommodate the footprint of each stand, the Calumet PBS does not.  This is one elegant and efficient solution.  The muslin sheets have pockets on each corner which fit securely on the rod arrow heads.  The pockets are well reinforced.  Additionally the tautness of the fabric and frame interface, acts to stretch the fabric:  This resulted in a substantial number of wrinkles and creases in the folded sheet that was used either being reduced significantly or eliminated.  If you are getting a sense that I like this system, it is because I do. 

 

One of the downsides to this system is that you may not want to use this system against a window or with a light source  directly behind it as the stretched muslin is thin enough that the x frame may be seen.  Others may find the lack of availability of a floor apron as a drawback.  But all in all I found the system superior to the other alternatives I have tried and yet competitively priced.

I thanked Ron and Store Manager John Dessereau as I left, but not before placing an order for my very own.

For more information on the Calumet PBS, click on the blue highlighted text in this entry.

dollars-and-sense-1With the availability of full frame dslrs from Canon, Nikon and Sony, there has been a lot of discussion, both on Internet forum boards and in print about camera pricing and in particular, the pricing of “professional” dslrs.  John Rettie in an article called  “The Pricing Controversy on High-End DSLRS” which is in the current copy of Rangefinder Magazine commented that in his opinion, only the “top of the line” (in marketing speak – professional designated models) of Canon and Nikon cameras are overpriced and shares his take on where he believes these cameras should be priced. 

 

It seems that a fair amount of disappointment with respect to the announced $8,000 price of the 24mp D3X, Nikons flagship camera was the result of Internet speculation and guesses, as well as Sony’s pricing of the A900, as opposed to any real indication from Nikon as to what the price would be.  I have never regarded the professional designated cameras from Nikon or Canon, even though objects of desire in photo publications and on Internet forums, as the sales volume leaders for either company relative to their consumer-oriented entry and mid range products.

 

Rettie’s article got me thinking:  “How much longer can companies charge a premium for their professional designated camera products?”  It took a while but I had an epiphany:  The answer is “as long as there are photographers who feel that the product will add value to their work flow and have the level of business to justify the expenditure.”  There will also be a home for these expensive dslrs in many of the same rental houses that have $30,000 digital backs and $15,000 lighting systems available.  And like the high end lighting products, the cache and halo of marquee dslrs often spills onto the less expensive, more mass consumer-oriented product lines.

 

As I consider the number of working photographers I know and/or am acquainted with, their specialties, clients, and billings vary tremendously.  I wondered whether their decision making practices as it relates to equipment varies in the same manner.

Dave Black is a world class sports photographer, and Nikon shooter.  Dave recently shared his rationale for buying the Nikon flagship in an article entitled “The Nikon D3x…Part 1” on his site.   Dave’s analysis led him to conclude, that the addition of the D3X will open up new opportunities for him.  Whether you agree with him or not, isn’t the point or an issue:  Dave has made his decision based on the analysis of his business and market evaluation.  This is a vastly different decision making process from the enthusiast who bases his or her purchase decision on the availability of discretionary income; or the person who lust for it but finds the price is too big a stretch for him or her, and expresses discontent.

 

Photographers who use the Canon 1DS series cameras have been making similar analyses for longer, as Canon has been offering a full frame professional designated model since 2002.  John Pinderhughes, a premier commercial and fine arts photographer,  and Canon Explorer of Light, shoots with a Canon 1DS Mark II and a 5D Mark II.  When I asked John why he is still shooting with the 1DS Mark II and not the more current 1DS Mark III, he said that he felt “no need to rush” to change bodies sixteen months ago when the Mark III was introduced.   He felt that he was still getting so much “amazing output” from the 1DS Mark II.  His stance runs counter to the prevailing but unsubstantiated belief that every time a new body is released the working photographer automatically upgrades.  As for his reason for shooting with a 5D Mark II:  John cites the size, weight and output as major factors.  When asked is the camera good enough for professional use, John’s response was “absolutely.”  He did however say that under some circumstances and shooting conditions, he would opt to use the more robust 1 series camera.  Additionally, he is considering adding a new 1 series camera to the fold “sometime in the not too distant future.”

 

Today, the high mp count is no longer limited to the top of the line.  Both Sony and Canon have twenty-something mp cameras for under $3,000.  So do they have all the bells and whistles of the Canon and Nikon flagships?  No, but for many shooters who need and/or want the resolution advantages, all the bells and whistles of the flagships may not be necessary. 

 

New York based photographer and studio owner Rod Goodman recently made the decision to replace his cropped sensor Canon camera with the 5D Mark II.  Goodman felt that a 21mp camera at under $2,700 was a business expense he could justify; the $8000 1DS Mark III was not.  As for Goodman’s reasons for shooting with the mid-level Canon consumer/prosumer cropped sensor models until recently; the driving factor in that decision was economics:  1) because he had opened a studio which was a major investment, 2) he primarily shoots head shots where the margins are smaller; and 3) the fact that his clients rarely need prints larger than 8×10.  Goodman is quick to admit that he drooled over full frame dslrs for some time, but points out that running a business is about knowing how to allocate resources.  His decision to stick with mid-level cameras and the “non-professional” designated 5D Mark II has not been a stumbling block in building his business.

 

Three working photographers, three different specialties and clients, and yet, all have made their camera equipment choices around their business needs, sometimes opting for the top of the line, sometimes not; sometimes opting for the new, and sometimes holding the line.

 

From a photographer’s vantage point and even that of product reviewers, it is dangerous to get into the camera company’s business model and workings.  While it might be interesting, I know that personally, I am better off not ruminating on what their production costs and the like should be as there are too many unknowns and it sets a dangerous precedent:  How long will it be before my customers or yours start telling us what the cost our product/services should be and how much profit we should be able to make? Or how long before readers tell publishing entities how much their magazines should sell for based on their analysis of ad sales, ink and printing costs and circulation?   As photographers, we are consumers of camera company products, not Wall Street analysts, not investors or shareholders. We run our business and the camera companies run theirs.  We should be making our decisions to spend our dollars based on good business sense.

 

I’d like to thank Dave Black, John Pinderhughes, and Rod Goodman for their willingness to be resources for this entry.

To learn more about Dave, John and Rod or view their work, or view referenced articles, scroll over or click on the blue highlighted text in the entry.

One of the most significant products that I have come across in my examination of stabilizers for hslrs is the U-Boat Commander.  The Commander, as I will refer to it, is an innovative product developed by photographer/director Bruce Dorn, a Canon Explorer of Light, writer, and gadgeteer extraordinaire.  I call him a gadgeteer because Bruce has a wonderful ability to craft solutions to meet his shooting needs.  A visit to his site www.idcphotography.com/blog/  is extremely enlightening.

 

I consider the Commander significant because it is, to my knowledge, the first stabilizing rig developed from scratch to accommodate the Canon 5D Mark II for video capture.  The other rigs which I looked at were existing products.  I have had use of the Commander for the last five days, and I will admit that as I boxed it up this morning to send it back to Arizona, there was a bit of mist in my eyes.  Nikon D90 users do not feel slighted:  I encourage you to read on.

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

 

The Commander offers something for lots of people due to its modular nature:  In its most basic form it is a two-handled platform; the intermediate configuration adds a plate on top (bridge) as well as a handle and cold shoes, which allows you to mount a microphone and/or lights, as well as facilitating low angle shooting; and in its most complete form it adds a shoulder stabilizer, which can also aid in table top stabilization and or panning and tilting movements.)  The anodized aluminum plates and bars are beautifully finished.  I do want to note that the knurled handle grips come without handle pads:  They will take standard bike handle grips (I used weightlifting grips.)

 

In many respects, the Commander reminded me of shooting with the Fig Rig, in that the unit is held out in front of you and the body acts as a shock absorber when moving. I also found that there was tremendous mobility although the Fig Rig does enjoy an edge here due to the circular frame.  Unlike the Fig Rig, since the bottom plate of the Commander is flat, the camera can be safely placed on a flat surface when not in use.  The 5D Mark II can be mounted directly to the commander base or attachment can be achieved via an optional quick release assembly.  Either way, you have access to the 5D Mark II battery door.  u-d90For those shooting with the Nikon D90, the battery door of the camera is also fully accessible when it is mounted to the Commander base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The modular nature of the Commander brings together the best aspects of many of the other products I own/have used and/or considered, both less expensive and more expensive.  It offers good range of motion, and shoulder stabilization on demand, the ability to mount accessories such as lights, microphones and monitors.  The low angle shooting ability is a functionality that can be very costly with other systems.

Low angle shooting with the Commander

Low angle shooting with the Commander

 I found setting up the Commander pretty intuitive.  There is, however, an excellent video demonstration on Bruce’s site for those who want an understanding of how all the pieces fit and work together.  While I spent most of the time with the Commander in the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) with the bridge and handle attached, there is a lot to be said for attaching the shoulder stabilizer.  I found it much easier to access camera controls while moving around with the shoulder stabilizer than without it.  I liked the option of being able to use the stabilizer either over my shoulder or pressed into my shoulder.  I also “pimped” the Commander and discovered that with the addition of small furniture gliders on the bottom of the base plate that I could achieve similar action to a dolly and track system on flat surfaces.

 

As I was mulling over my thoughts, I realized that most equipment reviews/commentary are written by men.  I asked my sister to try the stabilizers out and share her reactions.  Of the three pieces of equipment, her hands down favorite was the Commander.  For her use, the Commander offered the best balance, was lighter than it looked and than she thought it would be, and she liked the over the shoulder stabilization option as opposed to the into the shoulder bracing.

 

The Commander kits are not inexpensive:  While the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) exceeded the $300 budget I set by $69, the basic configuration (Kit 1) at $239 would have been within the parameters.  The Works (Kit 3) would have been way out of range.  The good news is that very soon there will be upgrade modules available for purchasers of Kits 1 and 2 so that you can add on as you need to and/or grow.

 

In looking at the options for products, I always suggest to the extent possible that consumers not only look at how they think they are going to use a product, but to try to look at the versatility and the range of applications for which a particular product can be adapted or used.  I think that this is the most appropriate way to consider a tool like the U-Boat Commander.  When I look at its functionality, and modular nature relative to the universe of available tools and add ons, the U-Boat Commander looks very, very good. 

 

Don’t be surprised if you see one of my cameras mounted to my own Commander in the near future!

If you want to seriously stabilize your Canon 5d Mark II or Nikon D90 (referred to as “hslrs,”) a tripod and/or monopod along with a fluid head are, at a  bare minimum, essentials. They are available in different configurations and at various price points.  A critical consideration is making sure the tripod/monopod and the head can support the camera and lenses that you are going to mount.  Be sure to check the load capacity of the equipment you are considering.  While tripods and monopods address relatively stationary shooting where you may primarily be interested in panning and tilting movements and you have the space to use them, they do not address dynamic shooting conditions or shooting in tight spaces.  And that’s when you need to look at the portable stabilizing solutions.

 

Just like with tripods/monopods and fluids heads, there are portable stabilizing options to fit every budget.  Personally, I did not want to wear a belt, vest or any contraption which made me look like I was in traction while trying to stabilize my hslr.  In addition to keeping the camera steady, I also wanted to keep my wallet steady.  After giving the matter serious consideration, I arbitrarily set my budget for a portable stabilizing solution at $300 maximum:  Too much over that amount and I felt that the solution would be overkill since my primary usage for both cameras is  still work.  The solution had to be easy to transport; easy to set up and break down; and just as importantly, easy to use.  The stabilizer also had to be able to support the camera body and substantial telephoto lenses.  I was aware that this last consideration might knock out some of the support products aimed at the palm sized camcorders.  My last requirement was that I had to be able to physically handle the product before purchase.  The “video virgin” in me was driving this requirement.

 

After doing a lot of research, I found two products that piqued my interest, and were readily available here in New York for purchase.  The Manfrotto Fig Rig which I found at Calumet Photographic and the BushHawk 320D camera support which I picked up the next day at Adorama.  These are two very different solutions, but two products with impressive lineage:  The Fig Rig being the brainchild of writer/director Mike Figgis in conjunction with Manfrotto, and  BushHawk offering stabilization products for many  nature and wildlife photographers.

 

The Fig Rig

 

fig-rig1What do you get when you mount a camera inside a steering wheel?  You get a Fig Rig!! I keep hearing the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” every time I think about the Fig Rig!  People may find the concept of walking around holding a “steering wheel” in front of you, strange but I have to tell you it works.  The Fig Rig offers incredible freedom of movement.  The two handed navigation if you will, results in tremendous stability and smooth shooting.  The body acts as the shock absorber and does not transfer the jarring movement to the Fig Rig.  The wheel itself can accommodate add on’s such as video lights or a microphone using the optional Fig Rig clamp.

 

The Fig Rig is made of aluminum with padded hand grips.  You attach the supplied quick release mounting assembly to the frame and plate to the camera and you are essentially ready to roll.  Also supplied are 4 cable clips which allow you to manage any wires for accessories you might attach to the frame.  You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of 2 pounds before you add the camera.

 

The biggest drawback with the Fig Rig is the fact that it is impossible to place the camera down in a stable position when it is mounted.  I find myself removing the camera from the cross bar when it is not in use (perhaps some sort of surface brace or stand can address this.)  The other possible drawback is that you do look a bit weird walking down the street with one.  But to those worried about how they look, I say get over it!  The price of admission:  $299.

 

The BushHawk 320D

bushhawk1The other product that I found myself very excited about is the BushHawk 320D Shoulder Support System.  If you think steering wheel with the Fig Rig, think shotgun with the BushHawk!  This shoulder based stabilizing system is what is called gun mount with a trigger which with the appropriate cable release will “fire” the shutter.  Now one of my big concerns about taking this thing out and using it on the streets of New York is that someone is going shout “gun” (as Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” does in a crowd) and wrestle me to the ground!! 

 

 

The 320D Pro Kit (one of two Canon versions and there is a Nikon version as well) I purchased included:

 The 320D double handle stabilizer with trigger and shoulder pad; Canon shutter release cord; Quick   release assembly and wrenches; Window Pod;  Strap; Release cord case; and Storage bag.

 

bushhawk2The 320D is a modular thermoplastic frame which is extremely light and strong.  An adjustable arm, which has a shoulder pad at the end slides into the main frame, and is locked into place by tightening a knob.  While BushHawk advertises the product with both hand grips in the same plane, I  loosened the front hand grip and rotated it 90 degrees (as pictured to the left,) which gave me   better balance and  greater stability while shooting video. 

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest plusses for the BushHawk 320D is that with the cable release cord attached, you can effortlessly capture stills while shooting video with the 5D MarkII via the trigger button. I also found the BushHawk worked well for normal viewfinder shooting, live view shooting or video.  If there is a negative associated with the 320D, for some people it will undoubtedly be  having the shoulder pad braced against them.  It does take a little getting use to. The price for all this at Adorama was $212.

 

Whether you go with either of these systems, or with another, the stabilizer is only part of the equation.  The other part of the success of any of these systems depends on you and your ability to hold and move with  the product of your choice.  For me, a heel toe combination seems to work best for removing variability from my stride under most circumstances when moving with either of these stabilizers.  I urge anyone buying a stabilizer to practice moving and finding their own “right” stride.  And don’t forget about picking up a light set of weights to get your shoulders and arms into shape.  You will thank me for this advice!

 

In Part 3 of this series, I will be looking at  the Bruce Dorn U Boat Commander.  I have elected to talk about this system independently because unlike the Fig Rig and the BushHawk, both of which I purchased, the U-Boat commander is on loan for evaluation purposes. Also unlike many of the available solutions, the U Boad commander was developed specifically for use with the 5D Mark II.

 

 

Early last August, I had an opportunity to shoot wedding pictures for a couple in New York’s Central Park.  As my assistant and I were walking a few hundred feet behind the happy couple, and I looked at them leaning into each other as we moved to another location, I remarked how we were witnessing a video moment!  The problem was that I had no video camera:  Just two dslrs, one a Nikon and the other a Canon.  Just a few short weeks later,  Nikon and Canon announced the D90 and the 5D Mark ll respectively, both of which would have high definition video capability, and in many respects will alter the feature set of still cameras going forward.

 

Now the reaction to video in dslrs has been mixed to say the least.  Some people both professional and enthusiast, embrace it, and others call it a gimmick.  Funny, I think back to only a few short years ago when Olympus put a dust shake system, and live view in their cameras.  Features which many marginalized then have become the expected norm today.

 

After experiencing that “Ah Ha” moment in Central Park last August, I am happy that I now have the option to shoot a little video and stills in a single package.  We do live in a multimedia age.  With the rise of YouTube, Vimeo, social networking and image sharing sites such as My Space and Flicker, as well as commercial product advertisement and news sites, the importance of video capture capability in any imaging device, should not be lost or minimized.

 

These hybrid cameras, as I refer to them, are not meant to replace dedicated hi def video cameras nor are they intended to shoot a box office blockbuster; but for clips and  even shorts, they are indeed valuable and intriguing tools.  I can tell you in shooting with both available options, that there are things I like about both and things which I don’t care for!  Each manufacturer could learn a thing or two from how the other has incorporated the video feature for future refinement.  The most important thing for those of us who are embracing the feature is to learn how the system of our choice operates and to exploit it to the fullest. What is clear is that the technology will develop and develop rapidly. A year or two from now the amount of control and flexibility in shooting speed will make today’s groundbreakers seem crude.  But for now I encourage all who have purchased them to enjoy the feature.

Coming next week – Part 2:  Mounting the Hybrid Camera for Movement

 

Resources for learning more on shooting video with dslrs:

http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=2186
 
http://cpn.canon-europe.com/content/masterclass/eos_5d_mark_II_masterclass.do
 

 

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