25 07 2012

I went to a rural hostel near Cotopaxi, a 5897m / 19,347ft volcano a couple hours from Quito.  Stayed a few nights to enjoy the scenery, calm and quiet, wonderful stars, and thin air for acclimation (the hostel is at 3500m / 11,500ft).  Shot some lovely photos of the Milky Way bright as the moon, illuminating the whole area.

I spent a couple days before that in Banos, also a couple hours from Quito, but lower elevation on the way down to the Amazon Oriente section of Ecuador.  Unfortunately it rained the whole time, so I didn’t take full advantage of all the activities there.  But they do offer canyoneering (they call it canyoning here), which turns out it about the same in the rain and in the dry.  Plus several days of rain meant high flow in the Rio Blanco, and extra sporty rappels.  This was great fun, really wet, probably a 4C-II in the ACA scheme.  I was impressed by the guides and their quick, fluid ropework skills.  They sort of led on that everyone would be on a top belay as well as rappel, but in the end everyone in our group was confident enough to need only a bottom belay.  Anyone with the chance to try this – don’t miss it.

More photos, as usual, here.


16 07 2012

I don’t want to nerd out too much about my photo gear. I could go on and on about weight, ergonomics, the choose-two tragedy of camera bags, and so on. I’m going to keep this short and not dwell on the past, rather just talk about what I’m using and what I like and dislike. For this trip I brought a Micro Four-Thirds system. Olympus E-M5, Panasonic 7-14mm/4 ultrawide zoom, Panasonic 25mm/1.4, Olympus 45mm/1.8, and a big hunk of telephoto glass (Olympus 4/3 50-200mm f2.8-3.5, plus 1.4x teleconverter. Not a walkaround lens, but its two pounds yields 560mm f4.9 in 35mm-eq, which is amazing and should be real fun in the Galapagos)

First, the lenses. The Panasonic 25mm is an out-of-the park homerun. There is simply nothing to complain about. Great color, contrast, sharpness, outstanding deep and sturdy lens hood (included), lightweight, fast, reasonably compact. I think I could get along fine with just this lens, nothing more. The bokeh is notably good, and there’s a lot more of it than the 20mm/1.7 that’s the other choice for this type of lens.

The Panasonic 7-14 by comparison is merely outstanding. Sharpness is excellent, it peaks at f5.6 (whereas my usual Canon 16-35/2.8II wants f11 for good quality across the field), it’s very compact, great color and contrast matching the 25mm. I’d rather have f2.8 of course, but given the size such a lens would be, I think I’d still go for this one. In strong contre-jour lighting there are some purple splotches. I have to keep reminding myself than ten years ago, strong contre-jour light in an ultra-wide zoom would yield unusable levels of ghosting, flare, and veil. Now we get good contrast, no veiling flare at all, and indistinct purple spots that can be fixed in post. We are spoiled rotten by modern optics and lens coatings.

The Olympus 45mm is pretty flawless, though I haven’t really thrashed it yet as I’ve been shooting a lot of architecture (7-14 at ultra-wide settings) and street (14mm and 25mm). So far, it’s what you expect – a fine moderate portrait lens, sharp, beautiful, off-the-charts bang for the buck, and delightfully tiny. It doesn’t come with a hood, though there’s an expensive Olympus accessory. I got a $10 metal screw-in hood on ebay, which I love mainly because the hood itself takes the same lenscap as the Panasonic 25. Little details like that really make a difference when you’re shooting all day every day.

The 50-200 is a beast on this setup, though about the same size and weight as the Canon 70-200/4IS that I love as a lightweight travel tele. It’s just very easy to get used to the miniature dimensions of the rest of the m4/3 kit. Sharp, great color, but very slow and inconsistent focus from this converted Four-Thirds lens (i.e. not native Micro Four-Thirds). I’m getting best results with focus areas of very sharp contrast, and sometimes manual touch-up. But until someone makes a true pro-level tele zoom for m4/3, this is the only truly sharp long lens available (and there’s a 1.4x converter available). In the meantime, someone just released ANOTHER cheap ($200?) crappy disposable slow tele zoom for m4/3, which I think brings the total to nine. Anyhoo, I’m not carrying this lens on walkabout, just for wildlife and special occasions.

Now the meat of it – the E-M5. This thing is a street photographer’s dream. Small, unobtrusive, all black (I taped over the logos as usual), deeper depth of field at reasonable apertures (but still short DOF available when you need it). The tilting LCD is a gift from the gods; I’m shooting 95% from waist level. Focus is effectively instantaneous. Completely usable all the way to ISO 6400 in RAW. The electronic eye-level viewfinder is a godsend in certain situations (manual focus, awful glare conditions etc) but I rarely need it. Built-in image stabilization that works with all lenses and is as effective (or better!) than the best in-lens IS I’ve used. Throw out your tripods, people. You hardly need them with this thing, and when you do, you can make do with a 2-ounce $5 bendy-leg toy. I am in love.
My only complaints are niggles. The thing is wonderfully configurable, but to do so requires careful study, some experimentation, and a lot of patience. A lot of the options are very unclear, and I fear many people will just leave it as-is and complain about the inpenetrable menus. Waist-level shooting requires pressing the shutter with the right thumb, which takes a little getting used to (I don’t plan to bother with the accessory grip, I’m happy as is). The rear LCD is covered in useless crap icons when it turns on, which can’t be switched off. Thankfully they all go away after a few seconds and aren’t really in the way, but it feels very low-tech. The upper shutter limit is 1/4000th, which combined with the minimum ISO 200, means it can be hard to use your fast lenses wide open in daylight without filters. I haven’t even established for sure if the camera will safety-shift (close down the aperture further than selected, to keep from overexposing) like Canons. Which brings me to my most important point:
LATITUDE. Shooting in RAW at lowish ISOs, my god there is no limit to how deep you can dig detail of the shadows; highlights only a little less so. I don’t know what the hardcore instrumented tests (DXOMark etc) will say, but I swear to you this thing puts my 5DIIs to SHAME. I have never had such natural, detailed, realistic clouds, and it seems impossible to clip detail in the shadows. I am shooting stained glass windows in cathedrals (lit by full equatorial summer sun), and I can pull natural-looking detail out of the full-shade interiors with shockingly low noise. You can very easily go too far and pull some hideously unnatural HDR-looking bullcrap out of these files if you wanted to. The file quality just blows away my Canons for ease of editing. And there’s something about Olympus color. I can’t quantify it, but I’ve never had such real looking blue skies before, and everything else just has a pop and energy to it.

Now, if only the dive housing weren’t $1300… Galapagos is calling my name.

More photos

16 07 2012

WordPress kinda blows… It’s harder than it should be to publish a post with inline photos.  Currently I’m just pasting in links, hitting publish, then when I go back to edit it, there’s a way to edit in HTML directly, or change the existing non-HTML link text to HTML.  Why isn’t this simple?

Anyway this batch of photos brings me up to date, enjoy.  Got another post on camera gear coming for my nerd friends.

I’m back!

15 07 2012

I’ve let this blog sit idle for way too long.  I’m travelling again, this time in Ecuador and, later, Colombia.  At the moment I’m in Quito, the ancient capital city.  Planning to start Spanish lessons with a private tutor tomorrow!  I’m really looking forward to being able to communicate better.  Tons of photos here:

New photos will go in the same gallery, and I’ll post a link here that starts with the newest batch.

So about Ecuador.  It can be rather expensive in Quito – nearly US prices in the tourist/business professional neighborhood called La Mariscal.  I started out there, and fell in love with the really vibrant street art and murals in the area:

However the drinking/party culture there (both Ecuadorians and gringos) isn’t really my style, so now I’m in a hostel in Old Town.  And when I say old, I mean really old.  Many buildings and plazas date to the 1500s (though often rebuilt/renovated after earthquakes).  Lots more photos of this area coming (upload is extremely slow here).

There is a nervous vibe here about crime against foreigners.  Everyone I’ve met has a story around a robbery that happened to them or someone they met.  My current hostel has armed security 24/7.  Police and army are EVERYWHERE in Old Town, and any place important elsewhere (banks, hotels, nicer restaurants, even parking lots) has armed private security, usually wearing bulletproof vests.  Quito really has a lot going for it, particularly the UNESCO-protected Old Town, ESPECIALLY on Sunday when it seems that every local family is out strolling, watching bands play, eating ice cream, hanging out in the plazas.  But that edge of being on guard all the time will get old soon.