Have you ever thought you could design a better piece of photography gear? Photographer and Digital Photo Pro contributor Michael Chiusano has, and he recently put his money where his mind is, creating the IntelaGrip, a new camera grip for pro photographers.
The IntelaGrip is designed to provide a rock-steady hold on larger camera and lens combos, such as medium format models, pro DSLRs and even some bigger mirrorless cameras with heavy professional lenses. At the same time, the IntelaGrip lets you easily adjust the angle of the camera on the fly, which makes it suited for studio usage, particularly for product photography, commercial work, and still life images.
Rather than screwing onto a camera’s tripod mount, which can be awkward and not always secure, the IntelaGrip attaches with a standard dovetail clamp such as Arca or similar. There are three models, the IntelaGrip Left ($139), the IntelaGrip Center ($109), and the Intelagrip Right ($139).
We wanted to find out more about this intriguing new camera accessory and how Chiusano turned his product idea into a reality, so we interviewed him in the below Q&A.
Q: Can you give us some background on your career as a photographer and product developer?
Michael Chiusano: Like many older photographers, I got interested in photography as a kid, at a time when photography was an active amateur hobby. While I was in high school, I managed to set up a darkroom in the attic of my house, really quite primitive when I think back on it, and I was “hooked” from that point on.
While in high school, I was appointed Photography Editor for the yearbook, and had the keys to the school darkroom and ran a small staff of student photographers who supplied candid photos.
At any rate, my parents had no clue that you could actually make a living taking pictures, and they encouraged me to pursue an engineering career, which was not a bad fit for me because I always had a knack for building and fixing things.
It’s a long story, but my engineering career flamed out in the chaos of the Vietnam War, and I found myself working as an editor for technical magazines, which led to my starting to take pictures again to accompany the copy I was generating. After a couple of years, I went off on my own as a freelance writer for tech companies, using my engineering background to good advantage. I found that my clients were really pleased if I could also supply good quality industrial photographs, and this became a second income stream for me.
At some point, my photography was generating as much income as my writing, and I decided to go back to my real interest, which was taking pictures. I had no capital to invest in cameras and equipment and it has to be said that my studio “startup” was a rather primitive affair. My first lighting was a couple of ancient stage lights that I inherited from my father, and my only “real” camera was a Rolleiflex he purchased in 1949.
At the same time, I continued to write articles about professional photography for numerous trade magazines, and these articles got my name around. Before long I was writing “advertorials” for the industry, giving talks at trade shows and eventually I started a new professional magazine that was an immediate success.
Q: So early on, you had no direct involvement in product design?
Michael Chiusano: Yes, I had to concentrate on building my studio business, and acquiring the equipment needed for commercial and advertising photography. I was supplying copy to the Swiss companies of Sinar, Broncolor and Foba and instead of cash payment, it made sense for them, and me, to take equipment in trade. This arrangement allowed me to equip my studio with the finest professional equipment which I could not afford otherwise. At the same time, my engineering background was a real help to their management in understanding the American market, which was not prepared for the costs and quality of their products.
I think professional photographers are inveterate tinkerers. We are always modifying our equipment, figuring out better ways to use our gear, and always looking for a better way to take pictures. I am perhaps a bit on the extreme end of this tendency; bad product design really bothers me.
Q: Is this where the impetus for the IntelaGrip came about?
Michael Chiusano: Yes, and a bit of camera history will help explain things. There are a couple of legacy features of cameras of all types that do not serve us well today. One example is the Compur PC flash connector on the lenses of cameras, a design that dates from the 1950’s. Any pro will tell you that it is totally inadequate to handle long sync cords: It’s always falling off or fails to fire flashes or remote triggers.
Another legacy feature is the tripod socket on the bottom of cameras. The usual 1/4-20 thread certainly works to mount a camera to a tripod, but today it is pressed into use for many other purposes, as a way to mount grips, panorama tripod heads, video cages and frames and more. But look at all the struggle you have to go through, snugging up the threads, which always seems to take too long, and then you’re never sure if the connection might loosen, leading to a camera disaster.
These shortcomings have led to proprietary solutions such as various quick-release plates, and while these work well enough, each is unique to that camera and accessory, be it a tripod or something else.
Q: So, this is where you got the idea for the IntelaGrip?
Michael Chiusano: I have to give a tip of the hat to the Swiss company Arca, well known for their fine view cameras and deluxe tripod ball heads and pan and tilt heads. Long before anyone else, they developed a rapid camera mount that uses a dovetail clamp. You mount a rail to your camera and a standard Arca clamp grips the twin rails within seconds and is virtually foolproof and safe. Once you see it in action you realize it is a vast improvement over threading screws into the bottom of your camera. The design has now become an entire ecosystem used in both still and video camera accessories.
I got interested in the Arca clamp because I owned a Really Right Stuff professional tripod whose ball head used the Arca clamp rather than tripod screws. With the right adapter plate more or less permanently mounted to my medium format Leica S007 I could go from “landscape” mode to “portrait” mode mounting on the tripod in seconds, and with absolute safety.
It then hit me that a side grip with a similar Arca clamp might make a lot of sense for hand holding. The Leica S camera is heavy, like most pro DSLRs, and when held in one hand leads to real fatigue after a while. That’s the real value of a left-side accessory grip: it shifts the weight to both hands and thus makes the camera seem a lot lighter.
Q: There are lots of side grips on the market, so what makes the IntelaGrip different?
Michael Chiusano: A couple of reasons. First off, it is a universal solution: you can switch it from, say, a DSLR such as a Canon 6D to a film camera such as a Hasselblad, so long as each has the requisite mounting rails installed. In other words, you’re not wedded to a custom grip for each camera.
But more important is the way the IntelaGrip can change its adjustment angle. The trouble with the various manufacturer’s accessory grips is their fixed angle. I have a couple of these myself and it annoys me to no end how awkward they are when shooting up or down. With the IntelaGrip you can swing the grip around to any point and it stays put. You can adjust the tension up or down as well, to handle for example a heavy and long telephoto lens.
I think it is also worth mentioning that the IntelaGrip design is insanely robust. So much of the stuff I see on eBay is not up to the rigors of professional shooting. The design is such that you can carry your camera around using the grip only and in complete confidence.
Q: What is it like developing a product like this?
Michael Chiusano: Product design is difficult for the average person to grasp. When done well, the end result seems obvious and effortless. But of course, it’s way harder than it looks at first glance. It took me many iterations to get the interior “guts” to work just right, an on and off effort of about a year. Then I had to deal with overseas suppliers, domestic 3D printing companies, website designers, packaging engineers and on and on. This all took place in the middle of the Covid situation.
Q: How do you price out the grip?
Michael Chiusano: Like any product, the final price has to be reasonable to buyers and profitable to manufacture. In today’s manufacturing environment, you can use new technologies to make things in smaller production runs while still holding costs. I am able to 3D print the handle itself in small batches, which wasn’t possible just a few years ago.
Q: Any other ideas on the horizon?
Michael Chiusano: I have already prototyped a bottom-mounted IntelaGrip. This is a riff on the familiar pistol grips for cameras but with the advantage of being able to slide the grip forward or backward to balance out the weight of a lens. I offer this on my online website at a slightly lower cost because it has no complex bearing assembly inside. I am also offering a right-hand-side IntelaGrip for video usage.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Michael Chiusano: As mentioned, I have a low tolerance for bad product design and the photography world has no shortage of bad design. This is no elite affect; when products are badly designed, they inhibit the creative process; they get in the way of being creative. With good design, you can trust the product and thereby free your mind to make great work.