Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Camera Bag and Tripod - Targus Black Label DSLR Essential Kit

12/26/10 update: pictures now posted!
1/10/11 update: link to real world shots
1/11/11 update: RIPPED SEAM!!!

Costco is selling a camera bag and tripod kit for $48.99 (Targus Black Label Professional DSLR Essential Kit) and I think it's a very good value (unfortunately the bag is not as sturdy as I thought, so this deal is not as good as I initially thought).
The kit includes the following items:
- sling bag
- 60" tripod
- LCD cleaning liquid and cloth (I think the model number is TGK-LCDK)
- 58mm UV filter
I originally got the kit because of the sling bag.  It is a modified version of the Targus TGC-SBM200 ($49.99 MSRP; $32.99 at Amazon) and it seems it's not available elsewhere (the tag label is "TGC-SBM200 Bulk" and seems to be a Costco-specific version of the bag).

I already have a couple of decent camera bags (the Kata KT DR465 backpack and a Case Logic holster-type camera bag) but this sling bag fills a niche of not being too small or too big.  Functionally, it is similar to the Lowepro Slingshot 102 AW (MSRP $89.99, $69.95 at Amazon) or 202 AW (MSRP $109.95, available at Amazon for $89.95).  Like other slingbags, it is designed to allow easily switching from carrying a camera to shooting with it.

What I really like about this sling bag is that it includes a tripod harness, consisting of a strap and a hideaway foot holder, as shown in the picture.  As far as I can tell, the tripod harness is unique to this version of the SBM200 (pictures of the normal SBM200 don't show a tripod harness).

The tripod harness is not perfect -- while the Slingshot 102 and 202 have their tripod harnesses on the side of the bag, this one is at the front of the bag, which allows taking the camera out but otherwise blocks the main compartment from being opened.  A tripod or monopod has to be about a foot and a half long or else it will be too short for the harness.  Nonetheless, I find the tripod harness very useful.

This bag can fit what I use 90+% of the time.  The interior configuration of the main compartment is similar to the Slingshot 202 and has configurable pads.  I managed to fit a Nikon D300, 2 lenses (Sigma 50-150, and Tamron 17-50 VC), an SB-800 flash, a camcorder (which I placed on the second compartment), and a bunch of accessories - remote triggers, memory cards, etc., and of course, the tripod. I was also able to fit my handheld umbrella in the tripod bag.

Main compartment shown (some dividers removed). Sigma 50-150 on the left, SB-800 on the right. Note: if I mount the Sigma 50-150 on the D300, there's just enough space to fit the camera in the empty slot shown.  The 17-50 VC can then fit horizontally or vertically in the side divider.

Second compartment (Canon HG10 camcorder shown; tethered microfiber cloth shown on right side inside the mesh):

Pocket outside main compartment - designed to accommodate memory cards, though I use it to keep the RC-7 remote triggers:
Compared to my backpack, the only things I could not fit were a second flash (unless I left behind one of the lenses or flash or camcorder), a foldable reflector, and the charger for the camera and camcorder.
I plan to use this as my everyday bag unless I prefer portability (in which case I'll use my holster bag) or I'm traveling (in which case the backpack is better - because it has additional space for all the adapters and chargers).

Sling bag update:
On the plus side, I've found that the bag can fit two bodies with lenses attached, plus two flashes (barely) in the top compartment. 
A D70 with Sigma 50-150 shown on the right.  A D300 with Tamron 17-50 VC fits on the left side.  The top compartment accommodates the YN560 and SB800 side by side.  In this configuration I have access to either camera without compromising the sling function.  I can also use my go-to flash, the SB800, whenever I want.  The YN560 is covered by the SB800 but that's ok -- I don't use it very often, and when I do, I usually use it together with the SB-800.

Notwithstanding the usefulness of this bag, it is unfortunately not sturdy enough to withstand normal use.  Just a month after getting it, the main strap now has a ripped seam!  Unbelievable...!  In contrast, neither of my other bags (Kata 467, case logic holster bag) have suffered any rips in the past couple of years I've had them.
If you take a closer look at the shot, you can see that there is actually an inner strap, and "only" the outer shell that holds the padding was damaged (for now).  Nonetheless, it makes me think that this bag was poorly made.
While I got the kit mostly for the bag, I've since found that the tripod is a very useful addition.  The tripod is the TG-P60T described in p.4 of this brochure: http://www.merkuryinnovations.com/press/Targus_Accessories_2010.pdf 

This is not a professional tripod like the ones offered by Gitzo or Manfrotto.  That said, I have bought several cheap tripods before (sometimes I buy one when I'm on a trip and I don't have a tripod with me at the moment), and while it's not saying much, this is the best quality tripod I have to date.
I'm really quite impressed with the features they were able to include in this "cheap" tripod:
- Amazingly, the tripod has a modular design.  Just like "real" tripods, the head is separate from the tripod legs.  I've never owned a real tripod, so I can't confirm whether heads or tripod legs from other brands are interchangeable with those of this unit, but they seem to be.  I've since found out that the mount is a 3/8 inch mount, and that a 3/8 inch size is used for many heads by manufacturers such as Manfrotto, Benro, Induro.  I would expect that most tripod heads can be used with this tripod, though I don't have any heads to test.
- Many of the other components are also modular.  For example, the handle on the panhead can be reversed for either left- or right-handed configuration.
- Includes a hook, which is useful for stabilizing the tripod AND having a place to put the sling bag. The maximum weight for the tripod is listed in the box as 5 lbs., which if literally true, would mean there's probably no way to add a weight in addition to the camera and lens.  However, it seems to me that it can hold more than that.
- The legs are independently adjustable (3 positions) and are braceless, and can be used to adapt to uneven terrain.
- The center column is square, not round, reducing the possibility of column rotation.
- The center column is removable.  With some tinkering, the tripod can be used for shooting from a very low height. The bottom part of the center column (which holds the hook) can be separated from the center column to act as a very short center column.  In this configuration, the height of the tripod is about 6 inches (though it would require a 2-foot radius around it).  Alternatively, the hook can be removed and the panhead mounted upside down to shoot from a very low shooting height upside down.

Hook unscrewed:
The part of the center column that holds the hook can be removed to act as a very short center column:
Lowest shooting height in upright position:
- Comes with a tripod bag. I can use it in conjunction with the strap to carry my handheld umbrella kit instead.
- The lever for releasing the quick release adapter stays open until you re-insert the quick release adapter.
Notwithstanding the features, it isn't professional quality because it does twist and flex if you press or push hard enough.  It also uses a panhead instead of a ball head, and the head is mostly plastic.  In terms of build quality, it's not that great -- for example, I can see bits of spilled glue here and there, and some of the gaps are not perfectly even, but it seems serviceable.
In my non-demanding applications, the tripod performs adequately.  By non-demanding I mean:
- My camera + lens + flash combination is not so heavy.  The heaviest I get is D300 (no battery pack) + SB-800 + Sigma 50-150 + remote shutter.  Total weight is a bit over 4.5 lbs.
- My longest lens -- the Sigma 50-150 is not very long (5.5 inches).
- I almost always shoot on stable, even surfaces like floors.
- I rarely do long exposures, or shoot on rough terrain, or shoot with lots of vibration or wind in the environment.
- I rarely take shots from unusual angles when using a tripod.

I took a 15 second exposure in both landscape and portrait orientation in ideal conditions (extending just 3 of the 4 leg sections, taking the shot indoors at night, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse) and the shot had no noticeable blur.
Note: for the portrait shot, I got the benefit of reverse mounting.

Although it's not perfect, I would still rather get this tripod for the incremental additional cost of around $15 compared to getting a Targus SBM200 by itself, to say nothing about the very useful tripod harness.  I seriously doubt you can buy a better tripod for $15 or even $45.
This is the best deal for a camera bag and tripod that I'm aware of for casual or amateur photographers.  If you have the budget for the premium products, then more power to you -- buying the best you can afford is usually ideal in the long run.  For the rest of us who are still saving up for pro-level equipment :), this combination provides most of the functionality offered by premium products that cost several times more than this combination.  Note: at many Costco locations near me, it's out of stock, but you can ask the manager at any branch to find the nearest Costco that has it in stock.

Related posts:
Opteka TacShot TS-1 Ball Head
Dealing With Creeps
Real World Test of TS-1 and P60T