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

 

An alternative to ‘real’ food? (Updated)

According to Huel there are now over 7billion people on the planet and, from a food point of view, that number and the expected growth to 9.7billion by 2050 isn’t sustainable. We, the westernised humans, also throw away a lot of food while at the same time eating badly.

They offer us a simple, singular, solution: Huel, a complete food in powdered form that requires some water and a vigorous shake. What you end up with a sort of milk shake, although there is no milk in it. There are in fact no animal products at all, making this option completely vegan.

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The starter pack with added flavour sachets
But, is it realistic not to eat food? Are we denying ourselves a fundamental pleasure or is it just social programming from an early part of our lives?

I am going to find out.

Today, I embarked on a Huel conversion programme as my starter pack arrived. Firstly, let me tell you what is in the pack: You get two big bags of the complete food powder which equals (at the recommended measure) 28 meals. You also get two scoops (and I ordered a spare, which was free) so I have three of them as I always loose these things, a booklet on how to get started, a drink mixer/bottle, and a promotional free t-shirt so you can identify other weirdos around where you live.

This little lot costs you £45 including delivery, unless you have an IV or AB postcode in which case you’ll be penalised for an extra £3 delivery charge, and your delivery will take twice as long…

I should also point out at this stage that as far as I am aware I have no food allergies. I also don’t have a colon, which means that a vegetarian or vegan diet in the traditional sense is very difficult for me. To be frank, it comes out like it goes in, and my body struggles to benefit from food, especially vegetables, beans, pulses, and all the things that are part of that diet and/or good for you. I am supposed to take a vitamin and mineral supplement but most of the time I forget.

This is another reason I wanted to try Huel. I actually have a lot of trouble eating, well no that’s not true, I have no problem eating, but I have a lot of trouble digesting food. I am hoping that my body will like Huel, that I will feel better, perhaps loose a little weight from the bad stuff I can eat so very easily (and also digest), and maybe my consciousness will be better because I won’t be contributing to the suffering of animals.

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My first Huel experience
I had a nice email conservation with the founder of Huel about my specific diet issues, and the lack of a colon, and he recommended that I start with replacing one meal a day and use a blender rather than just shaking the mixture in the bottle. So this is what I am doing. I also started with the sweetened Vanilla flavour as recommended on their website.

I made up the recommended amount following the simple instructions, and took a sip. Not too bad, I thought. It doesn’t taste, as some allege, like cold Ready Brek. I actually like Ready Brek. I had a few more sips, and was fine until the sweetness become rather overpowering and I started to gag a little. In preparation for this I had bought some cocoa powder, unsweetened straight cocoa rather than drinking chocolate, and thought I would add a teaspoon of that to it. Whilst this did improve the flavour quite considerably, I was still getting this slightly queasy feeling that I really didn’t like at all. By the time I got around 4/5th of the way through my bottle I felt quite nauseous and so stopped at that point and the rest went down the sink.

Now, I am expecting some ‘bloating and wind issues’, as they are quite well documented on their forum’s and especially during the transition phase. Perhaps the bloating was starting very quickly, even during consumption, and that was the source of the nausea? Or, maybe I just should have ordered the unsweetened version. I feel that I may make my “meals” a bit more watery, and therefore hopefully less sweet, by using a bit less powder to water. The recommended ratio is 5:1 but I might go for a good bit less. This was actually recommended, to me, by the founder, but I wanted to try the authentic initial experience like everyone else first.

As well as ordering the standard starter pack, I also ordered a sample pack of all the supplementary flavours that Huel provide. Some sound more tempting that others; chocolate and coffee sound good, not sure about the custard one. I might also try adding some fresh fruit which should give it more of a kick, and make it more like a smoothie. Hopefully taking away some of that ickyness. There is a definite ickyness to this stuff as it comes.

Half an hour after consuming I feel like I have had a small meal, but I still fancy a biscuit. I’ll be good, and I will experiment more with the next meal option. Perhaps a flavour or fruit? Perhaps if I get around to consuming this lot and ordering more I might try the unflavoured and unsweetened version as I thin this make actually suit my palette better.

I feel a little dizzy and odd, if I am honest, but I can’t say for sure that’s the Huel although I do feel a little disorientated which is most weird. Others have also reported this, but usually after three days when their body is protesting at the removal of some of our naughtier addictions, such as sugar and caffeine, but maybe there is more to it that that?

Watch this space…

 Day 2

I have to confess that I didn’t have any Huel today. To be honest I couldn’t face it. I was put off not only by the sickly flavouring but by the strange after effects, but mainly the over sweet flavour. I would certainly order the non-sweetened and non-flavoured one in the future.

Day 3

Made myself some Huel today, but made it thinner (2 scoops instead of the recommended 3) in an attempt to make it a bit more palatable. I also added some of Huel’s Mocha flavouring which really improved the flavour. The thing is, I had three good mouthfalls and I started to get a headache in one spot. Then the nausea hit me! OMG. Then, worse was yet to come, my mouth started to feel weird and I couldn’t stop salivating. I had to sit down. I can only assume I was having a proper allergic reaction to one or more of the ingredients. My blood pressure dropped and I was unable to get out the chair without hanging on to something. I had to go to the bathroom on my hands and knees, as it was upstairs there was no way I was going to do that vertical. I couldn’t believe it at first. But I was fine yesterday, and absolutely fine moments before. 

Once I started to feel better, a pint of water and an hour later, I did some research. The only ingredient I have not exposed myself to before, at least as far as I am aware of and which constitutes a significant part of Huel is flaxseed. Although rare, it is possible to have the reaction to flaxseed that I have described above. I cannot see that is it anything else, although I would need proper allergy testing to be certain of course. 

I read on the Livestrong website that people who have digestive disorders, such as Ulcerative Colitis which was the route of my surgery, should avoid or at least be very careful with Flaxseed but that is mainly due to its laxative effects. 

It can however, evidently, cause reactions in anyone with an autoimmune related disorder. UC, and Crohns, are thought to be caused by the body attacking itself – an autoimmune response. This would make sense to me then that Flaxseed again could be the cause of the issues I am experiencing. Now, obviously, you can’t trust half of what you read on the internet and you need to check things out with multiple sources and get information from recognised respected and peer reviewed websites, but Livestrong has a better reputation that it’s founder (sadly), and there were others which collaborated this evidence including several state sponsored medical ones. 

I had had some real hopes for the Huel diet, but sadly, it has proven not to be for me. And, I now know I have to avoid flaxseeds! Or at least until I can get proper allergy tested.

Olympus Pen-F – first impressions

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On my first outing with the PEN-F (shot on my iPhone)
The whole point of going to a mirrorless camera, for most people, is to reduce the weight and bulk of their camera, and lenses. Having moved from Nikon to Fujifilm I thought I had done just that, but was it enough? I thought so, until I bought a f2.8 pro’ grade lens for the Fuji, and then I wondered why I had bothered. Yesterday I met the Olympus PEN-F – smaller, lighter, and with relatively inexpensive lenses. Would I be convinced enough to change my whole system again? Let’s see…

Let me give you some facts to consider, based, solely, on my own photographic experience; firstly, when I started in digital photography back in…ahem…1995, we had a Kodak DCS camera in the studio at work. It boasted all of 1.5MP and had a 2.6x crop sensor. This is compared to the standard, 35mm film camera, by which are still comparing our camera and talking about relative sizes to this day. If you want to skip this bit, and I admit its longer than I planned, then scroll on down until you get to the subheading – MY FIRST OUTING below

I used that camera both in the studio and on location, and we were only the 9th fully digital commercial studio in the UK. The reason we were the 9th was simple; a decent digital camera would cost about the same money as a two-bedroom terraced house! I am not joking – £34,000 for the 6MP version, which would quite literally at that time, have bought you my house.

Why am I telling you this? Because we printed our brochures with photos ranging in size from a just couple of inches across right up to A3 equivalent double page spreads, and we did so with images from this camera. Yes, 1.5MP source image was printed to an A3 double page spread, on a commercial press. This is important because whilst I admit the images were nowhere near as good as scanned 35mm transparency film, and I was more used to 5″x6″ positive film, we were doing it in 1995.

So for me, the great megapixel race has never been of interest. I also think it was over around the 16MP mark to be honest, but there you go.

This is relevant because I now have more megapixels in my phone and I (almost) never print those images. I also have a tiny sensor driven Nikon P900, as you’ll see from other posts, and I am more than happy to print the images from that at A4. I also sell them via a stock agency. Yes, little bitty sensor generated files are accepted, if they are good enough, by quite a lot of places contrary to what the full frame fans will try to have you believe. It is also relevant because I used to be a full frame fan – I had a Nikon D700 full frame 35mm equivalent digital camera, and to be honest, the images from the second body 1.5x crop sensor Nikon D200 frequently outsold it. Sure, the D200 wasn’t a quick, wasn’t as good in the dark, but if you worked within the known constraints the images were fine and frequently got printed to canvasses over 4ft wide. I think the CCD was far superior for image quality than the ‘MOS sensors but like Betamax and VHS it was commonality not quality that won the war.

What has this to do with the Olympus Pen-F? Well in order to get smaller bodies, and smaller (and cheaper) lenses, as well as smaller and lighter cameras, the sensor really has to be smaller. I am odd in the photographic world because I have gone from 5×4″ film, to 6×6 film, to full frame digital, to APS-C , and then to Micro 4/3rds. Most people go in the opposite direction, but maybe without the film.

The Nikon D700 was a 12.1MP camera and the body weighed in at 995g. I used it with a 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 lens, which weighed 900g and 1,430g respectively. That means, aside from accessories, I was carrying 3,325g or 3.32kg of just bodies and glass. This is why I have two trapped nerves, one in my neck and one between my shoulders. As well as carrying this, I was often shooting with a second body (the D200, 10MP by the way).

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My XT-2 combo
Due to my original neck issue, I then played around with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, but went back to Nikon because it wasn’t doing what I wanted, and got an APS-C sensored D7200. At the time the focussing was too vague and often s..l..o..w.. and the lens choices were far too limited. After doing myself no good carrying the weight again, I then went back to Fuji for the XT-1. By this point there were many more lenses, although still only offered by Fujifilm and Samyang. Exceptional though all those lenses are, you are still very limited compared to Nikon/Canon. Eventually after a number of false starts with some primes, that I nearly dropped in the soup a few times, I ended up with the Fuji XT-2 and the Fuji XF16-55/f2.8 lens. I do not like to miss shots changing lenses, or try to find places to put things down in the, generally, muddy environments I often work.

My quest to reduce weight had now only been partially successful – I now had a body which weighed 507g and a lens which weighed 655g. Yes, that is correct, the lens weighed more than body and two totalled 1,162g or 1.162kg. It was also not that much smaller than my mirrored DSLR body and favourite lens combinations had been. Most of this was down to that lens. Gorgeous thing that it is, and image quality to die for, it is big and heavy. I also wanted more lenses but simply could’t afford them. I analysed my shots and found I shoot a lot of image as wide as I can with the 16mm end. I would like wider, and I would like longer. I don’t actually shoot much in the middle funnily enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not going to dissuade anyone from buying into the Fujifilm system. It is a professional workhorse system with very professional quality images. I have, quite honestly, never seen images bettered by any other camera I have used. I have sold countless images from the XT-2 and the XT-1 before it, but these were images that were shot when I could be arsed to carry it, and there is the nub of the problem. Most of the time I just couldn’t be arsed. I didn’t want it around my neck, because frankly it hurts, and if it went into my bag then it very often stayed there. Putting all the stuff down to get out the camera would often mean I had missed the shot anyway, and after 10miles I rarely had the energy left to try. I love walking, but I do not like walking when everything hurts and you fear putting down your bag because you know you don’t want to pick it up again.

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Lunch break on the Isle of Skye 12mile day hike
Here is my kit in a rare moment on the Isle of Skye. I haven’t stopped to take photos, I’ve stopped for lunch. I did take some photos, as you’ll see from my previous blog entry, but I feel I have become someone who is shooting out of necessity, for documentary, and not because it is actually ‘fun’ anymore. I miss the fun. I want to feel inspired and to try things again.

That Gitzo tripod is super wonderful too – and it weighs in at just under 3kg. It was overkill for the camera really, but I like stability in high wind, especially when on cliff/mountain tops. That rucksack, required for all the kit, accessories, waterproofs, lunch etc, also weighs 3kg (empty).

I worked it out that on an average days hillwalking and shooting, I would be carrying at least 18kg, and I just stopped wanting to do it. I wasn’t enjoying being out and worse still I wasn’t enjoying my photography or feeling creatively inspired and that is the crux of the matter.

When I first moved from the Nikon gear to mirrorless I went with the Fujifilm system based on image quality alone. At the end of the day a camera is a tool for taking great images, and to me, hopefully selling them.

At the time of my change over from the Nikon, I did look at the Olympus OM-D system. I had loved Olympus’ film cameras from the OM range. I had several and I really coveted the OM4Ti, although I could never afford one. Sadly by the time I could Olympus appeared to be on their uppers, they had stopped making the OM series, and so I moved to Nikon.

When I moved from Nikon to Fujifilm, as I said, I did look at the OM-D range but I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the feel of the OM-D cameras in the hand, they were actually just a bit too small. In spite of what a lot of people claim, I wasn’t convinced by the build of the original OM-D cameras, they felt, well…cheap.

Funnily enough, the PEN-F, despite being a rangefinder style actually feels more substantial than the OM-D bodies I have looked at, even though it (probably) isn’t. It is also gorgeous to look at, OM4Ti gorgeous, and its really REALLY well made. I actually have more confidence in the build of the PEN-F than I did the XT-2. I guess its those machined dials. I know I said they are tools, but ask a mechanic if he wants a spanner from Snap-on or B&Q. If you enjoy using your camera, you will use it more. Like anything I guess.

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My Olympus PEN-F with 9-18mm lens (shot with my iPhone 6s)
So, let us also look again at that weight again – the PEN-F body is 427g, saving me just 80g on the Fuji XT-2. Not worth it really, given I would lose a fairly big lump of money from my investment changing systems. But, here is the real difference. You see that lens? Well that baby weighs just 155g. The Olympus 4/3rd is a 2x crop sensor, so a 9-18mm is an 18-36mm equivalent. The Fuji X series has a 1.5x crop factor so the 10-24mm, Fuji’s nearest equivalent, is a 15-36mm. The Fuji weighs 410g. So now I have saved 80g on the body and 255g on the lens, a total of 335g. But it gets better still when you look at the other lenses I might need – because I don’t really need a f2.8 with the excellent image stabilisation offered by the PEN-F body, I went for the kit option with the 14-45 lens to replace my Fuji 16-55 coverage. This means I am now comparing 93g to 655g, saving, well, you do the math and you can see where this is leading.

Because I’ve also reduced the lens sizes and weights, I also don’t need a heavy weight tripod, so bye bye Gitzo to be replaced by a MeFoto (bargain used) and my tripod, and head, has now gone from just shy of 3kg to 1.6kg. My filters are smaller too. In fact, everything, aside from the bag is smaller and lighter. Now before everyone says I’m comparing a Ford Focus ST to a bog standard 1.2 version, yes, I get your point, but they both get me from A to B. This is only my comparison and my decision, based on what I have owned and what I own now, for my type of photography, need. I do not expect everyone to agree, but you read this far so want to see what I did, why, and importantly if it works, for me. It may not well work for you because I don’t know you or what you need for your photography.

Anyway, that is the reasoning behind going to the PEN-F and it took a lot longer to get here than I planned, but what follows is my very first outing and my first impressions. I should say that I tried a demo PEN-F first, thanks to Ffordes Photographic Ltd of Beauly, where I have shopped since before they were even in Scotland!

Anyway, enjoy the photos.

MY FIRST OUTING

I confess that the PEN-F is, as the advertising says, a beast. So also is the full manual, the menu system, and all the options. For the first time, ever, I actually had to read all of it, before I could attempt to take a variety of images and understand what it (and I) was doing. I was still reading it at 3am this morning!

So, I traded in my Fujifilm kit based on the demo one, yesterday and I took the PEN-F for a walk this morning. I went local, to the coastal/dune/woodland path parking in Lossiemouth. To be realistic for the future explorations and longer walks, I went with all my landscape kit, plus the Nikon P900 for any chance wildlife encounters, and also took my new used MeFoto tripod. These are the shots from this morning and my comments on them:

I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority because that is what I use most, and I left it there the whole walk. Normally I would use this and Manual for almost all shoots. I also started with the infamous front mode knob set to the I setting and left the menu settings for the colours for this in default. This was the first shot of the morning –

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Unedited out of camera Jpeg with the 14-45mm EZ pancake lens, Aperture Priority, normal shot mode, ISO200, lens at 14mm (28mm equivalent) 
I stumbled across this wonderful use for something long since dumped. The colours in the sky and the heather are rendered accurately and the tones were good enough on the in-camera jpeg I didn’t require the RAW image. I shot both Raw and Fine Jpegs throughout, as I wanted to experiment with the modes, filters, and effects, but I also wanted the ‘negatives’ too if you get what I mean (film pun).

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I decided to get a little closer to the subject, physically, and this in-camera jpeg initially came out a little too light so I have increased the contrast, reduced the highlights very slightly, and increased the vibrance very slightly in Lightroom (to the jpeg). All alterations were under 10%. I am pleased with the result, remembering this is the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body only. The detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I could have improved the in-camera processing when taking the image by using the plentiful adjustments that are available, but it was very difficult to see the screen in the bright sun. People often ask why I sometimes take an umbrella when it’s sunny – it’s because it helps you see the screen, although you do look an idiot using it. (Try it, somewhere quiet…)

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I took a few shots wandering around, and in both portrait and landscape orientation, and at a variety of lens lengths, all on the kit lens, before I had a look at concentrating on the heather.

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I had read on several reviews and forums that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd systems and so f8 becomes more like f11 or something along those lines. With that in mind, and knowing the reported sweet spot of the lens, I tended to stick around f5.6 as with this shot of the heather, and sadly it didn’t end up with the depth I thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now to get it. I also think this heather is a little too pink rather than purple and would adjust this from the raw file if the shot was worth keeping. I put this up unaltered to show you the straight from camera shot.

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Having used the normal shot settings I decided to play with some of the Art filters that come from using the now famous knob on the front the camera. This is Pin Hole III and I liked the colours of that one for the situation, and with the colours around me, although it does move the heather to the pinker tones again.

Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, obviously, where these settings are used here, these are all out of camera jpegs without any Lightroom alteration unless specified.  I had set the Mono one set-up to give me the maximum grain, and at the time of shooting, I adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce was would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polariser on this bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I do find the grain a bit too much. I have now set my mono up with +1 contrast, +1 sharpness, and the lowest added grain setting instead. I look forward to seeing the difference.

I really like option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction, in the Olympus system. This was actually a huge selling point for me because although I don’t do a lot of long exposures now, because they are a bit too common and almost a cliche, I imagine it will save a lot of effort. I like the idea of being able to see what you get with the Live Time mode, and stop a Bulb exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure, and then to physically time it, in the field, is hard work. Often it is frankly a bit “hit and miss”, and so to cover all bases you shoot several images with slightly different durations. You can’t see what you’ve really got then until you get home. Knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following, and also something that would only be available on screen or with an EVF. You simply couldn’t do it with the viewfinder on a DSLR because you aren’t looking at what the sensor is actually doing.

I imagine it is the same set-up, within the camera’s programming, that also enables you to see the difference that filters would make at the time of shooting on the screen also. I look forward to seeing how it works, especially with ND grads and polarisers. You do have to play in the menu though, as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. I turned this off, and now it is set to show me what I am actually getting, which to my mind should really be the default setting on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.

At this point in the walk I moved to the 9-18mm wide angle lens for the remainder of the walk.

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I like monochrome work, I specialised in it as a wedding photographer, so I will be experimenting with these settings quite a lot. I really like that you can personalise all the settings, save a number of options, and manipulate the art/colour filters for each individual shot if required.  Love that Olympus, really love that a lot. It goes with my way of working and getting it right ‘in-camera’. I want to spend my time taking photos, not working on my Mac. So, I guess it was worth reading the manual…

I was warned online that there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras because they put so much in, option wise. I don’t want them to change it, but I imagine it scares the hell out of novices who probably don’t get to see or use half of what the cameras are capable of. For someone with 30 years as a photographer, many of those as a professional, and 20 years digitally, I did not expect to have to read the manual hardly at all. I would say, that aside from looking a few things up, I didn’t read the manual for the Fujifilm cameras and certainly not for my Nikons. If I hadn’t have customised the PEN-F I feel I would have been frustrated with it, and disappointed with the operation and the results. It was worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort. Of course, you have four saveable Custom options which could reduce work in the future, and some settings will now stay as they are.

One thing that does concern me though: I did my custom settings to the main menus, then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed, and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t, so I had to troll through all the menus and do it again. It may be that normal menu settings don’t save unless specified as the Custom options on the dial, but I hope not. I don’t want to sacrifice C1 (Aperture Priority with my settings) and C2 (Manual with my settings) for my normal operations.

I also don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera. On more than two occasions with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download corrupted at some point. As the file is then being saved onto a card, which is then installed into the camera, it didn’t compromise the camera by failing part way through. If the file was corrupt, the camera simply didn’t accept it, and the update procedure was cancelled without loss. I have a nasty fear that if the download is direct to the camera via the app, and it corrupts, I may be stuck with a camera that effectively has no functioning operating system installed! This may be unjustified, and it may be recoverable in the event, but it is scary. Anyway, back to the images…

Neither of the two lenses I purchased, the 9-18mm or the 14-45mm are macro lenses. But this is what you can with the 9-18mm, which happened t be on the camera at the time:

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Who needs a macro lens? 18mm on the 9-18mm @ f7.1/1/125sec
Again, I was expecting slightly more depth of field, based on what I had read, and so I apologise for the out of focus forward mushrooms in the shot. I will know in future I need to set a smaller aperture value for these types of images. This was shot with Color mode II on the front knob and has been cropped very slightly in Lightroom. The uncropped version is below:

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Please remember all these images are resized to a maximum of 2000pixels on the longest edge and are therefore NOT displaying at full size. So, if you’re impressed, imagine what the full size ones look like! I don’t often pixel peep but I couldn’t resist with a new camera and I was impressed.

If anyone wants the full size images please let me know and I will add them as linked attachments. I don’t do this routinely as it can make the site slow to load, and it’s time consuming for me.

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I was really enjoying getting up close and personal again with such a wide angle lens. Something I had enjoyed with the Tokina lens I had on my Nikon. This image is cropped to emphasise the flowers nearest the camera and the vignette (lost when cropped from the original art filter – Pinhole III again) was then added back in Lightroom.

The PEN-F is so much fun to use that I found myself doing more experimental shots than I would previously have taken. I got into the mud for this one and the thing sticking up is really only around 10″ tall. I like the gunky face which I only actually spotted on the monitor back home. This could have suited the Diorama setting more than the Pinhole and I wish I had done a shot in both modes. I was however very pleased with the reflections.

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My biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F is – what a lot of fun photography is, again. As I said in the first section, if you were with me, the Fuji X series provide an excellent workhorse for capturing a vision you have already, but the PEN-F whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visialise things and try experimenting more. It is a workhorse capable professional camera, with added fun.

These are, bar far, not the greatest photos I have ever taken, but in total I was out for just over 2hours and I shot 38 images. This is pretty much what would have been a roll of film, and a traditional quick test for a new camera. I enjoyed the short trip and I would have been out longer if it hadn’t not only rained, but also lost the nice clouds decent light. I can work with and in this, but I didn’t want to. It was nearly lunchtime and the forecast wasn’t showing it improving. I feel that I still need to finish reading the manual to fully get to all the features and options of the PEN-F, so I was happy to come back in.

My bag was more of a pleasure to carry, and you can see my basic set up for this trip was somewhat lost in that expanse of Lowepro loveliness. On that note, I wish Lowepro would pay more attention to their hiking pedigree and put a bit more effort into their more economical ranges. Sadly the quest for the perfect camera bag has never been fulfilled, by any photographer, as a far as I am aware.

Just to finish; if you are doubting the capabilities of a smaller sensor camera then I would ask you to question what the marketing bods have told you to get you to buy newer, pricier, and more gear. How much do you really need? I mean, look at these!

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Think that’s, even mildly, impressive? Well that isn’t from the PEN-F, it isn’t even a 4/3rds sensor, or a camera anything like as featured or sophisticated as the PEN-F. Remember I said I took the Nikon P900 along with me? Well these are from that tiny weeny sensor! Imagine what I am going to do with the PEN-F…

I know I am.

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

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