Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Power Drill Meets Tripod, or How I learned to Love the Gitzo

Gitzo tripods are favorites among professional photographers and for good reason. They are light, durable, and among the most stable tripods available. However they are far from perfect. The most common complaint is that the leg locks are slow and cumbersome to use. There's not much you can do about that though. The "slow" rotating collar leg locks are part of what makes them so stable and durable.

Another complaint with many models, such as my Gitzo 1228, is that the sections don't drop free and spring back and forth when you are extending/collapsing them . This is because the legs are almost airtight, and so when you pull the sections out, the partial vacuum pulls them back in, and vice versa. The only openings for air to pass through are around the collars which poses another problem. The gaps are big enough that they allow water to get in, but positioned where the water can not easily get out. Therefore, if you are wading in the water with your tripod, water will make its way through the collars and into the legs. It gets trapped in there and will slosh around until you disassemble a section to let it drain.

My Gitzo tripod submerged in a lake at Yosemite NP

I'm not sure why Gitzo didn't just design the upper leg castings to have holes for air and water to pass through. If they thought it would reduce debris inside the legs, the existing design just makes thing worst by forcing debris through the wear surfaces of the collar, and trapping it in there. Well... always looking for an excuse to mod something, I thought I would break out the power drill and fix this problem.

First thing to figure out is where to drill. For my Gitzo 1228, I decided on the beveled face on the inside of the upper leg casting. The reasoning behind this was I wanted the hole to face inwards to minimize dust and debris getting in. I also wanted it in a spot that would not weaken the casting, hit the carbon fiber legs where it might propagate a crack, or interfere with the angle lock. Additionally I wanted the hole at the very end of the leg so that it would be easier to purge trapped water. Drilling down the bevel at ~ 30 degrees, the hole actually enters the inside of the casting through the top. Perfect for what I wanted.

Location of the breather hole

You will want to completely disassemble the legs before drilling. It's fairly straightforward, simply remove the bolts, notice the 2 opposing bolts that hold the leg in place need to be torqued at the same time though. Make note of which side the washers face and do one leg at a time so you don't mix up the parts. It probably doesn't matter but if you have an old tripod, these wear surfaces have been broken-in against each other and so you don't want to mix things up. Remove all leg sections so that you don't get magnesium shavings in the legs and on the collars when you drill.

Tripod horror movie

Make sure you hold your drill at an angle close to what you see here. If it's too perpendicular, you'll end up drilling into the hole on top of the casting for the bolt. I used a 3/32" drill bit. It isn't so big that it will weaken the casting or let a lot of debris in, but it's big enough to let a sufficient amount of air in and out and equalize the pressure in the leg.

After you are finished drilling, make sure you clean off all the shavings, especially on the inside of the leg. I just used a paper towel pushed in and out by a thin rod. Bolt it all back together and now you got a Gitzo tripod that is easier to extend and collapse. If you get water trapped inside the legs, now you can just turn it upside down and pump it out by collapsing the leg. Now if only I could figure out a way to make them less expensive.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Digital Cameras in Cold Weather

Dog Sled
-40F in the Canadian Arctic

People are often emailing me asking about how digital cameras perform in severe cold weather so I figured I would make a blog entry on it. There are a few problems and quirks that pop up but nothing insurmountable.

  1. The first thing you will notice is that your battery life goes way down. With cheap aftermarket batteries, this can happen even in 40 degree weather. When I went up Mt Kilimanjaro to do a shoot for a travel outfitter, I had to bring 5 batteries for my Canon DSLR with me (since obviously there's no place to charge batteries on the 7 day hike). With Canon factory NP-E3 batteries running ~$130 a piece, I couldn't afford to buy many of those. I ended up buying several aftermarkets batteries, 2 from Eforcity, 1 Black Diamond, 1 Delkin, and 1 Canon OEM to supplement my worn out NP-E3 that came with my camera. The ones from Eforcity were the cheapest at less than $20 and one of them lasted all but 5 minutes out of the box. That left me with 5 batteries to take to Africa, luckily it was just enough. One the way up, I noticed when the temp dropped below 50F, the battery strength would drop way down on the aftermarket batteries. Some died altogether. Luckily I remembered I had the same problem in the Canadian Arctic and used the aftermarket batteries first at the lower altitudes and saved the Canon OEMs for the summit. The good news is the batteries come back to life when they are warmed up. Some people keep them in a pocket with hand warmers, I find keeping it in an inside chest pocket works fine. Some photographers will keep the batteries in the pocket until needed - which is fine when you can get by with thinner gloves but if you are in the arctic and it's -40, you typically are wearing gloves that are too thick to easily swap batteries in and out. Some hardcore cold weather shooters keep the batteries on their bodies and run a wire to the camera. Some Canons come with dummy batteries for studio shooting which can easily be rigged to do this.
  2. You will also notice the LCD displays are slow to respond. At -40, the back screen on my 1Ds MkII can take a second or two to display the new photo when I am flipping through the shots. It actually looks quite funny, as if it were stuck in slow motion. The top deck LCD will do the same.
  3. Some people think that for very cold temperatures, cameras need to be sent the manufacterer for "winterization" and recalibration. This is more old thinking than anything, left over from the days were cameras were heavily dependant on springs and and old lubricants. There’s no need to go through such drastic measures with modern SLRs. When I worked on developing camera systems at NASA, all we did to modify the F4/5 (aside from building a thermal blanket for it) for the rigors of space was have Nikon change out the lube and that was more to prevent sublimation/evaporation in the “vacuum” of space than for the temperature extremes. No springs broke, no recalibration of shutters were needed. Many photographers use digital SLRs today in arctic conditions as they came out of the box without problems.
So there you have it. More than anything watch your batteries and you should be OK.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Quick review of the Thermaltake BlacX eSATA drive dock

My complete photo library is ~1TB nowadays. By freak occurrence, I once not only lost the photos on my workstation due to hard drive failure, but my back up drive died also at the same time (they weren't connected, there was no power surge, just sheer bad luck)! It took several weeks of hunting around for a controller board for my backup drive before I could fix it and recover the data. Since then, I've been rather OCD about backing up my photos on at least 3 drives.

Before, I just swapped hard drives in and out of an enclosure and copied the master photos on my computer onto the external drives. It worked fine but it was slow and when you back up hundreds of GB of photos on a regular schedule, it gets to be a real pain.

Then I read about the Thermaltake BlacX eSATA drive dock and it sounded like just what I was looking for. It was announced by Thermaltake last year but it wasn't available until recently, and for less then $40, I thought I would jump on it.

It uses an eSATA connection so it's much faster than typical external drives that use USB. Also the docking interface makes it much easier to swap drives in and out, no more unscrewing enclosures and plugging and unplugging power and data cables.

The only question now is how does it really work. I ran a quick test using HD Tach and here are the results:

As you can see, using eSATA, the transfer rate is 2-3X faster than using the USB port. The performance is there and so is the price. You can buy several OEM drives for cheap and just swap them in and out of the dock. This is also much more reliable than buying complete external drive units. A lot of photographers unknowingly buy external drives which are advertised as 1TB etc... but they are actually two 500GB drives cobbled together in a RAID 0 configuration. This is the worst thing you can do because it more than doubles your chance of losing your data due to hardware failure. I say more than because not only do you lose your data if one or more of your drives die, but also if the RAID controller goes bad or the stripe is lost. It also makes recovery of the data much harder than with single drive failures. If you google "dead LaCie drive", you'll see what I mean.

Bottom Line:
So far eSATA drive dock looks like a winner, I would recommend it to anybody that needs an external drive. Just make sure you take care of the bare drives. I'm using this 1TB hard drive with it without problems, you'll also need an eSATA card if you don't have one.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When quick release clamps are too quick to release

For my tripod setup, I use an Acratech Ultimate Ballhead and a Gitzo 1228 for the lightest combo available that can still reasonably stabilize my 1Ds MkII + long lens (usually a Canon 100-400 or 70 - 200 f2.8). I've been using this setup for years with no major problems. However there have been a few times where the clamp worked itself loose and other times where I thought I had tightened it down but it was actually mounted loose. Luckily I always noticed it before it was too late, and clamped it down. Well "always" until a couple of weeks ago:

I was shooting in the wine cellar at a winery in Israel (had not started drinking yet, honest!) and having a good time talking to the guide and my ex-girlfriend (who was just asking me a few days earlier why I'm not more careful to make sure my camera doesn't fall out from the QR clamp):

Then when I picked up the tripod, I see my camera free falling in slow motion..... thud..... I wasn't too worried as I had dropped my camera plenty of times. But this time was different. It was a 5 foot drop onto solid concrete. When the guide picked up a clear piece of plastic and handed it to me, I knew I was in trouble. It was the plastic cover to the top LCD:

The LCD was broken, nothing worked, and when I took off the lens, I saw the mirror stuck in the up position and the shutter buckled. It landed square on the top shoulder of the body so the lens (16-35) was ok, but the flash mount was dented also:

Well I didn't think it could be fixed but I took it the next day to the Canon service center in Ramat-Gan and the guys did a bang up job replacing the shutter, mirror box, LCD, flash shoe mount, and re-calibrating everything. It only took a few hours, we did some shopping on Bialik street, caught a movie, came back and it was as good as new...whew.... and didn't cost too much either (~$650 with my CPS discount).

First order of business when I get back will be to replace the twist knob QR clamp with a lever locked one like the ones made by Really Right Stuff. I thought about doing it a while back but could not get the one that came with the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead off. Turns out they require heat and a lot of torque to remove. I'll make sure I get it off somehow this time.