When I was first learning "serious" photography, Ansel Adams was one of my heroes. I read all of his how-to books, studied his photos, and longed for a 4x5-inch view camera. By my early twenties, I had my view camera and had a great deal of fun with it for a few years. But eventually, it just got to be too much: too much weight, too much bulk, too much money for film and processing; plus it was not very flexible for the work I wanted to do.
But I loved putting the black cloth over my head and examining the big ground glass. Images were upside down and reversed, but this glowing image in a field of darkness was just so cool, and there is no question it helped me work my subject and composition better. I had some great 35mm equipment for the size, cost and flexibility, but looking through the viewfinder gave nothing of the experience of seeing the groundglass of a 4x5 when under the dark cloth.
My first really serious digital cameras were the Canon PowerShot G-series, starting with the G2. These were like a little fixed lens rangefinder camera with full photographic control. They were not point-and-shoot cameras anymore than a pro-level DSLR – both can be used as point-and-shoots and both can be used with total image control.
I fell in love with the tilting LCD that saw what the lens saw. This was like a miniature 4x5 film camera, and about as hard to see in bright light as a ground glass. You had to shield it, but I loved being able to see what the lens was actually seeing rather than a represention of what the lens saw with an optical viewfinder. This was "Live View", though no one called it that at the time.
My first true Live View DSLR was the Olympus Camedia C-330. Olympus had the first true DSLR Live View cameras and I bought into the Four Thirds system with them. Olympus then and now has had some outstanding optics and the sensors were terrific. I loved using a tilting LCD, though again, it could be hard to use at times. I tried some options, but I never liked the small magnifiers or simple hoods.
I changed back to Canon with the 7D, a wonderful camera that had a nice Live View, but it did not tilt, which was disappointing. The 60D had the same sensor and processor, but it had a tilting Live View LCD, so even though it was not "as good" as the 7D, I bought it for that LCD and literally quit using the 7D.
No matter what gear you have, all modern cameras offer Live View and Live View is such a bonus for digital. I love being able to truly see what the sensor is seeing, everything from depth of field to exposure to white balance. I also find that Live View gives a different experience with photography, and that for most people, it leads to better compositions (largely because you are no longer "sighting on" a subject with an optical viewfinder but seeing an actual picture). It also helps with both sharpness and close-up work.
With my fascination with Live View, going to a mirrorless camera was not such a big deal. Now I love my Panasonic GH3 and its beautiful LCD display. Still, I wondered about going back to that experience of using the 4x5. I Googled black cloths for cameras and found someone suggested using a black T-shirt. That was a cool idea. I tried it and it worked! I got this beautiful, glowing Live View LCD surrounded by darkness. I did feel like I had gone back to the days of the 4x5!
So, I thought, how could I do better? Actual 4x5 focusing cloths are very expensive. I was down at a local sports store and found that World Cup sackpacks were on sale at a greatly reduced price. I found a black Spain bag that cost only $10 (poor Spain – a terrible World Cup for them). These gave me a great idea. The roping used to tighten the top and for "straps" would allow me to tighten the top around the camera. I could then cut open the bottom of the bag and have a nice, lightweight dark viewing system.
And that is what I did! I cut open the bottom of the sackpack, then had a local tailor sew a seam to keep it from unraveling. The whole thing folds up into a very small space, yet now I can have a dark space to view my LCD.
Is it worth it? Yup, it is to me. I'm not going to use it all the time (you don't really need it very early or very late in the day), but I am going to use it at times, if for nothing else, to prod me into seeing the photo better.
I am adding another little accessory that I have found useful, a tripod apron. This sort of thing is not new, but Frank Peele, the photographer I know who developed this version, added some really nice features. It attaches to your tripod with sturdy velcro, providing a place to put stuff you are working with as you shoot. I don't always attach a polarizing filter to a lens, so this is perfect for keeping it handy. I also sometimes flip between a couple of lenses as I am shooting, so this is a good place to keep the extra lens accessible.
But what I found ingenious about this tripod apron is the cord going through the middle of it. This cord attaches to the bottom of your tripod post (most posts have an attachment point). Then it goes through the apron to a caribeener clip that you use to attach your camera bag. This does two things: adds weight and mass to your tripod to dampen any vibrations that might cause unsharpness and it lets you keep your bag up and out of mud or sand (which have always been challenges for me). Frank is working on a website, but if you are interested, send him an e-mail for more information. I don't want him to get a lot of spam, so I am going to "hide" the e-mail inside numbers: firstname.lastname@example.org – ignore the 123 front and back.
Finally, I am trying something new for my how-to videos. A new video website, EduPow.com, is now offering courses for the very low price of $5 each, with the plan of getting lots of people to try them out. I have three courses there: Photo Success with Lightroom (about using Develop effectively and efficiently), Photo Organization with Lightroom (a little about how to organize photos as well as using Library effectively and efficiently), and Mastering Black-and-White.