Hasselblad X1D hands on

With the upcoming release of X1D, Hasselblad is doing a huge leap in the progress of photographic technology. It is not only the smallest, hence most portable, medium format camera, but also the most affordable. X1D will be sold for “just” 9000 $, i.e. for the price of a professional SLR body. From now on a studio photographer whose budget is limited and for whom a Hasselblad H6 have always been out of reach will be able to choose between the usual Canon or Nikon DSLR and Hasselblad. I am sure, for many Hasselblad X1D will be a winner.

To remind of capabilities of this new camera here is a list of the most important technical parameters:

  • 50MP 43.8 x 32.9mm CMOS Sensor
  • 16-Bit Color, 14-Stop Dynamic Range
  • ISO 100-25600, Shooting Up to 2.3 fps
  • 1.7 – 2.3 frames per second
  • Central Shutter: 60 min to 1/2000 sec
  • 2.36 MP XGA Electronic Viewfinder
  • 3.0″ 920 000-Dot Touchscreen LCD Monitor
  • Dual SD Card Slots; XPan & Square Modes
  • Built-In Wi-Fi & GPS, USB 3.0 Type C

Last Monday I attended a presentation of the new Hasselblad X1D to photographers from the area near my home and had a chance to see it live and even to try it. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for testing this camera with landscape or close-up shots, and the  X1D we got was was preset with a 90 mm lens. So I could not make an impression of how it meets the needs of a nature photographer. Of course, there was no time for thorough testing. Therefore I am able only to make here a couple of general comments based on my brief hands-on experience with Hasselblad X1D.

Design and Construction

The most amazing thing is, of course, the size and the weight of X1D: With just 725 g it weighs 200 g less than any of my current Canon cameras – 5DsR and 5D Mark III, and it is much thinner.

The design of the X1D body is extremely minimalistic. There is a 3″ touch screen, a mode selection wheel, one customisable wheel, two customisable buttons, and a large golden coloured shutter release button. There is also a row of five rectangular buttons right from the screen. They relate to the content displayed on the screen: With them you can, for instance, delete or rate images. On the left side of the body there are two doors: one covers the card slots, and the other one – the cable connection sockets.

The body is designed like a box, with sharper edges than usually in current SLR and medium format cameras.  I had been skeptical about the usability of it till I tried it: Despite its shape, the camera lies well in a hand, the grip is firm and comfortable. The shutter knob and both wheels are easy to find and to access with the fingers. Overall, the X1D body feels very solid and well crafted, just as one would expect from such an expensive camera.

Lenses

The lenses are made minimalistic too. Hasselblad went further than other manufacturers: All so-called HXD lenses have only a manual focusing ring. No switches, distance scale, marks or other usual information is there. Without anything but just one ring the lens looks stylish and cool, but I found particularly the absence of distance marks odd: I use them on my lenses quite often to preset the focus when I can’t look through the view finder, for instance, when shooting night landscapes or in situations when I can’t put my face at the camera. How can one do it when the distance scale isn’t there anymore? Probably, via touch screen. I haven’t seen, however, whether the distance to the object in millimetres and not just focus is displayed there.

The lenses made for X1D are much smaller and lighter than the traditional H lenses. Only two such lenses will come with the camera in August 2016. A third one (30 mm) is announced for Photokina show in September. According to the Hasselblad representative, more HXD lenses will follow very soon, and even zoom lenses are in development.

The sensor of X1D is about 1.4x larger than of a full frame camera. That means that the effect on focal length is opposite to the “cropped” (APS-C) sensors that “increase” the focal length: The focal length is reduced by this factor, hence, for instance, a 90 mm f/3.2 lens on medium format would work like 72 mm with a full-frame camera, a 30 mm – like 24 mm.

Viewfinder and Screen

Hasselblad X1D is supposed to be controlled mainly via touchscreen. This is what I didn’t like, and also didn’t use while test shooting. The touchscreen is about as large as in my Canon and has the same resolution. The colour and detail presentation was good, but not noticeably better than in Canon 5Ds.

The menu seems to be well thought through and to have a clear and simple structure. However, I had no time to go through all levels of it. I personally have a strong antipathy for touch screens even in smartphones and tablets. In my opinion, they don’t make the use of devices and of software any quicker or more comfortable. They are just supposed to make it simpler for people with limited intelligence who aren’t able to remember the purpose of buttons and key shortcuts.

For outdoor photographers even such a display without touch capability is of a limited use because it is to dim in bright sunlight and too small for assessment of image quality. So being an outdoor photographer I looked at the display of Hasselblad X1D with the usual reservation. In comparison with the display in current DSLR bodies it didn’t impress me at all. The menu and the display quality in current Canon cameras is just fine for me.

Like in professional DSLR and in medium format backs, the display of X1D is not tilting, i.e. it is fixed inside the camera body, and you can’t turn it, for instance, so that you look down at it.  The Hasselblad representative told that this feature may be added in future to the next versions of this camera.

The viewfinder is purely digital, and when you are looking through it, it feels like you are using a video camera. This is what I don’t like in all mirrorless cameras, and it is one of the reasons why I don’t buy a mirrorless camera yet: The resolution and refresh rate of the viewfinders isn’t yet so good that you would feel like looking directly at the object and not like watching it on TV. The viewfinder of Hasselblad X1D is not bad and may be even better than in some other mirrorless cameras, but it isn’t a real break through.

However, there is a very nice feature: The X1D recognises when the eye is on the viewfinder and automatically turns the display off and turns it on again, as soon as you have removed the eye from the viewfinder.

Shooting

We were holding the camera in hands when trying it. Since both the lens and the body are so light, it was easy to hold and to operate. It was feeling as if you have a small DSLR camera with a medium size lens in your hands. The camera was set to autofocus and in the aperture priority mode with ISO 100 and f/5.6.

The autofocus was quick, very silent. The precision was also all right, as you can judge from the images attached below: I was focusing on the face (eyes) of the model, so it looks like the autofocus did it correctly.

However, the depth of field is, typically for medium-format, is very shallow, as you can notice particularly of face portrait. With a full-frame camera and a 60-70 mm lens set to f/5.6 I would expect the whole head of the model, or at least the whole face to be in focus. As you see in the test image, the DOF was only around 5-7 cm deep. Obviously, to achieve a  greater DOF in this light one would need to increase ISO, or to reduce the shutter speed, or to do both. In consequence the image quality may suffer if the camera is hand held. I would have used ISO 100 and f/16, and a tripod, but no tripod was available.

The resolution of this lens/sensor combo looks very good. I am not sure, however, that it is better than of Canon 5DsR when it is used with a premium quality lens. Maybe yes, but maybe no. Since the model is more or less in the middle of the frame and since there were no objects around here that came in focus, I can’t report anything about border and corner sharpness here.

I couldn’t make an impression of the dynamic range that Hasselblad praises in technical specifications of this camera. The lighting in a studio is just too good for such tests, and I think any good SLR camera would perform similarly in such conditions. An interior shot in natural light would have been more revealing, but there was no opportunity for this.

Unprocessed JPEG file generated from a RAW produced with Hasselblad X1D equipped with a 90 mm lens - f/5.6, 1/350s, ISO 100 (Click on the picture to view the full sized image.)

Unprocessed JPEG file generated from a RAW produced with Hasselblad X1D equipped with a 90 mm lens – f/5.6, 1/350s, ISO 100 (Click on the picture to view the full sized image.)

Summing-up

As always with such presentations, its main goal was advertising. Therefore it was intended to show the highlights of this camera and targeted at the main customers of Hasselblad – fashion and portrait photographers. I went there with my attitude of an outdoor photographer, and, of course, came back home with a lot of unanswered questions.

Whether Hasselblad X1D is a winner for studio photography I am not in a position to judge due to my limited experience. To me it looks definitely more like a studio than like an outdoor camera. However, compared to usual medium format mirror cameras the X1D makes an impression more of another stylish accessory for a rich amateur. It is what is achieved by the portability of this camera: Not Leica M anymore but a medium format Hasselblad will now be the next stylish gadget wealthy people can bring to parties, events and holiday tours.

Otherwise the portability may be a big gain for landscape and architecture photographers. However, I still see clear advantages of full-frame cameras with their wide range of lenses.

Snake bite poof gloves: A clarification

This is an excerpt from a larger article published on my website: Snake Bite Protection Gloves.

I found out that not only the information from dealers but even from the manufacturer are the cause of this confusion. The following pictures are screenshots from the online catalog of HexArmor (see http://www.hexarmor.com) where two models of Hercules gloves are presented. The first, called R8E, is cut, puncture and also needle stick resistant, the second – 400R6E – is only cut and puncture resistant.

The original “venom defender” gloves by HexArmor, USA (Screenshot from http://www.hexarmor.com)

The current model of gloves with long gauntlets by HexArmor is not needle puncture resistant. (Screenshot from http://www.hexarmor.com)

Not only the product image is the same but also the use purpose: Both these gloves are recommended for use in animal handling. The flyer about HexArmour Hercules 400R6E is telling us: “These gloves are no stranger to dangerous applications such as handling razorwire or protecting from animal bites.” (see it here). Indeed, the 400R6E seems to be more popular because it does what the manufacturer promises in most use situations and costs less than a half of the cost of the other model. According to the product flyer, the gloves R8E are designed for use in animal handling and veterinary as well (see here). The only difference is the needle stick resistance. Apparently, the R8E gloves were not so frequently ordered as 400R6E, and HexArmor stopped their regular production a couple of years ago. Now, they are distributed by the UK company Polyco and manufactured in small quantities on request.

HexArmor Hercules R8E (or model 3180) were those gloves that became famous as snake bite resistant. They were the gloves that king cobras, puff adders, black mambas and many other highly dangerous snakes are biting and chewing on hundreds of photographs and videos throughout the Internet. Hercules R8E are now rare and very expensive. I do not know exactly how their production and distribution is organised. The gloves are still labeled as HexArmor but it looks like Polyco (that distributes many kinds of protection wear and even has own brands) currently has exclusive rights for their worldwide distribution. Therefore HexArmor is saying on the website that the interested buyers should contact Polyco for pricing and availability. Apparently zoos are the main market niche for the R8E gloves. Another UK company 121 Animal Handling Products supplies them to end customers and sells online via the website snakeprofessional.com as “Venom Defender Gloves”. There is a number of small dealers in other countries who resell the gloves to a little higher prices. For instance, in Germany it is zooprofis.de.

The so often rising question about the “right” gloves, quality concerns, and even rumours about accidents may indicate that some people bought and keep buying wrong gloves, i.e. the model 400R6E. Not only the manufacturer who stopped production of R8E (3180) but also the dealers do not sufficiently explain the differences and never point at a possibility of a mistake. Some newer dealers may even not know that another very similar looking model of gloves has been produced and sold some time ago and that it was so different. They just praise the 400R6E as protection from almost everything without any warning that they are not designed for use with venomous snakes. Even some specialised suppliers of tools for reptile keepers and herpetologists were offering 400R6E gloves. When I bought mine in 2010, the same gloves could be ordered in the online shop of Midwest Tongs, in zooprofis.de and even on shows in Hamm and Hauten. Priced at 180 – 220€, even these, “cheaper”, gloves were expensive in Europe. I got my 400R6E gloves from a supplier of industrial protection wear. I knew that they were not needle stick resistant. However, no better options were around, and I even did not know that better gloves may exist. Apparently many reptile keepers did not know it too and were buying 400R6E gloves regarding they as a better protection than welder gloves anyway.

I used my 400R6E gloves with viperids up to 60–70 cm long. The snakes were biting the gloves but the teeth were never getting through or even into the fabric. I suppose that the teeth never got in the spaces between armour plates. A 400R6E glove is very well lined and padded inside, hence a short tooth may even not reach the hand if it gets through the SuperFarbirc® layer. When I was holding a large and 15 kg heavy cactus Carnegia gigantea some of its long and hard needles got through the glove and pricked my hands a little but did not puncture the skin. I assume that a 400R6E glove would prevent a snake tooth from sticking into the hand as well. However, there is, of course, not so strong confidence in that as with a glove that is designed for needle stick protection.

Meanwhile, Midwest Tongs stopped selling 400R6E gloves and seems not offer any bite protection gloves at the moment. Some other suppliers of herpetological and reptile keeping tools still sell 400R6E. The prices in Europe increased to as much as 360 € in some shops. The cheapest offer that I recently saw in one online shop was for 170 €. The price increase can be explained by currently low exchange rate of the euro, but also by the offers of much more expensive R8E (3180) gloves that appeared recently again. It seems like some dealers are again trying to sell their 400R6E for the price of R8E (3180) making use of confusion of buyers and not emphasising the difference.

Of course, 400R6E are great gloves. They provide adequate protection for handling of small mammals, birds with sharp claws, small crocodiles, monitors and other large lizards, as well as most snakes. However, the users should be cautious and not expect from them as high level of protection as from R8E (3180) gloves. This should be always clear to everyone, and someone who buys 400R6E should know all the limitations and try not to go beyond particularly when handling large and aggressive venomous snakes. He or she should not be mislead by pictures of snakes viciously biting HexArmor gloves because those gloves are different! Unfortunately too few people seem to know this. Thus, every new bite accident or just a report of someone whose glove, but not hand(!), got punctured by a snake tooth causes a next wave of discussions and doubts in usefulness of gloves.

It is strange to see how the policy of the manufacturer and the dealers who do not sufficiently inform the customers harms the image of a product. HexArmor knows, of course, that the Hercules R8E became standard gloves for snake handling and that they are often confused with Hercules 400R6E. To see this, you need just to search the Internet for “HexArmor Hercules R8E”: At least a half of search results would be showing HexArmor 400R6E. Yet HexArmor could avoid this confusion if they would make one of these models look clearly different than the other: It may be colour, overall design, labels, product name, etc. This would not only further improve the image the product but also prevent potentially life threatening accidents. It surprises me that HexArmor has not done it in so many years.

For me it was also difficult to distinguish the two HexArmor Hercules models till I got both and could compare them side by side. By the way, my confusion and poor availability of better alternatives on the market made me purchase Hercules 400R6E in 2010.

The best way to ensure that you have got real HexArmor Hercules R8E (3180) is to order them from snakeprofessional.com. Currently they sell the gloves for 249 £ plus shipment under the name Venom Defender Animal Handling Gloves (Hercules™ 3180 R8E) Most probably you won’t find a lower price for new gloves elsewhere because 121 Animal Handling Products and snakeprofessional.com are the primary retailer of this product. The prices in other stores are at least the same, but often even higher.

If you come across a good offer elsewhere, first you should ensure that what you are buying are really the gloves R8E (a.k.a 3180). The seller may even not know the difference himself and have just Hercules 400R6E. I have seen offers of 400R6E gloves on Amazon and eBay for 500 $! To distinguish between these two models, look at the description of the offer and find the following information:

  1. The model name should contain the code R8E and 3180, or at least one of both.
  2. The description should contain the statement that the gloves are “needle stick resistant”
  3. If it is an official HexArmor dealer, there may be one of these pictures:

The gloves provide needle stick protection over the entire hand and forearm, i.e. are of model R8E

The gloves provide needle stick protection over the entire hand and forearm, i.e. are of model R8E

The gloves provide no needle stick protection, but only cut and puncture protection all over the hand and forearm, i.e. are of the model 400R6E

The gloves provide no needle stick protection, but only cut and puncture protection all over the hand and forearm, i.e. are of the model 400R6E

“Orange” means “very good”. “Blue” is still “good”, but it means that the gloves are Hercules 400R6E, and you should not pay more than 200–250 euros for a pair. Someone who is requesting more wants to cheat you.

If the description reads like of real venom defenders, take a look at the gloves. Even if it is a photograph, you should recognise that they are black and not dark grey. See a comparison on these pictures:

HexArmor Hercules 400R6E (left) and R8E (right) - palm side compared

HexArmor Hercules 400R6E (left) and R8E (right) – palm side compared

HexArmor Hercules 400R6E (left) and R8E (right) - back side compared.

HexArmor Hercules 400R6E (left) and R8E (right) – back side compared.

In older versions of both models the cuffs had a blue border, and the HexArmor label was hexagonal. Now, the company has a different design of the logo, and the label is rectangular, as shown on the pictures below. The border of the cuffs is now black (at least in R8E): Even if it is shown as blue on product photographs, it will be most probably black in the gloves that you receive, unless you have purchased an older model. Note also the difference in the fabric structure that is clearly recognisable in the photographs below.

Label on a Hercules R8E glove.

Label on a Hercules R8E glove.

Label on a Hercules 400R6E glove.

Label on a Hercules 400R6E glove.

The model name can be found on tags inside the gloves. The information that the tag provides is also different in each of two models.

Tag inside a Hercules R8E glove.

The tag inside a R8E glove.

Tag inside Hercules 400R6E glove.

Tag inside Hercules 400R6E glove.

Even if the first HexArmor Hercules gloves might be manufactured in the USA, all other were in Asia. The tag in my older 400R6E is telling that they were manufactured in China. The newer R8E are from Pakistan.

Read the whole text of this article here: Snake Bite Protection Gloves.

F-Stop Gear Mountain series 2015: An opinion

F-Stop Gear has just added three new backpacks to the Mountain series. This company makes the best backpacks for photographers, and I own one of them – an awesome Satori EXP. Therefore I follow their innovations with great interest and, of course, have compared two of the new products – Shinn and Sukha – with the backpack that I have, to see if I need to regret having purchased it too early and to upgrade, or just to stay with the Satori EXP.

The new lineup of the Mountain series of 2015 consists of 4 backpacks – with 40, 50, 70, 80 litres volume. Only one of already existing models – Tilopa – remained and was updated. Two other models Loka and Satori EXP were discontinued. The first was replaced by Ajna and completely disappeared from the online shop. (Loka UL is still remaining part of the Ultralight series, however.). The second, Satori EXP still can be ordered but apparently won’t be produced anymore because Sukha that is only slightly larger and has similar construction has to be a successor. A completely new and even larger backpack model – Shinn – was added to this lineup. Its design resembles very much Tilopa; in fact, it looks like enlarged Tilopa bag.

The website of F-stop Gear currently contains very little information – less than in the last years. It isn’t clear if other bags from Mountain series – Ando, Guru, Kenti and Literoom – will be offered in future or are going to disappear from the model lineup too. There is no online discussion forum anymore, and no new blog posts were published since September 2014. It looks like communication with customers entirely moved to Facebook. I found more up-to-date information there that brought me to some thoughts and conclusions that wrote down in this article.

What’s new?

In fact most changes were not so huge and the improvements were even smaller. Actually, the manufacturer mentions only three of them: “new fabric”, “spacious side pockets” and “updated harness system”.

New features in the latest models of F-Stop Gear Mountain series of backpacks. New features in the latest models of F-Stop Gear Mountain series of backpacks as stated on the homepage of F-Stop Gear.

Also the colours were changed a little. Instead of previous three colours – all new backpacks are now offered in four colours: A new orange colour option – called “Nasturtium” – was added. The green colour (previously – “Foliage Green”) got lighter and is now called “Aloe” (or “Drab Green”). Other options – “Anthracite Black” and “Malibu Blue” – remained.

ShinnShinn backpacks are available in four colours: light green, black, blue and orange.

SukhaColour options of Sukha.

Satori EXP backpacks were offered in 3 colours – folliage green, black and malibu blue.

New Isn’t Always Better

Of course, Shinn is a completely new model of a backpack mainly intended for videographers. Since I don’t belong to this target group, my critique may be not so relevant. When F-Stop Gear designers were working on it, they, of course, heard the opinions of videographers whose needs they tried to satisfy. I don’t know, for example, whether videographers really need such a large backpack and how far the video equipment can be disassembled to fit smaller bags.

Again, the wish of many outdoor photographers to have just one perfect backpack isn’t fulfilled by any of current models of Mountain series. From photographer’s point of view Shinn, just like all other bags, is too much a compromise. It is quite large although again not so large as a trekking backpack of the same volume – 80l. It is the volume of the main compartment, not of the pockets what matters. If a wildlife photographer would use Shinn, the main compartment will be just large enough to accommodate lenses and camera bodies, and even then some equipment would go into pockets. I know it from my experience with Satori EXP which is a little smaller: No place remains for food, cloths and camping stuff. 80l of Shinn isn’t the volume of the main compartment: The largest ICU, Cine Master has in reality a much lower volume but will occupy all the space of the main compartment.

Sukha is basically a Satori EXP with increased height and side pockets instead of M.O.L.L.E. attachment points. With the new ICU Tele Master it is now possible to carry a 600-800mm lens mounted on a camera inside Sukha and Shinn, but the hood will need to be removed. Then I don’t understand the sense of this height enlargement: The equipment won’t be ready for shooting anyway till the hood is in place. If you have time for putting on the hood, you’ll have time also to attach the camera to the lens. Sukha is smaller than Shinn but now not small enough to comply with the rules of airlines for carry-in luggage.

Let us look at the features of Shinn and Sukha mentioned in the product descriptions and compare them with Satori EXP and other older models.

Construction
Most materials used in construction of Shinn and Sukha remained the same as in Satori EXP.

  • Ripstop nylon is the main material, but in new backpacks its water resistance was improved with thermoplastic polyurethane film.
  • EVA molded rear panel remained the same.
  • Hypalon® reinforced base. In my Satori EXP it is absent, therefore the bottom of it is scratched and rubbed on stones and ground every time I put the backpack on the earth. After just two expedition there were many signs of abrasion, and I wonder how long it will take till holes appear in the fabric. The latest version of Satori EXP does have a Hypalon reinforcement. So there is nothing new in Sukha. However, Shinn has also a reinforced front side, unlike in Satori EXP and Sukha.
  • Heavy-duty 3-fold carry handle and side handle. The first is in Satori EXP too but I never use it because my backpack is always too heavy. Usually it weighs at least 18kg but often over 20kg. Therefore I lift it by grabbing at the harness. The side handle that Sukha and Shinn now have is a nice thing when your bag is empty or not so fulll and heavy. With my backpack it is never the case.

Zippers
They remained in the new backpacks overall the same as in Satori EXP:

  • YKK® Aquaguard® zippers
  • Hypalon® zipper garages
  • Hypalon® pull-tabs

Pocket Configuration
Pockets have undergone some redesign:

  • Side pockets with full-length zipper and expandable design: This is actually what frustrates me the most. Satori EXP has three M.O.L.L.E. attachment stripes on each side. I can attach anything to it and customise my backpack. In Sukha and Shinn there are large pockets instead. They are of limited use and make the bag wider.
  • Stretchable interior mesh sleeve lid pocket with Velcro® seal: Hm… I don’t know why it should be better than various pockets with zippers that Satori EXP already has.
  • Zippered mesh underside lid pocket: Satori EXP had it too. Therefore it is nothing new.
  • Mesh sleeve energy pockets on each shoulder strap: This is an interesting thing that is nice to have. I eat energy bars on the go and would use such pockets. But even if not for energy bars, they can be used to store batteries, cables or other small items.
  • Multipurpose internal sleeve either fits up to a 13” laptop or can be used as a hydration bladder pocket. This is a wise change. In Satori EXP there were two pockets lying on each other: one for a 15″ laptop and one for hydration bladder. I criticised this construction in my review of Satori EXP: If a laptop would be there the hydration bladder and the entire ICU with photo gear will be lying on it. Your poor laptop should than withstand over 10kg of weight as soon as you lay the bag on the front side to access the equipment stored in the main compartment. I have a 11″ Macbook Air with me in my expeditions that I put in a separate sleeve in the ICU over the photo equipment. I haven’t tried the same with a 13″ laptop, but think that it should also fit under the lid of the main compartment.
  • Exterior front panel pocket. Compared to Satori EXP that also had it, in Shinn and Sukha it got larger and offers more room for cloths, food or more equipment.

Pack Hydration

  • Compatibility with numerous hydration systems: It remained the same as in Satori EXP as well as the rest – bladder pocket, sealed Velcro® hydration tube port, etc.

Suspension & Compression

  • Just like in Satori EXP, depth adjustment and a means to mount a tripod or other vertically shaped tools and gear provided by quick-release compression straps.
  • Easy tightening while on-the-fly via strap keepers: This is not new too.
  • Adjustable sternum strap with integrated whistle for emergencies – same as in older Mountain series backpacks.
  • Ergonomic Soft Flex injection molded EVA belt and shoulder straps. In Satori EXP and other older models it is not different.

Loading & Closure

  • Camera gear is accessed via the rear panel and features YKK® heavy gauge zippers: This is in all Mountain series backpacks of F-Stop Gear since the very first model.
  • Top opening for main internal compartment access features YKK® heavy gauge zippers: In my Satori EXP it is similar.

Pack Attachments

  • 12 GateKeeper mounting points. It is less than in Satori EXP that had 14.
  • Attachment of f-stop and third-party accessories via internal and external M.O.L.L.E. system. In new bags the external such attachment points are reduced to two on hip belt while Satori EXP had also three at each side. Therefore it was more extendable. In new backpacks, such attachment points are compatible indeed only with M.O.L.L.E. components or those that have thin attachment stripes. Pouches and pockets made by Lowepro and Thinktank Photo can’t be used anymore because their stripes are too wide. In Satori EXP this problem doesn’t exist.
  • Hypalon® loops and bungee cords for attachment of accessories such as ice axes and trekking poles – are in Satori EXP and other older products too.
  • Easily attach f-stop’s Navin camera case on the chest mounting attachment via GateKeeper system – same as in Satori EXP and other older backpacks.
  • Additional accessories attachable via 2 metal D-ring attachment points. They were available in all older backpacks too.
  • Attachment of a Rain Cover via connection loop. In Satori EXP the rain cover is stored in separate pocket under the bottom of the bag and can be attached the same way.

Hip belts of SukhaHip belt of Sukha and Shinn: The new M.O.L.L.E. attachment points are a joke. Sorry, F-Stop-Gear, but this is a real fail of your new design!

Side view of Satori EXPSide view of Satori EXP: There are M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at both sides of the bag and on hip harness. They are also compatible with products of Thinktank Photo, Lowepro and similar that have wide attachment slides. With new backpacks of F-Stop Gear it is not so anymore.

Integrated Features

  • 4 internal ICU attachment points: This is like in any Mountain series backpack that takes ICUs.
  • Exceptional all-day support provided by an internal aluminum frame. In older models it was the same.

Advantages of Satori EXP

  1. The dimensions fit into limits for carry-on luggage of most airlines: Though, if fully loaded with photo gear, it would exceed the allowed weight limit, usually the airlines representative at check-in wouldn’t object it when the bag looks small. Anyway, I had no problems with carrying my Satori EXP with me on board so far.
  2. Better extendable due to M.O.L.L.E. attachment straps on the sides: I often attach large military bags on one or both sides of my Satori EXP when I carry it in the field. To take it on board of an airplane, I remove these bags, so my backpacks becomes small again.
  3. Attachment straps on hip belt compatible with all third-party bags and pouches: The M.O.L.L.E. attachment points are at both sides of the bag and on hip harness. They are also compatible with products of Thinktank Photo, Lowepro and similar that have wide attachment slides. With new backpacks of F-Stop Gear it is not so anymore.

Advantages of Sukha

  1. More water resistant fabric: In my opinion, this is the only real improvement that the new Mountain series backpacks have got. However, the fabric of my Satori EXP is highly water resistant too. I had it many times under quite heavy rain and the water didn’t get inside. Apparently, the new fabric isn’t completely waterproof too because F-Stop Gear still sells rain covers for the backpacks.
  2. Greater height: Space needed for a large telephoto lens is better available due to this although such lenses could be carried in Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU too. Unfortunately the increased hight and side pockets makes this Sukha look too large for carrying on board of airplanes. Indeed its dimensions do not fit into airlines limits anymore, and it can’t be compressed to the allowed size because even the minimal dimensions are too big. I had wished the volume and size to be adjustable – through add-on pockets or through expandable construction of the backpack itself (for instance, through foldable top like in trekking backpacks).
  3. Larger frontside pocket: It isn’t really a big deal, but just a nice little improvement that makes the frontside pocket even better useable. In Satori EXP it is quite flat.

Advantages of Shinn

If I were buying a backpack this year and money weren’t an issue, Shinn would be my choice. Otherwise the price of over 370€ for the bag only is just too high. To use it, you need at least one ICU – either Cine Master or Tele Master – that would require additional 180 or 200€. A photo backpack for almost 600€ looks somewhat high priced even if you are getting with it a Rolls Royce among photo bags. It is hard to say if such an investment should make sense. Currently, it looks like Shinn is going to be the best backpack for an outdoor photographer as soon as Satori EXP would not be on sale anymore. On the other hand, it exceeds the carry-in luggage limits of airlines, and there are many other backpacks that do it too. Therefore, it may be possible to find a cheaper alternative with similar volume from other manufacturers (Lowepro Pro Trekker 650 AW is what comes to my mind, for instance) or to use a trekking backpack.

This backpack is made of the same materials as Sukha, is similarly high and has also the same large frontside pocket. The other advantages of Shinn compared with Satori EXP and Sukha are the following:

  1. Reinforced front side: This is what I liked in Tilopa bag too, what I am missing in Satori EXP, and what is now absent also in Sukha.
  2. Larger volume: Unfortunately, it doesn’t come without the biggest disadvantage – large size – that makes Shinn incompatible with airlines regulations for cabin luggage. What I wrote above about the need for adjustable size is valid here too.

Conclusion

Still Satori EXP appears to be the best suitable for the needs of a nature photographer who has to carry very much equipment both on airplanes and on terrain in remote places. It is very sad that F-Stop Gear has decided to discontinue it. Now my hope is that they will change their mind and bring up an even better successor in future. Till then I am happy to have a Satori EXP.

If I would be buying a new bag now, in current situation, I would either buy Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU again or go for Shinn and Tele Master ICU. Both, Sukha and Shinn are too large for airlines but Shinn has just more volume as Sukha. My tactics would then be, to take the gear in a bare ICU as hand luggage and to send the backpack with the rest of the content in the checked luggage. At the location I would then have a larger backpack. This would be an advantage over Satori EXP and XL Pro ICU combo. However, Shinn and Tele Master ICU are more than twice as heavy.

Which lens?

This is the beginning of a large article that I have written for my website. Read the rest of it on www.nature-images.eu.

Lenses are the most important part of photography equipment. Many beginners and non-photographers are surprised to hear this, but this is true: Only the level of colour noise depends on the camera; all other aspects of image quality are entirely associated with the performance of lenses. Although cameras are very complicated electronic devices, lenses are optical, electromechanical and electronic devices at the same time, hence they require a much more sophisticated engineering and manufacturing. Digital camera models have much shorter life cycles than lenses. Usually manufacturers need about a decade to make significant improvements to a lens that was already nearly perfect. Absolutely new and technically innovative lens designs appear very rarely. Cameras have a much shorter development cycle: Their models usually get updated more frequently — every 5 years at most; new and better models of cameras are even released every two or three years. Therefore, when we purchase a lens, we do it for at least 10 years, till we are forced to upgrade by competition and by technical progress. With cameras it happens much earlier. Therefore, if selected carefully, lenses serve longer than much of the rest of our equipment. Only supports (tripods, etc.) are more timeless.

Usually lenses are also the most expensive items in our equipment kit. While many have only 2 or even just one camera body, no serious photographer has just 1 lens per camera. 3 was the minimum number of lenses owned by the photographers whom I knew so far. I currently have 8 lenses. The cost of several lenses usually exceeds the cost of a camera many times.

Cameras are rather than lenses “many-purpose tools”: With the same camera you can photograph various subjects, in various photography areas and genres, while a certain lens is usually needed for a certain subject and genre.

All this makes the process of choosing lenses much more difficult than of cameras. While technical specification and a couple of independent reviews are usually enough for making a judgement about a camera, for a correct decision to purchase a certain lens you need to know very well your needs, be clear about ambitions and plans for the future, have a lot of practical experience with other lenses. When people are asking me for lens recommendations, I am, of course, saying: “Get the best lens you can afford!” This is my usual answer of the question “What lens I should buy?”, and I explained the reasons of it in my earlier article — Choosing the Camera Brand. Unlike with many other things that may be overpriced, the price of a lens is usually a good indicator of its quality: Expensive lenses are usually better than cheap although many cheap lenses are quite good. A much more difficult question is “Which one?” Every lens has its specifics, and the choice of lenses depends on a number factors that may be different for different photographers. Therefore, a universally applicable and straightforward answer isn’t possible to give.

This article should be a general overview of choices a photographer has and of recommendations based on my own experience and knowledge. However, I am not going to give definite recipes — “To shoot this, take this lens…” It is the reader who should draw conclusions and make decisions.

Although I use Canon equipment I am mentioning lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras. This shouldn’t be understood as a recommendation to choose either of the brands but only as an example of lenses with a certain focal length.

What about Sony?

Sony is a very innovative and very promising brand of photographic equipment. However, most lenses for Sony cameras are made by other manufacturers. Although some lenses are really good, there is not a so wide variety of them as for Nikon and Canon. Therefore Sony even recommends to use lenses made for other systems via an adapter with their α series of full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses.
When I was writing this article Sony was still rarely used by nature photographers. Therefore, I didn’t discuss the lenses for this platform in depth. However, everything I have written here is valid for Sony too.

Parameters and Characteristics

There is a usual misconception that in certain areas and genres of photography lenses with certain technical characteristics are to be used. I often see people writing or saying that, for instance, a 14mm lens is a “landscape lens” and a 100mm one is “for portraits”, etc. This is an extremely simplistic and counterproductive point of view. In reality a photographer chooses a lens not according to the subject but according to the way how he wants it to be depicted. Landscapes can be photographed with ultra wide-angle and with super telephoto as well. Portraits shot with wide-angle lenses often look more dynamic and impressive than those that were shot with a telephoto lens.

The focal length is the most evident technical characteristic and the key parameter for choosing a lens. According to my observations, a photographer decides to get a new lens much more often because he needs a lens with a certain focal length. Therefore, also in this article I structured the discussion of lenses based on this characteristic. The focal length of a lens can be either constant (fixed) or variable. The short name commonly used for lenses with variable focal length is zoom, and lenses with fixed focal length are usually referred to as prime. I described the advantages and disadvantages of both these kinds of lenses in the article Prime vs. Zoom. Actually the biggest practical difference between them is in the need for the photographer to move which greater with prime lenses. Therefore, it is easy to decide which type of lens if better for you: If you can’t or don’t want to move a lot when you are photographing, a zoom lens is what you need.

Since a single zoom lens can have a wide range of focal lengths, it is difficult to discuss them together with prime lenses. Therefore, I am going to maintain the division between prime and zoom lenses also in this article and treat them separately.

Once the need for focal length is clear, other parameters apply in the following order:

  1. Special features and capabilities, such as tilt-shift, fisheye, zoom, work distance, etc.;
  2. Resolution;
  3. Contrast and colour rendering;
  4. Aperture range (maximum and minimum);
  5. Out-of-focus rendering (bokeh);
  6. Level of chromatic aberrations and flare;
  7. Distortion, vignetting;
  8. Autofocus;
  9. Image stablisation;
  10. Protection against dust and moisture;
  11. Build quality, brand.

Once you know what focal length you need, technical specialities and features is the next important thing for lens choosing. In some cases, you have to decide, for instance, if the lens should be with mechanically adjustable optical system — so-called, “tilt-shift”, or if it should be a fisheye type lens, or if you only should need a zoom lens for you work and not a prime… Also you may need to make a decision about focusing distance that you subject would require. This parameter is very different even in the lenses with the same focal length. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers clearly show it in the technical details of their lenses probably because they think that it isn’t an important information. In some areas of nature photography this parameter may play an important role however. For instance, a very short focusing, or working, distance is required for making close-up photographs of small animals so that the surroundings are also visible in the resulting image. Another parameter magnification ratio that is usually stated in the description of lenses is related to minimal focusing distance.

When you know all this and know how much money you can spend, it’s time to start looking for the best lens that fits into this framework of requirements and limits. When assessing and comparing the quality of various alternatives, resolution is the most important quality aspect that photographers normally look at. The resolution results in sharpness, so when someone is talking about a “sharp” lens, he is meaning that this lens has good resolution, i.e. can capture finer details. There are at least three reasons to want the highest resolution. First, the more detailed the image the larger can be the presentation of it, i.e. the larger can be the print of it, or the higher the resolution of the screen it will be displayed on. Of course, modern computer screens or projectors have still a much lower resolution than cameras. However, it is increasing rapidly. For the time of writing, so-called “4K” monitors, i.e. capable of displaying a 8Mp image at 100% size, were already entering the mass market. The first “5K” screen was released 2014 capable of displaying 14.7 Mp. This means that your 14 Mp photographs can be presented on it without size reduction. Certainly, it isn’t the limit, and the resolution of screens will continue to grow. Also new high-resolution or very large display media will appear in the future. Therefore, if you want your images still to look good on large format prints and electronic media in the next decades, you have to produce them with maximum possible resolution already now.

The second reason is related to resolution of the recording media, i.e. of the imaging sensors of our cameras. Lenses made for film cameras don’t provide adequate resolution for modern digital camera sensors. Although adapters for such lenses are still available, using them even with 5 Mp cameras doesn’t make sense. The same problem arises with low-end lenses that were produced for digital photography when you attempt to use them with high resolution cameras. Currently only the best lenses can provide adequate resolution for 35 Mp or 50 Mp sensors of modern full-frame cameras. Due to the natural limitation caused by the optical phenomenon of diffraction it is unlikely that the lens resolution will grow in future far beyond the already achieved maximum. However, we can expect the majority of cameras to have 30-50 Mp sensors very soon. This means that low-quality lenses that we buy now won’t be useable anymore.

The third reason why you need maximum resolution is more typical for wildlife photography. Too often images of wild animals need to be cropped during postprocessing for better composition. This happens, for instance, because the animal has moved in the frame before you released the shutter or because the distance was too large so that the subject appears too small in the photograph. Obviously, the more detailed is the image the more space is available for cropping. Cropping leads to enlargement of the rest of the image because the physical dimensions of the output medium remain constant. For instance, if you planned a print on a 60×70 cm paper sheet but cropped the digital original by 15%, thus reducing its size, the paper sheet size will still remain the same. In the consequence, only 15% less content will be printed, or in other words, the remaining 75% of the original instead of 100% will be stretched to fit the 60×70 cm large medium. Everything in the image will be enlarged by 15% in that case. As a result, a not very sharp and not very detailed image will then look even worse.

The best lenses provide a more or less uniformly sharp image all over the frame surface. However, not very many are so. The wider the lens the more prone it is to sharpness fall off at frame borders and in the corners. Also aperture plays a role: The majority of lenses deliver the sharpest images at apertures that are at least 1 stop smaller than the maximum and 1 stop larger than the minimum while the sharpness improves further towards the middle of this range. For instance, a good lens that has f/1.4 maximum and f/16 minimum aperture would be sharper in the range between f/2.0 and f/11. The best sharpness will be at the aperture around f/2.8-f/8. A wider range of sharpness is another reason that makes us wish lenses with wide maximum aperture. Lenses with aperture starting at f5.6 will usually be good only at f/8 and f/11. While in wide angle lenses f/16 is the most used aperture, in telephoto lenses the sharpness may noticeably decrease already at this aperture value. Aperture of f/22 and f/32 is generally considered as useable only in extremely good lenses that are free of other optical imperfections, such as chromatic aberrations. Otherwise the image will be too blurry due to the effect of diffraction. The urge for such extremely narrow apertures exists only in macro photography. In other areas, f/16 is the upper limit that is enough for the required depth of field.

For all new lenses, it is easy to find information about resolution. Manufacturers are the first source of it because they always publish in the announcements of the new lenses the so-called MTF charts — graphical presentation of resolution and contrast. Resolution is of course the main parameter that the reviewers always test. They do it through photographing either so-called ISO resolution charts or any objects with fine details — postal stamps, banknotes, etc. Then they evaluate and compare the sharpness in the middle, a corner and sometimes at the border of the image shot with different aperture and, in zoom lenses, at different focal length. When you are looking for a new lens, study the official MFT charts and the results of several tests from independent reviewers and make your decision accordingly.

Contrast is the next issue photographers usually pay attention to. Through contrast the ability of the lens to gather and to transmit to the sensor the luminance and the colour of the scenery is described. Good lenses should do it without loss of detail in the image. Therefore contrast and resolution always go together. Photographers talk sometimes about “micro-contrast” meaning the contrast of fine detail. This contrast can’t be as easy corrected in postprocessing as the general contrast of the entire image. Therefore it is important that the lens is capable of capturing the finest details with sufficient contrast.

Usually photographers praise lenses that provide more contrast over the entire image. The colour in such images looks more intensive already when they come out of the camera. Of course, brightness and contrast can be adjusted afterwards in the process of RAW format conversion or in the editing software, but more photographers seem to prefer stronger initial contrast and like the lenses that provide it. I often have heard people saying that Nikon lenses have better contrast and criticising Canon. Indeed, contrast is among things that I like in Carl Zeiss lenses more than in Canon.

Although contrast is displayed in MFT charts, viewing sample images of various subjects at 100% size (so-called 100%) is a better method.

Aperture range is important for choosing lens for several reasons. Two of them are quite obvious: First, a wider aperture allows a higher shutter speed and provides a shallower depth of field; second, a narrow aperture results in more depth of field, thus has an advantage in macro photography or for telephoto lenses. Another reason was already mentioned above: The wider the total aperture range the wider is the range with better sharpness.

A shallow depth of field causes problems with small subjects but in many situations it is preferred because the majority of photographs that the nature photographers create are portraits of animals. A blurred background is one of the basic requirements of this genre. Of course, a shallow DOF is of advantage when there are too many objects in front and behind the photographed subject. This a very usual case, for example, when the subject is in grass or in a tree.

The blur pattern in out-of-focus parts of the image (referred to as bokeh) differs in various lenses and even can be a speciality of a certain brand. Sometimes photographers even are looking for lenses with a special kind of bokeh. Fortunately, it is a parameter that is very easy to evaluate: Just look at sample shots done with the widest aperture and decide if you like the blur.

Also a number of quality related issues exist that photographers aren’t so often confronted with but would want a lens to be free of it. They may become evident in certain lighting conditions. Colour fringing, or chromatic aberration (CR), is one of them. It appears at the edges between very light and very dark elements of an image. Chromatic aberrations can be hardly found in the images made with wide-angle lenses, but lenses with greater focal length may be more prone to it. Modern RAW converters and photo editors can correct the CR very well, and it is isn’t a knock-out criterion in lens choice. There are no lenses that are completely free of it like there are no lenses that don’t have other issues that are normal to any optical system, such as flare, i.e. a phenomenon when the light is reflected by the optical elements inside the lens. Unlike CR, flare can’t be corrected in postprocessing automatically. Some flare artefacts can be removed through retouching, but it is a very annoying and destructive for the image pixels work. To recognise and to evaluate how strong lens flare is, you need to look at photographs done at various aperture when the light source was in the image, for example, the sun shining across the image from one of the corners. If the artefacts that you see won’t appear to you as too bad, you may decide to take the lens. Don’t be very critical, remember that literary all lenses have such issues and ask yourself how often you are going to shoot against the sun.

Distortion is a common problem of wide-angle lenses. Some ultra wide lenses produce images where only objects that are in the middle of the frame preserve their shapes. There are two types of distortion — barrel/pincushion and perspective. Strong barrel distortion is normal for the so-called fisheye lenses but may be irritating elsewhere. Strong perspective distortion is typical for wide-angle lenses and many people don’t perceive it as disturbing in landscape photographs. However, in images with clearly rectangular objects, for instance with trees, it may be particularly unwanted. Certainly, distortion is particularly noticeable in close-up photographs of animals. Some people can live with it and even regard it as an artistic effect, but for my taste, it is just an imperfection that should be avoided or corrected whenever possible.

To a certain extent both kinds of distortion can be corrected in postprocessing, however, always with loss of some parts of the image. Even if automatic correction is possible, for it to be effective the distortion should be uniform: If there is, for instance, a barrel distortion, than it should not be interrupted in some parts of the image. Look at sample images and decide yourself if you like what you see. If the distortion appears too strong or non-uniform, look for a different lens. A tilt-shift lens is the best solution of the distortion problem. Such lenses are also free of many other issues, such as non-uniform sharpness, strong flare, vignetting, etc. However, all this to a somewhat higher price than of normal wide-angle lenses.

For some kinds of photography and for some lenses, autofocus and image stabilisation are either required or nice to have. Autofocus is absolutely important in wildlife photography, when the subject is moving or may move at any moment, or when you just need to change the focus quickly and precisely. Autofocus is a standard feature in telephoto lenses. However, the speed and precision of it is different in various lenses of various manufacturers. Autofocus is not needed in macro and landscape photography. Macro lenses usually have it, but in mine I never turn it on. Wide-angle and ultra wide-angle lenses are normally with manual focusing only.

The same applies for image stabilisation (or “vibration reduction”, in Nikon terminology). Both, in Canon and Nikon equipment it is not the camera but the lens that should provide image stabilisation. Image stabilisation isn’t necessary in landscape photography and is even thought to be disturbing and should be turned off when the camera is mounted on a tripod. It is, however, absolutely required for telephoto lenses used in wildlife photography. All such lenses made by Sigma lack image stabilisation, and therefore are not useable in very many cases when the photographer has to handhold the camera.

A nature photographer would want a lens that is protected against harsh environment influence — is sealed against dust and moisture, has scratch resistant finishing. Most lenses aren’t so. The best protection against dust and moisture is in the big super telephoto lenses of Canon and Nikon. These are also lenses with most scratch proof paint. Since such lenses are usually carried open and used sometimes in bad weather conditions, you should always ensure that the wildlife lens that you are considering to purchase has some kind of environmental protection. Unfortunately, most other lenses aren’t so. All Carl Zeiss lenses have at least very stable finishing and due to exceptionally good build quality are very sturdy. They are an exception. Even expensive lenses of other manufacturers are completely unprotected and very prone to scratches. Among them, tilt-shift lenses are particularly prone to dust and moisture. Also the black paint of current Canon lenses is quite unstable and begins to get off already in the first field use.

Build quality shouldn’t be your main concern if it is going to be an expensive lens of a renowned manufacturer. Normally, such lenses have good or very good build quality. However, it is important to look at it in cheaper lenses. In some cases you’ll have to decide if you should get a cheap lens and be careful when you use it, or to get a more expensive one that may be more reliable and sturdy. Anyway build quality shouldn’t be the main reason for your decision. Other parameters discussed above are much more important. Personally, I would take just the lens I need, even if I would see that it isn’t very well built.

As I already wrote in my article about choosing the camera brand, I don’t regard price as something one should first look at when choosing the equipment. If we can’t afford something, the too high price is an obstacle, and not a factor that makes us not to want or not to need that item. Our needs and wishes aren’t defined by prices, hence the cost of a lens isn’t regarded here as a choice parameter though I am giving a hint about the price range of lenses in a certain focal length range as a number of dollar signs ($) corresponding to the number of digits in the price tag. For instance, $$$$$ means that prices start from 10.000$, and $$$ — that they are less than 1000$ but more than 100$. Except when you buy it used, an SLR lens that is suitable for nature photography wouldn’t cost less than 250-300 dollars, or euros, or pounds. Even the cheapest lenses made, for instance, by Korean companies aren’t cheaper. Usually, depending on subjects and personal requirements, a nature photographer has to be prepared to pay more, much more for lenses. An average price of good lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras varies between 700 and 1500 dollars (or euros, or pounds).

Of course, I am aware that many people can’t afford top-priced lenses. Then they should consider the less expensive alternatives. I will suggest them in gray boxes in this article. With some subjects, such as birds and many other animals there is simply no cheap way to quality photographs. Everyone who is serious about wildlife photography has to be ready to pay dozens of thousands for equipment, or to choose subjects and photography techniques that would require less expensive equipment. For example, someone who can’t pay 15.000$ for a 800mm lens, can have a 300mm one for 6000$ and find a way to get closer. If even 6000$ is too much money, then one can use a wide-angle lens for 700$ or less and go even closer to the subject. If it shouldn’t be possible, other subjects are still there, such as landscapes, plants, invertebrates, etc.

Also a word needs to be said about lenses for cameras with imaging sensors that are smaller than 36×24 mm — so-called APS-C, or “cropped” sensor cameras. This topic is specific for Canon and Nikon technical platforms because other manufacturers make exchangeable lens cameras either only with 36×24 mm (Sony, Leica) or with smaller sensors (Olympus, Fuji, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Sigma). While APS, i.e. full-frame, lenses in Canon and Nikon are absolutely compatible with APS-C sensors, there are restrictions for use of lenses for APS-C sensors with APS cameras. In Nikon, an APS-C lens (identified as “DX”) will fit the mount of a full-frame camera but will render a correspondingly (1.5 times) smaller image. In Canon, the EF-S lenses are made exclusively for APS-C cameras and won’t fit a full-frame camera at all. Some manufacturers of expensive hi-end lenses, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach, make them only for full frame. Sigma and Tamron produce different lenses for APS-C than for APS. Sigma marks such as “DC”. Tamron‘s APS-C lenses may be more difficult to recognise. The compatibility with Canon and Nikon will be the same as of native lenses. Therefore, owners of full-frame cameras have to watch what lens they are buying. If it is a APS-C lens and you have an APS camera, in Nikon, there is no reason to have a lens that won’t render the whole frame, in Canon, such a lens won’t be useable at all.

So why do APS-C lenses exist when an APS lens can fit both types of cameras? The lower cost ist the main cause of popularity of APS-C cameras. Obviously, a budget camera needs a budget lens. EF-S and DX lenses in Canon and Nikon are just so, as well as their equivalents produced by Sigma and Tamron. APS-C lenses usually accompany a camera body in a so-called “kit” — a set of a camera body and lens sold together, and many occasional users of SLR cameras are completely satisfied with them, or buy another such lens they learn about from a magazine or a discussion in the Internet. Also it is obvious that for a lens to be low-cost also technologies, know-how, materials and manufacturing of APS-C lenses should be low-cost. APS-C lenses made by Tamron or even by Sigma may have similar quality as APS lenses of these manufacturers. The APS-C lenses of Canon and Nikon can measure only with their low-end APS lenses. Some APS-C lenses can deliver images of decent quality but still aren’t good enough for serious photography. Personally, I never have seen a professional or semi-professional photographer using them although there are even professionals who use APS-C bodies at least as a spare camera. I too don’t use them, never had one and don’t recommend anyone who has serious ambitions in photography. Therefore, I just omit APS-C lenses in the following discussion in this article. All lenses that I am mentioning further are for APS sensors.

Read the rest of this article on www.nature-images.eu

Thuraya phone not working: Big troubles and high costs.

Thuraya XT handset

In 2013 before the expedition to Pamir I purchased my own Thuraya XT satellite phone. I had rented and used one in 2012 in Ethiopia and was very positively impressed by the quality and ease of communication regardless of the place and time – to very moderate prices compared to cellular network roaming.

In Asia and Africa Thuraya still looks like the best choice for satellite communication compared to the alternatives – Iridium and Inmarsat. However, only as long as it works…

Like any technical device one day it may not. If you think that the only trouble will be then being cut off from the rest of the world while you are far from home, you are wrong. Of course, I had it, too, when my Thuraya XT stopped functioning: I was in Ethiopian mountains without any communication. But this wasn’t the only problem, as I had to learn after my return.

Everything began before the trip when I was charging the batteries of the equipment before packing it. Then I discovered that the Thuraya XT didn’t charge nor switch on at all. I had used it a little in July-August, 2013 in Pamir and Alay. Since then I kept it in a box together with other communication equipment but charged the battery now and then. Last time I did it in September, and three months later the phone wasn’t functioning anymore – soon after the warranty period was over. This was still an almost new Thuraya XT handset that seized functioning just by itself, without any recognisable reason.

I noticed it on Friday evening, and in 3 days – on Monday evening – I was leaving for the Ethiopia expedition. I contacted the customer support of Thuraya via their website:

My XT handset doesn’t turn on nor the display lights up when I want to charge it, i.e. it looks completely dead. It was at home, and I didn’t use it since summer 2013. I turned it on now and then and it was OK. Last time I did it in August this year and charged the battery. Then switched it off again. On Monday I am going for a longer expedition to Ethiopia and need the phone there. Today I was going to charge it, connected to the charger but the display remained dark, charging didn’t start. To exclude the possibility of a damaged charger, I tried the car charger – with the same result. Both chargers seem to work, but the phone doesn’t charge. Now I don’t know what to do. I would like to know if the phone normally turns always on when it is connected to the power source, i.e. also when the battery is discharged. In other words: Can the battery be as much discharged that the phone shows no life signs even when connected to power socket?

The reply was almost immediate:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for your email,

Kindly note that according to your scenario we suspect the battery is damage and therefore we suggest you to take the handset to our respective service provider on the below given address for checking and advise.

• Astrium Services Business Communications GmbH

Thank you
Thuraya Customer Care Team

Obviously, I had no time to send the handset for servicing. Since there was a suggestion in this mail that the failure may be caused by the battery, I decided to try to replace it before departure. There are 3 to 4 firms in Germany who sell Thuraya equipment. Fortunately, one of them – Därr Expeditionstechnik – is in Munich, and my flight was on Monday evening from Munich airport. So I decided to try to get the new battery. I called Därr Expeditionstechnik in the morning on Monday and asked for a battery for Thuraya XT. Fortunately, they had some. This company has neither a shop nor a public office, but the owner allowed me to pick up the battery at his home.

I did it. Then I tried the new battery… I didn’t help. The phone was still dead. I had to come around without it for three weeks in Ethiopia.

After return I addressed the company Astrium Services Business Communications GmbH, as Thuraya Customer Care had suggested. I sent an email at the provided address in Germany. They sent a request in English to their Customer Care department:

Please assist Mr. Tiutenko with his technical hardware failure issue (Thuraya XT handheld, <2 years old, the battery does not charge and cannot be switched on – when using a new battery, the problem persists).

Mr. Tiutenko states that Thuraya Customer Care Dep. forwarded him to Airbus DS as Service Partner in Germany, the reason of his email request.

Soon I received a weird request (original spelling preserved):

Dear sir,

could you please provide me the thuraya sim card numbers?

Do you have the GPS position?

What is the error message ?

Please desribe the issue

I had thought the “issue” was already described in several mails. But I did it again. The request of “sim card numbers” looked particularly strange. Why could the SIM card and my geographical position be a course of the problem with the handset? Anyway, I sent the requested information.

The next day another, rather informal, mail arrived:

Good day Arthur,

upon further investigation the Thurya simcard is not an Astrium/Vizada stock. I am not sure who your card and phone belong to. Best you contact Thuraya at link below.

Of course, my SIM card wasn’t from “Astrium/Vizada stock”! It was from Därr Expeditionstechnik, and the phone was purchased without a SIM card from M-Cramer Satellitenservices. The note “I am not sure who your card and phone belong to.” was particularly irritating. I mailed back that I cannot understand that reply. They reacted:

Dear Sir,

sorry for the possible misunderstanding but we won’t be able to repair the Hardware if it doesn’t come from us.
We only provide repair for terminals sold by us.

Please contact DAERR or whoever Provider where you bought the Hardware.

Then I wrote to Thuraya again and they replied with a new idea:

Dear Arthur,

Please be inform that we don’t have any repair center in Germany, if you would like to send your handset to our repair center below are contact details, we recommend before sending the handset please replace the battery if it worked. …

Even I had been already suspecting that there was no repair centre in Germany, but why Thuraya folks realised it so late? Why didn’t they know that Atrium… GmbH they sent me to was a wrong address?

If not that chaos, if Thuraya were better organised and their support staff were better informed, the repair could be quicker and less expensive. The repair service they finally referred to was in Dubai, and I had to send the phone there. I was in Dubai myself just 10 days before that. I had the Thuraya XT with me and could leave it there for inspection and repair. Now, I had to pay DHL freight without any certainty that the device will be fixed.

There are dozens of “rare” brands being sold in Germany and throughout Europe. They all have at least 12 months warranty, i.e. the manufacturer is obligated to repair it if it is broken within this period of time. This means that there should be service centres within the reach of the customers. Why Thuraya (and apparently other satellite phone manufacturers – Iridium, Inmarsat) are such an exception? Their phones are electronic devices consisting of replaceable parts. So why there is no company on the whole European continent that does a simple procedure of testing for broken parts and replacing them? In Germany alone there are several companies that sell or offer satellite phones for rental. I simply don’t believe that their hardware never needs to be repaired. If in every case of malfunction the phone needs to be sent to UAE or USA, repair costs may be too high to make sense. However, all satellite phones are too expensive to be disposable after a short use.

WACOM Cintiq Companion Hybrid: A review

About ten years ago I stopped using computer mice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I have never touched them since then; there is still always a mouse when I have to use someone else’s computer, but no mice are connected to any of my own computers. Instead I prefer to use trackballs and pens. The mouse was a great invention in the history of information technology that determined the development of human-machine interface over many decades when users were operating the computers through manipulation of visual metaphors – “windows”, “handles”, “buttons”, etc. Meanwhile the technology made huge steps forward. Operating computers with metaphors proved as efficient and is remaining, but the manipulation devices have evolved. Mice are still popular and adequate for the majority of use cases when typical operation system functions and applications, such as office software, have to be controlled. But now more sophisticated devices exist that better satisfy the needs of visual artists and photographers. Graphic tablets have belonged to them for over a decade. Pen displays are the next generation of such devices that is becoming increasingly popular. This review deals with one of them that I now constantly use in my digital graphics and image processing work.

Currently Wacom is worldwide “the pen tablet manufacturer”. In Japan this company delivers over 95% of pen tablets. Wacom’s market share worldwide is over 70%. After the patent for the electromagnetic resonance technology used in Wacom pens expired, some Chinese competitors emerged who are now offering much cheaper alternatives to Wacom tablets. Since I haven’t tried any of them, I don’t want to criticise anything here. One thing is sure, anyway: While such companies may be already offering quite useable tablets, they have no display products similar to Cintiq line of Wacom in functionality and quality. Of course, I would also expect from Wacom products better quality and compatibility with operating systems and software products of Adobe, Corel, Autodesk and others. Having used Intuos tablets for many years I still consider their relatively high cost justified. A price tag of 200-400€ may appear quite high but should be still affordable, considering the supreme quality of the professional product.

I got my first pen tablet long time ago – in the mid 1990s. It was made by Genius – a popular manufacturer of computer mice. The pen was attached to it via a cable and was almost useless, because natural feeling of working with a real pen wasn’t provided. Many years later, after I had used more advanced pens and tablets, I realised what was the reason: The Genius pen was neither pressure nor tilt sensitive. Pens and pen tablets have been so and available already for two decades. Modern graphic tablets of Wacom detect up to 2048 levels of pressure and 60 levels of tilt. My first professional grade tablet which was Wacom Intuos 2 back in 2003 was capable to recognise 1024 pressure levels. The next two tablets I owned – of the type Intuos 3 – had the same capabilities. It may appear a lot, and I was thinking so too, but after that the pressure sensitiveness has doubled, and with Cintiq I got a device that has it, I realised the huge improvement. Higher pressure and tilt sensitivity and other improved features were my reasons for an upgrade of the Intuos 3 that was using till recently. First I was thinking more about replacing it with a newer version of Intuos. The new Wacom Intuos tablets offer not only better pressure and tilt sensitivity but also are touch sensitive and can act as touch pads, thus allowing scrolling, zooming and panning of the image you are working on in a graphic editor. A Cintiq was also an option I was considering, but a better 24 inch HD version was just very expensive while I was regarding smaller versions with lower resolution as not adequate for my long-term needs. Then Cintiq Companion appeared and made me reconsider my plans. When I got a chance to try it out at this year’s Photokina in Cologne, I changed my mind in favour of Cintiq.

Cintiq Companian Hybrid (official image from Wacom Europe)

Cintiq Companion Hybrid – official product image by Wacom Europe.

Touch screen displays were another advancement of pen tablet technology. Cintiq is the premium product line of Wacom intended for digital art professionals that currently has no competitors worldwide. It is priced also accordingly, i.e. much higher than of other Wacom products and probably out of reach for many non-professional users. Modern Cintiq devices are high resolution displays with capability of touch screens that are also drawing surfaces for a pen. The 24 inch top model costs over 2000€ while the smallest, 13 inch model is priced at around 850€, i.e. is more affordable but, considering the small size, has still a very high cost per square inch compared with high-end monitors.

This year Wacom has released a new type of Cintiq devices, called “Companion”, with two models – “Companion” and “Companion Hybrid”. It was company’s response to the growing demand for portable pen displays. Since Cintiq Companion, to fulfill its tasks, has to combine an input device with a computer, Wacom has entered the computer market with this product. Certainly, this is a step that may be regarded with a grain of skepticism, but, for technical reasons, it was unavoidable. So far it also looks promising because Wacom managed to bring to quite unique products to this now highly competed market of portable computers and tablets. Of course, the Companion devices are probably the most high priced tablets – more expensive than even the newest Apple iPad models. Wacom explains this by higher production cost due to specialisation of Cintiq devices for graphic professionals. If so, i.e. if the Cintiq Companion would remain a specialised device and not intended for mass consumers, then the higher price level is, of course, justified.

So what Cintiq Companion actually does and what was my reason to choose it, more precisely the “Hybrid” version? As the name “Cintiq” suggests, it belongs to pen display product line of Wacom and follows the same concept as the desktop models. In fact, it looks and functions very similarly to the 13 inch Cintiq that has existed already for awhile. The main difference is the portability: While other Cintiq devices, just like any computer displays, have to be always connected to a computer, the Companion can be used as a standalone computer. Actually, the non-hybrid is not a display anymore, but only a portable computer with a touchscreen driven by Microsoft Windows operating system. Ironically it is much more expensive than the “Companion Hybrid” which combines both functions – of a display and of a mobile computer. Since I rarely need portability and since all my computers are Macs, the non-hybrid version wasn’t an option for me at all. When Cintiq Companion Hybrid is connected to a Mac, it acts as a screen for it, and you can use all Mac OS features and software normally. When it is disconnected, it functions just like any tablet computer with Android OS, but has an extended pen support, so you can draw on it. Of course, the graphic software for Android isn’t as powerful as for Windows or Mac OS. Therefore, it can’t be used for serious work, but more for sketching and notes on the way, or for presentations. The non-hybrid version of Cintiq Companion is, of course, a full-featured Windows system where you can have all your normal creative workflow. This may appear as advantage to someone at first, but a closer look reveals big deficits. Windows was always known for its high demand for processor speed and system memory. This applies to graphic software of Adobe even more. Since all this needs much more computing power than the hybrid counterpart, Cintiq Companion is much more expensive but at the same time not so flexible. Even for someone who doesn’t need to run Mac OS on it, the biggest problem remains: It is hardware that becomes outdated every couple of years due to rapid progress in personal computer systems and development of even more “resource-hungry” software. Every computer user knows that urge of modernisation. In desktop systems the problem can be solved to a certain extent through upgrade of components. In portable computers this is somewhat compensated by currently very low prices that allow you to replace the whole computer by a new one as soon as it becomes too slow. Both doesn’t work with Cintiq Companion where you pay 2000 euros for a portable computer that will be outdated in two or three years, and that you won’t be able to upgrade. So, even if you don’t need a Macintosh system, this is a strong reason to choose Cintiq Companion Hybrid.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid when it is used as pen display with a desktop computer can be compared with non-mobile 13″ HD Cintiq. Indeed, it looks almost identical, and the 30% price difference is a good reason for thoughts in favour of non-mobile version. However, there is another advantage of Companion Hybrid that may justify the choice of it: Its screen is touch sensitive. Ability to move the image just with your free hand while you are drawing or retouching, to zoom in and out by a simple gesture is nice to have because it makes your work easier and quicker.

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23

Cintiq Companion Hybrid on my desk in front of an Apple Cinema HD 23″ display.

As you see in the picture above, the Cintiq Companion Hybrid occupies very little space and fits nicely in front of the main screen of my computer so that I can comfortably use both. Of course, not enough space for the keyboard remains, and I had to remove the full-sized keyboard that I was using previously and replace it with a much smaller bluetooth keyboard that has no numeric block.

The small footprint has also its drawbacks. The screen is only 29 x 17 cm in size but has a resolution of 5080 lpi and 10:9 ratio, i.e. 1920 x 1080 pixel. All controls in the software that you are using – scrollbars, buttons, icons, menus, etc. – look tiny on it and therefore often hard to use. A 24″ Cintiq would be better in that sense but unfortunately much more bulky. To operate the system and the programs I still use trackball that provides a normal mouse-like cursor that is more precise than a finger but at the same time not so fine and better visible as the pen.

For use on a desk, Cintiq Companion Hybrid is supplied with a separate foot, or holder. It attaches to the rear side of the tablet and holds it very firmly. The angle of tilt is adjustable in three positions. I have chosen the middle one, and find it very comfortable. When the tablet is standing like this, it feels rock solid.

Overall Cintiq Companion Hybrid has a very solid construction. Unlike in Intuos tablets I previously owned, its enclosure appears to be made mainly of metal. Compared to any of now popular tablets, it is large and heavy. A fan of iPad of Samsung Galaxy would certainly dislike that. But don’t forget: We have a specialised professional device here – not an all-purpose entertainment gadget. Of course, large size and heavy weight are reasons why I wouldn’t use it for mobile work without strong need.

Also unlike in majority of modern consumer devices, the screen of Companion Hybrid has matt finishing that has two roles: It provides friction needed for drawing with the pen and reduces reflection of the ambient light. Again, users of iPads and Android tablets may criticise the reduction of contrast and of colour brilliance caused by this. Indeed everything looks less crisp and the colours aren’t as intensive as on screens of commonly used mobile tablets. However, for graphic work non-reflecting screens are simply a must.

The screen of Cintiq Companion Hybrid is very good. It has contrast ratio 700:1, lightness of 210 cd/m2 and covers 75% of Adobe RGB gamut. It can be calibrated also not as easy and reliably as a normal desktop display. Also separate controls of brightness and contrast create a problem when lightness needs to be set to a certain value required for calibration. When I was calibrating my Cintiq Companion Hybrid with Spyder 4 PRO, I set brightness to 65 and contrast to 75 – the values that appeared to me reasonable. I calibrated it with 6500K temperature and 2.1 gamma, and it looks okay.

To be used as pen display Cintiq Companion Hybrid has to be connected with a cable to a Mac or PC. Unfortunately, the computer has to provide a HDMI port, that no Macintosh computer except the newest Mac Pro has. Obviously, to use Cintiq as second display you need either a dedicated HDMI port or second display port in your computer. Since my Mac Pro was built in 2009, it has no HDMI. Fortunately there is a quick and easy solution for this problem – a HDMI-to-DVI adapter that I got in a nearby electronics shop. Portable Macs, nowadays have only mini display ports – one, like in my Macbook Air, or two – like in Macbook Pro. To use Cintiq Companion Hybrid with them, you need also an adapter that is also very easy to purchase.

Like almost always with newly released hardware, there are issues with drivers and support by already existing software. Adobe CC programmes – Photoshop and Illustrator – work generally well with Cintiq Companion Hybrid. The only issue that I experience and that I haven’t yet found a solution for is recognition of one-finger touch that in Photoshop and Illustrator activates the tool that is currently selected. If, for instance, it is brush, a simple touch of the screen will leave a line or spot in the image you have currently opened thus spoiling your work. If eraser was active, something will be erased, and so on. Sometimes this drives me mad! I want to block one finger gestures, but can find a way for it neither in current Wacom driver nor in the programmes. Fortunately it is possible in Corel Painter, the programme that I use with Cintiq Companion Hybrid the most. Corel has made own support of Wacom pens in this programme. When it is active, one-finger touches on the drawing surface aren’t recognised. This is a very good news, but unfortunately there is also a bad one: The support of two-finger gestures needed for zooming and panning in Corel Painter appears to be still extremely buggy.

LensCoat 4Xpandable: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review published at Nature-Images.eu. See the full text here: LensCoat 4Xpandable.

I am sure there is no nature photographer on Earth who wouldn’t know LensCoat — a US company that makes neoprene protective and camouflage covers for very many DSLR lenses. I the last couple of years LensCoat was constantly extending not only the number of lens models they were making covers for but also the offer of other products, such as — pouches, rain protection covers, etc. Finally, this year the company debuted in the photo bag market segment with a new series of large lens bags called Xpandable.

Image

The Xpandable long lens bag series currently consists of 2 models — 3Xpandable and4Xpandable. The first is with 70cm of maximum height a little smaller and therefore more suitable for lenses up to 400mm f/2.8 of Canon and Nikon, or 500 mm of Sony and Sigma. Larger lenses can be put into it either without a camera attached or with hood reversed. In that case, also the high tripod foot may be an obstacle that will need to be removed or replace with a shorter third-party foot.

The 4Xpandable is 73cm high which makes a big difference because it can accommodate a 800mm or even 600mm Canon or Nikon lens mounted on a camera, with hood in shooting position and even with a 1.4x or 1.7x (Nikon) teleconverter.

It looks like 4Xpandable is currently the only bag on the market that comes close to satisfying my requirements for a long lens bag, namely:

  1. to accommodate my wildlife photography equipment completely assembled: a 600mm lens with the hood on, a teleconverter (up to 2x Canon Extender III) and a camera attached;
  2. when empty, to be packed in a compact way for transportation in other baggage separately from photographic equipment.

Therefore, I ordered a 4Xpandable bag soon after it was released.

Image

Improvement Suggestions

Here are some improvement suggestions for the case if someone from LensCoat team would read this review:

  • Increase the minimum height by 3-5cm. This will allow to keep a 2x teleconverter attached in both positions — when the bag is cuffed and when it is expanded to full size.
  • Provide means for fixation of the lens and camera when they are inside. That can be a padded collar, pads or similar.
  • Make the walls of Xpandable more stiff. First, this will additionally reduce the side movements of the equipment in the bag. Second, a more stable shape of the bag will also be better for tripod attachement. Third, the attachment of harnesses and waist belts will be improved this way.
  • Provide M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at the sides of Xpandable bags in addition or instead of those that are now on the front.
  • Provide an optional complete harness system, like in trekking backpacks — with padded waist belt included.

Conclusions

This bag could be great as a pouch for a ready-to-use long lens and camera combo when you need to transport it in a car or on a cart, such as on Eckla Beach Rolly (see a reviewEckla Beach Rolly). Travel photographers who go to African or Indian national parks may find Xpandable particularly nice to use in safari cars — when the equipment has to be ready for use but at the same time to be protected from dust and hits when the car is moving. Being a wildlife photographer, I need this bag for use at locations where I arrive for shooting with all my baggage, but then have short walks to search for a particular subjet while the rest of equipment remains in a base camp or in a car.

Overall, I do not recommend Xpandable for situations when it needs to be carried over long distances. If you are looking for a backpack for hiking or trekking with your largest telephoto prime lens always ready for shooting, LensCoat Xpandable isn’t for you. Unfortunately for this area of use there is still no perfect solution for 600mm-800mm lenses. Photographers with such demands have to choose from 3 compromises — 1) to get one of the bags mentioned in this review, i.e. made by KinesisLoweproTenbaKönig, and carry the lens with hood reversed; 2) to use a normal trekking backpack with some kind of padded insert; 3) to go for LensCoat 4Xpandable. I did the last, and 4Xpandable became a nice addition to my two other bags — F-Stop Gear Satori EXP that serves me as trekking backpack (see a review F-Stop Gear Satori EXP), and Lowepro Flipside 300 that I use during short excursions with little equipment. I don’t plan to hike with 4Xpandable on my back a lot.

As I explained in this review, the 4Xpandable model is too wide even for the largest prime lens, which is currently 600mm f/4. For owners of 800mm f/5.6 lenses who don’t use teleconverters very often and have replaced the tripod mount foot with a shorter one I would recommend to take a look at 3Xpandable. Its diameter is 19cm, and it should fit the lens better. However, this bag is 3cm shorter than 4Xpandable — too short even for a 1.4x teleconverter. Owners of a 600mm f/4 lens, like me, would probably use teleconverters more often. Then 3Xpandable may be only an option if you’d agree not to carry the lens with a TC attached or to carry it with the hood reversed.

If you don’t need your large lens bag to be foldable, i.e. if you don’t transport your equipment to shooting location in other bags and cases, take a look at Kinesis PolyCore L622 bags instead. These bags are more advanced and better for long carrying.

For the reasons that I have explained in this review, I mean that Xpandable bags aren’t worth to be purchased outside the US by anyone who doesn’t absolutely need their unique capabilities — at least as long as trade treaty between US and EU isn’t signed, and custom duty and import VAT apply.

Read the rest of this text here: http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/reviews/xpandable/index.html

F-stop Gear Satori EXP: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review I published at www.nature-images.eu. Read the full text on this page: F-stop Gear Satori EXP.

The Satori EXP like two smaller backpacks of the Mountain series — Tilopa BC and Loca — combines the traits of a mountaineering backpack with photo backpack. Basically, it is a very well made, with use of best materials, mountaineering backpack that has an opening on the back side through which the entire content of it can be accessed. Protection and the ability to hold photographic gear is provided through so-called “ICU” (Internal Camera Units) — padded soft-shell boxes of various sizes. One or more of them can be inserted inSatori EXP. The remaining space can be filled with anything that doesn’t need to be carried in a protected container.

Without ICU Satori EXP is just a small rucksack suitable for short trekking for a couple of days, but too small to be used as main baggage for long ventures far from home.  According to manufacturer’s measurements, the backpack has the volume of 62l and the maximum dimensions 29.2cm x 35.6cm x 66cm. The result of multiplying these numbers will be 68.6cm3. Apparently the indicated volume of 62l can be reached when all compression belts are loosened, and Satori EXP has its maximum size. In reality, the usable volume for carrying photographic equipment is much smaller. The largest available ICU has the internal dimensions 16.5cm x 26.7cm x 45.7cm, hence only about 20l volume. When this so-called “XL Pro ICU” is inserted, very little space remains for the rest.

A 45cm long Canon EF 600mm 1:4L IS II USM without hood (or with hood reversed) may fit into it, but EF 800mm f:5.6L IS USM that is 1cm longer probably wouldn’t. The same applies to the largest Nikon lenses: AF-S NIKKOR 800 mm 1:5.6E FL ED VR with its 46 cm lens may be too long while the 1.5 cm shorter AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm 1:4G ED VR should go.Satori EXP is then perfect for carrying such lenses in hand luggage on airplanes but not for use in the field because the lenses will be carried not in ready-for-shooting state.

The currently largest ICU “Pro XL” with 20l volume can accommodate about the same amount of equipment as the largest photo backpacks of other manufacturers, for exampleLowepro Vertex 300 AW or Gura Gear Bataflae 32L. Interestingly, the total volume of such backpacks is indicated by the manufacturers as 30-35l — not 62l, as F-Stop Gear claims forSatori EXP.

The next picture shows an example of what I can put in the Pro XL ICU of my Satori EXP: 2 camera bodies, 1 medium sized telephoto lens (such as 2.8/300mm without hood), 1 smaller telephoto lens (such as 2.8/150mm macro), 1 small telephoto lens (such as 1.4/85mm), 1 medium wide-angle (1.4/35mm) or a standard lens, 1 small wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/25mm), 1 ultra wide-angle lens (such as 3.5/18mm), 1 fisheye lens (2.8/15mm), 2 teleconverters (1.4x and 2.0x), 2 flashes, angle viewfinder. Maybe I could also find place for macro extension tubes — 12mm and 25mm.

groupSmall
Here is an example of what can fit into Pro XL ICU.

On the next picture Pro XL ICU is shown inside Satori EXP. This set of equipment is sufficient for wildlife, landscapes and macro photography. Since I rarely know what subjects to expect when I go out to a new place, I carry that much equipment with me and even more. Often I also need 1 or 2 flash diffusors, flash brackets, Pocket Wizards, filters, batteries, etc. Then I carry one camera and a lens in a small top-loader bag on my chest, so that a little more space remains in the ICU, and a couple of items more — for example, 2 Pocket Wizard receivers and a transceiver — can go inside. I leave out more items if I need to take a larger lens — 600mm. Then I may either reduce the number of flashes and lenses, or to attach external pouches with them to Satori EXP via Molle attachment points.

I put the more sturdy items — such as flash brackets — in the front pocket. Batteries, remote triggers, memory cards, etc., go into the pockets on the front and on the top lid. In the top compartment I put some food, and in the hydration bladder that is stored in special compartment under the front side I take some water. This is my maximum load that together with a tripod attached outside the backpack may reach 20kg or more.


My maximum equipment set in a XL Pro ICU inserted in Satori EXP.

The opening is optimised for the smaller Large Pro ICU but not for the XL Pro that I need to use most of the time and also not for smaller ICU. The XL Pro is higher than the opening, and the upper items will be completely or partially hidden behind the edge of the opening — as shown in the next picture. To have access to them, you will need to remove the lower items first.


The XL Pro ICU is higher than the opening. Therefore it may be difficult to access the topmost items. To do that you may need to take out the lower items first. 

If smaller ICU are used, only one can be attached because the position of the velcro strips in the second one doesn’t correspond to the position of the loops inside Satori EXP. To me this looks like a design flaw that may be corrected in future, but I have to live with it in my copy of Satori EXP. Therefore the upper ICU has to be put free on top of the first. Since the depth of Shallow ICU is smaller than of the bag, the upper one that is not attached tends to slip towards the front side of Satori EXP when it isn’t completely filled and some space at the front side is remaining. Shallow ICU have no support from the front side, and you have to fill the backpack completely to prevent them falling inside every time when you put the bag horizontally and open it.

The next picture shows Satori EXP with Medium Shallow and Small Shallow ICU inserted — that contain my equipment sets for landcape and macro photography.


Shallow Small and Shallow Medium ICU inside Satori EXP.

The Shallow Small ICU is really small. As shown in the picture below, I typically would put the lens kit — 18mm, 24mm tilt-shift, 35mm, 85mm — into it that I use for landscape photography. No place for anything else would remain after that. The camera will have to be carried somewhere else.

groupSmall
My usual landscape photography set of 4 lenses in a Small Shallow ICU. There is no place left for a camera body.

Alternatively these lenses can go into the Medium Shallow ICU. Then also the camera can be there. However, I use this ICU for the macro and close-up photography equipment: a camera, twin flash, angle viewfinder, lenses — 150 mm, 25mm, 15mm — and a 2x teleconverter. This set is shown in the picture below.

groupSmall
Here is my usual equipment for macro and close-up photography in a Medium Shallow ICU. (Click to enlarge.)

The soft pads that are inside the lids when the ICU are used separately from the bag have to be removed when the ICUs are in the bag. There should be a place for them in the bag. With current design, you just pull them out of the lid before inserting the ICU in Satori EXPand need to find a place for them inside — for instance to put them into to the notebook compartment when no notebook is there. Some kind of fixation for unused, opened lids of ICU would be nice to have, when the ICU are installed in the bag, or the lids should then be completely removable together with the pads.

The notebook compartment is huge and occupies all the empty space between the ICU and the front wall of the backpack. It would easy accommodate a 18-inch laptop computer. I can’t imagine that many outdoor photographers would make use of this capacity because such a monster alone would weigh over 3kg. This is another issue in the design of Satori EXP that surprises me. It would make more sense to integrate compartments for smaller notebooks — 11″, 13″, 15″ — into ICU of Pro series like they already did in Large L/T and Small L/T of Shallow series. Of course, such notebook compartments should be removable for those people who like me don’t carry computers during shooting in wilderness.

To position the notebook compartment at the front wall of Satori EXP was another design flaw, in my opinion, because the backpack has to be put on this side when it is being opened. More than that, the water bladder pocket is between the notebook compartment and the ICU when they are inserted. If you would have a notebook inside it, when you’ll be putting the backpack on the front side to open it, many kilos of gear and water will be lying on the notebook. It would be a miracle if your notebook would survive this without damages. Therefore, if you carry a notebook in Satori EXP, you have always to think of taking it out through the top opening before you lay the backpack and access the content of the ICU. This is why I would always seek a place for my 11″ Macbook Air at the backside or inside the ICU, so that it always remains on top.

When the water bladder is filled and Pro ICU are inserted almost no space remains for a notebook in the compartment anyway. It is always the case when my water bladder —Platypus Insulator 3l — is inside. Maybe there are narrower bladders that you can put along the side wall of Satori EXP and not to use the pocket. When I am in the field in hot regions I need much water. Therefore, a 3l bladder is just right for me although I almost never fill it with water completely.

groupSmall
A XL Pro ICU and a hydration bladder are in Satori EXP, and no more space is remaining – not even for a notebook. The XL ICU reaches almost to the top of the backpack, so that you can’t put much else under the top lid too.

When Satori EXP is used with XL Pro ICU, almost no space remains inside. Even if you don’t need it for a 18-inch notebook, you can put almost nothing between the hydration bladder and the ICU. (See the picture above.) Very little space also remains on top of backpack — maybe enough just for something compact, such as a snack, a binocular, or similar.

It looks much better when Shallow ICU are used. This frees a couple of litres more insideSatori EXP that you can fill with cloths and more photographic and outdoor gear. (See the next two pictures below.)

groupSmall
With Shallow ICU there is a little more space between the hydration compartment and the ICU but also not much.)
groupSmall
If you are using Shallow ICU, you can put at least something else into Satori EXP – for example, a fleece jacket.

Although the products of F-stop Gear (as actually so much else today) are being manufactured in China, their quality is very good. In my Satori EXP, when it was new, every detail was faultless, and I hope that it will remain so.

If I’d leave aside the conceptual deficits that were discussed above, I’d would acknowledge that this backpack is very beautiful and really nice to use. It has a very nice shape and fits my back better than any other backpacks I own or have owned before. Currently, F-Stop Gear offers the backpacks of Mountain series in 3 different colours (see the picture below).

groupSmall
The Satori EXP backpacks are currently offered in 3 colours – folliage green, black and malibu blue.

Among these colour variants the “Malibu blue” looks extraordinary and very beautiful — too pity that it cannot be used by nature photographers who for obvious reasons need more discrete colouring.

Not to make this review much longer, I would omit the description of all features of Satori EXP and of materials used because the reader can find this information at the website of F-Stop Gear.

After I ordered my copy of Satori EXP in spring 2013, I had to wait for about 10 months till I got it delivered. Today it looks like F-stop Gear has improved its production capacities and made shipment time shorter. Most of their products are now constantly available for orders via their online shop. Currently, all orders appear to be shipped from outside the EU, hence the prices are here up-to 20% higher than in the U.S. — probably because customs duty and the European VAT are included. For the time of writing, the products of F-stop Gear weren’t available in other parts of the world other than through direct orders from the U.S. If you live on other continents than North America and Europe, you may need to calculate the cost of purchasing Satori EXP and of a corresponding set of ICU carefully. Being a professional hi-tech backpack, it costs even in the U.S. and the EU more than bags of other manufacturers. The price may increase beyond making sense if you order it to be delivered elsewhere.

Why should you purchase a $12K lens?

Image

I am sure, for the majority of people spending, or saving, thousands of dollars is a serious matter that is worth to be considered carefully. I also belong to them – not only because I am not swimming in money, but also because I always know that there will be an opportunity for me to invest the saved money into something good elsewhere. At the moment, I have again a hard time deciding if I should save several thousands of euros choosing a cheaper from several alternatives or just to pick the best one.

If I should buy such an expensive piece of gear, is for me out of question, however. If you are serious about what you do and want to achieve the best results, you have to use proper tools. A couple of years ago I read in a discussion on an Internet forum a remark that the price of such a lens is outrageous because it is “like of a car”. Yes indeed, you can buy a new car for a similar amount of money. So what? Then don’t buy the car if you can’t afford both. For a photographer the equipment has clear priority, therefore the choice should be obvious – the lens. (Not to mention that one can always buy a used car very cheap – so what are we discussing?)

A much more appropriate question is again: Which of several alternatives makes sense in terms of money saving or spending? This time I am choosing a super telephoto lens that should become my main wildlife photography tool for at least the next ten years. Of course, every Canon shooter (and not only) knows that EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is not only the best super tele currently on the market but most probably the best telephoto lens this company has ever made. It is also one of the most expensive DSLR lenses, hence the reasons to purchase it and the alternatives need to be considered very carefully. To make it easier for someone who may need to do the same, I decided to share my thoughts and arguments in brief below.

600mm vs. 500mm: focal length

The closest alternatives of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II among Canon lenses are the 500 mm f/4 and the 800 mm f/5.6. The first – EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II – has similar high image quality as the 600 mm but is a little lighter and a little cheaper: It weighs about 700 g less and costs about 2000$ less. It looks like a significant difference, and it is indeed. However, these advantages are being relativised by the much greater reach of the 600mm. Additional 100mm of focal lens result in increased magnification by 1.44x compared to 500mm. Therefore, the same  subject would fill 44% more of the frame produced by the 600mm lens. Since more pixels would be captured, the noise to detail ratio will be improved. As a consequence, sensor noise would be much less recognisable and would much less disturb the detail. If compared with my old 300mm lens, it will be even a 4x increase in magnification!

The difference in price between EF 300mm 1:2.8 L IS USM II and EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is almost 100%, i.e. the 600mm costs almost double the price of 300mm. The EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II costs about 2000-2500$ less than 600mm. This may also look significant if you consider that you can get a full-frame camera body or a couple of lenses for that amount of money. The choice should be made according to your personal situation and requirements. Someone who urgently needs a new camera or other lenses may prefer to go for 500mm. However, normally a photographer choosing a super telephoto lens would have other equipment. For me the increase of overall image quality mentioned in the above paragraph is a reason strong enough to make me invest more in the lens and to choose the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II.

600mm vs. 500mm: weight

The difference in weight between 600mm and 500mm is in the version II of these lenses not as significant as in the version I. The old 600mm lens was 5.4kg heavy while the 500mm was only 3.9kg and was considered by many wildlife photographers as hand holdable. In both, the image stabilizer, with 2 f-stops of shake compensation, was inferior to current one that is able to compensate for 4 steps. Therefore, both lenses were being used with tripods by most people.

Now the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II weighs as much (or as little?) as formerly the EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM. Both, 600mm and 500mm, lenses can be regarded in current version II as suitable for handholding although most people would probably still mean that they are heavy and prefer to use a tripod. So the weight isn’t such an important reason for choosing 500mm anymore.

600mm vs. 800mm

The EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM has been an outstanding product among Canon lenses since its announcement in 2008. It took Nikon 5 years to release its counterpart. Despite a narrower maximum aperture of f/5.6 it has some improvements over the much older EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM. It was 1kg lighter, had a higher magnification, better IS and some handling improvements. The f/5.6 aperture was still wide enough to create nice out-of-focus background blur at such large focal length. While EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM could be used with teleconverters, this didn’t make much sense with EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM whose aperture was becoming too narrow. However, it wasn’t necessary regarding such a large focal length. The image quality of this lens was at f/5.6 better than of 600mm used with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Of course, the price of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM was proportionally higher than of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM – 14,000$ vs. 10,000$ – but the improvements and benefits were worth it, and for someone who could afford it was the #1 choice.

Then, in 2011, Canon introduced the new generation of super telephoto lenses. This changed the situation completely: Now the EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM is outdated and inferior to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II in every aspect. With an Extender EF 1.4x III the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II has similar the same maximum aperture f/5.6 and even a little greater focal length (840mm) than EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM but outpurforms it in image quality, weighs less, has better image stabilisation, and is more versatile (because the focus length can be decreased to 600mm). This all for a similar price of around $12,000-13,000. Nowadays, a purchase of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM isn’t worth a consideration anymore, and I am wondering who is buying it.

600mm Mk. II vs. Mk. I

The only reason to think about purchasing the Mk. I version is the price. With about 7.000$ for a used one, it is about 1/3 cheaper than a new Mk. II. However, we should remember that it is a cost of a used vs. new lens. The Mk I is now out of production, and you won’t find it in a shop anymore.

The EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM appeared on the market in 1999 and had some real improvements in comparison with the previous non-IS version. Canon seems to update its super telephoto lenses every decade. So it is to expect that the current EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II that replaced the previous generation in 2011 will remain up-to-date till 2021-2022. The history of these lenses has showed that the prices were remaining more or less at constant level till the lens was replaced by a new version and the old one was taken out of market. Will you really be happy for the next 10 years with a lens that has worse image quality, is much heavier and technically outdated, but priced at 7000$ – still very expensive? For me, I doubt it. The improvements of the new version are so great that I certainly would be disappointed with Mk. I and would want to sell it very soon if I would buy it now. Having bought a used lens and saved 30% now I most probably will loose more money again trying to sell it again and to buy the Mk. II version in the next couple of years.

Canon vs. Sigma

Sigma has been making 500mm and 800mm super telephoto lenses for Canon mount for awhile. Despite a much lower price, both failed to become popular wildlife lenses, however – not just because they lack image stabilization and are very heavy. The image quality they deliver is noticeably worse and doesn’t justify the price that is still quite high. Therefore, most photographers preferred to pay more for the first class lenses that Canon was offering.

In the last couple of years Sigma has greatly improved its lens technology, so that some new lenses are on par with Canon lenses or even outperform them. As a result, we can expect this company to produce a super telephoto lens some day in future that would be on par with Canon lenses. However, this is only a theoretical possibility and not yet a fact. Therefore, it doesn’t help much those of us who need a lens right now. Since we don’t know plans and road map of Sigma regarding development and production of new lenses, we can’t rely on it.

Of course, the above argumentation against 500 and 800mm also applies for Sigma lenses. To be a real alternative to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II a Sigma lens has to have similar optical quality and technical features (IS, autofocus, weather protection, low weight…) and the same focal length and aperture. More than that: I has to be cheaper. Will it be ever possible? Who knows…

How much does it cost getting a broken camera display fixed?

This small post is for those who are asking this question. Usually I do when I have to decide if I should give my camera to service or just leave it as it is – a little broken but still functioning.

In my this year’s expedition to Central Asia I damaged my second camera – an EOS 5D Mk II – a little . Its display got a crack when the camera bumped at a stone.

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

After 6 weeks in the field, it was also full with dust and the enclosure was very dirty. The camera was still functioning normally however. Although I was afraid of high costs, I set it to a Canon technical service. They fixed it very quickly and returned the camera after a few days (I am a CPS member). It was looking like new – clean and with new display glass. I had to pay 132 € that is in my opinion a very reasonable price for such a good service.