Mothers of Invention

Sometimes you just can’t find the right tool for the job. That’s why these photographers made it themselves—then sold it to the rest of us.

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Czech lensman Dalibor Zyka with his Ray Flash, which turns a conventional shoe-mount unit into a ring flash that produces the frontal, rim-shadowed light so loved by fashion photographers.

It’s a moment that most serious photographers have experienced: You’re in the middle of a shoot, and you realize that none of the off-the-shelf photo gear at your disposal can solve the particular technical problem you’re facing or produce the creative effect you want. You cobble together a solution and move on.

Then there are those photographers who stop and think, “I’m likely to have this problem or want this effect again. What can I build myself?” Of those who actually go on to make such a tool, a few figure out how to produce their invention and sell it to the rest of us. Some whose names you might know include photojournalist Jim Domke, whose eponymous photo bags were the first good soft-sided ones available; beauty photographer Peter Gowland, whose custom-built view cameras served a variety of exotic purposes; and commercial photographer Gary Fong, whose light modifiers helped redefine on-camera flash photography.

The advent of Web-based sales and computer-aided design have made the manufacture and marketing of these tools much easier than it was for them. And it may explain why more photographers than ever are following in their footsteps. Here are the stories of a few photographer-entrepreneurs and their unique products.

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Photographer Andy Cotton wearing his invention, the Cotton Carrier camera-carrying system, which keeps hands free during active shooting.

**COTTON CARRIER CAMERA-CARRYING SYSTEM: Andy Cotton. Vancouver, BC
cottoncarrier.com**** $99

** If there is one truth about the best way to carry a camera, it’s that one size does not fit all. Therein lay an opportunity spotted by Vancouver, British Columbia-–based photographer Andy Cotton. In 2006 Cotton saw the need for a carrying system specifically for photographers who like to shoot while engaged in physical activities such as running, climbing, skiing and bicycling that would allow the wearer to move quickly with both hands free.

Cotton’s system would use an adjustable vest with a sturdy, front-facing receptacle into which the camera could be locked and incorporate a quick-release system strong enough to hold big cameras and big lenses securely. The vest would have stabilizing straps to batten down the camera and a tether to catch it in the event that it’s dropped. Relying on his 26 years of experience designing gear as a special-effects coordinator for movies, Cotton made some prototypes.

Finding a suitable production partner was a bigger challenge than designing the product. “The difficulty was having the sewing and stitching done the way I wanted,” Cotton says. “That kind of production capacity doesn’t exist in North America anymore.” His break came when he met a Chinese textile businessman who specialized in making products for the U.S. military—in China, of course. His factory easily accommodated Cotton’s specifications, and the hands-free Cotton Carrier camera-carrying system was soon launched.

The company has a staff of six, including three Cotton family members. “We’ve done amazingly well given where we started,” Cotton says. “But where we thought we’d see heavy interest—from photojournalists and sports photographers—we haven’t. We’ve done well with older photographers who just get it. They want to be active but don’t want cameras hanging off their necks. We also do quite well with women—they get it, too.”

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Dalibor Zyka’s Ray Flash turns a standard shoe-mount unit into a ring flash. Above: Kevin King’s RadioPopper converts the infrared beam of a shoe-mount flash unit into a more forgiving radio signal.

RAY FLASH: Dalibor Zyka. CˇeskÉ BudEˇjovice, Czech Republic
expoimaging.com**** $200

In the post-communist economy of the Czech Republic, Dalibor Zyka took whatever photo jobs he could find and tried to emulate the glamour and excitement of images from the West. He discovered that to produce their front-lit, rim-shadowed effect, he needed a ring flash, but he couldn’t afford one.

Then one day in 2005, as Zyka stared at cardboard cartons at a supermarket, inspiration struck: He could use reflectors and prisms to bounce the light from a standard shoe-mount flash down to the lens and, from there, encircle it. He assembled such a contraption from cardboard and metal foil. It didn’t work.

Failure didn’t deter Zyka. After hundreds of experiments, he put together a functional array of prisms and reflective materials that, when attached to a forward-facing strobe head, would bounce light down at a 45--degree angle to a ring-shaped reflector surrounding the lens, then send the light forward.

While his odd-looking flash drew stares from partygoers, his pictures drew raves. The look caught the eye of a businessman, who offered to finance a commercial prototype. The Ray Flash was introduced at the 2006 Photokina show, and within the first few hours it was a sensation. “People really responded to its innovation,” says Erik Sowder of ExpoImaging, the Ray Flash’s U.S. distributor. “Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”

APH0211Kevin King - Image Media LLC

RADIOPOPPER: Kevin King. Vancouver, WA
radiopopper.com**** $498 (PX transmitter and receiver)

Wedding photographer Kevin King was regularly annoyed by the inability of his DSLR’s dedicated wireless off-camera flash system to function properly when outside its line of sight. He set out to jury-rig it to work at greater distances and give him more positioning leeway. Despite lacking any electronics know-how, he created an add-on module that converts a dedicated flash system’s infrared beam into a radio signal that can travel around corners and behind objects to trigger off-camera flash. “I thought I’d duct-tape it to the side of the flash and go back to work,” he says. “I never had any intention to make a company of it.”

King did his first experiments on a TV remote-control extender. After little success, he started reading up on electronics and chatting up anyone with expertise in the technology. It took him a year and a half to devise his RadioPopper, which perches atop an on-camera master controller. “What kept me going ... was that I was always willing to stop to find out, ‘Well, how hard is it really?’ before deciding I couldn’t do it,” King says. “You might discover the solution is easier than you thought.”

Ironically, King encountered some of the greatest skepticism from experts in the field—non-photographers who didn’t think it could be done. As the aphorism goes: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

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Photographers Kurt Rogers and Deanne Fitzmaurice, cofounders with designers Doug Murdoch and Mike Sturm of camera-bag upstart Think Tank Photo, with their new Sling-O-Matic shoulder bag.

Think Tank Photo Camera Bags: Kurt Rogers, Deanne Fitzmaurice, Doug Murdoch and Mike Sturm. Santa Tosa, CA
thinktankphoto.com $279 (rotation360° backpack)

Designer Doug Murdoch was made well aware of the flaws of existing camera-carrying gear by his photographer friends, who included San Francisco Chronicle staffers Kurt Rogers and Deanne Fitzmaurice. Murdoch observed that the functionality of existing camera cases was compromised by designs that tried to be all things to all photographers. Fitzmaurice and Rogers agreed, so with a fourth cofounder, Mike Sturm, they started Think Tank Photo to address the issue.

One of Think Tank’s first projects was to create roomier, better-shaped cases for large lenses. Their case for the bread-and-butter 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom allowed it to be stowed with its petal-shaped hood mounted forward, ready for use, rather than in its usual reverse-mounted storage position. Another creation was a fast-access modular belt system for holding lenses and other accessories on the sidelines of sports events. There are now more than 130 products in the Think Tank Photo line, and the company has a well-deserved reputation for innovation and quality. “One of our problems is what to do next,” Rogers says. “We could double the product line if we wanted to.”

APH0211Photographer: Jon Whittle

ACCESSORY GRIPS FOR COMPACT CAMERAS: Richard Franiec. Riverwoods, IL
kleptography.com/rf $33 (Canon PowerShot S95 grip)

Professional photographers love their compact cameras—the more stylish the better—because they allow them to shoot without the bulk and weight of a DSLR. One tradeoff, though, is that ergonomics are often sacrificed for pocketability. Fortunately for owners of some of the more popular compacts, Richard Franiec makes handsomely machined aluminum grips, hot-shoe covers and cable-release adapters that turn those models into much more solid, versatile tools.

Franiec originally began creating accessories not for ergonomic reasons but for artistic ones. His black-bodied Canon PowerShot G7 had what he considered a major flaw: The threaded adapter ring for supplementary optics was silver rather than black. For a candid street photographer like Franiec, the contrast drew undesirable attention to the camera—so he had the ring black-anodized. He sent the modified ring to a fellow G7 fan who ran a website originally devoted to the camera (mycanong7.com), and everybody wanted one. That launched Franiec’s career in compact accessories.

Franiec’s next epiphany came during a vacation, when his wife dropped the G7. The obvious solution was a custom grip for more secure holding. Grips are now the mainstay of the line. And as the high-end compact market has evolved, so has Franiec’s product line—meaning that serious photographers’ love affair with the point-and-shoot is likely to continue.

Erik Sowder and John Baker’s Rogue FlashBenders, designed for greater control over the quality of shoe-mount flash light.

ROGUE FLASHBENDERS: John Baker and Erik Sowder. Watsonville, Ca
expoimaging.com**** from $30

Erik Sowder and his partner, John Baker, spend a lot of time thinking about how they can make life easier for photographers—then building their ideas. Introduced in 2004, their ExpoDisc—a one-step white-balance tool that fits into the lens rim—is a good example. More recently, with the increasing sophistication of dedicated shoe-mount flash units, they’ve turned their attention to light modifiers and other accessories for on-camera flash.

“We’ve seen a lot of photographers either struggling to adjust the flash attachment they’re using or having to switch to another design for a specific shooting situation,” Sowder says. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you had one device that could take the place of all of them?”

Using their own studio and many brands of shoe-mount units, plus the help of a seamstress, they quickly tested and refined their ideas. Seven months after inception, several models of FlashBenders went on sale to great acclaim at the 2010 Photokina show. Attached to the flash head with an elastic hook-and-loop strap, the product relies on flexible, lightweight metal rods to hold a light-softening reflector in whatever shape you want.

Sowder and Baker were so confident about their product that they didn’t try it out with many photographers before the introduction. “We felt we had a significant improvement on the existing products, and we wanted to surprise the market,” Sowder says. “So we just went for it.”

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Ron Henry wears his Black-Rapid Camera Strap, which suspends your DSLR upside down at the hip for fast deployment.

BLACKRAPID CAMERA STRAPS: Ron Henry. SEATTLE, WA
blackrapid.com**** $54

Frustrated by uncomfortable neck straps and shoulder-slung cameras flopping by his side, Seattle wedding and music photographer Ron Henry found himself playing with an odd solution: Why not carry your camera upside down? His idea was to keep the camera strap slung across the chest so that it couldn’t slip off the shoulder, and attach the camera to the tripod screw of a sliding component for quick movement along the strap. The camera would rest comfortably at the hip when not in use.

After failing to interest a manufacturer in his idea, Henry knew he had to do it himself. Things took off in 2007, when Henry met Tyler Kope, who helped Henry refine his idea and file for patents. The two moved on to production, then took some prototypes to Glazer’s Camera, a Seattle retailer, where the accessories buyer gave it a thumbs-up. Advertisements on digitalweddingforum.com began to generate online orders. Encouraged, Henry and Kope took the strap to the 2009 Wedding and Portrait Photographers International show. It was an instant hit, though some were put off by the $54 price. “It seems high for a strap,” Henry says. “But once photographers try it, they realize it’s a great investment in their shoulders and neck.” And perhaps in their readiness for an unexpected shot.

David Honl self portrait photographed October 21, 2010 in Melbourne Australia. Shown are 2 Honl Photo 1/4 Speed Grids on Nikon SB800 Speedlights. Mainlight is a Nikon SB900 with a Honl Photo traveller8 Softbox and background light is a Nikon SB900 with a Honl Photo 1/8 Speed Grid on a white wall.David Honl

David Honl with flash units fitted with one of his creations, the Honl-Photo Speed Grid, designed to give light a more directional quality.

HONLPHOTO SPEED GRID: David Honl. Los Angeles, CA
honlphoto.com**** $30

A photojournalist who has covered wars around the world, David Honl has an unexpected piece of gear in his arsenal: a sewing machine. And his career took an unexpected turn due to his sewing skills. “I wore a lot of specialty clothing to shoot in Iraq,” he says. “I was always modifying it with sewing, and I was surrounded by ballistic nylon.”

Inspired by techniques for modifying shoe-mount flash light he saw on David Hobby's website strobist.com, Honl paid a visit to the fabric district in Istanbul, where he was based at the time. He stitched up some small, sturdy reflectors and snoots for use with his shoe-mount flash units, securing them with a Velcro band wrapped around the flash head—a design that allowed the same attachments to fit on all brands.

While Honl was on assignment, a fellow photographer admired his handiwork and encouraged him to market his designs. He assembled another 100 pieces, advertised them on his website, and sold them all overnight. David Hobby wrote them up, and a large retailer in New York City expressed interest in carrying his products. “This was all done while I was overseas, sourcing materials and finding a sales agent in the U.S.,” the photographer says.

In late 2007 Honl moved to Kazakhstan to continue his photojournalism, but that didn’t slow him down. Responding to customer demand, he created new products, including the Speed Grid. A novel attachment that borrows from the world of studio flash, it places a honeycombed grid in front of the flash tube, narrowing the light beam to produce a hot spot in the middle of the image—an effect that, if used carefully, can be dramatic. “I became very good at communicating with CAD designers and injection molders over the Internet at two in the morning,” Honl says.

Honl’s success convinced him to get out of the line of fire and concentrate on his business. Now based in L.A., he splits his time between running his company and teaching lighting workshops.

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