Archive for the ‘Equipment Reviews’ Category
Most of WC’s readers will never have to dress to do outdoor photography at thirty below zero Farenheit. But for those who may have to do so, and those who are curious, WC offers the following pointers
The key bits here are the neck gaiter, the combination of glove liners and mittens and lots of layers.
A neck gaiter is one of the great inventions for keeping war, in the last 20 years. A simple double layer of soft fleece, it can keep your neck warm or, when the weather gets colder, it can be pulled up to cover your mouth and nose, right up to the eyes if need be. The fleece keeps you warm even when your breath makes it damp.
For photography, you need some manual dexterity, but it’s a bad idea to freeze your fingers. And you will freeze your fingers if you use gloves thin enough to manage the controls on your camera. The solution is light gloves and very large mittens. Pull the mittens off when you need to press those finicky little buttons, and put them back on as quickly as possible afterwards.
Layering and the ability to adjust layers is just as important. The ability to adjust the insulation to comfort without sweating is another key to remaining warm. Sweat is not your friend.
Finally, the down jacket has to be loose enough to allow you to keep your camera inside your outer layer. We’ll get to camera care at -30 F in another blog post.
WC is an Apple fanboy. WC owned an Apple II+, a Lisa computer, the first Macintosh computer in Fairbanks and has had an all-Mac office since 1988. WC has watched the rising and falling and rising fortunes of Apple across all those years. And remembers vividly when Apple was roadkill, left for dead on the side of the information highway.
Today, it’s a different story. This is the fifth anniversary of the iPhone – the first units shipped on June 29, 2007. And the iPhone is one of the most successful products in history. In just five years, Apple has sold 250 million iPhones. While doing so, Apple has generated revenues of $150 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – in just five years. Total revenue from just from iPhone sales at Apple exceeds all revenue at Microsoft, its former rival. A single product that didn’t exist five years ago is now bigger than the 30-year old company that was once considered so all-powerful that the government intervened to try to break it up.
The iPhone generates massive profits for Apple. The iPhone business generates something like $30 billion of profit per year. That’s more profit than just about any other business on the planet. It’s more profit than General Electric makes. It’s more profit than Microsoft makes. It’s more profit than Google makes. It’s more profit than Walmart makes. It’s almost as much profit as Exxon-Mobil generates. It’s made Apple the most valuable and the most profitable company on the planet.
On the positive side, along the way, Apple has created a whole new industry: Apps. There are some 635,000 apps for the iPhone and iPad available through iTunes. A mind-boggling number. There is, indeed, an App for that, and just about everything else. Thousands of programmers live very well writing apps for the iPhone.
Congratulations to Apple. Happy Birthday to the iPhone. Get ready for Apple’s next amazing product, which will — excuse me, WC has to take a call…
This is the second anniversary of WC’s purchase of a Gitzo GT2542L Series 2 6X Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod. There’s a lot to love about this piece of equipment. But it’s also failed WC two times in the field, and sheds parts like WC’s Border Collie sheds fur in June. Some details.
The carbon fiber technology is wonderful. Lightweight, strong and stable. It’s well worth the stiff price. Because it’s a four section tripod, it compacts down small enough to fit in a suitcase, while extending far enough that WC doesn’t have to hunch over to use a mounted camera, or raise the center column. The trade-off is that it requires nine wrist turns to set it up, a bit slower than a three piece tripod but not horribly so.
But as much as WC likes this tripod, there have been a constant series of problems:
- On a trip to Antarctica in 2010, one leg hinge broke, leaving WC with a near-useless “duopod.” The tripod had to be shipped to New Jersey for repairs, and was unavailable for almost six weeks.
- On a trip to southern Ecuador in 2011, the tripod head failed, quite early in the trip, triggering yet another trip to New Jersey, although only for three weeks this time.
- The tripod has screw-in rubber feet, which come unscrewed far too often. WC just ordered his third set of three. If you find a rubber tripod foot laying loose in the Western Hemisphere, it’s probably WC’s.
It may just be an uncommon run of bad luck. It may be that WC’s camera and telephoto, amounting to about 80% of the maximum recommended weight, is simply too heavy. Or it may be that WC is hard on equipment. But the bottom line is that it’s a wonderful product, when it works, which is only about two-thirds of the time.
WC will say that Gitzo has absolutely honored its five year warranty, and made each repair without much complaint. They’ve paid the UPS Second Day Air freight sending it back. And WC is on a first name basis with many members of the repair staff (Hi, Jhon!). New friends are always a plus.
But utterly reliable in field? Sorry. Nope.
If his readers have been paying attention, they are well aware that WC aspires to be a nature photographer, and particularly to photograph birds. WC recently picked up a new piece of equipment, over the protests of Mrs. WC: a new camera, an Olympus E-5, reviewed here:
Olympus famously uses the Four-thirds technology it helped develop in its DSLR products. That technology defines both the strengths and weaknesses of the DSLR product line, including the E-5.
The sensor in Olympus DSLR cameras is half the size of a 35mm frame. On the downside, that limits the number of pixels the sensor can capture, in comparison to a full-frame product. It also implies more noise than a full-frame sensor at the same ISO setting. The E-5 captures 12 megapixels; there are Canon and Nikon cameras in the same price range that get twice as many pixels. The E-5 can now shoot with acceptable levels of noise at ISO1600 (a four-fold improvement over the E-3). But, again, Canon and Nikon DLSR cameras in the same price range manage the same low noise at ISO3200 and even ISO6400. This is by no means the best low-light DSLR camera on the market. The E-series won’t be as long as it uses the Four-thirds technology.
But there are very real, very important advantages to the Fourth-thirds technology, too. The Zuiko lenses built to 4/3rds are quite simply the best DSLR lenses available in the world. It’s not just that they are razor-sharp, aberration free and well-built; the 4/3rds tech makes them focus faster, makes them lighter and superior to the equivalent Canon/Nikon glass. The Olympus 300mm f/2.8 Super Telephoto ED Lens for Olympus Digital SLR Cameras is by far the best telephoto lens WC has ever owned. Because image stabilization is in the camera, not in the lens, the form factor is smaller as well as lighter. The improvements to the E-5 play to these strengths.
WC just finished a 17 day trip into the tropics, photographing birds. WC used the E-5 for every shot. While the E-3 is a splendid camera, that that WC has happily used for years, the E-5 is so superior to the E-3 that WC never broke the E-3 out of his gear bag.
Some of those advantages:
(1) Much faster focusing, and more reliable – although still not ideal – focusing in low light. Focus acquisition with a teleconverter on is especially improved, and it’s now possible to shoot a bird in flight with the 300mm with a Olympus Zuiko EC-20 2x Teleconverter for Olympus Digital SLR Cameras mounted.
(2) Greatly improved performance in low light. Noise levels are acceptable to ISO1600, where the E-3 wasn’t much good below ISO400.
(3) Improved in-camera processing. Images emerge needing much less Photoshop work. The level of detail is simply extraordinary.
(4) Substantially improved multiple shooting, with a higher frames per second rate and a bigger buffer. There’s some improvement in the write speed as well, so you spend less time waiting for the buffer to write to media.
(5) Larger, more accurate LCD view screen. Pixel count and density are higher, and you can adjust the viewer for lighting levels.
(6) Greatly enhanced user configurability. As someone who is left-handed, that’s especially important to WC.
WC understands that the JPG processing is especially good, but WC shoot’s exclusively RAW, so there’s little benefit for him. Art filters aren’t of any use in nature photography, so WC can’t speak to the ten new art filters, either. The new video features are fine, but not WC’s primary goal.
If you have an investment in Zuiko lenses, or want the best possible glass for your work, then the E-5 is an easy choice. Beyond question, you’ll get better photos. If you haven’t invested in Zuiko, then the E-5 may be a more difficult choice. But if you are a nature photographer looking for the sharpest possible images, and not shooting in consistently low light, then Zuiko lenses and the E-5 are the tools of choice.
WC’s very highest recommendation.
WC’s only equipment failure in Antarctica was his tripod; not a small problem because with a big telephoto lens and low light, you can’t get a sharp photo with a handheld shot. Fortunately, the failure came fairly late in the trip.
The tripod failed at Neko Bay landing, when WC was standing five feet away. There was a loud crack, the tripod fell over, one leg broken completely loose and rolling down the hill.
Happily, the tripod was set pretty low, and the camera and lens landed in a soft patch of snow. Unhappily, the snow was covered in Gentoo Penguin guano, which it turns out is the very devil to clean off a big lens.
The tripod was made by Gitzo and has high-tech carbon fiber legs. Lightweight but amazingly strong, it was the metal hinge mount that had failed, and it simply could not be repaired in the field. It was a BDTP – a Beyond Duct Tape Problem.
So on WC’s return home, WC contacted Manfrotto, which performs service on Gitzo, and arranged for repairs, and shipped the tripod off via UPS Second Day on December 12.
Time passed. More time passed. The UPS tracking number said the tripod had been delivered to Manfrotto on December 15, but no one there would contact WC. Still more time passed. Finally, on January 5, WC reached a Real Human on the telephone. Yes, Manfrotto had the tripod. Yes, they’d be looking at it tomorrow.
Time passed. More time passed. WC emailed his contact. The tripod was repaired and had shipped January 7. Under warranty, so no charge.
Sure enough, the tripod arrived – not at the address WC had requested – on January 11. Repaired using new parts, it is its old self again, ready to be lugged around this weekend for some wintering duck shots.
The final score for Manfrotto:
Customer Responsiveness = C-
Customer Service = A+
As a nature photographer, the weight of your gear is always a serious consideration. Big lenses are heavy; there’s no way around it. And in the age of digital photography, you simply have to carry a laptop computer to review what you have shot. Since there’s no practical way to reduce the weight of lenses, WC decided recently to try and reduce the weight of the laptop, and sprang for a new MacBook Air.
WC doesn’t want to get into the Mac/PC holy wars. WC is a Mac user; he’s comfortable with the Mac operating system, owns Mac software, and appreciates the greatly reduced risk of malware. What WC was looking for was a Mac laptop that would support Aperture, WC’s photo management software, and Adobe Photoshop CS5, his photo-editing software. The laptop would have to have enough storage to accommodate the very large numbers of photos WC takes, especially because WC shoots in RAW mode, resulting in very large files. The laptop had to have decent battery life, even when running processor-intensive software like Aperture and Photoshop. And finally, the idea was to save weight over WC’s aging 2006 MacBook Pro 15 inch laptop, which weighs in at 8 pounds. An iPad lacks the storage and still doesn’t have the software to manage large RAW files.
Initially, WC feared the new 13 inch MacBook Air might be under-powered for his needs. But there is a processor upgrade available as an option. There’s also an upgrade to the flash drive from 128 GB to 256 GB. Photoshop always runs better with more RAM, so WC also sprang for the maximum available RAM, 4 GB. The upgraded MacBook Air wasn’t inexpensive, but like all Apple products, it wasn’t cheap, either.
The laptop is a pleasure to use and a featherweight to carry. the 13 inch model weighs just 2.9 pounds and tapers from an astonishingly thin .11 inches to .68 inches. It has two USB ports, a headphone jack, a microphone jack, an Smart Disk port for direct insertion of SD cards and a Mini DisplayPort for connecting to external displays. The keyboard is not backlit, which makes it slightly less usable on those long night jet flights. Screen resolution is very good and color calibration is awesome.
WC timed the battery life on a flight from Los Angeles to Lima, doing Photoshop work the whole way. From full charge to the 5% shutdown warning, WC got 6 hours and 36 minutes of use, more than twice the time his old MacBook Pro could muster.
The laptop has no moving parts; there’s no hard disk to be damaged by air turbulence or the mountainous waves of the Drake Passage. The flash drive is much, much faster than a hard disk. For example, Photoshop launches in 7 seconds, compared to 45 seconds on WC’s Mac Pro workstation. Photoshop’s performance on the MacBook Air is perfectly acceptable.
The 256 GB flash drive easily held the 11,000 photos WC took on his last trip, along with WC’s oversized selection of application software and his fairly extensive iTunes library.
Bottom line: This is a wonderful laptop, that does everything its thicker, heavier cousins can do. Yes, it’s a bit spendy, but if you compare it with similarly configured Windows machines, it’s not that much more expensive. If weight is an issue, if extended battery life is an issue, this is a near-perfect laptop. Solidly built, too.
WC’s very highest recommendation.
Folks, it’s -40 F outdoors right now. Keeping warm isn’t just comfortable, it can be a matter of life and death. Or at least serious risk of frost bite. Stuff that keeps you warm is absolutely critical. And keeping your feet warm is an important part of the goal.
Which takes WC to Steger Mukluks. They are simply the very best way to keep your feet warm in the very coldest temperatures.
WC is partial to the Ojibwa short style, which comes about halfway up your calf. They have a crepe rubber sole that provides good traction on even glare ice. The lower parts are tanned moosehide, which is durable but allows your feet to breathe. The upper parts are canvas, water-resistant but, again, breathable. The liners are 9-mm wool, with a 9-mm wool inner sole. WC places plastic arch supports between the liners and the inner sole for arch support.
If your feet overheat and sweat, the moisture can escape instead of chilling your feet. So you can wear them inside without your feet drowning in sweat. The mukluks are marvelously light on your feet. And they provide great traction. The mukluks provide enough foot protection that you can lash on snowshoes and not have chafe or friction points. With gaiters or snow pants, you can post-hole in snow all day without your feet getting wet or cold.
WC finds a pair of Steger mukluks will last two full winters of hard use. You can sometimes stretch it to three by timely sole repairs with ShoeGoo and replacement felt liners.
Steger mukluks aren’t for everyone. There’s no toe protection; you wouldn’t want to wear them in industrial work, and maybe not even splitting wood. And while you can waterproof them, it will cost you the critical breathability. WC doesn’t recommend them for wet conditions. But otherwise, these are darn near a perfect product. WC has worn them on Christmas Bird Counts at -50F, on snowshoe trips into wilderness and on trips to the grocery store. Steger Mukluks have performed brilliantly in each case. A fine product. WC gives them his very highest recommendation.
WC likes technology, and can usually be found with various electronic gadgets. But not Microsoft; never Microsoft.
But it is amusing the Microsoft killed its new smart phone, the Kin (formerly Pink), just seven weeks after first shipping it. There’s a pretty amusing obituary over at Infoworld.
Consumer products that are very cool can be expensive; there are millions of Apple iPhones that prove that. Consumer products can be geeky and inexpensive; the increasing numbers of Android smart phones and their cousins prove that. But products cannot be klutzy and expensive, or expensive to use and targeted to kids who can’t afford expensive.
There was a time when Microsoft could dictate taste. That time is at least a decade behind us. In the technology universe, that’s forever. That’s ten generations of smart phones. Now Microsoft is in catch-up mode, but seems to lack the imagination to keep up.
Perhaps its a sign of old age. WC, increasingly, is having a hard time keeping up, too. Some corporations can stay nimble. Apple, so far.
Microsoft, not so much.
Excuse me, have to take a call on my cell phone.
Wickersham’s Conscience was pretty enthusiastic about the Olympus E-30, the company’s most recent addition to the E-series digital single lens reflect camera. After all, it got excellent reviews from Digital Photography Review and Amazon. It seemed like an ideal back-up camera, replacing my somewhat dated E-500 as the emergency backup SLR. Shucks, from the strength of the reviews, it might even supplant the E-3.
The reality was disappointing. Overall, the photo quality is distinctly inferior to the E-3, and perhaps to the E-500. Most notably, lenses that shoot crisply and sharply on the E-3 are just a bit soft on the E-30.
WC has done all obvious stuff: reset the camera, checked with Olympus America for firmware updates (there weren’t any), and tried tweaking settings. Nothing seems to help. At this point, it’s kind of a bust. WC finds it impossible to get really crisp photos. When you photograph birds, that’s simply critical.
As an exercise, WC set up a 300mm f2.8 lens on a tripod, and took the same photo, at the same exposure, with the E-3 body and with the E-30 body, after resetting both camera to their default settings, with both cameras in “portrait” mode. Using Photoshop CS4, WC cropped both images by 50% and examined the results. The E-3 image was noticeably crisper. More importantly, after running his usual sharpening drill, the E-3 image was significantly sharper.
This, as they say, is an unexpected result. The E-30 has 12.3 megapixels, as against the E-3′s mere 10.1 Mpx. And the E-30 presumably benefits from newer technology in both firmware and sensors. Yet there it is; for avian photography, at least, the E-30 is a distinctly inferior camera.
WC sold a dozen or so bird photos to a local company recently. He was a little alarmed to learn that (a) they were going to print them at 36 inches by 48 inches, and (b) they were going to use a local vendor here in Fairbanks, Alaska to do the printing.
After all, these are 10.1 megapixel Olympus E-3 photos, some of them cropped down a bit from that. There’s no way that the pixels on that tiny Olympus Four-Thirds sensor were going to be adequate for the 155 million necessary to print at even 300dpi.
WC just saw the prints. They are stunning. You have to be within 10 inches or so of the photo to make out any loss of detail (it’s 1440dpi), the colors are perfect, they are vivid and the printing comes to within a quarter inch of the edge of the page. The company is Date-Line Printing, and the printer they use is a Xerox 8265. WC doesn’t know whether the prints are enlarged in a computer or on the printer itself. And they only charge $75 per print.
WC is very, very impressed. Kudos to Xerox and Date-Line. First rate stuff.
If you shoot in RAW and manage large numbers of photos, you need to give very serious consideration to Aperture 2. The program provides truly outstanding RAW conversion tools – greatly superior to Adobe’s free Digital Negative Converter. It provides very flexible, easy-to-use tools to compare and rate photos, including stacks, ratings and comparison tools. The library management tools are truly outstanding, giving you multiple levels of keywords, a variety of tools for organizing your shots, and a hierarchical system for organization. And it links tightly to the photo editing application(s) of your choice.
Batch processing is well-supported, both on import and on photo selections. Essentially all data associated with the photos – both image details and EXIF – can be handled individually or at a batch level.
Famously, Aperture makes its edits to photos by linked mathematical formulas; the RAW photo itself is not touched. So manipulations can always be reversed. This also keeps the photo database from growing through duplicate files; there’s just one file, and a series of small files representing the edits.
Aperture isn’t perfect. While it is adequate for simple edits to photos, you’ll still need a tool like Photoshop or Elements to perform serious adjustments to your photos. Aperture does a fine job of working with those photo editors. And Apple can be slow – sometimes, seriously slow – supporting the RAW formats of newly released cameras. In the case of the Olympus E-3, the camera was released for five months before Aperture could import its RAW format. There are always workarounds – Adobe DNG if nothing else – and in fairness to Apple, its Aperture RAW converters are outstanding, but be prepared for a wait if you have new model camera. And Aperture demands significant resources: at least G5 (an Intel chip is better), at least 2 GB RAM (4GB much better), an approved video card, hard drive space adequate to your projected library and a backup or removable drive to hold a backup (a “vault”).
Perhaps best of all, Aperture lets you define your own workflow. Adobe Lightroom, by contrast, pretty much imposes its workflow structure on you. You can do things in the order you want, not the order some programmer wants.
If you are new to Aperture, I recommend the Classroom in a Book tutorial, Apple Pro Training Series: Aperture 2 (Apple Pro Training Series).
I could not be happier with this program. I have some 35,000 shots, and add 1,000-2,000 per month. It has been flawless. And I’ve never lost a photo.
My highest recommendation.
UPDATE: See WC’s review of Aperture 3.0.
While I was in Ecuador last month, the bayonet mount on my trusty, faithful Zuiko 300mm f2.8 partially detached. Specifically, two of the four screws that hold the bayonet mount to the lens body unscrewed themselves, causing the lens to flop around. This is the lens, with a 2.0 teleconverter, that more or less lives on my digital single lens reflex camera. That whole rig is clamped onto a Manfrotto tripod that spends most of the time rising on my shoulder. The camera is heavy; the lens is heavy. The bayonet mount takes a lot of stress.
I was able to find one of the screws and, in Quito, to persuade a nice young lady at a camera shop to loan me a jeweler’s screwdriver to make a temporary repair. The lens worked fine with my bubblegum and shoestring patch the rest of the Ecuador trip.
But on my return home I knew it was going to have to go in to Olympus America for repairs. I got an authorization number from Olympus, and shipped it via UPS to suburban Los Angeles. This is its second trip to the repair shop. The first time was for a busted lens hood when I slipped on ice in Kodiak Alaska. I fell and landed on the lens. The lens was fine but the hood was damaged. I cracked two ribs landing on the lens. Olympus ad copy: “The 300mm – tougher than a photographer’s ribs.” Or perhaps not.
So now I’m jonesing, waiting for my most Most Valuable Player to come back from the lens doctor. It’s long out of warranty, and the repair costs are going to approach 10% of purchase price, but given the work I’ve put the lend through, I’m not too upset. And it’s unquestionably the best lens I’ve ever owned.
But life without the 300mm is hard. I’m missing opportunities.
I am a nature photographer, and spend significant intervals a long ways from a power outlet. Digital cameras famously munch batteries. You can only pack so many batteries in the field. So what to do?
The last few months – at least back when Alaska still had sunlight – I’ve experimented with solar chargers to keep the lithium ion batteries for my digital camera charged up. I am pleased to report that the Brunton 26 Watt Foldable Solar Array works even better than specified. I was able to charge two Olympus BLM-1 batteries simultaneously, in a couple hours in sunny conditions and in six hours in cloudy conditions. Even when the temperature fell as low as 25 F, the charger worked just fine.
The unit folds up into a small comparatively small bag. You wouldn’t use it for ultralight backpacking, but it worked fine for me on a backacking trip and a rafting trip, and is comparatively light in relation to my camera gear. The charger got rained on, got mud splashed on it, and was stepped on my a small child, and survived it all just fine.
The Brunton ships with two power outlets on the back, and a decent selection of adapter cables. This photo shows part of the Brunton charger, with the back flipped over, showing the power outlet and the cables to get the juice to the Impact battery charger. The Brunton isn’t cheap. You can buy lower wattage folding solar chargers, but they take forever to charge a battery. In the field, if solar chargers have to work, they have to charge at least as fast as you run the batteries down. In cold conditions, my Olympus E-3 goes through 4 batteries (two sets of two batteries) in a normal day’s use. I need all 26 watts to keep up.
Sturdy, durable, portable, powerful and effective. Highly recommended.
I mostly photograph wild birds, usually with a Zuiko 300mm f2.8 lens, often combined with a 2.0X teleconverter.
It’s a lot of lens, but the E-3 handles it superbly. Quick, accurate focus. Terrific exposure control, even in automatic settings. Enough pixels that you can crop in post-processing without compromising quality. Rapid shooting, even in RAW mode. I’m a fairly serious photographer and this camera does everything I need. It even feels good in the hand. All this an in-camera image stabilization as well. The image stabilization alone allows you to shoot hand-held with a long lens down to 1/250 second.
It’s sturdy, too. The camera and lens set up spend most days clamped to a tripod, balanced on my shoulder, banging into shrubbery, or perched on rocks or in swamps. It’s amazingly solid.
Unlike the E-500, the E-3 sports a true USB-2 connection, so downloads of photos are much quicker.
Some reviewers have said that some earlier Olympus lenses don’t work with the E-3. That’s inaccurate. Some older lenses and flashes can’t take advantage of some of the advanced features in the E-3, but they still work just fine. My Zuiko 300mm f2.8 is proof of that. And yes, it does focus more quickly on the E-3 than on the E-1 or the E-500.
If you are a nature photographer, I strongly recommend the Olympus E-3. It’s a terrific example of a state of the art digital single lens reflex camera.