Traveling Light to the Himalayas

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The small metal clip doubles as a bottle opener.

The small metal clip doubles as a bottle opener.

There are many obvious perks to being a professional photographer. These include traveling, meeting new people, and experiencing incredible, life moments.
But there is another perk that most photographers don’t talk about – the joy of buying shiny new camera equipment along with the camera bags and back packs in which to carry them.

For whatever reason, camera equipment is considered sexier while bags have been relegated to the step-child of a photographer’s tools. However some photographers (including myself) will admit to being a bag addict while others will not come out of the bag closet. In fact, I have a closet in New York that is not only dedicated to bags and packs, but is also bursting at the seams with these wonderful necessities. Anytime I can find an excuse to to acquire a new bag, my day is brightened.

Currently, I am on my way to the Himalayas where I will be trekking through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Traveling light is paramount to my trip. I surveyed my stash of bags and decided to take the Tenba Shootout backpack which worked so well for me while I was in Morocco last month. Rugged with good pockets, it fits my body well and It’s built in rain cover was perfect protection in the desert sandstorms.

Traveling light also means carrying lighter weight cameras. I chose the Sony A7 series, full frame cameras along with a minimal amount of lenses. These included three zooms: 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200. I also included the 55mm f/1.8 lens for low light situations, and a small flash. Everything fit into the Tenba pack and I still had enough room for various accessories and some snacks.

I own bigger packs which hold a lot of equipment but their weight requires a mule to carry them. I can comfortably carry the lighter pack myself and focus on the biggest perk of my profession – having fun taking pictures.

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Working with the new Panasonic GH3

 

This summer Panasonic asked me to test their new mirrorless, micro four thirds camera, the GH3. I took this opportunity to shoot in southern Utah, one of my favorite places. You can follow my adventures with this great camera. I am told it will be available in December.

Alaska through the lens of Panasonic’s Compact System Cameras

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I have been editing and processing the photos I shot two weeks ago on my ‘workshop/cruise’ through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. On that trip I took no Canon equipment; I only had the Lumix cameras that were loaned to me by Panasonic. Although I was impressed by their autofocus and the lack of shutter delay, it took me awhile to get used to viewing through the Electronic Viewfinder because the highlights appear to look blown out. I also needed to adjust to the ergonomics of the Panasonic bodies which differ from Canons. Eventually however the cameras started to feel good in my hands and I was able to have fun shooting photos from the ship and in the bouncing, Zodiac boats.

I had three Panasonic cameras with me: the GF2 which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the GH2 and a prototype of the recently announced G3. One thing is certain – these cameras and their lenses are all very small, light and compact. I use the GF2 as a walk around camera with the 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Many of the images I shot on this trip were with the longer zoom lenses, the 14-140, 45-200 and 100-300. Since the sensor on these cameras is half the size of a ‘full sized’ sensor, the focal lengths of the lenses can effectively be doubled. Consequently, I’m working with varied length optics that are much smaller than what I’m used to carrying. The downside is that the lenses are a bit slow, usually varying between f4-5.6, but still usable by boosting the ISO and keeping the stabilizers on.

The experience of working with any new cameras, whether going large to medium format ( as I did a couple of months ago) or going small with the Panasonics is like being a kid with new toys!. It’s exhilarating. Although the G3 is slightly larger than my “GF2 walk around camera” it acts like a grownup camera. It has the same sensor as the GH2 and is just as responsive and as fast. Panasonic addressed some of the issues I’ve had with the GH2 in the G3, specifically the inability to turn off the focus point on the LED screen so that it cannot change position if you accidentally touch it. The battery life in the G3 is much improved over the battery life in the GH2, even though it’s using the smaller battery found in the GF2.

The quality of the raw files from the GH2 and the GF2 cameras was beyond what I expected. I processed the files using Lightroom and used its fabulous noise reduction when I was working at above ISO 800. The raw files were running slightly red which was easily fixed. Unfortunately I can’t address the G3 raw files at this time. The camera is so new that neither my Adobe nor Capture 1 products will process them. I did get a disk with a new version of Panasonic’s raw processor but it currently only works on a windows platform, which is not in my Mac workflow. I shot full size JPEGS+ Raw on the G3 with the intention of processing the raw files in the immediate future. However the G3 jpegs looked very good, once I added some sharpening and clarity to them. As this was a prototype and I rarely shoot jpegs, I was at the whim of the camera’s processing algorithm.

Many of the photo enthusiasts on the ship were working with much larger Nikons and Canons and were intrigued by my new set of equipment and my initial fumbling through various buttons. They wanted to play with my “new toys”. By the second day I was handling the equipment like a pro.

Panasonic’s GF-2: Small Camera Big Benefits

Beach Florida Keys 14mm lens ISO 200

I’ve been shooting for the past few months in various situations with the Panasonic Lumix GF-2 mirrorless DSLR and I’m very impressed with the camera. It is responsive, the autofocus is quick and accurate and the shutter lag is minimal. Its small size, definitely a plus has made it my ‘always have with me’ camera. Most of the time I’ve used it with the 14mm, 2.5 pancake lens (28mm equivalent) but a couple of weeks ago the folks at Panasonic sent me the 20mm, 1.7 lens (40mm equivalent) and a small, electronic viewfinder that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. This combination works well for my purposes, although it took some time for me to get accustomed to using an electronic viewfinder. I like shooting with a viewfinder because I can hold the camera steadier when I press it against my face as opposed to extending the camera away from me to look at the LCD. Although I usually shoot with a full frame 22 megapixel camera, the file quality on the GF-2’s half size 12 megapixel sensor looks very good and I feel comfortable at an ISO setting at 1200. And with the noise controls in the recent Photoshop and Lightroom raw converters, it’s possible to work with this camera at even higher ISO ‘s.

20mm lens at f/2 ISO 1000 mixed light

Crop of face. Some noise reduction added in Lightroom

My main concern with the GF-2 and the larger GH-2 model is that there is no way to lock the LCD touchscreen’s focus point. If you pick up the camera and touch the LCD while it’s active, there is a good chance that you will move the focus point. I’ve talked with Panasonic about this issue and hopefully the problem can be solved in a future firmware update. And the new Panasonic G3 prototype camera I’m currently testing does have a menu function that will lock the focus point.

Over the years I’ve carried many point and shoot cameras but with their tiny sensors and built in zoom lenses, they’ve never reached the quality level that is needed to publish large images in magazines. For a non professional camera, you can count on the GF-2 to produce a high quality image. I’ve made several nice 17×22 inch prints from this camera with files shot at ISO 800 but as with any camera, large print quality is dependent on many factors besides ISO, including using a tripod at slower shutter speeds and picking the sharpest f stop for your particular lens. Panasonic offers many interchangeable, zoom lenses for the GF-2 however some are larger than the camera. For my purposes of a ‘carry with you camera’ I prefer the 14mm or 20mm pancake lenses. An added plus of using this camera with the small lenses is that you don’t look like a professional and you can get into photographic situations where being a ‘pro’ may cause issues.

With Spring upon us the urge to grab your cameras and get out and shoot is great. On a recent morning while I walked to the gym, I passed by an unusually vibrant bed of tulips, not a typical site in my Manhattan neighborhood. I grabbed the GF-2 out of my pocket and though I had the 14mm lens on the camera, I was able to get in close to one of the flowers (yes these lenses focus close) and make a lovely image.

The camera with you is the best camera you have and the GF-2 is the best camera you can always have with you.

Tulip shoot with the 14mm Pancake lens ISO 100

Compact System Cameras, Mirrorless DSLR, Next Generation Cameras – Pick a Name these cameras are making their mark

Although I love my Canon S90 point and shoot, I decided to purchase a mirrorless DSLR. This small size camera with its larger sensor will give me better quality images than my point and shoot. I did my research and narrowed my choice down to the 14 megapixel Sony NEX-5 or the 12 megapixel Panasonic Lumix GF-1. Both are very good cameras and both come with pros and cons.

Sony NEX-5

The Sony NEX-5 does better at higher ISO’s, does sweep panoramas, has a tilt out LCD screen and has as internal stabilization that works for all lenses. I plan on using a pancake lens with my system to keep the package small. Sony has a 16mm lens that’s equivalent to a 24mm on a full frame camera. It’s a good lens but it may be too wide for my everyday use. For me, the down side of the Sony is that it doesn’t have a hot shoe or a built in flash. I like having a hot shoe because I can slide an optical viewfinder on the camera. The optical finder helps me to compose in bright sunlight when the LCD screen is difficult to read. The finder also is a plus when shooting at slower shutter speeds. It allows me to press the camera against my face for added stability. Although the Sony has no built in flash, there is a small add on unit, but it is a bit awkward and changes the camera’s profile.

Panasonic Lumix GF-1

The Panasonic GF-1 does have a small built in flash and a hot shoe. However the sensor is a little smaller than the Sony and the image quality at higher ISOs isn’t as good. The GF-1 is larger than the Sony but it fits my hands better. I like the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever on the GF-1 in contrast to the Sony’s exposure and drive functions, which are buried in a menu on the LCD screen and are not as user friendly. As far as pancake lenses go, the GF-1 comes with a 20mm lens that is the equivalent of a 40mm on a full frame camera. This lens is too long for me and I would prefer something wider. That problem has been addressed by Panasonic with the addition of a14mm lens, equivalent to a 28mm on a full frame. This focal length works well for my purposes.

Yesterday, still undecided on which camera to buy I stopped at Fotocare my camera store in New York. I had the opportunity to play around with the new Panasonic Lumix GF-2, which will be available next month. What I had read about this camera didn’t impress me: the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever had been eliminated and installed into the touch screen menu in order to make the camera smaller and more competitive with the Sony. I thought these changes would be a deal breaker and would force me to look around for the soon to be discontinued GF-1 if I decided to go the Panasonic Lumix route. I was pleasantly surprised, however when I found that these functions were extremely easy to access and would not be an issue. The newer Lumix GF-2 also has the ability to shoot almost 3 frames per second, a rate fast enough to capture changes in people’s expressions. It also has a new processor which I hope will make better images at the higher ISOs. For video users, the camera shoots 1080 hi definition video a feature the Sony also has.

There are some other good, small pocket sized mirrorless DSLR cameras on the market; the Olympus Pen EP-2, or the Samsung NX10 are two of the more popular ones. And all these cameras have a lot more features than I mentioned. My choice is based on how and what I shoot. You can find more detailed reviews and information on the web, a good starting point is the bythom website. As of this posting, however the GF-2 looks like the camera that will work for me. I hope to have one in my hands in the next few weeks to use in a real world test. I will post the results on the blog.

The way the digital camera market is changing, Sony may come out with a new camera by the time I return from my current trip to Abu Dhabi. Nikon plans to enter the marketplace in the near future and I’m sure Canon won’t be far behind. One thing is certain -though you can’t keep a head of technology, you still can keep taking pictures with the equipment you have.

New Schneider Lenses for Digital SLR Cameras

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a look at the new Schneider PC-Tilt Shift lenses at the Photo Expo here in New York. Due to hit the stores sometime next year are a 50mm 2.8 PC-TS Super Angulon, 90mm 4.0 PC-TC Makro Symmar, and a 120mm 5.6 PC-TS Apo Digitar. The latter is for the Mamyia/Phase system, the first two are for full frame DSLR cameras. Why the excitement, when there is no wide angle version? Most photographers think of using perspective control and tilt shift with a wide angle lens to help eliminate distortion and keystoning in architectural photography. Perhaps Schneider was thinking that these corrections are now so easily done in Photoshop that there’s no longer a market for the wide PC-TS lenses. Last year Canon did come out with an improved 24mm and a new 17mm PC-TS lens to add to their line of a 45mm and 90mm PC-TS lenses. And Nikon also has their set of 24mm, 45mm and 85mm PC-TS lenses.

I’ve been using my Canon 90mm PC-TS the last few years to get better depth of field when shooting objects on an angle or a line of objects, which is the lens’ great advantage. And the new Schneider 90mm lens is also a macro lens, so you can use it on small objects and really pull in the depth of field. It’s an odd macro, as it only has a 1:4 magnification factor not, what I would consider ‘macro’. I was told that the lens is meant to be used with extension tubes, which of course don’t use any glass and just pull the lens further away from the sensor, giving close focusing ability.
I’ve tried to use my Canon 90 with extension tubes and it was a disaster. I was photographing dinosaur skulls in China and on the larger skulls I was able to shoot on an angle and hold depth of field from front to back using the tilt of the lens. However, when I had to shoot small skulls and needed to get in closer, the 90mm lens with extension tubes was not very sharp. I had to use my 100mm macro and reluctantly change my composition to get better depth of field, but no quite the aesthetic I was looking for.
I am hoping that since Schneider is calling their 90mm a macro lens, it has been designed to be sharp at the close focusing range. I’m in line to try out a prototype and will update you after I spend more time with it.
The other nice things about using the longer tilt shift lenses is that you can tilt to make areas go out of focus and the in focus areas have the ‘toy’ look to it, a technique used by some photographers. Also, though not the best way to do a panorama, you can shift the lens a bit, do a new frame and stitch that into a final panorama series.