Charles Lanteigne Photo

What's [now going to always be] in my Camera Bag?

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When shooting architecture, getting the proper angle sometimes requires your camera to be placed in difficult positions. I'm not talking about standing outside in the cold at the crack of dawn on top of a step ladder—that's just part of the fun! I mean when the camera has to be up against a wall, or suspended in midair, such that framing and focusing is impossible. Minutia is part of my job description, after all: I wouldn't be using adjustable lenses if I didn't care about precision and quality.

To get the shot at right (a 2-second exposure, using a 17mm adjustable lens), I had to suspend the camera
under the legs of my tripod. Quite a challenge to perform careful framing...

What is needed, in simple terms, is an external monitor.

A laptop can be used as such, and I've shot tethered before, but if you are in a difficult position, being encumbered by a clunky and rather large and heavy additional piece of equipment is not much of an improvement over your initial predicament.

One solution is to go the route taken by videographers, who use small external LCD displays—often conveniently attached to the hotshoe—freeing them from the fixed display on the back of their cameras. The display shows you pretty much the same thing you can see on the camera's display, so you've effectively solved the crux of the problem. But these displays are not cheap, and they are power hungry. Cheaper versions do exist, but what you get is a small, low resolution, poor quality LCD.

To get this bathroom shot, I had to position the camera in
the corner of a tiny shower, making it nearly impossible to
frame. (My neck still remembers.)

The Solution

When I bounced this problem off of a friend, his response came instantaneously: Why don't you get a tablet? The thought had crossed my mind, but I wasn't prepared to put down the better part of a grand on this, which is the price I expected it would cost me, seeing how expensive iPads are. Frankly, I thought, why would I pay to get the countless functionalities of a tablet when all I need is an external monitor?

You would think that a poor quality display, alone, would cost significantly less than a fully featured little computer with a large, high-quality touchscreen... Turns out that my expectations were completely off base: you can get a 7" Android-based tablet that costs next to nothing—less than an external display, in fact—while at the same time offering so much more.

Now, I haven't been looking at all of the tablets available on the market to find the best or the cheapest, but I am fairly confident that I made the right choice.

In Apple-land, the choice is simple: there's the iPad mini, and then perhaps the previous generation iPad mini—that's it. Unfortunately, even if you were prepared to pay a premium to get a product that has an Apple on its back, it would be of no help: you cannot tether a camera directly to an iPad, end of story.(1)

With Android-based devices, it gets more complicated, because there are so many products on offer. At minimum you have to look for a tablet that supports USB Hosting to be able to connect your camera to it (and it's unlikely that this information about a device will be readily available unless you do some research). Then there's OS versions and a myriad of other characteristics you can spend a long time researching and still not be sure it'll end up working without testing. I'm not going to argue that it's a painless shopping experience.

I'll skip the details to simply tell you that I bought a Google Nexus 7 (2013), a device that was released recently (last August) and is ridiculously powerful and featured for its comparatively low price. (If that wasn't enough of an obvious choice, I got mine on sale.) For the purposes of an external display, just keep in mind that it has a Full HD (1920x1080) 7" calibrated IPS panel. Wow. But I am not here to sell you this particular tablet. There are other models that would do the job, too—perhaps even at a lower price—but I can't say because I haven't studied this thoroughly. At $229 for one of the best tablets on the market, I didn't bother.

This quick montage should give you an idea of my setup...

What you will need

Once you have your tablet, there are two things you will need, on top of your camera's USB cable:

  • An OTG USB adapter cable. This little adapter (which you can see in the picture above) is required to connect a USB device to your tablet (such as a camera, but it could also be a USB drive, a keyboard, etc.) It costs about $1 (seriously), but is surprisingly difficult to find in local stores. If you don't mind waiting a while, you will find one very easily on eBay.
  • A remote-control app. The tablet should recognize the camera and perhaps even allow you to access the contents of the memory card, but if you want to access the "LiveView" mode of the camera and control its parameters, you'll need an app. Unfortunately, there is no app made by the camera manufacturers themselves, but a bunch of developers have provided apps that do a terrific job. Again, I haven't looked at all of the apps available, but DSLR Controller does everything I wanted (and much more).

What you will likely also want

As it is, you have a fully featured external monitor/touchscreen remote-control, but you have to hold the tablet in your hands, which is not ideal while you are trying to setup your shot. You will therefore also want:

  • A small light stand, which is lightweight and easy to carry around.
  • An umbrella bracket. No, not to attach an umbrella, but simply because it'll make it easy to tilt the tablet to your liking. You can even go a step further and attach two brackets back to back, at 90° from one another, so you can quickly turn the tablet on its side when looking at vertical shots!
  • A bracket to hold the tablet solidly, that also has standard threads to attach on top of a light stand. This works beautifully and saves you the trouble of DIYing something...
  • If you use an L-bracket for your camera, you will want to replace the USB cable with one that has an angled connector, so you can mount the camera vertically while still being tethered. (Once more, you'll have to turn to eBay...)

The tablet, cables and bracket are so small they can fit anywhere—they fit in my trusty camera bag, anyway, so I don't even have to change the way I carry my equipment. If I want to use the tablet for more than reviewing images at the end of a shoot, I just need to bring a small light stand along (to which I leave attached the umbrella bracket) and I'm good to go.

What you will get

With that setup, not only do you get the functionality of an external monitor (with a zoomable "LiveView" to frame and focus, live histogram, and even some features that are not available on the camera such as focus peaking, zebras, etc.), but the tablet can obviously also be used to review the images with your clients. Even better, they can look at all the images in the camera, navigating themselves using the intuitive touchscreen interface, all of this while you are shooting something else.

It's wonderfully liberating to be able to get many benefits of shooting tethered, yet still being able to move around so easily since the whole thing is remarkably light... (Naturally, you can use the reviewing capability in any other context, not just architecture, but this is not the reason that got me into this.)

The only thing to pay attention to is your camera's battery. Just like in a conventional tethering situation, the battery goes down faster, so be sure to bring spares and/or your charger...

Oh, and did I mention you also get a fully-featured cutting edge Android tablet as a bonus? It's a no-brainer. It's so small that from now on it'll always be in my camera bag.

(1) You can use an iPad to remote-control your camera if your camera is Wi-Fi-enabled (bring spare batteries!), but that is not my case. Or you can remote-control via a round trip: you tether the camera to a laptop running special software, to which you then connect to with your iPad via Wi-Fi—but of course, there's the small issue of requiring a laptop to work, which defeats the whole idea/is not practical.

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