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Tuesday afternoon I was walking by Kevin Agren’s office (he’s our Director of Sales), and he asks if I ever got a chance to try the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom he had gotten us as a loaner. I told him I had actually tried it out on a shoot I did back in December for an upcoming book (one of the images from that shoot is shown above), and that I really liked it, (even more so after I looked up the price—-around $725, whereas most of the f/2.8 glass I had been using for the past few years was more in the $1,800 to $2,300 range, which any way you look at it, is a lot for a lens).

The shot you see above was taken with that Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, and during the shoot I switched back and forth between it and my usual Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and just looking at the images in Lightroom, at a 1:1 view, neither Brad nor I could see a visible difference between the two (I haven’t printed any out at large size yet, and that’s where the rubber may meet the road, but at least on screen, even zoomed in tight, I was very impressed with the image quality and overall sharpness).

Of course, Kevin was thrilled to hear how much I liked it (especially since they’re an advertiser, and Kevin knows, if I didn’t like it, I’d have to say so—really loudly), but beyond that, I know I lot of shooters would love to have some nice fast glass like this, but can’t really justify spending $2,300 or more for Nikon and Canon brand glass. This lens might just be the ticket to getting some fast glass, and then putting the $1,700 or so you save toward a new camera body or some other fast glass.

Lighting Specs From the Shoot
By the way; here are the lighting specs on the shot above. The main light isn’t natural light. There wasn’t enough light coming into the house (a combination of a cloudy day, and a large overhang over the front porch), so we put a single Elinchrom Quadra battery-powered strobe with a large softbox just outside the window, out on the porch, aiming in toward the subject. I tried to match the light from the strobe with the ambient light in the room for a natural look. I was in the house, sitting on the floor aiming upward, and I triggered the  strobe using an Elinchrom Skyport wireless transmitter (I could control the power of the strobe from my camera position using the Skyport, which kept me from having to jump up and go outside every two minutes).

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First Impressions
Overall, I liked it. The lens feels surprisingly well built (especially for the money. Sometimes lenses in this price range can tend to have a ‘cheezy-plasticy’ feel, but this one didn’t at all), yet it also feels fairly lightweight, which I love.

I had read earlier reviews that said they felt it focused a little show, or had a noisy auto focus motor, but I didn’t really notice either during my shoot (that doesn’t mean they’re not true—I just didn’t notice it in my use). The image quality seems very good, and images taken with it are very nice and crisp—-no complaints there whatsoever.

It does have a Macro feature, but I didn’t get a chance to try it, and since I have a dedicated Macro lens, it’s unlikely that I would use the Macro feature anyway—I would get this lens because it’s fast and the price is just so right. So there you have it—my first impressions of the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 (a version is available for most popular camera brands). Here’s a link to it on B&H Photo or Adorama. It’s around $730 or so.

If any of you out there have the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8—let me know what your experience with it has been. I’d really love to hear from you.

Hey, before I mention Terry’s review, I have to stop right now and give a big thanks to Jamie Smith for yesterday’s totally awesome Guest Blog. I loved it!!!! (and I think Jamie has a second career in writing just waiting in the wings). I loved the insights he gave into working for Jay, and I especially dug the Jay Trivia. What a perfect way to kick off our series of Guest Blogs by assistants. :)

Now, back to the reason for this post: Terry White (over at the popular Terry’s Tech Blog), just posted a review of Westcott’s new Green Screen kit (it’s a crazy inexpensive way to light and shoot people, or objects for that matter, that you want to composite on a different background in Photoshop). Basically, it makes your Photoshop compositing job that much easier (of course, you can use it for video too, where Green Screen is a staple in commercial video and movies).

Here’s the link to Terry’s review.

Last week Mark Astmann from Bogen Imaging came by our studios, and showed us one of the coolest, and most anticipated, new battery-powered strobe systems ever, and well…you’ve just gotta watch the video below to see what all the fuss is about (Note: this is the same kit that Joe McNally was using for his shot of the diver in the water last week at his workshop in St. Lucia).

UPDATE: I just learned that the first shipment of these is due to hit B&H photo any day now, and they’re acceptings orders right now. Here’s the link to the “S” head two-head kit I talked about on the video, but you can find all the Quadra gear there by searching for “Ranger Quadra.”

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I’m calling this a “First Look” review because I’ve only gotten one opportunity to really work with this pack, but since I did use it out in the field (I did an on-location shoot for a book project), I wanted to give you my first impressions.

The Problem
If you wanted to take studio lightning on location, you could do it but there two problems:

1. You had to buy special strobe heads that were designed to work with on-location battery packs

2. Good quality location kits are VERY expensive (you were lucky to get a decent single head and a battery pack for around $1,200).

The Dream
Use your own existing regular studio strobes and take them on location. Unfortunately, monoblocks (also called monolights) are strobes that are designed to be plugged right into the wall like any other appliance, so they don’t have a way to plug into a battery pack, so you can’t take your regular studio gear on location, unless there’s a power plug right nearby. The dream is to have your regular gear, anywhere you want it—out on a boat, at the beach, on an island, in the middle of an airplane hanger, on the roof of a hotel, etc.—places where wall plugs aren’t usually found.

The Solution
The solution we found comes from Innvatronix in the Explorer XT Battery Pack, which lets you plug in most regular monolight studio lights right into the pack. That saves you from having to buy special strobe heads to work with your battery packs. In fact, the reason we chose Invatronix was that we read that they work with Elinchrom strobes, which is all we use.

The Test
So we took one of our regular Elincrhom BXRI 500 monolights out to a nearby beach, and we put the Explorer XT on a rock nearby (we didn’t want to actually set it in the sand, though you probably could). We plugged the BXRI in (it has standard 110v sockets) and it worked first time (it supports up to two strobes). It worked great throughout the entire shoot, and recycled very fast. We were relieved it worked as well as promised.

What it Needs Next
Although it worked great in our somewhat limited test (we only did one shoot, and only used one studio strobe), there are two things it really needs to be a success:

  1. It really looks awful. It’s as if no thought whatsoever was given to how the unit itself looks, but to creative people looks matter (I would be somewhat embarrassed for a client to see me show up with one of these).
  2. It’s name, “The Tronix Explorer XT Pure Sine Wave Inverter,” needs some serious work and while it may be a perfectly descriptive name for what it does, it only appeals to Stephen Hawking. You’d have to really be looking for this unit to find it with a non-descriptive name like that

Other than that—-so far, so good.

Where it Totally Rocks
The price. It’s only $394. I know–that rocks!

The Bottomline
I know there are other units showing up on the market, but some want you to use their specific strobes and only warranty the units if you use their strobes, so we were excited when we found these that would specifically work with Elinchroms.  As I use it more and more on upcoming jobs, I’ll let you guys know if my opinion on the Explorer XT changes, but for now it let us do what what we were hoping it would do—-let us use the same studio strobes we’re used to working with day in/day out out on location, and it did it well.

Here’s the link with more info from the Innovatroix Web site.

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I’ve been wanting to try out Lastolite’s new Kickerlite ever since I read about it back around the Photokina time frame, and while doing some shoots for my Digital Photography book, Volume 3 , I finally got a chance to use it, and I have to say, it’s surprisingly sweet (and a lot better than I thought it was going to be by just looking at it and reading the description of what it’s supposed to do).

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So, here’s how it works: it sits on the floor in front of your subject (as seen above—photo by Brad Moore) and it’s in the shape of a wedge aiming up at your subject (kind of like a vocal monitor for all you rock heads out there) and it kind of looks like a softbox.

There’s a horizontal H-shaped pole and flash bracket in the back where you mount one of your existing strobes on it. Then you aim the strobe down into the kicker light wedge at a 45° angle, and that light hits an angled reflector inside and that light is bounced back up toward your subject, and it creates a wide, soft, flattering fill light on your subject (it diffuses the light from the strobe by two stops).

What makes this different than a standard reflector is that a standard reflector can only reflect light coming from another strobe. The Kickerlite actually has a light inside it (well, you add a light to the back and it aims inside) so you have full control over the amount of light that it creates. This does an amazing job of evenly lighting your subject, minimizing shadows under the chin, eyes, and hair, and it almost gives your subject’s face a glow (as seen in the image below).

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Here’s the shot (above) I took using the set-up you see above (the main light is an Elinchrom RX-600 strobe with a Beauty Dish Attachment on it, and the strobe on the kicker light is an Elinchrom BXRI-500. However, you could also attach an off-camera flash like an SB-800 or a Canon 580EX II there instead.

I thought I’d show a quick comparison of the difference between using a reflector, and the same set-up using a Kickerlite instead (see the images below), and that pretty much tells the story right there.

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The Bottomline
I initially thought this thing might be a bit gimmicky, but after trying it we were not only pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to set-up and use, it had a bigger effect than we thought it would. It was a little weird using it at first because I’m not used to having much control over the light from what would normally be just a reflector, so I never had to make a decision about how much light should come from the reflector. I guess having that option of how much light you want from where a reflector would normally be is actually a good thing. It works well for lighting everything from beauty-style portraits to full length shots because of the large soft wrapping flow of light.

It does seems a tad expensive since you have to add your own light (I would think the pricing sweet spot for something like this would be in the $150 range, where it would be a no-brainer). I also think the name “Kickerlite” may cause some confusion because at the end of the day, its not a light; it’s a softbox (well, at least until you add a light inside it). Those two minor quibbles aside, it’s pretty a pretty clever unit all the way around and you can’t argue with the results.

The 3′ x 4′ Kickerlite comes with the softbox, the flash bracket, and a carrying case (it folds down to about 1/3 its size) for around $207 over at B&H Photo (here’s the link). You can learn more about it over at Lastolite.com.

After my review here on the blog of the Lucis Pro 6 plug-in (link), I had a number of readers asking if I had tried the Topaz Adjust plug-in, as they felt it gave a similar high-contrast look for a fraction of Lucis Pro’s nearly $600 price tag (Topaz Adjust sells for $49).

So, I downloaded the Topaz Adjust Photoshop plug-in a few months ago and have been using it when I got the right type of image to edit, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the plug-in and give some examples.

DISCLAIMER: If you hate this high-contrast, under saturated, over-sharpened looking effect, please just skip this post altogether.

Initial Thoughts
When I first started using Topaz Adjust, it was still on version 2 and while I liked the effects themselves, the interface was….well….it needed some work. Luckily, the latest version (version 3), is a big improvement when it comes to Interface issues and most of my gripes from the previous version have been addressed.

While I know that both Lucis Art’s plug-ins and Topaz Adjust do numerous effects, what people seem to be buying these for primarily is the extreme contrast, almost illustrated, hyper-sharp look that’s so popular, so I’m going to focus on that area of the plug in.

The Results
Taking the plug-in through its paces:

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First, let’s look at our unretouched original (above), then let’s open the Topaz Adjust plug-in (shown below).

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The resizable filter window (shown above) has a number of presets along the left side, and it has a decent-sized thumbnail so you can see a preview of how a particular effect will look before you even click on it. (You click on the thumbnail to apply a look. You can scroll through the effects and see them applied in the larger preview window using the Up/Down arrow keys on your keyboard, which is very handy.)

If you find a preset you like, you just click OK, and the filter is applied (it took 24 seconds to apply the filter on a 12-megapixel image on my MacBook Pro laptop).

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The image above has the preset “Psychedelic” applied, which I thought looked fairly close the same effect you’d get with the Lucis Pro filter.

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The effect seemed a little over the top, so after I applied it, I went immediately under Photoshop’s Edit menu and chose Fade, then I lowered the intensity to just 60% (as seen in the image above).

If you want to tweak the settings, there are a row of tabs under the main Preview window where you can tweak the Exposure, Detail, Color, and Noise.

Once I saw how the effect looked, I thought it would be interesting to see how the Topaz Adjust effect compared to the Lucis Pro plug-in look, so I went back to the original unretouched image and tried the Lucis Pro 6.0 plug-in (shown below).

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Here’s the Lucis Pro 6.0 Interface window. I lowered the Enhance Detail amount to 60 and clicked OK.

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You can see the effect looks fairly similar (shown above). I also wanted to compare the effect using the same image I had used in a previous article (the image is of rapper 10-Minute).

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Here’s the original image (above), right out of the camera.

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The image above has the Lucis Pro 6.0 plug-in applied at that same setting of 60.

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Here’s the same original image but with the Topaz Adjust filter applied (using the same Psychedelic preset). You can see the obvious green color cast on this image, so I hit “undo” and then went back to the filter to tweak the settings.

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Here’s the same filter with just one setting tweaked: I clicked on the Color tab and lowered the Adaptive Saturation amount to zero. How did I know which slider to adjust? I didn’t. I just dragged each one back and forth until I found one that did it. I know—pretty high-tech, eh? ;-)

The Bottomline
While the underlying mathematical algorithm in the Lucis Pro 6.0 plug-in will probably produce a technically better image with less noise, they both create a somewhat similar effect. However, in my opinion there are three big advantages that the Topaz Adjust plug-in has that really tip the scales in its favor big time.

  1. The affordable $49 price tag. That’s nearly $550 cheaper than the Lucis Pro 6.0 plug-in. Yikes!
  2. The fact that it doesn’t require a hardware dongle (like the Lucis Pro plug-in does), is huge. In fact, the whole hardware dongle thing with Lucis Pro is a deal killer for me right off the bat, and I know a lot of people feel the same way.
  3. The thumbnail previews, and ability to toggle through them live, is a big advantage and makes the tool that much more usable.

Thus far, the plug-in has performed flawlessly for me (not a single problem on two different machines), but as I mentioned; it’s not the fastest plug-in in town. That’s really shouldn’t be an issue, unless you’re applying this look to a few hundred photos (and I’m praying you don’t).

NOTE: The most common way I use this plug-in, is to duplicate the layer; apply the filter on this duplicate layer, then hide this layer behind a layer mask (Option/Alt click the Layer Mask icon), then just reveal the effect where I want it by painting in white with a soft-edged brush.

While both plug-ins will do much more than I’ve outlined here, if you’re looking for this particular look, and you want a plug-in to do all the heavy lifting for you, it’s hard to beat what Topaz Adjust offers at such an incredibly affordable price.

You can download a free fully-working trial version from the Topaz Labs website, and give it a try yourself.

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