Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 – User Review

I am a gear whore, sort of a bag slut. I have packs and bags for everything from urban adventures to backcountry camping, biking, climbing, painting, photographing, writing, skiing, summit assaults, but nothing I had fit right for mountain running and ultra marathons. Nothing worked until I was able to get my hands on a Salomon XT Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 running pack last year when I signed up to run the SwissAlpine K42 mountain marathon. The S-Lab 5 is now my pack for mountain and trail running in Switzerland. After a nice season of running with it in 2011, here are my thoughts on the S-Lab, let’s call it a user review…

Salomon S-Lab Line

Before we jump in, some background is in order. Salomon is an interesting company. I know them mainly from ski gear, but now they have branched out into serious trail and long distance (ultra) running. From my perspective they’re the only large sports company which is really trying to capitalize on the trail running and ultra-marathon market, in some ways actually pushing the sport forward (and are essentially expanding the market need for their products). Unlike other companies which are now bringing out trail running products in a me too fashion, I have the feeling that Salomon is more committed to creating great products for this growing sport, and they also have the design and distribution capacity to bring innovative products to the market. This lends more confidence in Salomon as a company and I consider their products to be the benchmark by which others are measured by.

The pinnacle of their effort is the S-Lab line (I guess this stands for Salomon Laboratory). Basically S-Lab means high-end clothing, shoes, and accessories for trail running. There’s an actual S-Lab place (a sort of prototype shop) where they design, build, test, and refine these products (check out this video on YouTube). They have a guy on their running team named Kilian Jornet who is a sort of a trail running God from Spxain. He wins a lot of ultra races (and came in 3rd after Dakota Jones and Andy Symonds at the 2012 Transvulcania) and is setting the pace for the sport. Salomon sponsors and learns from the best runners in the world, but it seems like the relationship with Kilian is very close. So close, that as I understand it, that various products in the S-Lab product line are developed with direct feedback from Kilian like the new Salomon Sense running shoe (and the S-Lab 5 pack). The result is a product line with a high level of design and attention to detail that addresses the needs of people pushing their personal limits on the trail.

The S-Lab products are lean, light, fit close to your body and really move with you. Normally clothing is something that you need to wear for protection, but in an ideal world you would go without, it’s just there because we want to protect our bodies from the elements. But the S-Lab products actually improve your performance in subtle ways (my scientist opinion). Function and design are combined in a beautiful way, and the 5 pack is a wonderful example of designing a product to specifically fulfill the needs of long-distance athletes.

S-Lab 5 Overview

The S-Lab 5 is made very well with materials that stretch and conform to your body as you move (they call it Sensifit construction). The pack fits very close to your body and the fits like a glove analogy makes sense here. I have a fabulous pair of Mammut gloves that often wear with the pack when the weather is cold, and the two products give me the same sense of perfect form and function. Designed as a hydration pack with space for minimal gear, it’s not the type of pack you can stuff full of gear you might need. It’s a minimalist pack where you need to make sure you only take what you really need. There are two water bottle pockets on the shoulder straps (which also work well for small cameras, food, etc) and a water bladder in the main pocket on the back. The bulk of the pack is composed of a hexagonal mesh material. It’s an elastic 3D weave of hexagons (or you could call it honeycomb) that defines the core function of the pack, to feel like a second skin so that you almost forget that you’re wearing it. The open mesh also lets perspiration move through the material and dry quickly.

If you’re a material scientist (like me) you’ll instantly think of a hexagonal crystallographic lattice when you pick up the pack. The hexagon is a beautiful structure with three main directions and corresponding planes of symmetry that make it ideal for this application. From a mechanics viewpoint, this means the the fabric should stretch with an equal resistance in three directions. Other packs usually have 2D weave like normal nylon (think of the fabric weave of your clothing) which is basically orthotropic. This means it will provide equal stretch in two, the 0 and 90 degree directions, but at 45 degrees you get a different mechanical response. Anyways, I digress, the point is that a hexagonal arrangement isn’t an accident here and if I had designed this from scratch I would have taken a similar design path (the hexagonal crystal structure was inspiration for one of my patents on heat shield technologies).

The only real thing you need to know is that the design of the pack reduces pressure points over your body. It hugs and maintains contact with the surface of your back and frontal torso, more like a tactical vest than a traditional pack. Due to the multi-directional symmetric planes of the hexagon array the pack material expands as you move in different directions, differentiating from all other pack designs (as I know them).

Breath Easier

A huge problem with non-running packs when used for trail running is compression across the chest. In general, to keep a backpack on your body you need to stabilize the pack by closing down the shoulder and chest straps. As you start to run and the weight of the pack becomes more unstable and you can only counteract this by going slower or tightening the straps to their limit. However, this then constricts the ability of your torso to move, which constricts the volume of air you can take into your body. Basically your breathing ability is impeded and your running performance is reduced by your reduced ability to take in oxygen. Usually the only solution is to not wear a pack, or to reduce the load so that there isn’t as much mass to stabilize.

Traditional packs are designed so that load is carried by the shoulders and via contact with the lower back, generally using materials that are essentially static (don’t stretch). The S-Lab 5 is made of dynamic material that stretches easily in three different directions (thanks to the hexagon array) and maintains contact over your torso. This design greatly reduces and almost eliminates the stabilization problem (from my perspective). Since the pack is more like a vest, it maintains a large surface area in the back and over the shoulders. This essentially reduces the need for a chest closure system, because the pack is almost one with the form of your body. The S-Lab pack uses just two thin elastic bands that cross over your chest to close the pack around your torso. Since the pressure isn’t localized on the chest strap system and shoulders, the expansion of your chest isn’t restricted as much as with other packs. The pack remains stabilized around your body and therefore you can breath more naturally as the pack fabric expands and moves with you, so your breathing rhythm and oxygen flow isn’t restricted. The system makes for a much more natural running experience.

Detailed Construction

The manufacturing of the S-Lab is really top notch and includes a lot of attention to detail. Seams are sewn correctly, the materials are durable, and the design is streamlined. The main rear pocket has a stretch front, so you can cram in arm warmers, a jacket, water bottle, whatever, and it keeps the mass compressed as close as possible to your spine. I find this is important for running and balance because it means that the moment of inertia of the pack is minimized, and over the length of an ultra marathon this can greatly reduce fatigue as compared with a pack where the mass is positioned out too far from your center gravity (or is off-center from the vertical axis of your spine). Inside the main pocket you have a small magnet to close the opening. There is an adjustment system to pull the pack higher up on your back if needed (to customize the fit). The elastic cords are all high quality as are the plastic clasps which secure the chest compression straps. The front pockets have draw string closures making them super easy to access. I use them for gloves, snacks, cameras, or water bottles. The pack comes with a Source hydration water bladder, and includes a sleeve with reflective backing, which would help keep liquids cool from the heat of your back as you’re running. The drinking tube comes under your arm and then up the shoulder strap, so it isn’t flying around over your shoulder like on other packs. You can secure running sticks to the pack as well, although I haven’t tried this yet. There are small side pockets that are nice for a cell phone, extra snacks (like magnesium sticks) or keys.

Trial By Trails

I got into trail running because it combines the elements of speed from ski touring with the technical footwork of climbing and the thrill of mountaineering. I’ve taken my S-Lab 5 on the SwissAlpine K42, the Jungfrau Marathon, and on various mountain runs around Switzerland including Rigi Kulm, Lauterbrunnen – Eiger Rotstock, Braunwald, Elm – Linthal, biking from Winterthur to Bauma, and then running up and down the Hornli. In general I’m not one to count kilometers, but I’ve run with the S-Lab over long distances and terrain variations including asphalt, basic off-road and mountain trails, ascending and descending at high and low velocities, and S-Lab pack have been marvelous. It could also be the most comfortable pack I have for multi-pitch sport climbing, but for storage reasons I take my Lowe Alpine Attack pack. If I carry a normal mountaineering load I will often get a strained shoulder muscle (think it’s connected to cracking my clavicle long ago). I found this happens also if I run with a small pack like the Lowe Alpine Attack, but with the S-Lab I never have this problem. This tells me directly that the pack fits very well and distributes weight better than anything else I own (and biomechanics engineer side of my brain agrees).

Yes, It’s Worth It

If you’re looking for a casual running pack don’t even bother considering the S-Lab. It retails for 180 USD and you probably won’t use it enough to appreciate it (the true benefit comes when you’re logging lots of km). This is a piece of gear for serious distance and ultra runners, where you want a pack that will minimize your energy expenditure over long distances and will feel like a second skin around your body. The pack comes in two sizes, and this is probably the greatest limitation. If it doesn’t fit you well there isn’t much room to adjust it. I’ve tried mountain running with my Lowe Alpine Attack pack, my minimal Mountain Smith bike pack and other small packs, nothing compares to the S-Lab 5. It is vastly more comfortable and puts less stress on my shoulders than any other pack I have ever tried, and that makes the price totally worth it. I have loved running over the Swiss Alps with the S-Lab 5, and I’m now desperately trying to find the new larger version, the S-Lab 12 to take on the Swiss Irontrail T71 in July 2012.

VG10: Jag35 Field Runner Rig Review

I picked up the Sony NEX-VG10 because it has more of an all-inclusive video camera design than going the DSLR route (Canon 7D, 60D, 550D, etc.). However, as I started using the camera I decided that a shoulder rig would add a lot of functionality to the system to stabilize the camera and to shoot in different situations (and I’ll admit so some gear lust driving my purchase decision). I opted for the Jag35 system because they offer rigs at affordable prices for people in my buying group: folks who are getting into Indy film production but don’t have a huge budget. I decided on the Field Runner because it’s under 300 USD and came with a free handle when I ordered it. I also picked up a tripod baseplate to quickly go from tripod to shoulder mount on shoots.

Shooting with the Field Runner

The Field Runner is fun to shoot with, and that’s an important point. I use the Field Runner with the NEX 18-200mm autofocus lens or something wide like the Sigma 20mm f/1.8 or a Minolta 20mm f/2.8 and stay mobile. Since the NEX is autofocus I don’t yet worry about pulling focus and haven’t added a focus follow to my camera kit just yet. With the 20mm lenses I set the aperture and manual focus as desired. I can then shoot with the rig on my shoulder, or down low from my hip. I’m currently using the Field Runner without any counter weight on the back since the VG10 is pretty light the counter weight isn’t such an issue, but I’ll probably add one in the future to stabilize the system.

On the shoulder the VG10 is very nicely stabilized, and is much better than shooting in the classic Handycam method of just holding the camera in your right hand and putting it up to your face like a tourist or last-rate pornographer. With the Field Runner the VG10 becomes a part of my body. It moves with me, rotates with my torso and feels connected to my center of gravity. In short, it does exactly what I was hoping for when I ordered it. The VG10 now sort of feels naked without the rig. I can imagine shooting without it, but don’t see the point. It’s also nice to cradle the rig in my right arm and hold it to my body, with my left hand on the front handle. I also often shoot from my hip. To do this I make the front handle parallel to the rig and hold that handle with my left hand while holding the raised handle with my right hand and then rest the shoulder pad on my hip and then pan with my body. This is a very secure was to do a low pan when needed and is very comfortable.


I like to be mobile as a film maker or photographer (or painter for that matter). I like gear that easily moves me and packs up quickly. I can easily pack up the Field Runner with my VG10 and an assortment of lenses into my Think Tank Airport Acceleration and go without any issues. When on location the Field Runner assembles in a few seconds and I’m ready to shoot. With the optional tripod plate I can mount the rigged camera on my Manfrotto 501HDV fluid head and quickly switch from tripod to hand-held in mere seconds. I just need to swing out the front handles to allow the rig to slide onto the 501 head, but since the handles are locked down with simple twist knobs, this is very easy to do. Then when I go from tripod to shoulder it just takes a second to swing the handle back into position and lock it down and I’m ready to shoot again.

Design Issues

These are a few design issues I’d like to address that may be serious or totally irrelevant to potential buyers. Overall the Jag35 Field Runner is a good value for the money, but there are some areas of the design that need improvement in my opinion. The most serious is related more to the VG10 design than the rig, which is likely irrelevant with any another than the VG10, but needs to be mentioned. The connection of the VG10 tripod plate to the rig is very insecure, this is the heart of the rig system and should be the most well-designed and quality-controlled part. However, this is a design issue with the VG10, and not the Jag35. Now, this is has to have some context. The Field Runner is designed for a DSLR body, and I’m using it with my VG10, which has a long base like most camcorders do, while DSLR bodies are short and wide. For the VG10 you should have a long attachment area like a Manfrotto video plate, which produces a nice secure contact area on the bottom of the camera. This connection system is offered from IndySystem or Cinevate, where you can screw a long Manfrotto plate onto your camera and then just lock that into the baseplate on the rig.

To compare, I also tried the Jag35 camera plate with my Sony A900 just to see how secure it would be with a DSLR body, and it was totally different from the VG10. With a DSLR body the camera sits securely to the Jag35 base plate. With the VG10 it’s ok for basic shooting, but I don’t have faith in the attachment to my camera to forget about it, and is a primary reason I’m looking at adding an IndySystem camera plate to improve my rig setup. I also think the current design would be greatly improved by using a metal knob (similar to those on the rest of the rig) instead of plastic covered screw on the camera plate, as it would be easier to securely tighten the camera plate to the camera tripod socket.

I also found some minor misalignment issues with the connectors which hold the rods together, but this is a smaller issue and doesn’t affect the performance of the system. When the screws are tightened the rig is rigid and secure, and that is the function of the design that matters most. The optional handle could also be improved. The handle needs a lock-off screw to prevent it from rotating. As it is, the off-center handle can easily torque due to the weight of my camera and twist open when held, which is a basic design fix that should be addressed. For this reason, I always need to hold the rig by two hands to prevent unscrewing and rotation. For a rig of this price point and production volume, these design issues are more or less acceptable, and I’m confident they will be ironed out on future rig releases.

Design Update

Jehu Garcia, one of the people behind Jag35 pointed me to an updated design for the camera mounting plate to address the issue of camera-rig connection. There are two key and very welcome design improvements. First, there are a few screws in the base plate which can be screwed to contact with the bottom of the mounted camera. This then counters the tendency of the camera to loosen from the mounting plate. This addresses the torque loading on the rig-camera connection, which can occur when a follow focus is used. It can happen that reaction forces develop at the rig connection point, and these screws help resist those loads by counteracting the torque. From the design, it looks like the new plate will also improve the issue with the VG10 (and the poorly designed Sony tripod mount). The second modification is a nice big aluminum knob. This will make it much easier to tighten the rig to the tripod socket.

Overall I Like It

I’m a mechanical engineer by profession and a scientist by training, so you would expect I’d find and write about any mechanical design issues that I find with the gear I use. However, I can honestly recommend the Jag35 Field Runner, for the price it’s a great rig for new Indyfilm folks and those on a budget. It will be used by weekend warrior film makers and those who don’t mind a few design short-comings. The price difference between the Jag35 offerings and a similar rig from one of the pro-shops like Zacuto or Redrock Micro is nothing short of amazing, and I’m impressed that they have grown so fast and come so far in the short time Jag35 has been selling gear. They’re releasing a motorized follow focus, and they’re even making it wireless. The innovation and price point of their gear is really impressive. At one point I actually was going to start designing my own rig system and get some custom prototypes made, but once I saw what is coming out of Jag35, Habbycam, and IndySystems, I decided the market doesn’t need another rig maker in this category. Of course, the rig system in my head will be designed to be ultra-light using carbon fiber rods with a structural design optimized using Altair Optistruct, so it’s still possible I’ll do something in the future if I’m motivated enough. However, I’m more into spending my time shooting than rig designing.

Yes, I am Indeed A Gear Whore

I’ve been described as an equipment whore without brand loyalty. Or, I think that’s what I was called, in any event, it’s a completely authentic description. I thought about it for a second, searching for a witty response, but I knew Matt was correct, so I just agreed – and held my head high. But now with Photokina 2010 starting, I feel a desire to explain my compusion (for myself as much as for the reader). You see, the key to being a successful equipment fiend is to do it on a budget and with wanton determination. It should go without saying that you only buy things you’ll actually use. Otherwise you’re just buying crap to make yourself feel better, filling up a gear closet so you’ll always have the possibility (in the back of your mind) of doing something interesting one day with all the junk you’ve accumulated. For this reason, I rarely buy anything new at full price. Even my Sony A900 was bought used from a pro shop in Zurich. The Sigma HSM lenses I bought new, but most of the Minolta lens I own were bought used from MapCamera in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

I also have something of a bag fetish. Not hand bags (although I’m sort of addicted to the Scaramanga label) but rather all manner of MountainSmith, Pelican, Lowe Pro, Think Tank, random messenger bags from Ortlieb and Dana Design, but I’m not totally addicted, I’ve avoided buying any of the North Face shoulder bags. I have to admit to having two of their expedition duffels – however, in my defense, they “were” the ideal bags to pack mountaineering gear in when I flew to Bolivia. Walking through La Paz, I really felt like I was in one of those North Farce ads in Rock and Ice, (my favorite climbing magazine of the day) and I couldn’t resist buying some bags in the tourist shops. But bags are cheap, I would never lay a finger on a Louis Vetton.

How Many Cameras?

Cameras are a whole other subject. People are always asking me how many cameras I have, and I always need to recount in my head. And, should I say one for the two Holga/Woca cameras? They’re cheap enough to count as one. I’ve bought all my cameras used (with a few exceptions) and in today’s used market, when you find a Fuji GA645 here or there for $350, how can you say no? From I got a Mamiya 645 Pro, which goes great with the used Maimya 645 lenses I got from to adapt to my A900. And there’s no point in buying just one Sunpak 120J, you need at least two to feel good about yourself. Flashes work best in pairs anyways, and it feels professional to have variety. Then come the eBay purchases. My first digital camera was a Canon D2000, I figured it was good to start with a DSLR with horrible medium and high ISO performance. Then I would learn how to handle digital noise. I bought one Contax G1 with the 35mm lens because it’s a badass fotoapparat, but then I wanted to get more lenses, and scored another G1 with the 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses plus the TLA-280 flash for less than $800. When one of the G1 babies died (probably corrosion from shooting on a sailing trip in Greece) I had another to fall back on (that’s called thinking ahead). I have two Fuji GA645 cameras (one needs repair after too much exposure in the Alps) and one GA645w. I’m always lusting after a Fuji 670, 680 or 690, and thank God I never bought a Polaroid modified 4×5 handheld.

Function Over Form

However, no camera can be considered beautiful if it’s a useless paperweight sitting on a shelf somewhere. I have no desire for a gold-plated Leica. I’ve used all my cameras at one point or another, and fully intend to use them all again in due course. The Contax G1 has been sailing in Greece, all through Zurich, shot many pics in Berlin, taken mountaineering in the Swiss Alps, and the 90mm Zeiss is a fantastic portrait lens. I recently picked up some Fuji Natura to use with the G1 to make some awesome low-light shots. The Minolta 7 film camera was with me in Bolivia, and for a trip through Eastern Europe and Germany. I shot every day with it for a month and my backpack was filed with one extra pair of pants  and boxes of 35mm and 120 Provia. The GA645 series have taken some amazing landscape images in Switzerland, been up Mt. Fuji and also gone through Eastern Europe and naturally been to Berlin. The Canon D2000 was, and still is a great DSLR for studio shots and parties. The D2000 enabled my first self-portraits and peaked my interested enough in digital to buy a Minolta 7D when they were liquidated in Zurich at a sweet price. The Ricoh GRD and Canon G10 are great mountaineering cameras to complement the GA645, and they’ve all found their place (although I sort of busted up the G10 ski touring). Now I’m shooting graffiti street and portrait images with my Sony A900 and couldn’t really ask for more from a well-exposed image. The picture is tack sharp from my Sigma lenses and you can see the definition of my softbox grid in the reflection on the eye of a person.

Never Obsolete

Now, why don’t I just buy and sell on eBay? Once you have these things you have to consider that you’ll make very little re-sale on the used market, so like old college text books, it just makes sense to keep them around. Or, I consider it a small resale value as compared with what I could do with the gear if I need to use it again. Although I’m a gear whore, I have no brand loyalty. I love Apple, but never got an iPhone because they’re over-priced for what they are (ok, the new 4th generation is a step in the right direction). I still use a dual 1 GHz G4 PowerMac because I didn’t want to drop $2000 (or more) on a new computer (when I could buy some Elinchrom lights instead), and I was getting along ok till now (a new iMac is on the desk). I’ll buy the camera which fits what I want it to do. I have a Canon G10 because it’s an awesome camera for mountaineering and travel, but love to pull out my Ricoh GRD for wide angle shooting and it packs better for sport climbing. I like the idea of North Face but buy my jackets from Mountain Hardware (on sale) and pants from Haglofs (they fit amazingly well) to complement my Osprey Exposure climbing pack. I love the North Face packs from the ads, but the Osprey Exposure fits me like a fine-tailored suit. Nothing which is useless can be beautiful to the user, and I love products with great design and are useful in real life (I’m also a UX/UI prima donna).

Here’s the thing about being a gear whore, you’ll never find the perfect bag or camera, so I don’t even try. Above all else, I use what I have to the fullest extent possible (or so I believe). I use the cameras I have till they break and am still amazed at how far I’ve been able to push my Quicksilver 2002 PowerMac. If you don’t have the right tools you won’t get the job done. True, I have more tools than I need, but it’s nice having too many flashes on hand because I can do whatever lighting setup I want. I don’t used my ice tools every year, but when you want to climb a frozen waterfall, they’re essential. Now, the blowtorch nozzle is a little extreme, but it’s getting a lot of attention in my latest photo shoots, and if needed, I’m sure I can sell it – (but probably I won’t). An effective living space is one with interesting things to play with and discover. This was as true as when I was five as it is now that I’m pushing 33 years of age. Photokina 2010 is opening, and a whole new line of toys is coming onto the market to fuel my gear compulsion.

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Kacey Beauty Reflector – Review

kacey-bd-1.jpgI picked up the Kacey Beauty Reflector for various reasons, first I’ve always wanted to experiment with a beauty dish. Second, the Kacey reflector is designed for small flashes as well as for studio strobe use, offering excellent adaptability in a photo world full of too many mounting systems and of course, it looks cool. The Kacey design comes off very similar to the Mola Demi dish, which is also a very cool beauty dish for the studio. However, like many good ideas, the Kacey dish offers an adaptation from a standard design. It was designed for small flashes and made of plastic to be light and therefore more portable for location shooting, hence fulfilling the desires of people like me, who are self-taught via the internet and highly influence by the Strobist movement. The Mola dishes look interesting, but they’re really outside the budget and needs of anyone but a full-time studio pro shooter. Like many photo startups (think RadioPopper) Kacey Enterprises is fulfilling the purchasing desires of a market, which the established companies have not been innovative enough to design and offer products for. Since I have no desire to acquire a standing as a full-time photographer, the Kacey design is the logical choice for me and my apartment studio, stocked with Metz and Sunpak flashes.

kacey-bd-shots-2.jpgMy first experience with the Kacey dish was photographing my bookcase, complete with Bratz dolls, DVDs and an assortment of toys from California because, well – I’m a geek. What was I expecting and why did I want a beauty dish in the first place? Well, I like umbrellas for throwing a very large amount of light with spill going in all directions, I started using reflective and shoot-through umbrellas, and they have their place. When you’re starting out with lighting design, it’s the best way to go. Umbrellas are cheap, you can get a combined reflector-shoot-through design and it’s very easy to do basic lighting with an umbrella. But, they then become very limiting when one wants to start doing more precise lighting. To explore beyond the umbrella I bought some small softboxes in order to increase the precision of my lighting designs, because they are much more versatile than my 44in umbrellas. The softboxes can be placed on a boom, to the side, behind, where ever I desire around whatever it is I’m photographing. Umbrellas (at least the large ones I have) are not as easy to place, and give too much light spillage for my tastes. Softboxes can be gridded to further decrease light spill and sculpt light as one desires. However, the softbox creates a more diffused light source. What I wanted to achieve with a beauty dish is the ability to place harder light in a desired position. I like the look of photos I’ve seen with beauty dishes, and really I wanted the ability to place a large, even light source on a boom arm around models (ummm, and I’m generally the model). The Kacey dish represents a milestone for me, because it’s the first light modifier I’ve purchased which wasn’t made in China and bought because it was the cheapest option.

kacey-bd-shots-4.jpgSo, how has the Kacey Beauty Reflector fulfilled my desires so far? First, I’ll note that this review is user, not scientific based, and focuses on my experiences using the reflector in the controlled studio environment of my apartment. The Kacey reflector was designed for location use in mind, but light is light and I was most interested in getting an excellent light modifier. Naturally, any light modifier is useless without light from a quality strobe. The Kacey dish is designed with the Speedlite in mind, like those standard uber expensive flashes from Nikon and Canon, which a person such as myself with a Minolta 7D finds to be over-kill. This is all well and good to design a dish for small flashes, but beauty dishes were originally designed with studio strobes in mind, those with bare bulbs instead of a fresnel lens to focus the light beam, like nearly all small flashes have. Nearly all, but I happen to love the Sunpak 120J bare-bulb cult-classic flash, and it fits perfectly with the Kacey Beauty Dish. Here’s why, most small flashes are designed to focus light directly forward of the flash head. A bare-bulb design throws light forward as well to the side of the head. So when you use a normal Speedlite in a beauty dish, you generally would also use a diffuser on the flash, to throw light to the side of the center reflector of the dish. This spreads out the light and would logically contribute to the nice uniform quality of light that beauty dishes are known for. Since the bare-bulb 120J already is throwing light in all directions, and the bulb is extending into the dish, it forms the perfect lighting combination.

The Kacey reflector was released along with a Speedlite bracket. The bracket costs a cool 150 USD, and some controversy has developed around this price. I picked up the dish for various lighting reasons, and I decided not to get the bracket for economic considerations. I figured I would just drill and modify the bracket from my Alzo softboxes. This required the purchase of a drill, which wasn’t that cheap and I don’t drill much stuff in my apartment, so in the end I don’t see how I saved any money. After modifying the adapter from my Alzo softboxes, I’m of the opinion that the Alzo bracket isn’t stiff enough to support the Kacey dish in the long run, and I’ll most likely buy the Kacey bracket, because it makes little sense in getting an excellent dish like the Kacey product and then using a sub-par bracket when connecting the flash. If the bracket isn’t stiff enough the dish will tilt, thus disrupting the light pattern, depending on how the dish is positioned. Plus, as illustrated below, the bracket and the position of the flash will have a very significant (depending on how much you care) influence on the light patterns coming from the dish.


I did a quick comparison between a Sunpak 120J and a standard Sunpak 383. The 383 sports a normal small flash head, and therefore acts more like a normal Nikon or Canon flash, and is perhaps more representative of what people will be using the the Kacey reflector. As you can see from the above photo, the bare-bulb 120J seems to have a wide light pattern, and when you use a 383 with a head-directed light beam, the light spread becomes a tad tighter, especially around the edges, the light fall-off is significantly (depending on how much you care) influenced. Now, there are mitigating factors, the 120J is no doubt putting out more light than the 383 and the light spread shown above would therefore be dependent on the exact exposure of the flash. But the more interesting thing from my viewpoint, is how centering the flash is rather important to the light coming from the dish. Even if I center the 383, since I opted for a cheap mounting adapter for the flash, it’s off-center and I can’t center the 383 to get perfect light distribution with either the 120J or the 383. This concept is magnified on the last picture on the right, where I turned the head of the 383 to the left, and you can see directly how the light pattern changes. What can a perspective buyer gleam from all this? If you want really good light distribution, don’t skimp on the mounting bracket, by all accounts I’ve read the Kacey bracket is top quality and fully adjustable so you can precisely center the flash and support the weight of the dish. For these reasons, I’m looking for a new bracket solution, either from Kacey, or another source.

Test Shots

Kacey_BD_Shots-3.jpg I ran a few test shots with myself playing the role of photographer, model, and art director, which feeds all the different parts of my creative brain. I wanted to get a feeling for the light I could expect from the Kacey Beauty Reflector both from a lighting and post-processing perspective. The setup was pretty basic, the dish went on a boom with the 120J above me and I setup my Lastolite Tri-Lite reflectors to get some fill. I did a few shots with my Minolta 7D and 28mm lens, Gadget Infinity radio triggers were used as well. I wore a shirt which says, “Enjoy Detroit,” because red is my color when shooting on a green background and Detroit is my city of eternal inspiration. I wore a hat I bought on the beach in San Diego and for some reason decided that the Katana would add a much needed element to the mix.

I did a few shots and then did some editing on them in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. The keen blog reader might protest, “No! You have post images straight out of the camera to give an accurate representation of what the dish can do!” Nothing is straight out of the camera anymore, and even with film it never went so smoothly. The truth is, you can try to imagine yourself as a Joey L or a Dave Hill, but if you don’t get the shadows you need from designing your lighting setup with purpose and determination, no amount of Photoshop alchemy will save your tones. I shoot images in raw, adjust shadows in Lightroom to get a good base, and them export to Photoshop to manipulate the lighting and tones in such as way that my art director brain waves stop and say, “That’s it! That’s the look!”


I’ll be blunt, I found the light from the Kacey Beauty Reflector to be nothing short of, exactly what I wanted. The tone and texture of the shadows are simply perfect. The texture of the skin and shirt are unique compared to what I was capturing with my umbrellas and softboxes, simply awesome. Even light distribution across the model, wonderful light fall-off on the edges. The shadows are deep where I want them deep and the transition from proper exposure to background shadow is excellent. This means that I have a very strong base image to work with when I define the final shadows in Photoshop. In the above image, the texture on the shirt has this almost wind-swept-mountain-ice feel to it after adding a Black-and-White layer and blending using Multiply (plus reduced fill on the layer), it’s like ski touring in the Swiss Alps in January and looking at the texture of a wind-swept snow ridge while wearing red-tinted glacier goggles. “Hells yes! I says in my heads.”

In the bottom Katana image, I was interested in getting some nice shadows on the hands and arms. What I love here is that the sword blade doesn’t get all blown out, even though the light is right above it. With my softboxes I would have a defined over-exposure with poor transition to the rest of the body. I’m pretty sure that if I had used an umbrella instead, the sword would have been blown out totally if I had attempted to get a decent exposure on the torso. The hat was another issue, it’s a light yellow tone, but you can see that it still has excellent texture in the weave of the material, the detail hasn’t been lost due to over exposure. And yet, I can still get excellent shadows to work with on the arms. This image didn’t have too much post, mainly just shadow work, some Smart Sharpening, and basic methods of defining shadow tones over the hands and arms.


Am I Happy

So, the inevitable question, is the Kacey Beauty Reflector worth $150? I’m going with a fully confident Yes. In my estimation and experience so far, the Kacey dish rocks, it produces excellent light, and has so far fulfilled my ambitions and desires for a beauty dish. Should you also get the $150 bracket? As I have no direct experience with it, these remarks might be less significant. However, I do wish I had bought the bracket. If you know how to make a decent bracket then be all means do it yourself. I modified a cheap bracket and it shows in the light patterns produced with different flashes. If this means something to you and you have the money, the bracket appears to be one of those high quality pieces of equipment which is sure to out-last your DSLR. I’m looking forward to using the Kacey dish on studio strobes in the future, either from Elinchrom or Alien Bees, depending on which ones I buy. A grid would also be an excellent addition, and I believe one is in the works from Kacey Enterprises.

Pelican 1510 Photo Gear Case

Pelican 1510 Lighting GodWhen one gets deep into photography the inevitable question becomes, what can I store my gear in to keep it organized, accessible, mobile, bombproof and cool when jet-setting across the globe? The default answer is a Pelican case. Although now a cliche – Pelican cases are still the gold standard in photo gear protection. I bought a Pelican 1510 for various reasons, but the primary being that I needed a mobile case to house my gear for locations and for taking whatever wherever I desire without worrying about stuff breaking in-transit. I’ve used my 1510 for over half a year now, on planes, in my apartment, anywhere I decided I needed it to be (mostly my apartment).

I buy my gear used and don’t upgrade my DSLR every two years. I just haven’t seen the logic in stopping my acquisition of camera gear, and once you have a fine collection of cameras and lenses, the natural desire is to push it as far as possible on a given budget, and what better way to do that than buying a nice case to keep and transport everything in?

Additionally, I was tired of looking around for ways to pack gear, put some stuff here and other stuff there, and wanted to consolidate everything in one reliable, robust, portable container. The Pelican 1510 is perfect in this respect for a small production photographer (or random Flickr poster). It’s uber portable and aside from being checked by security nearly every time I go through an airport, it’s been a joy to use on the airlines. So far it’s been between Zurich, Boston, Detroit, and Zurich. In nearly each place I get checked at the security line. It must have something to do with the case, because on previous trips with more or less the same gear distributed in my carry-on luggage I was never pulled aside. Of course, it makes a bit of sense, with three or four flashes all lined up side by side, the case does no doubt look like some sort of munitions case on the X-ray machine.

Then come the inevitable question, “are you a photographer?” Ahhh, no dude, I just carry a box full of cameras and flashes because it makes me feel cool (ok, this “is” close to the truth). In Boston the TSA guy asked where I was going and recommended the lobsters in Baltimore…or maybe the chowder, I can’t remember. He also mentioned something about this looking like a lot of equipment for a hobby. My natural response to him was, of course, “well, you gotta have a hobby.”

pelican_1510-2My hobby sometimes includes hanging off of parking garage supports or skipping around abandoned factories in my Doc Martens, and photographing the concept images using off-camera small strobe techniques. This was the main reason I got the 1510, to roll around as needed in any given urban location. At any given time my Pelican 1510 contains 4-5 flashes with Gadget Infinity radio triggers, a DSLR (Minolta 7D), 2 lenses (20mm and 50mm), my Hyperdrive, maybe a Zoom H4 cable release, extra AA batteries, memory cards, plus a vertical grip, and Ricoh GR Digital or Fuji GA645w. In general, almost all of the above fits nicely in the 1510. I can grab what I need and shoot instead of worrying about gear organization. I just choose the light modifiers and stands I want to use and I’m off. Now I never need to look aimlessly around wondering where I put that extra hotshoe adapter or if I have some extra AA batteries somewhere. It’s all there when I need it and I can take wherever I want to go. The stock 1510 comes with pluck foam, but I opted for a version from B&H which came with dividers, and I added the optional photography organizer for the lid. This was an extra $40 or so, but I highly recommend it if you plan on using the 1510 as a traveling toolkit. It’s worth the extra few bucks without a second thought.

The 1510 with its rolling wheels is also handy around the house. People living in an apartment which doesn’t have a dedicated studio room often need to setup their studio and break it down before their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend starts complaining about having the living room back, and it’s a breeze to roll the Pelican from one room to the next. This has changed somewhat since I moved into a big place with space for a small studio, but it’s nice to know the functionality is there.

There are cheaper options of course. You could, for example just get a clear plastic case and drop your assorted flashes and gear in there. It would cost less and still be nearly as functional. However, I like gear that can be abused if needed. Plus, you can stand on it in a lighting storm to insulate your body from extreme electro-shock therapy of Mother Nature during thunderstorms.

pelican_1510-3I like the security of Pelican cases and knowing that I never have to worry about the stuff I put inside them. The only time I ever opened a Pelican case to find the contents broken was when the TSA decided they needed to break open every fucking chocolate Easter bunny which I had packed in my 1450 (as checked luggage) as a present for my niece and nephew. Because, obviously if I wanted to smuggle drugs into the country I would do it in chocolate Easter bunnies which were still in the sealed packaging they came in from the store I bought them at in Switzerland. Which brings up another point, the 1450 is the perfect travel companion to the 1510. I can use my 1510 primarily for my lighting kit and then pack my Minolta 7D and assorted prime and zoom lenses into the 1450 (which is paired with a Pelican camera bag). The 1510 counts as the normal carry-on bag, the 1450 can counted as a camera bag. Since the 1510 is bomb-proof, it’s not light, and some people could run into the problem that it’s too heavy to take in the cabin. However, for myself it hasn’t been a problem.

So, if you’re in the market for a mid-sized bomb-proof rolling case for your photo-related mayhem consider a Pelican 1510 ?- I highly recommend it. If you’re weight consious I’d look to a rolling Kata bag or a backpack.

Zoom H4 – Sweet Photo-Audio Fusion

I’m a tech fiend, not from a mad-capped desire to own every little gizmo I see, but rather from the philosophy to collect the tools needed to create whatever creative thing I imagine – or am driven to explore. I’ve been running through film and digital raw files for a many years now – landscape, cityscape, portrait, studio and location lighting, it’s all up there in my head. Creative vision and work flow? It’s all good – but there’s always a way to expand and take things to the next level.

Gorilla Pod neck-mounting of the Zoom H4

Photography only excites the visual areas, but some concepts require – or at least are greatly enhanced by communicating audio elements as well. I love the concept of getting into video, but it’s also another medium to master and a fortune of gadgets to collect. Plus, I love using just one or a series of high-quality images to communicate a concept. Must photography become video in the form of a super video device like the Red One Scarlet? If the story can be told with one high quality image, why use video? Well, I often imagine concepts as videos in my head, combining audio and imagery in one to convie an experience to the viewer. So how can I use current photographic techniques and add elements of audio excitation?

Often I walk dark city streets and bad poetry fills my mind. An image of that dark street doesn’t communicate the poetry I’d like to rap to the viewer. And if you add text, like in a blog, the tone and depth of the voice is lost. Bacially, photography only gets you so far, and the idea of integrating audio with photography has been sticking in my head for a while. But how to do it? How do you collect high-quality audio to effectively complement the visual? With another high-priced gadget, in this case, a studio quality digial audio recorder like the Zoom H4.

The Zoom H4 is a handheld studio quality digital audio recorder. After a not so intensive research look into the different digital audio devices on the market, the Zoom H4 was an easy pick, as it comes with a high-quality microphone and a reasonable pirce tag. There are various extremely well-written reviews of the H4, but the one you are currently reading comes from a film/digital photographer who needed a device to mix well with his other digital capture and expression devices (expensive toys).

I’m not what you would call “knowledgeable” about audio gathering. Bascially I wanted something like the Ricoh GR Digital camera; high quality media capture in a hand-held package. My desires for the H4 were pretty simple: the ability to quickly choose between uncompressed WAV for high quality sound gathering, or mp3 for lower quality when desired. Analogous to choosing .tiff or .jpeg as a digital camera analogy.

The Zoom H4 is crazy easy to operate, there are a few buttons to control microphone gain, file type, and recording. On the left side of the Zoom you choose between mp3, or various uncompressed WAV file sizes. Push the big record button once and it starts flashing, with the headphones on you can hear in real-time how the audio sounds. On the display you can see if the sound levels are being read well. If they’re too low, you just increase the microphone gain (low-medium-high).

This allows you to boost the microphone sensitivity higher or lower (like changing camera exposure) as needed to optimize the recording quality. You know if you need to or not because the input levels are displayed (similar to a histogram in digital cameras), which gives you an idea of which gain sensitivity (low-medium-high) to use.

In general you want the audio input levels to be as high as possible without exceeding the range of the microphone. This is akin to pushing the exposure on your digital camera as far as possible without clipping the highlights (exceeding the exposure limit of your camera). Press the record button a second time and you start recording. Press it a third time and the recording stops and the file is saved. You can easily navigate the recorded files and play them back, delete them, format the card, etc.

The Zoom H4 looks like a taser, but feels more like a Star Trek tricorder. For collecting ambient street and bar music you only have to be sure the microphones are protected from the wind or not bumped/touched during recording. It’s somewhat directional, something akin to using a 28mm wide angle lens on a 35mm camera. Just point in the direction of your audio subject and start recording.

There are a number of more advanced features which I’m not qualified to get into. With the XLR inputs you can hook up fancy microphones and record multiple tracks to use the H4 as a pocketable studio, or record directly to a computer via the USB connection. No doubt this is crazy useful for journalists, podcasters, and people who are really into the home studio thing, but I’m into the high-end hobby photography thing, and recording directly to the solid state SD card is what I bought H4 for.

Recording in uncompressed WAV format can eat up a lot of memory if you’re recording speeches or are out for the whole night doing street poetry. Like with a digital camera, the audio files are easily downloaded to a portable drive like the Hyperdrive Space. For basic recording, a couple of 2GB SD cards will serve your recording needs well. The H4 takes AA batteries, and will last for a couple hours of actual recording time before dying, this and the fact that the SD card is actaully incoviently difficult to access are the only real drawbacks I’ve found so far.

Zoom H4 I

Those of us who got interested in the concept of Gonzo reporting by watching Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas walk around a bombed out hotel room with a microphone taped to his head will appreciate the flexiblity of mounting the Zoom. For a throat-to-the-wall night of fast moving action and high qualitiy auido gathering, the H4 can be mounted to a Gorilla Pod and wrapped around the neck of the reporter. If Hunter S. Thompson were just starting out in 2008, I could imagine him picking up a Zoom H4 to do his work. The Gorialla-Pod-around-the-neck mounting system allows hands free continuous recording of events after the record button has been pushed. It can also be easliy mounted to the forearm and the Freak reporter can then run around all night pointing the Zoom H4 at people like a dropout from the X-men school of Gonzo reporting.

Zoom H4 IIZoom H4 III

I imagine I’ll move towards video at some point. But here’s my rational: I love having a high quality image which invokes emotion or tells a story. Doing video just because you can won’t necessarily create a better story telling style. I just feel limited in that many times the environment/subject is not just a still life, but a combination of audio and visual elements. Yes, many point-and-shoot cameras do video and audio recording, but we all know the output is not high quality. The ability to record studio quality audio right along with high quality images is a very powerful combination. Now the challenge is to elegantly combine the photography and audio in one media package. If you combine great photography with cheesy audio you’re just going to turn people off because it will come across as a gimmick. One needs to take the “eye” for creativity from photography and find the creative “ear” for audio recording.

No review is complete without output, so here is a sample from the Zoom H4, of some bad street poetry put together on a warm summer night in New Orleans, somewhere near Burboun Street. The wedding I had just attended was over, but I had no desire for sleep and instead walked through the city collecting ambient sounds and spewing lines into the open air for the H4 to record. It’s not my best work, and is highly reminiscent of my worst photography work, ill-thought-out and laking in focus or direction. The coming challenges include developing a mixed-media workflow to elegantly combine visual and mixed-down audio into one package.

But for now, there’s just this short piece of Bad New Orleans Street Poetry, a combination of spoken word and ambient sounds.


What comes next? I don’t know for sure, but if I wanted to describe the Zukunft in an unoriginal and overdone way I’d say, “the Future looks and sounds fantastic.”

Other reviews of the Zoom H4

Mark Nelson at O’

Jeff Towne at

Santis – Mountaineering and Strobes

June 1st was a sunny Sunday in the Swiss-German land, and seemed like the perfect day to begin my return to the mountain environment.  On another sunny day in April, the 28th to be exact, I’d sweated through my dissertation defense, and after jumping from Zurich to Amsterdam, to Zurich to New Orleans to Detroit, to Boston, to Detroit, and finally back to Zurich, I found myself unemployed and in need of a mountain tour.

So on a sunny Sunday, the first of June, I headed out for a tour up Santis, the iconic mountain massif floating in the green landscape of Appenzeller, the heart of Swiss-German speaking peoples in Switzerland.

Santis is one of those mountains that people grow up with, starting with hikes as children and continue into old age.  This was something like my 5th trip up the mountain, and the first early summer ascent.  It was also an introductory trip for Matt Anderson, the Seattle mountain guide-turned Zurich-based commercial photographer.

I’ve photographed Santis in Summer and Winter, blanketed in snow and covered in wildflowers.  However, I’ve long since grown bored with basic landscape shots, the type perfected on postcards sold all over Zurich.  So to make the trip more interesting I packed along some off-camera lighting gear.

Route Up Santis
The essential problem with mountaineering and photography is the weight trade-off.  In the Swiss Alps every once counts, and as your desire to include cameras, flashes, and light modifiers goes up, your physical mobility in the mountains decreases.

A normal hike in the Swiss hills generally means a minimum elevation gain of 1000m, and by the time you finish the tour, the elevation gain over summits and passes adds up pretty fast.  So, in principle it’s ill advised to take more than a DSLR and a lens or two.  My photo and lighting kit included a Fuji GA645wi, a Ricoh GR Digital, Sunpak 383 flash and Gadget Infinity radio trigger.

The Ricoh GRD has proven itself many times as more than capable with it comes to off-camera, or Strobist flash techniques.  Choosing the Ricoh dramatically minimized the weight penalty as compared with packing my Minolta 7D DSLR with a macro lens.  The Fuji was used for basic landscape shots. 

Off-camera lighting on a mountain side isn’t so easy.  After you’ve ascended 1000m the body is shaking a bit, and when you’re on a rock ridge, it’s not like there’s any place to set up light stands.  I put a Gadget Infinity radio trigger on the Ricoh GR and held the Sunpak 383 at arms length from above the wildflowers growing on the mountain ridge.  In a few minutes and a little exposure management I could balance the landscape exposure with the flash lighting the flowers.  Wham!  Bahm!  And there we have a mountain photo I haven’t seen in the postcard stand.

In early June there are few people making the ascent up Santis, mainly due to the snow, which covers most of the Alpine route.  Many people will ascend with nothing in the way of mountaineering equipment, but I recommend taking crampons and an axe, because slipping on an exposed snow-covered 50 degree slope on a Sunny June Sunday is probably as stupid and just as deadly as putting a bullet in your brain.

Santis is a tamed mountain.  There’s a weather station at the summit and Steinbock have long since lost any fright-or-flight instinct.  The animals roam the Santis as they like and have no fear of humans, which means it’s pretty easy to make some of those iconic mountain wildlife shots.
Well, the Steinbock have one predator – avalanches.  And if you climb up Santis in early Summer don’t be surprised to find a decayed carcass or skull in the snow.

Engineering for the People – Radio Triggers

One of the great possibilities the current digital age is the revolution in photography and off-camera flash, an often over-looked aspect is the development of radio triggers to activate off-camera flashes. There are currently two known projects from non-corporate entities developing radio triggers for off-camera flashes, RadioPopper, and the open source Strobit Trigger project.

The RadioPopper P1 and P8 are devices that goes on standard Canon and Nikon flashes and turns their IR light-based triggered TTL functions into radio-based ones.  By "goes on" we mean as in "stick on" no permanent modifications to the flashes are needed.  In some Geek circles this is the equivalent of combining Voodoo and Witchcraft into one compact religion to dominate the position and intensity of the Sun.

If the RadioPopper works, it means that the high technology tied into crazy expensive flashes like the Nikon SB-800 and Canon 540 can be combined with the awesome convenience and reliability of the most popular flash trigger available, the Pocket Wizard.  The RadioPopper is supposed to be an add-on for Canon and Nikon flashes, but it’s impossible to discuss any radio triggering device without bringing up the industry standard Pocket Wizard.

As a photographer who generally uses only manually enabled flashes like the Fuji GA, Contax TLA-280 and Metz 40, I’m more excited about the third trigger device from Radio Popper, a basic radio trigger – higher quality, greater range, and more reliable than those fantastic Chinese models from Gadget Infinity, but at an only slightly higher price.  Of course, part of the reason I use manual flashes is that I use a Minolta camera, which has only recently been saved by Sony.  Rumor on the RadioPopper blog is that Pentax, Olympus and Sony flashes will be included in the P1 and P8 compatibility list.

Getting down to brass tacs, the Radiopopper is a slick example of engineering being taken into the hands of the people – filling the void that big business has failed to capitalize on.  A fantastic idea coupled with innovative drive and the motivation to serve a niche market with a product that’s in demand and staying in tune with your potential future customers from design to product realization.  Early on the RadioPopper developers were seeking feedback from Strobist readers on Flickr.  It’s a pretty kick-ass example of how to go from concept to product without the benefit of a research and development department.  This is basically how Apple started, and in these days of Wars and hard economic times, it’s fantastic to see this dream of Radio TTL coming to the market from a start-up company.

However, even more over looked than the Radio Popper is the Strobit Open Source Trigger project.  The open source trigger was bound to happen eventually – the natural curiosity of photographers coupled with the Do-it-Yourself mentality fueled by David Hobby’s Strobist movement was bound to eventually give birth to a DIY radio trigger project.

The advantage of the open source Strobit project isn’t just the idea of manufacturing a low cost alternative for the off-camera lighting enthusiast, the Strobit platform would be open for add-on mods to the firmware, and by using an expansion bus incorporated into the circuit the Strobit now harbors some fantastic development potential, like firing strobes in different sequences and other custom functions like sound triggering.

The Strobit project is a banner example of the power of open-source.  The camera product world is littered with proprietary cables, lens mounts, and flash accessories where the large camera makers like to control the profits for add-ons to the DSLR market.  The Strobit project is ultimate Engineering for the People, because it means that normal non-electrical engineering folks will be able to build and modify their off-camera strobe triggers to fit their needs, not their needs as projected by the profitability of electronics manufacturers.

Let’s end this madness by noting that 2008 is going to be a banner year for digital photography Geeks of every skill level.  PMA is coming up in a few weeks, and the safe money is on Canon to drop a new body like an upgraded 5D – look for the K20D from Pentax – and the hope of an A900 announcement from Sony.

Essential Links:


Strobit Project

Infinite Memory Card – Hyperdrive Space Review

In the age of digital cameras, new gimmicks and trinkets are released every week.  Mega-autofocus-crazy-byte products from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Ricoh, Olympus, Leica, Panasocnic, and a multitude in between like Fuji give one the option of any camera one’s heart desires.  Memory card capacities double every couple years or so and the cost of storage is insanely cheap compared to just a few years back.  Still…the management and backup of memory cards is generally a problem, especially when traveling.  You can’t see which pictures are on which card, and backing up to a laptop means physically sitting down, having a computer with you, and the time to download your images.  There are portable hard drives and image viewers like those from Canon, Jobo, etc., but many times these are a tad more expensive and more flash than utilitarian.  Many times the ideal design solution is one thought up on the outside of the large corporations.  In the case of infinite storage, the Hyperdrive line of memory card backup devices really excels at doing what it was designed for. 

Problems arise when traveling and shooting digitally, especially with with multiple cameras.  Adding a laptop to your travel accessories just to backup images is a big waste of space and weight.  Memory cards can fill up incredibly fast, and nothing sucks more than not having free space to get that cool shot that’s happening right this second.  Backup in the field is a primary concern of any digital image maker.  One of the really useful digital gadgets that one can use to store images from SD, MMC, Compact Flash, and pretty much any digital card you can imagine is the Hyperdrive Space – not to be confused with the mythical hyperdrive engine which allows space travel at speeds greater than light.  The Hyperdrive is a bare-bones storage device for backing up images from memory cards.  The Hyperdrive is basically a notebook hard-drive enclosure with a battery, card slots, and LCD screen.

I bought my Hyperdrive just a week before flying to Tokyo for three months.  The Hyperdrive with a 120 GB drive was the perfect solution for backing up images from my Ricoh GRD while traveling.  I have a laptop and am continually trying to free up harddrive space.  With the Hyperdrive I can backup 1 Gigabyte memory cards in a minute or so and not have the added worry of taking my laptop everywhere.  When I need images, they’re right there on the Hyperdrive.

The LCD screen displays basic information.  It allows access to which folders are on the drive, you can assign the name of new folders, check how much harddrive space is available.  So, no, you can’t view stored images on the Hyperdrive Space.  The Space is specifically for backing up images, not viewing them.  I download everything from the card to the Hyperdrive, choosing an appropriate file name for the folder, which helps with Digital Asset Management (DAM).  I now have a portable catalogue of all my images.  Assessing the images is awesome and easy.  For posting to my blog or other things, I just hook up the Hyperdrive to my laptop, open up Photoshop, and work on the photos I want to use.  I save a copy to my laptop and post to the web.  This allows me to back everything up on the drive, copy any originals that I need, and not fill up my laptop harddrive.  When I get back to Zurich I’ll do a full backup on a normal drive, but for travel the Hyperdrive is a super efficient bare-none one of the best accessories for digital photography I have.

The Hyperdrive Space is powered by an internal user-replaceable Lithium Ion battery.  For normal use, if you charge it once and then leave it hooked up to your computer for a while here and there, you won’t have to worry about the batter running out.  A full charge is supposed to last for 100 Gb of data transfer and can be recharged via a normal outlet or by plugging the USB into a computer.

The only thing I would modify in the Hyperdrive design is the addition of doors to the card slots, which are open to the external environment.  For normal day to day things this isn’t an issue.  You get a nice neoprene cover with the Hyperdrive, which protects it during normal travel.  Still, it would be cool to have doors to protect the card slots, or even better, the option of an external armor, like the kind available for iPods.

The Hyperdrive line has been extended since the first models and now includes the Hyperdrive ColorSpace, which was just released.  The Hyperdrive Color sports a high resolution color screen with full playback of stored images.  You can view histogram and exif info on the screen and even access RAW format images from various DSLRs.  Exactly which DSLRs I’m not sure of, the info isn’t specifically posted on the Hyperdrive website.  Since the firmware of the Hyperdrive is updatable, presumably the most popular RAW formats will be supported initially, and new camera models would be supported with new firmware updates.

Even if all my cameras aren’t supported, the addition of a color screen makes the Hyperdrive Colorspace pretty much the perfect backup device for digital photographers.  The Colorspace version without a harddrive is about $200, if I have spare funds later I might pick this up, but really, but I have enough gadgets at the moment.

So, to sum it all up – a review of my impressions: The Hyperdrives are small, download photos really fast, read any memory card and the harddrive is easily replaced.  You get the most value for your money of any of the other portable image drives out there.  The Hyperdrive is an awesome example of the benefits of the digital age for the entrepreneur.  Someone sees a need in the market and has the ability to fill that void at a cost less than the major companies like Canon or Epson or Jobo, who all have their own back up devices which are flashy and expensive.

I’ll use the Hyperdrive when I’m back in Zurich for backing up pictures and not worrying about knowing which photos are on which harddrive.  I’m looking at picking up the Colorspace version, but it’s not an absolute necessity for me at this time.  Now, if the color version had been out three months ago, I probably would have bought it.