Review: Billingham 550 / 307 / 107 Bags

During a recent expedition into the deep, dark depths of the uncharted territory usually referred to as “the loft”, I discovered my old diaries and, with your indulgence, I should like to share a few extracts. Please, please forgive me…

Summer 1987

“Dear Diary,

Today I saw a vision. Her tan coloured skin looked so gorgeous and exotic that I assumed she must be from somewhere abroad, but my friend says she is as English as I am. I wanted her as soon as I saw her, but she is out of my class; out of my reach. I dream that I may one day get my hands on her…”

November 2004

“Dear Diary,

It’s been such a long time, but she came back into my life today. She still looks great and I find I want her as much as I always did. But alas, when I saw her she was draped seductively over the shoulder of a fit young man and he was proudly pulling her close to his side as he walked down the road, showing her off to the world. He caught me staring at her and he smiled that satisfied, smug smile of a man who knows exactly what he has. I was so embarrassed to get caught like that…”

June 2009

“Dear Diary,

OMG I can’t believe it! She crossed my path again today and I finally got up the courage to ask if I could spend a little time with her; the answer was ‘yes’! After all these years I have finally got to touch her and what a sensation! She is so soft and smooth and she still has that tan. It’s so hard to believe she is as old as she is – she has hardly changed at all since that first time I laid eyes on her!

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep her. I want her passionately, but she needs so much more than I can give her; I know I just don’t have what it takes to fulfil her.

But wait, what’s that?! She has a little sister? Several little sisters? And quite a few younger cousins?! Oh I’m such a bad, bad man…”

Continue reading “Review: Billingham 550 / 307 / 107 Bags”

“Darkness” iPhone App Tells You When The Sun Will Come Up

iPhone Darkness AppI have many times crawled out of bed early in the morning in an effort to be somewhere in time to take photos as the sun came up. This usually involved a certain amount of homework to establish exactly what time sunrise was going to be; leafing through newspapers, asking locals, occasionally even getting up early the day before!

That works fine when you are already in the place you are going to be taking the photos, but might not work not so well when you are preparing for a trip abroad or are planning a trip in the future.

Of course, now we have the Internet and there is not much going on in the world that I can’t find out from Mr Google, with a little bit of effort and judicious searching.

Continue reading ““Darkness” iPhone App Tells You When The Sun Will Come Up”

Review: Lastolite Hi-Lite Background System

Lastolite Hi-Lite Test Shot

I have been really excited about this product, largely because it looked like it had the potential to be the answer to my prayers. Now, the trouble with really wanting something is that the reality does not always live up to the expectation.

However, the people at Lastolite are obviously conversant with the obscure “Gaz’s Inverse Law of Relative Expectation” which states that (under certain, rare conditions) it is possible for Satisfaction to exceed Expectation, even when Expectation has been set at an unrealistically high level.

I’ve got to be honest, I was more than a little apprehensive about actually reviewing this kit, because I couldn’t see it working well. I have always been a fan of Lastolite products and the idea of (possibly) having to say this one was not so good was a worry. So now I have a dilemma – on the one hand I am excited and desperate to get my hands on this product; on the other hand, I can’t see it being brilliant and I don’t want to have to say so.

My Family

As I was unfamiliar (and (sorry, Lastolite people) not feeling too confident) I decided to do a few family shots so I wouldn’t have to worry about the results too much. After a previous review of the bottletop covers for the Hi-Lite, one of our readers went out and bought one and he sent me some feedback to say he thought it was fantastic, so I’m relying on him not stitching me up!

First Impressions

It’s quite big (I had the 6 x 7ft version). Anyone who is familiar with Lastolite reflectors will already have a reasonable idea of what the product looks like. It’s like two huge reflectors sewn together with panels in-between, making it like a big mattress with all the springs removed. One side is black, the other is a translucent white. The side panels are all fitted with zips to create an opening to insert your studio flash.

One of the major benefits to using the 6 x 7ft version (for me, at least) is that I can finally fit more than two people in the shot. It’s a really useful size (but there is a smaller version available).

The Perceived Issue

This is where I expected it all to go wrong. When you put your studio flash through one of the side panels, the light source is going to create a hot spot where it is so close to the material and a graduated fade across the surface of the background as the light gets further away from the source. It’s obvious. It has to happen. You can see the effect from the modelling light on the flash.

In Practise

Okay, so I took my readings with my trusty old Minolta light meter and set the camera accordingly. I fired off the first test shot and took a quick look at the screen on the back of the camera. Wow! Probably the best studio flash shot I have ever taken! Without really trying! Hot spot? No! Graduation? No!

I have two old Elinchrom 250 lights, one of which I stuck through the side of the Hi-Lite and the other I fitted with a lightbox. Apart from the unexpected evenness of the background light, the other unexpected benefit of using this kit was the wonderful fill-in effect. The background light source was so big and so even that it perfectly complimented the lightbox coming from the front.

I don’t deny that I could have spent a little more time fiddling with the flash outputs to get a better balance; I could have also have experimented with the subject distance from the background to get a better result. However, the result considering how little effort I really put in is simply outstanding. If I have anything negative to say about the experience, it is this: don’t try to use it in a confined space and make sure you have someone to help you get it back in the cover – it’s not easy the first time! Of course, this says more about me than the Hi-Lite!


I love it. It works brilliantly. I can’t imagine not having one of these for all my portrait work. For years I have told people that the Lastolite reflector was my favourite accessory – that may have changed now.

Lastolite HiLite Bottletop Covers

One of the stands I purposefully made my way to at Focus on Imaging in Birmingham last week, was the Lastolite stand. I have several of their products and their original collapsible reflectors have to be one of the best accessories ever invented.

I was particularly interested to see the HiLite Background system, which bears a passing resemblance to a huge softbox, but used as a background (the clue is in the name) instead of as a primary light source. There were several reasons why I wanted to see it:

  • I’m in the market for a new background “system” and high-key is a real challenge for me as I only have two lights
  • My TDM buddy, Charlie, said I should take a look and he’s often been right about the kind of gear that works for me
  • I didn’t see how it could possibly be any good (sorry Lastolite – pre-judging like this is unfair) and this was my opportunity to check it out

Well, I liked what I saw. Clearly, it does work (although I have not yet got my hands on one to test it fully). However, one possible stumbling block preventing me from investing is that I don’t always want a white background; I regularly shoot low-key against a dark grey background.

Anyway, today I learned that Lastolite has brought out a set of new “Bottletop” covers to provide a little more versatility. These include black and grey versions (I’m assuming you switch the back light off, at least for the black version!) and Chromakey versions in both blue and green. Simply slip the elasticated bottletop cover over the HiLite background to produce an instant change of colour. They also come complete with a train (although I’m struggling to find out exactly how long the train actually is). Now I’m excited!

Lastolite HiLite Bottletop Covers

Here’s the new range:
HiLite Bottletop Cover with Train 5â?? x 7â??
Black â?? LAS 8702 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Grey – LAS 8770 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Blue â?? LAS 8788 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Green â?? LAS 8781 SRP £54.99 Inc vat

HiLite Bottletop Cover with Train 6â?? x 7â??
Black â?? LAS 8802 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Grey – LAS 8870 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Blue â?? LAS 8888 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Green â?? LAS 8881 SRP £64.99 Inc vat

You can find out more about Lastolite products by visiting or by phoning 01782 753304.

I need to get hold of one of these for a proper test – I’m not sure whether I will still need to get a third light to illuminate the HiLite, or whether using one of my lights for the HiLite and one for the primary light source would be enough. Still, I was anticipating an additional two lights for the background so this could still be a good solution.

Review: Spudz Lens Cleaning Cloths

Spudz Lens Cleaning Cloth

Now, I love technology! There’s something magical about the smell of new electronics, possibly because it is a smell that can only be recognized by men (trust me – ask a woman what “new electronics” smells like). Lots of little buttons, LEDs, motors, all that stuff!

So I was a little surprised to find myself getting all excited about Spudz Lens Cloths. But I am. I used to have one of those Pentax cloths which did a brilliant job and when it was grubby you just put it in the wash and it was fixed. Trouble is, I can’t remember where I last had it. And, in spite of visiting every camera shop and optician in my local shopping centre (which is pretty big), I can’t locate one. Obviously I have looked on the trusty Internet which did yield a result, but somehow the online store did not inspire me to purchase.

Anyway, I was flicking through the pages at the back of Digital Camera Magazine and I spotted this little advert for “Spudz” cloths. I trundled off to the Alpine Innovations website and did a little research and next thing I know I’m holding three variants of the product and rushing around the house collecting optical glass in need of a polish.

The Basics

The concept is wonderfully simple; find yourself a perfect material for safely and effectively cleaning optical glass, sow it into a pouch to keep it in good condition and attach a clip for you to fix it to something so you can always find it when you need it. How brilliant is that?

First Impressions and Observations

Okay, I’m going to be honest and say that my very first thoughts when I received the Spudz were a bit negative. The Mini version is tiny. Teeny-tiny, in fact – 2″ x 6″ (about 50 x 150mm). What possible use could that be, I wondered. However, I attached it to my mobile phone (as recommended by Alpine Innovations) and now I have possibly the cleanest mobile phone camera lens in the southern hemisphere. It doesn’t get in the way, it doesn’t get lost and it has exactly the right amount of cloth to do the job. Genius!

My other negative doubt was a little more serious and was about durability. The old Pentax cloths were stitched around the edges to prevent them from fraying, but the Spudz cloth has been cut and left. I couldn’t see it lasting very long. However, anyone who ever used the Pentax cloth will probably tell you that the edge seam could be a pain in the proverbial, getting in the way during a delicate cleaning operation. That does not happen with the Spudz. I am very happy to report that after several months of virtually obsessive (and possibly excessive) cleaning, there is no sign whatsoever of the cloth fraying at the edges. Spudz are not stitched around the edge because they don’t need to be.

Now here is the bit that gets me all giggly. I have the XL Spudz, which is the largest of the trio at 10″ x 10″ (that’s about 250mm square) and I would say is the perfect size for a photographer’s needs. The XL is available in 18% grey so it can be used for taking accurate reflection meter readings and for setting white balance on digital SLRs. That is so smart. A grey card you can actually keep with you!

When your Spudz becomes dirty you can give it a wash and it’s sorted.

I feel I have written far too much here. Spudz are so simple in concept that one paragraph should cover it. I love the simplicity but most of all I like the feeling that someone has actually thought about what I really need and given me exactly that.

Finally (and this is a very personal thing), no matter how good or desirable a product is, there is always the possibility that you will have to make contact with the supplier/manufacturer and I put a lot of store in the quality of the personnel I have to talk to. In this case, I am pleased to report that my email “chats” with Alpine Innovations have shown them to be helpful and interested in the people who buy their products.

In Conclusion

I really don’t understand why they seem to be a big secret – they should be on the counter of every single photographic shop you walk into. Take a look at the Alpine Innovations website.

The quality is excellent, the price is fair, it does what it is supposed to do and I am never going to be without one.

Book Review: Portrait in Light and Shadow; The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Maria Tippett

Portrait in Light and Shadow; The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Maria Tippett

Okay, so this is not actually a book review, on account of the book not yet being published. But I’m really excited with the anticipation of getting my hands on a copy the second it is available. I’m hoping I can pass the excitement on to a few more people.

Karsh was (in my humble opinion) a true master of the art of portrait photography. His images of such icons as Churchill (Karsh took away his cigar!) and Einstein (in a sweater!) are sublime. I choose these two examples because the photographs are icons in their own right, making them almost icon squared, if you see what I mean.

I’m always a little envious of those who have the opportunity to photograph such universally recognizable people, but I don’t believe that makes it any easier to take a brilliant portrait. If anything, it probably makes it even harder, with expectations being that much higher.

Anyway, Karsh – right at the top of the heap (with a few other heroes), so do yourself a favour and get hold of this book as soon as you can. And someone, somewhere, put on an exhibition of his work and let me know about it.