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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Photo gear retailers: On buying on line

Every now and then I think about how things were when I first got interested in photography. Amazingly, it was almost 50 years ago. Back then I was using a rotary phone, cassette tape was a big deal, and long play records on turntables were where music came from. Now they are the province of DJs. God, I'm ancient, but I digress.

When I was 17 I worked in my uncle's store on weekends at a buck and half an hour to make enough money to buy my first SLR, a Minolta SRT 101. At that time there were three stores I frequented for camera gear and darkroom supplies in the D.C. area, Industrial Photo in Silver Spring Maryland, Penn Camera and Baker Photo in the district, all of them now out of business. I was new to photography and needed the guidance of the guys working in the photo shop. I may be looking backward through rose-colored glasses, but I remember them being knowledgeable and helpful. I also remember that there was no such thing as discounts off  MSRP at the time, that came along a bit later.

By the 1970's competition hit camera and lens pricing. There was a catalog house in Arlington Virginia in 1972 called Best Products. As an example, they sold Canon cameras for 10-20% less than independent mom and pop camera stores.  One of the complaints one hears from Best Buy now is that people use it as a showroom for Amazon. In like fashion, people would go to the independent photo shops for information and then spend their money at the catalog houses. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that was the beginning of the end for many small independent shops. Sure there are still a few around, but they survive by maintaining an on-line presence in addition to their retail stores.

Which bring us here to the 21st century and the beginning of the fall buying season.  Like most of you, I have been buying on-line for quite a few years. As with any other kind of on-line purchasing, one must be cautious. I get it, you don't want to spend more for something than you have to. Googling for the best price is a goal worth pursuing but the reputation of an on-line retailer is paramount. A good rep is earned with honest marketing, good customer service and a reasonable return policy. for good or bad, and you have to be the judge, there are many companies selling grey market goods, that is, cameras and lenses that are purchased by the seller overseas bypassing the manufacturer's distribution network in the USA. Some manufacturers will honor warranties for grey market gear, others, like Nikon, have strict prohibitions on servicing items with international warranties unless they are purchased overseas - and you need a receipt to prove it. In fact, Nikon won't service grey market items out of warranty either.  Some retailers sell grey market items without revealing that fact prominently. One must drill down to the fine print to discover that the only warranty available is through the seller, not the manufacturer or factory-authorized service center. One must use common sense and remember the old saw "if it seems to good to be true, it probably is." When you see what you think is a killer price, keep that in mind.

There are web sites that try to bring some clarity to this spider-web, one is Resellerratings.com. The problem is that some of the favorable references in these ratings are bogus, they are planted by the stores themselves. One tip-off is similar phrasing, always praise, in the reviews. I learned a few years ago to judge a store by its worst ratings, not its best.

I can offer some suggestions. There are still some small indie photo shops. For Leica gear I've bought from E.P. Levine in Massachusetts and Sam Shosan's Classic Connection, both great sources with deep knowledge of Leica gear. For more general purchases, like lighting, tripods and of course most major camera brands, I buy from B&H Photo Video in Manhattan. If you have never been there, it is worth a trip. It is a huge, efficient operation with the broadest selection of any vendor I have seen pretty much anywhere. That's great of course, what's even better is that the salesmen there know what they are talking about. Genuine advice is available at no extra charge. While I love going to NYC to visit this high temple of photography I do most of my purchasing on-line, and I've never been disappointed.

B&H is a class operation. They are an authorized dealer for almost anything you need and while they also sell grey market goods they clearly identify them as "imported." You will find in most cases that the price differential doesn't make sense if you have to give up the manufacturer's warranty. While the prices aren't always the lowest of authorized sellers, they will match legitimate competitive prices in many cases. Customer service is fantastic. Last year I bought a Canon 24MM 2.8 IS lens and a few days later the price was lowered by $50.00. A call to B&H got a credit applied to my account with no hassles. A few months ago I bought a cart to transport my gear and it was simply stupid in its assembly design. I went back on line to look at it and discovered that B&H discontinued selling it shortly after I received it. I called up, discussed the problem with a customer service rep and they issued a pickup on it - no charge to me - and posted a credit within two days of its return.

This great service is typical at B&H. While I usually place my orders online, every now and then I call in for more information before buying. I've never had a sales representative that wasn't courteous and patient. Sometimes I'll place my order right away, other times I want to mull things over. I have never been pressured to make a purchase.

My alternate general purchase vendor has been Adorama, but I can't say I find the same courteous attitude with their salespeople when I call in. They seem want to close a sale quickly and can't wait to get off the phone. Unfortunately, that is more typical than B&H's approach. So, in case I haven't made it clear, try B&H the next time you are in the market for new gear.

Please note that this blog has no sponsors and no links to B&H. My experience with the company over many years supports my opinion.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Profoto Flash-To-Go

Until recently, there were limited choices for taking supplemental light on location. First there were hot lights, which aside from the obvious drawback of being hot, required longer exposures for greater depth of field. Then speed lights came along, a viable choice unless a lot of power is needed. One could always schlep an A/C powered strobe on location, with a generator if need be. Things got better when battery-pack powered studio strobes were introduced.  I used to own the Profoto Acute B 600R, reliable, with plenty of power. It had the advantage of a light weight head on the stand and the disadvantage of being tethered to a ten-pound battery pack which can make it somewhat ungainly in tight spaces and fed my propensity to trip over cords.

Enter the newest incarnation of portable studio power strobes, the 500 watt-second Profoto B1. Think of a speed light on steroids, this mono-light design with self-contained lithium battery on board, is simple to set up and move around, but be advised, this 7-pound head requires a substantial light stand.

Profoto's design team did a great job with ergonomics and the fit and finish is spectacular. With large hands I particularly appreciate the size of the positioning and light stand lock knobs. The controls on the back of the unit are also well spaced. The B1 also has the advantage of using most of Profoto's existing light modifiers, which is sweet if you are already invested in a Profoto system as I was. The system can be cable connected to your camera or with a Pocket Wizard set-up (both the transmitter and the receiver are needed) or as a slave. At two grand a pop, you would expect more - and you get it in the optional Profoto Air TTL control, the main reason for spending mega-bucks on a lithium battery powered strobe.  Right now the E-TTL control is available only for Canon, but a Nikon module will be available mid-September.

One enjoys total control of the B1 with the Air TTL module.  It sits on a gentle angle in the camera's flash shoe and offers up 8 channels in 3 groups for use with multiple heads, control of the modeling light, front and rear curtain sync and plus or minus 2 stop control in TTL mode or 9 stops in manual. What would I change about it? I would make the mount tilt-able so it could be read from various angles. I am sure that is doable

The B1 is sold both individually and as a two-head kit in a nifty back pack with some extra goodies; the 1-hr charger and a car charging cable. I considered it but I decided to go with the individual heads to have two chargers and two cases instead. The individual pack stores the head and has space for the charger and the TTL module and for my purposes, makes more sense than the backpack. 

The first time I turned on the B1 my eyes lit up along with the LCD control display on the back of the head. There are four buttons, ready, test/on-off, model and sync and the variable control knob. The bright LED model light can be used at full brightness or proportional to the light output. The battery is rated 220 pops per charge, use of the modeling light affects that of course, so I turn it off when I can to save juice. I did buy an extra battery and a 1-hr charger to use on location, just in case. 

Alright, enough of this tech and feature crap, how well does this fancy-shmancy TTL-E stuff work? I'm glad you asked, it's as simple as using an on-camera speed light. In high contrast situations I use the spot metering of the Canon 5DIII, in average contrast situations I use center-weight or evaluative settings. Camera +/- adjustments for flash exposure are available and I found that particularly useful for higher contrast lighting. Having individual control of power output for each head allows for quick changes in light ratios without leaving camera position. 

Shot with Canon EOS 5D III, Zeiss 135MM, 1/80 sec, F11 on TTL  ISO 200. 2:1 light ratio.

I have used the flash on manual with my Leica S2 tripping it with a small flash on the Leica  using the slave setting. While I didn't have TTL-E use, I could use the control module to manually set power output of each flash without walking over to the heads to adjust and check them, a nice touch.

Do I have any complaints? Well yeah. The manuals are a bit obtuse, not very intuitive and some of the features, like control of the modeling lights on different heads, were harder to figure out without going to other sources such as You Tube videos. There are no illustrations showing how to access the battery compartment on the E-TTL remote for example. One has to rotate the flash shoe mount locking flange to see the tab that removes the door. Yes, it is a minor annoyance, but a pain in the ass if you don't know this ahead of time. Profoto isn't the only culprit in this, Many companies could spend a bit more money for well-written manuals. 

I have been a fan of Profoto gear since I replaced my Speedotron systems 8 years ago. This  kit fills my style of working almost perfectly. I'm deducting a few points over the manuals, so I give it a 

Recommended 96 points

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Items for sale

Every now and then I sell some of my gear, it is always in pristine condition. This week I went through my equipment cabinet and pulled a few items. If you see something you would like to purchase send an email to dweckphoto@gmail.com.

Berlbach wood tripod leg set with centering column, reviewed 3/20/13 $249, shipped

Gura Gear Chobe expandable bag. This is a wonderful, versatile bag. click Chobe bag at B&H to see details. Price new is $329.00, I'm selling mine for $249.00


Manfrotto Lino Pro V messenger bag. This is a large bag, reviewed here 6/20/13. I've used this for my Leica S2 kit, but with a fourth large lens have outgrown it and need to get a rolling case for the kit. Taken out of the studio about 6 times, this bag is in great shape, almost as new. It's been discontinued but still sells for $299 at Optics Planet, buy mine for $129.00 shipped.