Mirrorless: The Future of Expedition Photography

Selecting expedition kit is a tricky business. First of all, you need equipment that is going to survive the toughest conditions- perhaps the Arctic Tundra, the Yemeni Desert or the Indonesian Jungle, depending on the adventure you’ve got yourself into. You then look at the price and how useful it could be… and then you look at the size and weight. On nearly every expedition, especially self-supported voyages, weight and space are at a heavy premium- every gramme counts. This is even more important on long hikes, or treks up mountains- you don’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight at all! So why, when it comes to photography and videography, do expedition teams still insist on the big, burly DSLRs of yesteryear? The image quality is the same or is nearly the same, the video quality is better, the weight is basically incomparable…

This article will guide you through the mirrorless world, and help you choose the perfect mirrorless camera for your next expedition adventure.

 

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Taken with my GX7 and humble kit lens in the Sierra Nevada, CA.

 

Sony

Sony has changed the landscape of the mirrorless market with the full-frame ‘A7’ series, offering genuinely brilliant image quality in a compact form. The smaller E-mount series offers a good amount of megapixels with lightning fast autofocus (A6000/A6300/A6500), but it is the full-frame E-mount series that has set the market alight. The A7RII contains a whopping 42 megapixels, offering ridiculous amounts of detail, whilst the A7SII offers light sensitivity performance so good that it can be used in virtual darkness. I remember the earlier A7S being used to great effect to film anti-Boko Haram operations by Vice News a year or so ago (find it here), and it really was quite incredible then, so god knows what you can achieve now! Both top-end bodies feature strong weather sealing, of course.

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Premium, but revolutionary. This is a brilliant camera.

 

The strength of this system is the image quality, offering outstanding images and shooting very, very good video in 4K. The downsides? The cost of the two top-end bodies is high, and the lenses continue to be very expensive. Make no mistake, the Sony Full Frame system is a very pricey game compared to all other mirrorless systems. My main issue with the Sony mirrorless system is the continued lack of lens choice in some regards, with a severe lack of native wildlife lenses, but this will improve in time. The lenses that do exist are superb, however. Martin Holland, a well-known expedition leader and explorer has just switched to this ecosystem, and I can’t wait to see how he gets on. I can’t imagine that he’ll go back!

 

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Somehow the one one the left has more megapixels… Both professional grade cameras, though!

 

When this ecosystem matures a little, it will be an excellent choice for expedition photography and videography, if you can stomach the price. The camera specification has to be seen to be believed, firmly leaving some DSLRs in the past, and if I could afford it, this would be my ecosystem of choice. I’d love the low-light performance in the jungle for example!

Sony A7SII (Low-Light, Video) £2200 

Sony A7RII (Pure Image Quality, Video) £2300 

Micro-Four Thirds

I had the very first M43 camera, the Lumix G1. It was tiny! It had nice image quality but was very much an initial foray into the market- it didn’t have a video function at all! Since then I’ve used both the Lumix G5 and the Gx7 in the jungle, and they are simply brilliant little cameras.  An advantage of the M43 series that I’ve appreciated in the field is the 2x crop factor, which is ideal in an ecological expedition setting. Being able to use my 45-200mm with a 400mm equivalent focal length has been a revelation, and it’s been incredibly valuable in the jungle, capturing images that simply wouldn’t have been possible without adding pounds more of DSLR-weight.

 

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The GH4 and GH3 are so popular amongst video producers that they have their own specific rig designs from a range of companies.

 

The Lumix series are renowned for their video quality, and they’ve been used on feature length films in the past to good effect. The GH4, in particular, is a compelling purchase, whilst the new G80 looks like the perfect lightweight documentary camera. The latest Lumix cameras shoot 4K at a variety of bitrates, yet the remain lightweight and compact. Unlike other mirrorless systems, there is a wide variety of lenses at very good price points- look no further than the Olympus 45mm F1.8 (£150) and the Panasonic 25mm F1.8 (£150) for excellent fast glass at bargain prices. More lenses are being released all the time, which is the advantage of having two companies competing within the same ecosystem, as it keeps the prices competitive and the quality high. I’m waiting for the Panasonic Leica 50-200mm F2.8-4.0 to improve my images, whilst there are plenty of 3rd party manual focus lenses that have been released, many aimed at the indie film market. If you after raw image quality, look out for the Olympus 300mm F4- that’s a stunning lens, but at a price to match.

 

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My friend’s kit after a long day in the field. My GX7 is tiny in comparison.

 

Whilst I’ve focused on Panasonic due to my own experiences with them, there is no denying the pedigree of the Olympus cameras, to the extent that I would recommend them over the Panasonic series if you are focusing on stills. The new EM1 Mark II is an exceptional camera (at an exceptional price point for a M43 camera too, though), whilst the EM5 Mark II and EM10 Mark II offer great image quality at a lower price.

 

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An amazing lens at an unbelievable price. Just get one!

 

The one thing that brings back to the M43 ecosystem after various flirtations with other brands is the lower price point. You can pick up the GX7, a great little camera, for less than £300, whilst if you search carefully you can get a GH3 around a similar price point. The lenses are high quality but cheap, and they are generally the smallest of all the mirrorless system cameras- just check out the new GX85, for example. The downsides? The image quality at times isn’t quite as nice as I’d like, but I’d happily swap that for the great video quality I get instead. Obviously though, you can’t compare the images from a Nikon D810 to these cameras though- they just aren’t comparable.

Panasonic GH4 £1200 (Amazing Video)

Panasonic G80 £700 (Great Image Stabilization, Video, Microphone Jack)

Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)

Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)

Fuji

Edited 14/05/2017

After testing out an XT-10 myself for a few months, and falling in love with the build quality, image quality and manual controls on these cameras, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fujifilm absolutely takes the crown for expedition photography. These cameras are tough, even in their non-weather sealed XT-10/20 range, constructed of really solid metal that is far better quality than my past Gx7. The image quality is beautiful, with Fuji’s famous film simulations looking amazing in jpeg, though we all know we should be shooting in RAW. Video quality is seriously improving too, with the XT-20 and XT2 offering some form of 4K and being a really decent option for it too. These cameras are phenomenal, and you seriously won’t regret jumping into the Fuji ecosystem. The autofocus system on the new XT-2 and XT-20 is the best I’ve seen for this kind of photography, and the XT-2 is a really, really tough bit of kit. The Fujinon lenses are beautiful too, and not extortionately priced like their sony counterparts. The only area where Fuji is a little limited at the moment is lens selection- they could desperately do with a new mid-range zoom, something around the 250/300mm mark. The newer sensors are fab, with a 24MP APSC chip, and are pretty good in low-light too. Seriously, these are phenomenal cameras. 

Seriously, try Fuji- I will be for all my future work.

Fuji XT-2 £1200

 

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Highly recommended, just a little bulky for my tastes. Outstanding image quality.

 

 

Canon & Nikon Mirrorless

 

Nikon and Canon have dominated the DSLR market for so long that it is hard to imagine the world without them, and yet it is these two brands that have fallen behind today in the mirrorless market. Either through complacency or disbelief, their mirrorless ranges have seemed like half-hearted attempts in comparison to their masterfully engineered DSLR series, and thus I cannot recommend either in this category. The EOS M5 and the Nikon J5 are the best efforts by each company, but they are still treading water whilst other companies plough onwards. More than anything, the lens choice remains pitiful, with the Canon EOS-M ecosystem offering just 13 lenses in comparison to Micro Four-Thirds 108!

They might be light and have a nice brand name, but just don’t bother for at least another 3 years!

Conclusion

DSLRs offer an ever-decreasing number of advantages over mirrorless camera systems, and in the next 2 years, I expect that the competition between the two systems will be even fiercer. Given the importance of size and weight, and the only marginal benefits of a traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras are surely a no-brainer for expedition media work. The bigger issue is weaning DSLR-users off their precious big bodies and down into the svelte world of mirrorless, which is perhaps easier said than done. For video work, the value of mirrorless cameras is already well-known, with the wildly successful Panasonic GH3 and GH4 being used on feature films, and video is now the best way to engage a target audience through social media and Youtube. The one downside that I’ve noticed is battery life, which is notably lower in mirrorless cameras than their DSLR counterparts. I’ve solved this by having a small army of 3 Gx7 batteries (fairly cheap too), but only once have I managed to drain an entire battery in a day.

 

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My GX7 at work in Kuala Lumpur.

 

The only other real downside I’ve recognised is that the autofocus on my GX7 and the basic 45-200mm zoom isn’t quite as good as it could be-perfect for record shots but not quite as good as I’d like. With a better camera, photographer and lens, I’m sure this would improve, though. I do occasionally wish I had a D7100, but that would be a 40% increase in weight (and in the jungle, that’s not okay)!

 

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I’m still so pleased with this shot! Hummingbird, Ann Arbor, MI. (GX7)

 

They are smaller and lighter, have equivalent or better image and video quality… It’s clear that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. There are few tools more versatile than the mirrorless camera, and I am able to take my Gx7 with 2 lenses equivalent to 28-400mm between my neck and my pocket- and in the field, that versatility is invaluable. In Malaysia I took to jamming my GX7 in a dry bag and stuffing it into the bottom of my rucksack, and it took up very little space at all.Try doing that with a D4! Ultimately, I’m certain that the mirrorless camera is the future of expedition photography. You can save weight that you could use for other things (food), save your energy during a long day in the field, and potentially save yourself money too…

UPDATE **JUST GO FUJI. DEFINITELY THE BEST OPTION**

Seriously, it’s a no-brainer!

 

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Green Crested Lizard, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia. G5 with 20mm F1.7 II

 

 

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Impressions of Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

Known to savvy travellers and gap yah students as just ‘KL’, Kuala Lumpur frequently appears as little more than a stopover in many travellers itineraries. Read on to find out why you might want to spent a few days here in the future! 

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We’ve just arrived in KL, and it’s way past midnight. A taxi has dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, we’re dripping with sweat already and I’ve just trod on an enormous locust- and then some angry dogs started chasing us. A huge rat crossing the road did little to settle our nerves, before we finally made it to the Yellow House and slept our way into sweaty jetlag oblivion. It’s fair to say that my introduction to Kuala Lumpur had a less than auspicious start, and that the city had a lot of making up to do!

The Petronas Towers

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The icons of KL are the Petronas towers, great pillars of metal and glass that thrust high into the misty humidity of the city, and they are truly spectacular. There is a very expensive mall (think Western designer goods) attached to it, as well as a pretty good aquarium, though again entry is expensive. More skyscrapers are being built in the area, so I imagine that as the Malaysian economy develops in the coming years, the Petronas Towers zone will become even more impressive. The gardens around the towers are delightful, with a surprising amount of wildlife dotted around including Orioles and the huge Lyssa Zampa moth (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-27758640).  If you are struggling with the humidity (as we were), the gardens feature shallow swimming pools that whilst probably designed for tourists, made a refreshing break for us all. It’s an undoubtedly pretty part of Kuala Lumpur, though the unerring levels of cleanliness and near-military attention of the groundskeepers makes it feel a little sanitised.

Chinatown

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If you want to really explore Kuala Lumpur though, you must leave the air conditioned malls behind and head out into the wider city. My favourite part of the city is Chinatown, because it is so radically different to anywhere I’ve been before. Red lanterns and various cultural motifs somehow add decor to narrow streets lined with vendors selling everything imaginable, a lot of it definitely illegitimate. It’s a thrilling experience though, and haggling badly with seasoned Chinese hawkers to avoid the tourist tax is all part of the experience. The seedy side streets are even more exciting, but god knows what they sell down there! I vividly remember unidentifiable animals being chopped into pieces left and right, the occasional chicken wandering around, food waste pooling in the alley- but it’s all part of the experience. Whilst I had serious tunnel vision at the time, it felt like a bit of an adventure at least. The actual food in the area smells amazing, and I bet the street food is seriously, seriously good, though food hygiene might not be much of a thing. There are some beautiful Chinese temples nearby too that are well worth a visit, whilst you never know what you might find in some of the pet shops (the fact that they wouldn’t let me take photos explains a lot).

Food 

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There is a lot to do in KL if you plan it well enough, with the Batu Caves not far away, various museums and the like. For me though, the real secret to Kuala Lumpur is the food. It’ll blow away any asian food you’ve had in the UK- it really is incredible. Seriously tasty (sedap!) and most definiely spicy, the cuisine is like a fusion of indian and chinese dishes, with their own distinct Malay twist on everything. It’s quite cheap coming from the West too, but so, so worth it. Satay in KL will redefine the word delicious for you, and some of the world’s best Chinese restaurants can be found in the city. Lastly, I went to a very posh restaurant in the previously mentioned KLCC Suria restaurant, and nearly spent a kidney for tiny portions with waiter service. Worth it? Absolutely not. Eat where the locals eat! The best meal I’ve ever had was in Ipoh, where a huge range of exquisite vegetarian curries were served on banana leaves, and you were of course expected to eat with your hands. It was amazing. I paid about £5 for what in the UK would have been a £40 platter. Bargain! Just try it! I recommend Nasi Goreng, whilst Beef Rendang and Nasi Lemak are also firm favourites. Drinks wise, go for a milo ice- you won’t regret it.

Verdict

Kuala Lumpur is definitely more than just a stopover, but the city’s small size and good transport system (use the LRT!) means you can still tick things off pretty quickly. I think it’s fair to say that there are more exciting cities in the region, but KL has its charms. I’m not a citiy person, and KL isn’t my favourite city, but it’s still a relatively cheap city to visit, and to be honest I’d come here just to eat, as I love the food. It’s a good place to acclimtise to the South East Asian humidity too, but just remember that if you can feel air con, then you probably aren’t exploring Malaysia properly, are you?

Accomodation Choices

Pods KL (http://podsbackpacker.com/

I really like this hostel due to it’s location right next to KL Sentral. There are private rooms and shared dorms at a good price, the decor is refreshing and there is a bar to chill out at. The staff are also lovely and are more than capable of pointing you in the right direction for an adventure- or providing candles for an emergency birthday cake!

Yellow House KL (http://yellowhousekl.com/)

It’s simple, no frills accomodation at an even cheaper price, but it is also part of a much bigger project under an amazing social entrepreneur named Shyam. If anyone knows the real Kuala Lumpur, it is her, and make sure to take part in the brilliant homeless hairwashes they do to get a deeper understanding of the city. You can take part in all manner of empowering projects here- well worth a look!

 

 

 

Craghoppers Nosilife Pro Shirt Review

Prior the expedition to Malaysia this summer, Craghoppers very generously supplied the entire FxPedition Perhentian Islands team with clothing and equipment suitable for the jungle. This is the first post in a series of Craghoppers product reviews, detailing how the products coped with the toughest environment in the world- the jungle! Photographs for this post were provided by the wonderfully talented Joshua Gray (https://500px.com/joshuagray).

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What makes this field shirt different from its competitors is the stretch material it is made from, hence the ‘Pro’ moniker. It’s an incredibly comfortable fit, being snug fitting but not at all too tight. It’s a modern cut, compared to the shirts of old, but this is my preferred style in the field anyway. I don’t want any snags in the jungle! The stretch material was a revelation when scaling rocks and steep slopes in the rainforest, facilitating movement where other materials would have been far more restrictive.

Despite being worn nearly every day over 6 weeks in that environment, the shirt has fared incredibly well. Given the amount of thorns and other spiky things I invariably managed to impale myself on, I find it impressive that I can’t find any pulls on the fabric, despite a proper search. There are no rips, no tears- it’s in pretty much perfect condition, to the extent that I’m able to wear it as work uniform, which is a big win from me!

 

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Tough terrain in the jungle! Being a little taller would certainly help.

 

As the top-end Craghoppers shirt, it has all manner of technologies and features packed into it, many of which were useful in the field. The glasses wipe built into the seam was unexpectedly useful when I managed to dunk my camera in the mud, and it’s a really useful feature for any photographers out there who, like me, constantly lose their lens cleaning cloths. The Nosilife mosquito repellency did better than expected, certainly making a difference for me personally. A combination of deet & nosilife kept me well protected even in the worst clouds of mossies, though of course there’s always one mosquito with near-Special Forces levels of stealth. I actually wore it to bed a few times, after my hips were massacred in the night- lifesaver!

The heat and sunlight on the islands was intense, regularly reaching in excess of 36 degrees celsius, though it felt more like 45 in the humidity according to the forecast! The shirts feature solar shield tech, and I certainly didn’t get burned once while wearing them. Whilst they look substantial, they are actually incredibly thin and well-ventilated, with special mesh patches under the arms. I had no qualms wearing them in the jungle, nor in the desert in the Sierra Nevada, USA a few weeks later!

Verdict

I’m very hard on my kit, but these very lightweight shirts survived both the Malaysian jungle and arid California with ease. The mosquito repellency and solar protection were valuable features in a difficult environment, and the fit was perfect for me. Incredibly comfortable and very smart looking despite being a feature-packed, functional field shirt, this shirt truly lives up to it’s ‘Pro’ title. At this price point, you will struggle to find a product that even comes close.

5-star

PS. I’ve used the Craghoppers Nosilife ‘Trek’ shirt on previous expeditions, but for me the Nosilife Pro is worth the upgrade for the better comfort it provides.

Another Term Ends

After spending approximately a million hours on my essay for Quaternary science, it’s all finally over, in what has easily been the most challenging term (though arguably the most rewarding) yet.

Michigan

I got to spend just under two weeks with my love, Catherine, after nearly 8 months apart, and it was wonderful. The little city of Ann Arbor is delightful, the university there incredible (even if their Wolverines fell slightly short the other day, but we won’t mention that), and we even spent a day or two in Chicago- the great windy city! Chicago has well-documented gun crime problems, but I wouldn’t hesitate to visit. I also got to see Hilary’s VP Candidate speak, Senator Tim Kaine, accompanied by plenty of Trump protestors. At the time we could see no way for Trump to win, but I’m not sure many people did back then. Being with Catherine again was magical, and seeing her again just can’t come soon enough!

California

The most AMAZING field trip imaginable. Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Nevada, I squeezed in a little bit of time in San Francisco to look at UC Berkeley… It was genuinely quite brilliant, and the memories will last a lifetime. I love America anyway, but being in an arid environment for the first time was incredible, and a real change of scenery. Yosemite is beautiful if not as wild as I thought it would be, and I really like the different climatic zones of the Sierra Nevada, from high mountains to absolutely boiling deserts. Sun cream definitely required! I got a pretty good checklist of wildlife too, though I missed out on the bears, with an amazing view of a Bald Eagle in the wild being my absolute favourite, with a random Pelican coming second.

You can read all about that field trip here: 

Cornwall

Jet-lag, deadlines, illness… and working in the shop! I’ve worked my backside off this term, especially on my dissertation, where I’ve been able to create a 3D model of a coral reef from my drone data from Malaysia. I’m excited to see it come to fruition in the future, but it’s going to be one hell of a lot of work!

I genuinely haven’t had a day off this term, so I fully intend to take some now- I’m going to the beach tomorrow! I’ve spent enough long nights in the library, from 9am to 10pm… I’m ready for a break. These limited images are from the sole field trip on the Quaternary science module, with a sense of deja vu as we headed back out to West Penwith again. And yes, it rained a lot, though I did get to test out my new clothing which was something. I also saw a female Hen Harrier, one of the more at risk species in the country.

The Term Highlight

That moment when the coral reef model worked for the first time. I couldn’t believe it, and I may or may not have shed a couple of tears.

 

The Term Lowlight?

Getting on the bus at the Moor and trying to pay with contactless. Oh my word, the humiliation and the laughter I caused. It’s taken a good few months for my self-esteem to recover, and I’m sure the bus driver has dined out on that incident many times now. ‘Oh ar, this ain’t London lad’ etc etc…. The pain!

What’s Next? 

I’ve also been working really hard on my graduate applications, with UC Berkeley submitted already and more to follow in the next few days. Balancing everything has been hard, but I’m very happy to be in the position I’m in at the end of it all. I have a feeling that my dissertation followed by exams and other deadlines is going to wear me out next term, so I’m planning one final adventure abroad in the summer. Not for as long as previously, just to do something a little different whilst I still have the chance. I like the look of Bolivia and India in particular, both countries I’d love to visit, with amazing wildlife and very different cultures. I’m always keen to learn.

But mostly…

CATHERINE IS COMING OVER FOR CHRISTMAS IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS AND I CAN’T WAIT!