March, 2017

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Alpine hiking and camping at Victoria’s remote Macalister Springs – The Crosscut Saw and The Terrible Hollow – part III

Monday, March 27th, 2017

See Part I for an introduction to Macalister Springs region.

See Part II for Mt Howitt in the clouds.

ps. click on images to see a larger view.

Friday morning, it was clear skies overhead with the valleys and The Terrible Hollow below filled with low cloud.

Although my sleeping bag discouraged me from waking for sunrise, I did manage to scramble up to the lookout area soon thereafter and enjoyed the magical views:


The Crosscut Saw

The Crosscut Saw and to far right, Mt Buggary, with the cloud hiding the depths of The Terrible Hollow.

After breakfast we decided to head up to The Crosscut Saw before we head home.


The Crosscut Saw

Cloud still hiding The Terrible Hollow with The Crosscut Saw on the left.


The Crosscut Saw


The Crosscut Saw

Yep, no back pack for this short trip, my light rain jacket had pockets large enough for a water bottle, and my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera with 12mm lens, while I was also able to borrow my friend’s 75mm lens.


The Crosscut Saw


The Crosscut Saw

Hikers walking the start of the Crosscut Saw – Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lens.


The Crosscut Saw

Looking back eastwards towards The Devil’s Staircase – Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lens.


Mt Spec

East aspect of Mt Speculation with Mt Buffalo in the background – Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lens.


Mt Howitt

Looking south east to Mt Howitt on the left and Mt Buller on the right – Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 lens.

What a difference a day makes with the sun out:

  • everlasting daisies and other flowers opened
  • insects buzzing around – including small butterflies and those flies
  • the aggressive alpine ants were active
  • it became hot walking even in tee shirt and shorts with sun hat on
  • eyes became sunburnt – so busy taking photos I forgot about my sunglasses – at end of the day my eyes were red!
  • you have to drink more – that means carry more water
  • the copperhead snakes are out – we almost stepped on two basking in the sun on the walking path near Mac Springs

Alpine hiking and camping at Victoria’s remote Macalister Springs – Mt Howitt and the Crosscut Saw – part II

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

See Part I for an introduction to Macalister Springs region.

We left our home in the Melbourne burbs around 10am to avoid peak hour traffic (in retrospect 1hr earlier may have been wiser!), reached Traralgon a little after noon and had a lovely gourmet lunch at Momos (highly recommend it!).

We then headed to Heyfield and up the Macalister River valley past Lake Glanmaggie and up and over the range to Licola, where we made a mistake from lack of concentration and kept driving through the little one shop town and up into the mountains on gravel roads until luckily we realised we were on the wrong road – the road to Jamieson is very long and winding one but doesn’t take you to Mt Howitt!! We back tracked to Licola and took the correct turn, but by then had wasted valuable daylight hours.

We arrived at the Mt Howitt carpark shrouded in thick cloud with misty rain at dusk around 6.30pm – the last half of our 5km 1.5hr walk to the Mac Springs camp area would be in complete darkness with fog and light rain, guided by our LED head lamps and aided by our walking poles to save us from the many uneven rocks and surfaces that characterize these tracks. Thankfully, navigation was not problematic.

There had been only one other car at the car park and so we were looking forward to a quiet time, and selection of a nice tent site, albeit in the dark.

Alas, as we arrived, we discovered a tent city – Geelong Grammar Timbertop students – all 60 of them and their 15 teachers had already set up camp after hiking up the Howitt Spur – thankfully we found a couple of vacant tent sites and the school group were quiet overnight and left after sunrise to head back across the Crosscut Saw to their return descent down Stanleys Name Spur.

Once our tents were up, we cooked up our pasta dinner on a Whisperlite stove, supplemented by some red wine and blue vein cheese before heading off to bed around 10pm.

That night there was the constant dripping of water onto our tents from the overhanging tree branches, but little wind to bother us, and the temperatures dropped to around 7degC – my compact, light, Sea to Summit Micro II sleeping bag with silk liner kept me toasty all night.

We awoke to a foggy morning which persisted throughout the day, dampening any prospects of heading over the Crosscut Saw for nice views. The school kids had left and we made use of the hut to prepare breakfast and work out what we should do for the day.


MacSprings

Foggy morning amongst the snow gums at Mac Springs – Olympus OM-D E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens at f/5.6 – a great combo to keep in your jacket pocket, and the lens filter thread is the same size as the Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 lens and the Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 weathersealed very light macro lens – not a bad threesome to take on alpine hikes when weight and size are critical.

Having your head in the clouds has its pros and cons:

  • great for photography as you can take in the ambiance of the fog, while the low contrast lighting makes the forests, boulders and mosses easier to photograph in an aesthetic manner without the complexity of harsh shadows
  • you don’t get so hot and thus don’t need to carry as much drinking water
  • there are almost no active insects – no flies to annoy you
  • the probability of stepping on a potentially deadly snake is much reduced
  • BUT you do miss out on the amazing alpine views, the flowers (which only open in the sun),  and the summits are likely to be very cold and windy with no sun to warm you up

We decided on a walk to the summit of nearby Mt Howitt with option to proceed past Big Hill and onto Mt Magdala then return.

It was a lovely ascent to the Mt Howitt – Crosscut Saw junction along a rugged snowgum lined track with views to the north over The Terrible Hollow, The Devil’s Staircase and the CrossCut Saw – if you could see them through the ever changing fog. The sheltered microclimate of this region at 10-13degC with minimal wind meant that you just needed boots, gaiters, thin pants with waterproof overpants, teeshirt, long sleeved shirt and thin waterproof jacket for comfort. For someone lacking hiking fitness, this was the perfect amount of interval training that I needed – and carrying my water and lenses in my jacket pockets without need for a backpack made a big difference to my enjoyment levels. My colleague kindly brought his backpack to carry snacks and extra layers as well as the mandatory EPIRB radio beacon.


near the junction


snowgums in fog


snowgums in fog

Both the above were taken with the Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens.

 

From that junction, you are essentially above the treeline and the ascent to Mt Howitt is over meadows with fascinating lichen covered rocks and fields of flower buds.


lichen


lichen


lichen


lichen

 

The final ascent to Mt Howitt though was a very different climate – 25-40kph southerly winds on the exposed summit made the wind chill factor considerable and required additional layering up – feather down vest on, gloves on, beanie on (perhaps balaclava would have been better!)


Mt Howitt summit

The Mt Howitt summit and a short break for snacks and drink behind the shelter of a large rock – unfortunately we failed to layer up before snacking resulting in us feeling cold and not too keen to continue on in the fog and wind to Mt Magdala – so we layered up and headed back to the comfortable microclimate of Mac Springs.


the walk back to Mac Springs

Back down in Mac Springs, we decided to explore the area and get some more imagery:


the Devil's Staircase

The Devil’s Staircase – Olympus mZD 12mm f/2.0 lens


the narrow hiking ridge of the Crosscut Saw

The narrow hiking ridge of the Crosscut Saw – not so much fun to hike in the cloud! Olympus mZD 60mm f/2.8 macro lens as a short telephoto lens

That night we were joined by 7 university students and their leader who camped near the hut, while we remained in our tents near the spring.

We cooked up a nice chicken noodle stir fry for dinner and finished off with a hot chocolate, marshmallows and a couple of shots of Bailey’s as a night cap.

The night was much colder than the first night, and despite pre-emptively replacing my silk sleeping bag liner with a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Plus liner and closing the foot end of the sleeping bag, the night felt less comfortable with the cooler conditions which were probably around 2-6 degC. Perhaps the alcohol was not a good idea!

See Part III for The Crosscut Saw and clear skies at last.

Alpine hiking and camping at Victoria’s remote Macalister Springs – Mt Howitt and the Crosscut Saw – part I

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

One of the favourite overnight hiking treks in the Victorian Alps is the hike across the narrow, steeply sided ridge line that is The Crosscut Saw which is a ridge 20km east of Mt Buller, with options of camping at Macalister Springs at the southern end or at Mt Speculation at the northern end.

The walk from Mac Springs to Mt Howitt is a 2km moderate grade ascent to 1742m at the very exposed and often windy bare peak well above the tree line, easily done with a day pack with water, snack, gloves, beanie, wet weather gear, and warm vest.

The optional hike across The Crosscut Saw (1705m elevation at its highest peak) to Mt Spec (1668m elevation) is not one for those afraid of heights, and does require a good degree of preparation and fitness – it is very exposed and requires some 600m of ascents and 600m of descents one way, plus if you wish to get up to Mt Spec, it does require a bit of heart stopping rock clambering which is best done with a small pack, or, if a big pack, then passing the pack up to your colleagues. The only reliable water source on this hike is at Camp Creek which is 45min return hike, 1.2km north-east, down from the Mt Spec camp areas which give a nice view but are very exposed – be warned! Mt Spec to Mt Howitt is 7.5km 2.5-3hrs with about 700m ascents and 700m descents.

There is also an optional 2.5hr 8km circuit walk of Bryce Gorge with waterfalls (in season) about 10-20min drive before the Mt Howitt car park.

Another optional hike from the Licola approach is from McFarlane Saddle 14km past the Arbuckle Junction which allows a 2 day 33.5km circuit walk down to the hidden Lake Tali Karng, although the descent and return steep ascent from the lake can be skipped.


map

Macalister Springs

Macalister Springs is a lovely camp site at around 1600m elevation surrounded by snow gums and relatively protected from prevailing winds, and it has a small water source that runs most of the year (although people do recommend boiling it to make it potable as there is potential risk of Giardia but the myth of the nematodes has been dispelled).

The site also features a “4 star” hut and pump out toilet which makes it that much more pleasant – the toilet even has an expansive window looking out over the valley to the south!

The Vallejo Gantner hut was built by volunteers in difficult access conditions over two year period 1970-71 by the Gantner family in memory of their 19 year old son Vallejo (grandson of wealthy Melbourne retailer Sidney Myer) who died in an accident. It boasts a central stone fireplace, although this, as well as the sleeping area should only be used in extreme circumstances – hikers are expected to be self-sufficient and bring their own tents, warm clothing and cooking gear. Outdoor wood fires are not permitted, especially within a 1km radius.

Fortunately, the hut, toilet and camp region were spared the alpine bushfires which devastated the region last decade.

Hut


Hut

Interior taken with the Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens.

The region does have potentially deadly although relatively good natured, highland copperhead snakes (Austrelaps ramsayi, colour can vary from brown form to black form, thankfully bites from this species are quite rare as they tend to avoid biting unless they are grumpy on a really hot day or you antagonise them severely – we did encounter 2 within 20m of the camp, basking in the midday sun on our walking path and neither seemed too keen to move out of our way! They become quiescent late April-Nov, mate in Spring,  and are mainly diurnal except for very warm nights, and tend to be active earlier in the day in Autumn compared to Spring and Summer, rest under fallen logs and amongst tussocks of grass,  prefer to be near water, feed mainly on the multitude of skinks in the area).

Bring a snake bite bandage, know the first aid for snake bites and bring an EPIRB radio beacon – otherwise you will need a companion to walk to top of Mt Howitt area to get mobile reception and call for help. Even then you may need to be carried 5km to the car park then either driven to the air strip or a 3hr drive to the hospital at Traralgon – I am guessing a chopper evacuation would be needed to save your life this far from medical support and anti-venom! Don’t play with snakes, don’t step on them, wear boots and gaiters on any tracks!

The camp is extremely popular with school and uni groups – the night we arrived there were 60 Geelong Grammar Timbertop high school students and 15 teachers camping there – having hiked up 1000m ascent to get there!


camp ground

Our tents in one of the several camp areas – this one is adjacent the spring itself – about 100m downhill from the hut and toilet. Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens at f/5.6 on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark I Micro Four Thirds camera – makes a great compact combo to have handy in your jacket pocket!

Getting to Macalister Springs from Melbourne

It is a long way by car – allow 6-6.5hrs drive plus a 1.5hr 5km mildly downhill hike to the camp site – that is an all day proposition – hence one should aim for a two night camp rather than just overnight to make the long drive worthwhile.

The gravel access road is seasonally closed from Queen’s birthday in June to Melbourne Cup in November!

The drive from Melbourne to Traralgon will take about 2hrs depending upon traffic conditions – try a meal at Momos – it was delicious and great coffee to boot.

Traralgon to Licola will take around 90 minutes, the last half is through winding alpine roads, much of it along the Macalister river valley.

Take the right fork in the road BEFORE the bridge at Licola (there is a general store with petrol and diesel), and from there it will take around 20 minutes on bitumen, passing numerous river-side camp grounds to get to the bridge over the Wellington River and from their it is all uphill, winding, alpine gravel roads – 30 minutes to Arbuckle Junction, then a further 45 minutes to Mt Howitt Car park. That is a total of 3hrs drive from Traralgon to Mt Howitt car park then the 1.5hr walk.

From the car park, it is a 1.5hr, 5km mildly undulating walk to the camp (might take you 2hrs back up on a warm, sunny day!)

Getting to Macalister Springs from Mt Stirling or Mt Buller

Shorter drive from Mebourne with much less gravel roads, but a much harder hiking route – several options – all require > 1000m strenuous ascent with a heavy pack to the very exposed Mt Howitt or the Crosscut Saw – with only a few areas to collect water once you leave the Howqua River.

1 hr gravel road drive from TBJ at Mt Stirling (seasonally closed!) will get you to Upper Howqua Camping area (elevation 800m) which can be used as the start point for your hike. The Helicopter Spur hike departs the camp to the south-east, while the other 3 routes have a shared initial 3.5km hike criss-crossing the Howqua River in a easterly direction from the camp.

See my wiki page for hikes.

Hike maps  have been posted by someone on the net here.

Via Helicopter Spur:

  • Helicopter Spur is graded difficult -steep, often difficult, scrambling over rocks, total ascent ~800m to AAWT over 6km, then 150m descent before climbing 200m gain at Mt Magdala then descending 200m to Hellfire Creek campsite (creek may be dry!) for a total of 10km hike taking fit, experienced walkers 4-5hrs, this walk does take you past Picture Point and Hell’s Window.
  • Upper Howqua Camping area to Picture Point 5.5km, 2.5-3hrs, 700m ascent
  • Picture Point to  Hellfire Creek campsite 4.5km, 1.5-2hrs, 320m ascents plus 290m descents
  • Hellfire Creek campsite to Mt Howitt, 3km, 1hr, 260m ascents, 80m descents from Big Hill
  • “exhilarating but potentially dangerous”
  • seems you need knee protectors, march fly swat and perhaps climbing gloves to get you over the 3 rock bands intact, and one to avoid in wet windy conditions
  • next day hike to Mt Howitt (3km, 1hr ~200m total gain), then down to Mac Springs

Via Mt Howitt Spur:

  • perhaps the most popular spur to hike up
  • 8.5km, 900m ascent  to West Peak (1725m elevation) and then Mt Howitt (1742m elevation)
  • requires crossing the Howqua River a number of times, then crossing the South Branch of the Howqua River at the 3.5km mark from Upper Howqua Camping area
  • avoids The CrossCut Saw
  • descent takes 2.5-3hrs

Via Stanleys Name Spur (SNS)

  • Upper Howqua Camping area to SNS via the Queen Spur Road disused logging track  crossing the Howqua River a number of times, 7km, 2-2.5hrs and 450m ascent
  • SNS to The Crosscut Saw
  • you may need to battle some blackberry bushes on the way up
  • you get to walk a section of the Crosscut Saw but avoid the more difficult Mt Buggery and Mt Spec sections as well as the tallest peak of the Crosscut Saw

Via Queen Spur:

  • 7.5hr 15km ascent via Queens Spur to camp at Mt Spec
  • Upper Howqua Camping area to SNS as above for SNS – 7km, 2-2.5hrs and 450m ascent
  • SNS to Mt Spec via Queen Spur and Mt Buggary (1605m) 8km, 2.5-3hrs with initial 100m descent to cross the headwater of the King River South Branch (last chance for water unlesss it is dry in summer or droughts) then 420m ascent requiring rock scrambling and following a faint track to Mt Buggery then 200m steep descent into Horrible Gap before the final 250m ascent to Mt Spec with rock scrambling
  • then need to walk across The CrossCut Saw to Mac Springs

Getting to Macalister Springs from Lake Cobbler

This is a rather long 5-5.5hr 330km+ drive from Melbourne via Whitfield  (either via Mansfield or via Milawa) and really needs a 4WD to get to Lake Cobbler where there is a camp ground and nearby waterfalls and option to climb Mt Cobbler.

The hike up to Mt Spec from Lake Cobbler is more gentle than the ascents from Upper Howqua camp site.

One then continues over the CrossCut Saw to Mac Springs.

See Part II – hike to Mt Howitt in the clouds.

 

Another nail in the coffin of Canon/Nikon relative duopoly – Cactus introduces cross-platform radio remote TTL flash system

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Since the 1960’s, Canon and Nikon have enjoyed a relative duopoly in the world of system cameras, especially amongst professional photographers.

In the late 1980’s, Canon took the lead with their totally redesigned lens mount system allowing fast AF, and it is only in the last decade or so that Nikon has again taken the lead with their even better AF tracking and metering technologies.

But as Olympus has shown with their Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera, the advantages of the Canon and Nikon dSLR systems are rapidly being lost to ever improving technological advances, especially with sensors, AF and mirrorless systems which, particularly in the case of Micro Four Thirds, offer adequate image quality (often better edge to edge image sharpness) , smaller, lighter, less expensive kits more suited to our travel and hiking needs, more accurate and often faster AF, faster burst speeds with accurate continuous AF, much better image stabilisation, hand holdable super telephoto reach as well as better run and gun hand holdable 4K video.

Part of the successful marketing strategy of Canon and Nikon is keeping their users loyal to their brand – once they have invested into their system, much like Apple users, they are generally too heavily invested to swap brands or even to use other brands with different user interfaces or incompatibilities.

If you had, or wanted to use Canon lenses to their full capability, you had to buy Canon dSLRs, likewise for Nikon.

If you had a Canon system, you had to buy Canon-specific flash systems if you want TTL or remote radio TTL flash – likewise for Nikon.

Canon dSLR owners could use other lenses, even Nikon lenses but with sacrifice of fast AF.

Nikon dSLR owners could not use non-Nikon mount lenses due to a physical design issue – the distance from sensor to lens mount is too long.

Enter the new world of cross-platform utility

My last blog post espoused the potential utility of using Sony full frame mirrorless cameras with a Sigma MC-11 adapter which at last provides fast AF with most Canon EF mount lenses on Sony cameras, but in particular, the Sigma branded ones.

This allows photographers increased choice – they could get a mirrorless full frame camera with a different sensor characteristics plus sensor based image stabilisation and face AF for their Canon lenses with better feature sets at the same price as the entry level Canon 6D dSLR- seeing that Canon has not shown interest in creating such a camera.

Now, Cactus has massively increased cross-platform utility by announcing a free firmware upgrade to their Cactus V6 II radio remote control flash system, which allows Canon, Nikon or Olympus flashes to be used with most other brand cameras with either on-camera TTL or remote radio cross-TTL capability!

This is awesome, but wait, there’s more, the Cactus V6 II x-TTL also allows:

  • remote control of flash unit output, even below 1/128th level for ultra short, motion-stopping shots
  • automatic zoom level control of flashes
  • Super FP or HSS mode (but Pentax and Sony cameras need a brand-specific flash for this to work)
  • Power Sync mode to allow a faster flash sync without losing flash output as occurs in Super FP/HSS mode
  • two unique new flash exposure modes:
    • Flash Compensate – store a desired flash exposure that will automatically adjust according to changes in camera settings.
    • Flash Power Lock – lock flash power output after a desired TTL exposure is achieved, for consistency in repeat shooting.

See my wikipedia page for more information of remote control of flashes.

 And, of course, this also also fantastic news for Micro Four Thirds users who can now have radio TTL flash on their Olympus and Panasonic cameras – even with Canon flashes!

Value adding to your lens collection – can a Sony a7 II + Sigma MC-11 bring new life to your Canon lenses without breaking your bank?

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Choosing a new camera can really value add to your existing lenses and give them a new life.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Micro Four Thirds camera adds extra dimensions to your Micro Four Thirds kit by giving them even better image stabilisation, awesome C-AF at 18 fps burst rates with Pro-Capture option and the option of 50mp HiRes mode (albeit requiring a tripod and static scene).

Many of us have a collection of Canon pro lenses and an old Canon dSLR camera which needs updating to value add to these lenses – but which camera?

Sure, you could adapt them onto your Micro Four Thirds cameras but these Canon lenses are not optimised for CDAF, so you need an expensive Metabones adapter to get reasonable AF – and the capability will vary with each lens – some, such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro and one of my favorites, the Canon EF 135mm F2L lens will just not AF with a Metabones adapter – whether a straight adapter or a 0.71x focal reducer adapter.

You could buy a cropped sensor Canon dSLR, but unless you are into sports where the Canon 7D Mark II will be useful, the full frame lenses are just too big and poorly suited to cropped sensor dSLRs and Canon don’t make many pro quality lenses designed especially for their cropped sensor cameras.

If you have the money, the obvious choice are the superb Canon 1DX Mark II or the Canon 5D Mark IV but these are likely to break your bank at around $AU5000.

You see money is everything for most of us, if money was not an issue, we would probably buy a variety of best of breed cameras such as:

  • Hasselblad or Phase One medium format for landscapes and studio work
  • Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX with massive, expensive lenses such as a 600mm f/4 for sports or wildlife
  • Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II for everyday use and compact, light travel

But money is an issue for most of us, and so in the Canon full frame dSLRs at the entry level end we have the outdated Canon 6D or Canon 5D Mark III dSLRs, but although these will get you the full frame shallow depth of field and high ISO capabilities, these are not suited to sports, have an old sensor which has less dynamic range capability at base ISO than even the E-M1 Mark II, and in the case of the 6D in particular, has crippled functionality such as a shutter speed only to 1/4000th sec.

Can we do better at an affordable price? – Enter the Sony a7II

The Sony a7 mark II combined with the relatively new and affordable  Sigma MC-11 Canon EF lens adapter may well be a better option than the similarly priced older canon 6D IF you can live with a few major issues:

  • variable AF functionality depending upon the lens but unlike using the much more expensive Metabones adapter, the Sigma MC-11 adapter works really well with the Canon EF 135mm f/2L, so well, that it has made me consider the Sony a7II as a reasonable option! The Canon 50mm f/1.8 II works, but every time you turn the camera off and then on, the lens freezes, so you have to partly dismount the lens and mount, then turn camera back on to re-gain AF functionality.
  • terrible ergonomics – I am not sure what happened to all those Minolta camera engineers when Sony took them over, but, the Sony cameras are certainly not designed with the photographer in mind – if you think the Olympus menu system is confused and convoluted, Sony is worse, and with sometimes very strange  design options, and worse, the constant need to dig into the menu system for simple things such as switching from back button AF to half shutter AF modes, and unlike the Olympus, navigating the panel display settings is very clunky, plus for some reason, the EVF looks blurry even after adjusting the diopter, and countless other annoyances such as no button to switch from EVF to screen manually – yep, you guessed it – another deep dive into the menu system – if you can remember which screen its on! Plus, unlike Olympus, there is no context-sensitive help on the menus or the Scene modes (you just get a sometimes obscure icon).
  • did I mention terrible ergonomics?
  • did I mention the really loud shutter? – unlike Olympus, there is no silent mode – but at least your subjects can hear you taking the shot from 10m away!
  • cannot yet use Canon flashes in TTL mode – but they work fine in manual mode – thankfully, Sony got rid of the proprietary non-industry standard Minolta hotshoe! PS. the Cactus radio wireless TTL flash system is being updated in 2017 to allow Canon and Olympus flashes to work on Sony cameras and other brand cameras including Olympus cameras with full TTL remote radio wireless flash – but Sony and Pentax cameras currently require brand-specific flashes for HSS mode. AWESOME!
  • is not supplied with an external battery charger – what the??? You charge the battery via USB cable with battery in the camera – not very useful if tyou want to use the camera while the battery is charging! You can apparently buy one with a spare battery for about $100

What benefits does the Sony a7 II have over the similarly priced Canon 6D?

  • mirrorless – camera is smaller and lighter, 600g vs 770g
  • EVF instead of OVF means you can hold the camera to your eye for Live View including movies, plus, if you are like me and require reading glasses, you can get away without them by using the EVF for everything including diving into the menu
  • manual focus magnification with focus peaking in the viewfinder – fantastic for Tilt-Shift lenses which are otherwise difficult to focus
  • ability to use native Sony lenses as well as Leica M lenses – probably not a big deal unless you really want to invest in an essentially flawed design system -in my opinion, Sony made a mistake in designing the E-Mount sensor to lens flange distance so short and the mount diameter so narrow – sure it makes the cameras smaller, but that doesn’t help much on full frame as the lenses are gigantic, and furthermore, it cripples image quality with wide aperture, wide angle lenses and cripples the capabilities of a sensor based image stabilisation system – hence the Sony Steady shot IS is no match for the Olympus system, and according to the laws of physics is unlikely to ever be!
  • 24mp newer sensor with much better dynamic range compared to the old 2012 model 20mp sensor of the 6D
  • shutter speed to 1/8000th sec not just 1/4000th sec
  • 5 axis sensor based image stabiliser that works on all lenses (gives about 2EV benefit but requires compatible OIS lens for greatest benefit) vs NO sensor based IS on the 6D – or any Canon dSLR for that matter!
  • 117 PDAF autofocus points compared to 11 on the 6D which are all crowded in the centre
  • face detection AF even when used with Canon lenses – vs face detection only in Live View mode
  • eye detect AF with compatible lenses (not currently with the Canon lenses unless they are made by Sigma)
  • 1200 zone metering instead of 63 zone dual layer metering
  • flash sync 1/250th sec vs 1/180th sec – although my tests with Canon and Olympus flashes, the Sony a7ii only syncs fully at 1/200th sec – perhaps you need a Sony flash for 1/250th sec sync
  • 1.23m dot tilting LCD vs 1mdot fixed LCD (unfortunately, neither offer touch screen)
  • 1080HD 60p video vs 1080HD 30p
  • more accurate AF and much less need for AF microadjustment as the PDAF sensors are on the main sensor not located elsewhere and hence need calibration

Benefits of the Canon 6D over the Sony a7II:

  • similar interface to other Canon dSLRs, albeit a little crippled compared to its more expensive models
  • optical viewfinder for those who value such things
  • better batter life as no EVF
  • more reliable AF with Canon lenses but you are restricted to those 11 points in the centre, and you don’t get face detect AF through the viewfinder let alone eye detection AF
  • ability to use Canon flashes in TTL mode although the Cactus radio wireless TTL flash system is being updated in 2017 to allow Canon and Olympus flashes to work on Sony cameras with full TTL remote radio wireless flash – but apparently they can’t get HSS mode working at this stage!

Conclusion:

In the end, you need to work out which is best for you and the style of photography you do – both solutions are a long way from being ideal – they are both budget compromises – which compromise works for you – only you can tell!

For me, having an image stabilised Canon 135mm f/2L lens with face detect AF and ability to do Live View manual focus magnification with focus peaking in the viewfinder while using Canon Tilt-Shift lenses on the Sony with a better dynamic range and 1/8000th sec shutter for sunny days makes this a compelling choice for me if I were to purchase one of the two.

 

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II + Olympus 300mm f/4 lens – just awesome for water-ski events such as Melbourne’s Moomba

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

I come from a long line of broken Olympus promises when it comes to useful continuous autofocus capability.

Olympus have had C-AF and their even less useful C-AF Tracking modes in nearly every digital camera I have owned – C8080, E330, E510, E-M5 and E-M1 mark I – and sadly, they have all sucked when it came to continuous autofocus on a moving subject, although the E-M1 mark I was a big improvement. Even my super expensive Canon 1D Mark III dSLR AI-SERVO AF mode which was designed for pro sports photographers had sub-optimal AF in this regard.

So, you can see I am used to being let down in this area and was preparing myself for another disappointment.

The BIG C-AF TEST:

This weekend it is Melbourne’s Moomba festival and a big part of it is the water ski-ing championships on the Yarra River.

So now I have this opportunity to test out the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II flagship sports camera from Olympus with their truly amazing Olympus micro Zuiko Digital (mZD) 300mm f/4 OIS lens which makes a comfortably hand holdable kit for the whole day giving 600mm telephoto reach at f/4 aperture with over 6 stops image stabilisation – which may have been a factor in image quality given I was panning madly all day as if I was a tennis umpire.

I am not a sports photographer and this camera does allow a number of settings to allow you to optimise AF algorithms – I left these at their default value, but I did create an in-camera focus range limiter – a novel and unique functionality peculiar to this camera – you can effectively speed up AF and have it ignore the crowds in the background or any foreground leaves. I did find a weird quirk though – the C-AF Tracking mode seemed to ignore the focus limiter settings, so I resorted to C-AF which is almost certainly the thing to do with this camera anyway! You can rapidly disable the in-camera focus limiter by applying a lens based focus limiter – this was handy at times.

The other amazing thing with this camera is the insanely fast electronic shutter burst mode of 18fps with full C-AF, and you can also enable the Pro-Capture mode which I did at the end for the jumps as I lost sight of the skier behind the jump, but Pro-Capture ensures I did not suffer any reaction lag by capturing the 14 frames prior to pressing the shutter – this will be an essential feature for pros one day!

Thus, I shot all my shots in Aperture Priority metering at f/4, Picture Mode = Vivid (I probably didn’t need to do this to improve CDAF speed as for this work we are using the PDAF sensors), Silent Burst Low rate (18fps), with C-AF using the central 9 AF points (the full area seemed less reliable – I hope Olympus add a larger region than just 9 to choose from as getting your subject in this area is critical for AF success!). Depending on whether the skier was front-lit by sun, or backlit, I would adjust the exposure compensation a touch.

When the skier came along I just composed to have them in the AF region, then held down the shutter as I panned – almost no EVF blackout made this possible with a little practice and getting used to the skier’s rapid changes of direction.

At the end you do have to wait for the burst of RAW files to empty from the buffer before you can review them – I just used one card so I could more quickly review them in camera and delete the duds (there were many where the skier was well away from the AF region and thus out of focus – but that was my lack of skill not the camera’s fault). If I wrote a RAW to one card and JPEG to the other card, I would have had to separately delete from each card which would have been a big pain.

Firstly, will the camera C-AF ignore intervening foreground?

then passing behind a tree branch as I panned madly to keep up with him:

Well that was an unexpected awesome surprise! It worked!

Now, the hard one – a 1.5 sec sequence at 18fps with skier covering 50m camera-to-subject distance:

This sequence was shot in much lower light as dark grey storm clouds gathered and blocked the sun, but at least I didn’t have to shoot directly into the sun which could have made the AF more challenging.  This sequence is essentially straight from camera just resized for web.

Here is the 1st of the sequence of 25 shots all taken at ISO 800, f/4, at around 1/800th sec – perhaps I should have used shutter priority at 1/2000th sec and auto ISO:

The 15th frame, still keeping her in focus despite me panning away:

Preparing for her landing, 22nd frame, still in reasonable focus – I think the horizontal distance covered was some 45-50m from what the commentators said:

Yes! a safe landing, 28th frame, acceptably in focus – of all the 28 frames, only 2 were grossly out of focus, and they were mainly because my panning let the subject leave the AF region while the subject was coming towards me very quickly!

I don’t know about you but that craps on my Canon 1D Mark III and what’s more, the image quality in terms of subject sharpness was better than what a fellow I met there who shoots the event every year achieved using a Nikon D3S pro dSLR with a big, heavy Tamron 150-600mm lens which I am guessing is not as sharp wide open as is the Olympus lens, plus the old D3s only as 12mp not 20mp to play with as does the Olympus – but I presume it would beat the Olympus kit when the light faded, plus he had an advantage of being able to zoom out.

OK, I am satisfied – at last Olympus have a winner for sports photography, and the 18fps is really cool, plus being electronic, it doesn’t wear out the mechanical shutter mechanism! Just be prepared to weed through the images and discard those you don’t want, otherwise you will end up with 20-40Gb easily in an afternoon.

Now the technical stuff is addressed, here are some cool beginner shots:

You can click on these for larger size views.

In addition to applying some vibrance, and clarity in LR, the following have all been cropped as even with 600mm effective focal length, they were too far away – feel bad for the full frame guys trying to do this! This were at ISO 400, f/4 and around 1/2000th – 1/6400th sec. In retrospect, in bright sunlight, I should have used ISO 200 to get a tad more dynamic range and image quality, or used auto ISO and shutter priority at 1/2000th sec.

Attaching the leg rope for trick ski-ing:

Cool as she can be:

Somersault action:

Ooops, lost the rope – this is why 18fps beats 10fps – you get to capture action in more detail within the time window:

A B&W somersault:

This guy is obviously having too much fun on the jumps – Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens at ISO 800, f/4, 1/500th sec (I should have used f/2.8 not sure how it ended up as f/4 – perhaps I forgot to check it after changing lenses):

This lady nails it too – Olympus mZD 40-150mm f/2.8 lens at ISO 800, f/4, 1/1000th sec:

No major issues with rolling shutter from the electronic shutter and me panning horizontally with near vertical lines- Olympus has this well controlled although you can demonstrate it if you try hard.

Perhaps Canon and Nikon should be worried – how are they going to integrate 18fps into their sports dSLRs without really giving their mirror system and their mechanical shutters a real working out every time, not to mention the noise from the mirror slapping around!

And, don’t forget, I could have gone to a really insane 60fps with this camera if I didn’t need C-AF – Canon and Nikon could build a dSLR with this but you would have to resort to Live View and hold the camera away from your face to view the rear screen – not great for camera shake!

But if the Canon and Nikon guys are prepared to shell out $20,000 for their pro dSLR plus 600mm f/4 OIS lens, then they could get more background blurring, and shoot at lower light levels thanks to their lower noise at higher ISO – but then carrying this 7kg kit and a monopod around all day would be heavy work indeed! The E-M1 Mark ii plus Olympus 300mm f/4 gives same field of view with faster burst rates plus the option of awesome image stabilised 4K cinematic video and weighs only 1.8kg and costs around 1/3rd the price.

 I do though have a couple of firmware suggestions for Olympus:

  • create an alternate method of setting the in-camera focus limiter – entering a distance manually is not easy and takes a lot of trial and error work in estimating distances then testing to see if you are correct – surely an option could be to use the current focus position?
  • make another option for AF area selection – perhaps 25-59 AF points?
  • prevent C-AF Tracking from selecting subjects to track which are outside the AF Limiter range – although I suspect C-AF Tracking has a long way to go before it becomes really useful – I do remember once, this was almost useful on my Panasonic GH-1 if the subject was not moving too fast, but the Olympus cameras seem to lose the subject too easily and too randomly. My tip – don’t use C-AF Tr just use C-AF or if your Olympus cameras does not have PDAF, stick to S-AF.
  • add an AF adjustment distance option +/- x meters for scenarios such as the jumps where the camera will AF on the skis leaving the face a touch soft being perhaps 1-2m behind the skis – the ability to program in such fine control could come in handy although only for defined and consistent scenarios with shallow DOF. This would be similar to AF Micro Adjustment function but with a distance scale with 0.1m precision.
  • provide a delete option that deletes the image from both SD cards simultaneously, in a similar way the option to delete RAW and the JPEG on the one card is available.

Tips for using the new unique AF Limiter functionality:

One must set the AF Limiter range in meters via the menu system.

Although you could guess a focus range to use such as 10m to 50m and then test it to ensure your subjects will be able to have AF lock achieved.

There is a much more accurate way – use the other novel functionality – use the Preset MF mode to measure the distances accurately for you!

Set AF mode to PreMF and while in the settings mode, press INFO button, and then half-press shutter to lock AF on various distances, and for each, you will get a read out of the camera to subject distance with 0.1m precision – just what you need when shooting in an aquarium and you wish to ignore the dirt on the glass!

Put your AF mode back to C-AF.

Use the distances to dial into the AF Limiter menu settings (you can store up to 3 AF Limiter ranges).

To rapidly disable the in-camera AF Limiter (eg. you decide to shoot something different), you have several mechanisms:

  • turn it off in the menu – a little time consuming, or,
  • turn the lens focus limiter ON and this will over-ride the in-camera AF Limiter range, or,
  • set your sports shooting mode with AF Limiter ON to a custom setting, and normal mode with AF Limiter OFF to another custom setting, then you can just rotate the PASM dial to switch modes, or,
  • allocate AF Limiter to a function button which will allow you to choose which AF Limiter setting to use or to turn it off

Summary:

The world is full of millisecond events which all blur in our minds, or we just don’t notice, or perhaps just have an overall gestalt perception – this Olympus camera’s 18fps and 60 fps modes opens up this world – I never really noticed the skier losing grip of the rope during the somersault, my mind barely could take in the somersault itself as it was over and done with so quickly – but this camera caught that moment in time – you just have to be there and be ready – and with pro Capture mode you can even capture the milliseconds before you pressed the button – just awesome!

C-AF is finally there and works extremely well even at 18fps – I am impressed!

It seems Olympus has finally ditched manufacture of Four Thirds lenses to concentrate on Micro Four Thirds

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

According to Four-Thirds.org and highlighted by dpreview.com, unsurprisingly, it seems Olympus has decided to discontinue manufacture of their superb range of Four Thirds lenses designed for Four Thirds dSLRs – which they stopped making several years ago.

The Four Thirds dSLR system was introduced 14 years ago and introduced many innovations such as telecentric lens design to optimise digital sensors, Live View, sensor based image stabilisation, and sensor cleaning, but it was their High Grade and Super High Grade Four Thirds lenses which drew many like myself to this system – these lenses were amongst the best optically corrected lenses ever made – for example, nothing that Canon had made came close to the Olympus ZD 7-14mm f/4 lens, and the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 was more compact, optically better and with closer focus than what Canon or Nikon provided in the focal length range of 100-400mm for a full frame.

Alas, these lenses were often no smaller than full frame lenses and often not that much cheaper which meant most professionals quite rightly could not see the value in the system, while in the mirrorless world, these lenses were not optimised for CDAF which is the main AF technology used in most mirrorless cameras.

With the removal of the mirror, and the development of the far more popular and more compact Micro Four Thirds system, Olympus and Panasonic have a winner in their hands, and as could be expected, are putting all their R&D into this system – both having now given up on the ill-fated Four Thirds system.

New in-camera optical distortion correction technologies and the shorter sensor to lens flange distance has given the Olympus engineers more freedom to create smaller, lighter, more affordable lenses than their Four Thirds counterparts could ever be – albeit sacrificing optical distortion as a priority in lens design.

Olympus and Panasonic have already created a great range of Micro Four Thirds lenses, and Olympus has said it will now concentrate on developing new wide aperture prime lenses – to continue on from their 1st digital f/1.2 lens,  the superb Olympus mZD 25mm f/1.2 lens and the amazing Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 OIS lens.

There is a lot to look forward to, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with – perhaps a 9mm or 12mm f/1.2 for Milky Way astrophotography (Panasonic already have their superb 12mm f/1.4 and Olympus have a great ground breaking f/1.8 fisheye lens), perhaps a 100mm f/1.4 and a 200mm f/2.4?