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 more than likely will last you a lifetime of photography.

My grandfather often said that you have to pay for an education. So 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. Only after purchasing those bargain accessories do they realize that they have to now spend more money buying what they should have considered buying 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 overkill for my tripod, especially when I switched from a DSLR to a Fujifilm X-Pro2 for my landscape photography. In an initial effort to go lighter and smaller, I purchased the Demon DB-46 Tripod Ball Head. At around that same time, I also purchased my first L-Plate, the universal quick release L-Bracket. Both the ball head and the L-bracket worked fine, 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 it was my grandfather's advice that 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.

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 L-Plate and the knock-off I owned was night and day. Sure, the other L-Plate worked, but it always felt like it was just an accessory and somewhat in the way. The RRS L-Plate is custom made for the camera and in my case, fits the X-Pro2 perfectly. I can access the battery compartment and the connections on the side of the camera without having to remove or loosen it. After several weeks of use, it really is part of the camera, almost as if Fuji had added it themselves. Then during a recent trip to the Smoky Mountains I 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. Besides, it seemed like a crime using this really nice RRS L-Plate on a substandard ball head. So, when I returned home, I was right back on the RRS website and ended up purchasing the RRS BH-30 Ball Head with Mini Screw-Knob Clamp. I had to think 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.


Ever since my trip to Arizona in December 2012, I've been thinking about another self-assigned photography trip, but with a busy work schedule, the time just slipped by.

During the ensuing years, many locations ran through my mind and as 2014 was drawing to a close, I finally decided that I would visit Yosemite National Park during the last week of February 2015. I started the research and planning the flights, hotels, etc., but again time passed and in January when I finally got around to actually making reservations, the trip just started falling apart, mostly due to lodging. The first lesson, commit early.

For a while, I figured that more time would pass before I launched into another adventure. However, I never quite removed the vacation days from my calendar and I just couldn't shake the notion that I wanted to get out and photograph. So again, I started thinking about possible locations and one place kept coming to mind - The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I visited the park last year while driving home from Memphis, but only spent the day, but knew then that I wanted to return. Fujifilm X100S, F5.6, 1/550 at ISO 400

I visited the park last year while driving home from Memphis, but only spent the day, but knew then that I wanted to return. Fujifilm X100S, F5.6, 1/550 at ISO 400.

My current plan is to spend two nights in Townsend, Tennessee, one night in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and one night in Boone, North Carolina, giving me close to four days of shooting. I plan on photographing Cades Cove, Tremont, and Newfound Gap. Unfortunately, popular locations such as Roaring Fork and Clingmans Dome might be out due to winter road closure although I am bringing snowshoes and could possibly hike in.

If you have been following the weather then you know that the East Coast has been experiencing extremely cold temperatures along with snow and ice. The Smokies are no different, so I've been monitoring two Twitter accounts, @GreatSmokyNPS and @SmokiesRoadsNPS, to keep up-to-date on road and park conditions. While most of the photographs I see while doing research were taken during the spring, I love photographing in the winter and, of course, photographing now will hopefully allow me to get images that are different from the rest.

That's the logistics part of the plan, so what about the gear.

Since I'll be driving to this location, I'm probably going a little heavy gear wise, plus I'll need to pack plenty of cold weather gear. And much of the gear I'm bringing is similar my Arizona trip, just updated models.

Cameras will consist of a Nikon D4S along with my Fujifilm X100S. For lenses, I'm bringing the Nikon 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and a 300 2.8. I'll also add a 2x teleconverter.

For a computer, storage and software, I'm using a Macbook Pro 15" with a LaCie Rugged 1 TB USB 3.0 Mini Disk Portable Hard Drive for backup. Software includes Photo Mechanic for ingest and captioning and Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC (2014), to post-process the images. And various camera storage including CompactFlash cards ranging from 16 - 64GB and a 64GB XQD card.

I will also bring my iPad, mostly for two Apps that I rely on during travel. First is Sun Seeker, which provides sunrise and sunset times and also shows a map view of sun direction for each daylight hour and 3D views of the solar path. Second is The Weather Channel which comes in handy for planning each day. 

Three screen shots of the Sun Seeker app available for the iPad or iPhone.

Three screen shots of the Sun Seeker App available for the iPad or iPhone.

To support the camera's I'm bringing two tripods, a Bogen Model 3033X and a Gitzo Series 00 Carbon 6X with an Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 ball head as well as a Gitzo monopod.

Rounding out the accessories will be a Nikon SB910 flash, SU 800, PocketWizard Plus (to use as a cable release), and a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro. And finally, something that I'm really excited to use on this trip, the Cokin Z Pro Series ND Graduated Filter Kit. I have not used anything other than a UV filter in front of my lenses since I started shooting digital in 1999. Recently for landscape work I've shot HDR and generally liked the results. What I didn't like was the extra steps along with the post processing time.

As with the Arizona trip, I will update this blog each day of the trip with photographs, lessons learned and how I used the camera gear to make it all happen. Following the trip, I'll write an in-depth post on the Cokin ND filters.


Getting a higher perspective.
Getting a higher perspective.
I photograph a fair amount of trade shows, exhibitions, and symposiums as part of my job with the Office of Naval Research. These events tend to be in the same venues year after year so over time it becomes a real challenge to get a different perspective or make new unique photographs.

This year during the Sea Air Space Exposition held at the Gaylord in National Harbor, Md., I decided to get high for inspiration and go a little old school.

I should say that "I" didn't get high, but my camera did. But before I reveal how I made these photographs, let's explore some options available to get that "aerial" perspective.

Even 15 feet of elevation offers a different perspective of a fairly static scene.
Even 15 feet of elevation offers a different perspective of a fairly static scene.
The first thing would be to look over the venue and see if there is a balcony, overlook or some other position that would allow you to shoot down on the event floor. The downside, of course, is that your booth or exhibit would need to be in the right location to take advantage of this shooting position.

Absent of a balcony, you could use ladder or bucket lift, both of which are available at most locations. However, once the show floor opens the event coordinators are unlikely to allow a bucket lift back on the floor. A ladder is great but does limit your ability to reposition quickly. It's still a good option and if you are unable to secure a ladder locally, consider bringing the best non-photo accessory available with you.

I get a little flying time with a friend's DJI Phantom 2. These are great for use outdoors, but a little risky to use on a trade show floor.
I get a little flying time with a friend's DJI Phantom 2. These are great for use outdoors, but a little risky to use on a trade show floor.
Finally, before I reveal the technique I used, you could use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as the DJI Phantom 2. Now these UAVs are really cool and would surely work, but the reality is that they may get you kicked out.

So while all of the above techniques will work, I opted to go a little old school and attach my camera with a 14-24mm lens to a Gitzo carbon fiber monopod and extend it all the way out. I then used a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera, but you could use a cable release or even the self-timer. This technique puts the camera about 15 feet up and I think offered me the photos I was looking for including a unique shot of the Navy's X-47B.

Of all the photographs of the Navy's X-47B from the exposition, mine was the only one mine was the only one I saw taken from above.
Of all the photographs of the Navy's X-47B from the exposition, mine was the only one I saw taken from above. 
Another advantage of the monopod is that you can follow the action. I would bring the camera to my eye, focus, then raise the camera and start shooting.

If you find yourself in a rut and looking for something different when tasked with photographing the same thing, literally try a different perspective and get high.


The entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon.

The entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon.

Located about ten minutes outside Page, Ariz., Upper Antelope Canyon is one of those magnificent natural wonders that should be on every photographer's must shoot list.

An authorized Navajo tour guide is required to gain access and while there are a number of tour operations available in the Page area, I choose Roger Ekis' Antelope Canyon Tours and specifically signed up for the photographer's tour. Most of the tour operations offer some sort of a photography option which will cost you a little more money, but does give you more time on location, ensures that you can use a tripod, and most importantly, means you are with other photographers whose sole purpose is the same as yours.

This was my first and only visit to Upper Antelope Canyon and I spent a total of two hours taking photographs. I mention this because I don't want to give the impression that I know everything there is to know about photographing here. However, I think you will find these five tips useful if you ever get the opportunity.

Photographed with a 10.5mm lens and corrected in Adobe Lightroom 4.

Photographed with a 10.5mm lens and corrected in Adobe Lightroom 4.

1. Take your time. You've anticipated this shoot, have seen incredible images taken by others and know that you have limited time, so you can't wait to drop the tripod legs and begin shooting. In our case, we walked immediately to the back of the canyon where it is much shallower and more cave-like with less light reaching the canyon floor. We then proceeded to shot while working our way back to the entrance. Two hours doesn't seem like a long time, but you don't have to make all your images in the first ten minutes either. Also in this case, I think the better shots are closer to the entrance of the canyon where it is wider, brighter and the sunlight filtering down from 120' above brings out the most colors and patterns in the sandstone walls. So use your first half hour of time to get used to shooting in this environment and don't rush.

My guide tosses a handful of sand onto a ledge creating a nice visual effect as it then "flows" over the edge.

My guide tosses a handful of sand onto a ledge creating a nice visual effect as it then "flows" over the edge.

2. Cooperation and communication are key. You will be shooting alongside other photographers in addition to sharing the canyon with other tours so you need to be cognizant of that. Your guide can help by warning when other groups are approaching or maybe even assist with moving lingerers along, but mostly it will be up to you to plan, frame and execute your shot, then get out of the way for others. Again, don't rush and with four photographers in my group it never was a problem getting the shots that I wanted. Rely on your guides advice, they have been visiting this location for years, observing it in different light and at different times of the year and can quickly point out the best shots or locations. I know you want to discover a shot that has never been made before, but with the limited time, a little assistance goes a long way. It is still your photograph the moment you release the shutter. 

Detail pointed out by the guide is only seen by looking straight up. 

Detail pointed out by the guide is only seen by looking straight up. 

3. Environmental awareness. When looking at the photographs, they look bright and colorful as if there was a lot of available light. Don't be fooled, the average exposure time for all of these shots was 1/2 a second. It's not so dark that you can't see, but it is dark enough that focus can be an issue. In fact, it was the one thing I had the hardest time with. Other than a tripod, I highly recommend that you bring a flashlight to not only assist with setting up your camera but to shine on the walls in order to assist with focus. Again be aware and courteous to other photographers. I started off at ISO 200, but found that my exposure times were too long, especially when shooting two stops under while bracketing, so I ended up shooting mostly at ISO 400 and in some cases ISO 640. It does get brighter nearer the entrance and I was back at 400. 

Having the right equipment, including a tripod and remote shutter release, are essential.

Having the right equipment, including a tripod and remote shutter release, are essential.

4. Equipment. I went with a Nikon D3S attached to a Gitzo tripod and three lenses, the Nikon 10.5mm, Nikon 14-24mm and the Nikon 24-70mm. Most of the photos were shot using the 14-24mm and the 24-70mm. In my backpack, I also had a Nikon D700, Nikon 70-200mm VR, and an SB900 flash, but really should have left those in the car. My advice, bring the widest, fastest lens you own. The canyons are narrow and as mentioned before, there are other people moving by and you really want to concentrate on taking photos and not worrying about gear or lens selection. The floors of the canyon are covered in sand which gets stirred up as people and you move about, so be cautious if you change lenses and be sure to have a lens cloth handy. Lastly, I was using a pocket wizard plus to trigger my camera, but only because I didn't have a cable release. If you don't have a way to release the shutter remotely, use the self-timer. 

Three shot bracket inside Upper Antelope Canyon.

Three shot bracket taken at -1.0, 0.0 and +1.0. 

5. Take plenty of photographs at various focal lengths and multiple f-stops. Almost everything I shot during my two hours was bracketed by either three or five stops. Originally I thought I would process these photos using the high dynamic range or HDR technique, however, in the end none were. The bracketing was critical though when it came to selecting the best exposure to process. I would shoot the multiple exposures, check focus, then shoot another sequence.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, this was my first visit to the canyon so I only have this one brief experience photographing in the mid-December light. The look in this canyon will change depending on the time of year, so if you want to photograph shafts of light then you will need to visit during the summer months. Of course during the summer you will also contend with large crowds which would certainly add to the anxiety of getting the photographs you want.

In addition to Upper Antelope, there are other slot canyons in the area including, Lower Antelope, Canyon X or Cardiac Canyon. These locations are less frequented, meaning they are also less photographed, so would offer additional opportunities to produce never before seen images. Apparently some of these canyons do require hiking and more time, so they are not as accessible as Upper Antelope.

And don't forget to just stop, take the camera away from your eye and absorb the surroundings. As photographers we often get caught up in the scene and forget to just take a moment and enjoy what is around us. While we tell ourselves that we will have the photographs to remember it by, nothing compares to being there. More on this in a future post.

Additional tour companies to consider:

For more information on Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation visit


I've just finished packing for the Arizona trip and wanted to share what gear I'm taking along and some of my thoughts behind it. I'll break this down into three sections, camera, computer, and accessory.


Nikon D3S, Nikon D700, Fuji X10, 10.5mm, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 80-200mm, 2x teleconverter, GoPro, SB900, SU800. 

Nikon D3S with a Zacuto Z-1 Pro on a Gitzo Serires 00 carbon tripod

I'm taking three cameras, the Nikon D3s and D700, and my new Fuji X10. I thought about not taking the D700 as a second body on this trip since I will primarily be shooting landscapes and didn't think I would need a second body affixed with another lens for quick reaction. In the end however, I thought if something happened to the D3s, the only backup would be the X10 and while I'm learning to really like that camera, it just does not compare to a full frame DSLR in quality.

I'm also bringing an Nikon SB900 in case I need fill flash especially if I'm shooting during the middle of the day.


Apple 15" Powerbook, iPad, LaCie Rugged Mini 1TB hard drive, SanDisk Firewire 800 card reader, Photo Mechanic, Adobe Lightroom 4.0, Photoshop CS4, Verizon MiFi.

Apple 15" powerbook with LaCie Rugged 1TB drive and SanDisk FW 800 CF card reader.

The plan of course is to process images during the trip, as well as continue to update this blog, so I'm bringing my 15" Powerbook. Simple work flow will be to offload camera cards each day, copying contents to desktop then backing up to a portable hard drive. I will use Photo Mechanic to rename and caption images, then import into LightRoom 4.0, and finish off in Photoshop CS4.

Other than the laptop, I am also bringing my iPad, along with a camera connection kit, on this trip. And it is not just for entertainment, but for practical purposes. Other than the photo apps that may see some use, I rely on the Sun Seeker app which provides you with sunrise and sunset times, shows a map view of sun direction for each daylight hour and 3D views of the solar path. In fact I've already studied the direction of light during the time and day when I will be in certain locations. Two other non-photo apps I will use on this trip are The Weather Channel app and SkySafari 3.


Gitzo Series 00 Carbon tripod, Zacuto Z-Finder Pro, PocketWizard Plus, Blackrapid camera strap, battery chargers, mouse, Belkin surge protector,  Lexar professional 600x 32GB card, Lexar professional 400x 16GB card (2), SanDisk Extreme 16GB, SanDisk Extreme 2GB,  Tenba sandbag

So far it's been pretty straight forward, but the details are in the accessories. I have two tripods, a Bogen Model #3033 that I've owned since 1986. It is a sturdy, dependable tripod, however it is very heavy and not very compact. The other is a Gitzo Series 00 Carbon 6X with a Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 ballhead. This is a great tripod for travel and backpacking because it is so light, but my concern is that it may be too lightweight, especially for star photography, so I'm bringing a sandbag to help steady along with hanging my backpack should help.

In order to assist with focus at night and to make sure everything is sharp during the day, I'm bringing a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x eyepiece which should give some piece of mind as I shoot. For triggering the camera, I'm going to use a PocketWizard Plus. Perhaps a bit of overkill, but without a cable release, this is the next best thing.

The Kelty Redwing backpack with Think Tank change up bag and various Think Tank pouches to keep gear protected during travel.

To transport most of the gear, I'm using a Kelty Redwing backpack. Not a photo backpack you say? That's right. I was at REI and looking at backpacks when the Kelty caught my attention. Plenty of room, good support and the right size to also be used on a two to three backpacking trip. As I've mentioned previously, I use Think Tank test drive bags (now called Lens Changers) and pouches to protect my cameras and lens in the bag. The main compartment has a place to hold my laptop and the front portion has room for my iPad, pens, notebook, phone, etc. This pack also has side pouches to stow additional items plus they have a pass through that will allow me to carry a tripod. The final bag will be a Think Tank Change Up Belt Pack. I've mentioned this bag before in my GOING LIGHT(er) post.

I'll carry on most of the camera gear in the Kelty and the Change Up. Things like chargers, cables and of course clothing will all go in my checked bag.