Travel-Sized Equipment That Won’t Break the Bank – or Your Back with Phillip Blume
If we are living in the Golden Age of mobile photography, 2018 has shaped up to be its best year yet, by far. New technology is turning photographers’ dreams into reality with gear that’s more advanced and less expensive than ever.
Many of these items were just announced last month at the WPPI show in Las Vegas, where I was an instructor, and I can’t wait to share them with you. We’re talking pro quality that’s accessible to virtually anyone—and that fits in your backpack.
For 10 years, my wife Eileen and I have photographed destination weddings, fashion and nonprofit work around the world. At the start of our career, trips required multiple cases packed with heavy gear. As recently as a few months ago, we were still forced to carry separate cases for lighting equipment alone. Video was even worse, with the bulky rigs required to create different controlled motion.
As a minimalist, the weight, complexity and price of camera gear drove me crazy.
No more. Yes, the big expensive stuff is still available if you want it. Knock yourself out. But the measurable difference between big brands and value brands has shrunken into oblivion—and the so-called value brands seem to be innovating the most.
If you’re part of ComeUnity, our private online education group, you’ve probably watched me rig gear to save money and still get the results I demand. I’ve taped pocket flashes together with cross-wired triggers to outperform studio strobes; converted backpacks into better camera bags; and maintained the same old camera bodies for more than a decade. If it works, why replace it?
Guess what, my friends: This is the year I upgrade. And I couldn’t be more excited.
I’ll always preach against gear addiction. (It’s your vision, not a camera, that defines great work.) But in case it’s time for you to upgrade, here’s my definitive short list of must-have products to make your work easier, lighter and way more fun. (Learn more about my “bag list” in my video at bit.ly/blume-gear.)
Godox AD200 Strobe
What qualifies someone as a photographer? Pressing a camera button doesn’t do it. A photographer is someone who draws with light. If you’re going to do a better job lighting your images intentionally to tell a story, you need a versatile and reliable off-camera flash.
Enter the Godox AD200, the very first powerhouse strobe that can fit in your pocket. At full power, this bad boy packs the strength of three or four speedlight flashes combined, but in a lightweight package that won’t tip your light stand.
The AD200 was released a few short months ago, and it has already upset the market as the biggest innovation in lighting for what felt like ages of mediocrity and price gouging by the big brands. You can snag this full-featured light—yes, it’s loaded with manual, TTL, high-speed sync and more, all controlled from a simple camera trigger—for as little as $299. Similar lights from one brand-name competitor range from $1,000 to $2,000 without any remarkable new features. Yeah, you read that right—not even in the same ballpark.
Did I mention the AD200 has a built-in modeling light, an interchangeable head for studio modifiers and a Li-Ion battery that lasts me through multiple weddings without a recharge? After waiting 10 years for something like this, I think I’ve finally found the perfect flash—hidden in the small pocket of my carry-on. And because it’s shaped like a small speedlight, all my MagMod modifiers fit it like a glove. (More on that below, or at bit.ly/blume-gear.)
Godox XPro TTL Controller
If you start using the AD200 (or any compatible Godox speedlight), get the xPro Controller. Its usability ranks high compared to other on-camera triggers. It’s streamlined and just feels luxurious. Every channel has its own physical button on a large viewing screen. Its ergonomic design means my forehead doesn’t accidentally mess up my flash settings when I press my eye to the camera.
The price runs about $25 more than a Godox X1T Controller, which has mostly the same options plus the advantage of a hot shoe to attach a manual flash. But the xPro is a killer value at under $70, well worth every penny for how much easier and faster it is. Just remember that, unlike the AD200 flash (which is compatible with many camera makes and models), you will need to select the unique controller model compatible with your specific camera brand.
I watched Sony unveil this surprise camera just last month at WPPI in Las Vegas. Jaws dropped. This new Alpha-series camera has professional specs but comes in at less than half the price of the Alpha a9 top-seller released just last year.
Why mirrorless? As a traveler, I can fit several of these small cameras in my bag with room to spare. And for now at least, I get chased out of public spaces less often because smaller cameras don’t intimidate security guards like my oversize Nikons do. As a wedding photographer, I love how quiet and discreet mirrorless is.
Of course, Sony has dominated the mirrorless market, selling more mirrorless cameras than all other brands combined, and for good reason. Their tech is so superior, no one can seem to catch up. (Also during WPPI, Canon finally unveiled its first mirrorless camera aimed at pros, but it doesn’t measure up. As a long-time Nikon user, I was extremely frustrated that despite a long period of vague promises, it also hasn’t announced a single pro mirrorless option to date.)
In the past, the only thing that held me back from switching to Sony was cost. There’s no way I’m going to mix cameras in my bag. I want a simple, unified system, so I would need to replace four camera bodies. But at almost $4,500 a pop for the a9 model, I thought I’d have to keep dreaming.
Besides, I own a decent collection of Nikon lenses. Although I could still use Nikon glass on a Sony camera with an adapter, the focus speed would suffer.
But today I’m all out of excuses. I put my hands on the Sony a7III, and found that it has all the features I could possibly need: faster focusing even with a lens adapter thanks to 693 focus points (same number as the luxury a9), updated focus tracking for native lenses, a full-frame 24MB sensor (the sweet spot for resolution, in my opinion), crazy ISO lowlight capability, the same highly improved battery life of the a7RIII and internal 4K video.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two more standout features that every photographer will benefit from: built-in five-axis SteadyShot stabilization (I don’t need to spend extra money on stabilized lenses now) and an impressive 15-stop dynamic range to capture highlights and shadows, which digital had always struggled to do as well as film.
All of this, astonishingly, for under $2,000. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know how Sony can offer this kind of value without undercutting its expensive higher-end cameras. I’m buying a few of these now before they change their mind.
DJI Mavic Air
Also raising the bar within the last few weeks, famous drone maker DJI unveiled its newest full-featured drone, the Mavic Air. In case you didn’t know, drones aren’t just for videographers anymore, and they aren’t toys either. In an increasingly video-centric world, we all need better video to make our marketing stand out in creative ways. This one breaks the “drone barrier” for many of us.
Even if you’re a new pilot, using this thing looks and feels like magic.
Beyond its intuitive controller, you can also control the Mavic Air with hand gestures that make you look like a Jedi master. A palm up, and it stops in midflight. A hand swipe to the side, and it obeys your command—or even flies a preinstalled flight pattern according to your instructions. With 21 minutes of flight time per battery, I’ll be pulling this little toy out of my pocket for all kinds of video movements that once required large tripods and motorized slide rails.
It shoots spectacular 4K video on a three-axis mechanically stabilized gimbal, keeping it above the Spark and lesser drones. It sports cutting-edge visual and obstacle-avoidance, too. Yet the whole thing weighs less than one pound and folds up into a soda can-size bundle that makes the tiny Mavic Pro look like a giant.
I’m continually amazed by companies like Sony and DJI, which have no real competitors in their specialty markets yet continue to compete with themselves. I was just about to buy the Mavic Pro when DJI announced the Air.
The only drawback that might impact your purchasing decision is that the Mavic Air has a maximum range of about 3 miles, whereas the Mavic Pro can travel 4 miles. A three-mile range at up to 42mph is all I need. I consider the Mavic Air an overall upgrade, although it costs $200 less than its big brother. Wow.
DJI Osmo Mobile 2
Pay attention to this amazing stabilizer for your phone camera. I’ve owned the older model for almost two years, and I take it with me everywhere.
Every professional photographer who wants to make more impact on social media should own this gizmo. And videographers might even find it proficient enough to replace some of the heavy DSLR’s and rigs we’ve relied on in the past.
As my phone camera has advanced (currently it shoots 4K), my Osmo Mobile effectively has, too. That’s why I prefer it over the pro version with the built-in camera (which is also a lot more expensive). I slip this “stick” into a pouch on my Spider Holster and then whip it out instantly for quick-draw wedding clips or epic BTS shots as I travel.
The Osmo Mobile 2 is a gimbal that stabilizes your phone camera like DJI’s drone camera gimbals. You can wiggle, bump and run, but your footage stays silky smooth and raises production value. The Osmo Mobile 2 also boasts tools perfect for modern live-streaming, making it your social media personal assistant.
It smooths out your video in stabilized selfie mode (portrait or landscape). It tracks your face, so I can mount it to a light stand and it automatically follows me back and forth as I pace through how-to videos. Or I can set it up in a matter of seconds to take various types of time-lapse videos, including motion time-lapse in which I set the in and out points of my shot with a simple tap of the screen. Incredible advancements.
I’ve tested the Osmo Mobile against its most popular competitors. Although the costs are comparable, I haven’t found anything that can keep up with its tracking speed and app usability. And you guessed it: Like the other products we’ve reviewed, DJI lowered the price on this upgraded version. The Osmo Mobile 2 will soon be sold for a mere $129, a huge drop from the $200 older version. No wonder the tech sites are calling it the best value of any smartphone accessory.
Kenora Backpack by Portage Supply Co.
Where do I put all my high-tech camera gear on the go? These days I don’t need three or four pieces of luggage. The most advanced and most compact gear is finally affordable. So now I fit it all in this specialized backpack, the Kenora.
Like many photographers, I’ve had something of a camera bag fetish over the years, and I’ve used a lot of them. But the bag I always drooled over was a $500 designer backpack my friends had, made of beautiful vintage materials like canvas and leather, with an accessible layout for my gear.
I’m glad I didn’t spring for it back then. Because with a lot of patience and searching, I finally found an almost identical bag (with upgrades) for just $129 from a smaller manufacturer called Portage Supply Co. This is one of those great finds I’m so happy to share with the world.
This bag has the top-quality materials, workmanship, heavy stitching and rugged hardware—everything other than the excessive designer price tag. And it’s even more smartly designed, with access pockets to get into lens compartments directly without opening the whole bag. As the cherry on top, it even has a soft protected 15-inch laptop compartment built in.
It’s my favorite bag ever. It has so many pockets for my cameras, lenses, flashes, strobes, accessories, and other bits and pieces for weddings and international carry-on travel.
Best Small Accessories for the Big Leagues
We’re out of room in this issue. But wait. You can download my entire gear list (“What’s in My Bag?”) right now at bit.ly/blume-gear. It’s a free gift from us, the Blumes, and includes links to the best prices we’ve found.
Take a look at the best affordable lenses, compact light modifiers (MagMod and other traditional options), tiny audio equipment and the most unexpected items in my bag—including Silly Putty and 3M strips, and how I use them.