My gear

Android phone & apps – always to hand

I’m a believer in the most useful camera being the one you have with you, so I’m happy to try whatever is to hand: My cellphone – Sony Xperia Z3 (previously owned the Samsung Galazy S3, before that the S2;  both great at the time) – can produce some great results, and I like having the ability to play with new apps, including Photaf for in-camera panoramas, HDR Camera, and Lapse It Pro, capable of capturing and rendering HD video all in the phone, plus – finally, why has it taken so long? – a photo-editing app with a ‘levels’ control, the very logically-named Photo Editor. However, the standard camera app controls give me many options, and the Z3 has great manual controls for exposure compensation and white-balance. I also love the selective background defocus possible on some shots, where the main subject is distinct from the background. Thus, I tend not to use other apps so much now.

Compacts – increasingly outclassed

I also have a couple of compacts, which given the quality of the Z3 don’t come out so much. However, they are useful as backup, and I particularly like the Panasonic DMC-FT20 as it is waterproof (not just water-resistant; small but significant difference!) and survived a trip down the middle fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, allowing me to get stills and HD video from the raft. Also has a nice, wide lens for landscape shots. So, the Canon Ixus compact doesn’t get out much these days.

DSLR & lenses – pro quality

My DSLR is a Canon EOS 7D, needing better quality than my older EOS 40D, which seemed to have suffered one episode too many of use and abuse in its life; a drop (inside the belt-pack I use) left it with a large diagonal crack across the LCD screen, and although it still worked, I found this distracting in checking composition, exposure and sharpness. It has some other small faults from a chequered past, and the cost of a repair left me thinking of simply buying a used one (hopefully less abused!), as it is a great camera. However, I somehow happened upon Camera in the Post, a Hong Kong dealer which seemed to be offering deals too good to be true. Further research (bearing in mind that seeded, non-genuine reviews are often used by disreputable firms), I found a thread on DPreview which seemed to indicate that their offers were genuine, as I trust this site in all matters photographic. So, feeling guilty about depriving my local camera store of business, but knowing that I had seen a used 7D in there recently for the selfsame prices, I ordered one, and a few days later, thanks to trackable DHL, was holding it in  my sticky paws! It is a ‘Japanese model’ meaning that the menus are available in English and Japanese only, even if you try updating the firmware, apparently. Or I could have paid more (but still cheaper than UK prices) for the ‘normal’ model. But why would I? For me, it seems a perfect choice, as I was not as impressed with the reviews for the EOS 60D (40D replacement model) on DPreview as I felt that I should be, and I am already finding the 100% viewfinder of the 7D makes life much easier, as does having a few more stops of ISO to play with. It was pretty much the same price from Camera in the Post as the 60D, and has a great review on DPreview. We work well together, especially with the Canon-branded battery-grip added, as I love having the main controls duplicated in portrait-mode without having to twist my hands.

Main go-to lens is a Canon 24-105mm IS zoom. Again, from Camera in the Post, and it is used for a lot of my shooting. Along with this, I have a Tamron 28-300mm zoom (image stabilised version), which although it has been great for travelling, doesn’t quite have the same quality as the Canon, or the focus speed. A Sigma 12-24mm provides wide coverage. These lenses, along with a Tamron 1.4x multiplier, give me a flexible kit with good coverage although not the lightest kit when I hike, travel, explore or whatever. Add in my Canon 100-400 IS, the ‘big-gun’ for any wildlife work, purchased originally for a trip to the Canadian tundra, in the hopes of seeing wolves in the distance, and the weight goes up again. The wolves actually came within ten metres at times, but the glass proved its worth. However, at two kg, it is not something I take everywhere, but again, the quality is excellent. An Opteka fisheye lens, manual-focus-manual-aperture can give interesting results, used selectively. It lives up to the great reviews it gets, optically, and appears under this and some other brands around the internet. Got mine from Amazon.co.uk for what I consider a good price. Also have a few old fixed-focus lenses of various brands, which with a £10 adaptor can be mounted on the Canon, albeit in manual mode but with focus-confirmation.

Bits & pieces – carrying, holding, storage

Add in some spare batteries – absolutely essential – one for each of the compacts; two for the DSLR, memory cards (only trust SanDisk or Lexar), Lowe Pro pouches (I like to be able to chuck my gear in an anonymous backpack when travelling, hiking or exploring a city on foot – a Lowe Alpine AirZone Centro 35+10 serves very well for this, holding a minimal amount with straps cinched tight, or all the gear, plus hiking gear, food and a tripod slung in the side pocket, remaining comfy to wear all day even with around ten kg in it. Also, it is inside the carry-on size for flying, another essential), decent full-size tripod plus a GorillaPod and head (I hate using tripods, doesn’t suit my style of work at all, but on occasion, they are a necessary evil), and a sensor-cleaning kit, and I’m good to go!

Most useful accessory I have purchased recently is a USB OTG (on-the-go) lead for the Galaxy S3: This allows me to connect the memory card-reader directly to my phone when I travel, so I can view the images on the larger screen, and even upload them directly to Facebook or pbase, if I so wish, assuming I have access to wifi (3G abroad, you must be kidding!).

Mirrorless compact system – travellers friend

… All that said, and I do love my Canon gear, but the weight. Ugh! So, I had funds to spare for a Fujifilm X-E2 with Fujinon 18-55mm and 10-24mm lenses (all from my local camera-store this time!). Lovely to use, and the quality is just amazing: Let’s not get obsessed with pixel-count, I have a A1-sized print on the wall, done in high contrast b&w straight from the camera, and it looks stunning. 16MP will go that big! The digital viewfinder took some getting used to, and in some situations is not as good as the optical, but then again, it works much better for others, and being able to see your depth-of-field at full brightness is rather convenient. So, with two lenses, a short macro-tube, spare batteries (three, as they are tiny), I have a system in a smallish belt-pouch (from Dorr, this time) that I can almost forget I’m carrying. Superb for the travel-a-holic such as me! More here concerning the X-E2.

Pinhole and film cameras – analogue ways again

I also play around with pinhole cameras on occasion, and had some fun trying my hand at solargraphy. Started with 35mm film-tubs (not easy to get now) and graduated to an assortment of biscuit tins, milk tins, whatever may work. And there is an Ondu variable 120-format pinhole camera due in a few months from their Kickstarter-funded project.

I’ve now returned to film photography, having bought a Zeiss Ikon Nettar 6x6cm camera from ebay, beautifully restored from the 1930s and capable of sharp, gorgeous results. And being a photo-geek, I’m happy to trawl ebay for potential film, even out-of-date stock. Shortly after purchasing the Zeiss, a friend offered me a similar age Kodak Vollenda 620, which produces even more gorgeous 6x9cm negs, but the quality is not quite as good as the Zeiss. Which is fair enough given that it had laid unused for may years. A good clean-out with canned air has helped a lot.

This has led (in the manner of obsessions) to the purchase of a classic Nikon F2 and 50mm 1.4 lens, the body being restored by Sover Wong, the go-to guy for such work: Turns out that although the body had not been touched, the metering head had been previously worked on by an amateur, and was not repairable. So much for an affordable, classic Nikon! Big sigh, especially as I had the car in for repair that day too, but went with a full restoration, and a new metering head he had in stock, the DP-2, making my camera into the F2S, technically. Lovely to use, calibrated now to better-than-factory tolerances, and I still love that a fully mechanical camera from this era is now restored and producing some lovely results.

My processing is from Ilford UK, and to save on costs, I bought an Epson Perfection V550 photo-scanner (I had experimented with taking macros from the negative, but way too fiddly for me, if an interesting experiment). Thus, it only costs me £6.50 per film (plus film cost), which is not too steep, and I’ve developed (ahem!) my work-flow for dealing with b&w and colour negatives, getting some great results: Scanning immediately means that I can turn off the hardware dust-removal, as this seems to soften the overall image unacceptably, and just attack any dust using the Photoshop clone-tool.

Although I do sometimes buy my gear from the web, I prefer to visit my local camera store:  They are helpful, friendly, knowledgeable and let me play with equipment when I get the urge (not that I am too much of a gear-head!): To then go off and look for a better price on the web would not only be discourteous, but ultimately, self-defeating as the store would close if everyone did that.

Computer hardware & software – power and good workflow count

Finally, of course, there is a computer, a custom-built tower from Computer Planet:

  • AMD FX 8320 CPU (8 x 3.5 GHZ – Turbo 8 x 4.0 GHZ)
  • Gigabyte 970A-DS3P (AMD 970) main-board
  • 16 GB 1333 MHz (2x8GB) – (DDR3) memory
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 – 1 GB – (GAINWARD) graphics card
  • Cooler Master HAF 912 Plus with Corsair 650W PSU
  • 2 TB Seagate (2000 GB) SATA-III HDD 7200 RPM 64MB x2 RAID 1
  • Samsung 24x DVD/CD Re-Writer/Reader (SATA) x2
  • Advanced Internal Card Reader 50-in-1
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (not a Windows 8 fan!)

I also have a 24-inch iiyama joining the older 22-inch iiyama: Having used a two-monitor set up, I wonder how I ever managed without it, and it has been ‘tamed’ a little with the addition of Display Fusion software, chiefly to give me a button on the top-right of all windows to toggle between monitors without dragging, or use a keyboard shortcut, even better. Sweet set-up, just what I’ve always wanted!

I never edit on laptops, even though some are pretty impressive now, but they still cannot quite seem to match a good separate monitor. And software: Photoshop, which could use an upgrade to the latest version but at least I don’t have to rent it by the month, with Google Nik Collection plugins, wonderful for manipulating images in all kinds of ways to achieve a desired effect: I love high-contrast b&w, and can get great results using the Nik Collection. That said, I can set the Fujifilm X-E2 to get those same results in-camera (something I can’t quite get the Canon to do, despite using what appear to be almost identical settings): Much as I appreciate the ability to tweak images even by small amounts on Photoshop, I’d rather be out shooting and getting results as close as possible straight off the camera, something which the X-E2 seems slightly better at for my taste than the Canon. (apart from the sensor-dust issue, which I forgive it for, due to all the other advantages!).

Image-browsing is with Fast Picture Viewer: I spent some time looking for the ideal way of viewing my photos, which maximises screen-space and makes use of keyboard shortcuts to speed up my workflow, especially to edit into Photoshop (or whatever else I choose). More about it in my blog here.

Additionally, a nice little bit of software, Picture Resize Genius, allows me to batch-process reduced-size images for uploading, plus adding the watermark. Very nice, check it out. Certainly helps with my workflow.

I also have a CanonScan FS4000US dedicated negative-scanner, which was used to transfer some favourite analogue photos to the PC. Amazing quality, but the USB-1.0 connection means around a ten-minute wait for a 4,000 dpi image to appear on the computer! The Epson Perfection V550 (see above under ‘pinhole & film cameras’) is way faster, but not quite as sharp with the dust-reduction turned on as the Canon is.

A Canon S9000 printer can do photo-quality A3 borderless prints, but the running costs make it as easy to get my printing done in-house at Harrison Cameras. And most things remain digital these days anyway, whether shooting for a client or my own pleasure.

I have now registered my gear with Lenstag, in case it is stolen.

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