Ricoh GR: Final Word

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: The GR abides.

The Long Version: It’s been over a year since I reviewed any aspect of the Ricoh GR, so it seems like a good time to do a long-term report. But not much has changed from my experience in the first few months: it’s still my favourite camera, and now it's my hardest-used and most-travelled camera, too.

The grip has smoothed down a bit, and if I only press on the right side of the shutter button occasionally it sticks in the half-down position. This happens more often when I’m just playing with the camera rather than when I’m actually taking photos, so it isn’t really much of an issue, and may be a result of the times I photographed Los Angeles’ “sunken city” with its abundance of incredibly fine silt-like dust. That’s probably also how I gained two little specks on the sensor that are only visible when I shoot at the smallest of apertures.

Thousands of photos and thousands of miles have revealed no problematic idiosyncrasies, hidden flaws, or secret weaknesses. Ricoh may update the GR, but like the GRDIV it will remain a classic and endure far beyond what’s reasonable for a compact digital camera these days.

last updated 30 dec 2014


NiteIze GearTie

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: You had me at "Heavy Duty Rubber-Coated Twist Tie".

The Long Version: It's possible that the NiteIze GearTie is exactly what has been missing from your life. Godlike in its simplicity and angelic in its execution, the GearTie is a flexible wire that has been coated in grippy ridged plastic with knobby ends. And as if that wasn't enough, it's available in different colours, all of which are perfect.

To be honest I really just bought the GearTie because it's immensely cool and out-of-gamut fluorescent orange. And then I bought another set because the "Lime" is an excellent green, and that's Penny's favourite colour. And am I ever happy that I did – because it turns out to be perfect for the task I had in mind for it.

I need to stop the legs of my light stand from rattling when they're stowed. I use the stand to hold my audio recorder, and don't always have room on the sidewalk to set it up properly, and instead use it as the world's tallest monopod. Stopping incidental noise is critical. The GearTie is perfect for the job, and has no problem exerting enough pressure to keep everything in place. It's even easy to attach and remove, which is more than I can say for the elastic bungie-cord thing that I also tried, and its rubberized exterior means that it won't introduce rattles or noise of its own.

Given that the GearTie works perfectly for such an oddball task, it shouldn't be a surprise that it's generally handy, too. It's strong enough to make into a hook to hang things from, can be folded into an impromptu tablet stand, or bent around to substitute for that inevitable missing lock on the only cleanish public toilet. It's even washable. And of course there are all kinds of different sizes available, each with its own tasks to be suitable for. Small ones become cable organizers, midsize ones are bent into hangers to dangle things from a shelf. There's just no reason not to have a few of them around.

last updated 30 nov 2014


Sony PCM-M10 portable audio recorder

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Doing as I say, as well as as I do.

The Long Version: I've been using a Sony PCM-D50 audio recorder for ages, so whenever someone asks me for buying advice, I've suggested its newer sibling, the PCM-M10. It's 80% of the D50 for half the price, and even exceeds the abilities of the bigger unit in some ways. My arguments in its favour were so compelling, in fact, that after a few years of recounting them I eventually succumbed and bought one myself.

The Sony M10 is a hand-size audio recorder with excellent electronics and supernatural battery life. Yes, you can use it with $500 monitor headphones if you want to, as long as they have a 3.5mm jack, but that's not really the point. Its pair of omnidirectional microphones are very tolerant of suboptimal use, at the expense of some soundstage crispness, so it's perfect for people who just want to record good audio without fussing over the minutia.

I'm primarily interested in field recording ambience and environments in the city, so I have different requirements than musicians or videographers. A low noise floor is always good, but an effective limiter that can handle loud transients is much more important. Stereo imaging matters, but so do forgiving microphones and quick startup times. And there's simply no way that I'm going to walk the streets with a blimp on a boom. For me getting the sound is more important than being able to record the highest possible fidelity, and that's where the Sony M10 comes in.

The PCM-M10 is, at its heart, consumer electronics. It doesn't have the metal heft of its higher-end siblings, and cuts some corners in its controls. The worst of this is the LCD backlight being set through the menu, rather than being toggled by a dedicated button, as it's hard to see the meter display when the light turns off. It's also brutally difficult to see the numerals on the levels dial, which are only stamped on its side without any contrasting markings – although I must note that some allegedly “serious” handy recorders lack a levels dial at all. The switches on the back of the unit are easy to move accidentally, which I've resolved with some gaffer tape. And the small size of the recorder makes it particularly ill-suited to having a wind screen, with nothing much to hold one in place and no way to avoid it obscuring the LCD display or LED metering guides. The M10 is not nearly as nice or as easy to use as my bigger Sony PCM-D50.

The PCM-M10 is, on its surface, consumer electronics. It's available in black, burgundy, or white plastic; all have a wide contrasting silver band around them. My burgundy model even has little metallic flecks in the plastic, although the Black is described as matte. The microphones are hidden within the body of the unit, with small grills to cover them and no protrusions. Only the track mark button is silver, with the tape-deck transport controls being body-colour, and a black row of secondary buttons is tucked into the black surround of the LCD bezel. No casual observer is going to mistake the M10 for A Serious Piece Of Gear, which most recorders come across as, or for a stun gun, which is a real danger with the Zooms. Instead it's just another hand-sized electronic gadget of no clear purpose, and even if it is recognized as a recorder, it looks like something a student might use to hold their place while they sleep through a lecture. The M10 is not nearly as noticeable or remarkable as my bigger Sony PCM-D50.

In my life "nondescript" and "inoffensive" are goals to be aspired to. The M10 fits in perfectly.

The best feature of the Sony recorders are their built-in limiters. These clever devices record a secondary track at a lower gain, -12dB for the M10 and -20dB for the D50 and D100, which they normalize and cut in seamlessly to avoid clipping. The M10's levels will just read "OVER" instead of giving a positive reading like the D50 would, giving less indication of if and how the levels should be adjusted, but the magic still works well enough.

The M10 also has the Sony five-second preroll buffer, and even comes with the wired remote that lets it start recording without any handling noise. That's great when lying in wait for sound, but enabling the buffer has another enormous practical advantage. Like many recorders, hitting record doesn't actually start the recorder recording. This is a solid opportunity to set the levels, but it's really easy to not notice that the pause button is still flashing and think that sound is being captured when it isn't. With the buffer turned off the display looks about the same whether it's paused or rolling, but with the preroll enabled the zeroed time counter is replaced by bold blocks that look vastly different. And that's why I keep the preroll enabled: it's an obvious indicator of the recording state right under the meters that I'm devoting my attention to.

Another Sony quirk is that there's no way to change the file name format in the recorder. It's always YYMMDD_XX, so my being in a multi-Sony environment means that using both recorders on the same day creates identical file names. (Although the M10 starts incrementing the _XX portion from _01, while the D50 starts at _00.) To get around this I've set the M10's date two decades into the future, which it accepts somewhat gullibly, even though that annoys my computer's 'list files by most recent' function. This may not be much of an issue for anyone else, anywhere, ever.

One of the strengths of the PCM-M10 is that its omnidirectional microphones are relatively immune to wind. Well, gentle breezes. Maybe immune to slight drafts is a better term. Outdoors it does need a screen on all but the calmest days, but when wind does hit the M10, the effect is relatively mild. And unlike the Sony D50, which loses its mind if someone walks past its unshielded microphones too quickly, the M10 can go naked indoors with near-impunity. This is another huge advantage in the effort to be nondescript and inoffensive.

When the M10 does need a hat I'll use the Røde Dead Kitten, which is originally designed for their Stereo Videomic, but also fits the D50 and similarly-sized recorders. This is pretty heavy-duty protection, and attenuates the high frequencies somewhat, but I haven't felt the need to add a lightweight screen. Sony's own M10-specific design costs almost as much as the recorder.

As an aside, I'm also a big fan of Joby's tripods. I can highly recommend their low-profile Micro 250, which permanently lives on the bottom of my M10, and the recorder still happily fits in a pocket or small camera case. This makes it easy to position it away from the surface of a table; for the brave it can even be used as a stand to prop up the recorder vertically, as it has for some of these photos. And it doesn't block the battery door, so I don't need to remove it when I swap the M10's two AA cells – which I do out of habit, not necessity, since I've never had the patience to actually run a set down.

The M10 has about the same footprint as a small phone – that's an iPhone 5 in the photo above – and weighs about as much as a large unpeeled banana. There's just no reason to not have it nearby. Its absurd battery life means that I keep it locked on 'hold' instead of turning it off, so it only needs a quick flip of the power switch to be instantly ready. I've lost count of the number of good sounds that I've caught with the M10 that I would otherwise have missed.

I bought the Sony M10 because I thought I would use it more than the on-paper-superior D50, and I was absolutely right. It's true that I will choose to carry and use my bigger D50, with its better stereo imaging and somewhat lower noise floor, when I know that I'll be dedicating significant time to audio recording and have the comfort level to use it. This is exactly the same as choosing when to carry and use a big DSLR instead of a smaller camera. And like having multiple cameras, there have been times when I've used the little M10 even though the D50 was also in my gear bag. I'm wincing just a little to say this, but if I could only keep one audio recorder – a horrible thought – I'd be better served by the versatile and inoffensive M10. Not that I'm known for making rational choices, but hopefully it never comes to that.

last updated 12 oct 2014


Panasonic DMC-GX7C, Body Only

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Buyer Beware
The Long Version:

The Purchase From Amazon

Reader beware. I'm coming at this review with a very big chip on my shoulder. Here's why.

I purchased a Panasonic GX7 black body from Amazon because it was marked down over a 1/3 from its original MSRP. Now when I purchase a camera body, I expect a camera body properly marked and boxed. That's not what I got. The seller, Web Offers, sold me a broken up body plus lens kit, where the lens had been removed (I assume to sell independently when the 20mm was selling for $100 and more over its initial MSRP). It was not advertised as such on Amazon.

When the box was opened and the body unwrapped, the body/sensor cavity was open, the body cover in another part of the box. Even the box listed the 20mm as part of the overall kit. Web Offers had to have known what it was doing, or what it had. The original SKU label was papered over with another sticker that said "Body only..."

I never expected to get such from a trusted vendor like Amazon. This is the kind of shady behaviour I expect from eBay. My trust in Amazon has taken a bit of a hit over this, especially over sale items Amazon fullfills but are sold by another seller. Mere fulfillment by Amazon isn't enough of a guarantee of quality it would seem. 


Image Quality

I ran my tests primarily with the Olympus 1.8/17mm lens, but over the short time I had the GX7 I also tested with the 1.8/45mm, the 12-50mm kit zoom and the Panasonic Leica 1.4/25mm. The GX7 handled all of them smoothly and without any issues. From a practical standpoint, focusing with the GX7 in normal Florida light was as fast as the E-M5, or close enough as to be irrelevant as to which was faster.

The GX7 has a 16MP 4:3rds sensor matched with a contemporary Panasonic Venus Engine. For all intents and purposes, the output of the GX7 is indistinguishable from the E-M5 when used as a standard digital camera, that is, using either the EVF or the rear screen to compose and tripping the shutter with the shutter button. There is, however, more to today's cameras than just image quality.



I have read the phrase "falls easily to hand" so many times that I'm sick of reading it. The GX7 does not "fall easily" to my hand. I own a number of µ4:3rds bodies; the Olympus E-P2, the E-PL1, the Panasonic GX1 and the Olympus E-M5. I even have a Sony NEX 5N. I know how these small cameras should handle. All of them, in various degrees, have been easy enough to hold, especially over prolonged periods of time. The best handling camera I own by far is the E-M5, and that's whether I have the HLD-6 horizontal grip bolted on or not (I don't usually shoot with the vertical grip).

When I'm out using a camera I walk around carrying my camera in my right hand so that it's quick to bring up and use. Using the GX7 in this manner is awkward and becomes fatiguing over time compared to my other cameras. I attribute this in part to the GX7's oddly asymmetrical design, the most asymmetrical I've held to date (with the notable exception of the NEX 5N, perhaps).

Unlike all other µ4:3rds camera bodies I own, the lens mount is shoved to the right edge of the body (forward view); the lens release abuts the edge. Even the GX1 lens mount isn't pushed that far. Add in the large soft lump on the left that passes for the grip and it makes for an awkward combination with any lens, the larger the more awkward. The best handling combination was with the 17mm, followed closely by the 45mm. The worst was a tie between the 25mm and the 12-50mm zoom.

The differences between the GX7 and the E-M5 is not just the front grip but also the back thumb grip; to whit, the E-M5 (and E-M1 and E-M10) have a substantial thumb grip, while the GX7 does not. I believe It's that back thumb grip that allows me to hold the E-M5 with a more relaxed grip. With the GX7 I unconsciously believe I'm constantly ready to drop it because I don't have the same assuring tactile feedback.

The buttons turned out to be very sensitive to touch, so much that the would register a double hit, causing me to skip say a menu entry. It got tiresome having to go back very carefully one step. The worse button by far turned out to be the video button. It is flat against the top deck, right up next to the dial surrounding the shutter release. It was very uncomfortable to reach over and release, a far cry from the far easier button on the E-M5


The EVF does indeed suffer from rainbow shearing. It's particularly egregious around the white text at the bottom of the EVF. It was so bad that in the end I found myself using the rear LCD almost exclusively. I found the EVF tilting feature a bit of a waste of effort. I've got an Olympus EVF that fits my older Pens, and I've never been all that enamored with its tilting capability either.

Rear Screen

What finally drove me batty was trying to work with the touch LCD on the back of the GX7. My E-M5 has a reasonable oleophobic surface on the screen, which tends to keep my oily fingerprints off and helps to me see what the screen. The GX7 screen was constantly picking up finger oil, which was constantly forcing me to wipe it with a micro fiber cloth.

The GX7 touch screen was almost too sensitive at times. I would inadvertently touch a part of the screen, triggering an exposure, and relocating the focus point. In the end I disabled the touch screen and just used the buttons (those wonderfully over sensitive buttons) to move the focus point if I needed it moved.

The E-M5 touch screen, by comparison, is a joy to use. If there's one feature Olympus nailed with the E-M5 it's how the touch-to-trigger-exposure works. It works flawlessly on the E-M5, and as I've recently discovered, on the E-M10 as well.


If I had to make a choice between the GX1 and the GX7, I'd choose the GX1. Likewise, I'd choose the E-M5 in a cold minute over the GX7. The GX7 isn't worth the money, even if it's on sale. There are better µ4:3rds bodies to be had, even from Panasonic. Consider, for example, the Panasonic G6 for the same amount of money.

The GX7 has been packed up and sent back to Amazon. In it's place I purchased an Olympus E-M10 body, which turned out to be less than the GX7. It's probably what I should have done to start with, but I wanted to give the rangefinder design with the built-in EVF a whirl, thinking this would be a good fit in my camera bag. It was not

I've sworn off the faux rangefinder designs of every camera maker, including Olympus' Pen series. Funny thing is, with the Olympus EVF plugged into the Pen, the EVF sits over the lens, just like an SLR design such as the OM-D. I've learned my lesson. I'm sticking with the mirrorless SLR designs from here on out regardless of brand, and unless they go truly bonkers, I'm sticking with Olympus.

last updated 7 oct 2014


Sigma DP3 Merrill

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Okay, but seriously…

The Long Version: The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a camera that puts the decimal point in the wrong place. My comfortable high-iso limit is iso640, it takes about 50 photos per battery, writing a burst of one raw file to a fast memory card takes 13 seconds. Even its memory cards hold just a fraction of the images its pixel count should suggest, and it needs clunky raw-processing software that predates the invention of 'workflow'. The DP3M could be from the dawn of consumer digital cameras.

The Merrill lacks basic abilities that are included in any half-decent point and shoot these days. No image stabilization, no flash, poor LCD quality, and no concessions to shapes that the human hand can hold. Forget about modern conveniences like viewfinders, tilting LCD screens, or remote shutter releases. Every nitpicking review and every negative word ever written about this camera has at least some truth to it, and often quite a lot.

And yet it doesn't matter. The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a magic camera.

Some equipment creates uncommonly compelling images in a way that has nothing to do with the users' skills. Of course this undefinable ability won't perform for every owner, or even consistently for the fortunate ones, but when it's right it's unmistakable. The DP3M has this magic.

The DP3 Merrill creates my favourite photos. It's neither my favourite nor my best camera, but I can lose track of time looking at images that should have been nothing but snapshots. I want to use it out of all proportion to its operational merits, and despite all of its shortcomings. It's capricious, but give it its due and it can be benevolent and gracious; treat it carelessly and suffer its anger and wrath.

Would you choose a flawed and frustrating camera if the results have the potential to be exceptional? That question can only have a personal answer. Most people, quite sensibly, will say no outright. There are plenty of really excellent cameras out there that don't carry the Sigma-Foveon baggage. A few will say “yes, sometimes” – this is the group that I find myself in. Some people, I suppose, will give an unqualified yes. There are certainly more difficult ways to make art, and creating art is the only purpose for a machine like this.

last updated 14 sept 2014


Sigma DP3 Merrill

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They say to think of it as a film camera…

The Long Version: There's something really incredible about the Sigma DP3 Merrill. It's small, it's light, and it produces great photos. Normally we need to trade off quality in exchange for smaller size or more convenience, and accept smaller formats with lower resolving power and coarser tonalities. The Merrill upends all of our expectations.

The DP3 Merrill looks strikingly different from traditional compact cameras. From the front it's a slab-sided box dominated by a large off-centre lens, and most strikingly it doesn't have a viewfinder. This hints at the camera's true nature, because where the film door should be instead we find a large electronic viewing screen. Yes, this is a digital camera – but don't be intimidated, because the Merrill still fits in with film cameras and the new hybrid 'digital darkroom' perfectly.

Instead of taking film – whether in sheets, rolls, or cassettes – the Sigma DP3 Merrill takes batteries. While film rarely holds more than a few dozen photos, and typically only a third of that, the Merrill can manage as many as fifty exposures per battery. And changing batteries is far simpler than film – no more catching sprockets or switching rollers! It's even faster than swapping cassettes in Advanced Photo System cameras, because there's no time needed to rewind or advance the film. And best of all, each battery can be replenished and reused over and over again.

The Sigma DP3 Merrill fits perfectly into the new 'digital darkroom' that is increasingly popular with amateur and medium-format photographers alike. Typically we feed our developed film into scanners to digitize our captured photographs for electronic editing, but the Sigma DP Merrill has this ability built-in. This saves hours of work and the ongoing expense of chemicals or a professional lab. It's an amazing ability and one that will likely be incorporated into all cameras in the future.

Sigma provides the dedicated software that is needed to see the images as they are loaded into the computer. This is called "Sigma Photo Processor" and works very similarly to other scanning programs. Images are visible in an on-screen array that looks like a contact sheet, and then each selected image can be individually developed for best quality. You can even choose whether you want colour or black and white photographs after they're taken – or you can do both. Remarkable.

From a quality standpoint the Sigma DP3 Merrill easily matches a good 645 negative, and can rival larger film formats as well. The only major drawback is that the DP3 Merrill has the 3:2 aspect ratio of the 35mm format, not the paper-friendly 4:3 or 5:4 of larger professional cameras, so take that into consideration when planning your crops for printing.

The lens of the DP3 Merrill is a bright short telephoto with exceptional quality despite its small size. There's pleasant falloff and slight edge softness at f/2.8, giving the photographs a rich, painterly feel. Stopped down to f/4 the lens becomes much more incisive instrument with uniform sharpness and excellent descriptive power. Aperture can be set in thirds-stops, giving plenty of flexibility, and its leaf shutter is capable of astounding top shutter speeds of 1/1250-2000 depending on the aperture selected.

The Merrill is also exceedingly good throughout the standard sensitivity range, with minimal grain as high as ASA400. If you're printing black and white the camera can be pushed up to ASA1600 with reasonable tones and substantial, but not objectionable, grain. A tripod is always recommended, as benefits any high-quality camera, but if you're seduced into hand-holding the DP3 its lack of a reflex mirror and quiet leaf shutter will keep shutter shock to a minimum.

The Sigma Merrill DP3 is a rare and cutting-edge camera. Despite its occasionally awkward implementation of electronic capture technology the entire thing comes together very well. Don't abandon the habits that you have tuned through years of large and medium-format photography, and don't be tricked by its small size into thinking that it will work like some fixed-focus pocket camera. Remember to treat it exactly like your better film cameras, and you'll be rewarded with excellent images and surprising ease-of-use.

last updated 12 sept 2014


Fujifilm XQ1

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Small, quick, and good.

The Long Version: The Fujifilm XQ1 is an interesting camera.

Well, actually, that's not entirely true. It's a raw-shooting compact camera that's trying to make its way in a world of ubiquitous smart phones. There are similarly-sized but more expensive cameras that have much bigger sensors, and cheaper cameras that have similar features and more refined designs. My XQ1 was given to me as a gift, and so I've been trying to decide if, knowing what I know now, I would have bought one for myself.

The big deal about the XQ1 – its Unique Selling Feature – is that it's the cheapest and smallest camera with an X-Trans sensor. This is the same 2/3 size as the X20/X30 series, not the bigger 1.5x unit that goes in the X100 and X- cameras, but it's still a bit bigger than the ones that Canon or Panasonic use in their point and shoots. While I'm not convinced that size actually matters at this scale, the XQ1 does produce good images with lots of detail.

The main competition for any compact camera is the smart phone. This is an easy image quality comparison to make: the XQ1 beats my iPhone 5S quite handily. The XQ1 has wifi connectivity, so I've been using it for many of my social media endeavours. There's a distinct quality advantage even after the reduced-size 3MP images have been edited and fed through the spaghetti-shredder of online recompression and transmission. And that's even before things that used to be a photographic staple, like zoom lenses and low-light ability, come into consideration.

I suppose others might choose it for art-making, but I use the XQ1 almost exclusively for impromptu and record-keeping photos. Snapshots, twitter-fodder, chance encounters with mayoral candidates, and so on. It's nice to have a small and good camera for this, especially since it has a decent zoom lens. That lens, and the wifi connection, is why the XQ1 is the camera that I usually carry each day.

A little-known fact is that "WiFi" is actually short for "well, iffy". Linking the camera to a phone or tablet means going into playback mode, turning on wifi on the camera, selecting the camera wifi network on the phone, launching the Fuji app on the phone and hitting 'connect'. With luck the camera hasn't timed out, or had a button hit that would turn off its wifi broadcast and needed the whole routine to restart.

Once the iffy connection is made then the rest goes fairly easily. I prefer to just use the Fujifim "PhotoReceiver" app that has the camera choose which images to send, since the camera's LCD provides a bigger preview of the images to transfer. It means a bit more juggling devices than using the app that allows the phone/tablet to browse the images that are on the camera, but it's easier overall.

But of course using the XQ1 isn't as fast or easy as just using a phone to take a photo – and yes, I'm of an age where that still seems like an odd thing to say. My phone is always closer to hand, and I can have its camera up and running before the XQ1 powers on. So there's always a decision to make, to decide if it's worth using the bigger camera, but that's always the way.

I don't really have much to complain about with the XQ1, which is a little odd for me. I wish that it had a dual-axis level instead of single, and that the mode dial was firmer, since it tends to move all on its own when the camera isn't being observed. But the bigger control issue is the ring around the lens. There's a slight lag and no detents, so it's necessary to pay attention to the little numbers on the screen to use it. This means that the camera always needs to be supervised and can't be used intuitively. Often that's a critical flaw, but for a simple little compact camera maybe it's not that important.

The XQ1 also doesn't have any sort of 'safety' override on its exposure controls, and it's actually fairly easy to run out of shutter speed when leaving the lens wide open in bright light. This is a camera to set in Program mode and forget about any control beyond exposure compensation.

There are some other features that are fun to have. The sweep panorama mode works well, and I like the film-effects bracketing that can mimic different black and white contrast filters. Since I only use the XQ1 in jpeg mode – my generation of Lightroom can't handle its raw files – this has turned out to be quite handy. Once I accepted the XQ1 as a happysnaps point-and-shoot this camera has turned out to be a lot of fun.

The question remains: if I wasn't given this camera, would I buy one? I'm still not sure. The XQ1 takes better photos than the Canon S100 I owned a couple of years ago, even though the Canon had the advantage of being a more mature design. So when the time comes to replace my XQ1, I'll certainly look at what Fujifilm is offering – along with whichever Canon camera happens to be current that month – because the company is certainly showing real promise. And hopefully by then they'll include a bigger battery and a stand-alone charger, because this USB-only thing is the pits.

last updated 7 sept 2014


Generic 52mm Telephoto Screw-In Hood

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: So, about that thing I said earlier

The Long Version: Sometimes, as I'm writing a review, I'll think of something that completely undermines it. I did it again, this time with my Sigma LH3-01 lens hood.

The problem of almost any hood is that it conflicts with filters that need to rotate, such as a polarizer. So in my Sigma Hood review I idly mused that I could just solve that problem by spending $4 on a screw-in hood via ebay. The idea just kept making sense, so I did. And it does.

For less than one-tenth the price of the original plastic hood the generic metal one only gives up the ability to be reversed for storage. It also weighs a bit more, and has an obnoxious painted-on generic name. I keep that covered with black tape, and have added two more strips of tape so that I can feel how much I've rotated the attached polarizing filter.

I was really impressed with the Sigma LH3-01's ability to accept a 62mm filter on its end. I had never seen a hood do that – but it turns out that the open end of this generic 52mm hood is threaded for 58mm filters. So much for innovation. With metal there's none of the worries of stripping the threads, and with the screw-in I don't worry about over-stressing the bayonet mount. Putting a filter on the end of the hood still pretty much defeats the benefit of having the hood in the first place, but having the option at no extra cost is better than not having it.

This is my second metal screw-in hood from eBay – this one was bought from 'jiakgong' – and I'm completely happy with it with the single exception of its painted-on sizing name. That wasn't shown in the photos. The amazing thing is that this one was bought and shipped half-way around the world for half of what it would cost me to mail it within my own city. Say what you will about generic manufacturing, how does the shipping make any economic sense at all?

Perhaps in the future I may not automatically buy the original hood, and try waiting a month or so for shipping instead. Not that I plan on buying any lenses that don't come with hoods, but still.

last updated 15 aug 2014


Nikon D810

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Behold with cautious optimism.

Counter Opinion: I know what I'm risking by saying this, but I'll say it anyway – Nikon has gotten the D810 right. Sadly it's a truism that Nikon has the ability to screw up the most surprising and basic things, even on simple model refreshes, so that sound you hear may indeed be the other shoe dropping. But, for now, I'm going to call this a win.

When I first saw the D810 details, my initial thought was that Nikon had improved the D800, but that not being good enough was never that camera's problem. Now I'm thinking that Nikon has taken the D800 and done what Canon did to the 5D2: there are no huge headline-grabbing changes – except to the price – but everything has been made better. The price is high, yes, but to some people it will be worth it. There's nothing better for even close to the same amount of money.

Some noise has been made about the D810 being made in Thailand instead of Japan. I can't say that there's any deficiency in its build quality when compared to the D800 that I've been using for years. The grip is a big improvement over the D800, being at least as nice as the D700, with a deeper finger groove and a real thumb ridge. Even the button that's used to change AF mode has had some extra texture added to make it easier to find and press.

The control interface has been tweaked and loses nothing in the process. The bracketing button, which was removed from the cloverleaf, has found a new home near the flash controls. The OVF information display is a friendlier pale blue instead of LED Green. The LCD is better, and manually focusing in Live View is easier. The left-side port covers have been improved and the port placement has been rethought. The shutter sound is strikingly quieter and much more subdued. Everything is better.

There are lots of features that I can't evaluate but are still very promising. Nikon's metering has always been good, so the highlight-priority weighting could be very useful. Being able to magnify two different parts of the scene to check for focus and composition would have made my most recent series almost too easy to photograph – most of my best work is done with a tilt-shift lens. The electronic first-curtain shutter for Live View and Mirror Up mode is also a very positive change for extracting maximum quality from a camera that's designed for it.

The D700 was a great and much-loved camera, but the D810 replaces it for everything except the very fastest frame rates that it could hit with the EN-EL4a or AA batteries in its grip. Hard drives are cheap. The D810 is simply the best camera out there right now south of the Pentax 645Z – we know this because the D800 was the best sub-10K camera last week, and the D810 is better than that.

The D810 is still only a mid-cycle update, so I wouldn't consider it as a replacement for working D800/E cameras, despite my being slightly jealous of how nice the new machine is. If I photographed events I might be tempted to spend the extra money just for the quieter shutter, though – it really is a big difference. But even without being a D810 buyer I'm incredibly pleased that Nikon seems to have this one figured out. After watching them fumble through the V-series and Coolpix A I had my doubts about their abilities to design and make cameras, and I may want to replace my D800 with another Nikon some day.

But then again, that other shoe still hasn't been heard from yet.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 18 july 2014


Sigma LH3-01 Lens Hood

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Lens hoods are cool.

The Long Version: The Sigma LH3-01 for the DP3 Merrill might be the most obscure camera accessory I've ever reviewed, given that it's a sold-separately $48 add-on for a cult camera that's at the end of its sales career. Lens hoods are not the most exciting accessory, it's true, but this is one of the more interesting ones that I've seen.

Cosmetically the hood is an appropriate match for the camera; it's smooth plastic instead of metal, but the lines match. It attaches with a bayonet mount, and when reversed extends almost all the way to the camera body. It really couldn't offer any better coverage without being dramatically harder to stow. That's great, but not particularly remarkable.

So here's the clever bit: the front of the lens hood is threaded for filters. The lens is a 52mm thread, and the hood has a 62mm thread on its front. It's a nice touch. The funny thing is, though, that putting a filter on the front of the hood actually negates a lot of the ant-glare benefits of having the hood in the first place. So who not just take the hood off? Why not, indeed.

Any filter that needs to be rotated – polarizer, variable or graduated neutral density – will benefit from the improved access of being on the front of the hood, and that slight increase in shading might still be worth the effort. Might. But any filters that don't need interaction, like the two- or three-stop ND filter that the DP3 should have had built-in, should still go on the lens.

There are some more exotic uses for the lens hood threads. A rubber lens hood pressed up against a window avoids most reflections, and attaching it to the end of the LH3 would be less restrictive than putting a really tiny one on the end of the lens itself. If the Sigma DP3M wasn't terrible in low light that might be useful for the local aquarium.

I suppose there's nothing stopping me from getting a 62-77 step-up ring so that I can use my big filters, and then buying a cheap screw-in hood to protect the filter from glare. That way the hood that's on the filter would still be able to rotate the filter that's on the hood, giving the best of both worlds. Or I could just buy a 52mm screw-on hood for $4.16 with free shipping – that would work, too.

I do appreciate that Sigma thought to add an extra feature to something mundane. But at some point, no matter how clever the idea is, there comes a point where workarounds and contraptionizing become more effort than they're worth. And if that isn't the motto for the entire Sigma DP series, well, maybe it should be.

Updated Forty Days Later: The idea of spending just a small amount of money on a screw-in lens hood that would let me rotate a polarizer just kept making sense, so I did it. It turns out that the metal screw-in hood that I bought from ebay extends farther from the lens and has a narrower opening, both of which give better coverage than the original. The photo above shows it screwed onto my polarizing filter inside of the sigma hood – and yes, I did risk never being able to disassemble that contraption for the sake of this review. Live and learn, right?

last updated 15 august 2014


Kinotehnik LCDVF

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Smaller and simpler.

The Long Version: LCD viewfinders are designed to work around usability problems that shouldn't really exist in the first place, so I suppose it was inevitable that one would find a home on my Sigma DP3 Merrill. While I'm happy enough with a bulky and complex tripod-mount one on my big SLR, a compact camera needs something smaller and simpler. After considering a number of options, including some very expensive ones, I picked up the Kinotehnik LCDVF.

The LCDVF – please don't make me type the company name again – is about as simple as it gets. The shell is one piece, without any hinges or diopter adjustment doohickery, with a two-element lens and a rubber eyecup that can be removed and repositioned for left-eyed people.

The viewfinder attaches with magnets to a metal frame that adheres to the camera. It's secure enough that I can pick up and carry the 1-pound camera from the viewfinder; this isn't wise, but it's possible. The package includes two of these metal frames, which gives the option to use the one viewfinder on two cameras, or provides insurance against adhesive mishaps.

The metal frame and magnets makes for a streamlined and lightweight attachment method that's perfect for a little camera, and weighs far less than attaching via a tripod-ready plate. It almost verges on elegant, but mine has just a little bit of side-to-side wobble that I've fixed by shimming the hood with a single thickness of gaffer tape.

The LCDVF has a 2x magnification ratio, and to be honest I can't really see the difference between it and a 3x view. The resulting image is large and clear; the 28mm-e lens that I used to take the above photo doesn't do it justice. The inside of the hood really is that shiny, though. I've never noticed it as a problem when I'm actually taking photos, but it is really shiny.

Of course not every camera needs the assistance of this kind of viewfinder; I'd never consider attaching it to my Ricoh GR, for example. But having the LCDVF on the DP3M really does improve my stability with this long-lensed camera; I'd rate its as being just a bit less of an improvement than a lightweight monopod. While I was mostly hoping that the LCDVF would help me see the DP3M's screen, now that I know what it can do I wouldn't hesitate to put one on any LCD-based camera that usually uses a long lens.

I bought the LCDVF because the Kamerar QV1 (right) added too much bulk, weight, and complexity to a little camera like the Sigma DP3M. While Kamerar does have smaller viewfinders, the slickness and simplicity of the LCDVF is hard to beat.

But simplicity may be only skin-deep with the LCDVF. It has a double-element lens that's noticeably thicker than the one in my Kamerar or Hoodman loupes, and Kinotehnik says that it won't risk concentrating sunlight and burning the LCD the way other designs can. I haven't felt the need to test this myself.

In a fairly short time period I went from owning just the Hoodman Hoodloupe – and never using it – to having two different magnifying loupes to suit two different cameras. That's probably excessive, but it suits each individual machine and I don't see a lot of overlap. If I had to choose only one, it would be the LCDVF, and I'd just have to put up with having the magnetic frame tapeglued to the back of the D800 during the 95% of the time that I don't use an LCD hood on that camera.

The LCDVF and Sigma DP3M is such a natural combination that I prefer to use it whenever the little Foveon camera isn't on a tripod – which is the opposite of how I use my SLR with its bigger LCD loupe. Life can be funny like that.

last updated 13 june 2014


Kamerar QV-1 LCD Viewfinder

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm not a video person.

The Long Version: I was just starting a project that had me manually-focusing my D800 outdoors when I had the chance to try out the Kamerar QV-1 head-to-head with my classic Hoodman Hoodloupe. I bought the QV-1 on the spot.

The Kamerar QV-1 is a magnifying viewfinder loupe that's designed for recording video with the ergonomic nightmares that are HD-SLRs. As such it's specifically designed for hitting focus with an LCD screen in unfavourable light, which suits me perfectly even though I don't shoot footage. The viewfinder has a 2.5x magnification, which is enough to see pixels, and a big eyecup that's reversible for us left-eyed people.

The viewfinder attaches to a dedicated tripod plate via a magnetic tab, which holds the viewfinder quite securely despite latching at only one point. The viewfinder position is adjusted on the camera with hex bolts – wrench included – which makes it time-consuming to switch between camera models; the whole plate can side front-to-back to snug the finder up to the LCD. The plate is compatible with the Manfrotto 501PL, so it will fit on some of their video heads with no further difficulty. If a different plate is needed then there are screw points for both 1/4" and 3/8" attachments.

The viewfinder attaches securely, but doesn't seal hermetically – there can be a slight gap at the top and sides of the LCD that lets a little stray light in. I don't see any way to do a better seal without sticking a mounting frame onto the camera, though, which is a level of commitment that I'm not willing to make.

The QV-1 has a hinge and a latch that lets it fold upwards without needing to be removed from the camera. This is essential if the camera has a touch-screen, and I'd sometimes use it when I needed to change settings, although it isn't that difficult to find all the buttons while looking through the eyepiece. Yes, after two years with my D800 I still get confused between the + and - viewing buttons, but trial and error is part of the learning process.

Naturally it's not possible to use the cameras' own eye-level viewfinder with the LCD hood attached. That's a good reminder to close the OVF shutter, which is recommended when shooting on a tripod or with live view anyway.

This viewfinder, like most of them, is pretty big. Budget some extra space in the camera bag – it isn't heavy, but it's as bulky as a lens. It includes attachment points for a lanyard, so that it can be worn hoodman-style, but I'd never do it. There is a cautionary note that sunlight can be focused through the viewfinder and burn the camera's LCD, so that is a reason to take it off when it's not actively being used, but that's still no excuse for treating it like a fashion accessory. I put it in my jacket pocket or camera bag instead, and so far the rubber eyecup hasn't shown any tendency to collect lint.

I've never used the viewfinder brand that costs four times as much as the Kamerar and sounds like a hobby knife, but I've been pretty happy with the QV1. It's certainly good enough, it's a nice match for my SLR, and it costs about what I'm willing to spend given my low-key and rather undemanding usage. It's not one of those things that makes my heart sing with joy, but it's good enough that I wouldn't replace it, and it has proven useful enough as a concept that I bought a different LCD viewfinder for another cameras as well. More on that here.

last updated 8 june 2014


Hoodman Hoodloupe 3.0

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a classic.

The Long Version: The Hoodman Hoodloupe, patent US 7,386,229 B2 and 7,034,877, was the first thing I thought about when I needed to use my D800's live view for manually focusing a lens when outdoors. And why not? It's been around forever – I remember seeing ads for it back in the days of actual print magazines, so it must be good to still be on the market.

The Hoodman Hoodloupe is very slightly misnamed: it is a hood, but loupes typically offer magnification, which the Hoodman doesn't. Instead it has a diopter correction eyepiece and sturdy sides that block out stray light, making the camera's LCD easier to see by cutting out glare and distractions. It is used like a loupe, however, being hand-held and moved into place each time it's needed.

The Hoodloupe is clearly an idea that predates the era of SLR cameras that capture video, and the mirrorless revolution that followed it. The need to see the camera LCD clearly in any light was once the exclusive difficulty of photographers using tripods and seeking critical sharpness as they leisurely take photos of churches and mountains. If that's all that it's asked to do then the Hoodloupe performs well, but there's a new generation of video-inspired LCD magnifiers out there that have surpassed it for all-around use.

The Hoodman does still have some advantages over most of the newer products on the market: it's well-built, simple, small, and comparatively inexpensive. Even today it would be a good choice for anyone making a pilgrimage to the great tripod-holes of the American midwest or west coast. If this is something that's on your bucket list then consider picking one up – mine's available for $40, tax and shipping included.

last updated 6 june 2014


X-Men: Days of Future Past

Maj. William Stryker (Josh Helman) and Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter
Dinklage) working together to create a fiendishly complicated movie plot.

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Like its actors, the franchise is showing its age.
The Long Version:

I know I said I was about movied out after viewing Godzilla 2014 last weekend. The key word here is "about." This weekend I hit the early morning $6 matinee to see the latest X-Install of X-Men, "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

It was a better film than Godzilla 2014, but that's not a very high bar at all for success. What you should compare it to are all the other X-Men movies that have been produced in the series so far:
  1. X-Men - 2000
  2. X2 - X-Men United - 2003
  3. X-Men: The Last Stand - 2006
  4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine - 2009
  5. X-Men: First Class - 2011
  6. The Wolverine - 2013
  7. X-Men: Days of Future Past - 2014
If you're paying close attention you'll note the general two-to-three year release pattern in the X-Men movies, as well as a love for colons in titles. "The Wolverine" was an odd-ball, essentially released to "correct" 2009's poorly received "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Of course that fits another pattern in the Marvel movie universe, the release of movies to correct for prior poor releases (the most classic example being "Hulk" in 2003 followed by the corrective film "The Incredible Hulk" in 2008, then again with a third corrective Hulk interpretation with "The Avengers" in 2012).

I have few regrets in life, but one of them is knowing I've seen all the movies I've just catalogued.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is an attempt to correct the so-called damage caused to the franchise by "X-Men: The Last Stand," in which we see Jean Grey, Scott Summers/Cyclops, and Professor Xavier all killed. The franchise had really gone off the rails at that point, not that I really cared, mind you. This is, after all, a movie franchise based on comic books. It ain't Shakespeare.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) wondering how much he can drink before he blissfully forgets all of this.
So what do you do with what appears to be a movie franchise storyline that's headed over the cliff? Follow it down to the bottom and then write another movie plot attempting to correct it. And this time, wrap the whole thing up with a happy ending. That's precisely what DoFP did.

The movie opens on a dark and stormy dystopian future. Using the NSA's three hops of mass surveillance rule, just about everyone in the U.S. who's a mutant or not and hasn't been killed by a lawful drone strike is rounded up into the year 2023's version of GitMo in New York's Central Park. Next we cut to a frantic battle in Moscow between B-list mutants we've mostly never seen before, mixed with some we have. We get a quick and violent demonstration of what future Sentinels are capable of, those robotic overlords who contain weaponized mutant DNA allowing them to "adapt to any mutant threat."

However (there's always a however), using one of the Good Mutant's ability to warn them in the immediate past (a few days before) when they're getting their asses handed to them by these super Sentinels, we see the rag-tag Good Mutant remnants avoid destruction in Moscow and arrive next up at a mountainside monastery in China. There, along with a really old Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian "Gandalf" McKellan) they conceive of an audacious and barely coherent plot to send the 2023 consciousness of Wolverine back to his 1973 physical self so that his 1973 self can somehow stop the key event that led to their current dire predicament; the killing of Tyrion Lannister in 1973 by Mystique.

The same Tyrion Lannister who would never live to write Game of Thrones, leaving Dr. Bolivar Trask so bored that instead of reading all those Game of Thrones books he would instead create the very first Sentinel. And the rest, as they say, became history.

Mystique's (Jennifer Lawrence) reaction to the dialog she's not been paid enough to deliver for this film.
The throwback works, and the next thing we know we're back with Wolverine's 2023 consciousness in his 1973 body, which conveniently happens to be naked in a water bed next to a not-quite-naked beautiful woman (thus fulfilling every old guy's fantasy), who he's not actually supposed to be canoodling with. As he's trying to dress his naked ass, three big guys burst in and threaten to kick Wolverine's partially dressed ass because they didn't get to canoodle with said girl. We've seen more than enough Wolverine movies at this point, so we all know how this is going to work out. Sure enough, in the next scene we see Wolverine, now in full 1970's denim and polyester regalia, swaggering out into the street with another man's car keys, ready for the big times of 1973.

Since time is of the essence, Wolverine drives up to the dilapidated door of a young Professor Charles Xavier (played by Mr. Tumnus, a.k.a. James McAvoy), where he proceeds to punch out a young Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and magically convince a slobbering, self-pitying Xavier that he's there to rescue him and thus rescue all of them from a fate worse than death 50 years in the future. More or less.

Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showing what he can do after consuming way too many stolen Hostess Ding-Dongs and listening to bad 70's rock. Wolverine, Magneto, and Professor X just ignore the little snot.
With that taken care of they then they hop on a jet plane and head to Washington D.C. where another mutant named Quicksilver (Even Peters) lives, and convince him, in between product placement shots for Hostess Ding Dongs and severe ADHD episodes, to break into the Pentagon and break Magneto out of the bottom of the Pentagon. Because. And this so captivates young Quicksilver's attention that his severe ADHD episodes temporarily abate long enough for him to get into the same car with Beast and Wolverine so they can drive to the Pentagon, and then walk into the Pentagon on a tour with a funky electronic gizmo made from a Radio Shack electronics kit that nobody seems to notice, that causes Sanford and Sons to play on the Pentagon's security video.

They eventually break Magneto out, but not before Professor X knocks Magneto on his ass for stealing the Professor's girl, Mystique. You just knew this complication was coming.

Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique sharing a quiet romantic moment together after Mystique grabbed him by his 70-styled lapels and threw him into a French phone booth with her.
Except, of course, Mystique isn't having any of it. She's a woman of the 70's, not just a feminist, but a Mutant Feminist with an agenda to free all her oppressed sisters around the world. She's not going to take crap from Magneto or Professor X or any inferior male, and shows at one point she's got more balls than both combined.

Magneto getting to the bottom of Watergate.
Since future peace is so dependent upon what Mystique does in 1973, and having been forewarned what will happen if she Chooses Poorly, she decides to do what any self respecting Mutant Feminist would do, and that's kill all the males, not just Dr. Bolivar Trask. Because, after all, Trask is just this guy, you know? But somehow, some way, she has a special plastic gun, and within range of this special plastic gun she conveniently has all the males who have caused a half century of political and cultural carnage, starting with Richard Nixon. If she can get rid of all those assholes, including Magneto, then what a happier, sunnier place the world will be going forward from 1973.

Mystique getting her revenge by drawing a bead on the writers and the director.
But no. Ain't havin' none of that. Young Professor Xavier, no longer high on drugs but instead high on life, is now miraculously sober enough to convince Mystique to just let the guys alone, and to trust him, they'll get it all worked out for the best. Honestly and truly. And so Nixon lives to be pardoned, Magneto floats off to be an asshole on another planet, Mystique swears off Mutant Feminism and limps off to hang out with Thor's brother in West Virginia, and everybody lives happily ever after. They even find Wolverine at the bottom of the Potomac and haul him back up so he's around for all those future X-Men movies.

Oh, yeah, I forgot this spoiler. Magneto drop-kicks Wolverine's ass into the Potomac. From the White House lawn. Trust me, Wolverine asked for that particular ass kicking.

In fact, the world becomes so bright in 2023 Wolverine nearly has to wear Cyclop-strength shades. He wakes up one last time in the movie, except this time he's alone (bummer) and in a regular bed. He stumbles out into the Charles Xavier School for the Gifted, where he finds a no-longer-dead Cyclops, a no-longer-dead Jean Grey, and everybody's busted relationships are all fixed again. Except for his relationship with Jean because Cyclops is alive again and Cyclops and Jean are an Item again, but hey, it's better than dying.

And in the last-last-last scene, after all the end credits, is a guy in some desert wearing an oversized IKEA bathrobe with skinny wrists and a skin complexion problem, with his hands up in the air, as special effects bricks fly in around him and magically create a pyramid in front of a cheering screen audience. Sort of like an Apple product release when Steve Jobs was alive. And in the magical bokeh background, there sit four indistinct dudes on their horses.

The End.

Update 26 June 2014

Box-Office Milestone: 'X-Men' Franchise Hits $3 Billion in Global Ticket Sales http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-milestone-x-men-715153

last updated 26 june 2014

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