NITSAN SIMANTOV. PHOTOGRAPHER. FILMMAKER.

East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

SOG S44-N Pocket Powerplier Review (VS the SOG B66) - A fantastic affordable multi-tool

The S44 feels great in the hand. Smooth without any pointy bits. Folded/rounded edges at the tool opening would have been really nice but I don't feel it causes a big problem, I can still grip them well without hurting my hands.

This multi-tool is awesome. It is the smaller brother to the SOG 66 PowerAssist, but much better.

The pliers:

The main feature of the SOG multi-tools is that their pliers give double the amount of pressing power due to their compound leverage system. (Definitions: A "compound" is something composed of two or more separate things. So a "compound lever" is a mechanical system which delivers more force through the use of multiple levers) Similar systems are very common in various work tools, but less common in pocket multi-tools. The S44 has everything I loved about the 66 (the awesome pliers) and almost nothing that I disliked (pretty much everything else).

The 66's handles hit each other when the pliers are closed, whereas the S44 has a nice gap between the handles when the pliers are closed. This means you can put much more pressure into the grip when grabbing really small things. The S44 also has smaller pliers that are closer to the hinge, which helps give it a little more leverage for it's smaller size and means that it actually has more gripping power at the inner part of the pliers, but the 66 still has a little more power at the tip for some reason, I guess because of the longer handles.

The S44 did need a bit of oil and loosening of the plier screws to get a nice smooth motion in the pliers.

The S44's pliers are shaped so they can grab things better from a flat surface. Unfortunately the cutters are still in the center and not able to cut flush with the surface. 

The pliers on both units are very accurately made and they align perfectly with each other. The 66's pliers are slightly more pointed but I'm very happy with both. The pliers are very strong, and the slightly less pointed tip on the S44 should help make it even less likely to break. The cutters on my 66 were a joke, so for now I'm being super careful with my s44 cutters. Surprisingly they are sharp enough to cut paracord (a very useful kind of string, like the lanyards you see on my tools). The only other multi tool I have which will cut paracord is the Wingman, because it has a pressure-cutter rather than a scissor-like cutter like most other multi-tools have.

The pliers on both SOGs can be opened with one hand if you practice it a little, while the Wingman would take a few extra seconds since you need to use your leg or something to pull it open (you can see an example of both of these in my B66 review). The Fosco (see photos and links below) is very slow to open and does require both hands. I just leave it open all the time. 

The 66 is larger, but during use I don't feel that much difference between them as pliers. The 66 has more rounded edges, but it has very sharp/pointy bits everywhere else which ruins the grip's comfort.

Look/finish:

The SOG 44 Pocket Powerplier only comes in an "S" version, which means "Satin" and has a really nice shiny chrome-like finish, which doesn't get ruined easily. (The "-N" in its name refers to the Nylon pouch, more on that below.)

The larger 66 comes in a "Satin" finish (S66) and a "Black oxide" finish (B66), which is the one I have. The black version has a dirty-looking scratched finish, even if you get it right from the factory. I guess this would be fine if SOG's promotional materials didn't show a beautiful clean dark-black finish. It also leaves black dirt on your hands during the first use.

Weight:

The 66 is almost twice the weight (267g VS 146g) and yet has basically no advantages over the lovely S44. Actually quite the opposite, the 66 is awful in comparison.. Actually, it's awful in comparison to almost any brand-name multi-tool. I'll compare the two in detail, but I won't go on too much about the 66's issues here since I already covered all that in my full review [LINK].

Size:

Compared from left to right: Leatherman Style PS [LINK], Leatherman Wingman [LINK], SOG S44, Fosco locking multi-tool [link] and SOG B66 [LINK]. I won't go into much detail about the other three here because that's in my full reviews with the links above.

Another size comparison of the same five tools:

The knives:

The knives on the Wingman and S44 are both decent. I prefer the locking blade and shape of the Leatherman, but they are both fine. The S44 may be somewhat more carry-friendly in some places because it has a slip-joint instead of a lock (similar to most Swiss army knifes), but some police officers may tell you that it actually does lock, because the blade cannot fully close when the plier handles are closed, which would make it illegal to carry in the UK without a good reason. I'm a big fan of the half-serrated blades on both of them, but the placement of the blade at the outer edge of the Wingman's handle makes it much nicer to work with. The Lock on the wingman can be disabled and the blade on both units can be removed, so in theory both multi tools can become more okay to carry if you're willing to modify them a little. (Warning: I am not an expert on this matter! Check your own local laws!)

The 66's blades have a bit of play (wiggle) and they are near-impossible to open or close, even with both hands, and doing so successfully is surprisingly painful on your fingers. The locking and opening system on this thing sucks so bad that I cannot believe anyone would release this as an actual product. Because of the terrible locking system they will get stuck open, they will get stuck closed, they will get stuck half way, and all of this requires two hands and a lot of attention.

The S44's knife would take about 10 seconds to open with one hand if you're really careful, so it's really not ideal. With two hands it's still a 5-second job. Closing it doesn't feel very safe, just like most other slip-joint knives.

The Wingman's knife opens and closes effortlessly with one hand, although you may want to oil the joint since it has no thumb-knob to push on with your finger. The wingman wins here.

I'm ignoring the Fosco completely because I would never use it as a multi tool since it takes far too long to open and close the pliers, so even though i love it as a plier and it's being used in my studio all the time, I have almost never folded it away from plier-mode to use any of its other tools, except when I was first testing it.

The tools:

The tools on the 66 are mix of mediocre and bad. The handle is full of uncomfortable pointy areas. There are too many flat screwdrivers. The V-Cutter is useless and dangerous in my opinion. The blades have play in them when they are opened. Opening and closing the internal tools is not easy either. The list goes on, see my full review HERE [LINK] if you really want. There is a nice serrated blade but no proper wood saw.

The tools on the S44 are very decent, although still not as good as the ones in the Wingman. The file, bottle opener, can opener and screwdrivers are the same as the 66 and all of them work perfectly fine. They are much easier to open and close but none of them lock which is a big disadvantage for tougher tasks. There is also an added awl, a useful pointy spike which can open boxes, clean dirt, make holes, etc. The useless fragile V-cutter thing is gone. There is no additional serrated blade, which is perfectly fine for me, but a saw would have been nice. I may add a hacksaw and wood saw to this tool and my Wingman. There's a clear ruler on one side of the handle which is nice.

Very similar tools, most of them slightly better than the S44. There is a very useful box cutter instead of the awl (pretty similar in use, but better for opening boxes and not as good for making holes) and there are decent scissors too. The grip is a little more comfy, although I did add some Sugru rubber [LINK] to make it more grippy. The tools did need some oil and adjustment of the screws to allow them to open easily.

The Leatherman Style PS [LINK] is stylish and portable, but it's somewhat badly made and bloody useless. See my review in the link above for full details.

The pouches:

The "-n" in the product name means I ordered it with a Nylon pouch/sheath. For a dollar or two more you can get the S44 with a leather pouch. The leather pouch is maybe a little more stylish, but the one I got with my 66 smelled really awful and I had to rub hand lotion into it several times to make it smell like normal leather (not a big issue I guess). I still like the leather pouch, but if you do choose it you will need to also get some hand lotion, because otherwise you might smell like... well.. I'm sorry to say it.. a woman's thingiemajig.

As a note, another reviewer on Youtube also said his leather version smelled fishy too, so it wasn't just this one. The leather one will scratch pretty easily, although I don't think it looks bad with scratches. The button on it may last longer than the Velcro closing on the nylon version, something I'm not worried about because it's very easy to replace velcro, even just with a bit of glue if you can't be bothered to sew it on.

330g with pouch.

177g with pouch.

Both pouches are pretty lightweight, 63g on the 66 and 31g on the S44.

The belt connection:

Both SOGs are really missing a pocket clip on the tool itself, although this can be added fairly easily if you're a DIY sorta person. The difference between the leather and nylon pouches that really matters is their belt connection.

The Nylon one has a lovely belt clip that is super easy to clip on and off, and yet doesn't fall off on its own and can be used even when you're not wearing a belt since it can clip onto almost anything, but in theory the belt clip can still be pulled off depending on what it's clipped onto, so it's not quite as secure as the leather one.

A carabiner clip like this works, but it will sometimes flip upside down so it's not ideal.

The leather one requires you to undo your belt in order to attach it or remove it, and if you want to carry it without a belt you will need to add some sort of clip. The leather one is very nice and slightly more secure, but the nylon one is just exceptionally lovely to work with, especially since I don't want to undo my belt every time I want to take my SOG somewhere.

You can very easily attach a good DIY belt clip to the leather pouch (hint: take one off an old mobile phone case) or attach a DIY safety strap to the nylon one. So basically either one can work and it's just down to preference. I'd recommend the nylon one.

Really slimline and very comfortable. I can barely even feel it's on me it since the tool is so lightweight.

Conclusion and links:

The SOG 66 has great pliers but the rest of it is really quite awful and very overpriced, there's no point in it because the S44 is much cheaper and much better. 

The S44 is very well priced in the USA, which is where I ordered mine from. It's so good that I ordered one for my dad too. It's awesome for good gripping power as well as for delicate work due to it's awesome needle-nosed pliers, and has very useful tools too. If I'm not mistaken it comes with a lifetime warranty. The first time I spoke to them they were very fast and sent me a replacement B66 plier-head very quickly, the second time they didn't reply at all, so it may be a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to customer service. The metal quality is great, better than many others, but due to the doubled force and the extra-pointy plier tip they are more likely to take damage.
● eBay UK link: http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/710-534...
● eBay USA link: http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-532...
● Amazon UK link: http://amzn.to/1vO1xp9
● Amazon USA link: http://amzn.to/1wqxzfO

The SOG S60 Powerlock [LINK] is a bit of a mix of both of them. It's fairly expensive like the 66 but also has better tools and has a better design.

The Fosco [eBay LINK] is dirt-cheap and has crazy gripping power for its size (even more than the SOG), and it continues to grip even when you let go which is sometimes almost like having an extra hand. The tools on it are a bit of a bonus, but they work fine, I've definitely seen worse. But it's not very quick to open so if you don't plan to use the extra tools on the Fosco you can probably save a few "currency units" by getting some long nosed locking pliers [LINK], although they won't be as compact and most of them won't be as needle-nosed as the Fosco. When working on some projects, a work-bench vice is also very useful as an "extra hand". I doubt the Fosco has any warranty at this price but I didn't check. I worry this tool will break from the huge amount of pressure it can press with, even though it's held up amazingly so far. WEAR EYE PROTECTION WHEN USING THIS TOOL.

The Wingman is an awesome multi-tool at a brilliant price. It has half as much gripping power as the others and you can definitely feel the difference (I even measured it), but makes up for it with comfort, spring loaded pliers, a pocket clip, a fast knife opening, excellent cutters that never seem to fail and insanely good durability. If I'm not mistaken it has a 25 year warranty but I don't know what the service is like because my Wingman has survived all the abuse I could throw at it with barely even a mark, although it does look a bit ugly currently because of the Sugru rubber I put on it.
● Amazon UK link: http://amzn.to/1jKThCR
● Amazon USA link: http://amzn.to/KREbyX
● Leatherman on eBay: http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/710-534...
● Leatherman on B&H: http://bhpho.to/1igKJBR
● Alternatives from Adorama: http://bit.ly/1uKABIV
● Leatherman Sidekick: http://amzn.to/1g9SPA0

If I had to choose one, I would get the Wingman, but I would also say "screw-off! I want TWO!". No, seriously, half the time I need pliers, I need two of them together. I like the Leatherman and SOG the most. They are still my most used tools by far. I love having all three of them and I won't be selling any of them.

I'll be getting rid of the SOG B66 and Leatherman Style PS though, because for me they aren't really usable as multi-tools, just as really expensive pliers.

Aputure AL-H198 Review - The (new) best compact LED panel ever

I just got the fourth Aputure AL-H160 LED (to complete my LED travel kit) in the mail together with the Aputure Al-H198 LED light which I just got so that I could review it, although now that I've seen it, I'll be selling my 160 kit and getting three more 198 units.

I mention Yongnuo several times in this article because there isn't much else worth considering in the lower price range, and frankly for small lights I wouldn't spend the large sums that some other manufacturers ask.

I recently posted this video showing the H160 in action. I briefly explained why I like it so much, more than all my previous panels. Notice the Yongnuo's clearly green color cast in the video.

It was sort of ironic to get the last part of my H160 LED light kit and 30 seconds later learn that the H198 is even better. 

The H198 is very similar but with some great improvements while only costing £10 more. It's the same size as the H160 but has more LEDs crammed into it, just like Aputure's 528 and 672 units which also use the same housing as each other.

Pros:

  • Compact, more so than the small Yongnuos which are a strange shape and always have the stand sticking out of the bottom.
  • Lightweight, 480g on its own, or about 1100g with the case, ball head, 12 Eneloop AAs (6 needed per use) and AC adapter. For comparison, a H672 light is about 3KG with the case, x4 NP-f batteries (2 needed per use) and AC adapter, etc.
  • Bright. lots of light for your money. I measured just under 1000 LUX at 1m.
  • Great battery life. It runs completely cool, unlike some other LEDs like the yongnuo YN600 which waste precious energy by producing heat, and then sometimes wasting more by adding a fan to try to dissipate that heat. I got well over an hour at full power with the H198 using x6 Contour/Eneloop AAs [LINK].
  • Superb color quality, 95+ CRI rating, noticeably better color than most other LEDs. No color shifts that I can see.
  • Rugged. I had a look inside, very thick internal wires which inspired me to put one of my 160s through a rough torture testing. I've not done this yet, I'll film it when I have time. For this reason I would choose these over the larger Aputures which are more fragile.
  • Much better customer service than Yongnuo, by a long shot.
  • Multiple units can be combined into a single larger panel, as big as you want.
  • No fan noise, so four of these are much better than a single YN600.
  • Great price, which means it's much easier to start off your kit, and easier to expand it when needed, and very easy to upgrade. Since you get a lot of "LUX-per-dollar", no matter how many you add, it's always a good investment, it's basically an infinitely upgradable light. With the AA battery adapters you can also easily connect all of them together so you don't need multiple power plugs, it would just be one power cable that splits up to power all the lights together. I will show this once it arrives in the mail. You just need a single one of these adapters [LINK] per light, and an AC adapter suitable for powering the number of lights you want to use. 
  • Included ball head and case.
  • Much better battery door. It's on a hinge so can't get lost, unlike the Yongnuo ones which are very likely to get lost or stepped on.

Here's a photo of my cat that I shot with the Aputure behind the big RoundFlash ring light [LINK]. The camera is the Sony A7S at 5500K white balance with no green/magenta shift.

Cons:

  • No direct 1/4" screw built into the unit. You rely on the mini hot shoe adapter that comes with the light. You can see it in the image above, between the ball head and the light unit. This same adapter is also the connector that allows you to connect multiple units together. So far this has not been an issue but direct 1/4" connectors would have been nice. You can use any other hot shoe connector you want so it shouldn't be a big issue.
  • No on/off switch. The light turns off when you turn the dimmer all the way down until it clicks. Personally I will be adding switches to my units, but you really don't have to. I hope this is fixed in future versions, because this makes it easier to keep to the same exposure after you turn the light off and on.
  • No direct power connection for an AC adapter. This is not at all a problem. I will show you how to make one without any modification to the light. All you need is a single AA battery adapter [LINK] and a 9V 2.5A power supply [LINK], the cost is about £5 per light and it's nice and compact. I'm waiting for these to be delivered.
  • No remote. This is a shame because Aputure's remote system on the 672 lights is absolutely awesome. My favorite remote system on any light because it's so simple to use, yet still very versatile in the lighting setups it allows you to control. I really hope Aputure add this to the future versions of these lights. The mistake was assuming people will only use these as on-camera lights, which is a big under-estimation of this product's usability. 
  • Not quite as bright as Yongnuo's offerings, but while Aputure's larger units are seriously lagging behind in this department, their smaller lights are actually not very far off. Plenty of LUX-per-dollar, far more than their larger brothers, the 528 and 672.
  • There's some flex between the units when connecting them together, which makes you wonder how strong the connection between them is. This is not a big issue because if you plan to use them mostly as individual units with the occasional use as one larger unit then just be gentle with it, I don't think general use will break it. If you plan to use them mostly as a single larger unit, then connect them together as usual, but then wrap some black gaffers tape around the outer edge of the large unit. This squeezes them together and gives you a really nice sturdy unit. It took me about a minute to do and doesn't get in the way at all. Use quality tape to prevent leaving glue residue on the lights.

The case:

The H198 comes with an awesome little case.

Unlike the larger Aputure 528 and 672 units which are surprisingly bulky and surprisingly slow to set up with their many parts and multi-pocket case, the 198's case is very compact and allows for very quick setup of the light.

  • It is extremely protective with well-padded semi-stiff  walls. It has a movable padded separator with the perfect amount of space for the 9V power supply and a pocket which will perfectly hold 12 rechargeable AA batteries (this light takes 6 at a time), or 24 if you don't mind half of them sticking out of the pocket, plus another 6 AAs inside the light itself and another 10 comfortably under the light. As I mentioned in my video above I'm switching to AAs because the Sony-fit batteries keep breaking on me. I hold 2, 4 or 6 of them together with strips of gaffers tape which makes it really easy to keep them organized and avoid losing any.
  • It has a nice carrying handle (unlike the very annoying one of the larger units) and a loop connecting the two zips which is nice. It also has a hanging loop and a wide belt loop, both of which are at the back of the case so aren't visible in the photo above. Unfortunately it does not come with a shoulder strap which I think would be nice because Aputure make lovely quality shoulder straps. Luckily it's a piece of cake to add a shoulder strap, just clip it to the handle, belt clip or hanging loop - or maybe add your own connections if you really want. It's as easy as cutting two small holes and adding a piece of string.
  • Another feature that would be awesome on this case would be the ability to connect multiple cases together, since many people will be using more than one of these lights. This should be easy to DIY though. You could make little holes in the cases and use some string or clips to connect them together, or maybe add Velcro to the sides of the bags. Personally I will be doing this with some string.
  • It will fit Sony NP-f batteries if you prefer those over AAs, but without an AC adapter in the bag. Either one large 6800mah battery or two medium sized 4600mah batteries. I'm not sure about the really small ones, I would guess four.

Normally I don't pay this much attention to the carry cases manufacturers include with products, but this one is just exceptionally good, especially considering the price of the light. I look forward to including it in the "torture test" of the H160 unit I plan to destroy, oh, and I will also destroy the Yongnuo YN300 as a comparison!

The ball head stand:

The H198 comes with a really great mini ball head, this is not the case with the H160 which comes with a plastic piece of crap that's just about good enough for holding the light in place, if you're careful with it.

Once again I find myself amazed at how much quality stuff Aputure are giving us with these lights. This is hands down the best mini ball head I have seen, which is awesome to find because I'm tired of all my other ones. This doesn't unscrew from itself in the center like some of my other ones, it's way nicer to set up and use than the stand connectors that come with the larger aperture units.  It's easily strong enough to hold up my cameras so I will be ordering more of these for my tiny RatRig travel slider (review coming soon) and my Gorillapod shoulder rig [LINK]. I do have many normal ball heads but they are often too heavy for my uses. The thumbs screw on it is a bit too small but I'll just add some tape or something to make it a bit nicer.
It comes with the more common type of 1/4" adapter at the bottom, which sticks out a little. That will still work but it's not ideal, so best to pick up one that doesn't have the raised edge.

My previous "good" mini ball head wasn't actually very good, just better than the others I had. Shown on the Rat Rig slider.

Conclusion:

Aputure somehow took a product that was already superb (the H160) and made it that much better. It is hands down the best LED panel I know of. It kicks the butts of all the other panels I've seen on the market for two reasons, first of all it's a great light with great accessories for a great price, add to that the ability to connect multiple units together and what you get is a light that is great no matter what your budget is or what size LED panel you want.

I'm sure some of you will ask if it's better than the Pixapro and the answer is very simple, it's not even close. But they are different tools for different uses. The Aputure is a super compact system and it's super cheap, the Pixapro is pretty large in comparison, about x3 the weight, about x15 the brightness and about x10 the price. A good thing to note is that both give a similar "LUX-per-dollar", which is great but it wouldn't make much sense to use thirty Aputures instead of three Pixapros. 

Value for money: Excellent.
LUX-per-dollar: Excelent.
Color quality: Perfect. Much better than most LEDs.
Accessories: Awesome, but no remote.
Portability: 8/10.
What it's missing: A 50cm softbox attachment which is fast to set up, super-lightweight and doesn't have much light loss. This is not a complaint, just a product request. I would also love a super lightweight version of the light, something that's 150g and just takes AAs and has a single 1/4" connector, and I know it's possible because I've opened this light up, just like most other lights the box weighs a lot more than the actual parts needed to make light. Lets add a light stand to this wish list, it should weigh no more than 400g and go to 1.8m. (Similar to the 200g Lollipod, but larger.) I think these products would sell like hotcakes, I hope you're taking notes Aputure!
Should you buy it? If you need a super portable LED kit, absolutely. If you really don't care about the case and ball head, or the slight brightness increase, you can also go for the H160 which will save you about £10 per unit. You can also order from china rather than locally to save a bit more.
Which version should you buy? Strictly only the 5500K (daylight color) version. The "C" (dual color) version is half as bright while costing a little more, just like all other color changing lights that I know of. If you ever want your light to be 3200K (tungsten color) just use the orange gel that's included with the 5500K version. If you plan to use one on top of you camera for live events where tungsten lighting is used then the C version might be useful, although personally I do not use lighting for live events, and if I do I won't have it on my camera. Remember to get the AL-H198, not the older AL-198.

Product links:

eBay UK link

eBay USA link

Amazon UK link

Amazon USA link

Here's a lighting tutorial you will probably enjoy, which also explains why I love working with continuous lighting for stills work, not only video.

 

Update 1: Adding the power adapter

(Warning: Do this at your own risk! Incorrect use of electric products can be very dangerous.)

This is pretty simple and cheap, but it did take quite a bit of time for all the parts to arrive from china. You can get local parts too but it will usually cost a bit more.

The parts you need for each adapter:

  • One 9.5v 2.5A AC adapter (About £3-4). This is the actual power plug that goes to the wall. 
  • Two AA-to-AAA battery adapters (about £1 for a pack of 10). These two connect to the light without needing to modify the light.
  • One 5.5mm x 2.1mm plug connector (About £1 for a pack of 10). This is the usual standard size, but double check that your AC adapter has this connector.
  • Knife and tape.
Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 10.36.29.jpg

Steps to making the adapter:
Warning: Don't do this if you don't know how to be safe with electricity. 

  1. Carefully make a hole in the battery adapters using a knife or drill.
  2. Strip the plastic coating from the cable ends on the female side of the 5.5mm connector.
  3. Insert the cable ends into the battery adapters in a way that you get a good connection with the metal part. You may want to use tape to make sure that there's a good connection. Warning: This is technically the wrong way to do it, you should be using a soldering iron, not tape. Frankly I just couldn't be bothered and I didn't have any issue with this method so far. 

Mir 35mm f2.0 lens - A cheaper alternative to Samyang for Canon users

Super quick post. Just wanted to let you guys know about a lens not many people know about, the Mir24H / Mir24N (Same lens, the "H" is actually just "N" in Russian) which is available in M42 and Nikon F mounts. It's a lens from the soviet era that looks like it can produce some nice photos. For example, "Turns & Dips" by Howard F [LINK], Untitled by Mark T [LINK]01-7758 by Alexey Fedoseev [LINK] and Tulips by Vladimir Milyaev [LINK].

There's not a huge amount of information online about this lens, but it's said to be very decent. Here's a review by Christopher Chan [LINK] and another one here [LINK].

You can find the lens on ebay for a hell of a lot less than the Samyang 35mm.
eBay UK link
eBay USA link

My favorite compact LED panels ever! - The Aputure AL-H160

I have used a lot of portable LEDs for both photography and video work. Most of them have things that make them not ideal for my uses. Examples:

  • The larger Aputure lights (the 672 and 528) have some great features like a built-in charger for the batteries, but they are too fragile for me, and also cost a little more.
  • The Yongnuo YN-600 is super powerful compared to others at the same price and weight (4500 LUX, roughly double the competition), but it gives off fan noise. I could swap out the fan on them for a silent one, but that doesn't always work out, I suspect I would have to install the fan on the outside of the unit since most silent fans are much larger than the tiny one that Yongnuo build into it.
  • The F&V R-300 ring light is a very nice light, but is also a little on the expensive side  for the power it gives, and lacks a battery checker.
  • There have been lots of others with various issues in color, fan noise, build quality, weight, and sometimes just overall piece-of-crap-ness.

Currently my main lights are the Pixapro 100D which are awesome but this kit require a large rolling suitcase which is not always suitable when needing to travel. Or my dimmable CFL kit which is great for the price of £50 per light but this is completely unsuitable for travel, since it has fragile glass bulbs and easily takes over an hour to set up or fold back down.

The first LED lights I bought were the Yongnuo YN-160S units, because they were cheap and gave more power compared to other lights, even some larger lights. They did do the job very well in most cases.

The Aputure 160 lights were on my "buy for review" list for ages, even before they upgraded them to the 95+CRI rating, but I never bought one until recently because it had a lower light output than the YN-160S lights. I recently got the new AL-H160 and at first I wasn't really excited about it, it wast just another panel (I've had a lot), but that opinion changed as soon as I started using it. These two are currently the best super-cheap "featherweight" contenders I know of. Lets throw them in the ring and let them fight it out. (Apologies for the boxing metaphors)

This photo was shows the color quality difference between the two. The back light is the Yongnuo, slightly green. (Video frame from the A7s shot with 5500K white balance and no magenta/green adjustments)

Aputure AL-H160:

  • Much better light quality (95+ CRI rating. I can see it in the image. This alone is enough of a reason for me.
  • Slightly more portable because of the square shape and removable hot shoe connectors.
  • Connectable to each other to make larger panels (as large as you want). Pretty awesome feature.
  • They have a MUCH better battery door which sits on a hinge, unlike the Yongnuo's one which is not connected to the unit and is made of cheap plastic and can get lost easily because you have to remove it completely in order to change batteries, so you can use AA batteries more easily which keeps the kit much more compact and lighter weight. You can now get some fantastic rechargeable AA batteries from Contour (most likely a Sanyo Eneloop rebranding) for about £5 per set of four, which makes them much cheaper than buying Sony batteries. I've not done a run-time comparison yet, I will do one when my other two AL-H160s arrive, but I don't really care because I don't want to use these Sony-fit NP-f batteries anymore even if they give a longer run time. Too many of them have broken, it just takes one drop, with or without the light unit. 
  • Easier to dim, it has a dial rather than buttons like the Yongnuo. But this dial is also the on/off button, which means you can't switch them off and then turn them back on at the exact same brightness. This is not a big issue for most shoots where you might want to use these, but personally I will be wiring up an on/off switch into my units.  Alternatively you could just put a flat piece of plastic between one of the batteries and where it touches the light, this is surprisingly easy to do, but is not a professional solution. If you plan to buy or make/buy a power adapter for this light then for £1 extra you can get an inline switch.

Yongnuo YN-160S:

  • Slightly brighter than the Aputures.
  • They have a slightly green color cast, not terrible but not ideal.
  • Trying to get help from Yongnuo's customer service left a really bad taste in my mouth. It does not make me want to invest further into their equipment.
  • Has a connection for Sony batteries in the same place where the AA batteries go, so if this is your preferred power option you get a slightly more compact unit when the battery is inserted. This is a little irrelevant because the part of these batteries that is fragile is the connection between the battery's mount and the body, traveling with these batteries connected to the has a high risk of arriving with broken batteries, or worse, the broken batteries could short circuit. This is why I'm switching to AAs.
  • Both the Yongnuo and the Aperture don't come with power cables, which will cost you extra. Here's a link to the NP-f battery power adapters. The good thing is, anyone with basic wiring experience can make their own without even opening the lights up, since the 7.5v input is exposed at the back of the light. Here's a link to the DIY power adapters. There are 9v 2A power adapters for half that price, but I don't know if that will damage the unit so best to spend the extra £3. Note: If you don't know how to safely connect electrical wires then just spend a little extra and go for the ready-made adapters!

 

Rebranded Sanyo Eneloop AA batteries that cost less?! (Contour "world's best" AA batteries)

When it comes to AA batteries for your flashes and LED lights, none are more highly recommended than Sany's Eneloop series.

When I saw these batteries from Contour had the exact same specs as the Eneloops, and even call them the "world's best" batteries, I had the suspicion that they are simply rebranded Sanyos. When I got them that was pretty much confirmed, they look and feel exactly the same as the original white Eneloops and they even weigh exactly the same, and I see that in the Amazon reviews other have come to the same conclusion. I don't know if anyone has fully confirmed this but it is very common in manufacturing of most types of products.

Why should you care? - Because they are cheaper than the ones marked with the Eneloop brand, and so far seem to perform just as well.

I am now switching away from using Sony NP-f battery packs for my LED lights because they keep breaking (it seems to take just one drop to make them snap in two) so I'm switching to AAs, which are more compact and far more durable.

As a side note, Contour's smart charger is pretty great too and comes in at a great price compared to other quality chargers on the market. It has worked very well for me so far.

Get them on amazon via this link!

815FH-S fluid head? - Updates + Open letter to Varavon

I know a lot of you guys are confused about the 815FH fluid head, it was confusing to start with and now that they changed the name to 815FH-S it's even more confusing.

 Screenshot from their website.

Screenshot from their website.

It's a head worth caring about. It's perfect for DSLRs and small cameras due to its releasable 1.5KG counterbalance and is smoother than anything else I have used. Unfortunately the manufacturer (Fancier/Weifeng/E-image) decided to change the oil at some point which made their heads perform like huge chunks of crap (both the flat-mount Varavon branded version and the original bowl-mount FC-270A Fancier version). Varavon have tried to explain to buyers what oils were being used in their heads by describing the oils as "Japanese" and "Taiwanese" oils, which just adds to the confusion. Now they have a new S version which seems to have reverted back to the awful old Japanese oil, although I'm not 100% sure this is the bad one.

 Screenshot from their website.

Screenshot from their website.

Here is the email I wrote to Varavon:

"Me and many other people are confused about the 815FH head. (And now the new S version)
1. How many versions of this flat head do you sell?
2. What oil is the thicker oil that Fancier put in my two 815FH heads? (Japanese/Taiwanese?)
3. How can we get the thicker oil? - Can you please sell two versions of this head so we can choose what oil to buy. I will be happy to make a video to explain it to people on Youtube if you can do that. I will be happy to film a comparison if you want.
I do understand that some people are complaining that the thicker oil is "too thick" but this is not true.
The professionals who will give your head a good reputation do not like the thinner oil.
The 815FH with the thinner oil is 99% useless for professionals - But the 815FH with the thicker oil is the best fluid head I have ever used. Better than Manfrotto, Sachtler, Vinten, etc."

Hopefully we'll get a reply soon. I will post updates here. Here's my review of the 815FH.

Hawaiki Color review - Sweet color grading plugin for FCPX

Hawaiki Color is a kick-ass color correction and grading plugin for FCPX. It is not a full-featured standalone color grading software like Apple Color (which is sadly discontinued), Adobe Speedgrade or Davinci Resolve but it is a lovely improvement over FCPX's own color corrector and is available at a very decent $49 (discounted to $39 at the time of writing). Unlike the other ones I mentioned, this one works inside of FCPX which is very important when you need a fast workflow. For me, exporting my footage into another program for grading is not a workable option for 99% of the work I do, especially not when I might need to make changes to the original edit after I do the color grade.

Hawaiki Color being used in "full screen" mode. I really like this. One of the optional split-screen preview options is enabled, which is very useful but I would usually turn it off as I prefer to see the entire final image when I grade my footage.

The main-screen controls are:

  • Three color wheels that control the color in the shadows (lows) the midtones (mids) and highlights (highs). 
  • Exposure (brightness), temperature (white balance) and saturation, all three with individual controls over the lows, mids and highs.
  • Four additional controls: hue, contrast, blur and sharpness.

The controls in the inspector (on the right) have everything above and also add:

  • "Mix" (overall strength) adjustments for the entire filter as well as for just the color wheels. Extremely useful.
  • Green/magenta white balance adjustment for mids, lows and highs.
  • Contrast, blur, sharpness, temperature, exposure and saturation adjustments, all of them with individual controls for mids, lows and highs. Awesome.
  • Legalize (reduce the top and bottom range of colors and tones slightly for broadcast uses).

FCPX feels and works a lot more like a professional grading application with Hawaiki Color, although as I mention below, there are still features I would like to see added.

Another example of a large-view setup (inspector hidden).

Pros:

  • A far better interface for color correction than the one included in FCPX. This is might depend on preference, but anyone who has worked with pretty much any professional color correction tool will likely prefer this. It allows me to get the results I want far more easily.
  • Well thought-out overlaid controls, with the option to display the image separately in a smaller window, similar to many pro color grading tools.
  • No need to switch between tabs like in Final Cut's own color tools.
  • Far more precise control in the color wheels compared to FCPX. Larger mouse movements are required which means fine adjustments are much easier to control. There is even an option in the inspector that allows you to fine tune this sensitivity.
  • A very decent sharpness filter is included, although you need to go to the inspector on the right to make fine adjustments to it.
  • It can be used together with plugins like LUT Utility, something you cannot do properly with FCPX's own color corrector. Very important. A full explanation of this is at the bottom of my review of VisionColor's LUT Utility.
  • Several user interface display options.
  • A free trial is available (full features but with watermark), this is always good.
  • Easily color grade multiple shots by dragging the Hawaiki Color plugin from the Titles browser rather than the effects browser and place it over any clips you want to grade together. (Tip: you can do this with other effects by using Alex4D's free Adjustment Layer plugin.) For a long time copying grades in FCPX was a bitch, but now you can also do it with the CMD+C to copy then CMD+SHIFT+V to paste a grade or other filters/adjustments.

A color grade sitting on top of two clips.

Could be improved:

Normally this section is called "cons" but I do not feel there are any actual issues with Hawaiki Color, just things I feel are missing that could really improve the software.

  • I would love to see the option for all the extra features currently hidden in the inspector to be used in the main window, possibly with the use of multiple display options you can switch between.
  • The controls within the inspector are a little too sensitive. I'm pretty sure this is a limitation of the inspector in FCPX but if this can be fixed it would be great.
  • Lacks proper distinguished separation between the brightness controls of the blacks and shadows and between the brightness controls of highlights and whites, which is also an issue with FCPX's own color corrector. Both of them only have four controls for exposure: lows, mids, highs and global (global means the overall exposure), when they really should have five: blacks, shadows, highlights, whites and global (Ideally with a "mids" control too). This is a huge oversight and something seasoned Photoshop and Lightroom users will miss. It makes a very big difference in grading almost any image. Note that I am specifically talking about brightness controls, not about the three color wheels, they work just fine.
  • It has an image blur adjustment in the interface. This is not needed in this plugin and just takes up space on the screen. A good noise cleaner would be a welcome alternative.
  • No adjustments of individual colors. For example, I can't reduce the exposure only on yellows. FCPX is also heavily lacking in this department but there are ways to do it.
  • The hue adjustment is pretty useless when you cannot choose which color you are adjusting. This should be improved or removed.
  • Additional features that would be great to have added to this are: Aliasing reduction. Good noise reduction and addition (instead of the blur filter). LUT import features. Highlight rescue. Protect skin tones / adjust skin tones. Local area adjustments / quick masking option. Preset saving and sharing (personally I don't use presets but many users will like this). Readers, feel free add your feature requests in the comments, I will send this article to the makers of this software.
  • It does have a midtone contrast adjustment which is nice but it doesn't give the same effect as the clarity adjustment found in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (see example below) which might use more of a wide-radius sharpening filter to create the contrast in the midtones. I think that removing the radius limit from the sharpness adjustment would be a good first step. I would love to see Hawaiki create a proper clarity filter and add it to the main-screen control panel (instead of the hue adjustment) as well as add more fine adjustment options to it, such as an option for how much of the tones are affected and the ability to increase the intensity of the effect without using multiple layers. Below is an example of clarity compared to normal contrast, this example was done in Photoshop's Camera Raw filter.

Left: Original Sony A7s footage. Middle: Added clarity, raised shadows and lowered contrast. Right: Added contrast.

Conclusion:

Hawaiki Color is a fantastic color grading plugin that is simple and affordable yet surprisingly powerful.

FOR PROS? - Hell yeah! I think it will be a superb improvement for advanced users. I highly recommend getting the free trial from FxFactory and giving it a go for yourself.

FOR NEWBIES? - In my opinion, not yet. When Hawaiki add individual color controls, separate adjustments of blacks/shadows/highlights/whites and a good clarity filter it will be pretty much mandatory for every single FCPX user to get this, but right now the basics can be learned using the tools already included in FCPX, even if they are not as good as Hawaiki's offerings.

Aputure V-Mic D2 shotgun microphone first look review

The V-Mic D2 just arrived from Aputure.
It's a nice micrphone kit with some interesting features and some really great value compared to what you get from most other brands, although with a few things I didn't find ideal.

From left to right: Sony Xb700 headphones, Sony A7s camera with Voightlander 35mm f1.4 lens, V-mic D2 with its windscreen and the Ride VideoMic Pro with a cheap windscreen.

Pros:

  • Fairly compact and lightweight.
  • Uses two common AAA batteries.
  • Has a built-in manual volume adjustment knob. As far as I can tell it's analog, not digital, which means you get a very smooth adjustment from zero all the way to maximum.
  • Comes with a fur windscreen that feels like it will be great, but I have yet to test its noise reducing qualities. It is a mini "blimp" style windscreen that covers the entire microphone.
  • Removable cables make for easy replacement if the cable gets damaged.
  • Two built-in shock mounts that work very well to reduce handling noise, one around the microphone and another below it.
  • Decent build quality.
  • Dual-use hot shoe and 1/4" screw connection.
  • A green LED to let you know if you're getting a loud enough signal (above -12dB) and a red LED to let you know when you are peaking, to prevent distortion.
  • A very decent low-pass feature which can reduce a lot of background noise, obviously depending on the noise.
  • A camera calibration feature, useful for people who are not sure what recording volume to set on their camera or audio recorder. It basically gives you beeps into the camera so you know that you need to reduce the in-camera volume until those beeps aren't make the camera's audio peak. This could be very useful for first time users, because many do not set their camera correctly, for example, many people get poor results from the Rode Videomic Pro because they do not use the +20dB feature with their camera's volume lowered almost all the way. I am not sure if this calibration feature will also be useful for more experienced audio/video professionals.

Cons:

  • The cable connection from the microphone to the base is a USB connection, and feels a little fragile. I am not sure if a standard mini USB cable would work here, I don't have another to test.
  • The fur windscreen's zip cannot close if the USB cable is plugged in (which is always).
  • Extremely susceptible to interference. Even using it at my desk, where I often use other microphones, it picks up a lot of noise from my WiFi router.  

Audio samples coming up soon.

A size comparison of the Aputure D2 with the Rode Videomic Pro. The V-Mic is slightly larger and heavier.

Crazy-cheap "Pelican" style rolling cases

My tool case with customized elastic straps for my tools. Works really well. I will have a video with a small tutorial about it.

I just found that you can now get amazingly cheap protective roller (and non-roller) cases from eBay. I have had a non-rolling version for a few years, but before now I never saw them available on eBay. Even though mine did come with "pick and pluck" foam, which would make it suitable for more sensitive equipment, I've actually recently been using mine as a tool case, not something for my camera equipment, because I often travel to shoots with just a backpack, or with a backpack plus a large roller case from Samsonite [video link].

It certainly does feel up to the task of protecting camera equipment and at these prices I'm tempted to get a few more and use them for my camera and lighting equipment, especially now that wheeled versions are available.

Sorry about the quality of the images, I'm busy so had to just use some photos I shot for Facebook a while ago.

eBay UK link
eBay USA link

Slightly different tool setup.

Screenshot from an upcoming video about how I customized it.

Battery options for very high power LEDs

[Once again, I do not work for Pixapro. I post a lot about their lights because they have become an essential part of my work.]

Three days ago I saw this new video posted by Pixapro.

I asked them this:

I got an email from them today that I wanted to share with you:

"We have run a few tests with our PowerGenorator with our LED100Ds and the results we have found so far are as follows:
  • With three LED100Ds set to minimum power simultaneously plugged it, the PowerGenerator lasted for approximately 2 hours.
  • With three LED100Ds set to maximum power simultaneously plugged it, the PowerGenerator lasted for approximately 30 minutes.
  • With two LED100Ds set to maximum power simultaneously plugged it, the PowerGenerator lasted for  just under 60 minutes.
The brightness of the LED100Ds remained pretty constant until the PowerGenerator’s battery died. There was no sign of the lights losing brightness at all. We did find that the PowerGenorator’s fan did start up pretty much straight away when we plugged the three heads in, and the fan is a fair bit louder than the fans that came with the LED100D. I think this is because the battery has to work harder to power constant lighting.
We are still performing tests but these are results we have found so far."

So this means it could be an option for powering up my Pixapros in locations where I have no power supply. It is not a very cheap option, but it should give enough power for a full shoot at a price that's very reasonable for a professional, especially considering additional batteries for it can be bought for a lot less than the set which includes the battery and the 240v power inverter together.

For many of us a second lighting kit of lower-power lights running on Sony batteries will be a cheaper option, however, as I have mentioned before, the Pixapros give me light quality, power and control unrivaled by anything even remotely close to their price range. LINK to example. V-mount battery powered lights are also an option although they are usually not as portable or as cheap as sony battery powered LED kits. My current favorite for ultimate portability is still this one [LINK] although it is nowhere near the quality of the Pixapro. 

Pixapro links:
The TSL-2009 eBay store here (LINK)

Pixapro on Amazon (LINK)
www.EssentialPhoto.co.uk (LINK)

I started looking around and I see that there may be battery powered options that will cost less.

These 17 amp-hour battery packs cost about £90 [LINK]  and claim to support up to 200W, which should be more than enough for these 100W pixapros. They do not state the weight of these packs and you will need one pack for each light since they only have one socket. The specs of the Pixapro state "Battery Capacity - 12Ah (12.8V)" but I do not know if the performance of these two products is directly comparable.

Petrol generators start from about £100 [LINK], but they are very heavy and very loud so will not be suitable for many on-location shoots, especially for video where the noise could be an issue. If used correctly and safely these could be good for some uses. 

Sony NP-f compatible batteries [LINK] cost around £50 for a set of batteries to give you approximately the same amount of power as the Pixapro (by my calculations: x4 6.8 amp-hour at 7.2 volts), however, for now they are currently limited to smaller lights such as the Yongnuo YN-600 [REVIEW LINK] or YN160s units [video link]. They are not as easily controllable (no softboxes, etc) and the 600 does have a fan noise issue but they are a cheaper, more compact option that still gives you roughly the same brightness for your money, although I don't know of any other small lights that do the same. For example, the YN-160s gives about 1/10th the brightness at about 1/10th the price of the Pixapro, and the YN-600 gives about a third the brightness at about a third of the cost. 

I would love to hear from any of you who have recommendations for good power packs.