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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Olympus EM1 Mark II £2300 (The best M4/3 Camera, Stills)
Olympus EM5 Mark II £500 (Stills, High-Resolution Shot Mode)
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
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!
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.
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)!
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**
It’s been a long, long time since I last blogged about the expedition, which is probably attributable to blood pressure. Being in the hot seat of an expedition is incredibly exciting and rewarding, but also incredibly taxing. You are responsible for an awful lot, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Against the odds perhaps, with enough personnel changes to form a second full team, FxPedition Perhentian Islands has survived. There was a ridiculous amount of expeditions proposed by FxPeditions this year, and it is a huge testament to my wonderful team that we’ve outlasted the majority of them. Preparing expeditions can be a dangerous, and at times, damaging trail, with great highs and pretty galling lows- but every single member of my team has shown great character to get through that!
Money wise, we’ve been successful in our applications to two grant bodies, the Royal Geographical Society and the Gilchrist Educational Trust, with more to come in. Thanks for their kind support, we’ve managed to cover the majority of the budget already. As an expedition that was designed to be cheap, I’m delighted with that to say the least. I spent 3 hours of yesterday sat in a paddling pool full of baked beans & god knows what else, as our last fundraiser before we head off. It was a fun event, the only downside really being the cold! Despite baking sun, I was stuck in the shade, and regular dousings in beans/mushy peas and gravy didn’t help… Nonetheless, I’m delighted to say that I think we’ve raised nearly £300 through the event, both online and in person. It might take a few years to regain my dignity, mind. If you would like to donate to our expedition, the link can be found by clicking here .
We have a deal with Craghoppers that we are just finalising, providing kit for the team, which is a very useful coup- I’m a big fan of Craghoppers gear, and sell plenty of it in the shop, so I couldn’t be happier! I’m really looking forward to opening the box to see what we’ve been sent… It’ll be like christmas all over again!
After months of solid work, exams and deadlines, we finally get to reap the fruits of our labour, and it is one of the best feelings in the world. Buying kit, packing bags and making final arrangements all makes it that bit more real, and I cannot wait to be back in the jungle of the Perhentian Islands. I’ve seen my team mature and flourish over the past year far beyond my expectations, and thus I expect the emotions to flow once we make it to the islands.
In a way, I’m going home. To islands that taught me so much about biogeography, ecology and herpetology, and to country that blew away my existing concepts of culture and society. Finally, I’m going back to the jungle, where everything you can see is alive, and where everything poses questions, whether you can answer them or not. That environment is the beating heart of my science, the artery through which my innate curiosity flows the greatest, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in that unexplored again.
I’m not going to lie, the past couple of months have been pretty hard. The decision to direct an expedition and have a part-time job alongside my degree may not have been the brightest, and it has certainly expanded my capacity for stress.
Deadlines have gone well though; I feel like the exams were okay and my job is like any job in retail, I imagine. Spending every moment of every day either in the library, at work, or asleep for the past two months has not been ideal however, and today was my first true day off in a long time.
With some of my wonderful flatmates departing soon for graduate life and beyond, we managed to steal an impromptu trip out to Mawnan Smith, finding a deserted beach and calm waves- the perfect tonic for all the built-up stress of the past months. Climbing up cliffs, searching for fins at sea and even just breathing the clean coastal air was a welcome change from the stuffy library. There wasn’t much around wildlife wise, but a Shelduck, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a trio of my favourite bird, the Fulmar, was enough to keep me amused for ages.
Expedition wise, everything is going brilliantly. We’ve secured funding from a few sources, including the Royal Geographical Society, negotiated a partnership with Craghoppers and have so much exciting science to look forward to- we really are just counting down the days now. Still, there is plenty to do, but I think we are past the hard slog of endless grant applications. The interesting stuff has finally started! I do still need to secure my drone, though that is another story for another day.
With Malaysia, Michigan and then California all scheduled for the summer, it is going to be a pretty special few months. Make no mistake, I’ve worked hard to get there, though.
Why is the post called ‘I Stood On Cape Cornwall’? I’ve been considering my USA Grad School applications in the future, and it’s made me think about where I am now, and the kind of place I would like to live in the next few years. Sometimes you need to take a step back to realise how lucky you are, because Cornwall is a very special place, yet it has taken a while to rediscover that Cornish magic. It may not have the best infrastructure in the world, and it certainly doesn’t have a Nandos, but it is still Cornwall- a unique celtic culture matched by an enchanting, rustic setting, from the deserted mine works to the golden beach of Porthtowan. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s only taken three years, but I’m finally starting to feel like I belong here.
After a few months of little market-penetration, 360 degree video is finally making waves. I’m sure you’ve seen clips on social media, but if you haven’t, I’ll give a brief explanation. 360 video cameras usually have two lenses facing opposite to each other, giving a roughly 360 degree effect, with fisheye lenses in the same style as a GoPro. Using correction functions in post-production software, it is possible to make it look very much like a real scene, with an amount of unavoidable distortion.
The real beauty of 3D video is that it allows you to explore what is going on anywhere in the scene. By scrolling across the screen, you get to choose the direction of the camera at any given moment. As a platform, it really is quite brilliant, though the quality isn’t quite the 4K/HD quality most of us are used to by now. As shown in the linked video of Liverpool Football Club’s ground, Anfield, it has real potential as a medium. At the moment, the devices are quite expensive and haven’t seen much real world use- big events seem to the name of the game.
I’m keen to take one on my expedition this summer for an altogether reason: education. It is one thing to teach children and students through textbooks and pretty photographs on a presentation slide, but imagine if that student could explore the subject for themselves? Take the jungle for example; I can show kids as many horrific photos of me being bitten by leeches as I like, or of enormous monitor lizards roaming the jungle, but surely by letting them explore the jungle themselves, they would be more interested?
Like most wildlife videography, the scenes would have to be staged to an extent, with us already knowing what will be in each shot, but a student could scroll through video, searching for something, when they get to discover an amazing species, and feel that buzz- you know, the one that I assume all scientists get when they find something cool and are doing what they love? I believe that by putting this choice (and this chance) in the hands of students, perhaps on a website or as part of a presentation, we really could inspire the next generation of Bioscientists and Geographers, as well as other disciplines.
Could this be the future of Educational Science Communication?
I’d argue not the future, but I think it should certainly play a big role in the coming years, and I’m incredibly excited to see this technology develop.
360 Degree video is here, and you should definitely be paying attention!
With just under a year to go until Perhentian Ecology kicks off all over again, the time has come to recruit a new team for next year. There were 3 of us in 2014, and from experience, that wasn’t quite enough for a fully fledged ecological expedition (and it wasn’t, it was a feasibility study). Whilst 3 was too few, any more than 6 would limit the mobility and flexibility of the expedition, and with the potential of teaming up with a Malaysian university, a compact, flexible and experienced team is exactly what is needed. In a simple posting on Facebook, I’ve already managed to assemble a very strong team, although a few people who said they would like to join have skill-sets that just don’t match the task at hand.
Provisionally, and ultimately in my head, the team stands as follows.
Billy Burton, Expedition Leader: Making it happen. Performing surveys, planning, grant applications, social media, medical support and all the other fun things that come with leadership. I’m very experienced on the Perhentian Islands and know exactly what needs to be done to make our research be as valuable as possible. Theoretically at least, I am currently one of the authorities on the ecology of the Perhentian Islands.
Rhian Grey, Director of Science: Rhian is a zoology graduate of the University of Exeter, with an impressive array of field experience, including stints in Borneo and China. Rhian will add ecological authority to the expedition, ensuring that our methodologies are as effective as possible and that they are planned and adhered to properly. A good photographer in her own right, Rhian will slot into the role like a glove.
Josh Gray, Head of Photography: Josh was a member of the original 2014 expedition, and is entering his final year at Falmouth University, studying Marine and Natural History Photography. He is an extremely talented photographer, and is highly experienced in tropical rainforests, spending the Summer of 2014 embedded with Ecoteer, venturing for days at a time into Taman Negara. The quality of the images Josh captures are second to none and thus he makes a no-brainer for 2016.
Jamie Bubb, Expedition Logistics and Management: Jamie is perhaps the most ‘left-field’ selection, but it is this that makes him a brilliant addition to the team. Jamie is studying business at Lancaster University, and spent last year on a year abroad at a university in Bangkok, Thailand. Highly motivated, with excellent organisational and management skills honed in a number of internships, an ecological expedition will admittedly be a new experience for Jamie. I have no doubts, however, that he will be vital in getting this project off the ground, in the terms of organisation, networking and managing the day-to-day operations on the ground.
This team offers a much more holistic approach than was possible last year, and there might still be room for one more person. Space could be made for one outstanding candidate for sure. Another bioscientist perhaps, or a skilled videographer to film a documentary based around the expedition and the islands.
Our research will invariably focus on herps, and I discovered a neat little trick use by Expedition Manu, Peru, in the Amazon this year. In order to gain ID shots of smaller herps, they used a glass plate upon which the reptile/amphibian was placed, enabling them to capture detailed shots of underside of the specimen, which can be highly valuable. This is a neat little trick that we will be hoping to use next Summer.
To round off, I am really happy with the prospective team for next year. There might be room for one more, and current members may decide they don’t want to go. However, as it stands, Perhentian Ecology is going to produce some excellent science next summer!