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Gorillapod review – the perfect companion for any camera?

teeteringNormally I limit my writings on this site to topics surrounding web design and development, but since we are approaching the Christmas season and people are starting to scratch holes in their heads wondering what to give as presents I thought I’d break with form and provide a review of Joby’s Gorillapod camera supports of which I tested 4 on our crazy roadtrip around the USA. And come to think of it, this is somewhat design related. After all I use my cameras extensively when creating websites so although on the fringe it is still topical enough.

Full disclosure here: When we went on our roadtrip I asked the people at Joby if they would supply me with a new Gorillapod that would hold my Canon EOS 5D-MKII and it’s enormous and rediculously heavy pro lens. In response they sent me not one but four different Gorillapods to play around with. Now, a lot of product reviews you find on blogs these days are heavily biassed because the blogger feels obligated to give the product a good review simply because they got the product to try. I’m not one of those people. If someone sends me a product and it sucks, I’ll make damn sure everyone knows just how crappy it is so that noone buys it and the company stops making it. I really hate crappy products. I’m telling you this because I want you to understand that what you are about to read is my professional opinion as a photographer and tech writer, completely unbiassed and without reservation.

The search for proper support

gorillapod artOne of the many challenges a photographer faces is proper camera support. As anyone who has ever tried to take a photo in poor lighting conditions or with a large zoom will tell you, without proper support your photos will end up blurry no matter what. Why? Because the human body just isn’t capable of holding a camera steady enough to get the necessary exposure. Though there are many alternatives available, from sand bags to monopods to tripods, photographers (and videographers for that matter) often find themselves on shaky ground because the support they have doesn’t work in the conditions they are in. This is especially true when it comes to placing your camera in an unusual location, be it on an uneven surface, in a tree or on a fence. And if you wanted to hang your camera from something, duct tape is usually the only option.

Gorillapod SLR – my first impressions

I found myself in just such a situation a couple of years back when I stumbled upon this new camera support called Gorillapod. Basically it was a small tripod where each of the three legs were comprised of a long chain of articulating joint. As a result the legs could be bent and shaped to grip, pry or lean on practiaclly any surface. And with that a whole slew of new camera placements became possible. At the time there were only two of these GorillaPods available, the standard one for small point-and-shoot cameras and the Gorillapod SLR for medium sized camereas and small SLRs. I got the bigger one and it turned out to be exactly right for my Canon EOS 10D with a standard consumer lens.

The Gorillapod SLR quickly became a permanent resident of my camera bag and I used it a lot – so much in fact that some of the joints started getting loose. I also lent it to one of my friends when he went on one of those bike rides to raise money for cancer and he used it to strap a Flip video camera to his bike with great success.

The SLR can support a camera up to 800g (no, I have no clue what that is in stone, pebbles, liquid ounces or any other archaic imperial measurement) which basically means any point-and-shoot camera and most consumer SLRs as long as they don’t have massive zoom lenses on them. Anything heavier and it’ll just buckle under the weight or the grip will slip if you’re hanging it off anything. In other words don’t use it to hang your $4000 prosumer video camera from a lamp post! It’s fairly small and has a detatchable base plate that you attach to your camera so you can snap it on and off easily. The only downside to this is that the baseplate is not threaded on the bottom so if you want to mount your camera to a different tripod you have to take it off which is a bit cumbersome unless you have a key or a big coin lying around.

Like I said, I used the Gorillapod SLR so much it’s gotten a bit slack in the joints, but it’s still perfectly useable even 3 years later. I would say this is a great buy except shortly after I got mine Joby created a big brother to the SLR called the SLR-Zoom which is a much better buy.

Gorillapod SLR-Zoom

Like the name suggests, the Gorillapod SLR-Zoom is a larger version of the SLR designed to accommodate heavier cameras and especially large zoom lenses. Considering how quickly Joby rolled out this version of the pod after the original SLR I can make an educated guess that a lot of photographers were having issues with the relative weakness of the SLR and wanted something stronger and more sturdy to work with.

joby ballheadThe SLR-Zoom is noticeably bigger than the SLR and supports cameras up to a full 3kgs which at least on paper is enough to hold my big clunker of a camera. We’ll get to that in a bit. The SLR-Zoom differs from the SLR in that the top plate is mounted directly on top of the three legs whereas the SLR has an additional articulating joint above the legs. This makes sense because it was that last articulating joint that caused the most problems when I used the SLR with heavier cameras. It ships in two versions: One which is just the pod itself and one which also includes a ballhead that lets you turn and position your camera at angles up to 90 degrees from the plane. The ballhead in turn comes with a baseplate that has a small water level on it to help you balance your camera correctly. This ballhead and water level combo is an absolute must-have and I don’t think Joby should be selling the SLR-Zoom without it.

The combination of the SLR-Zoom and the ballhead is close to perfection when it comes to medium-size camera support. Not only does the combination allow you to position your camera pretty much anywhere (I hung it off a fence, in a tree, on the door frame of our car and even used it to take long exposures of the night sky over the Nevada desert) but it provides rock solid support in a small and convenient package. It’s also light but strong and because it is so flexible it is relatively easy to pack away.

The only problem I had with the SLR-Zoom was that although it is technically strong enough to hold my large camera, it is too light and the legs are too short to achieve a good balance. As a result when using it as a “regular” tripod (rather than wrapping the legs around something) I found myself having to adjust and re-adjust the legs several times to find a position that didn’t either slip or outright topple. I gave it a full week on our trip and took around 100 shots with it before taking the ballhead off and moving it onto the newest and biggest brother in the lineup, the monsterous Gorillapod Focus.

On a sidenote, when I talked to the Joby guys they were unsure if the ballhead would be strong enough to hold my camera. From the pictures and the description I was under the impression that the ballhead would be made of the same plastic material the Gorillapods were made from. That turned out to be wrong. The ballhead is some form of metal construction and is extremely sturdy and resilient. Once I’d positioned the camera in the desired weird angle and tightened the big knob it was rock solid and I never experienced it slipping even once. So either they haven’t done their testing or they are overtly careful when telling people what it can and can’t do. I’m not saying it is the best or strongest ballhead in the world but for the price ($39.95 US on its own) it is well worth it.

Gorillapod Focus

gorillapod lineupAt the top of the foodchain in the Gorillapod family you find the Gorillapod Focus, a massive steel contraption that looks more like something dropped from an alien spaceship than a camera support. I had it stuffed in my backpack when I went to the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. and I had to physically take it out of my bag and demonstrate it to the guard before he would let me in.

The Focus is significantly larger in every way and also weighs more than the other pods because all the joints are metal rather than plastic. In return you get support for cameras up to 5kg which means you can strap a standard video fluid head and a prosumer video camera on it without any problems. That in turn means you can now put your expensive video gear up on tree branches, strap it to your car or hang it from lamp posts without worrying that it’ll fall down. Which any videographer will tell you is pretty damn awesome.

The only real downside of the Focus (and this goes for the SLR-Zoom too) is that the mounting screw has a really weird concave screw slot on the bottom that is too wide for a normal coin and pretty much impossible to use with a screwdriver because it is concave. As a result it is very difficult to fasten things well with it. A twonie actually works pretty well but it’s annoying to have to have a twonie handy just so you can mount your camera!

Like I said earlier the SLR-Zoom fell short when it came to supporting my Canon EOS 5D MK-II and it’s enormous lens so I took the ballhead off and put it on the Focus instead. This turned out to be the perfect combination. The Focus with its longer and heavier legs is more than adequate to hold the camera in any position and against any surface and has now become a permanent companion to my camera. The little baseplate with the bubble level has also turned out to be a great addition to my camera even without the tripod because it helps level my notoriously slanted photos.

The original Gorillapod and Gorillamobile

In addition to the big boys Joby also sent me the original Gorillapod and the new Gorillamobile. They are actually the same Gorillapod but the Gorillamobile comes with a set of different baseplates including a standard screw mount for cameras, a suction cup and two adhesive plates you can stick to your handheld devices.

The pod itself is tiny – about the length of my open hand – and extremely flexible so it’s easy for storage. Like the original Gorillapod SLR it has an articulating joint above the legs which enables you to tilt the camera (or other device) in relation to the base of the pod (just so it’s said, it’s way too small to mount the ballhead on so don’t even bother). The Gorillapod takes up to 325g which means it can handle most point-and-shoot cameras as long as they don’t have massive protruding lenses.

Because it is so tiny and versitile I’d say it is probably the best companion to a point-and-shoot I can think of. With the Gorillapod in hand you can easily improve on the dreaded MySpace pose and also place or hang your camera in places you never could before making for some great angles and shots. As long as noone steals the camera that is.

The Gorillamobile comes in two varieties, the Original and the Gorillamobile for 3G/3GS (because aparently no company is complete without having an Apple-only product). Not surprisingly the latter has specialized grips for the iPhone. Regardless if I was out to buy a Gorillapod for someone with a point-and-shoot I would go for the Gorillamobile just because it allows you to mount other stuff like a GPS or your cell phone to the pod. Why would you do that? Off the top of my head I can see people using the suction cup to attach their phone or PMP to a treadmill or bike while working out.

Oh and I almost forgot, the original Gorillapod now comes in 7 hideous fun colours (grey, yellow, red, green, blue, pink and orange) just for the hell of it. Mine is bright red…

A Gorillapod could be the perfect gift for your photographically gifted friend

all the gorillapodsWhat’s my conclusion? I think it’s pretty obvious: I really like the Gorillapod as a product and I think that if you get the right one you’ll like it too. Here’s how to pick:

  • If you have a small point-and-shoot camera and you want a small stand to prop it up when you take pictures with the self-timer of yourself and your friends/family, go with the Gorillamobile.
  • If you have one of the bigger point-and-shoot cameras (weigh it if you’re unsure) or one of those new small video cameras or you want a stand that can do some cooler stuff like hanging from a tree, go with the Gorillapod SLR.
  • If you have an SLR of any size, go with the Gorillapod SLR-Zoom with the ballhead. It may seem like overkill but the ballhead makes all the difference.
  • If you have a large SLR camera with a heavy lens or a large video camera, go with the Gorillapod Focus and opt for the ballhead (or another ballhead) to increase the flexibility.

For its use the Gorillapod is the best (possibly only?) option out there and it is well worth the money. So if you have a photographer or videographer on your Christmas list and you don’t know what to get them, a Gorillapod that fits their camera is an excellent option. That’s not me blowing hot air, that’s my honest opinion.


What Notebook Should I Get?

I need a new notebook (when did they become “notebooks” anyway? I always thought they were “laptops”). The one I share with my better half Angela (a Toshiba Satellite M100-JG2) is too big, too heavy and too old. But as with pretty much everything else I find myself in a self-induced deadlock over which one to throw my money away on. I’m a very indecisive guy I guess.

So what laptop notebook should I get? The annoying thing about computers is that they evolve too quickly and there are way too many options. Regardless of what I get it will be outdated and price-reduced two weeks from now and I’ll feel like a moron for having spent the money. Nevertheless I need to make a decision: I spend a lot of down time during the day in transit and in the control room where I broadcast a live TV show and with a thin and light notebook with enough power I can get a lot more work done – or at least I think I can. And it is with this scenario in mind I have set down some basic parameters for my search:

  • It has to be relatively small and light. I am comfortable with a 13.3” screen but nothing smaller. Anything larger gets too heavy and bulky anyway. That pretty much narrows the field to a select few computers.
  • Then there is the question of power and future-proofing. I tend to run multiple applications at the same time (usually several different browsers, Photoshop, Expression Web plus a bunch of other stuff) and I’m very impatient. I also occasionally do some video editing work so it really has to be up to snuff. So a high-end and low-power processor is a must, ie a Penryn, preferably the T8100.
  • Finally the notebook needs to be tough and portable. I can’t stand those flimsy paper like notebooks that have screens that bend and twist when you breathe on them and I’m sure I’d just break them anyway. I have an ancient ThinkPad and it’s great (and slow) but I can’t really get myself to shell out an extra $1000 on that extravagance.

After lengthy research and a lot of hair pulling I’ve narrowed it down to three choices:

Dell XPS M1330 (Product) RED Edition

This notebook comes highly praised by both reviewers and friends alike and with customization has everything I’m asking for: 13.3” screen, T8100 (2.1GHz/800Mhz FSB/3MB cache) processor, 4GB of RAM, dedicated nVidia video card, massive and fast hard-drive with free-fall sensor. To boot it even has an optical drive that doesn’t ruin the tiny form factor.

Price: $1,349 with special offer discount (ends September 12)

The pros: The notebook is very small and light, has everything on my list, is considered to be strong and sturdy and since it’s part of the (Product) RED program $50 US of the purchase goes to curb the AIDS pandemic (too little, but it’s a start).

The cons: It’s a Dell. For those of you who don’t know, Dell started out as a company that built computers with the discarded parts from other manufacturers. As a result they had an incredibly high failure rate. Surprisingly even after stepping away from that (incredibly stupid) business philosophy their computers are still questionable when it comes to performance. At the same time I’m reluctant to shell out $300 for a 3 year full service plan in case something should go wrong (which is quite probable). I’m also apprehensive because I have yet to actually see or try any of these notebooks in real life. The Dell booth at the local mall shut down and neither FutureShop nor Staples have the M1330 in stock for me to look at. To get this unit I’ll have to order it online and wait however long Dell deems appropriate to get it. And I don’t like waiting.

LG P300

The LG P300 series also offers all the features I’m looking for and is even thinner than the M1330. When it came out the reviewers all agreed that it was a true contender to the M1330. On the downside it is hideous and expensive and has an external DVD drive. But it’s available right across the street from my house right now.

Price: $1,599 at several major electronics retailers

The pros: The LG is the thinnest of the bunch yet as powerful as the M1330. In addition it is available right now and I can have it in my hands in less than 30 minutes.

The cons: At $1599 it is much more expensive than the M1330 (with the same specs and the discount, the M1330 would be $1249). Some of this can be explained by the thinner form factor but I think it is also in large part due to the so-called “stylish” looks of the lid. Unfortunately it is anything but stylish – the “wine red” lid looks like streaks of bloody whale barf with Peto Bismal mixed in. If I were to get this notebook I’d have to invest in a skin for the lid to conceal this artistic atrocity. But I digress. The P300 achieves its slim shape by ditching the internal disc drive for an external one. But is that really a con? In some ways I would be getting an external USB drive more than losing one. And I don’t really use the disc drive for anything except installing software so it’s not really a loss at all. One thing that is annoying is that LG has replaced the all-important FireWire port with a “SmartLink” port which is basically a mini USB. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with that port.

Lenovo IdeaPad U330

Lenovo has released a new line called IdeaPad in the States that looks very promising. Supposedly it retains much of the ThinkPad ruggedness and form without the insane price. The U330 has a slightly slower processor P7350 ( 2GHz 667MHz 1MB ) and less RAM but this is reflected in the price. Unfortunately it is only available in the USA so I’d have to cross the border to get my hands on one.

Price: $1,249 US

The pros: I trust Lenovo 100%. They are rock solid. The price is also good and even though it is not as powerful as the two others it is still up there. And it has an ATI graphics card which unline the nVidia cards in the other two won’t spontaneously self combust two weeks after purchase. Did I mention it’s a Lenovo?

The cons: It’s less powerful than the others and also a bit bigger. But the main problem is that for some reason, known only to the morons who decide where to sell these computers, it is not available in Canada.

What do you think?

Like I said, I can’t make up my mind on this one. So I figured I’d ask you, my trusted readers, what you think. Do you have experience with any of these notebooks? Do you have any preferences or reasons for or against one or another? Do you work for Dell, LG or Lenovo and want to give me one for free or at a massive discount in return for a fair and honest review here on this blog? If you have anything you’d like to share on this topic, please drop me a line in the comments below. I would really appreciate some honest input.