Lowepro Stealth Reporter D200

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just because it's good doesn't mean I'll like it.

The Long Version: When I first started out I had a couple of Lowepro bags. I mean, we've all been there, right? But then we move on. So it was with a certain sense of shock that I realized that a Lowepro "Stealth Reporter D200 AW" was the perfect travel bag for a recent bus trip to New York City.

Lowepro overwhelmingly makes ugly black nylon camera buckets. Fetishistically complicated, too heavily padded, and adorned with flaps, zippers, and clasps, they're exactly what every beginning photographer thinks they need. Lacking the soul of a Domke or the class of a Billingham, Lowepro is the Nike of the camera bag world: ubiquitous in the stores, heavily promoted, but outside of paid endorsements it's never seen with people who really know what they're doing. For those in the know, that oval logo with its orange accent is the photographic equivalent of wearing track pants while eating microwaved pizza.

But you know, sometimes they actually make pretty decent bags.

Take my travelling companion, the "Stealth Reporter". Aside from the brutal `90's flashback name – an italics "stealth" is even embroidered onto the back panel, in black thread on black nylon, as if that makes it okay – there's not all that much to complain about. The padding is dense but thin, so it doesn't take up most of the bag's capacity, and the buckles and zippers aren't tremendously objectionable. The bag doesn't really hide any nasty surprises: it's quite honest about them.

My biggest complaint about the nylon camera bucket school of bag design is solidly represented by the D200: it never gets any smaller. The 'stealth' even has plastic stiffeners between its layers of fabric that serve no purpose except to force the bag into its particular shape. When it's stuffed full it can't flex to accomodate its contents, and when it's nearly empty it isn't any more agreeable to carry. Stiffly padded nylon bags, no matter who they're made by, will always be my second choice when I could use a Billingham or Domke bag instead.

The Stealth Reporter D200 is a working bag that's designed for travel with a moderate amount of gear. It has a strap to fit over luggage trolleys, a rear external slash pocket, and a rear internal pocket that can fit paper folded in half – think E-Tickets – with a zippered sub-compartment that fits a passport. This is really important for a travel bag: along with its SLR-friendly capacity, it's a big part of why I swallowed my pride and took the Stealth to New York.

The front of the bag has two external organizer pockets, including one that's lined to protect gadget screens, a front slash pocket, and space between the nylon shell and the padded bucket that's also equipped with with an inner divider. All of these are full-height and quite narrow, so they're not for storing gear, but can hold thin or flat items like a travel hard drive or maybe a few sticks of gum. Forget about finding small items in a hurry – while on my trip it actually took me about twenty minutes to go through the bag thoroughly enough to accept that I'd left my wallet at home.

The front exterior slash pocket also has two small pockets near its top that are sized to fit a standard-sized DSLR battery in each. Very clever, but it violates a fundamental photographic rule: never make two things the same size. If Lowepro had made these pockets slightly different sizes, then perhaps I could have fit a battery in one and done something outrageous with the other, like carry a pack of mints as well as a tube of chapstick. Apparently that's not something that Lowepro expects "photojournalists and news photographers" to do.

The inside of the nylon and foam camera-bucket compartment is unsurprising and in need of a refresh. It has a standard velcro-and-dividers approach, but unlike newer bags that are completely lined with the soft loopy fabric, the Stealth Reporter D200 has specific strips of it that restrict where the dividers can be placed. My Kata 3N1-22 – which I used to think had a dumb name – has the same flaw but has since been updated. Perhaps Lowepro will make a Pro Stealth Reporter that fixes this in the future.

I went to New York with the bag in its stock configuration, which let me carry the D800 with a grip attached down the middle, a mid-size prime on each side, and accessories and non-camera necessities in the other two lens-sized compartments. Another option is to have two big cameras and two skinny lenses stored separately; keeping a lens on a camera is possible, but I'm rarely a fan of carrying gear this way.

An unusual feature of the bag is a weatherproofed pass-through zipper built into the lid. Some people want this to be for easy access to the camera, but with the D200 you can forget about birthing anything larger than a mid-sized lens through it. With reasonable expectations it actually turns out to be rather useful, as it bypasses the zippers and clips that keep everything bolted down the rest of the time. But designing a bag with an extra zipper to provide a convenient way to bypass its other buckles and zippers is an excellent example of solving the wrong problem.

Like almost all of its siblings, the Stealth Reporter is very well built; something tells me that Lowepro bags and cockroaches will be the ones locked in a battle for supremacy after a nuclear war. This one also has a rain cover sewn into a special compartment in the bottom if the bag, Lowepro-style; I immediately cut it free, Kata-style, to reduce the bag's bulk and give me a little bit of space for soft things like hats or really small jackets.

There is one feature of the Stealth Reporter that I initially scoffed at – hard to imagine, I know – but actually turned out to be quite useful. It includes a small nylon toiletries bag that has a zipper along three sides, and even has a clear business-card holder on the front. (There's another of those on the outside of the D200 as well.) This is where I put all of the little odds and ends: phone charger, extra film, batteries, and so on. Essentially, anything small that would have happily gone in the front pockets of a Domke or a Billingham can go into this pouch that only took up one of the four available lens slots.

By having all of the bits and pieces collected in the toiletries bag it was easy for my to take the entire pouch out through the lids' pass-through zipper, retrieve what I needed, and then slip the rest away again. This pouch even adds orange trim around its edges, making it easier to find inside the Reporter's relentlessly grey-on-grey nylon interior. And because it's carried inside the bag, this small concession to usability and styling doesn't detract from the bag's Stealthiness.

The bag also includes a massive nylon memory card wallet that can hold a dozen compact flash cards. It's very impressive, and has a little loop that lets it be tethered to either of the bags' two keyfob leashes, as well as a simple velcro belt loop that lets it attach to any of the six lash points on the outside of the bag. I can see this being very useful for people who don't like cards that are higher than 4GB capacity in this era of 75MB raw files. Unfortunately it's not quite big enough to also hold a portable hard drive, but one could be tucked into a couple of the front slash pockets easily enough.

The Reporter can carry a substantial amount of gear, but despite its size the D200 is a pretty small bag. Two cameras with two small lenses or flashes, or one camera with a big lens or two. The height of the bag means that smaller lenses can be stacked with other items, which was very handy for travel, but like all bags it's easier to work out of when it's not stuffed to the gills.

As a travel and working bag, the Stealth Reporter is excellent if you happen to like this kind of thing. It solves some very specific problems better than my other bags: it holds two big SLRs, like the D800 and F5 pictured above, can fit a bunch of lenses, and securely carries travel documents. Make no mistake – the Lowepro Stealth Reporter is a high-quality product and exceptionally good at its job.

Lowepro makes very clever bags, and they make dozens of them. Each one is conceived for a certain use or niche (rhymes with quiche) with all kinds of little tweaks and bits that pull the bags away from general-purpose and toward specialization. Whether their designs are widely copied, like the Slingshot, or blatant copies, like their Pro Messenger series, these aren't versatile bags that will become cherished classics.

Notwithstanding all of the Stealth's many strengths, I'm not a fan of the Lowepro's aesthetics, dislike its design objectives, and don't agree with its stiffly-padded worldview. But it did what I wanted and, since I bought it at a clearance sale, it cost what I was willing to pay. The last time I bought a camera bag with expediency and budget as my main considerations I ended up with the Lowepro Micro Trekker, which I hated after just a few hundred miles, so compared to that the Stealth Reporter and I are off to a great start.

If only they had picked a different name.

last updated 29 june 2012


Nikon F5

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's the five-ton truck of the 35mm world.

The Long Version: I have a problem: I like cameras. The Nikon F5 has been on my to-buy list for a couple of years, but back then their prices were beyond what I was willing to spend on a film camera and I bought the more reasonable F100 instead. Happily, this past spring the benevolent spirits of Craigslist came through for me, and now a legendary F5 is mine.

If the D800 is the God Nikon then the F5 a Titan. It's the camera that all modern pro and semi-pro Nikons are descended from, whether they're film or digital. The button-and-dial control layout started here, and it's amazingly seamless to switch between the F5 and a digital body – maybe too easy.

The F5 is fast. Really, really fast. Not only is the shutter blackout incredibly brief, the film advance is so quick that its sound is subsumed within the not-subtle shutter and mirror noise. Working with the F5 barely feels like using film at all, which is a little scary with a camera that can rip through an entire roll in under five seconds.

Needless to say, I keep my F5 in single-frame mode whenever it's loaded.

Holding the F5 is like looking at a photo from the D800: unreasonably awesome. If I'm ever concerned about needing to bludgeon my way through a wall or out of a crowd, the F5 is absolutely the camera that I'll want to carry. I'm pretty sure that, if swung with enough force, the Nikon F5 could disassemble just about any camera out there and still work flawlessly.

The F5 feels better to hold than any other Nikon I've tried, and it proves that in 1996 Nikon still knew how to build a proper thumb rest. But sadly, they quite literally don't make them this way any more. The incredible impression of solidity that the F5 enjoys at least partially comes from not needing all of the buttons, screens, and flippery that infest digital cameras. The F5 isn't a gadget, it isn't something to fiddle with or check out – it takes photos and asks no questions.

The vertical grip is worth a quick mention. These days it's common to see a complete suite of controls on either the pro bodies or the accessory grips for the more compact cameras, but the F5 only has the basics: shutter release, AF-On button, and a lockout switch. The grip itself is also fairly subtle, so the camera is held with an open hand instead of a gripping fist. That's unlike any vertical grip on the market today, but it's still effective and – I might as well say it – it keeps the bulk of the camera down.

The F5 is also the last Nikon film camera to offer Live View: it has a removable prism, much like many of its Medium Format friends. Even without the various alternative viewing devices that can be attached, such as the waist-level hood or magnifying eyepieces – which are still quite expensive – sliding the prism off of the top of the camera can provide a look-down viewing alternative. Perhaps that's not the most useful feature, but it can be a fun trick to do with a room full of digital kids.

By today's standards the F5's five-point autofocus sounds primitive, but it's accurate and sensitive. I tend to use just the centre autofocus point with all of my cameras, and only occasionally move to a different point for predictably off-centre compositions, and the F5 is perfectly capable of playing along.

I did make a big mistake when learning about the autofocus with my F5, though – I tried it with the 80-200/2.8D lens. This is a heavy lens that depends on the camera's built-in motor to drive its focusing system, and I assumed that because it's a contemporary of the F5 that the two would be a good match. Very bad move: it was, and now I want an 80-200.

The F5 is powered by eight AA batteries, and its focusing motor could probably tear some lenses in half. The 80-200's huge elements were thrown into position with such force that I could feel the lens and camera – an eighteen-pound combination – jump and recoil in my hands. Using it with smaller AF-D lenses isn't as dramatic but is equally effective; the F5 has given my 85/1.8D new life. To think that I was once considering selling it…

Contemporary AF-S and VR lenses are fully compatible with the F5 as well, but what they gain in silent autofocus they lose in cool zipp-zipt sound effects. There's a lot to be said for old-school.

The only real drawback to the F5 is its size and weight, but those are also two of its better assets. Yes, my GA645zi is a smaller camera with a negative two and a half times bigger; having such a mousy little neg from a camera this size does seem pretty absurd. But if there's one thing that I've learned about photography it's that the camera fundamentally changes the process, and using the F5 is almost enough to make me feel 'macho' despite its rather modest endowment.

And yes, the F100 is a nice camera too, having mostly the same internals but being much more sensibly sized. As a second camera, such as one that backs up a digital body or as one that won't see very much use, it's a completely logical choice. I'm going to sell mine anyway – using it is simply no match for the F5 experience.

Compared to using a digital SLR the F5 does need a slightly different way of thinking. Its metering is excellent, but my favourite negative films are actually less forgiving than my D800, so I do need to watch out for high-contrast scenes and small highlights again. This is where I really miss the ability to use the rear control dial for "easy exposure compensation"; it's a shame to waste one of the dials in command-priority modes. The front command dial is also in a subtly different position than on the newer cameras, positioned more toward the lens-side of the grip, and the dials are also stiffer than on the current digital bodies.

I also have to remember that it's normal to see 'grain' with iso400 films – even my little Canon S100 has cleaner files than what Portra400 or XP2 can give me, but that's completely missing the point.

Using any film camera these days is an affectation – I doubt that anyone still depends on the F5 to get the shot that will pay their rent. Similarly, digital cameras are now so far beyond what small-format film can capture that using the F5 will actually be a step down from the image quality of any entry-level SLR from the past few years. That's completely okay. The charm of film these days is exactly the flaws, grain, quirks and colour palette that becomes an indivisible part of the image, and the different processes that changes the entire mindset around its photography.

So given that film is inherently an indulgence, why not use the biggest and the best that Nikon has ever made? The F5 is unquestionably a Pro camera, and these days it can be afforded by mere mortals. While I got lucky and found one in very good cosmetic condition, I wouldn't hesitate to buy one that looks like it's been bouncing around in the back of a truck. Given a moderate amount of shopping skills it shouldn't be too hard to convert $800 into an F5, 50/1.4D lens, and enough film to get started with. That's a small price for immortality.

last updated 22 june 2012


Ken Kirkwood on the Fujifilm GX680

I recently received an email from UK-based photographer Ken Kirkwood about his experience with the Fujifilm GX680 family of cameras, of which I had previously reviewed the Mark III version. I have to say that reading his letter makes me want to get out with my camera again, so it's time to pull some film out of the freezer.

With his permission, I'm including it in its entirety here. Ken has also been kind enough to provide these sample photos.

It was with great interest that I recently read your excellent review of this fabulous camera.

As a professional here in the UK working mainly on location shooting architecture and interiors (amongst many other subjects) I have used the 680 since 1990. I started with a Mark 1 (obviously as that was the only one available then!)

In my view it was the 'perfect' camera for the work I was doing, not that there is such a thing as a 'perfect' camera.

I found that it combined many of the useful/essential features of a view camera with the mobility of a medium format kit. Obviously the word mobility is used in the context of it being quicker and easier to handle than a Sinar or a Linhof, both of which the 680 replaced. It is still a lump to carry round. My assistants used to say it was a Hasselblad built by Tonka Toys, which sums it up beautifully, I suppose!

I later added a Mark 2 then finally a Mark 3, which was an improvement on a camera which I thought could not be improved on!

To say I used it a lot is an understatement! For example just ONE of roll film backs' exposure indicated shows 150,000+ exposures on that back alone!

Whilst it is bulky to transport and carry around it didn't seem to matter too much as I was shooting mainly interiors in offices, hotels etc so on location we usually transported the camera kit plus lighting on trolleys. Outdoors it was a different story but it was still possible to move around with the Fuji so long as it was not too far! I was very interested to see your solution to carrying it on location.

If I had to move/shoot fast or over some distance I resorted to the Hasselblad kit.

We literally transported the beloved Fuji all over the world from Hong Kong, the Middle East and the Caribbean by air freight. In Europe it was just case of throwing all the equipment (in big Peli cases) plus lighting and grip kit in our van and just set off.

None of my 680s ever once let me down on any shoot anywhere. The only problems we ever had—and these were minor and easily overcome by using spares—was with the roll film backs and this was just because of amount of use to which they were subjected! They just wore out!

The image quality of the lenses was incredible—but that I suppose is subjective. I have never been a nerd that had to feel better knowing how may lines per millimetre a lens could deliver. That is chimera in any case, in my view, as any superiority any lens might in theory display eg a Zeiss Biogon is nullified when an image is reproduced in print in a brochure. That is the reason I was shooting so when the images went through the four colour reproduction process they were normally only printed using a maximum screen process of 360. So it was not possible to detect what lens was used to deliver the final image!

Because of the subjects I was shooting my most used lenses—possibly my favourites, too!—were initially the 65 and 80 mm. I could hardly wait until the fabulous 50 mm came out! I loved that lens even more.The front standard movements, rise, fall, cross and tilt made the camera unbeatable for interiors whilst with the shutters being in the lenses it meant that flash sync. was not ever a problem. Long exposures were easy and accurate, this was essential because I was using tungsten lighting or available light almost exclusively.

Because of the rail extensions and front tilt it made the 680 an ideal camera when shooting food on location as we often had to do in hotels. Sometimes we had two 680s on different tripods setting up a food shot on camera and shooting another dish on the other as it was prepared. So we could move FAST and more than often had to! Clients loved the quality and resolution of the 680 as well as the format as well as the mobility and speed of use of the camera itself. My time was their money so I always worked FAST.

My total lens kit comprises 50, 65, 80, 180, 210, 300. 500 and the HUGE zoom—what a lens that is! Both it and 500 each had be supported on a special extended plate before attaching to a tripod! I also have several 120/220 roll film backs, bellows, extension tubes, finders, etc plus batteries and chargers. Almost as soon as we arrived at a location we would plug in a charger, just in case, because we would shoot a LOT of roll-film 120 and 220 per day using Kodak EPP, or Fuji RTP, or Provia films as well as the excellent Fuji Instant film. I never shot much, if any, Velvia which I could never get on with. But we hardly ever had a flat battery even after a long day's shooting.

The ability to rotate the magazine was also a terrific bonus but perhaps the best feature of this camera was the format 6x8 cm. It is almost on the same diagonal as 35 mm, 6x4,5 and 5x7". And it is an almost perfect fit on A4 paper. A win-win situation.

At the same time as I was using the 680 I was also using the other Fuji masterpiece: the 6x17 panorama camera, with three lenses.

Sadly these days the beloved Fuji (or the FOOJ as my assistants used to call them!) is hardly used. Lack of work and the cost benefits (to clients at least) of digital medium format has rather made it unnecessarily redundant. I know it is possible to use my Sinar Eyelike digital back on a 680 body with an adapter but its' 645 format negates the benefits of the 680 format. Also, the widest angle lens the 50mm is nothing like as wide on the 645 format so all my lenses immediately would become 'longer'. How very sad. I miss it so much and it breaks my heart to see this fabulous kit unused but there is almost no second-hand market for it especially in the UK. But there is no way I could just dump it all…

I just think that this fabulous camera should be more appreciated and have—and should have had—a better press. That other photographers never accepted it or even investigated it is their loss. Years ago a pro dealer I used in London, when I asked about ordering a Fuji 680 item said 'I don't know any photographer, especially of architecture, who would ever use that camera'. I said 'How about me?' He investigated it and lo, and behold he stocked it and sold it!

I used the camera to photograph the work of some of the best known architects and interior designers in the world. It was not uncommon for us to return home at the end of a shoot overseas, in Europe or the UK with literally hundreds of rolls of film. Almost all shot without instant film/Polaroids. I knew I could rely on the 680 and it NEVER let me down. EVER.

In terms of cameras I have owned and used almost all the Big Names in medium and large format: Hass, Rollei, Mamiya, Pentax, Linhof, Sinar, but none of these ever came close to the Fuji 680. The optimum compromise. As near perfect as a camera can get, in my book. I think the man in Japan who conceived, designed and then manufactured it deserves all the credit and accolades he should have. So does Fuji Photo. But he will always be an unsung hero. How sad. What a shame, too, that they no longer manufacture it.

What also made it so great was the format: 6x8 cm which is wider than 6x7 but not so wide as 6x9 and the added 'hidden' bonus was the fact that with 9 frames per roll (or 18 on 220) it was easy to bracket three exposures per shot without having an odd image at the end of a roll of film.

I understand that it had a greater appreciation in the US and obviously could attract a much bigger customer base there. But you have already discovered just how good it is. Great news.

Sure, it takes a little getting used to to really appreciate its' qualities but that also applies to another Great Lump: the fabulous Boeing 747! They are both in the same league in my book: big, brilliant, unequaled work-horses.

I just thought you might like to share my Fuji 680 thoughts. If any have any contacts interested in purchasing a Mark 1 or Mark 2 body please put them in touch.

But again thanks for an excellent and justified review, I agree with every word you wrote—and then some!

Ken has vastly more experience with the GX680 than I ever will; while I do cherish it, mine mostly lives in its purpose-built storage unit and only comes out to play a couple of times a year. But Ken's experience rings true for me as well. If medium format film ever becomes scarce, my 680 is the camera that it will be dedicated to.

I also had to laugh when I read Ken's characterization of the Hasselblad as the system he would resort to when he'd need "to move/shoot fast or over some distance". That's exactly why I bought my 500c/m – the idea of a `blad as a small, convenient camera is something that makes perfect sense to people who use the GX680. The Fuji has a dedicated Kata 210 backpack and wooden tripod that also needs its own bag, while the Hasselblad can slip into my usual Billingham Hadley Pro and fits on a tripod that can be hand-carried. But I'd still only use the little Swedish camera when that added mobility is more important than image quality.

While many photographers are just being reintroduced to Fujifilm through its retro-styled "X-series" digital cameras, to me the GX680III will remain their greatest achievement. There may not be a 'perfect' camera, but the 680 remains undefeated.

Ken Kirkwood can be reached at

ken at kenkirkwoodphotographer dot com.
His website is kenkirkwoodphotographer.com.

last updated 13 june 2012


Awareness for Etymotic, Part One: Registration and Installation

Concept: 0 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: I hope getting there isn't half the fun.

The Long Version: As a reviewer, there's a special place in my heart for companies and products that really piss me off. They have reviews that practically write themselves – and Etymotic, with their handling of Essency's "AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" iOS App, has joined this select group.

I very recently bought a pair of Etymotic's HF3 earphones, which is bundled with the downloadable "AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" iOS program by the UK developer Essency. Essentially, "AWARENESS!®" is a clever-sounding program that uses the built-in mic to monitor and optionally transmit ambient sounds. This isn't a review of the app, although that's coming up soon; a review of the earphones themselves may also eventually follow as well. For now I'm just looking at the post-purchase experience: going from the earphones' retail box to the point where the "AWARENESS!®" application is up and running.

There is also a paid "AWARENESS!®PRO" version that unlocks a few additional features. The upgrade process is straightforward, but I won't bother dealing with the anti-customer stupidity of charging $15 in the iTunes Store versus the $5 cost of upgrading through the application. I'll save that for part two.

"AWARENESS!® for Etymotic" requires an account that's created via the Etymotic website. It asks for an amazing amount of personal information, including an email address, phone number, and full mailing address. If something is omitted, don't expect it to be easy to figure out what it is – I'm hardly an idiot when it comes to this internet thing, and I lost track of the number of times I bumped into some unmarked mandatory field or missed a requirement. And incidentally, you also need to type in the UPC and the secret code that's printed on the top of the box. Awesome.

And the purpose of asking for all of this information is made perfectly clear: to create the account to register the product to be able to use the app, the lucky customer must select at least one of Ety's marketing "tell me more" checkboxes. And no, "none of the above" is not an option. Not only is that repugnantly disrespectful, I'll even bet that it's illegal in many jurisdictions.

Once you've pressed "submit" – to the invasion of privacy and blatant disregard of your wishes – you earn the ability to log in to their "free" app.

Download the app, click to log in, and it asks for a user name and password. Hold on – the password is what I laboriously created online, but there was no mention of what the user name will be. Is it my full name, which was a mandatory field? Perhaps it's the required e-mail address? Could it be something randomly generated and buried in the click-this-link verification email? I love guessing games.

I type something in and get an error message: unable to connect to network. Check your internet connection. That's not unreasonable; two bars are showing on my iPhone 4S, but I'm on the Rogers Wireless network in downtown Toronto, so failure is always an option. I move to a place with better reception and type in my first guess again. Same 'bad network' result. Now I have to consider that "AWARENESS!®" could just be an idiotic program, so I ignore the second warning and take another guess at what my user name might be. Third time lucky: now it thinks that the Internet connection is just fine and I'm in.

And no, I'm not going to spoil the surprise by saying what worked.

I'm sure someone will helpfully point out that I don't need to use the app, and that I could choose to ignore it and continue to exist in anonymity. If I did that then I would still resent Etymotic for having the audacity to ask such impertinent questions as a condition of deriving the advertised benefits of their product, but I would also feel like I'm being cheated out of some features that they promote as "included with purchase" simply because I won't accept their blatantly unreasonable terms. That's not an improvement.

What's more, the "AWARENESS!®" app is important enough to Etymotic that they heavily promote it. They market isolation as a unique product advantage for their earphones, which makes the features of the app seem useful and appealing: it's in their interest for me to want it, associate it with them, and like it. It's absolutely not in their interest for me to be so dissatisfied with the process that I investigate further and discover that Essency also markets a generic version that makes Etymotic's vaunted isolation seem much less remarkable, and come away feeling cheapened and deceived.

It takes an unconscionable amount of hubris for companies like Essency and Etymotic to demand personal information in this post-LulzSec era. Linkedin, eHarmony, and Last.fm all fell to hackers in the time that it took me to write this, but I'm supposed to trust that Essency's infrastructure and information is properly secured? Seriously? The etymotic.com/awareness/register page isn't even encrypted.

Do you follow the internet's best practices and use a unique and complex password for every little pissant product registration page? I certainly don't, and although I do try to limit the damage that can be done, it seems inevitable that these small fish are going to get fried.

I have to ask: is the risk to Etymotic and Essency of non-Etymotic-owners using the limited functions of the free app – or purchasing the $5 Etymotic version instead of the functionally identical $7 unbranded edition – so great that it's worth the liability and effort of having the registration process at all, let alone one so onerously-yet-ineffectually locked down? Is having my email address really worth what it costs?

While I'm yet to form an opinion of the application itself, I do wish that I had found the white-label version rather than following Etymotic's links. It seems to skip the registration step, and the extra couple of bucks seems like a small price to pay for avoiding all of this nonsense.

Even assuming that there is a valid reason for Etymotic and/or Essency to restrict the app via product registration, there's still no excuse for the information that they collect or the platform that they do it with. "AWARENESS!®" is already capable of accepting and confirming login information – asking instead for the UPC and box code, and skipping all of the privacy invasions and marketing hoop-jumping, would be just as (in)effective at keeping the undesirables out. Instead they choose to inflict this anti-customer bullshit on people who either already have or would otherwise like to give them money.

Etymotic, a company with a sterling reputation for sound, thinks that getting my information is so important that they're willing to make me hate them. And to what end? When I do receive their mandatory marketing material I guarantee that all it will do is remind me how much I resent them right now.

Today my earphones are shiny and new. I took the considerable effort to seek out this brand and model, and spent a big chunk of money to own them. This should be the peak of my post-purchase happiness. Instead this terrible software tie-in and registration has me writing a 1200-word rant about just how bad the experience was.

What a massive amount of hassle and effort for such a lousy reward.

last updated 7 june 2012


M4/3 Lens Adapters

Three lens adapters for Micro Four Thirds: 4/3, F and M

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Refuge of last resort?

The Long Version: It seems like such a good idea – you can use almost any lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera. All you need is the correct adapter, and it can bring back lenses from extinct systems, enable exotics, or otherwise expand the available range. What could go wrong with that?

Just about everything.

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Converting lenses invariably involves compromises that native lenses rarely face. Awkward focal lengths, poor balance, flawed ergonomics, suboptimal image quality; adapters are extra hassle even with lenses that are designed for manual focus and aperture control.

Olympus Four Thirds 50/2 Macro lens on Panasonic GH1

In the best case of an electronically coupled adapter, such as the ones that fit Four Thirds lenses to Micro Four Thirds cameras, mixing systems is relatively painless. The 4/3 50mm f/2 Macro lens lives on a really great Panasonic adapter, so all that I lose is autofocus, which is a trivial concession for macro lens anyway. Moving the (electronic) focusing ring magnifies the LCD view, half-pressing the shutter button puts the camera back in 'compose' mode, and aperture tasks are automatically controlled by the camera. The process is still somewhat flawed, but so is the Panasonic 45mm macro, so it's a wash.

There are other Olympus lenses that would do well on m4/3 bodies; with the sole exception of the 7-14, no "high grade" or "super high grade" lens has a native m4/3 equivalent. But these are the larger, heavier lenses that are a poor fit for the Micro bodies in the first place. Is the lens quality improvement from putting an adapter on the 50-200 worth the extra size and hassle versus just using the micro four thirds 45-200mm, especially while Olympus 4/3 SLRs are still available?

 Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-D lens on a Cosina adapter mounted to a Panasonic GH1

Another popular system to adapt to m4/3 is Nikon's F-mount. I have a high-quality adapter made by Cosina, bearing the Voigtländer name, which doesn't have an aperture control. Other adapters offer this, letting "G" lenses be used with an approximate degree of control, but I once had a pretty good collection of AF-D lenses that still have the aperture ring so this wasn't important.

This is where we reach the 'stop-down metering' issue, which complicates the shooting sequence. First, open the aperture to its widest for the clearest live view image and shallowest depth of field. Press the correct button combination to magnify the live view on the right spot, do the back-and-forth thing with the focus, and then do whatever it takes to dismiss the magnified live view and recompose. Now, before the subject or camera moves out of focus, stop the aperture back down to the correct setting to take the photo. This means counting the clicks, because you can't see the numbers change with the camera in position, or just guessing. All set? Great! Snap away.

And the ugly reality, as if it needed to be any worse, is that most autofocus lenses have very bad manual focus control. Short throw, light action, sloppy gearing; not only is the lens on the wrong camera, it's now depending on something that was an afterthought from the very beginning of the design process.

 Carl Zeiss M-mount lens on a Panasonic camera

But some lenses are actually meant to work with manual aperture selection and manual focus that's controlled by feel. M-mount lenses for Leica and compatible rangefinders, such as my Zeiss Ikon and its lenses, are small optical jewels that seem perfectly suited to the m4/3 format. Indeed, these are excellent lenses that are so expensive that they're likely to be worth more than the camera, when bought even second-hand. Naturally, I bought a cheap generic adapter for mine, which has a bad release mechanism and unsatisfying build quality.

Working with adapted lenses is where Olympus cameras have a real advantage over Panasonics, since the in-body stabilization can make a wonderful wide-angle like the ZM 35mm f/2 into a stabilized short telephoto. Of course, cropping out three-quarters of the imaging circle loses most of the character that makes this lens great in the first place, in the same way that it fundamentally changes the character of all of the lenses used. But if they're just kicking around doing nothing, at least using an adapter is cheaper than buying a compatible digital camera for it, or even a film body. Not excellent, but expedient.

left to right: F-mount, 4/3-mount, and M-mount lenses

Inherently compromised, lens adapters fall somewhere between 'better than nothing' and 'no other choice'. The fact that sometimes they really are the best option for the camera is a fault, not a feature. Yes, they expand capability and can bring neglected favourites back into use, but there has never been a time when I've used an adapted lens when there's a native equivalent available.

The only way that I can wholly endorse using an adapted lens is when it's done for artistic or expressive reasons – but if that's the goal, then all practical considerations are already irrelevant.

That's an exceptional condition to aspire to.

last updated 31 may 2012

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