Chris Reeve Small Sebenza 21 Insingo

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It cuts stuff – is anything else about it important?

The Long Version: Sebenza. I first heard its name in reverent tones when I joined the usenet alt.rec.knives eighteen years ago, and I've been seeing it mentioned, even if it's only as an aside, almost every time I've researched a higher-end folding knife. This is the knife: there are a lot of other really good pocket knives out there, a few costing more and most costing less, but sooner or later they're all compared to a Sebenza.

Making the jump up to the Sebenza wasn't something I did easily. I read every review I could find online, watched the beginnings of many YouTube reviews, and spent a few weeks going through my knife box to revisit some of the favourites that I've been neglecting since buying my Spyderco Caly3. I decided that the Small Sebenza would suit me best, and that it would make a great self-present for Christmas.

But echoing through many contemporary Sebenza 21 reviews was another word: Insingo. This is a Sebenza variant with a different blade shape that seems better suited to my typical urban-work tasks than the traditional woodlands-hunting drop point pattern. Apparently it's in low-volume production, despite not being mentioned anywhere on the Chris Reeve Knives site, so when I found a dealer with one in stock I grabbed it. In early September. I have impulse-control issues.

Reviewers invariably call the Insingo's blade shape "a modified wharncliffe", but doesn't come close to describing what it's good for. A wharncliffe – similar to the sheepfoot – has a straight cutting edge and a spine that meets it in a blunt point. The "modification" is that the Insingo inherits a subtle belly and has a narrow but unsharpened swedge. It's extremely strong with excellent penetration ability, and it's very easy to slip between the taped-down flaps of a cardboard box without hurting the contents. That's not as tacticool as the chisel-tipped tanto, I know, but how many of us actually need to stab through car doors?

Translated from Zulu, 'Sebenza Insingo' becomes 'Work Razor'. There's really no better description of the blade. It's not what I would choose for field-dressing a deer, but it excels at field-dressing cardboard boxes, which I'm much more likely to do. It's very hard to think of any warehouse or utility tasks where I would choose another blade pattern over the Insingo, and in the three months that I've owned it, the only other knives I've willingly used have had "Victorinox" stamped on them somewhere.

The Sebenza's handle design is simple, subtle, and effective. Very slightly concave on top and bottom, this slab-sided titanium feels solid without needing any particular grip to work well. It's a small detail, but it makes a huge difference; the Sebenza is easy to hold and I know from feel where it is in my hand. There's a finger choil on the bottom just in front of where the knife naturally balances when open, giving it a secure hold and a lively feel.

I was amazed to find that its handle is the same thickness as my broad and finger-grooved Caly3, because the Sebenza is noticeably more agile and dexterous to use. I actually work my way down a line of cardboard boxes faster and more confidently than I do with my Caly3 or Medium Voyager, which have blades of similar lengths. I hadn't expected that at all, but there's just something about the shape and balance of the Sebenza that works better – for me – than everything else I own.

The Sebenza's clip took a while to get used to. It has a secondary bend in it that seems sized to securely hold the top of a jeans' pocket, which is a sensible thing for an American-made knife to have. This gives it a strong hold, but also needs a little more care when putting it away. And for some reason the Sebenza's clip seems unusually willing to catch on my usual messenger bag or computer chair. But a simple hex wrench, included with purchase, is all that's needed to remove the clip to bend it back into shape. That same wrench can completely disassemble the knife for cleaning or maintenance, as well – there's no reason why this tool shouldn't last for decades.

The Sebenza is expensive, but the Sebenza Insingo – Sebingo – is my perfect knife. The blade is the right size, the handle has the right weight, its construction is flawless, and its pedigree is beyond reproach. The only criticism I can really level at it is how quickly the blue anodizing has worn from the thumb stud, but I was planning on sending it back to Chris Reeve to have it replaced with a silver double stud regardless. The fact that that might even be an option is pretty cool.

One thing I haven't been able to determine is if the Insingo is an attractive knife or not. No, it's not really relevant, but my Benchmade Stryker is almost ridiculously good-looking, and it wouldn't hurt if the Seb could keep up. The slab-sided swedge doesn't really match the aesthetic of the rest of the knife, and the blade profile is certainly unusual, creating a slightly odd combination. But the way it feels and works is very convincing, so that's enough for me.

It's too soon to know if the Insingo has satisfied my desire to own one really good knife, or if it has just set a new high-water mark for my budget and introduced me to a new manufacturer. It certainly isn't the last knife I'm going to buy – I've already picked up a couple of new little ones – but it has changed what I look for.

last updated 20 dec 2012


Nikon 1 V1, Part 2

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Accepting limits and resetting expectations.

The Long Version: I bought the Nikon V1 only because it uses the EN-EL15 battery. My main camera is a Nikon D800, so this gives me two complimentary cameras that use the same charger, and now I have a pool of four batteries to share between them. It's a rare moment of system-building from Nikon, which they corrected by launching a brand new battery with the Nikon 1 V2. The J1/J2 also use a different battery that no other cameras take, making the V1 a rare gem.

Let me be even more clear: I don't care how much smaller the J1/J2 are, and I don't care if the V2 has better image quality (edited to add: it doesn't) or that it's even faster than the V1. I didn't buy the V1 as an endorsement of the CX format or Nikon's idea of what a mirrorless camera should be, or because I'm interested in it as a multi-generational camera system. I bought it as a small camera with a few little lenses that would compliment my heavy iron, creating a higher-quality alternative to my Canon S100 for travel and casual photography.

I also would not have bought the V1 if Nikon wasn't blowing them out at a fraction of their introductory price. This camera, with the 10-30mm lens, cost less than a decent point-and-shoot. The $900 launch price put this camera up against competition that it couldn't hope to beat, but now that a two-lens kit sells for half of that, the camera deserves to be reevaluated.

Most of the people who blindly hate the "Nikon 1" system and its CX format – but, admittedly, not all – have never used one of these cameras and just dislike it on principle. I went over my complaints about the V1 elsewhere, but what really frustrates me is that deep inside there's a really competent camera that's struggling to get out. I went from having just the discounted zoom kit to a full system, with two zooms, a fast prime, the adapter for my AF-S Nikon lenses, and Richard Franiec's custom grip, in just three weeks. The total kit still cost less than the Panasonic 7-14 for my GH1, too – it's hard to dislike that.

The CX format took a lot of grief for having a little sensor, but it does make for some small and cheap lenses. The Nikon 30-110 is slightly smaller and lighter than the Olympus 40-150, which shares the same field of view, despite having five more elements and built-in image stabilization. Putting the V1+30-110 next to a 70-300mm on my D800, or even a 55-200mm on a D7000, is eye-opening. No, the V1 won't give me the image quality that the heavies do, but I simply wouldn't carry the SLRs with those lenses for casual use in the city.

My entire V1 kit is something I can throw in a small 7L-capacity sling bag just in case I feel like using it. Then I add a toque, gloves, keys, wallet, my S100, iPhone, earphones, beverage, and snacks to the bag as well. No big deal at all. That same bag can just barely squeeze in the D800 and 70-300, with its hood reversed, but it would carry nothing else.

I can easily pack my Domke F6 "Little Bit Smaller" with a two-camera system. The D800 takes up a third of the bag all on its own. The FT1 F-to-CX mount adapter, 50/1.4G, and 105VR, hood reversed, occupies the middle third. The V1 with 18.5mm prime attached, 10-30 standard zoom, and 30-110 telephoto take up the final third. A couple of spare batteries and the charger that feed both cameras can happily fit in the front pocket of this small camera bag. Can anyone say "Road Trip"?

The V1 happily motors along at 5fps, with a buffer that holds 42 raw images, and can still use its wide-area phase-detect auto focus for tracking birds in flight. If that's not enough then it can drive at 10fps with centre-point AF calculated for each shot. If that's still not enough it can step up to 30 or 60fps, but at the expense of locking focus and taking its as-metered exposure from the first frame.

Stop for a second and think about that: this camera was launched in September 2011, back when the D3s was the king, and the big Nikon did 9fps with a 48-shot buffer. No, the V1 isn't nearly the camera that the D3 was, but you can't fault it for a lack of ambition.

Making this even better is that the V1 does it all with an electronic shutter that's completely silent. Other cameras are 'nearly' silent, like the leaf shutter in the Fuji X100, or the mechanical shutters in the average compact camera, but the whole Nikon 1 family can make absolutely no sound at all. The lenses are also very, very quiet when focusing; to my ear they're even quieter than my AF-S lenses. If I'm in a sound-sensitive environment – music recital, guest at a wedding, family gathering, audio recording – then there really is no other camera choice.

The CX sensor size does naturally have its downsides. It shows about three stops more depth of field than an FX camera. Its pixel density would work out to about a 74Mpx full-frame sensor, making it fairly demanding on its lenses. It shows high-iso noise – and mid-iso noise – fairly easily, and most lenses are diffraction-limited by the time they're zoomed all the way in. But this sensor size that's widely considered too small for a serious camera has set the compact world on fire within the Sony RX100, so it's not worth being too worried about.

I'll have more to say about the FT-1 – Nikon's F-lens to CX-mount adapter – in another review, but the small sensor does redeem itself for telephoto and macro photography. You know what they say: every silver lining has a cloud.

Another problem with the CX sensor size is that the 2.72x crop involves some rather awkward math. I wish Nikon had gone with a 2.5x or 3x just to make the system easier to grasp – quite seriously, if something is tough to explain in a store or in an ad, it's a problem. Rather than trying to multiply by 2.72 in my head, I use the simpler "(f x 3) - ((F x 3)/10)" where "f" is the focal length. Really, this is easier – triple the focal length and subtract a tenth.

Take the 105mm lens in the photo above as an example: one hundred and five times three is three hundred and fifteen. A tenth of three hundred and fifteen is thirty-one and a half, but we'll round down since focal lengths are just approximations anyway. Three hundred and fifteen less thirty is two hundred and eighty five. So a 105mm lens on the V1 has about the field of view of a 285mm lens on a full-frame camera. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to convert that to other crop factors.

(The "equivalence" arguments are boring and pedantic, but yes: depth of field at f/2.8 on CX will look like f/5.6 on DX or f/8 on FX, and iso400 on the V1 has about the same noise as iso1600 on a D7000 or 3200 on an 800. TANSTAAFL, h8rs.)

Understanding the battery life with the V1 isn't as simple as counting the number of photos per charge. The normal CIPA testing cycle gives about 400 photos, but that's based on a lot of pausing and review. I've taken over 1500 photos on one battery when using long bursts of consecutive shots to catch action, so apparently that barely taxes the camera at all. There's a lot to be said for having a spare battery whenever it's important, and the V1 doesn't have all-day endurance. But it does have better stamina than most of the compact or mirrorless cameras out there, and easily smokes my D800 when the heavy iron is depending on live view.

One neat feature of the V1 is the built-in intervalometer. I tried to do a time-lapse with my D700 once, but the incessant clicking of the shutter drove me to distraction, and all of those shots probably took fifty bucks off of the camera's eventual resale value. A bad idea all around. But combine the intervalometer with a silent shutter and one problem goes away; the fact that a Nikon V1 has zero resale value from the very beginning makes the other problem moot as well.

Accepting that the Nikon 1 system is likely to be orphaned and will eventually die alone and unloved really is liberating. Not only do I not have to worry about running up the shot count – not that the electronic shutter is likely to wear out – I finally have a camera that I can customize. I've used a pigment pen to black out Nikon's logo (after a few failed experiments with acrylic paint) and, although it's still a little glossy, the dye job has held up well and is easy to retouch. I've taped over the small V1 logo, which has the added benefit of stopping the accessory port cover from falling off. Richard Franiec's grip replaces the big silver "1" logo with a muted version, and vastly improves the V1's handling. Now the camera is really mine, and I feel a certain affection for it that I didn't have before.

Despite knowing a couple of photographers who exclusively use different mirrorless interchangeable lens format cameras, such as our friend Bill Beebe, I'm not nearly ready to give up my SLRs. I'm not even willing to give up my other mirrorless format, which is currently the old Panasonic GH1 and three lenses, or my little point-and-shoots. I like cameras. I can't help it.

A camera that can be used one-handed and carried in a pocket is very different from one that needs two hands to use, so something like the Canon S100 does fill a different niche – rhymes with quiche – than the V1. Trading image quality for convenience is a long and honourable photographic tradition. The practical difference between the S100 and V1 is that I won't print more than 5x7" from an S100 image, while I can push the V1 up to 18x12", so I only carry the S100 when fitting in a pocket is its main photographic requirement.

Owning a D800 – or really, any of the cameras that take an EN-EL15 battery – renders the shortcomings of the Nikon V1 irrelevant. Poor image quality in low light? I don't care. Relatively low resolution? I don't care. Extensive depth of field? I don't care. I have a bigger and better camera, a 'real camera' if you prefer, that takes care of all of that. When it's dark, or peak image quality matters, the V1 isn't the camera I would reach for. I would't endorse the V1 as an Only Camera, but with more modest expectations there's no reason why it can't play happily alongside others.

Of course it would be nice to have a camera that combines cutting-edge DSLR performance with the size of a mirrorless camera, but that simply isn't going to happen for the next few years. Being small and quiet, with decent image quality, is really all I ask from my second-tier digital cameras, and that's all the Nikon V1 is ever going to be. I'm okay with that. You're invited to read 'part three' of this review, where I look at actual image quality, but for now I can say that it's sufficient, and that's enough for me.

last updated 26 sept 2013


Nikon 1 V1, Part 1

Concept: 1 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Unquestionably the best camera of 2009.

The Long Version: The Nikon 1 V1 is a deeply flawed camera, and those flaws start with its name. The "Nikon 1" appellation is very difficult to search for, the "CX" format name has no traction, and the whole thing just sounds dumb. Nikon already makes three distinctly different operational tiers of SLRs, in two different sensor formats, and didn't feel the need for anything more than model names to identify them. The "1" in 'Nikon 1' is superflous and self-aggrandizing, and is probably an underlying reason why Nikon's small-sensor mirrorless format was so ruthlessly mocked by the camera intelligentsia.

Let's be clear: Nikon had it coming. From the marketing exhortation to "set your creative freedom free" to their offended "but we've been working on this for four years" stance, it's clear that they had no warning of the animosity that their 116-square-millimetre sensor and Sigma SD1-esque launch price would provoke. It was as if every camera-blogger and forum dweller had turned into Ken Rockwell, convinced of the indisputable rightness of their opinions based on something they read on the internet. I have to admit that I joined in briefly, decided that it was an evolutionary dead end, and then – like the rest of us Serious Camera People – forgot all about the system. Now, a year later, its price has dropped through the floor.

I have been mocked and derided for buying a V1, but I was shooting 4/3 sensors before they were cool. My photography has occasionally benefited from an antagonistic attitude, so the V1 suits this approach perfectly. But of course, not all of the initial scorn that the V1 faced was unwarranted. Far from it.

The V1 camera itself feels like it was designed by three different people who weren't on speaking terms. There are flashes of real brilliance here, which just makes its failings all the more frustrating.

The green 'power' light on the top of the camera is dark when the LCD is on – it's redundant, and thinking to turn it off is an elegant design touch. It's lit when the EVF is active, which is a great reminder that the camera is ready and drawing power. Yet even when the display button has been used to turn off the LCD there's no way to defeat the eye-sensor and keep the EVF active, so the EVF is always dark for a second when the camera is first brought up for use. Frustrating.

The camera's exposure compensation has a range of three stops in each direction, but there's no automatic exposure bracketing function. The camera is almost frighteningly fast to shoot, but there's no way to turn off the image review, or even to extend its duration should someone actually want to use that feature. This cripples the cameras' vaunted focusing speed and tracking. The Auto White Balance can be tuned to provide subtle colour refinement, but Active D-Lighting can only be turned on or off, with no level control. Only whole stops are available for setting a single iso sensitivity, but the auto-iso mode will use thirds of a stop increments; its ceiling can be set with three different maximum values, although it will never tell you what sensitivity it's actually using. And there aren't even any "Art" effects built in – which is a good thing, but it proves that this camera really did start its development an eon ago.

The appeal of the menu structure, which other reviewers have praised, escapes me. There's no apparent order or logic, settings that are likely to be changed frequently aren't located together, and there's no "my menu" list of recently used items to provide a shortcut. Yet the selection bar changes from yellow to red to warn the user that selecting "yes" after "format" isn't just another trifling choice. I've never seen another camera interface combining such poor execution with such thoughtful attention to detail.

It's absurd that a camera that offers pixel mapping, front and rear IR receivers for the wireless remote, and a built-in intervalometer nonetheless requires a trip into the menu to change the shooting mode. This inconsistency is my main frustration with the camera: if it was universally bad I could just write it off, but so much of it is better than this.

The V1's buttons and controls, few though they are, are still worth mentioning. Exposure compensation is one of the most useful photographic controls, and its button is the right side of the four-way pad – the three-o'clock position. It can be adjusted up or down by pressing the top or bottom of the control ring, or by rotating it like the command dial that it is. Setting a brighter exposure, which is an upwards movement of the on-screen indicator, is accomplished with a clockwise turn: that's rotating the dial "downwards" from the EV Comp button position. Completely counterintuitive.

The exposure compensation on-screen display is another of the V1's many almost-made-it design moments. It cleverly avoids clutter by only putting numbers at zero and at the ends of its range, and displays the currently selected value in white instead of black on the muted grey background. Very clear and easy to understand. But the LCD doesn't preview the effect of the change, and the V1 doesn't have a live histogram, so it's still a matter of guessing the correct setting before being able to see its results.

I'm not even going to discuss the "mode" dial – mine has been neutered by taping it in place. The only thing I really miss is having access to the better controls and options of the dedicated movie mode, and the extra few seconds to unstick the tape is a small price to pay for not accidentally using the Harry Potter or Auto-Cull modes. No, what really bothers me is that none of the three people who designed the V1 could think of a supplemental use for the dedicated "Trash" button when the camera is taking photos.

But I wouldn't take the time and effort to be this annoyed by the Nikon V1's faults if I didn't like the camera. In just a few weeks I've gone from essentially impulse-buying the deeply-discounted camera and standard zoom to owning a three-lens kit, an FT1 adapter for my full-sized lenses, and Richard Franiec's custom V1 grip. Clearly, despite its foibles and flaws, there's something very appealing about the Nikon V1 and the CX format.

After my first few weeks with the V1 I still can't decide if it's a good camera or not. It certainly has its frustrations; some of them go away when I'm using it, and others don't. There are a lot of good things going on with this camera, but I'm needing to learn how to use it in ways that I haven't faced with the many others that I own.

I have some very solid – although inevitably personal and subjective – reasons why this is exactly the right camera for what I do. I take a longer look at those, and possibly even discuss image quality, in part two.

last updated 11 dec 2012


Crumpler Noose Wrist Strap

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's neoprene, what's not to like?

The Long Version: The Crumpler Noose is a nylon and neoprene camera wrist strap that continues the companies' long tradition of unremarkable and bland product names. Available only in black, it's a mid-weight strap that works well on everything from full-sized SLRs down to mirrorless cameras and large compacts.

I like the Noose because it's a sensible size and well made. Many of the neoprene wrist straps on the market have cuffs so wide that they could be used for pulling heavy carts, but then the strap connects to the camera via a plastic quick-snap buckle. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Op/Tech.) The Noose costs a bit more than its more primitive cousins, but it also isn't embarrassing to use, which is a big win.

Crumpler doesn't include the hardware to attach the Noose to lugs that use split-rings to hold the webbing, such as many Nikon cameras. These should come with the camera, so it isn't a big deal; the attachment ring that I'm using in these photos is from a Domke strap, sold separately.

I'm not used to this in a wrist strap, but the Noose has a distinct front and back: it's designed lie flat around your wrist and across the back of your hand. For this to work I need to put my hand through the front – top? – of the loop. I'm used to straps that dangle from under my wrist, and I still get this wrong after a week of frequent use. But the Noose is worth the effort to get right. And rest assured, unlike its namesake, it's not self-tightening.

This strap also has a built-in pocket to hold an SD card, which is cleverly tucked into the flap that's secured with the red snap button. I was initially worried that using it would add some stiffness to the strap, but then I actually forgot that I had put a memory card into it, so that allayed my fears. There's just no reason not to tuck a spare / cheap card into it for emergencies.

So: it's comfortable, no bigger than it needs to be, adds a useful feature that others don't provide, and looks pretty good while doing it. I have to say that I'm quite pleased with it. If I ever decide to stop carrying my D800 on a shoulder strap, then I'll be back to talk to the helpful people at Aden Camera – my local store – and pick up another Noose.

last updated 4 dec 2012


Joby Griptight Smartphone Mount

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: They need to be everywhere.

The Long Version: The Joby Griptight is a clever little device that spring-clamps to a phone, folds flat for storage, and attaches to any tripod. It's a natural with the Joby Micro 250 – the smaller model of the Micro 800 that I've previously reviewed – which is how I typically use it.

When attached to one of Joby's Micro tripods it will only hold a phone in 'landscape' mode. Now, I rarely use my phone for photos or video, but this is perfect for propping the phone up on a table for watching videos. I've used this product for watching a couple of episodes of The Nature Of Things, so owning it has actually made me smarter. I've never said that about any other photographic or phone accessory, so that's a win right there.

The nice thing is that the Joby Griptight is that it's brand-agnostic. Many iPhone-specific tripod adapters won't even work with the phone in a case, but even my bulky Speck Candyshell Grip case – yes, terrible name – fits with no problem. I even borrowed an Android phone from the only person I know who has one, and it fit with no problem as well. I measure its widest span at about seven centimetres, which should accomodate just about anything that can be sensibly carried in a pocket.

I usually try to have something insightfully critical of the products I review, but in this case I'm coming up empty. It's not going to become a family heirloom, but it's solidly built and the judicial combination of metal and plastics keep it light. This little thing is actually the reason why I finally bought an x-mini capsule speaker: they combine to create my end-table home theatre. The Griptight is a good solution to a simple problem, and it folds down and stows easily when it's not needed. How could anyone not like that?

last updated 2 dec 2012

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