Manfrotto Tripod, $400 – stainless steel bolts, priceless!

Manfrotto 535 MPRO salt corosion

Professionalism at what cost?

Ever wonder what a real Pro tripod costs?  Better yet, what’s it worth?

Well, a couple of weeks in (to the Gulf) and the new $400 carbon fibre Manfrotto 535 MPRO legs I bought are pretty worthless.  Well, worthless unless I go spend $2.00 more for a half-dozen stainless steel bolts.  That’s right – for a frigg’n $2 more Manfrotto could have made a REAL pro tripod.

Hmmm?  Note a tone of piss’d off ness?

YES!  When I spend $400 on a set of PRO legs I expect a higher degree of quality – hell, charge me the $402, I’ll pay it – really.  This wasn’t a price-point issue.

I’m rough on gear – I’ll admit it.  I take it to places even my body complains about.  But I’m not a ‘studio pro’, I work in the real world of rain, heat, salt, BP oil, and all kinds of shit (yes, real shit – I have a growing list of how many creatures have pooped on me and my gear.)  I NEED gear that works – it’s my job to USE the equipment – I depend on it.

C’mon Manfrotto – you made a carbon fibre set of legs, called it “MPRO”, so it could be carried into places.  I love them – light, rock steady, quick for both stills and video, perfect except on tiny, centimeter by 1/4 cm bolt and corresponding nut… oh, and the spring in the clamp lever that is certain to go soon.  Seriously, when they went for that pasta lunch, how many bottles of Valpolicella did your engineers down?  Stainless steel is not rocket science!

In case you were wondering, I checked, there are stainless steel bolts available in Italy.

The Solution:

So if this happens to you – before you can buy your own stainless steel replacement bolts –

  • always wash the legs ASAP with fresh water and extend so they can dry
  • pull all the joints apart – including all bolts and nuts, and clean everything (NOT the gaskets) with a de-ruster like WD40
  • go to the bicycle store and get winter formula chain lube – it’s thicker and bit more resistant to the wet
  • lube all bolts and nuts – and squirt just a little into the clamp spring
  • then reassemble
  • repeat as needed until you get all potentially corrode-able parts replaced

PS – the springs are going to fail – order a complete new spare set of lever join mechanisms to carry as a spare

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Beauty and the Beast

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I have been working with Caroline and Southwings, with the generous help of pilots Tom Hutchings and Lance Rydberg, to create aerials of the Gulf Coast for National Audubon Society.  The goal has been to document the post-BP Deepwater Horizon disaster impact and more broadly Gulf coastal erosion.  It’s easy to focus on the damage, the insidious harm we seem so determine to unleash on the Earth, but it’s also critical to juxtapose that against the spectacular beauty that is this planet.  And sometimes there is no more perfect place to embrace that beauty than from above.

I post these images as a huge “thank you” to Caroline and Tom and Lance for the opportunity they have given me to see the rare and grand beauty that is the American Gulf Coast.

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Baggit – I’m saving my back

thinkTank photo bag

Minimizing my travel footprint – the “airport” thinkTANK and KATA sling-pack (top) – the whole package is carry-on legal.

This is a post about saving your back and time/hassles in airports.

About a year ago I suffered one of those wake-up calls that we always hope we don’t get, but inevitably do because we treat our anatomy like a beast-of-burden.  Years of hauling around prime lenses and meaty camera bodies, all pre-lightweight, auto-everything, zoom-everwhere, advances, finally sent my sciatic into convulsions and my feeling in the right leg on holiday.  The outcome has been lots of yoga, a three-day a week regime of fitness workouts with a coach, a daily diet of glucosamine, loving care by Cheryl my LMT, and a conviction to do better for my back, i.e. don’t think you are an indestructible 20-year-old! I treat my back like my best friend.

The above image is the new bag combination I have just about settled into.  I’m still tweaking it a bit, but the overall set up is doing the trick.  Let me run you through it.

The roll-aboard is made by thinkTANKphoto, it’s called the Airport TakeOff.  thinkTANK makes a couple larger sizes that still meet flight carry-on standards (barring the uppity flight attendant that has decided to make it her or his personal mission to keep your gear off the flight – see my solution below).  I chose the slightly smaller size for a couple of reasons, both of which I have been happy about.  The first, is it fits in every overhead compartment except a small prop commuter – but then on these flights they take your bag at the plane and give you your bag immediately as you come off the flight, so no hassle there.  Second, it has a nice compartment right on the front of the bag for my MacBook Pro which is extremely convenient in airports and transit bars :”).  You can literally charge the laptop in the bag.

The extendable-handle roll-on feature of the bag (and its larger cousins) insures racing through airports is done with much reduced wear and tear on my spine.  The extended handle also doubles as a rack mount for the second bag I carry, the KATA sling-pack (my model is the 3N1-11), so that both bags are mounted together and act as a single unit when I’m traveling.  And again the great part – nothing is on my shoulders or back.

The KATA sling-pack did give me some issues at first.  My whole career was spent with camera and video bags large enough for the sling-pack to fit into.  In India, especially traveling in confined spaces like the back of an elephant its reduced size began to make sense.  Trial by trial I worked through the smaller size.  Part of it was simply wrapping my head around the idea of being more efficient with gear and resources.  I’ll be the first to admit this bag only works for me now because the gear has changed.  It would have been nearly worthless 20 years ago.  Now I have Canon 7Ds that also shoots HD video and digital audio, so gone is the need for a video camera.  Three compact zoom lenses cover the range where eight fix focal-lengths were required.  And best – no film! Pounds of chrome are replaced by a few ounces of 32gig cards and I’m set for days if needed.

As I mentioned above the KATA sling-pack provides another advantage should you run into the one flight attendant looking to win the coveted PITA award*.  It is small enough to slide under any seat – yet carries all the primary gear I need to go to work.  Coming back from India for example I had loaded most of the gear in the thinkTANK and just a body/lens and reading material in the KATA.  In the jetway, a few feet from boarding the flight from Singapore to Seoul a boarding attendant said the roller was too big, then lifted it (I’m guilty – it does weigh a lot when I have it fully loaded) immediately declaring it was impossible for me to take it aboard, “it has to be checked.” she said, as she wrapped a luggage tag on the handle.  I of course tried to explain my way through it, but fat chance.  So there in the jetway I unzipped the roller – loaded all the key gear into the KATA, put one extra lens in my pocket, and the laptop and books under my arm.  Then zipped up the near empty thinkTANK and handed it to her – she looked thoroughly disgusted.  And then walked on with all my stuff.  Ya, a hassle, but between the KATA sling-pack and the seat pocket everything was secured for the next 20 hours of travel.

This combination isn’t perfect for everyone, but my advice is keep looking and trying, something out there will work.  Returning to photography full-time has had new challenges for me, and flexibility and mobility are critical issues.  I have tried to become more journalistically agile and at the same time must save my back.  What’s really clear is there are an incredible range of options for traveling with gear – I urge you to explore them all.

Finally, a huge thanks to Rob at ProPhotoSupply for pushing the thinkTANK roll-on bag at me last January when I was heading off to India – it has since become a savior, especially of my back!

*pain in the ass

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Reminder to self: We live in a 3-D world

This is a very simple blog, more an observational reminder to someone who normally has above average observational skills.  Remember you live in a multi-dimensional world – LOOK UP!

One of the other projects I am photographing and videoing in the Louisiana bayou is the life and death of the Chenier Plains.  A unique coastal habitat of huge ancient live oaks that cling to survival along the summit of ancient sand dunes inland from the Gulf shore – they’re fate is in jeopardy.  (More on the Chenier in a later blog.)

In one site the oaks are other-worldly.  Giants, as if grown for a different place and time.  In amongst them we are Lilliputians.  Birds, especially migrating birds assume a particular affection for the safety and resources these limbed leviathan provide.

Live oak (Quercus virginiana)

Gargantuan Live oak (Quercus virginiana) on the Chenier Plains, Louisiana. Photo: Canon 7D, 10mm @ f/16; 1/15sec.; ISO125. Copyright Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures.

While photographing in this site, where the branches are so weighty they are forced to droop under their own weight and seek support on the soil, but continue to grow.  I had just finished creating a series of images and walked head-down under a couple small overhanging branches when I felt the stare.  Not just being watched, but my every inflection scrutinized.  I apprehensively looked about, but not until I looked up, straight up, just a few feet over my head, did I see the golden eyes…

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

The piercing stare of a Great Horned Owl just a few feet over my head is a reminder I won’t soon forget. Photo: Canon 7D, 400mm @ f/8; 1/400sec.; ISO400. Copyright Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures.

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Dry Bags!


protecting camera equipment

Photography and water make an amazing marriage - but wet battered cameras and lenses can quickly ruin the honeymoon. A few minutes of attention before, during and after the shoot can change the game. Here camera bag, drybag, boat ropes, life jackets, all serve to protect gear.


One cursory glance at a map of the state of Louisiana and one thing should be perfectly clear – its water – canals, lakes, and bayous full of it.  As a photographer you should also know if there is one thing to fear – for your equipment – it’s water.

Somehow the water concept just didn’t sink in when I was planning this project.  I thought through a host of other issues – new computer, new software to manage workflow, edit, new updates to Photoshop, new lenses, even new external hard-drives to store the precious images (now all 7,000 plus and counting) – but what I forgot?  Dry bags!

Every trip is a learning experience, regardless how long you have been at it, and the first Gulf trip was no exception to that rule.  I completely overlooked the most obvious fact of photographing on the Gulf – there’s water everywhere!!  And where there isn’t inches or feet of water, there is mud, muck, sand, oil, and more often than not a witch’s brew of the whole mess.

During the first several weeks I spent much of my time boarding a dawn boat at the marina in Cameron, Louisiana, the guest of the Louisiana Dept of Fish & Wildlife and the young team of boat hands hired as part of the BP restoration effort – yes, occasionally some of the BP money has gone to work in a positive way.  I joined them at the first light of dawn to speed the 45 minutes up the dredged passage of the Calcasieu River into Calcasieu Lake and eventually into West Cove – a brackish stretch of inland water that remained off the charts of the invading oil coming ashore along the Gulf Coast.  This far west the surface oil never reached – no one is certain about dispersants and micro-oil – concern still rumors through the shrimp and fishing communities.


pelican survey boat

Tranquility in Calcasieu Channel was not always the rule, and even mornings that started innocently could end in a roar. The flat, exposed, metal deck of the survey boat we had to use was not the ideal place to hide from harsh conditions - however it did provide an ideal 300 degrees photography platform if you were prepared. Photo: Canon 7D; 28mm @f/5.6; 1/100sec; ISO250. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)


Water conditions in the Channel are a daily game of roulette – most of the time they are reasonable, but every once in a while the house takes you for everything – water, wind, current, all lash the open deck of the barge-like boat – there’s no hiding.  And that means for your gear as well.

Every time I drove south from Lake Charles in the inky pre-dawn I was cursing myself for not bringing the simplest of protection – dry bags – like giant gear condoms.  Stupidest thing I could have done.  The worst part is I have half a dozen of various sizes sitting in my storage.  They have traveled all over the world with me – and from this day forward I never leave home without’em.  Mine are drybags are SEALine made by Cascade Design.


SEALine drybag

the simple design of the dry bag makes it ideal for travel and a lifetime of dependable service


For those of you unfamiliar with a dry bag it is a lovely simple cylindrical tube of rubberized material with a round flat bottom.  The top clips water-tight by, here’s the simple part, just rolling the top shut in small folds one upon another, then after a couple the plastic clip buckle is insert male into female end and presto!  The contents stay dry – completely!  I’ve literally flipped kayaks with these aboard and every piece of gear survived bone dry – unlike me.

The other beauty of the dry bag addresses the second issue on board most boats – vibration.  A sealed dry bag can trap air like a balloon, so with a bit of padding in the dry bag, an old towel, chunk of bubble-wrap or rain jacket for example, your equipment gets a bit of bumpy reprieve. Especially in rough waters the slapping of the hull can be enough to jar fillings loose.  Imagine the repeated impact on small screws in your gear, not to mention various circuitry and seals.

In addition to the dry bag use a variety of methods to try to absorb the vibration and hull slapping shock.  Of course a well padded camera bag or shock-proof, water-proof case is great, but not practical if you are also trying to work reactively.  THE best place for gear you need out is hanging on your body – your body can take a lot of bouncing around diluting the impact on the gear.

For those pieces of gear that need to be out and available, be protected, and can not be on your body, even if in a dry bag, be inventive, grab a couple extra life jackets, dock bumpers, seat cushions, boats usually have a variety of spongy objects that can service in a pinch.


flying pelicans at dawn

This image of pelicans heading to the Gulf at dawn in Calcasieu Channel was only possible because gear was safe and available as we bounced along the Channel waters. I waited morning after morning on our trips to the pelican rookery to get birds, light and condition optimal to create images like the above. Having gear accessible and undamaged was critical. Photo: Canon 7D; 250mm @f/6.3; 1/1500sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)


Two dry bags, one medium, one large, are now permanently stowed in my travel bag.

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Pink is what happens when preparation meets opportunity

albino bottlenose dolphin

Adult albino bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) in Calcasieu Lake, Louisiana Photo: Canon 7D; 520mm @f/8; 1/1000sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

When I was a kid I loved the Green Bay Packers.  Football was a once a week thing back then, not a 24-7 pigskin fest.  Legendary Vince Lombardi was the coach and I remember to this day a quote he said about luck: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I later found out it was Seneca, the Roman philosopher, who said it, but philosophers weren’t as cool as football coaches when you were ten.

A couple weeks ago after a morning out in the boat we were cruising back down the Calcasieu Channel pretty satisfied with the days shooting, a couple hundred good images to edit through that evening and fingers began to point off the port, then off starboard, dolphins.  Bloop, up comes a dorsal fin, pop! the slap of a tail.

We see dolphins pretty regularly in the Channel and along the surf line on the coast, but they are always worth pointing out.  They pretty much ignore us, and our boat; we don’t create enough bow wake to ride, so why bother.  But we never ignore them, something magically mysterious about such a lovely animal that you really never get to see.

albino bottlenose dolphin

Side view as the albino bottlenose dolphin cruised closer to take a look at us, Calcasieu Channel, Louisiana Photo: Canon 7D; 520mm @f/8; 1/1000sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Problem is the waters of Calcasieu Channel and the neighboring Gulf are horribly murky and a dark grey bottlenose dolphin pretty much is here and gone – a glimpse of a dorsal fin as it breathes and rolls over on the surface – but we humans cling to such fleeting things.

Occasionally the dolphins give us a real show, launching up out of the muddy tea-colored waters and become completely airborne, for moments like that I practice.  I always travel forth and back with the water exposure metered, the 100-400mm mounted on a 1.4 converter and out of sight from all other – cross my toes in silent hope and anticipation.

Most of the time the few images I do fire off are passing pelicans and diving terns – always hoping for one great flight shot, just that we bit better than anything else I have recorded.  And occasionally I get lucky – my preparation and opportunity collide.

Long before super fast focusing, stabilized telephotos I practiced – preparation in the form of endlessly chasing swinging, bouncing, rolling tennis balls around a room or backyard.  Those little balls are a great way to learn to follow, focus and shoot on the fly.  I was always pretty good, but now add the auto-focus and not too many opportunities escape.

So cruising in the Channel this day the boat guys were going on about a mythical pink dolphin seen on fleeting occasion over the past couple years.  Just as I was about to chalk this up with yetis and unicorns right behind the boat surfaces one of the most amazing creatures I have seen in decades of roaming the planet – a pink dolphin!  And not that grey-pinkish color I had seen in botos of the Amazon River, this was as bubble-gum pink as you could ever imagine.  Totally crazy!!

Instantly tossing disbelief aside I started tracking and shooting.  It only surfaced near us a couple times, but the great thing about bubble-gum pink dolphin is it glows beneath the surface of even the muddiest, murkiest cesspool.  I could actually track it as it was about surface then hold the shutter release for all its worth.  What it was worth was three sharp frames.

albino bottlenose dolphin

Opposite side view as the albino bottlenose dolphin as it lifted slightly out of the water to see us better, Calcasieu Channel, Louisiana Photo: Canon 7D; 520mm @f/8; 1/1000sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

That was the day I realized Lombardi or Seneca were wrong – not luck, but pink is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

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