32 Months with the MkIII

SHM: The Vitality London 10,000

Lily Partridge of Aldershot Farnham and District crosses the line to win the women’s race. The Vitality London 10,000, Monday 30th May 2016. Photo: Neil Turner/Silverhub for Vitality London 10,000

Whenever you read about a camera the reviewer has usually had it in their hands for a few days and taken a few hundred frames with it. I’ve done it myself with all sorts of kit and I find it interesting that one of my most popular blogs  (a review of the original Elinchrom Ranger Quadra) was written when I had been using the kit for 32 months. As luck would have it I have been using Canon’s EOS5D MkIIIs for 32 months now and as the announcement of it’s widely leaked successor is only a week away I thought that now would be an excellent time to blog about my long-term opinion of these interesting cameras.

By the time my first MkIII arrived I had been shooting for almost five years with its predecessor – the Canon EOS5D MkIIs. I had grown to love the MkII despite its many quirks and faults and I knew them inside out and backwards. I had owned three of them at various times (never fewer than two) and had shot somewhere near half a million frames with them. In some professional circles that would qualify as barely worn in but when you don’t do bursts of three, four and more it takes a while to clock up that many pictures. I was quite excited by the announcement of the MkIII and blogged about it at the time saying that I would reserve judgement until I’d used one.

I need to say this: I have loved the 5D MkIII and almost everything about it pretty much from day one. It wasn’t just a little bit better than the MkII (which is what I had expected) it literally did everything better. From the far less annoying shutter sound (yes, really, the MkII shutter noise bugged me intensely) to the greatly improved layout of controls and from the vastly superior auto-focus to the improved image quality everything about the MkIII was an improvement. To this day, and having worked with files from just about every serious camera on the market, I find the image quality of the Mark 3 wonderful and the CR2s easy to work with in post-production. It may not have the highest pixel count and it may not top any tables designed to excite pixel-peepers but the files are a joy and the image quality displays subtleties and that indefinable je ne sais quoi that makes me smile. A lot.

Please don’t get me wrong, the EOS5D MkIII is not perfect. There are a couple of recurring build quality issues that Canon should have addressed during the product cycle rather than waiting to fix them with a new model. Almost every professional user of the MkIII that I know has had the disc on the mode dial with the various options on it fall off and/or lost the plastic multi-controller on the back of the camera. Neither should have been as easy to lose or as flimsily built as they were and having either replaced wasn’t cheap. Beyond those two niggles, on the odd occasion I put the camera into continuous shooting, I was never impressed by the 3.5 frames per second top speed and the 1/200th of a second flash synch has always been a disappointment. The LCD screens on mine have never felt that accurate and they have always looked very different from one another.

Beyond that I have always found that the camera fits beautifully into my hands and it is a joy to use – especially with smaller and lighter lenses. The MkIII is a versatile camera that fits into the range well and after four years on the market it can still hold its own – selling well and coming up on the used market a lot less often than most of its rivals.

The upcoming MkIV has an interesting list of features. Most of them are evolutionary (USB3, more megapixels and better video) and one or two will need to be explained to me when the announcement is official.

Just as I said when the MkIII appeared I will need to do the mathematics and decide whether buying a couple of these new cameras will be cost-effective for my business because there’s a distinct possibility that the advantages won’t make me any more money. Built in wifi and GPS are a good idea but I have the WFT-E7 which gives you so much more than the built-in wifi on a camera such as the EOS6D – a camera whose GPS has been switched on to see how it works, realised how much it drains the battery and switched off again.

Having used an EOS1DX MkI for a few days I have high hopes for the implementation of the communication settings on the MkIV. We have fed lots of information back to Canon over the last couple of years and I hope that they have listened. I am also looking forward to what they are going to do with their bundled software. EOS Utility is crying out for some easy improvements and I hope that this new camera will be shipped at the same time as na better application to aid setting it up and maintaining it.

We are all different and we all want subtly different things from our gear. I am quite excited about the EOS5D MkIV but whether or not excitement will turn into ownership is a whole other matter.

Photography compared to…

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BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET. 08 April 2016. A fairground on Redhill Common. © Photo Neil Turner – Freelance photographer.

When you try to explain concepts in photography to someone who isn’t deeply embedded in the art/craft/science/passion it makes sense to find something else top compare it to. My favourite comparisons are driving, cooking and sport.

Driving is something most of us do and, on the whole, we do it without having to think too much about the basics. I’ve talked about it before so I’ll quickly recap my thoughts:

Changing gear, using the indicators, knowing when to use windscreen wipers and headlights are all pretty much done on auto-pilot whilst we think more consciously about road awareness, speeds, traffic, navigation and much else besides. The comparison to photography is an easy one to make because there are basic controls that we like to think are second nature; exposure, focusing, making sure we have memory cards and batteries whilst composition and anticipating things happening in front of your camera (and often off to the side and behind you) are things that require more conscious thought.

Tempting though it is to continue stretching the analogy I want to move onto cooking. All pictures have some basic ingredients and the skill of photography is to take those basics, add some interesting extras and know how to combine them and serve them up. That’s the schmultzy bit out of the way. Great chefs (and I’ve photographed a few and dined in the restaurants of several) are constantly looking for new twists and the odd exotic ingredient whilst making food that serves the joint purpose of feeding and engaging diners. Mediocre chefs overdo it, use too many trendy techniques and ingredients at the same time and generally fail in the main task of presenting good food where substance and style are in balance. The rest of us when cooking do the same old dishes, warm up too many ready meals and generally avoid any pretence of culinary ambition or expertise.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t even need to draw the comparisons between cooking and photography except to say that I’d almost rather have the gourmet food and the home cooked stuff all of the time and miss out the self-regarding nonsense in the middle. Restaurant critics and food writers have a lot in common with people who write pretentious twaddle about photography. This is one analogy that can go on for a long time.

So what about sport? I am sitting and writing this on the day of the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics thinking of my many friends and colleagues who are already there working as photographers, editors and photo managers. They will be watching/photographing/witnessing some of the finest athletes in the word today. Athletes that have spent years perfecting their skills and getting themselves into peak condition being photographed by many of the finest photographers who have also spent years getting to where they are today.

Comparing photography to sports isn’t so much about finding similarities – it’s more about the differences. When you run 400 metres as a professional nothing much changes. Tracks are tracks and running shoes develop little by little. I know that diet, training and off-track activities change but, essentially, the principal task remains the same because running one lap of a track as fast as possible is what it is; tremendously tough but always the same. Photographing that event is a constantly changing thing. From black and white to colour, from manual focus to auto-focus and now we have to shift the pictures extremely rapidly too. Technology means that day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year shooting the same kind of job changes. An athlete remains at the top of their game for a relatively short time whilst the best photographers are around for decades. A swimmer attending their third or fourth Olympics is news whereas a photographer doing that would be just getting started!

Comparing apples with bananas has value when trying to explain the wider art and craft of photography to someone whose experience has been the odd compact camera and their smartphone. Right now I need to go and explain why it takes at least three hours to do the post-production on a six hour shoot and why I can’t just give the client some rough Jpegs. Anyone got a compelling analogy for that?

Canon feature request?

I had an email from someone who has followed my blogs for many years this week. He’s a working news photographer who I bumped into on a job a few weeks ago. He had noticed some tape on the top of my Canon EOS5D MkIII and my EOS 7D MkII and simply pointed to his cameras and said “snap”. He had tape on his cameras too – doing precisely the same job that the tape on mine does and went on to ask what the chances of Canon making a change to future cameras that would eliminate the need for us to tape that particular feature on our cameras. The email was to remind me that I had promised to do a quick blog post about the issue.

Taped diopter adjustment on a Canon EOS 5d MkIII

Taped diopter adjustment on a Canon EOS 5d MkIII

The tape on our cameras holds the built-in diopter adjustment dial and stops it from being moved in the bag or over your shoulder – something that happens to me a lot if I remove the tape. I have no idea if anyone from Canon’s design department reads this blog (I doubt that they do) but it seems to me that if enough of us sufferers from this problem mention it to them when we talk to them then they just might do something about it. Nikon have a lock on the diopter adjustment on some of their professional cameras so it has to be relatively easy to do.

The EOS5D MkIV will be appearing later this year if all of the rumours are to be believed so this may be a little late but you have to give these things a try.

Canon employees and dealers reading this… please help to reduce my gaffer tape bill. Soon. Please.

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30

31 May 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Think Tank Logistics Manager 30. Hillcrest Road

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

A few weeks ago I bought some more Elinchrom Ranger Quadra kit and after a short while lugging my gear around in multiple bags and cases I decided that it was time to get myself one big case to take most or all of my Quadra gear. My rationale was that I am pulling one bag on wheels and carrying two or three others so why not make it one on wheels with the lighting and one smaller bag with cameras and lenses riding on top of it or over my shoulder as required? There’s quite a bit of choice on the market but all of my experience with Think Tank bags told me to start my search there. They make lots of rolling bags but only three specifically designed to lug large amounts of kit. My benchmark was that I had to be able to get at least two of my Manfrotto 156 stands plus a couple of Manfrotto 001s in there along with two or three packs, three or four heads, spare batteries, cables, light modifiers and plenty of accessories.

I had previously seen a colleagues Location Manager 40 case and so I wanted to check out the Logistics Manager 30 because on paper it appeared to be just about perfect. The internal dimensions were listed at 70cm length. My 051 stands are 68cm when folded and so I tried one and when it fitted the deal was pretty much sealed. All I needed to do was make sure that it fitted into the boot (trunk) of the car and it was at this point that I realised that neither of the two bigger “Manager” series bags would have worked. The 30 goes in with a bit to spare but anything much longer would need to go sideways and therefore wouldn’t be much use.

In the ten days or so since buying the case I have only used it twice. On job number one I was delighted with it when rolling it but less so when having to lift it up stairs or into the boot (trunk) of the car. There’s no bag or case in the world that can magically make its contents weigh less and the temptation to load this one has to be tempered with my need to be able to lift it. For job two I went with just two packs, two spare batteries, three heads and only three stands and quickly realised that I could only fully load this case if I were working with someone else who could help with the lifting. I’m getting old!

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

I am happy to report that this case comes with so many options for the inserts and dividers that I have a medium sized carrier bag full of unused bits. The flexibility is amazing and the quality of the construction appears to be right up there with every other bit of Think Tank kit I own. I am particularly pleased with the zipped mesh compartments in the lid. I have lots of gels cut into manageable pieces and they fitted into one of them very well whilst the other swallowed lots of those small accessories that can otherwise get lost drifting around in the base of the bag. You can see that I have a couple of pouches in this case. One has the Elinchrom Skyport HS triggers and the other has lots of small and medium sized clips which are great for holding gels etc.

I’m sure that there’ll be a few tweaks and some settling in but, for now, this layout works very well for me when I am working on my own. I haven’t even thought about using any of the exterior pockets but I have already given the built-in combination lock a go – chaining my locked bag to a radiator after I’d finished shooting, packed up and whilst I’d gone for coffee with the client.

My final point here is that turning up with completely professional solutions is good for your image. I’m sure that a reasonable quality suitcase with some makeshift padding would work almost as well and cost £200 less but this really is doing the job properly and my client definitely noticed.

So I bought a Canon 7D MkII

I wrote a long blog post about this time last year talking about the choice between three of Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras. At that stage in my work I couldn’t imagine buying another crop frame camera after selling my original EOS7D and giving my opinion of it as “loving everything about the camera apart from the image quality above 800 ISO”. Well, hold the front page – the EOS7D Mk II can handle ISOs a fair bit higher than 800.

Cropped area of approximately a frame shot at 3200 ISO blown up to 100%

Cropped area of approximately a frame shot at 3200 ISO blown up to 100%

In the frame above shot at 3200 ISO you can see some noise in the out of focus areas but it isn’t nasty and it isn’t overwhelming. In the sample shot under ‘press conference’ conditions at 1600 ISO I think that the camera performed brilliantly. I would say that the MkII is at least two stops better in low light than the original 7D and maybe a bit more under certain lighting conditions and those two stops are the difference between a camera that is very usable as an every day available light camera and one that isn’t.

So far I have been delighted with it. I’ve used it on ten assignments already and it is rapidly becoming one of those things that goes into the bag first. Married with f4 L series zooms with the image stabilisation turned on I have been deeply impressed with this camera. The AF is brilliant, the shutter is responsive and shooting video with this camera has been the best DSLR video experience I’ve ever had.

Cropped area of approximately a quarter of a frame shot at 1600 ISO blown up to 100%

Cropped area of approximately a quarter of a frame shot at 1600 ISO blown up to 100%

I’m not saying that this camera can, in any way, compete with something like an EOS5D MkIII or even an EOS6D but it is a lot better than the original 7D and I’d be happy to use it at 3200 ISO on a job if I needed to. I bought the camera for other reasons than its high ISO performance (AF performance, speed, video performance and price) but this was a nice surprise. I won’t be parting with any of my full frame Canons but my prejudice against the APS-C format just disappeared in 1/200th of a second.

Elinchrom Quadra ELB

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

When I get a new piece of kit worthy of mention, I usually write a first hand account of how it is working out and go into details based on using it on a few jobs. I bought an Elinchrom Quadra ELB HS kit a couple of weeks ago and I thought that it was about time I gave some first impressions on this blog. Sadly, I haven’t used it for anything particularly interesting and I certainly haven’t stretched it beyond what I would normally do with my old Quadras (some executive portraits and a quick location shoot) but I can already see a lot of small but amazingly significant changes from the original system.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I was very impressed with the Quadra when I wrote about it in my “32 Months On” and was further impressed when the Lithium Ion batteries came out. The differences between the ELB and the Quadra for most jobs aren’t huge but everything about the new kit tells me that the designers have listened and that the manufacturers have allowed their engineers to implement some great changes. For me, the positive changes with the pack are:

  • Far better display
  • Vastly improved menu system
  • Ability to recondition flattened lithium batteries
  • Better cable port covers
  • All of my old Quadra bits and cables are compatible with the new pack

I have the new High Synch head too which brings one key improvement which is the ability to synch with my cameras at shutter speeds right up to 1/8000th of a second using the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter and I’ll talk about these a bit further down the page.

Let’s talk about the menus: back a few years I said this about Quadra menus “some bits of the menu system are not too obvious without the book. Changing stuff like the duration of the beep that signifies that the pack has recharged or whether the readout is in f-stops or watt/seconds isn’t too much of a problem but switching Skyport channels for the first time isn’t all that easy.” With the ELB I was changing stuff without having to resort to any instructions and the display is easy to read in just about any light. For me, this kind of progress is brilliant and it makes the new kit that bit easier to use – which is what you want, serious evolution rather than revolution.

When I swapped over to the Lithium batteries I posed the question “What do you call it when something that was already very good gets quite a lot better?” I went on to answer “an upgrade”. The downside of the lithium batteries is that if you leave them flat they can appear to be dead and not accept a charge, no matter what you do. When this happened to one of mine the marvellous folks at The Flash Centre reconditioned it for me. The new ELB pack has the facility to recondition batteries and that could turn out to be a real help. I try not to leave anything flat but if it happens again, I have the wherewithal to get myself out of that particular jam now.

As I said before, small improvements add up and the less heavily engineered and simpler port covers are great. Nothing revolutionary but a fair bit better than the old ones and the same can be said for the relatively small power bump from 400 watt seconds to 424. That’s a fraction of an f-stop but, to paraphrase a well know UK supermarket, “every little helps”.

So far, I cannot see any negatives with the new pack – a solid upgrade with some great functionality. The same cannot be said for the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter . That’s a mouthful so from now on it is the HS Transmitter and it’s infinitely better. It’s a lot bigger than the old Skyport – which is a great thing as I have always said the old one was unnecessarily small. The new one runs on AA batteries which answers another one of my criticisms. You get viewfinder feedback such as a ready light and, most importantly of all, you can now shoot with high speed synch if you have the right flash head. With the ELB pack there are way more functions built into the transmitter and all-in-all it is way more than an upgrade. If I have a criticism, it is pretty expensive but that’s all I can find wrong with it so far.

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

Moving onto the high synch head, well it looks and feels exactly like the old heads. It takes exactly the same accessories and cables as the old head and it definitely works when synching at shutter speeds in excess of 1/200th of a second. I have yet to give it a thorough testing but it appears to do exactly what it should – which is great.

Up until now everything I’ve had to say is positive and I am extremely pleased with my new acquisitions. I was asked the other day why I didn’t buy the Profoto B2 instead. The answer is that I wanted the backward compatibility of sticking with Elinchrom and I refused to pay the price for the Profoto. It has a TTL function which the Elinchrom lacks but I have no idea when or even if I’d use it and I don’t like the way that light modifiers attach to the B2. Maybe TTL would be another (the next) upgrade for Elinchrom’s ultra-portable. Maybe it would push the price up too far. Who knows.

What I do know is that, yet again, the engineers at Elinchrom’s Swiss HQ have taken a very good product that I had 100% trust in and made it better in every way that I can see. I’m a fan of these ultra-portable kits and I’ve tried pretty much every one of them since I first handled the Lumedynes and Normans back in the early 1990s. The Quadra ELB is one of the best bits of kit that I own and I will post some examples when finally get to shoot pictures that stretch its capabilities out beyond what the old Quadra could do.