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A versatile kayaking camera suggestion

I have been mulling over what would be the best camera to take kayaking with me for a long time.

Up until now if I have taken a camera with me I have taken a Canon 60D due to its superb video capabilities. The trouble is though that with the best will in the world I do not want to risk losing it along with decent L series glass due to my totally pants kayaking skills. Not least because the 60D is one of the cameras that I make my living with. If it goes, so does my work!

In any case I find that when I am out on a river I do not have the inclination to make video as much as I do stills. So what I wanted was a decent camera that was highly compact, yet could take high quality stills, and have some sort of video capability, without going to the bulk of a DSLR, yet still produce the quality of pictures that would be associated with one. A tall order in anyone’s book.

The first thing to remember though is that the initial quality of a photo is due to the photographers eye, and not the camera itself. Secondary is the photographers skill to set up the camera to get the best from it, and lastly is the camera itself.

When I started looking at the different cameras on offer I was initially drawn to some of the micro four thirds interchangeable lens systems on offer, along with the APS-C sized offerings from Sony, such as the Nex-3, Nex-5, and Nex-7. Very quickly I wrote them all off for three solid reasons. The first is that the choice of lenses is small and that good lenses cost the same as any good DSLR system glass. The second is that almost without exception all of the compact glass for these systems, both Micro Four Thirds and the Sony APS-C Nex cameras, were all very slow, around the f/5.6-f/6 area with a huge amount of iris ramp on the telephoto ends.

For nice sunny countries these lenses may be perfectly adequate. But for the UK where for much of the kayaking time it is grey and overcast with short days such slow glass doesn’t cut it. To get sharp stills shots you need as fast a shutter as you can get away with unless you are going for artistic blurring effects. To achieve a fast shutter you need fast glass. f/2.8 preferably, faster still if possible. What is more, at those fast apertures on a large sensor camera with a telephoto lens, focussing becomes very critical. Not an easy thing to do when it is barrelling down with rain with your hands freezing off!

The third reason I discounted the interchangeable system cameras was that in order to get fast glass for them, not only would it be extremely expensive (and defy the point of getting an alternative camera in the first place) but the laws of physics dictate that you can only have fast glass for those sensor sizes at a certain size. In other words fast glass for the ‘compact’ interchangeable lens system cameras would have to be just as large as for DSLRs. That is why the Sony Nex cameras include an adaptor for the Alpha line of lenses. If you want fast glass for a Nex camera you need to buy DSLR glass, which when attached completely negates the whole idea of the word ‘compact’!

So, what is the alternative? A true compact of course! But not any old compact. Until I came to make this decision I had previously written off all compacts as useless in anything but ideal light. That has all changed now with the likes of the Canon S95 and S100, Olympus Pen, etc. All of these cameras have a few things in common. They can all take RAW photos, and they can all be configured easily with good manual control when needed.

Before I address the camera that I eventually decided to purchase I should quickly address why I didn’t get one of the many waterproof compacts out there. The main reason I didn’t get one of those cameras is that I find them to be a total contradiction. Waterproof cameras such as the ones in the Pentax Optio line, Kodak etc lack features that are essential. Manual controls are often lacking, and they only take JPEG photos with non controllable noise reduction. I find them a contradiction because as cameras they were designed to take pictures in some of the most challenging conditions around. Yet they do not offer the functionality or quality to back this purpose up! If any camera needs RAW capability, and control over core functions it is these. But they don’t. So they weren’t even a consideration for me.

Enough of the preramble, what camera did I decide to get, and why? The camera I eventually decided upon was the Olympus XZ-1 with the Olympus PT-050 underwater housing.

Olympus XZ-1

The choice was made simple for the following reasons. The XZ-1 takes RAW photos and the performance is good up to ISO400 and acceptable at ISO800. It can go above this, but does get very noisy as do most small chip cameras. The XZ-1 does have a slightly bigger chip than any of the Canon, Panasonic, or Pentax offerings however.

I had checked out and downloaded a number of ORF RAW files that other users had taken and I imported them into Apple Aperture. I found that the amount of highlight and shadow detail that I could recover was absolutely staggering! In good light and up to around ISO400 most pictures were indistinguishable from those taken with a DSLR. Sure, if you zoomed in at 700% you can tell and see the fine detail that the camera misses. But you always need to consider what a picture is actually like in print, and also what it is like on the web. In real world use of the photos you would never be able to tell.

Okay, you don’t get the shallow depth of field of a DSLR, but in this case it is an advantage, which I will discuss in a moment.

The biggest reason that I went for the Olympus XZ-1 is that it has a very fast lens. Very fast indeed. At the wide end it is f/1.8. At the telephoto end it only goes down to f/2.5! Not only that but the lens encompasses the 35mm equivalent of 28-112mm. Thats a nice amount of wide angle, and a useful amount of telephoto with absolutely minimal loss of light throughout the range. This is a feature that none of the XZ-1’s competitors can offer. Certainly the Canon S100 offers more zoom range, but that is at the expense of it going down to f/5.9 on the telephoto end. Not good at all.

Another feature of the XZ-1 that not all of its competitors have is a hotshoe mount that will accept full size flashes, macro flashes, and even an optional electronic viewfinder. In terms of pure versatility, combined with the ‘affordable’ underwater housing, the XZ-1 is seemingly the most versatile compact stills camera around.

On a point of note too, the PT-050 underwater housing has a tripod screw type mount at it’s base. This means that for underwater junkies additional handles and lighting equipment can be mounted to it. But for kayakers it means that a simple mount can be made for the kayak, and the camera attached to it. With the use of an adaptor it could also be used with GoPro mounts.

The video quality from the XZ-1 is not brilliant it has to be said. It does look very soft despite the HD resolution. This is due to overly aggressive noise reduction, which I live in hope Olympus will take heed of and issue a firmware update to resolve.

However the video softness can be mitigated to a degree. In video mode the image stabiliser is electronic, not optical (it is optical in stills mode). The side effect of this is that with the stabiliser on, in video mode the picture is enlarged to quite a degree, emphasising the softness as a resuult. I recommend that for the highest quality you turn the image stabilisation off when using the camera for video. This issue does NOT affect stills camera modes where the stabilisation is performed optically with no loss of quality.

While video mode on the camera is not a patch on the GoPro HD Hero, it would make a good alternative if you only wanted to carry around one camera for both stills and video. Certainly I intend to test it out on my boat, GoPro style.

Look out for future posts when I will be putting up some example kayak trip photos and video taken with the camera.

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