Monday, March 15, 2010

Gear Review: Think Tank's Modular Component System

One of my major goals last summer was to finally dive into backpacking with the intent to start photographing landscapes that were farther off the beaten path. I had meant to do this in each of my first two summers living out here in Colorado, but nagging injuries of one sort or another prevented that from happening. It wasn't until last summer that I felt the time was right. As experienced backpackers know, there's a lot to learn logistically concerning what one should (and shouldn't) take along on these types of trips. One must consider the weight vs. convenience factor on many of the items that get brought along. Bring too much and you'll suffer with an overweight backpack on the trail. Bringing too little can reduce the fun factor of a trip to the point where you start to wonder why you're doing this. Sometimes you just got to have that extra thick sleeping pad, good book or ipod!

Serious photographers have a couple of other very important much of their suitcase full of camera gear can/should they lug along and how should they carry it? Many "weight weenies" may feel that a simple point in shoot is all they need/want to carry. Not me! Like I stated at the top, backpacking for me is a means to photograph lesser visited scenic places and I wanted the best quality images possible. Therefore bringing my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, at least two lenses, a tripod, and other assorted gear were an absolute prerequisite. I'd gladly make concessions with other gear in order to make this happen. My decision on how to carry my photographic gear is what has provided the fodder for this particular review. I chose to invest in a modular carrying system that would allow me to carry my DSLR camera in a chest pack while on the trail and a belt system which would allow me to carry the remainder of my gear (the lenses and miscellaneous stuff) after I've set up camp and start hiking around looking for photographic subjects. After a long research process, I settled on Think Tank's modular component system and hand picked the following items:
One thing to note is that Think Tank offers many, many other component options besides those that I've listed above. That allows every photographer the flexibility to figure out which best fulfills their needs for the gear they want to carry.

Before getting into the actual review of the items I've identified, first I'd like to give the reasons why I chose the Think Tank modular component system over other manufacturer's systems. It really boiled down to a couple of things...the Digital Holster 20 was the smallest pack I found that held my 5D2 with any of my lenses attached and the belt system was designed in such a way that its accessory packs can slide around the belt. This allows you to keep the packs attached to the belt behind you and out of the way while hiking with the option of swinging them around your waist for easy access while shooting. A very slick and convenient feature IMO.

The Digital Holster 20 and Harness:

This was really the most important part of the system I was investing in. Whether I opted to carry a conventional camera backpack, a full blown backpack, or the belt system, I wanted this chest pack in order to carry my 5D2 or 50D with one of my lenses attached. Why, you ask? Because I've found over the years that if I leave the camera in a backpack, I either don't have enough time or the will to shoot the spur of the moment adventure or wildlife scenes that sometimes present themselves while on the trail. I've simply passed up too many shots of hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, etc. that may have made for sellable stock images. With an easy to access chest pack, I'm far more likely to capture these moments.

Like I stated earlier, I really like the Digital Holster 20 because of it size. It snuggly fits (and I mean snuggly) my 5D2 with its L bracket mounted and any of my lenses attached (more on this in a moment). Any other manufacturer's design involved a substantially larger pack in order to house this combination. The last thing I wanted was a pack that became so large that it blocked out a good portion of the trail in front of me while hiking. The Digital Holster 20 doesn't do that and I can utilize it "as is" with my Canon 17-40 f/4, 24-70 f/2.8, or 70-300 f/4-5.6 lenses (without lens shades). For those times I want my 70-200 f/4 or even 400 f/5.6 lens attached I can unzip the bottom of the pack providing a "pop down" extension section for these larger lenses. A very thoughtful touch!

Other thoughtful features built into this pack are a felt-lined protective flap on the inner top (to protect the camera's LCD from scratches), inner and side zip pockets (good for memory cards and spare batteries), and a see through business card holder on top which has come in handy for handing out cards while on the trail. If you are not interested in carrying it as a chest pack, it can also be mounted to the speed belt or simply carried as a shoulder bag (a shoulder strap is included). All in all, it's a very versatile bag and I've been very pleased with it. It even comes with a seam sealed rain cover. While it's a bit cumbersome to use at first, it became the bag's most important feature while on a 6 day backpacking trip in Colorado's San Juan Mountains during monsoon season! I'm happy to report that the camera came through the trip high and dry!

My only nit involved using the pack with the chest harness as it's not very intuitive to put on. It just seemed like it takes a bit more contorting than necessary. It particularly became troublesome when putting it on over my hooded rain gear as I needed help from my hiking partner to get it situated properly.

The Pro Speed Belt and Accessories:

I've always been a camera backpack user (and still am for many situations), but I've found that I really like using the belt system for longer day hikes when I want to take a minimum of gear. It's lighter weight and easier access to gear is a great selling point. In particular, it's the easier access to gear where this belt system really shines as most such systems require the accessory packs to be attached to a fixed position on the belt. Moving a pack to any other position requires removing it from the belt and reattaching it somewhere else...a very inconvenient process when you have to do it in the field. All the belts offered by Think Tank give you the option to "lock" an accessory pack into a certain position or attach it "unlocked" with the ability to freely rotate it around the belt. It's the latter option that I find to be a compelling feature for reasons already stated above. My only real complaint about the belt so far is that I find it very difficult to readjust its fit. This becomes a real pain when adding or removing bulky clothing while on the trail. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I'd really like to see a better mechanism for tightening and loosening this sucker!

As far as the accessory packs go, they've worked out pretty well for the most part. The lens pouches come with a bungee corded draw string (for easy opening and closing), an outer mesh pocket (handy for storing the lens cap when shooting) and a seam sealed rain cover. Like all of the packs in Think Tank's system, they are lightly padded with an emphasis on being more lightweight and compressible. I found the design to be excellent, but I did have a quality control issue with one of them. The sewed seam around the top (where the draw string is) became unraveled after only a few uses, requiring a repair job on my part (I didn't want to bother with sending it in for such a simple repair). It's been fine ever since.

I've found the Skin Chimp Cage bag to be a very useful accessory pack for my purposes. It's true design is for use in carrying a pro sized SLR camera body and thus it was a bit larger than what I really needed when backpacking. However, I've found it to be a perfect size to store all my miscellaneous equipment  (my filter packs, camera remote, teleconverters, etc) and maybe a snack or two while on day hikes. It's simple in design and utilizes a combination of velcro flap enclosures and a bungee cord draw string for quick access to gear. And like all the other accessory packs, it comes with the ubiquitous seam sealed rain cover.

Below are my completely miserable attempts to model all the gear discussed here. Winter still has its icy grip on the southwest Colorado area so I had on clothing that wasn't all that optimal for showing off the chest pack and belt. Hopefully, it gives you an idea though. Click on either image to see it enlarged.


By this point, you've probably gathered that I've been very pleased with Think Tank's modular component system...and you'd be right. I've been using this solution on and off for almost a year now and have found it to work really well for my needs. It's also nice to know that there are many more add-on options available should those needs grow. It's a well designed (with the exception of its belt resizing mechanism) and thought out system that emphasizes being light in weight over excessive padding. While it isn't a solution that'll have me selling off my camera backpacks, it's a nice gear carrying option to have for certain types of shooting. Whether that makes it worth the cost of its investment is, of course, up to each individual photographer. In my case, the answer was an emphatic "YES".

If you have any questions concerning this review or additional points to make concerning Think Tank's modular component system, I encourage you to leave a comment. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New Images From Northern Arizona

Mother nature has been pretty tough on the entire country this winter (I know my back is killing me from all the shoveling) and the desert southwest has been no exception. Wave after wave of rain and snowstorms have made their way across the region in an unrelenting procession. Because of this, I felt fortunate that the weather cooperated for two of the four days I recently spent in northern Arizona. It was particularly fortunate that the day spent guiding a client into North Coyote Buttes and the Wave was nothing short of spectacular. Since visitation to this area is only allowed via a hard to obtain permit, one must roll the dice with the weather and hope for the best. Well, we definitely rolled a lucky number seven on this day! The only bummer was that there were no cool reflection pools in the Wave from the previous day's rain. On the positive side, it keeps me motivated to return until I finally get those conditions! Dang...I gotta keep going back to the Wave!!!

An Abstract View Of The Wave

Of course, the Wave is just one of the incredibly interesting features that can be found in North Coyote Buttes. Sandstone teepees, brain rocks, arches, and other whimsical formations are everywhere. It's easy to spend the entire day exploring the area and getting creative with your photography.

Rene About To Take A Bite Of Hamburger Rock
Last, but not least, no day is complete without photographing the incredible sandstone formation known as the Second Wave until its overcome by shadows late in the day. Just make sure you have a gps (or a good map and compass) to help find your way back to the trailhead in the waning light. It can be a little tricky, especially if it's your first time there.

The Second Wave
After spending an entire day in North Coyote Buttes, my plan the next day was to visit a little known canyon deep within the Hopi reservation. While Blue Canyon is definitely what I'd call remote, it's sheer beauty definitely warrants a visit. Its collection of white and red capped hoodoo formations make you wonder what planet you're really on!

Blue Canyon's Fragile Hoodoos

The problem this day was that the weather didn't look like it was going to cooperate. Cloudy morning conditions had me considering an early trip home as the next wave of stormy weather was supposed to arrive in full force the next day. Instead, I kicked myself in the rear and drove to it under the guise that it would be a scouting mission. Funny thing happened on this scouting mission...the weather unexpectedly improved and I was actually forced to pull out my camera and use it! While I lost my light about an hour before sunset, I was able to come away with some respectable, if not spectacular, shots from this otherworldly place. It was a nice introductory experience for many return trips, I'm sure. The other issue hastening my early exit from the area was an approaching rain storm. Blue Canyon is not a place you want to drive in or out of when the roads are wet. Even with four wheel drive, you'll simply slide off the road. Also, flooded wash crossings in either direction will more than likely cut off any chance of escape. Seeing as I had no camping equipment on this trip, it was time to get the heck outta dodge and make my way back home!

Storm Approaching Blue Canyon

On a final note, I want to make mention about the thing that really struck me during my visit to this canyon, and that was the fragility of the place. The caps of several hoodoos were lying on the ground throughout the area (as shown above) and its amazing that others are still intact given the extreme weather this area is subjected to. It's a reminder to please tread lightly when visiting this beautiful creation of nature. We don't need to hasten this process of destruction!

To see more images from this short excursion to North Coyote Buttes and Blue Canyon, click on the link below...

Northern Arizona Image Collection