Monday, September 21, 2015

Sony A7s II: Is This The Ultimate Adventure Filmmaker's Camera?

A travel and adventure camera should be lightweight, rugged, and simple to use while offering good image quality.  Last week, Sony announced the Mark II version of it's legendary low light camera, the A7s II.  Here are my thoughts as to why I'm considering this as a replacement for my Panasonic GH4 in 2016, and maybe why you should be considering this camera too.
Sony A7s II
When I got my Panasonic GH4 in 2014, I considered 3 cameras, each with its own special 'party trick':  The first generation Sony A7s with it's legendary low light sensor; the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 5-Axis Image Stabilization, and the Panasonic GH4 with internal 4k recording.  The Sony A7s Mark II combines all these 'party tricks' into one camera.
  • 5-Axis Image Stabilization
  • Low Light Sensor
  • Internal 4k Recording
For a fast and light, run and gun, adventure/travel type photographer/filmmaker, these features are killer.

5-Axis Image Stabilization
I would put this feature at the top of the list.  It's the only feature I miss, moving from my Olympus OMD EM5 to the Panasonic GH4.  While it's useful for still photographers, it's simply incredible for videographers.  It's almost like having a gimbal/steadicam built into the camera.  Technologically, it's quite a feat that Sony has been able to stabilize a sensor 4 times the size of the M4/3 sensor like the OMD EM1.

With a little stabilization with software in post-production, this would look very solid

Low Light Sensor
Low light shooting on the A7s is a different league and opens up new shooting possibilities (I'm thinking pre-dawn alpine starts).  The A7s sensor also has more dynamic range than the GH4, and the new A7sII should be the same or even better.  Higher dynamic range will allow more flexibility in post processing, both for still images in for video.  The A7sII has a full frame sensor, which will give me more options with depth of field.

Check out the low light capability of the A7sii in this video from Sony

Internal 4k Recording
While the original A7s had the ability to shoot in 4k, it could not record this internally.  The new A7sII adds internal recording capability, which keeps the 4k setup compact, lightweight and simple.  This was the one killer feature the GH4 had over the original A7s.

Other A7sII Benefits over the GH4
USB Charging
One advantage the A7sII has over my GH4 is that the batteries can be recharged in camera by USB from an external battery, saving the need to carry a charger and cable.  It also makes it easier to possible to recharge in the field using a simple external battery like the Anker that I usually carry to recharge my iPhone and Gopro.  The A7sII battery doesn't last as long as the GH4, but they are also about half the size and weight, so I think that's a wash.

'Always On' Depth of Field Preview
One of the least used buttons on cameras is the Depth-Of-Field Preview button.  Cameras normally keep the lens apertures stopped wide open to allow the maximum amount of light in for a bright viewfinder and make it easier to manual focus.  When you press the Depth of Field Preview button, the lens is stopped down to the selected aperture, the image gets darker, and shows you what is acceptably sharp or blurred.  The A7s II can be selected to have the Depth of Field Preview 'always on', which means as you change the aperture, you can view the resulting depth of field changes 'live' on the LCD or EVF.  

Ability to Transfer RAW Images Wirelessly to iPhone
I shoot RAW still images.  It's nice to be able to grab a RAW shot off your camera, then send it wirelessly to your smartphone where you can do some basic editing, then upload it to social media.  The A7sII can do this with RAW files by converting them on the fly to JPEG images, which it then sends to your IOS or Android device.  If I wanted to do this on my GH4, I would need to shoot 2 copies on the camera, use the JPEG files to transfer to my iPhone, then come back home and delete all the JPEG files that I didn't need in the first place. 

Useable Continuous Autofocus in Video Mode?
Technically, the GH4 can rack focus by touching the screen.  Practically, I have not been very successful with this and tend to use manual focus.  Continuous AF in the A7sII video mode looks very useable in the following video clip.

No details on how the AF works for video, but this looks very useable

A7s II, which has a Full Frame sensor, comes with some downsides when compared to a Micro Four Thirds camera like the GH4.
  • Weight
  • Cost
The A7s body and lenses, while lighter than comparable full frame equivalents from Nikon and Canon, are significantly heavier than the Panasonic GH4 kit that I'm presently using. The A7sII body weighs 584g. 480g for the GH4.  To replace the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 Lens(300g) I'm currently using, I'll need the Sony 16-35mm F/4 Lens (518g).  Some increase in weight is to be expected, stepping up from M4/3 to Full Frame.  Sitting here at my desk, it's hard to imagine what an increase in load will feel like on my shoulders and back 3 days into a multi-day adventure, but I can tell you I won't like it.  As a side note, the A7sII battery doesn't last as long as the GH4, but they are also about half the size and weight, so I think that's a wash, weight wise.

You get what you pay for.  If you are coming from a Full Frame camera, the A7s II may be reasonable, or even cheap.  Coming from a Micro Four Thirds camera, I find the camera and lenses expensive.  Again, you get what you pay for, as it's a step up from M4/3 to Full Frame, just something you should factor into your considerations.

Final Thoughts
The Panasonic GH4 is the best handling camera I've ever used.  It is a great balance between image quality for its size and weight.  I've used it in wet/humid, dry/dusty conditions, and it has not failed me yet.  But it's not particularly great in low light, nor does it have 5-Axis Image Stabilisation.  Ultimately, my decision to switch will rest on what Panasonic comes out with the GH5.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tools for Bike Travel

I travel often with my bike, and I can't travel with all my tools when I fly with my bike.  To save weight, I bring a minimum of tools, which I keep in a little travel tool box.  These are an addition to the typical bike tools that you should always have with you, like a bike multitool, pump and tire levers.  These are the tools I may use to assemble my bike at the destination, then they stay behind with my bike box or in the car.  Here are some tools you should consider bringing with you when you travel with your bike.

Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key
1. Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key
Carbon parts and titanium bolts require some care to fit.  Both over and under torquing the bolts could affect the ride, and shorten the life of the parts.  I love the Ritchey 6-Bit Bicycle Torque Key as it's compact and lightweight, and really fast to get bolts on and off with the 'spinner'.  I use the 5Nm preset mainly for my stem faceplate bolts, but I think it's also a good 'general' use torque, and better than my 'feel'.

Topeak D2 Smartgauge

2. Topeak D2 SmartGauge
Getting consistent tire and shock pressures is one key to riding better.  I use a floor pump at home, but I don't bring that when I travel.  This gauge can check tires, front and rear shock pressures.  I do bring a travel tire and shock pump, but I can use whatever pump is available to me, and still maintain consistent pressures.

3. Park Tool HR-8 Hex Wrench (8mm)
It's easy enough to get a pedal on with a bike specific multi-tool, but after a long ride, it can be tough getting the pedal off if you cannot apply enough torque.  One solution is to throw a long-armed 8mm allen key into the travel kit.  I use mine to get the pedals on, and it stays with my bike box until I return to take the pedals off.

Leatherman New Wave

4. Leatherman New Wave Multitool
A bike specific multi-tool comes along with me on every ride, but a general purpose one, like the Leatherman Wave pictured above, can be a useful addition to the travel kit.  I use a tool like this to cut up and pull out the staples on cardboard bike boxes, slice fruit and duct tape. The little screwdriver can be useful for sunglasses, the file used to deburr sharp edges after a crash, and the pliers useful for taking apart power links. I've heard of the saw being used to cut up some wood to rig up a chain guide for a single speed conversion when the derailleur broke.  It's mainly a basecamp/hut/car tool as it's too heavy to take along most rides, but I sometimes carry a smaller/lighter tool on epic rides.

5. Old Inner Tube
If you have an old inner tube that is no longer useable as a spare, throw that in with your travel kit.  They can be cut up to use as shields or shims to protect your frame, rubber bands, GPS retainers.  I have also seen them used with tent pegs as a splint for a broken frame.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Bali Rides Again

Destination: Bali, Indonesia
Activity: Mountain Biking
Season: Mid-June through Mid-September
Operator: Guided, with
Cost: Low to Moderate

Back again to Bali for some mountain biking.  I'd been cooped up for the past few weeks video editing at my computer and needed to kick start my training and get some biking in. A change of scenery is great motivation, so I contacted Ramang Kristian of Bali Rides to see if he could fit me in for a multi-day ride.

Mt. Abang to Telaga Waja River Ride.  Photo by Bali Rides/Ramang Kristian

Ramang arranged 6 days of riding for me.  3 days on, a day rest, followed by another 3 days of riding.  It was a no-hassle trip.  Bali Rides arranged everything from the airport pick-up and drop-off, all meals and accommodation.  Bali Rides' airconditioned rooms were all full, so I stayed in the non-airconditioned bamboo hut - Simple, rustic and comfortable, although a little noisy in the early morning.  One balinese massage was also included in my package.

Bamboo Hut at Bali Rides B&B

Each ride was about 42km, and mostly downhill, but had an average of 550m of total climbing.  Technical difficulty ranged from the easy, but scenic Ubud loop, to intermediate trails like the Abang to Mengwi trail, easily the best ride in Bali with small techy drops, swooping singletrack, and breathtaking views.

Riding the beginner Ubud Loop trail through rice padi fields and coconut trees.  Photo by Bali Rides/Ramang Kristian.

Costs are low to moderate, depending on where you come from.  A day ride will cost IDR1.1 million (USD$78, SGD$110), which includes the guided ride,  hotel pickup and dropoff, lunch and snack, and full-suspension bike rental (Specialized carbon Epic 29ers or carbon Stumpjumpers - really good rental bikes!).  Multiday rides are all custom arranged.  Contact for a quote.

I just wanted to ride, so I didn't shoot any photos or video this trip.  But here's a video from my first trip with Bali Rides.  The riding is pretty typical, but we chose to stay at different hotels to get to see more of Bali:

Bali Rides from Kenneth Koh on Vimeo.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mountain Biking Telluride to Moab: The Ride

Continued from the last post:

When we got to Moab, we met up with some friends and did a couple of rides.  It always seems that we don't spend enough time in Moab, because before we knew it, it was time to depart for Telluride, and begin the trip trip that we had come all this way for: Riding two hundred something miles from Telluride to Moab, using San Juan Hut Systems huts along to way, so that we could ride with light packs and enjoy the riding!

A photo posted by Ken Koh (@adventurenomad) on

San Juan Hut System is the only destination (ie. Telluride to Moab; Durango to Moab) hut to hut based system in the US.  It allows a biker to really get deep into the backcountry by eliminating the need to carry tents, sleeping bags, cookware and food for 7 days of riding.

Oh, yes!  This is one ROWDY Ride!

If you've ever thought about doing one of these rides, this short video should give you a good idea of what to expect:

Mountain Biking Telluride to Moab from Kenneth Koh on Vimeo.

Having done the similar Durango to Moab ride a few years ago, we kind of knew what to expect.  While there's still a fair bit of dirt road and a little paved road, this ride had more singletrack.  In fact, so much more singletrack that we simply could not ride all the singletrack options.  Lucky for us, they were options, and when weather or our bodies had enough, we could take an easy dirt road ride to the next hut.

I've been to Moab 4 times over the years.  Once in the Spring, once in the Fall, and twice in Summer.  I definitely want to return, because there's just so much more riding to do, but I won't be going back in Summer.  It's too hot and just too crowded.

If you were deciding on which of the two hut to hut rides to pick, I'd say go with the Durango to Moab Ride if you're riding for the scenery and views.  If you like more technical riding, pick Telluride to Moab.  Either way, you won't be far wrong.  One of these rides definitely belong on every mountain biker's bucket list!

Mountain Biking Telluride to Moab: The Drive Up

It's a long way to get to Moab - It's along trans-pacific flight, followed by a long drive from California to Utah.  We've found that by following the bodies natural sleep cycle, and by getting a lot of sunshine during the day, the drive up can be a good way to acclimatise as well as take in a lot of the sights.

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, enroute to Moab, Utah.
Arriving into the USA after a big transpacific flight has always been a pain, but arriving into Los Angeles this trip has been my most pain free so far, thanks to the new ESTA immigration clearance, available for selected countries.  As usual, our plan was to get out of the airport as quickly as possible, then drive for as long as we could, usually a couple of hours before needing to stop for sleep.  Our destination this trip, was Moab, in Utah, where we were heading up to do some mountain biking.  We've found that due to time zone changes, we are usually up very early, by 3 or 4am, and so we make use of that time taking the bikes out of their boxes and assembling them.  We hit the road about 5am, or just before daybreak, and stop for breakfast along the way.  By breaking up the drive, can taking in a lot of sunshine, we adapt faster to the new time zone.  We took in as many sights as possible on the drive up by heading out onto Historic Highway Route 66... 

A photo posted by Ken Koh (@adventurenomad) on

The next day, we made it to Panguitch, Arizona, where we got to ride Thunder Mountain Bike Trail, which was an unexpected treat!  Great riding, really awesome scenery!  After the ride, we took a drive through Bryce Canyon National Park, and took in a short hike.

A photo posted by Ken Koh (@adventurenomad) on

The highlight of the drive up to Moab was Page, Arizona, which we reached the evening after leaving Bryce Canyon NP.  We stayed for 2 nights and visited Antelope Canyon, Waterholes Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

The evening after we visited Antelope Canyon, we reached Moab.  By this time, we were fully acclimatised and ready to ride!

To be continued...