REALLY RIGHT (EXPENSIVE) STUFF

A tale of three ball heads. The Arca-Swiss, left, was expensive and too large, the Demon, right, was inexpensive and underwhelming, but the RRS BH-30, while not cheap, was just right.

A tale of three ball heads. The Arca-Swiss, left, was expensive and too large, the Demon, right, was inexpensive and underwhelming, but the RRS BH-30, while not cheap, was just right.

Right up front, this is not a complaint about the price of Really Right Stuff (RRS) products. Yes, RRS gear can be expensive. It is also quality gear and most likely will last you a lifetime of photography.

My grandfather often said that you have to pay for an education. And it's natural for new photographers after spending a significant amount of money on a camera and lens, to look for a bargain on accessories, normally tripods and camera bags. Only after purchasing those bargain accessories do they realize that they have to now spend more money buying what they should have considered in the first place.

Which brings me to point of this blog. I've used several ball heads on my Gitzo Mountaineer series 0 tripod in the past, starting with the Arca Swiss Monoball B1. That is an expensive ball head, so it isn't always about the bargain for me, sometimes I just need to do more research. That ball head was also overkill for that tripod, especially when I switched to using the Fujifilm X-Pro2. In an initial effort to go lighter and smaller, I then purchased the Demon DB-46 Tripod Ball Head. At around that same time, I purchased my first universal quick release L-Bracket. Both the ball head and the L-bracket worked, and for a total investment at the time of around $60, I guess it worked well enough for me to get by for two years. But my grandfather's advice would come back to haunt me.

The RRS BH-30 Ball Head with the BXPro2 L-Plate for the Fujifilm X-Pro2.

The RRS BH-30 Ball Head with the BXPro2 L-Plate for the Fujifilm X-Pro2.

Then I was reading the new RRS magazine, Light & Shadow, and was intrigued enough to visit their website and check out some gear. The first thing that caught my attention was the RRS BXPro2-L Set L-Plate. The difference between this and the knock-off I owned is night and day. Sure, the other L-Plate worked, but it always felt like it was an accessory and somewhat in the way. The RRS L-Plates are custom made for the camera and in this case, fits the X-Pro2 perfectly. I can access the battery compartment and the connections on the side without having to remove or loosen it and after several weeks of use, it has become part of the camera.

Then during my recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I started to become frustrated with the Demon ball head. It wasn't smooth and I was never quite sure when turning the locking knob if I was tightening or loosening the ball head. So, when I returned home, I was right back on the RRS website researching ball heads and ended up purchasing the RRS BH-30 Ball Head with Mini Screw-Knob Clamp. I thought a bit about the cost, $260.00, but again, after using this ball head for several weeks now, I'm glad I did. 

The ball head is smooth, light and just right for my camera. A feature I really appreciate is the oversized spring-loaded locking T-lever that can be pulled out and repositioned. A nice bit of attention to detail. Even in the dark, with gloves on, there is no fumbling around when making adjustments.

I was lucky to get great advice from a mentor when I was purchasing my first professional camera gear in 1985. At the time I wasn't sure I really wanted to spend around $250 for a tripod, but guess what, I still have that Bogan 3020 Series tripod today. It's a little heavy and only gets used if I'm working out of the car, but the point is that it was money well spent.

So my advice is to do the research, buy quality gear and only buy it once.

VLOG REBOOT

In this video, I discuss my recent vlog attempts, why I mostly failed, and my path to vlog again.

One reason for my limited success recently is due to bad audio, complicated by relying on a Zoom H1 digital recorder to record the audio and then syncing with the video in post-production. Just one example, you are not going to get good audio if you plug the Rode Lavalier microphone into the H1's headphone jack.

This isn't just a gear review though, I do include a few outtakes from my attempts and even include some photographs at the end.

My current setup moving forward:

GoPro Hero 5 Black 
GoPro Pro 3.5mm Mic Adaptor
Rode VideoMicro On-Camera Microphone
Aluminum Alloy Housing for GoPro Black Hero 5
 

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING IN CADES COVE

An hour after sunrise, the first light reaches the valley and washes across Sparks Lane. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/60 @ f11, ISO 200.

An hour after sunrise, the first light reaches the valley and washes across Sparks Lane. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/60 @ f11, ISO 200.

Cades Cove is located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And if the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, then Cades Cove is the most visited section of the most visited national park in the United States.

And for good reason. Located 27 miles from Gatlinburg or just nine miles from Townsend, Tenn., Cades Cove offers something for every photographer: wildlife, landscapes, waterfalls and historic structures.

So whether you plan to spend one day or five days exploring Cades Cove, these five tips will help to make the experience a joy rather than a frustration.

1. Patience. Cades Cove is circled by an 11-mile one-way paved road with a 20 mph posted speed limit, which means that even with no other cars it would take you 33 minutes to complete the loop. This will never happen. Give yourself plenty of time and trust me if you are a photographer, you must. Plan for at least two to four hours making the loop, especially considering you will want to make frequent stops to take in the scenery and wildlife.  

Also note that late October, early November for the fall colors and spring for the wildflowers are the busiest times to visit, along with almost all weekends.

As the sun rises in Cades Cove, it falls first on the tops of the surrounding mountains. In this photograph, the sun lights the fall foliage on the side of the mountain in the background. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/30 @ f11, ISO 200.

As the sun rises in Cades Cove, it falls first on the tops of the surrounding mountains. In this photograph, the sun lights the fall foliage on the side of the mountain in the background. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/30 @ f11, ISO 200.

2. Arrive early. The loop road will not open to automobiles until sunrise and the queue begins at least an hour before that. I recommend you join them, bring coffee and breakfast and refer to tip number one. Use this time to go over your gear and make sure you are ready to start taking pictures the moment you arrive at your first location because the sun will be rising fast.

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from early May until late September prior to 10 a.m., the park is only open to bicycles and foot traffic. This is a great option to consider if the thought of traffic is already causing you stress.

In this early morning photograph taken on Hyatt Lane, I was able to get a few shots without cars in the scene. What you don't see are the two cars and a van loaded with photographers behind me. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/15 @ f10, ISO 200.

In this early morning photograph taken on Hyatt Lane, I was able to get a few shots without cars in the scene. What you don't see are the two cars and a van loaded with photographers behind me. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/15 @ f10, ISO 200.

3. Take a shortcut. There are two roads that cut across the center of Cades Cove, Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Both are two-way, so they offer the option to cut your visit short or return back to the loop road from the direction you came. They are also great places to photograph, especially during early morning or late afternoon. One thing that will surely test your patience, is getting to your first shooting location quickly after the ranger opens the gate. While you have some leeway because the sun will take a little bit to rise above the mountains, you still want to be in place early.

So while non-photographers will normally concentrate on traveling around the loop, I suggest making the first left onto Sparks Lane shortly after entering Cades Cove and setting up to capture the sunrise. You will most likely be among the first ones there, or at a minimum, joined by other photographers. Park in the small area to your left just after you cross the creek and then explore the lane on foot.

The Eligah Oliver Place is just one of over a dozen historic structures located either close to the road or a short hike away. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 200.

The Eligah Oliver Place is just one of over a dozen historic structures located either close to the road or a short hike away. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 200.

4. Take your time. Spend the whole day or spend half a day, but don't rush your visit. Give yourself time to explore and after you've taken that sunrise or first light photograph, visit the restored cabins, barns, or churches. Take a hike, leave the paved road, venture into the woods. Look for locations that you want to return to later that day or the next day. Just remember to pack a lunch, bring water, a bag chair, whatever will make your day more comfortable and ease the temptation to rush.

A bear cub photographed with a 50mm (75mm equivalent) and cropped. Park rules require you to keep a 50-yard distance from all wildlife. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f2, ISO 800.

A bear cub photographed with a 50mm (75mm equivalent) and cropped. Park rules require you to keep a 50-yard distance from all wildlife. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f2, ISO 800.

5. Don't forget the wildlife. Cades Cove is full of creatures, big and small. White-tailed deer, bear, turkey, coyotes and other animals are numerous throughout the valley. And the nice thing is you don't need a super long telephoto lens to get great shots. Be respectful and maintain a 50-yard distance from all animals and of course pull off the road. One strategy I've used is to pick a location, park and wait for the wildlife to come to me. After only a few visits you will begin to get a sense of where wildlife will typically appear. Sometimes it might take an hour or longer, but every time I've done this, I've been rewarded. 

There are probably many tips I could offer, but really it boils down to having patience and taking your time. Despite a large number of visitors, Cades Cove is an incredibly peaceful place and no visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be complete without spending time. It is also a great place to meet other photographers and to find out what their favorite spots are to photograph. I've always found that most are very eager to share.

WHY I'M SWITCHING BACK TO A NECK STRAP

Wrist strap purchased on Etsy from McMurray and Blonde. The strap is good quality, looks good, is priced right and after eight months of almost daily use, showed little wear.

Wrist strap purchased on Etsy from McMurray and Blonde. The strap is good quality, looks good, is priced right and after eight months of almost daily use, showed little wear.

Eight months ago I switched to a wrist strap, so why am I thinking of reverting back to a neck strap?

First, let me explain some of the advantages of a wrist strap and why I switched. I carry my camera in a backpack every day and the wrist strap makes it much easier to pack in and out of the bag. When I'm shooting on the street, I like to have my camera at the ready and a wrist strap is perfect for that. In fact, when using a neck strap, I used to wrap it around my wrist in similar shooting situations, but the wrist strap is purpose-built for that and gave a sense of security from inadvertently dropping the camera if I suddenly needed to use my hands.

Also when out and about I often stop for a drink or bite to eat and when sitting the camera on a table or bar, the neck strap always seemed to be the way or hanging over the edge, where there was a risk of it getting snagged and pulled to the floor.

So with all the reasons above, why would I even consider switching back? I suppose it came down to options and with a wrist strap, I had only one, the wrist. And even though I just gave a bunch of advantages the wrist strap had over the neck strap, I think I need those options back. If I wasn't carrying a backpack or some other type of bag, then the only option was to have the camera dangling from my wrist, like a one-pound piece of jewelry that you can't take off.

I also like to have the camera at the ready when hiking or backpacking and a wrist strap just isn't practical in those situations. It forced me to keep the camera in a bag or waist pouch.

I suspect like everything else in photography, there isn't a perfect solution to my wrist strap versus neck strap problem. Afterall, there's not one perfect lens or certainly not a perfect camera bag (look in my closet). And is there really a perfect camera, or camera format?

So, why should I expect there to be the perfect camera strap? Please let me know in the comments below if you have found a solution, otherwise stay tuned for another blog post eight months from now titled, "Why I'm Switching Back to a Wrist Strap?". 

FROZEN - PHOTOGRAPHING ICEBERGS

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/150 @ f10, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/150 @ f10, ISO 200.

There are many things I have thought about photographing, a sort of bucket list of subjects. This list is not written down and if you asked me to name the subjects, I'd probably struggle a bit and surely would miss a few. Sometimes that's because I don't even know something is on my list until it's right in front of me. Like when I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, a few years back and realized I might have the opportunity to see the Northen Lights. Suddenly that was on my list and after three late night attempts, I was rewarded. 

Shortly after arriving at Thule, Air Force Base in Greenland, I noticed icebergs and suddenly photographing them was at the top of my list.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/160 @ f11, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/160 @ f11, ISO 200.

Thule AFB is the northernmost U.S. military installation, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 947 miles from the North Pole on the northwest side of the island of Greenland. I was on assignment to photograph the deployment of oceanographic buoys over the North Pole. Cool assignment, right? However, since I had several days until the aircraft from which we would drop the buoys from arrived, I had plenty of time to explore and photograph the incredible landscape located all around the base.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/480 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/480 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

My first real view of the icebergs came while I was photographing Wolstenholme Fjord at sunset. I've photographed so many bodies of water, so many sunsets, and I've even photographed glaciers before. But what makes Wolstenholme Fjord unique is that it's fed by four large glaciers and that was the picture I was trying to make. But it was the icebergs floating throughout the fjord that I found most interesting. I also began to wonder if there was a way to get closer. 

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/340 @ f8, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/340 @ f8, ISO 200.

What I didn't appreciate at the time, photographing from high above the fjord, was just how big those icebergs actually were. When I finally had an opportunity to get close to them, it just blew me away. 

Once I started taking pictures, I no longer felt the cold, didn't hear the voices of the others in the 15-foot skiff or care that it was almost seven o'clock at night and I hadn't eaten dinner. I was focused on icebergs, shooting, changing between the Fujifilm XF 16mm (24mm full-frame equivalent) f/1.4 and the Fujifilm XF 50mm (70mm full-frame equivalent) f/2 lenses, and shooting some more. 

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/210 @ f11, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/210 @ f11, ISO 200.

As we approached each iceberg I began to realize how different each one was. From a distance, they all look pretty much the same, but seeing them from sea level, up close, you appreciate that each one is unique in shape, size, and color. As we neared each iceberg I would begin taking photographs and just when I thought I took every photograph possible and lower the camera, something would change and I would find myself shooting again. 

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

The icebergs actually seem to change color as you move around them. Going from white to blue, and all shades in between. From a distance, they had a monochromatic look, but up close it was evident they were anything but. To make it even better, the sun setting (something that seems to last forever at this time of year in Greenland) and the clouds hung in the sky and provided a nice contrast to the icebergs.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/680 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/680 @ f5.6, ISO 200.

In total, I had a little over an hour to photograph as we moved from iceberg to iceberg. I could have spent two hours capturing more icebergs or probably spent the whole hour on just one iceberg.