Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's 'Sport' in the 'SUV' sense.

The Long Version: Let's be honest – I'm something of a brand snob, and Lowepro comes across as the Targus of the camera-bag world. It's widely available, a recognized maker of decent stuff that everyone starts out with, and they've built an empire with well-designed but uninspiring black nylon bags. So I haven't paid much attention to what Lowepro has been up to recently, which is probably why their recent products have knocked my socks off. This is entirely my fault.

I've recently come into possession of the brand-new Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L. It's an awesome bag that joins the smaller 10 and 15-litre capacity Flipside Sport series; the whole family combines and builds on the ideas of the Photo Sport and original Flipside series, which are pretty impressive in their own rights. There's a lot of experience and thought behind this bag.

All of the Flipsides are 'system' bags that are designed to hold lots of gear without the large other-stuff compartment that multi-use camera backpacks have. The 20L Sport is voluminous without being overly bulky; it can carry my F5 or D800 with grip attached quite comfortably, even when one has a lens on it. None of my many other backpacks can do that, even when they take up the same amount of room on the bus.

The broader 'Flipside' design ethos is for a high-security pack that opens from the back, with only minimal exterior pockets. The Sport model distinguishes itself with an interesting tripod attachment method, trekking pole holders, ventilated shoulder straps, and the ability to hold a sold-separately hydration bladder. And, of course, it's available in orange.

The Flipside Sport 20L is not quite as spartan as the smaller 10L and 15L models. Most significantly, the 20L adds several layers of pockets to the front of the bag. Two of them are flat pockets with side zippers that can expand somewhat, and even the smaller one can hold a paperback-book-sized object. They don't have any internal dividers or organizers, however, which is something of a missed opportunity.

The third pocket, which opens across the top of the bag, is a 'storage panel' that's inherited from the standard Flipside 400 and 500 models. It's much more substantial than the side-zippered pockets, and has several interior organizing sub-pockets. It's still sized for things that are mostly flat, but one section is padded and big enough to protect a tablet or 11" Macbook Air. I have to confess that I feel like a bit of a genius for buying that diminutive computer, because it fits in all kinds of surprising places.

There are also two flat pockets inside the bag, one in the storage panel and the other inside the camera compartment, that are zippered and perfect for storing passports and travel documents. Very handy.

It's not limitless, but there's a lot of space in this bag. The photo above includes my D800 with grip and 60/2.8G macro lens attached, V1 with 30-110 attached, F5, 85/1.8D, and Sony 7506 headphones each in their own compartments; the 1-system 10-30mm and 18.5mm lenses share a compartment, as do the Nikon 50mm 1.4G and 1.4D lenses. There's room in the front pockets for my laptop and audio recorder that completes my setup, or I could easily swap something out to carry the bulky GA645zi medium format camera as well. If I'm not careful I can easily make this bag too heavy to carry comfortably, so I let that be my guide when I'm packing it for an outing.

And no, I don't think it's odd to concurrently own and use both Nikon 50/1.4 lenses.

Increasing the Flipside Sport's flexibility even more is that the entire padded camera compartment is removable, and even comes with its own drawstringed dust cover and handles to facilitate the process. So in a matter of seconds the bag goes from carrying a billion dollars of equipment to being a spacious and free-spirited daypack. I wouldn't plan for that as the bags' main use, but it's a nice option for unexpected contingencies.

The Flipside Sport's tripod attachment method is unorthodox but clever. Instead of the usual cup-the-feet and lash-the-top method, there are two heavy-duty bands that the tripod straddles, broad fabric flaps that cover them, and two webbing-and-buckle straps that secure everything in place. This holds the tripod very solidly without the usual wobble, covers the attachment points to stop it from snagging on branches and whatnot, and is fairly easy to use.

This attachment method can even simultaneously hold my Joby Gorillapod Focus and the shockmount system for my audio recorder, which a more typical tripod carrying method wouldn't permit. It's also a place to hold a sweater or jacket, which simply wouldn't fit anywhere else. Monopods are a bit more of a challenge, but could work as long as they have a head or platform to catch on the top of the support bands.

Another nice detail is that the grey accents on the bag really are grey. The various straps and fabrics don't give identical White Balance eyedropper values, and don't quite match my WhiBal card, which doesn't match Ezybalance, which also doesn't quite match my Passport – my point being that white balancing is always something of an approximation anyway. Sometimes "close enough" is good enough, and that's what we have here.

The readings for horrible fluorescent lighting that I took these pictures under varied by only 50-100K, with just a few points difference on the green-magenta bias, both from various greys on the bag and my WhiBal card. That's good enough for me. Of course, I can't attest to its consistency under different light sources, so as always I recommend testing it for yourself under field conditions before relying on any backpack as a white balance reference.

The non-tripod side of the Flipside Sport has the pocket for a water bladder, but despite its height and expandable pleat it's strangely useless for anything else. It doesn't hold nearly as much as it looks like it should, but if it can't zip closed then there's a webbing strap that can hold things in place. And there's nothing that stops it from being the world's largest MP3 player pocket, either.

The non-removable waist belt has lightly padded sides with mesh pockets, but these pockets have elastic tops instead of the zippers of the Photo Sport series. They might be handy for temporarily stashing snacks or lens caps, but I'd never trust my phone or compact camera in one. Ultimately the waist belt is my biggest disappointment with the bag, since it's not much better than a simple webbing strap, and yet it's not removable for the times when it's not needed. A good removable belt would be ideal, such as the one on my Kata 261PL 'Source', but I'd even prefer a simple removable webbing strap to the built-in one.

All of the Flipside Sports come with Lowepro's tethered All Weather cover. The back-panel access means that the camera compartment is already well-protected against rain and snow, but it also means that the camera compartment can be reached even when the AW cover is in place. So the cover is less necessary for its intended purpose, but is incredibly useful to protect the bag from dirty or damp surfaces when it's set down. I'd call that a win-win situation.

Something to add to the Flipside Sport is a little 'toiletries bag' that can aggregate and organize small incidentals. My Stealth Reporter 200 came with one, and after I stopped scoffing at the idea it turned out to be incredibly useful. It takes up a lens compartment, but is a great way to hold spare batteries, cable releases, film, earplugs, pill bottles, wireless remotes, earphones, housekeys, and all of life's other little necessities. The 20L is so large that losing a lens slot isn't a big deal, so it's a useful addition to a bag that lacks spacious everything-else pockets. Highly recommended.

Having the 20L Flipside Sport in my vast collection of camera bags is important to me. It's the only bag that can carry all three of my Nikon systems and favourite lenses, making it perfect for my brief but gear-heavy summer excursions to exotic places like the Leslie Street Spit. Assuming the ever-evolving carry-on regulations permit it, it would also be my choice for cross-continent trips when I'm able to carry a second bag for trivialities like a few changes of clothing. No, it wouldn't be my first choice for small street shooting kit, but it's a solid landscapists' working bag and it moves gear like nothing else.

Here's the funny thing: I like the Flipside Sport 20L so much that I spent weeks thinking about adding the Photo Sport 200 to my collection as well. That bag is a perfect compliment to the Flipside Sport, being a skinny little thing that's biased towards quick access to only a small amount of camera gear with lots of room for carrying non-photographic essentials. Ultimately I decided that I wanted something a little more urban than technical, and added a different Lowepro backpack to the family instead, and now it's my everyday-carry compliment to the more specialized Flipside Sport.

If anyone's interested in buying a lightly used Kata 3N1-22, let me know.

last updated 27 mar 2013


Lee Reamsnyder on the Panasonic G5

Panasonic G5 front

Lee Reamsnyder, longtime friend of thewsreviews and author of the best storage product review that I've ever read, joins us with his thoughts after spending a long weekend with the Panasonic G5.

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It isn't groundbreaking anymore.

Lee writes: In 2008, we were introduced to the first camera in what would become a swell little format, the groundbreaking Panasonic G1. It finally delivered on the promise of significantly smaller cameras and lenses matched with still-large sensors. It proved that electronic viewfinders (EVFs) were viable in a serious camera. It took great pictures.

No one talked about it.

Although the G1 came first, the internet hype machine didn't power up until the next year, which saw a perfect storm in the close releases of the smaller GF1, the sexier Olympus PEN, the more capable GH1, and the small but scrappy Panasonic 20mm/1.7 lens. When the system started to gel and the hyperbolic “we-love-photography-again!” reviews came out, the relatively plain G1 was history.

Aside from the revolutionary bits, the G1 got an awful lot right for the first time out: the grip is comfortable, the autofocus was fast and accurate, the magnified viewfinder has the same effective size as a full-frame DSLR, the rear LCD has the moves, the menu system shows an organization and clarity that is agonizingly rare these days, and it nails the switches-around-dials idea for quick access to major controls.

After 4 years with a G1, all I want is two tweaks:
  1. Swap the Menu and Quick Menu buttons. The Quick Menu with all the shooting settings, not the configuration bank, should be the one that's quickly available under thumb.
  2. Replace the too-clever tricky toggly main dial with a more obvious switch or a button-plus-dial method to control exposure compensation.
Basically: steal some control paradigms from Canon and keep up with evolving sensor tech. Boom, the next camera would be perfect…

…which is why I've found the actual evolution of the G-series so frustrating. The G2 stapled on a video mode and little else. The G3 upped the megapickles but lost the hand grip, the eye sensor that automatically switched between the rear LCD and the EVF, and like half of the buttons and dials.

Which brings us to the G5: it restores the eye sensor and a bunch of buttons, sports yet another body and grip design, and adds some niceties that I'll discuss shortly.

I'm in the market for a new digital system camera, and I'm fond of the G1, so I wanted to see where the G-series has ended up. After a long weekend with the G5 via the always great Lensrentals, I'm conflicted.

Plug, gratis

I can't really comment on autofocus performance, the great slayer of pretenders to the mirrorless throne. Though Panny's cameras have always set the standard on this front, I don't own lenses that would reflect any improvements. The AF motor in the 20/1.7 is satisfactory – no one would call it swift. I'm surprised the 7–14/4 comes with autofocus at all. Perhaps my 45/2.8 macro languorously hunted a smidge faster than normal? There's nothing I can pin on the camera.

Speaking of pins, there's a new 'pinpoint' autofocus that zooms in to a highly magnified portion of the frame to show you exactly where the camera is focusing, a clever idea that's still not as useful for critical work as true focus peaking. Seriously Panny: you have a video division. Call them, maybe?

One feature that I went in expecting to ignore but warmed to is the touch screen. The swivel screen is still one of the stand-outs of the G# line, and the touch features don't ruin it. Don't be suckered by the "touch" part. It's pressure-, not capacitive-,  sensitive, so don't expect graceful swipes or pinch-zooming like on a smartphone.

You can, however, prod the screen to indicate where you want to focus. Although Panny's multizone "just focus for me" setting is pretty smart, I can't understate how cathartic it is to just jab the sucker when it's not locking on the right spot. "No, focus HERE!" *poke*

Also, you can get quick(ish) access to two more custom functions via the touch screen, bringing the total number of customizable "buttons" to 5. Not too shabby.

Not that impressed, but not barking at the shutter either

One excellent candidate for quick access is the new electronic shutter. The mechanical shutter has a good, not-too-loud *fwip*, but the electronic one (after you turn off the autofocus bloops) is silent. Not muffled. Not quieter. Silent. If you work in any sound-sensitive environment – theaters, nurseries, churches, librarian fetish websites – this might be your camera.

Zoom zoom zoom…

Another feature I'm mixed on is the zoom lever, new on this model. I don't own any power zoom lenses (though the compact 14-42 is tempting); however, you can configure the G5's zoom lever to control exposure compensation as a pseudo second dial. I'd have liked this _much_ more if it also disabled the toggling between aperture and exposure compensation on the primary dial. As Matthew mentioned in his GH1 review, you can still accidentally switch between major functions at random times even while turning the dial, even though with the G5 you basically have two dedicated controls. So stupid. I've missed enough shots to main dial surprises with the G1 that this still rankles, even though I infrequently take pictures in a hurry.

The electronic viewfinder remains excellent even if it's mostly unchanged from the G1. If you're manufacturing cameras and don't need to pay for the precision hunk of glass for a prism, I don't know why you wouldn't provide a really, really, ridiculously magnified EVF. Glowers at the significantly smaller unit in the OMD. What is this? A viewfinder for ants?

Another carryover from the G1 is the conservative meter; I dial in +2/3 compensation in almost any situation where I'm not worried about shutter speed or blowing highlights. After going through several hundred underexposed shots in Lightroom, I can confirm that the G5's RAW files are quite forgiving of big exposure corrections.

Mom's Attic

A "nature" photo, for me

IQ is pretty darn good, even as you crank up the ISO. With the G1, I used ISO 100–400 with abandon, 800 with a good (over)exposure, and 1600 for snapshots. Improvements to Lightroom gave me another stop(ish) of acceptable noise if dynamic range wasn't a concern. I'd say the G5 adds another stop, maybe two, of usable range for me, which seems about right compared to the best APS-C cameras. It's not a D800, but the G5's sensor is no longer getting smoked in the noise department by my overachieving Canon S100. Since my other camera is a film rangefinder that's usually loaded with 400 film exposed at 250, the improved sensitivity is liberating.

Or, at least it should be. But something about the G5 left me cold. It might be the body gestalt. Although it's marginally heavier and smaller than the G1, it feels more hollow, empty. The magnesium front plate doesn't compensate for the rest of the cheap plastic shell and mushy buttons. The new grips – hand and thumb – feel plenty comfortable, but I didn't find myself reaching for it as much I thought I might.

Put another way: with my Ikon and S100, in idle moments I often find myself twiddling with the dials. I like the indulgent tick-tick-ticking of spinning the aperture ring on my 35/2 or twirling the ribbed lens wheel on the S100. I also know that with either of those cameras I could quickly reset if a photo opportunity arose; at this point I could probably set and focus my Ikon blindfolded. I can't imagine myself doing the same with the G5. These things shouldn't matter, but, well, yeah, they do! Particularly for an expensive hobby.

I've heard the GX1 is better when it comes to the intangibles, but you'd be losing the very useful swivel screen and the built-in EVF. The G5 remains the more practical and flexible choice.

During my rental period, I welcomed the excuse to give my much-adored Micro Four-Thirds lenses some exercise with a more modern partner. But I doubt I'll buy a G5 for myself. I honestly don't know what I want. The GH2 might be right, but it's also aging and its replacement has a larger, all-new body. Maybe I'll try the GX1. Maybe the grass is greener with Olympus or Fuji these days.

Fly away

It's an exciting time to be a digital photographer. It's also a frustrating time to be in the middle of the market. Big iron DSLRs have overwhelming firepower for those that need extreme resolution or speed. For everyone else, 'serious' compact cameras are getting so much better so quickly that it's almost scary. Here's the puzzle for everything in between: I think anything that can't offer ultimate size or ultimate IQ must offer a premium experience to be worth using. Although the G5 can use those excellent M4/3 lenses, the camera itself doesn't get my photographic juices flowing.

And I think that's where I left it: the G5 checks a lot of boxes but it does so without a lot of pizazz, like an above-average PowerPoint from the accounting department. For the size, image quality, features, and lens selection I would totally recommend it to friends looking to get into an interchangeable lens system, definitely before I would recommend any crop-sensor DSLR. Compared to the Olympus OMD or the GH series, it's totally a bargain. It appeals to that side of me that reads Consumer Reports. It's just fine.

The G5 is a perfectly acceptable photographic appliance, but it's in an era where 'perfectly acceptable' might not be enough.

last updated 22 mar 2013


Victorinox Compact

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I shouldn't like it this much.

The Long Version: Only one layer thicker than February's SAK Of The Month, the Bantam, the Victorinox 'Compact' adds a lot of options over the slimmer knife. Like the Bantam, there's a large blade and combo tool taking up one layer, while the Compact includes a second tool layer that has a pair of scissors. That alone doesn't make much of a difference, even though the Victorinox scissors are quite good, but the Compact also adds back-side tools and the 'plus' Cellidor scales.

My favourite back-side tools are the awl and the Philips screwdriver; I avoided the Compact for months because it has neither, but it has turned out to be one of my favourite knives anyway. I would only use the backside awl for starting screw holes – unlike the inline awl of January's SAKOTM, the Electrician, which can work as a cutting tool – and the corkscrew actually does that pretty well, in addition to all of the other cork-screwy functions that the awl can't do.

While the backside Hook tool is a fairly low-demand item, to be polite, the Compact adds a narrow nail file to the exposed surface of it. This creates a workable substitute for the typical nail file tool, which would otherwise need the spot that the combo tool takes up in the Compact. And let me tell you, I love the combo tool – it replaces the screwdriver, can opener, and the backside Philips driver all at the same time. So anything that lets me have the combo tool is a win, and on the Compact there isn't a single downside to having it on the knife. Okay, I do sometimes wish I had a small second blade, but I can live without it when I need to.

This is something of an 'unofficial' use for the combo tool, as Victorinox doesn't seem to know about it, but the acute corner makes an excellent Philips screwdriver. No, I wouldn't want to hang a sheet of drywall with it, or use it for any real work, but that's true for the backside Philips as well. All I'd really use either for is loosening a screw before removing it by hand, or other occasional light tweaks, quick tasks, or desert-island emergencies. The rare inline Philips can be genuinely useful, but using the combo tool instead of the backside Philips isn't giving up much.

Hidden in the 'plus' scales is a small pin (look in the corkscrew cutout) and a slim pen, which join the traditional tweezers and toothpick of the standard Cellidor-scaled knives. I can't quite say that I've never used these two additions – I tried using the pin for something, which didn't work, but the tiny-slot eyeglass screwdriver that fits into the Victorinox corkscrew did the trick instead.

It's tough to find a SAK-appropriate task that the Compact can't do, despite it only being a two-layer knife. In terms of actual functions, rather than just tool counts, it compares quite favourably to much thicker knives. I generally choose an unreviewed SAK for daily carry each month, but I think the Compact may continue to ride shotgun for quite some time.

last updated 9 mar 2013

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