Saturday, March 29, 2008

Confessions of a Superzoom Snob

I’d never really considered getting a superzoom before. These things are notorious for having bad optics and nothing says ‘amateur’ more than having one of these mounted on your DSLR.

A couple of weeks ago, I borrowed a friend’s copy of the Nikkor 18-200 and did some casual tests. The Nikon 18-200mm VR is not the sharpest piece of glass out there. It was the least sharp out of the three zooms tested at the same focal lengths (tested: Nikkor 18-200, Nikkor 80-400, Sigma 50-150mm at 100mm f/5.6 and 150mm f/5.6). In addition, it has some other unpleasant characteristics: barrel/pincushion distortions, zoom creep, and some light fall off the extremes when shot wide open.

Why do I want one then? Well, for the following reasons:

Lightweight

While the 18-200mm is does not go wide enough for me to consider it as a ‘one lens’ solution, it is light enough that if I replace my Sigma 50-150mm, I’ll save about 200g (about a half pound). On a long trek or hike, like my upcoming Annapurna Circuit, that’s worth it. For this trek, I’ll also replace my normal wide-angle lens, the 12-24mm with the 10.5mm fisheye, saving me another half pound.

Flexibility

This is more than just the convenience of not having to change lenses. In travel photography, I don’t usually get to control my subjects or environment. My role is that of an observer and it means I have to work quickly to get shots as events unfold. There is usually no chance for a retake. Having the right lens on your camera at the right time could mean getting the shot or no shot. The Nikkor 18-200mm offers a wide range of focal lengths with acceptable quality*.

Weatherproofing

My D300 died on me during a trip down a river 2 weeks ago. It was protected in a Stormcase and it never got wet. There were 3 other SLRs on that trip, all Nikon: a D200, a D70 and a D40x. All of them were stored in soft drybags and they all survived the trip. Two were fitted with 18-200mm lenses and the older D70 was fitted with an 18-70mm lens. While the jury is still out on why my D300 failed, I suspect that reducing lens changes improves the camera’s weatherproofing, be it moisture or dust.

Pairs up well with the D300

With the low noise characteristics of the D300, I’m less afraid to bump up the ISO to accommodate the slow maximum aperture of the 18-200mm. Also, on my D300, the balance is perfect!

*Acceptable Quality: How good is this lens? I can put up with the lens’s other faults, but sharpness is important to me and I’m hoping that it will be sharp enough for a magazine double-page spread (11x22”).

Incidentally, from my lens testing, the Sigma was the sharpest, but required the large lens hood in place for best results. The Nikkor 18-200mm has surprisingly good contrast qualities, and in testing without hoods, it outperformed the Sigma in the contrast department. The moral of the story is: always use the lens hood.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Descent of the Pahang River

The Pahang River is Malaysia’s longest river. It measures 459 km from its source, near Gunung Tahan, to the sea. We began our trip at Kuala Tahan, and paddled a distance of 339 km to reach the South China Sea seven days later.

The river itself is not spectacular, but visiting the villages and hospitable people along the way made this trip worthwhile.

With a large group, such as ours, certain safety conditions and logistics requirements had to be met. We had a safety crew on the water with us in two boats: a safety boat up front and a supply boat bringing up the rear. On land, a truck, carrying additional supplies, would meet up with us each evening. It was the logistics that would end up giving us the biggest headaches. Roads would be washed out causing delays and difficulties for the land crew. The safety boat crew would be stretched to their limits, as the group could be spread out over a distance of 10 km or more during the course of each day.

In theory, a small group of 4 people on 2 kayaks could do this trip without additional support. One of the problems is the lack of information available for a kayak descent of the river. In practice, this turned out to be pretty straightforward. Google Earth maps make river navigation easy. Villages are marked out on the map and, although the riverbanks are high, each village has a jetty where you can take out the kayaks at the end of each paddling day. The villagers are curious and hospitable and it should be no problem finding a place to buy food or even stay for the night. Still, you should be prepared to camp out and cook for yourself. Having someone along who can speak Malay is essential.

Add a sarong to the equipment list. None of us had brought one along, but almost all of us had bought one by the end of the trip. Use it for a quick change into something dry, wearing around camp and as a blanket at night. Other essentials for the trip are St. Luke’s Prickly Heat Powder (useful to help ward off fungus) and standard mosquito coils.

Photos from Top:
Morning Paddle 1. Taken by Aloysius Wee with a Sea & Sea DX-1G, 1/130 f/7.9 ISO 100;
Paddling Down The Pahang River I. Taken with a Sea & Sea DX-1G, wide-angle adapter, tripod mounted to kayak and camera on interval timer. 1/1000 f/3.2 ISO 100;
Morning Paddle 2. Sea & Sea DX-1G, 1/640 f/8.1 ISO 100;
Drifting... Sea & Sea DX-1G, 1/270 f/4.6 ISO 100

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nikon D300: Not Tough Enough

I’ve just returned from a successful descent of the Pahang River in Malaysia from Taman Negara to the Sea. We covered a distance of 339km in seven days.

On the third day of our expedition, my D300 died. It was about 10am. We had hauled our kayaks up a steep riverbank the previous evening. Space was tight and I snapped on my 10.5mm as we prepared to launch our kayaks. The shot above was the only one taken that morning just before my D300 fizzled and died. I turned it off and on and the top LCD briefly came to life, and then went blank. Uh oh.

As the official expedition photographer, I was mortified and embarrassed. Of all the SLRs carried by members, mine was the newest, the toughest and best protected from the elements in my watertight, crushproof, shockproof Stormcase. The other SLRs carried were a D200, D70 and a D40x: and they all survived the trip stuffed into drybags. I think what made a difference was that none of the others changed lenses, which may have helped resist the high humidity conditions along the river.

I must say that my faith in the weatherproofing, ruggedness and durability of the D300 has been shaken. Anyway, my D300 is going back to Nikon with my report and we’ll see what they have to say.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

And Here We Go…

Well, I’ll be leaving tomorrow for a kayaking trip down the Pahang River in Malaysia. The photo above shows the group hard at work during the last meeting before the trip.

I’ll be bringing my Nikon D300, SB600 strobe, 10.5mm fisheye, 12-24mm, 50-150mm and a small tripod. In addition, my Sea & Sea DX-1G (aka Ricoh GX100 in an underwater housing) will come along for the wet shots.

This is going to be an exciting test for my photographic equipment. Kayaking down a river in a humid equatorial rainforest will be enough of a test, but the forecast for the next few days is for rain, rain, rain. Which means we’ll be wet, wet, wet.

I’m sure I’ll have lots to report when I get back in a week or so. Until then, take care.

Photo: Nikon D300, SB600, 12-24mm@12mm 1/8 f/4 ISO1600

VO2 Max Me

VO2 Max testing is available in Singapore at the Changi Sports Medicine Centre. At the end of the test, a doctor will sit down with you to validate the findings (or give you his input) to give you your optimum training zones.

From now until the end of May, they are having a special on it. About SGD$82, I think. The regular price is SGD$120. Give your training a boost and call them to make an appointment.

Photo:
VO2 Max Me Up! Taken by Laura Koh with a Canon Ixus 850 IS.

The Nikon D300 Review

The review we've all been waiting for: Thom Hogan's Nikon D300 review. The guru has spoken. Any surprises? Well, I won't spoil it for you. It's nice to hear from an expert when you're about to plonk down a wad of cash, to know you're going to get your money's worth. Me? I would have bought the D300 anyway - wait a minute, I did!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Best of the Web

Here are some of the sites and blogs that make my "Best of the Web" list. It may be worth your while to check them out.

Dave Black is a sports photographer who dishes out a new article at the start of each month. Very educational.

Seb Rogers is one of the world’s best mountain biking photographers. He isn’t afraid to share information and updates his blog regularly.

Inside Lightroom – Pros, like adventure sports photographer Michael Clark, share their insights and offer tips about using Adobe Lightroom and more.

Chase Jarvis – Commercial photographer. He shoots for the big outdoor sports companies like REI. He has a blog and a bunch of great videos like how to pack gear, making a rugged laptop case. I’ve seen them all.

Aurora – For truly inspirational photographs, I like to check out the outdoor collection at Aurora Photos. Great for Oohs and Aahs.

Thom Hogan – Resident Nikon guru. It’s always good to hear what Thom has to say.

Flickr - everyone needs a place to showcase his or her photography. Flickr is one of the best places to showcase your stuff, as well as share information.

Clubsnap – You’ve got to keep abreast with the latest photographic gear and prices. The Forum at Clubsnap allows me to do all that, as well as sell and buy used equipment here in Singapore.

Strobist – most of the stuff is beyond me, but my flashwork is crap, so I’d better pay attention here.

Nikonians – keeps me abreast with the latest Nikon news.

The Blogs at nationalgeographic.com offer an interesting read. They aren’t updated that often though. Still, it’s on my google reader.

That’s it for now!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Trekking Lenses For Nepal

In April, I’ll be in Nepal to trek or run the Annapurna Circuit and I’ve been thinking about reducing the weight of my photographic equipment. Tempted by the lightweight body, I pulled out my old Canon Rebel XT/350D and, yet again, I’m reminded why I can’t go back, so I’ll be bringing my Nikon D300 along, despite the weight.

This will be my seventh trip to Nepal, and I’ve brought along varying amounts of photographic gear each time. Every time I struggle to crest a hill or pass, I always wonder if I’ve got too much gear.

I presently carry 2 lenses as my minimum setup. A Nikkor 12-24mm (485g) and a Sigma 50-150mm (770g). Add the weight of my D300, and my photography gear is just over 2kgs (4 1/2lbs) excluding batteries, filters, charger and cases.

One lens solution:
Nikkor 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 (485g)
This is tempting. I’ll get a nice range of focal lengths that starts at a decent wide angle. This would be my choice if weight were absolutely critical (like if I was mountain climbing).

Two lenses solution:
Nikkor 18-200mm (560g) and Nikkor 10.5mm (305g)
This will save me 390g (almost a pound) over my present two lens setup. In addition, the 18-200mm is perfect for ‘grab shots’. When I travel, it is a big advantage to be able to shoot quickly with whatever lens is on the camera or otherwise lose the shot. Adding the 10.5mm fisheye gives me more options on the short end.

Or I may just tough it out and go with what I’ve got…

Interestingly, the max aperture of the 18-200 exceed the max aperture of the new 16-85mm at equivalent focal lengths:

16-85mm . 18-200mm
16mm: 3.5 . N/A
18mm: 3.8 . 18mm: 3.5
24mm: 4.0 . 24mm: 3.8
35mm: 4.8 . 35mm: 4.2
50mm: 5.3 . 50mm: 4.8
70mm+: 5.6 . 70mm: 5.0
N/A ........... . 100mm 5.3
N/A ........... . 135mm+: 5.6

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lightweight Heavyweights: Add This To The Mix

Olympus E-420

Check out the Olympus E-420 with the Zuiko 25mm f2.8 pancake lens. Hailed as the lightest and smallest DSLR, it makes a nice light and compact package with the pancake lens. Sweet huh? This should give the Canon 450D and Nikon D60 some competition.
Incidentally, Nikon makes a 45mm f2.8 manual focus pancake lens if you want to try this out on a Nikon DSLR.

Adventure Camera: Olympus 1030 SW

This is a quick and dirty look at the new Olympus Stylus 1030 SW: a 10MP, waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof compact digital camera. It is equipped with a fairly capable 28-102mm F3.5-5.1 lens, good for scenics to portraits and is a handily portable package to take to the beach, skiing, just about anywhere.

Construction

It feels very solid with some of the best seals I’ve seen. This is waterproof to 10m (33’) but that’s the limit, and IMHO, it doesn’t pay to test the limits. I wouldn’t take this thing diving, unless I’d bought the optional underwater housing.

There is a very useful lens protector that slides across the lens when the camera is turned off to protect it against splashes and scratches. The very large LCD on the back is not protected, and one of the first things you’ll want to do is buy a stick-on screen protector for it.

Features
On first look, the menu seems simple enough, however, it can be challenging finding out what features are available using certain modes.

The LCD is accurate, color wise, and what I see on my calibrated monitor looks close to the LCD at plus 1 brightness. The default brightness for the LCD is not enough, and it is hard to see in bright sunlight. It’s too bad that more and more manufacturers are choosing to omit the optical viewfinder, but I suppose that’s progress.

It has a digital image stabilizer, and you use it by setting the mode dial to Anti-Shake. This seems like a useful feature to have on all the time, unfortunately, using this feature also locks in Auto ISO.

What is missing is an interval timer that would allow me to rig this camera to the front of my kayak or mountain bike and take a shot every 5 minutes or so.

Performance
Shutter lag is evident. Pre-focusing improves the responsiveness greatly and you’ll need to pre-focus if timing is critical. Unfortunately, the multi-zone autofocus (iESP) and Face Detect AF are a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Setting AF to Spot, which uses the central AF point to focus and then recompose will give you more consistent results. If you use ‘Shadow Adjustment’, the AF mode is locked at ‘Face Detect’. Bummer.

The write time between shots is pretty long. Setting the drive to continuous will lock in exposure and AF, and will allow a faster rate of shooting if you hold down the shutter release. Continuous ‘Hi’ will reduce the file size, and allow even faster shooting.

It is unusual for a JPEG only camera to not allow you to adjust some basic parameters like contrast, saturation and sharpening. But the 1030SW doesn’t. You are basically stuck with the scene modes (which I don’t use).

One useful adjustment feature it does have, is the ‘Shadow Adjustment Technology’, which is basically a sort of ‘contrast control’. I’d leave this on all the time, except that using this locks the AF mode to ‘Face Detect AF’. What the *%#@.

Image Quality
Images come out well exposed, fairly punchy and saturated, and I like the results from the ‘Shadow Adjustment’ feature. The default sharpening looks a touch low, but it can be sharpened with a simple image editor like iPhoto.

The default exposure and ESP exposure metering is pretty good. Normally, I have to dial in some exposure compensation, but the multi-zone ESP metering works for me.

Images look clean at ISO80 and 100. Noise creeps in at ISO 200 and takes a big jump for the worse somewhere between 800 and 1600. Note that if you are using Anti-Shake mode, the ISO setting is locked to Auto.

Limited flash control and performance is normal for this sort of camera. At times, my subject will be bombarded with too much light (yucks!). There is a setting, which says ‘Fill Flash’, but all this does is to tell the camera to always fire the flash.

Auto White Balance looks fairly accurate, but I didn’t have time to review it under tungsten or fluorescent lighting, which are normally problem areas for some cameras.

Conclusion (For now)
There are few cameras that fulfill the role of a compact, rugged and waterproof camera. The freedom of being able to pull a camera from a case strapped to your backpack and not having to worry about it is liberating. We keep ours in a Lowepro D-pods 10 Case. If you are the sort of person who normally leaves the camera in Auto, or uses the scene modes, I think you’d be pretty happy with it. If you are a bit of a control freak, then beware: conflicting features and modes make controlling this camera a bit of a nightmare. We'll be bringing this camera along for our upcoming kayak expedition and will probably have more to say when we get back.

Photo:
Top: The Olympus 1030SW in British Green.
Bottom: Splashdown! 13.18mm, 1/320 f4.0, ISO80. Taken with an Olympus 1030SW.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pahang River Kayak Expedition: Packing List

Clothes. Khee Wei recommends 3 sets of clothes. A set for traveling, a set for sleeping in and a set to kayak in. Bring a set of long sleeve shirt and pants (Or lots of sunscreen!). I'd suggest an extra set of shorts and tee shirt to kayak in if you want to work on your tan, but by day 3, you'll be glad you brought the long stuff. State of the Art Gear: Railriders Eco-Mesh shirt (pictured above) http://www.railriders.com

Dry Bags. Khee Wei has a large 30l drybag. I’ve got two. A 20l that will go into the hatch and a smaller 10l that will be lashed to the deck for quicker access. Khee Wei will provide a tent, but you will be required to carry all your personal items. Travel light.

Tropical Sleeping bag. I got a cheap rectangular bag (Overland 18 degrees by Bodypac). SGD$12 at Sports Connection.

Sleeping Pad/Thermarest. Great idea for comfort. If there’s space, I’m bringing mine.

Gloves. My hands aren’t very tough so I use gloves to paddle in. Mountain bike gloves are fine.

Raingear. No need to go high tech with this. A cheap SGD$3 poncho from Watson’s will do the trick.

Clothesline. 7m cord should do the trick.

Bungy cords. Khee Wei’s boats are pretty basic and so you’ll need these for lashing stuff to the kayak deck.

Sandals /Shoes. I’ve found that Crocs work very well in a tropical amphibious environment.

Personal Toiletries. State of the Art Gear: Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Magic Soap, an organic, biodegradable soap, shampoo and toothpaste, detergent, etc. Camper’s corner has some biodegradable soap, only not as nice. Don't forget things like toilet paper, and contact lens stuff.

Medication. I’m allergic to bee stings, so I carry antihistamines. Diarrhea medication, etc. Anyway, you get the idea.

Personal Hydration. Bottles or bladders, 2L capacity minimum

Knife. State of the Art Gear: Spyderco Salt 1

Headlamp/Flashlight. State of the Art Gear: Petzl e+Lite Headlamp Also available at All Sports in Singapore.

Hat/Cap
. broad brimmed or foreign legion style are best. State of the Art gear: Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap. Also available at Camper’s Corner in Singapore

Camera. State of the Art Gear: Olympus 1030SW. Olympus also offers the 850SW. The key difference (other than the megapixels and being tougher) is that the 1030SW offers a slightly wider 28mm equiv. lens while the 850SW only goes as wide as 38mm. Cathay Photo is having a special on the 850SW at SGD$299 while the 1030SW is selling at SGD$580 with a 2G card.

Mobile Phone
in case you paddle past the campsite for the night.
Whistle. See above.
Bug juice/Mosquito Coils I’m not taking anti-malaria pills, so I’m bringing 100% DEET mosquito repellent.
Sunscreen
Sunglasses
Lip balm with SPF
Towel
Comfort Food/Goodies Candy, gatorade drink mix, etc.
Spare Plastic bags
Cash (Ringgit)
Expedition Map Make a copy of the map and waterproof
Nightsticks Night kayaking/ camping. These are on Khee Wei’s list.
Passport & 1 Photocopies
Ipod for the bus ride

Oh, and don’t forget your paddle, PFD, and clip-on backrest if you’ve got your own.

My High Energy Workout Playlist (Mar ’08)

We think we know what’s wrong with me. One of my rotator cuff muscles in my upper back is separated. This could be the cause of the numbness I’m feeling in my fingers.

Time to heal: 3 months.
Recommendation: No Mountain Biking, No Rock-Climbing.

Yeah, right.

I figure that its either going to heal, or its not. So I began training again last Saturday with a VERY slow paced 15km trail run. Hell, no. I wasn't trying to go slow. I was going as fast as I could, but my layoff was too long and my buddies left me in the dust.

It’s time to kick it up a notch with some ass-kicking tunes. Here’s 15 from my March 2008 playlist:

Californication, Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Love Hurts, Incubus
Torches, Rise Against
Still Waiting, Sum 41
The Ghost In You, Psychedelic Furs
Ocean Avenue, Yellowcard
Over My Head, Sum 41
Festival Song, Good Charlotte
In This Diary, The Ataris
Who'll Stop The Rain, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Hollow, Submersed
Buck Rogers, Feeder
Pain, Jimmy Eat World
Million Miles Away, The Offspring
The Cigarette Song, The All American Rejects

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Spyderco Salt 1 Pocket Knife

Our Spyderco Salt H1 knives just arrived. I placed my order with Knife Center last Friday, it was shipped out on Weds and I got them today in Singapore. You've got to love Fedex.

What is it? The Spyderco Salt series of knives are meant for marine use. They use some high tech Japanese steel that substitutes Nitrogen instead of the Carbon in the Steel. Whatever. The bottom line is that the knives don't rust and I bought a couple for our upcoming river and dive trips.

The price per knife was USD$54.95 per knife (which is the best deal going for this blade). The Knife Center just raised the price this week to USD$58.95. Well, the knife normally retails for USD$92 at places like REI, so this is still a good deal.

You gotta love mail order...