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December 12, 2012

Using An Articulating Arm To Get More Creative With Your Photography!!

Monico's self portrait

In this article I’m going show you How To Get More Creative with your Photography by using an Articulating Arm - Manfrotto Magic Arm in my case. It’s an incredible useful accessory that I use whenever I need something a little different.

For my first contribution to SonyAlphaLab I thought about introducing myself, going into my background, sharing some of my work and talking about what I’d be writing in the future. I began a post that did all of those things and I knew I wanted to share some of my images.  I went through my portfolio to find some shots to sprinkle into my post and I found myself choosing pictures that I consider unique or captured from a different perspective. Most of the shots I wanted to use took advantage of an accessory called an articulating arm. It’s an super useful accessory that allows me to get my camera (or a flash) into a strange position. When I’m on location it’s my secret weapon. For my first post as an author here at SonyAlphaLab, I’ll share how I like to use my articulating arm.

About Me

Before I talk about how I use my articulating arm an introduction is appropriate. I’m a full-time photographer, Photoshop enthusiast, a designer and a business owner. Currently I live in Northern Virginia (close to Washington, DC) but I grew up in south east Michigan. My first camera was a 110 film camera I received about thirty years ago. In my teens I started shooting Minolta SLRs and when it came time to transition to digital I chose Sony Alpha equipment (an easy choice because my collection of lenses and flashes were compatible with the Sony A system).

Before I moved to Virginia I spent most of a decade working at Ford Design North America where I learned some pretty crazy lessons about color theory and working digitally. To this day I’m close with the designers at Ford and I still do some special assignment work with the North American Design team. Here’s an image from a shoot I did for a social media campaign for the Ford Fiesta:

"Fiesta in Motion"

“Fiesta in Motion”

 

On Location Portrait Photography

After my time with Ford Design I moved to Virginia where I began my photography business. My business specializes in location portraits and on-site executive photography. I love flash photography (big flash and small flash) and I enjoy both incredibly complicated shoots and super simple shoots. Here’s a few of my favorite location shots.

“a Peaceful Morning”

"the Stargazing Cowboy"

“the Stargazing Cowboy”

“Evenings Last Light”

When I’m not on an assignment my photography is pretty diverse. That’s because I love to create. I keep myself busy by shooting landscapes, stars & star trails, fireworks, historic locations, wildlife, equine shows, weddings, high dynamic range images, architecture and products. When the weather isn’t cooperating I’ll spend time developing new techniques for improving images in Photoshop. To stay connected with the photographic community I’m active on social media and I maintain a blog about photography and Photoshop (monicozphotographyblog.com).


I have a photography studio and I enjoy the control I have when I’m shooting in it. But being out on location is what I truly love. A lot can happen on location so it pays to be prepared. To help my chances of success when I’m on location shoots I’ve invested in plenty of gear that helps me to solve some of the problems I run into when I’m outside the studio.  There’s one piece of gear I own that’s super handy and I take one wherever my camera goes.
 

The Articulating Arm

Because I’m a full-time photographer I get asked a lot of questions about gear. Of course there’s some things I can easily recommend to anyone that wants to take better pictures. It’s good to own a tripod (the sturdier the better) and having a shoe mount flash is always a good thing. But here’s something that I use all the time that didn’t cost as much as my tripod and it gets used all the time. It’s called an articulating arm. I use a product from Manfrotto called a 244N variable friction magic arm (I just call it a Magic Arm for short).

my Manfrotto Magic Arm

Manfrotto isn’t the only maker of articulating arms (Kupo also makes one just like this) and if you’re on a budget I’ve seen some available at a discount in the used department of some stores. By itself it doesn’t look like much. In fact, it’s just about useless without a few accessories. In the picture above you can see the Magic Arm (on top), a camera plate (lower left) and a studio clamp. Together these three pieces of gear cost me about $125. I have a few other accessories I use with my Magic Arm but these three items seem to get the most use.

Using the Magic Arm starts with a studio clamp. I use a LumoPro LP653 studio clamp that cost me less than $20 but almost every manufacturer of grip equipment sells a studio clamp. You can attach it to round surfaces like pipes or light stands or you can attach the (included) flat surface adapter to clamp onto book shelves, tables or counter tops. Here’s a closer look at my Studio clamp.

Studio Clamp

With your studio clamp mounted you simply attach the Magic Arm to your studio clamp. Here’s a look at where the magic arm connects to the studio clamp:

attaching to studio clamp

Now you can attach your camera (or a flash or other accessory) to the Manfrotto Magic Arm. Loosen the arm to make an adjustment and then tighten it back up to lock it in place. Now you’re ready to start getting some unique shots.

 

The Magic Arm in Action

So what can you do with a Magic Arm? You can position a camera someplace you may not have thought of. One of my favorite ways to use my Magic Arm to mount my camera outside of a moving car. Here’s a look at my Magic Arm mounted to my open sunroof to get my camera up high above my car:

Mounting the camera above my car

By mounting my camera here and setting my camera for a long shutter speed I can capture shots like this:

"30mph Curve Ahead"

“30mph Curve Ahead”

And forward isn’t the only direction you can point your camera. When I want to get a shot of my dog enjoying a car ride I use my Magic Arm to get my camera outside while I’m sitting safely inside my car. Here’s a look at my camera held steady with my Magic Arm:

preparing to capture a shot of my dog

By getting my camera mounted outside the car I was able to capture this shot:

"Car Ride!"

“Car Ride!”

You can use it to mount your camera in a place where you can’t use a tripod. I’ll use mine to photograph fireworks, for example, by clamping my camera to a rail. Here’s a look at my camera before the fireworks show started at Disney World:

Mounting a camera to a rail

By using a Magic Arm I was able to keep my camera steady to get the super long shutter times that make firework shots look great.

“Disney World Fireworks”

Another place I’ve used my Magic arm is at the top of a lighthouse. It was super windy and I wanted a small aperture setting to get as much as possible looking in focus. To keep my camera steady for the longer shutter speed I clamped my Magic arm to the safety rail. In the confined space of the lookout there was no way a tripod would work but the ranger had no problem with me using my Magic Arm. Here’s a look at it mounted to the railing:

rail mounting my cameraWith my camera steady I was able to capture shots like this:

"the Lighthouse View"

“the Lighthouse View”

Another way I’ve used the Magic Arm is to steady my camera to photograph wildlife with a long lens while I’m staying safe inside my car. With the magic arm mounted to my window like this:

Magic Arm inside my car

I was able to stay safe in my car while I photographed this black bear in a National Park:

“Black Bear”

 

It’s Not Just For Cameras

It’s important to remember that an articulating arm is not just for mounting a camera to something. I’ve used it to put a flash in crazy places where a full sized stand just can’t fit (or will be a tripping hazard). With so much flexibility of movement I can put light exactly where I want it. Here’s a look at my Magic Arm clamped to a book shelf to get a flash up high:

mounting to a book shelf

And I’ll use my magic arm to position a flash to get a little bit of kick light during a shoot. Here’s my Magic Arm mounted to a light stand in my studio. The small octa shaped softbox is the main light and the smaller flash is being bounced into a collapsible reflector for some kick light (great for opening up deep shadows).

the kick light

By using a clip clamp (instead of the camera mounting plate) and a black flag I can even use my Magic Arm to keep light away from the front of my lens. This helps prevent flaring and other problems caused by stray light. It’s also a nice way to make your LCD a little easier to view in bright sunlight. Here’s a look at my Magic Arm attached to my tripod to block some light:

creating a flag

 

And that’s just a small sampling of how I like to use my Magic Arm.

 

Wrapping Up

The bottom line here is that keeping your camera steady can really help you take sharper pictures. That’s why it’s great to own a tripod. But sometimes a tripod isn’t the best tool for the job and that’s where having something unique like an articulating arm comes in handy. I always try to use my tripod first but when that won’t work I’m always happy that I have a backup option. When it comes to using off-camera flash you need control and placement to get the best shots or to add come creativity.  Sometimes a big stand with a boom arm just won’t work. By using an accessory like the Magic Arm you’ll be able to get a flash into places you wouldn’t normally be able to put it. The possibilities are truly endless. Once you start using one an articulating arm becomes a real problem solver and you’ll quickly find ways to take advantage of it’s flexibility. I now own several and at least one Magic Arm goes wherever my camera goes.

If you’re interested in learning more about my moving car shots I have two posts over on my personal blog you should check out.

Shooting from a moving car

Photographing Peaches in a moving car

For future articles I plan to share more of my photography techniques and some Photoshop/Lightroom tips and tricks. Until then you can find me on my blog, on twitter or on Google+.

 


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About the Author

Monico
I am a photographer and business owner that lives in Virginia. My business serves clients in the Washington DC area but I travel to do location shoots all over the USA. While photography and photoshop are my business I also enjoy teaching and sharing what I've learned over the years. I'm a "general" photographer that specializes in location portrait work but I can be found shooting weddings, equine shows, landscapes and so much more. I'm proud to be an author here on Sony Alpha Lab and I look forward to contributing to the community here.




15 Comments


  1. Hey Monico, welcome to SAL!
    That Magic Arm is truly a versatile and impressive accessory – I think I just figured out what goes at the top of my Christmas list, this year. :-) You’ve managed to get some great images with it, too.
    I look forward to seeing more from you here at SonyAlphaLab.
    Mike


    • Thank you, Mike. It’s great to be writing beside you, Jay and the other contributors here at SAL.

      The Magic Arm is a super cool toy (or should I call it a tool?). It’s really incredible how much you can do with a photography accessory that costs less than $125 for a basic kit. If you do pick one up I look forward to seeing what you can create with it.

      Thanks again, Mike.


  2. Hi Monico, that was a great opener – v. informative & well illustrated with some excellent shots – thanks…
    I’ve been following SAL for a couple of months now as I am lookijng to upgrade my camera(s) Canon G9 & an old but good Lumix FZ20 & was considering the new FZ200, but am looking for more detailed image resolution without the bulk of the DSLR – used Nikon Photomic 35mm with bunch of heavy lenses for 20yr! – the Sony Alpha & NEX systems are now getting my attention with the larger sensors.
    Best – KM


    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Keith. I appreciate your kind words.

      As far as upgrading your camera – I may not be the best person to give you advice on downsizing your camera. I’m still shooting big DSLR sized cameras and don’t have much real world experience with the new mirror-less designs. I’m sure Mike and Jay will be happy to tell you all about the NEX system.

      I do have this opinion for you: If you have more than 20 years experience shooting 35mm then you won’t be disappointed with the performance of just about any current camera including the NEX series. Digital cameras these days have resolution to spare and the NEX are no exception. Most people with decades of shooting experience can make any camera sing.

      Thanks again for your comments and for visiting Sony Alpha Lab. I look forward to seeing your images when you get your new camera.


  3. Jay

    Great Article Monico and just like Mike, I want one of these for Christmas as well!!

    Thanks again and awesome photography and instruction ;)

    Jay


    • Thank you, Jay, for the compliment and for the opportunity to write articles here. It’s great to be able to share my experiences and techniques with a whole new audience and I look forward to being a positive part of Sony Alpha Lab.

      I love my Magic Arms and they’ve helped me out of some serious jams when I’m on location. I just wish I could have grabbed a picture of some of the crazier ways I’ve used mine. Unfortunately, that might have looked really strange to a client if I was pointing my camera at a piece of grip equipment instead of them. But let me tell you, I’ve done some wild things when I had to.

      If you get one for Christmas I hope you’ll share some of the images you create with everyone on SAL.

      Have a great night, Jay.


      • Jay

        Monico,

        I’m definetly getting one for Christmas and Will be sure to share some photos!! I really want to try mounting it to the car first and get some cool motion captured like you did in your photos. I have an idea of trying it at night though while fallowing a car through town with it clamped out the sun roof. This way the lights streak on the buildings around as well as the cars I’m fallowing, and reflecting off the car paint :)

        Not really sure how it pan out, but looks cool in my head at the moment I’m typing this!!

        Thanks again,
        Jay


      • The best result I could have hoped for (when I wrote this article) is that it would get readers thinking about some different shots to go out and create. Even if readers don’t buy an articulating arm they can imagine the possibilities and sometimes that can be enough to try creating something different. I’m always happy when I can inspire someone to take an idea of mine and improve on it to create an incredible image.

        I’ve done a little shooting in cities at night, Jay, and the results can be really incredible.

        One recommendation I have is to try working with a second vehicle and trying to include that second vehicle in your final shots. If you can get the two vehicles to match their speeds (when you’re shooting) then you’ll have a super sharp object to contrast with the movement in the shot. Having that super sharp element in your shot really helps to make the entire shot work.

        Also, don’t forget to try shooting both forward and backwards with your moving car shots. By shooting in different directions (and from different angles) you can tell completely different stories with your images.

        Have fun and I look forward to seeing what you create.


  4. Jeff Drown

    Thanks ..I need to get this rig.. I’m into “very different images” I see many crazy ways of using this ..Cool, Jeff


    • Jay

      Thanks for the Comments Jeff!! Monico is the man, and I ordered the same exact model that he used in the Article! Can’t wait to try it out :)

      Jay


    • Thanks for taking the time to read my article, Jeff. I also love to capture things differently since there are so many cameras out there these days (taking average pictures). It’s become more difficult to differentiate ourselves as full-time photographers so I like to use whatever tool I have available. I’ve done plenty of crazy things (for clients so those shots didn’t make it into this article) and articulating arms can really inspire us to do some wild things.

      But what I love the most about using an articulating arm is that it allows me to stay safe when the camera gets into some unsafe places. For example – I’d never climb out the top of my sunroof while my car is moving (and nobody else should ever do such a thing) to get a shot but an articulating arm lets you get the shot while staying safe.

      I look forward to seeing some of your work if you get one, Jeff.

      Thanks again and have a great holiday season.


  5. What a fantastic intro article! I’ve got the perfect use for one of those as a mount for a hair light – it means I can stop gaffer-taping a slave flash to the ceiling between battery changes ;)

    And I’d also like to say an unfortunately belated “welcome to the Lab, Monico”, too :)


    • Thank you, Alan.

      It’s an honor to be a contributor here. Now I just have to figure out a follow up article that keeps my quality up.

      The Magic Arm is one of those pieces of gear that helps me out of all sorts of jams. When I’m on an assignment I can’t get away with gaff taping a flash to the clients ceiling so having a few magic arms in my pack is a great alternative.

      In all seriousness, I use all sorts of grip gear to put flashes where I need them. My fast favorite is a clip clamp and a cold shoe (about $25 from LumoPro) and that gets my flash into some basic places. I have a blog entry that shows all my basic ways of getting flashes into different places (if you’re interested) here: http://bit.ly/LnjCaD

      Thanks for the compliment and the welcome message. I look forward to reading more of your articles. Happy New Year!


  6. this is such a great equipment – wish to have one like it :)


    • Articulating arms are super handy to have, Wedding Photographer.

      I didn’t really talk about it in my article but I’ve used my Magic Arm when I shoot weddings to remote mount cameras (during the ceremony and the reception). With a radio trigger I can be in one place but get shots from multiple angles (great when I’m shooting the wedding by myself).

      If you’re really interested in picking up an articulating arm I included a link in the article to buy one from B&H Photo.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.



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