Adventure Nomad

Adventure Nomad

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Best GPS Apps Of 2016

Armed with GPS chips, mobile phones have become increasing powerful, and prices of such devices have fallen to levels within reach of many.  The larger screen and ability to quickly and easily update apps and maps, make them a viable replacement for dedicated GPS devices in many cases.  There are some caveats to using your phone for navigation, such as making sure you don't run out of power, and having a back-up, such as carrying paper maps or another mobile phone.  Read more here.

There is no one single best app for navigation.  Different apps have different strengths, different areas of coverage, eg. urban vs. backcountry.  In no particular order, here are the GPS apps on my iPhone and my picks for the best GPS Apps of 2016:

1.  Google Maps (Free)
Like it or not, Google is one of the best apps for GPS.  It is extremely powerful with excellent maps, including some offroad trails, a searchable data base, real-time traffic information, and turn-by-turn navigation for driving, walking/biking, and public transportation.  It requires data for use, and it is my default app at home where I have a data plan.  You can store a small portion of a map, like a city, for offline use, but that doesn't work for me, and so I don't use this app when I travel.

2.  Here Maps (Free)
Here Maps was originally developed by Nokia and is now owned by three German automotive companies - Audi, BMW and Daimler-Benz,  Map presentation is not as slick as Google Maps, but both app functions similarly.  The big difference is that it can do it Offline - meaning it does not require online data to function.  To have offline navigation capability, you will need to download the map of the country (not all countries are supported) and store that on your phone.  Once the map is downloaded, you will have a searchable data base, turn-by-turn navigation for driving, pedestrian, and public transportation.  You can also get real-time traffic information by choosing to use the app online.  Here uses its own maps, so it may be better or worse than Google, depending on where you are.

3. Maps.Me (Free)
If there is a no-brainer navigation app to download, it's Maps.Me.  For an offline GPS app with a searchable database, it's extremely responsive, fast to load app with a very small footprint.  Just to give you an idea of how remarkably compact the map data file size is, Singapore on Here Maps is a 112MB download, while it's just a 7MB on Maps.Me.  It also claims to cover every country in the world.  It uses the open source OpenStreetMaps data, which can be either good or bad, depending on contributors to the mapping database. Often, I'm able to search out locations like a small hotel or coffeeshop that cannot be found on Here Maps.  Other times, it misses completely where Here or Google Maps will find it. It offers turn-by-turn voice instructions can be enabled for driving and walking/biking, but no option for public transportation like Google or Here.  The map presentation looks quite nice, and various points of interests and landmarks pop up as you increase the scale, which is great for travellers on foot or bike to orientate themselves while moving around a city.  It's strength is being able to search out and find things that travellers would be interested in - parks, trails, coffeeshops, hotels, etc.  For my use, it has replaced Maplets on my iPhone.  I have not noticed any battery drain for Maps.Me, but I do notice that Maps.Me selects the GPS so it is always on, regardless of whether you are using the app or not. 

4. Gaia GPS (Paid)
For backcountry navigation, Gaia GPS remains my app of choice.  The availability of USGS Topo Maps for the USA and a host of other downloadable wilderness maps, and features such as being able to create a route manually on the iPhone itself, and power saving features make it a clear winner.  Gaia GPS can be used offline, and in addition, also selected for use in 'Flight Mode', which means the phone is off.  In the backcountry, this is a good thing, since it is unlikely that there is a phone signal, and your phone isn't left searching for a signal.  Note that the search function is poor, and it doesn't do turn-by-turn navigation, so it's not a GPS app for urban use.  For a write-up on navigating with Gaia GPS on your iPhone, read this.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Newbie's Guide to Setting Up The Sony A7s Mkii for Video

So you've got yourself a Sony A7sii, and have yet to decide how best to set up the gammas, gamuts, autofocus modes, sound levels, etc.  If you're a newbie, you've probably come to the right place.  I have been experimenting on the best ways ways to set up the camera, to get the best results for an amateur filmmaker (like me), for adventure or travel.  This means that the camera has got to be quick, easy to use and produce good results.  There are a lot of options on this camera, and I'll cover what I think are the most important ones a newbie should know.

Base Frame Rate
I shoot NTSC 24p with a PAL A7sii.  This means I get an idiotic reminder everytime I start up my camera, slowing down an already slow start up.  I do this because I prefer the look of 60 and 120 fps slowed down to 24 fps in my editing program versus the look of 50 and 100 fps slowed down to 25 fps.

Customized Buttons
I configured the C1 button to start and stop movie recording.
C2 button is set to Clear Image Zoom.  This gives a better image than simply cropping in post.  It is not useable for RAW stills, and for the 120p video mode (which is already cropped in 2.2 times).

Configuring Movie Mode
Mine is set to XAVC S 4K, 24p 100M, Aperture Priority Auto, Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, Metering Mode Multi, Continuous AF, Wide.  This is my 4K mode.  I use this when I want the highest quality (gives me options to crop or stabilize in post), or for low light (24p will give me the lowest shutter speed).  I've selected Autofocus On by default, and set to Continuous Wide on all my video modes.  Video AF is usually useable, but slow on the A7sii.  If I want manual focus, it's a quick flick of the AF/MF switch to MF, and toggle the button (see 'Back Button Focus' in Setting Up the Sony A7sii for Adventure Photography to set this up).  I use Aperture Priority and let the camera select the shutter speed and ISO automatically.   I find that works well for me and allows me some creative control while not slowing me down.  I use the exposure compensation dial if multi metering mode isn't giving me what I want.  Auto White Balance on the camera has been working well for me.

Memory 2 on the Mode Dial is set to XAVC S HD, 60p 50M, with the other settings the same as above.  This is my 1080p 60fps mode.  I'll use it when something is moving or when I might want slow motion.  It's quite a good, general purpose frame rate, and I'd use it more often, except that in this mode, the camera goes into 'P' Program mode and I can't control the aperture.

Memory 1 is set to XAVC S HD, 120p 100M.  This is my extreme slow motion mode.  I sometimes use it if I need more reach as the camera crops in 2.2 times.  It's a huge crop.  It changes my 10-18mm E-Mount lens into a more useable 22-40mm.  The camera also goes into Program mode on this setting.

Gamma, Gamut and LUTS
Gamma refers to how the camera treats the difference between the dark and the light areas of the image, and Gamut refers to the range of colors available.  A LUT (Look Up Table) converts the gamma and gamut into a 'look', in this case, a 'film look'.  To a newbie, Sony offers a bewildering choice of Gammas and Gamuts.  I scoured the internet, keeping an eye out for looks that I liked, tried out the ones I liked, and decided on one which worked best for my workflow in my video editor, Final Cut Pro X.  I use Cine2 Gamma, S-Gamut3.Cine, with the Detail (Sharpening) at -7 in conjunction with FilmConvert LUTs.  Technically, you don't need to use a LUT, but I found a yellow/green cast in my footage that was difficult to correct.  Initially, I thought this was due to the use of Auto White Balance, unfortunately, that was the color that came out of this camera.  The good news is that LUTs, like the ones used by FilmConvert, are able to take color and gamma information and, quite easily, convert it into something pleasing.

Test Settings and Grading Sony A7sii from Kenneth Koh on Vimeo.

I find the built-in mics to be be pretty good for capturing ambient sound, and use these settings in general.
Audio Recording Level 20
Wind Noise Reduction Off

These are the settings that I'm using now.  I hope this was useful to get you started in setting up your own Camera.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Free Online Filmmakers Seminar

The world's largest free online event for filmmakers is happening in less than 24 hours.  I signed on a week ago, which means I've been getting a weeks worth of spam email... Seriously though, I've only gotten about an email a day, 'encouraging' me to sign up for their paid program.

The program looks legit, so it's worth the hassle.  Check it out at

If you remember Brandon Li, whom I interviewed a while back, he's one of the filmmaker's contributing to the seminar.

Setting Up the Sony a7s Mkii For Adventure Photography

The Sony Alpha a7sii is a mirrorless camera targeted primarily at video and low light shooters.  It's got a 12MP sensor that outputs very clean video and stills with great dynamic range, is awesome in low light.  I'm a video shooter who shoots stills for timelapses, Facebook, Instagram, and maybe some prints up to 12"; and for that, the 12MP sensor is enough. The downside is that at 12MP, your options for cropping are limited.  Other downsides of the a7sii are that startup is slow, and the autofocus system for stills is very slow.  
Fisherman, Inle Lake, Myanmar.  Sony a7sii, Zeiss 24-70mm @ 40mm, 1/250, f/22, ISO 400. The Sony a7sii is an awesome video camera, but is not ideal for stills photography.  With the right settings, I can get it to work.
For adventure/travel/expedition type shooting, its all about speed and accuracy - how fast I can get my camera out, turn it on, stabilize, frame and shoot.  I may not have the opportunity to do a reshoot.  Everyone's needs are different, and there are many different ways to set up your camera based on those needs.  Here is how I set up mine:

SteadyShot - ON
The a7sii 5-Axis Image Stabilization is not on the same level as the one on the Olympus M4/3 system, however, it still works well for photography.  It allows me to stabilize the camera where I cannot deploy a tripod - vehicles, while rock-climbing, etc...  It has limits and some drawbacks, but rather than mess around with turning it on and off, I always leave mine set to ON.

I climbed to to the top of a pagoda at dawn to get this shot.  With my back against the wall and balancing on a 6" ledge, I had no place to set up my tripod.  SteadyShot to the Rescue!  Sony a7s mk2, Zeiss 24-70mm @ 27mm, 1/250, f/9, ISO 250.

Compressed RAW
Everyones needs are different.  I shoot compressed RAW files on the a7sii.  I see limited gains for shooting uncompressed RAW, and compressed keeps the file sizes manageable for me, especially when I have to edit hundreds of stills for a timelapse sequence.

Monkeys, Mt. Popa, Myanmar.  RAW image converted to JPG and cropped using the settings in this blog post (Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, Multi Metering Mode, Auto Focus, etc.)  No sharpening or other adjustments made.  Sony a7sii, Zeiss 24-70mm @ 70mm, 1/320, f/4.5, ISO 250.
ISO - Auto (Limit 102, 400)
The high ISO performance on this camera is so good, my personal limit is about 80,000, so I set 102,400 as the closest the camera will allow me to set. 

ISO AUTO Min SS (Shutter Speed) - Faster
In Aperture Priority Auto, I choose the aperture, and this allows the camera to favor a faster shutter speed to freeze motion.  If I need to shoot very fast, or a specific shutter speed, I'll select Shutter Priority on the Mode Dial.  

Metering Mode - Multi
This usually works very well, but if I need to adjust the exposure, I'll use the Exposure Compensation Dial on the top of the camera.

White Balance - Auto
I find the White Balance on my a7sii quite good for both stills and video.  If required, it's an easy fix to post process the RAW file.  

Autofocus is very slow, but usually accurate.  Works best for slower moving subjects on these settings:

Focus Mode - Continuous AF
I use back button AF in conjunction with Continuous AF.  I take my finger off the button when the subject is in focus (see below on setting up Back Button Focus).

Focus Area - Wide
Smile/Face Detect - On
These settings allow the camera to automatically choose where to focus.  If there is a face in the view, it should focus on it.   Sometimes, the AF will fail to lock on, in which case, I need to quickly disengage the AF and manually focus the lens (see setting up Back Button Focus below).

Burmese Cat, Inle Lake, Myanmar.  Sony A7sii, Zeiss 24-70mm at 70mm, 1/320, f/4, ISO 2500.  Sony's Eye AF does not recognize animal faces, and regular AF would focus on the cat's nose.  A quick switch to manual focus was required to focus on the eyes.
Back Button and Eye Focus
Eye focus is great for portraits and close ups.  The only way to use Eye focus is to set up a custom button for it.  Setting up Back Button Focus means half pressing your shutter release no longer focuses the camera.  I set up the AEL button for Eye AF (Continuous Eye AF).  If the AF system doesn't recognize an 'eye' to focus on, the AF takes longer to lock on or may not lock on at all.  Hence, I have set up the Center Button for the general purpose AF On (Continuous Wide Area, Face Detect On).  Generally, this works pretty good, but occasionally, AF will choose something you don't want to focus on, or you may want to lock focus onto something or choose to manually focus - then you need a quick way to disengage the AF to use Manual Focus.  I set this up using the AF/MF switch and pressing the AF/MF Button will toggle the mode between Manual and Auto Focus.

I set up my camera for back button focus.
1. Menu > Custom Settings > Custom Key Settings > Center Button > AF On.
2. Menu > Custom Settings > Custom Key Settings > AEL Button > Eye AF.
3. Menu > Custom Settings > Custom Key Settings > AF/MF Button > AF/MF Ctrl Toggle.
4. Menu > Custom Settings > AF w/shutter > Off.

Monk grabs a shot with his Cellphone at the Temple of 582,000 Buddhas, Thanboday, Myanmar.  This image was taken from my Facebook page, which was updated with the ability of the Sony A7 to wirelessly transfer images to my iPhone.
Set Up Wireless Image Transfer to Your Smart Device
One of the great things about Sony cameras is its ability to take RAW images from my a7sii camera, create JPG copies of it on the fly, and send them to my smartphone.  I can then make a quick edit, and upload from my iPhone to Instagram or Facebook.

This might work for you if you have a Sony a7, a7s, a7r Mk1 or Mk2 bodies, but I since I only have the a7sii, I can't say for sure.  Best way to find out is to try it out.  If it works for you, and has been helpful, please let me know.  I am constantly experimenting, but for now, these are the settings that work best for me.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Accessories for the Adventure Shooter's Sony A7s MkII

Here are some accessories that I use for my Sony a7sii, but could work for any alpha a7, a7r, a7s mk1 or mk2 adventure shooting kit.  Some, like the SDXC Memory Cards and a Screen Protector, are what I'd consider to be 'must haves', the others are nice to have.

64GB SDXC Memory Card
I know I read this somewhere before buying my camera, but in the excitement, I forgot all about it and as a result, could not shoot 4K video until I went back to the store to buy new SD cards. Take note that SDXC cards of at least 64GB size are required, the the memory cards from your last camera might not work.  I thought the Sony's were best 'bang for buck' and that I wouldn't have to worry about compatibility issues, and got 2 Sony Class 10 UHS-1/U3 SDXC up to 95MB/s Memory Card in 128GB size.

Extra Battery
For adventure or expedition shooting, you probably won't go through as many batteries as say, a wedding shooter.  The Camera does come with 2 batteries in the box, and although I've yet to go through more than 2 batteries in a day of shooting, it's worth picking up a 3rd battery as a spare.  I stopped using 3rd party batteries and only recommend using original Sony NP-FW50 batteries for consistent performance.  Sometimes, there's a deal from Sony to purchase an extra battery when you buy your camera.  Be aware that there are fake batteries circulating in the market.

Mindshift GP2
Mindshift GP2
I keep my memory cards and batteries in a MindShift GP2. It's made for Gopro accessories, but will hold 2 SDXC memory cards and 2 Sony NP-FW50 batteries.  I number my batteries and cards, and the clear holder allows me to see which card/battery is next up to cycle.  It's lightweight and allows me to secure way to store and organize those essentials.

LCD Screen Protector
Before you take the camera out of the box, put an LCD Screen Protector on it.  I had mine for just a day before I went back to the store to put a screen protector on, and the screen was already scuffed.

Peak Designs Leash Camera Strap
The Leash, by Peak Designs
Consider the Peak Design Leash Camera Strap.  I frequently take the strap off so it doesn't interfere with me moving the camera around and either snagging (hence ruining the shot) or making some kind of noise that will interfere with the built in camera microphone.  I'm used to homemade solutions, but the Leash is the best, lightest and most adjustable design I've seen, and will allow you attach their 'anchors' directly to the camera lugs, thereby eliminating the need for the triangular mounts, which could be a potential source of noise as well.  I also bought their Standard Plate, so I could attach the strap to the plate and have the camera over my shoulder hanging lens down, a much more ergonomic position.  Note that the strap is thin, and may not be the most comfortable for heavier setups.

Think Tank Body Bag

Camera Body Pouch/Bag
I like the Newswear Body Pouch that I've been using for years.  It fits the a7sii with 24-70mm lens, but with the hood stored in the reversed.  I've recently acquired the Think Tank Body Bag, which is larger and can store the same body lens combination (or a larger lens) with the hood in place, ready to use.  These bags are the ultimate in flexibility and lightweight for the adventure shooter.  I can use them as a chest pouch, mounted as a holster on a belt, or chucked into any backpack.  The velcro flap gives quick access to the camera, but dust protection is not so good.

Zeiss Lens Cleaning Wipes and a Chamois
Zeiss Cleaning Wipes
A friend gave me a box of Zeiss Lens Cleaning Wipes and since then, I've ditched my Lenspen in favor of them.  Nothing wrong with the Lenspens, its just that I never throw the old ones away, and I just don't know which have been around long enough to have picked up enough grit on the cleaning pad to be dangerous.  The Wipes are one-time-use, so I know they are clean.  I bring one wipe for every 3-4 days, plus one spare, or about 3 wipes for week long trip.  I also carry a  reusable chamois (synthetic, microfiber) to clean, and wipe off fog or moisture from the lens.

Sea to Summit Dry Bags.
They have nicer colors.
Ultralightweight Dry Bag
The Think Tank Body Bag (above) does come with a waterproof cover, but for extended periods in the wet, and also for unforseen circumstances, I prefer the security of a fully-waterproof dry bag.  I use a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Dry Sack, which is lightweight and folds small out of the way.  The 13 liter size fits my camera with body bag, and a spare lens.  Or, a plastic bag stuffed into your camera bag will do in a pinch.