Jun 232012

Mirror-less cameras have been on the market for four years. I recently bought my first mirror-less camera, the Panasonic GX1 and used it extensively in Ecuador. In the next few posts I will discuss my experience of the Panasonic GX1 and attempt to answer these questions:

Panasonic GX1 with Olympus 17mm f2.8 lens

What is a mirror less camera?

Why did I choose the Panasonic GX1?

How does a mirror less compare to SLR and compact cameras?

Are they any good?

In which circumstances will I use a mirror-less camera?

 

Before I discuss why I bought the Panasonic GX1, what is a mirror-less camera?

A mirror-less camera is similar to a digital SLR in two major respects.

1. You can change lenses.

2. They use larger sensors than a compact camera.

Sea lion on Espanola in the Galapagos Islands

A Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera uses a mirror and a pentaprism to allow the photographer to see through the lens optically. In contrast, a mirror-less camera uses the camera’s sensor and either the LCD and/or an electronic viewfinder to show the photographer what the lens can see. (Just like a compact camera).

By eliminating the need for a mirror and pentaprism, the mirror-less camera can be made much smaller and lighter than the SLR. The disadvantage of the LCD and electronic viewfinder is that they can be slow to react when using the camera in high speed scenarios such as photographing wildlife or sports and the LCD can be difficult to see in bright sunlight.

Why choose the Panasonic GX1?

For the past couple of years, a Nikon D3x has been my primary camera. The D3x really suits my photography and I have no plans in replacing it, however, with my new work in Europe and Africa I wanted a camera that would be small, unobtrusive and yet take high quality photographs that would be accepted by stock agencies. A mirror-less camera seemed the best option and after lots of research I narrowed my choice to the Panasonic GX1 and the Sony NEX-7. Although the Sony NEX-7 is an excellent camera, there are currently very few autofocus lenses available for the Sony “E-mount” cameras. In contrast, there is an excellent choice of Olympus and Panasonic lenses available for the “Micro Four Thirds” lens mount which is found on their cameras. It was the choice of high quality lenses that lead to me buying the GX1 over the NEX-7.

Otavalo in the highlands of Ecuador

My Panasonic GX1 kit

Along with the camera I bought the following lenses: Olympus 12mm f2.0, Olympus 17mm f2.8, Olympus 45mm f1.8, Voigtlander 25mm f0.95 manual focus and Panasonic 100mm-300mm f4.0-5.6.

I should mention that the micro four thirds sensor has a 2x crop factor. Therefore, a 12mm lens is effectively a 24mm lens, the 25mm Voigtlander is a ‘standard’ lens and the 100mm to 300mm is effectively a 200mm to 600mm lens.

For accessories, I bought the Panasonic LVF2 external viewfinder, Metz Mecablitz 58 AF flash, a Nikon lens adapter and an L plate from Really Right Stuff. What is amazing, is that all this equipment fits in to a small Lowe Pro Photo Runner 100 waist or shoulder bag. Also, the camera with the 17mm f2.8 lens fits in my pocket and it is this simple one camera, one lens combination that I take to work.

First impressions

The GX1 is a small but solid camera that feels very well built. The Olympus lenses are surprisingly small, very light and have fast, silent autofocus. One early frustration that quickly turned in to a delight, was moving the autofocus (AF) area. It is fast and easy to move the AF area on my D3x but I was not finding the same on the GX1, then it dawned on me; “may be I just touch the screen on where I want the camera to focus!” Lo and behold that’s exactly what you do. I like being able to use a combination of buttons and touch screen gestures and find that the GX1 is very easy and intuitive to control once you get accustomed to the touch screen.

I took the camera with me to Ghana in March and found that the very bright conditions combined with finger prints on the LCD made it difficult to see what I was doing. In addition, manually focusing the 25mm f0.95 was practically impossible on the LCD, even indoors. Fortunately, these problems were solved by using the Panasonic LVF2 electronic viewfinder. If you are interested in a mirror-less camera, budget on buying an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Some mirror-less cameras such as the NEX-7 and new Olympus OM-D EM-5 include an EVF.

At home I used the GX1 with the Mecablitz 58 AF flash and had great results from the bounce flash. I was so happy with the camera and flash that I decided to use them to photograph Kendra at her Alice on Ice skating event. This event was a great test of the camera in the world of low light and high speed. Found out how it performed in my next blog post…

 

 

Jul 072011

Geopic II on Nikon D3s, it works on any Nikon with a 10 pin plug

A new piece of equipment that I first tried in Scotland and which was very successful was the Geopic II GPS for Nikon SLR’s. The aim of using a GPS with a digital camera is to embed the location from where the photograph was taken in to the photograph’s metadata.

I have tried other GPS solutions in the past but the problem has always been synchronizing the GPS with the photos.

The Geopic II is connected to the camera’s 10pin remote socket and the GPS information is written into the photo immediately, therefore, there is no need to synchronize devices later.

The Geopic II isn’t the only solution for Nikon SLR’s but it had great reviews and is an excellent price. It also incorporates the heading information so that you know in which direction you were pointing for each photo, in my opinion heading is a very useful piece of information that is missing from many camera GPS options.

Also, this unit unlike many others includes a remote socket which allows you to record GPS information and fire the camera remotely when taking long exposures.

In Africa the Geopic II was again invaluable for logging the location of each photograph.

You won’t find the second useful accessory in camera stores, in fact you can only find it at MEC in Canada. The MEC Aegir 20 pack is a completely waterproof pack that uses a zipper to seal it. I have used similar packs in the past but always found their zippers to be hard to close. This pack is lightweight, a great price and saved my very expensive 300mm f2.8 lens when I was capsized by a hippo.

Large Aquatech Soft Hood on Nikon's 600mm f4 lens

The third and final piece of equipment that I also found useful was a folding lens hood for my Nikon 600mm f4 lens. The 600mm f4 will actually fit inside a large number of camera bags, but it’s huge 7.5 inch x 5 inch (19cm x 13cm) hood will not! Using this lens without a hood is not an option, the best solution that I have found is the Aquatech Softhood. The hood is not cheap and it is not much lighter than the original hood but it is very strong, waterproof and folds flat or folds in half. It is available in two sizes, depending upon which telephoto lens you use.

Jun 202010

Summer is here and it’s time to travel or enjoy the outdoors. What would be a great compact camera to take on your adventures? dpreview.com recently reviewed 10 compact cameras to determine the best one for travelling.

The winners were surprising with the Casio FH100 and Samsung HZ35W coming out on top. The strengths of these cameras were their excellent image quality (both indoors and outdoors), flash capability, build quality and ergonomics. In addition, the Casio has high speed shooting capability and the Samsung has a built in GPS (however, the GPS does seem to have some issues).

Other cameras that did well are; Sony HX5, Panasonic ZS5 and Panasonic ZS7 (the latter has a built in GPS) and the Canon Powershot SX210IS.
These cameras are from well known manufacturers so why didn’t they win?

The reviewers found that the Sony HX5 was slow operationally and had a frustrating interface. The Panasonic ZS5 and ZS7 are excellent camera’s but the reviewers found them expensive compared to the competition. However, if you want GPS in your compact camera then the Panasonic ZS7 is probably the best camera to get.

Finally, the Canon SX210IS has some great features but suffers from soft images compared to it’s competitors.

One thing is for certain, compact cameras that offer great versatility and great image quality are finally coming of age.

May 292010

I took 3 cameras to the Galapagos Islands; Nikon D3X, Nikon D3 and a Canon D10 (waterproof compact). As the light is nice and bright I had no intention of using the D3 and only took it as a spare. It stayed in a drawer on the boat for the entire week!

1:1 view of the detail of a Waved Albatross. The Albatross was 7.08metres away! D3X and 300mm f2.8

The D3x was awesome, I love this camera. It is quick and easy to use and the results are incredible. That’s it, not a lot to say on the D3x!

The Canon D10 is also a wonderful camera. I bought it after doing some research on waterproof cameras and one of the features that I liked was the fact that it’s waterproof to 10metres; that is important to me because I like diving deep when snorkelling and I didn’t want to worry about the camera.

Sea turtle at Targus Cove - Canon D10

When using a waterproof camera in salt water it is incredibly important to rinse them in fresh water afterwards, therefore I ensured that we had a dedicated rinse bucket at the end of each snorkel trip.

Sometimes the water was quite cool and I snorkelled for up to an hour at a time. I found that the battery would last about 3 snorkel trips before recharging which I thought was good performance.

I was happy with my camera choice but one thing that became obvious was how useful video is on a dSLR. Malcolm Thornton had a Canon 5D Mark II and he took some incredible video clips with it. There were simply situations (such as the sharks taking on a big sea lion to get some tuna) that stills couldn’t really capture with the same impact as video.

Nikon introduced video in to dSLR’s and Jim Slobodian did take some video clips with a D3S, unfortunately I haven’t seen Jim’s clips so I can’t comment on the quality but Nikon is only providing 720p video whereas Canon provides full 1080p in it’s cameras. As I mentioned in my post on my D3S test, I would have bought that camera if it had 1080p.

If you’re interested in doing high quality video with a dSLR then invest in a good quality shotgun microphone. The Azden SMX-10 microphone has excellent quality sound and is a great price, I use one with our Nikon D5000 for videoing the girls at home, may be I should have brought the D5000 along and kept it in my backpack for those video moments.

May 272010

Galapagos Hawk - photographed with 180mm f2.8 lens

This year’s photo tour to the wonderful Galapagos Islands was my third visit to the archipelago.

I recommended to my group that the most useful lens that they could take would be either a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII or the equivalent Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS II, I’m pretty sure that the majority of the photographers who took that lens would agree with that suggestion.

However, this was my first visit to Galapagos when I didn’t take that lens! Why not?

Last year, I decided to sell my Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses. The reason was that I found them too heavy and when I checked the metadata I found that I was primarily using them at focal lengths of 24mm, 50mm, 70mm and 200mm.

As I already had a Nikon 17-35mm f2.8, 50mm f1.4 and 180mm f2.8, I reckoned that I could buy the 85mm f1.8 and 105mm f2.8 VR Micro and my bases would be covered.

Spider on Genovesa - 105mm f2.8 VR Micro lens

Did I miss the 70-200mm?

Of the 1100 Galapagos photos that I took with a Nikon, 49 were taken with my 85mm, 360 with the 105mm and 150 were taken with the 180mm. When I used the 105mm lens it was quite often to do macro photos, so I would not have been able to use the 70-200mm lens at those times. I must admit that I didn’t miss the 70-200mm and certainly didn’t miss the weight. However, I still stand by my recommendation that a 70-200 f2.8 lens is the most useful lens for Galapagos, for most photographers.

Did I miss the 24-70mm?

On the wider side of things here are the stats; Using the 17-35mm zoom, 14 photos were taken between 22mm and 28mm, 20 were taken at 35mm . I also took 102 photos with my 50mm f1.4.

Despite taking fewer wider/normal photos, I did miss the 24-70mm lens! I think if I were to make video clips of some of the action that we saw, then that would be the lens that I’d want. However, I still don’t miss the weight and length of that lens.

Garth and Kimi photographing the first sunset. 17-35mm f2.8 at 17mm

The 24-70mm is not a lens that I miss in my regular photography, so it’s a dilemma that I’ll have to ponder on. If Nikon comes out with a new DX format camera that has 1080p video and D700 image quality then I could use the 17-35mm lens, capture sound and video for the same weight as the 24-70mm zoom.

Wide angle photos

I find the 17-35mm lens to be very useful. Of the 70 photos that I took with that lens, 30 were at 17mm. On a full frame camera, that is very wide! It’s the one Nikon zoom that I can’t do without and it’s the only zoom lens that I own.

What was the star lens!

Without a doubt, the star lens for me was my 300mm f2.8 VR lens. I took more photos with that lens (378) than with any other lens. Of course, if I had a DX format camera (1.5x crop) then my 180mm f2.8 would have given me a similar field of view as the 300mm but Nikon does not make a DX format camera that has the same image quality as the D3 series cameras or the D700.

Juvenile heron - 300mm f2.8 VR

What does Nikon need to do?

Nikon seriously needs to update it’s range of fixed focal length lenses. I love the 180mm f2.8 but it has the antiquated AF focusing instead of the newer AF-S system. Add VR to that lens and I’m sure it will be a winner. An AF-S version of the 24mm f2.8 lens and the 85mm lenses would also be appreciated.

When Nikon introduced a new 24mm lens a few months ago I was excited for about 15 seconds. I then released it was an f1.4 that weighs 620 grammes and costs over $2,300! Give me a break, I’m sure it’s useful for some people but not me.

Come on Nikon, AF-S has been around since 1996. It is time to put it in all of your regular lenses! Canon has had ultrasonic motors in it’s lenses since 1987 and they have a wonderful 200mm f2.8 L lens.

Nikon also needs to update it’s DX line up and come out with a professional quality camera that has 1080p video and around 14 to 18 megapixels. I think that too many pixels will have an adverse effect on image quality and high ISO capability.

Mar 132010

Kendra's bobcat was used as part of my test scene

I was recently loaned a Nikon D3S from Nikon Professional Services in Canada. Unfortunately, I became ill whilst I had the camera and was not able to go out and test it as extensively as I had hoped. This brief test of the D3S was carried out to see if I would upgrade my D3, it was not meant as a detailed review. However, here are some thoughts on the two new features that I was eager to try out; video and high ISO. Finally, there is a conclusion as to whether the D3S is worth buying….

Video

The D3S is Nikon’s first professional SLR to feature video. The video is easy to initiate, simply enter LiveView mode (now done by pressing the LV button on the back of the camera) then press the centre of the AF area select control and you are shooting video. With the dual CF slots, it is possible to record stills on one CF card and video on to the second card.

With a bit of cheating, it is possible to have autofocus (AF) whilst recording video handheld. This is done by setting the Liveview mode to tripod, even though you’re using the camera hand held. The AF with video is slow and noisy enough to be picked up by the camera’s microphones. You are much better off focusing manually but this takes some practice.

The video quality of the D3S is excellent and it can be used in some incredibly low light but I’m disappointed that Nikon restricted the video to 720p HD instead of 1080p HD. The 1080p video on the Canon 5DII is so good that that camera is being used by movie studios (albeit with some modifications) and some Nikon photographers are using Nikon equipment for stills and the Canon 5DII for video.

If I were to start doing video alongside stills then I am not convinced that the D3S is the best camera to use.

High ISO

The Nikon D3 already has low noise at high ISO settings. I have taken photographs with the D3 at 6,400 ISO and sold them as fine art prints. Despite such capabilities I sometimes wish that I could use even higher ISO’s and produce great prints. Therefore, when the D3S was announced I was very eager to see how much higher I could go. There are some comparison photos on my website taken by the D3 and the D3S at 6,400 ISO and 12,800 ISO. Click here to see the comparisons.

In my opinion, the verdict of these comparisons is that the D3S at 12,800 ISO is noticeably better than the D3 at 6,400 ISO. Unfortunately, the D3S at 25,600 ISO is too noisy to use for prints of wildlife.

This gives the D3S at least a one stop ISO advantage over the D3 but I don’t believe that the advantage is a much as two stops.

Conclusion

Is the D3S worth buying? If you’re in the market for a professional, digital SLR that has incredible high ISO capabilities then yes, it is worth buying as no other camera comes close.

On paper the difference between the D3 and the D700 seemed small (except for the price tag) but for me the D3 has always been worth the extra $2,000 because of it’s exceptional viewfinder, speed and handling. Now there is a huge difference between the D3S and the D700 and if you’re a wildlife or sports photographer trying to decide between the D3S and a D700  then I would strongly recommend the D3S.

However, if you already own a D3 then I’m not sure that it’s worthwhile replacing it with a D3S unless you absolutely need a one stop advantage in ISO. If it was a two stop advantage then I’m pretty sure I’d upgrade, I would also probably upgrade if the D3S could record 1080 HD video.

The D3S does have a bigger memory buffer but in two years of owning a D3 I’ve only once needed to shoot more than 16 RAW files (the limit on my camera) continuously.