Cambodia Round-Up: Equipment Choices – A Critique

Introduction

Over the course of the month I spent in Cambodia, I gave a range of my equipment more use than I’ve been able to in a long while. The net result is over 1,650 photos were kept from the trip, with many more having been deleted as I went. While all three cameras I took saw a fair amount of use, the usage was not split evenly between them. This (fairly long) post will critique my equipment decisions, and see if they were as good as I had hoped when I embarked.

What Worked Well?

Olympus OM-D E-M5

The OM-D became my preferred camera the first day I was in Cambodia; it just works. The only reliability issue with the camera was the battery charger, which melted internally after being plugged into an unreliable power source. This proved the virtue of carrying the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 (also part of the Micro Four Thirds system) in addition to the OM-D, as I still had a use for all my lenses if the battery situation was unable to be solved. Fortunately, two chargers were able to be obtained, and they work well. If this had not been solved, however, the camera would have been a paperweight for the remainder of the trip, as it is maligned with poor battery life (relative to a DSLR) due to a lower battery capacity, energy-intensive image stabiliser and constant live view.

The OM-D saw the most use with the Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4 lens on the front. In 35 mm film terms, this is equivalent to 50 mm; the focal length I’m most comfortable with. Image quality was excellent, with good sharpness, contrast, and a character I find to be inimitable. The only let-down was severe purple fringing in high contrast areas, which I have not been able to remove with any degree of success. Balancing this out was the bright f/1.4 aperture, in concert with the scarily capable five-axis image stabiliser, which allowed low light photos to be handheld at shutter speeds that would generally be regarded as impossibly slow.

I used the Olympus 60 mm f/2.8 Macro less often than the Panasonic-Leica 25 mm, though it performed on a par with the 25 mm lens, and exhibited much better chromatic aberration control in high contrast areas (I have been able to correct for all of it). To be fair, it’s the same case using this lens in New Zealand; I tend to use wider angle lenses more often.

JJC JM-E Remote Release

My JJC JM-E remote release suffered from a flat battery, after I inadvertently left the transceiver switched on in my pack. Fortunately, the design of it means it may still be used with a dead battery, as the transceiver has a secondary (non-locking, sadly) shutter button, which can be used in lieu of the wireless remote to trigger the shutter. Thanks to this intelligent piece of design, it worked.

Olympus OM-2n

Olympus’ original OM-series film cameras are still held in high regard, and this trip reminded me why: I had to fall in love with it all over again. Light and precise controls, a large and bright viewfinder, compact and easily handled body, combined with excellent lenses to provide me with everything (and more) I could have wanted in a film camera. While I’ve been toying with the notion of upgrading my Olympus 28 mm f/3.5 and Olympus 50 mm f/1.8 to brighter versions (f/2.8 and f/1.4 respectively), I’m no longer inclined: they delivered well, and that’s all I ever ask of a lens. The Tokina 17 mm f/3.5 was only used twice, though it was nice to have that option there all the same.

The only issue encountered with the OM-2n was of my own making. Having been spoiled by image stabilisation for eight years, I tried (and failed) to handhold at shutter speeds below 1/60 second. This was a rare occurrence, though, and the photos in the main were not negatively affected.

In terms of film running through it, Kodak’s BW400CN and Ektar 100 proved to be sound decisions to have made. Photos shot with these films gained that certain look, which digital photography has yet to emulate. Transferring the photos from these films to the computer was no issue, either, as like most modern films, they have been optimised for scanning. The TIFF scans obtained in Cambodia were of a high resolution and quality (higher than some I’ve seen in New Zealand), at a very reasonable cost (US$5.00 for a 36-shot film to be processed and scanned to a USB drive).

Billingham Stowaway Pola (Khaki with Tan Leather Trim)

This bag heralded a few surprises: no back pain (odd for a couple of kilograms of waist pack), and quite waterproof (you don’t expect that with a top-mounted zip). Besides those welcome surprises, the bag fitted its role requirement well: access to the OM-2n and PEN Mini was a doddle, while simultaneously serving as a readily accessible pouch for films, cash and passport. As with all canvas bags, it became better over the course of the trip, as the canvas stretched (increasing capacity slightly) and softened up (improving comfort a lot).

My only gripe concerned my secondary belt, which was too loose. I would recommend sourcing a police duty belt with belt keepers to attach it to your wait. Alternatively, if security is less of a concern, use the included shoulder strap (an optional shoulder pad is advisable if you’re putting a large weight in it).

MacBook 13″ (a.k.a. “DonkeyBook”) and DeepCool N1 Cooling Pad

Only one issue occurred with this combo: the feet were ripped off the cooling pad when I put it in my pack. Other than that, the combination stayed at an acceptable operating temperature while editing, the screen was large enough for more detailed review of photos, and it proved to be a straightforward device to use for blogging. While obviously not a match for the latest MacBook Pro range, it performed admirably, especially given its age of seven and a half, and hardware that was never designed to handle RAW files.

To watermark photos for upload to the blog, I used DropWaterMark, which performed better than expected. Besides the occasional hardware-induced hangup, it was elementary to operate, and very consistent in the results it yielded.

The download cameras and backup files, I used a Silicon Power USB 2.0 card reader, and ADATA USB 2.0 ruggedised external hard drive. Excepting a rubber foot falling off the card reader, both were absolutely faultless.

What Didn’t Work Well?

Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1

I spent a lot of time deliberating on how this one went: it’s still a fun camera, and my joint favourite for having fun with, but I can’t overlook the fact that, objectively, it just doesn’t match up to the standards set by the OM-D.

Overall image quality, though great, especially in bright light, lagged behind the OM-D. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good camera, and the images it puts out are acceptable, but there’s a gaping chasm between the PEN Mini and the OM-D when you see the photos alongside one another. This is especially apparent in low light, where the older technology of the PEN Mini manifests itself most conspicuously in the form of very high noise levels and very poor dynamic range. There is a new model (the E-PM2) with similar internals to the OM-D, which would ameliorate these issue in one hit.

The Olympus 17 mm f/2.8 I had on the front of it is still a competent lens, though it pales in comparison to the other lenses I used on the trip. This is mostly a speed issue; having older focus motor technology, the 17 mm has a tendency to lag (often quite badly), or hunt for focus unnecessarily. I lost several shots due to this, and while I could have compensated, I don’t see why I should bother, when there are more tolerable alternatives available.

A lesson in adhesives and hot countries was encountered with the PEN Mini, too. The FlipBac G4 grip, which I rely upon to hold the camera comfortably, fell off. I’ve managed to re-attach it to the camera, but it is continually shifting. If it doesn’t fix itself in cooler weather, it will have to be re-glued. It’s frustrating, but potentially liveable.

Lowepro CompuTrekker AW

Back and chest pain is the last thing you want a backpack causing. Sadly, though, that’s exactly what happened with my Lowepro pack. It’s not so much an issue with the pack per se, but more a compatibility issue between my frame and the backpack. Due to the relative size of the pack to my torso, the straps cut into my chest, and placed the bulk of the pack’s weight on my lower back. Past experience has shown that adjusting the straps does not correct this issue.

Fortunately, being in a country where you can buy anything imaginable, I was able to replace the backpack over there. The GodSpeed Canvas Backpack I purchased has better provision for clothing and other items (handy for extended walks or hikes), as well as a better designed and more thickly padded camera compartment. The straps, though, are the real boon: they are large, spread the load very evenly, and don’t compress my rib cage. I’m looking forward to putting this new pack into use.

Olympus Viewer 3

Camera manufacturers are often maligned for their bundled editing software. Olympus Viewer 3 is worthy of malignant regard: it’s slow, often unresponsive, and has few adjustments, other than those found in the camera itself. While updates do come though on a regular basis and improve certain aspects of the use interface, it has remained miles behind more widely used software, such as Apple’s Aperture or Adobe’s Lightroom.

What Wasn’t Used Much?

Filters

Honestly, I didn’t have room to pack these when I was living out of my backpack for two weeks on the road. Besides that, things weren’t as bright as I remembered (rendering the neutral density filters somewhat unnecessary), and filters do take a bit of time to manipulate (by which time the scene may have changed against your will). The only time I would have had a use for them was on the top of Preah Vihear, where the circular polariser would have cut through the haze and yielded much clearer photos.

Metz 54 MZ-3

It was generally easier, I found, to key in exposure compensation for backlit subjects rather than use fill-in flash, and adjust in post-processing as required. The couple of times it was used, the results were a little brash compared with natural light; this didn’t meet my aesthetic goals for the photos on the trip. For those reasons, and the space it occupied in the pack, it was not kept on me while I travelled.

Benro Travel Angel Tripod

Small as it is, it wound up being difficult to carry the tripod around. The other detractive feature was how long it took to set up. Ultimately, it only saw use on one night in Koh Kong, when I had a few hours of spare time.

Lessons Learned

My choices worked well for the most part. However, from various failings of equipment to perform, or things that weren’t used much at all, I have learnt a few things for the next time I take a trip anywhere.

At this stage, I will say the fixed focal length lenses worked. However, due to the image quality dichotomy between the PEN Mini and the OM-D, I’m inclined to rely on the OM-D with higher quality zoom lenses, and let the PEN Mini be my backup body or something smaller to carry when I don’t need outright quality or can’t carry anything larger. Looking at the focal lengths I used, the new Olympus 12-40 mm f/2.8 would meet my role requirements. There was a chasm in my kit, though, and that was at the telephoto end of the spectrum. While the Olympus 60 mm is a fantastic lens, it was never quite long enough, and this posed issues when trying to photograph timid butterflies and dragonflies. I am contemplating adding the Olympus 75-300 f/4.8-6.7 to my arsenal, as this provides a good range in a hand holdable form factor.

The backpack issue already appears to have been resolved, though time will tell if the GodSpeed really usurps the Lowepro as my choice of pack.

Software won’t be a problem in a few months time, as DonkeyBook will be retired in favour of a new MacBook Pro, which will be capable of running Aperture 3 alongside my iMac. The new computer will also work out to be much lighter, making it more suited for travel.

The equipment that wasn’t used much is, sadly, a necessary evil to carry in future. While it may still see limited use in future, it’s important to have options for light control and long exposures available. Since I now have a backpack with space for personal effects, it should be easier to find room for the flash gun and filters. The Travel Angel will most likely be replaced by my heftier tripod, which doesn’t occupy much more space than the Travel Angel when it is configured to be strapped to a backpack.

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