Photo Plus 2009 Impressions

The first budgets that get cut in economic downturns are marketing. Thus the buzz for this year's PDN PhotoPlus Expo in New York City was that of no-show vendors, limited new products, and lowered attendance. After spending three days at the convention, one of them working as an exhibitor for a high-end camera company, I have come to the conclusion that most of that cynical buzz was unfounded. The show floor was crowded, consumers mobbed booths with credit cards to snag special pricing exclusive to the expo, and there was a palpable excitement in the air.

Compared to photographic-industry trade shows of years past, the number of consumers carrying around digital SLR cameras has skyrocketed. Over three long days, I managed to find one young woman shooting film. Even so, I would give a "best booth" award to Lomography, the company responsible for the "toy" film cameras that give creative and a one of a kind result. The booth was small, but covered floor to wall with samples of work produced with their equipment. The feel was both funky and artistic, with many sample cameras to play around with.

The incredible number of photo-book publishers at last year's Photoplus trade show appears to have dropped off dramatically, while the big players like Blurb continue to grow, and widen their customer base dramatically.

Both Canon and Nikon had their new, high end digital SLR cameras on display, and lines at their booths were often eight or ten people deep. After handling both cameras, I will say that while I am impressed, there is little that I can establish. A firm assessment of these new $5000 plus cameras cannot be given until I am able to evaluate performance and image quality. It is enjoyable to handle the latest and greatest cameras at a trade show like PhotoPlus, but the real joy comes from meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, and furthering one's enthusiasm to make photographs.

Aside from the mainstream companies that populate every trade show by default, the convention center was deluged with small "mom and pop" companies, many whose products were priced low enough to be tempted to buy one on the spot. It can be infuriating with the sheer quantity of inferior quality, and seemingly useless, products that are on the market. But from all the chaos of the show, there are a few great products, some totally new, some updates from older versions, many which do not have the advertising budgets to reach a massive customer base. All of the following products I would personally recommend any photographer consider purchasing, or at least try out a demo:

1. Datacolor Spyder Cube: This is a small device designed to be inserted in a photograph, and allow for a precise white balance to be created when processing RAW files in Photoshop. What makes the Spyder Cube so unique is that it is a 3-dimensional shape, allowing the light in the scene to fall across it. This creates an extremely accurate surface for balancing from. Also, the cube has a small hole surrounded by black material. Light cannot enter the hole, so it should always be 100% black. However, if the black area around the hole is also black, it indicates you are losing shadow detail. Lastly, there is a small silver ball on the top of the cube, designed to show you what the shape of the light source looks like, great for predicting catch lights. This is the "grey card" for the 21st century.

2. JL Creative Light modifiers: Distributed by Profoto, these light modifiers are well built, easy to use, and most importantly, relatively inexpensive. The soft boxes come in two versions, a version whose white front diffuser extends all the way to the edges and wraps around, and also a traditional softbox with a black edge that prevents spill. The wrap-around edge model allows multiple soft boxes to be stacked, as well as easy "feathering" or using only the very edge of the soft box for the softest light. Another great feature of the Creative Light system are study metal speed rings for adapting the modifiers onto strobes, but priced similarly to plastic models.

3. ColorEyes monitor calibration software by Integrated Color: Slightly updated for 2009, this excellent software does one thing and one thing well: monitor calibration/testing. But it does it better than any other software I have ever tested. The software works especially well for computers with glossy monitors, which can be a nightmare to calibrate. Add in the option for an L* gamma, which translates to extremely clean shadow detail in deep blacks, and you have a fantastic piece of monitor profiling software.

4. ThinkTank Photo camera bags: ThinkTank bags are made by photographers for photographers. Their "Rotation 360" combines a backpack with a waist bag that rotates around your hips, move it to the front of your body for easy access, then turn it around and store it within the backpack for hiking around. All ThinkTank products are extremely well made and modular. I would also recommend the ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket compact flash card holder. This memory card holder is by far the best on the market, and for only $16.50, will keep up to ten compact flash cards safe and well organized.

5. Elinchrom Ranger Quadra: The new Elinchrom Quadra is a 400 watt second, battery powered strobe system. It has outlets for two strobe heads, a digital display for power adjustment in tenth stops, and is small enough to hang from a light stand. The Quadra heads are smaller than a Nikon SB-900, and have a 5900K LED modeling light. This is one of the most exciting developments in location lighting products in years, due to its small size but amazing feature set. Look for a full review in coming months!

6. Nik Viveza 2 - New from Nik Software, this plugin for Adobe products, and others as well, is an excellent refinement from their already superb Viveza software. New in Viveza 2 is global adjustments, levels and curves, a shadow slider that helps restore shadow detail, or make for deep rich blacks, and many interface improvements. Nik's suite of software allows users to do in one step, using intuitive U-Point technology for selective adjustments, what would take numerous steps within Adobe Photoshop to accomplish.

7. Camera Bits Photo Mechanic: Photo Mechanic is one of the best browsing and editing programs on the market today. Cherished by professional photographers world wide, Photo Mechanic is incredibly fast and allows for easy captioning and tagging of images. I use this software in my daily workflow, and would encourage anyone who takes more than one photo at a time to try out a 20-day demo of this software.

8. custom business cards: now offers customized business cards, with the ability to print up to 50 different photos. This means you can upload 50 photos, and get 50 unique business cards. Or get 200 cards, with four of each photo. This is an exciting way for a photographer to share their work with the community, and can be a great "leave-behind" at a photography event. People will be consistently surprised when they see another one of your cards, because they will probably never see the same photo twice.

9. This website went online in August of 2009, and already has hundreds of members. Become part of the StudioShare community, and you can offer your services an assistant, photographer, etc, based on your location, rent out your gear to other photographers, rent gear for yourself, or find "collaborators" of any kind for photo shoots. This start-up website shows serious potential, and will be a great networking tool for anyone in the photography industry.

10. Leica X1: Shipping in January, the Leica X1 is a point and shoot camera with a 12 megapixel, APS-C sized sensor. This is the same size sensor used in digital SLR cameras like the Canon 7D or Nikon D300s. It has a fixed 24mm F2.8 lens (36mm equivalent), and super speedy performance. This will be the camera that professional photographers carry around when they leave the bulky digital SLRs at home. The Leica X1 bridges the gap between the large, high quality sensor of an SLR and the small form factor of a point and shoot that you can (nearly) slide into your pocket.

(written by Josh Lehrer)