Review: USB Memory Direct Branded Flash Drives

Blue Planet Photography USB drive from USB Memory Direct
Back in April, I was contacted by Patrick Whitener, the partnership coordinator at USB Memory Direct (https://www.usbmemorydirect.com), maker of custom and branded flash drives. He wanted to know if I’d like to partner with them, try out their product, and write up a blog post about my impressions. I’d been thinking about a ‘giveaway’ for my workshops and classes, something like a USB drive loaded with lesson materials for my classes, writings and other materials for my workshops. Since it wasn’t going to cost me anything other than a review of the product (which I would likely be doing even if I purchased it), I agreed.

He contacted me on April 2 and I spent a few days thinking about it, whether I wanted to get involved or trust this offer. I did some research on USB Memory Direct and discovered they have a pretty good reputation. I’ve dealt with other promotional product companies before that were less than desirable. In the meantime, Patrick sent me a couple emails asking me if I was still interested. Not pushy, just checking in. I appreciated that. No hard sell, no stupid jokes. Just email, too, no phone calls.

I chose the type of USB drive from the offered selection, the Tower style. Made of wood (the description says “pine.”), the cap is attached by a couple magnets which are strong. Personally, I’d prefer an integrated cover, like their Ninja model, because a separate cap without a lanyard or other means of attachment is just going to get lost eventually, but that one wasn’t available for the promotion. I like the natural wood look. It goes with my business name and “nature” theme.

USB drive showing magnetic cap attachment

I had to tweak my logo to fit the dimensions of the drive space available for printing (but they will do that for you if you wish) and sent Patrick the file. I asked if he could print my website on the back and he replied, no problem.

USB drive showing front logo and back website address printing

On April 21, I received a pre-production image of a drive they had made up for me to review. It looked great, except for some reason my logo had been shifted slightly and “photography” had been re-typed and misspelled as “photogrphy”. I let Patrick know and it was corrected without fuss. Patrick asked me if there was any content I wanted them to pre-load to the drives for me. I hadn’t decided what content I was going to put on the drives, so declined the offer. This is a service they offer, though, free of charge, as far as I know. So, if you are ordering a bunch of drives (even 25) having them add the content saves me/you a ton of time. Loading 25 drives from a single or double USB port would take a decent amount of time that I could be spending doing something more productive. But, having a blank drive gives me the freedom to customize how many drives receive what content, whenever I get that figured out.

The 25 8GB drives were shipped on April 24 and I received them on May 5, 7 business days (12 calendar days) later. Their estimate for shipping is 5-7 days once the drives are ready. The drives came individually wrapped in plastic envelopes, like a plastic sleeve for a greeting card or matted photo, rubber-banded in groups of 5, then wound with bubble wrap. There were no additional papers (that I remember) in the typical plain brown box. Though, I think there must have been an inventory sheet. The full color printing is crisp, the color accurate, and appears to be quite durable. I’ve had a couple other promotional items where the printing flaked or peeled off after a short time. This printing looks and feels like it will last longer than the average bear.

Being the cautious type, I ran a couple of the drives through a virus scan and they came up clean. Of course, a company selling promotional USB drives wouldn’t want to send off products infected with a virus or malware, but I had never dealt with this company before and, despite the great reviews, it never hurts to check.

This style of drive, the Tower, fits nicely on my desktop machine and my Surface, and doesn’t impede adding a second USB drive where there are multiple ports. I have another novelty USB drive I received at a conference that’s shaped like a rabbit, and it takes up all the space to either side of the port, so it’s nice to have a thin drive in case I need to transfer from one drive to another or grab files from a second drive without removing the first. My logo is clearly presented, also, which is good promotion for me.

Single drive in USB port on desktop
Single drive in USB port
USB drives in adjacent ports
USB drives in adjacent ports

Next came the big question. If I ordered these drives without the promotion, how much would they cost? The Tower 8GB drives are USB SLC (Single Level Cell) which are faster and more reliable than typical consumer type USB drives. The drives I received are USB-A, but there are USB-C styles and also dual USB-A/C, like the Ninja model I referred to earlier. So, the price for the tower drive, as of around mid-May, 2020, in a quantity of 25, is $9.75 per unit, or $244 total. Increasing the quantity to 50 reduces the per unit cost to $8.00 each. The Ninja, all metal integrated construction, USB A/C, is $15 each, or $374.50 for 25. An order of 50 reduces the per unit cost to a little over $13. Capacity up to 64GB is available, priced accordingly.

With that price, comes free printing, free data loading (check that to be sure), lifetime warranty, and a price match guarantee.

The drives I received are fast-loading. I haven’t tested them all to check that they all work, but the two random ones I grabbed do. If that changes, I’ll post that additional information here. I will assume they are all fine. Overall, I’m pleased with the experience and the product from USB Memory Direct. This is the first promotional item like this I’ve tried and once I figure out exactly how I’m going to incorporate these drives in my classes/workshops and other promotions I’ll likely go back to Patrick for more. Since I let Patrick know I received the drives, I have not heard from him. No pestering about whether I wanted to buy more, when was I going to get my review up on my blog, etc. No hard selling, which I really like. It makes me more comfortable to go back to USB Memory Direct when and if I decide this is a promotional item I would like to incorporate, without dreading the follow up. I appreciate that.

The one thing I might change is to put the web address on the front, so it’s more visible (promotion, you know). However, I like the simple logo front.

Free tablet case with Think Tank Photo backpack

Great news from our partners at Think Tank Photo. For the month of February, whenever you order one of Think Tank Photo’s rugged, multifunction, and secure backpacks* they will give you for free your choice of one of their popular AppHouse 8 or AppHouse 10 tablet cases. Think Tank Photo backpacks range from the field-oriented StreetWalker backpacks to their transportation-oriented Airport backpacks, as well as the expandable Shape Shifter and “long glass” backpacks. The AppHouse shoulder/belt-mounted tablet bags are a great way to carry a digital portfolio or presentation, transmit images, or access your music, games, apps and more. And don’t forget, as a friend, whenever you order $50 or more of any Think Tank gear using my special link you can add yet one more free item to your order, as well as free shipping! To receive your free AppHouse tablet case, follow the rebate download instructions on the backpacks’ product pages. [*Note: this special offer does not apply to Perception backpacks.]

Go HERE to make your purchase.

Purchase link http://www.thinktankphoto.com/categories/camera-backpacks.aspx?code=WS-743
Purchase link http://www.thinktankphoto.com/categories/camera-backpacks.aspx?code=WS-743

What’s in Your Camera Bag?

Our camera bag is our mobile office. Especially these days when camera bags have compartments for our laptop, smart pad, smart phone and other devices in addition to our camera gear. Our camera bag can also become our mobile storage facility, accumulating various bits of flotsam and jetsam we add thinking we’re going to use or forget to remove after a shoot. But, sometimes that detritus comes in handy when you least expect it. What odd or unusual thing have you had in your camera bag that unexpectedly came in handy during a shoot?

Here are three lists, starting with unexpectedly useful items, things you might not generally consider but might be useful in certain circumstances, and items you probably should include in your camera bag on a regular basis.

Unexpectedly Useful Items

1. Altoids
2. sewing kit
3. rubber bands
4. mini flashlight/headlamp
5. bandaids
6. hand sanitizer
7. Aspirin/Tylenol/Advil
8. allergy medication
9. makeup brush
10. safety pins
11. Velcro
12. zip ties
13. candy
14. clothes pins
15. baby wipes/wet wipes
16. shower cap
17. tweezers
18. permanent markers
19. squeaker from a dog toy (attention-getter for babies, kids, pets, and adults)
20. scissors (small, collapsible)

And a humorous suggestion

My camera, I hardly use anything else in there and I’m starting to wonder why I drag the damn bag around.

Might Be Useful

1. clear gift wrap tape
2. bug repellent
3. gaffer tape, blue painter’s tape, electrical tape
4. bubbles
5. gray card
6. crochet needle
7. alarm clock
8. hairspray
9. external light meter
10. lint roller
11. squeeze blower
12. GPS
13. sunblock
14. chewing gum
15. Vaseline
16. spring clamps
17. body tape
18. glitter
19. hand warmers

Should Consider as Regular Additions

1. hand towel (for wiping off moisture from lens and camera or sweat from your brow
2. Leatherman or other multi-tool (for various equipment maintenance, cutting/trimming stuff)
3. trash bags (impromptu rain cover, damp clothes/towel storage, quick and dirty flag/gobo, for trash)
4. lens cloth (microfiber) or Lenspen
5. screwdriver/allen wrench/flat wrench for tripod/quick release plate maintenance

Review of the Promote Control remote for digital cameras, Part 1

Promote Control

While technological advances in digital photography have opened up many creative doors, the downside is often the increased need to carry more equipment; laptop, software, external power supplies, cables, etc. If you’re working in a studio, the extra equipment can get in the way but it’s manageable. Once you leave the confines of the studio and readily-available power, things get more problematic.

Promote Systems
, has built a multi-functional remote control for Canon and Nikon cameras that allows the photographer to ditch the laptop and head to the field (or reduce clutter in the studio) to create HDR exposure brackets, time lapse series, Bulb ramping, focus-stacked macros, HDR time lapse, HDR bulb ramping, and HDR focus stacking. The Promote Control also operates as a one-shot remote and has a built-in hyperfocal distance calculator.

The major advantages of the Promote Control are:

1. Multi-functional control in one small, very portable, device (it’s the same size as an iPhone but twice as thick).
2. It’s easy to set up and use. The menu system is straightforward and button operation is clean and precise.
3. Increased functionality for owners of Nikon and Canon cameras limited to 3-exposure auto exposure bracketing for HDR, no intervalometer remote (or on camera), or limited capability remote control.

I’ve used the Promote Control (PC) with my Canon 1D Mk IV and it works great. But, while the PC expands what I can do with my 1D MK IV, it would add significant functionality and abilities to owners of cameras like the Canon Rebel series, 30D, 40D, 50D, 5D MK III, Nikon D40, D50, D60, and other Canon & Nikon models with limited functionality when it comes to HDR bracketing and intervalometer capabilities. Camera bodies with Live View will have more capability using the Promote Control.

Here are some of the features of the Promote Control I’m currently testing and will report on in Part II of my review coming soon:

* Auto exposure bracketing from 2 to 45 exposures for HDR or other uses in 1/3EV – 9.0EV step range between exposures and programmable shutter speeds of 1day10hour to 1/4000+
* Time lapse sequences in exposure intervals from 00:00:01 to 99:99:99 and 1 to infinite number of frames
* Mirror lock-up prior to each exposure for all modes (with optional shutter cable)
* Focus stacking
* HDR focus stacking
* HDR time lapse
* Bulb ramping (for time lapse sequences over changing light conditions such as sunrise/sunset, with optional shutter cable)
* Bulb HDR

Other features are

* One Shot: operates like a regular remote shutter release for making single exposures, except you can change the camera settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) using the Promote Control (shutter speed control requires the optional shutter cable)
* Manual Shutter Hold: For single timed exposures in bulb mode using an external timer. There isn’t a built-in timer for this function like in the Canon TC-80N3 or Nikon MC-36 remotes. Operation is a simple click to open the shutter and a second click to close it. I would like to see a timer function added in a future firmware upgrade. As it is now, this would be the least useful feature for me on the Promote Control
* Hyperfocal distance calculator for full-size, 1.3X, 1.5X, 1.6X, and 2X (4/3) sensors plus 6×7, 6×6 and 645 film
* AC power jack for external power
* Capability to receive commands from external remote sensors (noise, light, motion, etc.) and compatible with any sensor capable of triggering a Canon Rebel
* Can use the Promote Control with motorized panoramic heads

What all is included with the Promote Control?

* the unit
* 2 AA batteries
* instruction manual (also available in PDF form online)
* semi-hard carry case
* neck strap
* USB cable for firmware updates
* USB remote cable for your camera model

Optional accessories are the camera-model-specific shutter release cable needed for some operations, a soft case for mounting on a tripod leg (with clear panel for button access), wireless remote sensor, and a remote control hub that allows you to control multiple Promote Controls for things like 3D HDR and 3D time lapse.

The Promote Control is a very useful device and is compact enough to ride in my camera bag or backpack.

** Carry case UPDATE ** I received the new case today and it works great. It’s the same size as the original carry case, but thicker to be able to hold the camera to Promote USB cable and an optional shutter cable. I wasn’t able to fit the Promote to computer USB firmware update cable into the case along with the other two cables, but as previously mentioned, you’re not likely to need to carry the firmware USB cable with you all the time. It will probably ride in your accessory cable bag or laptop bag, anyway.

Stay tuned for future reviews of the specific functions as I compile them. Just a teaser, here’s an example of a focus stack I did of one of my pocket watches:

pocket watch

Topaz Lens Effects Free Upgrade

Topaz Labs has released a free upgrade to their new Lens Effects plug in that includes new filters for polarization, UV/Haze, and streaks, improved depth-of-field simulation, a dual focus lens option, 30 new and customizable aperture shapes, 13 new and customizable vignette masks, and Lens Effects now allows you to upload your own aperture shapes and vignette masks. With this upgrade, you can now simulate over 170 lens, filter, and camera effects. If you own Lens Effects, you can upgrade for free by going to the Topaz Labs download page and selecting your operating system. You do not need to uninstall the previous version and you shouldn’t need to reenter your product key. Get your upgrade today. If you haven’t purchased Lens Effects or any of the other Topaz Labs products, see my First Look of Lens Effects, below, and click on the Topaz box on the right side of this page.

Do you like Macro?

I mean, REALLY macro? Here’s a site that will blow you away, plus give you the tools to do it yourself: if you have the patience. Charles Krebs (not the Ecology textbook author, but still very much interested in the natural world) is an accomplished photomicrographer and multiple year winner of the Nikon Small Worlds and Olympus Bioscapes contests. Putting together essentially a DIY setup, he’s created many visually arresting images.

Visit his website and galleries, plus several articles explaining how you can do this too: http://www.krebsmicro.com/

Here’s an article showing his current set up and equipment: http://micropix.home.comcast.net/~micropix/microsetup/index.html

©Charles Krebs
photos © Charles Krebs

© Charles Krebs

8 Characteristics to Consider When Buying a Tripod

Tripods are found in all shapes and sizes and configured for a wide range of uses. Selecting the proper tripod for your needs can be a bit daunting if you don’t know what you’re looking for or what you need. In addition to camera bodies and lenses, the tripod is the third most important piece of equipment you will own. The tripod provides a stable platform. If the platform is not stable, the thousands of dollars you spent on the camera and lens mounted on the tripod and the time and money spent to get to wherever you are was a waste since you’ll be getting a blurry photo. You might as well have stayed home. Harsh words, but true. Spending your money right the first time will save you grief and unnecessary expense later on as you “upgrade” from inexpensive to adequate to what-you-should-have-gotten-in-the-first-place. This article will give you the information you need to make an educated choice. If after reading this you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll help you as best I can.

The tripod is composed of 3 parts and all work together to create a stable platform:

1. The Legs. The legs are what hold up your camera and provide stability, extending out to form a pyramid shape, with the apex (point) at the top where the camera sits.
2. The Head. The tripod head is where your camera attaches to the tripod legs and provides the movements that allow the camera to rotate, pan, tilt, and focus (macro rails).
3. The Center Post. The center post is connected to the tripod head and typically inserts into the legs through a hole at the apex. The center post moves up and down smoothly or via gears.

Before I go further, I’ll briefly mention monopods. A monopod, just like its name suggests, is a single “leg”, usually extendable to some height, with an attachment point at the top for a head and/or camera. Monopods are handy for situations that don’t demand the secure stability of a tripod or in areas that don’t allow tripods (for safety and/or convenience issues – i.e. butterfly houses). These characteristics also apply to monopods.

If you plan to shoot primarily in a studio setting, a camera stand might be more practical than a tripod.

1. What type of photography do you shoot and need a tripod for?
The tripod you need is based on the type of photography you do, i.e. landscape, product, architecture, portrait, adventure/sports, wildlife, macro, in-studio or in the field, from your car or from your backpack. If you never leave the studio, neither does your tripod, so it can be a big and heavy camera stand, roll on casters, be 8 ft. tall and have shelves for gear, laptop, a porch swing, whatever. If you’re hiking 10 miles into the mountains or desert, you should consider a lighter, more easily transportable model. Not all tripods are created equal, nor should they be. A tripod is a tool just like your camera and is constructed differently to fit a variety of situations. You may need more than one tripod to cover the types of photography you do.

2. Sturdiness and Material
It’s the main function of the tripod to provide a mobile, stable base for your camera. If your tripod isn’t constructed well, it’s not doing you any more good than straight hand holding. Inexpensive tripods made of thin, formed aluminum can bend easily which causes them to lose functionality and stability. Tubular aluminum is more sturdy but can be heavy. Carbon fiber is sturdy and light weight but is more expensive. Wood looks nice, can be heavy, is expensive, but has excellent vibration dampening characteristics. If you have a tripod “in hand”, to test its stability extend the legs to maximum height, swing the legs out to their “default” position (without swinging the legs out further than the first setting if more than one setting is possible). With or without a tripod head mounted, rest your hand on the apex (top) of the tripod and using just the weight of your hand/arm can you feel excess vibration in the legs from your slight pressure or from people walking around? Does the tripod hold the weight and seem sturdy? Put slight downward pressure at the apex (not a lot, you’re not going to be putting a bowling ball up there – well, maybe you are. If so, add some more pressure). Look at the legs, do they bow out under pressure? Do one or more leg sections begin to collapse (does the leg extension tightening system not work well or need adjustment – can it be adjusted)?

Here I’ll mention something about the center post. Keep the center post as low as possible. In fact, you’re better off if you never raise the post at all. The apex of the tripod is the most stable point on the pyramid. Once you raise the camera above that point you begin to lose stability. The post can wobble, the center of gravity changes, vibrations are introduced, it’s just not good. If your center post is very long, it can restrict how low your camera can go. On some tripods the center post operates by a gear system, on others, it’s a smooth tube that slides up and down. Some center posts come in two sections. You can unscrew half of the post to get lower to the ground when the legs are splayed out. If the post isn’t in two parts, but is too long (and of the smooth variety), cut it down yourself with a hacksaw. It’s extra weight you don’t need, anyway.

3. Weight carrying capacity
How heavy is the equipment you’re using? A point-and-shoot Elf weighs a lot less than a Rebel Xti and quite a lot less than a EOS 1Ds Mark III, a Hasselblad H3DII, or a Linhof 6x9cm Technikardan 23S. Add a lens to your camera body, a flash, maybe even a flash bracket or macro flash set up, then add a tripod head and the legs will need to support weights ranging from a few ounces to several pounds. A lightweight set of tripod legs would be very unstable and may even buckle under the weight of the gear a wildlife photographer might use and a heavy-duty tripod would be overkill for a simple point-and-shoot camera. So, consider the weight of the equipment you’re going to use. Also, plan ahead. If you think you’ll get that bigger lens or move from simple point-and-shoot to 35mm in the near future, get the tripod that will fit those near-future needs. It’ll save you money in the long run. The tripod head is also weight-sensitive. Look at the specs carefully and note the maximum recommended weight. If your tripod head (see below) is too light your camera will not be stable.

4. Height
The maximum and minimum height a tripod extends is important if you are tall, want to be able to place the camera higher than eye level, or operate on uneven terrain (hillside), and if you want to photograph a bees knees. The maximum and minimum height of a tripod is easy to determine. If you have the tripod in hand, extend the legs to their maximum and evaluate. Collapse the legs and evaluate. If the legs can swing out, do that (see #4). Remember, if there isn’t a tripod head mounted on the tripod, you’ll have to consider the height of the head in the max and min measurements. At a minimum, the tripod should come to eye level. Why you would want to shoot always at eye level is for another discussion, but let’s just say if you’re 6 ft. tall and your tripod height is 5 ft., you’re going to get a sore back. A taller tripod also gives you flexibility when shooting on slopes; you extend 2 legs on the downslope and adjust the upslope leg to level. You’ll lose tripod height, but there are ways you can get around that if you are resourceful. If you need to raise up the center post to get some additional height, it’s ok to do that if you understand what you’re getting into (see #2 if you missed it), and the camera is still stable. I generally don’t recommend raising the center post, but I’ve done it on a handful of occasions.

5. Leg flexibility
This doesn’t refer to your ability (or not) to swing your leg up and behind your head though, if you can do that, congratulations! Some tripod legs are “restrained” by support bars attached to the center post and the legs do not operate independently. All three legs extend out at the same time and only swing out so far. The tripod legs that provide the most flexibility do not have support bars and operate independently. This allows you to adjust the length and extension of any given leg to accommodate for changes in topography and greatly increases the functionality of your tripod, especially when shooting landscapes or macro in close quarters. Some legs extend out to completely or nearly flat, others at maybe 8 – 10 degrees from center.

6. Tripod Head
The tripod head is where all the action takes place. This is where the camera is attached, so it should be very secure to both the tripod legs and camera. Inexpensive tripods have an integrated head that is not removable. Quality legs allow for the attachment of any of a number of tripod head configurations. The typical attachment nowadays between the camera and tripod is a quick release plate. The quick release plate attaches to the tripod socket on the camera body and quickly inserts and locks into a receptor on the tripod head. This allows for easy placement on and removal of the camera off the tripod. Tripod heads come in four basic flavors: pan-tilt, ball, modified ball, and gimbal. The pan-tilt head has two levers controlling pan (side-to side movement) and tilt (forward-back movement). This style is more typically used for video camera use and can be problematic to use for still photography. The ball head acts like a ball and socket joint. A ball with a screw post sits in a cup and the camera attaches to the screw post. A tension knob (or two) controls the movement and stability of the camera at nearly any position. The modified ball is a “reverse ball head”. In this case, the ball is inverted, with the post at the base (attached to the tripod) and the cup/socket attached to the camera. The cup/socket is modified and extended to accommodate a trigger release mechanism for one-handed operation. The modified ball head is taller than the typical ball head, but operation is a bit easier. The gimbal head is a roughly L or J-shaped bracket used for large focal length lenses (400mm +). The gimbal arm attaches to the lens and swings and rotates, allowing for smooth, easy movement of heavy lenses for re-composing or tracking moving subjects.

7. Weight and Compactness
The weight of the tripod affects sturdiness and your ability (or desire) to carry the thing long distances. Tubular aluminum is heavier than carbon fiber and your decision between the two will likely be based on cost. Wood can be light(ish) or heavy, but is more expensive than aluminum and not as easy to set up as either aluminum or carbon fiber. If you’re a backpacker or otherwise weight and/or space conscious you might have to sacrifice height and maybe some functionality for a smaller, lighter tripod/head combination. As mentioned previously, you could also have more than one tripod to fulfill certain functions; a lightweight ‘racer’ for backpacking or daytripping and a heavier ‘tank’ for working out of your car/truck/studio. Remember to consider (and add) the weight of the tripod head to the weight of the legs when purchasing them separately.

8. Cost
Ultimately, the final decision usually comes down to cost. The tripod is often the last piece of equipment considered after camera body and lens(es) and generally purchased well after the body and lens(es) when the photographer is tired of getting blurry photos. In my experience with students, if the tripod is purchased at the same time as the camera, it’s usually a cheap model thrown in by the salesperson for only an additional $20 or so, or scrounged from the closet or garage of a friend or relative (squirreled away there for good reason). If you’re serious about photography (or don’t want to waste your money and time and be frustrated), if you intend to shoot with long focal lengths and long exposures, shoot still life or landscapes, or shoot close-ups (macro) plan ahead and include the cost of a quality tripod and tripod head into your budget. You’ll be way ahead of the normal curve, your results will be what you want them to be, you’ll be happier and more productive, and you’ll save money in the long run (a good tripod will outlast your camera body – I’ve gone through 3 cameras so far but only one tripod). Plan to spend $300 – $700 for a set of decent intermediate tripod legs and head, though you could spend much more than that if you wanted to.