Friday, September 19, 2014

Recent Assignment: Le Mans 24

 Earlier this year I had one of those dream assignments come in - I was to go out and cover the Le Man 24 hour race held in the town of Le Mans, France for Red Bull. I'm not much of a petrol-head but I love any assignment where I'm covering a race or event and have the freedom to photograph it however I want. It allows me to do what I do best; observe and document - but with the bonus of having very good access to things which are crucial to tell the story. You can see the final article as it ran in the magazine below, and my own extended edit on my website here 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gear Review - Field testing the Fuji X-T1

The Fuji X-T1 with the battery grip and 23mm f/1.4 lens
I've spoken before about my love for the Fujifilm x-series cameras. The idea of having a camera that produces good enough quality and usability without having to lug around DSLR really appeals to me, whether for day to day stuff or even on jobs. You can read my thoughts on the x100s and X-Pro1 here. Although I love them as cameras to use day to day I probably wouldn't be comfortable shooting a commercial gig exclusively on them. I tend to keep them as back-up and also as something to use for myself.

The Fuji X-T1 packed alongside the X-Pro 1, my X100S and my Medium Format Bronica SQ-AI
However when the Fuji X-T1 came out I was excited that it could be a potentially great set-up for traveling with and shooting editorial assignments - it was much closer to the DSLR setup I'm used to using but without the bulk. With this in mind I decided to take one away with me on some recent assignments to Croatia, Spain, Morocco and Sweden. I already own some x-series lenses (18mm, 35mm) and I was lent a few extra ones (27mm, 56mm, 18-55mm, 23mm) which gave me a fairly thorough set-up. 

Gullholmen, Sweden. XF 18-55mm, 1/400 at f/9.0, ISO 800
Gullholmen, Sweden. XF 23mm, 1/750 at f/4.5, ISO 400
Gullholmen, Sweden. XF 18-55mm, 1/320 at f/13
My initial reservations with the camera were with the fact that the viewfinder is obviously EVF rather than optical, something which in the past has always been a turn-off for me. I needn't have been too concerned however, the EVF is fast, bright and large.  Occasionally I found myself covering my other eye in bright sunlight but otherwise it was great and not a hinderance as I had first feared. The great thing about having EVF is that it exposure meters right in the viewfinder so you know straight away how your exposure is looking. For someone like me who shoots mainly in manual mode (out of habit rather than any deep reasoning) this is really useful, and it saves you 'chimping' shots.
Tangiers, Morocco. XF 23mm, 1/125 at f/2.8, ISO 400
Tangiers Morocco. XF 23mm, 1/180 at f/10, ISO 200
Tangiers, Morocco. XF 23mm, 1/180 at f/8.0, ISO 400
Tangiers, Morocco. XF 23mm, 1/320 at f/11, ISO 400
My first impression of the XT1 in the hand is that's its small. At first I actually kind of felt it was too small - I think if I were to get one of these I would definitely go with the battery grip. I imagine for some people the small size is the main draw, and the great thing with the grip is that you can always take it off if you want to travel with a smaller package, but for me the larger size just makes it a little more manageable to shoot with. It balances out the camera and feels more comfortable in my hand plus it gives you a bit more functionality with buttons for shooting in the portrait orientation. When Fuji bring out their 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 equivalents (read about the 50 - 140mm here) with image stabilisation - they will have produced a real contender for a full size DSLR but at a fraction of the weight and physical size. For travel jobs, this is all rather exciting because flying with kit is always a bit stressful and hand luggage limits can be less than generous.

Tarifa, Spain. XF 35mm, 1/500 at f/4, ISO 200
Tarifa, Spain. XF 35mm, 1/2000 at f/2, ISO 200
Real world tests

Shooting with this camera on assignments was interesting and highlighted a few gripes I had with the camera. Firstly I'm a creature of habit; for the last 6 years I have used the back button on my Canon DSLR to get focus, something I took up after being shown it by a seasoned pro - thus using my thumb rather than my shutter finger to get focus. You can set the Fuji up to do something similar (AF lock) but for me these buttons are just too small, and are not satisfying to press, they feel like they'd be easy to fumble and miss. However all is not lost, I did see a genius mod that involved using Sugru to physically modify the buttons on the camera. Had it been my own X-T1 I probably would have tried this myself - I'm not how pleased Fuji UK would have been with me if I'd given them back a hacked camera! 

Pula, Croatia. XF 27mm, 1/1000 at f/5, ISO 400
Rovinj, Croatia. XF 27mm, 1/1000 at f/2.8, ISO 200
Rovinj, Croatia. XF 56mm, 1/4000 at f/2.2, ISO 200
Rovinj, Croatia, XF 56mm, 1/60 at f/2.5, ISO 200
With regards to the focus itself, it did not cause me any issues - I did not feel it was too slow, which is impressive as I'm pretty hard to please when it comes to such things. The other great thing about the large EVF though is that if you do feel unsure you can quickly check focus - zooming into the focus point whilst the overall image is still displayed. Coupled with the excellent Manual Focus peaking and you've got a good alternative to AF (One thing I'd like to see is some alternative colours for highlight peaking, rather just white).
London, England. XF 18mm, 1/80 at f/2.0, ISO 3200
The back screen is relatively good and the fact that it moves and swivels is a massive bonus. The previews it presents are quite punchy and if you're shooting RAW your image will have more dynamic range than the back display suggests. But having a flexible back display is great for getting into tight situations and angles with the camera. 

Amsterdam, Holland. XF 27mm, 1/60 at f/2.8, ISO 800
Amsterdam, Holland. XF 27mm, 1/80 at f/4.0, ISO 800
I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with the Fuji glass, a lot has been written, in a lot more depth, about the Fuji lenses but all I'm going to say is that I fell in love with the 23mm (35mm equivalent) and the 56mm* (85mm equivalent) - both fast primes, robustly built, that would certainly suit my style of shooting.

Seville, Spain. XF 35mm, 1/1000 at f/8.0, ISO 1000
Cadiz, Spain. XF 35mm, 1/500 at f/10, ISO 400
As for other features the in-built wifi and ability to control the camera through a dedicated app were very cool. I love being able to convert the RAW images in cameras and send direct to my phone for things like Instagram (if you use instagram my feed has a few shots from the camera marked with #fuji or #XT1). The remote too was something that I could forsee being useful for certain situations.

The Fuji app for smartphones which allows you to remotely shoot the camera. Both shots below were shot from the waist using the app.
Glasgow, Scotland. XF 27mm, 1/250 at f/5.0, ISO 400
Glasgow, Scotland. XF 27mm, 1/500 at f/5.0, ISO 400
The one thing that has prevented me from taking up the camera so far has been waiting to see what further lenses Fuji aim to bring out. If I do take on jobs I also find it difficult to do so with kit that I wasn't 100% familiar with. I would need to get very used to the camera before using exclusively on future jobs. The reason I enjoy shooting with the X-Pro1 and the Fuji x100s so much is that they offer a different experience to using an SLR - an off centre viewfinder etc. The thing with the XT1 is that is effectively trying to be an SLR but in a smaller mirrorless package, with some perks but also ultimately with some cut corners. The camera, and it's subsequent line, still excite me however, because of the potential of where it will lead. Any competition to Canon and Nikon is welcome in my view. And so far Fuji have shown that they are prepared to think outside the box a little, they have the room and flexibility as a smaller company to try different things and new approaches. If they continue to do this, whilst maintaining their legendary concern and interest in customer feedback then they could really change the field over the next few years and offer a very viable alternative to the SLR. 

*Fuji have just released an updated 56mm aimed specifically at portrait photographer. The updated lens includes a special coating which adds to the price tag but that also promises to produces better bokeh. This is certainly a sign that Fuji ares serious about capturing professional photographers - akin to Canon having a range of L lenses which most pro's tend to gravitate towards.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Great Big Photography Bag Review

I don't know what it is about bags, but every photographer I know seems to be obsessed with them, myself included. I guess it's the need to carry all that expensive kit we acquire. Lugging it around is a chore, and anything that makes that easier, more streamlined and less of a hassle is clearly going to appeal. That said I have an unhealthy number of camera bags that I've picked up over the years. It seems that the bag I use depends very much on the job at hand. I'm a big fan of the Thinktank Photo range, and own two of their rolling bags, which I have to say are absolute work-horses. However along with these I also use a Shapeshifter backpack and some of their belt-pack systems. Aside from ThinkTank products my every day carry bag is a Billingham Hadley Pro, and another bag that I've been using increasingly is the F-stop Loka. 

In this post I will attempt to go through each bag in brief and discuss the pro's and cons and what I tend to find it most useful for. This won't be a comprehensive review of each piece luggage (although I’ve included links to other reviews) but rather an overview of the kit. 

The ThinkTank Airport Security - a behemoth of a bag
ThinkTank Airport Security with Elinchrom Quadra Lighting kit (notice the Manfrotto 5001B Nano stand at the bottom of the frame)
The ThinkTank Airport Security with Elinchrom Quadra Kit
ThinkTank Airport Security

I use this bag mainly as my lighting bag. I currently use a two head Elinchrom Quadra kit often with a spare speedlight (Canon EX580II) as a supplementary option. I have a set-up which allows all this kit to pack neatly in the Airport Security along with spare batteries, various bits of lighting grip and two Manfrotto 5001B Nano light stands. It weighs a lot when it's fully loaded but these bags are designed to last, they cope well with the weight; with heavy duty handles and good wheels. When you're wheeling it you really don't notice it the weight. The bag has a number of other great features including a built in security wire, a locker on the main zip, and a unique bag reference number in case it's lost or stolen. There a good look inside video here.

The ThinkTank Airport Security (left) and the ThinkTank Airport Takeoff (right)
The ThinkTank bags being used on location
The ThinkTank Airport Takeoff - the large front flap is good for folded reflectors.
ThinkTank Airport TakeOff

I normally use this bag if I'm shooting something where I'm not using lighting. This works well for my camera only setup (as the manfrotto stands don't quite fit inside this bag). The outside flap offers a great place for my Lastolite tri-grip reflector or a laptop. Overall this is a great sized bag and fits carry on size (if you don't have too much stuffed in the front pocket). It also has backpack straps hidden in zippered compartment in the back of the bag which is a great bonus. Another bag option that is also carry-on size would be the Thinktank International. There's a video review of the ThinkTank Takeoff here.

My Pelican 1510 with my Elinchrom Quadra Kit - this case also has a lid organiser
The Pelican 1510 rolls but not as smoothly as the ThinkTank Bags. The bonus of having it on a shoot is it doubles as an apple box, giving you something to stand on
Pelican 1510

Another rolling case, but this one with hard shell, waterproof and practically bomb-prooof. If I'm honest I tend just to use this for storage these days, however this will last my lifetime, if not longer. And sometimes it's great to bring along on a shoot if only to stand on. It does fit the manfrotto stands in it though which is useful, it can also fit a 15" laptop in the lid and I have straps for this which I bodged together with some lengths of velcro. These bags are pressurised too, so you can trust it in the aircraft hold (I normally keep plenty of silica gel packs in there to try and absorb any moisture). In terms of security, it's also easily lockable. I have an old review of the Pelican 1510 Case here.

The ThinkTank Shapeshifter is fairly unobtrusive and nondescript
The ThinkTank Shapeshifter fits carry-on regulations in terms of size
The ThinkTank Shapeshifter being used to anchor a light stand
The ThinkTank Shapeshifter being used to anchor my tripod
Thinktank Shapeshifter

This smart looking backpack can fit a deceptive amount into it. It's soft skinned, so it doesn't offer loads of protection to your kit, but it's enough for most situations. It has a separate laptop sleeve which is nice. Like all the other Thinktank bags it is made to a very high standard and is definitely designed to last. The inside has neoprene pockets which do a good job of holding most standard SLR camera kits. It has a number of nice features, pockets and design features (works for example with a belt kit by using a velcro fastening section in the lower back. There's a video showing the inside of the bag and how much it can take, here.

The Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW amongst other kit whilst on assignment
The Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW not great for snow shoots but has capacity and offer fairly robust protection - not great for snowboarding with though!
A DSLR rig stuffed in the front flap of the The Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW
Fully loaded the Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW can fit a lot of kit
Lowepro Pro Trekker 300 AW

This is one of those bags that I rarely use these days – though it's definitely had its uses in the past - generally when I've needed a sturdy and rugged bag in the field. It holds its shape well so feels like it offers a lot of protection to your kit. But for me this is also its curse - it feels far too bulky. Most situations where I would have used this in the past I would now probably use the f-stop Loka (below).

The F-Stop Loka - my new favourite photo backpack
The F-Stop Loka with a medium pro ICU on the left and the ThinkTank Airport Security bottom right
The F-Stop Loka with the medium pro ICU
The F-Stop Loka: With a medium pro ICU there's still room at the top of the bag for extra bits and bobs
A small pro ICU - great for smaller loadouts
F-Stop Loka

This bag is a recent purchase and one that I made hesitantly. However since buying it I have used this bag on practically every foreign assignment I've had this year. It's designed to use the ICU (Internal Camera Unit) system which is simple but genius. This is not a new system; my old Dakine Sequence backpack that I used to use for ski shoots had one, the difference is that the f-stop ICU's fit across their range of mountain bags which means you can swap it in and out depending on your needs. It adds an extra level of protection and it also means that you can store your gear in it when it's out of the bag, leaving the bag free for use without you having to re-house all the kit that was in it and without having to rip out velcro dividers. This matters because the bag on it's own is still a great bag and one that I regularly use as a day bag if I'm going away for a night or two outside of work. My only really gripe about the bag is that the top handle is not padded, aside from that it's great. You can find a thorough review of the bag here.

ThinkTank Cable management - they come in a numbe rof sizes and have a million uses
I tend to use this in conjunction with the Thinktank Cable Management bags which I put smaller items in so that they don't fly around inside the bag.
The Billingham Hadley Pro
The Billingham Hadley Pro. This bag has serious air miles.
The Billingham Hadley Pro with me in India
The Billingham Hadley Pro in the studio
Billingham Hadley Pro

I love my Billingham. Hand made in England, it's a timeless classic. Although mine is starting to look haggard, that is a testament to the fact that I use this practically every single day. I'm always carrying at least one camera (usually my trusty Fuji x100s - see a review of that here) and an ipad so that I can work on the move. It's a simple design but fits my needs perfectly, and it's simplicity is one of it's strengths as there is less to break, that said, these bags are built to last. 

The ThinkTank Change Up has plenty of useful and accessible pockets
Using the ThinkTank Change Up as part of harness/belt system - work pretty well in the Field
The ThinkTank Change Up is super useful when shooting video and stills work together
If I'm out and about all day the ThinkTank Change Up is an alternative to a shoulder bug. Not very subtle though!

Thinktank Change Up

I use this bag predominantly if I'm working on assignment where I have to carry a lot of kit either because I'm filming alongside (as can often be the case on NGO assignments) or because I don't want to have a shoulder bag with me. It's not subtle, at all, but when it's rigged up in its harness it’s a very practical way to work ensuring everything is to hand when I need it. The other beltpack elements are also super useful for carrying lenses and other misc kit that won't fit in pockets. if you're going to be running around a lot I find this generally works well as everything is to hand but without it being disorganised or in danger of flying off.

The Osprey is the bag on the right - a very impressive main luggage option (excuse the 'photographers jacket' I only use it in airports..honest)

This is my workhorse luggage bag. It's simple but effective. I have to say that the handle mechanism is starting to fail, and after long flights where the bag has been stored in a cold hold, it can be awkward to release. However this is after several years of hard use. The wheels are excellent. The structured, reinforced chassis ensure the bag stays standing. It even has back-pack straps hidden away should your accommodation be off the beaten track. I think an updated version of this bag would be the Osprey Shuttle. 

My carry everywhere bag

This is the last piece I was going to mention. It’s something that nearly always goes with me on trips, getting packed into my main hold luggage. The bag itself I picked up in a market in downtown Ho Chi Minh but it’s basically a copy of the Maxpedition Sabercat. I’ve already written an extensive article about this bag and what it contains here. If I were to add or change anything however it would be that now sometimes have walkie talkies in the bag, and I've updated my backup unlocked phone to be an old iphone 3.

Anyway I hope that's of some help - it should give you an overview at least of what bags might suit your needs.