#DONGLEGATE: A Guide to the TouchBar MacBook Pro: Part 1

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#DONGLEGATE: A Guide to the TouchBar MacBook Pro: Part 1

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When the new Touch Bar MacBook Pro was released back in 2016, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. In fact, back then I swore that I would skip this entire generation of Apple’s “professional” laptop offering. I thought I couldn’t survive without my beloved USB A ports or MagSafe, and that my trusty 2015 Retina MacBook Pro had at least a couple more years of life left in it. But when Apple bumped the specs in 2017 and I began to see a number of digital techs adopt the new machines – and after a particularly grueling location job that left my Retina MacBook Pro feeling at a loss for power – I decided to bite the bullet and place an order. And since then, I haven’t looked back! In fact, I recently sold the 2015 Retina and bought a second 2017 Touch Bar as a backup.

This blog post has been a long time coming. Just as I decided to be a late adopter with this machine and let others work out the kinks for me, I wanted to wait to write this post until I had some solid real world experience with it. I started writing this post a few months ago, but it quickly turned into more of a novel than a blog entry, so I have decided to break it down into a multipart series. This first post will be my review of the 2017 MacBook Pro and I will discuss some of the pros and cons of the new machine vs. the old Retina models. In the second post, I’ll share my thoughts on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 and walk you through the various dongles and hubs that I use (and also the ones that I tested but DON’T use) on set. The third part will focus the Touch Bar itself and some of the ways that I’ve embraced this seemingly pointless feature. Finally, in the fourth part I will go into depth on options for power on location (bye bye Versa batteries). 

*I will now also be adding a fifth installment discussing the new 2018 model MacBook Pro after I have a chance to thoroughly test it in the field.*

So without further ado, lets get into the review!

The Display

 sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 Gamuts compared.

sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 Gamuts compared.

While at the time I thought (and still think) that the Mid 2012 to Mid 2015 Retina MacBook Pro was as close to perfect as laptops come, there was one feature that always irked me: the sRGB display. The accuracy of the Retina MacBook Pro’s screen could never be entirely trusted. The new Touch Bar MacBook Pro’s display, however, uses the DCI-P3 gamut. While P3 is designed more as a motion picture standard, it nonetheless covers an impressive 93% of the Adobe RGB color space and, while not a perfect match, is much closer to my Eizo monitors. It is accurate enough that I fully trust it on location jobs when I’m not running an external monitor.

The Speed

Another huge pro: these things are FAST. The new Radeon Pro 560 GPU in the top of the line 15” models is a massive improvement over the 2015 Retina’s Radeon R9 M370X. In fact, tested side by side, I found that the 2017 model is approximately 40% faster at processing TIFF files in Capture One than the 2015 model and about 50% faster than the 2014 Retina MacBook Pro’s NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU. The latest generation SSD is also blazing fast, even compared to the already stellar SSD in the 2015 model.Of course, the speed increase is incredibly important in the real world. It means that I can now use a laptop on many jobs that would’ve previously required a Mac Pro setup, saving my clients money and allowing us to do more complex work on location. And though I haven't tried it myself, the ability to connect an external GPU through Thunderbolt 3 means that this machine has the potential to allow certain hardcore professional users to ditch their desktops.  I even did one job last year with a client's 13" 2016 model, and I was shocked how well it kept pace.  Previously, I hesitated to recommend  13" MacBook Pro models to professional users, but if traveling light is a big concern for you, the latest generation 13" just might be able to keep up with your workload.

For the record, both of my 2017 Touch Bar MacBook Pros are configured with a 3.1GHz i7 Processor, 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro 560 GPU.  My 2015 and 2014 Retina MacBook Pros mentioned herein featured maxed out specs: 2.8GHz i7 Processors, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSDs, and Radeon R9 M370X (2015) and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M (2014) GPUs.

USB-C / Thunderbolt 3

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As you will discover in Part 2, I have VERY mixed feelings about the switch to exclusively USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 I/O. While the fact that the new MacBook Pro only has 4 of the same type of ports can be somewhat limiting with more complex setups, the adaptability of USB-C also allows me to better tailor my computer setup to the task at hand. Yes, carrying an extra bag full of dongles is annoying, but let’s not forget that Apple users have been dealing with dongles for a long time now. My 12” PowerBook G4 from 2004 needs an adapter to work with DVI or VGA displays. And how could we forget the Apple Display Connector of the late 90s? Theoretically, USB-C will eventually eliminate the need for dongles altogether as it is one standard that can handle virtually any type of device. Computer users have been dreaming of this for years! But in reality, I foresee a need for adapters for many years to come.

Sure, USB-C equipped hard drives, desktop monitors, and mobile devices make a lot of sense, but as we have seen with many other standards in the past, it will probably take a long time before we start seeing cable lengths over 6 or 10 feet. As digital techs, we need to run many of our devices over long distances: camera tethers, client monitors, etc. I can’t see USB-C replacing a 25’ HDMI cable any time soon. Nor do I think it will make up the entirety of a camera tether's signal chain for years to come. Right now, if I need to tether a USB-C equipped camera, I use a C to A cable into a 16’ USB A to A extender, back into an A to C adapter on the computer side. There simply aren’t long enough USB-C to C extensions available yet, nor do I want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars right now on new cables that won’t be compatible with some of the hardware I still have in my arsenal (my Trash Can Mac Pro, for one). However, the days of USB A, HDMI, DisplayPort, and all of the other “legacy” interfaces are certainly numbered, and I think that we will very soon see the day when nearly every computer peripheral is equipped with USB-C, and cable lengths will begin to improve with time. Let’s just hope that Thunderbolt 5* and USB D don’t start popping up just as USB-C hits its stride (spoiler alert: they almost certainly will).

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Power Options

I also appreciate that USB-C Power Delivery opens up the potential for infinitely more battery power options than we had with MagSafe, though the market has not quite caught up to the demands of professional work environments (I will explore location power options in depth in Part 4 of this series). In short, the 15” model’s 87W power requirement limits compatibility with nearly all current USB-C accessories that feature power delivery. In real world use, this means that one of the precious four USB-C ports must be dedicated to the power supply, leaving you with only three usable ports for the rest of your I/O. Since day one, I have felt strongly that the new MacBook Pro ought to have six Thunderbolt 3 ports to be truly considered a professional machine, and after nearly a year of field use, that opinion remains the same.

However, I do appreciate that the new power adapter features a replaceable USB-C power cable. Though I always treated my MagSafe adapters well and never had the longevity issues that some users faced, I have picked up some USB-C power cables of varying lengths (make sure they're certified for 100W power delivery) for different use cases. With my tripod/DigiPlate setup, a three foot cable is the perfect length to eliminate unnecessary cable clutter. I've also picked up a couple of spare standard six foot cables from third party manufacturers for about half the price of Apple's OEM cable. No issues to report so far.

At the end of the day, I have to say that I really miss MagSafe. Though tripping over the power adapter isn't necessarily a big concern when your whole rig is neatly built on a cart or tripod, having the laptop plugged in on a desk, couch, or bed definitely makes me a little more wary of where I'm walking. Though the USB-C connection comes apart a bit more easily than the old PowerBook adapter, the fear is still there. But primarily, I'm angry that I have to sacrifice a quarter of my I/O for adequate power. If I can't have the six Thunderbolt 3 ports that I so desperately desire, I don't see why Apple couldn't have at least added MagSafe in addition to the four Thunderbolt 3 ports, or added a fifth port dedicated solely to a USB-C power adapter (though this confusing option probably would've substantially increased Apple Support's call volume).

*Thunderbolt 4 will probably be here soon, but I expect it to also use a USB-C connector, just as there was no change between Thunderbolt 1 and 2. Let’s hope, at least!

The Trackpad

At first glance, a larger trackpad might seem like it belongs in the “pro” category, and in fact I do see the enlargement of the trackpad as an improvement over the previous model. It also feels as though Apple has refined the haptic feedback system introduced with the 2015 model; clicking feels a little more reminiscent of the hard button used on pre 2015 MacBooks. However, I am calling this feature a con due to what is in my mind an obvious omission: a lack of Apple Pencil support.

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I have really loved using my Apple Pencil with my iPad Pro, especially in conjunction with AstroPad, an app that allows me to use my iPad as a pseudo Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet. To me, it only seems logical that Apple would extend Apple Pencil support to the new larger trackpad on the MacBook Pro (which approaches the size of some of Wacom’s smaller tablets), allowing professional users to leave the tablet at home on extended trips where retouching on the road might be necessary. In an era where Apple seems hell-bent on forcing users to purchase accessories to continue using legacy accessories with their devices (read: USB-C adapters, Lightning Headphone Adapter, etc.), I’m actually quite shocked that they have not given users yet another excuse to go out and spend more money on their own accessory that could so seamlessly integrate into the Mac ecosystem and enhance the professional user's experience.

Use on Location

Speaking of form factor differences, let’s talk about Apple’s constant obsession: thickness and weight. The new MacBook Pro is a full tenth of an inch thinner than the previous generation and nearly half a pound lighter, and you can instantly feel that the difference is quite substantial when you pick up the new machine for the first time. But while many photographers and other pro users might appreciate a lighter load when traveling, I for one couldn’t care less. If you've been following along, you probably know that I tend to strap my laptop to a DigiPlate rig that weighs just as much as the computer, and then I go ahead and tack on a few more pounds of accessories, so thin and light are never high on my list for features that I look for in a professional computer. I wouldn’t mind sparing some of that space for a larger battery, space for more storage, and increased I/O capacity. And even more important to me is the machine’s ability to perform well when faced with heavy processor loads for many hours on end, often in extreme temperatures (it’s a laptop, after all! It had better work on location!).

 Water damage between the glass and display panel on my 2017 MacBook Pro

Water damage between the glass and display panel on my 2017 MacBook Pro

Indeed, the new MacBook Pro suffers from an affliction that will rear its ugly head on nearly every Mac at some point in its life: thermal throttling. Thinness comes at the expense of airflow. Compared to the Retina models, the new MacBook Pro tends to run a bit hotter. For years, I have been using apps like smcFanControl and iStat Menus to manually regulate fan speed and crank the fans to the max. I tend to do this any time I’m running Capture One, whether in the studio or on location, Mac Pro or laptop, and it helps keep everything a lot more stable. However, even when running the fans full blast, I have definitely seen the new machine succumb to temperature on location a few times. I’m still trying to work out a solution to increase airflow that is compatible wit the DigiPlate system. I will note, however, that it held up quite well on an outdoor location job in sub 20º weather back in February, so extreme low temperatures don’t seem to be much of an issue (as long as you’re not running off the internal battery).

Furthermore, I’ve found the build quality of the machine to be subpar compared to past models. While it is no doubt the best looking laptop Apple has ever produced and the manufacturing is precise, the weather sealing seems lacking compared to previous generations. I have already had to go in for a screen repair after water managed to seep between the glass and the screen panel on a particularly soggy day on location, and many users have been affected by an issue involving dust under the keyboard. And though it hasn’t happened to me yet, I’ve spoken with a number of techs who have already had to replace USB-C ports due to wear and tear. My Retina and Unibody MacBook pros seemed to fare much better in harsh conditions. 

The Touch Bar

Perhaps the boldest of the new MacBook Pro’s features, the Touch Bar is also the most perplexing. In Apple’s view, the Touch Bar expands the functionality of the machine by eliminating the static function buttons, instead creating a dynamic interface that can accommodate the needs of a specific application. Steve Jobs talked similarly about the iPhone’s keyboard back when the original model was introduced in 2007. If you'll recall, many users were incredibly skeptical of a touchscreen keyboard back then, but 11 years later, the technology has been almost universally embraced.  However, I don’t necessarily feel that the Touch Bar will go down in history as a groundbreaking development.

A few years ago, I stumbled across an article on MacRumors that detailed a recently approved Apple patent for a notebook computer with two screens: one a traditional laptop display, and the other a large touch screen in place of the keyboard. In fact, Apple filed another similar patent earlier this year. Essentially, an iPad like screen in the bottom case that acts as a dynamic keyboard when necessary and at other times a secondary touchscreen display. To be honest, I think that its a pretty cool concept. And in my mind, there’s no doubt that Apple will indeed go in that direction in future notebook generations. With this in the back of my head, my immediate reaction to the announcement of the Touch Bar was that Apple was pawning off what is essentially an internal manufacturing proof of concept on their professional users, to whom it is no secret that they have become increasingly hostile in recent years. After nearly a year of using the Touch Bar, my thoughts on this haven’t really changed.

While I think that the concept of the Touch Bar has a lot of potential, its execution has left much to be desired. First and foremost, even two years after its introduction, it seems that most third party professional app developers haven’t really embraced the technology all that much. Capture One support is virtually non existent (more on that in Part 3), and while Photoshop offers limited TouchBar support and now the ability to customize the Touch Bar to your liking, the functions that are available on the Touch Bar are already more easily accessible in other areas of the UI and through keyboard shortcuts, so tapping through multiple levels of tool palettes seems like a waste of time rather than a workflow improvement. Furthermore, simple and potentially useful features like a cursor tool palette appear to be missing. The size of the Touch Bar really limits its contents to simple buttons and sliders. Even Apple’s own Cover Flow-like implementation in apps like Photos don’t seem to enhance the functionality of the app – the thumbnails are simply too small to be useful.  I guess we’ll have to wait for the full size touch screen keyboard to really see the true potential of a touchscreen interface on the Mac that is separate from the primary display. Of course, Apple is going to have to figure out how to improve battery life in a thin and light design before this becomes a real possibility. 

For some developers, the necessity to make cross platform apps seems to limit the desire to develop features for a single model of hardware that represents only a portion of the install base (read: Capture One). For other apps, the Touch Bar doesn’t really seem to open up any new possibilities that are more practical than mouse and keyboard inputs. And because the Touch Bar essentially requires me to take my eyes off the main screen in order to use it, it often removes my focus from the task at hand.  This issue could potentially be solved by another missing feature: haptic feedback.  With all of Apple’s focus on haptics with the Apple Watch, iPhone, and the trackpad, I am quite shocked that they did not incorporate haptics into the Touch Bar. As a result, I’ve had many issues with inaccurate inputs and a lack of feedback causing me to click the same button twice. This is especially true concerning the escape key – the one button on the Touch Bar that I expect to be able to use without looking. But this too is problematic since the digital escape key is about half an inch to the right of where the physical button once lived. Apple really should have left this one extremely necessary hard button in tact.  

 Why didn't they place the Touch Bar above the trackpad, where it belongs??

Why didn't they place the Touch Bar above the trackpad, where it belongs??

 But my biggest complaint of all about the Touch Bar: they put it in the wrong place altogether! Apple claims that the Touch Bar is an evolution away from what they see as obsolete technology from the days before graphical user interfaces that has withstood the test of time (function keys).  But if this technology is truly revolutionary, I don’t understand why they felt the need to put it in the same position as the keys that it replaces rather than further enhancing the user experience by making these dynamic buttons more accessible. The ergonomics of the current Touch Bar are terrible – I find that its position makes it extremely uncomfortable to use.  In my mind, placing the Touch Bar below the keyboard rather than above it would’ve dramatically improved its comfort and functionality. Some people that I have discussed this idea with have rightfully brought up the possibility of more accidental inputs in this position, but if you really look at how your hands are placed on the laptop when typing, you’ll see that the arch of your fingers naturally creates an open space there. And for the lingering naysayers, let’s not forget that Apple has plenty of experience with identifying accidental multitouch inputs. The iPad does this beautifully, especially more recent Apple Pencil compatible models. Placing the Touch Bar closer to the trackpad would make using a second touch interface feel much more natural as opposed to the current layout where users must “jump” from one to the other.

 The Touch Bar's screen brightness slider is great for dialing in accurate brightness when calibrating.

The Touch Bar's screen brightness slider is great for dialing in accurate brightness when calibrating.

I do miss my hard function keys in day to day use with this new machine, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a few things that the Touch Bar has improved. They may be small, but they also point to the fact that the Touch Bar has potential to be a great tool once software developers discover and refine the ways they can implement better Touch Bar functionality. One tool that I’ve found to be quite handy is the screen brightness slider. With my old Retina MacBook Pros, it was difficult to set my screen brightness properly when calibrating. Eventually, I learned that I could open System Preferences and use the screen brightness slider to dial in my brightness down to 1 nit, but that was a buggy solution since i1 Profiler is a full screen app when profiling and often made it difficult to access System Preferences without getting in the way of the calibration. Now that that slider can be placed right in the touch bar, its a lot easier to set my screen brightness accurately, but it still needs some work. The slider is pretty touchy, and sometimes removing your finger after getting the brightness just right causes the level to jump considerably.  Yet another area where some haptic feedback could really improve functionality. But my larger point is that there are features within MacOS and existing apps that probably make more sense in Touch Bar form than on screen. It just seems from my experience that developers are still identifying just which features those are.


Final Thoughts

So should you buy this machine?  That's a tough question, as it really depends on how you're going to use it.  In general, if you consider yourself a professional user and your Mac notebook was made before 2014, it's definitely time to upgrade.  You'll instantly notice and appreciate the difference in speed and the superior display.  And if Tim Cook's Apple has you yearning to jump ship to Windows, I would highly recommend that you give the Touch Bar MacBook Pro another thought. You WILL adapt to this machine, all of your current devices will work with it, and if you're a long time mac user you'll probably still like using it a lot more than whatever Windows machine you would otherwise end up with (cue the trolls in 3...2...). If you're running a 2014 or 2015 MacBook Pro and you're terrified of USB-C, then you should be able to get at least another solid year or two out of that machine, but do take a good hard look at the next generation when it eventually comes out.

A quick note here: observant consumers will note that the 2017 model MacBook Pro was released a mere 221 days after the 2016 model began shipping, which by any measure would be considered a short product cycle.  However, it is important to note that Intel's 7th generation Kaby Lake processors found in the 2017 model weren't quite ready when Apple released the new generation MacBook Pro back in 2016.  In a perfect world, Apple probably would've liked to ship the first generation Touch Bar models with Kaby Lake chips, but it seems that after nearly five years of the Retina form factor and users begging for a major update, Apple rushed the new generation machines to market with 6th generation Skylake chips. 

While next generation Coffee Lake chips appropriate for a MacBook Pro are now available, I wouldn't be all that surprised if Apple skips Coffee Lake altogether for the MacBook Pro lineup and waits for the (delayed) Cannon Lake generation to become available. That would mean no new MacBook Pros until at least mid 2019. Furthermore, its entirely possible (and likely) that we will see a new generation MacBook Pro powered by one of Apple's own chip designs as early as 2020.

On July 12, 2018, Apple unexpectedly released an updated 2018 Touch Bar Macbook Pro which feature 8th generation i9 6-core processors in the top tier 15" models, the option for 32GB of RAM (FINALLY!  Plus, they upgraded from 2133MHz DDR3 to 2400MHz DDR4), a higher capacity battery, Bluetooth 5.0, and a third generation keyboard.  I have a feeling this new model with have even more heat issues than the 2017 model, but if you've been waiting to take the plunge, NOW IS THE TIME!  I have placed an order and will post an update after I've had some real world experience with it.

Based on previous experiences with Apple, I can’t see any scenario where they decide to revert back to old technology (USB A, MagSafe, Function Keys, etc.) in the next generation MacBook Pro no matter how much negative feedback they receive from users. And as with nearly any bold new feature Apple has introduced (or more accurately, done away with) – FireWire, matte displays, swappable batteries, headphone jacks, the list goes on – it's fun to complain for a few months until the market adapts and not only is the old technology not missed, it starts to feel antiquated, too.  I think that the same can be said for USB-C, and Apple was keenly aware of this trend when they decided to release this generation of MacBook Pro. It would've been easy enough to include a USB A port, but they needed to incentivize manufacturers to adopt USB-C more quickly. Sure enough, that's what's happened. In fact, in the long term I'm somewhat glad Apple chose to go this route. I've said it before and I'll say it again: USB-C is a fantastic I/O standard, at least it will be once it becomes universal.

I’ll survive #donglegate, but I really miss my Esc. key.


Stay tuned for Part 2 - All About Dongles

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All About Wireless Monitors (On A Budget!)

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All About Wireless Monitors (On A Budget!)

Making sure that a photographer and their client can see images in real time is probably the second most important part of my job as a digital tech (after ensuring data integrity).  A dedicated client monitor can be one of the most helpful tools that any photographer can have on set. However, sometimes the constraints of location work can make it impractical or virtually impossible to have a traditional wired secondary monitor set up.  Whether I’m dealing with a client video village far from set or a fast paced run and gun shoot where bulky cables can quickly become a nuisance, wireless monitor solutions can be a lifesaver. 

While wireless monitoring has become an essential tool in the film industry, it’s still a rarity in the stills world.  As a result, there’s almost never room in the budget to shell out hundreds of dollars on a Teradek rental, nor does it make financial sense for most techs to spend thousands to buy their own.  As a result, I’ve come up with a number of reliable wireless monitoring solutions using equipment I already have on hand and a few specialty items that will cost you a few hundred dolls rather than a few thousand.

 

Solution #1 - Screen Sharing

For the most critical wireless applications, I like to use use the Mac's built in screen sharing functionality.  I’ve found it to be by far the most reliable and flexible solution in my arsenal. For this setup, you will need a quality computer monitor (ideally one that matches the resolution of your main display), an additional laptop, and a decent wireless router.  I use a 15” MacBook Pro Retina and an Airport Extreme, but really any Mac laptop (or even a Mac Mini) and quality WiFi router will work great for this setup (though I would stay away from the latest 12” MacBooks due to their single USB-C port and underpowered integrated graphics).  I see a lot of techs using an Apple TV to facilitate the screen sharing, but I’ve found AirPlay to be far less reliable and significantly more laggy than a laptop solution. 

 
 

For my setup, I use a Super Clamp with a snap in baby pin and an Inovativ Digiplate Lite to mount the laptop to the rolling monitor stand.  Typically, I will mount the laptop vertically in clamshell mode and connect an external mouse and keyboard to keep a lower profile.  Make sure both computers are connected to your dedicated WiFi network.  It’s best to use a 5G network in open spaces, but if your WiFi signal needs to travel through walls, a 2.4G network might be more stable.

The great thing about screen sharing is that you also have the option to control the capture computer remotely, just like you would with a wired setup.  And since the monitor itself is still wired to a computer, this setup also allows for more accurate color management.  To make it a truly wireless setup, I usually power the whole rig off of my Paul C. Buff Vagabond Mini batteries.  They only support 120W continuous whereas the monitor and laptop together can pull as much as 170W, so though it adds additional bulk, I use two batteries to power the monitor and computer separately.  I admit, an Anker PowerhouseGoal Zero Yeti 400, or even a Vagabond Lithium Extreme (VLX) would be a much more elegant solution with the proper mounting rig, but since I only have to use this setup a few times per year, I get by with what I already have available. 

Pro Tip - You can also use this rig as a fantastic compact tethering station if you absolutely require an Eizo on set but a full cart setup isn’t ideal.

   

Solution #2 - Nyrius ARIES Pro NPCS600

In general, I love sharing the inner workings of my kit with other digital techs, but I’ve been keeping this little magic box a closely guarded secret for the past year.  Now I’m spilling the beans exclusively for my loyal readers!  

A reliable wireless HDMI solution for under $300?  Sign me up!  Before I bought this system I was considering splurging on some Teradek transmitters, but why shell out thousands of dollars when you can spend a few hundred dollars for nearly the same result?  I decided to take a gamble and pick one up after working with a director of photography who was using this same system as a budget alternative with his RED Epic rig, and I was absolutely blown away by the performance.  After a year of use in my own kit, I can’t say enough about how much I love the Nyrius transmitter! 

For my setup, I attach the receiver to the back of the monitor using velcro and power it with an Anker PowerCore 13000mAh battery, which typically lasts all day and then some depending on how far away the transmitter is.  The receiver requires 2A of power, so most monitors’ USB outlets probably won’t provide enough juice.  Again, I usually power the monitor itself with a Vagabond Mini if AC power isn’t available.  The transmitter comes with a right angle adapter, so you can plug directly into a Retina MacBook Pro’s HDMI port and maintain a low profile.  I use a smaller Anker Astro E1 battery (from my TetherBoost rig) to power the transmitter as it only requires 1A.  The whole system is pretty much plug and play which I love,  and it works on the first try about 95% of the time, but I wish I could manually select the wireless channel, and occasionally it takes a few attempts to establish a connection.  As advertised, there is virtually zero lag - far less than screen sharing.  Range is rated at 100ft, and I can confirm that it generally works fine at 50’ (I haven’t gone much further than that).  Line of sight isn’t required but it doesn’t like going through more than one or two walls.  I’m seriously impressed by this thing!

There are a couple of drawbacks worth noting, however.  My biggest complaint is that I can only get my Eizo monitors to display at 1920x1080 and 30Hz with this system, so there is a bit of letterboxing on the top and bottom edge.  It also seems that the wireless signal compresses color gamut quite a bit with the default color profile, adding a fair amount of saturation and contrast.  However I have found that if I calibrate with ColorNavigator while connected wirelessly (though you’ll need to connect a USB cable for calibration), the color is quite accurate, certainly better than an iPad.  I can’t speak for performance with monitors that don’t feature hardware calibration.  Furthermore, the system can only be used with a single receiver, so you don't have the option to wirelessly stream to multiple monitors.

Because of these drawbacks, I use this as a secondary or backup solution to the screen sharing setup.  But its small enough to keep in my monitor case all the time, so I love having an easy option to go wireless if I suddenly find myself in a situation where its necessary without prior arrangements.

 

Solution # 3 - GeChic 1303H + Nyrius

 
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Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to drag an Eizo around on location, but you still need a decent mobile monitoring solution that’s more reliable than an iPad.  I’ve been looking at GeChic’s mobile monitors for over a year now, and I finally pulled the trigger and ordered a 1303H model.  It will be arriving soon and I’ll update this section once I have spent a little time working with it, but for now, here are some of the reasons I got this particular monitor and how I plan to use it. 

When it comes to compact ultra mobile monitor options, there aren’t many choices out there.  None have particularly wide gamuts, and most options that are out there send power and the display signal over a single USB cable.  While this is fine for windows PCs, macs don’t support USB displays without additional drivers.  The GeChic monitors, however, have micro HDMI and a variety of other display inputs, so you can use them with a mac just like any other monitor, with native mirroring and rotation capability.  You can even calibrate them with i1 Profiler!  Better yet, they only requite 5V 2A of power, so they can be powered over USB by an Anker battery.  And of course, I will be testing the Nyrius transmitter in conjunction with this monitor as a completely battery powered wireless solution.  I have a strong feeling that this setup could completely replace my iPads as my go to compact wireless solution.  I don’t currently own a 12.9” iPad Pro, but the GeChic has a 13.3” display and is less than half the price of the cheapest iPad Pro and should be a lot more flexible and reliable!

GeChic makes a few other monitors including some 15.6” models, an 11” model, and some with touchscreen capability.  The first reason I went with the 1303H is its size.  15.6” just seemed a little large, and the 1303H will be more compatible with off the shelf mounting solutions like the Tether Tools AeroTab L4.  I opted against a touchscreen model since I’m using it exclusively with Macs, which don’t currently have great support for touchscreen monitors.  I also wanted something that had at least 1920x1080 resolution, whereas a few models only support 1366x768.  Unfortunately, the don’t offer a 16:10 1920x1200 model which would make mirroring with an Eizo a lot cleaner.  But since the Nyrius also has the same limitation, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.  There is also a newer 13” model, the 1305H, which has a few improvements over the 1303H, however it uses a single proprietary breakout cable for both power and HDMI, which I figured would be far less reliable and difficult to replace.  The only real drawback I could find about the 1303H is the ugly white bezel!

More updates to follow as I get some real world experience with this setup.

 

Solution #4 - iPad with Astropad

(or Duet Display or Air Display)

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Maybe a wireless monitor could do wonders to speed up your workflow on your next shoot but you don’t have a spare MacBook pro on hand, or perhaps you’d rather not even spend $300 on a wireless transmitter setup.  I get it, these solutions are a luxury, not a bare necessity.  If a remote display is essential to your next job but you want to get by with what (I’m guessing) you already have on hand, an iPad is the way to go.

For many years, Capture Pilot was the only practical solution for using an iPad as a wireless display.  But poor reliability, a lack of features, and Phase One’s apparently limited commitment to developing and improving the app have led many of us to explore alternatives.  Luckily, a few fantastic apps have launched recently that allow for additional options for using the iPad as a secondary display.  While Capture Pilot allows the user to browse images freely, sometimes mirroring the capture computer’s display is more practical or appropriate.  For this, I use Astropad, an app which allows you to mirror a Mac’s display wirelessly to an iPad.  Therefore, the iPad acts more like a traditional client monitor.  The tech is in control of what is on screen, which can be a huge benefit when there are, shall we say, overly creative clients on set.  An added bonus:  Astropad in conjunction with an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil can be used just like a Wacom Cintiq tablet (the app’s intended purpose, but for me its more of a handy bonus feature for travel jobs where bringing a Wacom tablet in the kit might not be practical). However, one drawback I’ve found is that previews in Capture One seem to render far slower than they do on the display that AstroPad is mirroring.  And unfortunately, Astropad can only mirror an existing display rather than be used as an independent second display (unless you want to take a gamble and pre-order Astropad’s $70 “Luna” dongle which enables this capability).  Luckily, the host application doesn’t seem to require much CPU power from the capture computer, so running Astropad has a negligible impact on Capture One performance.

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If you prefer to use the iPad as a second monitor, your best bet is Duet Display, a fantastic app developed by a team of ex-Apple engineers which allows your iPad to act as a second display.  I tested previous versions of Duet Display last year and decided not to add it to my arsenal after experiencing a number of bugs and dropped connections, but recently I gave it another chance and the latest version has proven to be incredibly stable.  Recently, I added iPads running Duet Display to all of my studio kits for use as a dedicated focus check monitor and its been a fantastic solution for my old floating focus tool that always got in the way of everything! And since it offers limited touch support, You could also use it with a secondary viewer window in capture one as a “clean viewer.”  Duet Display has easily become my new favorite app, but there is one major caveat:  it requires a wired connection.  I’ve been using it with a 10 ft Anker PowerLine+ lightning cable and haven’t had any issues, and adding a 15’ extension works pretty well too if you need to be further from the computer.  Duet Display also offers limited touch support, so there are plenty of other possibilities that aren't possible with a typical display.  Like Astropad, the host app barely requires any CPU power so you won’t notice any performance decrease in Capture One.

If you absolutely require an iPad to be a wireless second display, you could try Avatron’s Air Display.  Admittedly I haven’t tested it recently, but I did do some testing with the previous version a couple years ago and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  Based on recent reviews, it sounds like it still isn’t the most reliable solution. 

Though a secondary display might seem like a totally logical use for an iPad, keep in mind that without a native solution from Apple, it seems that it is a feat that requires quite a bit of software trickery.  These apps have come a long way since they all launched a couple years ago, but don’t expect any of them to perform 100% correctly 100% of the time.

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All of the Essential Stuff That B&H Doesn't Sell

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All of the Essential Stuff That B&H Doesn't Sell

I have been a B&H customer since I was 8 years old.  In fact, when I moved to New York City years ago, being able to head up to B&H whenever I needed was high on the list of things I was most excited about in my new home.  I can't say I'm thrilled about the well publicized reports that B&H treats their employees like shit, but in New York City, B&H is often your only last minute option for semi-obscure pieces of kit that you needed yesterday for your shoot tomorrow.  

Let's face it.  All of us have probably spent thousands upon thousands of dollars at our preferred camera superstores.  But whether you're loyal to B&H, Adorama, or any of the dozens of others of electronics emporiums, all of them tend to carry more or less the same items.  Often, these megastores fail to fully cater to niche sub-industries like digital techs and we are forced to seek our wares elsewhere.  So without further ado, he are some essential pieces of kit that you won't find at your favorite local or online camera superstore (and where to find them).


Filmtools VESA Mount and Stingers

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People ask me all the time about my favorite monitor stand mounts, and until recently that was a really tough decision.  I've used pretty much everything out there, and I could never really find one that ticked all of the boxes until a friend recommended the Filmtools version, which also happens to be the cheapest one you can buy by a fair margin.  At first  glance I was concerned about just how simple the design is, but as soon as I tried it for the first time it became an instant favorite.  Trust me, this thing is rock solid.  It also gives you the ability to rotate the monitor 360º, and the fact that it uses a C-stand gobo head, one of the most common pieces of studio equipment in the world, means that the mounting options are endless.

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If you've ever looked for a studio grade extension cord (aka Stinger) at B&H or Adorama, you've probably come up empty handed.  Personally I was shocked to discover that this isn't something that's commonly stocked at camera stores.  With a little research, I discovered th at my local Home Depot actually stocks the same exact wire that Filmtools uses to make their stingers, and they are extremely easy to put together yourself even with only basic electrical knowledge.  But unless you need more than two or three, they're actually more economical to just buy pre-made from Filmtools!

Unfortunately, FilmTools only has one Los Angeles location and charges an ARM AND A LEG for shipping, so if you live anywhere outside of Southern California, you'll have to pay the "out of towner" tax to get many of their products that can't be found anywhere else.  Wouldn't it be great if Filmtools could strike a distribution deal with B&H?  Or better yet, open an NYC location???


Techflex F6 Split Cable Sleeve

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There is nothing that I love more than clean cable management!  When you have a device that always requires multiple cables, bundling them into a loom is a great way to clean up cable mess and make setup and breakdown a breeze.  This is especially true with monitors.  Like most techs and rental houses, I combine all of my monitor cables, short or long, into a loom containing power, USB, and DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort.  Many people use gaff tape or zip ties to accomplish this, but both of those are messy solutions.  I've tried a few different cable loom products, but TechFlex's F6 split sleeve is by far my favorite (I usually buy mine from Amazon).  I see a lot of people using the non-split version of this, but usually it means that they need to use a much larger size to accommodate bulky plugs and the resulting loom ends up being loose, messy, and more difficult to coil and store.  The split loom is much easier to install and allows you to bundle cables with large end connectors like DVI while still keeping your loom tight and neat.  There are a few different options, so check out the whole product lineup here to see which is right for you.  I usually use the 1/2" size for shorter, thinner cables and 3/4" for longer runs.  There are also versions with hook and loop closures (1, 2) for easier disassembly or modification.   For a professional finish, consider picking up some heat shrink tubing to tidy up the ends of the sleeve.


What can I say about the Robocup?  It's a cup holder, it holds cups, cups hold drinks.  Drinks break computers, computers live on carts, drinks don't go on carts.  Robocup clips on carts, drinks go in Robocup.

Seriously, if you own a digital cart, or a tripod, or a light stand, or anything vertical that is less than 2 inches thick, you should get a Robocup.  Best $19 I've ever spent.  I never ever thought that I would be a vegan buying something that doubles as a fishing rod holder, but here we are.

Pro Tip:  Your Robocup will very quickly become your Art Director's robocup.  Buy 2 and be the drink keeper for the whole crew!

New York's Hottest Club is ROBOCUP.  Are you listening B&H??


Capture Management USB 3.0 Micro Tether Cables

One of my recent favorite additions to my kit, these USB 3.0 A to B Micro cables from Capture Management are sure to solve all of your USB 3.0 DSLR tethering woes (more about that in a post to come).  Built to the highest USB specs, these cables are much better quality than most of the other options out there, you can really feel it in your hands.  On top of that, they're about half the price of the name brand orange tether cables you can buy at B&H.  After 3 months of use, I haven't had a single dropped connection with no need for an active booster.  As of right now, these are only available direct through CaptureManagement.net.  I highly recommend that you head over an pick up two of them (one for backup of course) right now!


 Come on B&H, get it together!!!

Come on B&H, get it together!!!

When it comes to external USB power banks, B&H has a selection that is literally sixteen pages long.  However, of all of the battery packs out there, none that I have found come anywhere close to the combination of price, performance, durability, and design that Anker's PowerCore series offers.  I have about half a dozen of these in various capacities and I use them for everything from charging my Capture Pilot iPad and the crews' phones to powering TetherBoosts and wireless accessories.  These batteries are just as good or better than others charging 3x the price and are an indispensable piece of kit for any photographer, assistant, tech, or anyone who works on location. I also choose Anker for USB AC adapters and iPhone cables.


The iPad has become an incredibly powerful location monitoring system in conjunction with Capture One and Capture Pilot.  But often, the iPad's reflective screen makes it difficult to view images in bright locations.  You could spend upwards of $60 on a name brand iPad hood (there are only a few available), but at about half the price, this shade really gets the job done!  Plus, while most other hoods use a 4 sided design, the Surf to Summit's 3 sided design makes using the touchscreen a breeze.  It is fully adjustable and can fit just about any 9-10" tablet thanks to its elastic mount.  I've found that it works great in conjunction with the TetherTools S4 tablet mount (which IS available at B&H).  The only downside: it only works properly in landscape orientation.


If you've worked in the photo industry in the past decade, you've probably heard about Paul C. Buff Lighting.  Their Alienbees strobes have fostered an entire generation of brilliant lighting directors, and their high quality products at affordable prices are a fantastic way to break into professional lighting.  For years, these fantastic products have mostly only been available through Paul C. Buff's website, but with their increasingly popularity, it would be wise for major retailers to seek a relationship with Buff.  

One product that really stands out for me is their Vagabond line of lithium ion batteries and pure sine wave inverters.  Originally intended for powering AC powered monolights on location, they're also fantastic for powering most AC powered devices up to 120W for the Vagabond Minis (my personal choice) and 400W for the Vagabond Lithium Extreme.  I use them to power Eizo monitors on location, and as of writing this, they are still one of the only solutions for fully powering the 15" MacBook Pro with Touchbar.  They're also far more affordable and portable than some of the similar offerings from Goal Zero and others.  And since they're designed for photographers, they include the option to mount to other industry standard equipment, like Super Clamps.  

 


Check back later as I will continually update this list as I come across more amazing products that the photo industry overlords don't want you to know about!

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NAB: Exciting New Products from OWC

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NAB: Exciting New Products from OWC

This past week has given us some exciting new product announcements, including the new Sony Alpha A9, in the lead up to the NAB Show which kicked off today.  Though the show is focused on broadcast technology, a few manufacturers have announced some great new products that both digi techs and photographers who work with a lot of video will find relevant as well.  I am a huge fan of OWC, and they have decided to use NAB as a platform to announce so many awesome new products that I felt it necessary to dedicate this entire post to them, but I would be remiss if I didn't at least point you towards the insane new Eizo CG3145 4K HDR display.

After nearly two decades of dedicated service to creative professionals, OWC continues to impress with some of the innovative solutions they have released in the past few years and 2017 is no exception.  In addition to announcing four new products for NAB, they are also showing off the latest version of the new DEC that they revealed at the NAMM show back in January.

Note that all of these new products utilize Thunderbolt 3, which may make the decision to buy a new Touch Bar MacBook Pro a bit easier for holdouts like me.

 

Helios FX

 

The one we've been waiting for: a Thunderbolt 3 powered PCIe expansion chassis capable of driving a workstation class graphics card!

When Thunderbolt debuted in 2011 and opened up the possibility of external PCIe expansion for laptops, many were eager to know whether or not it would support an external graphics card. And when the current Mac Pro was released in late 2013 with Thunderbolt 2 and non user serviceable GPUs, the lingering question became an urgent request.  The problem: both Thunderbolt 1 and 2 were nowhere near fast enough to support the 16 lane PCIe 3.0 connection required by most professional graphics cards.  While Thunderbolt 3 transfer rates are still not quite as fast as a 16 lane PCIe 3.0 connection, Thunderbolt 3's 40Gb/s maximum transfer rate makes the idea of using an external GPU over Thunderbolt a reality.  

The technology isn't perfect yet, but pretty soon GPU limitations will be an issue of the past for pros who opt for an iMac or MacBook Pro.  And while it definitely doesn't make sense to lug this box around with your streamlined location setup, it makes a MacBook Pro a much more powerful contender as a studio capture or post machine, so the next Mac Pro definitely has some catching up to do!

Though this is not the first dedicated Thunderbolt 3 GPU enclosure to come to market, the fact that OWC is interested in pursuing this technology is promising and demonstrates their commitment to the professional Mac community.  With competitor products priced between $299 and $499, we can expect OWC's pricing to be very competitive.

 

Mercury Viper

The Mercury Viper is a Thunderbolt 3 external SSD which promises ludicrous read speeds up to 4678 MB/s.  Unlike some other portable Thunderbolt drives, the Viper also allows for daisy chaining with other Thunderbolt devices.  No word yet on what is inside this thing that allows it to accomplish such jaw dropping speeds, but if I had to guess I would say that it is probably running a combination of PCIe based SSDs in a RAID-like configuration.  We are still waiting on info on price, configurations, or availability but I will be keeping my eye on this one as a bootable backup and Capture One work drive!   One thing is certain: you can expect this one to be on the expensive side.

 

Envoy Pro EX Thunderbolt 3

The Envoy Pro from OWC is a fantastic line of external PCIe SSDs that offer great performance at reasonable prices.  Though the Envoy line so far has been limited to USB 3.0 connectivity, the new Thunderbolt 3 version should be a great option for Touch Bar MacBook Pro users who need a decent amount of speed in a compact package.  I love using the Envoy as a temporary scratch disk for files processed out of Capture One, freeing up internal disk for other tasks while offering improved write performance over a normal SSD.  OWC have not released any info on drive speeds yet, but the previous Envoy series was prone to USB bottlenecks, so hopefully we'll see some improved performance with Thunderbolt 3.  The black finish is also a nice touch!

 

Thunderbay 6

I have been super satisfied with the pair of 16TB OWC Thunderbay IV's that I have been using for primary storage for a few years now, but they get closer and closer to filling up by the day and soon I will be looking at expansion options.  For users who have ever-growing storage requirements, the Thunderbay 6 is a welcome addition to the Thunderbay lineup that should offer a fantastic platform for insanely fast RAID configurations and future expansion.  Though the Thunderbay series lacks hardware RAID, a number of RAID configurations are still possible using SoftRAID.

 

DEC

 

The DEC aims to be a bolt on expansion unit for Touch Bar MacBook Pros that restores some of the functionality of the previous generation while offering expanded hard drive capacity and a few other purported features that OWC is still working on.  While the idea of this type of expansion unit gets me really excited, I do have some complaints about the direction we've seen the project go in thus far and some ideas for additional features and refinements.

First up, the ports.  If I'm going to bolt something this size on the bottom of my computer, I'm clearly looking for raw performance over aesthetics.  To that end, I wish that the DEC had more ports.  While 3 USB ports is a great start, my typical on-set workflow requires at least 4 USB ports, so one extra port would make hubs completely obsolete for me.  I also wish that they would include a standard Thunderbolt 2 port (or two), which would make existing Thunderbolt devices and FireWire adapters easier to use.  While a FireWire port itself would complete the package, the decreasing commonality of FireWire devices these days means that I don't think it would be missed.

A dedicated USB C power port on the DEC itself would also be a welcome addition.  MagSafe would be even better, but I don't have high hopes that Apple will reverse their policy on MagSafe licensing any time soon.  All of this would require more bandwidth coming from the computer, but perhaps the device could be connected via 2 thunderbolt 3 ports.  I certainly wouldn't mind losing another one.

My other big complaint: as of right now, there is no option for a battery.  While some users certainly could use the up to 6TB of storage space made possible by the DEC, I would much rather have a battery instead knowing that my on set workflow requires 10+ hours of continuous use and rarely uses more than 1TB of data over the course of a job.  All of the extra bulk of the DEC makes little sense for me if it means that I still have to carry Versa Batteries.

Nonetheless, I think that the DEC is a fantastic idea and I'm a bit surprised that no other manufacturers have announced a competing product yet.  This is another one that I am closely monitoring, and depending on the final specs might make or break my decision to switch over to the Touch Bar MacBook Pro.

 

What new products from NAB are you most excited about? Let me know in the comments!

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Getting the Most out of Your TetherBoost Pro

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Getting the Most out of Your TetherBoost Pro

 © Tether Tools

© Tether Tools

If you regularly shoot tethered, at this point you probably know about the TetherBoost Core Controller from Tether Tools, a nifty device that helps maintain a stable tethered connection with USB 3.0 cameras over longer cable runs.  I have had great results with the TetherBoost since I added it to my tethered workflow when it debuted in 2015, and the newer Pro version has solved a number of my complaints about the form factor of the original TetherBoost.  While the TetherBoost has become an essential accessory for any digi tech (I carry 4 in my kit) and solves many of the problems associated with tethering USB 3.0 cameras, if used incorrectly, it can yield some undesirable results and occasionally cause more problems than it solves.  This article aims to address some common issues and best practices when using this powerful tool as part of your digital workflow.

When and Why is the TetherBoost Necessary?

If you're using a USB 2.0 equipped camera like the Canon 5D Mark III or Sonly A7 series, then the TetherBoost won't be necessary at all.  USB 2.0 cables carry a maximum of 500mA of current which is easily provided by even the weaker USB ports on a MacBook Pro or iMac.  Modern cameras like the Nikon D810, Canon 5D Mark IV, and Phase One IQ series that use USB 3.0 for tethering present a new issue.  Unlike USB 2.0, USB 3.0 devices can draw a maximum of 900mA of current.  

This is no problem for the more robust ports on a Mac Pro or PC workstation, but the USB ports on MacBook Pros and iMacs do not offer the same performance.  While they can generally supply enough current to sustain a connection with a standard 15 foot tether cable, the same cannot be said for longer cable runs.  That's where the TetherBoost comes in.

 For DSLR cameras that use the USB 3.0 Micro-B Connection like the Canon 5D Mark IV, 5DS and Nikon D810, my experience has shown that a TetherBoost setup is required in order to use cables longer than 15 feet when tethering with a MacBook Pro.  I always set it up at the beginning of the day rather than stopping to reconfigure the cable path after the first or second dropped connection.  I like to use the TetherBoost when tethering to my Mac Pro as well, just to be safe.

Though an external power source is not required in order to take advantage of the benefits of the TetherBoost, I have found it to add quite a bit of stability when used in conjunction with cameras that utilize a USB 3.0 Micro-B connection.  More on that in a bit.

On the other hand, digital backs like the Phase One IQ3 series which utilize the more robust USB 3.0 type B connection, combined with better power management and native communication with Capture One, provide for a more stable tethered connection even with the MacBook Pro's weaker USB ports.  This means that adding the TetherBoost to the signal chain is not strictly necessary with cables up to 30 feet, and can occasionally even introduce new tethering issues.

However, the need for the TetherBoost can vary depending on the specific camera and computer combination you are using.  While I've had excellent results running an un-boosted 30 foot cable from the IQ3 50MP back to a MacBook Pro, the same cannot be said for the IQ3 100MP back due to its larger file size.

It's always a good idea to perform a "stress test" on any new camera/computer combination to determine whether or not a TetherBoost will be necessary.  Start with a 30 foot cable without the TetherBoost and set your camera to its fastest burst mode.  Fire off a number of shots until you reach the limit of the camera's buffer, and make a mental note of how many shots you fired so you can confirm that no frames have been dropped (I like to do this in multiples of 10 for easy counting). Repeat, repeat, repeat.

 If you manage to capture 100 or so frames in rapid fire without dropping the connection, you should be good to go, but its a good idea to repeat the test with a TetherBoost to make sure that the connection is equally or more stable with an additional device in the signal chain.  Again, its rare, but with certain configurations the TetherBoost will in fact introduce bugs into the connection and cause even more problems, so you want to make sure that this isn't the case with your setup.  Occasionally, even the most rigorous stress testing will fail to reveal tethering issues that do eventually pop up on set and require the addition of the TetherBoost, so you want to be certain that it will be a reliable troubleshooting plan if any new issues arise.

 

Establishing the Proper Signal Chain

Due to the the form factors of both versions of the TetherBoost, many users assume that it is best to place it last in the signal chain, that is, plugged directly into the computer's USB port followed by a 15 foot extension cable and then a 15 foot tether cable running to the camera.  I have found this method to be extremely unreliable, even when powered by an external battery.  Despite the extra power the TetherBoost provides, there is simply not enough to reliably run the length of a 30 foot tether cable.

As the diagram above illustrates, the ideal location for the TetherBoost is in the middle of the signal chain, between the 15 foot extension cable and the main tether cable. With the TetherBoost Pro, cables up to 65 feet are officially supported by Tether Tools, though my experience shows that results may vary with cables longer than 32 feet.  Note that the TetherBoost should always be placed closest to the camera, and with cables over 48 feet a second TetherBoost is required between the first and second active extension cables. Long cable runs benefit tremendously from (and often require) at least one external power supply.

For shorter cable runs, the TetherBoost is designed to work without external power, simply boosting and stabilizing the amount of current that the camera is requesting from the host.  However, most DSLRs always benefit from additional battery or AC power (while other cameras like the Phase One IQ3 100MP back seem to prefer an unpowered TetherBoost).   External battery power is especially recommended when working on location in order to minimize draining the laptop's battery.

Though AC Power is an option, there are only a few scenarios where it makes sense: a permanently installed camera setup in a high volume e-commerce or copy stand environment, for instance.  Otherwise, a battery makes a lot more sense in order to minimize the need for additional cables.

While the TetherBoost is an extremely useful piece of gear, both versions are somewhat fragile.  Unfortunately, they don't fare terribly well when tossed around the floor of a studio or a sidewalk on location without some form of external protection.  However, I have created a simple and affordable solution to address this.

 

How To Build Your Own Self Powered TetherBoost Protector

With the original TetherBoost core controller, the most common setup was a Tether Tools Strapmoore Extender wrapped around the TetherBoost and a bulky but powerful external battery.  While this setup was fairly well suited to the studio environment if treated with care, it was not rugged enough to withstand the rigors of location shooting.  

The design of the newer TetherBoost Pro, however, makes for a great platform to build off of.  The small size and dongle form factor mean that it is easy to build a robust self powered case that allows for the TetherBoost to be used in the middle of the signal chain where it belongs.  The best part: it only requires three off the shelf parts and costs less than $30.

Here's what you'll need:

Assembly is very straightforward.  Simply attach a strip of loop (soft) side Velcro to the interior base of the extension cord protector and another small piece to the top side of the battery (be sure not to cover the capacity indicator lights), and then attach strips of hook side (rough) Velcro to the base of the battery and the under side of the TetherBoost.  The cord protector includes a piece that is designed to keep the cables connected, however this build makes it incompatible and obsolete, so it can be discarded.

Attach the TetherBoost to the top of the battery, and then place the whole unit inside the cable protector and attach the power cord.  Be sure to press the button on the side of the battery to activate the power.  Connect your TetherBoost to the active extension cable and your tether cable and close the unit. It's also a good idea to use the included Tether Tools extension lock between the female end of the extension and male TetherBoost connection.  While both of these cases do provide some protection against cables becoming disconnected, it is always wise to use gaffer tape to ensure the tightest connection possible.

This setup really shines on location.  It's withstood pouring rain and been dragged around New York City sidewalks for hours on end.  Mine is still going strong after 6 months of heavy use, and I recently built a second setup so that I can have a backup ready to go in case of failure.

 

Final Thoughts

The TetherBoost Core Controller has proven itself to be an essential tool for digital techs and tethered shooters, and the new Pro version has addressed most of the shortcomings of the original version.  However, it does require a bit of testing in order to figure out the best setups for specific camera and computer combinations.  That said, I can't recommend it enough!  If the TetherBoost isn't already part of your toolkit, you should definitely consider putting it at the top of your wishlist!

 

Note: The views expressed here are my own and are in no way endorsed by or affiliated with Tether Tools.  I have personally purchased all of the mentioned products and have not received any form of compensation for writing this review.

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Building The Ultimate Digi Tech Survival Kit

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Building The Ultimate Digi Tech Survival Kit

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Digital techs are expected to be the Swiss Army knife of a photoshoot.  We are the de facto go-to person when any technological issues arise, be they with computer, camera, or lighting equipment.  As such, it is important that digital techs not only stay up to date with the current technological zeitgeist but also have a deep knowledge of the role of the photo assistant.

 Now, I am a firm believer that everyone on a photoshoot ought to be able to focus exclusively on whatever task they are assigned to in order to do their job as well as they possibly can.  I will almost never accept a job that requires me to simultaneously fill the roles of first assistant AND digital tech (and they do come around often) because, though I'm also an excellent photo assistant, trying to do two very different jobs at the same time inevitably makes the quality of both suffer.  That said, I still arrive at each job fully prepared to jump in and play second or third or fourth assistant when necessary.  

Furthermore, some photographers and assistants arrive less prepared than others, so it is important to me that I carry essential tools and accessories that I might not personally need on set, but that are commonly used (and forgotten) by the assistants, especially when working with a new client.  Covering for a photographer or assistant who has forgotten an essential piece of kit is a great way to get hired again for the next job.  And of course, there are a number of tech-specific items that I simply can't do my job without.  Therefore, I carry an extensive "survival kit" with me on every job in addition to my camera and computer kits.  Above all else, my motto is "BE PREPARED!!!"  The Boy Scouts taught me well.

I wanted to make this list to help techs who are just starting to build their own kits, but a few of the items I carry may be a surprise to seasoned techs as well.  If you're just starting out, it is by no means necessary to run out to B&H and Home Depot and buy all of this stuff right away.  That said, there are definitely a few essential tools and accessories that you should think about carrying on every shoot (see the "Essentials Kit" list below).  You might already have some of these items lying around, too.

Ultimately, every photoshoot has unique requirements and what I decide to bring along can vary greatly depending on whether we will be working in studio or on location, whether I am using my own computer equipment or the photographer's kit, and how familiar I am with the gear that my client always brings to set.  Therefore, my survival kit is actually two complimentary kits that are housed in a carry-on size 1510 with the laptop lid organizer and a slightly larger 1560.  The 1510 contains all of the absolute essentials and comes with me on every single job, no matter what.  The 1560 contains all of the larger accessories that aren't always necessary if I'm working with a familiar crew that I know will come to set well prepared or if running Capture Pilot isn't necessary. 

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The night before each shoot I think long and hard about what I might need in order to make the job run smoothly and I completely unpack and repack the kits, ensuring that every item is present and functional.  Occasionally, I might need to add or subtract a few items from the "essentials kit" depending on what the job calls for.  If I am not 100% sure whether or not I will need a particular accessory, then the answer is "yes."  I can't tell you how many times that "frivolous" gaffer glass or second wifi router would have really come in handy.  I've learned my lesson: when it comes to a digi tech survival kit, less is almost never more, as long as everything fits into an organized and compact package.   Here's what's inside mine.

 

Pelican 1510 "Essentials Kit"

  • "Bare Necessities" Belt Pouch
    • Leatherman Wave
    • Sekonic L-508 Light Meter
    • Small Flashlight
    • Gaff Tape (2" Black, 1" White, 1" Orange [for securing tether cables], and various 1/2" Spike)
    • 12' Tape Measure
    • Sharpies, Pens and Pencils
    • ColorChecker Passport
    • Focus Target
    • 4x CF Cards
    • 3x SD Cards
    • Tenba Reload Universal Card Wallet (red and green pockets to organize fresh and shot cards)
    • Lens Cleaner and Microfiber Cloth
  • Sensor Swabs (full frame 35mm, full frame medium format and crop frame medium format)
  • Pec Pads
  • Sensor Cleaning Fluid
  • Rocket Blower
  • Shoe Mount 3 Axis Bubble Level
  • LCC Plate
  • Arca Swiss and Manfrotto Tripod Plates
  • 1/4-20 to 3/8-16 Adapter
  • Super Clamp
  • J-Hook
  • AA, AAA, and CR123 Batteries
  • Cube Tap
  • Cable Management Accessories (zip ties, twist ties, bongo ties, velcro wraps, and carabiners)
  • Spare Tether Cables and Extensions
  • TetherBoost Pro + Battery
  • Backup MacBook Pro + Magsafe Charger
  • i1 Display Pro
  • Cable Kit
    • 6x USB 3.0 A to Micro B
    • 2x USB 3.0 A to B
    • 1x USB 2.0 A to B
    • 3x USB 2.0 A to Micro B
    • 2x USB 2.0 A to Mini B
    • 2x Thunderbolt
    • 4x Apple Lightning
    • 3x FireWire 800
    • 1x 1/8" Audio Cable
    • 2x Lightning to Headphone Adapter
    • 1x eSATA
    • 1x DVI
    • 1x HDMI
    • 2x Displayport to Mini Displayport
    • 1x USB Gooseneck Reading Light
    • 1x 2A USB Power Adapter
  • Computer Accessory Kit
    • 2x Lexar Card Readers
    • 2x USB 3.0 Hubs
    • 1x Firewire 800 Repeater
    • Thunderbolt Adapters: 2x Each FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet, DVI, VGA, and DisplayPort
    • 1x SATA to USB 3.0 Adapter for troubleshooting hard drives
    • 2x FireWire 400 to 800 Adpater
    • 1x USB Power Meter
    • 1x Earbuds
    • 1x Magsafe 2 Adapter
    • 4x 32GB Thumb Drives (empty)
    • OS X Installer Thumb Drive
    • "Essentials" Thumb Drive (Capture One settings, client specs, software installers, etc.)
    • DiskWarrior Thumb Drive
  • Personal Kit

 

Pelican 1560 "Extras Kit"

  • 2x Apple Airport Extreme
  • iPad
  • TetherTools AeroTab S4 iPad Mount
  • iPad Hood
  • 2x 500GB Hard Drives
  • ColorChecker Classic
  • 3x Pocket Wizard Plus III
  • Wacom Intuous Small Tablet
  • Extra Mouse
  • Extra Keyboard
  • Label Maker
  • Extra Label Tape
  • UE Boom 2 Bluetooth Speaker
  • Audio Cables
  • Headlamp
  • Dual Camera Battery Charger w/ Canon, Nikon, and Phase One Plates
  • 2x 13,000mAh USB Batteries
  • Computer Tool Kit (torx drivers, spudgers, tweezers, etc.)
  • Large Dark Cloth (for when the DigiShade Pro just doesn't cut it outdoors)
  • 25' Stinger
  • Power Strip
  • First Aid Kit
  • Tool Kit  
    • Large Flashlight
    • Utility Knife + Spare Blades
    • Large Phillips/Flathead Screwdriver
    • Small Phillips, Flathead, and Torx Drivers
    • Standard and Metric Hex Wrenches
    • Stubby #7 Tripod Plate Screwdriver
    • 25' Tape Measure
    • Cable Tester
    • Bubble Level
    • Scissors
    • Adjustable Crescent Wrench
    • Slip-Joint Pliers
    • Wire Cutters
    • More Sharpies, Pens, and Pencils
  • Grip Kit 
    • Additional Gaff and Paper Tape
    • 2x Super Clamps
    • 2x 2" and 2x 1" A-Clamps
    • Magic Arm
    • Cube Tap
    • Various Studs and Adapters
    • J-Hooks
    • Safety Cable
    • 2x Ratchet Straps
    • 3x Bungee Cords
    • Gloves
    • Sticky Velcro
    • Gaffer Glass
    • Paracord
    • Binder Clips

 

Location Extras

If we're going to be on location, I'll usually bring a few extra personal items, including:

  • Water Bottle
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Spare T-Shirt
  • Windbreaker
  • Umbrella
  • Pocket Hand Warmers (seasonally)

 

I hope you've found this list useful!  Feel free to ask any questions or let me know about your favorite tools that I've left out in the comments section!

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