Friday, July 14, 2017

Fancier Large Camera Backpack Review

When you think of camera bags, you think of names like Lowepro, Tamrac and Crumpler. What about the brand ‘Fancier’? No, not so much….

Fancier is a Chinese camera accessories manufacturer who specialise in bags. Not surprisingly, given the Chinese penchant for ‘imitation’ (shall we say) most of their bags have more than a passing resemblance to other, more famous, manufacturers’ offerings. And of course, they also tend to be cheaper than the more ‘name brand’ camera bags. We like less expensive – right?

Well yes, we do like less expensive – but only up to a certain point. If the bag is cheap, but rubbish, then it’s certainly worth paying a bit (ok, sometimes a lot) extra for ‘quality’. Are the Fancier camera bags worth taking a serious look at – or are they disappointing rubbish?

I’ve been looking for a decent sized backpack to use for my medium format film gear, but, as per usual, I didn’t want to spend a lot to get one. Second-hand is the best option for cheaper gear without necessarily compromising on quality, so I started looking on Trademe (NZ’s internet auction site) to see if I could find a backpack to suit my needs.

Even second-hand, most of the Lowepro and Tamrac large backpacks were out of my price range, and the ones that weren’t were of the more ‘well used’ variety. And then I saw a listing for a large backpack, hardly used, that looked to me like a larger version of a Lowepro Mini Trekker.

The Lowepro 'Mini Trekker'. A classic backpack
The Mini Trekker and I have a long history together. It was the first backpack-style camera bag I ever owned, and I loved it. It was perfect for my DSLR with two extra lenses, a flash and other accessories thrown in for good measure. Very well made, comfortable to use and just a great backpack. I sold it when I moved to all mirrorless gear because I didn’t need a backpack anymore, and have regretted it ever since. So finding an ‘as-new’ pack that was practically identical, at a very good price, was an exciting find. Except – it wasn’t a Lowepro Mini Trekker, it was a Fancier knock-off. Can’t be any good, can it?

Luckily, the seller was local to my area, and I was able to have a good look at the pack before bidding. I didn’t go in with high expectations, especially since the pack I have been using is also a cheaper Chinese bag with Velcro dividers that are next to useless and drive me crazy. So to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But I have also briefly owned a smaller Fancier shoulder style bag, and it really wasn’t a bad bag – so I figured it was worth the look.

Fancier Large Camera backpack. Look familiar?
Well, to cut a long story short, I’m glad I did check it out, because it’s a surprisingly good bag – especially for the price. To say that it is an imitation of the Lowepro Mini Trekker is something of an understatement. To all intents and purposes it is an upscale Mini Trekker, practically down to the last detail. Are the zips as solid as those on the Lowepro? Probably not. But they do seem solid enough. Importantly, the velcro dividers attach firmly and stay attached, giving secure protection for your gear. And the size is excellent – bigger than the Mini Trekker, but not too big.

The one thing that the Fancier backpack has that the mini trekker doesn’t is a laptop compartment at the back of the bag – big enough for a 17” laptop. Not that I will use the compartment for a laptop. But it’s there for future use.
Heaps of space for a Bronica ETRS Medium format kit and more!
 As you can see from the image above, it fits my Bronica ETRS with 40mm attached (yes, I got the 40mm lens – more on that later), with heaps of extra space for another two or three lenses, extra film backs, filters, film and other accessories. Exactly what I was looking for to carry my medium format gear around in. Wearing it it feels comfortable, with reasonably thick padding and shoulder straps, although I’m sure it isn’t as well padded as the Lowepro version. But I’m also not a serious hiker, so it won’t be a pack that is on my shoulders for hours at a time. Time will tell if the Fancier backpack can stand up to the rigours of being out in the field. Having said that, I’ve owned a lot of camera bags in my time, and this seems to be as sturdy as any of them.

So yes, I’m impressed, and happy to report that the Fancier backpacks are worth taking a very serious look at.

A very solid 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Anyone for tennis? Canon 70-200mm f2.8 'L' lens lust.

I posted last time about my day spent at the Reefton Rodeo with the Nikon F4 and Canon EOS 1. I had a lot of fun, learned a few things, and got some great images.

What I didn’t tell you was that on the same day my son was playing in his first tennis tournament. And although I got back reasonably late in the afternoon, the tournament was still going. So what’s a Dad with an EOS 1, a few rolls of film and a borrowed Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 to do? Start taking pictures of course! :-)

Tennis Tournament. Canon EOS 1 with Canon 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100 film.
I had spent the day shooting through a wire fence at the Rodeo, and the same applied at the tennis. The courts are surrounded by high wire fencing, with only the players allowed on the court. So I got up close and personal with the wire again, and opened up to f2.8 to blur away the foreground.

Distinctive black and white Canon 'L' series lens
I only had ISO 100 film in the camera (Rollei Retro 100), but there was plenty of light left in the day, and opened up to f2.8 I was still getting decent shutter speeds to freeze the action. The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 is a big, heavy, gorgeous lens – smooth, fast, quick, quiet and accurate – everything you would expect from a Canon ‘L’ series lens. The ‘L’ line of lenses (L for Luxury) are Canon’s top pro series lenses, and are never hard to spot at any sporting event. They are the big white lenses that festoon the sidelines and outnumber any other manufacturer (i.e. Nikon) by 10 to 1.

At the Rodeo I had mounted the camera and lens on a monopod so that I wouldn’t have to hold all the weight (about 2.8kgs or just over 6lbs). But at the tennis I wanted to be a little more mobile, so I hand-held the kit so I could move around with the action. I shot like this for about an hour and didn’t get tired, but I wouldn’t want to carry that weight all day.

Deuce. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100 film
Another thing I noticed shooting the tennis was that the autofocus system ‘hunted’ a lot more than it had at the Rodeo. At the Rodeo, I was further away, and the subject had a lot more horizontal and vertical lines for the camera to lock on to. At the tennis I was a lot closer, so Josh was a lot bigger in the frame, but he was wearing a black top and black shorts, so the autofocus system was struggling to find something with contrast to lock on to. If the camera started to rack the lens back and forth (hunting for focus), I would recompose slightly on the edge of his clothing, and the camera would eventually lock on target again. I lost quite a few images waiting for this to happen, but I do understand why the single AF point was having trouble. Today’s cameras with upwards of 50+ focusing points no longer have this problem. Even two or three more focusing points would have made a huge difference. Give the single point autofocus some help and it’s lightning fast. Try to focus on a dark area with no contrast and you can expect the system to hunt for focus. Even with the ‘L’ series 70-200mm f2.8 attached.

Return of Serve. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100 film.
Despite its size and weight, the 70-200mm f2.8 ‘L’ is a joy to shoot with. I spent the whole day shooting with it wide open at f2.8 and the images are all tack sharp on the subject – and softly blurred in the background. The reason to get a fast f2.8 lens is so you can open it right up and get fast shutter speeds with beautiful background blur (bokeh). There’s no point in investing in an f2.8 lens that you have to stop down to f4 before its sharp. It kinda defeats the purpose. You want an f2.8 lens that is sharp at f2.8. And the Canon ‘L’ lens is definitely sharp wide open.

Canon specialise in the 70-200mm focal area, offering no less than four different 70-200mm ‘L’ series lenses. Two offer IS (image stabilisation) and two don’t. I was using the non-IS f2.8 variety (they also offer an IS and non-IS f4, as well as an IS f2.8), but never felt that camera shake was going to be an issue. First because at the Rodeo I was shooting on a monopod. And second because the f2.8 aperture was giving me easily hand-holdable 1/500th to 1/1000th sec shutter speeds.

First Tennis Tournament. EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100
As with the Rodeo, I was shooting in single shot mode using single autofocus (not continuous servo), because the action was slow enough not to need it, and I didn’t want to burn through film too quickly. It was easy to anticipate the peak of the action and trip the shutter at just the right time, without feeling the need to shoot a series of bursts and hope one of them was what I wanted. I’m sure that if I had been shooting digital, and had set the camera to shoot at 8fps, I would have had a lot more images to choose from to get just the right one. But I’m happy with what I got anyway, and it means that I only had to look through 36 photos to choose the best ones, not 360! Out of a 36 shot roll I scanned 10 of them that I considered ‘keepers’. Not a bad hit rate.

It’s dangerous when you borrow someone else’s lens to shoot with, especially when that lens just happens to be a Canon ‘L’ series. That’s a lot of gorgeous glass, designed to produce beautiful images, and make other lenses look inferior. And Canon’s ‘L’ glass does just that.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1 Rodeo Shoot-out!

If you’re a regular follower of the tv programme ‘The Middle’ you’ll be familiar with “The year of Sue”. In homage to my family’s favourite show, I hereby dub 2017 to be “The year of Film” :-)

It started with a hiss and a roar when I was given a Pentax SV, Nikon F4 and Bronica ETRS, got even better when a Canon EOS 1 came my way, and has been topped off recently with 15 rolls of Rollei Retro 100 film that I ‘acquired’ for free! If that doesn’t make 2017 the ‘Year of Film’, then I don’t know what does? And I have a strange feeling it isn’t over yet…

Bull Riding, Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L', Rollei Retro 100 film
To celebrate this film windfall, I decided to take the F4 and EOS 1 to a Rodeo being held in Reefton, a small town an hour away from where I live. It’s been a few years since I last went, so I was very keen to go again – with a couple of film cameras and a bag full of film! The Nikon F4 came with a Nikkor 70-210mm f4/5.6 push-pull style zoom (a nice solid lens), while the Canon only had a 35-70mm EF lens. Since the EOS 1 can take any Canon EF lens, I asked a friend if I could borrow her 70-200mm f2.8 zoom (thanks Nicki), so that both systems would be somewhat comparable (although this didn’t turn out to be the case, as we shall see).

My first mistake was with film choice. I knew the weather was going to be great (full sun and a high of 27), so I decided that the Rollei film was all I would need. Then, at the last minute, I added a couple of rolls of Fuji Reala colour film, also ISO 100. Bad idea – at least as far as using the F4 was concerned. ISO 100, even in full sun, was just too slow with the lens zoomed out to 210mm with f5.6 as its widest aperture. At best I was getting 1/125th sec shutter speeds, and at worst 1/60th sec if the sun went behind a cloud. Not fast enough to freeze any of the action.

Nikon F4 with Nikkor 70-210mm f4/5.6. Rollei Retro 100 film
Of course, with the 70-200mm f2.8 attached to the Canon I had no such problems. Even at ISO 100 I was able to shoot at 1/500th and sometimes up to 1/1000th – plenty fast enough. The f2.8 aperture also gave the added bonus of blurring the background more and isolating the subject. So first lesson re-learnt when using film; always carry a variety of ISO films so you can increase your shutter speed. And on a side note – beg, steal, borrow (or buy) the fastest lens you can, especially when shooting sports. It really does make a difference.

Fast glass also makes a difference in the one area that seperates the two cameras the most; the autofocus systems. The Canon already has the upper hand over the Nikon in terms of autofocus speed and reliability, and this was only exacerbated with the f2.8 Canon vs f5.6 Nikon. There is no doubt that the EOS-1 locked focus quicker than the F4, although the Canon would still hunt for focus every now and then. I spent the day shooting through a wire fence, where again, the larger f2.8 aperture helped to completely blur the wire so it wasn’t apparent in the image.

Rough Ride, Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100
Both cameras are capable of fast frame rates (2.5 fps for the Canon EOS-1 and 4fps for the Nikon F4 – although both can do over 5fps with their grips attached), but I’m really not that keen to burn through a whole roll of film in under 6 seconds! So I had both cameras set on single shot and single focus (not continuous/servo focus or high speed shooting), which I figured would put them on a more even playing field? And yes, the Canon is noticeably faster, although probably no more accurate than the F4.

At the beginning of the day, I had hoped I would be comparing apples with apples – but because of the lenses I had, and the fact that the slow film put the F4 at an immediate disadvantage, this was never going to be a ‘fair’ fight. All my images shot with the F4 are unusable. Not because the F4 is no good at focusing – I just put the wrong film in it. ISO 400 would have levelled the playing field, or better still 400 pushed to 800. And yet, having said that, the lenses themselves also had a major part to play in the responsiveness of both cameras. There is no doubt that the ultrasonic motor in the 70-200mm f2.8 is vastly superior/quicker/smoother/quieter than the screw-driven system of the F4. It was clear at the time they were developed, and it’s still clear now.

Cowboy - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'.
At the end of the Rodeo, I had used the Canon EOS-1 twice as much as the Nikon F4. So the Canon is the ‘better’ camera then? Well, I’m not quite sure I’d go that far. If I had ISO 400/800 film in the Nikon, and/or a faster f2.8 lens attached, then maybe things would have felt different? Canon’s EF autofocus system is still clearly better, but Nikon’s is definitely useable, especially at something like a rodeo where things aren’t moving at a hundred miles an hour.

In terms of usability, there are also wins and losses in both camps. I prefer the viewfinder on the F4, it feels larger and brighter than the EOS-1, and has an analogue readout interface that I like. But I prefer the automatic rewind and faster film change with the Canon. There’s no fiddling about with the dials, buttons and film chambers required on the F4 – it’s just a simple latch, film in, and away you go.

Something else I realised only at the end of the day had to do with using the F4 in aperture priority mode. All the cameras I’ve used for the last 15 years have controlled the aperture electronically, and if you are using a variable aperture zoom lens, this is controlled by the camera. But with the F4, you set the aperture manually on the lens (in aperture priority mode). So I zoomed the lens out to its full 210mm and set the aperture to f4. Simple. Except I realised much later (that night in fact), that the 70-210mm Nikkor is a variable aperture zoom that is f5.6 at 210mm. But I had the aperture set constantly on f4! So I guess I overexposed all the images by one stop? Not a big deal with negative film that has a greater exposure latitude. But also something that wouldn’t happen with the EOS-1 since the camera would take account of variable aperture information automatically. Another reason to shoot with constant aperture lenses I suppose?

Barrel Racing - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100
I’ve been shooting for over 30 years, but I feel like a newbie again with a couple of classic film mistakes. Technology really has spoilt us as photographers and it gets easier every year to take ‘technically good’ photos. I know how important ISO is for regulating shutter speeds if you use aperture priority, and I know about variable aperture zooms. But I didn’t even give it a second thought, because I’m so used to my cameras taking care of it all for me. Despite the newbie mistakes, I am really enjoying shooting film. Let’s face it, the F4 and EOS 1 are amazing cameras that I could only dream of owning (and dream I did) in my 20s. To now own both of them is, quite literally, a dream come true.

Off and Racing - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100 film

Monday, February 20, 2017

Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1: Chocolate vs Vanilla

Those paying close attention will remember that I was recently blessed with the gift of a Nikon F4. Only a few weeks later, I also had the opportunity of getting a Canon EOS-1 for an absolute song – and I jumped at the chance. I’ve been a Canon fanboy off and on for 30 years, and the possibility of owning a Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1 at the same time was almost more than I could handle! I could definitely feel a shoot-out coming on 😊

The Nikon F4 is a legend in camera history – but also a turning point in Nikon’s own history. Many consider it to be the greatest traditionally controlled 35mm SLR camera ever made. It was Nikon’s first professional camera to offer autofocus, has a staggering 7 CPU’s to control its various electronic functions, is compatible with every Nikon lens from 1959 to today (although it does not support VR), has over 1700 parts yet is one of the most rugged cameras ever produced, and comes in three different configurations depending on the grip attached.

It was designed and built by Nikon at a time when they were the undisputable kings of the SLR camera market. Introduced in 1988, just in time for the Seoul Olympics, the F4 would bring autofocusing to the professional market, and in doing so, would help Nikon to maintain its 75% market share. It’s hard to believe in today’s digital market, where Canon is arguably the king, that only 30 years ago they were a very distant second to the Nikon juggernaut. But all that was about to change.

Just one year later, in 1989, Canon introduced its EOS professional camera, the EOS-1. Canon had taken a lot of criticism from professionals, and bad press from the industry, when it discontinued its traditional FD lens mount in 1987, in favour of the new EF mount. As a Canon T90 user myself back then I remember it well, and can also remember the betrayal I felt when Canon announced they would no longer be making lenses for a camera system I loved. But eventually, it proved to be the right move. The 1990s was the race to introduce autofocus technology into the main stream (and professional systems) for all camera manufacturers, and by adopting a completely new lens mount, engineered specifically for auto focus, Canon had the upper hand over Nikon for the very first time.

On paper, the Canon EOS-1 was a distant second against the Nikon F4 – in all but one very major area; autofocusing. With the new EF lens mount, which allowed for micro-motors built into the lens itself, Canon’s auto focusing system was light years ahead of anything Nikon – who maintained their ‘F’ mount - could deliver. The EOS-1 also introduced a more simplified, menu-driven method of camera control that is the DNA of all their digital control systems to this day.

Just four years later, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the tide had turned unanimously in favour of Canon. Nikon tried to follow suit by developing the menu-driven control interface of their new F5, but it was already too little too late. Once a market leader, Nikon was now playing catch-up, and constantly failing to match Canon where it counts. Canon would introduce Image Stabilisation in their lenses a full 5 years before Nikon could counter with their own VR technology. And I don’t need to remind you that 5 years behind the latest technology in this day and age may as well be a life-time.

So where does that leave the Nikon F4? Is it an abject failure? Is it an engineering disaster? Or is it still one of the best 35mm cameras that Nikon (or anyone else for that matter) has ever made?

Hold one in your hands. Feel the camera mould itself to your grip. Marvel at the gorgeous lines and contoured shapes given to the camera by industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (the designer of the DeLorean DMC-12). Feel the weight, the heft and the solidity of all that metal and rubber. Experience the positive clicks and precise machinery of all the controls and dials that festoon the ample camera body – but that are in exactly the right place and never get in the way. Listen to the sound of its smooth, gentle shutter release, perfectly weighted to give just the right amount of resistance and feedback. Is this the epitome of form follows function? The ultimate expression of a traditional 35mm film camera?

Ok – so the autofocus system isn’t up to Canon’s professional standards. It’s just not. But is it unusable? No – of course not. Thousands of professional photographers used it for many years – some even preferring it over the F5 once it was released. Is it ‘antiquated’ with its use of buttons and dials rather than wheels and menus – perhaps? But I actually prefer buttons and dials on the outside of the camera for ultimate control. Always have. Canon’s interface, while perhaps more stream-lined, has always left me feeling a little left-out of the picture taking equation. And their cameras feel a little ‘vanilla’ to me after a while. There is a real sameness about each one that leaves me a little underwhelmed.

There’s no such feeling when you pick up an F4 (or F4s, depending on what grip you have attached). It’s a machine. A picture taking machine. And it begs to be used to take pictures with.

But then again, so does the Canon EOS-1, for all its familiarity. Many actually see this as the strength of the Canon system, and bemoan any major changes made to its design. Sometimes, simple is better from a design point, and the Canon EOS 1 really is simplicity itself – albeit in a very rugged package.

I was a Canon user for the first 15 or so years of my photographic journey – starting with the T70 and progressing to the granddaddy of today’s digital cameras, the classic T90. The T90 was (is) a superb camera, so much so that every camera that Canon has produced since includes the T90’s design DNA. While Nikon had Italian designer Giugiaro, Canon called on the talents of Kurdish born German industrial designer Luigi Colani to help design the T90. Colani’s ‘Bio Forms’ together with Canon’s new reliance on integrated electronics created an entirely new camera aesthetic unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It may seem ‘vanilla’ to me now, but 30 years ago, with the introduction of the T90, (and a few years later the EOS-1) it was entirely revolutionary.

Questions of autofocus accuracy or reliability aside (these are both first generation autofocus systems), the Nikon F4 v Canon EOS-1 debate really comes down to a question of design aesthetics. Do you like your knobs and dials on the outside or the inside of the camera? Do you like traditional control over camera settings, or a more electronic interface? Both are outstanding image making machines – no doubt. So the question remains: Do you prefer cookies and cream with chocolate sauce and sprinkles, or plain old vanilla?