The Evolution of a Backpacking Camera System

Some of you who stop here to read my ramblings on cameras probably know that I’ve been using a Sony NEX 5N along with some small manual focus lenses to make a fairly compact, lightweight, and capable camera system. Well, this year has been the year of new gadgets and adding more weight to my pack, so I guess it follows that my camera setup has also grown. This is just a quick update of what I’m working with now. There’s some recent NEX news also, so I’ll mention that at the end.

My Previous Backpacking Camera Setup Compared to Now

I detailed my previous setup pretty well on this post. Here’s the summary of the actual kit with the items I have since changed:

  • NEX 5N + 7.5 oz
  • Battery + 2.0 oz
  • Battery + 2.0 oz
  • CV 15/4.5 + 4.0 oz
  • CV 35/2.5 + 4.7 oz >> CV 40/1.4 + 8.3 oz
  • CV 90/3.5 + 9.1 oz >> Dropped this lens from the kit
  • CV 21/1.8 + 15.0 oz >> Added this lens to the kit
  • Leica-M to Sony-E Adapter + 2.3 oz >> LME Helicoid Adapter + 1.5 oz
  • Memory + 0.05 oz
  • Memory + 0.05 oz
  • Strap + 0.1 oz

Total: 31.8 oz >> 40.5 oz (just over 3 lbs if I pack the 90mm)

So Why the Change?

Well, to begin with, I parted ways with my Canon 5D and associated “L” glass. That was a tough decision to make, the 5D has a great sensor and paired with lenses like the 35L and 135L it’s a joy to use. It also made for a very versatile setup along side my NEX 5N; a big/heavy system with a full frame sensor and fast lenses for low light, shallow depth of field, portraits, etc… and a small/light system with slow lenses for hiking and landscapes. Ultimately I couldn’t rationalize owning both. The performance of the 5N sensor was similar enough to the 5D that I couldn’t find any great reasons to hold onto the SLR. In terms of subject isolation, I’ve found the 5N working at f/2.0 is adequate and suits my style just fine. Overall the image quality of the 5D and good glass bests the 5N (and is excellent even with more modern sensors around) so it was a compromise, but a small one I felt. For printing, any advantages that the 5D had were equalized by the slightly higher resolution of the 5N, basically a draw in that respect.

Subject isolation with 5N + CV 40/1.4 working at F/2.0
Subject isolation with 5N + CV 40/1.4 working at F/2.0

This led me to sell off the SLR and heavy glass, leaving only my NEX, but I only owned 1 “fast” lens – the 40/1.4 (equivalent to a 60/2.0 on full frame). The lens I’ve missed the most since buying my NEX is a 35mm equivalent – especially a fast one. I broke down and bought the Sony-Zeiss 24/1.8, yes, the same lens I talked smack about in previous posts. Guess what? I didn’t like it much at all. Sold it a few months later. The image quality was a little better than Sony’s native NEX glass, but not what I want from a pricey Zeiss lens. Even more aggravating than the price was trying to manually focus with it. I think people who prefer manual focus should stick to legacy MF lenses with the NEX – trying to MF with an auto-focus lens on the NEX can be a pain in the arm. I thought if I could get along with the MF feel of the lens, or just switch to using AF, I would grab the Sony 10-18mm zoom (which looks to be great wide angle zoom) and call it a day with those two lenses… alas that idea failed.

It was about this time that I remembered Cosina Voigtlander (CV) had recently released their 21/1.8 “Ultron”, which was meant as a direct competitor to the Leica Summilux 21/1.4 (a $7000 lens which has never been on my radar). One side by side review showed the CV 21/1.8 to hold its own against the 24 ‘Lux, so I decided to pull the trigger on it. My first ‘serious’ lens purchase for the NEX. It was both larger, heavier, and more expensive than any of my previous lenses – and, a more modern design (yes, there are still MF lenses being developed and manufactured today). I’ve been very happy with the lens so far. It’s multitudes more enjoyable to use than the Sony-Zeiss 24, and gives me roughly the same 35mm f/2.0 equivalent. I’m still not sure if the image quality from this lens makes it an outstanding lens on NEX, but it’s clearly a keeper and having my favorite focal length again has been fantastic.

Size comparison of CV 15/4.5 and CV 21/1.8 (blue tape added to protect the hood)
Size comparison of CV 15/4.5 and CV 21/1.8 (blue tape added to protect the hood)
Ice Fishing - Shallow DOF with CV 21/1.8 wide open
Ice Fishing – Shallow DOF with CV 21/1.8 wide open
Low light photo with CV 21/1.8
Low light photo with CV 21/1.8

I decided to also part ways with my CV 35/2.5. While a little gem of a lens, I found that I preferred the rendering of the CV 40/1.4 “Nokton”. While less perfect, the results between the two seemed to always favor the Nokton. I can’t put my finger on what it is with this lens, but it really works well with the 5N. It may just be my shooting/processing style; several people I know have commented that I seemed to do no wrong with that lens, while in contrast they felt it constantly fought against them… goes to show that choosing the “best” lens is never a straight forward process. By opting for the Nokton over the 35/2.5 I again gained size/weight in the setup. It’s nice to be carrying a couple of fast lenses though.

The last thing I gave up, which is worth mentioning, are common filter sizes. Now, none of my lenses share filters. I think I’m going to focus on filters for the 21mm since this will be my most used lens. Right now I’m sort of filterless.

I’m also trying a new adapter that has a built in helicoid, meaning it has something like a focus ring that moves the entire lens closer to or further from the camera. This works like an extension tube by providing closer focusing capability (which is something that many of the rangefinder lenses lack), but it can be retracted at any time thus allowing normal focus again, without having to mount or un-mount the lens or extension tubes. In concept I like having the close focus capability, but I’m undecided how much I like the user experience. The adapter has to be fully retracted to achieve infinity focus; a small bump or wiggle can change the focus range so I’ve found it to be important to always first check that it’s fully retracted before focusing. This adds a step to the focusing process that I would otherwise not have to deal with. I’m thinking that carrying an extension tube and my normal Voigtlander adapter might be a better solution for me.

CV 40/1.4 framing at normal minimum focus distance.
CV 40/1.4 framing at normal minimum focus distance.
CV 40/1.4 framing at minimum focus distance with LME adapter.
CV 40/1.4 framing at minimum focus distance with LME adapter.
A close focus shot taken with the CV 15 and LME adapter
A close focus shot taken with the CV 15 and LME adapter

I still have the CV 15/4.5, which is an absolute gem on the 5N. Yeah, it get’s magenta color shift in the corners, but once that’s corrected it’s hard to find fault with it. Ok, mine tends to flare in some situations that I wouldn’t expect it to (although it does pretty good right into the sun), but dang, the thing is sharp and contrasty – great for wide angle landscapes. It’s also tiny, which helps – it can almost totally nest in my 40/1.4 when the hood is on.

I also have my CV 90/3.5, which is also a great little lens. It’s more long and skinny than fat, most of that is the hood which can be removed. I don’t use this lens as much as the others so I haven’t been carrying it as often. Performance wise, it’s a great lens… sharp from wide open, nice contrast, and renders colors very nicely due to it’s apochromatic glass.

The CV 90, a great lens that I use more when not hiking.
The CV 90, a great lens that I use more when not hiking.

All in all the CV lens lineup has worked really well for me since owning the NEX. Unfortunately the reality of needing/wanting some fast lenses after selling my SLR lenses caught up with me, but my kit is still fairly light (by my standards) and versatile.

News, Rumors, What does the Future Hold?

As for me, I plan to stick with my 5N for now. After using a friend’s NEX 5, and another friend’s NEX 6, I realized… I really like the touchscreen! It’s so nice to be able to pick an area to zoom into (for focusing) by touching it. It’s nice for auto-focus use also (though I do very little of that), and even for image review. I don’t think I could upgrade to another NEX unless it had a touchscreen.

As for the future of NEX, well it’s been getting brighter and brighter. The first of the Zeiss Touit auto-focus primes (made by Cosina) are available now and have been well received by those who are asking for premium lenses. Eventually these may pave my path away from my Cosina Voigtlander lenses… but I doubt it 🙂 The hottest ticket in town right now is still the Sigma 19/2.8 and 30/2.8 pair, both of which are excellent lenses despite the flimsy feeling build quality. The price on the 5N body continues to drop, not much separates it from the newer 5R body, and a the replacement for the 5R is rumored to be coming along very soon (it’s been over a year already since its release).

Rumors have been circulating about an update for the NEX7 coming soon, and of course the full frame NEX talk rambles on. I have some speculation on how a full frame NEX might manifest, and I don’t think it really interests me. The update for the 7 however, rumored to sport a redesigned 24mp sensor, improved electronic view finder, AND a touchscreen… that would be very tempting. If it worked well with the rangefinder lenses I use, I might find my backpacking camera kit increasing in size once again, sigh. Well it’s only a rumor… for now!

And then there is this. We’re all shadows and dust, but photography is a nice way to pass the time. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of cameras of recent years. So, what’s your photo kit looking like lately? Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

5 Comments

  1. Greg
    August 9, 2013
    Reply

    Jacob,

    Excellent info. I appreciate your time and expertise. I do like the new 5R body’s feature set. Button controlled zoom and flash on the 6 and 7…meh. WiFi connectivity is intriguing and might be useful to push images to my laptop or iPhone. Touchscreen, very cool sounding feature.

    As to getting used to electronic viewfinder, I think that won’t be too hard. I’ve done enough shooting on a P&S or my iPhone that I think I can get used to it. I like your tips in this post, http://hikeitlikeit.com/2012/photography-and-backpacking-8/, for stability and focusing. Manual focus controls and aids on the NEX line I am excited about trying.

    Lens, on the other hand, is probably the area where I need the most research. I know the glass between me and the subject is probably more important than the camera body itself, but like many hobby photographers, this is an area I have often overlooked. I want the ability to shoot some wide mountain vistas here in Colorado, take some super-creative people/camp photos, and the option of some good macros of flowers/bugs/etc…not super-macros, but closeups none the less. Here I am torn between the 18-55 kit lens plus a dedicated macro, or a three primes setup as you describe. Big zoom is the area I think I can most do without.

    Being new to the mirrorless format, maybe I should just start with a kit lens and move out to primes from there?

    • Jacob D
      August 12, 2013
      Reply

      Hi again Greg.

      A kit lens is a fine way to start, as most people do. However one benefit you won’t reap of the larger sensor with a kit lens is the ability to isolate a subject (a.k.a background blur, or “smooth bokeh” will be harder to achieve). The kit lens does not offer a large aperture (say something in the range of f1.4 to f/2.8). This isn’t everything, but it’s nice to be able to do that when you want to, probably most commonly when photographing a person, wildlife, or other still life that you want to stand out from the background. This is why a kit lens plus a fast prime makes a nice combo. If you want to experiment on the cheap I always recommend picking up an inexpensive 35mm or 50mm manual focus SLR lens. This is a simple means to try both using a prime lens, and a manual focus lens, and it will cost next to nothing. There are tons of inexpensive Olympus (“OM” mount) and Minolta (“MD/MC” mount) 35/2.0, 50/1.8, 50/1.4 etc… lenses on eBay, and they’re not that big or heavy, nor are the adapters and those are available on eBay as well. If you like that setup it will give you some experience to build on when considering what lenses you might like to use in the long term.

      Let me know what direction you decide to go!

  2. Greg
    August 8, 2013
    Reply

    Jacob,

    I like the new website and read the backpacking camera pieces with interest. I am an amateur photographer, but still enjoy it a great deal. Do a mod amount of post-processing of best shots in LightRoom. That being said, I have never been able to justify carrying my 6-8 year old Nikon D90 on backpacking trips. I have used a variety of point and shoots with limited success. I’m never satisfied with the outcome so now I just use my iphone with similar satisfaction.

    I have been considering a new smaller body/mirrorless camera for a couple of years. Most of my research has been on various photo blogs and dpreview. I think I’m gonna need interchangeable lens to be satisfied (landscapes, people, plus macro), but have to keep the price reasonable (Leika is off limits). The products available change so fast it makes my head spin.

    I know you favor the Sony NEX line but I’ve also played a bit with the Oly PEN’s. Weight is important, but I don’t mind a couple of pounds to get high quality images. Where should I start? Do I choose a light weight body with either a 4/3 or APS-C sensor and jump in?

    You seem to have a good handle on the weight/performance issue in addition to lens choice knowledge.

    Greg

    • Jacob D
      August 8, 2013
      Reply

      Hey Greg, thanks for the follow up. I received your email as well, but will reply here for the benefit of whoever else might come along. These are my thoughts on the matter of camera selection, there is no one right answer…

      It sounds like we’re talking about an interchangeable lens system, so let’s go with that. If you’re already shooting with an SLR, do you have some idea of the focal lengths you like to work with? If not, you may want to put some thought into it. Personally I think a 2 or 3 lens kit is ideal no matter what the situation may be; too many options complicates things. For example, a fast prime lens and a zoom can compliment each other well and deciding which to use in a given situation should be fairly simple. A lineup composed of all prime lenses, usually a trio of them, is another way to go. Sometimes a specialty lens like a macro can round out a lineup. Whatever your preference may be I’d suggest start by tentatively selecting a system that interests you, then look in depth at the lenses it offers. If you focus (no pun intended) on the lenses in focal lengths that you commonly use, you should be able to get a pretty good idea if the system will be right for you. It’s easy to fall victim to the thinking that a system must have a ton of lenses to be viable, when most of us only ever use a select few of those lenses.

      As for 4/3 vs APS-C… well, I look at everything from the perspective of what an equal generation full frame sensor offers and draw my conclusions. Whatever people say, there is a step down in image quality every time the sensor gets smaller. Also, all bodies/sensors are not created equal, so you must do your homework and find out what shortcomings a particular model has. I like the current Sony APS-C line. Just about any of the current mirrorless systems are good enough for regular guys like me, so ergonomics gains some importance when boiling it all down. I prefer the stripped down feel of my 5N. Some people like more dials and such; I honestly would welcome an SLR-like control layout… if the body was larger to accommodate a more ergo-friendly spacing of the dials and buttons.

      4/3 has the widest selection of lenses, Sony is playing catch up but still has some pretty good offerings for the NEX, and now Zeiss is on board with their Touit lenses for NEX. There are some other players out there but I would focus on either Oly or Sony and consider them as systems as a whole, while keeping in mind how they fit your particular needs/shooting style.

      One point I should add, possibly the biggest point of contention for SLR users is working with an electronic view finder or none at all (in which case you’ll be using the rear screen). This is probably the single biggest adjustment going to a mirrorless camera, which I suppose is the direction you could be headed while looking to lighten your gear. It might be worthwhile to stop by an electronics store and at least get a little hands on before taking the final plunge. Many of us have adapted, but ditching the optical view finder is not for everybody.

      A long winded reply that skirts around a direct answer, but such is life in the world of cameras and lenses 🙂

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