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Stress Testing: gear in Antarctica

next up, “which anorak”

in GAS , Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Time for some gear talk. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an insane amount of stuff with me here, and it’s getting to be a real drag. But here are a few notes about some particular items, which might be of use to other travellers.

ThinkTank Airport Commuter backpack

Before travelling I was getting somewhat paranoid about carry-on baggage, in particular my photo backpack. Although I have taken every backpack I’ve ever owned on flights with no problem, including my current LowePro ProTrekker 400, an excellent hiking pack, I was still concerned about the weight of the bags themselves, and especially Aerolineas Argentinas’ reputation for stinginess. So based on reviews on Roël’s web site, and on the experience of two of my companions on my Svalbard trip a few years back, I bought a ThinkTank Airport Commuter. In terms of carry-on size, it worked fine. It also swallowed an impressive amount of gear, and although the padding is light compared to LowePro standards it proved to be quite adequate. However, it has one huge, huge problem: the rather pointlessly removable waist belt strap managed at some point to remove itself in transit, leaving me with a very uncomfortable pack. Some time later one of the equally detachable tripod straps decided to go solo. This turned a comfortable bag into a nightmare. Otherwise the bag is ok, rugged enough for day hiking and fairly impermeable to penguin guano. It has good laptop and iPad pockets, but nothing like the range of thoughtful accessory pockets that LowePro include. It is remarkably light and well constructed, but the detachable strap issue is a major problem. For this reason I would not personally recommend it, and would be very wary of buying another ThinkTank product. Oh, and either things have changed a lot, or Aerolineas Argentinas has a very unjustified reputation. In my experience they are very tolerant on both cabin and hold baggage allowances, and in general are a great airline.

Sigma DP2 Merrill

One excuse for buying the Sigma was Antarctic landscape photography. Well, it didn’t really work out. In the field, composing on the LCD is not my idea of fun, even though the screen is quite good. The shutter button is much too sensitive for focus and (re)compose work, especially when wearing gloves, and the controls are in general fiddly. Manual focus is basically impossible in anything but the most tranquil conditions. The optical viewfinder works ok, providing you have a rough idea where the focus point is, or you’re shooting far-field only. So far I haven’t really gone through many files, so I can’t say much about image quality, but from quick LCD reviews the colour seems a bit weird. We shall see. But generally I didn’t get much benefit from this camera in Antarctic conditions. Possibly an SD1 would have worked out better - but again with a lot of limitations.

Acratech Swift Clamp

I started using a Black Rapid strap a few months before travelling to Antarctica, and in general I like it, even if the carabinier managed to unlock itself a few times. But the problem with this strap design in general is that it uses the tripod socket. Acratech offers to solve this problem with their quick release Arca Swiss-standard Swift Clamp. And like all Acratech products I’ve ever used, it just works. It makes the Black Rapid strap fully practical, and is 100% reliable. The best addition to my setup for this trip, and highly recommended.

Olympus Zuiko 150mm f/2 lens

Hmm. What to say about this.  I desperately wanted this lens, especially for wildlife. And when the subject calls for it, it is indeed sensational. It even works well with the 2x teleconverter. It does, sometimes, have trouble acquiring focus, even without the teleconverter, although this may be in part due to my inexperience with this type of lens and focus limiters. The SWD autofocus on the 50-200 is faster, although that lens still suffers, sometimes, from hunting or total AF failure in some cases. The results can be quite remarkable, but Lord is it heavy! I frequently bitterly regretted dragging it around Argentina, and I may well sell it. It’s undeniably a fabulous lens, but it isn’t very practical for travelling around with.

Olympus E-5 and E-3

Well, the Olympus E-5 was not bought for this trip, neither was the E-3 which was dragged out of retirement as a backup / second body. But they both deserve an honourable mention for once again putting up with the worse conditions I could subject them too, including very frequent drenching, without skipping a beat. Both worked flawlessy, although it was a revelation to realise just how much better the E-5 is over the E-3 in terms of dynamic range. Also in side by side use, I did find that the slightly different control layout of the E-5 is easier to use in cold conditions. Yes, they’re heavy, yes they’re “only” four-thirds sensors, but in terms of field use they’re the equal of top-end Canons and Nikons is most situations. And a lot cheaper.

Posted in GAS on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 01:10 PM • PermalinkComments (2)


Neil Gaudet February 23, 2013 - 11:45
I've long wanted that 150mm Olympus lens but can't find a reasonable excuse to buy it!


David Mantripp February 24, 2013 - 12:18
I have to say that when I see the results on screen I tend to forgive it for being so heavy. But it is a tricky lens to master.

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