Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Camera Gear

Recently I’ve had people asking me what equipment I use to take photos while kayaking and mountain biking, so I thought it might be good to do a post specifically geared (no pun intended) to this topic. First off, I am by no means a professional, or even an amateur photographer -- I’m simply an overzealous hobbyist that that also has a problem when it comes to spending money on gear, just ask anyone who knows me. With that out of the way, let’s get to the discussion at hand.

What kind of setup do I need?
This would be like asking, what kind of kayak or mountain bike do I need? Obviously it depends on what you’re looking to get out of it--there is no right answer here. Start by asking yourself “What features are important to me?” Life is full of compromises, and camera gear is no different. Here are a couple of considerations:

1. Cost: How much money do you want to spend? The sky is the limit here.

2. Weather resistance: e.g. A waterproof point & shoot (with which you can take pictures from your boat) vs. a non-waterproof camera (kept in a dry container with pictures taken from shore). One disadvantage of the waterproof camera used while in your boat is water droplets on the lens. I have seen a lot of photos, which could have been really good, ruined simply by this.

3. Compactness: How big of a camera do you want to lug around? I know many people that have bought a DSLR without considering this, and eventually it ends up collecting dust as a paperweight. That said, DSLRs are great (I have one), but once again, make sure you understand the bulk associated with them.

4. Photo quality: The reality is that you can take solid pictures with a point & shoot (P&S), but to really unlock your creative talent, you may want to look into getting a large sensor / interchangeable lens setup.

5. Features: e.g. Video modes, low light performance, manual exposure controls, live view (w/ histogram).

6. End use: Are you simply taking pictures to post on Facebook, using them for a blog (as I am), or planning to make money off them? Your answer here will greatly influence the first four considerations.

My gear list:
Okay, let’s get to what I shoot with. Based on my requirements/limitations of a median budget, high quality images, compactness/convenience, and end use, I opted for the following:

The equipment

Camera Body(s):
1. Sony NEX-5N (primary)
I went with a mirrorless, interchangeable lens system for my primary setup. Probably the most popular of this market are the four-thirds variety -- however, by the time I was ready to purchase, Sony had just came out with an ambitious offering by way of the NEX system. The NEX’s selling point for me was its relatively compact form factor and large sensor (APS-C sensor; the same size found on a majority of the DSLRs on the market). The NEX-5N can also capture video at 1080p @ 60fps, not bad for putting together some high quality flicks. One of my favorite features on the NEX system is the live view / histogram, which is really invaluable for setting exposure quickly and effectively. For a review/more info on the NEX-5N, go here.

This shows the size advantage of the NEX-5N over
a standard DSLR, in this case my Pentax K20D.

The 5N with the 16mm pancake lens. Fits in
the palm of your hand, or pocket for that matter.

It should be noted that all the NEX cameras, except the recently released NEX-7, do not have a viewfinder. That said, Sony does sell an external viewfinder (FDA-EV1S) which is specifically designed for and only fits on the 5N. At ~$350, it's considered the best electronic viewfinder made, and it shows. Another attachment that Sony sells is an Alpha Lens adapter (LA-EA2), which allows you to use Sony's entire line of Minolta/Alpha mount lenses. Further, it adds phase-detection auto-focus (via internal mirrors), essentially turning the NEX into a full fledged DSLR. Unfortunately, it's also very expensive at ~$400.

The NEX-5N with the Alpha lens converter (LA-EA2)
and OLED Viewfinder (FDA-EV1S). This essentially makes
it a true DSLR, and at the same time, all but eliminates its
compact size advantage. However, you add Phase-Detection AF
and the ability to use Sony's entire lens line-up.

2. Pentax K20D (bad weather camera):
A true DSLR, and what I go to when weather is going to be nasty, since it touts a burly weatherproof build, blocking both rain and dust from its insides. This thing is a beast (big) and actually has worse image quality / low light performance than my NEX, but it does have some additional features that are nice, including time-lapse capabilities and phase detection auto-focus. For a review/more info on the K20D, go here.

The K20D showing off its weather resistant
armor -- try doing that with your typical DSLR

1. Sony 18-200mm /F3.5-6.3 (e-mount) - This is my workhorse lens, which is amazingly sharp for a zoom that covers this large of focal range. However, it's also fairly spendy at $800.

2. Sony 18-55mm/F3.5-5.6 (e-mount) - This lens is actually pretty darn good for a kit lens. Not quite as sharp as the 18-200, but still a great range when I don't want to lug around the larger lens.

3. Sony 16mm pancake /F2.8 (e-mount) - This lens can also be purchased as a kit lens, and is incredibly small, making it great for mountain biking. It's pretty soft in the corners, but is actually quite sharp at F5.6 to F8. The other nice thing about it is its ability to accept the following two converters.

4. Sony 12mm wide-angle converter for the 16mm (e-mount) - This is a great adapter that really opens up the viewing angle. I love using this for shooting down on someone going over a waterfall, for it makes the drop look bigger than it is. This can be had for about $100, which is a real bargain.

5. Sony 10mm Fisheye converter for the 16mm (e-mount) - This is also a really fun adapter. I've been using this for super close-up shots of someone coming into or out of a drop -- it really creates a dynamic effect. This can also be picked up for $100, and should definitely be in your NEX kit.

6. Sony 35mm/F1.8 (Alpha Mount) - A budget lens (~$200), that has fantastic optics for the price tag; even when shot wide open at F1.8. This is a great mid-focal length that I pull out in low-light situations that are quite common during the winter in the Pacific Northwest.

7. Sony 50mm/F1.8 (Alpha Mount) - Another budget high-quality prime (~$150) which is almost identical to the 35mm in every aspect except focal length.

Lenses 1 thru 7, from left to right. Note the LA-EA2
adapter on the 35mm/F1.8 (second from the right)

Pentax 18-135 WR (weather resistant lens)

I have many more lenses than this lying around the house, but I rarely pull from them for kayaking or mountain biking. Basically the ones listed here more than cover my needs for adventure photography.

The main requirements for storing your camera while kayaking is that it must be both waterproof and shockproof. If you don’t have a camera with these functions built-in (I’ve only seen them available in point & shoot) then you’re going to need a good container. I know many people that use drybags (e.g. Watershed) and love them, but I’ve always preferred Pelican cases for the ease of use (opening and closing), as well as superior shock resistance. Depending on the situation and gear I’m bringing, I have three that I choose from:

Pelican 1120 – This case can hold my NEX-5N with the 18-200, but it’s cramped and there is no room for any other lenses. This is what I prefer for self-support multi-day trips (based on its compact size) or runs I don’t feel I need to get too creative taking shots.

As you can see, it's a tight fit with the 5N/18-200mm combo.
Also note that you won't be able to attach the viewfinder.

Pelican 1150 – This case is my workhorse, it lets me carry my NEX-5N and a wide-angle setup. There is also plenty of room for a couple of rags, which are necessary for wiping water from my hands and the camera.

Perfect for the 5N/18-200mm combo + 16mm/fisheye combo

One of my favorite things about the Bliss Stick Mystic
is the storage compartment between the legs. It fits the
1150 perfectly, which makes me think that's what it was
designed for. The one addition I made was the buckle
strap, which I feel is more secure and makes it easier
to access than the bungee cord.

Pelican 1200 – This is the only case that my Pentax K20D DSLR will fit in – luckily it has enough of a footprint to also carry some accessories like those rags. I also use this case if I feel like bringing multiple lenses with my 5N.

Due to the height, this is the only case that will accommodate most DLSRs.
Unfortunately it's not as good of a fit under the knees as the 1150.

Mountain Biking:
Luckily with mountain biking you don’t really need a waterproof container, but it is advisable to have something that is both dust and rain repellent and protects from impact if you crash. Another big consideration is ease of access. If your camera is hard to get to (e.g. zipped up in your Camelbak), chances are you aren’t going to take a lot of photos. Based on these factors as well as what camera setup I plan to bring, I use either my Mountain Feedbag or my LowePro chestpack.

Mountain Feedbag:
This wonderful gizmo was developed by a gal in Oakridge, Oregon and has become a common fixture on the bikes of local riders. Most people use them to store food and tools, especially for racing where it allows you to get to items quickly. For me it’s the perfect fit for my NEX-5N with the 16mm pancake lens, making my camera easy to grab to fire off those quick shots. I can actually fit my 5N with the 18-55mm kit lens in the Feedbag, but it’s definitely tight.

The Mountain Feedbag conveniently hangs at the
handlebar/stem intersection. This makes for a quick
grab so you don't miss the action. One bit of advice
is to make sure you have a screen protector on your
camera, as it is prone to getting scratched while
pulling it out/putting it back in.

A good fit with the 5N/16mm combo

Another shot showing how good it fits

LowPro Chestpack:
This pack is quite large, I can even fit my K20D inside it. That said, I barely notice it when I’m riding. I’ve been told it looks kinda silly and like I’m transporting a baby, so if you're worried about fashion, this may not be the best choice. For me the benefits are the easy access and relatively protected location (I haven’t taken many chest-plants). The harness accessory I bought for it that keeps the bag stable, even when the trail gets choppy -- I was pretty surprised with how well it performed in this regard. My biggest concern is how hot it will be to wear in the summer, which I’ve yet to test.

Although the chestpack looks big,
you really don't notice it much while riding.

A self-portrait of the side view

So there you have it, a general overview of the photo equipment I use for Wheels & Water. Obviously this selection is based on my needs, and may or may not work for you. I strongly encourage you to determine your requirements and do your homework. Dpreview.com is a great place to get the info you need on specific cameras, with reviews on forums for each camera manufacturer.

On last bit of advice that I would give is to get your camera insured. I pay $17/yr which covers my N5 & 18-200mm lens with no deductible. A great peace of mind since dropping it in the water, theft, or some other foolish move would put me out ~$1,500.

Later, I’m planning to do a post on some of my recommended techniques, but once again, I make no claims of being a great photographer, I’m simply a hack that’s willing to share what works best for me. If you’re looking for additional advice (from a far better photographer than myself), check out Darin McQuoid’s blog and tutorials, found here.


  1. Nice writeup -thanks for sharing. I've recently experienced camera envy & thinking about upgrading from my old Canon XT DSLR mainly to get video and improved IQ/features/ISO/AF, etc. I use it a lot for whitewater photography. Was looking at the Sony SLT cameras due to good autofocus in video mode, but couldn't help but notice how enticing the NEX systems are for the combination of size and large sensors (esp. nice for kayaking). Any comments on how suitable you find the NEX-5N as an SLR replacement esp. for whitewater photography? Like has AF been an issue (big difference w/ and w/out viewfinder attached for phase detection AF?). Does it seem rugged enough to handle the paces of the river environment? Have the paucity of buttons to quickly access controls affected your shots?

    Also curious about using the superzoom lens. That's mostly what I use now, but swore I wouldn't go that route again due to too much comprise in IQ, lens speed & AF. Any qualms about the NEX 18-200 for whitewater photography?

  2. Thanks!
    Once again it's a trade off between the NEX and a true DSLR. To hit a couple of your specific questions:

    - Although the contrast detection AF is slower than phase detection AF found on a DSLR, I've not had it be an issue keeping up -- now for mountain biking, where things move a bit faster, it's a different story.

    - As for the view-finder, as you can see, you have to buy it as a separate attachment (which I did). It's currently considered the best digital viewfinder made, and rivals an optical one. That said, I still find myself using the back LCD screen most of the time, but that's more personal preference.

    - As for a rugged build, it's certainly not at the level of my Pentax DSLR (which is built to be weather resistant), but seems comparable with other DSLRs I've used. In fact, I actually left may NEX-3 on top the car where it decided to fall off at ~40mph. Long story short, the lens exploded but the body still functions perfectly, aside from the new side plate constructed from Gorilla Tape. One thing that is a concern is moisture, which can certainly wreck havoc -- I always make sure that my hands are dry, and only shoot with my Pentax if it's raining hard.

    - The controls are certainly not setup as well as a DSLR. That said, you can customize them so that aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are at your finger-tips, which is really the only things I change in the fly for whitewater situations.

    - Regarding the NEX 18-200, it's one of my sharpest lenses, and for video it's amazing. It's pricy, but well worth it IMO.

    A couple other major benefits of the NEX-5N that should be noted are:
    - Unbelievable high ISO performance. I find it produces great images at 1600, and even usable at 3200. For the record I shoot in RAW and edit in Lightroom 3, using some noise reduction.
    - Live view/histogram without loss of light (as with the SLT technology)
    - Ability to add on phase detection AF and Sony's entire line of Alpha lenses with LA-EA2 adapter -- although it's pricy.
    - Ability to use almost every SLR/Rangefinder lens made by any manufacturer (i.e. legacy glass). This does require specific adapters but they are cheap (typically around $20). It should be noted that you will need to use manual focus/aperture controls if you go this route.

    In conclusion, I also think that the Sony SLTs are great cameras, and if you really want a weather resistant build, go with a Pentax DSLR, you can't beat it for the price (checkout the K5 specifically).

    Hope this helps,