Lori Carey Photography

Friday, April 4, 2014

Shoot from the Hip: Spider Holster Review

DISCLOSURE: Spider Holster provided me with a Dual-Camera SpiderPro Holster system for testing and review purposes.

As soon as I learned that I was going to be spending a week covering the King of the Hammers off road race for Nitto Tire and DrivingLine I began planning what gear I would need to be able pull off a week-long shoot in the remote desert environment. The event is held in the Mojave Desert every February, in very extreme terrain and extreme conditions. There are races all week long leading up to the toughest one day off road race in the world, a 180 mile race course that includes high speed desert racing and rock crawling on some of the toughest trails that California has to offer. I shoot in the desert all of the time and I frequently shoot rock crawling, so I had a very good idea of what the job would demand. I knew I would be working very long days in very dusty conditions, would have to do a lot of hiking and would be scrambling up and down steep cliffs. The dust and wind meant that I couldn't change lenses out in the field but I would need both a wide angle and a telephoto lens. I knew it would be physically challenging, and I knew that I had to be able to keep up with the guys.

I was honestly dreading the need to carry two cameras all day every day while scrambling up and down cliffs and walking several miles a day, and I knew that once my back and shoulders started feeling the strain I would be done. I use Canon L glass and those lenses are heavy, especially my favorite 70-200mm 2.8 ISM USM beast. It's not a lens that you want to wear around your neck or even over a shoulder for more than a couple of hours. When I scramble up rocks with a camera over my shoulder the lens frequently bounces into rocks if I don’t hold on to it, and I really wanted to have my hands free for balance. When guys carry two cameras in the field they typically sling them across their chest, one across each shoulder, but that look is not at all comfortable or flattering for women!

I also knew that carrying a camera bag would be less than ideal for this job. Too much time is wasted taking cameras out of the bag and putting them back, the bag gets heavy after hiking a full day let alone an entire week, it throws off my center of gravity when I am climbing on rocks, and I don’t like leaving my bag sitting out in the open when there are other people around while I am off shooting. A backpack is good for hiking in but not good when I am actively shooting and moving around.

Specatator at King of the Hammers off road race, Johnson Valley
Johnson Valley, California, home of King of the Hammers off road race

I decided that moving the weight to my hips was going to be my best solution and I began researching belt systems. My biggest concern was that most of this type of gear is not designed for a woman's body, and what works for a 6 foot 200 pound male doesn't always fit and feel right to a 5'5" size 6 woman. I posted inquiries on social media to see if any women photographers had any recommendations but I couldn't find anyone who had even tried a belt and holster system. The Spider Camera Holster had caught my eye for several reasons and I tagged them on GooglePlus to inquire about the fit for women. They assured me that many petite women use their system and love it and offered to send me one to test out.

When I received my SpiderPro Dual Camera System I was immediately impressed by the build quality. I am very tough on gear and rely on products that can stand up to my level of abuse without falling apart. The stitching on the sturdy belt is very well done and the machining of the all metal holsters and plates is beautiful. I suspect the belt was adjusted before it was sent out to me because it was a perfect fit right out of the box. I strapped the belt on and put my cameras in the holsters and cautiously ran around the house to test how secure the cameras would be. I was impressed by how well the cameras remained close to my body when I ran, that they didn't interfere with walking and I immediately loved having the weight on my hips instead of my shoulders. It only took me a few minutes to get the hang of quickly holstering and re-holstering my cameras without looking.

Me wearing Spider Holster

The true test was race week. I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived and headed out to cover the Backdoor Shoot Out, an extreme rock crawling competition in a canyon (and up a waterfall) Monday night. I immediately realized the benefits of my Spider Holster as I cautiously navigated my way through rocks up and then down into the canyon in the cold darkness to get into position. I watched three men slide several feet down the hill when they lost their footing and I was glad I had my hands free for balance because it was treacherous. I kept the holsters in the locked position and never once had any concern about my cameras dislodging. Here is a grab shot I took as I worked my way down to give you an idea what it was like out there.

View from the top during Back Door Shoot Out, King of the Hammers

After five hours of shooting in the 25°F darkness I went back to my trailer and stayed up all night processing photos so we could upload daily content. I had a short one hour nap before I was back out at 6am for the daily media briefing and more shooting. I had just started my week and was already suffering from sleep deprivation. Heading out the trailer door the next morning I was so relieved that I didn't have to lug around a camera bag or sling cameras over my shoulders.

A typical day would start with something like a 6am photo shoot with the entire Nitto Tire race team at the bottom of Backdoor Canyon, then jumping into my Jeep and heading out to the lakebed for some high speed racing in time to catch the first rigs coming through, then back in the Jeep to navigate the rough desert terrain to one of the remote rock crawling trails. After finding a place to park my Jeep I’d hike into the canyon to find a good spot from which to shoot. Mixed in were press conferences, media briefings, driver interviews, long nights spent in my trailer processing the day’s shots and very little sleep. I was physically drained but never once worried about how much heavy gear I would need to carry around. I hardly noticed the weight at all with my cameras on my hips.

Me shooting high speed racing on the lake bed during King of the Hammers. Even in a kneeling position the Spider Holster kept my 70-200mm lens in a safe and comfortable position well off the ground. Photo courtesy of Doug Dienelt of DRD Images.

I didn't remove the straps from my cameras because at times I was shooting from precarious perches on the rocks and I wanted the security of having the strap around my neck while shooting. This meant that the straps were hanging loose when the cameras were in the holsters but I would usually just tuck them up. I like my holster so much that I am seriously considering changing to a wrist strap.

My first day of using the holster in the field I found myself constantly checking my cameras to make sure they were secure but by the second day I had learned to trust the system. After six days of hiking, climbing, kneeling, sitting and even running for safety when the dust cloud suddenly overtook the area and we needed to get to a clear area ASAP, everything on my Spider Holster was still tight and secure. I kept the lever in the locked position when I was hiking and climbing and in the unlocked position when I was actively shooting. I made sure to check and tighten the camera plates every night as part of my regular gear maintenance, but other than that I hardly even gave it a thought besides how wonderful it was and how much I loved the sense of freedom!

I feel a bit like a gunslinger, ready to shoot anything (with my camera of course)!

Before I started wearing the Spider Holster I had some concerns about having heavy cameras banging into my hips and thighs as I was walking and leaving sore bruises. I had no reason to worry; the cameras are held securely and do not bounce around. The SpiderPro Holster Pad also helps protect your body (as well as your clothes), making this a very comfortable system.

Like many people, I was under the impression that the Spider Holster is not compatible with Really Right Stuff L-brackets/plates. That was true a few years ago, and when I did my research on the internet I found a lot of forum posts discusses the lack of compatibility. I mistakenly thought that the Spider Holster Arca-Swiss compatible clamp was just for compatibility with the Arca-Swiss quick release on my tripod ballhead and that it would still require me to remove my RRS L-bracket, so I didn’t worry about obtaining the clamp. Apparently enough of us weren't willing to give up our L-plates for the convenience of a carrier system and SpiderPro designed their Arca-Swiss clamp to work with the L-plate a few years ago. It seems that many photographers are not aware of this because people were giving me suggestions for workarounds (which were too cumbersome for my practical use). I know that L-bracket compatibility is the biggest thing preventing many photographers from switching to a carrier system and I hope to be able to review the Arca-Swiss compatible clamp soon.

Not knowing that option was available to me, I figured I would just need to use the Spider Holster plate when I was shooting the races, and switch to my L-bracket when I was shooting anything that would require a tripod. During race week when I needed to use a tripod to do the Nitto race team shoot in the dark at Backdoor it was very easy to swap the plates out because Spider Holster brilliantly designed the plate to also store the allen wrench. If you've ever spent time hunting for the correct allen wrench, or like me tend to lose small objects, you’ll appreciate the genius of this design. When we finished the shoot it took me less than a minute to swap them out again. Having the allen wrench handy also makes it easy to re-tighten everything when doing your routine daily gear check and maintenance out in the field.

You do need to be careful when laying your camera down on a surface because the pin(s) protrude from the bottom so the camera doesn't lie flat. The pins also mean that your camera will need a little more room in your camera bag. That's a small price to pay for the freedom you'll gain.

I know that I never would have been able to keep up the crazy pace throughout King of the Hammers week without my Spider Holster. It let me work longer and hike farther with less fatigue. I used my holster again while covering the Tierra del Sol Desert Safari a few weeks ago. When I “lost” my ride in the mudhills and had to hike up and down a series of very steep hills to catch up, I again realized how much easier and more comfortable it was with the weight on my hips instead of on my neck and shoulders. I know that I am going to love using it when I am hiking for landscape photography too.

The Spider Holster system handled everything I could throw it at during the toughest shoot I’ve ever done and performed like a champ. I can’t even begin to explain how liberating it is. It is truly a game changer for me and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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