A quick post-USA trip gear evaluation

It’s not often that I’m forced to shoot with just one set of equipment for an extended period of time with no real recourse to my other gear. This trip – three weeks – has provided me with an opportunity to focus on the evaluation of what I did bring. I packed light this time – I knew I would be walking a lot, so I wanted to avoid a whole-day bag. What follows are some quick thoughts on how I thought things stacked up. MT

18/4/13 at 4.30pm – Corrected for autocorrect-induced typos; I was trying writing on my iPad on the plane home.

Olympus OM-D (B&H | Amazon) – This has cemented itself as my travel camera of choice. I’ve now done several extended sojourns with it and not found any major operational quirks (except the propensity to occasionally lock up if you ty to protect an image too soon after zooming out, necessitating a hard reset by remove the battery). During this trip, my camera surpassed the 30,000 image mark with no other major hiccups. It got rained on, covered in dust and dye and never missed a beat. A single battery did get me through most days, with about 50% remaining in heavy days. I still carried a spare just in case, but never needed it. Even though my camera appears to have sstarted developing the cracked LCD frame edge problem after a minor impact, I still come to the same conclusion as before: highly recommended.

Olympus HLD-6 battery grip (B&H | Amazon) - Though optional, the front piece should be standard at very least. I brought both parts with me, but never used the vertical bit after day one – I simply didn’t miss it. That half will stay at home next time. Criminally expensive for what it is, but unfortunately very necessary for handling.

Olympus ZD 12/2 (B&H | Amazon) – Still the best (and possibly only) fast wide choice for M4/3 until the Schneider 14mm shows itself. It’s competent but the corners show lateral CA until stopped down somewhat. I used it until I got the Coolpix A – partially because I got lazy changing lenses, partially because I prefer the optics and image quality of the Coolpix.

Olympus ZD 45/1.8 (B&H | Amazon) – One of the bargains in the lens world – great optics and fast focusing, but the build is somewhat plasticky. I landed up switching to the 50 Summilux after picking it up because I prefer the rendering of that lens’ out of focus areas. It’s not easy to nail with the OM-D’s EVF and no focus peaking, though. I carried both for a while, but used the Leica unless I was shooting something documentary that required fast focusing.

Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (B&H | Amazon) – I finally managed to get a good copy; it came from the Leica Store NYC via Amazon. Haven’t shot it on an M body; it went straight on the OM-D and has proven to render beautiful cinematics – I think there’s some very slight field curvature to the design that does the same thing the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon does at the edges. Tough to focus without the magnification on, but you get used to it after a while. Definitely worth the effort, and best shot wide open or close to it with the subjects in the central portion of the frame.

Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X OIS pancake zoom (B&H | Amazon) – I bought one of these out of curiosity: since the X20 was nearly the same size as the OM-D with a small lens and no grip, and the flexibility of the zoom was one of the things I enjoyed most about the X20, why not find a small zoom for the OM-D and use that as my compact? So far, so good: the lens is a surprisingly good performer, with minimal CA and good sharpness across the frame. Focusing speeds are fast enough. There’s no mechanical zoom ring, and extending/ contracting the barrel every time you cycle the camera power uses a bit more juice than normal; the hit to battery life is perhaps in the 15-20% range. Still, a very interesting travel option when paired with a faster prime…

Fuji Finepix X20 (B&H | Amazon) – A very enjoyable camera to shoot with due to the mechanical zoom lens and tactile feel, but ultimately one I did not land up keeping as the size/ image quality tradeoff wasn’t really a good one – it was big enough (nearly as big as the OM-D and a small lens) to be unpocketable, required two-handed operation, and has somewhat weak battery life. Really fast to focus, though, and the lens is pretty good. Fine if you’re not carrying a larger camera and don’t intend to do any processing of your images – best for the JPEG shooters.

Nikon Coolpix A (B&H | Amazon) – This one initially got little use, but steadily grew on me throughout the trip to the point that I was perhaps using this slightly more than the OM-D. Image quality is superb; the lens is very, very well matched to the sensor indeed. I think the overall image quality is possibly even better than the M9 and 28/2 Summicron-ASPH.

Canon ELPH 530HS (B&H | Amazon) – A jetlag-induced purchase off Amazon on a whim late at night; it’s tiny and packs a 12x, 28-330mm optical zoom lens. Produces surprisingly good results under good light; 10MP sensor but cropped from a larger 16MP sensor (outer portions not used, so it’s actually a very small sensor indeed. I actually kinda like it for the huge range of perspectives it offers; it’s not going to supplant the Coolpix A, but it’s small enough that it does come along for the ride most of the time – you won’t notice it’s there until you need 300mm. Recommended, especially at the price (around US$130).

Voigtlander metal 28mm bright line finder (B&H | Amazon) – Originally meant for the Coolpix A, but I landed up not using it and taking it off after the first day – you can’t turn off the LCD on the Coolpix, making this somewhat useless.

Billingham Hadley Pro (B&H | Amazon) – My workhorse bag. Packed it into my suitcase this time without the insert; good as a very light daybag or to hold my laptop. I like it so much, I’ve actually got two of these.

Billingham 555 (B&H | Amazon)I like this bag a lot. It’s the largest one Billingham makes, and just fits carry on size. Holds an enormous amount of gear – almost more than you can lift – and looks rather stylish in the process.

Wacom Intuos 4 medium (link for the 5, latest version: B&H | Amazon) – Together with Photoshop, the only piece of equipment I use for every single image. I don’t buy new ones out of feature envy, I buy them because I wear out the surface after a couple of years. Mine’s at the point where it needs replacement; the cursor is skipping. It’s not a flaw with the tablet, I just use it heavily. Worked as usual, but I can’t wait for the Cintiq 13HD to replace it.

Apple MacBook Air 11″, late 2012 (B&H | Amazon) – Powerful and light, survived an accidental drop and bounce across the LAX security checkpoint with a little dent in one corner. I don’t think a platter-based machine could have survived it; score one for SSD. Despite what people say, the latest configuration is plenty powerful for running Photoshop; I can happily open batches of 15 or more RAW files from my OM-D at a time without a hiccup. The only letdown is the screen; hopefully the Cintiq 13HD will fix that.

Apple iPad mini 64gb (B&H | Amazon) – I’ve had previous full-size iPads, but the mini makes the most sense because of size and portability – it fits into a large jacket pocket – and allowed me to carry my teaching notes and example images without much weight penalty. It’s much easier to see images on a 7″ screen than an iPhone…

Sandisk Extreme HD 32GB SDHC cards (B&H | Amazon) – I use a bevy of these in all of my cameras. They’re fast and reliable, unless you happen to shoot a Leica M9, in which case they tend to make the camera lock up and eat files…

____________

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Comments

  1. “I packed light this time,” you said, and then went on to say you took four (4) cameras along :-) not to mention all these accessories.
    Actually, I can understand most of the accessories, but taking three different compacts along when you already have a system camera in your bag just seems… an interesting choice. But thanks for all the insights!

  2. Do you suffer from the color performance of the air when you get your job done? I am so curious that how can you get the correct color from that poor small screen?

    • Screen size isn’t the issue, it’s the limited gamut. I’m running a custom profile that gives a good idea of where things clip, and by experience and the eyedropper I can figure out which bits will be out of gamut and how they’ll look. Not my preferred way of working, but I do know that if it looks good on the Air, it’ll look good on most average displays. That said, for critical work I’ll at least re-check or usually re-grade on my Thunderbolt display at home.

  3. So, I know that the Mac Book Pros are your main Machine for travel… I think for travel. Not sure if you meant main at home or not when I read it at one point but. Do you see the Mac Book Air taking for the spot light when it comes to travel? Is the current top of the line Mac Book Air up to your standard when it comes to a dedicated travel comp? OR is the screen that bad at the moment that you think Mac Book Pro is best for now?

    Just to get this right, if your answer is “yes the air but with the 13″ wac” do we still need to see if the Wac’s screen is up to par or you already know it’s damn good?

    • Nope – Macbook Air for travel. The new 11′ has more power than my old mid-2010 15″, and is even faster still because it’s all solid state. Battery lasts longer. The only advantage of the 15″ was the display. The new retina MBPs are of course faster still, but pricy and personally, I have an issue with something that expensive and non-upgradeable. I’ve also got issues with the pixels being too small for serious retouching – you miss dots that client’s don’t on their regular displays.

      I think long term solution will be the air + 13″ wacom, but only because I’m already carrying a tablet most of the time. I may even carry the Mac Mini because it isn’t that much bulkier/ heavier than the 11″ air, but is quite a bit more powerful. As for the 11″ screen – they say 75% ARGB, which is comparable to my Thunderbolt Display. So it should be fine…

  4. So you are willing to accept a cracked bezel in a $1000 camera? I am not…

    • If its your fault for dropping it, yes.

      • You didn’t say you dropped it, just that it “started developing”.

        • I’m not sure what your beef is, but I’m not under any obligation or responsibility to disclose everything to you. It developed after a minor drop against a pointed surface while I was reaching out for something. Is that specific enough? There is no compulsion for you to buy the camera or defend/ attack you or another person’s choices.

          There is no perfect camera. Despite paying $7,000, the Leica M9s were heavily flawed to the point of being unreliable and card-corrupting. Did it stop anybody buying them? No. The D800E has/had focusing issues, as did the 1DIII, and several other cameras. 70-200/2.8 VR IIs had baffle moulding problems. We can spend our time complaining, or shooting. I choose the latter, because it’s far more productive. This doesn’t mean I won’t call it out when it happens – I do, and as a result, am hated by most of the manufacturers because my heavy usage pattern tends to find major faults that the vast majority of users will overlook or never encounter. If it’s a big deal, I’ll say something about it to the people who matter (and in this case, Olympus is aware of the LCD issue) which in the long run is a service to the photo community.

          Regardless of how the damage was caused, I am not certain if it was a design flaw or my fault – so I’m not going to factor that into the conclusion, which remains that it’s still an excellent travel camera because of size, features, ergonomics and image quality.

          • Take it easy, no one is attacking you. I spend a lot of money on camera equipment and depend on site who’s opinions I respect as a source of research. I have no store nearby that even stocks the models I an interested in. To me, a cameras that spontaneously develops a crack has a serious flaw and that is what I was trying to determine.

            • My apologies, then. It’s difficult to determine tone with nothing but text to go on.

              I’ve heard the OM-D’s bezel has a propensity to crack if hit the wrong way, even if the impact is small; I’ve relayed this information to Olympus along with my own experiences – camera was over a shoulder, slid off as I reached out to grab something, and hit the ground gently on one corner – a minor hairline was visible afterwards. It doesn’t seem to affect the integrity/ stiffness/ function of the screen housing, so I’m not particularly worried. That said, I’m not particularly careful with this camera either, and it’s bounced around a dozen countries and recently passed 35,000 exposures, so it’s not exactly had an easy life, either.

              • I have to say that I really agree with Ming on this – it’s a complex product that is very densely packed into a small form. I have seen two cameras with this small flaw. It’s not a cracked LCD screen, it’s a tiny fracture in the frame, and if you see a teardown of the LCD, that frame is entirely cosmetic anyway. And besides, Olympus has happily recognised the issue and will simply and quickly repair the frame. Ive read reports of it being done in 20 minutes. I really look after my gear, but at the end of the day, it’s just a tool and a complex one at that. It takes pictures. They are the things that ultimately matter. And besides you get one heck of a lot of camera for the price..so to junk it for that is being obsessive. It’s not like Olympus were in denial like some other manufacturers are – it’s just a camera, not a religion….

  5. Steve Zakrzewski says:

    How come no NEX’s?

  6. Hi Mr. Ming thank you so much for all your hard work on this site. I really like your articles.
    I’m interested in buying an OM-D, do you think it’s a good idea to only buy the body and a Panasonic 14-42 X or just go with the kit Zuiko 14-42. I think the first option is more portable but a more expensive, how about the image quality?

    Thanks.

    • Now hat I’ve used the X, I’d go with this over the kit zoom simply because of size nod image quality. If you do get one, it would be great if you could use one of my referral links :)

  7. How was the battery life on the Macbook Air 11″…? I’ve been debating getting the 11″ or the 13″. I’ve heard the 13″ battery life is much better, in theory…

  8. sorry to be sounding silly ..but how do i view the keepers from the USA trip ??:)

  9. Darrell Raymond says:

    Which adapter do you use for the Summilux on the OM-D? I have used a Metabones with a 50 Summicron-R on the OM-D but it does not hold the lens solidly to the body, which means precise focusing is difficult.

    Given the cost and the number of Summiluxes you went through to get a good one, I think I will stick with my 45!

    • I’m using a cheapie off eBay. The Voigtlander and Panasonic adapters are excellent and have no play. I must have gotten lucky because mine has no play either.

  10. What’s the story with the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux? Did you have a crappy one before, or an average one, or have you gone through several? How much of a difference is there? I’ve seen a lot about sample variance (with all brands), but it’s not something most of us get to test in a scientific way; I might have substandard lenses and be completely unaware of it!

    • Several bad copies. The first one I had was excellent. I sold it to a friend who needed it urgently for a job, thinking a) they were all like that and b) knowing there was another one at the shop. #2 was mechanically defective and threw an aperture blade a day after I bought it. Waited ages for a replacement because the lens was in short supply. The replacement was astigmatic. The third one was just soft. The four one, same. The fifth one was better, but not quite as good as the first one. I’m now on #6, which is finally up to scratch…

      • Oh no! Nightmare–and rather unusual these days. An inevitable by-product of the handcrafted culture at Leica, or unacceptable quality control?

        • A bit of both, I think. The reality is that handmade can be better than machine made if the stars align; if not, then the possible range of error is much larger, too.

          • Agreed. It’s about quality control procedures more than how or where it’s made. I’m interested to see how the build quality of the new GR (well-priced, made in China) compares to the very pleasing Coolpix A (expensive, made in Japan); tactility has traditionally been a Ricoh strength.

            Sidenote: perhaps a higher percentage of Leica users fall under the category of “exacting” and notice when things are less than great.

            • I’m trying to remember where the last GR digital was made and scratching my head with a blank. That should give us a good indication of build quality. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the cost saving was in the country of manufacture…

  11. ming, between the 12mm and 17mm, which one you preferred? (i see that you only brought 12mm and my experiences it’s too wide)

    • Definitely the 12. Optics are better, and I’ve never been a fan of the 35mm FOV. It’s not wide enough to be dynamic; the 12 is a bit too wide (I’d prefer 14) but it’s still eminently workable.

  12. I enjoyed the heck out of this post! Thanks for sharing. I am writing from a tiny sushi joint in Akihabara, Tokyo, having traveled in the opposite direction as you, Ming, from NYC to Asia. I brought my D800 and the 28/50/85 f/1.8 trio and have had a blast traveling around Japan with my family. Please keep up the wonderful website, as it pushes all of my happy buttons when I come here to read your thoughts. :-)

  13. Lol typo in my own post telling you about your typos…

  14. Hey ming,
    hate to be the one to point out but few typos in some of the earlier paras – have a look.
    Wish I had a bit of lose change to jump on the OM-D band wagon but already dropped a pretty penny on D600 so not now.

    Cheers
    Arpit

  15. Peter Boender says:

    Out of all this gear, two things struck me the most during NYC #2, both to do with image quality. The Coolpix A pictures stunned me: bright, colors, sharp, good dynamic range and micro contrast, all excellent! Did I say sharp? Boy, the lack of an AA filter really makes a difference. The Fuji X20 pictures on the other hand were a major let down. A direct opposite from the Nikon pics. And what was going on at the pixel level? The rendering of the more even parts in the picture was downright ugly. Blotchy, mushy. Was it noise? Too bad, as Fuji is otherwise trying to do some interesting stuff…

    • The Fuji was great fun to use – really too bad about the sensor. If it’d had the sensor of the RX100, it’d be an easy home run. The A really surprised me when I opened the files, and continues to do so; I can’t help but think DPR has a bad sample given their corner comparisons with the GR.

  16. I think the Schneider 14mm will be more expensive then the Nikon Coolpix A or Ricoh GR. Although video may be fantastic.

    • Yeah. And frankly…given the excellence of the A, and likely excellence of the GR, I’m probably going to pass unless it’s something very, very special indeed. Then again, maybe not – I’m a sucker for 28mm lenses.

  17. Ciao Pui says:

    When you asked me to pick up the Panasonic 12-42/X, I initially thought, are you insane, it’s a toy lens?! But now I actually think it’s a mighty great idea! This may work wonderfully as a travel zoom, especially on the smaller PM2/PL5 bodies. Will you be posting some images from NY2 using this lens?

    • And much appreciated it was, too :)

      More images and a quick review at some point, too. I was surprised by how usable the images were – I think makes sense as a quick-draw Swiss Army knife, paired with a more specific tool of choice – the 12/2 if you shoot predominantly wide, or perhaps a fast tele for cinematics.

      • So glad to hear your positive comment about the Panasonic 14-42 X lens given it has had a rough ride across the forums with talk of shutter induced blur. I very much like mine, it is a marvel of convenience and I do wonder whether many negative stories are second hand forum talk rather than from real first hand experience. I look forward to your quick review.

  18. Thank you very much Ming, I very much enjoy reading your thoughts.

  19. Great read. Traveling with cameras is more about ‘useability’ rather than their technical specs – which you already extensively covered in your previous article, “Film diaries: The importance of hapatics and tactility.” Another great read is connected to this article. I suggest those who haven’t read it to read it before they start spouting megapixel statistics.

  20. Wonderful Ming! Thanks for the summary! Very nice!

  21. Tim Fisher says:

    I assume you forgot to mention the pack mule.
    How many different cameras?
    Makes very little sense tbh. Can not see you walking far from said pack mule, not into the hills onto multi day treks that’ s for sure.
    This list seems self indulgent and designed around….. what exactly?
    3 weeks shooting what, you failed to tell, so we can’t really assess if there is logic and consideration in this bag o’ bits?
    Why so many “dinky small sendor toys”?
    My last trip was 7 months in Patagonia. This next one 1yr, probably.
    KISS. Keep it simple, every time.

    One rule of thumb: pack everything. Unpack it all, remove 50%. Repack.

    • Well, I don’t have an end client, so I can shoot whatever I feel like. It’s also on trips like this that I have to carve out time to review the things you readers demand, so I have to carry far more than I would normally would on my own. I pick out a subset that makes sense on its own on each day and work with that. My choices and subjective evaluations aren’t your mandates, so I’m not quite sure what you’re getting upset about…I just ran out of time answering the same emails about how various test bits of gear performed, so it was much faster to consolidate it into one post.

      • Peter Boender says:

        I think Tim Fisher is missing the point. Ming did not set up this bag of gear starting out from home for one specific purpose or task. To my knowledge he left home with the gear centered around the Oly OM-D E-M5, which makes very good sense as a travel kit. The other gear Ming gathered while traveling in the USA, to try out for himself or review for our perusal. So instead of complaining about “self indulgency and lack of purpose or design” (I’m sorry Tim, your observations), be glad Ming is doing this not only for himself, but also for us to enjoy. After all, it’s his money, and the reviews for us are free.

  22. As always, I enjoy your comments on new equipment, and base many of my purchases on your recomendations. When are you going to pull that new 80-400 out of your bag?

    Bruce

  23. Thank you Ming as always for the gear evaluation, now I can rest easy that bringing 45mm Oly ZD is a must travel lens for my E-PM1. Lastly is your Macbook Air 4GB or 8GB of RAM also seriously debating about this one as well. Thank you again :)

    • It’s fully maxed out – 8GB and 512GB with the 2.0 i7. More than fast enough for photoshop work, even in the usual large batches I operate with. Only thing is the display. If its your primary machine, you’ll need the 13″ because the panel is much better.

  24. Nikon A the superstar

  25. Thanks Ming for this, really good read!

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