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

spider holster

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.

spider holster

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.


Take a photographic adventure with National Geographic

Photographic adventures from National Geographic mix travel and learningFans of National Geographic have long been drawn to the magazine’s fantastic photos, with many of us wishing we had the skills to take similar shots ourselves. Now, National Geographic Expeditions is offering us the opportunity to go on a photographic adventure while building and honing those skills along the way.

Nat Geo Expeditions is the travel arm of National Geographic, offering up some excellent adventure travel opportunities to a number of far flung places. But they also offer aspiring photographers the chance to take part in photography workshops held throughout the country including New York, Washington DC, Tuscon, and Santa Fe. Those workshops range in length from 4 to 7 days, and will teach you everything you need to know about using that fancy digital camera that you bought, but never got around to learning how to operate. For dates and pricing on those workshops click here.

Perhaps even more exciting however are the Photo Expeditions that Nat Geo has to offer. Those trips are 8-12 days in length and will send you off to some amazing places where you’ll learn everything you’ve always wanted to know about photography. Destinations include Alaska, Bhutan, Morocco, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos Islands. Much like the workshops, these trips are designed for photographers of all skill levels and are led by National Geographic photographers with years of experience in the field. They also happen to add healthy doses of culture and adventure to the mix. For more information on the Photo Expeditions click here.

For someone who loves to snap photos (like me!), but wishes they had a firmer grasp on the technical aspects of the art (also like me!), these workshops and expeditions are fantastic opportunities to learn from an expert. So whether you use a point and shoot or a high-end DSLR, a National Geographic photographic adventure is sure to be a fantastic experience.

[Photo Credit: National Geographic Expeditions]




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.

Travel Photo Tips: using a 50mm F1.4 lens to redefine low-light shooting

50mm f1.4

If there’s one question I’m asked more than any other when it comes to DSLRs, it’s usually one dealing with low-light shooting. Being able to effectively capture a scene in dimly lit situations (or at night altogether) is one of the toughest things to do in photography. Even if you have a flash, you have to be careful when firing it if you don’t want to simply blow everything out and ruin the “mood” and “feel” of a night shot. The most common problems with night images are this: too much blur, too dark of a shot overall or too much noise in the shot. How do you solve those issues? It obviously depends on the camera and accessories you’re using, but one surefire way to make your existing DSLR entirely more capable at night is the purchase of one single lens. The 50mm F1.4 is as close to a magic bullet as there is in the photography world, and if you travel, you can bet you’ll end up wanting to take photographs after sunset.

The 50mm F1.4 has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s available for nearly every DSLR out there. You can find dedicated versions (either first-party such as Nikkor or third-party like Sigma) for Nikon, Canon, Sony and Olympus DSLRs, with plenty of aftermarket solutions out there for even more brands. Secondly, it’s incredibly small. My D3S camera body dwarfs the 50mm F1.4, and when I’m trying to conceal my camera and get it into concert venues and the like, having a “stub-nose” lens like this makes it much easier to get through. Thirdly, it’s relatively cheap by FX (or full-frame) standards. And finally, the shots you can get from this lens are truly amazing, and they can enable you to capture memories of a trip that you’d otherwise never be able to. Read on for a few examples and suggestions on how to best make use of this low-light masterpiece.

%Gallery-116211%First, you’ll need to understand a little about why this lens is so cut out for taking low-light shots. The trick is its aperture. For a refresher on how aperture affects your photographs, have a look at a prior article here. This lens can “step down” to f/1.4, which is a fancy way of saying that it can allow a flood of light in compared to most lenses, which can only step down to f/3.5 or so. When you’re shooting with limited surrounding light, having the ability to let your lens pull more light in from practically nowhere is vital.

50mm f1.4

This allows your shots to be brighter, your shutter speed to be faster (which lessens the chance of unwanted blur) and your trips to be more memorable. The 50mm aspect is also important; this is not a zoom lens. It cannot be zoomed at all. If you aren’t familiar with “prime” lenses this will probably be strange to hear, but you literally have to walk forward and back while holding the camera to get closer / farther from your subject. 50mm, however, is a solid distance that’s useful in the vast majority of circumstances, and since there’s no zoom to worry over, the lens is the easiest in my collection to travel with.

50mm f1.4

Using the 50mm F1.4 at night is pretty simple. Regardless of what DSLR body you have, I’d recommend setting the aperture down to f/1.4 (using Aperture Priority or Manual Mode) and firing a few test shots. Compare that to shots with the aperture set at f/3.5 or higher, and you’ll notice an immediate impact. The flood of light that is allowed in by the F1.4 lens is really incredible, and in many cases, it allows a shot to be taken that would never be possible otherwise. Of course, all of this is assuming that you’re trying to avoid using a flash in order to retain the mood of your scene; lowering the aperture all the way to f/1.4 is simply an alternative to using a flash, and it’s one that natural light lovers greatly prefer. The gallery below gives you an idea of why — retaining the low-light vibe while still letting in enough light to capture a bright, sharp and blur-free image is reason enough to consider one of these lenses for your collection.

50mm f1.4

Owning this lens most definitely isn’t the only way to take low-light shots. You could use a flash, purchase a new body with a higher ISO range (something like the Nikon D3S) or move your shot into a place with more external light. But if you’re unable to move your shot (the Grand Canyon is a little hard to relocate, especially after sunset), you aren’t willing to spend thousands on a new DSLR body and you aren’t fond of how a flash distorts the vibe of a night shot, there’s hardly a better and more affordable alternative than the 50mm F1.4. For Canon owners in particular, there’s a 50mm F1.2 that allows even more light in, but of course it’s over four times more expensive; the 50mm F1.4 for Canon bodies is around $350 on the open market, whereas the F1.2 version is over $1,600. It’s hard to justify that increase.

50mm f1.4

I should also mention that while the average 50mm F1.4 lens will cost around $350 – $400 regardless of what brand or body you’re buying for, there’s a bargain alternative even to that. Many companies also make a 50mm F1.8 lens, which allows nearly as much light in, but not quite as much. The good news is these are usually around half as expensive as the F1.4 variety, but in my experience, it’s definitely worth saving up and getting the F1.4. It’s a lens that’ll never leave your collection, and will likely follow you around for as long as you’re into DSLR photography. $350 or so is a low price to pay for the ability to take blur-free images in dimly-lit restaurants, at outdoor sporting events and in concert venues, not to mention millions of other after-dark opportunities.

Curious to learn more about travel photography? See our prior articles here!

Shopping for a new 50mm F1.4 lens? Check here:

Travel Photo Tips: What is metering, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is metering

Up until now, we’ve covered three of the more basic, essential aspects of understanding the minutiae that goes into composing a photograph. While traveling, it’s easy to run into vastly different scenes from hour to hour, making it all the more important to understand how and why your camera reacts the way it does. The goal here is to get you more comfortable with manually controlling your camera so you can accurately capture whatever it is you’ve traveled to see, and while it’s not nearly as simple to grasp as ISO, aperture or shutter speed, getting a basic understanding of metering is essential to understanding how exposure works.

When you think about exposure in general, you think about how brightly lit or how dark an image is. We’ve all seen the wedding rehearsal pictures that were so underexposed that everyone looks like a silhouette, and we’ve all seen the sunrise shot from the beach where everything looks white — a telltale sign of overexposure. In this guide, we’ll provide you with the knowledge you need to know in order to grasp metering and how it affects the exposure (darkness / brightness) of your travel shots. And we’ll also refrain from drowning you in technical knowledge that you have no time to ingest. Read on to get one step closer to mastering metering.Metering is a broad topic. Discussions could go on for hours if you wanted to dig into the technical aspects, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll simply be focusing on the three main metering modes available on most modern DSLRs. On your camera, you’ll probably have a small selector dial with three options on it; a single, tiny spot, a larger spot with a thin band around it, and an even larger spot with a full border around it. This will obviously vary from camera to camera, so consult your owner’s guide if you’re having trouble figuring out where you metering toggle switch is. Below, we’ll discuss the three primary modes and give you examples of when you should (or shouldn’t) use each one.

Be aware that these only automatically adjust when using the camera in a mode other than ‘Manual.’ If shooting in manual mode, you’ll have full control over the metering prior to shooting each shot, so you’ll need to make adjustments based on what your camera says; in other modes, the camera will determine the metering for you based on which of the below selections you have made.

what is metering

Spot Metering. This is that tiny circle we referred to above. If you select this, your camera will only focus on a very small portion of a shot, which you can direct in your viewfinder. The camera will then adjust exposure for only that, and ignore the surroundings entirely. If choosing a spot that isn’t an obvious focal point, you’ll need to manually focus. When is this useful / not useful?

  • Use spot metering if your subject is brightly backlit, and you have no real concern for the background being “blown out,” or appearing white, so long as your subject is exposed properly.
  • In macro shots, spot metering can be useful to get the exact exposure on the objects in the center of the frame.
  • If you’re attempting to photograph the moon, spot metering accurately disregards the expanse of black around the moon itself.
  • If you have a landscape shot with lots of shadows, you can adjust the spot so the camera exposes for a non-shadow.
  • Don’t use spot metering if you have any concern at all about the entire image being exposed properly.

Needless to say, spot metering is a niche option. It’s only useful in a handful of situations, so it shouldn’t be your go-to selection. Moving on, there’s a Center Weighted Average Metering option. Think of this as the “splitting the difference” option. In a nutshell, this will average the exposure of the entire frame, but give extra consideration to the center area of the image. When is this useful / not useful?

  • For portraits — maybe a couple on a beach, or a family at dinner — this option works well.
  • If your subject is brightly lit, but you do care about the background (a cityscape behind them, for example), give this option a whirl.
  • If you find that your Matrix metering option isn’t providing accurate suggestions or giving you enough control over what is focused on, this weighted option might be the ticket.

what is metering
Matrix Metering takes the entire image into consideration and exposes accordingly.

The final major mode found on the bulk of DSLRs is Matrix Mode. This is both the most complicated to explain and (in general) the most useful. Each camera handles it differently, but the idea is that multiple zones are evaluated, and then all of them are weighted together and evaluated as a whole using algorithms that you probably have no desire to understand. Just trust us: these algorithms are usually very small, and oftentimes provide the best direction for exposing shots where the entire frame is important to consider. When is this useful / not useful?

  • The rule of thumb is to always use Matrix mode unless you can think of a specific reason why you’d need Center Weighted Average or Spot Metering modes.
  • Even if you think Spot or Center Weighted modes would be useful, we’d recommend shooting first in Matrix. Today’s DSLRs are surprisingly good at judging exposure based on calculated matrixes.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic explanation of metering to get you started. In future articles, we will cover tips on how to use changes in metering for creative effects in scenarios related to travel. For example, selecting the best metering mode for snowy vacations, or for capturing macro shots of foods or signs that’ll remind you of your journeys. Hopefully with the pointers listed here and in our previous articles on ISO, aperture and shutter speed, you’ll be four steps closer to understanding your camera’s ‘Manual’ mode.

Let’s recap:

  • Metering is important because it determines the exposure of your shot, or how brightly / dimly lit it will be.
  • Use Matrix Mode on your DSLR unless you have a very specific shot or reason to use another option.
  • Spot Metering is useful only in niche circumstances, such as brightly backlit sporting events, shooting the moon or certain macro shots.
  • Center Weighted Average Metering is best reserved for portraits.
  • Even when metering, you can (likely) adjust your exposure up to two full stops in either direction; since Matrix is the least predictable, be willing to tweak things a little brighter or darker depending on preference.
  • If you’re overly concerned about metering, but have little time to adjust things on the fly, shoot in RAW — metering can largely be adjusted after the fact with no real deterioration of quality if you do so. With JPEG, you will notice a decrease in quality when dramatically changing the exposure in post-processing.

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding metering, white balance and more! Our basic guide to understanding ISO, aperture and shutter speed can be seen here.