The Tom Bihn ID: An 11-Year Review

[Update March 26, 2016: I posted a follow-up to this review, with my ID now at twelve (and a half) and still my daily bag.]

[Update February 10, 2017: I retired this ID after thirteen years and replaced it with a newer one.]

My Steadfast Companion

Is there much point to reviewing an 11-year old bag, especially one that has been updated and improved since I bought it? Perhaps not, but this is as much a love letter to the company that made it — Tom Bihn — as it is a review of my ID messenger bag. After being exposed to cheap laptop bags from local stores and the Willy Loman bags that are the bane of the corporate world, the ID was a revelation.

We moved to Portland in 2002 from further south in Oregon and I traded a long car commute for walking and a ride on the light rail. To be more productive on the train, I bought my first laptop, a 12″ iBook, and carried it in a laptop backpack we picked up from an office supply store. I was shocked at how quickly the backpack fell apart. So when I upgraded to a 12″ Powerbook in November of 2003, I decided to get a better bag as well. I wanted to try a messenger bag for the crowded train as I had been witness (and victim) too many times to the horrors of inadvertent backpack whackage from one rider to another.

I didn’t want a heavy bag since all of the weight would be on one shoulder, but it needed to be big enough to store a fleece and a raincoat for the variable spring and fall weather. My search led me to the Tom Bihn ID. At the time I was a bit nervous at the cost, $85 for the ID itself and $50 for the Brain Cell laptop case that attaches inside it, as it was more than I had ever spent on a bag (today the ID sells for $160, the Brain Cell $65). But it seemed like a great bag from a great company so I ordered the ID in Black/Crimson/Steel, hoping it would last me a few years.

A few years turned into eleven.

Little Touches

While I’ve been driving to work the past few years, most of my time with the bag has been spent walking or on the train. It’s about a 20 minute walk home from the train station and, living in Portland, I’ve been rained on countless times, from light drizzles to out-and-out downpours. Snowed on a few times. One day I even trudged home in a freezing rain, finally arriving home to find the bag completely encased in a thin sheet of ice. But nothing has ever gotten wet.

Brains! Brains!

The main reason I settled on the ID as my messenger bag is that you can attach a Brain Cell inside to hold a laptop. The Brain Cell has corrugated plastic providing protection on the sides but more importantly suspends the laptop so it doesn’t touch the ground when you set the bag down. The Brain Cell itself is suspended in the ID, so my laptops have always been nicely protected even though they go out and about every day. My first Brain Cell was sized specifically for my 12″ Powerbook, but six months later I replaced it with a larger one when I upgraded to a 15″ Powerbook, and that Brain Cell has held all my laptops since.

Adaptable

For nearly every day I’ve owned the ID, I’ve kept the Brain Cell attached in the main compartment to hold my laptop, as transporting my laptop is primarily how I use the bag. However the Brain Cell is removable as shown here, and I do use it this way occasionally to transport bulkier items. That’s our cat Emma beside the bag. She hates it when I try to take her picture but photobombs every picture she can. She’s a complicated girl, our sweet Em.

The bag has a few scars after its years of loyal service. There are a couple of scuff marks near the bottom of the bag. The thickly padded shoulder strap makes for comfortable carrying but the underside of the pad is flaking off after a decade of heavy use. But I thought the ID might be on its last legs late last year when the stitching around the rear zipper started coming apart in a few places. I rely on that zipper to pull in the corners of the laptop pocket and keep them safely under the outer flap when it rains (a feature I wish all messenger bags would adopt). Thankfully my wife was able to fix those sections but all she had was white thread, which you can see on the back left corner. I consider it a badge of honor.

The Thin Bag

One of the things I love about the ID is the buckle & strap on the front that cinches the bag down into a thin profile when it isn’t heavily loaded, but quickly allows the bag to expand to hold coats and the like. One of the prongs on the big buckle broke a few years ago, and although it still closed securely I did replace it recently with a new one I ordered from the factory, just in case the other prong ever broke.

There are so many nice touches in the bag, I could go on and on, such as the o-rings for attaching key straps, the zippered front pocket for securing small items, the comfortable grab handle, the water-resistant zipper on the exposed pocket on the main flap. Newer bags also get an iPhone pocket, but I can’t hold it against mine for not having one, as back then there were no iPhones.

The one thing I haven’t used much is the water bottle pocket in front, it’s a little too small and short for many of my bottles, but this has been addressed in newer designs by moving the pocket outside the main body of the bag. The lines of the bag aren’t as clean but I think this is a much better place for it.

Goodies

My biggest complaint is not with the bag but with me. Tom Bihn makes an assortment of small bags and organizers that clip to the o-rings inside the bag which would have come in handy for train and air travel, but I never availed myself of them. Better late than never, I recently ordered several bags (with Emma still hanging around for pictures). Going clockwise from the upper left we have a Storm 3D Clear Organizer Cube with an 8″ Olive Key Strap attached, an Aubergine/Wasabi Side Effect, a red Lifefactory 22oz glass water bottle, blue & red Op Tech Strapeez cable ties, a Forest Clear Organizer Wallet, an Ultraviolet Travel Stuff Sack (size 1), an Iberian Travel Stuff Sack (size 2), and a Turquoise Double Organizer Pouch (medium).

Tom Bihn designs and manufactures a variety of bags a bit to my north in Seattle, all with the same quality and thoughtfulness that went into the ID (I’ll soon be ordering a backpack and later a travel bag). So if you find one you like, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

They’re the best.

Ninjas & Time Machines

Say hello to Sam

I’ve been reworking a lot of old images since Scout died. It’s a bit like having a time machine, going back and editing old pictures, and I’ve also used the occasion to test out a variety of raw converters. A surprise favorite is one I didn’t even know existed until recently, PictureCode’s Photo Ninja. No converter does everything well and this is no exception but I liked it well enough after working through just a few images that I bought it straight away.

This is the first picture I took of Sam, taken the day we adopted him in 2007. You can see from his body language he’s still a little apprehensive about the sudden change in his life, but it didn’t take him long to feel right at home.

Moving in the Right Direction

ApertureGPS

For many years I’ve dreamed of having location data attached to my images so that I could see where I took my favorite pictures at my favorite places. Unfortunately none of my cameras have had GPS either built-in or as an attachment. My iPhone has the ability to do it but sadly it wasn’t until recently that I figured out how. I decided to take advantage of my recent renaissance and assigned myself the task of learning how to do it while visiting a super secret location over the Christmas break.

And so on a visit to Ridgefield (oh what a giveaway!) I fired up MotionX-GPS on the phone and had it keep a running tally of my travels around the refuge, then emailed the data file to my laptop. It took me a couple more weeks before I sat down to learn how to import that data into Aperture, and it’s a bit fussier than I hoped, so I also learned how to do it with a little command line utility called exiftool. Photo Mechanic can also do it, and did it quickly, but the locations weren’t right so I have a little more learning there.

I do wish my camera could do this natively, not just because of the extra steps required to add the data later, but because it requires that I remember to start and stop the GPS tracking. And anything that requires that I remember to do something, well …

This screenshot shows an example of how the GPS data looks when imported directly into Aperture, in this case it was my visit to Ridgefield on January 15th. The purple trace shows where I drove around the auto tour, the pins where I stopped and took pictures. Currently selected is a spot beside Rest Lake where I photographed a coyote hunting voles as the snow fell gently down.

On the map you can see the Columbia River running to the left of the refuge, and a little offshoot that comes by it on the right, plus the numerous sloughs that run through the refuge. Lewis & Clark visited Ridgefield but apparently Clark wasn’t quite as impressed with this blessed little place as I am, for he wrote,

“Opposit to our camp on a Small Sandy Island the brant & geese make Such a noise that it will be impossible for me to sleap.”

His prediction proved true, as the following morning he added,

“rained all the after part of the last night…I slept but verry little last night for the noise Kept up dureing the whole of the night by the Swans, Geese, white & Grey Brant Ducks & c. on a Small Sand Island they were emensely noumerous, and their noise horid…”

I’ve not seen brant at Ridgefield but the rain and swans and geese and ducks, those I know quite well, although in much smaller numbers it seems than William Clark once saw (and heard).

Love & Loss

Our cat Templeton in front of my 15 inch Powerbook

After the long writeup about workflow in the previous post, one more thought about tools. This is a picture of Templeton with the 15″ Powerbook I referenced in that post, my favorite computer of all time until my current MacBook Pro.

The picture was taken in January 2006 while Templeton was recuperating from surgery to remove the sewing needle he swallowed right before we left on Christmas vacation. He had to be kept from running and jumping, and isolated from Scout, so one of us stayed with him in the guest room while the other stayed with Scout. He had to wear a plastic cone to keep him from pulling out his stitches, but we gave him supervised time with it off so he could relax and clean his fur away from the incision.

I left the room for a brief moment and came back to find him sitting at my laptop, paws on the trackpad as though he was settled in for work. What he had really done was an old Templeton standby, though.

He had stolen my spot.

Templeton and my 15″ Powerbook. I loved them both. I miss one. Important as they are, tools are just tools.

Bool’s Tools

BoolieMissionControl

One of the podcasts I listen to, Enough by Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley, has been asking their guests what applications they would install if they had to get by with a MacBook Air (and its 64 GB of storage) as their main computer. After listening to the their choices I took a look at my own and a couple of small things surprised me.

The first was that when I looked at my list of installed applications I didn’t have as many third party applications as I expected. This is partly because I’ve used a laptop as my main computer for many years, and up until the latest was always hard pressed for hard disk space, but it’s partly a conscious choice. Since switching to the Mac years ago I’ve used Apple’s applications by default and only look elsewhere when I find them confining.

The second was that I looked at each application in my dock and thought about how often I use these apps today to make sure they still make sense to be there. As a result I ended up taking Photoshop out of the dock, marking the first time since I got into photography it hasn’t owned a prime location in the dock or Windows task bar.

The Workflow

Here’s a rough list of my workflow moving pictures from field-to-web, and the tools I’m currently using at each step:

  1. Take notes in the field (Moleskine and uni-ball)
  2. Download pictures from memory card to computer (Photo Mechanic)
  3. Backup up the hard drive (SuperDuper!)
  4. Make a first pass at choosing which pictures will be edited or rejected (Photo Mechanic)
  5. Make a final pass at choosing which pictures will be edited or rejected (Aperture)
  6. Edit the pictures (Aperture)
  7. Hedgehogging (Ellie) and belly rubs (Scout, Emma, Sam)
  8. Goof around (Safari, NetNewsWire Lite, iTunes)
  9. Resize to create web and thumbnail versions (Photoshop)
  10. Upload the web and thumbnail versions (Photo Mechanic and Transmit)
  11. Update the website (BBEdit) or blog (MarsEdit)

The Moleskine & the uni-balls

I’ll start with the new pens and paper I purchased for taking notes while taking pictures before moving on to the software. The uni-ball pens use gel ink and write much more smoothly and consistently than my old pens. So far I prefer using the finer Signo RT Gel (0.38mm point) for writing in the Moleskine and the wider Signo 207 Gel (0.5mm point) for general use.

The large red Moleskine notebook is beautifully crafted to the point I was a little concerned I wouldn’t risk exposing it to the same weather conditions as the previous cheap notebook. But it poured rain my second day out with it and even in the car I knew I couldn’t keep it from getting a little wet, so I was happy to see I was as willing to let the new gear suffer the slings and arrows of rainy fortune as the old.

I would like to try some Field Notes notebooks before my next big hiking trip, they are much smaller and thinner and better suited to long day hikes, but not as well suited to my days at Ridgefield.

OS X Lion

I discussed upgrading to Lion a bit in the previous post, but I’ll mention it again as the screenshot shows the new Mission Control feature, where you can see little snapshots of many of the tools I’ll discuss. Plus a few sneak peaks of pictures that will be coming online soon (starting with my current desktop picture of a young heron I watched throughout the winter and spring).

Mac App Store

One of my favorite applications on the Mac is the Mac App Store itself. When I upgraded laptops four months ago, I decided to do a clean install for once. All I had to do was enter my Apple ID and Aperture and all the other apps I bought at the App Store installed like magic. Simple. Beautiful.

Contrast that with installing Photoshop.

After finding the install disc and letting it run, it asked for a serial number, which in and of itself isn’t too bad as its on the disk case, but does get tiresome when you have to do it for app after app. But then because I was doing a clean install and didn’t have Photoshop already on my system, and since my CS5 version is an upgrade version, it also wanted a serial number from an earlier version.

Oh corks!

I had forgotten about this step as I usually don’t do a clean install of the OS. With a brief bit of panic I started searching to see if I still had one of the older DVD’s around. I’ve upgraded Photoshop through many versions over the years and used to keep all of the boxes lined up in my bookcase, but in a rare bit of office cleaning I got rid of most of them. Fortunately I didn’t throw out the previous versions discs and was able to enter its serial number as well. I’m sure a phone call to Adobe would have sorted it out soon enough if I had lost the older serial number, but it illustrates why I now buy all my software through the App Store when possible.

Photo Mechanic

I’ve used Photo Mechanic for the past five years to download my images from a card reader and quickly sort out the rejects from the keepers. I’ve been looking to move away from Photo Mechanic as its target audience is photo journalists and I don’t need any of that functionality, but while Aperture does have the ability to download pictures and compare them, so far I’m still much better and faster at doing this in Photo Mechanic.

I’ve also come to use it as my general purpose image viewer so I nearly always have Photo Mechanic fired up for one use or another.

Aperture

I’ve written before about how I fell backwards into using Aperture, the photo processing program from Apple. I’m still learning the ropes but getting more comfortable with it, using multiple libraries is rather clumsy but otherwise there is a lot to like. I especially like the way it handles RAW images from my Canon 7D and how easily it works when I hook up my laptop to my external display.

There’s a sneak peak of an upcoming picture in the Aperture icon on the screenshot above (it’s up near the top since it is running in full-screen mode), I still have a lot of sorting and editing to do before this picture comes online, but the little tree swallow was one of my favorite (and most anxious) encounters.

My biggest worry with Aperture is Apple’s long-term commitment to it, it’s not central to their business which gives me pause, but for now I love the way it handles my 7D’s files so it is my photo app of choice.

Photoshop CS5

I took Photoshop out of my dock a week or so ago with a heavy dose of nostalgic regret. I started using Photoshop 4.0 back in college and it has occupied a prized spot in my Windows task bar or Mac dock ever since. But since I switched to Aperture for my photo processing, I primarily only use Photoshop for resizing images for the web, and I since I send the files directly from Aperture there isn’t a need for it in my dock anymore.

I do use Photoshop for other things at times, but it is a professional application with a professional price so now that I’m not relying on Camera Raw for my photo processing, I’m not sure if I’ll keep upgrading it or not. It’s a little similar to what will happen when we upgrade the Civic: I’ve driven a stick shift since I bought my first car in college, but on the next car I’d prefer a continuously-variable transmission instead.

Time marches on, needs and desires change, and thus sometimes my tools must too.

BBEdit

Something that hasn’t changed much, to my discredit, is my main site at racphoto.com which still revels in its mid-90’s look. I’ve hand coded it since the beginning and since my knowledge of web design hasn’t evolved much since then, neither has the site. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the program I use for writing the HTML code, BBEdit from Bare Bones Software. I started using it back when I first got my Mac and have used it ever since.

I would like to upgrade the look and functionality of my site at some point but the driver will probably be when I get an iPad, as navigating the site with fingers isn’t so easy. I’ll need to decide then whether to keep writing it myself or go with a pre-made site like Squarespace, or perhaps even WordPress. But for now, HTML and BBEdit it is.

Safari

Safari didn’t exist back when I switched to the Mac but it’s been my primary browser from the day that it did. I keep Google’s Chrome browser on my system since I don’t have Flash installed on my computer, so I use Chrome’s built-in Flash for the rare times I need it (primarily Amazon’s music and video services). I keep Firefox installed too, mostly for testing purposes.

Safari is even better in Lion so it remains my browser of choice.

Transmit

When it’s time to upload images for the blog or website I drag them from Photo Mechanic into one of my all-time favorite programs, Transmit, from Portland-based Panic. Back when I thought I was going to be leaving the Mac, one of the reasons I decided to keep using my MacBook for everything but photo processing was Transmit. On the one hand it makes no sense to not want to abandon a platform because of an FTP program, even one as nice as Transmit, but part of it is that they seem to be a great little company and I’m happy to support them. And part of it is well-designed apps like this just make my computing experience simpler, and more enjoyable.

And that’s enough.

I’ve been using Transmit since 2004, I had been on the Mac for a little while at that point and was using a freeware FTP program that I wasn’t very happy with. Then someone recommended Transmit, I downloaded the trial, and I think I set the record for the fastest time I’ve gone from trying out some software to deciding to buy it. I upgrade every time a new version comes out without even thinking about it, it’s always worth it.

NetNewsWire Lite

I can be a bit scatter-brained so I rely on automatic feeds to tell me when my favorite sites get updated, and I’ve always used NetNewsWire for this task. When the new Lite version popped up on the App Store, it replaced the older but more full-featured version I had been using.

Another one of those programs that makes me happy to be on the Mac, great software from great developers.

DoublePane

You can’t see this from the screenshot, but I recently got DoublePane from the App Store and I love it. It does something I think you can do in Windows 7 by default, which is to use keyboard shortcuts to snap a window to the left or right half of the screen. Just the thing when I’m ready to upload images, I can snap Photo Mechanic to the left half of the display, Transmit to the right, then drag images from one to the other. Then with another keyboard shortcut, Photo Mechanic is back at full size.

A fantastic little time saver and highly recommended if you need to use windows side-by-side.

SuperDuper!

Also not visible in the screenshot above is SuperDuper! from Shirt Pocket. I use it daily to create a bootable clone of my laptop’s hard disk onto an external disk, as well as special situations like before I upgraded to Lion. I haven’t tried Time Machine yet, which serves a similar but different purpose, but SuperDuper has given me peace of mind for if and when my laptop hard drive falters.

Another great piece of software from a long-time developer on the Mac. There’s a theme here.

Mail

I’m not a power user of mail apps, I used Outlook Express when I was on the PC and have used Apple’s Mail ever since I switched. It got a major upgrade with the Lion release and I’m still finding my way around it, but I like what I’ve seen so far.

iTunes

Not specifically related to photography but iTunes so completely transformed the way I listen to music (for the better) that I couldn’t help giving it a plug. It tries to do too much these days but when it comes to music, I love it and use it constantly when I’m listening to music or podcasts as I edit my pictures or write my posts.

MarsEdit

MarsEdit also isn’t in the screenshot but that’s because I was evaluating it while writing this post. It’s an offline editor for blog posts, and it made writing this post so much so easier than the web browser version provided by WordPress that I bought it from the Mac App Store before finishing this post.

And with that, I’m finishing this post.

Finally

Our gray tuxedo cat Templeton sitting in the backyard

I’ve been spending money like a drunken sailor the past few days. The biggest purchases were a normal zoom for my camera (to replace the one that got smashed) and a laptop to replace my beloved but aging Powerbook.

The worst part has been deciding what to buy as my decisions changed on an almost daily (if not hourly) basis. I finally settled on Canon’s 17-55mm EF-S lens to replace the smashed 24-85mm lens and Apple’s 15″ MacBook Pro to replace my 15″ Powerbook. I went down last weekend to get the MacBook Pro but the store was out and didn’t get their shipment from Apple during the week. In the meantime I changed my mind and decided to get the regular MacBook instead of the Pro. If you’re reading this post faster than normal, it’s because it’s being written on my zoomy new white laptop instead of the old slower silver one.

And the lens? I changed my mind at the last minute on that one too and ordered Canon’s 24-105 L lens. That should be here on Tuesday (along with a circular polarizer, an 8 GB CF card, a remote release, an extension tube set, a card reader, a 2GB stick of memory for the MacBook, and a partridge in a pear tree).

Blame the drunken sailor.

And in case you’re wondering, the picture has nothing to do with this post, it’s just a picture of Templeton from last year that I finally got around to editing. He’s zonked out beside me at the moment but I’m sure he’d approve.