The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
Not so long ago I looked at the the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f4-6.3 ASPH Power OIS lens for micro four thirds, well today I’m looking at an alternative lens for APS and full frame cameras – the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 DG OS Contemporary lens. Now confusingly Sigma make two versions of the 150-600 and they are labelled the Sport and Contemporary. The-Digital-Picture.com has put up a good article explaining the difference between the two. The main ones are price and weight with the Contemporary being a 1Kg lighter and $1200 AUD cheaper. This is quite a significant difference and I for one prefer a lighter lens and a heavier wallet. The Contemporary is part of Sigma’s Global Vision line of lenses and is thus compatible with the Sigma TC-1401 1.4x Teleconverter which allows auto focus to work to a maximum of f8 while wide open if your camera supports this feature. This is an interesting option as it allows a reach of 860mm on full frame and a humongous 1376mm on an APSC sensor which is impressive reach for a lens and converter costing less than $2000 AUD. I didn’t happen to look at this option because none of my Canon DSLRs allow f8 auto focusing. shuttermuse.com has an article on f8 focusing with extenders or teleconverters and a list of compatible Canon DSLRs. This does not apply to the mirrorless R and RP which have f11 auto focusing.
Lens mounts available
Angle of view
4.1° – 16.4°
f5/6.3 to f22/27
Minimum focusing distance
Silent HSM with internal focusing and manual override
20 elements in 14 groups with 1 FLD and 3 SLD elements
Yes – 3 stops equivalent
1.93Kg without lens hood and tripod collar.
Physically this is a large lens, it stands head and shoulders above my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens which in itself quite a large lens. The 150-600 is also 500g heavier. At 2.1 Kg with lens hood and tripod collar attached it definitely has heft to it. Interestingly Sigma refer to it as a lightweight lens, I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective as the Panasonic Leica 100-400 is 0.985 Kg so the Sigma feels gargantuan compared to it while the Canon EF 600 mm f4L IS is over 3Kg so the Sigma then seems svelte and compact. The lens body is made out of what Sigma calls a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) which is substantially stronger than conventional polycarbonates while having similar thermal expansion properties to aluminium. The lens mount is made of chromium plated brass which should ensure a long life. All in all it feels a well made and rugged lens, it may feel like plastic but the TSC body feels substantial and gives the impression of being very durable with no creaking or flexing. The Sigma 150-600 is advertised as being dust and splash proof but on closer reading of Sigma’s spec sheet there is only one seal and that is at the lens mount. If you want better then you’ll have to spring for the Sports version.
When looking at the lens from the front there is a large ribbed rubber zoom ring that has a long throw of about 160º. The action is smooth and feels not too tight nor too loose. As you rotate the zoom ring the lens barrel extends by 8cm. The extension feels secure with no slop or wobble. Just behind the zoom ring on the lefthand side is a zoom lock switch which can lock the zoom ring at the 150mm focal length to prevent zoom creep while carrying the lens. The focusing ring is narrow ribbed rubber and allows you to manually adjust focus while the lens is in the autofocus mode. There are no hard stops which might concern you if you were to use the lens for video. Behind the focusing ring is a panel of four switches and they are:
An AF switch allowing to choose between AF, MF and MO (Manual Override)
A focus limiter switch allowing a choice of full range, 10m to ∞, and 2.8 to 10m.
An optical stabilisation switch that gives a choice of off, on and a panning mode.
A custom switch that allows you to select two custom modes that can be programmed using the Sigma FD-11 USB Dock
Above the switches is a window showing the focusing scale and then behind that is the lens collar. The lens collar allows you to turn the camera from horizontal to vertical while mounted on a tripod, but, unfortunately there are no detents to allow you to do this while looking through the viewfinder of the camera, you have to align the marks on the collar with those on the lens body. The tripod collar can be detached and thoughtfully Sigma provide a cosmetic rubber ring to slide over the lugs that hold the collar in place. The lens comes with a large plastic lens hood the size of a flower pot, it seems sturdy enough and bayonets into place and a nice touch is that is ribbed internally to prevent reflections. The 150-600 has a 95mm filter thread which means filters will be expensive and potentially hard to get. In terms of accessories Sigma provide a nice well padded lens case, a shoulder strap for it and a Sigma branded camera strap. Like all Sigma lenses you get a lot for the money you spend. Nice one Sigma!
I tested the lens on a Canon EOS 6d and an EOS 550d to see how it would perform on both crop and full frame cameras. In terms of AF performance as neither of those cameras have what can be considered state of the art AF systems, in fact it is over twelve years old, the lens did very well. The single point AF using the centre point was fast and precise and well capable of fixing on small birds amongst foliage. In terms of continuous AF on the EOS 550d the camera was the limitation being only able to shoot 6 frame bursts in RAW, but out of my six shots when tracking my dog trotting five of the six would be in focus. The 6d is able to shoot 4.5 frames per second for 15 frames and on the trotting bull terrier test it managed 12 frames in focus.
When it came to BIF (birds in flight not fisticuffs) the AF was more than capable of focusing on and tracking medium to large birds. It really struggled with small birds especially swallows. Put it on a better camera and I’m sure you’d get better results.
My primary use for a lens like this is handheld bird photography, and as such I didn’t really give the image stabilisation a workout as I seldom use a shutter speed below 1/500 sec. But messing around at home in the house and garden I figured it was good for three stops. Mind you I do have steady hands so your experience may differ from mine.
The optical construction of the lens is twenty elements in fourteen groups with 1 FLD and 3 SLD elements. The FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) glass element, which offers performance equivalent to fluorite. Canon and other manufacturers have used synthetically grown crystals of calcium fluoride components in lenses to aid apochromatic design, and to reduce light dispersion so lenses made from it exhibit less chromatic aberration. What Sigma has done is use newer glasses and computer-aided design to render the use of fluorite crystals unnecessary. Sigma claim that the FLD element is “highly transparent, its refractive index and dispersion are extremely low as compared to conventional types of glass. It offers characteristics very similar to those of fluorite, which is valued for its anomalous dispersion. These characteristics minimize residual chromatic aberration (secondary spectrum), which cannot be corrected by ordinary optical glass, while helping to produce sharp, high-contrast images.” (https://sigmaphoto.com.au). The three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) glass elements also help to minimize chromatic aberration. To help achieve attractive out of focus transitions there are nine rounded aperture blades which should help achieve nice round bokeh balls when shooting specular highlights.
In terms of optical performance well I’ll deal with full frame and crop separately. First up using the lens on the crop framed 550d. At 150mm the centre of the lens wide open was sharp and contrasty and stayed A as such until f22 when it softened due to the effects of diffraction. At the edges the peak performance was attained at f11 and remained until f22 when it softened again. At 600mm the centre wide open was a little soft and lacking in contrast. This improved by f8 and then deteriorated at f22. The edges weren’t so good – wide open they were soft and lacking contrast and remained so until f22 when they got worse. As for vignetting well at the short end wide open it was apparent, about 1/2 to 1 stop and this disappeared by f8. It was the same story at the long end. Throughout the focal range there is slight pin cushion distortion and some chromatic aberration can also be seen. Open the files up in Lightroom and apply the lens profile and things improve nicely. On the full frame 6d the story is the same except for the vignetting which is naturally worse at around 1-1 1/2 stops which is totally understandable as you are using the whole frame rather than just the central part of the lens coverage.
What’s all this mean in real life. Well if we look at the image for the New Holland Honeyeater which I took at a distance of around 3.5 to 4 metres and then enlarge the section around the head you can see that there is nice feather detail and that the eye is sharper than a very sharp thing. To get much better you’d have to spend an awful lot of money and if we look at the Canon 600mm f4 lens I mentioned earlier that has an eye watering price of $18,500 AUD which is over 11 times the cost of the Sigma. Personally I know that if I plonked $18 K down on a lens I’d be heading for the divorce court which would make the Canon a doubly expensive lens. So for what it costs the Sigma is amazing value.
Below are some examples of bird photography shot with the lens on both a Canon EOS 6d and 550d.
So would I recommend the lens? Yes without hesitation. It performs very well and is sold at a very good price and you can’t argue with that.
Been playing with a new lens – and so far I’ve been very impressed and it’s made me reconsider my camera system. I’ll put up a full report in the next week or two. Here are a couple of photos to whet your appetite.
Both shots were taken with the Canon 6d, which continues to amaze me with its picture quality, and converted to monochrome in AlienSkin’s Exposure 4.
At a bit of a loose end we decided to go out on the Goldfields Road to Tammin. The town’s sole raison d’être is the transportation of the surrounding areas grain crops. The grain bins and railway siding around which the town is built are the key features of the town. With the increasing industrialisation of modern agriculture farms have got bigger and bigger and employ less and less people so like many rural areas although generating a lot of wealth the town is in decline.
When I first got interested in photography I was living in the South East of England which is a very verdant and prosperous region. Naturally the first photographers who caught my eye were British ones like David Bailey, Snowdon, Patrick Litchfield and Terrance Donovan.As I went on I discovered more socially aware photographers such as Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Don McCullin. I remember going to see Killip and Smith’s exhibition “Another Country” in 1985 and being absolutely blown away by the subject matter and the quality of the work – it was one of transcendent experiences and it altered my perception of what photography could be dramatically. It was quite a while before I turned my attention to non British photographers. When I first saw the work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and Robert Adams I couldn’t really relate to the subject matter. Their vision and representation of the USA was one that was completely foreign to me and outside that which the mainstream media presented. It wasn’t until I migrated to Australia and started to explore the rural areas seldom visited by tourists that the penny finally dropped. I started to see similar scenes and over time I have attempted to capture them. I’m never quite sure whether it should be in black and white or colour so I find myself fluctuating between the two mediums and never quite happy with the results.
Which brings us to the photos in this post. They are just a small sample of the photos that I took on our road trip to Tammin. At first I processed them as colour and felt that the colour detracted from the starkness that I saw and felt. I then tried monochrome. When I worked in the darkroom I liked to use Ilford Multigrade FB warm tone glossy paper and that is a look I try to replicate with my digital images albeit without much success. When Ilford’s digital media arm Harman Technology introduced their warm tone gloss baryta inkjet paper I thought that my prayers had been answered and I used it for a couple of exhibitions I did. It was a sad day when it was discontinued – I still have 5 sheets of A3+, not enough to do any proper work. So now I try to replicate the look in AlienSkin Exposure 4 which is what I have done with these photos. The problem is that while it looks OK on screen when you translate it to printed media it does work as it is not subtle enough. Perhaps the photos should have stayed in colour after all.
On 7th October 2018 I put a video up of me unwrapping the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f4-6.3 ASPH Power OIS and my initial impressions of it. Well after six months of use this is my opinion of the lens. I don’t know if it has won the title for having the longest model name, but if not it should be a contender. For brevities sake I’ll just refer to it hence forth as the PanaLeica 100-400. At the outset I’ll say that this is my lens bought with my money and I’ve only used the one copy of it
First off let’s set things straight – this is a very specialist bit of kit that you either have a need for or you don’t. I’ll also say that there is a very good argument to adopt the micro four thirds system just for this lens alone. No I’ve not stopped taking my meds, this lens should be a contender for anyone who shoots wildlife, particularly birds, and travels a lot. A long time ago someone said to me, and I’m not entirely sure who it was, but I’ll attribute it to Hugh Graham who’d been a Fleet Street photographer, that you should choose your camera system on the basis of the lenses you’ll use. I think Panasonic were very smart when they designed this lens because this leverages all the benefits of the m4/3 system. It uses the two times crop factor and small size to produce a lens that is just not available in the 35mm full frame world ie a compact lightweight 200-800mm zoom lens. Recently a muppet on YouTube pronounced that micro four thirds is dead but this lens proves that the system is very viable indeed. Lets compare the PanaLeica 100-400 to some of its rivals.
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens
Sigma 800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens
Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens
Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens
Or lets look at it another way. My Panasonic G85 with battery grip, two batteries, a memory card and the PanaLeica 100-400 weighs in at 1.829 Kg. A Canon EOS 550d with a Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens which has the same equivalent angle of view is 2.958 Kg and my Canon 6d with the same Sigma lens is 3.345 Kg and doesn’t have the same range. To get the same zoom range the 6d would need to be paired up with the Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens and the combination would weigh 7.1 Kg. Now if you sit in a bird hide all day with your camera on a tripod then you might be prepared to sacrifice weight, expense and portability to get high image quality. But if like me you walk around anything up to 20 Km in a day looking for birds and are willing to work around the issue of the smaller sensor and it’s inherent poorer performance at ISOs over 6400 (and coming from the days of shooting slide film at ISOs between 50 and 400 I can’t believe that I see 6400 as a problem) then you will be very happy. The argument about image quality is very spurious if you only look at your images on an iPad or phone. So you can see why I think that this lens is enough to persuade people to adopt the m4/3 system – it has enormous reach, is lightweight and is very affordable.
100-400mm (200-800 35mm equivalent)
f4-6.3 to f22
20 elements in 13 groups
9 circular blades
Ultra sonic stepper motor
Close focus distance
The Leica designation denotes that Leica had input into the design but the lens is made by Panasonic at their Yamagata lens factory in Japan. The PanaLeica 100-400 retains the same design cues as Leica’s own lenses and the other Panasonic lenses in this series such as the 8-18mm f2.8-4 ie it uses the same fonts and the same ribbing for the focus and zoom rings. It features an all metal body construction and is listed as being weather proof. However, there is no rating as to the extent of the weather resistance. It is a very attractive lens to look at and has a satisfying heft to it which reinforces the fact that this a quality bit of kit. In November 2015 I blogged about the Olympus m.Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 mk ii which I bought when I first started dabbling in wildlife photography, with its plastic construction it makes the PanaLeica 100-400 look like a luxury item.
With regards to the physical controls on the lens body working backwards from the built in mini lens hood (a separate full-sized one can attach to this but I have never used it) there is a narrow focus ring. As per usual with Panasonic this a fly by wire ring with no direct physical coupling to the lens heliocord. Behind the focusing ring is ring which locks and unlocks the lens mechanism to prevent zoom creep. This can be applied at any point in the focal range. The zoom ring is nice a broad enabling a good grip and is quite smooth with a little resistance to movement. It has a ninety degree throw and works very nicely when shooting video. The lens body extends outwards as you progress through the lens range. The front lens element, however, does not rotate which is good news for users of polarizing and variable neutral density filters. The tripod foot and collar is really a rather clever piece of design. There is no collar as such, the rear part of the lens rotates 90 degrees to allow users to change from horizontal to vertical orientation. The foot screws into the lens and can be completely detached. In another nice touch you don’t need the foot to attach a tripod plate as you can attach it directly to the lens body which reduces the profile of the lens considerably. Just before the lens mount there are three physical switches. The first is a focus limiter which offers two positions, full focus range and 5m to infinity. Below that is a switch for AF or manual focus, and below that a switch for the optical image stabilisation system. The lens mount is metal and there is an o ring that provides some sealing against water and dust ingress.
Without a doubt the PanaLeica 100-400 is a very complex lens with 20 elements in 13 groups, 1 ultra low dispersion element, 2 extra low dispersion elements and 1 aspheric extra low dispersion element. From this we can see that it is corrected against chromatic aberration and optimised to produce high contrast, high-resolution images whilst maintaining a compact form factor. Although each group is positioned precisely within the lens barrel it is impossible to do this perfectly so the three lens groups that are most acutely effected by tilt and centring defects and therefore impact most upon image quality are the only ones that are adjustable. This has meant that repair or adjustment of the lens is very difficult and only Panasonic’s Yamagata factory is able to do this which means warranty repairs are sent back to Japan for assessment and then are usually replaced. If your lens fails outside of the warranty period customers are offered a refurbished lens at a discount rather than a repair. To further complicate the issue Panasonic in most countries contracts out its customer service and it is very difficult to access and there have been quite a few accounts of poor service on various camera forums. So my best advice would be to buy this lens from a bricks and mortar store with a good returns policy and then thoroughly test the lens, because if you have a problem it could be quite difficult to resolve.
The image quality is very good from 100-300 and just gets a little softer towards 400. This is not unusual for zoom lenses. At all focal lengths the edges of the frame are a little softer wide open but sharpen up nicely as you stop down. Diffraction becomes apparent at f16. There is next to no chromatic aberration, and the only times that I did observe it a simple click in Lightroom fixed it. Flare is remarkably well controlled on a lens with so many glass elements. I have shot a lot of frames into the light and have found that I don’t need to use the full-sized screw on lens hood, I just use the mini sliding hood that is built into the lens. Filter users be aware that this lens is very fussy about filters as many long lenses are. I’ve had no problem with multi-coated B+W and Heliopan filters. For giggles I tried an uncoated Fotga variable neutral density filter and using a combination of the lens on both a G85 and an EM1 could not get focus. This is not a fault of the lens but shows the effect that using cheap uncoated filters can have on lenses. My Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L does exactly the same with the Fotga filter. I’ve never understood why people will spend $2K on a lens and then slap a cheap $10 filter on it. If you are going to use filters use good ones.
After six months of use and a few thousand exposures I think I’ve got a good handle on this lens. The inbuilt optical stabilisation combines with Panasonic’s Dual IS bodies (at the time of writing the GH5, G9, G95, G85, GX85, and GX9) to give impressive results, around 5-6 stops. When shooting 4K video with the G85 it is very impressive being able to shoot handheld with such a long lens. The video below has footage using the lens on both the G85 and EM1 as well as more stills examples. Unfortunately the OIS does not combine with the IBIS on Olympus bodies so it’s a case of either or. I have my EM1 set up with the IBIS permanently on and have selected Lens IS Priority in the custom functions. This means that when a lens with inbuilt stabilisation is detected the camera switches IBIS off. The reason for this is with shorter lenses IBIS is more effective, but with longer telephoto lenses lens based stabilization works best. The OIS works well enough to get fairly good handheld 1080 video with the EM1, but it’s obviously not as smooth as the G85. The hybrid AF system in the EM1 (a combination of contrast detect and on sensor phase detect) is more confident than the DFD (depth from defocus) of the Panasonic. With small subjects against busy backgrounds I’ve found that the G85 and the PanaLeica just hesitates that little bit as it tries to acquire focus and with small birds that slight hesitation is difference between getting a shot or not. The EM1 is very quick to acquire focus and that is why I’ve ended up favouring it more for bird photography. Now I’m perfectly happy to accept that this just might be a shortcoming of the AF system in the G85 and having read the Lumix GH5/Gh5s/G9 AF Guide Book things might improve significantly if I were to use one of those bodies. But for now I have the quandary of superb image stabilisation versus better AF and I’d sooner have better AF and use faster shutter speeds.
If you are already invested in the m4/3 ecosystem and are interested in photographing birds then this is a no brainer. The PanaLeica 100-400 is streets ahead of the Olympus 75-300 and I would imagine the similarly priced Panasonic 100-300mm. It’s absolutely the muts nuts for walking around in the bush photographing birds and larger insects. Now if you’re interested in wildlife and nature and either don’t have a camera or have another brand I’d really recommend giving this lens and a micro four thirds camera some serious consideration. The image quality is very good as long as you’re not a pixel peeper and are honest with your self on what you’ll do with the image. It is very liberating to walk through the bush unencumbered by heavy camera kit that cost the equivalent of the annual GDP of a small Pacific Island nation. My only wish is that there were more compatibility within the micro four thirds system so that the image stabilisation worked across brands, the zoom rings turn in the same direction and that Panasonic adopt the clutch mechanism on their lenses for manual focus with hard stops.
Time to promote the achievements of Beloved Significant Other (BSO) via the wonderful medium of video. I didn’t intend to shoot a croquet video. No. I was enlisted as a logistical consultant (alright driver!) to take aforementioned personage and a friend to a croquet competition at the Cambridge Croquet Club. While the event was happening I was going bird watching at the nearby ornithological Mecca of Herdsman Lake with the hope of photographing nankeen herons. Alas the herons didn’t know that I was coming to see them and weren’t at home. Couple this with the fact that I was suffering from a deadly combination of Ebola, typhoid, bubonic plague and cholera (BSO says it was in fact a head cold) I went back to the croquet club to find a quiet corner in which I could drown in snot. Somehow news that BSO had made it to the finals penetrated my fever fuelled delirium and I leapt into action to record the event. I was not really equipped to do so as although I had the Panasonic G85 with me that shoots lovely 4K video I only had two lenses. The Panasonic Leica 100-400mm a great lens for birding but a bit long for court side croquet. The Sigma 16mm f1.4 which is another fantastic lens, but being a fixed focal length not as useful as standard zoom for the grip and grin at the presentations at the end of the tournament. All I can say is thank goodness for the magnificent stabilisation which enabled me to get good handheld footage, although it was defeated by my violent sneezing although it wasn’t as bad as that depicted below.
If video is more your thing there is a video review at the bottom of the page.
Photography and bushwalking (hiking, tramping) go together like cheese and Branston Pickle. What I find strange that after all this time that there is still a dearth of bags that are both good for bushwalking and carrying photographic equipment. The average photo backpack is absolutely pants in the bush. First off the straps, harness and if you’re lucky the hip belt are really not up to snuff.They are either too thin and lacking in padding or they are poorly positioned and make no ergonomic sense at all. Then when it comes to carrying stuff the photography side is well taken care of, but there is no room for the things a bushwalker needs such as a fleece, waterproof, water and food. Photo backpacks are also unbelievably heavy. I have a LowePro one that is actually heavier than the camera and three lenses that I put in it. Finally they become instruments of torture when used for anything more than an hour. The alternative has been to use a standard walking pack and then carry your kit in pouches, or wrapped up in something soft (for many years I used a keffiyeh), inside the back pack. The benefits of this approach are you get a bag that is well suited to walking and is comfy to wear, but accessing your photo equipment is a bit of a chore. I like many others tried using camera holsters in conjunction with a back pack, but often felt like a pack-horse with lots of things strapped to me. Recently we have started to see some manufacturers introduce backpacks for the outdoor market.
This is where the MindShift Rotation 180º Horizon 34L comes in. Before I start talking about the bag I’ll talk about the manufacturers. MindShift is a subsidiary of Think Tank Photo which are a company founded to produce high quality, innovative carrying solutions for professional photographers. I have been using their belt based carrying system and camera holsters for quite a while now and find them to be well made, well designed and well priced. The customer support is truly excellent – I received a faulty item and upon contacting Think Tank a replacement was quickly sent out from the USA to me in rural Western Australia. MindShift was created to provide photographers carrying systems that are suitable to use off the beaten track. So I had high hopes for this bag.
The Horizon 34L is a pack that is divided into two sections – a 7L photo section and a 27L pack. Nothing revolutionary here you say, well what sets it apart is that the lower section is affixedto a waist beltthat can rotate from it compartment at the bottom of the pack round to the front. This means you can work from the bag without having to take the pack off. The whole palaver of repeatedly taking a laden pack on and off your back and rummaging around looking for filters, memory cards etc on a long walk can become a big disincentiveto taking photos. Initially I was a little sceptical about how useful this feature would be and how well it would work in practice, but with use I was won over. It is a great idea and I’m surprised nobody thought of it before. The bag comes in blue and grey and retails for $365 AUD or $260 USD which puts it at the more expensive end of the market.
On unpacking it I was presented with a fairly large daypack made out of a lightweight ripstop nylon with a polyurethane backing. At various points of anticipated abrasion there are reinforcing panels of Cordura pack cloth. The harness appears well made and is well padded with a good range of adjustment. I’m 1.93 m tall and have a long torso which means I usually find getting a comfortable pack quite difficult but Horizon 34L fitted well and over the last 8 months have clocked up just under 1000Km wearing it. The hip belt has padded wings and adjustable belt and does a grand job of placing the load on your hips in a comfy manner.The back of the pack has three pads with large spaces between them to promote air flow and stop you getting a sweaty back. Here in Australia they are a bit academic, especially in the warmer months, but I imagine they will be of some use in more temperate climates. In terms of exterior pockets there is one on the lid, one on the front-end on the left hand side there is a pocket that will take a 3L water bladder. There is also a pocket for a water bottle on the flap of the bladder pocket. In terms of exterior fixing points there is are straps for a tripod, walking pole and two rows of daisy chains. The top section of the pack eschews the normal walking pack type enclosures of a drawstring mouth with a large lid that buckles down in favour of a large YKK zip. While I appreciate the convenience of a zip for quick and easy access zips allow water ingress especially when they have no storm cover like this. The inside of the top compartment has a stretchy mesh pocket to hold things like maps or guide books. There is ample room to stow a gore-tex, a fleece, lunch and a first aid kit. There is no provision for carrying a laptop, but you could put an iPad in the stretchy pocket. On the lid is an exterior pocket which has a key clip inside. Its big enough to hold gloves, a hat, a personal locator beacon and some snacks. All fairly standard stuff for this type of day pack.
Not standard is the bottom camera compartment. Basically the bottom of the pack has a tube in which a waist pack or as our American cousins call them a ‘Fanny Pack” (snigger!). The left side of the tube (as you wear the pack) is sealed and it has a gap to allow the waist belt to pass through. The right end has a flap which is secured by a magnetic clip and this in conjunction with a leash stops the waist pack from falling out as you walk. This flap has an ingenious pop up system which allows you set the preferred tension. To rotate the waist pack to your front to gain access to it you reach behind you and open the magnetic clip, The flap pops up out of the way and then you pull on the loop on the right side of the belt and the camera compartment rotates around. You then undo the zip and lift the lid away from you. The camera compartment has two dividers that can be repositioned so as to allow you to configure the storage as you wish. I opted for a large central space to hold a camera body and lens with two smaller areas either side to hold two more lenses. The lid has a mesh pocket to allow you to stow small bits and pieces. So what will it hold. Well I used it with two different camera systems. Most commonly I used it to hold a gripped Panasonic Lumix G85 oran Olympus EM1 with grip with a mounted 12-40mm f2.8 lens. Then I would put in the side compartments a Panasonic Leica 8-18mm and an Olympus 75-300mm. Sometimes I’d swap out the wide-angle zoom for the Olympus 60mm macro. The other system I carried was either an ungripped Canon 5 or 6d with a 24-70mm f4 zoom and aCanon 75-300mm and a 100mm macro. Because I was researching a walking guide-book and needed access to a note-book, pen and handheld GPS I mounted a Lowepro Street and Field 100AW utility bag on the righthand fin of the waist belt. This held the afore-mentioned bits and also camera batteries and memory cards. If you don’t want to carry the whole shebang then you can detach the camera compartment and use it as a waist pack/fanny pack (snigger !).
In use. The pack is very comfy and I carried it on a range of hikes for nearly 1000Km. To work from it is great. Most of the time I had my camera on strap slung across my body. If I needed to change lenses then I’d access the camera compartment. The whole thing worked really well. However, if you take the pack off while taking photos then it becomes a right royal pain in the derrière as it becomes quite clumsy to use. Pulling out the camera compartment while the rest of the back rests on the ground feels very clumsy compared to the elegance of using it while it is worn on your back. The pack isn’t very weather resistant and MindShift sell a separate rain cover for $45 AUD or $25 USD. Given the price of the Horizon 34 I think MindShift are being tighter than a fishes eyelid here especially when the Think Tank bags from the same company have them built in. The rain cover is also fiddly to affix which is not what you need when you are cold and tired as a rainstorm breaks. The pack material isn’t very durable and after 8 months of use the polyurethane backing has peeled off in m any places and the lightweight ripstop nylon that makes up most of the pack has started to wear through. I’ve got some camera pouches made by the now defunct Camera Care Systems in England that are over 30 years old and have led a very hard life and they show less wear than the Horizon 34.
In conclusion The MindShift Rotation 180º Horizon 34L is quite an innovative product that solves carrying camera equipment on day hikes into the wilderness. The concept is quite brilliant and I’m astounded that no-one has done it before. Unfortunately the execution of the product lets it down and it seems very expensive for a bag that I’ll probably end up throwing away in 12-18 months as it has worn out. I think that MindShift should construct the pack from heavier duty Cordura Pack cloth throughout and make sure that the polyurethane backing is more durable. A pack cover should be integral to the main pack body not an optional extra. If they did that it would be an excellent product. Ah well back to a proper walking pack and camera pouches.
I’ve not had access to a proper studio since I left TAFE (college) where I abused, I mean used the excellent facilities. Now working from home I have to make do with whatever is around the house and a few well-chosen bits of photo kit. In the above pic I’m doing a product shot of back pack in the sitting room. I don’t have a white infinity curve on a product table so I use a small Ikea coffee table covered in a white shower curtain and a white double sheet as the background. I want the backpack on a white fore ground and against a white background. Experience has taught me that if a light the background with a flash gun (speed light to our American readers) and over expose by 1 stop it will show as pure white. The subject is lit by two flash guns in brolly boxes arranged at 45º to each other. The camera sits on a tripod and the flashes are triggered wirelessly using a Phottix Odin transmitter. Unlike a lot of photographers I shoot using TTL control and use flash exposure compensation on each flash to control the lighting ratio which in this case is 2:1 or the key light (the black brolly) is set to be twice as powerful as the fill light. All very simple really.
There’s no doubt about it that micro four thirds cameras offer superb performance in a compact body. My favourite cameras have been the EM10 Mki and the EP-5 equipped with one of the excellent prime lenses such as the 25mm f1.8 or the 45mm f1.8. Trouble arises when you slap a bigger lens on such as the truly excellent Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8. It’s possible to use them but it feels unwieldy and uncomfortable for long periods. So the solution was to buy a bigger bodied camera such as the EM1 Mki. I was lucky that I managed to blag a good deal and it included HLD-7 battery grip. In day-to-day usage that grip has never left the camera. When I got the Panasonic Leica 100-400 I started using it primarily on the EM1 and it felt well-balanced, but I wasn’t getting the use of the 5 axis dual image stabilisation. So I thought I’d slap it on front of the G85 that I bought for video. Problem solved for the image stabilisation, but then I felt I needed a bit more real estate for the hands.
Looking online I saw the Panasonic BGG1 Battery Grip was $362 AUD. Now I don’t know about you but lately I think the camera manufacturers have been having a lend of us with camera grips. The new Canon EOS R’s grip retails for $599 AUD and the Fuji X-H1’s is $499 AUD. This is why there is a thriving market in cheap Chinese knock offs, but these tend to be for the best-selling cameras from Canon and Nikon. A lot of people regard these as crap, but back in 2010 I’d bought a Canon 550d and wanted a grip and I ended up buying one by Aputure from eBay for a whopping $40. It is still going strong, in fact it is in better nick than the camera body which I’ve had to superglue together on a couple of occasions. So I was definitely open to the idea of an after market grip, but I was under the impression that there wouldn’t be one as Panasonic don’t command a big enough market share. The other week I was trawling the internet looking for some batteries for my G85 and I found on Amazon Australia for the grand price of $61 AUD the battery grip DMW-BGG1 Battery Grip. So I took the plunge.
Ok first impressions. It’s made of plastic, but so is the body of the G85. It seems to be a pretty faithful copy of the Panasonic version right down to the recessed area for holding the rubber cover for the electrical contacts from the camera. The buttons and dials don’t feel as nice as those on the camera but they work well. The only downsides are that the tripod mount is not under the axis of the lens and it is obviously not weather sealed. For me these weren’t a big deal. In use the grip is comfortable and fits the contours of the camera body well. It helps provide a nice comfy grip, especially in the portrait orientation and the extra battery is a welcome addition when shooting video.I’ve been using it for a couple of months and it has been great. A good buy.