1 Nikon 18.5mm

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Small, sharp, sold separately.

The Long Version: Of my three Nikon 1 lenses – the others are 30-110 and 10-30 – the 18.5mm prime is my favourite. It's small, bright enough to avoid some of the V1's high-iso penalty, and can almost create some foreground-background separation. Using it on the V1 is a little like having a real camera.

The prime lens also feels more solid than the collapsable zooms, which are built well but have more moving parts. Sharpness is good, but barrel distortion can be an issue, so I always apply software correction in Lightroom or use DxO Optics with its images. To be fair, that's something that I choose to do with most of my photos, including from thousand-dollar primes, but with the 18.5 it's not so much of an option for me.

What bugs me about this lens – there's always something – is its over-specificity. Focal lengths are approximations, and naming this one down to the thickness of a fine mechanical pencil lead is taking it a bit seriously. What would be so wrong about simply calling it an 18mm? If the derpreview commentographers want to lose their mind over it being a 48.6mm-equivalent lens, I say we should let them.

And yes, I do realize that I'm doing the exact same thing.

last updated 27 July 2013

1 Nikon 10-30mm

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It comes standard.

The Long Version: The 10-30mm lens is what came with my deeply-discounted Nikon V1, so I've owned it longer than any other but it remains my least-used lens. It's a fairly typical standard kit zoom, dim with lots of distortion, and given that I'm not particularly impressed by the Nikon 24-70/2.8 on my D800, the 10-30 doesn't really stand much of a chance.

But when I tested my V1 and 10-30 at its widest end against my Ricoh GRD4 the Nikon won. That made me very sad, but it wasn't even a close call. Still, my use for the 10-30 standard lens is almost invariably documentary and record shots, which just a few tourist shots from days when I was using the V1 as my main point-and-shoot. It has never been my choice for creative moments, where it has always lost out to the 30-110 or 18.5mm prime.

last updated 27 july 2013

1 Nikon 30-110mm

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: A very useful addition.

The Long Version: The Nikon 1 system isn't exactly a bastion for high-IQ photographers – "image quality", what did you think I meant? – but the 30-110 lens makes it all make sense. It leverages the smallness of the sensor to give a long reach from a little lens, creating a combination that I simply wouldn't use a bigger camera for. Even my GH1 with its bigger 14-140 lens, that has about the same long end, is bigger-enough that it stays home when my V1 and 30-110 gets carried about.

None of the three CX lenses that I own – the 10-30 and 18.5mm are the others – are stellar for image quality, but even superb Nikkor lenses on the FT1 adapter don't resolve a huge amount of detail on the V1. Within those limits I find the 30-110 perfectly acceptable, although software correction for its various optical distortions are mandatory for me. It's a little sad that a sub-4x long zoom needs it, but it's cheap and small. Life's a barter.

I'm not much of a long-lens person, but a big part of that is the physical size of the lens. The days when I would happily carry an Olympus E-3 and 35-100/2 on the streets of Toronto are gone; to think of the 30-110 as a replacement for that legend is a sad statement on both our changing society and my own revised priorities. But for website-fodder and the occasional small print the 30-110 on the V1 is enough, and it's an important tool for an ongoing documentary project that I'm working on.

The 30-110 isn't my favourite lens for the V1, but it's the one that genuinely does something that my other camera systems don't. It's not particularly expensive, which makes it fairly easy to recommend. I bought this one just a couple of days after my V1+10-30 kit, and it's the lens that convinced me that the V1 could be the basis of a system.

last updated 27 july 2013


MEC Duffel Bag

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: A simple thing done (almost) perfectly.

The Long Version: The MEC Duffle Bag is a very simple thing that's done well. Available in four sizes, they're basically just heavy nylon barrels with a strong zipper and straps. There's one side pocket and grab handles on both ends, and the construction is absurdly good for the price. I have the Small (pictured) which is $30, as well as the more expensive ($42) Large. No, they aren't waterproof and won't rival the Base Camp duffel, but I've used them for years and they've never let me down.

The Small duffel is what I use whenever I don't need an actual suitcase, so it's been thrown in the luggage compartment of more Greyhound buses than I can count. It's capable of handling a few days' worth of clothes and an extra pair of shoes, and the small side pocket is all I need for stashing a few odds and ends that I don't want getting lost in the cavernous interior. If I'm just going to be away for a couple of nights then I can usually tuck my shoulder-slung camera bag into it as well, although that comes out and rides with me instead of being treated like cargo.

The zippers on the bag are massive, have never shown signs of being strained, and all of the metal hardware is robust. The wide nylon strap handles are sewn all the way around the circumference of the bag; the grab handles on the end are folded and stitched to make them easy to use. The strap is the sole weakness of the design: even adjusted to its longest length, it's just a bit too short to easily sling when the bag is full.

The Small bag is capacious without being too unwieldily, and the Large bag is huge. In fact it's so large that I hardly ever have a reason to use it, and I no longer remember when or why I bought it. But there was a six-month period, many years ago, when I needed to use a laundromat some distance from my apartment. The large duffel was instrumental in that, and would have no problem handling the week's worth of groceries that I'd pick up while the machines were doing their thing. In fact, I think it was probably insulted by how lightly loaded it was.

Seeing my Small duffel in action over a couple of weekend trips even inspired Penny to pick one up for herself. That was about five years ago, but these days hers doesn't see nearly as much action as mine. She finds her large backpacks are easier to carry than the Duffel, and also has a really good four-wheeled carryon suitcase. Eventually I might inherit her MEC duffel bag, but since that would mean I've worn out and retired mine, I just don't see it happening.

last updated 21 july 2013


Sigma 19mm and 30mm F2.8 EX DN E-Mount Lenses, Part 2

NEX-5N with Sigma 30mm and 19mm
Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: My how time flies.

The Long Version: Back in mid-February I wrote part 1 of this review with every intention of following up with part 2 in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes life intrudes into plans, such that your idea of reasonable evolves into not what you originally intended. It's good that I'm just now getting around to writing part 2, because it's allowed me more time to work with these lenses and the NEX 5N. The singular flaw with all camera reviews is that everyone is so eager to get their review out in front of the public before anyone else that the reviews wind up reading pretty much the same and pretty thin on meaty real-world use. I don't have that excuse this time for writing a thin, meatless review.

Behind the Counter, Key West Florida, Sigma 30mm, f/2.8, ISO 2000, 1/60s

Unless a camera manufacturer is grossly incompetent (and Sigma has skirted that particular edge more than once), gear performance, and especially a lens' optical performance, is pretty much the same across contemporary lenses; that is to say, of good to excellent optical performance, even in the face of 100% pixel peeping. Personally what I want to know about a lens is more mundane, such as how well will it work in the real world under varying conditions and how well it holds up under use. I have toted the Sigmas all over a good portion of Florida since purchasing them, and under my ham-handed amateur use they have worked flawlessly and held up quite splendidly.

Conch Train, Key West Florida, Sigma 19mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/800s

In part 1 of the review I talked about how, in spite of the fact the Sigma lenses lacked in-lens image stabilization, I purchased them anyway primarily because I'm so cheap and I refused to make any major (read: expensive) lens purchases for the NEX 5N. Fortunate was I to have chosen to purchases these specific lenses, simply because I didn't need in-lens image stabilization for how I use these lenses.

Under practical use the Sigma lenses shoot far above their discount cost to me. As an avowed amateur photographer I have neither a burning need nor an infinite amount of cash to purchase every top drawer lens that is offered in E-mount (such as the Zeiss Touit lenses). At $99/lens (and even double that price), the Sigma 19mm and 30mm are some of the best lenses you can purchase for your Sony NEX cameras. For photographers on a budget, a good deal of enjoyment comes from reducing the economic pressure by not tying up large sums of cash in eye-wateringly expensive camera equipment. Based on that metric the Sigma lenses are thus very, very enjoyable.

Ringer, Key West Florida, 30mm, f/3.2, ISO 100, 1/160s

An irrelevant issue that has cropped up on the various forums is the mechanical noises the lenses produce. The first noise comes from shaking the lenses, either accidentally or deliberately. Both lenses use an internal focusing element. When the NEX 5N is powered up, so is the lens, and the internal focusing elements are locked into place. Powered off the internal elements are allowed to float. I've given both a fair deliberate shake, and you can hear a soft 'thunk' as the elements hit the extremes of their travel. That noise means nothing. If all you can do is shake your camera in public to hear the lens make a noise, then perhaps you need to find another hobby.

Big Boat, Key West Florida, 30mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/60s

The second irrelevant issue is the noise produced by the aperture. During focusing the aperture blades will snap open to the aperture's widest opening, the lens will focus, then the aperture blades will snap back down for proper exposure. This has been described in various fora as "lens chatter." The Sigma's aren't the only lenses to exhibit this; for example you can spend over $500 for the ยต4:3rds Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 and experience the exact same behavior. From a practical standpoint it means nothing to the overall operation of the lens. The noise is low enough that you have to be very close to the lens to hear it, let alone care about it.

Other than the two nit-noids just listed both lenses focus silently and very quickly, which is 99.9% of the time they're in use.

Better Than Sex, Key West Florida, 19mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/3200s

The strengths of the Sigma 19mm and 30mm far out weight their perceived weaknesses. Combined with the Sony NEX 5N they create a modest but quite enjoyable compact system, especially for travel. I spent a fair amount of time just carrying and using the 5N and the two Sigma lenses. If you can find the older versions of these lenses at the discount prices then by all means pick them up. Even the more current 'Artist' versions are reasonable, given that more metal is used in their construction, even at twice the price ($199) of the first generation. The Sigma lenses really strike a nice series of compromises between image quality (very good), use of materials, construction, and overall operation. For the budget photographer who's more interested in making photographs than making a status statement, you really can't go wrong purchasing the Sigma 19mm and 30mm for your NEX camera.

Picket Fence, Key West Florida, 30mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/80s
Bike Stop, Key West Florida, 30mm, f/5.6, ISO 250, 1/60s
Sunrise, Key West Florida, 30mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/800
Rent Me, Key West Florida, 19mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/80s
Rail Bridge, Bahia Honda, Florida, 30mm, f/6.3, ISO 100, 1/640s


All photographs taken hand-held with the Sony NEX 5N and post processed in LR 4.4 and the Nik Collection.

Innate Heliograph Camera Case

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Wowser.

The Long Version: I made two mistakes when I bought the Innate Heliograph camera case. The second was that I didn't pay attention as it was being scanned at the register; the first was thinking "how much could a compact camera case possibly cost?" when I found it on an unmarked peg at Mountain Co-op. Boy howdly, let me tell you, I'm not going to do that again. At $50 retail, this little thing costs double or triple what most pouches do, and is one-sixth the price of that god among shoulder bags, the Billingham Hadley Pro.

I bought the Heliograph case because it manages to hold my Ricoh GRDIV with the optical viewfinder attached. On retroactively seeing just how much it had cost I set the case aside, along with the receipt, intending to return it to the store. Somehow it just never made the trip back, and now I'm glad that it didn't.

The unique selling point of the Innate Heliograph is that it's made from a rubberized fabric with welded seams and a shielded zipper, making it weatherproof without needing a rain cover or any additional precautions. It lacks a belt loop, but it comes with a shoulder strap and has a rugged attachment point for a biner clip. The pouch also has a rather clever strap attachment method, which makes the strap both removable and secure without needing bulky hardware.

Inside the case is a removable padded pocket to hold the camera, which is stitched with a battery-sized sub-pocket that I didn't even try to use. While the interior is just about big enough to house my Girdiv, the stiff and boxy zippered opening makes its insertion and retrieval difficult enough without the added challenge of additional contents. But as a larger-than-average case it should work very well with sensibly-sized cameras, and even the Panasonic LX7 and Canon G15 can fit without too much difficulty.

I'm not someone who typically needs a rugged and outdoorsy camera case, but a trip to Niagara Falls meant that I wanted better photos than my two waterproof jpeg cameras could manage, and a ride on the Maid of the Mist tourist boat meant that my dry-weather camera couldn't be too big. After longingly looking at the massive impracticality of carrying my D800, I finally separated my Heliograph case from its packaging and put it to use.

I prefer to carry compact cameras in protective sleeves inside of other bags, so this is actually my first time using an external pouch. I did carry it inside my MEC Pod for the trip to and from Niagara Falls, but it was clipped its strap the rest of the time. This actually worked very well – as opposed to a belt loop – leaving the case free to move as required, making both carriage and access much easier.

A ride on the Maid of the Mist is like fast-forwarding through a temperamental storm. At times the airborne water is a persistent fog, and other times it comes down as heavy streaking rain. The wind is something else, gusting and eddying and taking water everywhere. I've certainly seen harder rainstorms, and the time near the falls only lasts a few minutes, but it's a soaking that's impossible to shelter from.

Having the Heliograph case meant that I was able to use my superior Ricoh on the approach to the Falls and only put it away when keeping it out was risking its safety. The case was at my side, outside of my iconic blue poncho, where it stayed throughout the ride. These action photos were taken with the waterproof cameras – first from the Olympus 770SW, second two via the Panasonic TS3 – and give some idea what the Heliograph went through.

Inserting and removing the camera isn't as easy as it would be with a nice soft Lowepro pouch, but it's much easier than using a roll-top drybag. The storm-covered zipper is a bit harder to open and close than an unprotected one, but it's no challenge at all compared to the zippers that are impervious even without the rubberized shield. All told the case strikes an appropriate balance of compromises.

There are times when waterproof storage is vital. Years ago I brought my then-new $1000 Sony F828 to photograph a 5K run, which happened to include a torrential downpour around the half-way mark. Being prepared, I wrapped the big camera in a couple of plastic shopping bags, put it in the bottom of my weather-covered backpack, and kept going with a compact Canon in a diving case. Hours later I pulled the Sony out of its soaked-through nest to find it sitting in an inch of water that had been trapped in my makeshift protection.

Formative experiences have long echoes, and drenching my first 'serious' camera was a big reason why I prioritized a weatherproof SLR system when it came time to make that jump. These days I'm not quite as eager to be out photographing in the pouring rain, but the Heliograph case will give me a lot more confidence to carry my impending Ricoh GR – when it finally arrives – as an SLR-quality camera that I can safely transport from awning to awning. That, ultimately, is why I never quite brought myself to take the Innate case back to the store: waterproof protection is going to become much more important once the value of the camera that it carries doubles.

This camera case certainly comes at an impressive cost, but it also does an impressive job. I wouldn't hesitate to leave it exposed to conditions that would likely destroy its contents, freeing up space inside my main bag and keeping the camera handy for the nice after-storm light. I wouldn't have bought it if I had seen its price on the store peg, but then I already would have missed a lot of the photos that it enables. As with everything, there are compromises to be made.

last updated 9 july 2013


Victorinox Executive

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Do you like oranges?

The Long Version: The Victorinox Executive, July's SAK of the Month, lands in an interesting middle-ground between the keychainable 58mm knives and the larger work-rated ones. It has tools that are larger and more functional than those on the classic Classic, but still inoffensive enough to use almost anywhere that isn't airborne.

Available in red or black celidor, the scales contain the same tweezers and toothpick as the Classic. This should make it easy to find replacements should the need arise.

The tool mix on the Executive is geared toward light utility and grooming. The file is remarkable for being an actual cut metal file that covers the width of the tool, not just a strip of match-starter abrasive set into the centre of it, and its tapered 'cleaner' tip can be used with small Philips screws. The SAK scissors are always handy, and the small blade is about the same size as the blade on the Classic. There's also a larger, but still very slender, main blade, as well as the unique 'orange peeler' tool.

The orange peeler is a serrated blade with a slot screwdriver tip, and presumably it's sized so that the depth of the blade will pierce the peel but not the fruit. And yes, I've tried it and it works pretty well, even though I can't peel and orange with this tool in anything approaching the speed that Penny manages without it.

Even if citrus isn't important in your life – with apologies to Bill – the orange peeler still works well as a serrated knife blade. I wouldn't be reaching for it when I need to cut through a rope, and can't really say when it would be better than using one of the two straight blades, but it's good to have options.

I find that the 74mm Executive is a bit too big for my keychain, but it would be perfectly at home in a desk drawer, even if it isn't mahogany or cherry-wood, or carried loose in a pocket. I like it for those times when I don't expect to need a knife at all, want something just a bit tougher than my alox Classic, or as a second knife that can be loaned to family or friends. That doesn't put it in heavy rotation among my favourite tools, but then again, I'm not much of an executive.

last updated 1 july 2013

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