Artisan Obscura Soft Releases
Last updated September 23, 2013
When you think of Denver, Colorado - many things come to mind. The beautiful environment of the rugged Rocky Mountains and expansive forests brimming with pine trees surrounding it, for example. It just so happens that accessory maker Artisan Obscura hails from this amazing place and their products reflect that. Currently, they make a wide variety of soft releases which are all hand-made from a variety of woods that come in an equally bewildering range of beautiful finishes, treatments, shapes and sizes. From the milling of the wood to the finishing and insertion of the brass screws, every button that leaves their shop is guaranteed.
Their logo, a horse in stride, is taken from a sequence of photographs (taken in 1878) by 19th century English photographer Eadweard Muybridge - one of the most prolific problem solvers in the history of photography and known for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and in motion-picture projection. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 25, arriving in San Francisco in 1855. Having spent most of his life in the "Old West" the logo is even more fitting.
Accessory manufacturers might offer at least some variety of shapes, colors and sizes. But most offer far less, and the the old adage made famous by Henry Ford seems apropos; "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." Artisan Obscura on the other hand, offers so many combinations that it can be rather bewildering and difficult to choose just one. The many combinations include your choice of wood, plain or patterned, large or small and finally, convex or concave! Let's look at some of these.
The different hardwoods that are offered each have their own unique color and grain, and come from all corners of the world. From light to dark in color, and grain that's muted or bold. No two will ever be alike. They currently include:
You can get the above listed woods in a simple, "plain" finish. Though it's worth pointing out that there's nothing "plain" about them! The color of the woods and the grain itself is unique to each soft release and mother nature's own work of art. If for some reason that alone doesn't do it for you, the soft releases are also available in a variety of milled, patterned textures. Beyond just the grain of the wood itself, the milled textures add further visual and three dimensional, tactile interest through the use of some interesting, subtle patterns and include:
- Cross Hatch
- Empty Rainbow
- King Louie
Argyle is the most understated of the milled patterns. It is classy and sophisticated. The other options are more intricate and impart even more of a sense of depth with their patterns. The penultimate, King Louie - is a real tour de force, invoking, as the name implies - a sense of old world intricacy and craftsmanship. Its ornate lattice work reminds one of inlaid floors or hand-carved woodwork of the old churches in Europe.
But it doesn't stop there. Beyond the milled patterns, are the single "image" soft releases that are milled and then stain or paint filled (depending on the combination). Some of them are particularly amazing and include:
- Put a Bird On It
The Earth option is exactly as it sounds; the world on your soft release! The white-on-ebony option really shows it off well, but looks good on all the woods. Muybridge is aptly named after Eadweard Muybridge's trotting horse and the source of Artisan Obscura's logo. There's something about a horse, galloping across a warm wooden soft release - that speaks of its Colorado origin more than any of the other options. It invokes that Old West sense of spirit. Some of the grain patterns even subtly imply a sunset or canyon wall in the background. Put a Bird On It depicts a soaring bird in flight that seems to ride the grain of the wood. Finally, there's the Monogram option - and is exactly as it sounds. You can choose a letter to be milled into the soft release.
Finally, and as if there weren't enough choices already, many of the soft releases can be ordered in a large or small size, convex or concave. This represents 180 different combinations! If you're the indecisive type, please look away now... Which version you choose is mostly a matter of personal preference. Some folks prefer a larger size to lay their entire finger over, while others prefer the small size for fingertip control. We'd suggest the convex and concave options, respectively.
Packaging and Quality
When you first see the package, you're reminded of the Old West aesthetic, and it continues from there. The custom cardboard box is imprinted with "Artisan Obscura" in an irregular, black stamp - something you might see on a "Wanted!" poster of days gone by. Opening the box, you're presented with a feast for the eyes and nose. Sitting on a custom-made block of wood is your soft release (or several, if you ordered more than one). Clearly a hand-made affair, each soft release sits slightly askew in countersunk holes, safe for shipping, without fear of rattling around and getting damaged. What hits you next is the strong scent of wood, stain and their custom wood conditioner (which is available separately). It's a custom combination of oil and wax to seal and protect the wood, preventing it from drying out and keeping the deep, natural look intact. Even with daily use, one application is said to last a year.
Pictured above from left to right are; small concave teak, small convex ebony, large convex bloodwood "King Louie" and large concave olive wood "Empty Rainbow."
You might think that wood products could be rough, at least on the edges or hard to mill cleanly in such intricate patterns. This is definitely not the case here. Each of the four soft releases we received was smooth along all of the edges and patterns... Which were also very precise. Amazing detail in such a small package. Even from a small sample of four, you still get an immediate sense of the number of options available. Each is unique and interesting in its own way.
We affixed the large, convex "King Louie" patterned soft release in bloodwood to the camera and immediately noted several things. The size is great, just slightly smaller than the shutter release collar. It makes for a nice, rounded, overall feel. But perhaps most interesting... Was the warmth. With a heavy, brass-topped (and bottomed) camera like the M, it's often cool to the touch and even downright cold, depending on the weather. But the wooden soft release had a comfortable, warm feeling to it. It also imparted a "soft" feeling to the notion of a soft release. While metal soft releases tend to be cold and hard, one of the features of wood of interest to photographers is its inherent ability to dampen vibration - and why several high-end tripods (mostly for large format) are made of wood. While we don't know if this helps dampen vibration in the case of a soft release (and we didn't exactly test for it) it's something that comes to mind, at least. Finally, the choice of bloodwood was spot on in our case - it matched the "rally" finish of our leather Leica Time (Luigi) half-case perfectly. As a package, the look was complete, balanced and stunning.
Flipping the soft releases over, the quality of the hand-crafted workmanship continues. Underneath you can see the machined brass thread insert embedded into the wood and held in place with marine grade epoxy - and what actually screws into your shutter release. Brass is the best choice of material as it is proven to hold well and not damage your camera. The threads are tapered, further insuring a good, tight fit. Also worth noting is that the thread length is on the shorter side, ensuring that they can be used with the latest M (Type 240), M-E and M Monochrom models. They may even be a bit too short at first glance... But in order to fit the aforementioned models, necessary.
Artisan Obscura also sent us several black rubber o-rings, something they're currently testing. Some people have experienced their soft releases coming unscrewed and getting lost. We have to admit, we've never had this problem except with the cheapest of soft releases, like those machined or molded from aluminum - such as those found on eBay. Installing the o-ring was dead simple - rather than slipping it over the tapered brass thread, place it atop the shutter button and then screw in the soft release - much easier that way. They should provide enough extra friction to keep the soft release from coming unscrewed and as a side benefit, also provide a little extra sealing to the sensitive cable release thread of your shutter button (water can gain entry to the body here). It also provides a better, more "solid" connection to the actual shutter button. It may even help reduce vibration further. In any event, a nice added detail.
We tested the soft releases on a variety of different cameras to see about both the fit and scale. Needless to say, they fit on all of our Leica M bodies, from the M7, M8 to the M9. They also fit the Zeiss Ikon and Hasselblad V (where only the smaller size fits). However, it has been noted that they do not fit all cameras - if there's any doubt, Artisan Obscura is maintaining a compatibility list which you might want to check with first.
The soft releases look good and fit well. In use, they do not produce an annoying "clack!" sound like the cheap eBay options. The warmth of the wood is comfortable, and its properties reduces vibration more than a solid chunk of brass might (though arguably in this application). In any event, they worked well in our testing. Quiet and sure.
If you can get past all the options and actually narrow it down to one (or a couple) - and place your order... You should be very happy with these soft releases. The materials and quality of workmanship are excellent, as is the attention to detail - from packaging to product. They are also guaranteed, so if you do experience any issues, rest assured they'll make it right. One should keep an eye on Artisan Obscura as they plan to release a variety of hot-shoe covers to match. We can't wait to see what they come up with. You can order them at their website directly, and range from $30-40 USD each.