A Photography week in Hokkaido, an opportunity to try out new gear: What did work and what didn’t…
Those who know me won’t be surprised that before going to Hokkaido I’ve bought a few piece of gear with the intend to test in Hokkaido… I’m such an equipment freak!
As can be expected with new gear, things are not always a success and others are unexpectedly great. This is what I experienced in Japan.
Blackrapid and Acratech Swift
By far the biggest miss and it could have turned ugly, really ugly. I’ve been using for long the Blackrapid straps and been very happy with them. Also all my gear is set up for tripod with ArcaSwiss system, and not all plates have a thread to use with the Blackrapid strap. I started to look at a solution so that I could use the strap with an ArcaSwiss compatible clamp. Blackrapid actually recommends the Acratech Swift clamp which has been designed for straps like those from Blackrapid.
The clamp is advertised as being secure for such use… As I was getting on the boat with two bodies: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II on the Blackrapid and Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS on an Op/Tech Pro-strap, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II went loose and landed on the narrow boarding bridge. There was no damage to neither the body nor the lens but looking back it could have been much worse: the rig falling into the cold salted water of the harbour…
For the rest of the trip I’ve used the clamp with an Op/Tech pro-loop connector as backup security point.
Going forward, I’ll rather use the much lighter, simpler and cheaper Sunwayfoto DDC-26 clamp and the Op/Tech pro-loop connector as security.
Long lens support
I’ve been using a long lens support, mine from Sunwayfoto but many other brands provide more or less the same, which gives your 500, 600 or 800mm long lens a dual support for tripod. It is supposed to reduce the flex that can occur with the lens foot, also it also makes easier to rotate heavy lenses such as the 600mm when changing between portrait and landscape.
While I can imagine benefits of this setting in certain setup, I’ve found the additional support to be cumbersome without apparent benefits for the conditions we were in.
Not a complete miss but surely more something nice to have than must have.
I’ve used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EOS 7D Mark II in freezing temperature and under heavy snow, and I had no problem with their operation whatsoever. Not to say that other brands are not as good but for me, Canon really did rock during this trip.
Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS
Back in December, I’ve sold some under-used gear to finance upgrades of my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II as well the Canon EOS 7D Mark II that I purchased the previous month. Amongst the victims was my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II which is a great lens but was under used mostly because of its inconvenient lens hood (it takes way too much space and is of little use both as protection or to prevent stray light).
Before leaving however, I opted for the new Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS which is trading one stop for a modern Image Stabilisation lens group. Boy this lens is good: sharp corner to corner, fast to focus (I wouldn’t have thought that it could be that useful but for birdscape it is) and the stabilisation is a plus (think about shooting from a boat), on top of it, whilst not cheap, it is affordable for its class. I nearly forgot to mention: the lens hood is finally small and useful!
Canon used to offer a great handstrap for its range of pro cameras but it has been discontinued and replaced with a new strap which connected to the camera by the right strap connector and is screwed in the tripod socket, it offers the advantage of being compatible with cameras with and without battery grip, unfortunately I found it not as comfortable and effective as the older one. Another big inconvenient of both the old and new models is that in tropical countries, it was easy to get mould develops on its leather part.
Come a small company: Camdapter with a few straps and even with ArcaSwiss compatible plates (that’s what caught my eye initially). I’ve opted for their ProStrap model which I’ve found of the highest quality, super resistant, comfortable and very effective when holding the camera with one hand (I’ve even had a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS attached to the camera for short time: not a good idea for the camera mount to hold the 600 by the camera only).
DxO Optics Pro 10
DxO Optics Pro became a integral part of my workflow since a while already and it has since been updated to version 10. I used it for quick and dirty post processing treatment during the trip and to provide visual updates to my family and friends. I must say having been very impressed by the quality of the images produced given the little time I’ve spent handling them. I particularly liked the new feature DxO Clear View which, by removing haze, bring some additional impact on images, even when there is no haze in the image.
The Heat Company HEAT 3 SMART Gloves
HEAT 3 SMART is a long name for these gloves but after only one day with temperature down to -15C, I was convinced I made the right choice. Not cheap gloves but ideal for any photographer who needs to shoot in a very cold environment or just sensitive to cold and who wants to keep complete control of the camera (and still use a touch screen). With very cold weather it is even possible to slide in one of more warm packs in each gloves, I’d trust these for weather much below -15C as I only used one warmer for each glove. The only negative: it does not work with Apple’s touch ID… but that would be much to ask and I prefer to keep my finger warm.
Freehands Stretch Gloves
I also wanted smaller gloves for days when the weather wouldn’t be as cold but still able to use the camera. I opted for the Freehands Stretch Gloves and was also very happy. Clearly they wouldn’t protect well for long and long temperature much below -5C, they are perfect for anything around 0C. They are thin enough to let you use the camera with ease and have enough insulation to effectively protect the hand against wind and cold. They are available in Singapore via TK Photo elsewhere they can be found via B&H.
iPhone 6 Plus Camera
Apple has promoted the quality of its cameras on iPhone for long. With previous models I’ve seldom used the camera as I was generally looking down on phone camera, especially knowing I was owning great DSLR with which the iPhone couldn’t compete. To my big surprise, during this trip I’ve used the embarked camera of my iPhone 6 Plus as often as all my other iPhone combined! The image quality and the responsiveness and feature of the camera apps made using the phone both a pleasure and an indispensable convenience. The lack of dynamic range from JPEG is easily compensated by an excellent HDR mode producing very natural images and the panorama feature is quite great, I’d wish Apple could come up with a multi row panorama mode and that would be perfect.
When using standard camera bodies (by opposition to full size pro bodies) you can get a rather large choice of L-Brackets for the ArcaSwiss system, when using standard bodies with the optional battery grip the choice of custom L-Brackets decreases (there are generic ones but they won’t fit as well). Using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III or a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a battery grip increases the camera weight and size to the equivalent of a pro-body with the advantage of increased stability due to the inertia of the additional weight and the double batteries obviously increases the camera autonomy. The battery grip is screwed to the camera using the tripod socket and it can introduce some flex, which is not an issue in itself but does not feel great especially when attaching a medium weight lens (e.g. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II) and using a Blackrapid strap screwed on the battery grip tripod socket. Of all the L-Brackets available for use with a battery grip, only Kirk photo brackets offer a double point bracket, one on the tripod socket and one attached to the left camera strap connectors, it clearly reduce flex and renders the rig more secure, like using a true pro body camera.
The L-Bracket is not only useful to attach the camera on a tripod head for both portrait and landscape photography, but it also protects the camera body. It effectively saved my brand new Canon EOS 7D Mark II when it fell down: the bracket absorbed part of the shock and the camera itself suffered not even scratches.
Double battery chargers
Battery grips are great as they allow to use 2 batteries and pretty much double the autonomy. In case of long exposure to intense cold, i.e. not just for a couple of hours before sunrise but during a whole day, I would rather recommend to use only one and keep the other(s) in the pant pocket or any other pocket close to your body to keep them warm, otherwise there is little reason not to leave 2 batteries in the grip. Now comes the annoying part: Canon, expect for its 1D professional series camera, no longer offer a double battery charger and when both batteries are empty you are stuck with the standard single battery charger, you can buy another one but that’s not really convenient either as you’ll then need 2 electric sockets (especially as electric sockets are sometimes scarce or you may be sharing a room with one or two other photographers with the same needs)…
I’ve found a very effective solution with the hähnel ProCube battery charger: it allows for the simultaneous charging of 2 batteries (there are adapters for 2 type of batteries for Canon and Nikon each). I found this a very efficient way to charge 2 pairs of batteries: 1 during diner and the other one while asleep. I’ve found the charger via B&H.
As glass wearer, I’ve never been very happy with the Canon eyecup with exception to those from the 1D series. I came across images of the Hoodman Eyecup and I was curious as they were offering two versions: a standard version and a version for glasses wearer. I’ve tried this and at first I was little bit let down because you need to rotate the hood whenever you move from landscape to portrait orientation and back. I ended up giving up and put back the standard Canon eyecup… Next time I use the camera it was like I didn’t know where the viewfinder was anymore, it felt odd and the Hoodman Eyecup was missing… lesson taken, I’ve put them back on and have not looked back since. You just need to get used to rotating them when changing the camera orientation but after awhile it becomes automatic.
The greatest thing I find with the eyecup is that they isolate very well from lateral light and let me concentrate on what’s happening in the viewfinder as, unlike most other photographers, my dominant eye is the left one and thus my non dominant one is mostly unused as blocked by the camera body itself.
The hoods are easily seen in the camera pictures above.
Carrying my gear and Vested Interest
Maybe one of the biggest success in the trip was how I carried my gear and the use of the Vested Interest Khumbu for my gear including the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS. The custom made vest proved just as perfect in cold climate than under the tropic as usual, it was particularly useful to be able to reset the straps of the vest so that it could fit over the thick layer of clothing I was using to keep warm. In theory I knew that the vest would be useful for cold and warm weather but now I know for sure: not a cheap one but in all honesty I feel it becoming less and less expensive given the large range of use.
Also travelling by plane with multiple lenses including a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS is not a trivial operation. With my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS I was using a backpack from Lowepro but the 600 is another beast altogether. I opted for the ThinkTank Airport International V2.0 which is light, robust and convenient with its 2 wheels (newer bags are 4 wheels, but do you really want to entrust your pricey gear to a 4 wheels that can move on its own on a slanted ramp?) and has the required size for cabin baggage (as to the weight, when wearing the vest you can always unload the bag and put additional gear in the vest). With the case, I’ve taken off all dividers and wrapped my gear in LensCoat pouches so that I could easily get nearly everything in the bag (the lens hoods being stacked together with small accessories in my checked-in bag). For computer and iPad, I’ve bought the optional ThinkTank Artificial Intelligence 15 V3.0 (what a name for a bag!) which can be slid in an external pocket of the Airport International. That was a truly winning combination and I had absolutely no problem boarding planes with this setup.
Canon new hoods and Lens Coat
With the new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Canon has introduced a new system to look the lens hood: a new small push-release lock button which secures the hood in place. That’s a great addition as previously the hoods of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS or Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS could be easily lost as the hood became loose with use.
That’s great but when protecting the camera with a Lens Coat, the coat on the hood will keep pressing on the button making its benefits vanish. Thus I’d recommend user to make, around the button, 2 small cuts on the lens coat so that the hood can lock in place.
Living in a warm country for many years I had to make sure I had the right warms clothes, also since I would deal with snow and will have to kneel often to shoot I figured that this Leg Armor available through B&H would be convenient. They were indeed useful and the knee padding was a winner, however unlike advertised and despite the non-slip surface at the knee, the gaiters tend to slip on synthetic pants used in cold weather and thus I had to continuously pull them up which was annoying given their relatively high price. There must be a better and cheaper way to do the same thing.
I am in no way affiliated with any of the brands or products listed above. I am not advertising for or against any of them and do not receive any commissions, payments of any sort or non-monetary benefits for any of them. I am merely sharing my personal experience using these products hoping that other photographers might find it helpful.