99% Invisible

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Now I want to meet a vexillologist.

The Long Version: 99% Invisible is a tiny radio program about culture and design that's also a podcast. New episodes are mostly weekly, and past episodes have covered maps, city flags, sound design, concrete graffiti, cheque cashing stores, the considerations of authority and democracy in public space, and the possibilities of sending someone on a one-way mission to Mars. Pretty amazing stuff. It's rare for me to listen to an episode without scribbling a bunch of notes on ideas and websites to investigate.

Hosted by Roman Mars, the stock episodes run about four and a half minutes, although there are some extended podcast-only shows that break double digits. It's tightly focused and well edited, and strikes a great balance between providing enough depth without bogging down into the esoteric. Roman Mars serves as an eloquent narrator and provides bridges between interview clips from interesting people.

One of the best things about 99% Invisible is its production quality. Sound really matters, and there's none of the nonsense that mars so many amateur programs. Forget about those synthetic musical riffs accompanying long self-indulgent intros, and instead enjoy high production quality with some fascinating backing music. This is professional all the way, and it's worth listening to just for the sound of it all.

For further reading, there's also an article to check out on transom.org, which is a site worthy of exploration for anyone who's interested in capturing or sharing sound.

last updated 29 apr 2011


Op/Tech Hood Hat

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It has a great name.

The Long Version: Neoprene is an amazing thing. It seems like it's always called "wetsuit material", as if that's something that most people own, while it's actually ubiquitous in small electronics cases, laptop sleeves, and anything else that needs a little bit of stretch and a modest amount of cushioning. The Hood Hat from Op/Tech is a perfect use for it.

I discovered the Hood Hat through the review of it on Roger (Hicks) and Frances (Schultz) excellent Photo School website. It's worth a thorough and extensive visit, and I have to admit that there's not much that I can add to the Hood Hat that they haven't already said. Essentially: the neoprene provides good protection, a secure fit, and they're easy to put away when the lens is being used. I drop my lens caps back in the camera bag when they're not being used, and hood hats don't rattle when the bag is jostled and I don't worry about dropping the lens on top of it when I have to switch in a hurry.

I have the "micro" size hat to fit over the hoods on two of my little Zeiss M-mount lenses. Rangefinder lenses in general are perfect candidates for Hood Hats, since they extend far enough down the barrel of these diminutive lenses that it obstructs the controls on the lens barrel, making it immediately obvious when they're still attached. No more black photos because the lens cap was left on. Zeiss ZM lenses are even better candidates for Hood Hats because their original lens caps are atrocious. Not the worst I've ever seen – that honour goes to the new Tokina 16-28/2.8 – but really bad just the same.

The other lens that gets a Hood Hat is coincidentally also a Zeiss, as the lenses for Hasselblad take custom sizes. The "Small" size turns out to be a good fit for the 150mm f/4 T* CF lens, although the hat does extend far enough back to bump the depth of field preview lever. Not a big deal at all, and a simple fix to an otherwise irritating lack of standardization.

To be honest, if a lens has a reasonably deep hood then I rarely bother with a lens cap. Having a hat that goes on over the hood doesn't really seem to answer a burning need for most photographers, and I'm not about to add them to any of the other lenses that I have in my collection. But it's a solid product that does serve a small niche (rhymes with quiche) and I'd certainly miss them if they were gone. It's not every day that someone takes the time to improve on something as basic as a lens cap, even if there isn't much need for it.

last updated 21 apr 2011


Tokina 16-28 Lens Cap

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: It has to be seen to be believed.

The Long Version: The Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 PRO FX clearly isn't a pretentious lens. With a list price around $1100 Canadian, it's Tokina's 'full-frame' version of their wildly popular 11-16/2.8, and is a welcome addition to the wide-angle options for the 24x36 set. I'm glad to see it and I wish it well; I've never really used the lens, but I've heard some nice things about it. This review is simply of its lens cap.

Made of a soft and flexible plastic, the Tokina 16-28's unbranded cap has shallow ridges that provide only a feeble grip on the hood some of the time. Other times the round hood mates with the round cap in a way that gives it no grip at all. None. I've done this trick with the caps on each of the three lenses that I've tested, including both Canon and Nikon mounts. Words can't convey the reality of it, so I've done an eighteen second MOS video.

Hands down, no question, without a doubt: this is the worst lens cap I've ever seen. You could use the metal cap from the Olympus 7-14 to prop up an artillery shell; the plastic caps from the Panasonic 7-14 and Nikon 14-24 aren't as impressive but they are still incredibly solid. Like the cap for the Tokina 16-28, all of these work to protect the bulging front element by attaching with a pressure-fit around the outside of the built-in petal hood. This design failure isn't the result of Tokina trying a daring new idea: even the press-on plastic tail cap from a Nikon 50/1.8D puts this front cap to shame.
The problems still don't stop when the Tokina cap is attached firmly enough that its own weight won't dislodge it. It can be knocked off by even a slight bump or nudge; I'd be mildly concerned about losing it if it wasn't guaranteed to fall off while the lens is still in the camera bag. The cap also isn't deep enough to completely cover the gaps in the petal-shaped lens hood, so it doesn't even protect against dust. This might also be a good time to point out that the lens can't take filters, and the width of its vision requires a shallow hood. The only real option to protect this lens, after spending a thousand dollars on it, is to spring a little extra for a neoprene Hood Hat. Nice. There are certain things that I would like to take for granted, and the ability of a company with as much experience as Tokina – a division of Hoya, and a stablemate of Pentax – to design a lens cap that works properly shouldn't be too much to ask. Sure, Canon hasn't yet discovered the centre-pinch design, but this stuff shouldn't be pushing the state of the art. It boggles my mind that something this flawed made its way into the box of a shipping product, let alone a lens as expensive as this one. It can't be an accident that Tokina doesn't put their name on it. updated: rumour has it that there is an improved mkII lens cap out there, and it can be ordered through an authorized dealer as a replacement for the one that I've reviewed here. It may even already be installed on some of the more recently made lenses. I would like to thank Tokina for giving people one more example of how important it is to buy from a real local camera store, and hope to have a further update once I've been able to try out the new design.  updated once more: I've now seen the new design in person – both of them, in fact. One is a branded press-on cap that's deeper and made of rigid plastic, while the other is an elaborate design that clips into place and offers excellent protection. Lens caps can indeed be swapped out, but the store has to pay for the new caps up-front and is only reimbursed when the old models are sent back to them, and the cost isn't insignificant. Replacing the lousy design that I've reviewed here may not be all that easy.
last updated 4 aug 2011


Zebralight SC51Fw "Floody" Flashlight

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's only the best most of the time.

The Long Version: High-output LED lights have revolutionized flashlights, and in the past few years there's been a proliferation of mil-spec tactical lights that boast about being able to blind people at close distances. Fantastic. But what good is it to have a torch that can throw a ten-foot disk of light the length of a football field when I'm just trying to find a pair of shoes in the back of the closet? Being bright is over-rated.

The Zebralight is one of an emerging new design of flashlights with variable brightness levels, making them useful for more tasks than search and rescue. Their SC51 family are small flashlights that pull an amazing amount of light out of a single AA battery. Optimized for the new generation of slow-discharge NiMH batteries with exceptional shelf life, they'll run at high power for almost an hour. But if that's not right for the job, they have five other power levels, and the low settings let the light last for days. All of this is controlled by different clicks of its single button.

It's a little unusual to need instructions to work a flashlight, but the important thing to know is that a quick click of the button starts it on high power. Holding the button a little longer when turning the light on – the trick is to not over-think it – starts it at its lower power setting. Holding the button down longer, even when it's already on, makes the light cycle through its three main power settings – with two memorized outputs each – starting from the low position.

Physically, the Zebralight is a small light with an oversized heat-sink for a head, a removable pocket clip attached to a non-removable mount, and its anodized aluminum finish is a subtly greenish-grey colour. The heat-dispersing fins aren't exactly sharp, but they're simply machined straight into the head without any sort of rounded edges.

I already have a handfull of long-throw lights, so I picked the SC51Fw "Floody" design. This takes the beauty of a variable-output light even farther by giving it a frosted lens that gently diffuses its light across a wide beam with just a subtle hotspot. It's not a true flood with completely even output – Zebralight makes those in a headlamp style – but it really is much more, well, "floody" than a standard flashlights' beam. Maglight popularized the focusable beam that can throw a dimmer but wider hotspot, which hints at the utility of a flood beam, but the reality is much more effective and useful.

While it still throws a smoothly weighted cone of light, the Zebralight Floody has a beam that looks more like a portable desk lamp than a spotlight. Click on the "photo" link after the name of each flashlight to see larger comparison images taken with the same settings (40mm-e, 1/4s, iso800, f/2.8, daylight white balance) for the SC51Fw (photo), Pelican 7060 (review / photo), and Pelican 2410 (review / photo). The far corner of that scary underground room, which is roughly in the middle of the frame, is about forty feet from the camera.

It turns out that flashlight power is fairly tricky to measure. I created a rig that put the flashlight into a sealed box, with the lens a fixed distance from one end, and then used a photographic light meter to measure the light bouncing out from a hole on the opposite end. There are some problems with it; for one thing the box is wood, so the warm light of the Zebralight's warmish 'neutral' bulb will be bounced more efficiently than the cooler blues of the other LEDs. While my results were quite consistent and repeatable, other errors certainly could and undoubtedly have crept in. But it's as fair a system as I could devise for comparing a flood to a narrow beam, as the focusable Filzer I-Beam flashlight measured essentially identical output no matter what lens setting it used. The following chart uses the EV scale, so a difference of "1" indicates doubling or halving the light output and creates a noticeable difference in illumination. A difference of 2 is four times the output, three is eight times, and so on.

Gerber Infinity Ultra – 5.2
Pelican 2410 Recoil – 7.1
Princeton Tec Amp 1.0 – 7.2
Filzer I-Beam X4 – 8.4w / 8.5t
Leatherman S2 Serac 6.6l / 9.0h
Pelican 7060 – 9.7
Zebralight SC51Fw – 10.4

While some of those results seem a little screwy – I never would have expected the "high" setting of the Leatherman S2 to rank so well – they're fairly indicative of each light's basic abilities. When I was in doubt I'd shine two lights against the nearby wall and see which one drowned out the other, and in each case I was satisfied with the results. But that doesn't mean that I'd pick the Leatherman over the LAPD-issue 7060 when exploring a dark alley. Remember that these numbers are close-distance measurements and I've tried to remove beam quality and pattern from the results.

(Quick bonus review: The Filzer X4 light runs on two AA batteries for eight hours, gives quite an impressive output, and has a focusable beam. It also costs half of what the Zebralight does. If you like the venerable 2xAA Maglite size, but want something much brighter with a tail switch, it's worth a serious look.)

The best lights for real-world use will vary depending on the beam style. As the previous sample photo links show, the Floody smoothly lights a vast volume at the expense of peak brightness and range. The Pelican 7060 throws a huge amount of light in a fairly limited direction, so I can bounce it off of a white celling and light up a small room. Testing under these conditions kept the order of the results unchanged except that it knocked the Floody down one spot to rank below the 7060, and it was noticeably easier to read the LCD display of the light meter with the big Pelican light. (The Filzer's variable beam on the wide setting also performed much less impressively than its tight beam setting, measuring one full EV darker.) Of course the bounce trick doesn't work as well if the room has a dark ceiling, and if I was really trying to light up a room with the Floody, then I'd just point it where I want to look.

I need to take a moment and point out how ridiculous it is that I'm even comparing this Zebralight to the two Pelican torches. The 2410 Recoil light takes four AA batteries, and the 7060 runs on a proprietary 3.7V 2200 mAh Lithium-Ion pack. Both pelican lights do have a longer burn time (1.5h for the 7060, 7h for the 2410) than the 50 minutes that the SC51Fw is rated for, but the Zebralight is doing it all on a single 1.2V rechargeable AA. It's also worth noting that the Floody-White LED version is the least powerful member of the SC51 family – their 'normal' model, with the clear lens and a bluish LED, is rated considerably brighter.

The flood pattern isn't perfect for everything, but at high power it's great for using at distances shorter than twenty feet, and good out to forty or fifty. Beyond that a more traditional pattern from a powerful light will be better. A less powerful light – which most hardware-store lights will be – won't give much more throw than the Floody, but with a considerably less useful spill pattern. The Floody actually has enough usable beam to let me use peripheral vision when I'm exploring a dark warehouse, so there are fewer scary haunted-house shadows shifting and jumping around.

In the city there's so much light around us all of the time that a flashlight needs to be bright just to be seen, which means that lower power levels aren't appreciated as much. But they are very handy to have when there's time to adapt to the lower light levels; even the brighter of the medium settings will run all night if you have no choice but to keep walking through the forest. Working at close quarters, like when changing a fuse or looking for shoes, the dimmer settings do make the Zebralight much more pleasant to use. It takes some practice to master the "slow click" that turns on the lowest power tier, but it's worth the effort because they're the second-most useful setting.

In fact, my biggest criticism of the Floody light is that its lowest low power setting is too bright to use with dark-adapted vision, or at least that I can't use it in the dark (such as an intercity bus at night or in a movie theatre) without it being obnoxious for the people around me. But then that's also true about the LCD on my phone. Its rated output of 0.3 lumens seems trivial, and sometimes I need to look at the lens to see if the light is on, but it's enough to read with at night and the battery will last for weeks.

The SC51 family is made in China, and ships directly from their facility there. Mine was posted promptly and then took a month to arrive, but at least worldwide shipping is included in the prices on their website. Currently selling at 64USD, they're more expensive than any of the lights that I compared it to except for the Pelican 2410 (tie) and Pelican 7060, which costs vastly more. But it's also the only one with the sophisticated controls that let it run at different power levels, has a regulator to keep a constant output, and throws far more light than a torch this size has any excuse for.

I have to admit that I'm smitten by both the Zebralight and the flood pattern. To have a single AA in a light that rivals some of my biggest, which are driven by four times the power, is astonishing. To have one light be bright enough to change a flat tire on a moonless night, and then dim enough to read a map in the passenger's seat without blinding the driver, is incredibly useful. If I could only have one flashlight – perish the thought! – the Zebralight Floody would be the one I would choose for most of the scenarios I could reasonably face. The times that need more brightness at a distance will still call for a light like the Pelican 7060, but that could conceivably be replaced by another pocket-sized single-AA Zebralight SC51. Amazing.

The only thing that has stopped me from ordering a second Zebralight is a little counterintuitive: the SC51Fw is so impressive that I'm likely to wait and see what they can come up with next. New LEDs have made a huge difference over just the past couple of years, and there's no reason why that's going to stop now. Until then I have my collection of other lights, but I'll keep reaching for my little Floody first.

last updated 16 apr 2011


Transit Maps of the World, by Mark Ovenden

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Transit pr0n is an unusual sub-genre.

The Long Version: Transit Maps of the World isn't a book with a gripping narrative that you'll want to read from cover to cover in one sitting, but it's an interesting collection of information just the same. As the name implies, it compiles almost 200 different subway systems. I can't confirm that it includes every system in the world, but it sure is an awful lot of them.

The book is divided into sections. The introduction provides an overview on the general evolution of mass-transit rail, and the way those systems have been depicted as maps evolved into diagrams. From there it delves into specific systems, which are split into token groupings based on the age and complexity of the systems. The grand networks, such as Berlin, London, and New York, are all covered extensively. Smaller and newer networks receive proportionate attention: Hong Kong and Mexico city get two pages each; Toronto and Los Angeles get one page each; upstart and little light-rail surface networks are grouped in the back with just a paragraph to describe the system and its accompanying map.

It should go without saying that this is a book about the transit maps that each system has generated, and while that unavoidably includes some information on the history and contemporary operation of the different networks, the focus remains on the design and implementation of its wayfinding. A certain amount of repetition is unavoidable – similarity among the designs indicates their broad success – which makes this a great book to pick up, get involved in, and then put down until next time.

Transit Maps of the World becomes a launching point. It, and a couple of trips to New York City, have completely rewritten my understanding of Toronto's own two-and-two-halfs subway network. It's led me to spend several happy afternoons learning more about different subway systems (check Joseph Brennan's awesome list of abandoned subway stations in NYC) instead of getting actual work done, and I've even started a little personal project to play with some ideas for Toronto's subway map as well.

Part of planning a recent trip to New York City involved finding the best subway station to get to from the place where the bus would drop me off. I was looking at the very geographic MTA map, but when I shifted to Google's view of the city I discovered that the actual distances were different enough to make me choose a better route. Subway maps invariably distort geography, but instead of being a flaw, it may simply reflect the different spatial relationships within the city that mass transit creates.

There's a big difference between a map and a diagram. Depicting a transit network balances the complexities of presenting information in a way that's simplified enough to be comprehensible, but accurate enough to be useful. How that problem has been solved around the world and over the past century is ultimately what Transit Maps of the World is all about.

last updated 12 apr 2011


Rowe Farms (Annex location)

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's mainly because of the meat.

The Long Version: Rowe Farms is something of a contemporary butcher's shop, and reflects a move toward specialty retailing that targets customers who are seeking locally sourced and/or organic meats and produce. The Annex location at 468 Bloor West is a fairly new store, and it's a good fit in an area that already has a high concentration of health(y)-food stores. It replaces an organic fruit and vegetable seller that wasn't quite so successful, though, so nothing is guaranteed.

I've been a supermarket shopper all of my life, and there's nothing I like more than the "Freezer" section – growing up in the suburbs will do that to you. But Penny is more likely to shop at the specialty stores, such as Yorkville's Whole Foods, so when Rowe moved into the neighbourhood she was there to give it a try. She brought home some ground beef to make chili with, and even with all of the competing flavours and ingredients, the difference in quality and taste was inescapable.

I'm a little embarrassed now to admit that I used to just buy boxes of frozen steaks. They were convenient, I could get two month's worth at a time, and they were just as good as the unfrozen stuff at the local grocery store. I just didn't realize how low those standards are. I spend a bit more now – although see my two-year update below – but even without bringing in the personal issues of natural and/or local food, it tastes much better.

The big grocery stores are the prototype "Big Box" retailers – acres of parking lots spanning the suburbs to support massive stores that people go to because they have everything. But success in one extreme often creates a vacuum elsewhere, and Rowe Farms has local stores that really are worth an extra stop.

Updated two years later: Never ones to leave a new market uncontested once others have proved that it's viable, the big grocery stores in my area are now offering various meats that are intended to compete with the quality from specialty shops like Rowe Farms. This comes in various guises – free range, traditionally raised, hormone-free, homeschooled, and so on – and they're priced at a premium that makes Rowes' quite competitive. The product itself, however, simply isn't up to the same standard; it actually makes me a little sad to see what's being passed off these days. Rowe Farms remains my store of choice for evert product that they carry.

last updated 13 june 2013


Panasonic TS3/FT3 Waterproof Camera

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's best not to over-think things.

The Long Version: When faced with a long digital camera review I always skip to the conclusion first, so here it is: the Panasonic TS3/FT3 is the best underwater camera on the market right now, performs very well as a general-purpose point and shoot, and is a great camera to have even if it never needs to go swimming.

Compact digital cameras are tough to review and frustrating to shop for. Feature-packed but rarely very good, by the time anyone has enough experience with one to have useful insight the bloody little things are out of date and off of the store shelves. Making matters more complicated, nearly every camera has some significant faults, and they all have something wrong with them. The key is separating the awkward from the abysmal, and then making the best of what each camera can do.

On the positive side, the Panasonic TS3 is a good little camera that's only moderately afflicted by bad design and marketing choices. The biggest example of this is found under the Mode button, where one of the valuable top-tier menu positions is wasted on the "3D" feature. This only works when connected to a 3D-capable TV, which Panasonic just happens to make. Never mind that these devices made up only 3% of flat-panel TVs shipped in 2010, it's been deemed important enough to take up one of seven top shooting modes. Two other quick scene positions are dedicated to underwater modes, which is surely one more than necessary for the vast majority of TS3 owners. Twenty-six others are relegated to an additional two screens, and some of those are actually useful. Naturally none of these positions can be changed.

Another unfortunate design choice with the TS3 is that it's impossible to turn off the digital zoom. Sure, there's a setting called "Digital Zoom" and it can be set to "off", but using the camera at anything other than its maximum megapickles adds an "ez" magnification that picks up seamlessly when the optical zoom hits its limit. Unlike the Digital Zoom, but like the similar-but-somehow-different i-zoom, the camera doesn't even have the courtesy of showing the point where it just starts making stuff up. While the i-zoom and ez-zoom only add a modest enlargement, most of the time I can spot the images that use it in my Lightroom catalog.

On the subject of megapickles, the TS3 has dropped to 12MP from the TS2's 14, which is still too many. Setting it to 5MP gives the same image quality for anything remotely realistic from this little camera, and saves space and time, making it a relatively good tradeoff. Image quality overall is actually fairly good, especially once the lens is zoomed in past its barrel distortion. It's hardly a high-iso monster, but its 15-second exposures in "Starry Sky" mode were more than good enough to catch a night-time April snow storm while my Nikon D700 sat on the shelf.

One standout feature of the TS3 is simply the feel of the camera. The curve at the top and bottom of the front grip, and the rounded left side of the camera, make it very nice to hold. It has a heft and solidity to it that's very reassuring, and it has an object-quality that goes a long way toward justifying its price even before it's turned on. I only wish that its LCD screen had better protection: mine has some very fine scratches after playing in the surf, so I must not have rinsed all of the ultra-fine sand from it before drying the screen with a soft cloth. Disappointing. At least the little brush that Panasonic includes with the camera did a good job of cleaning that sand out of the battery compartment's locking mechanism.

The TS3 has a total of fourteen buttons on it, from the power, shutter, and 'auto-fill memory card' buttons on top, to the four-way controller and miscellaneous buttons on the rear. Panasonic's excellent Quick Menu shares the Delete button, but its operation is limited compared to their flagship cameras. On the GH1, it's possible to take a manual white balance reference directly through the quick menu; the TS3 can select the Manual position but needs to go into the full menu in order to actually capture the reference image. The TS3's quick menu does allow any of its built-in WB presets to be biased toward warmer or cooler values, which is niftily indicated by changing the colour of the icon. That's an elegant ability that's awfully advanced for a point-and-shoot. I frequently find the interface decisions of these small cameras inexplicable, and the TS3 certainly has its share of conundrums.

On the bright side, Panasonic has fixed the proliferation of multiple confusing and ineffective Fluorescent white balance presets by just getting rid of all of them. Camera design needs more of that kind of problem-solving.

I continue to be amazed at just how difficult it is to make intelligent choices when using a compact camera. To learn what all of the different camera settings do, and how they interact with each other in its little brain, is even more difficult than learning photography. Worse, photography is somewhat intuitive and is independent of specific camera models, while experience with one point and shoot camera is of little help with the next one. I could conceivably devote myself to studying the different contrast controls, digital zooms, intelligent resolution, and quality settings until I know exactly how the camera will work and which settings to use under different conditions. But neither the camera nor I are going to live long enough to make that worth doing.

The "Starry Sky" mode turns off the image stabilization, which is appropriate for a long exposure. The "Night Scenery" mode, which includes the exhortation to use a tripod, leaves the IS turned on and disables the flash. The "Night Portrait" mode lets the user choose between slow-sync and no flash and tells everyone to be really still. The self-portait mode does nothing aside from putting the flash on automatic and giving some friendly advice. There's absolutely no consistency between similar-seeming modes, and not enough information to choose between them.

I was impressed to see that the TS3 can take exposure bracketed photos, set for 1/3, 2/3, or a full stop between exposures. By setting the starting exposure compensation up or down from zero, the entire series can be biased, although this isn't apparent from the settings screen. The TS3 can also shoot a respectable high-speed burst, but turning on exposure bracketing will cancel burst shooting and returns the camera to single-shot mode once bracketing is turned off.

If I was a complete cynic, I might suspect that there's no overarching internal logic to be found in the TS3, and I might suggest that its entire operating system and user interface needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from scratch. Get the team that solved the fluorescent white balance problem to do it – I like their thinking.

But to cheer myself up I just remember that anyone who chooses Sony's latest waterproof camera, the svelte TX10, will be confronted with "Superior Auto," "Intelligent Auto," and "Program Auto" modes. I'd hate to be the sucker who has to untangle that usability knot.

One strength of the TS3's different modes – and something that not all Panasonic compacts can do – is that they remember their own individual colour settings. I leave "Normal" mode's colour set to Vivid, and the iAuto position set to monochrome. The "HDR" mode also has a monochrome option, along with "standard" and "art". (Honestly, I don't see much difference between those two, so I suppose that art really isn't something that I'll know when I see it.) The HDR mode also forces the camera to iso 400, and while I'm not exactly sure how it does its thing, I don't mind its monochrome images at all. They're not art, but they're not ugly either.

The GPS feature is new to the underwater line, and my success with it has been mixed. Panasonic says that it could take two or three minutes to aquire a position, but in the city – even with a reasonably unobstructed sky view – that's proven somewhat optimistic. And they aren't kidding when they say to stand still, either; I've taken a couple of half-hour walks with my TS3 in hand, and my photos still all say that I'm on a highway twelve kilometers from my house. Taking photos in Coney Island, with its lack of obstructions and my frequent long pauses, gave GPS results that any anywhere from generally indicative to outright spooky. I still leave the GPS receiver turned on – I have a second battery – but it's more of a game than something with an actual practical use.

I do have to grudgingly admit that I've been impressed by the TS3's image quality a couple of times. It's not going to get a "That's Great!" response, but it often merits a "not bad" and even the occasional "pretty good". Getting the exposure right is very important, but there are some iso 1600 photos already queued up for future reviews. Iso 800 is not that bad, and iso 400 can be pretty good. That's fortunate, since the lens hits f/4.9 at 2x zoom, and f/5.6 as soon as it reaches 3x. The camera maxes out at f/10 and 1/1300 shutter speed, although I do have one photo that inexplicably reports an aperture of f/18. You can hover your mouse over the sample images in this review to see their exposure settings.

I've been trying to buy a digital compact travelling companion for almost six months, and couldn't find one that was worth the money. Cheap ones are generally lousy, and the more expensive ones aren't better enough to justify the increased cost. The new Panasonic TS3, while inevitably flawed, was still good enough to convince me that it's worth the money. I've used it successfully on one trip already, and I've based a daily photo project around documenting the best of its first five thousand photos. After a couple of productive weeks with this little device, I have to say I'm quite pleased with it overall. It's going to make a solid little sidekick to my film cameras, and it's the digital camera that I always have with me.

For the same price as this shockproof camera, it's possible to buy others with the same image quality that offer different features, like touch screens or longer zooms. (Not that a touch screen is actually a feature, but you know what I mean.) For a little more money there are compacts that include manual controls and raw recording, which will be a better choice for those who like placebos or are prohibited from having multiple cameras. Finding the right mix of abilities and deciding how much to pay is always a personal choice, but there's nothing better than a TS3 if this camera happens to tick the right boxes.

(For now, anyway.)

Updated: my little TS3 turned three months old on June 22, and I've written an update to this review to mark the occasion. You can read Part Two by clicking here.

added: it was recently pointed out to me that nobody really says that there's normally a rattling noise from the camera when it's turned off, and that it goes away when the camera is turned on. This is typical for all of Panasonic's OIS / image stabilized lenses – the movable lens element isn't locked in place when the camera is powered off. I don't know why it's designed this way, but it's not a defect.

last updated 29 june 2011

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