Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Carry that weight

but not quite so much

in GAS , Sunday, November 06, 2016

A couple of years ago, I went off for a 5 week trip around Argentinian Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, fitting in a 12-day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. Apart from the fact the the photos from that trip, in particular those from the Argentinian part, are still languishing neglected in my archives, one thing that keeps nagging at me is the ridiculous amount of gear I burdened myself with. I've whined quite a lot it here - here, and here, for example. I should have known better.

So, with a sort-of repeat experience coming up at the end of the month, have I learned my lesson ? Well, perhaps. I've worked out that even neglecting things like filters, batteries, film, and all the other paraphernalia, in December 2012 I set off with a backpack weighing over 10kg. And actually, I also had a Domke shoulder bag with a Ricoh GRD4, but I was relieved of this by a helpful Argentinian in Buenos Aires. This time, largely thanks to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, and swapping the Sigma Dp0 for the Hasselblad XPan set, I have a very similar set, but weighing under 7kg. It's still noticeable, but manageable. The difference between the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sets is a significant contribution:

Camera weights


The range of focal lengths is a bit different. I left the 4/3 7-14 f/4 lens at home last time, because it was just impossible. But the m4/3 version is much lighter (and faster). What I am missing in my 2016 packing list is a long telephoto. In 2013 I took a non-mirrorless E-System kit with me, and the fabulous Zuiko Digital 150mm f2/0. Attaching this to a 2x convertor turned it into a 300m f/4, a pretty powerful tool. Coincidentally, Olympus now sells a very highly rated 300m f/4 for Micro Four Thirds. Forgetting the cost for a moment, this weighs in at 1.2kg, only 100g lighter than the old ZD 150. My Lightroom catalog tells me that in 2013, out of a total of 1108 photos taken in the Antarctic, only 89 were taken with this cumbersome and restrictive 150mm. However, those 89 include several of my favourites. But anyway the conclusive point is that there is no room in my backpack for a 300mm lens, so I'll just have to be more creative with what I've got. And anyway, I'm not really a dedicated wildlife photographer, so a 300mm prime lens really would be a little extravagant.

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A pretty psychedelic penguin, rather an extreme shot taken with the Zuiko 150mm f/2 wide open



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And a somewhat psychotic penguin. This time with the 150mm f/2 tele-converted to a 300mm f/2



Very recently Olympus introduced a new lens, a 12-100mm constant f/4 zoom, which would be really ideal for travel like this. The 12-40mm f2/8 is really excellent, but it is a little restricted in range, and a 12-100 would really help to avoid a lot of lens swapping, which in typically Antarctic Peninsula weather is really no bad thing. The new Olympus camera, the E-M1 Mk II, would also bring a lot of benefits. Unfortunately neither of these will apparently be available until 2 days before I return. Not being a Famous Photoblogger, there's no chance of getting my hands on them. Oh well, what I've got will work just fine.

Actually, weight is less of an issue this time, as the trip basically consists of a glorified taxi ride into (hopefully) the Weddell Sea, but still, it counts. One issue is of course ever stricter carry-on baggage restrictions, so that too needs to be taken into account, but there is also the point that too much gear can drastically interfere with photography.

Hopefully I won't end up whining so much this time.


A Tale of Two (new) Bags

hipper than thou?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A quick Google search on the phrase “photographers can never have enough bags” astonishingly yields only 56 results. Astonishingly, because I’m sure I see at least one a week on my forays across a pretty limited part of the blogosphere.  However, slightly less constrained searches immediately give counts heading into several thousand, so that’s a bit reassuring.

While I certainly have enough bags, none of them ever turn out to be particularly satisfying. I have a need for two, possibly three bags. The first would be an everyday bag which can accommodate both work stuff and a smallish camera (Olympus PEN-size at most), but ideally could instead carry a full “street” kit.  The second would be a day hiking backpack, which can carry a workable “landscape” kit, as well as extra clothes, rain jacket, food, etc. Finally, a nice to have but rarely needed third would be a dedicated hiking backpack with full “kitchen sink” capacity.  I have no need for trolley bags, Pelican cases, etc.

Starting with the first category, I do own a Domke F803, which is actually great, and I use it a lot - or at least I used to. But it is too small to carry a laptop, so fails the “every day” criteria.  But as a small discrete camera satchel, it is unequalled in my opinion.  I’ve been through various non-camera messenger bags, but none have really worked or lasted long. And a few years ago I received a gift of the highly lauded ONA Brixton messenger bag: this, for me, is a disaster. Heavy, inflexible, uncomfortable, with front pockets so tight they’re practically useless. And the canvas has weathered horribly in rain, becoming stiff and shiny, unlike the Domke which weathers beautifully with age. Sorry, but ONA is hipster rubbish in my experience.

In category two I’ve never really found much to beat the modest Kata 467. Unfortunately, a nasty little thief in Bogota agreed with me, so I don’t have it any more. And Kata was bought out by Manfrotto, and their evolution of the 467 doesn’t excite me. I bought a LowePro Rover Pro 35L AW a few years back, but it’s just a mess of straps and weird pockets with this removable camera pod thingy which takes up far too much space. I’ve hardly ever used it.

In category three, I have a LowePro ProTrekker 300 AW which is fine, but a little heavy and cumbersome.  I tried replacing it with a ThinkTank Airport Commuter, but this was a total disaster: the removable waist strap (a feature looking for a requirement if ever there was one) removed itself in an Argentinian 737 overhead locker, and the removable tripod straps (there’s theme there) did the same thing a few weeks later. Never used it since. So, possibly I do have enough bags - but not the right ones.

Which brings us to these two:

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on my left, the $270 WANDRD PRVKE, on my right, the $219 Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Ouch. That’s $489!

This general dissatisfaction with bags, and the apparent inability of mainstream manufacturers to come up with anything really good has left an opportunity in the market. Also, LowePro, Manfrotto, Tamrac et al don’t really seem to have responded to the trend of camera downsizing. Their bags are always quoted as “fitting x DSLRs with x lenses” - sure, that would mean x CSCs with x lenses, but they’d be rattling around in a pointlessly large bag. I’m still not convinced that anyone really caters for this, specifically, but certain smaller manufacturers are trying to offer more focused design, along with less geeky styling, and hipster lifestyle trimmings. For example Peak Design, and WNDRD.

I bought Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger in February, and WNDRD’s PRVKE pack a few weeks back. My reactions so far are a little mixed.

I’ve been using the Peak Design Everyday Messenger almost everyday since I bought it. I take it to work everyday, with at minimum an iPad, sunglasses and a small camera, but sometimes also a 15” laptop, notebook, various accessories, etc. It’s been on various flights, I’ve used it in Hamburg and in Tuscany as a travel camera bag. I’ve carried by hand, over the shoulder, and while cycling.  I can sum my feelings for this bag up quite easily: it is by far the best messenger-style bag I’ve ever used, and I can’t see me ever wanting to change.  At $220 it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.  And you could throw in one of their excellent camera straps while you’re at it.

The Everyday Messenger was designed in collaboration with photographer Trey Ratcliffe.  His photography doesn’t do much for me personally, but he sure knows how to specify a bag. The bag has got a zillion features, but they’re ALL useful and well thought out. Very unusually for a messenger bag, it is also designed to carry a tripod, and my Gitzo Traveller fits just fine. Other great touches include the quick access zipper on the top, and the dedicated, separate iPad sleeve. It also survives torrential rain quite happily. 

On the downside, I will say that it is showing some faint signs of wear, in particular on the excellent, seatbelt material strap, but hopefully it will be long lasting. And there is just a touch of “hipster cool, obligatory beard stuff” about both the company and the bag, but not so much that it goes from background embarrassing to irritatingly contrived.  Which brings us to…

...the WANDRD (pronounced “Wandered”) PRVKE (pronounced “Provoke”) backpack. Well, the names are a bad start. It would be hard to come up with anything more irritatingly contrived, or indeed bloody stupid. It’s a pity their budget for vowels was so restricted, or possibly the beards filter them out? But anyway, the basic premise sounds good - “We are passionate photographers, travellers, commuters, creators, and explorers, and we needed a pack that could keep up with our adventurous lifestyle. But we also wanted it to look incredible, and the perfect combination of style and function wasn’t out there, so we decided to make it”. Honestly, I don’t need it to look incredible, I actually need it to look unremarkable. And in fact, the PRVKE is, in my opinion, more anonymous than the Everyday Messenger.  It certainly doesn’t scream “camera bag”. So that’s a plus point.

Anyway, having been searching for a long time, and with an approaching deadline, and with the only alternative i could see, the F-Stop Loka, looking to be permanent vapourware, I decided to risk the not inconsequential $270 and order it from the US.

My initial impression was not particularly good. For a start, for $270, I would like to have a slightly better user guide. Yes, there is a card providing a link to an online PDF, but that is a masterpiece of prioritising bleeding edge design over clarity. Pretty much all reviews mention that getting the bag setup is not easy.  The PRVKE has endless zips, pouches, netting, straps, extra straps, and so on. Some of these are clearly useful, the others not so obviously. Camera gear fits into a removable (oh dear) “camera cube”. Actually installing this cube is not straightforward, and in my opinion it doesn’t fit all that easily. And worse than that, saying that camera gear “fits” is perhaps pushing it. Rather, camera gear can be shoved in, especially when accessing the top part of the cube, which is partially concealed by the top edge of the opening in the pack itself. The cube can be configured to allow access from a side flap, but as others have noted, this needs to be used with care to stop expensive items falling out.  The dividers are not padded - an approach taken also by Peak Design for the Everyday Messenger, and by ThinkTank, and personally I think this is fine. But they provide insufficient configuration flexibility for the cube layout, and all in all, my impression is that for such a (relatively) large bag, the amount of camera gear you can fit in to the dedicated space is pretty small. You could get more into the considerably smaller, much cheaper (but waaaay less hip) Kata 467.

This is the essential problem I have with the PRVKE - I expect a $270 camera pack to have a little more thought put into the lead mission of carrying camera gear. There are some other niggles: it’s advertised as having “magnetic latching” handles on top. Well, the magnets are far too weak to do the job: the handles just don’t stay together. Compared with the Everyday Messenger’s brilliant magnet-assisted latch, this is a bit pathetic. The doubtless detachable waist strap is not to my liking. There is a rain hood provided, in a pouch at the base of the pack, which is very nice, but unfortunately it tends to fight for space with the camera cube. It is very similar to those in Think Tank bags, effectively a narrow belt which helps to stabilise the pack, but not to shift weight onto the hips.  Great, no doubt, for motorbikes, not so good for hikers. And in fact, in essence this pack does seem to be more designed to for bikers than anybody else. Which is fine, but possibly it should be more highlighted in the marketing.

I’m probably sounding very negative about the PRVKE. I am being quite hard on it, but I have 270 reasons to be so. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, so we shall see if it grows on me.  But if I didn’t have all the endless complexities of Swiss customs to deal with, I’d probably take up WANDRD’s 30 day return offer.

In summary, both of these bags are high on (life)style, and skinny flat whites, and beards. Both where also Kickstarter funded, and both have plenty of rave 5 star reviews by people who don’t appear to have used them. But while Peak Design show that you can be hip and produce highly functional gear at the same time, I’m not convinced that WANDRD have worked out how to do that.  The PRVKE is nevertheless lined up for a trip to Iceland in July, so if I change my mind, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Eccentric or More Eccentric ?

widescreen addiction

in GAS , Thursday, May 19, 2016

I’m still trying to convince myself I don’t want a Linhof 612, even though I have my eye on a very nice looking one which I can almost afford.

The thing is, it’s a purely mechanical camera. There is no preview of focussing. No metering. It’s just a (extremely high precision-engineered) box with a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front. It’s heavy, a pain to use, and has this intriguing but rather eccentric 8mm fixed shift.

And I have a Sigma Dp0, which is not only a pain to use, looks plain weird, and draws attention like bears to honey.  But it has auto focus, a screen (just about), and doesn’t need the film processing or scanning steps - albeit it does need Sigma Photo Pro, which rather evens the score.  And it has a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front.

This is what the Dp0 can do:

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Not bad - almost Ektachrome-like.  The ratio here is 21:9, which is actually shown on the screen, allowing exact composition. Of course you can crop any image any way you want, but that doesn’t work for me.  I need to see what I’m doing, and I need my composition to be preserved in the file. The Dp0 / Sigma Photo Pro combination does both.

If I’d shot this with a Linhof, I’d probably have framed it like this (although the lens field of view would be a little different, but I think the Dp0 17mm lens corresponds roughly to a Linhof 58mm)

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Of course, had I shot it on a Linhof I’d probably have got the exposure and the focussing wrong. And then Silverfast and / or my scanner would have crashed trying to deal with the huge file.

Common sense says Sigma - and given how unlikely that sounds, in the general scheme of things, it says all I really need to know about the sense of buying a Linhof 612 in 2016…

All the gear…

...and not too many ideas

in GAS , Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hello. My name is David. I’m a cameraholic.

The evidence is unforgiving. A list of the cameras I’ve bought since photography became my principal pastime makes for sobering reading, especially when set aside the productive output.

YearCameraSourceStatus
1998Ricoh GR1newGiven away
2000Hasselblad XpannewLost at sea
2000Canon T90s/hGiven away
2001Ricoh GR1SnewRetired, defective
2002Hasselblad ArcBodynewsold
2002Fuji 670GWnewsold
2003Olympus E-1newsold
2007Olympus E-400newretired
2007Ricoh GRDIInewRetired, defective
2008Ricoh GRDIVnewStolen in Buenos Aires
2009Olympus E-3newsold
2010Hasselblad Xpan IIs/hactive
2011Olympus E-P2newStolen by Spencers Camera, Utah, USA
2012Olympus E-5newsold
2012Olympus E-P3newactive, converted to IR
2012Sigma DP2 Merrillnewactive
2013Lomography Belair 612newshelved
2014Sigma DP3 Merrillnewactive
2014Olympus E-P5newactive
2014Ricoh GR Digitalnewactive
2015Olympus OM4Tis/hactive




This doesn’t include a couple of older, rescued film cameras, and several point & shoot digitals. And of course it doesn’t include the lenses, the tripods, the software, the books, the filters, the camera bags, the “workshops” and Lord knows what else. I’d probably have done better putting it all towards drink instead.

I did actually sell a good deal of gear last year, with the idea of consolidating and buying something new (and improved, of course). But I kept bailing out of decisions. At present even the sight of a camera shop makes me feel nauseous and jaded in equal measures. Of course there is a huge list of new, improved, sensational, must-have, deeply desirable cameras, but actually I don’t desire any of them. I certainly don’t need them. Even if I did buy one, I don’t know what I’d do with it. My interest in adding to my archive of somewhere between 50 and 60000 photos is flatlining.

Photograph

On average, I appear to take some 3000 to 4000 photos a year which I don’t immediately trash. The big spike in 2010 correlates with two long trips to Costa Rica and Svalbard that year. There doesn’t seem to be much correlation with camera spend. And of the full total, there are only 800 which I’ve rated at 3 stars out of 5, or higher (at 5 stars there are precisely 7, although perhaps I haven’t been entirely thorough or consistent in my rating…

This year, so far, I have spent precisely half an afternoon dedicated to photography. It was ok, but hardly essential. In the past I’d be climbing the walls through frustration and not getting out and photographing, now I’m just relieved to be past all that. The only camera that I’ve actually enjoyed using recently is the OM4Ti.

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A shot from my half-afternoon of photography

What is glaringly obvious, at long last, and to me at least, is that gear absolutely does not increase quality of photos or enjoyment of photography. I can’t say that I’m no longer interested in photography - I wouldn’t be writing this if I were - but I’m not much interested in photographing. I’m dedicating some time to assembling the first of what might be a series of Blurb-published book, and it is quite interesting that the photos I’m selecting - on the basis of interest and coherence - tend to come from over five years ago, and from the more humble camera/lens combinations I’ve used. In a way that’s encouraging.

Perhaps I’m a recovering cameraholic?

 

 

A Shift in Perspective

tiltless wonder

in GAS , Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I’ve always found tilt/shift lenses very desirable, or at least shift (or PC, for Perspective Control). I never found the tilt part all that useful, or indeed easy to control or understand. Back when I owned a Hasselblad ArcBody, I had plenty of opportunity to experiment and learn, but that is long gone. The availability of high quality PC lenses is one huge attraction, to me at least, towards the Canon/Nikon world, but I own neither. There are also some very expensive third party lenses from the likes of Schneider available for Canon/Nikon, but again, out of my league. And there are some cheap adapters, which by and large don’t work very well. But generally, these adapter solutions are the only options for my system, Micro Four Thirds - with, however, two exceptions.

Back in the 1980s, Olympus made two PC lenses for the OM system, a 24mm f3.5 and a 35mm f2.8. The 24mm is sought after, rare, and very, very expensive. The 35mm is less celebrated, a little easier to find, and much more affordable second hand. And I found one.

Although PC lenses tend to be used for architecture, in confined spaces, and therefore benefit from short focal lengths, 35mm is still quite useful. However, on a Micro Four Thirds camera, that corresponds to a 70mm equivalent field of view, which might seem less useful. This is mitigated by the fact that Canon make an 90mm TS lens, so it can’t be totally useless, and anyway, nothing was going to get in the way of a serious bit of retail therapy.

Olympus pc lens 001

The best known application of PC lenses is to “stop buildings falling over”. However, there are several other uses. One is creating sets of photographs to stitch into a high resolution composite. By shifting laterally and vertically you can gather a set of images without moving the camera, and with no nodal point or parallax issues to worry about. Another is giving more latitude for composition when using a tripod in an awkward space. For the photo below, the tripod was resting, just, on a jumble of boulders, adjacent to a torrential stream, with very little latitude for adjustment. The vertical and lateral shift allowed me the frame an image I otherwise could not easily (or safely) have captured. I do own a Gitzo Explorer tripod with a fully articulated central column, which is also useful for working in tight spaces, but that has some stability issues, and I still need to get behind the camera in it’s probably precarious position.

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The shift movement on the lens is achieved just by pushing. There’s no lock, no gearing mechanism. It all works by friction. Obviously on a tripod this could be a disaster, knocking the tripod out of place when giving the lens a hefty shove to shift it. But actually Olympus got the level of resistance just right. Enough to hold the position steady, and not so much that you have to push too hard. It helps to make it surprisingly compact and light for a PC lens.

In terms of optical quality, it’s pretty good. No vignetting at full shift, wide open, although on a Four Thirds sensor, only the centre of the lens is actually being “seen”. But even so, the results are impressive. It will be interesting to see what photos taken with it on my OM-4Ti look like. The lens is also beautifully built and just demands to be fondled. And what better retail therapy can there be?

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