www.alitedesigns.com, 1.6 ounces
The self-portrait may be the reigning Facebook profile photo trend, but all those close-to-the-camera, off-kilter shots with your arm extending into the great beyond shouldn’t dominate your wall.  Alite’s Twig Pod offers an easy solution, ideally suited to help you document your outdoor adventures. This quick-to-assemble monopod has a rugged stake at one end so you can literally plant it in the earth, angle the shot, set the timer, and let the world bear witness. The 30-inch height is perfect for a from-the-hip angle, and the ball-head mount lets you position the camera in all imaginable angles. Then, when you’re done posin’, the Twig Pod collapses (much like a tent pole) to fit into a seven-inch-long stuff sack. Then you can stash the 1.6-ounce device and forget about it until you need it again. You can also use the Twig Pod to take long exposure shots, and it’s suitable for point-and-shoot cameras (as well as iPhones when accompanied by the $15 Glif, a one-piece stand and tripod mount). Serious photographers are better off with a true monopod, but for lighter cameras and people looking for fun ways to get real self-portraits, this one’s a low-cost winner.

After many years of loyal service (and far too many bumps, nicks, and moments of unintended abuse to count) one tester’s loyal camera lens met an unceremonious end while at Muir Woods—a simple tumble and an off-angle impact snapped the plastic lens joint like a piece of kindling.  His first instinct was to replace it with the exact same one, until he discovered that Nikon no longer made 18-135mm lenses.  So started the great hunt for a replacement. The options quickly got complicated: go with two lenses (one 18-55mm, and another 55-200 mm) and endure the hassles of carrying all that glass and having to swap out constantly? Settle for the 18-105mm model and lose some zoom? Or go big and plunk down a grand for a massive 18-300mm lens? After loads of research, a bit of soul searching, and a brief flirtation with the 55-200mm lens that didn’t get him a wide-enough default panoramic (and had to be returned), there was a sobriety check with the savings account and he ended up with the to the 18-200mm, clinging to this sizable lens like a man to a sinking ship.

The result? This lens hits a sweet spot we didn’t know was possible in a high-end DSLR camera lens: pure versatility without the sacrifices typical with such a lens. This may be the best jack-of-all-trades travel lens on the market. The high-powered 200mm zoom (comparable to 11x zoom versatility) lets you get right on top of climbers on the other side of the valley, but the 18mm set is wide enough to capture a panoramic shot that felt crowded at 55mm. In other words, this lens gives you the framing you desire in just about any in-the-field travel situation.

The lens employs Nikon’s vibration reduction tool, which helps to stabilize the shot when you’re shooting from a moving vehicle, a feature you can toggle on as situations demand.  The autofocus adjusts rapidly, driven on a silent-wave motor that’ll keep your clandestine presence hidden, and the lens can also lock down at 18mm to prevent unwanted lens creep. Some off-site reviewers have experienced this when the lock isn’t deployed, but our tester had no issues when shooting from a tripod.

As you’d expect from most telephotos in this range, distortion creeps in when shooting wide landscapes at 18mm, but it’s easy to fix in Photoshop or Picasa, and the overall speed and sharpness of the lens has proven to be a vast improvement over its now-retired predecessor. Of course the expansive range also makes this a big, heavy lens. The connection point—the place of failure in the previous model after years of steady use—is made of plastic, but the overall connection to the camera body (a D80) feels considerably stronger, more a part of the camera itself, which gives us confidence.

Of course, it’s not the fasted low-light lens, but telephotos seldom are; if your intention is to shoot indoors in dimly lit settings, we say look toward fixed lenses with nominal zoom. (In-camera noise-cancellation is also improving drastically, which can reduce low-light graininess.) But for travel, it’s tops.
The telephoto lens is rated to f/3.5, and comes with a protective hood and a standard Nikon one-year warrant, complimented by a four-year extended coverage plan.

A huge improvement on the revolutionary HERO camera, the HERO 2 boasts a feature that takes an 11-megapixel photograph every half second, a massive improvement from the original HERO’s two-second increment, and has proven to be an invaluable in capturing radical action POV still shots.  In a 12-second base jump, I get 24 shots rather than just six, so it eliminates the luck factor.  When I follow Timy Dutton straight-lining through a chute, I will capture that spray-free moment in the crux.  Sure, at the end of the day I have taken 700 plus photographs, but the camera is extremely lap-top friendly, so I can trash all but the money shots before I load them onto my computer, so I do not waste any valuable space on my hard drive.  The new firmware produces an image quality that is indiscernible from HD camcorders more than triple its size, and its ten-shot burst feature allows me to take a full sequence while standing by as my bros huck cliffs on skis, step off mountains and giving over to gravity, or slide a rail in the local park.  The only downside is that I get so fired up capturing images of other people, I get far fewer shots of myself!
-JT Holmes

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www.sealife-cameras.com; 10.9 ounces
Cell phone cameras are handy, but they don’t fare so well in wet conditions. In contrast, the slightly-larger (4″ x 1.5″) SeaLife Mini II is a truly amphibious small camera that’s been tested (and guaranteed) to operate down to 130 feet. The rubberized casing is both waterproof and shock proof, proven by our young testers, who dropped the camera down a rocky embankment into a muddy eddy in the Deschutes River. In addition to the camera’s durability, they also liked the easy set up, with a 1-2-3 graphic on the 2.4-inch LCD color screen. In the underwater mode, the white balance adjusts perfectly; photos are bright, without the standard blue hues that dominate so much aquatic photography. In the Land Auto mode, exposure is automatically controlled, as is an internal flash. In addition to a 30-frame-per-second (640 x 480) Video Mode (ideal for action sports like surfing, rafting, or beach volleyball), there’s a Spy Mode where you can program the camera to shoot a continuous string of images at pre-set intervals—great for capturing wildlife at your favorite waterhole, nesting birds, or sneaky raccoons and bear cubs as they raid your garbage can. Pictures, with 9mp resolution (3472 x 2604), are clear and crisp, although we recommend using a tripod for capturing shots you hope to mount and frame. The SeaLife camera is powered by two AAA batteries and accepts SD and SDHC storage cards up to 8 GB.
Accessories include a Digital Pro Flash, Photo-Video Light, and Mini Wide-Angle Lens.

For us, carrying camera equipment almost crystallizes what a bag should be: You want something that’s both highly functional and highly protective—but you don’t want anyone to know that you’re lugging around all that well-protected, expensive camera gear. The simple truth is that thieves are sufficiently sophisticated to recognize camera-specific bags by their brands. This is why Timbuk2’s Snoop Camera Bag rises above most competitors. Crafted out of durable ballistic nylon by the San Fran cycling bag company, the secret of the Scoop is it’s stealthy diversity.  The main compartment is spacious enough to hold all varieties of SLR camera bodies, lenses, portable flashes, and more—all ensconced in thick padding. Better still, the internal padded sleeves are attached by Velcro, which lets you modify the interior to custom-fit the specifics of your kit. This main pocket is accessible by a wide, side zipper flap (there’s no top-loading access, an unconventional approach for a backpack), along with a narrow zipper opening for quick access.  The flip-top lid has three pockets (two of them mesh) for SD cards, batteries, and cables. There’s also a shallow, wide zipper pocket on the front of the pack for flight documents. The bag comes equipped with a plush, padded laptop sleeve, which can handle a 17-inch computer and is accessible from both the main compartment and an easy-to-access exterior zip that greatly simplifies the TSA juggling act.  Two burly shoulder pads and a removable sternum strap distributed the weight nicely while terminal hopping in Seattle International, and the two straps on the back of the pack are ideal for lashing on a full-sized tripod (though…yea, that may announce your Ansel Adams-like ambitions).  We did wish for somewhat more storage options; the bag is designed for the gear-laden photographer out for a day shoot, rather than travel. The Tetris-like internal customization does allow you to create space for in-flight essentials like an eBook, magazines, and a sweater, but a few additional pockets would make this pack even more versatile.