Posts in Category: review

Why buy a new camera ?

This post is sort of a follow on from last year when I wrote about how great it was to seek out 5 year old hardware as it can give better results than new. Now, just over a year later I’m saying how great it is to buy new: consistency is great, isn’t it?

Ok, so silly openings aside, what makes this fascinating to me is that it’s all about the Fuji X100, possibly the most talked about pre-announced digital camera I’ve seen so far, and a camera which I dismissed and ignored mainly due to the huge volume of hype and excitement. Once the camera arrived, it’s awkward operation was nearly as painful as something that Olympus or Sony would produce, so again I ignored it.

Yeah, I know: everything has upgradeable firmware these days, but when was the last time any equipment you owned that could be upgraded actually was, and improved every aspect of operation? In my experience there isn’t an upgrade path (“Just buy the new model”) or the improvement makes things worse in four or five other areas, or worst of all, it removes functionality which has now been moved into a separate product line.

Of course, Fuji confounded me by actually releasing a firmware update. A useful update.

So what is so attractive about an (arguably) hideously expensive pocket camera with a fixed focal length lens ? Its handling. I’ve come from a film background so this may not apply to teenagers who have grown up wielding smartphones (actually, demographic breakdown of purchasers would be interesting, or if you are one of the aforementioned pure digital-era photogs please do leave a comment). After the initial confusion of trying to get anything useful out of the printed manual (get a PDF onto an iPad or something similar) with its useless guide and terrible (lack of) index, things start to make sense with the discovery that there are generally 3 ways of doing pretty much everything.

Don’t buy this camera in duty free on your way to a once-in-a-lifetime holiday – you will need a couple of days to experiment with all the ways of operating various functions in order to find a way for it to suit your shooting style. Yup, you read that right: the camera will adapt to you, rather than insisting on training you. For example, I’m a great lover of * button AF on Canon DSLRs, and this little pocket camera has a mode that matches that operation. Stunning.

Yes, the startup time is stupidly long, but given the shorter than average battery life it’s obvious that the camera really does turn off fully rather than being in low power sleep mode like most devices, but I did find that it does become part of a rhythm: see a photo, flick the power switch whilst leisurely bringing the camera up to your eye and it’s pretty much ready to go.

The standout features? They’re personal, but the top three for me are the amazing high ISO performance, practically silent shutter, and stunning lens. Yes, there are cameras out there with numbers that go higher in their ISO menus, but the results from the X100 at ISO3200 are perfectly usable, albeit better in black and white.

No, the shutter isn’t a digital implementation and so isn’t 100% silent, but turn off the stupid synthetic sound (or long press one button to mute all sounds and disable the AF light: genius) and it has the gentlest of ‘snick’ noises. It also has frustrating drawbacks such as a rather low top shutter speed of 1/1000 at f2, but that is actually an advantage: rather than the more common focal plane shutters with high top speeds and fairly pedestrian flash sync speeds, this is a bladed leaf shutter which means that there is no top flash sync speed.

The lens is, quite simply, excellent. As a personal guide I’ve always found that if you’re spending less on a DSLR lens than you did on the body you will find flaws in the output; the cheaper the lens, the sooner the flaws become apparent. An f2 lens is fairly fast, but it’s important to note that wide open, the X100 is not pixel peeping sharp: there is a glow and ‘feel’ to images shot wide, especially closeup or in macro mode. Stop down to f4 and things change dramatically, and f11 is brilliantly usable.

The balance between digital and retro is very well implemented, and having a detailed ‘heads-up’ display superimposed on an optical viewfinder is everything I’ve always wanted in a digital camera. Live histogram, superb depth of field guide, focus indicator, level guide and grid all make for an informative and above all assistive rather than directive shooting experience. For the first time this digital camera actively improves upon the totally film-era technology in my Canon DSLRs in a way that enhances the photographic process rather than impeding it.

Auto ISO. This is not the first body to offer it, but the implementation and low noise of high ISO settings combine to create a brilliantly useable option. I have set it, and only run into issues when in very, very dim conditions when it doesn’t get up to 6400. In all other circumstances it keeps the shutter speed above your chosen minimum without any fuss, and drops down to the lowest possible ISO at all times. Hint to Fuji: one improvement would be to automatically use the built-in ND filter if the image would be overexposed at ISO200, but that’s about all I can think of to change.

For me, this is the ideal street or party camera. Unless I’m on an assignment to cover a party I want to be able to blend in and get properly candid images: this camera is as stealthy as it’s possible to get without using a spy camera. Having had people stop me to talk about my DSLR (the 5D and 70-200 are an imposing pair), literally no-one cares when I start to use the X100. I’ve used it in numerous restaurants and cafés with no comments from staff or other diners, and both on the street and in shopping centres by simply pressing the shutter with it hanging at chest height.

So have I sold my DSLRs? Absolutely not. What camera will I reach for first ? Tricky. Would I unreservedly recommend the X100 ? Probably not. If you have not used a rangefinder camera, then you really need to try the camera out before purchase. If you enjoy telephoto lens work, then don’t get one. For black and white low-light work, I can’t think of much better for the money.

Gloves for Photography

Taking pictures in cold weather has always been a little problematical as nice warm gloves don’t really help when fiddling with DSLR settings. One fairly decent solution I found in 2002 was a pair of Windstopper lightweight gloves with a thin leather palm that is just sensitive enough to allow buttons to be felt through them which worked well in Yosemite in the spring with a compact digital camera.

Needless to say, this year I manage to loose them (since found in the pockets of an old coat, of course) and so found myself wandering around shops trying to find something similar, and not prohibitively expensive as I’ll probably be doing this on an annual basis when I ‘loose’ these ones too… For some reason, this seasons fashion is for hugely impractical (for camera use) ski gloves, so I’d pretty much decided that I just has to get used to cold hands when my eldest spotted an interesting pair of gloves in my local John Lewis: they are fairly standard looking knitted fingerless gloves with a Thinsulate lining and hence nicely wind proof, at least for the lowlands of Cambridgeshire (-9ft to 480ft ASL) but with an extra pocket (again, lined) stitched to the back of the knuckles that folds down to create a mittens and velcros to the back of the hand when not in use.

These are truly excellent for fiddling with the smaller buttons of a DSLR, and mine have the thumb tip permanently exposed so using the 8-way selector for direct AF-point selection on an EOS 20D is fast and unencumbered. When walking my thumb does get cold, but it can be folded around and tucked into the top of the mitten if I’m not carrying anything, so it’s probably the best compromise for camera work.

Having searched around online, I’ve discovered that they’re actually called Shooters Mittens and come with either a fully knitted thumb, or a fully fingerless one and start from very little money indeed: under 4 UKP without P&P was my cheapest find (the pair from John Lewis were 8 UKP (sadly not in their online store) and used immediately I left the shop, and so well worth getting !). I would strongly suggest looking for ones with a Thinsulate (or similar) lining as without that the wind would whip through the wool fairly quickly, and the small (fake ?) leather palm pads on mine are an advantage as it does help with grip over fully woollen gloves.

They are a little bulky, and I can’t quite manage to use them as gloves without without thinking of Fagin, but they are probably the most useful photographic ones I’ve owned.

review: mozy – free online backup

After having used it for a few weeks I really ought to mention Mozy [1], partly to try and get some extra storage space, but mostly because it’s a very interesting service for both Windows and Mac OS X users. I’ve only used the Beta release Mac client, but running it on my 1GHz G4 Powerbook has been relatively painless. About 2 times out of 30 backup runs I’ve noticed it was active, but the rest of the time I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how up-to-date it’s kept my files – far more recent than any manual system I’ve ever used.

You can choose to use their own encryption key which will allow you to buy DVD’s of data from them should you have an absolute catastrophe, or enter your own which disables the DVD option but means your data remains private. The free account offers 2GB of storage, and so far I’ve only found 1GB of data that I really wouldn’t want to be without, and the initial upload can take some time depending upon your bandwidth, but I’ve set the client to run after 5 minutes of inactivity which means that the updates are small and fast. It typically updates between 1 and 4 times per day (hmm, am I online too much ?) and has a web based restoration service which allows you to browse through some recent snapshots (timestamped for the server time zone, unfortunately).

I’m seriously considering the paid for service (4.95 USD/mo) which allows unlimited storage space, as this would allow me to put all of my RAW image files a long way offsite for 26.33 GBP/yr (at today’s exchange rate, buying two years at once). The question I’ve asked myself is: “If you have 100GB of image files, how much would you be prepared to pay to recover from a total hard drive failure ?” Of course, downloading that much might break your ISP usage allowance for one month…

[1] If you use this link to sign up, you will get an extra 250MB of storage space, as will I. See, it’s not totally selfish.

games. on a mac ? for free ?

I don’t generally bother with games that much, mainly because trying to get tens of Unix apps to play nicely after one of them has a security upgrade, or two of them just have to be tweaked to add a feature I want takes as much thought as an Infocom adventure. (Hmm, perhaps unfair; I’ve never finished an Infocom game, but I have had the apps work together. Mostly.) So that aside, here’s three games I’ve found very playable recently, and none of them involve aliens or bullets. Not even a phial of infected zombie blood in sight, so look away now if you’re an avid FPS gamer.

Krank. From the help web page:

“the aim of each level is to remove all anchors and magnets”

Sounds simple, but do yourself a favour and try it with a mouse and not a trackpad – think of Thrust, but with less of the annoying and terminal visits to the landscape, and far, far more OpenGL shinyness. Very addictive, even if you forego any sort of viewing of the details and just dive in and play.

Plasma Pong. From that page:

“PLASMA PONG is a variation of PONG that utilizes real-time fluid dynamics to drive the game environment.

Players have several new abilities that add fun twists to the classic game. In the game you can inject plasma fluid into the environment, create a vacuum from your paddle, and blast shockwaves into the playing area”

Wow. If the animation in Krank was pleasing to the eye, the first play of this game visually assaults nearly to the point of involuntary colour blindness. There is method to the madness though, as the colours represent various plasma densities, each of which will alter the trajectory of the ball, and I can only imagine how heated the action could get with multiple players. A widescreen laptop would be an advantage here…

MyMahj. Mahjong in either 2D or 3D. Not too sure about the 3D aspect, but being able to ’tilt’ the board slightly to correctly deduce the depth of a stack is a nice touch.

The first two of those games were found via FreeMacWare, via the daily RSS summary. The last was via freshmeat.net in the OS X catagory.

Sensor Klear from Lenspen – review

Ok, after using my Lenspen I was ready for the really scary one: the Sensor Klear CCD cleaning pen. Did I buy both at the same time ? Yes. Without knowing if the Lenspen would work ? Yup. That’s because 7 Day Shop were having a sale and the Sensor Klear itself was less than the cost of the P&P for the order…

Ok, so I’m about to put something that’s cheaper than the stamps and envelopes for the whole order onto the most delicate portion of my DSLR, and not only expect no damage to result, but expect it to clean as well as a cleaning system costing 15 times as much ? Well, when it’s put like that it all seems rather far fetched doesn’t it ?

The system is identical to the bigger Lenspen, but with a much smaller triangular head that is totally flat, rather than concave, and the sponge in the end cap is rather longer although that’s the end of the physical differences. To be fair, I also bought a Kenro Hurricane dual valve blower at the same time as the pens (so it’s only 7 times cheaper than the brushes), as the recommended cleaning instructions suggest not using the Sensor Klear brush on the CCD but to reserve that for the chamber and mirror.

Using the blower first didn’t really change the dirt on my sensor: I had previously tried an Arctic Butterfly a couple of weeks ago (thanks Ben), and whilst it had removed at least half of the dirt, the remaining portion had merely been redistributed so I was looking at a wet cleaner to get the last of the marks off. The first pass of the pen managed to create a smudge in the very centre of the image area that ran for half the height of the screen… Not a good start. Back to the blower, and another pass with the pen didn’t make any difference.

After that, I paused for a while, and in doing so put the lid back on the pen. In hindsight, I think it’s important to put the cap back (with a quarter turn) much more frequently when cleaning the sensor compared with a lens or filter, and to keep the head as flat as possible relative to the sensor. The third pass did the trick, and after a final blow to make sure the last of the particles were removed I had a nicely clean image at f/32. There are still a couple of spots, but they’re pale grey rather than black at f/32, and given that I normally shoot no lower than f/16 I’m happy with that level of cleaning: I’d rather do some retouch (and batch apply it to a whole day of images) than risk scratching anything.

So is the current CCD cleaning ethos wrong ? Well, I have no idea: I’ve only used the pen three times, and have not taken anything except test shots in order to prove that the dust spots have been reduced. I am, however, beginning to think that the ‘delicate and easily damaged’ line is pretty much the same as the warning about re-flashing BIOS images: if you’re careful then there’s no need for excessive panic, and having read of some of the things people have been using (off the shelf makeup brushes; cotton buds; etc.) then this pen is really rather tame.

I may also end up with a wet cleaning kit at some stage – the instructions for the pen do say that stubborn marks may require that, as degrees of delicacy aside, scrubbing with anything at a stubborn spot will cause permanent damage, but for the moment I’ll happily use this pen and have no problems at all if I need to discard it 6 or even 3 months from now.

Lenspen – review

Snake oil[1]. That’s what I had in mind for this product, and to be honest I’d been fooled by the name into thinking that there was something inside that scribbled over the lens/filter and this somehow made it clean.

Not even close.

Yes, it’s cheap, and in the world of Cameras and Hi-Fi the unspoken rule is that if it hurts to buy it, it’s got to be better than anything that costs less – having seen first hand ‘Best Quality Mains Cables’ being sold at stupid prices by people who have zero knowledge of power supply design I’m cured of the Hi-Fi price/sound lie, but sensor and lens cleaning are still worrisome to me: I want them both clean, but don’t have a working knowledge of what materials are used and how tough they really are.

A few more facts and less marketing wouldn’t hurt the manufacturers website either: the tip of the pen is a slightly concave velvet looking cushion of fabric – the different sizes of Lenspen are purely down to what your target device is. The standard Lenspen is fine for 49mm+ lenses (my smallest SLR lens is 49mm, but it also works ok on my PowerShot G3), but simply won’t get to touch the lens on mobile phones as it’s a larger diameter than their lenses.

The pad has a fine coating of small black particles (carbon ?) that are replenished each time the cap is put back on the pen from a sponge inside the lid itself. You can tell when the pad is ‘full’ as it takes on a dusky non-reflective appearance, and after use it compacts the powder and starts to look slightly more shiny. Think of the nap on any soft furry fabric being brushed up or brushed flat and that’s the look this has. The pop-up brush can be used both before the cleaning tip to dislodge large bits of fluff, and afterwards to shift any powder that’s dropped off.

Once I received the pen, I was still unsure how it would work, so started using it on cheap old filters and moved onto my glasses before going for my best lenses. It did the job. Very quickly, and with no fuss, although it is important to check how much is left on the tip if it starts squeaking on the lens – it often means that the power needs to be re-coated.

So how does it do the job ? I’m not sure, but it does seem like the power behaves as a sort of easy to manage talc that simply absorbs grease from the glass, and does a very good job of holding onto it. The lack of any need to tap off the much after a clean does concern me, but at the sort of price that 7 Day Shop charge, it’s no worse than buying cleaning fluid for spectacles.

I’ve now cleaned five lenses, two filters and three pairs of spectacles and am very impressed at both the ease of use and the quality of the clean, although I can’t comment yet on how long the device will last but I’m sold on the concept, and will take a look at the CCD cleaner these people produce. Again it’s ‘too cheap to be true’, but should I really hold that against it ?

[1] Actually, this is more accurate than might be imagined, as whilst the image of a wild-west grifter is brought to mind by the phrase, it turns out that the original idea and usage is actual and beneficial: it was just the imported copies that were pretty much useless.

Slik Sprint Mini Tripod – review

After getting my new camera bag, I sold my old one (thanks Andrew !) and got this tripod with the proceeds. Looking at the PDF on the UK distributors site (trust me: you don’t want to bother with the manufacturers site) they indicate that it’s not suitable for SLRs when using long lenses, but the collapsed size is just too good to ignore so I took a mild gamble at bought it anyway: mild in that my current tripod is around 20 years old and is so unstable it’s only marginally better than hand holding (plus it’s now got enough chipped or broken bits that trying to use it quickly results in needing to stop and add plasters to the cuts…)

The Slik Sprint series covers three types, but the stats for the Mini are:

  • Folded length: 360mm
  • Maximum operating height: 1100mm
  • Maximum centre column extension: 210mm
  • Maximum load weight: 2000g
  • Tripod weight: 740g

This is small enough that when put into one of the Adventure 9 side pockets it only comes about 80% of the way up the bag: when wearing the backpack it’s still within my profile and so shouldn’t wreak havoc when walking around shops, for example. The legs do feel rather flimsy when being extended, but stiffen nicely when locked and they each have a 3 position top lock with infinitely variable angles between the stops, which is beautifully flexible. The ball head that comes with the tripod can be removed, and reveals a standard screw mount underneath so replacing the supplied head isn’t a problem (but oddly, not something Slik advertise).

Putting my 350D and Tamron 28-75mm lens on the tripod at full extension the head showed no signs of dropping after being left alone for five minutes. With the centre column fully extended there is a fair amount of spring noticeable when gently flexing the ‘pod, and I’m not sure if it’ll require mirror lockup to be used to get very long exposures to stay sharp. This isn’t a tripod for those who are happy to debate the pros and cons of leg shape and carbon fibre vs. aluminium – it is small enough to take along with my normal gear when my old tripod would have been left at home, and so I’m 100% sure that it will enable me to get images that I’d have missed, so by that metric it’s a winner.

It’s possible to unscrew the bottom section of the centre column to get the whole thing amazingly close to the ground (142mm according to the back of the box), and thanks to the leg positioning it is possible to get the ball head pointing directly down at the ground, and close enough that extension tubes could be used too.

The tripod comes with a nylon bag with handles and drawstring top, together with a generic instruction leaflet for the whole Sprint range which is clear an concise, but oddly the box has a combination of language agnostic pictograms (understandable), and English of the variety normally associated with Babelfish. Why ? I have no idea, but they’re classic phrases that could simply have been added for the humour value:

“The high-class feeling gray metallic paint is adopted.”
“The special round pipe containing magnesium in intensity and lightweight.”
“The small and compact ball head can be used with snap feeling is equipped.”

So is it any good ? If you have a compact with manual override such as the Canon Powershot G3, then the answer is an unreserved yes: it will certainly add a new dimension to your photography, especially allowing easy use of the inbuilt ND filter. If you have a lightweight DSLR such as a Canon 350D or Nikon D40 then (depending upon your choice of lenses) it could be a very useful (and small) addition to your bag of equipment. Heavier DSLR bodies will start to eat into the 2Kg weight allowance, and whilst a more capable head could be swapped out for the pre-installed one, I’d be wary that the flexing of the body would become an issue.

I bought mine for £35 + P&P from Bristol Cameras and think that for the money it’s the best budget tripod I’ve owned.

Tamrac Adventure 9 – review

Since my last camera bag review seemed to generate so much interest, here’s another one !

Things have changed quite a bit in the last 17 months, and the main issue with my original Lowepro is that it’s no longer large enough for a day out with my family: the primary problem being that my youngest walks everywhere now so we don’t have the extra load space of a pushchair anymore. A secondary issue is longer holidays, particularly when camping. It’s more cost effective to take my laptop with me than to buy enough CF cards for 10 days away, but insurance becomes an issue – my car insurance for contents stops at £250, and all items must be kept in the boot. Nothing in a tent is covered (which is fair enough), but it means that in order to cover myself under my household policy[1] I need to keep the items with me, so the new bag must:

  1. be as anonymous as possible
  2. be able to take my laptop as well as my camera
  3. have enough load space left over for food and water for one day

My previous requirement of being able to put the camera away quickly in order to help small children has been replaced by the load space as it’s unfair for my wife to carry everything for the day out whilst I just take my toys. The food and water size doesn’t have to be sufficient for 4 adults and isn’t meant for hiking in a desert, but if you’ve ever gone around a theme park (Legoland/Disney World/PlasticTatMerchandiseWorld/etc.) you’ll know that it’s a struggle to find a drink that doesn’t contain more sugar than a jar of honey, and anything to eat that isn’t so processed it could be sucked through a straw.

Drawbacks: It’s not a sling bag. They are seriously useful, and are very fast to access and provide a comfortable working area for swapping lenses without having to learn to juggle, or put things down on nearby walls. Taking this bag off it’s also obvious it’s a more traditional design, meaning that laying the bag down to get into the camera compartment means getting the straps and back panel wet and/or muddy, which will transfer nicely to your back once the bag goes back on. There’s no integral full waterproof covering but this is available as an accessory (and could be stuffed into the laptop pocket if you’ve got less than the maximum 17″ machine in there).

Advantages: It has just enough space for food and water for my anticipated use, is well padded and looks like a normal backpack. The side pockets are nicely elasticated and will hold a table-top tripod head down quite securely. It has both waist and chest straps to prevent movement, and the front mounting points allow extra filters/memory cards/mobile phones to be attached at a helpful height. The laptop pocket is large, and will swallow my 12″ PB sideways, leaving room for something slim (and non-abrasive !) in there too – perhaps a survival bag for placing on wet ground before opening the bag ?

One thing that Tamrac don’t appear to advertise is that the top of the camera compartment/base of the load space is held in place by velcro and can be totally removed. This gives a whopping 50cm load height down the centre of the bag, albeit with minimal side support in the top section. I’m not sure I can justify a Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS USM, but at least I can boast that my bag is ready for it 🙂

In a head-to-head comparison of the camera load space (pictures available if there’s demand), it looks to be more spacious, and is indeed much deeper which would be good for larger camera bodies than my 350D, however when packing everything into the Adventure 9 from the 200AW I was surprised to find myself left with a handful of bits simply ‘left over’. The lack of the front exterior pocket and top space webbing mean that a lot of the little extras (eg: blower brush, optical flash trigger, cable release, etc.) aren’t easily placed. Yes, it has a removable pouch, but if that’s used to store cables for the laptop (as Tamrac suggest) then the camera parts are left loose. It definitely needs an extra small pouch to hold these things, and I can see myself going for the SAS filter pouch too, as there’s no way to easily put my current filter collection in an easily accessible external pocket.

With my basic set of lenses, flashgun, 12″ PowerBook and associated cables the whole bag weighs in at 1st 3lbs (7.7kg) – add in two 500ml steel flasks in the elasticated pouches and that will be at least 1st 6lbs (9kg) without food, so carrying this pack around all day will do wonders for my fitness level.

So overall, for wandering around a town for a day by myself I’d stick with the 200AW or possibly move up to the 300AW in order to carry more equipment, but for time with my family where photography is a secondary activity it’s a great compromise. If the 300AW had a laptop compartment then I would probably have spent the extra on that bag as the Lowpro wowed me with it’s cleverly designed and supremely useful placement of all compartments, but especially with the offer I found at Morris Photographic (£69 inc UK delivery, whilst stocks last) this compromise bag was an easy upgrade choice.

[1] Yes, there are dedicated photo and laptop policies out there, but nothing compares even slightly to extending my household cover for my equipment: the nearest standalone policy was over 3 times as much.