Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support System (Podcast 419)

Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support System (Podcast 419)

This week we’re going to take a look at the very simple but incredibly functional Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system, that enables you to set up to three rolls of seamless background paper simultaneously, then raise and lower them as necessary using a chain and pulley system.

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The Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system has been on my radar for a while, but as it is quite a big ticket item, I had been keeping my eye out for a good deal, and then a few weeks ago, the price for the various items that make up the system dropped on two of my favorite suppliers here in Japan, amazon.co.jp and yodobashi.com. I selected the cheaper site for each part for a good deal and set up my support system, so today I’m going to walk you through what it’s comprised of and why I love having this system in place.

In fact, if I take a step back from that, there was another reason that made me take another look at the pricing at this point in time, and that was because I needed a projector screen for my May 17-18 In-Studio Pixels 2 Pigment workshop, and I was looking at screens that I could just attach to the wall and forget about.

The problem with that though is because I rent our apartment, I can’t make big holes in the wall, so I came back to the Manfrotto system which doesn’t require me to make any holes. In this image (below) you can see that a great secondary benefit of having this system in place is that it doubles as a relatively good projector screen. I can almost hear any home-theatre buffs sniggering as I speak (type) but hey, this is good enough for my needs, and it’s a hell of a lot better than a bed-sheet pinned to the wall, which we have to use on some of my workshops.

Using Manfrotto Expan System as Projection Screen

Using Manfrotto Expan System as Projection Screen

As a background support though, as you can see in this next image (below) the system enables me to set rolls of seamless background paper into place, and then roll down the required color quickly and easily when I need it using the chains on the left side.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support Sys

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support System

Now, you would probably use this system with wider rolls of seamless more often, like the 2.7m (9ft) wide roll that I used in the portrait shoot that we looked at in episode 415, but here in my small office/studio on the 3rd floor, I don’t realistically have room for much wider than this, without it obstructing the door that opens from the left in this photo.

Plus, although I can shoot one or two people in this studio, the majority of the work I do here is shooting products as illustrations for this Podcast or my eBooks, and being able to just roll down a background in a few seconds saves a lot of time.

Until now, I’ve had to get my background stand out and set it up, then feed the poles through the core of the seamless, then clamp it after I rolled the paper down, and unclamp it every time I have to adjust it, and of course, if I need to change from white to black, I have to pack the white away first and start again with the black seamless. Now it’s literally a 10 second job, and I’m rolling with another color, as we can see in this photo (below). Another great benefit as well is that unlike my stands, which always get in the way of the door, this system is away from the door, and so can be left in place permanently.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support Sys

Manfrotto 032B Auto Poles and Expan Drive Background Support System

It’s difficult to see in these photos, but as I mentioned, the beauty of this system is that it doesn’t require you to make holes in your walls, and because it’s basically just clamped into place, if needs be, I can easily unclamp the system to break it down, or adjust the width for easy use with different roll lengths, or to take to a client’s premises for a shoot if needs be.

The main supports are Manfrotto Auto-Poles 032B, which you can buy from B&H currently for $211, and I’ll put some affiliate links in the blog post in case you think of picking any of this stuff up yourself. The price stays the same to you when you buy with our links, but you help to support the podcast buy using these links.

The Auto Poles are 2.1m (82.7″) tall, and extend up to 3.7m (145.7″), which is a good range, and you can buy extensions if you need taller. If you know you’ll never need this tall though, there are shorter and thinner poles available, and that’s a good way to save some money, as these are a not cheap.

To adjust the height, you literally just slide the top section out of the pole, until it touches the roof, then you lower the handle that you can see in this image (below) and once you get past that little red button that you can see, the top section is extended a little more locking the pole into place. The red button then ratchets out locking the arm in place. To release the handle to loosen the pole you have to push that red button in, so there’s no chance of this lever coming lose buy itself.

Manfrotto 032B Auto Pole Tightening/Locking Mechanism

Manfrotto 032B Auto Pole Tightening/Locking Mechanism

The part to attach the seamless rolls to the auto poles is the Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hooks and Super Clamps for 3 Backgrounds, which is currently $95 on B&H. As you can see in the other photos, this enables you to set up to three rolls of seamless in place simultaneously. In this image (bel0w) we can see that the hooks are attached to the auto pole with the Super Clamps, which lock it in place solidly.

Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hook and Super Clamp

Manfrotto 044 Background Holder Hook and Super Clamp

Now, the entire system is incredibly well made, and worth the money in my opinion, but there is one thing that bugs me about the system and that is that the tightening lever on these Super Clamps isn’t adjustable. You know how on some clamps you can pull the handle outwards, then rotate it and let it drop back down into place at a different angle? Well, you can’t do that with these.

This means that if like me you want to tighten these right against a wall, you have to adjust them before you put the pole in place, and also, I had to over tighten one of my pair so that it didn’t stick out backwards. This is a small detail, but those kind of adjustable levers are common on lighting gear, and I wish they were included. It just makes life easier for the user and would have been a nice touch.

Something else to note here too is that if you have permanent studio space and you know that you will always use the same width rolls of seamless, you can actually just buy these hooks, and drill holes in your walls and screw them into place. You’d need to ensure that you have strong enough walls etc. but this is definitely an option and would save you a lot of money.

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Once you have your hooks in place, you’re ready to assemble your seamless rolls, and for this you’ll need the Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Metal Chains. As you see here (above) these basically just screw into the core of the seamless roll and open up as you rotate the knob, tightening themselves into place inside the core. You just have to align the end of the black plastic part with the edge of the core, and adjust as you tighten, then once you put the other end in place, you’re ready to drop the seamless into place in the hooks.

Another thing to note is that I also bought a Manfrotto 062-2 Background Paper Counterweight to attach to the bottom of the paper. This in my opinion is an essential edition to the system. Without the counter weight fitted the paper curls and fights you as you unroll it, and you need to pull it into place and then clamp or tape it down once in place to stop it from rolling back up. You would also probably need to clamp the paper roll as well, to stop it from unrolling further. This all kind of defeats the object of the system to a degree.

Although the Counterweight at $33 is comes in two pieces, and can be fitted together for 9 foot seamless rolls, because I’m using 1.36m (3.4′) rolls, I was able to use one of the two halves of the counterweight for each roll, which was perfect for me.

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

Manfrotto 046MCG Expan Drive Set with Red Metal Chain

You will of course have to adjust the gap between your Auto Poles so that the Expan Drive holders drop into the hooks properly, but once it’s set up, you can place up to three rolls of seamless in place. Note that if you do use the counterweight as I’ve done, you can adjust the width between the hooks with the torsion and locking nut of the other part of the Expan Drive. If you undo the locking nut, it slides along the pole a little, and that can give you enough play so that you can roll the seamless totally up, and the counterweight will go in between the hooks OK. By default my counterweights hit the hooks, so I had to make this adjustment.

Also note that it’s best to not over-tighten the torsion nut, as it then becomes more difficult to freely unroll the seamless and roll it back up again with the chains. These are meant to be left a little free unless your seamless is so heavy that it starts to unroll by itself, then you can use this nut to lock it into place, or increase the torsion until it can be unrolled, but not so freely that it unrolls by itself.

The Expan Drive Sets are currently $89 on B&H, and you need a set for each roll of seamless that you want to set up simultaneously. I only bought two sets for now, though I might buy another set later if necessary. Of course, if you run a high volume studio using many different color backgrounds, you may end up setting up more than three rolls of seamless, using more Expan Drive kits, so that you can switch them out easily. Because the rolls just slide into place it takes literally just a couple of seconds to switch these out, so the investment may well pay off in time saved.

One other thing to note here too is that you have to set the seamless so that it unrolls from the back. When using a single roll of seamless on my portable stands, I usually set them up so that the paper unrolls from the front, because then the seamless doesn’t fight you around the bend if you’re going to have it run under your subject. When you roll as we see in these pictures, the paper doesn’t want to take that corner as freely. This is something you have to live with of course, otherwise the higher rolls will unroll into the lower rolls as you lower them, and the system isn’t as effective.

I also saw reviews on B&H that made me think there are Expan Drives available with plastic chains, but everyone seemed to agree that the one’s with metal chains are better, so watch out for that if you build this system for yourself. The metal chains are nice and heavy and probably help to keep the action smooth and well balance, so this is probably not the place to try and save a few dollars.

Draping a Black Velvet Background Cloth from the Expan System

Draping a Black Velvet Background Cloth from the Expan System

Of course, I don’t only use seamless for my backgrounds. I sometimes use a beautiful black velvet background that just sucks up light, and I’ll continue to use that, though now what I’ve done is taped the end of the velvet to it’s core, and threaded a long loop of nylon string through the core, so that I can hook it up onto the support’s hooks, as we see here (right).

When I place another order for some stuff, I might pick up another counterweight set, and then I can use one length of that as a new core for this velvet, which would be neater than this taping, but this works, although it’s not so pretty.

I also tied a few knots in the left side of the nylon string so that I could easily adjust the height in stages as necessary.

I haven’t included any details on lighting today, although I will of course generally be using this set up with my Profoto Monolights and soft boxes and other lighting modifiers.

This is my play studio too, where I sometimes just for example buy a bunch of flower and have a few hours of fun shooting them, so I’m looking forward to getting a little free time or my next project to really start to benefit from this new system.

With regards to lighting though, I wanted to finish with one note about a new ceiling light that I also just installed. It’s basically an LED ceiling light replacing my old circular florescent tube light, partly to conserve energy, but more because I can easily change the brightness and color of the light. I can make the light warmer or cooler with a remote control, and on it’s bluest setting it’s about 4750K, which is not too far from Daylight, which is generally considered to be around 5500K.

Now, this isn’t studio lighting, but when turned up full, with a small light balance adjustment, I can shoot hand-held without setting up my studio lighting. Of course, for professional results, the studio lighting is going to be worth setting up, especially as I can’t control the angle of the light and the shadows with my ceiling light, but for a quick product shot, such as the one’s I’ve embedded in this episode, the ceiling light is going to be a big time saver.

I did have a look on B&H and Amazon.com for something similar, but I couldn’t find it, so I can’t include a link, but it is a Toshiba LEDH95040-LC ceiling light with remote control, if you want to check availability near you. I’m all for putting little time savers like this in place, especially when we’re all trying to get so much done with so little time.

Anyway, I hope this has been somewhat useful. I’m really pleased that I finally took the plunge and built my Manfrotto Expan Drive Background Support system. This is going to be a huge time saver moving forward. Remember too, as I mentioned earlier, if you like this idea too, and set up your own system at some point, please do use the B&H links at the bottom of the post. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it really helps with the costs involved in producing this podcast each week, and that is always very much appreciated.

Namibia Full Circle Tour – Aug 10-26, 2015

I also wanted to quickly mention before we finish that I have just finalized details of an Aug 2015 Namibia tour with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse. It’s called the Namibia Full Circle Tour as we are covering pretty much the entire country, except for the Etosha National park, although we come close. We are considering doing an extension into Etosha after the main tour though, so if you are interested in that, do let me know. Click the graphic below to see full details of the tour on Jeremy’s Web site, and please make sure that if you book, you tell Jeremy that you heard about the tour from me.


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See details of the Namibia Full Circle Tour here: https://mbp.ac/namibia2015

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Traditional Japanese Dress Portrait Shoot (Podcast 415)

Traditional Japanese Dress Portrait Shoot (Podcast 415)

At the end of March I did a studio shoot with two families in traditional Japanese kimonos, and was able to get some behind the scenes shots of the professional kimono fitter actually dressing some of the subjects. Today I’m going to walk you through the studio set up and a few of the resulting images from the shoot.

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I don’t do a lot of this kind of work, but there are a few families that have asked me to do portrait sessions with them a number of times over the years, and I really enjoy working with them. This year the main event was to document something that is a tradition in some parts of Japan, which is to dress the 13 year old girl of the family in Kimono for a visit to the local shrine. Unfortunately, the weather closed in just as we were getting started, so the shrine visit went out of the window, but the shoot went ahead.

Studio Setup

My wife, who’s become a very competent assistant, and I went to the family’s home on the Saturday night before the Sunday shoot, to set up our studio. They have a large enough living room that by removing the sofa, we had enough space to shoot a small group, up to five people or so, though this still required some Photoshop work to remove the sides of the background for some of the wider shots.

Once we got into the shoot, I took a step back and grabbed this photo of the room with my Profoto Lighting in place, so I’ll walk you through that first. As we can see, I had some white seamless set up as a background. I know this can look a little sterile, but I’m really into the simplicity that a plain white background brings to an image. I’ve used a number of different coloured muslin backgrounds over the years, and they just seem dated to me now.

Profoto Studio Gear and White Seamless

Profoto Studio Gear and White Seamless

My lights are all Profoto D1 Air 500 W/S Monolights. These are not the most powerful D1’s available, but they are powerful enough for my needs. I bought these around four years ago now, and added a second pair of D1s around three years ago. I might choose some of the newer Profoto Lights if I was buying now, but I don’t do enough of this type of work to warrant replacing these, and probably wouldn’t anyway, as they still do everything I want them to at this point.

To the right, you’ll see my main or key light which is a 3×4′ Profoto Softbox, and to the left, I have a 2×3′ Profoto Softbox, adding some light to the other side of the subjects face. To light up the seamless background, I used the two umbrellas that came with one of my D1 Monolight kits. I won’t go into detail on all of the lighting stands etc. but I’ve embedded a B&H widget below with all of the studio gear I use included, and of course you are supporting the Podcast/blog by buying with these links.

I did this shoot with my Canon EOS 1D X tethered to Lightroom with a USB cable. Although the Profoto Monolights and Softboxes are pretty much Daylight white balance, I can recreate the exact colours in my subjects, especially the beautiful kimonos I’d be shooting on this day, by calibrating the camera with an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.

I included the ColorChecker Passport in one of my early images, and created a camera profile, which I applied in Lightroom, then created a Develop Preset including the profile, and I was then able to assign that Develop preset to every image that was automatically imported to Lightroom via the tethering cable. As you can see in this screenshot (below) I had the preset that I created called “Profoto Studio” assigned right there in the tethering window. (Click on the image to view it larger and you will be able to read the text more easily.)

Profoto Studio and Lightroom Tethering

Profoto Studio and Lightroom Tethering

You can also see from this screenshot, that I was using the Profoto Air USB dongle, which enables me to control all of my Moonlights from my computer, and save my settings etc. I set the group on each of my lights to something different, so that I can control them all individually. The Key light was Group A, which you can see was set to 8.1, my second softbox to the left set to Group B with the power at 5.2, almost three stops less than my Key light, so that there was an obvious main source of light, and the second softbox just filled in shadows.

I positioned my two umbrellas at the same distance from the background, so I could have used just  one group to control both of them, but there’s a chance that I might have wanted to move these around during the shoot, so I called the Group C and D and set the power of them both to 6.5.

Some people like to angle the background lights more towards the background, but that can leave the centre of the background a little dark, especially when you have a group blocking out the spill from the main lights, so I like to have the angle quite shallow. The light from these two umbrellas also spills over onto the subjects, and reflects onto them from behind off of the white background, but I actually quite like that effect, which is why I set up like this.

To set the power of each light, I used a hand-held light meter, recording the brightness of each light and adjusted the power so that I was getting f/8 at ISO 100 at 1/200 of a second exposure, which is what I was going to be shooting at. Once you have the light meter set to your ISO and shutter speed, it basically just tells you your required aperture based on the light it reads as you fire your lights, so it’s really easy to get your lighting all set in a few tests.

Of course, the reading changes as you move closer or further away from your lights, but this is where the positioning comes into play. I moved my key light a little further away and turned the power up, so that it would provide a wider light that was already tapering off some by the time it hit the spot that I would place a single subject, but because it was further away, I’d be able to increase the number of people in the group, with some closer to the light, without it getting too bright and over-exposing the closer subjects. As the members of the group are placed further away of course, they start to pick up more light from my second soft box, and the entire group is nicely lit.

Once I was all set, I saved the settings of each light with the Profoto Studio software, so that if anything should change I could easily get back to these settings during the shoot. Another great thing about this software is that you can if you want, change the power of all of your lights and have them stay in sync. Say for example I wanted to shoot with a second camera with a different aperture, as I did a few times, I can change all of the lights by a few stops and they stay proportionately synched together, which is very handy.

Another thing I sometimes do is just use a neutral density filter on my second camera. Say I’m going to shoot at f/8 on one camera, and f/2.8 on a second camera, that would let in three stops more light, so I can put a three stop ND8 on my second camera, and just shoot away without adjusting my lighting. I actually find this much easier than messing around with the setting during a shoot.

The Kitsuke Shoot

We left the gear setup on Saturday night, and then went back bright and early on the Sunday morning to photograph the Kimono fitting, which in Japanese is called Kitsuke. The lady that we see in these Kitsuke photos is a professional and actually very well known kimono fitter, as well as a number of other traditional Japanese activities like playing the Koto and the tea ceremony.

In this first photo, we see the Sensei with her arms all the way around one of the young girls, wrapping the large belt around her. This is more of a documentary shot to show you what’s happening, but I was conscious to try and capture nice movement in the long furisode sleeves, and a theme through many of these photos was the sense of abandonment as the young girls just seemed to trust the sensei quite a long time as the fitting progressed. It actually took around 45 minutes to fit each of the girls, and I ended up with almost 100 photos of each session.

Kitsuke #1

Kitsuke #1

Kitsuke #2

Kitsuke #2

To the Japanese, the tying of knots is quite significant. I suppose it is with most cultures, as it represents finalisation, and a binding of people or things together.

The final touch to the kimono is the tying of the silk rope that goes around the Obi, or belt. After this last knot that we see here is tied, the lose ends are tucked under the rope so that, well, there are no loose ends.

As we progressed to photograph portraits of these girls with their families, whenever the ends of the rope would come loose, the sensei or a mother or grandmother would run in and tuck it back in.

I should also mention that the kimonos that these girls were dressed in actually belonged to their grandmother’s, and so have a lot of history and significance to their families. I was honoured to be able to photograph these kitsuke sessions in this way, with the beautiful simplicity that the white background and soft lighting provides.

As we progressed through the Kitsuke sessions with the second 13 year old now, I was mindful of composition of course, and tried at times to focus more on the actual dressing, and at times used a more dramatic composition such as this one, where I cut off the faces of the girl and sensei mid-way.

Kitsuke #3

Kitsuke #3

Kitsuke #4

Kitsuke #4

The tying of the bow on the back of the Kimono is of course another significant aspect of the kitsuke session, and because we are usually drawn to eyes, removing them kind of takes away from the weight of the eyes, freeing us to look around more. Of course, we still go back to the human faces, but not with so much immediacy as we would with the eyes in the shot.

Also note that although I’ll often have to ask people to look at the camera or look at a certain point, I didn’t request eye contact at any time during the dressing. I literally just wanted to document it, as though there was no photographer in the room.

Here again we see the sensei rounding up the length of silk belt into what would become an even more beautiful work of art in position on the back of the kimono.

Another thing that you might have noticed that I was really happy about, is that the kimono fitter also wears full traditional dress, including a beautiful formal kimono with it’s own obi and bow, and tabi, the toed footwear that most people probably associate with Ninja, although these are common here in Japan.

After a photo session, I usually provide my clients with a CD or USB memory stick with a selection of images resized for them to browse or use as the desktop wallpaper on their computers, and a smaller size that they can post on Facebook etc. Once I have my selection of images down, I also batch convert the set to black and white, using a Silver Efex Pro preset and the batch processing functionality in Photoshop. I know that you can batch process right there in Silver Efex, but when you have some 400 files to process it isn’t as smooth as Photoshop.

Kitsuke #5

Kitsuke #5

Although I usually do straight untoned black and white, for this shoot I just felt sepia was going to be a better option, as it seemed to match the timeless feel of the traditional clothing much better. This next shot is an example of how the images looked in Sepia. Note too that I was careful not to use an colour filters in Silver Efex too, as there was a wide range of colours in the various kimonos, and I needed to batch this work to save time, so I wasn’t able to go through and inspect and adjust each conversion before applying it. The results were just what I wanted anyway, so there was time saved and all was well.

On a business note, I wanted to just mention that I did not request payment to photograph the kitsuke sessions. I provided photos for the families, but I just really wanted to make these photos for myself, and I had each of the three young girls’ parents and the kimono fitter all sign model releases, and I’ll be submitting some of the images to be considered for inclusion in my Offset stock library.

Family Portraits

Getting a Son to Smile

Getting a Son to Smile

So, more than two hours after the Kitsuke sessions started and having dressed three young girls and two men, we were ready to start the family portrait sessions. In a meeting a week before the actual shoot, we’d already established a list of poses that each of the two families wanted, and we worked through each pose, shooting a number of possibilities for each, getting various facial expressions for each as well. I’m not going to go through the details, but we’ll finish by looking at a few of my favourite shots from these sessions.

For example, although we of course get the straight family shots, to me, I actually often prefer moments like this, when a mum tries to get a rebellious teenager to smile for the camera. Something else to note here is how I cropped this down to an 8×10 aspect ratio.

Although it was possible to shoot some groups photos vertically without including a bit of the floor in front of the seamless or over the top of the roll on the background supports, sometimes I just went in closer, or wider for full body length shots, and either cropped the image down to exclude the edges of the seamless, or I selected the messy areas around the seamless in Photoshop and used Content-Aware Fill to clean up the edges.

I could of course have extended the background support up a little, but as we messed up the seamless we cut away the messy part and rolled out more paper to clean it up, and I needed to be able to easily get to the clips that stop the seamless from unrolling, and this is as high as I can reach without using steps, so I generally just deal with this in post, as it doesn’t affect many photos, and it makes the shoot more efficient, which is better for the customers.

As Big as Dad!

Almost as Big as Dad!

Another way to give a teenage boy a reason to smile is to pitch him against dad, and give him a chance to prove that he’s now almost as big as him.

Note that the Dad here was wearing a traditional man’s kimono, and the son was wearing his school uniform, something that is often done for traditional portraits here in Japan.

I thought it was fun to get the two of them in this pose though, acting a little bit tough, but still obviously enjoying the shoot.

Note too that we now had people wearing shoes, which meant that the seamless got messed up pretty quickly which is why we had to cut it a few times.

This also caused me a lot of extra Photoshop work cleaning it up, which couldn’t really be avoided, other than changing the seamless more often, which again slows down the progress of the shoot so I try to wait until it’s getting pretty bad when I can.

The dad of the other family that we photographed on this day is actually from England, and has lived here since he was nine years old. One of the few people that I’ve met that have lived here longer than me. He speaks good Japanese too of course, so it was fun being able to communicate fluently with him in Japanese when necessary. Here we see a straight family portrait.

Family Portrait

Family Portrait

Again though, my favourite of the entire family here is one of those moments when they aren’t posed, as we see here. It’s not just me that likes these photos of course. I often find that although we need the standards, the families generally enjoy photos like this more too, so I also ensure that if I capture something like this, I include it in my selection.

Affectionate Preparation

Affectionate Preparation

There are lots of other photos that I’d love to show you, but let’s finish today with one last fun shot that we finished the shoot with, where I got everyone back on the seamless to go out with a bang. Remember that because I was shooting tethered, every photo I made appeared on my laptop screen a few seconds later, and the entire group was in stitches when we looked at this one come through, and we finished the session with a huge round of applause, not for me of course, but for all that were involved.

Grand Finale

Grand Finale

I wanted to finish with a thought here, that although I don’t do this sort of work often, I really do enjoy it when the chance arises. It’s not only great fun to work with people like this, but we really enjoy watching the children of the families that we shoot grow. In an ideal world I’ll still be photographing these families when the kids are all grown and have kids of their own, but I guess we’ll just have to see how that one pans out.

If you are interested in seeing more images from this shoot, I’ll probably share a few more over on my Google Plus account, so please follow me over on G+ if you don’t already, and check these out as I upload them.

Studio Gear

If you do this kind of work yourself, and end up buying any of the gear used if you click through with the below links, you’ll be supporting this podcast and blog, at no extra cost to yourself of course.


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