Sunday, May 5, 2013

Add a Tilting LCD to Your DSLR: Aputure Gigtube

In this post, I discuss my preliminary impressions of the Aputure Gigtube, a remote live view accessory that can also function as a tilting LCD.

A few years ago I saw a wedding photograph of a bride surrounded by her bridesmaids, getting into her wedding gown.  What made the shot unique was that the photographer took it with the camera above the bride, facing down at the bride who was smiling at the camera.  The photographer said that it was a lucky shot because he could not see through the camera.  That photo made a strong impression on me and made me want a camera that had a remote live view to allow me to do that without needing as much luck.  When I got an ultrawide lens and discovered how much I liked them and how sensitive they were to tilting, it made me want remote live view even more.

Nikon does have cameras that offer a tilting LCD (the D5xxx series) but they are not in the prosumer category and therefore are missing many of the features that I had gotten used to such as dual command dials, built-in commander flash, direct access to common functions without going through menus, an autofocus motor, and perhaps most crucially, AF fine tuning.

There are a number of alternatives that to some degree allow remote live view capability.

Tethered Shooting
Tethered shooting, where a DSLR is connected to and controlled by a laptop running tethering software, is ideal for setup shots.  Your computer has a large screen that offers an accurate view of the shot.  The problems are portability and range: once setup, it's hard to move around, and the camera is usually connected to the computer or laptop via a cable so it can only operate within a limited range.

Wireless Control
Some cameras offer wireless capability, either built-in (like the Canon 6D) or with an accessory (like the D600 and D7100).  This is somewhat similar to tethered shooting except that the camera is usually controlled by a tablet or smartphone, and the connection is wireless (usually through an ad hoc Wi-Fi network).  The amount of control available differs depending on the camera and the specific wireless control method.  For example, the Canon 6D's built-in wireless capability allows a smartphone to change focus and exposure.  On the other hand, the D600 and D7100, when using the WU-1b or WU-1a respectively, can only change focus.  If you want to control exposure and other variables, Nikon wants to sell you the WR-1 (~$640).  Another possibility is the CamRanger ($299) which allows as much control as a wired tethered connection, and even has features such as automatic focus stacking.

The issues for me are cost, control and speed.  I like the price of the WU-1a and WU-1b but they have very limited control and more importantly, are very sluggish (takes about 30 seconds to view a shot).  I like the control of the CamRanger but I'm turned off by the price, because I don't expect to use it very often.

Aputure Gigtube Wireless II
A while back I looked into RF-based wireless live view monitors.  I got an Aputure Gigtube Wireless II.  That was almost a year ago and to be honest I've used it only for testing purposes.  The good news is that it does deliver on its promise - you get a wireless live view monitor with decent range, and it has a shutter release that can be half-pressed for autofocusing.  In theory, it would seem to be even better than a tilting LCD because I can use it near or far.

However, in reality, it is not a good substitute for a tilting LCD.  The monitor has to be held separately from the camera.  With only one hand holding the camera, the camera isn't very stable, and it's hard to change the settings (exposure, AF point, etc.).  Yes I can suspend the camera with a pole or stand to gain unusual points of view, but once I leave the camera up there, I can't change any of the settings.  Plus, you have to reestablish a connection every time you turn it off.  It doesn't take too long (unlike the Nikon WU-1a) but it's still a hassle.  So this is one product that I have found far less useful than I imagined.

Aputure Gigtube
Meanwhile I still wanted to have the advantages of a tilting LCD without the compromises in lower-end Nikons.  I started looking into the Aputure Gigtube, the predecessor of the Gigtube Wireless.  On paper, it sounds like a step backward for me.  Why would I need or want a wired live view monitor when I already had a wireless one?

If you look at the Gigtube purely as a live view monitor, then that is somewhat true.  It has to be wired to the camera and therefore has limited range.  However, in my view, the better use for the Gigtube is as a tilting LCD, as we'll see below.

The Gigtube includes the unit itself, a short AV and remote shutter cable, a 6-foot extension cord, a stand (similar to a speedlight stand), an AC adapter, and the product manual.  In my case, I got the Gigtube on closeout, so the seller included an extra shutter cable that's why you see two of them below.

The battery is built-in and is recharged by plugging in the AC adapter into the mini-USB port on the side of the Gigtube.


The Gigtube has very simple controls.  There is a 2.5-inch tilting LCD.  The LCD can rotate 270 degrees and can flip up to 180 degrees to a horizontal position.  There is a red shutter release button, a Menu button to toggle through the menu options, a Set button to cycle through the parameters of each menu option, and a button to reverse the screen orientation vertically.  There is a small LED indicator above the shutter release to indicate when the shutter release is being pressed.  There is also a small LED beside the mini-USB port that lights up when it is charging.  Below the Gigtube is a coldshoe mount with a locking ring.


The Gigtube has a minijack in front.  You plug in the included cable in the jack, and the cable splits into an AV jack and a remote shutter jack.  Strictly speaking, if you intend to use the Gigtube as a tilting LCD, you probably will use the camera's shutter release so i's not necessary to connect the remote shutter jack, but I usually connect it anyway, just so there's no dangling cable.

The cable is very short and is designed for using the Gigtube while mounted on the camera's hotshoe.  If you need the hotshoe for your flash, or if want to use the Gigtube as a remote viewfinder, you can connect the extension cable to the minijack and use the Gigtube handheld.

Once the Gigtube is connected, you just turn it on, the Aputure splashscreen shows for a couple seconds, then it will show whatever is shown on the LCD, including Live View if activated.

I should note that the first time I turned on the Gigtube, it would not receive the signal from the camera.  I tried it several times but it didn't work.  I almost returned it.  Finally, I tried turning on the Gigtube before connecting it, turning on the camera's LCD display, then plugging the Gigtube AV cable to the camera.  That seemed to jog something in the Gigtube and it started receiving the AV signal.  Since then it has performed flawlessly regardless of the order in which I connect or turn on the devices.

So, how well does it work in real life?  I found that the Gigtube works very well as a tilting LCD.  I just plug the Gigtube in and when I need to use a tilting LCD, I just switch it on, and it is ready in just a couple of seconds.  No need to search for the right RF channel or anything like that.

The Gigtube is not perfect but it fulfills its function very well.  The screen's display isn't as good as that of the camera's LCD screen -- besides being smaller, more delicate shadows and highlights appear clipped even though they can be seen on the camera's LCD.  However, the Gigtube is more than adequate for composing a shot.  In terms of brightness, the Gigtube is about the same as a camera's LCD screen which means that it's hard to view it in direct sunlight.  Otherwise, the Gigtube performs exactly as I had hoped.  The Gigtube screen's refresh rate is just as fast as that of the camera's LCD and there is no perceptible lag.

So here is an example of how I like to use the Gigtube.  I came upon this small grove of trees and I liked how the sunlight backlit the leaves.  However, the backlighting on the leaves could not be seen unless you viewed the leaves from below.  In this case, the trees were behind a fence, making it difficult to take a shot at a low angle while using the viewfinder.

However, with the Gigtube, I was able to get the camera behind the fence at a low angle, and frame the shot with the Gigtube as a tilting LCD.

The first time I used the Gigtube, the battery seemed to be depleted after only a few minutes of use.  Since then I've cycled the battery a couple of times and it appears that the battery life got extended to the point where I can use it at least for one afternoon if not the whole day's worth of shooting (taking care to turn it off when not in use).

To make it faster to use the Gigtube, I thought about leaving the screen facing outward.  However, I was of course concerned that the screen could be damaged.  Initially I thought about getting a GGS protector for it.  Upon further thought I realized that I could instead get a combination shade and protector to protect the screen and provide a shade to make the display easier to see in sunlight.

The pop-up shade I got is from Delkin and comes with a frame that is attached with a sticker to the display.  The frame has a plastic screen protector that offers some protection for the LCD screen.  The popup shade clips on to the frame and can be removed when not needed.  The shade is spring-loaded and pops open quickly.  Folding it closed is not difficult either.

Here is how the Gigtube looks with just the frame attached.

Here it is with the popup shade mounted on the frame.

When I'm not using the Gigtube, I just fold the popup shade down instead of rotating the LCD screen to its closed position.

Although the aspect ratio of the popup shade is not exactly the same as that of the Gigtube, the shade does not block any portion of the Gigtube's display:

Of course with the popup shade attached, the Gigtube can no longer fold flat in the closed position.  But that's a compromise that I'm willing to make in order to get the advantage of being able to use the Gigtube more quickly and having a popup shade.

I'm very pleased with the Gigtube, especially when used with a popup shade.  It is almost as good as having a built-in tilting LCD, and I love that it can work with many popular cameras, including the Nikon D7000 and D700 (imagine a full frame camera with tilting LCD!).  I will be taking the Gigtube with me anytime I'm using the D7000, especially when I'm using a wide angle lens.

P.S.  For readers who are using Google Reader, just a reminder that Google Reader will no longer work after June 30, 2013.  You can use another RSS service.  The one I've been using is Feedly, which allows migration of my Google Reader feed painlessly - I just click on a button to authorize Feedly.  I don't even need to put in a password.  The interface takes a little getting used to, but it's close enough for me.