Why I abandoned mirrorless cameras and returned to a Nikon DSLR

I really wanted to move to mirrorless cameras. I was keen to explore a lighter, smaller, more compact and cartable photographic experience. But, I needed to retain the same quality, or improve on what I had. It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped and so I’m now back with Nikon, well over a grand down in the pocket for the experience, and a whole lot wiser.

What I am going to say will be controversial to some readers, and that’s ok. Please remember that it is my very personal experience that I am relating, and not a statement of fact condemning any manufacture, cameras, or whatever. Please don’t see it as an invite to send me nasty messages or comments. They might even get published so you will only embarrass yourself. Oh, and all the images are Copyright of me so keep your mitts off.

For me, it started with Fujifilm – the X-Pro 1 came out with two free lenses, the 18mm (not really wide enough), and the 27mm (hmmm, ok as a standard). I loved it, and I took some great photos. But I wanted convenience of a zoom, because I spend a lot of time in wet conditions and I have a tendency to drop things…

I also wanted consistent f2.8.

I had a little trouble holding the very flat body when I was used to a more hand friendly shaped grip. My back and shoulders loved the experience and the photos were top quality, but I would have liked a wider wide angle and I would have liked better focussing, oh and longer battery life. And a zoom with f2.8…

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A zoom, any zoom, didn’t feel good on the rangefinder body, at least to me. It made the whole camera holding experience even worse. The X-Pro series is designed for fast primes, it is what they really excel at. But, I am not a street photographer, I’m usually found in fields, up to my arse in mud, frequently in the rain; I live in Scotland. The X-Pro 1, I don’t think, is weather sealed. I didn’t tempt it.

The lens range simply wasn’t there for me, not at that time. I do object to being forced to buy lenses just from Fujifilm. Ok, I have had Nikon bodies with Nikon lenses, but I have also really enjoyed some Tokina lenses and one (and only one) Sigma lens before.

So, anyway, it went away and was replaced by a Nikon D7100, which was all I could afford at the time. But I hadn’t quite got away from really wanting something smaller and lighter, especially at the end of 15mile hike. So that went away to be replaced by the Fujifilm XT-1, which was so much better suited to the zooms than the rangefinder bodies. I still struggled to find a zoom that met my needs, until in the end I got the 16-55mm/f2.8. It is an amazing lens, except that it is actually about the same weight and size as many DSLR lenses, which makes it very front heavy and somewhat unbalanced on the XT-1. I bought a grip, it was better, but now my camera weighed what a DSLR did and took up more space in my bag than my Nikon D7100 did!

It felt like it always wanted to fall forward, even on a tripod, and I had to really make sure it was secure. The lens weighed more than the body and it was huge by comparison. I wasn’t saving much weight, it was awkward to hold, but the results were great and I persevered. I love Fujifilm’s film simulations, nobody does it better, but…

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Ardvreck Castle. XT-1, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR
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Quirang, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

Then the Fujifilm XT-2 came out, and it offered (allegedly) a number of improvements over the XT-1. These, to me, included a flip out screen that went in two directions so you can use it in portrait as well as in landscape, and a jog-stick thing for moving the focus point. Believe me, it was a bit of a pain moving it on the XT-1. Unbeknown to me, my (bought used) XT-1 developed a row of dead pixels, and so I was delighted to part with whilst still under its used warranty (by three days, phew) and so I got a decent deal. It wasn’t very old, and it hadn’t take that many shots so this worried me, and it sat like the elephant in the room over my decision to stay with Fujifilm. I have used Nikon camera’s for years and never experience a dead pixel issue. Jammed shutters on Canon cameras have blighted all three I have owned but never had an issue with Nikon…(and hopefully that hasn’t just tempted fate).

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Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

I got my XT-2 brand new. It was like “hens teeth” to get one new, and it would be months or even years before any appeared on the used market. I was concerned by the amount of money I had now invested, and that dead pixel issue reared its head again when I found the XT-2 came with an option for pixel re-mapping in the menu. I wonder why they put that in….? Perhaps there had been complaints.

(Incidentally the OM PEN-F has that option too)

Anyway, more great pictures followed. Although to me, they weren’t actually as great as the ones from the XT-1. The new camera gave me 24MP but to me, there was something I can’t define that was missing from these images that is there with the lower 16MP images from the XT-1. Maybe it’s colour, dynamic range, I don’t know. Sometimes you just find something you like in a camera and moan when they change it. I had the same thing with the D200, the last of the CCD sensors. I still to this day like the look of a D200 image over a D700 image, and I shot both at the same time.

But back to my story – I now wanted more lenses, and the ones I wanted were all large, heavy, and to be frank they are darned expensive. You still have to stick with Fujifilm or go fully manual with a very excellent Samyang. The other odd thing that kept striking me when I picked it up and used the dials was that the XT-2 didn’t seem quite as well made as the XT-1 and I had concerns bit were going to drop off it. They didn’t but I was worried…

I know there are reports online of dials breaking so maybe my concern wasn’t totally unfounded. I didn’t see these until after I’d parted company with it, so they didn’t influence my decision.

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XT-2, with XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

If I had the money, and the desire, to go out an buy a mirrorless camera today then I think I would choose the XT-1 over the XT-2. It really does feel better and I actually preferred the results.

I personally think that 16MP is the peak of perfection for a 1.5x crop sensor and that 24MP pushes it too far. But that is me, and every time I post a negative comment or review I get hate mail, but there you go. That’s the internet for you!

To me, with the big lens and with or without a grip, it still felt unbalanced,. You put a heavy, big, lump of fast glass at the front of a body which ways less and has a small hand grip then it is going to.

I really began questioning my missing of the DSLR lens to body balance. I certainly wasn’t saving that much in weight, or size.

To be honest, I have never thought that size is much of an issue. It is more to do with the weight of what you are carrying that determines how pleasant that 10mile hike is going to be. My camera bag remains the same and so I just move padding around to accommodate the size of the items within. I think there is where actually mirrorless manufacturers are going wrong. Having a decent size gives you a secure and comfortable grip in use, and this doesn’t change because hands are, basically, still hands. It isn’t space that’s an issue for me, it is weight.

Also, I am used to carrying my DSLR one handed, it’s just the way that I work. My Fuji’s both really required me to get neck straps because they weren’t comfortable in the hand for very long, and I have real neck issues. My neck issues were one of the reasons I wanted to lighten the load, so I definitely didn’t want my camera back around there again. Without having something to tuck your fingers around it isn’t comfy to single hand hold and wander about with. So it the camera goes around your neck, or in your bag. If it’s in your bag you take less pictures.

I figured that if I was going to go light, then I wanted to be balanced and really light. I wasn’t convinced by the argument that a bigger sensor is better, I think it’s down to the number of pixel balanced with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor can take more pixels of the same size as a small sensor, if that makes sense. I think, from my personal experience that there is a optimum point. With a compact it’s 10MP, with a 4/3rd it’s probably around 12MP, with 1.5x crops it’s around 16MP, and with full frame 35mm then its around 24MP. That’s my best guess. Yes, if you are printing big enough to notice the difference it will be important, but most of us aren’t.

I also don’t buy the whole thing of needing lots of pixels even when you do print large. I’ve printed to 6ft x 4ft fine art print from a 10MP Nikon D200 native file, converted to jpeg from the raw, and I have printed A3 dps* brochures from a 3MP Nikon/Kodak camera (back in the 1990s) that was a lot worse than 90% of current mobile phones! But, the quality and ability to render colours and tonality is vitally important, more so than how many you have.

I firmly believe that dynamic range is very important, because if you increase that then you already reduce the noise in the shadows and reduce the chance of burned out highlights. You reduce the compromises, and you reduce the need for external filtration. I want cameras to see the range we see, and we are still a long way from that. The human eye is very adaptable, not so much as some birds and animals but way better than a camera.

So, anyway, I thought I’d switch to Olympus (and if you’ve read my other posts then you know how that turned out…)

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Olympus PEN-F, 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 (in camera jpeg)

I guess in the end part of it was that I really missed the familiarity that comes with years of using Nikon. The menus are familiar, the buttons are (largely) in the same place. I favour Nikon over Canon for two reasons (and here I start another fight) – firstly, in over 25 years, I have only ever had three cameras pack up mid-shoot and they were all Canon’s and all with terminally jammed shutters. Secondly, they move the controls and buttons about and I can’t be doing with relearning a new camera as you’ll also know from my things-i-dont-like-about-the-olympus-pen-f post

Ten minutes with any Nikon and I can use it, in the dark, or at least without looking. I take more photos because I’m not messing about in menus, trying to find things. It feels good in my hand. It feels like an extension of me, and that allows me to get on with the creative art of image making.

I keep more images, because I take more images, and because I am not messing about in menus and not getting the results I think I’m going to get. Or missing the shot because I haven’t found the settings I want.

So, I am going back to big and heavy.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 nano coated bulbous wotsit

Back to a weighty DSLR. Back to big heavy lenses (not that I went very far away with that bit).

I went to my local used dealer and played around with a Nikon D600. Yes, they have a reputation for dust but to be honest if you pick one up now then they’ve either not had an issue, been back to Nikon for free to have it sorted, or the original owner would have got it replaced by a D610 by Nikon F.O.C. So it’s probably now a bit undeserved, unless you get one from a really lazy owner. It does however make them daft cheap, for what you’re getting.

I played with it for ten minutes and it felt like coming home. It sounds silly but I didn’t need to look at the controls more than once or twice, and, within minutes I had the settings the way I wanted them and saved to custom memory. It was just comfortable…

…welcome home.

And, I now I also have full frame! And with my ideal of 24MP.

I also now have balance! I can use the camera with one hand again, even with the bulbous wotsit (Nikon AF-S 14-24/2.8). The lenses, even the big ones, balance on the camera. I’ve gone a generation back to get the body, and spent the real money on the glass (always the best plan because you’ll change your bodies every few years but good glass lasts, well almost, forever).

My osteopath won’t like it….

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But I do.

And hey, my DSLR with a little 50mm/f1.8 prime even weighs less than my XT-2 with the zoom.

*double page spread, ie. an A3 centrefold in an A4 product

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Billingham F-Stop series – f2.8, first impressions

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f2.8 (L) in Khaki Fibrenyte/Chocolate leather, Hadley Digital (R) in Khaki canvas/Tan leather.

The Billingham F-Stop range is one of those quiet little back burners that hasn’t really been appreciated as it sits in the shadow of the renowned Hadley range. But it shouldn’t, because it’s actually, I think from my initial impressions, a better bag.

IMG_0454Let me explain…

To the left there you will see my Billingham Hadley Pro that I had a love/hate relationship with. I loved the waterproofing, the style, the robustness, the look, but it was always, in my view, dimensionally ‘wrong’.

IMG_0456It was so deep that you lost your mirrorless in it and ended up with things stacked on top one another, but it was so shallow front to back that you couldn’t use it very easily for a DSLR, and certainly not one with a grip. It was trying to fit everything and ended up fitting nothing as well as it might.

I bought the Hadley Pro to replace the Hadley Small, which was actually a better overall size (not so tall, not so wide), but it has the same depth issue.

These bags are Billingham’s biggest sellers, so people do love them, and I can see why. The removable interior to create a great waterproof messenger bag is simply brilliant, although I never removed mine.

The Hadley Pro is W350mm x D120mm x H280mm, but that D is tapered so you only get 120mm/4.75″ in the centre. It weighs in at 1.01kg or 2.23lbs, has two front dump pockets and one zipped rear pocket.

I was very surprised when the Digital turned up having put on a little tubbiness around it’s middle. I was also delighted.

The Hadley Digital, which I reviewed yesterday, is W210mm x D130mm x H210mm and the internal depth measurements are most telling D100mm for the Digital compared with 80mm for the Hadley Pro. As I said, the smaller bag actually has more depth and because it’s across the whole width of the bag, that makes it far more useful. Especially for anything bigger than a very small DSLR, or bigger than an Olympus OM-D/PEN-F sized mirrorless camera system.

My almost favourite bag, possibly of all time, was really the Hadley Small, which comes in at W290mm x D120mm x H220mm, 0.70kg/1.54lbs. Although it is quite a bit less in the width, the fact it also isn’t as tall made it, for me, much better with a mirrorless kit as I wasn’t stacking so much up. The Hadley Small and the Hadley Pro are exactly the same depth at their biggest (in the middle). The difference in weight is partly down to the size and partly down to the inclusion of the reinforced top handle on the Pro, which is missing from the Small.

Now, lots of people don’t mind their bag bowing out in the middle to accommodate their camera bodies, I know this because, as I said, the Hadley range is Billinghams’ biggest seller and the Pro is the daddy of them all and Billingham’s best seller of all.

The thing was, I could never get comfortable with it. Which is what lead me to look for something that was essentially a Hadley Small, but with more front to back depth. I also wanted the ability to take an iPad with me again (Digital isn’t big enough and doesn’t have a pocket for it), plus personal items such as my phone and purse, and have all round all season protection for my gear. I carry my camera with me, everywhere, everyday. You never know when you’ll get that once in a lifetime shot.

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So, meet the much ignored F-Stop. This example is the f2.8 (the f4 was evidently smaller but, quickly, discontinued, and the f1.4, which is still available, is a bit bigger).

The f2.8 dimensions are W300 x D150 x H240 (all in millimetres and external measurements). The internals are W270 x D120 x H190.

Compare that to the Hadley Small – external W290 x D120 x H220, internal W260 x D80 x H190. Internally, the f2.8 has 10mm extra width, which is neither hear nor there, but 30mm extra depth, which makes a huge difference to what bodies I can put inside and in what positions, and internally the height is exactly the same.

Compare it to the Hadley Pro – external W350 x D120 x H280, internal W340 x D80 x H230. I have less width, but I have again 30cm more depth, and I lose a bit on height, which I don’t actually need, unless I have a 70-200/2.8 to worry about. If I did want to carry the 70-200/2.8 plus more lenses I would need a bigger bag than either range anyway.

The f1.4 is even closer to the Hadley Pro – external W360 x D150 x H240, internal W310 x D120 x H190. I’d be losing a little height but I’d be gaining a whole 40mm of internal depth front to back and it goes right the way across. It’s boxy, but it’s good.

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I get the same flap to cover the gear so that it is protected from all sides. And one big dump pocket which I find more useful that the two side by side pockets of the Hadley range.
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iPad pocket, which will take a 9.5″ iPad pro (or Air), with Apples keyboard cover attached, just.

Both the Hadley Pro and the F-Stops have a rear zip compartment (not shown).

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The F-stop shares the fittings of the 7-series, including the tripod strap mounts.

I still get quality brass fittings, although the straps can only be replaced by Billingham at their factor as they are not detachable by the user, unlike the Hadley range. I also get slightly less positions by not having the buckles, although to be honest I never changed mine.

The holes in the leather fittings are to attach 5/8″ tripod straps, which is another useful feature associated with the larger 7-series bags, which also share the same non-user replaceable straps. The Hadley range shares its fittings with the 5-series.

It comes with three inserts, the thick padded base and two dividers. One which folds over and one which isn’t quite full height and doesn’t fold.

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With the supplied dividers

These both velcro into place.

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Supplied dividers and base

Personally, I didn’t get on with the dividers, and although they do the job I have whipped these out to replace them, for now, with ones borrowed from my Lowepro Whistler 350AW backpack.

I love Lowepro’s idea of making dividers also pockets. It gives you extra padded safe storage for those little things, likes cards and batteries, which move about and get damaged if left loose in the pockets.

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Pocket dividers, or whatever Lowepro call them

I can move them back into the Whistler whenever I need to but they not only give me another storage space within the bag, but as they are much softer allow the Billingham to be less boxy. I can now press the Billingham more with my hip which make it nicer to carrier and more conforming to body shapes.

I don’t see why we can’t bastardise our bags with the best of each system, and they almost all come with velcro so it’s actually very easy. Ok, it might not look as cool but who is looking inside your bag as a style comment? Only you should be in it, and only your ease of use really matters.

At the moment, this is not really a review but an initial impression, as it only arrived yesterday and I have as yet only tried loading the bag with a number of configurations. The true test will come after several months of use and I will update this post with that review in due course (probably around the end of November/early December time).

Will this bag become the new favourite of all time Billingham and depose the Hadley Small? Watch this space…

 

 

 

 

Billingham Hadley Digital – a quick review

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I have owned a number of Billingham bags over the years, from the 225 and 335 that I used with medium format film cameras to the 307 which was just too large when I converted to mirrorless, via the Hadley small which became my everyday bag with the Fujifilm X series, the Hadley Pro as my lens collection grow only for me to fall out with it for being too narrow when I went back to Nikon (the first time).

 

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When I went to Fujifilm for the second time, with the XT1 and then XT2, I got the Hadley Digital you see here and it became my everyday go to bag. In spite of that everyday go to use, it still looks almost new. That’s the thing with Billingham, they really very rarely die before your needs change and the second hand market remains strong so you never really loose hugely on resale values.

 

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The Hadley Digital is the smallest of the Hadley range, and strangely it has more front to back depth (making it far more useful) than the Hadley Small or Hadley Pro bags. Underneath the rain flap you equipment is cosseted in beautiful padding with two dividers that can be moved or removed. There is also a front dump pocket which can easily accommodate memory cards, battery, phone and wallet or purse.

It proved perfect with all my mirrorless cameras, but I struggled to fit the Nikon D600 in it and still use the front pocket, or accommodate a second lens or flash, so I will be parting with it to fund (actually refund) part of the replacement – the much underrated and ignored F-Stop range f2.8.

It’s small and discrete and I will miss it terribly. It’s waterproofing and ease of use really has been second to none, but it’s just a little bit too small now.

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Big brother has arrived – the F-Stop range f2.8

 

Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

Olympus PEN-f: In-camera JPEG vs Processed RAW

As you’ll know if you follow my blog, I recently switched from the Fujifilm X series to the Olympus 3/rd system, moving from the XT-2 to the PEN-F.

The Fujifilm system is renowned for the quality of its in camera Jpegs, and I have written on the subject in relation to social media client use, and to using the ACROS setting in my blog. So, logically, I wanted to see if the jpeg output from the Olympus PEN-F would be as good. In order to do this, I shot a whole day on the Mono 1 setting for my Superfine Jpegs (its a hidden menu option, more on that here), but also saving the raw files. I then processed the Raw images in Adobe Lightroom (LR) as this is the most common development program.

My Mono 1 settings are for +1 contrast and +1 sharpness, with added fine grain because I like the film effects, as you’ll know from my ACROS usage on the XT-2. Raw files were processed to add +30 up to +50 sharpness, and to change the profile to Camera Mono so that they would end up, in theory, as similar to the Superfine jpeg in tone etc. I wanted to see how much is lost with the in-camera process to jpeg compared with the, probably superior, LR process of the raw file. The results are quite interesting:

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Processed Raw (highlights pulled back by -50)

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In-camera jpeg
This is the most telling shot of all and the one I looked at first on my Mac. It was this pictures that made me decided to process the raws to monochrome and to provide this series of comparison images. As you can see, I was able to recover the blown highlights on the back of the white pony from the RAW, but the jpeg continues to look slightly ‘sharper’. This may be raised mid-tones, increased sharpening, I am not sure at this stage, but the result is definitely interesting and supports the use of Raw in many situations.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With this shot, I could again pull back the highlights of the image generally, which would suggest that I considered shooting with some negative exposure compensation or reduced the set construct amount from my +1 setting back to 0. In Raw processing I was also able to add a false graduated filter to the sky to increase significantly the cloud detail in the sky to create a more balanced image. This would suggest that I should have used a ND Graduated filter at the time of shooting, if I wanted to use the Jpeg. Adding a false filter in LR afterwards wasn’t an option as it increased the noise in the image and made the grain more noticeable in the sky than the rest of the image in an unpleasant way.

Again, the Raw image wins for post production abilities as we would expect. But importantly it also shows us what could have been achieved in-camera with a little more thought perhaps at the time, and using the correct filtration.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With this image, taken from the same spot, there is very little to notice between them at all. I have corrected the verticals in the Processed image but not in the jpeg and I did this so I could easily tell them apart once posted into this blog and I could no longer see the filenames. That is a reflection on how close they are. If anything, I prefer the in-camera jpeg on this occasion, and would correct the verticals for use. I think it appears slightly sharper and there is more detail in the sky.  It is strange, because although they were taken just minutes apart and from the same place, the sky recovery from the previous shot was better in the raw image processing and the in-camer jpeg would not have been my choice.

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In-camera jpeg (15.4MB)

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Processed Raw (unprocessed 20.2MB)
With these too I am really struggling to tell them apart. I think the jpeg looks somewhat ‘cleaner’ which makes it look a little sharper. As a side point, I have put the file sizes in brackets as part of the captions. Bare in mind that the original raw, unprocessed, would be colour so we would expect it to be higher due to holding the additional colour information. The superfine jpeg is still a decently sized file, and all of these files from the shoot ranged from 13.6MB – 15.5MB straight from camera. The raw files ranged from 17.7MB – 20.2MB in size. Both are more than adequate to produce some very high quality printed images.

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In-camera jpeg

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Processed Raw
With these two final images I am again struggling with which is which and if there is a difference, albeit minuscule, I would say I have a preference for the jpeg because, again, it strikes me as a ‘cleaner’ image. The camera is definitely doing something to increase the clarity, in my opinion. To test this, I tried raising the contrast slider by +30 in LR, and this appears to confirm my theory and I then really can’t tell the difference. I would assume this comes from my having added a ‘red’ filter to the creative control on the mono setting at this point in the shoot. I had forgotten about that until I checked the camera!

It would appear to get the very best out the jpegs, don’t use the plus or minus contrast setting as this is too clumsy, but use the colour defined filtration options in the customisation of the art settings. This was one of the attractions of the Olympus system, the ability to add ‘filters’ in-camera. If the raw file is saved alongside the jpeg you can always then change the whole image or effect later.

For the creative black and white shooter, the Olympus system offers a real opportunity to create substantially large and good quality jpegs in the camera at the time of shooting. This reduces the amount of time that anyone would need to spend on their computer and so give them more time to create new images out in the real world – ie. time with their camera being a photographer rather than in the office or studio glued to a monitor.

Shooting raw at the same does enable you to have a back-up, either for when you were trying to work quickly in the field and didn’t quite get it right (such as not using ND grads etc), and it gives you the options of changing your mind and not having the art settings at all and producing a completely different image. The choice is really up to the photographer and what they want their images to say, coupled with how they like to work. Memory is cheap – shoot both.

Generally with the exception of the image of the ponies where the highlights were blown out, I preferred the result of the in-camera jpeg and will therefore remember to use my grad’ filters more often. But, shooting both means if I’m rushed, it doesn’t really matter.

A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

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The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

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A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

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I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

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My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

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Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

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The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

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We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

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It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

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Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

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As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

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I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

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As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

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It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

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I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

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I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

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Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

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We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

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The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

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As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

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Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.

 

Lupins at Spey Bay – a test of the Fujifilm XF WR 16-55 f2.8 lens clarity and close-up abilities, and the XT-2’s colour rendition

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm
Today I was out at Spey Bay, one of my local haunts, and the opportunity to shoot these marvellous delicate flowers presented itself. I hadn’t gone out with the idea of shooting these flowers, or anything with sky in it as we shall see.

Although I had shot all my images in Fine+Raw, the excellent rendition of the in-camera JPEG set on Velvia meant that when I returned to the office I didn’t have to do a thing with the image aside from cropping.

All the images were shot at ISO200, and thankfully, although it was overcast it was also very bright which meant I could get a decent depth of field to work in close-up, whilst retaining a fast enough shutter speed to get over the constant subject movement.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm (again)
I am a fan of cropping square for two reasons; Instagram, and that when the image is then printed and framed it can go on any wall space. Landscape pictures really require a landscape wall, and portrait photos either need hanging in pair, or a portrait wall (or they look too small) – square goes anywhere. Which is why I loved my ‘blad and its 6×6 film format I guess.

Shooting blue or lilac blue flowers (such as Lupins and Bluebells) is notoriously difficult, and I have had considerable trouble with getting this colour correct when I was shooting with Nikon cameras and lenses, and even more so shooting with Sigma lenses. For some reason that a tech’head might be able to explain, this is hardest colour for digital cameras to render correctly, or so my experience tells me. With Fujifilm’s Velvia setting there wasn’t any issue at all.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 55mm
I specifically wanted to get the pebble beach into shot as the colours worked so well together, but I did expect to have to work on the raw tile and perhaps tweak this a little. The colours straight from camera, using the Velvia setting, in-camera Jpegs were fine for for every shot shown here, and I doubt I could do much better with the raw files.

I was equally impressed with the contextual shots, although I would probably go to the raw file for this one if I was printing it for the shot directly below. The sky has lost the colour accuracy slightly, and this wasn’t helped by me as I didn’t take the ND graduated filters with me. I wasn’t intending on shooting anything with sky in, but to be shooting details in black and white for my backgrounds and frames series of stock images.

With the raw file, which I have, I would be able to balance the sky more, but I wanted to show you the in-camera jpeg version to see the one time I did feel it either needed to post process. It was down to me not using a grad and not the camera though.

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In-camera JPEG as shoot – 1/125sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 16mm
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RAW with added LR grad to the sky and no other adjustments
As you can see, the image from the raw file is better in terms of the sky, although I think the Lupins loose a little of their oomph. This is a quick edit, and I am sure I can get them to look exactly as the great colours of the in-camera jpeg file.

The only time I have issues with the in-camera jpeg files from the XT-2 is when presented with situations just like this. Here below you can again compare the in-camera jpeg, which I wouldn’t manipulate as it would degrade the image, and the processed raw file which I am happy to work with as it won’t degrade.

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In-camera JPEG – 1/250sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 28mm
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Raw file edited in LR (grad added, plus a little lightening of the shadows) 
Although I prefer the balance now, I do feel that the heavier sky detracts from the Lupins which are the main subject. Even thought this is a contextual photograph i want the intent of the image and the main subject to still be the Lupins so  although I have restored more of the sky, for balance, I would now probably crop more sky out to then restore the intent of the image.

This of course changes the composition and the shape of the final image:

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Processed raw image cropped for emphasis on the Lupines
The images show that Fujifilm XT-2 does a fabulous job of the colours and the lens does an even more impressive job of helping to retain the colours accurately with its coatings, and being so absolutely pin sharp all the way through that every aspect of every image is presented as I envisaged.

Given that the 16-55mm is not a macro lens I was very impressed with how the flowers came out in the close-up photos, and the amount of detail this lens captures blows me away every time. I have had a lot of cameras and really good expensive lenses over the years, but this lens is way up there with the very, very, best of them. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth every penny and is my main lens.

 

 

 

 

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 1)

Day 2 (Part 1)

Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…?

That was the decision that faced me late on Monday night, as I set my alarm, in the Uig Hotel on the Isle of Skye. The photographer’s app’ on my phone wasn’t helping. It was clearly showing that the Quiraing would be a spectacular place to greet the morning sunrise, at 8am. Breakfast in the hotel was from 7.45-9.15 (I think).

To get into position I would have to get up around 6.00am, grab a quick tea and shower, and leave by 7am. Or that would appear to have to be the plan, but it would mean missing breakfast…and also…I am not a morning person.

After a nice beer battered fish-n-chips (a very good, if rather expensive, beer battered fish and less than 10 chips in a fancy basket thing) and just one pint of Skye Red, I went to bed. It was only 9.30pm, but if I was going to try for the sunrise, then bed it had to be. Since my surgery, I have to get up a least twice during the night, which is why I wasn’t using a hostel with a shared room, or camping. I am not sociable at night.

As it happened, I must have been a bit excited, or anxious, because not only did I get up just after midnight, and my usual 3.30am, but I then woke up (proper wide awake) at 5.15am. I didn’t get up at 5.15am of course, but at least I was awake. Nice bed, warm, cosy, oh look, tea…

Finally, outside, just before 6.45am, it was cold, very cold, and a bit windy, again. I know you’re thinking, it is February, it is Scotland, just get on with it.

The road was ‘interesting’ in that it went up into the ridge near the Quiraing, and then down a series of hairpin bends into Staffin. As I approached the entrance to this road, from the longer round the top to Staffin main road, there was a big warning sign –

‘ROAD MAY BE IMPASSIBLE IN WINTER CONDITIONS – CONSIDER AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE’.

That did not bode well.

I thought, briefly, of not trying it, then I thought…let’s see what it’s like, I can try and turn around if I don’t like it. The gullies beside the road were frozen, but there wasn’t any snow. The tarmac was missing in places and the pot holes were enough to simultaneously have you wondering about your wheels, your suspension, and your spine. You couldn’t see them in the dark, but you most definitely felt them!

As the sun started to rise and the world started to light up a bit, you’ll realise that you couldn’t avoid them anyway. The road was what one might generously call narrow, with some small passing places, a common theme in Scotland to anywhere remotely interesting. After Arran, nothing seems quite so bad anymore though, and on I went at a relatively sedate 35-40mph, slower in places I admit. I am glad the warning of ‘winter conditions’ did not come to pass and make me have a desire to turn around, I wouldn’t have had a cat in hell’s chance of doing so.

A lunatic in a Subaru came the other way, at rally speeds, and scared the crap out of me. But I made it to the parking bay at the very top, just as the sky went a beautiful purple. I was alone up there, the only car. I hadn’t had to let anyone pass me, and I had only seen the one car coming the other way. Perhaps a bonus of February?

The hotel was busy, and people were commenting on the ‘Outlander’ effect. I suppose it’s like a new ‘Highlander’ effect, which is still effecting some of our castles 30+ years later (my god, I feel old).

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Before sunrise – Totternish ridge near the Quiraing

Was I too late? I checked the OS map. Damn. The sun was rising rapidly now and moment by moment the landscape was revealing itself, and so was the path. OMG the path! It was 12″ wide at best, clinging to the side of the steep slope, many, many metres in the air.

And you have to leap the small gullies and their waterfalls! OMG. I was so NOT ready for this. Courage…

I looked around me. I was not going to get to The Needle in time. This was where I had wanted to be for the sunrise, but I should have got out of bed at 5.15 after all! I would just have had to have used my head-torch. The torch was actually in the car for the very purpose, although I don’t know if the path would be less scary in the dark or more so…

Either way, I decided I wasn’t going to get there in time. Play it safe, get some decent shots, find somewhere, here, the sun is rising, and rapidly. My brain was in overdrive. I was running about the hillside like a goat (an uncoordinated goat admittedly).

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The moment of sunrise

I found my spot. I set myself up, working quickly. Facing the distant mountains of Wester Ross, across the Sound of Raasay and the Inner Sound beyond that. Here she comes…

In seconds I was bathed in warm glowing light. The rocks lit up and the shapes of the ridge revealed themselves all around me.

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Trotternish, moments after the sunrise

The light and the colours changed every few seconds, the details slowly revealed, and the shadows lengthening. It was stunning. I had forgotten how quickly this all happens, like I say, I am not a morning person…I tend to shoot sunsets.

I turned around to face the mighty Quiraing…

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The Quiraing

The scary path, now even more revealed, showed me that there was no way I would have got to The Needle in time. I had made the right decision. I know now why people camp out overnight on the ridge to get those sunrise shots, at the Prison, the Needle, and around the Table.

Although I hadn’t got the shots I had intended, I was happy with the shots that I had. If I had proceeded, aside from probably needing a change of underwear because I am a big scaredy cat, I could well have missed getting anything decent at all! This is where years of experience in photography, and understanding the need to get the best shot in the circumstances, comes into play. Landscape photography is a game of light, of calculated risks, and sometime very quick decisions.

I had made a decision, with only moments in which to do so, and I had made the right one. I should point out that, when it comes to my life in general, this isn’t normally the case. I am generally indecisive, inclined to dither, and very good at cocking it up because I choose badly.

Would I make that decision again? No, actually I would have made a slightly different one. I would have made a decision a good couple of hours earlier, and got out of my cosy bed rather than sitting drinking tea!

The wonderful light didn’t last long. Soon, the great sunny, wall to wall, blue sky that had been forecast had now arrived, and it was time to head down. It was just around 8.20 ‘ish.

I passed another five tripods perched at various points between me and the car park. Obviously five people who were worse at planning, or getting out of bed, than me. Five bodies loitered about fairly near to them, some wandered around looking for different angles. But for me, the light was gone, and I was heading back to the hotel. It was 8.40…and I started to wonder…could I make breakfast?

Now I could see the bends, and was able watch for other cars coming up at me (as I went down back towards Uig). I could go a little bit quicker, in some places. Not much quicker, I was trying to avoid the flipping pot holes, the extent of which I could now also see…

I got to the hotel at 9.00. I stuck my head in the restaurant, and was assured I could make breakfast. I ran up to the room and put the nearly dead camera battery on to charge, for later. Loch Fyne Kippers awaited, and they were fine indeed.

Rejoin me after breakfast by clicking here

A castle, a waterfall, and a Fuji XT-2

Let me start with a disclaimer; I am not a Fuji X Photographer, I am not sponsored by Fujifilm in away, and I buy all my own equipment with my own hard earned money.

Now I have that out the way, I will also say that this isn’t a technical review of the Fujifilm XT-2. The web is full of these, I know, I’ve read and/or watched most of them.

 

A castle, a waterfall, and the Fuji XT-2

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Lynn Falls, Aberlour – XT-2

As you can see, I shoot a lot in portrait format. This is because magazines (and of course their lucrative covers) are this shape, so it makes sense. I always shoot a portrait and a landscape version of every image wherever possible for this very reason; a cover in portrait or double page spread in landscape, or something smaller in either format, and I am almost always covered.

This is where the XT-2 has a real advantage – the new screen flips out in portrait mode, which means I have the modern equivalent of a waist level finder (i.e the screen) in both landscape and portrait orientation. This is great, I like this feature very much, although the catch to release the screen in portrait mode is just ridiculously hard to operate once it is rotated on the tripod (at therefore now under the camera) and probably, as least so far, impossible to do with gloves on. Today, gloves were very much needed, it’s February, it’s Scotland, there is SNOW on the hills, and I mean the hills as well as the mountains. It was cold, damp, sometimes wet, blowing a hoolie as they say in these part, and frequently darned right unpleasant.

Another immediate advantage, and great with gloves, is the joystick focus point adjuster. I had my four way buttons set for this on the XT-1, which reduced my access to common settings by reducing my Fn, or function, buttons by three, but it made life easier for many a shot. The joystick means I now have my four way buttons set for useful things I like, not the defaults by the way, and I still have the even more instant directional control of the focus point. I like this very much, very much indeed.

The tripod socket is now where it always should have been, and without having to buy the extra grip, although I miss a little the depth of that extra grip. The new body is more ergonomic than before, although still not DSLR hand friendly, but I will get used to it. I contemplated the battery grip but it added to the size and weight of the camera and they didn’t have any available anyway.

I like the locking dials. I wish the compensation dial also locked, but it is noticeably stiffer than the XT-1 and much, much, stiffer than the XPro-1, which was always moving around with the slightest touch and causing many problems if it went un-noticed, which it did, when using filters and a tripod and being lazy and thinking exposure was ‘sorted’.

I like the four metering patterns instead of original three. I actually use all the patterns, and even today used all four during shooting. The zone metering, or whatever Fuji are calling it, seems to be quite accurate for most circumstances. I still like Average for the landscapes and spot for working out the grad filters required to balance the sky to the land.

I also like the fact I can use a traditional cable release, and I have ordered one from Amazon (which should arrive by the weekend). Today I used the self timer, as I have previously with the XT-1, whilst using longer exposures or on a tripod, or both. With any exposure over 1/30 section I don’t like to touch the camera if I can help it. Why use a tripod and then let your body interfere with the stability?…makes no sense to me.

What don’t I like? Well, actually, there is one big niggle – what the hell have Fuji done with the bloody menu’s?!?

Things I use often, like Format, now require press, scroll, press, press (instead of just press, press). Some menu’s have new titles which mean nothing, or certainly seem a great way of hiding what you’re looking for. Sure, there are more options, and many more menu’s, or least it seems, but you can’t find anything. I spent several frustrating minutes setting up each of my common functions or preferences last night. And I am still trawling through menu after obscure menu to do simple adjustments in the field today. Thank heavens for the MY Menu, obviously someone at Fuji thought the same thing as me! But…why can’t I put second tier menu items in it? I want to put Format in it, but no, first tier only and not all of them are available either.

There are things I want routinely that are hidden in the ‘Save Data Set-up’, like Switch Slot (Sequential). Why can’t I have something simple like Save Image, and then just Slots, and Slot 1, Slot 2, order? Nikon do this much better.

And why did it default to use Slot2 first? Where did that idea come from? Again, please look at Nikon menus. Btw, I think having two SD card slots is a great idea of course. I can have sequential running, and back up. I don’t shoot JPEG and RAW, just RAW, but if you really wanted to, you could have a card for each. You would need to make the RAW card a lot bigger naturally.

I actually needed the manual to decipher one third of the options; Save Org Image for example.And why is Format for the SD cards under User Setting? It used to be under the spanner symbol, at the bottom, easy to find.

And used to be second layer, now it’s hidden away under three layers of menu. It may not be annoying when you only need to do one card, but trust me, sit and do 10 of them and it will drive you nuts.

some reason working on Fuji files this afternoon crashed my LR three times over.

But what is also worrying me, aside from awkwardness of use at the moment compared to the XT-1, is that I am now doing a bit more work in Lightroom than I ever did with Fuji products before. Ok, I have to get used to the new camera, but the RAW files do seem to need more tweaking for the same results. It could be that LR has yet to catch up with the new files of course. That would make sense since the compressed RAW files don’t have a preview at the moment, and so I am reluctant to use them. LR also crashed three times this afternoon, the first time I had tried processing the new RAW files. At least it can actually open them though. I remember a few occasions when a camera would come out and it would be three months before you could open the RAW files from it in anything other than the manufacturers, usually awful, preparatory software.

Of course, all of these things I will get used to. Even an upgrade needs to be considered as a new camera. The XT-1 and the XT-2 look similar, and the dials and physical controls might be the same, but as soon as you look at the EVF or the screen you know its a difference beast.

A plus and a minus for those of us to whom age is not being kind in the eyesight department; the diopter adjustment works perfectly (wish it was lockable) and the eyecup is an improvement for spectacle wearers, but the text and symbols on the display appear smaller (same size, more dots per inch?). Anyway, its a pain. I was already having to take off my glasses to use the XT-1, but now I really do need to consider varifocals!

And there is something really weird about the noise…it looks like little worms. I had a look at the sky (base ISO 200) and at 4:1 enlargement, there are what look like little worms. Weird. I will keep and eye on the worms and put up an screen grab if I spot them again…

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Auchindoun Castle (handheld) XT-2

I also need to change the sharpening from my previous settings (which I used for all images) and will need to create a new preset. I now need a 1.5 radius instead of 1.0, and change the gain to 30% instead of 50%. I did expect this to change, due to the increased resolution of the new sensor. Talking of which, can I see more detail? Actually well yes, a little bit. A very little bit, but then I have  retina screen 27″iMac to see it on. I have not compared the prints, and as I don’t have the XT-1 anymore I cannot shoot the two side-by-side for a direct comparison. But this is all very scientific and at the end of the day there are more important (to me) considerations. The main one for me is the ability to crop a landscape into a portrait if I wasn’t able to shoot both that the same time. I always shoot the landscape first, in case the light changes dramatically or for the worse, as this then will give me some portrait option, although not idea.

Obviously, this reduces the image at least by half, and when you have more pixels that half isn’t half as bad.

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Craigellachie Bridge, XT-2, final shot of the day, ACROS film simulation in Lightroom

For some reason, images saved for the web in Landscape are far better than images saved for the web in portrait format, even thought the settings are the same, and resizing is done for longest edge. To see what I mean, look at the rendition of the ‘last XT-1’ shoot image, and compare that with the Linn Falls shot. Both same lens, both same tripod.

And to compare like for like, both XT-2, look at the Craigellachie bridge image compared with the Linn Falls image.

So, conclusions from todays shoot: I would say is that the higher resolution sensor is more demanding. It is more demanding of the photographers technique, and of the lenses naturally, but it is also very demanding of the filters. The only difference between the last shot and the first shot shown here was the bridge had no filter use. The hand held shot was in extremely windy conditions, and freezing cold, so I am happy to take the wrap for user error. But I really think that my, somewhat well used, filters may have to be replaced, again. The resolution is definitely effected by putting my filters in front of the premium glass. Damn…

I would add to this that the XT-2 is a joy to handle, if you’re old school, and grew up with film cameras and still work using fully manual operations. It is quiet, the focus is much more reliable, quicker, and requires a small focus point, although perhaps not as small as I would have hoped. Precision is key, but this difference is really going to apply to shallow depth of field or portrait work more than landscapes. With landscapes we are often shooting at f16 so there is a lot more latitude in where you place the focus point in the scene than if you need to get the eyes spot on with an f1.8 portrait, for example.

I often use the depth scale for landscape work, although I am a bit confused by the two calculations offered by Fuji in the XT-2. I want a simply metres distant, show me nearest point and furthest point. Now there are two settings, and they don’t make much sense at least to me. This is something I will only be able to work out if I have access to a lens with a scale on it and manual focus really. Sadly at the moment, I don’t. Zooms don’t often have scales, because they would change and that creates a headache for the designer and added expense in manufacture. For now, its play around with it, bracket, review, and continue to evaluate.

I also admit that I have work to do on my handheld techniques, but this won’t do me any harm, and I have spend so much time using my tripod since I got the Gitzo that I can’t actually remember the last time I was working hand-held. Practice makes perfect as they say, and practice has to be kept up. Mind you, it was spectacularly windy and that’s my excuse (and I’m sticking to it).

One last thing: ACROS is really nice, it reminds me of Ilford’s slow B&W film, FP4? Maybe, can’t quite remember. Of course, that might not be what Fujifilm wanted to hear, but then it could equally have inspired the settings for all I know. It’s just a shame I can’t use it retrospectively on the XT-1 images…the standard Monochrome from Fuji is bland by comparison and I get fed up with concocting my own combinations.

So, there we have it. Rather longer blog entry than anticipated, but hopefully of use to someone. If you like it, or even just find it slightly useful, then please share it.

 

A little bit of history…

Well, I fell in love with photography using fully manual 35mm film cameras (Olympus mainly, then more latterly Nikon). I then fell in love with medium format (Hasselblad 500C’s), and in particular the advantages to image quality of the larger film size coupled with the waist level finder.

When the world began its love affair with digital, I was an ‘early adopter’ as it came with my job. A conspiracy between Kodak and Nikon, produced a beast of a battery attached to a 35mm camera knock off body, with a teeny tiny sensor, and around 3MP (and all for the same price as the house I was living in at the time). I kid you not.

Being an ‘early adopter’ of the digital sphere does mean I know what you can do with very, very little. I was producing brochures with technology that would now be dwarfed by a very cheap and nasty PAYG phone! If I can make 6×4 prints from 3MP then to me, the pixel race was over around 10MP, or the mid noughties.

When DSLR prices became within mortal reach, and we had 1.5x APS-C sensors, I opted for the Sony Alpha. Due to the lack of choice for lenses, this was soon to be replaced by the Nikon D80, then the D200 (the last CCD sensor and CMOS colours etc. are nowhere near as good), then full frame with the Nikon D700. Some domestic issues meant I was forced to sell up and so when I finally got back on my feet, I troubled myself with a Canon (cheaper good glass) for a while, a very brief while, because it failed me mid shoot just days out of warranty. Funnily enough, my only foray with a film Canon ended the same way, on holiday, in Keswick, in the early ’90s.

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Quick blast of the Canon – great lens, ok camera, unreliable shutter, uneconomical to fix…

I then tried the fairly new Fuji X-Pro1. I loved it, the lenses were fantastic. The camera…was not so much. But my affair with Fuji had started, mainly as the colours were fabulous (and reminiscent of the films I loved of old). The glass quality was there and the range increasing, slowly. At the time, I wasn’t so keen on the Rangefinder approach, and the lack of long lenses as I was going through a wildlife phase. But I can’t deny the quality of the images if I put the effort in.

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Fuji X-Pro 1 in Glen Coe (yes it was cold)
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Shot with the D3200 – not the kit lens of course

At the time, Fuji wasn’t offering much else. So, with reluctance, but due mainly to need for the work I was doing, I moved back to Nikon. A D3200, was swiftly followed by a D7100. At this point my age caught up with me, and I became very tired (and sore) of lugging around good, but silly heavy, decent Nikon glass. You may have guessed that I have always placed an emphasis on good glass over even half good bodies. The glass is the bit between you and the image you want. A cheap lens on an expensive body will so every fault, a good lens on a cheaper body (within reason) will surprise you.

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Nikon D7100

I was getting on with the D7100. Sure it wasn’t full frame, but it had enough control and enough resolution and resolving power to do the job. I printed 3ft x 2ft prints of the D200, so I really don’t get the whole MP battle so much. To me, it is the dynamic range I am paying attention to, and the ease of capturing what I want to capture. Sadly, clients seem obsessed by those blasted pixie counts and don’t seem to realise by the time I have turned the high resolution TIFF into an email’able JPEG, the whole question is no longer remotely relevant!

Anyway, by this point, dear Fuji had just come out with the XT-2, and that made a plethora of used XT-1’s within affordable reach. I had coveted the XT-1 when I traded in the XPro-1 (for some nice binoculars at the time).

I went to the Fuji open day at Ffordes, one of those few occasions when they open at the weekend!

(Yes guys, that is a huge brick-through-the-window sized hint. I bet if you opened just Saturday mornings, you’d sell loads of gear to people resident from Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond, who really don’t want to be stuck with Argos and Jessops as their only non-mailorder options.)

Anyway, whilst men with deodorant related issue drooled over the XT-2 almost as much as they did over the model, I tried and then bought an XT-1, and some really nice prime glass (glass over bodies as always).

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From the Fuji XT-2 open day (shot on my XT-1)

Then a few months later I nearly dropped two prime lenses in a swamp-like loch and decided to get a zoom instead. I went the whole hog and got the 16-55/2.8 monster.

So, there you have it. A brief history of my digital SLR and mirrorless cameras and bringing us up to the image below. Shot two weeks ago, and sold several times over on stock and print sites online since.

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The XT-1’s last shoot (and I loved it)

If I was happy with the XT-1 then why change it? Well, the focus of the XT-1 is not reliable, or very quick. There are cumbersome operational issues the XT-2 looks likely to fix (position of tripod socket so you can change the battery without taking it off the tripod or taking off the tripod quick release plate, access to the focus points, the portrait tilt screen, just to name three).

Logically, when funds permitted (and greatly encouraged by finding out my Fuji XT-1 had 10 dead pixels in a row across the middle of the sensor, and also finding out, at the same time, that it was almost out of warranty) and the move to the XT-2 was a “no-brainer” as they say.

So on Tuesday, I picked one up. Which is actually quite difficult, as most suppliers have long back orders with Fuji (one way to retain the initial momentum and keep the price high…). Today, I took it out for a test run.

 

Review of the Lowepro Whistler BP350AW

All photos by the author, copyright of the author, all rights reserved.

First Impressions:

It’s bloody expensive. There is no getting around the fact that this is the most expensive camera bag (or any bag) that I have ever bought. So, it had better live up to expectations and they are going to be high. But then, when you think of the value of the equipment you’re placing in it, it does make sense to have something that you actually trust to do the job.

Here is what Lowepro have to say about their creation:

Empty it weighs 3kg. This is important, because most camera rucksacks weigh in around 1.6-2.3kg. So there is something about the extra weight that instills both confidence and fear. It is very, very, well made and this instills confidence, but then you have to actually carry it, with the added weight of your actual equipment. From unpacking it the attention to detail and build quality is obvious, straight away. To be honest, I have not had a lot of faith in Lowepro camera bags, to date, as they always seemed rather soft and well, floppy, for my liking. The Whistler doesn’t. It is in a different league. I think Lowepro starting improving quality with the Protactic range but this is a big step up again.

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The Whistler BP350AW and BP450AW both come with a host of straps, two of them both removable and bright orange. These can be moved to any of the suitable fixing points around the bag. This is very useful. At the moment they are acting as compression straps for the items in the big front section but they could also be used to affix any number of items to the front (or sides) of the bag.

I quite like the fact they are bright orange as it breaks up the grey, but I can understand they may not be everyones cup of tea. The good news there is of course that you can replace them with other suitable attachments or straps if you choose. The other news is that if you are using this bag for its intending backcountry use, they are not likely to be bright orange for very long…

There are Mollie style loops all over the bag to attach things to, including on the brilliant hip belt.

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One side of the hip belt features a pocket (which is actually a useful size) and the other side features some Mollie attachment loops. If you don’t know what Mollie attachments are, ask someone in the Armed Forces or take a look at the Lowepro Protactic range which is covered in the stuff.

The main reason for buying this bag was having a decent all season rucksack with a PROPER HIP-BELT. It’s in capitals because I cannot emphasise this requirement enough. It was a huge deciding factor in my choice of bag, and in this bag in particular. Everyone who goes more than a couple of miles into rough terrain, with any amount of weight, will tell you the value of a decent rucksack and most especially the value a decent hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight OFF your shoulders and puts in through your hips to your legs. Your legs are the powerhouse (try seeing, next time you go to the gym, the difference between what you can push with your legs compared to your arms).

Why therefore is it that probably around 85-90% of camera rucksacks don’t have hip belts? It is beyond me. Lowepro is the sister company of Lowe Alpine – both children of Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe, and his companies, have designed outdoor and backcountry equipment for explorers/climbers/hikers/skiers/etc for decades – almost all of Lowe Alpine’s sacks, even their day sacks from around 30l, have decent hip-belts. So, why on earth do most camera bags (which regularly have a considerably greater weight, for size, in them) come without this most basic and essential feature? Sure, make them removable if you wish to meet the requirements of urban use where a waist belt might be inconvenient, but for the sake of shoulders, backs, and necks, everywhere, give us the flipping option!

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Not only does the Whistler come with a decent hip belt, it also has good straps and a nice back system.

The shoulder straps have some fixed, and some elasticated, web straps for putting accessories onto, behind, through, or whatever. They are not over padded, but they are comfortable. This is something a company like LoweWhatever should get right.

They should also allow for the fact that over 50% of the population has BOOBS. Yes, over because if you think about it, you can include MOOBS in this too. Shoulder straps, and sternum straps especially, have to allow for these and they regularly don’t. This is something this model, at least for my frame (and not hard to miss boobs) have got right.

The back system has firm padding with gaps to allow air circulation, which will be beneficial in warmer climes or on that singular day of Scottish summer we usually have.

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I have an ActivZone back system on my much smaller Protactic BP250AW, also from Lowepro, and which would be my go to bag for urban use. It does not have a hip belt. It has a waist strap which just makes you look fat (as it cuts into the stomach being 1/2″ thin) and take no weight off your shoulders what-so-ever.

It does do a reasonable job of keeping you cool though.

The back of the Whistler also folds in two, so you don’t have to open the whole rucksack up, if you plan the contents so that the most used items go in the top half (like your main camera body and lenses, batteries, etc). This is a matter of logical planning which will probably develop over time, according to use, and also according to the type of shoot and location you are going to.

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The back piece also has three slots for memory cards and a zipped compartment. The zipped compartment doesn’t have a great volume as it would dig into the main compartment, but you could sometime fairly flat in there. I have my Xrite colour chart and grey card in mine. Please can Lowepro look at Tamrac’s memory card slots though. Tamrac put in a red ribbon or tag on theirs, which you then pop out of the pocket to show instantly which cards are used and those without it showing therefore are those which aren’t used. It’s such a simple idea, and makes a whole heap of difference in use. I am actually going to sew ribbon to mine myself, because knowing instantly which ones are empty can make the difference between missing the shot and not.

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The main compartment, which comes out as a single unit by the way, has great dividers including the marvellous pouch ones that Lowepro (fairly) recently introduced. These are brilliant for batteries as they keep them slightly insulated and they also don’t fall out and end up clattering around in the main compartment. They are also great for things like stepping rings, or filter holder adapter rings, which otherwise end up lost in a pocket somewhere.

In the Whistler they are actually big enough to put something like a small Go-Pro in, if you wanted.

blythestormwhistlerreview-18Here is mine loaded up. As you can see I have plenty of space for the system to grow. One thing time, and ill purchases, has taught me is that more room is better, as otherwise you’ll upgrade in a few months time and loose money on your purchase.

This is also one reason I went for the 350 over the 450 size. I don’t have that much kit, and what I have being mirrorless, it doesn’t need the depth of the 450. The other reason is simple – I am 5ft 4″. The 450 would simply be too tall, and have too long a back length. Camera bags are, largely, designed for 6ft blokes. You cannot escape this fact and any woman will tell you. When I put on the Whistler wearing summer clothes (t-shirt, jeans) and tighten the hip belt I have around 18″ of strap on each side. This is a very common problem. Manfrotto sacks are worse, with them I have a whole 2ft of unused strap and it dangles below my knees! Some (Tamrac and Crumpler I am looking at you…) require a 32″ waist minimum otherwise you can’t actually get them tight enough to be useable at all. I have a waist pack from Crumpler which proves this point superbly. I can pull it as tight as it will go, jiggle, and it will go over my hips and hit the deck. Thanks Crumpler, great design…not!

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Hidden at the bottom of the camera block, and rolled up in the photo above, is the thin front cover for the removable camera block.

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Useful for when the block is removed, obviously, it also acts as a second barrier in use if not rolled away and this can be interpreted two ways – it is a barrier and something else to undo, therefore a pain in the arse that slows down your access, or a benefit in bad weather.

Up to you to decide which, but I have rolled mine away, for now. Should I want to remove the camera block and use the rucksack as a straight forward backpack (which it would be very good as, but rather heavy) then I will probably use it.

I do like the orange accents, not just because its compliments whilst contrasting with the grey (being girly) but also because it is useful in bad light. This was always a selling point of Kata bags, which Manfrotto ignored when they took them over.

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So, coming around to the other requirement I have for my backpacks; space to put what they lovingly call ‘personal items’. Now, in most bags this means your wallet and phone, possibly your car keys. Even camera bags designed for the ‘outdoors’ don’t expect you to want to eat or drink during the trip. This is very annoying, very impractical, and a complaint you will hear from photographers everywhere. Usually something along the lines of; “where the f*** do I put my lunch?”

For those if us expecting to be in the hills for 8-12 hours, and sometimes longer, this is actually darned important stuff. We also might want to carry spare clothes, waterproofs, spare socks, and even toilet paper, nappy bags, and a small shovel (and if you have to ask what that is for then remember I just said we were out for more than 12 hours and would be eating during that period…)

The Whistler is brilliant for this. There is a huge space for all kinds of stuff and it even has the option to be two sizes due to the expansion panel – superb idea!

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In summer I actually need more room, as I will carry my jacket and possibly a fleece or thin insulating jacket. In winter I need less room but tend to carry more foodstuffs. The back of this compartment is also waterproof so you can put wet gear in it, and it has a drain hole in the bottom for the really wet stuff (or leaking water bladders). This will keep your camera safe from spills, and any excess water from your coat or waterproof cover when it stops raining and the sun comes out. I live in Scotland, I am ever the optimist.

The material itself is very robust, way more than their usual materials, and seems to be coated with a waterproof and almost rubbery top coat. This would lead me to believe the bag will perform well in wet conditions, although with zips always being the weak point, there is also a waterproof cover supplied to encase the whole bag. Of course, you can’t use that if you have anything strapped to the outside such as your tripod/skies/snowboard/climbing stuff.

This is a problem I have yet to see a way around and I am sure that Lowepro, and others, are still figuring that one out.

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There are two mesh pockets, this one (as shown) in the big personal stuff section, and another in the small personal stuff section (more of that in a minute). The waterproof cover arrived in the small one but I put in it this one as it made more sense to me. Waterproof cover in the section that is drainable and waterproof from the camera section of the bag, not the section that would drip it over the camera section and everything else like my phone/keys/wallet. But that might be me.

The small personal section is actually big enough to get snacks in, as well as your personal items as listed above. It sits on the top of the bag and has two key clips (one inside the mesh pocket and one out). I didn’t photograph it but it is larger than I thought it would be.

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On one side of the bag is an expanding pocket that doesn’t expand that much, and within it are two small envelope pockets. These look quite good until you realise there is no way to do them up. A little bit of velcro, like the pouch dividers have, would be great here. Otherwise, if you leave the zip open and tilt the bag, even slightly, backwards, everything in them falls out. I am using it for a notebook and pen, and the larger expanding pocket for maps. I wouldn’t put anything else in there really. It is the only flaw to the design I can see so far.

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On the other side is one of the best of most stable set of loops, straps, and fastening points I have seen on a camera rucksack ever. Period. I can put two legs of my tripod in the bottom fixed loop and then use the strap at the top to hold it firmly in place. This is by far the very best tripod attachment I have had on ANY camera bag. I have a biggish tripod and this is the only time it hasn’t wobbled about. I actually returned a Manfrotto Bumblebee, which I otherwise thought was quite good, because of this instability. I don’t need help falling over on slippery ground.

I just hope it doesn’t stretch, but if it does then the extra strap at the bottom can be employed to tighten things up, and I have option of adding a third strap to the middle.

Initially, first impression, I am very impressed indeed. My bank manager probably isn’t though. I am still suffering from pangs of guilt for having spent the money.

I took it out for a first trial walk today, to see if it was as comfortable in the field (or in this case on the North East Scotland coastal cliffs), as it was walking around the house fully loaded. So far, and I didn’t go that far, I believe it is.

My trip to photograph Bow Fiddle Rock today was in cloudy, +3°C at best, and blowing a good 35mph+ North Westerly condition. I was 90ft above the sea on the cliffs, frequently on muddy and slippery ground but I felt secure, stable, and comfortable. I felt like the 3kg of bag wasn’t there, and the kit itself was more manageable than usual. Having the weight correctly balanced, and transferred to the hips, was just bliss (compared to having it pulling you backwards and weighted on your collar bones).

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The tripod was essential for the long exposure, and yet it was secure and comfortable when on the pack. When I was carrying it by hand I slipped over on my arse, landed on my side, and sprained my wrist but that is probably just me anyway.

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I got some great shots in spite of the difficult conditions. My kit felt cosseted and looked after, and I have no doubt I could cope with a lot worse weather without issue.

Downsides? Well, there is the price. There also isn’t a way to use the waterproof cover with anything on the attachments points, such as a tripod, but I don’t know how you would possible get around this anyway.

The orange won’t stay orange for long, or at least not as bright or without some stains.

Other than that, we will see. I intend to update this review in due course when it has some miles under its hip belt, so we will see. At the moment, I would argue it was worth the (lots of) money.

Oh, you would look a right plonker using this in town though…but then that isn’t what it is for.

#lowepro #whistler #WhistlerBP350AW #review