Review of the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 Binoculars

These binoculars are marketed as the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 model.   Leica’s “Geovid” range of binoculars all feature integrated laser rangefinding.  The “10×42” indicates that they are 10 power magnification, with a 42mm objective lens.  The “B” in “HD-B” means that they have on board ballistics software.  (I assume that the HD means high definition, but I’m not sure.)  The “Edition 2200” indicates that they are designed to range out to 2200 yards.

Leica Geovid HD-B 10x42 Edition 2200

Leica Geovid HD-B 10×42 Edition 2200.  It’s a good fit with the Alaska Guide Creations bino pack.

The Leica Geiovid HD-B binoculars feature an integrated laser rangefinder, temperature and pressure sensors, and an inclinometer to measure angle slope.  These features, combined with on-board ballistics software, allow a shooter to acquire a target, range the target, and calculate a ballistics firing solution so that you can accurately adjust your rifle’s optics for the target’s range.

That’s a lot of tasks for a single piece of equipment.  This review will evaluate how well these binoculars perform these various tasks.

Optical Quality

The Geovid HD-B binoculars have outstanding optical quality.  Before I purchased the Geovids, I was using Swarovski’s top of the line 10×50 EL binoculars.  After I got the Geovids, I kept the Swarovskis and used the two binos side by side under all sorts of conditions.  The optical quality of these two binoculars was so close as to be indistinguishable to my eyes.  In particular, I had expected the Swarovskis, with their larger, 50mm objective lens, to have superior performance in low light conditions.  However, when I looked through both binoculars side by side at dawn and dusk, there was not any discernible difference between the two.  I had originally planned on keeping the Swaros, but after several months of owning both the Swarovskis and the Leicas, I ended up selling the Swarovskis because I simply could not find any situation in which they outperformed the Leicas, and the Leicas have the advantage of the rangefinder and the ballistics calculator.

I’ve seen online debates about color rendition and chromatic aberration and other comparisons of Swaro and Leica glass, but the real world bottom line is that you will not be disappointed in the optical performance of these binoculars, even if you are accustomed to very high performance optics.  (I certainly wasn’t)

Build Quality, Design, and Ergonomics

The Geovids weigh 37.5 ounces.  This is pretty much identical to the Swarovski EL 10x50s, which is not bad considering the Geovids have a built in rangefinder.  The Geovids came with a case and strap, but I don’t use the Leica accessories, but rather use an Alaska Guide Creations binocular pack and harness, which protects the binoculars and has pockets for various odds and ends like lens cleaners, spare battery, hunting tags and licenses, and other miscellaneous things.

The binoculars are waterproof (I haven’t tested this, but I’m willing to take Leica’s word on this.)  Ergonomics are good, and the open bridge design makes them easy to grasp and hold.  The two buttons (one for the rangefinder and the other for the other functions) are close together, which can make it easy to mistakenly press the wrong button when wearing thick gloves, but the buttons have different feels to them (concave vs. convex surfaces) so if you’re using the binoculars with bare hands or sensitive gloves, you can tell which button you are pushing.

Adjustments of the eye cups and the focus and diopter adjustments are simple and easy.

My only complaint regarding build quality is that the lens covers for the objective lenses don’t stay on that well.  They are always just falling off the lenses, even when I don’t want them to.  (They are attached securely, however, so even when they fall off of the lens, they remain attached to the binocular body and don’t get lost.)  I never really had this issue with the Swarovski lens covers.

Glassing in my Uncompahgre Jacket

Glassing with the Geovids

Rangefinding Performance

These binoculars are claimed to have an effective range of 2200 yards.  In real world use, I have never been able to range anything out that far.  Performance is best in cloudy conditions without direct sunlight.  Dawn and twilight generally result in optimum ranging.  Reflective objects are supposed to be easier to range, but I’ve found that sometimes they can be harder than softer objects like trees.  I think that may be because if the reflective object is oriented the wrong way, it deflects the light away from you, so you don’t get a good return signal.  Generally, this is an issue with flat rock surfaces.  Round boulders are good targets.

Hand held, I can range deer pretty reliably out to about 700 yards.  For accuracy beyond about 700 yards, it really helps to use a tripod or rest the Geovids on a pack or a stump or some other means for keeping them absolutely steady.  With a tripod or other rest, I generally can range targets out to 1100 yards or so pretty reliably.  Maximum range in ideal real world situations for me seems to be about 1700 yards.  Anything beyond that seems to be extremely conditions-dependent and unusual.

If there is snow on the ground combined with bright sunlight, the Geovids struggle to accurately range deer sized targets beyond 400 yards.  (Again, using a tripod helps, but not as much.)  Cold, winter conditions have been a challenge, as a result of the reflective snow and also (I believe) the cold’s drain on the unit’s battery.  I’ve been in winter situations where I’ve been unable to range targets at 250 yards.  Heavy falling snow pretty much shuts the rangefinder down, making it useless for ranging anything.

Rain doesn’t seem to affect ranging capabilities much.  When it’s raining, it’s generally overcast, so the lack of direct sunlight seems to offset whatever interference the rain may have.

Range is 916 yards

Range reads 916 yards  In normal conditions, ranging to 1000 yards is pretty routine.

ranging-2

Display shows 74 clicks of elevation adjustment (7.4 MILS)

When compared with the two other rangefinders I’ve owned and used, the Geovids are significantly better performers than the Swarovksi Laser Guide, and significantly worse than my Vectronix PLRF15.  The Geovids are probably twice as effective as the Swarovski Laser Guide, easily ranging targets that are outside of the Swaro’s effective range.  The military spec Vectronix can range several times further than the Geovid, and can range smaller targets in worse conditions.  However, it has inferior optics (only a 6x monocular) and doesn’t have any of the other ballistics or weather features of the Geovid.

Overall, I’ve found the Geovids to have adequate performance for hunting.  They can range deer sized targets pretty reliably at ranges which I am likely to be taking a shot.  Out of all of the options on the market, I think the the Geovids are currently the best choice for hunting.

Ballistics Software

The Geovids have onboard ballistics software that provides a vertical ballistics firing solution out to 1000 yards, incorporating pressure, temperature, and angle.  Past 1000 yards, the Geovids will provide a range, but no ballistics firing solution.

The software part of the package is where Leica has room for the most improvement.  The web based software for the Geovids is really bad.  There’s no convenient way to save and tweak your ballistic data and rifle profiles.  Every time you go to the web site, you are basically starting over with your ballistics inputs and profiles.  Other modern ballistics software has easy and convenient ways of storing and modifying multiple ballistics profiles.  Leica really needs to raise their game when it comes to their software user interface.

You can use a microSD card to store a custom ballistics profile in the Geovids.  However, the microSD card can only hold a single profile, so if you want to use the Geovids with different rifles or different loads, you have to change out the microSD card, which is a serious pain in the butt.  The card is seated in a tiny slot in the battery compartment that is very hard to access with fingers.  I bought a small tweezers to make removing and inserting microSD cards easier.

Leica's ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

Leica’s ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been set to 0.

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been reset to zero.  Losing input data when you navigate between screens is a common issue.

In order to true up my Geovid software to match my real world ballistics, I pull up my real-world adjusted drop chart that I have created using my Android’s Strelok Pro ballistics app, then I tweak the ballistics coefficient and/or velocity in the Geovid ballistics software profile until the Geovid drop chart matches my Strelok chart.  I’ts clunky, and takes more effort than it should, but ultimately, it provides ballistics data that matches my real world DOPE very closely.

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

I use rifle scopes with Mil reticles, and the Geovid can be set up to give me a firing solution in 1/10 Mil clicks, which is fast and simple.  I see the number of clicks, divide by 10, and that’s how many Mils I need to adjust for.  For those who work in MOA, the Geovid supports MOA too, as well as calculating drop in inches.

The software accounts for vertical drop only, and there is no provision at all for horizontal windage.  That’s OK with me, however, because I’ve pretty much got my 10mph wind values memorized out to 1000 yards, and they don’t change much due to atmospheric conditions.

My complaints about the clunkiness of the interface aside, the ballistics software is pretty good.  With some work and tweaking, it provides accurate firing solutions out to 1000 yards.  It’s not great, but ultimately, it gets the job done.  If Leica were to license the software and interface from Strelok, or Applied Ballistics, or one of the other state of the art software packages, that would be great.

Overall Conclusions

For long range target shooting, I don’t use the Geovids.  They don’t provide ballistics solutions past 1000 yards, and their rangefinding capabilities pale in comparison with my Vectronix PLRF15.  For long range target shooting, I use my spotting scope to examine the target, my Vectronix PLRF15 to calculate range, my Kestrel to provide wind, pressure and temperature data, and my Samsung phone with the Strelok Pro app to calculate a firing solution.  This is extremely accurate and reliable, but it takes forever.  When you’re shooting at a steel plate or a milk jug, it really doesn’t matter how long you take to generate a firing solution.  However, when hunting animals, time can be a real constraint.  The elk will likely just walk away by the time you’ve figured out your turret adjustments.

The Geovids provide a very rapid tool for generating a firing solution on a game animal target.  The added advantage that the Geovids combine several functions into a single tool make them even more attractive.  The new Sig Kilo 2400 has range finding and ballistics capabilities that are superior to the Geovid, but you still have to carry a separate binoculars, and switch back and forth between them.  The Geovids give up some ranging and ballistics functionality to the Sig Kilo 2400, but for me, the convenience, weight savings, and speed of having a single piece of equipment perform the functions of binoculars, rangefinder, and ballistics calculator is worth the trade off.

I’m happy with the Geovids.  They’re my first choice for hunting, even if I don’t particularly like them for long range target shooting.  If I didn’t already own a Vectronix PLRF15, and I wanted a single rangefinder for both hunting and long range target shooting, I’d probably go with the Sig Kilo 2400.  However, for a dedicated hunting rangefinder, I don’t think there’s anything better than the Geovids on the market right now.

For a some very good and in-depth reviews of the Geovids on another blog, you can go HERE for a video review, and HERE and HERE for reviews of the Geovid and a detailed explanation of its ballistics functions.  My conclusions are similar to his, although he seems to have better results than I do ranging things over 1500 yards.

Micro 4/3 Update: Olympus OM-D E-M1 ; Olympus 12mm-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens ; Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

Review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera;  Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens; and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

I have been a proponent of Olympus Micro 4/3 camera systems for a long time.  The flexibility of having an interchangeable lens camera that is a fraction of the size of a traditional DSLR is great for my needs, particularly when I am taking my camera into the backcountry, where weight and bulk are the enemy.

I’ve been using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 as my primary camera for a couple of years now, and overall have been very happy with it.  See my review of the E-M5 and my Micro 4/3 System by Clicking HERE.

However, I’m always a sucker for shiny new gadgets, and so when the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 was released, I decided I would get it as an upgrade to my E-M5 body.  (I kept the E-M5 as a backup.)   I also picked up a couple of new Olympus micro 4/3 lenses; the 12-40 f/2.8 zoom, and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime.   After using this new kit for about a year, these are my impressions:

Weights of gear reviewed in this blog entry:
Think Tank Digital Holster 10      10.4 ounces
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera body with battery      17.7 ounces
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom lens     15.4 ounces
Olympus 75mm f/1.8  prime lens  with lens hood   14.1 ounces
Optech Digital D Midsize Camera case    3 ounces
Shoulder Strap      1.8 ounces

OM-D  E-M1 Camera Body
There are a ton of reviews of  the EM1 on the web.  They discuss everything from ergonomics to image quality.  One of the better review sites is DP Review and their take on the EM1 can be found here:  OM-D E-M1 Review at DP Review

I’m not going to try to duplicate all of these reviews, as I don’t have the resources they have for all of the analytics they use to assess camera quality.  I’m going to focus on how the EM1 works for my needs, with an emphasis on using the EM1 as a backcountry camera for use in climbing, skiing, backpacking, and other backcountry pursuits.

Physical Characteristics of the E-M1.
The EM1 weighs  17.7 ounces without a lens.  That is a couple ounces heavier than the EM5, which comes in at 15.3 ounces.  While the weights of the EM5 and EM1 are so close as to be practically indistinguishable in real life use, the EM1 is a bit bulkier, due to the larger hand grip.  The effect of the bigger hand grip is that I can’t quite fit the EM1 into the same carrying case that the EM5 is compatible with and still have room for all the lenses.  The EM5 will fit into a Mountainsmith Small Zoom case with 3 prime lenses.  The EM1 will only fit 2 primes.

Although the hand grip on the EM1 adds some bulk, it makes one handed shooting with the EM1 very secure.  It feels good in your hand, and obviates the need for a wrist strap.

The controls of the EM1 are well thought out, and easy to use even with gloves on.  One very simple feature I appreciate is that the PASM control ring is easily locked so you don’t end up changing shooting modes by accident.  The tilt screen is useful, and I’ve often used the tilt screen to compose a shot while holding the camera away from my body for a slightly different perspective.  (Especially good for taking pictures of your climbing partner from above.)

Battery life with the EM1 is excellent, and I can take hundreds of shots without needing to change it.  The viewfinder is very bright and clear.  Image quality of the photographs is also excellent, with a very slight but (barely) noticeable improvement over the EM5 in color rendition and dynamic range.

The EM1 is weather resistant, which means that its body is sealed against dust and rain.  You can’t take it swimming, but rain and snow will not harm the camera, provided that it is used in conjunction with a weather sealed lens.  (The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens is weather sealed.)  The EM1 is also somewhat shock resistant.  Theoretically, you can drop it or bang it around and it will be more likely to survive such abuse than a normal camera.  I try not to test this feature, but I have subjected the EM1 to a fair amount of abuse (including some falls while skiing) and so far it seems unaffected by the bumps and falls inherent in backcountry activities.

I use the EM1 most often in combination with the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom.  (More on that lens below.)   The case I use 90% of the time with the EM1 body and 12-40mm lens combo is an Optech Digital D Midsize neoprene camera cover.  This soft neoprene cover fits the EM1 with the 12-40mm lens perfectly, and provides some protection from bumps, scratches, dust, and precipitation. Generally, I just keep the camera slung cross-body over my shoulder using a detachable shoulder strap.  When I need to use the camera, I just pull the stretchy Optech neoprene cover off, take some photos, then slip the cover back on.  The Optech cover is not as weather proof or padded as a traditional camera case, but because both the camera body and lens are weather proof, I don’t really worry much about keeping things absolutely dry.

For those occasions when I want additional protection, or when I want to attach the camera to a pack hipbelt, I use the Think Tank Digital Holster 10.  This camera case fits the EM1 very well when the EM1 is coupled with the 12-40mm lens, and the case can even expand a bit to accommodate a longer lens if necessary.

OM-D E-M1 with Olympus 12-40mm Zoom on the left; OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 45mm prime on the right

Case-2

E-M1 in the Optech Digital D neoprene case on left; E-M5 on right

Case-3

Think Tank Digital Holster 10 on the left, with OMD EM5 on the right for a size comparison

 

In general, I have found that for just about every activity other than difficult climbing, the easiest way to carry the EM1 is in the Optech case, slung over my shoulder.  This is my preferred method for skiing and hiking.  For climbing, having the camera slung over my shoulder tends to get in the way of my gear and flops around a bit too much.  When I take this camera climbing, I either attach it to my packbelt in the Digital Holster, or I just leave it in the Optech case and put it in my pack.  Having the EM1 in my pack while climbing means that I only get it out when I’m at a belay.  This typically isn’t a big problem, however, because I always have a pocket camera with me on climbs, so I use the pocket camera for impromptu photo opportunities where it’s inconvenient to access the EM1.

Skiing with the OM-D E-M1 in the Optech Case (Look closely, and you can see it slung over my shoulder)

Some useful features of the EM1 (that the EM5 doesn’t have) that are helpful when using legacy (non micro 4/3) lenses.

A couple of advantages of the EM1 when compared with the EM5 relate to use of non-micro 4/3 lenses.   The first is the ability to utilize autofocus with Olympus DSLR lenses.  The EM1 uses both contrast detection and phase detection auto-focus, while the EM5 is contrast detection only.   I actually have no idea what “phase detection” even means, but the practical result of having phase detection is that I can use legacy Olympus four thirds DSLR lenses on the EM1 (with an adapter) and the auto focus works like it should.  This is useful to me, because I happen to own a very nice Olympus 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens, and I can now fully utilize the autofocus features of this lens.  With the EM5, the autofocus performance was so bad, I pretty much had to just use manual focus.

OMD-#M1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses' autofocus

OMD-EM1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses’ autofocus. This picture was taken using the Olympus 50-200mm zoom lens that was made for the Olympus 4/3 DSLR camera line.

The other feature that the EM1 has that the EM5 lacks is “focus peaking.”  Focus peaking is a focusing aid that helps when you are using manual focus lenses, including the old Canon FD lenses that I often use with my Olympus micro 4/3 cameras.  The focus peaking feature provides a little “halo” on the edges of whatever part of the picture is the center of focus.  This makes focusing with a manual focus lens quite a bit faster.  If you’ve never used focus peaking before, you may have a difficult time understanding exactly what I’m talking about.  If you’d like an explanation, here’s a nice video that demonstrates focus peaking on the EM1.

The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens

This lens has become my go-to lens for my EM1 camera.  When I sorted my EM1 photos in Lightroom, I found that I have taken more EM1 shots with the 12-40mm zoom lens than all of my other lenses combined.  It is really close to being the perfect “one size fits all” backcountry lens.  The 12-40 zoom range on a micro 4/3 camera is the equivalent of a 24-80 zoom on a full frame camera.  This combination of wide angle and short telephoto capability is ideal for climbing, as it allows you to get both “scenic” captures and “up close and personal” shots as well.  The two photos below give a good representation of the versatility of the 12-40mm zoom range.  I have found the lens to be very sharp across the entire zoom range and apertures.  Some of the high quality primes may be better, but in real-world use, I haven’t had any reason to complain about the image quality I get when using this zoom lens.  For those who are interested in the details of the optical qualities of this lens, there is a very comprehensive review of the 12-40mm lens at SLRGEAR.com  Click HERE.   

12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus 12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus  12-40mm lens at 40mm

Olympus 12-40mm lens at 40mm

 

The lens has an f/2.8 aperture that is constant across the entire zoom range.  2.8 isn’t as fast as some of the prime lens options that are available, but I’ve found that it is adequate for most dim lighting situations, particularly because the EM1 has excellent image stabilization capabilities and decent high-ISO performance.  As mentioned above, this lens is weather resistant and dust resistant.  When coupled with the similarly sealed EM1, you don’t have to worry about rain or snow ruining your camera gear, and I can dispense with a heavy water proof camera bag.  I happily carry the camera in any weather without worry.

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the 12-40mm zoom

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the EM1 camera and the Olympus 12-40mm zoom. This is a very rugged, weather resistant combination.

Weather proofing means that snow doesn't  affect your ability to keep shooting

Weather proofing means that snow and sleet doesn’t affect your ability to keep shooting

Night time shot at ISO 25600  with heavy, wet snow falling.

Night time shot at ISO 25600 with heavy, wet snow falling.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the Olympus 12-40mm lens.  It feels like it was made specifically to complement the EM1 camera body.  Indeed, I really feel like if you have the EM1, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t also buy the 12-40mm zoom to go with it.  This camera lens combination is what I take with me now for the majority of my backcountry trips (When climbing, I’m typically carry a pocket camera in addition to or instead of my micro 4/3 camera.)   The benefits of of great image quality, rugged weatherproof build, and a relatively compact design (for an interchangeable lens camera) make the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom an ideal combination for outdoor photography.

The Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

As outlined above, the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom is my new go-to camera-lens combination for backcountry photography.  However, if I’m going to add an additional lens to my backcountry quiver, the 75mm is generally the first lens I will toss in to supplement the 12-40mm zoom.

The Olympus 75mm lens is an extremely high quality piece of glass.  Reviews of this lens have been universally positive, and the excellence of this lens has been borne out by my experiences with it as well.  For a feel for the detailed optical characteristics of this lens, you can check out a Review of the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens HERE

Size and weight of the 75mm lens are pretty close to the 12-40mm zoom.  The zoom is about an ounce and a half heavier, and they have comparable bulk.

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

This 75mm lens is not weatherproof, so you have to be more careful with it than with the sealed 12-40mm zoom.  Another negative is that the lens does not come with a lens hood, and you need to buy the hood separately if you want one.  (I bought a generic hood rather than the uber-expensive Olympus hood.)

On a micro 4/3 camera, the 75mm length is the equivalent of a 150mm on a full frame sensor, so it serves as a medium telephoto.  For me, this is a good compromise between bulk, weight and telephoto capability.  Generally, I don’t have the dedication to carry anything bigger or heavier than this into the backcountry unless it’s just a short day trip.  However, I’ve become accustomed to carrying the 75mm with me, as it gives me decent telephoto capability in a relatively lightweight package.  Below are some examples of the sorts of photos you can capture with the 75mm.  The longer focal length gives you more control over depth of field than you would have with a wider angle lens, and the medium telephoto capability also allows you to get a little tighter on your subject.

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field.  (1/500 second at f/3.2)

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field. (1/500 second at f/3.2)

100% crop shows how sharp this lens is.

100% crop of above photo shows how sharp this lens is.

While the 75mm length isn’t going to replace a super telephoto for true wildlife shooting, I’ve found that it’s often sufficient for taking photos of various shy critters that I encounter while traveling the backcountry.  The medium telephoto focal length allows me to keep enough distance between me and my subject that I can often avoid spooking the animal, provided I am careful and slow in my movements.

100% Crop photo of a Critter taken with the 75mm prime

100% Crop photo of a critter taken with the 75mm prime

One use I have found for the 75mm lens is taking very detailed panorama shots of big vistas.  The photograph below is a panorama stitch of two photographs taken with the 75mm lens.  I could have taken the same field of view with a wider angle lens, but I would not have been able to capture the same level of detail with a regular wide angle shot.  Looking at the full size TIF file, I am impressed by the detail in the photo, and it serves to emphasize the utility of a telephoto lens as a landscape tool when used in combination with panorama stitching software.

Download Panorama Full size TIF File HERE  (69Megabyte File)

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

The f/1.8 maximum aperture of this lens makes it good for low lighting situations.  It’s not really backcountry related, but I have found it to be a great “stage” lens for taking photos of performances in less than ideal lighting situations.

Stage camera:  Olympus 75mm; ISO 640  (1/160 second at f/1.8)

Stage camera: Photographing a high school musical with the Olympus 75mm; ISO 640 (1/160 second at f/1.8)

Really, I can’t say enough good things about the 75mm lens.  Combined with the 12-40mm zoom, it has become the 2nd part of my 2 lens backcountry solution.  It combines sharpness, medium telephoto reach, and terrific build quality in a reasonably compact package.

Suunto Ambit 2 Saphire (HR)

For over a decade, I’ve used a Suunto Vector watch with built in compass and barometer/altimeter.  I’ve been pretty happy with the Vector, but have always thought that having a wrist-top GPS would be useful.  About 6 or 7 years ago, I bought a wrist-top GPS, but ended up getting rid of it because it was big and bulky and had a very difficult time getting a GPS fix.  At that time, the wristwatch GPS tech just wasn’t that good.

Fast forward to the present, and you see GPS tech in all kinds of small devices.  I figured it may be time to try a wrist watch GPS again.  REI had the Suunto Ambit2 on sale, and the discounted price coupled with my long and positive experience with my Suunto Vector made me decide to take the plunge and buy this watch.  The model I purchased was the Suunto Ambit2 with a sapphire crystal and heart rate monitor.  After about 6 months of pretty regular use, these are my thoughts:

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Form Factor and Physical Design:

The Ambit2 is not all that big.  It’s more or less the same size as my old Suunto Vector.  The Ambit2 is maybe a tiny bit wider, but it is also a tiny bit thinner than the Vector.  It’s a large watch, but it isn’t so large or bulky that it is annoying to wear.  One thing I do miss, however, is the lanyard kit that you could buy for the Vector.  If I’m rock climbing, I don’t ever wear a watch on my wrist, and in such instances, I typically would wear the Vector around my neck, using the accessory lanyard kit that Suunto sold.  I have not seen any similar kit available for the Ambit2.  I may have to jury rig something myself if I want to carry the watch in this manner.

I paid a bit extra and got the sapphire crystal.  I like the extra durability and scratch resistance that a sapphire crystal provides, particularly because I occasionally subject my watch to some bumps and scrapes during the hard-knock backcountry activities of climbing, hiking, and skiing.

The Ambit 2 is water proof to 100 meters.  I’m not a scuba diver, so I will never have to test that claim.  (If I’m at 100+ meters of depth when I’m fly fishing, something will have gone terribly wrong.)   The battery is re-chargeable via a USB charger, which is nice.  I always hated having to change the battery in my Vector, so being able to just plug in the Ambit 2 and have it charge up is a nice feature.  Charging doesn’t take very long.  It will go from 40% power to 100% in about an hour.  Battery life is pretty good.  The watch will run for weeks if you aren’t using the GPS, and with the GPS engaged, (in hiking mode with 1 minute updates) I have been able to go for 14 hours and still have 84% of my battery life left.  From my use, the Suunto estimates of 50 hours of battery life in GPS mode appear accurate.  This battery life has been sufficient for my uses.  If you’re hiking a long trail over more than a week, and planning on tracking your progress via the GPS function, or if you’re settings have the GPS updating every few seconds, you might need to plan on recharging your batteries at some point during the trip.

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Vector and Lanyard Kit (No such accessory is available for the Ambit 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generic functions, Alarm and Backlight, Barometer and Altimeter

The Ambit 2 has various time keeping functions, including 12 or 24 hour display, stop watch, date, etc.  One big improvement that the Ambit 2 has over the Vector, and many other digital watches I’ve used is that the alarm is pretty loud.  Many watches have very weak alarms, which don’t have the volume to wake you up for an alpine start, especially if they are muffled by your sleeping bag.  The Ambit 2 alarm is much louder than the Vector’s alarm, and not nearly so easy to sleep through.

Another great feature of the Ambit 2 is the backlight.  It’s really bright.  Not only does it really light up the watch face, but it is actually bright enough to illuminate the area around you a bit.  It’s perfect for navigating your way through a darkened alpine hut, where you don’t want to use a headlamp because you don’t want to shine your headlamp beam on others who are sleeping around you.  It’s also great for shining around in your tent when you are trying to find your headlamp.  Obviously, it’s not going to replace a headlamp, but I have found it to be very useful in a number of nighttime situations.

The altimeter function is GPS corrected, which makes it very accurate and not as affected by weather as a traditional altimeter that relies solely on barometric pressure.  I’ve found it to be accurate to within a few feet.  There is a barometric pressure tracker as well, which graphs the pressure over time.  This is useful to look at in the morning, to see what the pressure has done while you were asleep.  If the pressure has risen, that’s generally a good sign of fair weather.  If the pressure has dropped, then that’s often a portent of incoming storms.

GPS and Navigation Functions

This is where the Ambit 2 really shines.  The GPS in this watch is really good.  I have never failed to get a quick GPS fix when I have been in the backcountry.  The Ambit 2 can almost always get a location fix in about 30 seconds or so from the time I turn on the GPS function.  Once the GPS is activated, the Ambit 2 will give you your GPS coordinates, which you can then use to locate your position on a map.

However, even better, the Ambit 2 can be used in conjunction with your computer to pre-plan routes.  You can create a route using Google Earth and export it to Suunto’s website (called Movescount.com) as a .kml file.  Then, you can download the route into the Ambit 2’s memory.  When you activate the navigation functions, the Ambit 2 allows you to select one of these pre-stored routes and will point you in the direction you need to go to follow this route.

I have found this to be very useful.  For example, this past summer, I was planning to hike and climb a local peak, however, we would not be following an established trail for part of the approach, and we needed to locate a specific ridgeline in the dark.  I plotted out my path on Google Earth, then uploaded the path to the Suunto web site, and downloaded it into my Ambit 2 as a route.  Sure enough, in the pre-dawn hours, we became confused as to the path we needed to take, and I used the Ambit 2 to help us navigate the correct route.  Having the Ambit 2 was sufficient for us to navigate even though it was too dark to see any decent land marks.  We just followed the path on my watch, correcting our path to keep the arrow pointer on the route layed out on the watch face.

To give an example of how this works, below are two pictures which show how routefinding is done.  This first picture is of a short route that I created using Google Earth and then uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Site.   You can see the path laid out on the map.

Sample Route that I created on Google Earth and uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Web Site

This next picture is a photo of what this route looks like when downloaded to the Suunto Ambit 2.  The route path is laid out on the screen, and the arrow pointer shows my current position and direction.  I can use this arrow pointer and the track line to keep myself on the selected route.

Ambit 2 Navigation Screen with route shown (At this point, I am partway through the route.)

The usefulness of this functionality should be readily apparent to anyone who has ever been lost or just unsure of their position.  For a climber, you could, for example, create a route showing you the descent route down the Emmons Glacier on Mount Rainier.  With the GPS navigation function, you could have the possibility of finding your way down from the summit even in whiteout conditions.

You also have the ability to create GPS waypoints at any time while using the watch.  If you are hiking, and discover an interesting place, and want to be able to find your way back, you can mark the location and save it in the Ambit 2’s memory as a point of interest.  This feature also allows you to leave a “trail of breadcrumbs” as you go, so you can retrace your footsteps whenever you wish.

The Ambit 2 does not have the benefits of a standalone GPS with a big color screen, that is loaded with area maps, but it does provide a lot of navigation functionality, particularly if you spend the effort ahead of time to create your routes in advance.

Tracking features  

In addition to helping you navigate and know where you need to go, the Ambit 2 is very good at tracking your progress and showing you where you’ve been.  You can activate the GPS and have it track your location as you move, and then you can upload this data to the Movescount web site and see where you were.  Here’s an example of an uploaded track that recorded one of my hikes on a local mountain.

Uploaded GPS Data that tracked my hike and climb of a local peak, along with data regarding the distance, altitude, etc.

As you can see from the screen shot above, the data collected includes the path traveled, as well as aggregated information on average speed, altitude gain and loss, distances, etc.  This is great for tracking your training and assessing your accomplishments.

Training Aids

In addition to the various navigation features, the Ambit 2 will keep track of training.  It works in conjunction with a heart rate belt to monitor and track heart rate.  You can track both distance (via GPS) and heart rates if you’re running or biking or doing other mobile training activities.   I use the Ambit 2 to keep track of my work outs at the gym.  I don’t use the GPS function because I’m staying in one place, but I do keep track of my heart rate data.

Here’s a typical data screen for an indoor workout, in this case a 90 minute bout on the stair stepper:

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Apps and Customization:

There are a number of apps available for the Ambit 2, both from Suunto and also user created apps.  They range from practical (storm alarms) to silly (virtual cat hunting.)  There are tons of training apps available, but the only app I had any interest in was an app that provides me with sunrise and sunset times.  However, I found out that the sunrise/sunset information is available without the need for an app simply as an option on the barometer screen.  So, I don’t currently have any apps installed.

Dislikes and Problems:

I had to put this section in here, but I honestly can’t think of very much to say that I don’t like about this device.  It could always be smaller, but if that compromised the functionality, then I would not be in favor of miniaturizing it.

The price is high, but I assume that it will be discounted as the Ambit 3 hits the market.

The menu systems can be a bit overwhelming and hard to remember, but with increased use I have become increasingly familiar with the various menu options, and navigating to the feature or function I want is getting easier and easier over time.

Conclusions:

The Ambit 2 has become an “indispensable” piece of gear for me.  I use it to track my training, I use it for navigation, and I use it for mundane tasks like knowing what time it is.  If I lost it tomorrow, I would go out and buy a new one.  It’s really a quality piece of gear that delivers a lot of functionality in a small and compact package.  I just hope that it proves to be as durable as my old Vector has been.  If so, I will still be using the Ambit 10 years from now.

Ricoh GR Pocket Camera

I am a big proponent of using small, compact cameras when climbing.  Although I sometimes take larger, interchangeable lens cameras with me on climbs, there are many circumstances where the bulk and weight of a big camera doesn’t make sense.  If I’m climbing something difficult, I will often opt for a pocket camera.  Even if I’m bringing an interchangeable lens Micro 4/3 camera, I typically will also carry a pocket camera as a backup.

Over the years, I’ve used more than a dozen different pocket cameras.  In my days of shooting film, one of my favorite pocket cameras was the Ricoh GR-1.  It was light and compact, had a very sharp fixed 28mm lens, and took excellent quality photos.  It was like having a little SLR with a 28mm prime lens in my pocket.

Since I made the switch from film to digital, I’ve been on an unending search for the perfect pocket camera.  I’ve used most  of the high end digital options, including the top of the line offerings from Ricoh (GRD); Sigma (DP1); Panasonic (LX3 and LX5) Canon (S100) and Sony (RX100.)

While I have been generally happy with these pocket cameras, I never had quite the same quality of results that I enjoyed with my larger cameras.  The image quality from the pocket cameras were good, but when I compared the photos with photos taken with my Micro 4/3 system cameras, (especially the OMD-EM5) the pocket camera photos came up a little short.  In general, the pictures were not quite as sharp, and photos with wide dynamic ranges did not come out as well.  None of these pocket cameras fulfilled my need for a tiny camera that could measure up to the quality of my Micro 4/3 system.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital  pocket camera I’ve owned that has image quality that rivals that of my Micro 4/3 system cameras.  It has a large, APS-C sensor, shoe-horned into a really small package.  It has a fixed (non-zoom) 28mm (equivalent) lens that is very sharp, with an aperture of 2.8.   The best technical review of the GR that I’ve seen is the very detailed review at DP Review HERE.   My review will focus on my working impressions of the camera, with an emphasis on performance in climbing and backcountry photography.

Ricoh GR and Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case

The GR body is very light and compact.  It fits perfectly into a Mountainsmith Cyber Small case.  This case will attach to a pack strap with velcro straps, or can be secured to a climbing harness with carabiners.  In colder weather, when I’m wearing a jacket, I typically dispense with the case altogether and just put the GR in an ultralight ditty bag and keep it in a chest pocket.  Ease of access is everything in climbing and backcountry photography.  If your camera is in your back pack, you won’t get the photos you want.  The small size of the GR makes it easy to keep close at hand.

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

The camera controls are customizable, and are pretty easy to use.  I can change exposure settings and other critical controls even when wearing gloves.  The view screen is decent, and is visible even in bright glare conditions often encountered on the snow.

The sensor is very good at handling high-contrast scenes.  This is particularly important for winter use, as snow scenes can be particularly challenging for other pocket cameras I’ve used.

GR

High contrast shots are not a problem for the GR

Color rendition is very pleasing, and photos are crisp and sharp.

climb-1

Unlike most pocket cameras, the GR does not have a zoom lens.  With the GR, you’ve got to do all of your shooting with a wide angle (28mm equivalent) lens.  Generally, I don’t find this to be a problem.  The wide angle of view is great for scenic shots, and helps capture perspective on climbs as well, where you’re trying to capture a climber and also some background.  Zoom lenses can provide some flexibility, but I generally put more value on the superior optical quality of a fixed lens.

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

castleton-11

Wide angle of view allows capture of climber and the climb

After several months of use, I have been increasingly impressed with the Ricoh GR.  Because it delivers consistently excellent image quality,  I’m getting more and more comfortable using it as my primary climbing camera.  This means that I’m carrying my larger Micro 4/3 system cameras less often, which allows me to go light and fast, while still having a high quality photography option in my pocket.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital pocket camera I’ve used that has lived up to the standards of the GR-1 film camera.  It really is capable of providing SLR quality in a tiny package.  Because of this, the GR has become my new climbing/backcountry photography tool of choice.

Excellent image quality in a tiny package

Excellent image quality in a tiny package

Olympus OMD EM-5 Camera System

The Olympus OMD EM-5 Camera   (15.3 ounces)

I’ve been using an Olympus PEN E-P2 camera for several years now.  It’s a micro 4/3 system camera that accepts interchangeable lenses.  The sensor is half the size of a full frame sensor, so the “crop factor” provides the field of view equivalent to that of a lens twice length.  (For example, a 12mm lens on a micro 4/3 camera gives the same field of view as a 24mm lens on a full frame dSLR or traditional 35mm film camera.)

The micro 4/3 system provides a great combination of excellent image quality, flexibility of interchangeable lenses, and compact size.

(Left to Right, Front Row) 20mm; 12mm; 45mm; 14-42mm; 9-18mm; 7-14mm; 12-50mm; 25mm. (Back Row:) OMD EM-5; 85mm; 135mm; 50-200mm; 85-300mm

Although I’ve been very happy with the Olympus PEN E-P2 camera I’ve been using, (see  my PEN E-P2 thoughts HERE) I was so impressed with the specifications and early buzz about the new OMD E-5 that I pre-ordered it as soon as it became available.  After months of waiting, B&H Photo finally delivered it to me.

I’ve had an Olympus OMD-E-5 camera for a few weeks now.  I’ve been shooting with it just about every day.  So far, I love almost everything about this camera.

Build quality is excellent.  The magnesium body has appropriate heft, without being too heavy (15.3 ounces.)  Fit and finish are  terrific, and the weather sealed body has the feel of a precision instrument.  It’s a good looking camera too, with a design very similar to that of the classic OM-4T film camera that I have always admired.

Ergonomics are likewise excellent, and the camera has a well-placed thumb rest that helps in holding the camera.  Knobs and buttons are well placed and for the most part are easy to manipulate.   I really like the tilting screen on the back.  I can take pictures at odd angles and tilt the screen so that I can compose the shot without having to be directly behind the camera.  The buttons and options are configurable, so I can program the buttons and controls to fit my shooting style.  You really get the feeling that the engineers that designed this camera were also serious photography enthusiasts.  Everything about it seems designed to allow you to just take pictures instead of fiddling with the camera.
Some people have complained about the placement of the on/off switch (on the back of the camera in the bottom right corner.  I think the placement is great.  It’s out of the way where it is. I like having only shooting controls on the top plate. Some other folks have complained about the “mushy” feel of the buttons.  The button feel doesn’t bug me either. I can tell by touch when I’ve depressed a button, even when wearing thin gloves. That’s really all I care about.

Although the camera’s features are very configurable, the instruction manual that comes with the camera isn’t that great, and a lot of the camera’s features are hidden deep in the rather complex menu system.  I would highly recommend any user of the OMD EM-5 read this article that explains some of the features of the OMD that are not readily apparent by reading the instruction manual.  There is another excellent blog HERE that addresses set up of your OMD EM-5 and many other issues.

The back LCD screen is bright and easy to see, and with the touch-screen functionality, you can manipulate camera settings from the screen.  You can also set the camera to take pictures when you touch the screen, with the auto-focus targeted on the area that you touch.  This can be a very useful feature when you have a “target rich” environment and you want to make sure the camera focuses on the right subject.

Speaking of auto-focus, it’s really fast and accurate, even in low light conditions.  I haven’t used any pro-level dSLR cameras, but the auto-focus on the OMD is very fast and acquires targets faster than any other camera I’ve ever used.  It’s going to be great for taking action shots of skiing next winter.

The built-in viewfinder is one of the major features that sets this camera apart from the PEN E-P2 camera that I’ve been using.  The PEN has an accessory view finder that mounts on the hot shoe, but the OMD’s finder is integrated into the camera.  This is great because I prefer to compose my photos using a viewfinder, and having a viewfinder is especially useful in high-glare environments such as snowfields, where the glare tends to render the rear LCD screen hard to use.   I’ve found the viewfinder to be very high quality.  It’s bright, with good detail.  One very nice feature is that the viewfinder can be set up to show areas that are going to be beyond the dynamic range of the sensor.  With this option turned on, any areas that are too bright or too dark are highlighted in red or blue in the display.  This gives you a great tool for keeping your exposure within the boundaries you want.

One of the truly outstanding features of the camera is the image stabilization capability.  It has a new image stabilization technology that is extremely effective at limiting camera shake.   I’ve hand-held shots at one tenth of a second with no discernible fuzziness from camera shake.

Image quality is excellent.  I was pretty happy with the image quality coming out of my E-P2, and the OMD has raised the bar significantly from the level of the E-P2.  Colors are rendered very well, and I’ve seen minimal noise or other distractions even in less than perfect lighting.

One of the things that surprised me about this camera is how small it is.  I thought it would be bigger than the PEN E-P2 I’ve been using.  In fact, it’s virtually the same size.  Slightly taller because of the viewfinder hump, but otherwise the same form factor.   This means I can use the same small camera cases and other carrying options that I’ve come to rely on for the E-P2.  As with the E-P2, my cases of choice for the OMD are from the Optech Digital D series.  I use the Optech Digital D Compact, the Digital D Shortie, or the Digital D M-4/3 depending on which lens I have mounted on the camera.  The Compact works well for most of the smaller primes, the M-4/3 works well with the larger zooms, and the Shortie works well for the middle sized lenses.

OMD on top, E-P2 on bottom

OMD on left, E-P2 on right

For carrying the camera body and three prime lenses (12mm, 20mm, and 45mm) the entire kit fits nicely into the Moutainsmith small zoom case, with room for a few extra accessories.  I can easily attach this camera case to the shoulder strap of my back pack using lightweight carabiners.  It stays out of the way when not in use, and is quickly accessible when I want to shoot.

Mountainsmith Small Zoom case clipped to pack strap

Excellent way to carry micro 4/3 camera and 3 lenses without interfering with your activities

I’ve got a bunch of other cases as well, but when I’m  trying to keep the weight and volume down, I try to keep my gear limited to what will fit in this Mountainsmith small zoom case.  For carrying more stuff, there are a lot of options, including the Mountainsmith medium zoom case which allows you to carry the larger zoom lenses in much the same manner as the small zoom case (albeit with a bit more bulk and weight.)   For my purposes, I find that the OMD body with the three primes (12mm, 20mm, and 45mm) pretty much covers all the bases I need when I’m in the backcountry.  Occasionally, I will take a 9-18 zoom and the 45mm prime as a change of pace, but the three prime combination in the Mountainsmith small zoom case is my go-to backcountry kit.  There is a short Youtube video clip of the Mountainsmith case and the three lenses I usually take with me HERE where you can get a better feel for the size of the case and how it works.   The Clik Elite Infinity Case is similar to the Mountainsmith small zoom case.  It provides a bit more room than the Mountainsmith, and allows a bit more flexibility about which lenses you bring.   It’s slowly replacing my Mountainsmith as my backcountry case of choice, particularly if I want to bring a zoom lens instead of one of the primes.

Lenses:

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of lenses that I use with my E-P2 (and now OMD) cameras.    Here are the lenses I use with this system along with my thoughts on using them.

Native Micro 4/3 lenses:
7-14mm f: 4.  Panasonic   (11.1 ounces)
12mm f: 2   Olympus  (5.4 ounces)
12-50mm f: 3.5-6.3 Olympus (macro)   (8.5 ounces)
9-18mm f: 4-5.6 Olympus   (6.4 ounces)
20mm f: 1.7 Panasonic  (4.3 ounces)
25mm f: 0.95 Voightlander (manual focus)   (16.3 ounces)
14-42mm f: 3.5-5.6  Olympus  (4.3 ounces)
45mm f: 1.8 Olympus  (4.7 ounces)

 

Non Micro 4/3 lenses used with adaptor (all weights include the weight of the adapter:)
85mm f: 1.2L Canon FD (27.7 ounces)
135mm f: 2.8 Canon FD (17 ounces)
50-200 f: 2.8-3.5 Olympus 4/3 (47.7 ounces) (2 pounds, 17.7 ounces)
80-200 f: 4L Canon FD (28.7 ounces) (1 pound, 12.7 ounces)
85-300 f: 4.5 Canon FD (68.7 ounces) (4 pounds, 4.7 ounces.)
Canon FD are used with a Novoflex adapter and are manual focus, the Olympus 4/3 lens uses an Olympus adapter and keeps automatic aperture and auto focus capability. (although auto-focus doesn’t work very well.)


The Panasonic 7-14mm f:4  is a big lens.  It’s heavy and is pretty long and bulky compared with the primes or the compact Olympus 9-18.  However, I really like the extra angle of view and perspective of the ultra wide lens when it’s at 7mm. This isn’t really a good backcountry lens for going light and fast, but when weight and space don’t matter, this is my wide of choice.

Panasonic 7-14 at 7mm

The other two wide angle lenses in my arsenal, the Olympus 12mm f: 2  and the Olympus  9-18mm f: 4-5.6  zoom are much much smaller than the Panasonic 7-14. The 12 is a good lens, and is very sharp and very compact. For some reason, however, at the wide end, I find myself wanting zoom capability quite regularly, so I often will opt for a wide zoom instead of the 12mm prime.  The Olympus 9-18 zoom is very compact, and it’s what I take if I want a wide zoom and need to save weight/space.  When I compare the size of the Olympus 9-18 with the size of the Panasonic 7-14, I have to marvel at the design and engineering that allowed Olympus to make a wide zoom in such a tiny package.   All three of these lenses are high quality, and I have been pleased with sharpness and other characteristics of all of them.   If I had to pick just one of them, I’d probably go with the Olympus 9-18.  I like the versatility of the zoom, and the lens manages to be compact and still produce reasonably sharp images.

Olympus 9-18mm

The Olympus 12mm is pretty sharp edge to edge

The lenses I tend to use the most are the Panasonic 20mm f: 1.7 and the Olympus 45mm f: 1.8  These lenses are compact, sharp, and give me great results.  Most of the time, when I go out, I’ve got one or the other of these lenses on my camera.  The Panasonic 20mm is a truly tiny “pancake” lens that takes great pictures.  I pretty much always take it with me even when I’m planning on using other lenses because it’s so small that I can tuck it away into a very small space.  I’ve found that when I’m packing my kit, there’s always room for the 20mm.    The 20mm length is a great “standard” length, equivalent to a 40mm lens on full frame.  I really like this length, as I’ve always thought that the “standard” 50mm lens on a full frame was just a tad long.  The decently fast 1.7 f-stop allows for pretty good low-light performance, especially when coupled with the excellent image stabilzation of the Olympus OMD.    If I could only own a single lens for my entire micro 4/3 system, the Panasonic 20mm would be my choice.

Panasonic 20mm

Even though the 20mm is probably the most useful, the Olympus 45mm is probably my favorite lens that I own.  For some reason, it seems that my favorite photos are often taken with this lens.  That may be because this lens is truly tack sharp.  Detail and sharpness are truly excellent, especially in such a compact little package.

The 45mm is a super sharp lens

Although I generally associate wide angle lenses with landscape photography, the effective length of 90mm of this lens has proven to be good for landscape shots, particularly when I want to tie together objects in the foreground with dramatic scenery in the background.  The 45mm has become one of my “must bring” lenses whenever I’m deciding what to pack.

45mm as a landscape lens

Multi-Purpose “kit” zooms

Olympus makes two multi-purpose kit zooms for their micro 4/3 system cameras.  The entry level option is the 14-42mm f: 3.5-5.6 zoom.  The higher end option is the 12-50mm f: 3.5-6.3 zoom.   The 14-42 is a decent lens and is pretty inexpensive.  Although kit lenses are generally looked upon with disdain, this lens is actually not a bad option for a single lens kit.  It’s reasonably sharp, compact, and takes pretty good pictures.  In spite of the fact that I have so many other (more expensive) lenses for my system, I still find myself using this lens when I just want to mount one lens on the camera and not have to worry about switching lenses.  For me, it makes a good “tourist” lens for times when I just want photography to be as simple as possible.

14-42 makes a good “tourist” lens

The Olympus 12-50mm has received generally luke-warm or negative reviews, but I haven’t found it to be all that bad.  My biggest complaint about this lens is its size.  Its pretty big and unwieldy, especially compared with the 14-42 which covers very close to the same zoom range.  In terms of performance, the 12-50 is not as sharp as some of the other options, but it’s generally been adequate for my needs.  A couple of the things I really like about this lens (besides the very broad zoom range) is the fact that the lens is weather sealed.  This makes it a good combination with the weather sealed OMD body for shooting in foul conditions.  The other thing I like about this lens is its macro capability.  For a kit lens, it has a decent macro function.

Olympus 12-50mm in Macro Mode

 

12-50mm Lens

 Manual Focus Lenses

There are three manual focus lenses that I use regularly with my micro 4/3 system:  The Voightlander 25mm f: 0.95, the Canon FD 85mm f: 1.2L, and the Canon FD 135mm f: 2.8

Manual focus with the Olympus OMD is not too hard.  There’s no rangefinder prism or “focus peaking” feature on the OMD, but the viewfinder is clear enough to focus pretty accurately.  Additionally, a touch of a button allows for viewfinder magnification to help in fine-tuning the focus.   Although the magnification will go to 10x, I’ve found that 5x magnification is the best setting for me.  Some folks complain about the difficulties of using manual focus with the OMD, but I  used manual focus exclusively on my film cameras for 30 years, so I’m pretty used to it and can generally capture my subject, even when it’s in motion.

The Voightlander 25mm f: 0.95 lens is somewhat specialized.  Although it’s a new lens, specifically designed for the micro 4/3 format, it’s manual focus only and has no communication with the camera’s electronics.  It’s made completely of metal and glass, and is pretty big and heavy as a result.  However, it has a solid, quality feel, with a silky-smooth focusing action, and f-stop adjustments that click into place with a satisfying tactile feel that speaks of old-school quality.  This lens’ unique feature is its incredibly wide 0.95 maximum aperture.  This allows it to be used in very low light situations, particularly when paired with the OMD’s exceptional image stabilization.  Wide open, it’s a little soft, but pleasing.  With such a wide aperture, the lens can have a shallow depth of field, even though it has a fairly short 25mm focal length.  Overall, I tend to use it mostly for portraits.  I’ve never used it for backpacking or climbing.  I suppose it would be good for evenings around the campfire and the like.  Perhaps I will take it out into the backcountry a bit more in the future, at least on trips where weight doesn’t matter as much.

Even in the light of a single, weak light bulb, at f: 0.95, the Voightlander allows you to keep shooting.

Back in my film camera days when I was shooting with the Canon F1 body, the legendary Canon FD 85mm f:1.2L was one of my favorite lenses.  It has excellent sharpness even wide open, and the wide 1.2 aperture gives it impressive low-light capability.  I was really happy when I figured out that I could mount an adapter on this lens and use it with my digital micro 4/3 camera bodies.  On the micro 4/3 sensor, this lens has an effective length of 170mm, so it’s a medium/long telephoto.  It’s a bit big and heavy for a general purpose backcountry lens, but what I use it for mostly is indoor event photography.  It’s particularly useful for taking pictures at various plays and musical performances, where I have to make use of available light and I’m sitting back a ways from the stage.

Canon 85mm f: 1.2L makes a good event lens

The Canon 135mm is a great street photography lens for the kind of street shooting I do. I tend to keep my distance from my subjects, and the 135mm acts like a 270mm telephoto when paired with the Micro 4/3 sensor.  This gives me plenty of reach for taking “people pictures” without getting too close.  As a bonus, this lens is pretty compact and has decent brightness (f: 2.8.)  I’ve found it to be sharp as well.  It’s also very inexpensive to buy one used.  (I’ve seen them in excellent condition selling for less than $80.)  This is my go-to telephoto lens for street photography.

135mm allows for up-close pictures from far away

Big Zoom Lenses

The Olympus Digital Zuiko 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 ED SWD is part of the Olympus 4/3 line developed for use with their 4/3 format dSLR cameras.  It’s a pro-grade lens, and has weatherproof construction.  The Olympus MMF-3 adapter is used to adapt the lens to the OMD body, and has weather sealing to preserve the weatherproof nature of the lens, which combined with the OMD makes a completely weatherproof system.

The 50-200 is a large lens, and pretty much dwarfs the diminutive OMD body.  However, considering the relatively large maximum aperture and the effective maximum focal length of 400mm on a micro 4/3 sensor, it’s not outrageously huge.  (Although when the lens zooms out in use, it gets a lot bigger than when “at rest.”)  For wildlife and bird photography, sports, or any time when you need to “reach out and touch someone,” this lens is a good super-telephoto option.   However, I have one serious complaint about this lens.  Autofocus sucks.  I don’t know how it functions on an SLR body, but on my OMD EM-5, the autofocus is close to useless, even in decent light.  It takes forever to get a lock, and hunts back and forth for a long time.  It often can’t get a lock at all.   Because of this, I typically just use manual focus.   I’ve found that my success rate when focusing manually is many times higher than my success rate when relying on the lens’ autofocus mechanism.

Olympus 50-200mm lens

Canon FD 80-200mm f:4L and Olympus 50-200 f:2.8-3.5

The Canon FD 80-200 f:4L is a legacy, manual focus zoom lens that is part of Canon’s well respected “L” range.  It has excellent optical qualities, and is wonderfully sharp across  its focal range.  It is substantially lighter and less bulky than the Olympus 50-200mm, and therefore is a lot easier to pack and carry.  I take this lens along when I need a longer telephoto zoom, but I need to carry other lenses too, so the bulk and weight of the Olympus 50-200 is prohibitive.  The Olympus has a larger aperture than the Canon, but the constant f:4 aperture is fine for most daylight situations, and the lens is sharp even wide open.  One negative when using this lens (or any legacy zoom lens) with the OMD is that the image stabilization doesn’t work well and needs to be turned off.  This is because the image stabilization needs to factor in focal length of the lens in order to work correctly. However, with a legacy zoom, the camera body can’t communicate with the lens to ascertain the focal length, and (because it changes as you zoom in and out) you can’t manually set the focal length as you can with a fixed focal length lens.  I haven’t found this to be much of an issue, and I tend to get good results without image stabilization.

Taken with Canon 80-200mm f:4L

For times when 200mm just isn’t enough, I’ve got the (monstrously big and heavy) Canon FD 85-300mm f: 4.5 lens.  On the OMD, this lens has an effective length of 600mm, making it just about as long as I think I will ever need.  It’s so long, big, and heavy, that I seldom use it.  It’s probably my least utilized lens, but when you really need a super long lens, it definitely gets the job done.

I hauled the 85-300 lens to the top of the Tour Ronde to get this photo of the Kuffner Ridge on neighboring Mont Maudit (Canon F1, 35mm Kodachrome)  I think this was the last time I ever took this 4+ pound lens climbing.

Accessories:

Sometimes, the little things can make a big difference in how easy it is to use a camera.  One of these little things is the lens cap.  I don’t like using the standard lens caps because I tend to drop and/or lose them.  Particularly when wearing gloves, I hate having to figure out a safe place to put the lens cap when I’m shooting.   So, I tend to replace my stock lens caps with caps that have keepers on them.  I attach the keeper cord to the camera by means of a double sided clip, and I’m good.  With the keeper attached, I can just take the lens cap off, and let it dangle, not having to worry about dropping or losing it.  The best aftermarket lens caps I’ve found are from Fotodiox.

Fotodiox lens keeper and keychain clip

The best lens cases I’ve found have been relatively inexpensive neoprene cases.  They don’t add much bulk, but they protect the lens from banging around.  There are tons of them on eBay.  Here’s a picture of the ones I like the best:

Simple neoprene lens cases

 

 

Outdoor photography gear update Part 1: Pocket Cameras

Outdoor photography gear update Part 1:  Pocket Cameras 

This update addresses Pocket Cameras.  A follow on update will address Micro 4/3 system cameras and lenses, including the new Olympus OMD E-M5

I almost never go into the outdoors without a camera.  I love taking pictures of the places I visit and the things I do.  Whether it’s climbing, hiking, fishing, or anything else in the outdoors, I like to have photographs to memorialize my trip.

Over the years, the camera gear I use has evolved quite a bit.  The biggest change came when I finally moved from film to digital cameras.   The change to digital has been a very expensive one for me.  With my film cameras, I used the same SLR body for twenty years, and in that same two decades, only used three pocket cameras.  With film cameras, there wasn’t enough change or improvement in camera technology to entice me to upgrade my equipment very often.  What I had worked well, and that was good enough.

However, after I made the switch to digital media, I found myself switching and upgrading pretty regularly.  I’ve found the changes to digital camera technology to be significant enough that I’m often enticed by the latest “new and improved” camera, particularly pocket cameras.

On my photography page, here, I’ve written a bit about the cameras I’ve owned over the years, so if you’re interested, you can see the progression of cameras I’ve been using.

This blog entry is a snap shot of the current state of my thinking with regards to camera equipment.   As camera companies continue to expand and improve their offerings, no doubt I will be tempted by some of them.  For the time being, however, I’m pretty happy with the state of the art in digital cameras right now.  There are some excellent cameras available right now that work really well for outdoor pursuits.

Pocket Cameras:

(left to right) TS2, S100, LX5

Sometimes saving weight and space is the most important consideration and you need a small camera that you can fit in your pocket.    For me, this typically involves climbing.  If I’m climbing something hard (hard for me anyway) or technical, I typically only take a pocket camera.  System cameras with interchangeable lenses are nice, but on a difficult climb, I usually can’t justify the weight and bulk.

When it comes to digital pocket cameras, I currently own and use three different models, the Panasonic LX5, the Canon S100, and the waterproof Panasonic TS2.

Panasonic Lumix LX-5  10.9 ounces (with Optech case)

The LX-5 is the best all around pocket camera I’ve ever used.  It’s an update to the highly respected LX-3 which I used for years prior to purchasing the LX5.  The LX5 supports shooting in RAW format, and has a wide array of exposure controls, from full manual to full auto.  Size of the LX5 is a little on the large size for a pocket camera.  It will fit in a large pocket, but it’s not as small as the Canon S100.

The LX5 has a wonderfully sharp and bright lens.  I has a zoom range of  24-90mm (35mm equivalent) The lens is quite fast for a point and shoot, with a f:2.0-3.3 f-stop aperture.  For a small sensor camera, the LX5 has very good image quality, including decent low-light performance.  In camera image stabilization coupled with the relatively fast lens means that shooting at dawn and dusk is feasible, even hand held with no tripod.

For examples of the LX5’s image quality, most of the photos on the page HERE were taken with the LX5.  I have photos taken with the LX5 made into 16×20 enlargements and they look great.

Assiniboine. Taken with the LX5

The ergonomics are also decent.  The camera has a good grip “bump” that helps with handling.  There is also a very nice control dial that can be manipulated even when wearing gloves.  In order to adjust exposure (my most common adjustment,) all you need to do is to press the dial, and then roll it to the right or left to increase (or decrease) exposure compensation.  I can do this even while wearing heavy gloves.  Likewise, I can easily manipulate aperture and shutter speeds the same way even with gloves on.  For shooting video, there is a dedicated button on top of the camera that allows for one-touch HD video recording.

The biggest ergonomics issue with the LX5 is the lens cap.  Rather than an automatically retracting lens cover, the LX5 has a lens cap that you need to remove by hand before you can take pictures, and replace when you’re done.  Luckily, it has an integrated keeper string to keep you from dropping it.  Another ergonomics issue is that the slider that sets image aspect ratio gets moved around easily, so you can find yourself shooting at 1:1 instead of 4:3 if you don’t pay attention to it.

After much experimentation, the case option that I have arrived at that I like the best is an Optech neoprene soft case.  The specific model is the Optech SOFT POUCH – DIGITAL D-SERIES D-Micro.  The case provides good protection from bumps and shocks, but doesn’t add very much additional bulk or weight.  Even with the case on the camera, I can still fit it into the smallish pocket on my windbreaker.  The case has a strap that keeps it attached to the camera even when it’s removed, so you don’t have to worry about dropping it.     Instead of the standard wrist strap that came with the camera, I added my own larger strap made from some cord.  I needed a larger strap because I often am using this camera while wearing bulky gloves and the stock strap wasn’t large enough to accommodate them.

LX5 in Optech case on left, TS2 in Always On wrap on right

Battery life is pretty good, and I can take 200+ photos without depleting the battery, even in cold conditions.  Build quality is reasonably robust and I’ve never had any issues with malfunctions or failure to operate, even in cold conditions.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the LX5 as a climbing camera.   It combines very good image quality, with pocketability, durability, good ergonomics, and a reasonably fast zoom lens.

Canon S100 (8 ounces including Always On wrap case)

The Canon is another high quality pocket camera that has good optics, shoots RAW format, and allows full manual control over exposure.  It has a 24-120mm (equivalent) lens that has even more zoom range than the Panasonic LX5, although the variable f-stop of f: 2.0 to 5.9 means the lens isn’t quite as bright as the LX5 at the long end of the zoom range.

Canon S100

What the S100 really has going for it is that it’s small.  While the LX5 is kind of large for a “pocket” camera, the S100 is really small.   This makes it easy to take along no matter what the circumstances.  Ergonomics are good for such a small camera, and the controls are all pretty easy to use.  The front ring around the lens provides the ability to adjust exposure compensation (or shutter or aperture in the shutter/aperture priority modes) and is easy to use with gloves on.

My favorite case for the S100 is a neoprene wrap from Always ON.  It provides protection from bumps and scrapes, is light, compact, and easy to get the camera into action.  You can wrap the neoprene around a pack strap and attache it to the strap if you want to carry the camera on your pack strap.  This is nice because you can keep the camera handy without needing a separate pouch/pocket attached to the pack strap.

The S100 is significantly thinner than the LX5

I own and use both the LX5 and the S100.   Although both are good cameras, I find that I tend to take better pictures with the LX5.  Because of this, the LX5 is my camera of choice for mountaineering and climbing trips to places with spectacular scenery.  It just seems to have a slight edge in terms of picture quality in my hands.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t use the S100, however.  Because of the small size of the  S100, it’s my cragging camera of choice.  Even if I don’t have any pockets big enough to hold the LX5, I can always find room for the S100 in a small pocket, or strapped to my harness.  So, even though I tend to prefer the LX5 for image quality, I actually use the S100 more, because I tend to spend more time cragging than I do mountaineering.

Bell’s Canyon Granite (taken with the S100)

In truth, both the S100 and LX5 are good cameras, and a climber who can’t be satisfied with either of these cameras probably needs to just start carrying a big DSLR, a micro 4/3 system camera, or another of the large sensor mirrorless camera options.

Panasonic TS2  Waterproof Camera  (7.9 ounces including Always On wrap case)

Sometimes, I need a camera that’s waterproof.  Usually, the time I need a waterproof camera is when I’m wading around in a fast moving creek while fly fishing and I slip and take a plunge.  Most cameras wouldn’t survive a dunking, but luckily, there are a few rugged models that are designed to be waterproof.  I’ve used a number of waterproof cameras over the years.  My current favorite is the Panasonic TS2.  The TS2 is compact, rugged, and takes decent pictures.

(left to right) Panasonic TS2, Canon S100, Panasonic LX5

Image quality isn’t up to that of the S100 or the LX5, but it’s pretty decent for a pocket camera and better than the other waterproof cameras I’ve used.  Unlike the S100 or LX5, the TS2 takes pictures in JPEG format only, so you don’t have the benefits of shooting in RAW format.  You also don’t have the control over exposure that the other cameras give you.  No aperture priority, no shutter priority, no full manual control.

The TS2 is pretty small, just a tiny bit larger than the S100, so it easily fits into a shirt pocket.  One odd thing about the design of the TS2 is that the lens doesn’t retract and the clear lens cover is therefore susceptible to getting scratched if you’re not careful.  Because of this, I use the same Always On neoprene wrap that I use with the S100 to protect from scratches.

I haven’t gone snorkling with the TS2, but it’s survived numerous dunkings and occasional drops without any ill effects.  In addition to being able to survive unintended dunkings in water while fishing, waterproof cameras can be fun for candid underwater fish photos.

Brook Trout smiling for the camera

Other Pocket Cameras

Although I’d like to be able to own and use all the new cameras that are coming out lately, sadly I can’t afford to buy them all.  That doesn’t keep me from checking them out, however.  There are a few new pocket cameras that look like interesting options for outdoor photography.  I haven’t used any of them, but based on various web reviews, they look like contenders.

The Sony Rx100 is the new top contender for a high quality pocket camera.  Sony has shoe-horned a large sensor into a camera body almost as compact as the Canon S100.  Initial reviews of this camera have been overwhelmingly positive.  If I were in the market for a new pocket camera (but I’m not) the RX100 would be my top pick.

Fuji X10  This camera is quite a bit larger than the S100 or the LX5, but it has a built in viewfinder in addition to the standard lcd screen.  Image quality appears to be very good from the pictures I’ve seen in various reviews.   There’s been some talk about some “white orb” artifacts that show up in certain direct lighting conditions, but hopefully Fuji will fix this in a firmware upgrade.    The X10 seems like a very nice camera, but it’s just too large for me to really view it as a “pocket camera.”  If you don’t mind carrying a larger camera with you, however, it might be a good option.

One of the best real world reviews I’ve seen of the X10 is HERE.

Another review HERE

Olympus XZ-1

The XZ-1 is Olympus’ entry in the high-end pocket camera wars.  It has a 28-112mm (equivalent) zoom lens with a very impressive f: 1.8-2.5 aperture.  The XZ-1 is slightly larger than the Panasonic LX5.

In depth review HERE

Another review HERE

Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS Waterproof Camera

Olympus announced a new waterproof/shockproof camera with some interesting features and specifications.  See information HERE.  Based on the information available, it doesn’t look like a huge jump forward in waterproof cameras, but looks very competitive with the Panasonic TS4.    If I were in the market for a waterproof camera, the Olympus would definitely be on my list.

I’m a bit disappointed this camera isn’t more focused on the higher end of the pocket camera spectrum.   What I’m waiting for is a waterproof camera that has the image quality of the S100 or LX5, with RAW file support and aperture and shutter priority and full manual modes.   Until somebody comes out with a waterproof camera with these “enthusiast” features, I’m sticking with my TS2.

 

Phone, GPS, and Emergency Beacon

Casio Commando Android Phone with Backcountry Navigator Software (5.4 ounces)  

Delorme inReach Satellite Communicator  (8.6 ounces)

Casio Commando Android Phone; Delorme inReach

For many years, I didn’t even own a cell phone or a GPS.  I didn’t take a cell phone to work, much less into the backcountry.  Given the uncertainty over cell coverage, it didn’t seem worth the extra weight.  These days, however, I rarely go on an overnight trip without both a phone and my Delorme inReach.

First, the phone:   I’ve had the Casio Commando for about two years now.  That may seem unremarkable, but for me, that’s a long time.  I’ve destroyed a number of other smart phones prior to owning the Commando.  I tend to drop them, squish them, or drown them, or they just seem to die for no apparent reason.    The Casio Commando is different.  It’s waterproof, shock resistant, and built like a tank.  In spite of all the abuse I’ve dished out over the past two years, it’s still going strong.

The Commando is obviously useful as a phone (when you can get reception) but it has other uses as well.   First, and most importantly, it will run an Android application called Backcountry Navigator.  This app turns the phone into a full-featured GPS.  It has downloadable topographical maps that you can download ahead of time and store on the phone so that they are available when you don’t have cell service.  The app tracks your location on the map via gps, so you can see where you’re going.  You can create waypoints, measure distances, and do pretty much everything you’d otherwise do with a full featured gps.

The combination of phone and the Backcountry Navigator app are so easy to use that I don’t ever bother to bring along a standalone gps any more.  The only downside of using the phone as my gps is that battery life isn’t long enough to allow for it to be kept on all the time.  That’s not an issue for me, however, as I mostly navigate the old fashioned way with map and compass, and only use the phone’s gps capability for occasional reference checks or navigating in poor visibility.  I generally keep the phone turned off, and only turn it on when needed, so the batteries don’t get drained, even on multi-day trips.

The other electronic gadget that I’ve started to carry is the Delorme inReach satellite communicator.   It is a device that  allows you to send text messages via satellite, so you can communicate with folks back home even if you’re out of cell phone range.  The inReach allows you to pre-configure three text messages and generate a list of people to send them to.  The recipients can be contacted by e-mail and/or by phone text message.

I have created three “canned” messages.  The first says “Everything’s OK”  The second says “I’m running late, but everything is ok.”  The third says, “I’m stuck, don’t know when I will be able to get back, but I don’t need you to call for help yet.”      There is a fourth option that sends out an SOS message both to my listed recipients and the local search and rescue and emergency services.    All of these messages are accompanied by gps data and a map that shows where you were located when you sent the message.

Here is an example of what the message looks like.

inReach message

In addition to these pre-set messages, the inReach will also pair with my Android phone via Bluetooth and when paired, I can use my phone to compose and send any messages I want to.  This is a nice option in case you need to provide more specific information than is contained in the pre-set canned messages.  With the phone connected, I can receive reply messages too, so full two-way communication is possible via satellite text messaging.

So, why do I love the inReach?  The short answer is that it makes my wife happy.  Whenever I go out into the backcountry, she worries.  She doesn’t worry a lot, but the longer I’m gone, the more she worries.  If I’m late coming back and she hasn’t heard from me, she worries more.   The inReach gives me a very easy way to send occasional reassuring messages home that I’m ok and all is well.  This keeps my wife from worrying, and makes it easier on both of us when I’m on a trip.  If I’m running late, I can let her know that I’m just late, and not dead.

In addition to the role of keeping my wife informed on my status and whereabouts, it’s nice to have a dependable method of signalling for help in the event of an emergency.  If I’m deep in the backcountry, a satellite communicator is often the only practical means of alerting anyone to an emergency situation.  Having the ability to call for help provides me with a little more peace of mind and raises my chances of getting rescued if I am injured and unable to self rescue.

After about 5 months of use, I really don’t have any complaints about the inReach.  It works  like it’s supposed to.  It’s reasonably small and doesn’t weigh too much.  Overall, I think it’s a very useful and well thought out piece of gear.

Cost of the inReach was about $250 for the device itself.  In addition, you have to pay a monthly subscription fee for the satellite service.  Subscription fees vary according to how much usage you need.  I have the basic one that costs $9 per month.  For my needs, that’s all that’s necessary.  If you’re using your inReach to constantly update your social media accounts with text messages from your latest adventures, you’ll likely want one of the more expensive subscription options.