It’s Pixel Independence Day: Tools For The Digital Photographer

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”—Abraham Maslow

A ll You really need to take a picture is a camera and a lens, but if you decide what you really want to do is make a photograph, a few extra tools come in handy. Any one of the imaging tools in this month’s column will make creating a photograph or making a portrait easier and, in some cases, better than they would be otherwise. For the pro or aspiring professional anything that increases productivity by streamlining workflow while improving the quality of the product delivered to the client translates into making money too, not just photographs.

Plug-In Of The Month
B&W Effects 2 from Topaz Labs is comprehensive monochrome conversion software that includes 200 one-click effects in eight collections, including Traditional, Stylized, and Toned, as well as classic darkroom presets for Albumen, Opalotype (my favorite), Cyanotype, Platinum, and Van Dyke Brown. There’s more here than black-and-white effects; some presets have color capabilities that produce a Marshall Oil color effect (a transparent oil medium photographers used to tint their photos), like the Hand Tinted Chiffon shown.

B&W Effects 2 is a gateway to an extensive array of adaptive exposure and grain effects with an attractive and functional interface that displays menus of presets on the left-hand side and sets of controls, including localized adjustments, on the right. Between presets and sliders the number of possible effects seems infinite, so pick a preset, grab a slider, and keep in mind that any effect you apply is subject dependent. Or you can put B&W Effects 2 in autopilot, click one of the 200 presets, and examine the effect in a large preview window before applying it. It’s all part of a well thought-out upgrade that’s available for Mac OS and Windows computers for $59.99.

© Joe Farace

© Joe Farace

In another item from Topaz Labs, they have upgraded Detail, a former Plug-in of the Month, to Version 3.1. It’s a free upgrade for Version 3 users and costs $39.99 if you don’t already own a copy. Detail produces three levels of detail separation and three levels of tonal separation, letting you adjust shadow and highlight detail. Using tools found in the Effect Mask tab you can also selectively brush detail in or remove it from an image. The new version is now faster and ran quickly and smoothly on my middle-of-the-road Mac Pro. There are more than 50 new presets that allow quick and easy image tweaking, but don’t overlook that row of sliders on the right-hand side and push one or two to create the kinds of effects you really want. If the effect from either one of these plug-ins doesn’t work with a particular image it may be perfect for another one.

Tether Tool
At this winter’s WPPI trade show I got a chance to see Savage’s—the background people—Tech Table products and decided to put their Tethered Photography Essentials Kit to work while testing the Broncolor Move lighting system for Shutterbug. The heart of the product line is the Air Flow Tech Table that’s designed for shooting tethered to a laptop whether on location or in the studio. The Air Flow Tech Table is made from high-grade aluminum with 45 ventilated slots to disperse heat from the laptop and battery to provide longer shooting times. The kit includes a Laptop Secure Strap to firmly anchor a laptop to the table and a Camera Mount that provides a stable platform for any tripod head.

The kit also includes an Extended Mouse Pad Platform (and mouse pad) for using an external mouse, a Cable Hook to keep long cables neatly looped, and a fistful of touch-fastener cable ties. There’s even a nice carrying case to take all the gear on location. All of the accessories are made of high-quality materials and are easy to install; no tools are required as the parts snap easily into place. There are lots of other useful accessories available from Savage’s website.

Courtesy of Savage Universal Corporation

Retouching Tool
Digital Anarchy’s Beauty Box Photo 3.0 is a useful retouching plug-in that uses advanced skin-smoothing techniques to erase skin blemishes and wrinkles, even out skin tones, and reduce shine on the subject’s face. It’s been designed for Adobe’s Photoshop/Photoshop Elements or Apple’s Aperture and includes more than 30 new presets that let you apply different color styles and looks to your portraits. Beauty Box finds all of the skin tones on your photograph and then applies smoothing only to the skin, reducing imperfections while keeping the natural texture. Built into Beauty Box are simple to use but smart tools for tweaking that effect and adding color styles to produce a finished, ready-for-client look. You can also use the plug-in as part of a batch process to retouch hundreds of photos in an hour.

© Joe Farace

Viewing Tool
Along with an LED flashlight, a monocular is one of the most useful, non-photographic tools in my camera bag. Monoculars are small but have magnification that’s as strong as a set of binoculars. The size of the lens determines the size of the monocular, but since there’s only one optical path, monoculars are physically smaller than binoculars.

Minox’s new MD 7x42 C Monocular has a sturdy metal body with an integrated compass. It is useful for bird watching (one of my 2013 resolutions), sports, or previewing images for long lens shots. With 7x magnification it provides a large, sharp field of view at up to 124.6 yards even in low light. Weighing 13 oz and measuring 2 1/2x2 3/8x5 5/8”, the monocular easily slips into the pocket of a photo vest. It’s available in either black or white for $119.

Courtesy of Minox/USA

Protect Your Batteries
Think Tank Photo’s Pro DSLR Battery Holder is designed to hold two batteries from Canon EOS-1D or Nikon D3/D4 cameras. Its folding design keeps these large, pro-sized batteries organized and safe from banging around and shorting (always a bad thing) while eliminating the need for hunting around for them in the bottom of your camera bag. The slim, compact design has individual pockets for each battery and flattens when empty. The Battery Holder measures 5.5x4x0.4” and, like all Think Tank products, it’s extremely well stitched together, in this case using 420D diamond rip-stop nylon, 210D nylon, and three-ply bonded nylon thread. You can be safe instead of sorry for $17.50.

Courtesy of Think Tank Photo

App Of The Month: Thirty Six
There are a lot of different apps and even applications that promise to make your images look “like film,” but none carry it as far as Thirty Six, a $1.99 app that brings the joy and frustration of shooting black-and-white film to the iPhone. Glub Tech promises an Android version will be available real soon now. Unlike most cameras or apps, Thirty Six won’t let you see any of the photos until after you “develop the 36-exposure roll.” This slows the process and Glub Tech thinks that will make you a better photographer. Back in the film days one of the joys of traditional photography was being surprised by the images you got back from the lab. The app even produces a black-and-white contact sheet of the 36 shots. You double touch to select a photo that you like and triple touch if you love it. After selecting you can share images via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other usual social media suspects.

Courtesy of Glub Tech

Digital Anarchy:
Glub Tech (Thirty Six):
Savage Universal:
Think Tank Photo:
Topaz Labs: