Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.”

Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch

Passion.  While not a necessity of life, passion is, and perhaps will always be, a necessity for living.  Through the ages the passion of those who have gone before us has vaulted us from the mundane to the remarkable.  Blind to the limitations of what is possible, our passion fuels our imaginations to such an extent that anything seems within reach. And the most beautiful and wondrous thing about passion?  It is something that anyone can possess by simply wishing it to be so.

One of my passions is photography.  And I don’t mean that I enjoy taking pictures, I mean that I enjoy everything associated with the art of photography.  From the old school Diana camera sitting on my desk to the brilliant works of Julian Calverley, the mechanics and art of photography are not something that I feel I will ever get enough of, and that suits me just fine.  While I hold no illusions that my skill will ever approach that of Calverley, there is not one doubt in my mind that my passion for the art is equal to his.

A few days ago, I was looking through some older photographs and when comparing those to more recent works, it is clear that I have, at least to some degree, achieved a higher level of skill—better composition, better control of exposure, better control of not pressing the shutter button four million times when just one time will do.  This should come as no surprise as we all know that if we keep at something, eventually, we will get better at that something, whatever it may be.  As long as we have a passion, there is no other way it can be—better we will become.

As my skill increased, so did my comfort level. I found the courage to leave my comfort zone and enter into another, less familiar area of my craft. Where once I had been spraying and praying, I was now carefully calculating the exact amount of time, to the second, for the proper amount of light to ease through a ten stop filter and fill the sensor with my latest composition.  My latest hope.

And every once in a while I got it just right.  In the process, I took pride in the fact that not too far in the past what I was doing seemed inconceivable to me.  Filters?  Exposure times of minutes, not fractions of seconds? An image from this? Impossible.  And yet, there I was, doing the same thing countless others had done before me.  Granted, my work has yet to hang next to anything really famous but my passion for what I am doing covers any gap a lack of fame might create.  I simply love doing this and that, dear friends, is far beyond enough.

Filters were a departure from the norm for me but I had certainly heard of them and seen the results of using them.  Whether it be to control a difficult exposure situation or achieve an artistic effect, filters are an important part of any photographer’s kit.  Rip Tide, an ethereal vision of a nearby creek that empties into Good Harbor Bay in Lake Michigan, was acquired with a 10 stop neutral density filter, a good tripod, and a lot of patience.

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Rip Tide

14 mm, f\10, 269 seconds, ISO-100, Formatt Hitech 10 Stop Pro IRND, Lucroit wide angle lens filter system.

I have used several filter types and systems and my favorite are the systems available from Lucroit.  About a year ago I took a detailed look at a Lucroit filter system that catered to the wide and ultra-wide angle lens family.  These lenses have radical front lens elements with integrated hoods and are difficult to use with filters, to say the least.  Unlike their less radical counterparts, it is not a simple matter of screwing on a circular filter or filter mount. One solution was to simply hold a filter in front of the lens by hand while the exposure was taking place, but when the exposure times increase to minutes instead of seconds or fractions of seconds, the handheld method quickly becomes tiresome and prone to error.

Lucroit’s solution for placing filters on the wide and ultra-wide angle lenses was elegant and the design allowed for quick and easy use in the field.  Spanish industrial engineer and founder of Lucroit, Javier Olmedo, describes the event that led him to the invention of this unique system; “It happened in an instant.  I was with some friends on a cafeteria terrace and we were taking pictures of the sunset.  I had with me the Nikon Nikkor 14-24 mm wide angle lens and my friends were quick to say that my lens doesn’t work for landscapes because I could not use filters on it.  It was then that the idea for a filter system came to me and I told them that the next time they saw me my lens will have a filter system.”

His friends quickly displayed their good natured skepticism toward the idea, but Javier, true to his word and industrious spirit, sent them a draft of his idea and the good natured humor changed to belief as they recommended to him that he have the idea patented.

“With confidence in my idea growing, I showed a working prototype to the CEO of a famous photography shop in Madrid, Fotoccasion. Impressed by the idea and invention, the CEO was willing to help.  I began further work on the system with help from other photographers who were joining the effort to refine the system.”

It wasn’t long before Javier began to receive requests for filter systems for other lenses.  “Lucroit was born with the Nikkor 14-24 mm in mind, but I was soon asked about the Canon 14 mm and the Sigma 12-24 mm lenses.  Initially, the design was a single unit but subsequent designs split apart the lens adapter and filter holder.  This allowed a user with many different lens types to purchase one filter holder and adapter rings as they saw fit.”  Soon, Javier and his team were producing threaded adapter rings which extended the system to lenses with threaded front ends.

“After twenty three prototypes, we arrived at the final system.”  Now that, my friends, is passion!

And the name?  Lucroit?  I asked his son, Lucas Olmedo, about the very interesting name; “Luc is for me (Lucas), roi is for my brother, (Mario Roi), and ‘t’ is for my grandmother, as her surname is Tejedor (Pepita Tejedor).  Combining them all together, you have Lucroit.”

As an industrial engineer, Javier has a great deal of experience solving problems of the exact nature that faced him when he solved the problem of placing a filter on a lens many felt was simply too bulky and unyielding for a decent filter solution.  His system is simple, elegant, and brilliant, a testament to his passion for the craft and unwillingness to concede that there was not a viable answer.  I have used the system for about a year now and it has taken me in creative directions I never would have thought possible.

The New System—100 mm Threaded Filter Holder System

Much has changed for Lucroit since Javier created the company in 2012 and, as photographers, this is good news for us.  The newest system from Lucroit is in many ways similar to his design for the wide angle systems—easy to use, lightweight, and feature filled.  Unlike the initial system, this one is designed exclusively for lenses that have threaded filter rings at the front element.

Fitting lens thread sizes of 49 -82 mm, this new system covers a wide range of lenses.  Whereas the filter adapter for the wide angle lenses was a friction fit, the new system screws onto the front of the lens, the adapter is snapped on, and square filters are then inserted into the filter holder slots. The filter slots come in several configurations, two and three slots for resin filters, and two slots for glass filters.

Further enhancing the utility of the system, the adapter ring is manufactured with two thread sizes—one size to fit the lens and another in the front of the ring for a screw on filter.  The second thread can be the same, or slightly larger, than the thread lens size.  In other words, you may have a 50 mm lens thread and want to use a 52 mm screw on filter, perhaps a polarizer, and then you can place square filters in the slots in front of that.  It sounds complicated, but once you see the system it makes perfect sense and opens the door wide for creative opportunities.

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The Lucroit 100 mm filter system in place on a Nikkor 70-200 mm lens.

The square filters can be 100×100 mm, 100×125 mm, or 100×150 mm, depending on the situation.  For example, the 100×100 mm filter may be a pure neutral density filter whereas the non-symmetrical sizes may be graduated neutral density filters.

Further, the system accommodates a larger, front mounted (snap on) circular polarizer option and an innovative light shield\matte box\splash guard that fits on mounts located on the sides of the main holder.  Those of you who have ever had stray light or splashing water ruin an otherwise good exposure will appreciate the matte box option. Yet another bit of innovation that is quickly becoming the hallmark of Lucroit products.

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For my field trials with this system I had the 50 mm and 67 mm adapter rings, a filter holder with three slots, a seven stop neutral density filter and a 0.9 graduated neutral density filter.  Both of the slot filters were from Hitech Formatt but the system will work with any filter that is 100 mm wide.  The fit of the filters was precise, that is, once placed in the slots there was no sliding of the filter.  Once I was acquainted with the new gear, it was time to head into the real world and put everything to the test.

 

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I hopped in the car for the very short drive to one of my favorite locations, the gentle banks of the Platte River.  We’ve had a tremendous amount of snow this winter—nearly twice the yearly average—so I was able to obtain a vantage point that usually isn’t possible in the winter unless you have a four foot ladder to stand on!  Mindful that even the most solid of snow can form pockets and send you sinking onto the very large boulders below, I took a great deal of care where I walked and where I ended up placing the tripod.  Finally, I had my spot and an image in mind.

I chose a time of day when the sun was well above the horizon as I wanted to check the light sealing properties of the system with a neutral density filter installed.  The lens of choice for this outing was the Nikkor 70-200 mm f\4.

 

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The Lucroit 100 mm filter system in use at the Platte River, Benzie County, Michigan.

Weather conditions were fairly docile with the exception of the temperature, a much less than balmy 22 F (-6 C), but there was almost no wind to speak of.  One thing that can expose the weakness of a system or piece of gear very quickly are extreme temperatures.  As an example, I used to have an aluminum tripod and while it was a pure joy to use inside or during warm temperature outings, it turned into what seemed the coldest object in the Universe as the temperature dipped below freezing.

I have gloves with me when I venture into the freezing wilderness, but I have yet to find a thin enough glove that allows me to operate camera controls, tripod controls, or slide filters around with any sort of accuracy while at the same time keeping my hands warm.  As such, I’m usually putting the gloves aside once at the location and using hand warmers in my pockets to keep my hands workable.  Even so, moving an aluminum tripod in below zero temperatures quickly becomes uncomfortable.

The freezing cold can expose the weakness of a part in ways you would not expect—plastic parts mysteriously shatter, remote trigger cables freezing solid, and tripod heads suddenly losing their ability to maintain the camera position to list a few examples I have run into.

I have yet to see any problems related to extreme cold weather temperatures while using the wide angle Lucroit system and the new threaded filter holder system was no different.  The adapter screwed on, the filter holder snapped onto that, I placed the neutral density filter into the slot closest to the lens and not one bit of drama was noted.  I acquired a few images and packed up for the day as the light was disappearing and my position on the snow above the boulders was tenuous, at best.  As sessions go it was a short one, only a few hours, but it provided me with some pleasing images and put in my mind the confidence that this new system from Lucroit has earned a permanent place in the gear bag.

Visit the Lucroit page for more information about the 100 mm Filter kit as well as other systems available. To receive a 10% discount on your purchase, enter the code BOBS10 at checkout.  Discount does not apply to the Zeiss or Raico Rosenberg kits.

http://lucroit.com/shop/en/

 

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Essence

f\18, 4 seconds, ISO-100, 200 mm, Formatt Hitech 7 stop Pro IRND filter, Lucroit 100 mm filter system.

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Ask any landscape photographer about the importance of filters and you might be surprised to hear the answer–for many, filters are as important as the camera or lens. Be it a polarizing filter for alleviating the harsh glare and reflections of a scene to a graduated neutral density filter designed to help even out the exposure differences of a scene–think bright sky and not as bright foreground–filters are found in any serious photography kit.

For the most part, filters are relatively easy to purchase and use. Most lenses have a threaded front ring of differing size and you simply make a visit to your local photography shop, find the filter that is compatible with the thread size of the lens, pay the vendor, and off you go. Simple. But there are some limitations that might not be readily apparent. For example, let’s say you are using the graduated neutral density filter mentioned earlier. A filter like this is perfect when you are taking a picture that has a bright sky and not quite so bright foreground, the filter has a portion designed to reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor or film–think of sunglasses for your camera–and this darkened region gradually fades away to a clear area that is designed to allow all of the light pass through. In other words, the dark portion evens out the brightness of the scene and makes it possible to capture the darker portions of the foreground and the brighter portions of the sky in a single frame.

However, limitations exist with this type of arrangement. For one thing, the graduation, in general, is roughly about the middle of the circular filter and if your composition involves, for example, two thirds of foreground and one third of sky then you will notice the dark areas of the graduated filter showing in your image as a very unnatural dark area, definitely not what we are looking for. Here is where the rectangular filter comes to the rescue as you can slide a rectangular filter up, or down, in the holder, perfectly aligning the graduation edge as you see fit. The following image is an example of that. I used a 0.6 graduated ND filter in a rectangular holder and, clearly, the sky is in the upper portion of the image but there is no visible dark line as I was able to slide the filter–and the darkened part–exactly where I needed to filter exactly what I wanted. Had I been using a circular filter a clearly visible darkened portion of the photograph would have been visible in the image starting at about halfway up, looking unnatural at best.

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View from the Frankfort beach northern break wall, using a Formatt Hitech 0.6 grad ND filter and Lucroit filter holder system.

This is one example where a rectangular filter solution is a good answer but there are instances where, for the most part, a circular filter will work just as well–up to a point. Take the example of a Ten Stop ND filter, this type of filter has no graduation and is, for all intents and purposes, a very dark piece of material, perhaps glass or special resin, with one design function and that is to reduce the amount of light reaching the film or sensor. You may have seen photographs of stationary elements in a scene with a sky full of dramatic streaked clouds or an ocean view with mystical, silky smooth water, giving the scene an almost ethereal look to it. Further, a Ten Stop filter, named because it literally provides ten ‘stops’ of light reduction, can allow the photographer to extend the exposure time even in relatively bright sunshine. An example might be a waterfall, river, or stream where the water appears to be smoothly flowing between the banks and through the scene creating a sense of calm throughout the image. Truly, the possibilities are endless. In the following photograph, a Ten Stop rectangular filter was used near sunset to extend the exposure time and smooth out the churning water flow over the rocks in the river and emphasize the lovely golden color as it was reflected from the surface of the water.

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‘Gold Rush’

Platte River image acquired with Formatt Hitech Pro Stop IR ten stop filter and Lucroit filter holder system.

A circular Ten Stop filter could have produced the exact same effect, however, as the aperture is ‘stopped down’, that is, less light is let into the camera and thereby increasing the depth of field, it is often the case that vignetting will occur as the edges of the circular filter ring begin to show in the image. This is relatively easy to deal with in post processing, but you do run the risk of losing some of the scene if the vignetting is extreme. Further, if you are stacking filters–one in front of the other, a common practice–the vignetting effect becomes much more pronounced. Once again, rectangular filters do not suffer to the extent circular filters do in terms of vignetting.

Even so, many photographers find circular filters to their liking over their rectangular counterparts for the simple reason that they are easy to transport and use.  The circular filters are definitely easier to use, but in the case of a Ten Stop solution it quickly becomes a pain when you are in the field and must remove the filter each time you change the composition as seeing through the viewfinder with a ten stop filter attached is difficult, at best. With the rectangular solution you simply slide the filter out of the holder, setup the shot, slide the filter back in and there you go.  True, you do have more hardware to deal with in the field—holder and filter—but once you are setup the transition from filtered to non-filtered and back to filtered image is very quick.

Simple, isn’t it?

Yes…and no. Yes in that rectangular filter holders have been around for quite some time and no in that there are lenses out there that not only don’t have a threaded front filter ring due to the radical nature of the front element they also present a difficulty in terms of even rectangular filter holder systems. For example, there is no way to screw on a filter of any type on lenses such as the Sigma 12-24 mm or the Nikon 14-24 mm ultra wide and rectangular filter systems, though available, have often fallen short of their intended goal with these and other ‘non filterable’ lenses.

As an art form, photography is not without its innovators and it wasn’t long after the problem of how to put a filter on these crazy lenses was posed that answers began to arrive. While there are currently several solutions in this review we will be dealing exclusively with the Lucroit filter holder system coupled with rectangular filters from Formatt Hitech.

Invented by a Spanish engineer who also happens to be a photographer, the Lucroit filter system is a solution for the ultra wide angle lenses that is as elegant as it is simple.  It consists of an adapter ring that slides over the lens hood of the lens and then a filter holder that snaps onto this ring.  Several adapter rings are available for several wide and ultra wide angle lenses and the neat part is that the filter holder itself fits any of the rings—no need to purchase a new holder for each adapter ring.  Simple, elegant, and functional, the Lucroit system provides a robust and easy to use solution in the ultra wide angle filter department.  The holder provides slots for up to two filters and the design is such that vignetting is practically non existent at even the smallest lens apertures.

Now you have the holder, you need some filters and this is where Formatt Hitech enters the picture.  Providing filters for practically any need, the Formatt filters are designed specifically for the Lucroit system.  Of special note is their newly released Pro Stop IR filter, a ten stop filter designed for enhanced color neutrality.

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Lucroit filter system and Formatt Hitech resin filters.

In the Field

Again we come to the part where the rubber meets the road—how does the system perform in the field?  Definitely there is more hardware to deal with as, unlike a circular filter, you aren’t going to be sliding a 165 mm filter into your pocket while composing the shot, for example, but if you are serious about your photography this is a minor issue.  Well, a minor issue as long as it isn’t too windy that is.  If you are like me, you are using both hands to adjust the tripod controls and camera while composing and focusing the image you wish to obtain and if you don’t find some way to keep that filter from blowing away, it just might blow away.  An unfortunate consequence of thin objects in the shape of a rectangle in windy conditions but a situation easily solved by simply placing the filter beneath something to prevent the effects of wind moving your valuable investment to another, less pleasing location—such as the middle of Lake Michigan!  I like to use a heavier, non scratching towel to place over the filter and then place a bit of weight on that to keep things in one place and it works just fine.

Another consideration is that once the filter is in place, there is quite a bit of surface area at the end of the lens and, again, a heavy wind can have an effect but as of yet I have not noticed any detrimental effects of strong winds once the filter—or filters—are in place such as blurred images due to tripod motion as the rectangular nature of the filter can have the effect of a sail on a boat but if you are using solid gear to support your camera (and no doubt you are, aren’t you?!) wind effects will be minimal to non-existent.

Installation of the system on the camera is a snap—the adapter ring has a friction fit and is place on the lens by carefully pressing around the ring in an even fashion until is in place.  There are notches on the ring that are specific to the particular lens being used and these notches fit into the lower parts of the integrated lens hood.

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Lucroit adapter ring installed on Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24 mm wide angle lens.  Note adapter ring tabs and lens hood notches.

I had some initial concerns with how the adapter ring would work in differing temperature extremes given that the friction for the fit is provided by a rubber ring but I have found that even in the harshest temperatures—and by that I mean frigid cold—the system provides a firm and reliable fit.  One thing to make sure of is to have the ring fully seated on the lens as even a small amount of misalignment here will lead to vignetting after the holder is snapped on as a bit of the filter holder frame will find it’s way into the image at lower aperture openings.  Once placed properly, vignetting is nowhere to be found and the system can be left on without a filter should you wish to acquire non filtered images.

Having used both circular and rectangular filters I definitely prefer the rectangular solutions, however, care must still be taken with the rectangular filters as though the non-glass versions are not prone to breakage upon dropping, they are prone to scratching if not handled carefully.  Coming to mind is sliding them into a zippered pocket on the gear bag for quick storage, for example.  On the other hand, all too often dropping a glass filter can lead to catastrophic damage in the form of breakage and with an order wait time of up to six months for the Lee Big Stopper, for example, extreme care is the norm, nevertheless, accidents will happen and the odds of having a filter to use after that accident are greatly improved with a non glass filter such as the Formatt Hitech.

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Lucroit adapter ring, filter holder, and Formatt Hitech 0.6 grad ND filter installed on Nikon D800 with Nikon 14-24 mm lens.

Like all things that are worth doing, working with filters takes practice.  A ten stop filter has a dramatic effect on the amount of light coming through the lens, that is, it reduces it by about a factor of a thousand, a substantial amount.  Fortunately, there are handy charts available to give you a rough estimation of the proper exposure time needed given the exposure time calculated without the filter in place.  Another factor to consider is that not all ten stop filters provide an exact ten stop reduction in light.  Some may give a bit more, or a bit less, in terms of light stoppage and you will most likely have to do a bit of trial and error to determine the exact nature of your filters light reduction abilities but given today’s digital cameras and the ability to check the histogram as soon as the image is acquired, getting to terms with your particular filter is a simple matter of acquiring a few test images and adjusting the exposure time accordingly.

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‘Up’

An example of the dramatic effects that can be obtained while using long exposures.  Formatt Hitech Ten Stop filter and Lucroit filter system with Nikon D800 and Nikon 14-24 mm lens.

My experience with the Lucroit filter holder and Hitech filters has been satisfying and positive and, having tested the filter system on both the Sigma 12-24 mm and Nikon 14-24 mm lenses, the solutions offered by Lucroit and Hitech are definitely Top Shelf material and come highly recommended by this photographer.

The author wishes to thank James Baker, Executive Vice President of US Business Development for Formatt Hitech, and Lucroit for their valuable assistance with the filters and systems used in this review.

 

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake

Headquartered in San Luis Obispo, California, Really Right Stuff (RRS) has been bringing top quality gear to the photography world for over two decades.  Originally formed with the singular mission of building the best quick release plate available, Really Right Stuff has taken what they have learned over the years and currently offer some of the best camera support solutions that money can buy.  Their extensive list of products includes quick release clamps, camera L-plates, lens plates, Safari gear, ballheads, mobile cases, mobile clamps, mobile mounts, and, of course, tripods.  Designed, manufactured, and shipped from the USA, Really Right Stuff has demonstrated a steadfast devotion to quality and top-shelf innovation and that ethos is readily apparent even with the most cursory of examinations of their products.

Like many photographers, I enjoy the hardware side of the profession almost as much as the photography side and I recently found myself in the market for a new tripod and mounting system.  While there was nothing wrong with my previous tripod and BH-100 pistol grip ballhead from Vanguard, it was clear that with the recent upgrade to the Nikon D800 coupled with a MB-D12 battery pack and the stout Nikkor 14-24 mm wide angle lens I was pushing the limits of stability and one thing you don’t want to be doing in the field is pushing stability and support limits with several thousand dollars worth of gear hanging in the balance, so the search for a replacement began…

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I always begin my searches with a bit of prowling around, usually on Facebook and, of course, the always amazing Google search engine.  It’s one thing to see a beautifully created magazine advertisement proclaiming the amazingness of a product but it’s quite another to read the thoughts of others who are actually using the product—if the interwebs are good for anything, they are good for the sort of truth that anonymity can bring! But care is in order as there is always an element of noise to be found on the webs, one disgruntled customer does not, necessarily, represent the entirety of a companies product line, or service, therefore it is always wise to shake a bit of salt around.  Also wise is to take a look at what other photographers are using and that is usually what the second phase of my prowling around involves, what are real life photographers using, and why are they using it?

Having narrowed the choices down somewhat, I noticed that one of my favorite photographers, John McCormick of Michigan Nut Photography, had recently purchased the Induro Alloy AT Series AT413, an aluminum tripod with some impressive specifications.  John is no stranger to photography or photography gear and it didn’t take me long before I had one of the 413’s in my living room.  Large, built like a Sherman tank, and stable as a rock, the Induro was more than impressive and the price was right—tipping the monetary scale at just over 200.00 USD, it easily fit into the budget.  Now, some of you may be saying “Hey, bub, wait a minute, two hundred bucks??  That sounds a bit cheap…” Cheap is right—as far as price goes, but it is important to keep in mind that aluminum is significantly less expensive to work with than carbon fiber.  Long story short—the Induro AT 413 is easily one of the most stable and well built tripods manufactured today and I have nothing but high praise for it.

Ultimately I chose to return it as that rock solid stability came at a different kind of price—weight.  At just over seven pounds without the ball head, the Induro was a bit much for me to lug around given that I weigh about 98 pounds covered in ice. Seven pounds may not sound like much, but when you are hiking around the Northern Michigan countryside through multiple feet of snow or inches of friction free ice coat, every ounce counts.  So, with a bit of reluctance, I packed it up and sent it back.  Again, I re-iterate—the Induro was one hell of a sturdy tripod that more than got the job done.

More prowling.  I went to the photography world once again and noticed that another incredibly talented photographer, Elia Locardi of BlameTheMonkey.Com, was using a tripod and ball head that was on my list of possible choices.  If you haven’t seen his work, do yourself a favor and check it out—truly, Elia is a world class travel and destination photographer and his work is nothing short of spectacular.  In most cases, photographers at this level are in the field worrying about one thing—the image.  In other words, their gear is the last thing on their minds—they know it works.  And what was Elia using in the particular shot where I saw his tripod and mounting solution?  A Really Right Stuff tripod and BH-55 ballhead, that’s what.  My list had suddenly gotten a lot shorter and the next phase of research began, narrowing down what, exactly, I needed for the ultimate support solution that I could depend on completely while in the field.

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A quick look at their web page and my head was spinning—there must have been eleventy million choices and combinations and models and…and…and…make it stop!  Being a man, I won’t stop and ask for driving directions—I have a GPS for that—but being a photographer I have learned that it is often necessary to practice healthy doses of humility and I figured this was a perfect time for some more practice.  Listing some vital statistics—my height, and what it was exactly I needed stabilized (In camera terms!), I fired off an email to the support staff at Really Right Stuff and before I knew it Brady and Spencer had given me all the information I needed to make the right choice for my particular camera support situation.

The Really Right Choice, so to speak.

Ultimately, I settled on the TVC-33S and BH-55 LR package deal which included the TVC-33S tripod, BH-55 ball head, B2-AS-II lever release plate mount, a hex head screw, several hex-key wrenches, and dust bags for both the ball head and tripod.  On the camera side of things, I went with the L-plate and basic plate for the Nikon D800 with the MB-D12 battery grip.  To round out the deal, I also ordered three spiked replacement feet for the tripod.  Really Right Stuff offers spiked feet for shifting terrain—perfect for sand, soil, and snow—and sharper claw feet, perfect for those rocky placement situations.

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During the ordering phase of the operation there was a bit of drama and while I don’t mind a bit of drama now and then, when I am holding my bank card in front of a computer displaying a web page designed to take money from my bank account, well, the less drama the better.  Again, practicing some of the humility I spoke of earlier, I refrained from the urge to keep pressing the ‘Process Order’ button multiple times and, instead, sent another email to Really Right Stuff.  Soon after, Mike not only had the problem sorted out, he made sure that the order was properly placed and before I knew it the gear was on the way.  Hats Off to the staff at Really Right Stuff, when the service is this good without a dime being exchanged, odds are the rest of the experience is going to be a good one.

The kit arrived in two days in perfect order and the process of unpacking, examination, and familiarization was initiated.  I was immediately impressed with the quality and construction of the tripod, ball head, and lever release mount.  Actually, impressed is an understatement—flabbergasted would be more like it.  Clearly, Really Right Stuff has been doing this for a while and the quality and craftsmanship is as good as any I have ever seen in the camera gear world.  Directly from their web page, here are the package specs:

Carbon Fiber tripod with 3 leg sections per leg

Tripod Load Rating = 50lbs / 23kg

Ballhead Load Rating = 50lbs / 23kg

Tripod Weight = 4lbs / 2.0g

Ballhead Weight = 1.9lb / 861g

Package Weight of Tripod & Ballhead = 5.9lbs / 2.7kg

Tripod Maximum Height = 49.75-inches / 126cm

Tripod Minimum Height = 4-inches / 10cm

Package Height of Tripod + Ballhead = 53.35-inches / 135cm

Tripod Folded Length = 23.0-inches / 66cm

Package Folded Length of Tripod + Ballhead = 26.6-inches / 78cm

Bulls eye Spirit Level = 12mm diameter

Top Tube Diameter = 1.44 inches / 37 mm

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What the specs don’t show is another impressive aspect—how nice it all looked.  The carbon fiber has a beautiful diamond pattern to it and the subdued silver and black of the tripod and control knobs makes for a very eye pleasing package.  True, how it looks means nothing when it comes to how it performs, but this gear can sit in the middle of my living room any time!

Ballhead and Mounting Plate

The BH-55 ballhead features three control knobs and a massive 55 mm ball.  One knob controls the drag on the ball, that is, when you loosen the main lock knob to recompose the camera you can set the drag to hold the camera in place until you decide to move it, or allow it to move as soon as tension is released.  Personally, I like to have one hand on the camera when the main tension is relaxed so I have the drag knob set rather light to allow for quick movement.  There is also a pan lock knob, adjusting this allows for a panning motion of the entire assembly, just the thing for sliding the composition in the horizontal plane without vertical movement, a handy feature for those panorama image acquisitions. In addition, there are laser engraved degree markings on the ball head base so you can keep track of camera rotation.

Dual drop notches in the head assembly, spaced 90 degrees apart from each other, allow for tilting the camera to vertical or steep upward and downward composures.

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The body is CNC machined and serves as both the structure and clamping mechanism of the ballhead.  Due to the large size of the ballhead and the precise construction of the ballhead body, it doesn’t take much effort of the main lock knob to set the camera to a non-moving state.  And by non-moving, I mean non-moving—not so much as a millimeter of motion was detected after setting the lock knob.  In the past, I have used ballheads of lesser quality and while they ultimately kept the camera relatively motionless, it was often the case that I would compose the shot, tighten the lock knob, and then recheck the composure as the camera would drop, noticeably, to its equilibrium position after the locking knob was set.  With the Really Right Stuff mechanism, once set, it’s set.  And it doesn’t take much effort to achieve this, no doubt the massive surface area of the ballhead contributes to the ultra stable situation after locking.  Extremely well done and very confidence inspiring.

The lever release mounting plate is also a pleasure to use.  Featuring two settings, one allows you to slide the camera plate in from the side and the other fully open setting of the lever allows you to place the camera on the plate from the top.  Slide the lever to the closed position and forget about it—the camera is about as secure as you could possibly want.  Further testament to the outstanding craftsmanship and quality Really Right Stuff has put into their gear.

The Tripod

Labeling the TVC-33S as ‘feature rich’ may sound a bit pretentious—hey, it’s a tripod, it’s got three legs, what’s the big deal?  Normally, I would agree, if it can hold the gear without collapsing or flying away in high wind, mission accomplished.  However, the TVC-33S has a couple of features that bear closer examination.  First, and quite possibly the most important, it has what is known as the Suregrip ™ Apex Lock.  Concerning the equipment mounting area of the tripod, that is, ‘the top’, the Apex Lock is of solid aluminum construction surrounded by a stainless steel locking ring that is mechanically locked into place with three set screws.  What does this mean, exactly?  Well, put it this way—you can carry your tripod over your shoulder, with gear attached, and be confident that when you bring the tripod back over the shoulder to setup for the next shot…the gear will still be attached.  That’s sort of important, and Really Right Stuff, through innovation and engineering, has taken an innovative step here.  I certainly have carried camera’s on the tripod, over the shoulder, and have yet to have one yank out the center mount but it is not an unheard of occurrence and to see it being addressed in this manner by a manufacturer lets us know that Really Right Stuff not only cares about sales and making a profit, they care about the end user and their gear.  Stuff like that will keep you in business.  Once again, Hats Off.

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The V means Versa, and by Versa they mean that, if you wish, you can replace the top center mounting base with a mount that includes a center column or a leveling base, for example.  Personally,  I doubt I will find a use for a center column or leveling base as the tripod height when fully extended is right around perfect and my need of a leveling base, at this time, is non existent, but once again we see the innovation at work here in terms of future proofing the product by way of providing additional functionality should one choose it.

Further neat stuff found on the TVC-33S are the offset leg joint and ratcheting angle stop construction.  The offset leg joints allow for the tripod load to be distributed through the strongest points while at the same time providing for the ultimate in vibration reduction.  The ratcheting angle stops ensure that when the tripod legs are placed in position that they are fully seated in a quick and efficient manner.  Your non-pinched fingers will thank you!

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Last but certainly not least…low!  I really enjoy acquiring images from a low perspective and the TVC-33S, with ballhead (without center column or leveling base) gets low, real low.

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In the Field

The fact is, a lot of things look good on paper but when it comes time to put those things to their intended use, well, we may go back to that piece of paper and scratch our heads as we try to figure out what went wrong.  I think it is quite clear that the Really Right Stuff TVC-33S tripod and BH-55 ballhead look great on paper, but how will they perform in the field?  And not just any field, but an icy cold, harsh, and unforgiving Northern Michigan Winter field…

As some of you know, I’m a big fan of the Northern Lights and when the alarms and alerts go off more likely than not I’m in the car and on the hunt for the perfect photo op with a sky full of Northern Lights beauty.  And, as luck would have it, last night was just such a night, and, as an added bonus, the sky was clear, always a good thing when looking for something beyond the clouds.  I bundled up and left the house under clear skies and a bitter cold temperature in the 12 F range.  But no wind to speak of.  In other words, if the lights were out, conditions were perfect to see them.  The moon wasn’t due up for several hours so I loaded up my trusty Subaru Impreza and made my way to one of my favorite spots along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, that being Good Harbor Bay.

Arriving at my destination I was a bit startled as there was some sort of howling going on outside of the car and the car was moving around a bit.  Oh, I thought, that would be the wind.  It picks up a bit near the big water.  I didn’t have my anemometer handy but I would estimate the wind velocity at between 300 and 700 miles per hour, give or take.  On the plus side, it was warmer near the lake, a pleasantly balmy 25 degrees F.  With the wind chill factored in that balmy 25 no doubt would have felt more like –385 and as I listened to that wind howling, I thought to myself that it might be a good idea to write a review about how amazingly well the Really Right Stuff gear transports from site to site in the car.  The very warm car.

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After a bit of time passed I ‘manned up’ and exited the vehicle and cautiously made my way across the iced up parking lot to the crunchy snow of the beach, facing full on a bitter wind that was fierce, and constant.  I setup the tripod and just to make sure of some extra stability, I extended one of the legs at a shallower angle than the other two, putting to test the offset leg joints right off the bat.  Next up was mounting the camera, and harsh wind or not it was a snap as I set it in the plate, locked the lever, and powered it up.  So far so good.  At this particular time, the Northern Lights were nowhere to be found so I took the opportunity to grab a few long exposure images of the bay and practice holding the camera strap in the gale force winds without tipping everything over.  I changed the composition a few times, made easy by the large main lock knob and once locked it was locked—just like in the comfort of the living room, the frigid cold had no effect on performance.

It wasn’t long and I had had enough.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or my face and I carefully made my way back to the car to warm up and then head back home, extremely satisfied with the support gear but not impressed at all with my will (or lack of it!) to endure the frigid cold.  In the comfort of the warming car, I took a few quick and dirty handheld shots and, sure enough, saw hints of the Northern Lights on the LCD display and, perhaps a bit reluctantly, left the comfort of the car once again.

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I decided to stay off the beach this time in hopes of just a bit of relief from the harsh winds but that meant I had to setup the gear on the iced over parking lot.  First things first, I setup the tripod then came back to the car for the camera, mounted it, and began taking more exposures.  I have to be honest, I was a bit worried that the wind was going to play havoc with the tripod on the ice—I hadn’t installed the spiked feet yet—but I was able to find a relatively stable location but it was still slick.  I had nothing to worry about, the only thing moving out there was me as I carefully grabbed the camera strap during each exposure to help eliminate any vibration induced blurriness by the action of the wind on the strap.  The lights were there, but barely.  Low on the horizon and not strong as far as intensity was concerned, I nevertheless quickly stopped worrying about two things—my gear, and my gear falling to the ground in a mass of collapsed tripod assembly.

The Really Right Stuff really was the right stuff.

Finally, I packed the gear and sat in the car for awhile until I got enough feeling in my hands to enable safe driving and made the twenty mile drive back to headquarters, extremely satisfied and confident that my latest gear purchase was the right one.

In closing, I strongly and highly recommend the offerings of Really Right Stuff.  Customer service, innovation, construction, quality, and, most importantly, performance and ease of use in the field far and above expectations lead me to one conclusion—Really Right Stuff deserves to be included on any ‘must have’ photography gear list one may choose to compile.

*****

The author wishes to thank Brady, Spencer,  Mike, and the rest of the fine folks at Really Right Stuff for their immediate, thorough, and complete customer service—well done, it’s nice to see that sort of thing is still around.

Bob Simmerman

Across the street from Bronson Lake