Note: Most of the equipment in this article was supplied for review purposes by manufacturers or distributors. Much of it will receive fuller reviews in the future, or appear in reviews of other equipment.
Most photographers enjoy a good photographic gadget, and most of us think we don’t have enough of them, even if we actually have too many. I’ve been using and enjoying these lately – many of them are devices I saw at PhotoPlus, and the manufacturer asked if I’d like to take a closer look.
1) Zendure, Nitecore and Watson power accessories:
Zendure is a relatively high-end manufacturer of USB power banks, wall chargers and related devices. I’ve had three unique Zendure accessories in my daily workflow for a couple of months, and all three have performed flawlessly, doing things I’m not aware of any other tool that does. While I was writing this, I experienced a power outage, and I simply plugged my MacBook Pro (which was out of battery) into the SuperTank and my iPhone into the SuperMini. After using the phone as a hotspot to restore Internet service , I resumed writing as if nothing had happened (wearing my backpacking headlamp). All of us have a bunch of USB power banks lying around, many of us think that one is much like another, and many of them are. The Zendures do a few things differently that make them worth their somewhat higher price.
The SuperMini is an absolutely tiny 10,000 mAh power bank with USB-A and USB-C connections – it’s about the size of a credit card (actually a little bit smaller), and an inch thick. It weighs 6.3 ozs (180 grams). To look at it, you’re sure it’s a 5000 mAh power bank – but it’s not, it’s a rugged 10,000 mAh unit. It takes up about the same amount of space and weight as two average-sized camera batteries (Nikon EN-EL15, Sony NPFZ100 or the like), and it’ll charge two fully depleted Nikon EN-EL15s before needing a recharge.
The Zendure has several advantages over just carrying a couple more camera batteries on a multi-day trip. Most importantly, it’ll charge camera batteries, phones, headlamps, GPS units and even tablets. It’ll charge any camera with any form of USB charging – or use a Nitecore USB charger with it to charge the batteries outside the camera. It’s easy to charge – the charging input is USB-C and up to 18W. There are a number of tiny 18W USB-C chargers, including the charger for the newest iPhones. The SuperMini will charge far faster than a couple of camera batteries (approximately 2-3 times as fast as 2 batteries on a Nitecore USB charger) – important when you are trying to get as much power as possible on a short outlet stop – on an extended hike with town breaks, for example. It will also charge reliably from a portable solar panel – a medium-sized backpacking panel will charge it within a day with decent sun.
The SuperMini is available for $50 on Amazon – much cheaper than two reasonable quality batteries for any camera. Two manufacturer batteries will probably approach $200, while two Watson batteries (the best third-party batteries I’ve tested) will be around $100. My likely battery load for next summer’s ~800 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail is going to be 2-3 SuperMinis, a Nitecore charger and three EN-EL15s from Nikon, Watson or a combination. I’ll charge everything up at each town stop, then go a week or so on that power. A solar panel is probably not worth the weight in that application. I still want more than one EN-EL 15, because charging the battery in the camera while hiking would be very inconvenient. If it were just for the camera batteries, I’d carry only two SuperMinis, but a third will give me more room to charge headlamps and water purifiers.
Zendure’s other unique power bank is the 27,000 mAh SuperTank. Not only is this a maximum airplane-legal portable battery, it also offers 100W USB-C power delivery. Most 27,000 mAh batteries offer 30-60W off their most powerful single port – enough to power a tablet or a small laptop. The SuperTank’s 100W output will power and charge ANY USB-C laptop, even a 15” or 16” MacBook Pro running Photoshop! It has a total output (across four ports) of 138W – enough to power the MacBook Pro, quick-charge any phone and charge camera batteries simultaneously. Its capacity is sufficient to fully recharge a large laptop or charge either 2-3 tablets or half a dozen camera batteries or phones.
There are a few other batteries that offer 100W power delivery, but all that I know of also offer an AC inverter (a low-power 110V AC outlet), and are close to twice the weight of the Zendure. The SuperTank is not a small device, but it’s not a huge one, either, especially considering what it can charge. It’s about the size of a largish laptop power brick, and it weighs a bit over a pound (500 g). It’ll power and charge literally any standards-compliant USB device, of any flavor of USB – it even has a slow-charge mode that will charge watches or fitness bands, which most high-power battery packs won’t.
It recharges best from a relatively high-power USB-C source such as a good-sized laptop charger or Zendure’s own SuperPort charger. It’ll recharge fully in about 1.5 hours, given a 100W USB-C charger – it is capable of accepting a full 100W output from the SuperPort or one of the few USB-C laptop adapters of that power. It’ll charge from a 5 volt USB source, but slowly and reluctantly – it really wants a higher-power, laptop-class USB-C power supply. Unfortunately, this means that it’s not really practical to charge from a backpacking-type solar panel. There are a few larger panels with USB-C outputs that claim to provide the higher USB-C voltages, but I haven’t tested them. The SuperTank comes with a very high-quality 100W USB-C cable, both for charging the SuperTank itself and for charging thirsty devices from the SuperTank.
The final member of Zendure’s unique trio of USB charging tools is the SuperPort, which is the best USB wall charger I am aware of. It features a 100W USB-C port, capable of charging any USB-C device at full speed. The few Dell laptops capable of drawing 130W over a USB-C port are not technically USB-C compliant. The SuperPort (and SuperTank) should charge them, too – but they may complain about an underpowered adapter, and they might drain the battery slowly while plugged in, but only under very heavy load.
In addition to the 100W port, it features an additional USB-C port plus two USB-A ports and a total output of 136W. Since the port capacities add up to 145W (all three auxiliary ports are 15W apiece) it can’t quite provide full power to all four ports simultaneously – but it will if the laptop port is connected to anything other than a brand-new 16” MacBook Pro, a Wacom MobileStudio Pro or one of the thirsty Dells – those are the only laptops I know of that can draw a full 100W. Even if there’s a 100W laptop drawing full power on the main port, it still has enough reserve power to quick-charge any two phones or just about any two tablets at maximum speed simultaneously.
The SuperPort is a nice design- a flat rectangle like an Apple adapter, with the ports on the front edge. It’s a little bigger, but a little thinner, than a 15” MacBook Pro adapter. Unlike the current generation of MacBook Pro adapters, it comes with an AC cord, rather than plugging into the outlet directly and covering adjacent outlets in the process. It does not come with a USB-C cable, although Zendure sells the high-quality one that comes with the SuperTank separately. The charging cable that comes with a laptop will also work – most other USB-C cables aren’t capable of supplying all the power the SuperPort can put out.
All of the Zendure battery and power gear is highly recommended – these three pieces are unique or nearly so, and they also make quite a few equally sturdy pieces that are more standard (power banks that are neither as compact as the SuperMini nor as powerful as the SuperTank, chargers without the nearly unique 100W output). The cheapest place to get Zendure power gear seems to be Amazon – it will be sold by Zendure and fulfilled by Amazon (for some reason, that’s cheaper than Zendure’s own website).
Two other power devices well worth knowing about are Watson camera batteries and Nitecore USB camera battery chargers. In extensive tests of a wide variety of EN-EL15 compatible batteries, the Watson was the only one to match the performance of OEM Nikon batteries. It accepts slightly more charge than a Nikon EN-EL15, and it runs the camera for almost exactly the same amount of time in a continuous video test. All other third-party batteries are notably inferior to OEM batteries, some of them offering little over half the performance.
Watson is one of B&H Photo’s many store brands, which is a major plus compared to an unknown brand on Amazon that might simply disappear in case of any problems – B&H isn’t going anywhere. As a B&H store brand, they are only available through B&H, who stock a full range of nearly 100 models, including batteries for 15-year old DSLRs and old compact cameras – including quite a few for which the manufacturer battery is no longer easily available. They tend to run between ½ and 2/3 the price of a manufacturer battery.
The battery meter in the camera functions as well with the Watson battery as with the Nikon. Some features of recent OEM batteries may not be supported – the Watson battery will not charge in-camera on the Z6 and Z7, which the most recent (EN-EL15B) Nikon batteries will. I did not test Sony InfoLithium and compatible batteries, which are unusually picky due to their advanced capacity monitoring, and it is worth checking compatibility in advance before using any third-party battery in a more recent Sony camera. B&H’s product page for the Watson NP-FZ100 mentions compatibility with the latest cameras, but it does not mention whether or not the advanced monitoring is supported.
Watson batteries earn a highly recommended rating (and note that I didn’t find any other third-party battery that lives up to its advertising – stick with the manufacturer and Watson).
Most no-name Amazon batteries are in the “not recommended” category – this includes batteries with names like “Kodak”, “Polaroid” and “Vivitar” that may be famous from film photography days. The present holders of these trademarks are manufacturers and importers of junk electronics that have nothing to do with the original companies of these names.
The single worst performing battery among the nine I tested was a so-called Vivitar model that may even be dangerous to cameras or at worst potentially explosive. Their capacity claims are higher than Nikon or Watson, while their tested capacity is barely over half of a reputable battery’s. As low as the tested capacity is, and without any information available about their construction, I am concerned that it could also be missing critical safety features – what else did they leave out? The second-lowest performing battery was from an unknown brand on Amazon, but claimed “high-quality Japanese cells”? Since Amazon is also a major source of counterfeit goods, I would not buy any camera battery from Amazon – even if it says “Nikon”, “Sony” or “Canon” on it, that may not be what it is, especially if it’s coming from a third-party seller “fulfilled by Amazon”…
Nitecore makes a line of fairly sophisticated USB chargers for many popular camera batteries. Unlike cheap USB chargers, the Nitecores are proper smart chargers, gradually decreasing current supplied as the battery gets closer to full. They feature a display showing the charging status, rather than a simple blinking light, and most models charge two batteries at a time. A few have two bays, but for two DIFFERENT batteries – which is less useful unless you happen to own exactly the right combination of cameras. They aren’t terribly expensive (around $30 on Amazon), they are less than half the size of most manufacturer chargers and weigh less than 3 ounces (under 100 grams), and they’ll charge your battery from any convenient USB port – including power banks and car adapters. The one thing they don’t do especially well is charge batteries from a solar panel. They are not as tolerant of solar’s fluctuating power output as a good power bank is. The Zendure SuperMini profiled above is one highly solar-compatible power bank – there are others, including the GoalZero line. Use your panel to charge a power bank, then charge your camera batteries from the power bank.
It’s worth having a Nitecore that matches your camera’s batteries in your camera bag – a simple way of charging batteries while traveling. I own both Nikon and Fuji compatible versions, and I have never had a problem with them. I often use them as home chargers as well as travel chargers. Nitecore is the only USB-powered charger I am sure is a smart charger instead of just a timer, and Lithium batteries really need a smart charger. The prices and sizes on others suggest they are timers, they seem to charge a half-charged battery as long as an empty one, and their simple lights don’t give enough information to figure out what they’re actually doing. The Nitecore’s display shows it doing a proper, voltage-dependent smart charge, and a half-charged battery does what it should (starts out at a slower charging rate than an empty battery and finishes in less total time). Amazon is the most reliable source for Nitecore chargers, but be careful not to get steered to another brand, since few if any others are verifiable smart chargers. (I haven’t seen any fake Nitecore chargers, but Amazon will very likely put an ad on the Nitecore page directing you to a “similar product” for a lower price. The “similar product” is probably a cheap timer-based charger.
Nitecore chargers are highly recommended, and all other USB camera battery chargers I am aware of are not recommended. I have not tried the ~11 volt Nitecore chargers for Fujifilm GFX, Nikon D4/D5 or Canon 1Dx series batteries, and these may be notably different from the ~7.4 volt models for other cameras. I would put the three ~11 volt models in a separate PROBABLY highly recommended category.
Many of us have heard of or used Wacom graphics tablets over the years, and Wacom keeps extending their capabilities in different ways. The current line ranges from the $60 One by Wacom tablet on up to the $3299 Cintiq Pro 32” 4K pen display, and it includes the MobileStudio Pro line of laptop/pen display hybrids. The Intuos Pro Small tablet I have in for review is the baby of their family of professional tablets, intended largely for use with laptops for on-the-go photo editing and graphic design. At $199, it’s at the lower end of Wacom’s product line, but it comes with their top of the line Pro Pen 2 and offers the full pressure and tilt sensitivity of the highest-end models. it is the least expensive and most portable Wacom tablet to offer the full experience. A neat feature of newer Wacom tablets, including the Intuos Pro Small, is that they switch automatically between pen and touch modes. They used to come with a cheap plastic mouse so you didn’t have to keep another mouse around for navigating on the desktop – now, they operate as fancy trackpads instead. The Intuos Pro Small is a huge and comfortable trackpad with full gesture sensitivity. Ignoring the pen features altogether, it is the equivalent of something like an Apple Magic Trackpad with a bunch of additional programmable function buttons. The active area of the Wacom is almost exactly the same size as the Magic Trackpad or the latest and largest versions of the MacBook Pro trackpad, although the tablet itself is larger and has a scroll wheel plus six programmable buttons.
Of course, you don’t buy a Wacom tablet to not use the pen functionality, and the Intuos Pro Small is every inch a Wacom when used with the pen. It has the precision that graphic artists love, both for drawing and for creating masks and retouching photos. I have been using DxO PhotoLab, which has extremely sophisticated local controls, for much of my raw processing and editing lately. The Wacom is an ideal companion for DxO, because it allows the photographer to place control points with unrivaled precision. It is also a great tool for dust-spotting and similar tasks. Anything that involves local control of any element of an image, from dodging and burning to cropping to retouching becomes almost magically easier with a pen and tablet, and Wacom is the gold standard.
It only arrived a week ago, so I haven’t had a chance to program the buttons or really use the pressure sensitivity yet, but the precision of the pen is an enormous advantage for many editing tasks. I am surprised how capable the small tablet is with my 27” monitor. If I were choosing a size irrespective of the portability, I would definitely go with a medium (about twice the active area) or even a large (close to 4x the active area, although it requires quite a bit of desk space since it’s almost as wide as a 101-key keyboard and substantially deeper) with the big monitor, but the small is much more workable than expected – and it’s the perfect size to use with a large 15” to 17” laptop screen , in keeping with its status as Wacom’s portable option among their professional tablets.
My only complaint about the Intuos Pro Small so far (more about it later, as I learn to use more of the features, including the pressure and tilt sensitivity) has nothing to do with the tablet itself. The accessories shipped with it are odd for a deliberately portable, 1 lb (450 g) tablet that will often be used with a Mac. The most puzzling decision is that it ships with a desktop pen stand, but no pen case. Wacom specifically warns against throwing the delicate and expensive Pro Pen 2 into a backpack or bag without a case, so the lack of the pen case makes the otherwise eminently portable tablet much harder to carry. They make an accessory pen case, as well as a tablet case with a protected space for the pen, but neither one is included, in an odd decision for a tablet specifically made for the artist on the go.
The second unusual accessory decision is that the tablet is natively USB-C, but ships with only a USB-A to USB-C cable. It works best with a right-angle cable (which it ships with), which makes the correct cable harder to find – a straight cable will work, but the cable will protrude awkwardly. It wouldn’t cost Wacom much to include a right-angle USB-C to USB-C cable in the box, for the many users who will be using it with Macs that only have USB-C ports. Wacom doesn’t even sell the correct cable for USB-C Macs. The tablet is Bluetooth compatible and will often be used wirelessly, but the battery life is measured in hours (about 20-30), rather than months, so charging from a laptop is a useful feature, and making it difficult to charge from the laptop it will most frequently be used with is a puzzling decision.
Highly recommended (tablet itself and Pro Pen 2), with caveats about accessories mentioned above.
I have been using DxO PhotoLab 3 for most of my raw conversion and photo editing over the last couple of months, and it is rapidly becoming one of my favorite pieces of software. The quality of raw conversions I am getting out of DxO is unrivaled – the difference compared to Lightroom is night and day. The most powerful features that I use regularly are the lens distortion corrections and the incredible local exposure adjustments. DxO creates profiles for every combination of camera and lens you are likely to encounter (over 52,000 at last count), and automatically performs custom distortion correction, capture sharpening and vignetting correction for the specific combination used for a given image. Especially with wide-angle lenses, nothing else comes close. DxO PhotoLab normally retails for $129 (Essential Edition) and $199 (Elite Edition), but there are often discounts on DxO’s website
At the time of publication, there is an unusually good 50% off sale running until Monday, December 2 on PhotoLab as well as the Nik Collection plugins.
The second unique feature of DxO is the U Point local adjustment technology that creates sophisticated masks in seconds instead of hours. Click on a problem area and set a radius to look for similar areas, then adjust exposure, contrast, vibrance, saturation, sharpness or any number of other features. The software will find similar areas within the radius and apply the correction, feathering it as needed. Use multiple circles to select non-round areas. One of my favorite applications is brightening up tree trunks – using conventional masking, it’s a time consuming job to select the trunks without getting the adjoining (and often already too bright) sky. With U Point, simply drop a bunch of circles on the dark part of the trunks, then pull up the exposure as needed. The computer recognizes the tree trunks as the objects of interest and excludes the unwanted sky automatically. The mask it creates is feathered so the correction looks natural.
DxO Photo Lab has dehazing and microcontrast adjustments that go well beyond Adobe’s dehaze and clarity functions. These functions are also available as U Point local adjustments, a powerful combination. DxO’s noise reduction, especially in the Elite Edition, is another important feature that far exceeds what Adobe has to offer. Their brand-new selective color feature, introduced with great fanfare in Version 3, is at least as good as Capture One’s, and far superior to anything else on the market today.
DxO is working on supporting the Loupedeck line of physical control surfaces, although I am not aware of a timeline. I am waiting on updating my original Loupedeck to either the Loupedeck+ or the new CT until I see which direction DxO’s support goes. With their enormous flexibility in slider-based adjustments, DxO and Loupedeck seem like a logical fit – I wonder if the Loupedeck CT might be capable of adjusting the settings on a U Point using the physical knobs?
While I have switched almost entirely to DxO based on the image quality I’m seeing, it’s not perfect. Camera support is good, but can be slower than the big players – both because DxO is a much smaller company, and because of the need to make camera and lens profiles for a wide variety of combinations. Notably, cameras with unusual color filters or image sensors tend not to be supported. No Fujifilm X-Trans, no Foveon-based Sigmas, and other oddities will probably go unsupported in the future. With a relatively small development team, DxO has chosen to focus on the best possible algorithms for decoding standard Bayer filtration, rather than supporting different filter types. For most people, at the present time, the limitation that matters is X-Trans – Foveon-based Sigmas and other unusual sensor types are rare, while X-Trans Fujifilm cameras are relatively common.
Any new camera that uses an unusual sensor is unlikely to be supported, at least not quickly – going by the Fujifilm example, it would need very substantial market share. Fujifilm may be as high as 20% of the overall mirrorless market and 7 or 8% of the overall interchangeable lens camera market, but DxO still doesn’t put in the huge effort to understand X-Trans. A new technology would almost certainly have to threaten Bayer’s dominance before finding support. Right now, no Sigma camera is supported (non X-Trans Fujifilm cameras are – including the GFX 50R and 50S, with GFX 100 support coming soon), although there is no reason the new FP shouldn’t be – its sensor is a perfectly standard Bayer model. The lack of support for non-Bayer sensors is probably a consequence of the depth of DxO’s profiling – an unusual sensor would require major adjustments to their procedures and algorithms that generate class-leading image quality.
DxO is doing many more calculations than other converters – some of their algorithms are extremely compute-intensive. The minimum hardware requirements are reasonable, but, especially dealing with larger images, it can bring even a powerful computer to its knees. It is also a notable RAM hog, as are essentially all higher-end image editors. My current 2017 Macbook Pro with a quad-core i7 and 16 Gb of RAM is barely adequate when dealing with 46 MP Nikon Z7 files. A faster machine with more RAM should bring substantial speed improvements.
The final issue with DxO PhotoLab is that it is not as highly integrated as Lightroom Classic. It has basic digital asset management, but nothing like Lightroom’s comprehensive catalog database. There’s also no catalog to get corrupted. In order to keep image files organized on disk, I would highly recommend using some sort of import software such as PhotoMechanic or even Lightroom. An important secret about Lightroom is that, if you stop paying for it, not everything stops working. The Library module, including Import, is one of the things that keeps working without a subscription – so it is possible to use Lightroom to get your photos into a reasonable file structure without buying into Adobe’s subscription model. DxO doesn’t understand Adobe’s Collections and similar structures, so just use Lightroom as an importer to get images filed by date. PhotoMechanic is a sophisticated program used by many professionals that is capable of much more flexible file structures than Adobe’s default date-based scheme, but it’s relatively expensive for what is fundamentally an import program.
The second important omission is Lightroom Classic’s print module. There are better print programs than Lightroom – I’ll be looking at both QImage and ImagePrint this winter – but no image editor other than Lightroom Classic ships with a full-featured internal print module. With DxO or anything else, making a truly high-quality print involves exporting the image to a separate printing package, which is capable of significantly higher quality than Lightroom, but it’s not as easy.
All of this should be taken against the background that the highly integrated Lightroom Classic BARELY counts as “under active development”. Adobe’s mind and resources are clearly in the cloud somewhere. A forced switch to cloud-based Lightroom CC is coming at some point in the not too distant future, and, as of right now, Lightroom CC has no local print command at all. At least DxO is capable of printing directly – the photographer would have to resize and sharpen manually, but it’s possible. We’ll all be looking at workflows very different from Lightroom Classic, and the only question is whether we choose which one we adopt, or get pushed into the one Adobe chooses for us.
DxO PhotoLab is VERY highly recommended from an image quality and editing flexibility standpoint – with caveats about integration, Fujifilm cameras and the need for a powerful computer. Nothing else will create a comparably high quality raw conversion with anywhere near the same level of control. If you just use DxO like Lightroom, you’ll get better default conversions and the optical corrections. If you learn to use a few new sliders like Smart Lighting and ClearView Plus, your conversion quality will improve again. If you take the time to understand the full power of the deeper features like U Point, DxO PRIME noise reduction and the new selective color editing, it is capable of producing unparalleled image quality.