06 December 2011

Domke Toad 20 waist pack - Review

There are three major ways of transporting our photographic stuff in the field. They are: shoulder packs, backpacks and waist packs. All of the shapes have its pluses and minuses and the "one kind fits all" philosophy is an approach that is quite useless in this area. 
Regardless of the system that we adopt, we have to understand one's decision as the best compromise between weight, load capacity, carrying comfort, ergonomics and durability. Of the three, we can immediately reject the shoulder pack (or shoulder bag). Although being the most user-friendly design of the bunch, its asymmetrical placement over the body for transportation makes it a nightmare for long distance walking. They have their use in photojournalism, in (several) sports photography, in the studio. Ergonomically speaking, shoulder bags are the best of all. By a large margin. Lots of space for stowage, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes in a variation of the concept single body/single compartment. However, as practical as they might be, just imagine yourself in a fifteen mile hike on the mountains with ten kilograms of material suspended from one of your shoulders. 
That leaves us with the last two options: backpacks and waist packs. I'm a big fan of waist packs. For one important reason: they keep your back dry. It might not be important to someone hiking in the desert or in the jungle (out there, you are already wet anyway!). But in the mountains of Madeira island,where you face low temperatures and high humidity in the air in every season other then Summer, being wet is not an option that you should take lightly. But this option forces you to a compromise in... space. With a backpack (particularly for those with double compartment)  you'll always have a small space for a rain jacket, for a snack, for an additional polar fleece. 
With a waist pack you can forget all of it. A water bottle, an energy bar and a few crackers, a Swiss army knife and torch and you are done in terms of survival items for the wild. Not forgetting to mention that, compared to the other two systems described above, you'll always take to the field less equipment due to the smaller size of these packs, what do you gain by using one of them? You gain freedom. 
Easy. All the clothes needed you are already dressing them. You are dressing for the occasion. Not more, not less. Actually, if possible, a little bit for the less. Your rain jacket (your third layer), during the hike goes around your waist. You are walking and feeling hot. Your body is working as a radiator. Let it release all the heat and the sweat, so you always stay dry during walking time. The rain jacket is to be used when stopping, so that you are protected from the cold temperatures... and from rain showers. A pair of light fleece gloves goes to a pocket in the pants when not in use. And the same goes to a fleece hood.
On the waist pack itself you take a medium size DSLR body with 18-55mm lens attached, a 55-200mm and a flash. Add to the mix a handful of needed accessories and a couple of spare batteries and you are done. The tripod, if needed, is transported over your shoulders (military style) and if you opt, instead, for the monopod you get at the same time a hiking stick.
I've told you about freedom, didn't I?
There are several waist packs on the market. From several makers. LowePro, Mountainsmith, Tamrac and Domke are just a few. A few years ago I've decided to buy one of them and, somehow, influenced by the cost factor I've made a choice for the Domke Toad 20. At the time was one of the cheapest on the market and for the price paid I still consider it as a very good equipment in terms of cost/quality.
I bought it in Adorama (www.adorama.com) in July of 2008, by a mere 29.99 USD. And as you can see on the pictures below, there's a lot of bang for the buck.

The general aspect of the Domke Toad 20, on the picture above. A simple but effective design, punctuated by three colours: black, blue and yellow.

The zippers (all them a bit too tight) have yellow rope extensions on them, allowing for the operation with gloved hands. The same applies to the side pockets. The main belt, made with a smooth and silky mesh is easily adjustable and on each side of the main body two adjusting loops assure a snug fit to the body.

The main compartment, in bright yellow, makes all the equipment easily seen even in somehow murky conditions. Velcro dividers in the same color allows for a more personal division of the space inside. However, make no mistake, the space inside is exiguous. In the configuration shown above, the widest part of the compartment accepts a Nikon D40x (or any DSLR with similar size) with 18-55mm attached. The smaller space accepts a medium zoom in upright position or any other extra lens. Both side pockets can also be used to the stowage of accessories. The top cover, opening away from the body (well done Domke) has capacity for thin accessories, so all the small things can be placed there (filters, batteries, cables, cleaning items, etc).

The main compartment is accessible by the front zippered pocket, even if you have the top cover closed.  To fulfill that second option you just have to remove the longest yellow separator, which is connected to the "walls" of the main compartment by velcro stripes. Sadly, this main divider is not "velcroed" to the bottom of the main compartment. Therefore, some small accessories that you might stow on the small front pocket sometimes migrate (due to the walking movements) to the main compartment and you end up looking for them under the camera body or the extra lens. Not a big drama if we pay attention, but can eventually damage paintings, scratch plastics or lenses if we are not aware.

Under the bag we see these two slots that gives this waist pack an additional transport capacity. For that, you'll need two loops (that also come as standard accessories). Although it seems these slots were designed to carry a tripod, I don't feel they are resistant enough for that kind of weight. I use them to carry an additional piece of cloth. And that's about it.

Finally, the spares and accessories, from top to bottom: the all-weather cover, two spare velcro dividers for additional customization, two loops for additional transport capacity and a small mesh bag for carrying the all-weather cover.

All in all a very nice waist pack. Certain details on it gave me the impression that some inputs from sports and active photographers were taken into account for the development of the product. The (few) minor cons cannot make me forget that this is a very good equipment. Probably, at the time, the best for the price. And, although I upgraded recently for a more recent item, I still look for it when I want to travel light or when I don't need to carry to much stuff. And that's freedom. Because we are only truly free when we give up.

08 August 2011

Missing the forest for the trees!

Or actually... missing the trees for the forest. Most of the times I'm to concerned with the big picture (after all it's what landscape photography is all about, right?). But a few weeks ago I've decided to go to my cherished mountains with the Nikon D300 and just two lenses: the trusty Tamron SP 90mm Macro AF and my new Sigma 18-50mm EX DC. I have to tell you that my first true attempt to macro photography ended in complete frustration. I was expecting that things were easier. But I guess in photography, as much as in everything, if we don't feel the pain we'll not experience any gain. So, I devoted an entire afternoon to a single drop of water. I can hear you, macro-pros, already, crying: A whole afternoon????
Yep. Give it or take it a few minutes. But I'm a newbie. So I guess I deserve a little slack. First I had to find the right background. Then... the bloody wind was refusing to stop. Finally I had to deal with tripod vibration. It can actually be huge with that lens focused half'n inch from the famous drop. Focus. That, I think, is the major problem. To make it perfect requires... surgical eyes. Forget auto-focus. I'm not sure if it works for the demanded sharpness. And the best way seems to be pre-focusing the lens and then moving the whole rig using  a macro/micro plate connecting the camera to the tripod head. I've tried the old method: let's call it focus bracketing. Several pictures in a row, from front focus to rear focus. One of them would, hopefully, be on focus. This was the best result. Nevertheless, sharpness in the picture is somewhat still compromised.
I guess the wind was too much for that afternoon attempt. And the pine limb wasn't stopping for a second.
Nikon D300
Tamron SP AF 90mm f2.8
Manfrotto 190XDB tripod
Manfrotto 490 RC4 ballhead

Already on the descent, I've noticed this kind Chrysanthemum (in portuguese: Malmequer) flourishing in a rock crack. I shifted lens and snapped this one:
Nikon D300
Sigma DC 18-50mm f2.8 EX Macro HSM
Manfrotto 190XDB tripod
Manfrotto 490 RC4 ballhead

16 May 2011

A vision of past days

Sadly, the high peaks of Madeira island no longer look like this. All this beauty is lost for the next generation. And nowadays all that the tourists can see on the high mountains is scorched earth. Slowly, the green vegetation is gaining terrain to the sad black landscape. But the secular trees that were destroyed... well... maybe in our grandchildrens time. Since we are in mid-Spring, I tought of publishing here, to you, a picture of older days. When all was green and men still haven't disturbed the equilibrium.
Handheld Nikon D40X and Nikkor VR55-200 f4/5.6G

15 May 2011

Dead tree and distant ridge

Dead tree and distant mountain ridge on the way to Pico Ruívo, in Madeira island central massif. Image shot at evening time during the last days of Winter.
Nikon D40X, Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens, Manfrotto 190XDB tripod with Manfrotto 490RC4 ballhead.

11 May 2011

Pico Ruívo mountain hut in snowy conditions

I have a fellow mate at work that says that a walk to Pico Ruívo, the highest peak in Madeira, is his shrink. I couldn't agree more, since that short walk (about half n hour from the Achada do Teixeira car parking) can be so invigorating to your mind and body. The sheer sense of enjoying a walk above the clouds, leading to an almost 2000 meters peak from where you can see the all island and the sea surrounding it is really quite amazing. Surprisingly, this past Winter was a little bit cold and the mountain tops were covered in white blankets for several times. Since it's such an unusual phenomena, and regardless the fact that we are already in mid-Spring, I leave you this curious picture of the Pico Ruívo mountain hut, located 200 meters below the peak and on its northern slope, covered with snow.