Friday, May 29, 2009

The Perfect Adventure Camera

I received an email from a reader asking me:

“If cost and weight aren't an issue what are the top 5 Perfect Adventure Cameras on the market?”

Ooh... So I did a little research, and came up with this ‘Drool’ List:

1. Nikon D700
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR
This is my ultimate setup, and I’d be pretty much prepared for any kind of adventure shoot. The D700 offers a lot of versatility and flexibility with very high image quality. I can add the MB-D10 Battery Grip and get up to 8 frames per second, or strip it off if I wanted to go light(er).

2. Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon 17-40mm f/4L, 70-200mm f/4 L IS
Or with just the 24-105mm f/4 L IS
to keep things really light. I’m a big fan of Canon’s lightweight f/4 ‘L’ lenses. I’ve tried to switch to Canon, but I’ve been with Nikon too long, and it didn’t work. If I shot Canon, this is what I’d be shooting with.

3. Nikon D90
Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
This setup is a big step down from the full-frame DSLRs in terms of both cost and weight. The D90 gives you more creative options with the HD video capability. If I needed to keep it really light, I’d pair up the D90 with Nikon’s 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens.

4. Olympus Evolt E-420
Olympus 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0
I know we said that cost and weight don’t matter, but for most people (and that includes me) they really do, and the Olympus E-420 brings both down. Although the image quality has some minor issues (according to some reviews), the Olympus E-420 still warrants consideration for its built-in image stabilization, dust and splash-proof body and lens. If you need DSLR quality and need to keep the load extremely light, like if you were climbing El Cap, consider this camera and lens combo.

5. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
This is my pick for a compact ‘adventure’ camera. It’s got a very fast, wide-to-normal, 24-60mm f/2-2.8 Leica lens and shoots HD video. The JPEG shots off the camera look good, or you can shoot RAW for more control. Yum! It’s a shame it’s missing a built-in optical viewfinder. It’s also not waterproof, so if you think you’ll get it wet, you’ll need to use a separate waterproof case, such as those made by Aquapac.


Images courtesy of Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic (USA).


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Musings: Canon T1i/500D vs Nikon D90

My wife wants either the new Canon EOS Rebel T1i 500D or the
Nikon D90. The D90 has been out for a while and has excellent reviews, but like everyone else, we’re waiting for the reviews of the new Canon T1i/500D before making a decision.**

I don’t have the T1i/500D and I haven’t seen any reviews on it yet. This is not a review. These are just my thoughts (as a travel and adventure photographer) as I help her with the decision process.

Buy The System
Don’t let the tail wag the dog. Camera bodies get updated more frequently than lenses. Rather than buying into a specific brand’s entire system because of a current camera model, look at what each system (ie. lenses, flashes, accessories) has to offer and see if that fits your needs. Although it is not true today, there used to be a little truth in the saying: “National Geographic photographers use Nikon, Sports Illustrated photographers use Canon”. If you’re not sure what your needs are, find a ‘mentor’, a friend or pro whose style of photography you like, and follow his recommendations for equipment.

Lenses
One part of the system is the lenses available. For the cropped sensor bodies like the Nikon D90 and Canon 50D and T1i/500D, you should know that Canon does not make a fisheye lens yet. If you want a fisheye lens, currently your only choice is Nikon’s 10.5mm fisheye.

Another point to note is that the ‘crop’ on Nikon and Canon sensors aren’t the same, so the same lens behaves slightly differently. For example, the 18-200mm lens on the Nikon D90 will behave like a 27-300mm lens on a 35mm film or full frame body. That same lens on the Canon T1i/500D will behave like a 29-320mm because of the slightly different sensor sizes.* The 18-200mm lens makes a nice all-in-one travel lens, but you’ll need to decide if Canon’s 29mm equivalent is wide enough for you. If not, you’ll have to carry a separate wide-angle lens. Canon’s 29mm is not wide enough for me, but Nikon’s 27mm comes close.

Price and Ergonomics
A direct comparison between the D90 and T1i/500D is a little unfair. These cameras are targeted at different market segments. Canon’s T1i/500D (US$866 body only) is an entry-level camera and Nikon’s D90 (US$975 body only) is targeted at mid-level users.

Personally, I feel it should be the other way around. Nikon’s D90 has two control wheels and is a better tool to learn the craft of photography with manual exposure control. The Xti/500D has only one control wheel, which effectively precludes using manual exposure control mode. You can still control exposure using exposure compensation in conjunction with one of the semi-auto modes (Aperture or Shutter Priority), but that’s a slightly more advanced concept.

Nikon D90’s bigger and brighter viewfinder is also preferred, but only you can decide how important this is to you.

Size and Weight
The D90 weighs 620g and the T1i/ 500D weighs 480g without batteries. For a travel and adventure photographer, weight is important since we often hike or bike with all our gear.

Performance and Image Quality
Nikon’s D90 fires off 4.5 frames per second, compared to the 3.4 FPS on the T1i/500D. This could make a difference to those who want to shoot sports.

The most important consideration should be image quality and the D90 has a solid reputation for getting high quality images off its 12-megapixel sensor (processed through its 12-bit Analog-Digital Converter). On the other hand, the T1i/500D has upped the ante, and managed to cram 15-megapixels into its sensor, converted at a higher quality 14-bits. Canon has also specified a larger useable ISO range of 100-12800, compared to the D90’s 100-6400. We’ll have to do some ‘pixel peeping’ and I’m keen to see what the pro-reviewers think about all this.

There are other minor differences in the type of metering, quality of HD video, number of AF Points, but are not enough to sway my decision one way or another. If the image quality turns out to be comparable, my preference is get the Nikon D90. For the higher price, you get a body with better ergonomics (two control wheels, bigger viewfinder), although at the cost of greater size and weight. It also shoots 1 frame more per second, useful in fast action (Wait for the reviews though: The T1i/500D does have 25% more megapixels converted at a higher 14-bits). I also prefer the Nikon lenses and system for adventure and travel (10.5mm fisheye available, 18-200mm behaves wider, built-in remote flash commander).


* Camera sensors come in different sizes and the same lens will behave differently on a different size sensor. For ease of comparison, we convert the different sensor formats to the old 35mm film, or ‘full-frame’, format.

** There are complications. My wife already owns a number of Canon lenses, so what we ultimately end up buying may not reflect what I've written. As always, make up your own mind!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oops!... I Did It Again

I walked into the place where I regularly cut my hair and asked my hairdresser to take it off… Take it ALL off. Everyone’s eyes were on me (literally), and my hairdresser kept asking if I was sure.

“What’s the big deal? It’s only hair”, I thought, “It’ll grow back.”

Over the past year or so, I had grown my hair until it reached my shoulders. I thought I looked good with long hair, but I wanted a change. The last time I had my hair this short was when I enlisted in the army, 24 years ago.

Going... Going... Gone! Photos from my iPhone.

Sure, when I walked out, I was a little uncomfortable. It had been a while since I felt a breeze on my scalp ;o)

Change is usually uncomfortable, but change can also be good for you. It’s stimulating in many ways. We get comfortable doing the same thing, day in, day out, year after year… (You know where I’m going with this!), and that can stifle creativity.

It’s only a haircut, dammit!
Is it going to be permanent?
Nothing is permanent.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Totobobo Facemask Review

Totobobo in use on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Laura Liong.

The Totobobo respiratory facemask was developed in Singapore by Francis Chu out of the 2003 SARS H5N1 outbreak. Francis, a product designer, set out to design an anti-virus, anti-pollution facemask that was comfortable to wear and that would fit all face types, including children (down to age 5). The end result is the Totobobo, the world’s first customizable respiratory mask.

Francis says: “No mask can cut all pollutants 100%, we chose to focus on SPM (Suspended Particulate Matter) because it is the most worrying.” The filtration efficiency of the Totobobo filter (F94) is 94%.

Rice paddy field just off Highway 1, near Hoi An, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Laura Liong.

I had a chance to use the Totobobo mask during my recent bicycle tour of Vietnam. Weighing just 20g, the mask is both lightweight and compact, making it easy to pack. It is made of soft plastic and doesn’t absorb sweat or moisture and is easy to keep clean. The soft plastic conformed well to the shape of my face, creating a good seal that is needed for the mask to be effective. Once in place, it is also very comfortable, and breathing resistance is very low. The replaceable filters are electro-static charged and filters out very fine particles (0.3 micron or even smaller). In a pinch, if you ran out of filters, I suspect you could stuff the filter holder with circular facial cotton pads, but I don't know what sort of protection you would get ;o)

Rush hour in Danang, Vietnam.

The long straps make the mask very versatile and I can use it over my bicycle helmet. However, I did have some initial frustrations with the long straps as they got tangled behind my neck. Laura eventually gave up on hers, but I persevered and remembered Francis’s technique of removing the mask by pulling ONLY the top strap over my head and leaving the bottom strap behind my neck. Once I’d left the single strap behind my neck, I could pull through the continuous strap until the top portion effectively closed the mask and the rear strap was long enough for me to slip the mask into my breast pocket until needed again.

Francis fitting the Totobobo Mask on Laura.

The Totobobo would come in useful for travelers going to the cities of busy developing countries, and as the world continues to become more crowded, consider that the Totobobo not only offers protection against pollution and allergens, but also from some airborne diseases, such as the H1N1 virus.

For more information or to order the mask, please click here. Enter "adventurenomad" into the discount code to receive a special promotion price on the Totobobo anti-pollution face mask and filters!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Surly Long Haul Trucker

A Surly Long Haul Trucker moment at Quy Nhon Beach, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 12-24mm, ISO 200.

My bike is a Surly Long Haul Trucker (size 50). Laura’s 46cm LHT is similarly equipped. I did contemplate switching to flat handlebars, grip shifters and V-brakes (similar to my mountain bike setup), but decided to leave the bike in its almost stock configuration with the following exceptions:

Changed stock 75mm Kalloy stem for a longer 90mm size (no additional cost);
Swapped stock bar end shifters for Duraace downtube shifters (no additional cost);
Traded in stock WTB saddle;
Added top-mount interrupter brake levers;
Bought a Brooks B17 saddle;
Installed platform pedals with Zefal plastic toe-clips;
Installed Tubus Cargo Rear Rack;
Used Ortlieb’s Classic Roller Rear Panniers and Handlebar Bag.

The changes were suggested by Joe Cruz, an experienced hard-core bike tourer, in this article: The Ideal Adventure Bike. Joe certainly knows what he is talking about and I was happy to follow Joe’s LHT setup. If you are in doubt about how to set up your tour bike, give the article a read for some advice.

Waiting for our first flat to be 'professionally' fixed. Nikon D300, 12-24mm, ISO 200.

One that I should have done was to change the stock WTB Slickasaurus tires which were not up to the job. The Slickasaurus’s are specified as ‘Commuting/Light Touring’ tires, and I think they are fine on roads which are well maintained. Certainly in the 3 months of riding our bike in Singapore, we didn’t have any problems with the tires. On our first ride outside Singapore, in Pengarang, Malaysia, Laura flatted her front tire rolling over a piece of coral or shell. This really shattered our confidence in the tires but we had no time to find a suitable substitute. On the first day of our Vietnam bike tour, we suffered three more flats. The first on Laura’s rear tire within 45mins of starting our ride; and then two more flats at the end of the day, one on each of our rear tires. All punctures were from debris penetrating the tire and tube. On the morning of the second day, we tried to buy local tubes and tires, but could not find any. We pumped up the tires to the max pressure and babied the tires the rest of the tour. I ordered two sets of Schwalbe Marathon Extreme tires when I returned home.

The bottom line is that you can tour on any bike. You can save a lot of money by finding a used mountain bike. If you want to buy a new bike, Surly's Long Haul Trucker offers good value in terms of quality, reliability and price; just make sure you change the stock tires before you leave home.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nikon D90 Climbing Video

I’m inclined to recommend the Nikon D90 over the D300 to most people. Unless you are using the camera to hammer nails, the metal chassis of the D300 is mostly overkill (it feels great though ;0) and the weatherproofing (which I did buy into) is mostly marketing hype. There are reasons to buy a D300 over the D90 but if you have doubts about the toughness and capabilities of the Nikon D90, watch this video shot while speed climbing the North Face of the Eiger:



Bear in mind that the whole thing, movie and stills, were shot using the D90. To watch it in High Definition, Click Here.

Bike Touring Vietnam: Photography

Vietnamese Fisherman. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/250, f/6.3, ISO 200. Desaturation and vignette added in Lightroom.

Road Rules of highway 1, Vietnam:
Rule #1: Right of way belongs to the ‘King of the Road’; everyone else, get out of the way.
Rule #2: To exercise Rule #1, you have to sound your horn. Therefore, the louder the horn, the stronger that right.
Rule #3: Everyone is ‘King of the Road’.


Girl Selling Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 18-200mm, 1/50, f/4.8, ISO 3200.

Small towns and villages line Highway 1, and traffic can become chaotic as you approach and make your way through those towns. Earplugs and facemasks are highly recommended. Away from the large towns though, and riding Highway 1 can be quite pleasant, especially along the coast.

When riding, I found it difficult to want to stop to take a picture. It disrupts the rhythm and flow. Because it was so heavily urbanized, I’d worry about losing the bike if I wanted to ditch it and run somewhere with camera in hand. The best shots I’ve taken on this tour were in the early morning or evening when I wasn’t riding.

Round Vietnamese Fishing Boat, China Beach, Danang. Nikon D300, 12-24mm, 1/160 f/6.3, ISO 200. Conversion to B&W done in Lightroom.

I brought my Nikon D300, 18-200mm and 12-24mm lenses, and I found that combination near perfect. I’ll probably replace the 12-24mm with Nikon’s new wider 10-24mm lens, and add a remote shutter release so that I can attach the camera to my body and trigger the camera remotely for some action shots while riding. Some kind of camera support would be nice too, and I may consider adding a really light monopod to the kit.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vietnam Bicycle Tour: Part II

Mid-day traffic: riding with kids after the morning session. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Quy Nhon – Quang Ngai (2 overnight stops)
We actually took the train. The views from the train were fantastic and we wished we had ridden it instead. It is 182km and is too long for us to ride in a day, so we would have had to break up the ride by stopping overnight at Sa Hyunh (65km), Bong Son (90km), or Tam Kuan (102km). Quang Ngai is a pretty big town, but it was just an overnight stop for us.
Sleeping: Central Hotel
Eating: Com Ga (chicken rice)

Frequent rest stops are a must, as specially when the temperature rises!

Hoi An (2 days)
We stopped overnight in Tam Ky (60km), but there’s really nothing there, so if you can manage it, book it the 120km all the way to Hoi An and spend an extra day there. Highway 1 has a broad shoulder that is used by bicycles and slower traffic, so in theory, you don’t have to share the road with large vehicles. In practice though, the shoulder gets a lot of use by the local population with anything from drying grain to cutting padi stalks. Passing vehicles like to sound their horns, either as a warning or as a greeting. This got a bit on my nerves and I started wearing my Totobobo Anti-Pollution Face Mask and earplugs.
Sleeping: Ha An Hotel, rooms from $45 a night, or Phuoc An from $25. You’ll need to make a reservation before you arrive at either of these places.
Eating: Hoi An Specialties like Banh Xeo,
Shopping: Hoi An is renown for its silk and the tailors there can make a shirt or blouse for you overnight.

Getting around town, Hoi An, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Hoi An – China Beach, Danang (31km)
If you are short on time, you can end your ride in Danang, and fly or take the train to Hanoi. North of Danang, Highway 1 becomes increasingly busy and the riding less pleasant. But, if you have the time and you are still having fun, push on through to Lang Co.
Sleeping: numerous new hotels along China Beach
Eating: Seafood at one of the many beachfront establishments

Heavy traffic in Danang. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Lang Co (Overnight)
43km from China Beach is Lang Co. You’ll need to ride over Hai Van Pass to get there. Fortunately the ride, although tough, is rewarding. The beach at Lang Co makes for a nice overnight stop.
Sleeping: Lang Co Hotel

Cooling off on the way up Hai Van Pass. Photo courtesy Laura Liong.

Hue (1-2 days)
The citadel, historical artifacts and the good food at Hue are compelling reasons to spend more than a day here. I’d end the bike tour here and take the train up to Hanoi.
Eating: Bun Bo Hue (noodle soup) for breakfast or try other Hue specialties at Bloom Restaurant 14 Nguyen Cong Tru

A misty morning on Ha Long Bay. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Hanoi (2+ days)
Spend your remaining time in Vietnam with a walking tour of the city, ending it with the show at the Water Puppet Theater. Pamper yourself with a junk cruise at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay. There are over 500 junks that are registered to take tourists out onto the Bay, in variable states of disrepair. Some shopping around is required to find the best values.
Sleeping: Hanoi Boutique Hotel
Eating: Quan An Ngan

Sung Sot Cave at Ha Long Bay. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Sapa
We didn’t get out to see Sapa, and it was one of our regrets during this trip. If we could do the trip over, we definitely would have budgeted some time to visit Sapa.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Vietnam Bicycle Tour: Part I

Biking through a rice padi field off Highway 1. Photo courtesy Laura Liong.

Bike touring is a pretty good way to see Vietnam. It’s best to bring your own bike from home, but you could buy a local bike when you arrive. There are bicycle repair shops everywhere to help you if you run into problems. This was our first ever bicycle tour and we made plenty of mistakes. If we could do the trip over, we would do it sometime in the 2 weeks following the Tet New Year celebrations in January when it is a lot cooler and there’s a lot less traffic on the roads.

A girl selling balloons in front of the statue of Tran Nguyen Hai as cars whiz by at night, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 18-200mm

Here’s our ideal 3-week (more or less) Bike Tour Itinerary:

Ideal Itinerary
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): 3-4 days
Arrive in Saigon and leave your bikes in the hotel while you make the following sidetrips:
Things to do: Visit Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta (2-days), War remembrance museum, Palace, Market.
Where to stay: one of the many guesthouses in the Pham Ngu Lau/Bui Vien/De Tham tourist area.
What to eat: Everything is good at Quan An Ngon near the Palace, but you’ve got to try the Che Suong Sa Hot Luu dessert
Things to buy: Cheap and light plastic poncho, silk sleeping bag liner.

A Cao Dai temple service, Cu Chi, Vietnam.

Dalat (1-2 days)
Take the bus to Dalat. Traffic is a little too hectic near the big cities and not much fun to ride.
Things to do: Canyoning, rock-climbing or mountain biking with Groovy Gecko or Phat Tire. Bike down to Crazy House and take a little tour of the city.
Where to stay: Dreams Hotel
What to Eat: grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane

One of the rooms in the Crazy House Hotel, Dalat. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Nha Trang (2 days)
It’s about 110km to Nha Trang via the “new road”. It’s mostly downhill, although undulating, so its got some ups as well as downs. It is also the only ride on this trip where you get to enjoy the mountain scenery of the central highlands.
Things to do: Dive or snorkel with one of the many dive operators in Nha Trang.
Where to Stay: There are many new hotels near the junction of Hung Vuong/Trang Quang Khai. Prices from around $25.

A boy playing on a slackline, Nha Trang Beach, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 12-24mm.

Tuy Hoa (Overnight)
It’s 126km with a couple of small hills on Highway 1. It’s a long day, but with beautiful coastal scenery and traffic is light along the new coastal highway 1D.

Laura coasting along Highway 1D. Nikon D300, 18-200mm.

Quy Nhon (Overnight)
Another long day with 113km of cycling and nice coastal scenery. Quy Nhon is a pretty nice place to chill, so take a day off here if you need it, as the next few days are filled with riding.
Where to stay: We stayed at the hotel next to Barbara’s Kiwi CafĂ© on the beach.
What to Eat: Seafood hotpot at the seafood restaurant to Barbara’s and breakfast at Barbara’s.

Fisherman's net at Quy Nhon, Vietnam. Nikon D300, 18-200mm.

End Part I