Saturday, February 19, 2011

Travelling in Vietnam – What gear ?

Travelling through Vietnam for 4 weeks brings the difficult question of what (not) to take, keeping the weight/bulk/use ratio in focus. Visited places will include cities, countryside, jungle, seashore, airports (Hanoï, Sapa – Lao Kaï, Ninh Binh, Há Long bay, Húe, Da Nang, Saïgon/HCMV, Mekong delta). So quite diversified.

Travel mode is rucksack and small/light bagpack.

With me:

  • 1 Pentax k20d (without grip)
  • 1 sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
  • 1 Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 WR
  • 24Go in sandisk cards (8 8 4 4)
  • Air blower, cleaning cloth
  • “camouflaged” neck strap (no brand name)
  • Small lowepro bag for one camera+lens
  • 2 batteries + charger

What should I have taken with me?

  • P&S camera – like a Canon G12 or Samsung EX1, with tilt-swivel screen
  • Fast zoom lens – 17-50mm 2.8
  • Maybe a 70-200 f4
Lao Cai region
© Quiet Leaf

The story

Your gear will be divided in two categories: day / night.

1.    DAY

When you’re visiting a country, you must know that a normal day is “separated” in several parts by the local people, just as everywhere. In an asian city like Hanoï or Ho Chi Mihn Ville (and more), you’ll rapidly notice a strong gap between the day and when the night falls.  As the lighting will never or rarely be a problem, slow lenses can be used without restriction throughout the day; wide angles like the 10-20mm will be your best tools to capture the spirit of the small and narrow streets, and quite often I used to shoot when sitting as passenger on a motor bike; pictures are taken “sur le vif”, at arm’s length, and it’s impossible to compose them correctly, so wide angle + cropping is the way to go. 

When going down to the countryside, the 10-20mm embraces all the landscapes and Vietnam has so many places where to use it that it will be your main workhorse lens.  The Sigma was the landscape-city-speed lens because it captures so mutch without having to worry about focus as long as you’re using the hyperfocals... tip: always in Av-mode at f/8 !

I used this lens about 80% of the time. 

There’s no point in taking a DSLR if you don’t have an ultra wide lens

Ninh Bihn region
© Quiet Leaf

The DA 18-55 WR (weather resistant) comes in when rain is showing up. Why has it to be weathersealed? Because it rains hard, very quickly and the air remains with a high degree of moisture with the local temperatures (about 30°C), so a rainsleeve wasn’t enough as I used to walk with the camera in my hand, strapped to my wrist, ready to take the picture. Portrait and other snapshots were the other uses of this lens. An UWA alone isn’t enough, you’ll rapidly feel the need of a narrower angle of view to concentrate your pictures on some details.

Preparing food
© Quiet Leaf

 What about a telephoto zoom lens?

Yes, it would have been handy at some moments. But it’s one lens more in the bag... and OK, I hate having to frequently switch lenses. I can let the 10-20 for the day, I won’t miss anything. So as the 18-55mm, it’s wide enough. But a good 70-200mm f/4 is just too big to handle when shooting on the move and the angle of view is too narrow to react quickly to an opportunity. If you really want a telephoto zoom lens, I’d rather suggest a cheap 50-200mm since weight is an issue. 

Há Noi - Old City
© Quiet Leaf
2.    NIGHT

 The cities wake up, life fills the streets, motorbikes are everywhere, everyone eats on the streets, all places are crowded. Light is low and soft, your autofocus struggles, you can throw your slow lenses away, you won’t make any decent pictures (or at maximum ISO... et encore...!). 

Damn, where is my M9 and my Noctilux?

Some circulation, yes...
Há Noi
© Quiet Leaf

So you switch your 10-20mm with your 17-50 2.8 (or a 24 f/1.4 equivalent), or whatever you want but A FAST LENS! At night, you’re less noticeable as a tourist and you can have a drink on the street and quietly take all the pictures you want; there are many top-bokeh-lighting situations, so don’t hesitate! It was my only regret with my gear, not having a single fast lens.

So, this leads me to the important point – what should I have taken with me?

Most important, a point and shoot. Yes, sometimes you want to leave your 4kg combo at the hotel and just walk with just a camera in your pocket for low profile pictures. I secretly consider getting a G12, because its swivel screen in this country would have been so practical.  If you have to choose between your 50-200mm or your point and shoot, drop the lens, take the camera. You’ll enjoy taking different pictures with it than with your DSLR and you’ll see it back at home with the pictures you’ll have taken.

Second, the fast standard zoom lens. Night is 50% of this city’s life, be equipped for it.

How do local people react in front of a camera? 

In the street, they do just as everyone, they’ll stare at you without too much expression. 

Don’t forget, for them you’re the common tourist with a big camera (and a big wallet), nothing more!

Just ask them, a simple movement with your camera and an eye-contact. Can I? Yes? Cool. No? OK.

 Most important tip for that: smile. It’s 99% of the job.

And don’t forget to get hydrated; I used to drink up to 3 liter per day. A fresh 50cl bottle costs 4 to 8000 Dôngs (15 to 30 eurocents)! And, Vietnamese beer (bia in Vietnamese) isn't bad at all (or maybe I was always so thirsty when I sat for a beer!). But I do recommend the Bia Há Noi!

heavy rains in Há Noi
© Quiet Leaf

A street in Ho Chi Mihn Ville
© Quiet Leaf

Pimp My Lens – Keep them protected!

For those who use their equipment in dirty environments, we know that some parts of our lenses are dust-magnets or difficult to clean at the end of the day; rubber grips, rubber focus rings, etc. ...
Other parts are often in contact with abrasive surfaces; the bottom of the camera, the part of the lens that hits the table when layed down, the LCD screen,...

This can happen, too
© Rabani "k10d mudbath" on

A simple technique to prevent some unwanted mishaps or long cleaning nights is to tape the sensitive parts. It’s important not to use tape that leaves residues on the surface but tape used by electricians to seal contacts or tight up wires. 

They come in all sorts of colours
© Quiet Leaf

 It can also be used to hide our big white Canikontax markings on the front of the camera or other signs revealing that you’re walking with your brand new Nikon D4 or 5d mark III. Or our white lenses.


Taped Sigma 10-20mm
© Quiet Leaf

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dilemma: Quality vs Speed

I’ve been shooting Pentax since 2007 and never disappointed by the overall image quality, from colour response to jpeg renderings. I had the opportunity to buy a 2nd hand eos 40d three months ago and inevitably after several hundred shots some comparisons are made. 

Before digging in the systems, the two contenders are completely different cameras by their use, so comparing them isn’t really adequate. The k20d is a robust landscape-traveller’s camera, has a strong resolution of 14,6mp (10mp with Canon) and high quality jpegs settings that allows you to drop the raw format without too much loss.

The weathersealing of Pentax is a blessing in rough climates
Vietnam, Mekong Delta in 2010
© Quiet Leaf
It may sound quite amateur-ish when I say “art filters are a real advantage” when nearly everyone has lightroom or aperture to do all the post processing when back  home. But here’s all the problem, “when you’re back home”! It’s not impossible for some travellers to go away for weeks or months in places with little or no electricity or where computers are completely unknown. So when you come back at home with thousands of pictures and you have to select the good ones or view them in B&W or any other post processing, the amount of work takes days and days to be achieved. When I was in such situations, at the end of the day or between two flights, I frequently used the in-camera processing to preview some effects on the pictures that I liked and it considerably helped me sorting out these huge folders when I had to work out all the memory cards. As I said, it may sound a little bit odd but it spared me so much time that it was a small regret when I saw that the 40d didn’t have all these elements. But nevertheless, it wasn’t a deal breaker at all.

The eos 40d is more a sports-lifestyle camera; 6.5 fps with a silent and quick autofocus. The USM alone is a real advantage against the Pentax counterparts: it’s a mature technology that comes with nearly all types of lenses, the “cheap” ones just as the latest telephoto, and combined with the fast autofocus, it’s a real pleasure to work with such an efficient tool.

The excellent autofocus of the eos 40d helps a lot
© Quiet Leaf

In normal conditions, the autofocus is precise 80% of the time and the rest is slightly out of focus BUT the picture is there and that’s THE huge advantage opposed to Pentax. The 40d searches focus quickly, doesn’t find it but releases the shutter even if it’s not perfectly in focus; the k20d hunts, hunts, ... and locks way too late, when the subject/moment is gone. So on one side we’ve got an OOF picture and on the other side... nothing!
Metering with canon is “spot-on”, you know that the object that you want to be shown will be well exposed, even at the cost of burned skies or blown highlights. Pentax will almost always have an underexposed image. But it turns to be a real advantage for Pentax. And it’s so important for people who post process their images, the Pentax JPEGs can be reworked afterwards so well and handles exposure/colour changes with a greater magnitude than the Canon ones (ok, there’s RAW for that, but for long hi speed sequences it’s not ideal). What you win on one side you lose it on the other side!

In-body stabilisation is a huge plus for Pentax, EVERY lens is stabilized; primes, old lenses, cheap lenses,... but it’s not as effective with longer focal lengths than the IS system. For shorter focal lengths (UWA, 50mm’s,...) it’s PERFECT. IS is a real step over Pentax for long range shooting.

Now the ultimate point, image quality. To be fair, I’m not a great fan of Canon’s IQ. Or at least with the 40d. Colours are good but not always correct and noise suppression is quite heavy. Pentax’s IQ is a real step forward Canon’s, especially with colour fidelity. But as said before, we’re speaking of two different sensors, the landscape one and the “fast” one. Newer models as the eos 7d and the k5 will have certainly changed this situation. 

For a software point of view, the k20d is filled with so many bonuses (built-in intervallometer, micro-adjust, in-body shake reduction system,...) that the 40d seems with nothing more than the customizable “quick menu” that the k20d doesn’t have. But it's so handy and saves you some precious seconds...!

Il’ll achieve here with some rapid thoughts about the overall handling. The grip of the 40d is deep enough and higher than the k20d, and using it with gloves doesn’t make it difficult; I didn’t feel the need of a additional grip to hold firmly the camera. The k20d is smaller but needs a grip when you shoot with gloves otherwise it slips too easily out of your hands. 

The top LCD screen of the Pentax is easier to read/check rapidly. Even if it’s smaller than the Canon, shutter speed and aperture are impossible to miss at a distance of 40cm. The Canon one is overcharged with too many information (even if they’re useful, e.g. WB and remaining shots) and difficult to read. The rear screen of the Pentax is far more accurate than the Canon one (resolution and color rendition)

Pentax k20d
© Quiet Leaf

EOS 40d
© Quiet Leaf

So, speed or quality?

Go Pentax if you travel and if you'll face tough weather conditions, if you have time to compose and to make good use of its 14,6mp. Go Canon if you need a excellent, quiet and reactive camera.

It’s just the beginning with Canon, I’m discovering it, and my judgment will surely change over time but here are the first impressions with the two systems. To be continued!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pentax FA* 300mm f/4.5 review

Build quality / Handling

Pentax Fa* 300mm f/4.5
© Quiet Leaf

From the professional grade lenses of Pentax back in the 90’s, this lens is built like a tank. It’s solid, heavy (935g) and seems ready to take years of abuse. The front element is recessed for 1cm into the lens body and doesn’t protrude at all, keeping it safe from any direct hit when the lens hood isn’t on.

The aperture ring is made of plastic and goes from f/4.5 to f/32, the focus ring has a push/pull mechanism to control the focus. Note that if you want to set it on manual, you must change it from the lens, the switch on the body isn’t enough on its own.

FA* 300mm f/4.5 and Canon 70-200 L f/4
© Quiet Leaf

The lens came without lens hood, and I was a little bit worried by the lack of a proper flare protection but after several hundred shots under bright and direct light right into the lens, the need of one rapidly vanished as the lens doesn’t suffer at all from ghosting or flaring. I used to screw a rubber shade on it but it was more in order to protect the lens when I had to put it on a rough surface.

Be careful, even if it’s a FA*, the lens IS NOT weathersealed!
But fortunately it can be easily taped (albeit you lose the manual focus option).

Pentax FA* 300mm f/4.5 and Canon EF 70-200 L f/4

The lens is sufficiently small to be carried around without too much last; it has a filter thread of 67mm (compared to the DA* 300mm f/4 which is 77mm) and measures 16 cm long. It can be put in a regular shoulder bag when mounted on a camera + grip, and taken in and out without too much hassle. Since it’s so small for a 300mm and with a silver coating, it doesn’t attract attention compared to the grayish Canon 300mm L counterpart (16 cm vs 21,3 cm).


As usual, the autofocus mechanism is on the noisy side, you don’t have the speed nor the quietness of a SDM / USM motor. But you can be sure that it will never let you down – screwdrives lasts forever!

For static and slow moving objects under good light conditions, the autofocus is quick and precise; but when it comes to fast actions e.g. football players or rally cars, it tends to be a tad too slow to catch the right speed in order to freeze in focus the spot that you want. In 60% of the situations, the picture will have a slight blur due to this delay (estimated number after lots of open air sports shooting)... But we’re talking about fast and unpredictable movements, so for most users it won’t be an issue here. Wildlife and lifestyle photographers will be overly satisfied with this lens but sports shooters must look to other options (with SDM / HSM equivalents – or a faster autofocus system, but that’s another debate).


The lens was tested on a k20d, but results may vary with the new k5 since it has a new in-body motor and a new autofocus type.

Image quality

Wide open and with the long focal length, it delivers a decent bokeh (8-bladed diaphragm, but remember that we’re talking about an f/4.5 lens on APS-C, so it’s more like an f/5.6 bokeh) and an excellent level of detail and contrast. It’s tack sharp when stopped to f/5.6.

The 8-bladed diaphragm
© Quiet Leaf

The K-mount and the aperture ring
© Quiet Leaf

It’s one of the few lenses which I had the “wow” surprise when pixel peeping pictures at 100%. The amount of detail was absolutely stunning, on par with the FA 50mm 1.4 at f/4. With the FA* and the 14.6 mp of the k20d, I kept going deeper and deeper in the picture, I was still able to crop it and stay with an excellent picture.

Working with JPEG’s and AWB, colours were naturally saturated and contrast was very high. All in all, it’s a lens that has an excellent piqué... I was seeing here the benefits of Pentax’ Super Multi Coating, one of the company’s best strengths. No flare, no CA. A real gift for every photographer.
In the field

Mounted on a k20d with the battery grip, the lens is very well balanced for shooting handheld but lacks the tripod collar when it has to be mounted on a mono or a tripod. Several owners use the tripod collar of the Canon 70-200mm f/4 (or equivalent) without any trouble, there’s just enough space between the aperture ring and the scale window to attach it there. On its own, when the camera and not the lens is mounted on the tripod, the camera can’t handle the 935g without trouble and suffers from disturbing vibrations. You can use it handheld (but I would consider a handstrap) and at the end of the day you won’t suffer so much from the wheight (but not if you’re shooting continuously for 1 hour).   

The FA* mounted here on the k20d
© Quiet Leaf

Pentax k20d and FA* 300mm side by side
© Quiet Leaf


When I found it in a second hand shop, I didn’t realized at first how lucky I was; for the price I paid (around 600€ - used - but with the autofocus mechanism cleaned and calibrated, no other problems) this lens is a must-have for light and tough travellers. The metallic outer shell inspires so much confidence that you know that you can use the beast everywhere, it’s small enough to be carried around – we’re talking about a 300mm! – and comes with a screwdrive mechanism that will never fail, and image quality on the bests levels.

All in all, this lens is hard to find (in France/Benelux, I see sometimes one once a year on the 2nd hand market, no more) but if you can grab it, you won’t regret it.

Nearly 1kg of metal and glass, this lens is  nearly indesctructible
© Quiet Leaf

 f/4.5, ISO 400, k20d
© Quiet Leaf