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Gear Primer

Gear Primer

We live in the golden age of photography. A seemingly endless variety of amazing new camera equipment blazes past our eyes on Facebook, websites and in camera stores on any given day.

Product quality has improved a lot over the last decade, and so it has become difficult finding a bad camera for your money. But unlike our craving for new lenses, our bank balances do not bounce back quite as quickly. So over the next few months (leading up to Christmas, perhaps) we will get you up to speed on the best gear for your shooting style, as well as the best upgrade paths going forward. 

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Our focus will be on landscape photography, but this guide will be general enough to cover a wider area of subject matters. We will  include all the major items a landscape photographer needs to capture images that blow your mind. 

Upcoming posts:

  • Camera Basics
  • Camera Advanced
  • Lenses
  • Tripods
  • Pano heads
  • Filters
  • Bags
  • Other accessories

In the next post will be looking at the basics of digital cameras, sensor size, focus systems, ergonomics and dynamic range. We will explore how these features impact your photography, and how to pick the best camera for your needs. Make sure to like our Facebook page or sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop!

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UPCOMING WORKSHOPS

The 6D Mark II experience

The 6D Mark II experience

I was lucky enough to spend a weekend with the newly released Canon 6D Mark II, thanks to Canon New Zealand. Here are a few impressions of the new camera though it's certainly not an extensive, or technical review. For these please look for dpreview etc at a later point. I'll be writing this from a long time 6D user's point of view and talking about what’s new, and also trying to answer the many questions I got through Facebook.

To get one point out of the way before you read too far, this was a pre-production version of the camera. As such I won't be talking in detail about image quality. This is high up on everyone’s list including mine, but I feel it would be unfair to discuss this at this point, and I'm looking forward to finding out how the camera measures up with dynamic range and ISO noise myself. Also, note I had to use Canons DPP to convert my raw files as Adobe has yet to be updated.

Right, onto the camera. It certainly feels and looks like a '6D'. Weight-wise, I doubt you would notice any difference without measuring them, certainly not when you have a lens and an L plate etc on. It generally feels well put together, and the controls have definitely been reworked. The main dial on the back is grippier making it easier to use and the shutter button feels nicer. Apart from the new AF button (next to the shutter button), and the flippy screen, all the buttons are in the same place, which makes it easy to use in the dark.

My first time out shooting with it was in heavy drizzle with no ill effects, so let’s hope the 5D Mark IV-level weather sealing is as good as it says!

 
 

The biggest obvious change is the addition of the articulated touch screen, a first on full frame Canons. This is by far my favourite feature of the camera and something many have been waiting for. I shoot most of my landscapes in live view with the tripod typically down low, or somewhere difficult to see the viewfinder. With the 6D II you just swing the LCD around to an angle that works for you and shoot away. Once you are shooting landscapes with it you won't want to go back.

Anyone familiar with Canon's touch interface (from the EOS M onwards) will know how good and useful it is, swipe and pinch zooming, quick settings etc are great fun. The new dual pixel AF and touch focus/shooting works really well, even in really low light, shooting a focus stacked set simply by tapping the screen!

 
 

Together these two aspects make shooting with the 6D II heaps of fun, by far the easiest landscape shooting I can remember.

One other positive change is the shift of the cable release socket to the front. This makes it easier to get to and use, though any L plates will likely have to be adjusted for the cable coming out at an angle.

Another big change is the autofocus system has had a total rework bringing it into the 21st century. It now has 45 autofocus points, every one a cross type, though these are all in the centre third of the viewfinder. The spread is (as far as I could tell) identical to the 6D but there are many more of them so the corners of that area are far better covered. The outer points are far more usable than the 6D's, doing an A/B comparison the 6D II snapped focus with any point where the 6D would hunt significantly for some. There is also a new AF button for focus point and group selection near the shutter release making it easy to switch.

Auto focus is not an area I tend to overly use but it felt like a very solid system, more so than my original 7D and something I would rely on. I didn’t get chance to track any moving subjects though (apart from the cat).

Overall performance was quite zippy, 6.5 frames a second and the buffer is much larger. I don’t often machine gun subjects but I fired at least 18 frames with my slow SD card, and it's supposed to go up to 21 frames. The 6D's buffer struggled with 6 frames, my 7 shot brackets always had the last frame taken substantially later than the preceding 6!

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Canon have also updated the viewfinder to an LCD version, like similar higher end bodies. This can also now display a 2-axis spirit level (very useful for me!) and a grid display. The grid is somewhat odd in that it’s a 5/3 line with lines across the absolute centre points rather than what I would have expected on the thirds lines, anyhow you can switch this off if not required.

I didn’t get a chance to shoot any video, I did quickly try out the 4k time-lapse mode which is under video functions and produces a video file (with no source stills). This allows you to meter for the first image or each frame. Yes the 6D Mark II doesn’t shoot 4k video, I'm personally not bothered as I don’t shoot video, and no other FF camera at this price point does. I am surprised though that is isn't an option as this camera will sit in the market place for several years.

The 6D Mark II has an all new 26mp 'dual pixel' sensor, a modest (~30%) increase in pixels so it will offer slightly more detail or cropping ability over the 6D. Remember that you need 4 times as many pixels to double print size (mp is linear, print has 2 dimensions). File resolution is 6240 x 4160 which is enough for a 20" print at 300dpi compared to 18 inches with the 6D, or 28 inches with the 5DsR. The path to truly high resolution large files is still stitching. Otherwise 26mp is more than enough for a high quality A2 print.

Resolution comparison 6D vs. 6D II, both at 35mm

Resolution comparison 6D vs. 6D II, both at 35mm

Other new things are a built in basic intervalometer, a bulb mode timer so you can shoot over 30 seconds without a cable release, and new coms (Bluetooth and NFC). The bulb mode timer is a welcome addition, the Bluetooth seemed to be a very quick and easy way to access Wi-Fi, which I found a pain on the 6D to setup.

HDR mode still only produces (and available in) jpg mode and I've no idea why, and oddly the camera still only offers a mini USB2 connection in 2017?  I'd also hoped for the 5DsR mirror lockup feature but that wasn’t included on the model I tested, not a huge issue as I usually shooting live view anyhow.

So "would you buy it"?

I tend to judge loan gear from Canon in how much I miss it when I send it back... and I must say I am missing the upgrades, especially that flip out screen, which makes shooting with the camera a real breeze. Canon have a habit of producing underwhelming specs that lead to a very well rounded capable camera. Ultimately though for me this will come down to image quality and improvements on the sensor. Assuming it gets a similar dynamic range to the 5D Mark IV/80D and the slight step up in noise at higher ISO I think I will be a great overall package and personally, if that's the case, I will be upgrading.

It doesn’t sit alone in the market place though and will be competing against other cameras like the Sony A7 III and the Nikon D750. I am invested in canon lenses and love the ergonomics, operation and lens line up.


Thinks I loved:
Flippy/touch screen
Dual pixel focus
Bulb mode timer

Things I liked:
26mp
Cable release position
Much improved AF system
Extra weather sealing

Things still on my wish list:
A good ettr/average time-lapse exposure system (a wish!)
RAW in HDR shooting
4k movies
More advanced 5DsR MLU

Frankenpack - A Pain-Free Photo Backpack Mod

Frankenpack - A Pain-Free Photo Backpack Mod

How to combine an ergonomic day pack and a camera insert to create a pain-free alternative to classic photography backpacks.

I’m 38 years old, and I’m a bit of a wreck. A lifetime spent behind a desk combined with bad luck playing the genetic lottery will do that to you. I love tramping (aka hiking, if you are a non-Kiwi), but years ago I was not enjoying the experience any more. Back and neck pain had finally caught up with my sedentary lifestyle. It was time to find a new carrying system.

I fell in love with Aarn Packs, a New Zealand outdoor gear company that specialises in ergonomic backpacks (or bodypacks, as they call them), after exploring the market for a while. Considering that they completely reinvented backpacks, that’s a bit of an understatement. I started using one of their bigger overnight packs and my pain just went away.

Aarn Liquid Agility

Aarn Liquid Agility

When I started getting into photography, their photo front-pockets really came in handy as well. While these pockets are great on overnight trips, they are a bit cumbersome for landscape photography.

And so I went on and bought an F-Stop backpack. The Guru is a classical photo pack that is accessed through a zippered back compartment. I loved that design since it allows me to just drop the pack in the dirt, unzip the whole pack panel, and have a clean space to work with. My F-Stop was an amazing photo pack that suffered one big problem: It was built by a company with an emphasis on photography rather than ergonomics. Within an hour of carrying it fully loaded, it was literally a pain in the neck.

The ICU fits nicely

The ICU fits nicely

So I had a chat with the friendly team at Aarn Packs to see if they had a pack that could fit a standard camera insert (F-Stop calls them ICU). To my surprise they did: Aarn’s Liquid Agility 30L day pack. I compared measurements of pack and ICU, and things looked promising.

Once I put both parts together, it was almost like the pack had been made with the ICU in mind. It fits perfectly with some room to spare at the top. Since the back panel of the pack happens to be rigid in places, the pack will not bulge and spill the contents stored in the ICU. It is as good a fit as you will ever get with two products that were never meant to work together. The fit is nowhere near as snug as in an F-Stop pack, though. Where an F-Stop pack can be unzipped with one hand, the Liquid Agility needs a bit more coercing. Where my Guru was boxy and rigid, the Liquid Agility is soft and malleable. The Aarn Pack just takes a little longer to open and close.

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

However, that is a compromise I’m more than happy to make. Just like my tramping packs, my new Aarn Frankenpack simply made all the pain go away. Let’s have a look at how they pull that off.

Shoulder-straps: The pack uses a technology called U & V flow. Normally each shoulder-strap is sewn into the pack at the top and bottom. It is really just a rigid strip of fabric with some padding. The straps on this pack on the other hand are free-floating. They form a loop that freely moves through a clip (top) and a little tunnel (bottom). While that sounds awfully technical, it feels amazing. Where a normal pack keeps my shoulders from rolling freely while I am walking, they can move naturally with the U&V system. It’s hard to explain how this feels, except really floaty. Using a normal pack feels as restraining as a straight-jacket in comparison.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Hip-belt: The belt is fairly sophisticated for a pack of this size. It is adjusted with two straps on each side. A belt with a single strap can only be pulled painfully tight to achieve a good fit. Two straps on the other hand allow to mold the belt exactly to the shape of your body. I find it achieves a much better fit with less padding, while staying more comfortable at the same time. This is really important since the hip-belt should carry most of the load. It takes weight off the shoulders and eliminates neck-strain.

The carrying system

The carrying system

The pack has a lot of the standard bells and whistles. With the ICU fitted, there is still space at the top of the main compartment. That’s where I put my filter pouch. The inside also has a small zippered compartment where I keep my business cards.

The outside sports two large stretch pockets and a ton of loops, straps and attachment points. I can easily attach a 0.7L water bottle and a full-size tripod to the outside.

The whole front of the pack is one big zip compartment. It runs along the whole height and width of the pack, but it lacks a little in depth. Throw something in at the top, and it will drop all the way to the bottom. It has two smaller zip compartments on the inside, but they are too small to store anything bigger than a mobile phone. To be fair, the front compartment of my F-Stop Guru was equally awkward to use. I assume this is a design drawback of packs with rear-accessible main compartments.

Note that you can attach Aarn front pockets (non-photo ones) to this pack to gain more easily accessible storage for little nick-nacks.

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

The plus in carrying comfort comes with a few drawbacks. Where an off-the-rack F-Stop pack is opened and closed in seconds, the Liquid Agility requires a bit more coercing. The V-Flow strap has to be unclipped at the top, and the zippers do not run quite as easily due to the softer materials. Especially when closing the pack two hands are needed to straighten out the zipper. This is largely due to the ICU fitting so snugly at the bottom. This is not a design flaw, but a drawback of me stuffing a third-party ICU into a pack it wasn’t designed for.

Aarn Packs constantly improve their packs. What I would like to see in future versions of the Liquid Agility is a redesigned front compartment. Items just drop to the bottom, never to be seen again.

Verdict

There is a lot to like about this pack. It fits a standard F-Stop ICU, which easily turns the Liquid Agility into the most ergonomic photography backpack that I’ve tried. Materials and craftsmanship are beyond reproach, and it fits plenty of gear, clothing and extras for a landscape photography outing of several hours. I went from trying to keep my F-Stop pack as light as possible and still coming back in pain, to throwing extra stuff into my Liquid Agility and not minding the pack at all. This backpack comes with a few drawbacks, but if you value ergonomics above all, you should give an Aarn Frankenpack a chance.


Sources

Aarn Liquid Agility
Read more about Aarn’s pack technology here and here.
F-Stop Large Pro ICU

This article was first published on the Lightforge blog

Landscape Photography Apps Compared

Landscape Photography Apps Compared

The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it
— Ansel Adams

An epic landscape image starts life in your imagination, but turning that idea into a finished image needs a little planning. What season will work best, what kind of conditions, sunrise or sunset, blue hour or astro? Where will the sun rise or set? What else is close by if conditions dont work out?

Like most Landscape photographers I have a mental calendar of places and times, but to really plan a shot I use a whole bunch of tools to help. I'll be looking at three of the most popular ones here. They all show you the basics, and let you save locations or entire plans and will let you fill your diary with shoots.

The Photographers Ephemeris

$12.99NZ

 
 

'TPE' was the first serious sunrise/sunset tool I found, originally just an online web tool using some maps API's, its still available for free online. Its the simplest tool out of the three here, but sometimes that makes it the quickest tool to use. It'll show you the basic sunrise and set positions, moon cycle and positions, elevation and even a Bortle map for light pollution.

Simply set the date and location you are interested in, and it will show you the ephemeris details in the lower panel. Swipe between information and use the time slider to see where the sun and moon will be.

It is fast and simple, and will get you the basic info without much effort.

Photopills

$14.99NZ

 
 

Known on iOS for the last 4 years to have a great balance between features and ease of use, Photopills gives you many tools to help your planning.

The primary 'Pills' are:

  • Planner
  • Sun/moon finder
  • Exposure and DoF calculators
  • Time lapse
  • Augmented reality
  • Star trails/spot star calculators

Alongside the Pills tab is 'My stuff' where your own plans, awards and points of interest sit, and 'Academy', where links to the user guide, videos and even T-Shirts exist.

The meat, though, is the planner, and superficially this looks a lot like TPE.

By using the top panel you have several more options for information display, including the milky way (visibility and centre finder).  Swiping between these shows you different information. One of the key things here is each panel has a button on the left to enable its special feature (milky way arch or blue/golden hour colours etc).  These can all be enabled or disabled independently.

The centre section showing the map has a few buttons: One to expand the map almost full screen, cutting down on clutter, and others to drop target pins, etc.

The lower panel shows by default a 24 hour graph you can scroll or zoom in for more precise control over timing.

Below this is a row of buttons for saving/loading plans, finding stuff, and the Augmented reality (AR) modes. You can also easily share your plans with others online.

Photopills daytime AR mode

Photopills daytime AR mode

The AR modes are heaps of fun. Hold the phone up to the scene and it will show you (after calibration) exactly where the sun or milky way will rise or set at any time of year. This is probably the best tool for planning when you can visit the location beforehand.

and night AR mode

and night AR mode

One of Photopills' secret weapons is the desktop widget that can run live on your phone's launcher (or notification area on iOS). These can show you all the info you need for today, or list your plans. From here you can launch directly into the app.

Planit!Pro

Free/$5.99USD

 
 

I've used this app for a few years now, as it was the most complete Android option I could find. It was always tricky to use because of the depth and clutter of the interface. It recently underwent a complete redesign, which makes it far easier to use than before.

Planit!Pro covers all the same basic ephemeris information the other two apps do,  plus a few other modes like meteor showers, light and shadow, panoramas, and tides. It is in fact the only planning app that does include tide information, even though on my phone it is a little slow to use. The list of tools include:

  • Camera/scene location (2 pins for distance/elevation etc)
  • Depth of field
  • Panorama
  • Sunrise/set, twilight and special hours (golden, blue hour etc)
  • Exact positions of sun/moon
  • Stars and star trails
  • Milky way location
  • Meteor showers
  • Dark skies
  • Time lapse
  • Sequence (sun/moon over time)
  • Exposure calculator
  • Light and shadow
  • Rainbow position
  • Tide height, Tide search
  • Map modes including google street view

The milky way finder is great, and it has a zoomable bortle scale light pollution map. Both combined allow you to plan your astro trips quite well. This is paired with the milky way calendar, which quickly shows you the best time to shoot (moon cycles and time above horizon etc).

One of the cool things with Planit!Pro is you can search by event then filter the results. So I can search a location for low tide in the next month and then filter by golden hour or new moon or whatever and it will show me a list of dates/times that meet my requirements. Makes planning something complicated far simpler!

Panorama mode will calculate how many shots you need for your composition based on your focal length.

It does have an AR mode, but its far more difficult to use compared to Photopills. Though it does have the ability to plan your composition on location with photos taken previously.

There is a free version lacking some key tools for avid landscape/astro shooters. It is worth trying before you buy the full version.

Conclusion

Its difficult to dismiss any of these three apps. They all do the job, and do it well.

TPE is by far the simplest, and that makes it quick and easy to use. Its also far more limited, but covers the basics of sun and moon positions and moon cycle.

Planit!Pro has some incredibly powerful tools if you take the time to learn how to use the app. Even with its reworked interface and built in help, it is often tricky to use. The flipside is it's incredibly versatile, and can combine a bunch of tools/views in one to give you all the information you will ever need. It is also the only one with tide information!

Photopills, at its most basic, is almost as easy to use as TPE. At the same time it offers almost the depth of Planit!Pro. It has become truly cross-platform recently, and has the most awesome AR mode.  It is also a lot more social than the other two apps, with plans shared between groups. love the widgets.

For me, I am more likely to use Photopills now, as it has a nice combination of depth, features and ease of use.