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Living with Photography: Big Budget vs. D-I-Y Camera Strap

By Norman Chan

If you're going to use a camera strap, you may as well use a gliding one that gives you more maneuverability than a fixed strap. Here's how to make one for less than $10, and how a D-I-Y strap compares to a $50 professional one.

I recently came across a somewhat controversial notion: an easy way to spot an amateur photographer is to see if they're using the shoulder strap that came bundled with their camera body. You can imagine how reading that felt, as I looked over to my DSLR to see the recognizable red stitching of the generic Canon strap draped over the side of my camera bag. Ouch. But as pretentious as that statement sounds, there's logic behind the claim. Some professional photographers choose not to use any camera strap at all. A DSLR draped around your neck hurts after minutes of walking around. When slung around your shoulder and across your chest, a strap can get in the way of positioning the camera for composition, and a swinging loose strap can affect the stability of your shot. In a photography studio or when using a tripod, a strap is rarely needed.

Another argument against the use of the bundled camera strap is that it's just a cheaply made piece of nylon that gives free advertising to the camera manufacturer. Canon and Nikon straps have very distinct designs, and like the red ring around EF lenses, add to overall brand awareness in public. I don't subscribe to this concern, though I can understand the argument of keeping the bundled strap unwrapped in the box to help retain perceived resale value.

The final argument against the use of bundled straps is that they're just not very good. They don't provide enough padding on the shoulders for heavy camera bodies (and equally heavy lenses!), and trying to quickly swinging a camera up from the hip to take a spontaneous photo is cumbersome. When using the generic Canon strap at events, I've taken to wrapping the strap around my arm and elbow, which makes it more of an arm brace than shoulder sling to keep my hand locked in a comfortable position. But I was in the market for a new strap--something that would be more comfortable and functional than the stock one.

A few of you recommended Black Rapid straps, so I bought the RS-4 model to test. It was $54, which felt expensive for a camera strap. But I bit the bullet because I wanted to see if a "high-end" camera strap could make a difference. The Black Rapid RS-4 is a gliding camera strap, meaning that the camera hangs loose on a loop around the nylon so it can slide up and down from hip to chest without moving the strap itself. And unlike non-gliding straps, it attaches to the camera using the tripod mount on the bottom instead of the two small metal loops on the frame. The 1/4" fastener screws in tightly and securely. The strap itself is light, the shoulder pad is comfortable, and there's even a small zipper compartment in the shoulder pad to store memory cards. But it's also $54, plus tax and shipping.

And if you study the build of the Black Rapid RS-4, you can see that it's not much more than a few common pieces of hardware strung together and attached to a padded strap. Using this CNet guide as a starting point, I went to the hardware store to find suitable pieces to make my own budget gliding camera strap.

There are four basic components to building a gliding camera strap. First is the piece that connects directly to the camera. Black Rapid and other manufacturers sell this as a 1/4" fastener that can cost between $10 and $15 on its own, but this can be substituted with a 1/4" eye bolt and nut. I found one for $2 at the local hardware store. The eye bolt is a little bulbous, and probably the most garish piece of this franken strap. If you can find a reliable 1/4" fastener for under $5, I'd go with that instead.

Whether you're using a fastener or eye bolt, the metal loop is likely fixed. So the next piece you'll need is a swiveling clasp. The clasp portion clips on to the solid loop of the eye bolt, and the swiveling head lets the camera body rotate freely while attached to the strap. I bought two different types of clasps--a trigger snap and spring snap. Each was $3. The trigger snap (seen on the far left in the photo above) was more heavy duty, and made it easy to release the camera from the strap on a whim.

The next piece is optional. Some straps are wider than others, so you may need a wide safety spring hook (or carabiner) that snaps onto the swivel clasp and also the camera strap. This is the piece that actually slides up and down the strap, so a lightweight carabiner is ideal (and less abrasive than a heavy spring hook). You can find one for $3. CNet notes that Home Depot sells a safety spring hook, swivel, and strap all-in-one unit for $5 too.

And finally, there's the actual strap that that everything snaps onto. This can actually be the same bundled camera strap with the ends looped together around the carabiner. I chose a 2" wide heavy duty padded strap that I poached from an old shoulder bag. In total, the hardware came out to under $10.

One technically optional piece that I highly recommend is a rubber washer to act as a protective gasket between the eye bolt nut and the camera's 1/4" mount. This gives the eye bolt a more secure connection to the camera, and prevents scratching the bottom of the camera body. I used a cheap flat faucet washer 3/4" in diameter.

So how does it all work? Very well, actually. Both my DSLR and compact camera screwed on to the eye bolt just fine, and the swiveling clasp was strong and secure enough so I didn't have to worry about the camera dropping from the strap while walking around. The bare metal hardware didn't bother me at all, though the eye bolt was longer than need be. I could dremel the end of it off, but I think buying a cheap 1/4" screw fastener is the better option. That, combined with the $5 Home Depot Hang All would make for a great (and affordable) alternative to the costly Black Rapid RS-4.

Do you use a camera strap? If so, what kind do you use and how do you use it? Share your experiences in the comments below!