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Equipment Notes From The Field

What Works? What Breaks? What Then?

By: Steve Kossack

As a landscape photographer, workshop instructor and guide I do a lot of work in the field. And a lot of shooting. As a matter of fact, I do so almost constantly. Although I'm not what one might call an equipment junkie, I have to admit that I don't do a lot of searching or thinking about new equipment. I do realize though that these are my tools, and if new and better are out there, I need to know about them. That's what this wonderful website you are reading now does for me. I can see what's new and hot, and most importantly how it handles in the field.

Usually I can figure out what equipment will do — even, why I'd like to have it. The missing part of the puzzle is how well will it do in the field, and how long will it last. Will it work for the long run or will constant use quickly bring it to its knees. And when it does fail, how responsive is the company to handling repairs?

This information is hard to come by. I mostly find out by trail and error. I think this information is of value and would like to share my experiences. I hope they will be of benefit to you.


Magic Light

Everything Breaks Down — Eventually

Delkin e-Film Pad — Picture Pad

Storage is something we all need and in the field we need a lot of it. What you shoot in the field has to be transferred from a CF card or Microdrive to something else. My answer for most of a year was the Delkin Film Pad. I work pretty much the way I did when I shot film. I'm content to put the toys away after a full day in the field and sleep! Well, after downloading the Microdrives to the Film Pad, that is :-)

The 30G model with thumbnails is what I have. It's easy to use. It will copy a card with a single push of one button! It's light and relatively small, but fairly expensive. I enjoyed using this "hand held hard drive" for some 3 months until it suddenly gave me an error message without warning while trying to copy a card. Fortunately it was the last day of a workshop and I had enough cards to finish shooting with. I was able to transfer the files from the Film Pad when I returned ........ WHEW!

Delkin support was quick and to the point. I sent the unit to them and a couple of days later Support informed me that they were going to replace it. The bad news was that they did not have a replacement in stock and it might be as much as 2-3 weeks until they did. Two days later a replacement was at my door! Someone doesn't talk to someone over there, it seems. I received the new unit with scant paper work, and NO explanation of what went wrong.

The new unit functioned perfectly for the next 4 months or so until — you guessed it, incompatible file format, or some such error message. This time I received an immediate apology from a very nice tech at Support, and I shipped off the unit to Delkin once again. This time it contained files that I could not download and would never see again. Lot's of them!

Another replacement was promptly send. This time with even less paperwork and absolutely no explanation. A telephone call to Delkin has so far gone unreturned. Clearly something is wrong with this product line. I'll keep you posted, when and if I do find out. At the price of any of the current film wallets, it seems that a laptop would make much more sense. That's what I've now done.

Conclusion: Thumbs Down

Hitachi 1GB Microdrive

I have no intention of getting into the argument about solid sate CF cards VS. Microdrives. I've never had a flashcard, I have Microdrives. I've used them for a year now without mishap. I know the "they're great but don't drop one" school of thought. I think it's good advice. I haven't, but that didn't stop one of mine from dieing last October on our "Seven National Parks in Seven Days" shoot. It simply would not function one day after becoming full.

IBM has sold it's Microdrive division to Hitachi last year. I knew this, but after being thoroughly intimidated by the place of purchase with its formula for warranty return I simply went to the IBM website. A few minutes there gave me a handful of telephone numbers. A couple of calls got me a very nice person that contacted Hitachi and even waited on the line until he was sure I was in the right place. I was told that my warranty was good for another two years and that an RMA would be sent via e-mail. It was the next day, along with a website URL where instruction on what I needed to do next was explained. I was on my way!

Everything looked simple until I got down to a place where huge type told me that unless I wrapped the drive in the silver anti-static bag that it came in ... YOUR WARRANTY WILL BE VOIDED! Do you have the bag that any of your drives came in? Well good, but I don't. I also live in a very small town. The biggest store is the chain store Office Max. They looked at me like the nutcase I am when I asked ....... By chance, do you have......

There is one computer store in town. I've never been in it but it seemed like I'd seen it somewhere. A couple of trips up and down Main Street and I found it! A guy behind a pile of boxes was cutting open ........ well you guessed it, a silver anti-static hard drive bag. After a "you'll never believe this" mumble from me by way of introduction, the bag was mine with a Merry Christmas (in October) thrown in :-)

Hitachi has redesigned the Microdrive and it now is available in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB versions. They have new rubber padding inside and a new armature design as well. They say the new Microdrives will withstand a fall of 6 feet. My replacement showed up a week later. I'm not going to intentionally test the fall of 6 feet part, but I like the product and was very pleased with the way warranty service was handled.

Conclusion: Thumbs Up

Acratech Ultimate Ball Head

I like this product. I think that it's highly functional, lightweight, and does everything that a ball head should do. I've used the Acratech head for the past three years. It's the only head I use and I have two of them. My problem is that recently I've bent the quick release mounting platform clamp screw. I've done it twice, as a matter of fact. When it's bent it will not lock down properly and the plate on the lens or camera will slide. Also it will not release when loosened. It jams and has to be released with force. It's dangerous and disconcerting to say the least.

To their credit, Acratech has replaced both failed heads with new ones. Without fuss, I may add. I'm told that I'm the only one that has had this problem. Maybe I'm really tough on the equipment, I'll admit to that. I've not encountered this problem again to this point. I'll keep you posted. I like this company.

Conclusion: Thumbs Up


Cemetary #102


Fujitsu Lifebook P2000

As I mentioned, a laptop computer is now my choice for field storage. Lots of space (at least as much as a film wallet) and a CD burner is built-in just in case. I don't have to mention Internet access possibilities, watching DVDs, or playing your favorite video game. You can figure out the advantages. They are many. Size and weight are a major concern while traveling and in the field. A sub-notebook is therefore a good solution.

However, it broke too! Nothing is perfect but this one was less than a year old and was still in warranty. Or so I thought! If you are like me you might be able to produce your Drivers License on demand, but that's about it! I couldn't prove I paid for lunch today if I had to. I keep the receipts somewhere. I know I have them, somewhere.

It came down to a "your word against ours" said Fujitsu. They said it was out of warranty and I said it was still in. The cost of repair was fully 1/3rd of the original price of the computer. I knew I was right. They decided to take MY word for it. They had it repaired and back to me in two days! YEA Fujitsu!! And thank you.

Conclusion: Thumbs Up

Canon CPS

It takes a lot to be accepted into the Canon Professional Services program. You need to prove to them that you are a working professional. You have to jump though the hoops, paperwork, that is. Good things are worth the effort to obtain. It should be this way. Since I'm a Canon shooter and meet the qualifications, I am a member. This gives me certain privileges. I can borrow equipment from them. It's stated clearly that this is not to replace damaged equipment in for repair (although they will make an effort if available) but instead, to give me an opportunity to test a piece of equipment to see if it fits my photographic needs. I can test drive it before I buy. It's the main reason I joined.

I recently borrowed a Canon 400 DO lens under the CPS program. The test period was short and I found I needed to overnight it back to Canon ( you may loose your loan privileges if it's late in return), as my workshop ended the day before it was due back in New York. FedEx + insurance was $140. I didn't like the lens enough to buy one. I wanted to test the 500 F-4 IS. CPS loan informed me that it was not available for two months!! ............... IT? Canon USA? ....... IT as in you only have ONE??

On the upside, the Pro Rush Service gives you priority. Your repair is taken care of first. I've been dealing with the Irvine (Canon USA west coast) repair center for some time. I know people there and they are qualified and personable. This year I've broken both my 24-70 2.8L and 100-400 IS in addition to the 550 EX flash unit. All were done to factory specs and returned within a few days. You guys are the best!

Now Canon — how about a histogram in the viewfinder? How about a 1Ds charger that works like the rest of the world and doesn't blink when charged fully ... or is it the other way around? :-)

Conclusion: Thumbs Up

Gitzo Tripods

I have the 1348. I see a lot of them in the field. From the lightweight units to one such as mine, they are sturdy, well built and just take a pounding. I've never had a moment's trouble with it. Maintenance is easy. This is simply a precision instrument. Mine is 3 years old and is still rock solid. I would not be without it, anywhere. Save your money elsewhere. Buy a Gitzo!

Conclusion: Thumbs Up

Tamrac 153 Correspondent's Vest

I can't work without a shooting vest. I'm naked without it! Like a lot of other equipment in the field some wear a lot better than others. The Tamrac is my newest.

It's a piece of garbage! There is no reinforcement in the neck and shoulder area. This means that if you put a lens in a pocket the vest pulls to one side like an old house coat. I did not have this highly over-priced garment a week in the field before it had torn zipper seams. I positively hate this vest! I have worn the Nikon Vestrap for 6 years. Those that have been on my workshops know that this vest is in shreds ........ and I still wear it! C' mon Nikon — back ordered for 6 months? If you no longer make it, go ahead and break my heart and say so! :-)

Conclusion: Thumbs Down

© 2003 Photographs and Text — Steve Kossack

I'm now back out there breaking more gear.
Please join us on one of our workshops.
More from the field at a later date.
— Steve


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Concepts: CompactFlash, Microdrive, Thumbs up

Entities: New York, Canon, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Nikon, IBM, FedEx, USA, laptop computer, Professional Services, Christmas, Seven Days, Pro Rush Service, Michael Reichmann, Lot, Internet

Tags: microdrives, Thumbs, equipment, Film Pad, repair, warranty, cards, cf cards, error message, hard drive, film wallet, Canon USA, workshops, new unit, Delkin Film Pad, vest, silver anti-static bag, Canon Professional Services, incompatible file format, solid sate cf, current film wallets, way warranty service, scant paper work, anti-static hard drive, release mounting platform, store office max, Internet access possibilities, EX flash unit, favorite video game, USA west coast, Pro Rush Service, new armature design, new rubber padding, old house coat, Hitachi, Delkin support, computer, Microdrive division, Canon shooter, warranty return