Spider Holster’s Black Widow DSLR / camera belt holster review

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There aren’t too many new camera peripherals that do something truly new. Sure, quite a few of them complete a familiar task with more ease and less clutter, but the Black Widow by Spider Holster is an entirely new way to manage your primary or secondary camera. What’s unique about this device is that it can be used by both professional photographers as well as vacationers who simply wish to keep a camera at their hip at all times. Those afraid of missing “that moment” can probably relate. The concept here is really simple: it’s a belt that’s attached around you via a wide Velcro band, and there’s a small ‘catching’ mechanism on the side that sits right beside your leg. You screw in a small, silver knob into the bottom of any camera that accepts a traditional tripod thread screw. The knob then slides down into the socket on your waist, and there it hangs until you need it. A small red thumb switch unlocks the slide, allowing you to easily release the camera with one hand and pull it out for use. When you’ve got the shots you want, just drop it back in the holster. Read on for my full review, as well as a quick video showing exactly how the system works.

%Gallery-119802%I recently used the Black Widow while shooting a wedding, and it dramatically improved my workflow and enabled me to capture shots I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get. Quite simply, it allowed me to always carry around a secondary DSLR with an ultra wide-angle lens lens, and without having it right there at my waist, it would’ve been far tougher to reach into a backpack or messenger bag to grab the second camera. The convenience factor cannot be ignored. It also does an outstanding job of weight distribution. Lugging another camera over your shoulder or back takes a toll on your after a few hours; this hip solution didn’t bother me at all, even during an eight-hour shoot. For travelers, this seems like an awesome solution for carrying a camera while hiking or in a theme park.

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Why tie up a hand or have something strapped around your shoulder when you can have it around your waist? For adventure photographers, who simply cannot go to a destination without two cameras and at least two lenses, this is one of the simplest ways yet to carry that second rig. The only major nitpick I had is that the silver knob screw-in piece tends to work itself loose after a number of hours, so be sure to check its tightness every so often, particularly if you’re moving around with any frequency. Also, if you’ll need a tripod mount on the bottom, this system simply won’t work. My workaround is to keep my primary camera ready for tripod use, while using the holstered camera as a handheld-only unit. The other option is to buy a $15.99 tripod plate, which enables the use of tripod mounts while also supporting the holster.

Otherwise, it’s $49.99 well spent if you’re the type who is constantly trying to juggle a pair of cameras, or would like to travel and take shots without always having a camera in one of your hands. A more rugged and advanced ‘SpiderPro System‘ is also available now for $135, catering to those with larger DSLRs and lenses; if you have a trusty belt already, the $8.99 Belt Pad can slide onto just about any belt and provide the same holster action. Lastly, it’s totally possible to hang a camera from each hip if you add a socket on each side.


Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service: why you shouldn’t leave the US without one

The goal here was to utilize Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service to stay connected and work while traveling. The trip? Four days in England, followed by three in France. I was scheduled to shoot my first international wedding in Paris, and was spending a few days in England beforehand — partly to enjoy the country, and partly to ensure that no weather problems in the US delayed my flight over. Xcom Global provides a service that every US-based international traveler should consider: they rent MiFi devices for a host of nations (a list that seems to grow each month), and if you aren’t familiar with a MiFi, the concept is pretty simple: it’s a battery-powered pebble with a country-specific SIM card in it. Just press a button, and within a few seconds, you’ll have a WiFi signal that connects up to five devices to a country’s 3G network.

For example, a French MiFi gives you unlimited 3G data with Orange. So long as you keep a charged battery in there, you can leave your smartphone in airplane mode and still use Google Maps to get around a foreign city — just connect your phone to the MiFi over Wi-Fi. If you aren’t familiar with what it costs to use data internationally, it’s around $5 per megabyte. What does that mean? Downloading the emails you missed on the flight over could easily cost $20, and if you maintained that connection for a whole day? It’s easy to rack up $300 or more in data roaming charges. No US carrier offers a decent international plan (at least not anymore), so you’re really left with two options: struggle to find Wi-Fi, or use Xcom Global. These guys will rent you a MiFi for under $20 per day, with return shipping included. That means unlimited Wi-Fi for around $17 a day in a foreign country, and it’s a connection that multiple people can use at once. If your hotel wants to ding you 10 Euros per day for Internet, just use this — problem solved. It’s an awesome way to stay connected while abroad, but honestly, it’s more than that. For mobile professionals, it’s a necessity.

I love my husband very much, I really do. But even he was kicking himself when we took off from the US and realized our MiFis were still in their shipping bag in our vehicle, safely parked at the airport, slipping further and further from Manchester. This piece was slated to be a review of Xcom’s services; instead, it has morphed into a thesis on just how frustrating it is to visit a foreign country without their services. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone — isn’t that what they say? Read on for more.Both my husband and I were scheduled to continue working while in England. The plan was to use Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel rooms to check up on emails nightly, return any missed calls via Skype and then use the Internet on-the-go. We’d never been to Manchester, and we were banking on using Google Maps Navigation to get us from our train stop to our hotel. Needless to say, we spent nearly 10 Pounds on a taxi ride that we could’ve easily walked if we had the Internet to guide us. And that’s just the beginning. We arrived at our first hotel, a Holiday Inn. It’s a fine place, but they wanted 15 Pounds for 24 hours of Internet usage. Internet that we couldn’t take with us when exploring the streets of Manchester.

At this point, the only reasonable alternative was to find an O2 store, which sells a pay-as-you-go SIM for 15 Pounds that includes 500MB of data. But alas, it’s hard to locate an O2 store when there’s no Internet to find a store locator. We run downstairs and spend a solid ten minutes attempting to take directions from the front desk, and then another 15 minutes wandering aimlessly to a bus station. And then another 30 walking to a mall, and then another 30 waiting for the SIM to be activated. After our entire first morning in England was shot, we finally had data — on one phone, and we could only use around 100MB per day. After that, it forced us to wait until midnight for the next block of data to become usable.

This was obviously far from ideal. We were fortunate enough to own an unlocked smartphone (a standard Apple iPhone from AT&T would never accept another carrier’s SIM, for example). Plus, the Nexus One has a Mobile Hotspot function that pipes 3G data out over Wi-Fi. This enabled us to check our emails on our laptops, but O2 badly compresses all images that are uploaded, so obviously I was unable to create any photo blogs using this solution. To say that this wasn’t the perfect solution would be a tremendous understatement. Had we been in possession of Xcom’s MiFi, we would’ve had unlimited data to use as we saw fit, without any image compression or daily usage limits. Even if you aren’t interested in working while overseas, having the ability to use Google Maps to search for eateries and monuments (and get directions) is a total godsend. Without a MiFi, the only way to do it is to pay absurd roaming charges or to rent a SIM card — provided you own an unlocked device.

Eventually, we took a train to London. There, our hotel also wanted 15 Pounds per day for Internet access, which just so happened to go down for a critical five hour period where my husband was scheduled to make an important Skype call back to the United States. We had already used up the 100MB daily allotment through O2, so it was off to the streets in a frantic attempt to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Considering that we had no mobile Internet to guide us, we were forced to remain on streets we had visited the day before and knew were well-lit. It was closing in on 9PM, and we had already spent an hour on Regent Street — one of London’s most popular roads — with no luck whatsoever. The Starbucks closed at 8:30PM, and the only coffee shop that we could find with later hours wanted to charge us 5 Pounds for using their Wi-Fi for just 1.5 hours.

In the end, we ended up standing outside of a locked Apple Store door, borrowing their free Wi-Fi long enough to complete a 20 minute phone call. Something that would’ve taken 20 minutes if we had Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel room ended up taking around two hours, and rather than being able to have a private call, everyone on Regent Street could pass by and have a listen.

In France, it was even worse. Hardly any of the signage is in English, which left us with little choice but to Google Map something in our room and then write down instructions before heading out. We were also unable to make Skype calls on the go, as we weren’t able to procure a local SIM here. Unlike the UK, there’s no carrier in France that openly sells prepaid SIM cards with data; it’s possible to get one from SFR, but it takes over a day to activate and it requires fluency in French to sort through a phone menu to have the data feature added.

In the end, I found it interesting that going a week overseas without Xcom’s Global MiFi rental service is the best possible advertisement for the service. It may be easy to assume that “you’ll be fine” without Internet access, but consider the life that most of us lead today. We’re perpetually connected. We rely on Google Maps to get us anywhere. We lose connections with people if email sits around for two days. And as for ponying up for Internet at the hotel? That’s a frustration that no traveler should have to face. Looking back, I would have gladly paid Xcom Global $17 per day to have unlimited access to the Internet both in my hotel and everywhere I traveled to while overseas. Suffice it to say, this has taught me to never leave home without one when traveling abroad — in my mind, it’s just as essential as a passport. If you still have your doubts, you could head overseas for a week and do your best to find the Internet. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Tutorial: how to properly shoot / photograph the Northern Lights

In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.

Ah, the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Pure magic. Regardless of what you call them, these mysteries of our universe are truly impossible to forget once you see them, and now that I have, I totally understand why people plan entire trips around the sliver of a chance to witness them with their own eyes. The Northern Lights don’t come out for humans to see that often, but February and March are considered prime viewing months in the frigid wilds of Fairbanks. The northern half of Alaska is one of the only places in America where you stand a chance at seeing this phenomenon yourself, and it’s yet another incredible reason to visit The Last Frontier in the winter. Seeing these colored swirls dance across a starry Alaskan sky stirs the soul like few other experiences can, and if there’s one thing you’ll want to do when spotting them, it’s capturing the moment for years to come. Photographing the Northern Lights is no easy task; it’s more like a science, but it’s far from impossible. Read on to learn how I was able to capture the images seen here in the gallery on one bone-chillingly cold night north of Fairbanks.

%Gallery-118384%For one, it’s important to position yourself in a place that’ll provide the best possible chance to spot the Northern Lights. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs overnight trips to Coldfoot and Wiseman for this very purpose, and Chena Hot Springs Resort — located some 60 miles from the city lights of Fairbanks — also has a specific area setup to view them. But of course, they don’t emerge every single night, and their appearance is both varied and unpredictable when it comes to timing. You can read more on exactly where I camped out to capture these shots here, but the long and short of it is this: Fox, Alaska is just far enough away form Fairbanks to get a non light-polluted view of the sky, and Goldstream Road is known by locals as having great vantage points. If you’re looking for an easy spot to go in your rental car, Fox is it. Here’s a more detailed look at how to reach this spot.

northern lights

Now, for the equipment. If you’re making the effort to capture the Northern Lights, you’ll need to come prepared. Being that it’s the winter, you’ll need to dress in pretty much everything you have. Spotting the lights requires patience and time. I started my campout session at 1:00am in early March, and didn’t see any activity until 1:40am. Once you see any activity at all, you’ll need to move fast. I saw them dance for around 60 minutes before vanishing, but there are no guarantees that you’ll see them hang around for that long. Heavy coats and pants, thick socks, a face mask and hand warmers are all a must.

Here’s a breakdown of what camera gear I’d bring when camping out to see the Northern Lights:

  • A DSLR (two if you have them!); the nicer the model, the better. My gallery here was composed with a Nikon D3S and a Nikon D90.
  • A sturdy tripod. This is essential. I know it means you’ll need to check a bag, but you simply have to have a tripod for each camera.
  • Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon’s 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is “wide enough” for most.
  • Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you’re at 100 percent before leaving home. If you have spares, bring them!
  • Flexible gloves. You’ll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.
  • A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots.
  • A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night.
northern lights

So, that’s about it as far as kit. Now, let’s talk settings:

  1. Widen your lenses as far as they’ll go — you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.
  2. Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you’ll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.
  3. Switch each lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity. Be careful to align that Infinity symbol precisely (rather than just cranking the focus wheel past it).
  4. Lower your aperture as far down as it’ll go. I’m talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.
  5. Lower your ISO to 200 – 1,000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you’ll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.
  6. Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use “Bulb” mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from “whiting out” the shot.
  7. Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.
  8. Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you’re getting the angle you want; I’d recommend various portions of the sky to be in various shots to add some variety.
  9. Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it’s important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.
  10. Evaluate your results. If it’s too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it’s too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I’d use that as a last resort.
northern lights

The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren’t guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have “one great shot” based on what your see on your DSLR’s LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that’ll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. If you execute the shoot properly, you won’t have to fiddle much with the shots in Photoshop afterwards. The Northern Lights pretty much accentuate themselves. I’d also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don’t see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it’s totally worth the effort.

Have any tips of your own for capturing the Northern Lights? From prime viewing locations around the globe to helpful photography tips, feel free to share in comments below!

My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

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Delta SkyMiles Medallion parking lot coming to Braves’ Turner Field

braves medallionDelta’s been Atlanta’s hometown airline for decades, and it looks like the bond between the two is getting a little stronger with the start of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. Delta Air Lines and the Atlanta Braves have announced a partnership that will lead to the opening of a new lot at Turner Field. Or, at least a re-branded portion of a lot. The current Green Park Lot — which is located directly across from the main entrance to Turner Field at the corner of Hank Aaron Drive and Ralph D. Abernathy Drive — will have 500 spots converted into dedicated spots for SkyMiles Medallion members. The upside here is the location; this is one of the closest places to park for the game, and should prove a perfect spot for tailgating activities. The downside is that you’ll still be required to pay the normal rate ($12 as of today) for parking.

In our opinion, Delta could’ve cut those who are Gold, Platinum or Diamond a break — possibly a free or discounted spot in return for their loyalty. As it stands, any Medallion member can show up and occupy the spot so long as they bring along their Medallion card, but there doesn’t look to be any price breaks in the cards. Still, it’s a nice (if minor) perk for being loyal to Delta, particularly for Atlanta-based Braves fans, and hopefully those with higher statuses will see a discount in their future. Hint, hint, Delta.

If you’re looking to take advantage, the SkyMiles Medallion Lot will available starting with the Braves scheduled exhibition games at Turner Field on March 29th and 30th. Their home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies is set for 7:35 p.m. ET, Friday, April 8, 2011.