Photography & Cameras
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Kids @ The Minton Pool
One thing about living on an island is that as since we’re completely surrounded by water, it’s practically a life-skill requirement for all of us island-dwellers to learn how to swim! We often brought Hannah as a young girl to our old condo pool, and took a lot of pictures on the now six year old setup: a cheap Canon IXUS HS115 protected with its dedicated underwater casing. This little camera over the years has survived loads of water dunking, beach sand etc. without ever breaking a sweat figuratively, and the little Canon compact camera always emerged unscathed and continued to work perfectly.
If there are limitations to the HS115 with underwater setup:
It shot full HD videos at a fairly pedestrian 24 fps rate that’s closer to film than home video.
It didn’t shoot in RAW – and color sensing was very occasionally off, given the significance presence of blue colors in a typical pool or underwater image.
The camera slightly heated up after extended use – which in itself doesn’t hurt the camera in any way, but it inadvertently caused condensation to build in the air cavity in front of the glass lens elements and housing’s lens protrusion.
Water droplets occasionally retaining on the lens protrusion: resulting in ugly blobs on pictures taken.
With our trip to Phuket coming up shortly, I’ve been looking into replacing this setup for pool and underwater pictures. Despite that dedicated underwater housings – what I’ve been using – are supposedly more reliable than underwater compacts, they are also by their very nature bulky, and also are a hefty additional expense – the HS115’s housing being a rare exception as I bought at a very low price. I did find a fairly cheap third party manufacturer of housings, so kept that in view for the GX7 Mark II.
So – looking at underwater compacts then. Most of the large camera manufacturers – Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Fujifilm – carry their own compact underwater cameras, with many costing at least SGD300 and more. But with the exception of a couple of the higher-tier (i.e. expensive) models, the cameras routinely do not support RAW. More worryingly though was that no matter how highly rated and well-reviewed each model was, there would be a few reviewers @ Amazon who’d comment on water seeping into their units – sometimes eventually, at other times shortly after purchase – typically rendering the camera useless thereafter. And manufacturers apparently do not honor repair warranties for damage from water for their underwater cameras. The irony!
The solution I eventually went with was different: the Samsung Galaxy S8+ is water-resistant (note – not waterproof though!), so why not just couple the phone with a dedicated waterproof case? And the S8+ would offer RAW support, touch-AF and controls, 4K video at 30fps – all the nice trimmings of a full-featured compact camera. And the housing isn’t technically sophisticated since there are far fewer dials or buttons on the S8+. The case just needs to be solidly waterproof. And to begin with, even with some water got in, the S8+ is water-resistant!
After a lot of exploration around competing cases, I found a S8+ case that was well-reviewed @ Amazon, and made by what sounds like an Asian – likely Chinese – company called UBeesize. The small number of negative feedback mentioned its bulkiness – but still way smaller than a dedicated camera housing – and issues of sound echoing when the phone is used, a non-issue as I do not intend to use the phone in the pool. And the case costs just USD22 – so it’s it doesn’t burn the pocket. But being the kiasu person I am, I ordered also an Amazon Basics generic waterproof case.
Both items have arrived, and after the usual extended water test using absorbent material, the UBeesize got taken out for a spin at the pool over the weekend – and the results were wonderful! The case kept the S8+ fully dry, and I had no difficulties triggering pictures and videos (note: touchscreens do not work underwater, so the phone needs to be configured to snap pictures using one of the physical buttons). And the images and videos coming out of the S8+ were pleasing too, though all were taken at fixed focal length.
And a quick video. The source is 4K 30fps, with YouTube’s usual video compression algorithm applied too. But the short 14 second clip shows pretty decent results.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 3
Just over a week with the new G7X Mark II, and more comments:
This is my first ‘serious’ Canon camera, albeit a compact one and not counting the six year old Ixus HS115 that I use exclusively for underwater pictures. And the debuting Digic 7 processor certainly renders pictures out of the box quite differently than the m4/3 cameras. In fact, having used Olympus and Panasonic m4/3s for almost half a dozen years now and before that Nikon DSLRs, I think I still prefer the colors out of Olympus cameras than other systems.
The camera certainly is portable. Not as petite as the G9Xs, but it’s small enough now for me to seriously find one of those uncle-styled waist belt pouches to drop it into!
Like the OMDs E-M5 and E-M1, the camera starts up very quickly. Powering on the unit automatically extends the lens, and in the time it takes for you to bring the camera up to framing position, the G7X is all ready for shots.
The 24-100mm lens focal length is at a great range: easily wide enough for selfies/wefies, capable of decent magnification when zoomed all the way-in.
Focusing is responsive and fast enough, though there seems to be some softness when I take pictures wide-open at f1.8. Detail resolution also isn’t quite what you’d get on an interchangeable lens system, and I typically have to do a bit more sharpening in post than I normally need to using say one of the m4/3 primes on either of my OMDs.
Pictures and comments!
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 2
Usability and handling notes!
As with all digital cameras in general, these imaging devices tend to do better when taking pictures in good light – and the smaller the sensor is, the most pronounced will be the issues of noise in low light photography. So, I’ve not been under any illusions that the new G7X Mark II would be a low light photography wonder.
The G7X starts up quickly, and is ready for pictures about a second after starting-up. There’s the familiar ‘chime’ song played at start-up, but it’s something you can easily disable in Settings – and likewise also the Canon startup logo too.
The camera is jam-packed with features. There are two different auto settings, scenes modes, bracketing, time-lapse, a somewhat configurable shooting info display, Face ID, different C-AF modes, ND filter, ability to set an upper ISO limit and adjust rate of change when in ISO Auto. While the G7X doesn’t support 4K, I appreciate that the camera out of the box supports both NTSC and PAL video systems. Some of the cameras from other manufacturers – including my Panasonic GX85 and also likely the Sony RX100s too – only support PAL for the local models, which in turn fixes video shot to 25fps, or 50fps if the camera happens to support it. I prefer my videos to be in 30fps – so there.
AF is quick though not what I’d call instantaneous. There’s some AF hunting in low-light, more so if I turn off AF-Assist (which I always do). Still, nothing quite as bad as the X70 though whose AF sometimes went forwards, backwards, forwards etc. as if it had a mind of its own LOL.
Muting the camera will not get you totally silent shooting. Triggering the shutter release will still produce a soft and pleasant ‘click’ sound.
The mode and exposure compensation dials are stiff and offer good resistance. One huge problem I keep having on the E-PL6 has been how easily the command mode dial turns – often just by putting or lifting the camera in and out of my messenger bag. Too often, I’ll pull the E-PL6 out of my bag to take a quick shot – only to see that the picture is significantly over/under-exposed because the mode dial has been turned to ‘S(hutter)-Priority’ instead of ‘A(perture)-Priority’ that I normally shoot in. The G7X’s buttons also offer adequate resistance, don’t feel mushy, and put out a muffled ‘click’ sound when depressed.
In several very nice usability touches too, the camera includes a Step/Continuous selector that lets you decide whether you want the control ring to turn smoothly, or with graduated ‘clicks’ to provide a more tactile experience. The ring turns smoothly silently on the RX100s – which of course is important when I’m taking videos: you wouldn’t want clicking sounds to be recorded! However, the clicking feedback is very useful when I’m taking stills. Canon offers both – just amazing. Finally, the G7X has a rubberized handgrip – missing on the RX100s.
I’ve come to realize how convenient is it for my cameras to support in-camera charging, as it really lightens the amount of clutter we have to haul on vacations. Charging using the micro USB port on the G7X is a little fiddly. Not in that the micro USB port is loose or anything like that, but the port seems just a mite larger than a typical micro USB connector. Not a deal breaker, but it’s a little annoying to have to jiggle the connector until the camera detects the appropriate connection for charging to begin.
In case the connector fails at some point, Canon includes a separate AC battery charger – something that the RX100s do not. Cheapskake Sony and hooray for Canon!
Next post on pictures!
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 1
I’ve always found taking pictures with the smartphone fiddly. They’re pocketable yes – but the lack of a handholding grip makes holding the phone to take any sort of a picture a routinely nervous experience. So, over the last half-dozen years or so, I’ve had a few dalliances with small non-interchangeable lens compact cameras – including the Panasonics LX7 and LX100, and the Fujifilm X70. The use cases for these acquisitions were quite specific: a berms-pocket-friendly camera when my messenger bag isn’t with me, and for family wefies. Of the three, two have been sold away: the LX100 had great specs and handled well – but wasn’t particularly compact, and there was an obvious image softness and also color rendering that I couldn’t get past. And the LX100 couldn’t be used for wefies for its lack of a flip-up or articulating screen. The X70 was compact, but perhaps because of the larger APS-C sensor and the shallow depth of field, it was routinely hard to get all four of us in sharp focus, unless the lens was stopped down significantly.
Many industry observers have reported on the gradual demise of the small sensor compact camera segment, in large part because the imaging you get from it is now matched – and in specific aspects even surpassed – by the current generation smartphones.
There is one holdout segment though: and it’s the one inch sensor compacts. I’ve long kept a close eye on developments and models here, and been tempted to get one for years now. Sony especially has been particularly aggressive with its RX cameras, with the almost yearly iteration of its very popular RX100 series of 1″ compacts. And Panasonic has also just got onto the bandwagon too last year with its aggressively priced LX10. In the last several years though, there was always one issue or another about these models that made me hesitant about picking one up. Whether it’s the asking price – the relatively new Sony RX100 Mark V comes with an eye-watering SGD1399 RRP price tag – or a specification that disappoints, e.g. battery life, AF or optics.
Our upcoming Phuket trip though made me quicken any purchase decision I might be making: on account that unlike our Western Australia trip in June this year, I didn’t think I’d want to prop my E-M1 on a tripod in a busy street just for a picture of the four of us. Moreover, it’d be icing on the cake if I could find something which had an equivalent underwater casing that won’t cost a bomb. Y’know, if we’re kayaking in Phang Nga bay and a rogue wave hits us haha.
As it is now, the leading 1″ sensor compact models are the Sony RX100 Marks III to V – which other manufacturer still puts on shelves three iterations of their current line LOL – the Canon G9X and G7X Marks II, and the Panasonic LX10. Of these six models, the G9X is the smallest sized and very attractively priced at about SGD600. But the lack of a flip-up screen meant it was knocked right out of consideration. The RX100s also have a small electronic viewfinder, but do not support touchscreen AF. So, after a lot of price comparisons and hunting around – including from pre-loved resales – the summary of it was:
The almost 3.5 year old RX100 Mark III model is the equivalent of the G7X Mark II and LX10, price-wise.
I found a camera store that was selling the RX100 Mark V with significant discounts: at just SGD1,145. This model is top of the line in almost every single regard – imaging, AF, burst mode, 4K stabilization etc. – but the electronic wizardry takes its toll on its already small battery. This RX100 will run out of juice faster than all its predecessors.
The LX10 is about SGD820 and almost the equivalent of the Mark V. But there were a few odd videos I saw on YouTube that showed the camera having issues video focusing. Also, there were no affordable underwater casings for it.
The G7X Mark II was released about 1.5 years ago and Canon is expected to issue an update to it sometime early next year – maybe. The camera is very slightly larger than the diminutive RX100s, and has a cheap third party underwater casing for it. Its’ AF, imaging and optics are pretty good – if not quite where the RX100 is.
And when it finally came down to it, I went for the G7X Mark II over the weekend – largely on account of the price I got it for: SGD699 or USD513 – significantly lower than Singapore’s recommended retail price of SGD799 and even Amazon’s listed price of USD679. Of the three contending models, the G7X was the cheapest. And to think of it: a year and a half ago I was about to buy the G7X Mark I already – but changed my mind to X70 at the last minute. So, this is like coming back full-circle.
More notes on the usability next!
Zhiyun Smooth Q Smartphone Gimbal – Part 1
Many imaging devices of both the still type (e.g. cameras, smartphones) and video (e.g. camcorders, smartphones too LOL) like to claim that they are stabilized, and feature mechanisms and technologies to reduce if not eliminate what’s commonly known as ‘camera shake’. Olympus of course has the very nifty five-axis optical stabilization technology that the company has continue to improve over its micro four-thirds cameras. For instance, their current top of the line model – the E-M1 Mark II – is able to fairly easily obtain sharp five-second exposures. And this fellow here was even able to hit 20 seconds!
Reducing shake seems also quite different between both types of imaging devices, and I reckon it’s harder when it comes to recording video than still images. The old Panasonic TM700 I’ve owned for almost 7.5 years now – and still working perfectly albeit that it’s covered now with all manner of dings and scratches – has superb optical stabilization for video. But it doesn’t do 4K resolution. All the videos we took in our last vacation were in 4K, and the Huawei Mate 9 was clearly struggling to stabilize the video footage. I reckon trying to reduce shake on crazy high-resolution videos require lots of sophisticated machinery that simply won’t fit into a smartphone form factor.
So and looking around. Apparently, there are fairly straight-forward gadgets that work on more or less the same premise and lets one capture stable videos on smartphones: you mount your smartphone on a three-axis electronic gimbal that tries to sense and buffer your most extreme wrist movements. The solutions have come from quite a few manufacturers – including crowdfunded projects – and typically cost several hundreds of dollars. The most expensive, and maybe also the one which is most effective in its job, is the DJI OSMO – and it costs a whopping SGD430. That’s a crazy amount of money to spend on a handphone accessory. Albeit a very useful one, but no way I’m going to pay for that kind of money.
Most other gimbals cost SGD250 and more too, but I found one from a Chinese manufacturer which costs substantially less – the Zhiyun Smooth-Q, and I picked it up for SGD178. The manufacturer also makes a number of other gimbals, and the general consensus among reviewers in my pre-decision fact-finding is that:
It’s crazy cheap.
It’s reasonably well-built for the cheap price, but slightly lacking the premium build in some of the very pricey devices.
It offers nearly all the features – e.g. object tracking, silent operation – you want in top-line devices, and even more impressive considering its very low asking price.
Some of the user documentation and interfaces might be in Chinese, but it can be forgiven because of it’s dirt-cheap price.
Have I already said that it’s crazy cheap?!
So, a few hours of watching YouTube reviews later, I picked one up from Lazada SG – and it was delivered in two working days after placing the order. A comment about this particular e-commerce company too: I’ve made a number of orders from this site for more than a year now, and am quite impressed with its reliability and speed of delivery.
To be continued in a next post!
Western Australia – Equipment Comments
Just a few more posts in our WA series – honest! And this one is for tech junkies – comments on how various gadgets and toys fared during the trip!
The Olympus E-M1 continued to perform admirably on it’s third major overseas outing. Oddly though, the camera occasionally required a few seconds to power-up from a cold-start. Might be something to do with the age of the battery – one of the two BLN-1 battery is about 5 years old now, and its internal circuity might be starting to fail.
The Panasonic GX85 did amazing well in its first major overseas trip! The GX85 was mostly coupled with the 40-150mm f2.8 with 1.4x converter throughout the trip, and I was able to get pretty good picture retention rates, with the C-AF modes able to track moving subjects. There was some minor annoyances though: the camera seems to have its own mind sometimes by selecting its own aperture against what I really want to shoot at. Specifically, I can set aperture on the Olympus m4/3 bodies set on Aperture-Priority and don’t ever worry about it again. But the GX85 will sometimes change f-stop on its own even on Aperture-Priority. I’ll have to read up a bit more about how Panasonic m4/3 bodies treat A modes.
Two batteries accompanied each of the bodies, and on most days, the one battery apiece for the E-M1 and GX85 was able to last for an entire day of shooting on most days. That is, excepting the really heavy days during the day tours, though the batteries were also routinely nearly drained by the day’s end. Sill, the weather in WA wasn’t cold enough at usually between 18 to 7 degree Cs for either the E-M1 and GX85’s batteries to discharge faster.
The number of exposures I triggered on the E-M1 and GX85 was about 3,250 and 2,251 respectively, about 227 using the Samsung 360, and another hundred or so using Huawei Mate 9 – a total of about 5,828 pictures. And of that, I processed and finally kept about 3,331 of them – a keeper percentage of about 57%. This WA trip goes well past the 5,013 exposures I took for the 23 day New England trip in 2010 (still the most memorable trip ever!) but I kept 4,327 of them then – or a much higher 86% retention. A huge number of shots for this WA trip were on burst mode – particularly the animal feedings – while the ones in New England were of a lot of scenery, which don’t require shooting on drive modes.
Three lenses came along for the trip: the 12-40mm f2.8, the 40-150mm f2.8 with 1.4x teleconverter, and the 17mm f1.8. The approximate picture distribution was 65% 12-40mm, 34% 40-150mm, 1% 17mm. Yep – just a small handful of pictures taken using the prime!
I was really happy with the videos taken on the Huawei Mate 9, despite the initial trepidation before the trip. Between that and Ling’s Samsung Note 5, we took about 79 videos, most about a 1 to 3 minutes long each. The 4K videos coming out of the Huawei Mate 9 did take a bit of processing though as the Dell XPS 13 wasn’t able to handle the 4K videos well. A comparison between the 2K videos taking in Melbourne using the Samsung Note 5 against the 2K downsized from 4K videos on the Huawei Mate 9 showed that despite the lower frame/s – the Note 5 can shoot at 60fps – there was simply a lot more visible resolution and detail for videos taken using the Mate 9, and less obvious jello-effect too when panning the phone around.
Sirui T-024X CF tripod/C-10S Ballhead: were instrumental in enabling some of our family photos and doubled-up also as the tripod for the Samsung Gear 360. It was light enough also for our 8 year old daughter to help carry around. Call me a traditionalist – but I simply don’t think smartphones take very good wefies!
Samsung Gear 360 (2017): already posted separately on this. The pictures were so-so, videos disappointing – but I got perspectives that traditional cameras simply cannot obtain, and the camera was purchased on the cheap.
But the most valuable item that accompanied us this trip was:
Hank – our guide at Margaret River – was quite interested in this camera bag too. Despite it being more than 4 years old now, it still looks as good as it did on the first day. Dirt simply rolls off it!
Samsung Gear 360 (2017) – More Notes
We took just a small number of 360 videos and photos using the Samsung Gear 360 (2017) I acquired just a few days before starting on our trip. The Billingham Hadley Pro bag at any one time contained the iPad Air 2, the Xiaomi 15,000mAh powerbank, the E-M1, GX85, three lenses (17mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm + 1.4x converter), straps, the circular polarizer filter, spare batteries, and this 360 camera. Between the two cameras, the Huawei Mate 9 which did the lion’s share of work for videos, I just didn’t have enough hands anymore to also fish out the Gear 360 as much as I wanted!
Still; my comments on the Gear 360 2017 edition after the 11 day trip to Western Australia:
The gear’s very smooth plastic surface makes the device a tad slippery to hold. While it doesn’t give the sense that you’re holding a bar of soap – like what the most recent Samsung Galaxy phones can feel like – I still found myself having to very consciously hold the device lest it slipped out out of hands and kiss hard concrete on the floor.
The battery easily offers enough juice for a day of shooting. Charging using the USB-C port didn’t take long either (about an hour at most each time for a fully flat battery?)
Processing stills and video using ActionDirector, the Samsung-supplied software, is pretty easy, and without needing a Samsung Galaxy phone either. You connect the 360 camera into the PC, transfer files to say a desktop folder, then drop that entire folder into ActionDirector. The software program immediately starts processing them in the background and will save them into a working directory that you can easily take out from later.
Stills-wise, the camera does reasonably well in strong daylight. But as the sun goes down, so does the quality of images – significantly.
Video fares don’t look as good after processing in ActionDirector, and YouTube further compresses them until they look like a pixelated mess.
There are obvious imperfections in the stitching – particularly for video, somewhat less so for stills.
Limitations of the current consumer-level technology aside, I still have a long way to go technique-wise too. Specifically:
This thing desperately needs its own good and dedicated tripod. It was too much of a hassle to bring out even the Sirui tripod that’s designed for traditional cameras, so a number of videos included my fingers and thumbs. It’s also very hard to keep the camera level when holding it high above your head!
Once the camera starts recording, keeping at least one meter away from the camera is a very good idea.
As with spherical lenses, objects look a lot further than they really are. I incorrectly judged the positioning of the camera in several video recordings.
In summary, consumer-level 360 cameras are still a long way off from what the really expensive 360 cameras are able produce. But that said, they do provide very unique perspectives that traditional camcorders and digital cameras are unable to record. Compared to the other consumer-level 360 cameras that cost between $500 to $900, we got the Samsung Gear 360 (2017) comparatively cheaply at just SGD284. I recommend that if you must get a 360 camera to record these types of stills and videos to get this model. Don’t spend more than that, and recognize the limitations of what the devices at this stage can produce.
Western Australia – Day 11 – Scitech and Returning Home
Our next visitation place was Scitech Perth, the interactive science museum that was a short 10 minute drive away from The Perth Mint. The entire floor is choked full of exhibits for children to try on, and each area is separated by theme. There are also special exhibit areas, including a thrilling puppet theater show that the enthralled the kids. We missed the 2PM Planetarium show though and didn’t have the time to wait in the area for the next show.
The mall that Scitech is situated in – City West – doesn’t have much though, apart from a large Harvey Norman and also small kitchen appliance store. There’s a small cafeteria in the mall that sells overpriced pastries and beverages, but we didn’t have much options.
The last stop for the day before heading back to the airport for our departing flight was a visit to my Ph.D supervisor from 15 years ago; Professor-Emeritus Heinz Dreher. He looks tough and lean now, while I look fat! We spent hours catching up.
Last couple of posts to come in the next few days on some post-trip reflections!
Western Australia – Day 11 – The Perth Mint
Day 11 and our last day in Perth. Our flight was late in the night – the nice benefit of choosing Jetstar as our carrier again – which meant we had a full-day to explore a few more sights before we head to the airport for our return home to Singapore. We’ve already done Perth parks yesterday, so it was museum day after all today.
The Perth Mint is rated as the current fourth top Tripadvisor attraction in Perth. Pretty uncommon for a museum to be rated among the top most attractions in any city, and many of the reviews off the review site note now that the gold pouring demonstration is really special. So, a quick discussion after Day 11 breakfast, and we decided our plan would be to check out the Mint, then Scitech, and then finish off the day with the visit to my Ph.D supervisor from 15 years ago.
To summarize: if you’re going to visit the Mint, the about 45 minute guided tour is a must – not just for the gold pouring demo, but also that the commentary on the gold rush of the 19th century, how the Mint start and what it does today is informative and very well-presented. The family admission price was AUD48, and the tours begin every hour, partially on account that it takes about 25 minutes for the gold bar to be re-melted and to be ready for the next tour.
Western Australia – Day 10 – Elizabeth Quay and Matilda Bay Reserve
Next stop was a short 10 minute drive to Elizabeth Quay, though parking was painfully expensive (AUD12.60 for 3 hrs – ouch!). The area is a mixed-use development project, and you could easily spend hours exploring not just the Spanda side but also its entire circumference. Lunch was at Isle of the Voyage, which wipe up really yummy Beer Battered Fish & Chips There’s also a children’s playground beside this restaurant.
Tummies filled, we made our way next to Matilda Bay Reserve, a thin strip of grass land that has cafes, BBQ pits, and places to just chill while having a view of the many boats that are anchored in Matilda Bay.