Compact Cameras for the Backcountry: Panasonic LX100, Ricoh GR 3, Sigma DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill

I own a pretty extensive array of Micro 4/3 lenses and an Olympus OMD E-M1 Micro 4/3 camera body. This interchangeable lens system provides a lot of flexibility in my photography. However, even though the Micro 4/3 format allows for much smaller cameras and lenses than other interchangeable lens systems, I find that I seldom take my Micro 4/3 gear with me into the backcountry.

Most trips, I take a compact, fixed lens camera (or sometimes two of them.) The weight and bulk advantages of a fixed lens compact camera are just too great when I’m climbing or travelling long distances in the backcountry.

Compact Camerass: Top to Bottom, DP1 Merrill; DP2 Merrill; Ricoh GR; Ricoh GR III; Samsung Galaxy
Top view, showing lens length.

What makes a good backcountry camera?

#1 Image quality. I am a stickler for good image quality. If I didn’t care a lot about image quality, I would just use the camera on my phone. However, I want my photos to capture the grandeur and beauty and intensity of the places I visit, and even the best phone camera comes up short when it comes to detail, colors, and sharpness. An excellent lens, a good sensor, and the ability to shoot RAW files are all must haves.

#2 Compact size. I need a camera that doesn’t weigh a lot and doesn’t take up a lot of space.

#3 Fits well in a good, padded case. I need to be able to carry the camera in a very accessible spot; close at hand while climbing, hiking, or skiing. If I have to keep my camera in my backpack, it won’t get used much and is just dead weight and wasted space. I need a case I can attach to either my climbing harness, on my pack shoulder strap or pack hip belt. The case needs to protect the camera from the inevitable bumps and shocks of outdoor activities, and also protect it from snow and light rain. (For heavy rain, I can just put the camera deep in my pack, as I won’t be taking photos if it’s raining hard.)

#4 Controls that I can work with gloves. I spend a lot of time wearing gloves. The main buttons and dials for exposure control need to be simple enough that I can work them with gloves on. A camera that can only be adjusted through complicated menus or with a touch screen doesn’t work well when wearing gloves.

Things that are nice to have, but not mandatory:

Waterproofing. I don’t need a camera to be waterproof. It would be great if one were, but, at least today, nobody makes a waterproof camera with the image quality I demand. Maybe that will change in the future. Certainly, Olympus or Panasonic have the capability to put a large sensor and high-end lens into one of their weatherproof bodies. Until then, I will just take care to keep my cameras dry.

Zoom lenses. While zoom lenses are convenient, they require compromises in image quality, especially in smaller sizes. Also, a zoom lens is inherently heavier and more bulky than a fixed, prime lens. A good, fixed focal length prime lens will almost always be better than a zoom of the same size and weight.

Video quality. I don’t shoot much video in the backcountry, and when I do, it tends to be simple stuff. I don’t have aspirations to produce breathtaking documentary video footage.

GPS, Bluetooth, In-camera editing, etc. For me, these features are not even “nice to haves” because I don’t need my camera to communicate with satellites, or bluetooth devices. I don’t need to do in-camera editing because I do all of my processing at home on my computer.

The Compact Backcountry Cameras with the Highest Image Quality: Sigma DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill.

The DP1 and DP2 Merrill:

These cameras came out in 2012. Sigma ceased production of the DP Merrill line just a couple of years later. These two cameras are almost identical, with the only significant difference being the focal length of their fixed lenses. The DP1 has a 19mm lens (28mm full frame equivalent) the DP2 has a 30mm lens (46 mm full frame equivalent.)

The DP Merrill series never really had a chance with the general public, and most reviewers panned the cameras for poor performance at high ISO settings, very long write times, extremely short battery life, terrible video quality, autofocus that has a difficult time tracking fast moving objects, no image stabilization, mediocre out of camera JPEGS, and no RAW support from Adobe Photoshop or other popular photography programs. (You have to use Sigma’s clunky Photo Pro software to process the RAW files.)

All of these criticisms are pretty much true, but none of these limitations have ever gotten in the way of my taking a lot of very pleasing pictures in the backcountry. The reason I put up with and work around these limitations is the amazing Foveon sensors and very high quality lenses.

The DP Merrill cameras have stacked, 3 layer Foveon sensors that are unique in the digital camera world. There’s been a lot of arguments over whether this sensor is a 46 megapixel sensor as claimed by Sigma (adding up the pixels of all three layers,) or a 15.4 megapixel sensor (the pixels in one layer of the array.) I don’t really know or care enough about the engineering to argue about number of mega pixels. What I do know is that this camera is capable of truly exceptional image quality. The very high quality lenses, coupled with the Foveon sensor make the DP Merrill cameras able to compete (on pure image quality) with much more modern, more expensive, much bigger, and much heavier cameras.

To provide some examples of the sort of detail, color rendition, and image quality the DP Merrill cameras are capable of, I have set out below some photos taken, with links to the full high-resolution files. (Some of these are stitched panoramas.) These are really big files and might take a long time to download, even on high speed internet. From looking at the original high-res files, it is apparent that these little cameras are capable of taking very high quality images.

Size and Weight: The DP1 and DP2 are virtually identical in size and weight, with the DP1 weighing 14.1 ounces and the DP2 at 13.9 ounces. These cameras are on the large size of “pocketable,” but are definitely more compact than most other cameras with similar image quality output.

Camera Cases for the DP Merrill Cameras: There are some very good camera cases available for the DP1 and DP2 Merrill Cameras. The Lowe Pro Dashpoint 20 fits either the DP1 or DP2 camera quite well (albeit snugly.) This case has loops that allow you to clip the case to a harness with carabiners, and also both horizontal and vertical velcro straps that allow for attachment to either shoulder straps or the hip belt of a pack.

The Mountainsmith Zoom S case (out of production, but you may find one if you search hard enough.) will fit both the DP1 and DP2 together, and is a nice, compact way to carry both cameras if you wish.

The DP1 and DP2 both have relatively large knobs and buttons that can be easily manipulated, even with gloves on. With practice, I can even do most adjustments one handed. The biggest ergonomic issue is that they both have removeable lens caps which you have to manually take on and off. This is not nearly as convenient as automatically retractable lens covers.

DP Merrill Conclusions: As one reviewer put it, the DP Merrill is like a medium format camera you can put in your pocket. It’s amazing to have such a capable photographic tool in such a small, compact package. When choosing between the DP1 (28mm equivalent) and DP2 (46mm equivalent,) I will usually take the DP2. I find the extra magnification useful, and if I really need a wider angle, I tend to take multiple shots and stitch them into a panorama with my editing software. If I am going somewhere with truly spectacular scenery, the DP Merrills are my cameras of choice.

Compact Camera Cases (Blue is Lowe Pro, Black and Grey are Mountainsmith)

The Tiny Pocket Sized Overachiever: Ricoh GR III

I have been using Ricoh GR cameras for a long time. My first GR was the original 35mm film version, the legendary GR1. Later, when digital photography began to eclipse film cameras, I bought the GR Digital II, which was a bit of a disappointment. The next generation digital Ricoh GR was a much better camera, with decent image quality. I didn’t bother to buy the Ricoh GR II, as it wasn’t significantly different than the GR, but now, I’ve upgraded to the new Ricoh GR III.

What’s great about the Ricoh GR cameras? Mostly the size. These cameras are really really small. The 8.9 ounce GR III is the smallest GR yet, even smaller than the GR and GRII predecessors.

In spite of the small size, they have very good image quality, aided by their uniformly excellent lenses. All of the GR series cameras have 28mm full frame equivalent lenses, which, for the GR III is a 18.3mm lens. The 28 mm format is ideal for wide angle scenic shots and close up shots of people. The lens on the GR III also has a decent macro mode, so taking pictures of small subjects is easy.

The Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

The GR III’s 24 megapixel APS-C sensor allows for good image quality. I haven’t used this camera as extensively as the others in this review, but the images have certainly been good enough for displaying on web pages. So far, I have not taken any shots that merited turning into a large print, but hopefully I will get that chance.

The GR III is the first camera in the GR line to incorporate image stabilization. It’s also a bit smaller than previous GR cameras. The trade-off is that there is no built in flash. I think that this was a good trade, as I almost never used the built in flash, but I often want to shoot at lower shutter speeds.

The Compact Point and Shoot: Panasonic LX100

Panasonic LX100   14.2 ounces  

The Panasonic LX100 is a camera that ticks a lot of boxes.  It has a good 12 MP sensor, a sharp 24-75mm (full frame equivalent) zoom lens with a relatively large maximum f-stop of 1.7-2.8 for excellent light gathering capabilities.  It incorporates image stabilization to combat shaky hands.  Controls and ergonomics are excellent, with dials that control aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation.  These dial controls are very intuitive and easy to operate even when wearing gloves. (In general, I find dials easier to manipulate with gloves compared with buttons.)

One feature that the LX100 has, which is relatively unusual for pocket cameras, is a built-in viewfinder.  While the back screen is adequate in most cases, I’ve found that having a viewfinder can sometimes be very useful in composition, and is particularly useful in high-glare situations such as snowfields etc.

Autofocus is very accurate, and I’ve had very few out of focus shots.  In full automatic mode, the camera really is a point and shoot, and you can take pictures with a minimum of messing with the controls.  This is good when you’re trying to snap pictures quickly while climbing or belaying.

The LX100 comes standard with a regular, removable lens cap.  However, there is also an optional automatic petal cap that is very convenient, as it obviates the need to remove and replace the lens cap.  Just turn the camera on, and the lens pops out.  A couple of caveats about this nifty lens cap:  It can fall off.  It attaches with a twist but will unattach itself without much effort. The first time I used this cap while climbing, the cap came off and fell down the route.  Luckily, I was able to retrieve it.  To prevent further losses, I used a small drop of super glue to secure the cap to the camera a bit more permanently.  It’s worked well since then.

The other caveat when using this automatic cap is that not all lens filters are compatible with this cap.  Most lens caps are too thick and will interfere with the cap’s operation.  However, the ultra thin  Cokin 49mm Pure Harmonie Ultra Slim UV-MC Round Screw-On Filter works perfectly, so there is a good filter option available.

LX100 and DP Merrill Cameras and cases compared
Both DP Merrills Cameras stowed in the Mountainsmith Zoom S case, and the LX100 in the Lowe Pro Dashpoint 20 case
Size and shape of the LX100 (far left) and the DP Merrills are very close

The LX100 shoots 4k video, which is higher resolution than any of the other cameras in this review. I don’t shoot much video in the backcountry, but if I’m doing something that I want to take video of, the LX100 is the obvious answer.

Conclusion: Which Camera is the Best?

The obvious answer is that none of these is “the best” at everything. Each of these cameras is best suited for particular jobs. The camera I take with me the most often is the Ricoh GR III. It’s light and compact and easy to carry. It’s simple to use. Its image quality is very good. It’s my default camera for day trips, when I want to be prepared for whatever photographic opportunity might present itself.

The LX100 is often my camera of choice if I’m with a group of people and I have the option to dedicate time and energy to photography. In situations like this, I can often get some separation from the group to look for interesting angles, and the optical zoom makes getting the right framing and perspective easier. The LX100 is also my choice for video, as it is the only one of the bunch that shoots video in 4k.

However, the cameras that I love the most are the Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill. In spite of their quirks and failings, my favorite photographs have been taken with these cameras, and that is, ultimately, what cameras are for. For big trips in beautiful alpine settings, they give me the best shot at capturing the beauty of my surroundings.

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

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

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  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.

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.

High contrast shots are not a problem for the GR

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


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

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

Fuji X100 (Black Special Edition)

Fuji X100 Black Special Edition with Fuji Case, Lens Hood, Cap, Gariz Strap

The Fuji X100 is a camera that has received more hype and publicity than just about any camera I am aware of.  Its retro, rangefinder style and terrific image quality have made it a big hit among photo aficionados.

Why carry the X100 if I already have an OMD?

I own a couple of Olympus micro 4/3 cameras (E-P2 and OMD) and a wide assortment of interchangeable lenses for the micro 4/3 system, so why would I own an X100?   I’ve been happy with my Olympus micro 4/3 cameras (especially the new OMD) so it might seem that the X100 is kind of redundant.   However, I’ve found that I shoot with the X100 about half the time, even though the OMD is in most ways a superior camera.  Why am I shooting with the X100 so often?  Well, first, I will address a few things that are NOT reasons that I often choose the X100 over the OMD:

1:  Image quality.  The image quality of the X100 is superb, but it really isn’t noticeably better in real life use than my OMD.  Both cameras provide for excellent image quality.

2.  High ISO image quality.  I’ve read a number of opinions that state that the X100’s high ISO image quality is superior to that of the OMD.  That may or may not be true, but I’ve found that the OMD’s ability to use fast, wide-aperture lenses, coupled with the OMD’s amazing in body image stabilization, offsets whatever sensor advantage the X100 may have with regards to high ISO/low light photography.  In fact, the OMD mounted with the Voightlander 25mm f:0.95 lens is vastly superior to the X100 in low light conditions.

3.  Size.  Both the OMD (with a 20mm pancake lens) and the X100 are about the same size.

4.  Viewfinder.  The optical viewfinder on the X100 is great, but the electronic viewfinder on the OMD is also great.  In real world use, they are pretty much equivalents.

So, why is it that I so often use the X100 instead of the OMD?  In a word, “simplicity.”  I like the simple controls on the X100.  The aperture ring in combination with the shutter speed dial and the exposure compensation dials combine into an an intuitive, elegant, and efficient set of exposure controls.  The optical viewfinder is plain and uncluttered.  The single, 35mm (equivalent) focal length lens is a good all-around lens, and not having to think about  changing lenses or zooming in or out is often a good thing, as I can just focus on the basics.  For many years, I used pocket rangefinder cameras with fixed prime lenses, so I’m used to composing with a fixed length lens, and “zooming with my feet” by moving closer or further away when the composition requires it.

City pictures with the X100

In short, the X100 has all of the essentials covered, with good exposure control and a good lens, and doesn’t clutter up my mind with extraneous stuff.  Compared with an interchangeable lens system, it’s a simple tool, but often, that’s all I want, especially when I don’t have anything particular in mind, and I’m just wandering around taking pictures of things that catch my attention.  The OMD, with its broad array of lenses and features, can be configured to address a specific photographic challenge better than the X100 (taking long-range photos of wildlife, for example.)  If I know exactly what I intend to be shooting, or the primary purpose of my activity is taking pictures, my inclination is to take the OMD with a few lenses that are tailored for the anticipated task.  However, If I just want to have a camera with me, to capture whatever I might encounter, the X100 usually gets the nod.   Lately, I’ve been trying to carry a camera with me most of the time, even if I’m not out specifically to take photos.  The X100 is my go to “carry camera”  in these situations.


The X100 is a good "walking around" camera

Quirks, tricks, likes, and dislikes for the X100:  

Some of the things I really like about the X100 are:  The optical viewfinder is great.  It’s bright, clear, and provides me with just the information I need for shooting.  The size of the X100 is just right.  It’s big enough to make ergonomics and handling easy, but small enough that it doesn’t get in the way.  It doesn’t really fit in a shirt pocket, but it’s easy to carry on it’s strap all day in comfort.  It’s pretty close to silent when taking photos.  I turned the artificial shutter noises off, and what’s left are some mostly inaudible soft clicks when operating the shutter.  This is great for times when you want to keep a low profile.  There have been times when I’ve been taking pictures with the camera held at waist level, and the shutter is so quiet, nobody really even noticed I was shooting.   The design of the body, besides being very retro-elegant, is less intimidating to the average person than a DSLR or a mirror-less system camera like the OMD.  The X100 doesn’t look like a “serious” professional camera, so it’s easier to keep shooting at times when pointing a DSLR with a big lens at your subject might be awkward.

Image quality with the X100 is exceptional, and I’ve found that I really like the way that the X100 renders colors, particularly when set to emulate Velvia simulation, which gives colorful images a bit more saturation and contrast.  Skin tones seem to be rendered in an especially pleasing manner.

X100 skin tones are typically very nicely rendered.

My biggest complaint with the X100 is the truly awful manual focus.  Much has been written about how unusable the X100 manual focus is, and I hate to say it, but all the negative comments are mostly true.  Manual focus on the X100 pretty much sucks.  First off, the manual focus ring is not particularly easy to turn, as it’s not very wide, and the aperture ring gets in the way.  Second, it takes too long to adjust the focus.  Turning the ring is a slow process and it takes forever to move the focus point from near to far or far to near.  Luckily, you can press the AEL button, which temporarily overrides manual focus and auto-focuses, allowing you to then use manual focus and twist the dial for fine focus adjustment.     I’ve decided that the only useful application for the manual focus mechanism on the X100 is zone focusing.  When in manual focus, the display gives you a decent read out of focus distance, along with a bar graph that shows depth of field.  If you know that you are going to be shooting subjects that are a fixed distance from the camera, then you could pre-set the manual focus to this zone, and the camera would be pre-focused at that range.   In actual practice, however, I never use manual focus.  The auto focus is reasonably fast and accurate, and provides much better real world results than trying to dink around with the complicated and user-unfriendly manual focus mechanism.  This is really too bad, as having a decent range-finder manual focus system on this camera would have been terrific.

Light metering on the X100 is pretty good, but doesn’t seem as “smart” as metering on my micro-4/3 bodies.  The X100 metering software seems to be fooled more often by odd back lighting or other uneven light patterns than my other cameras.  Metering on the X100 reminds me of the meter on my old Canon F1 film body in that it requires more careful monitoring and input from the shooter to adjust for odd lighting.  I’ve found that the X100 tends towards under exposure as well.  However, this typically isn’t too much of an issue, as the RAW files capture so much information that even a severely underexposed shot can be adjusted quite nicely in post processing simply by adding a bit more light to the shadowed areas.

The X100 Black Special Edition Package:

I bought this camera in the special edition black package.  In addition to the all black color of the camera, the special edition package comes with a Fuji camera case, camera strap, filter and hood adapter, filter, and hood.  When you factor in all the additional accessories, the price premium for the special edition doesn’t seem quite as high.  I really like the Fuji case.  It fits the camera very well, and doesn’t add much bulk at all.  It’s easy to uncover the camera to shoot, and the front cover snaps on and off easily for those times when you want to just shoot with a half case and don’t need the protection of the cover.  The case looks great and is made from black leather backed with soft red suede.  It has a high quality feel about it that is a perfect match for the X100 camera.   The Fuji strap was pretty nice and functional, but I ended up replacing it with a Gariz leather strap in black with red accents.  It works well and adds a little bit of bling to the camera.

The big disappointment was the adapter that is used to attach filters and the lens hood.  With the adapter and filter attached, the lens protruded enough that the Fuji case no longer fit well.  My preferred method of carrying the camera is to use a filter and not use a lens cap, so not being able to use the lens case with the filter attached made me rather unhappy.  Fortunately, I found a work around on one of the Fuji forums.  Instead of the Fuji filter adapter, I just bought a 49mm Cokin Extension ring, and attached the Fuji filter to the extension ring instead of the Fuji adapter.   This allowed me to still use the camera case with the filter attached to the camera.  The metal lens hood seems well made, but I seldom use it.  There’s a lot of internet chatter about the “serious” flare issues with the X100 lens.  I haven’t really noticed much flare with this camera.  I’ve had a few shots where flare was present, but I haven’t seen in much more than with other lenses I’ve used.  Maybe I just don’t shoot into the sun as much as other people do.

Dark interior, handheld shot, backlight. I don't think the flare is too bad.

Is the price premium for the black special edition worth it?  No, not really.  However, buying this camera was more of an emotional rather than a rational decision, and the aesthetics of the black camera helped me cross that emotional threshold and buy a camera I don’t really need, but really wanted anyway.

The Bottom Line:  

The X100 would not be my choice for an only camera.  The OMD with an assortment of lenses is a much more capable and flexible photographic tool than the X100.   However, as a supplement to my OMD based system, I really love my X100.  With its sleek, beautiful compact shape, its excellent image quality, and pleasing controls, the X100 makes a perfect “everyday” camera for everything from taking family pictures, to street photography, to shots of interesting architecture I see while walking around.  If I’m serious enough about a photographic opportunity that I’m carrying a camera bag, then I will take the OMD and several lenses.  However, for the frequent times when I want to go light and just take a single camera and no extra lenses, then the X100 is typically my first choice.  I wouldn’t say that it’s the best tool for capturing photographs, but the simplicity of the X100 makes it an excellent tool for capturing life as I experience it.

A view of the Salt Lake City Temple


Another (less traditional) view of the Salt Lake City Temple



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.


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.


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.