Field Test: Carbon Fiber Tripod and Ballhead from FLM

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A good tripod and ballhead is one of a landscape photographers most important investments. Camera stabilization is critical to achieving the sharpest images, and the quality and operation of a tripod should be an enjoyable experience, not get in the way of your image making. So often that’s exactly what happens when we struggle with tripods, and either see them as a necessary evil or avoid their use altogether unless absolutely necessary.

On workshops, I don’t blame students when they avoid using their tripods in spite of my nagging that they should. I can see their focus and concentration disappear as soon as they have to deal with the dreaded contraption. This isn’t every student, of course. But in general I notice that when someone is resistant to a tripod, it’s usually because the tripod is of “questionable” quality. When it comes to tripods and ballheads, you certainly get what you pay for.

But is it just price, or is there more to be considered when choosing a tripod and ballhead? Afterall, what’s so complicated about three legs and a ball to attach the camera to? Well as it turns out, quite a lot that can make a night and day experience out of using a tripod in the field. And using it “in the field” is really the key, because that’s where the real test happens, not in a camera store.

But first, let me share a true story.

How Not to Start a Workshop

I awoke to the sound of high pitched whistling and realized it was the wind outside my hotel room door. I was in Maine for the start of the Acadia Autumn Adventure workshop, and my fears were confirmed when I looked out the window and saw the trees bending sideways under the stress of a steady 25mph wind, with higher gusts every few minutes. We were heading to an open expanse of rocky coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and I worried about how students would we’d all handle the wind.

As it turned out, quite well actually, except for that one sound I would remember for the rest of the workshop. I had advised everyone to hang their bags from the center column of their tripods for added stability, and to make sure they tightened everything before setting up their cameras. As I chatted with a student, I heard it – splash. We were far enough away from the water to know it wasn’t the ocean, and when we turned around, my greatest fears were confirmed. There in the middle of a large tidal pool were two and a half tripod legs sticking out of the water, and in the water, completely submerged, was an expensive DSLR.

Long story short, he had a decent tripod, yet didn’t tighten the legs properly, and it wasn’t solid and steady enough to withstand the high winds. So it tipped over.

This is just one example, but there are plenty others. Legs that don’t adjust easily, knobs and levers that resist your will, clamps that don’t quite work the way you expect, and let’s not forget the tripod that gets heavier with each use, becaue the owner is frustrated with it. I’ve seen and experienced them all, ranging from cheap Best Buy tripods to European and Asian brands.

I’ve learned to value and trust good design, function, and attention to ergonomic detail.

And this is where FLM comes into the picture.

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Gura Gear Uinta and FLM tripod

A Matter of Trust

I rarely review products on this blog, but when I do it’s because I use them myself every day in the field and they’ve earned a spot in my “toolbox” so to speak. My tripods hold a special place in my toolbox, and I often wonder if they contribute more to my work than any other item I own.

A good tripod should be a “set and forget” item. That doesn’t mean you forget about its importance or function. When it works well it generates trust – something that develops brand loyalty and support. And most importantly, good design gives peace of mind, which I’ll return to later. The last thing I want is to second guess my gear while I’m focusing on great light or a once in a lifetime moment.

So all this to say I was skeptical of any tripod that I might choose over my trusted brands, even if I was already looking for alternatives. Why? Numerous issues, some of which were normal wear and tear, but also design features I had grown to dislike. For example, the locking mecahnism on tripod legs varies depending on the manufacturer, and I’ve used both the lever-clamp style (Manfrotto) and the rotation style (Gitzo) extensively. Yet both left something to be desired (based on the way they were implemented by these companies.)

Then there’s the whole issue of ballhead design and function, which again varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Bottom line is I was generally happy with my setup, and had learned to live with the quirks and weaknesses of each. They were also showing their age and wear, and I was beginning to wonder if it was time to start looking for a potential replacement. Upgrading to newer model seemed ideal and reasonable. But might there be an alternative, another brand I might actually consider?

I’d browse the tripod section at B&H Photo from time to time, looking at the different offerings (so many these days) but nothing really caught my eye, and I eventually returned to the tried and trued, my trusted tripods back home. Then I attended Photo Plus Expo in NYC this fall and discovered FLM.

The Company

FLM is a family owned business started in Germany that has been manufacturing tripods for different industries for 22 years. While they originally started out making surveying equipment, they are now committed to the photography industry and it has become their main focus.

FLM stands for F(photography), L (light), and M (metrology – the study of measurement or precision.) I love that acronym because it captures what we do with our tripods; we use them to capture light with our cameras in a very precise way.

Their ballheads are manufactured with a tolerance of 1/1000th of a millimeter, and most of the parts are produced in-house which means quality is maintained throughout the process. That’s certainly the first thing I noticed when I handled one of their ballheads. It felt so smooth and precise, whether the knobs themselves, or pivoting the head on its base. It almost felt like there was oil at every joint, yet was totally dry.

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I wondered why I had never heard of them before, and the owner told me that while they have had great success in Europe and Asia, they are still relatively new to the US market. The owner of the company was there, demonstrating the products and very eager to answer questions at length about the operation and use of his products.

That also impressed me, since a personal connection is something I still value when buying products that I use every day. Yes, corporations get large and lose their personal contact, but that doesn’t mean they have to forget about the individual, something that happens all too often in today’s profit driven industry.

As an aside, I realized part of the reason I enjoy working with other brands I promote, like Gura Gear and Canson Infinity, is precisely because they are dedicated to the individual photographer – they care about you, and not just another sales line on a speadsheet. FLM is no different, and that was another good sign that I had found my tripod and ballhead replacement after all.

Design

I’d use the words precision and elegance to describe the design of FLM tripods and ballheads. Right from the outset, I could feel the attention to detail, and the thought that went into designing a product that ultimately falls away and you forget you’re using it.

Lets start with the tripod I tested, the CP26-M3S.

Ari Tapiero at FLM Canada recommended the carbon fiber CP26-M3S based on my gear and preferences. By the way, Ari was amazignly knowledgeable and helpful, and another reason why I was so impressed with FLM.

Why carbon fiber? Two main reasons – strength and weight. Carbon fiber is stiffer than metal which translates to more stability. And it’s also lighter, which means less weight to carry into the field. Another important detail is that FLM uses a total of eight layers of carbon fiber for all of their tripods, where as most of the competion uses six, except for their most expensive models. The more layers used, the stiffer and stronger the construction.

The CP26-M3S has a maximum height of 162cm (5.3 ft) and supports 10kg (10 lbs), more than enough for my Canon 1DS Mk III with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 lens. And it weighs a mere 1.23kg (2.7 lbs). I prefer 3 leg sections to 4, simply because the fewer the sections, the more stable the tripod is. Also there are less rings to twist to get the tripod open and ready to shoot. FLM uses a twist lock system that have a rounded shape, which means they fit into the palm of your hand, unlike flat locking rings that just don’t feel as comfortable. They are smooth and silky, and lock the legs very securely. Plus they are designed to protect against dirt and accidental opening – which has been a problem for me in the past.

The legs have 180° of movement which means the tripod can be folded in the smaller position for travel. The locking mechanisms are smooth and easy to use, and don’t require super human strength to release. Metal edges are rounded off for smoother operation – no sharp edges to get your skin pinched.

The bottom of the legs also have quick change tips, only requiring a minor twist to go from rubber feet to steel tips. Let me clarify, you only have to twist them about a 1/4 turn to go from rubber to steel—not 20 or more like on other tripods—nice.

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Ari recommended I pair the CP26-M3S with the CB-43FTR ballhead.

Talk about a piece of precision machinery – craftsmanship is everywhere, from the design of the knobs to the cork/rubber blend material used at every limit to prevent vibration and ensure weather resistance. And the operation is smooth and silky.

The main locking mechanism has a dual ring that adjusts the locking of the ball, and a friction adjustment that remembers its setting for future use. Once locked, the camera is as stable as a rock, and does not move at all. There are three more knobs which control the following:

  • A knob to lock the panning of the head
  • A knob that engages a 15° notch with a clicking sound while rotating the camera for easy panoramas. This knob also has a button that locks the rotation to make it easier to tighten the head onto the tripod.
  • A final “tilt knob” with a very unique feature – it locks the ball so it can only be tilted or swiveled at 90° to the knob. This limits the axis of the head to two dimensions instead of three as normal. This has some interesting uses, for example vertical panoramas when you want to tilt the camera forwards and backward, but not left and right.

There are several options for attaching your camera, including a quick connect system using a locking lever with a security feature that prevents the camera from accidentally disconnecting. There is also a standard clamp that is compatible with most camera plates, and that’s what I got. Once again the knob is well designed and easy to tighten and loosen without losing any skin. They also have matching camera plates including L brackets. While not custom designed for specific cameras, they are adaptable for any camera which does increase their long-term usefulness.

Details like these show a commitment to design and an understanding of how a tripod and ballhead are normally used and abused in the field.

So often I feel that products are never tested where we use them – in real world situations where subtle or minor design flaws become significant issues, like a tiny pebble in your boot. And that’s where I really appreciated the FLM gear, when it came time to take it out into nature.

In The Field

The tripod and ballhead with attachment plate weighs 1.62kg or 3.58lbs, the lightest tripod I have every used. In fact every time I pick it up I’m pleasantly surprised by its nimble quality. I’m used to carrying heavier tripods on the trail, so this was a welcome change.

I have to admit the knobs were disorienting at first, partly because the included instruction manual needs a little more clarity. I’ve already mentioned this to FLM and they are aware of the need for improvement. There’s also the disorienting learning curve that comes with any new piece of gear, especially one that becomes muscle memory over time. But after the second outing with the FLM tripod and ballhead, I felt right at home.

Opening and closing the legs and selecting the leg angle is easy thanks to the spring loaded adjustment. Extending the legs is also easy, but what really impressed me is how they lock easily at the desired height without any drift – and without tightening them with super human force.

Attaching the camera is also uneventful, and once attached, the tripod just works. The ballhead is extremely secure, and I never had any problems with either my Olympus E-M1 or Canon DSLR setups. The tripod does include a center column, but I remove that from all my tripods right away so that I can get my camera as low to the ground as possible for dramatic perspectives. Even so, the hook to attach a bag for extra stability is still available.

Improvement

My only criticisms are as follows:

  • The included manual can be improved for clarity (how about making it a little bigger.) In all fairness the FLM Canada website has a bunch of videos to explain the operation of the tripod ballhead, but when you want to get up and running right away, a simple visual guide to the ballhead would be ideal.
  • The operation of the friction knob can be confusing until you learn how it interacts with the main tightening knob. Because I don’t use the friction feature at all on any ballhead, I simply screwed it all the way out as far as it would go (as per the manual), and never had any issues again. I think more clarity in the manual would have prevented a few moments of frustration when I first started using the ballhead.

The Value of Peace of Mind

The trust we put in our gear is directly proportional with how comfortable and confident we feel in the field, and ultimately how easily we can get into the flow – so critical for creativity.

I know that for me, when my gear works as expected, that is to say, performs without getting in the way, and better still, elevates my practice of the craft of photography, I make better images. Are there other good tripods on the market? Sure, and I always say if what you have is working for you, than focus on your art, not the gear.

Yes, tools are just tools, and they should function to support our creative goals. Given that definition, the FLM tripod and ballhead are my new trusted companions on that journey.

Exploring Creative Opportunities With the Olympus OM-D E-M1

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Intro

Mirrorless cameras have come a long way in the past few years, and I can tell you they’re here to stay. I’ve been using the Olympus OM-D EM-1 system for the better part of the year, and I’ve received lots of questions concerning why I’m using it, and how it compares to my DSLRs. So what follows is a little background for context and my overall impressions of the E-M1.

My workhorse camera over the past six years has been a Canon 1DS Mk III, with a few Canon lenses: 17-40mm L, 24-105mm L, and 70-200 f/2.8 L. It has and continues to be an amazing system that provides fantastic image quality, 22MP of resolution, and tank-like construction that I have tested and abused over the course of many hours in the field. Suffice to say, I am extremely familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. One of the major reasons for purchasing the 1DS Mk III years ago was my need for the highest resolution possible from a DSLR. I print much of my work for exhibition and sale, and have many corporate customers that request large prints.

After six years of using the same camera with the same set of lenses, I decided I wanted to explore some other options, given all of the technological changes that have occurred since then. One of those was the Micro 4/3 format. I had already used this system by way of a Panasonic GH1 and GH2, which I purchased primarily for video. While I enjoyed the size and weight, I just couldn’t get used to the EVF (electronic viewfinder), and overall lack of image quality as compared to my full frame DSLRs. The EVF was slow, lacking in clarity, and felt artificial. My standards for image quality are very high, and so any system I use must really convince visually on my monitor, and in a fine art print.

Benefits of Mirrorless Cameras

I was naturally skeptical of any mirrorless camera at first; then I tested the Olympus E-M1. It claimed to have the best EVF to date, great image quality, tough weather-proof construction, and many lens choices from Olympus and Panasonic/Leica. The ability to use lenses from other formats via adapters was also a nice bonus. Olympus also holds a special place in my heart since it was the first camera manufacturer I became aware of as a young adolescent taking snaps of the family with my Dad’s OM-2 (which I still have.) I fondly remember looking through that huge viewfinder with the analog needle indicating the current exposure and being totally captivated by this new way of seeing and interpreting the world around me.

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My childhood OM-2 next to my current E-M1

And after some research and careful consideration of the options, I decided to invest in the Olympus system. I also decided I would use the opportunity to explore some creative and technical options; fixed focal length lenses (primes) instead of zooms, and a different aspect ratio (3/4 vs. 2/3). I like shooting vertical images, but always felt constrained by the narrow 2/3 format of DSLRs. The 4/3 format is noticeably wider vertically, and I rather like that for many of my compositional tendencies. I hoped these changes would get me out of a “comfort zone” I’d come to rely on, consciously and sub-consciously. Perhaps this would push me to see things differently.

There was another factor, however, and it’s one I’ve heard from many others as well. I often found myself wanting a smaller, lighter camera system, especially when traveling or doing very long hikes. Problem is, once you get used to a certain amount of IQ and what I’d call “ergonomic functionality,” it’s hard to let go of that familiarity and confidence. I know every dial, switch, and menu item on my Canon, and that lets me get in the “flow” of making photographs rather easily. Change is often a scary, but necessary part of life.

The Olympus E-M1 has been a revelation. In addition to the reduced size and weight, it does not sacrifice much in terms of ergonomics, quality, or crucially in my opinion, a good viewfinder. Plus, any camera that gets me to make more images on a regular basis due to its portability is a welcome addition. Ask any professional what percentage of their time they spend shooting, and the answer is almost always “not enough.” In short, I wanted to shoot more by any means possible, yet not give up the benefits of a professional tool.

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E-M1 Real World Field Test

Let me get something out of the way—while technical specs and numbers are important, what I care most about is how a camera supports my creative goals. Charts mean little to me—I’m concerned with subjective questions like what does it feel like to use a camera out in the field every day? Is there anything about a camera that becomes frustrating over time, or better yet gains my trust in the field and gets out of the way creatively? And how do prints from the camera look like?

In short, I’m most interested in real world performance. I don’t know what half the numbers in any sensor or lens test mean, and I bet most people don’t either. That’s why we read comprehensive reviews, yet still ask for personal recommendations.

So while not meant to be an in-depth review of the E-M1, I did want to share my findings and personal opinions about the camera based on my use in the field and prints I’ve made over the past nine months.

Ergonomics and Construction

The E-M1 feels great to hold, with a nice range of dials and switches that all have that mechanical “heft” I enjoy. While smaller than a regular DSLR, it doesn’t feel small or fragile, but rather very substantial, with a nice balance of retro and modern design. With the extra battery grip which I added, it feels right at home in my large hands. The body is made of a magnesium alloy and is totally weather sealed, qualities I look for in every camera body I purchase.

You really appreciate the weight and size when carrying it in a backpack or over-the-shoulder bag. My lower back certainly appreciates the lightness on long climbs, and fatigue is much less of an issue for me now when I use this system.

I also love the programmability of every switch and dial on the body, allowing me to set it up exactly as I want. For example, I re-programmed a large switch on the back to toggle between auto and manual focus, which I often use when shooting landscapes. Back button focusing is easy to configure as well, another one of those customizations I do to every camera I use.

Electronic View Finder and Rear Monitor

The high-definition EVF (2.36 million dot resolution) is crystal clear and very bright. It took me a few days to get adjusted, and now I hardly notice that’s it not optical. Display lag is non-existent, and color, contrast, and sharpness are very good. This was one of the main things keeping me from even considering a mirrorless camera in the past, but is no longer an issue.

The 3.0” touch-sensitive rear monitor is also large and crisp, and can be tilted forwards and backward for multiple viewing angles.

Image Quality

All I can say about IQ is one word: outstanding. I’ve used Canon DSLRs for years, including the latest 5D Mk III which I rented for an assignment, and the EM-1 is comparable to all of them. Yes, I do give up some resolution, but in cases where I don’t need to make 24×36 prints or larger, the E-M1 is a mighty competitor.

In fact, at the recent Photokina Expo and Photo Plus Expo shows this year, I had several prints on display at a size of 20”x30” that I made with the E-M1. If you use very careful technique, and the highest quality lenses from Olympus, large prints up to 30” wide look great.

It includes a 12-bit, 16.3MP sensor, which creates raw files at 4608×3456 pixels. Images are extremely clean even up to ISO 1600, and with careful noise reduction can go much higher. The majority of the landscape images I’ve made have been at ISO 200, and for handheld images I use 400 to 800 without hesitation.

The E-M1 also has an image stabilization system built into the body, which means every lens I use has IS. While I do turn this feature off when using a tripod, it does give me the confidence to shoot handheld when the situation calls for it.

Lens Selection

I decided to limit myself to prime lenses only, as a way to push myself creatively and extract as much image quality out of the sensor. I’ve been using the following with fantastic results:

  • Olympus 12mm f/2.0
  • Panasonic 20mm f/1.7
  • Olympus 45mm f/1.8
  • Olympus 75mm f/1.8

The Micro 4/3 system has a 2x magnification factor, so each of these lenses doubles in focal length, providing 24mm, 40mm, 90mm, and 150mm. For me this is a great range of focal lengths for nature and landscape photography.

Quality throughout all of these lenses is fantastic, with the standouts being the Olympus 12mm and Olympus 75mm. Both are very sharp, with great color and contrast, and little distortion. Olympus applies all lens correction internally, so no need to apply it in Lightroom.

I want to emphasize how important lenses are to the overall performance of any camera. Glass is everything, and I’m constantly amazed at the quality these lenses deliver given their small size.

Images

Leaf Detail

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Desert Peel

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Conclusion

Using the E-M1 has been a blast; extremely fun, liberating, and creatively satisfying. I have indeed made more images than I would have otherwise, and that’s a clear positive for me.

Let me be clear, I have not switched from Canon to Olympus, but simply added another option to my creative toolset. Most importantly, an option that allows me to be ready to make photographs when I want, and not worry about carrying a huge backpack “just in case.” The E-M1 has become my favorite camera when I don’t need more than 16MP of resolution, and the results speak for themselves. I don’t want the size and weight of my bigger kit to limit my ability to make images as often as possible, and that’s why I’m loving this camera so much. It provides almost all the benefits of a full frame DSLR without the weight and size.

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On my regular landscape shoots, I will continue to use the Canon systems when needed, and enjoy the benefits they provide. But for lots of other situations, I’ll pack the E-M1. These include more general hikes, scouting, workshops, and especially urban and family opportunities. The more photographs I make, the better I get and the more I can explore, grow, and develop as a photographer and creative artist. That has become more important to me than some idealistic notion of what I should or should not be using. In fact, I would say it’s become the most important thing to me. We should define ourselves not by the tools we use, but by the stories and emotions we share, and how those can potentially inspire and affect others.

Technology is moving forward at a rapid pace, and it seems like we can’t keep up—at least that’s what it feels like to me. That’s ok, what matters is that we use our tools for the right reasons. That is always worth exploring in my view.

What’s In My Camera Bag

I’m winding down my vacation with a few days camping at Acadia National Park, and with the little time I have to be online, I figured I would answer a question I often receive—what’s in my camera bag.

While most of you know camera gear is really not a focus of mine, it is still critically important to success as a landscape photographer. I use what gets the job done for me, and in general I prefer top quality lenses, and as much resoltution as I can afford given I make and sell large prints. But I also enjoy smaller setups that are lighter and easier to carry, especaily in long hikes.

So for this particular 11 day trip, here;s what I packed in my GuraGear Uinta backpack:

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Primary Landscape Kit

  • Canon 1DS Mk III Body
  • Zeiss 21mm Distagon Lens
  • Canon 70–200mm L f/2.8 IS Lens

Secondary Kit

  • Olympus OM-D E-M1
  • Olympus 12mm f/2.8 Lens
  • Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 Lens
  • Olympus 45mm f/1.8 Lens
  • Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Lens

Accessories

  • Manfrotto 190CF3 carbon fiber tripod
  • Kirk BH3 Ballhead
  • B+W Ciscular Polarizer
  • B+W 6 stop ND filter
  • B+W 10 stop ND Filter
  • Adapter rings for filters

While this is not the most versatile setup, I chose to bring more prime lenses on this trip to challenge myself creatively and keep my decisions simpler, which is always a good thing. Not having an option means I focus on what I can work with, and that makes me look more instead of simply relying on familiar habits.

Thanks for reading and any questions whatsoever, please let me know!

Gura Gear Uinta Field Review

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Earlier this year Gura Gear released the Uinta, a new backpack that differed from the innovative design of their other bags in several ways. As a member of the Gura Gear Pro Team, I got a chance to try the backpack as soon as it was released. However, rather than rush to write a review, I decided to live with the pack for a while and get a better sense of its strengths and weaknesses.

Over the past six months, I’ve used it extensively on local hikes in the Hudson Valley, urban trips to NYC, a 10 day trip to the Smoky Mountains, and a two week trip to Moab, Utah. On both of these latter trips I was leading workshops, but also had opportunities to hike and photograph on my own. I carried it through airports, desert trails, NYC subway, rain soaked hikes to waterfalls, and mountain bike rides close to home. I wanted to write a review based on long-term usage as opposed to just trying it out in my backyard – that’s not the real world. Out in the field over extended periods of time is the only place where you can get a real sense of how gear performs under demanding situations.

It’s a crowded market out there for camera backpacks, but I hope this review gives you a better perspective on whether it’s the right backpack for you.

Design and Configuration

Whereas the excellent Kiboko and Bataflae use the dual butterfly opening for easy access to gear, the new Uinta is based on a modular concept. Using removable “modules” or compartments, the Uinta is a camera backpack that adapts to your needs, whether that’s carrying camera gear only, or additional items such as clothing, a laptop and accessories, or a hydration bladder. Maybe you just want a low profile bag to carry a smaller mirror-less camera on an urban trip to a museum or park. In all of these scenarios, the Uinta is up to the task.

The main feature of the Uinta is its ability to be configured depending on your particular needs. It uses removable modules that you can choose based on the size and quantity of gear you want to carry. There are medium and small sized modules, and each occupies roughly half the bag giving you lots of configurable options. The bag has two openings on the back (shoulder strap side) which provide access to either the top or bottom module areas. There are also two zippers on the front which open to the main compartment, and a second area for carrying smaller accessories like maps, notebooks, batteries, and other personal items.

Lots of organizational features are included, like an extra zippered pocket and several smaller pockets for things like a phone, memory and business cards, and car keys. There are two stretch-mesh side pockets that you can reach into while wearing the pack, with straps to keep things from falling out – a very nice technical detail. The bottom of the pack is reinforced with Cordura for added durability.

Because the main openings are on the back, you can actually access your camera while wearing the bag. Simply remove the shoulder straps, rotate the bag to the front of your body, and open the pockets. This is great when standing in water or mud – not a good place to put your pack down. The bag includes a padded sleeve which fits a 17” laptop, though I used it more often with an iPad Air.

There’s also a dual-use tripod holder/hydration pocket attachment that attaches to the front of the bag using four adjustable straps. While I didn’t use a hydration bladder with it (preferring to carry water bottles in the side pockets,) I did carry a tripod extensively , and it worked perfectly for me. The weight of the tripod is centered along the back of the bag, which is where I prefer it, and it was easy to remove the tripod when needed. More importantly, because the bag can be opened from either side, it means I can get my camera out without having to remove the tripod.

One added benefit of having the hydration bladder separate from the main bag is that inevitably when filling and using a hydration bladder, things can (and will) get wet, and keeping the backpack and camera gear dry is always a good thing.

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Construction and Comfort

Gura Gear products have always emphasized lightweight, strong construction and the Uinta continues that tradition nicely. It’s made of a tough material that withstood lots of abuse in wet and dry conditions over many outings. It has a nice matte black finish with some gray areas along the side and bottom, giving it an attractive stealth like appearance. There’s a handle on the top for easy lifting into the trunk of the car or overhead compartment of an airplane. And yes it is carry-on compliant on all commercial airlines. It includes weather sealed zippers with large white latches making opening and closing the pockets fairly easy. That’s something you learn to appreciate when working in the field under less than ideal conditions. It includes a nice rain cover that is easy to fit over the entire bag when the weather gets a little damp.

Regardless of how well a backpack is designed, it needs to be comfortable on the trail over many miles. A lightweight, breathable harness is highly adjustable so that you can find the most ideal fit for your body. The shoulder straps are comfortable without being too padded, and the wide waist strap puts the weight on the hips where it belongs, and includes multiple attachment loops for accessories. The mesh backpad allows air to circulate over your back adding to the comfort on long or warm hikes.

Field Use

I’ve used the Uinta almost exclusively over the past 6 months, and while it won’t replace my Bataflae, it has become my favorite all-around backpack. In terms of carrying the most amount of gear specifically for a photo shoot, the Bataflae rules. Its ease of access, deep compartments, and beefy padding are still better than any other bag I’ve tried, the Uinta included. Its designed to do one thing really well.

However the Uinta is more like a “chameleon” of bags. On many of my hikes, I like to bring extra clothing, food, and water, and just using one module lets me use the other part of the bag for those items. I found the Medium Pro module best suited for full size DSLRs and lenses. The Small Pro module handles smaller DSLRs as well, especially mirror-less cameras like my Olympus E-M1. I carry the E-M1 with 4 lens comfortable in the small module, leaving lots of room for extras. When traveling, I use both modules to carry both camera systems, then remove gear I don’t need to lighten the load on the trail.

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On workshops, I mostly used the small module in the bottom area, leaving the top half of the bag for clothing, water, a first aid kit, maps, and other items I carry when teaching. I also use this configuration when I’m mountain biking on the trails or riding around town.

In urban settings like a zoo or museum, I found the rear pockets easy to open and access in tight quarters, and made carrying a pro camera setup much easier than in the past. And because it doesn’t look like a camera bag, I felt more at ease about theft and security. In fact that’s probably what I like most about the Uinta, it’s utilitarian look and feel, combined with cutting edge features and design.

Weaknesses

No backpack is perfect, and the Uinta is no exception. While some may complain about the lack of padding, and indeed it’s less than other bags, I think the compromise is worth the weight savings. Whether that’s a weakness or not depends on what you need. I also wished for more individual pockets on the outside of the bag for things like the rain cover, filters, and other accessories. And the laptop sleeve might benefit from a strap to keep a laptop from sliding out.

The Uinta with all accessories retails for $398 and that’s not exactly pocket change. But considering the value it offers, its money well spent. And if you look around, you can find attractively priced bundles online.

Conclusions

Reviewing a backpack for quality and features, and recommending it to others are two different things. For me a backpack needs to perform well in the field under varied conditions, and in that respect the Uinta performed great. The modular design, while not new to camera bags, is simple to use and configure. Since the modules are available separately, you can buy just what you need and add to it over time. And when not using both modules, the Uinta compresses down to fit its contents, which for me works great especially in urban settings.

Is the Uinta for you? That depends on what you want and need from a backpack. Is it better than GuraGear’s other bags? No, just different. It offers a great combination of lightness, versatility, and comfort, and most importantly gets out of the way when you’re ready to get creative with your camera.

Video Supplement

Watch this short 5 min video about the Uinta and how it compares to other Gura Gear bags.

Disclosure

As I mentioned earlier, I am very honored to be a part of the Gura Gear Pro Team. Having said that, I would not have committed to using this bag for as long as I did if I didn’t like it right from the start. I don’t need a free backpack, what I need is a backpack that makes my job easier. I’m grateful for the fact that I can afford to buy any bag I want. What I choose to use is based on personal preference. This is just a long way of saying that when I recommend gear, it’s because I use it myself. IF you ever see me on the trails, or around town, I’ll be using Gura Gear bags.

Storage Management on the Mac With DaisyDisk

I’m always on the lookout for great software that makes my life easier as a photographer and digital content creator. One application in particular that I really like is DaisyDisk, which I’ve written about before, but with the new release of version 3, is worth a revisit. This new version has lots of nice updates including faster performance, looks better (especially on a Retina display), 64-bit support, and many others.

What is DaisyDisk and why do I think you should use it? Lets find out…

[symple_box color=”yellow” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”] DaisyDisk is Mac only, so apologies to my Windows friends 🙂
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One of the challenges we all face as photographers and computer users in general is managing all of our storage, and making sure it’s being used wisely and efficiently. Yes it’s true that the cost of disk drive storage has fallen dramatically in recent years, but we’re also making more images than ever before, and using higher resolution cameras that also shoot video. I’m also slowly transitioning to SSD drives (solid state), which are much faster and efficient than disk based drives. But they’re still relatively expensive, so storage is a premium.

For example I recently upgraded the hard drive in my 2011 Macbook Pro to an Crucial 256GB SSD drive, and the performance increase is dramatic to say the least. However, at 256GB I need to watch my storage usage much more carefully to avoid running out of room! (I will say that the increase in performance is well worth the size limitation – I went from a 512GB to 256GB, but the speed increase is amazing. I you’re looking for a way to breath new life into an older laptop, an SSD is the way to go. I love this Crucial drive and it makes everything feel much more responsive and snappy.)

Regardless of what type of drives you have, if you’re like me, you’re filling up your hard drives faster than ever before. And all hard drives will slow down as they fill up, so getting rid of unnecessary files will improve performance.

For me finding and deleting old files was a drag, assuming I even knew what was taking up lots of room – so I avoided it until it became a problem. I know there are other apps to do this, but DaisyDisk was the first I found that made it really easy. It has an amazing graphical interface, and has saved me from buying a new hard drive on several occasions.

In Action

Did I say easy? I love easy because it means I don’t have to avoid the drive maintenance I need to do from time to time. Below are a few screen shots showing how it works.

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The main window where you can select a drive to scan. Notice I keep my Raw files separate from my system drive. This makes it easier to manage and backup.

 

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Showing my home folder on my system drive. The graphics are great and I can easily drill down into any subfolder to see where my storage is being used.

 

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Potential items for deletion can be inspected in the Filder, and then added to the “Collector” where they can then be deleted within the app. Very convenient.

I don’t review many applications in general, unless I find them incredibly useful and worth the cost. At $9.99, DaisyDisk is a must have in my opinion to keep tabs on your storage use. I have to deal with this regularly with all the content I manage- Raw files, tiff and psd files, video files, etc. I hope it’s something you’re managing regularly as well, at the least it can keep your system running faster and leaner.

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