Recommended Products

Products I've purchased and use, and can recommend.

Original: 1/5/2007
Update: 10/29/2007: added "Support This Site" section; updated a few recommendations
Update: 4/29/2009

(Yes I know this page is incomplete at the moment. But I thought it important to get the page started.)

Support This Site
Before I get to individual product recommendations, let me explain about the "Support this Site" option that now appears at the top of the front page of the site (currently: Amazon only).

Running this site has grown in cost over time as the bandwidth usage has increased. For me to keep the content free and unrestricted, and for me to pursue options for adding even more content to this site, I've opted to let those of you who wish to do so help support me in a way that costs you nothing, but nets me a small percentage of your purchase. Here's how it works: when you click on the Amazon logo, you're taken to their site with an ID that's passed on identifying that you came from the site. If you purchase something during that session, gets a small commission. However, note that the price you pay for something from Amazon is always the same whether or not you started on my site or not, thus, you're essentially diverting a small portion of what you pay from the primary vendor to me, not paying more to support me.

Why do the vendors do that? It's a form of advertising, basically. They're looking for continuous visibility on a high volume site, and are willing to pay a portion of their sales proceeds for that. The fact that they can directly track where their sales come from helps them better target their future advertising and marketing dollars.

Why do I do it? As I said, to help defray the costs of running this site. However, note that this form of revenue is now in jeopardy here in Pennsylvania. See this article for more on that.

I've never allowed any other form of advertising on this site, though I have used these "associate programs" pretty much from day one. Long-term readers of this site (and I mean really long term, as in back into the 90's), will remember that I used to have pointers to several other associate programs. Here's my promise to you: I only use vendors whose products and policies I can recommend for Support this Site, and I monitor complaints about them. If I get too many or the company in question changes their policies to be un-favorable to users, I remove them from the Support this Site banner. Indeed, those of you who've been reading this site for years may remember that I used to have two other major companies in the Support this Site program. I removed one when their policies changed in a way unfavorable to users (and I stopped using them for puchasing products myself), and a I removed a second one when I got repeated complaints about a call-back program they used to solicit additional orders. I should point out that my recommendation of Amazon is only for the portion of Amazon that they do directly (look for "Ships from and sold by" in the Availability section of an item's page).

Product Recommendations
A recent email from a product vendor asking if they could use my "endorsement" in their marketing materials gave me pause. You see, I don't endorse products. While the dictionary definition of the word doesn't actually mean this, most people associate an endorsement with a fiduciary relationship between the company making the product and the person making the endorsement. Indeed, if you browse through photo magazines you'll see plenty of advertisements with famous photographer names in them--these are generally paid endorsements.

So before continuing, let me this clear: I accept no remuneration from any company whose product I recommend unless I otherwise state it explicity; I purchase the products I write about. All exceptions to those two things are explicitly noted in my reviews and writings (they are rare). A company cannot "buy" a recommendation from me, and I don't "endorse" products.

But the email was useful in that it made me realize that I don't have a specific policy for product recommendations, nor did I have a place on my Web site where I summarize those recommendations. I would have no problem with any manufacturer simply pointing to my reviews or to this recommendations page, as long as it was clear that I have no relationship with the company.

This page is the start of my attempt to rationalize and summarize my product recommendations. Over time, I'll add more products and categories, but I had to start somewhere...

In order to appear here, a product must meet the following criteria:

  • I have to have really used it. That means more than just browsing the documentation, running a tutorial, or spending a couple of casual hours playing with it. To be mentioned here, I must have used the product in actual shooting and/or post processing.
  • I have to continue using it. It's not really a ringing recommendation if I used the product for awhile but then stopped because a better product came along, is it? The products mentioned here are products or services that I continue to use. They might not always be my primary product in a category (I use four different raw converters with regularity, as you'll soon see), but they must continue to be a product that I find useful.
  • It has to do the job well. Long, long ago I made the decision that I'd rather have the best tool for the job than to try to get by with one that has to be forced or coerced to do the job. Products and services that appear here are the best tools I've found.
  • It has to provide good value for its cost. This seemingly simple criterion weeds out an amazing number of products.

One word of caution: in some categories I haven't tried all the possible products. I can only write about what I have tried, and the products that appear here are the best of those.


Recommended Sensor Cleaning Equipment
I've tried pretty much everything (and helped spur the invention and evolution of some products). Conspicuously absent from the recommended list is the Arctic Butterfly (and all its variants). There's a reason: the spinning of the brush makes the brush widen over time, and most DSLRs collect gunk in the frame area around the sensor. At some point you'll start dislodging stuff with the widened brush--or worse still, transfer oils from the camera internals to the brush--and then your cleaning becomes more difficult, not less.

Company & Product Comment
Photographic Solutions Sensor Swabs and Eclipse or E2 solution The original commercial wet cleaning solution evolved into a good basic tool that can be relied upon. When I need a wet cleaning, this is what I use.
Visible Dust Sensor Brush The Econo 1.6x kit is all you really need for dry cleaning a Nikon DSLR (plus some good canned air). It's also worth getting the Sensor Brush Wash to keep your brush in top shape. 10/29/07: it appears that Visible Dust is getting out of the plain brush business. Note that I have reservatins about the Arctic Butterfly, though I use it for some travel. I haven't used all the other plain brushes that are available, so you're currently on your own for a brush recommendation if you can't find the Econo 1.6x kit.
Dust Aid Ultra Clean solution A slightly better solution than Eclipse or E2 for those that travel, as it can be transported without issue and does a good job of cleaning without streaks.


Recommended NEF Converters
Again, I've tried pretty much everything (a full report will come again soon in the DSLR Report).

Company & Product Comment
Bibblelabs BibblePro Eric has kept this program on the list by simply supporting cameras quickly, adding useful features (noise reduction and lens correction, for example), pushing the speed of conversion beyond the others, all while still providing an excellent quality conversion.
Nikon Capture NX The idiosyncratic user interface puts a lot of people off, but for a Nikon DSLR user, the base conversion capability is still at the forefront of what's available. NX adds a very useful wrinkle with the control point concept, which is as a powerful as layers are in Photoshop (in other words, incredibly powerful). Learn how to use control points. It's worth it. However, recent iterations of Capture NX have been prone to installation and other issues. Because of this, I suggest that you investigate other converters.
PhaseOne CaptureOne Being a pioneer in digital conversions shows off here. PhaseOne has consistently had state-of-the-art conversion capabilities and a (mostly) photographer-centric workflow that high volume shooters like. But one warning: this is a resource-hungry program. Get more memory, a faster CPU, and more disk storage before standardizing on it.
Photoshop ACR or Lightroom 2.x The Adobe converters, with the addition of the ability to select Camera Profiles, now get very close to the level of conversion you can get out of Capture NX. In some ways, the conversion surpasses Nikon's solution, though I still usually have to hand tweak white balance in the Adobe converters. But the real reason to use them is that they make for a simpler, more standard (if you use Photoshop) workflow.













Recommended Other Software
I've tried a lot of software in almost every category. Here are the ones I keep coming back to:

Company & Product Comment
Lightroom 2.x Lightroom has become my preferred workflow solution (in combination with Photoshop CS4). However, note that the dedicated database approach isn't one that everyone likes (you can't freely move files and folders around on your machine once you lock into a dedicated database solution; Lightroom isn't smart enough to find all the changes you can make to image locations outside the application, so make sure you understand how to organize your files within Lightroom). Still, for ingesting, browsing, captioning, and even most developing (conversion and editing), Lightroom does it better and with more of a traditional photographer's workflow in mind. Still rough at its edges, the current version of Lightroom is never-the-less usable for a full-time pro.
Photo Mechanic For image ingesting (card to computer) and for image browsing, this is the best of the bunch. Fast and flexible, but without the extra complexity a lot of the other competitors bring to the table.
Neat Image A lot of good noise processing software exists, but I keep coming back to Neat Image for a reason: I find it faster and more flexible to do custom profiling with this product than the others. Plus it handles the trade-off between noise reduction and detail destruction quite well.
Photoshop CS4

Serious digital photographers need serious tools. There's little you can't do with Photoshop that you'd ever encounter, especially once you consider the scripting and plug-in extensions for the product. Beyond the tool itself, the Photoshop support community is extensive and very active. Training is available everywhere.

Photoshop Elements is not an alternative as far as I'm concerned, despite the fact that it's grown in ability over the years. If you're looking for a lower-priced option, strongly consider Picture Window by Jonathan Sachs. It would be on my recommended list were it not for the fact that I'm mostly Macintosh these days, thus don't use it much anymore since the program is Windows-only.

Nik Plug-ins Silver Efex Pro has become my primary method of doing black and white conversions. Dfine is as good as Neat Image, though without quite as much of the tweaking ability (Neat Image's tweaking is geeky and complex, though). Nik Sharpener is very good, especially for those who want a fairly automatic process. I'm less enthused about Color Efex Pro and Viveza. Both do interesting things, but seem overpriced for what they do.



















Recommended Bags
Visitors to my offices know that I have multiple closets filled with discarded bags I've tried. Some just couldn't carry the weight, some didn't fit into regional jet overheads (or even under seat), some broke (yes, broke), and some are simply impractical for constant field use (hint: if the name looks like it came from someone stuck in Haight Ashbury 1968...). I have a full article on carrying equipment, here's the shorter list (and it's a really short list right now):

Company & Product Comment
Think Tank Photo Airport Antidote Unless you're carrying one of the exotic telephotos, this is all you need for both the trip via plane and your hiking cross country. Better still, it carries a laptop and it still fits in the overhead bin of a regional jet (yes, it does, really). Quality is top notch, and unlike a lot of so-called backpacks, it actually carries weight well. One slight nit: for many folk the sternum strap can end up a neck strap if you put the waist belt where it belongs. The Airport Ultralight also is of interest if you need a slightly longer bag that's as light as it gets for travel in regional jets.
Kata W-92 For a small waist bag, this is probably all you need. Nice attention to details and a good mix of basics at a reasonable price makes it stand out amongst the others (Think Tank Photo also makes some nice waist bags, but they're more expensive.)







Recommended Support Equipment
I've tried a lot of different tripods, heads, plates, and other support gear. The ones listed here are the ones I use. Note that my support equipment gets tortured. First, it all gets stuffed into duffel bags for air travel--I've seen my bag fall out of planes in some countries. Second, once off the plane I'm usually headed into the wilds, which means that my support gear is subjected to the same things that scrape my arms and legs, that pile up mud in my shoes, and that I fall off of. Finally, I want my support gear ready, so it's usually strapped outside a pack where it whacks against rocks and trees, or here's the real abuse: tied to my bike rack while I ride the roughest of dirt single-tracks (try bouncing your gear up and down on a metal rack for awhile and see if it holds up). My gear has been dropped off small cliffs, been buried undersea by rogue waves, stuck onto lava rocks still hot from the middle earth, and more. To make it onto this list, you need to be Terminator tough:

Company & Product Comment
Really Right Stuff BH-40 and BH-55 Both impeccably made, these heads do what you need them to. Just get the right one for what you're putting on top. For most of us serious folk, that's the BH-55. My original BH-55 was abused as much as any piece of equipment I own and put on enough air miles to qualify for premier status on multiple airlines. It still did the basic support job well, but was getting finicky with fine touch settings. When I sent it in for a cleaning, RRS didn't just clean it, they replaced most of the head, bringing it back to like new status.
Really Right Stuff Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package It ain't cheap (US$795), but if you want to do multi-level panoramas quickly and easily, this is the fastest way to get there: buy the Ultimate-Pro package and a Gitzo with the leveling head. If you can't get your camera mounted and ready for sophisticated panos in a matter of seconds with those two products, someone hasn't shown you how to set things up (PCL-1 on the leveling base, level it, mount the rest of the package on the PCL-1 as illustrated by RRS, align the center of the lens to the center of the PCL-1 on the tripod, then move the MPR-CL II multi-purpose rail back until your lens is at its rear exit pupil point). I just timed myself setting up a pano in Utah: <30 seconds from the time I picked up the tripod--which didn't have the Ultimate-Pro mounted yet--until the time I started shooting my first shot.
Gitzo GT2540 or GT2540LVL The "replacement" for the original Mountaineer. These new 6x models really are better than the original, in almost every way. This level of tripod is adequate for the up-to 70-200mm crowd. As you go beyond to the longer telephoto lenses, you really need something in the 35 series (e.g. any GT3540 model).












More recommendations will be coming in this category just as soon as I have a chance to evaluate the new generations of many of the products I use.

Recommended Web sites
My browser has a few million URL clicks on it, so it's been to most every photographic site. I should note in passing that in no case did the purveyors of these sites know of my recommendation prior to my making it here. Put another way, what follows is not a link exchange. I ask nothing of these site owners; these are simply sites I find useful and which I think you may, too.

Company & Product Comment
dpreview Phil Askey's gargantuan digital camera Web site was there early, and it's gotten better (and fatter ;~) with age. Not a lot of commentary by Phil and his staff (though when there is, it usually is pithy and to the point), but the news, reviews, and forums are first-rate in both depth and breadth. The news is basic but mostly complete. The reviews are exhaustive and the testing well-controlled. The forums can get testy and even misleading in information at times as they're unmoderated, but there's enough gurus floating around that the right answer almost always gets posted to questions of almost any type. This is an excellent place to start any digital camera research, even if it might take you awhile to find the needle you want in the huge haystack of needles that have accumulated.
Luminous Landscape

Another site that barely makes it onto the recommended list today that was a slam dunk earlier. Michael doesn't quite seem to know what he wants the site to be when it grows up, so it tends to follow his latest curiosity and gear interest at the expense of consistency and focus. Given the name, you'd think this would be a place where you could easily answer the question "how do I take the best possible landscape photos?" Sometimes you'll get pieces of that answer here; other times you'll just get highly subjective gear lust pieces. Still, the basic articles here are quite good, and when Michael and crew do get around to speaking landscape photography they do it as well as anyone. (The other landscape-oriented site worth mentioning, Digital Outback Photo, curiously has many of the same traits as Luminous. I'm starting to come to the conclusion that perhaps landscape photographers don't actually know how to talk about landscape photography.)

The Online Photographer Mike Johnston's blog is where you should go if you like photo criticism and essays about photography in general (as opposed to gear- or task-centric information, though you'll get a bit of that, too). Folksy, conversational, and thought-provoking most of the time. Every now and then Mike digs up a gem of some sort that you didn't know about.
B&H Photo-Video The B&H site is useful for a lot more than just purchasing. Heck, the first thing it's useful for is this: does the product exist? If it's photographic and available, B&H has it 99.9% of the time. Beyond that, it's a good way to research your options (I need a fast mid-range zoom for my new Canon, hmm, what's available?). But you need to learn how to use their search system to take full advantage of that (that shouldn't take long, but do take the time to learn it; the new site design is better than the old, but still pulls up too much stuff in many of the categories if you use that method of "browsing."). You can use their email stock notification to learn when a new product actually becomes available. Build a wishlist of products you're interested in so it's all in one place. Snoop around long enough, and you'll find more things you can use their site for. And when you do decide what to buy, B&H has decent prices, good delivery (as long as you understand their religious-driven operating hours), and a deep inventory. Pros buy from B&H for a reason: they're reliable.

Lightroom Killer Tips
Scott Kelby Blog
Diglloyd Blog
The Strobist
Photo Business

Each of these sites are ones that are worth hitting once a week to catch up on various different things. Matt Kloskowski's Lightroom Killer Tips site is obviously centered on Lightroom use, but provides useful tutorials and technique tips. Scott Kelby's blog wanders across lots of photographic and Photoshop topics, but if you can get past all the self-promotion, provides useful information on a constant basis. Lloyd Chambers Diglloyd blog tends to only skim the content he provides for a fee, but you can usually get the gist from the free part. If you're really into high quality lenses (e.g. Zeiss), it's worth subscribing to his more detailed reports, which are well done and provide a lot of detail you won't find elsewhere. Also, Lloyd's eBook on infrared shooting is the one you want if IR is something you want to pursue. David Hobby's The Strobist Web site is probably the place to go for useful flash information, though be forewarned that flash is a deep subject with many, many variables, so you may end up stuck reading there for a long time. Finally, if you're in any way pursuing photography as a business, John Harrington's Photo Business site is one you want to pay close attention to. One of the most respected photographers in the US capital, Harrington is no-nonsense and has the right slant on running a photo business.







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