Given the opportunity to test out the new Platypod Ultra, I started with the same question I ask with all new gear, “Do I really need this?” After all, my camera bag is already large enough to qualify for its own zip code. Is this going to join the pile of photographic stuff I don’t often use? Or, will it become an indispensable part of my photographic armory.
I admit, at first glance, my reaction was “What is it? Some type of fancy bottle opener?” This was quickly replaced with the realization, “I can use this to put cameras and flashes anywhere!” While the Platypod appeared fairly simple, this hides the fact that it opens up a dizzying array of creative opportunities. That’s when my “do it yourself” nature kicked in and I started imagining all the possibilities.
Photography From the Car
At the same time I received my Platypod Ultra, I also discovered a great nature photo opportunity, the active nest cavity of a red-bellied woodpecker family. It looked like it had been placed with a nature photographer in mind; just a bit above eye level, facing the morning sun, off a country road that sees little traffic, and a spot which allowed me to pull up nearby and shoot from my truck, without stressing or disturbing them.
There are many advantages to photographing from your vehicle. For wildlife, it acts as a blind, concealing you. Animals no longer see you as a separate entity from your car, instead of thinking “Human! Danger!”, they see “Large, loud, moving box thingy, that doesn’t try to eat me”. A vehicle conceals your movements from skittish creatures, shields you from the elements, and has convenient cup holders for photography fuel, aka, coffee.
Shooting from a car also has its challenges, discomforts, and limitations. It requires you to twist and turn to get yourself and camera into the right spot, which may be physically awkward or uncomfortable in some vehicles. In many cars, the window sills are too low to brace the camera on and still see through the viewfinder, but too high to brace your elbows on. It is also easy to have a false sense of security that your camera is properly supported. People tend not to throw their camera strap around their neck in the car, I have seen more cameras dropped out of a car window than any other gear disaster. There are a variety of products on the market that promise to help with this; bean bags, clamps, and dedicated car mounts. Having tried many, I always found them in some way lacking; too specialized, too complicated, too awkward to use, and/or too expensive.
The Sling Mount Idea
With Platypod in hand, I thought about my new woodpecker photo-op, and if there was a way to use it in place of hand holding my camera or using a beanbag. “Screw it on…no. Carabiner it to something…no. Strap it on, no…wait…YES!”
Most trucks and many cars have handles near or on the interior ceiling of the vehicle, which you can grab when getting in or out. We affectionately refer to them as “Oh, Sh#t!” handles, for what comes out of your mouth when you are having a panic attack as you are teaching your teenager how to drive. In my truck I have one handle just above the dashboard near the roofline, and one just behind the driver’s seat above the backseat window. What if I grab a cargo strap, hook one end to each handle, and attach the Platypod to it? Thus, the Platypod Sling Mount was born!
While the included strap would work for some vehicles, I needed a longer one due to the handle placement in my vehicle. You can use any sort of sturdy, wide flat strap, like a standard ratcheting cargo strap, or the straps used to secure kayaks on roof racks. I tried a few variations before settling on a spare strap from a camera bag clipped to my Black Rapid camera strap. Combining these two worked well, giving me a great deal of adjustability, and a fairly stable platform. These are also things I normally travel with, whether locally or by air. I recommend you use some sort of safety mechanism, I used the long peg and a double strap, looping one layer of the strap around the peg to prevent the Platypod from being able to slide off the strap.
After shooting with the first pieced-together version of the sling, I decided this was something I really liked, and the Platypod deserved a more permanent car mount solution. For the new version, I took the end off a heavy-duty cargo strap and sewed a secure loop at each end to run a carabiner through. This works great, and is now a part of my Platypod “toolbox.”
After my initial proof of concept, tweaks, and trial runs, I spent some time at the woodpecker family tree, and then slowly driving up and down the same country road looking for other wildlife opportunities. I was really pleased with the set up, capturing a variety of images. While not as stable as a tripod, this DIY car mount was quick to set up and take down, easy to maneuver while shooting, and at its center featured a stable and sturdy base in the form of the Platypod that would survive the things I do to photography gear.
Do I really need this?
So, to answer the question, “Do I really need this?” about the Platypod Ultra, I’ll break it down into a few more questions:
- Does it fit the type of photography I like to do? Yes, it’s mobile, adaptive, and flexible to fit my outdoor adventure and nature photography.
- Does it do something unique to help me get the shots I want in a better way? Yes, it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of photography mounts. I have not encountered a plate with more versatility. Just in the short time I have had it, I’ve thought up many ways to use it that I could not do with any other piece of gear.
- Can I take it the places I like to go? Yes, it’s lightweight, I can clip it to my backpack or keep it in my car. It can get wet, it can get dirty, and it can be used in any environment.
- Will it survive me? Yes, it’s built tough and machined well.
- Will it replace something I already use, and do a better job? Yes, it will replace every car support I have ever tried; bean-bags, a handful of various clamps, and other overly specialized items.
- Will it help me get the shots I want? Yes, it did and will continue to do so!
As both photographer and photo workshop leader, I get asked about gear a lot. While gear is not a substitute for good technique, the right gear will make your life easier, open up new creative opportunities, and help you get the shots you want. The Platypod Ultra does these things for my photography.
- Platypod Ultra
- Canon 5D Mark III
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
- Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head with Full-Size Lever-Release Clamp
- Oben CT-3521 Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod with BE-106T Ball Head
DISCLAIMER: If you decide to build something like this, make sure you are using heavy-duty materials, that do not stretch and are properly secured. Always keep a hand on your camera when in the “sling”, just because it is free-floating doesn’t mean it actually “floats”, gravity is not kind to unattended cameras. Use it at your own risk! Do not use it while driving! Do not leave it in place when you are driving! Always wear your seat belt! Don’t eat yellow snow, unless it comes from a licensed snowcone vendor!
Editor’s Note. The Platypod Ultra just launched on Kickstarter. We’ve already tested it and love it, but please remember that Kickstarter projects all have some inherent risk.