Saturday, 27 June 2015

'Bridge' Cameras for Wildlife. A Retailer Gets the Message

The 'photographic' magazines may ignore 'bridge' cameras and only mention them in passing as new models appear but those of us who travel thousands of miles to see wildlife and natural habitats know what most travellers will be carrying: a superzoom bridge camera.

I see some in the photographic trade have now realised that the are not just selling to 'photographers' (the term is hard to define but I tend to think of amateur photographers as people who take photographs that are acceptable as photographs by other amateur photographers) but to naturalists who take still photographs and, sometimes, video. This advertisement from WEX arrived in an e-mail:

However, I am not sure they quite have the message. A 10.7x optical zoom is usually nowhere near enough.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Nikon Coolpix P610 and Filters. What size and if at all?

Search as I might I could not find the filter size for the Nikon P610 in the manual. So I looked online and uncovered a whole can of worms. Somebody had enquired of Nikon the same question but had been told the P610 would not take filters, that the grooves inside the lens mount were not threaded and that any filter would only be lodged there and would fall out. Then somebody else stated that their 52 mm filter fitted fine.

Having a 52 mm filter in my hand (see previous post) I tried it on the P610. It fits perfectly. Firm as a rock. No problem at all. Here I am trying and failing to dislodge the filter other than by unscrewing it:

Problem solved but what were Nikon thinking of when they produced the camera and the manual?

An Extremely Cheap Variable Neutral Density Filter. How Does it Perform?

As I noted in my previous post, my new camcorder does not have a built-in neutral density filter. On the rare occasions I might use one under manual control in order to achieve an out-of-focus foreground or background, I invested in the cheapest I could find, just to see if it would be good enough for those few occasions.

I soon found some cheap variable density filters on eBay. I paid £7.79 including postage and it arrived a couple of days later.

Here is the picture from the eBay listing.

The Neewer filter seems well built but I will not tempt disaster by getting it wet.

There are graduations along the side with 'min' at one end and 'max' at the other.

I have read poor reviews of even expensive variable density filters. The problems seems to be inherent in having two sheets of polariser stacked one on top of the other. The graduations are non-linear, in other words, rotating the filter from A to B, say, does not increase the density by as much as between B and C They are not, like any polariser, suitable for wide-angle lenses and there are numerous reports of colour casts.

So, I decided to test the density at each of the marks on the scale. To do so I used the Light Meter app in my iPhone 6. I mounted the iPhone on a tripod, aimed at an evenly lit wall and measured the shutter speed at a fixed aperture. Therefore I obtained the difference in Exposure Value (EV) (i.e. stops) between having having no filter there and the filter at all its marks on the scale except 'max'. At 'max' the filter was unusable because of the appearance of a dark mesh.

Here are the results. The effect of the filter at its minimum setting was one and a third stop compared with the absence of the filter. Sure enough, there was a non-linear increase at each mark, with a steep increase in density towards the maximum end. The verdict was that with this information, density can be dialled in for a stop changes (to the nearest whole stop) from 1 to 6.

I also looked at the effect of the filter, using the same set-up, on colour temperature (Light Meter app gives a read out in degrees Kelvin). There was a shift which varied with setting:

How serious is the maximum shift in colour temperature? Well I took a (Raw) photograph on my Nikon D700 and adjusted its colour temperature to the 5476 K (the without filter red line in the graph above). I then made a copy and adjusted its colour temperature to the minimum value the filter produced (i.e. 5150). The result is below. Remember that these photographs were not taken using the filter, they are a simulation of the maximum shift in colour temperature that the ND filter produces:

Simulating the effect of the ND filter on white balance
Left WB adjusted to 5150 K; Right to 5476 K
No I could not see much difference either and any shift could soon be put right in Final Cut Pro X.

Finally, to look for any deleterious colour casts, I put the filter on the Sony AX33 camcorder and tried it at the various marks. I left the camcorder on automatic so that it would compensate for exposure and white balance. Could I then see any colour cast from using the filter? The short answer was no.

Therefore, I am really rather pleased with my £7.79 variable neutral density filter. What is more I find it fits my Nikon P610 superzoom bridge camera, but more on that later.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Decision made: A New Camcorder for Travel and Wildlife—the Sony FDR-AX33

I have been in a quandary over how to replace my five-year old model camcorder (Sony HDR-XR550) which has served me so well. It was, I recall, one of the last hard drive/memory card models and I began to worry that hard drives do not last forever.

In the meantime I have added a Nikon Coolpix P610 with its superzoom lens and this has provided with me with full HD at very long distances with its over 1400 mm equivalent maximum focal length. However, a dedicated camcorder does offer some advantages for general use. Last year I rejected the AX100 when it appeared. Its large sensor is better in terms of video quality, low noise in low light and the ability with its smaller depth of field to throw the background out of focus. However, for wildlife ‘on the fly’ I saw that its autofocus was relatively slow and its optical stabilisation nothing special. In short it was ideal for ‘film makers’ who have control of the carefully staged scene but not for me where wildlife does what it does and the camera has to meet the needs of the scene; rapid autofocus and good depth of field go with a smaller sensor.

This year I saw the appearance from Sony of the AX33 with a smaller (1/2.33) sensor (but somewhat larger sensor than the one in the old XR550 (1/2.88)). Well, that’s not true because all I saw was the AXP33 on the Sony UK website. The ‘P’ stands for built-in projector and who on earth wants to carry around such a gimmicky addition. Only a couple of weeks ago did I discover that Sony made a non-projector version, the AX33; not only was it considerably cheaper than the ‘P’ version but it just about met all the requirements I had in mind.

A major consideration was weight and size; a low-end professional camcorder is simply too big for me. The first essential was a viewfinder. A camcorder without a viewfinder and just a screen is useless in tropical sunlight. So that was a Panasonic model of similar video specifications but no viewfinder ruled out. Sony have a big plus point in Night Shot, retained in the AX33.

I am not going to repeat the many descriptions and reviews that are available online. The outstanding feature is Balanced Optical Steadyshot (BOSS) (not incorporated into the AX100).

By comparing this new model with my 5-year old camcorder I was pleasantly surprised that the battery type was unchanged, the Sony micro accessory shoe has been replaced by a standard shoe and that zebra and focus peaking are standard.

Negative points so far are:

  • No GPS (a very useful standard feature of my old XR550)
  • In-camera battery charging (useless for travel)
  • No neutral density filtration
  • Only 10x optical zoom (although the Clear Image Zoom may well compensate to some extent)
  • The zoom lever is very close to the still photograph button
  • Poor manual (even the downloadable version is poor, with almost no explanatory information)

The Sony UK website and the manual are really short of useful information. For example, the Sony USA website has the following:

Direct Pixel Read Out
The FDR-AX33 incorporates 'direct pixel readout' utilizing the entire width of the image sensor without line skipping or pixel binning. Therefore in both HD and 4K video acquisition it can read and process data from every one of the sensor's pixels, resulting in smooth edges and color gradation giving you the incredible video from a tiny camera.

I can find no mention of this attribute either in the manual or on the UK site.

The stills are said to be upscaled by interpolation. I have not yet had a look to see how good the stills are.

My impression is that Sony have gone for connectivity features (Wi-Fi, NFC) and made the camcorder down to a price for the consumer market (I have over the last ten years or so paid £200 less for each of three successive Sony camcorders). Better for me for had Sony charged more and included GPS, a separate charger and a proper manual. Sony also make a great fuss of playback into their 4k televisions etc when all the likes of me need is an ability to capture the video into Final Cut Pro X on a Mac.

Quick trials show the 4k and HD video to be very good. I will now test it using 4k and HD recording with typical subjects under all sorts of lighting conditions at different focal lengths and with optical and Clear Image Zoom before our next big trip.

The Sony FDR-AX33 together with the Nikon Coolpix P610 seem, at the moment, to be an ideal combination for travel and wildlife.