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If you have read many of my posts, you may have seen me mention my Black Rapid shoulder slings.  Pairing these with Really Right Stuff clamps, plus a few extra security precautions, I found a camera carrying system with excellent comfort, flexibility and security without being obtrusive or awkward.  I like the combination so much, in fact, I thought I should share it.  This is a rather odd review in that it is really focusing on the combination of two different, unaffiliated companies and types of products when used together.  Clamps and straps may seem like small, afterthought items, but they are really quite essential pieces of gear.  Even if your brands and gear are slightly different than mine, I hope that at least the concepts I am relaying will be of help in determining your own carrying system.

Although I have used this image before, I decided to use it again to show what the Metro strap looks like with the Joey pouch and the Brad underarm strap.
(click to view full-size)

Early-on in my photography development, I came to realize that there is no such thing as a perfect carrying solution for all circumstances.  I became interested in shoulder straps several years back, because it didn’t take me long to get tired of neck straps.  With gear as light as µ4/3, sore necks just shouldn’t happen, regardless of how long the excursion.  Plus, they look.. well… touristy (which sometimes is not necessarily a bad thing).  A shoulder strap looks a little more professional without crossing into the gear-laden overkill that can come about with big harnesses and photography vests.  There wasn’t much reason for why I initially chose the Black Rapid brand over any other, as there are many other types of straps similar to Black Rapid that I am sure work very well, whether their designs are relatively the same or taking slightly different approaches. But, I can say I’m quite pleased with the choice despite some issues at first (see below).

The Black Rapid shoulder straps fit-cross body, and allow the camera to hang by the side or slide up the sling for shooting.  The comfort level was immediately miles better than neck straps and the construction was high quality.  The strap I have is made for smaller cameras (the Metro).  I like the unobtrusiveness of its small shoulder pad, and it is easy to pack away.  My wife’s (the Elle) is also small, contoured for a woman’s body and has a subtle black-on-black floral pattern (featured on the title image).  For my Metro strap, I have accumulated a few noteworthy accessories.  There are a number of accessories meant for adding extra protection.  The Buck is a velcro and nylon cover for the quick-release buckle, which prevents thieves from unhitching the rig from behind.  It’s a small thing that adds nothing to the overall bulk of the rig, and provides a little extra peace of mind.  Another available accessory I may consider purchasing is a Protectr, a metal-cabled sleeve that fits over the strap, preventing thieves from cutting it. This might be a good idea if I ever find myself in locales where theft on the street is a major concern, but would likely make the strap larger.  For now, even with the add-ons I have purchased, the Metro is still rather stealthy.

The Buck offers a bit of extra security by protecting the quick release buckle, which rests over the back shoulder. (Click to view full size)

The Buck offers a bit of extra security by protecting the quick release buckle, which rests over the back shoulder.
(click to view full-size)

The Brad is a small underarm tether that prevents the main strap from being pushed back and forth as I lift and lower the camera (a minor annoyance, but not really a design fault).  It does make putting the strap on a two-step process — sliding the left arm through the appropriate loop before slinging the rest over the head and right shoulder, but it doesn’t really add to the bulk of the rig.  The Joey is a pouch that I use to store extra batteries, memory cards, and/or lens caps.  There is a smaller version called the Bryce, but I felt the capacity of the Joey was much more usable, and it is still quite small.  I actually wear mine attached to the front of the Brad as opposed to the main strap (as shown on the website), so it sits a little lower on my chest and is even less conspicuous.  In this position it also covers the quick-release buckle for the Brad, which I consider yet another, albeit slight, security boost.

A close-up of the connection between the Black Rapid Fstenr connector screw and the RRS B2-FABN. The Lockstar is the triangular piece that swivels in place over the carabiner locking mechanism, if it is closed properly. (Click to view full-size)

A close-up of the connection between the Black Rapid Fstenr connector screw and the RRS B2-FABN. The Lockstar is the triangular piece that swivels in place over the carabiner locking mechanism, if it is closed properly.
(click to view full-size)

While security and comfort for carrying a camera over long periods of time are by far the most important considerations for a shoulder strap, I should point out a few more.  Because the strap is mostly wrapped around the body, it doesn’t swing much.  Most of the camera swinging as it is hanging is contained to the movement of the connector joint and the small length of tautly hanging strap immediately above it.  Nevertheless, there are two sliding, lockable bumpers on the strap — one on each side of the carabiner connecting to the camera.  These can be positioned together to prevent the camera from jostling too much.  It can’t prevent all movement by itself, but there is a way to almost completely eliminate jostling, which I cover near the end of this post.

Conversely, there is plenty of freedom of movement for the camera itself, as the act of lifting it up runs naturally with the lay of the cross-body strap.  I should caveat, though, that this freedom is sometimes overstated.  I recall once seeing a shoulder strap company (I’ve forgotten the brand) brag that the speed of bringing a shoulder-strapped camera to eye level is faster compared to with a neck strap.  There is no truth to such a claim.  It’s all as fast as you lift your arm.  Lastly, shoulder straps can provide a modicum of extra stability when utilizing technique to pull the strap taut (particularly with the Brad).  I sometimes tuck in the left elbow into the chest (which is proper form anyway) and let the camera lean forward against the tension of the strap.  With this method, the LCD must be used (as the EVF will be too far away from the eye), but the added stability is immediately noticeable.  Coupled with IBIS, its quite steady.

 

Issues and Modifications:

Close-up of my E-M5's RRS L-Plate and B2-FABN clamp, with the Black Rapid Fastenr screwed into place. (Click to view full-size)

Close-up of my E-M5’s RRS L-Plate and B2-FABN clamp attached, and the Black Rapid strap’s Fastenr connection screwed into the clamp.
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Now for the important part:  While I liked the overall design, I wasn’t immediately confident the standard Black Rapid rig would securely hold my camera.  In those early days, on at least two or three different occasions that I recall, either the carabiner or the screw that connected into the camera’s tripod socket came unscrewed without warning.  Luckily, our mistrust meant that on each occasion we were holding onto the cameras, preventing damaging and heart-breakingly expensive falls. The solutions to securing these two points of potential failure, however, were satisfyingly elegant.

First, I bought some Lockstars.  These are locking accessories from Black Rapid consisting of a plastic cover piece that connects to the back of the carabiner and swings over the front, securing the locking screw in place and preventing it from coming undone.  These devices should come standard with every Black Rapid strap; they are that useful.  That solution completely took care of one of the vulnerable points on the Black Rapid rig – the carabiner’s locking mechanism.

Resolving the other weak point – the connector screw itself – was more involved.  The screw has a rubber gasket built-in to allow for more torque and a tightened seal.  While I am sure it helped, my experience proved it didn’t completely prevent loosening.  I didn’t like the idea of repeatedly screwing and unscrewing anything from my camera and wearing out the socket threads anyway.  For that matter, however, I didn’t like the idea of semi-permanently connecting anything to the bottom of my camera with loc-tite, either.  There were too many different configurations I used to make that practical.  That said, one of my more general configurations was the attachment of my Really Right Stuff (RRS) L-plate, an exquisitely machined shoe that connects to the tripod socket, fits the camera like a second skin, and makes it Arca Swiss compatible in landscape and portrait orientation.  The plate is necessary to connect the camera to my tripod or monopod, so using it to connect to my shoulder strap too only enhances its usability.  RRS makes a small Arca Swiss clamp (B2-FABN) that is designed to be attached to straps (like Black Rapid, but can be used for any brand) either by bosses or socket.  I bought one for each of us, and used loc-tite to semi-permanently seal the Black Rapid connector screws into the B2-FABN sockets.  In this way, the screw would never come loose on its own.  The clamps then attach easily on the side of the L-plate for rock-solid security.

Unlike the Black Rapid connector screw, none of my RRS gear in all the years I have owned them have ever come loose on their own.  This includes the L-plate screw and the clamp mechanisms described here.  The precision, CNC-machined parts and fantastic dampening engineered into RRS equipment is simply, utterly trustworthy.  With both of the potential failure points completely eliminated, I now have complete faith that even my heaviest camera loads will hold with ease.  Moreover, I can swap the camera from strap to support system and back again in no time at all.  I couldn’t be more pleased with how effective and efficient this set-up is working for me.  I should admit that I still hold the camera when I wear the sling, but this is more about being prepared for the next shot and to prevent the camera from flopping around, rather than any fear it would fall.

 

With the Canon DSLR:

The RRS LCF-54 replacement foot for the Canon EF 100-400mmf/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. (Click to view full-size)

The RRS LCF-54 replacement foot for the Canon EF 100-400mmf/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.
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In the case of my Canon, I only own one lens — the EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.  It is rather long and heavy, so buying RRS’s L-plate designed for the Canon 7D Mk II would have left me with a grossly imbalanced rig.  Instead, I bought RRS’s replacement foot for the lens, which lowers the lens profile and is Arca Swiss compatible, allowing it to connect to my B2-FABN clamps and the tripod or monopod in the same way as an L-plate.  Just as it does mounted on a tripod, connecting the lens foot to the strap rather than the body made for better balance for longer lenses, allowing it to hang very naturally at my side.  If I ever do get a smaller Canon lens, I might consider the RRS L-plate so that I have the same functionality as I do with my OM-Ds.  Or, I could use the standard Black Rapid connector screw in the camera’s tripod socket (carefully so, considering the problems I posted above).  One thing I should mention is that the foot attaches to a plate built into the lens.  That plate, which is a part of the Canon lens and not the RRS foot, can loosen and introduce wobble when shooting on a tripod.  Perhaps this is a product of carrying the heavy rig around hanging by its foot over time – I’m not sure.  In any case, tightening the plate with a tiny phillips screwdriver solves the issue completely.

Even though the Metro was designed for smaller camera systems (mainly by nature of its slimmer shoulder pad) it holds the heavy Canon kit without problems.  Nevertheless, the reduced padding means shoulder strain will likely set in after carrying the DSLR kit for a long period of time — something that doesn’t really happen with the lighter µ4/3 system.  Still, it’s much more comfortable than the neck strap.

 

With the Power Battery Holder:

The E-M1 with RRS L-Plate and clamp attached. (Click to view full-size)

The E-M1 with RRS L-Plate and clamp attached.
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A cross-body shoulder strap is best when the camera is the only item being carried.  Like I mentioned earlier, it is a relatively high-speed, low-drag means for walking around with a camera all day.  But my rig of choice doesn’t fit every outing.

For example, when I am using the Olympus Power Battery Holder on either of my O-MDs (to either balance holding longer and heavier lenses or because I need extra power), I can’t use the L-plate.  I don’t use the battery grips often, and my wife in particular almost never uses them, finding the slightly increased purchase of the L-plate enough and not liking the extra bulk.  For when I do use them, I bought extra Black Rapid connector screws (officially dubbed Fastenr) that I can swap out with the semi-permanently clamp-connected ones whenever I want, screwing them into the tripod socket at the bottom of the accessory grip (again, exercising extra precaution).

If RRS came out with replacement lens collars for µ4/3 Pro telephoto lenses, I’d probably go with those and wear them like I do my Canon, but I know of no plans for them to do so.  RRS does make a universal plate that can be screwed to the battery grip’s tripod socket, but I don’t recommend it.  Without the form-fitting stability of the L-plates, there is really no security advantage – and very likely a stability disadvantage – to doing this over connecting the Black Rapid directly.  That said, RRS does make plates that attach to the bottom of lens feet.  Because there is a ridged edge to set against the foot, this option seems to offer a little more stability than the camera plate, and since there are no other options that I know of (at least not by RRS), this is a useful accessory for mounting a µ4/3 lens to an Arca Swiss support system or strap for better balance.  I do utilize this when using my shoulder strap with the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens, particularly with the teleconverter.  The upcoming 300mm f/4 Pro lens also will see the use of this plate.

 

The Backpack Strap:

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My E-M1 hanging off the Black Rapid Backpack Strap, which is connected to my Think Tank Street Walker Pro.
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A major issue with shoulder straps, which neck straps do not have, is that they can’t be worn with a backpack (though they can be made to work with shoulder bags with a little effort).  I do enough hiking with a pack that this restriction is a major problem.  On several such excursions, I just held the camera in my hand without any strap, but this wouldn’t really do.  A neck strap will function normally, but a neck strap plus a backpack is asking for soreness at the end of the day.

So, I recently bought a Black Rapid Backpack Strap.  This concept is designed to connect via carabiner to the top left of a backpack’s shoulder strap D-ring, and the bottom right of the pack’s undercarriage D-ring (or, if it doesn’t have a ring underneath, the bottom of the backpack’s right shoulder strap).  Not every backpack has connectors that look strong enough to trust my camera to, but if they do, this is a decent solution.  My ThinkTank Street Walker (shown in the photo) works very well.  However, my Lowepro Optics Series 350AW Scope Photo Travel Backpack only has nylon loops on the shoulders — which I don’t trust — so I just lengthen the Black Rapid strap to attach all the way to the pack’s top carrying handle, which still works.

The camera connector ring slides up and down the length in the same fashion as the regular shoulder strap.  Once again, the comfort level is wonderful, the construction is top-notch, and all the advantages mentioned before are still in play.  I see the Backpack Strap’s use for when I am carrying a heavy lens as well as a pack that I won’t be taking off for a while.  While I haven’t yet had opportunity to use it much in the field and give it a thorough test, the only major drawback to the Backpack Strap that I can see is more of a necessary evil than a design flaw.  Do not have the camera attached to the strap when taking the pack on or off.  You may find that you prefer disconnecting one of the strap ends first, although I didn’t find it necessary.  The sling itself can be navigated around even when fully attached, but it does make the process a little more awkward.  Either way, the process can also be dangerous for the absent-minded.  But if the camera is still attached to the strap when one of its ends is disconnected, you are practically inviting your camera to slip off the strap and crash to the ground.  I experimented with attaching the upper carabiner to the right backpack D-ring instead of the left, so the entire rig hung from the right side of the pack rather than cross-body.  This made taking the pack on and off much easier (but still advisable to remove the camera first), but was not worth the disadvantages.  It threw off the balance of the pack a bit, and required shortening the camera strap length to keep it from hanging too low, which in turn lost the smooth shooting movement of the cross-body configuration.  At the same time, it increased the sling’s overall freedom of movement, which in turn increased the amount of camera jostling while hanging.

I think the Backpack Strap is a nice additional piece of gear to have if you are invested in the system, but it is too limited in use as a primary piece of kit.  It comes with its own mesh carrying bag and a carabiner to hook it to my belt.  I suppose the strap could also be worn as a simple sling by hooking the two carabiner ends together to form a loop, but it wouldn’t be optimal.  I did work out a more useful application by borrowing an idea from Black Rapid’s Tether Kit accessory (which I don’t own).  The carabiners that come with that kit (the same ones as with the Backpack Strap, though any will do) can hook the main strap’s connector ring to a pants’ belt loop closest to where the camera is hanging, negating a lot of movement while walking and providing some extra protection from falls and thieves.  I probably wouldn’t do this if I was prepared to shoot quickly and at any given moment, because it would require me to disengage the camera from the carabiner before firing, but it is a handy idea.

Lastly, I also worked out an alternative carrying configuration with the Backpack Strap and a backpack if I want to keep my camera close in front of me.  Simply hook the carabiner ends to both D-rings on the pack’s shoulder straps, let the camera hang down in front as if from a neck strap, and lock it in place with the sliding bumpers.  With the L-plate, the camera still hangs on its side instead of upside down (as it would if I were attaching the connector ring to the tripod socket or a lens foot).  This configuration still has the same complication when taking the pack on and off, but it is balanced well and perhaps would be preferable in urban areas where thieves are likely.  I plan on making this my default method with the Canon, which is rather large to be hanging by my side anyway.

 

The Wrist Strap:

The Black Rapid wrist strap, with Lockstar. (Click to view full-size)

The Black Rapid wrist strap, with Lockstar.
(click to view full-size)

I also recently  picked up the wrist strap as another (and cheaper) alternative for use when I am packing too much for a simple shoulder strap.  Black Rapid’s wrist strap is a simple nylon loop strap with the standard carabiner (with Lockstar) and connector screw.  I admittedly haven’t used it much, and I am still not really sure if a wrist strap is something I will use often over the other options I have listed above.  I have tended to think of wrist straps as primarily for cameras even smaller than mine, perhaps like a PEN series or a point-and-shoot.  Even though I am sure it does work fine with my OM-Ds, I am still not convinced I would like to use it with larger lenses such as the 40-150mm Pro, and certainly not with my big Canon kit.  Another personal hang-up is that I give up the option of being completely hands-free with a wrist strap.  I do know that a lot of people use and recommend wrist straps, and I would welcome anyone’s opinion on the option.

That all said, I’ll need to try it out and see if it will grow on me before I make up my mind.  I expect I will find the wrist strap handy if I know I am going to do a lot of off-and-on tripod work with a small lens, such as macro shooting.  The 60mm f/2.8 macro lens is diminutive enough for my wrist strap tastes.  Furthermore, in macro I’m oftentimes taking the camera off the tripod and holding it away from my body at weird angles, careful not to trample the surrounding foliage, all in order to catch a hiding insect.  This is another situation where a shoulder strap would get in the way.   Usually, in macro or whenever I have a tripod, I will have some sort of bag with me as well, diminishing if not eliminating the use of my shoulder strap. I also generally will need to get into my pack often for filters, lighting, extension tubes or other accessories.  The wrist strap is an easily carried, extra piece of security that won’t get in the way or catch the wind and cause camera movement.

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