Every once in a while a camera comes along that draws a line in the sand, redefines a segment, and marks a milestone in photography. The first from-the-ground-up dSLR, the Nikon D1, was such a camera. Canon’s consumer-level digital Rebel was such a camera as was Canon’s 5DMKII with its breakthrough video performance. Cameras like this don’t come along everyday, but when they do they mark a fundamental shift and a category maturity for a manufacturer.
Aimed at Sports and wedding photographers, the A9 is positioned to be a camera long-remembered by photographers as a defining moment for Sony and mirrorless cameras. The list of specs is impressive:
- 24 megapixel stacked full frame sensor
- 693 phase detection autofocus points with 93% coverage
- A shooting buffer capable of handling 241 compressed raw files or 362 JPEGs
- 5-axis in body image stabilization
- OLED viewfinder with 120fps refresh
- 4K 24p full frame video
And that’s not all, the A9 has a silent electronic shutter, a highly performant autofocus system capable of 60 autofocus calculations per second, and every Sony fanboy’s favorite spec: 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout- making it faster than Canon’s 1Dx and Nikon’s D5.
Yet specs, however impressive they are, don’t make a camera. I’ve had the chance to spend a good amount of time with the A9 and what follows are my impressions of using it day-in and day-out.
Dials and Controls
New Dial & Dial Lock
The first thing you’ll notice about the A9 is the addition of a two stacked dials on the left dedicated to burst mode and focus. This is a nice addition as it saves having to go through the fn options to set the burst and autofocus settings. Both dials have a button lock you have to depress in order to change their settings. The design works well, but I wish there was a more elegant way of locking the dials as I found the press-to-turn process a bit cumbersome. It’s not that the implementation doesn’t work, it’s that it’s difficult to unlock and change settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder. This is especially true of the AF selector which has a tiny push-button unlock mechanism.
AF ON and AEL Buttons
If there is one button I was happy to see it would be: AF ON. Sure you can customize buttons on the A7 cameras to use rear AF, but you shouldn’t have to do that as it takes away from the camera’s customizability.
I personally have no use for the AEL button as I photograph everything on manual, but it is a good addition nonetheless and signals a new focus (no pun intended) on ergonomics from Sony.
While I liked the AF and AEL buttons, I did think they could have been more pronounced. I felt they were a bit too small, and inset, and not as easy to depress or tactilely locate while looking through the viewfinder as they could be. I also felt the AF ON button was a bit too close in proximity and tactile feel to the video recording button (I recorded a couple of nice videos when I thought I was focusing. I also sadly managed to end a video I was recording when I thought I was focusing) I hope Sony moves the recording button in future iterations and makes the AF button tactilely distinct.
The A9 has a joystick dedicated to setting the focus point. This is a fantastic addition! The joystick is exactly where it needs to be and its feel is perfect. The combination of AF ON and the focus joystick make for a much more streamlined shooting experience as you don’t have to move your fingers to all corners of the camera to set and achieve focus. It’s awesome not to have to hit the center dial button to move the autofocus point about as you do with the A7 line.
The Silent Shutter
The first configuration change I made with the A9 was disabling the AF beep as I hate hate hate having to hear a sound everytime the camera achieves focus. Easy enough: go into the camera settings and turn off notifications. With the “beep” disabled, I went to shoot, focused, depressed the shutter and….nothing. The viewfinder didn’t blackout and I didn’t hear the shutter fire. I had to stop and check to see if the camera actually took a photo. That moment was a revelation! You mean I never ever have to stop looking at my subject and, if I want it, I never have to hear a shutter? That’s just plain awesome. By the way, there’s a visual cue in the viewfinder indicating a frame was captured. It’s easy to miss the first time you use the camera, but you quickly know to look for it. Incidentally, you can enable a shutter audio sound if you want.
Sony’s menus have historically been a sore point for anyone switching from Canon or Nikon. Sony cameras offer a lot of configurability, but their menus to date been anything but intuitive. The A9’s menu remedies this by including a custom “My Menu” allowing you to add settings or functions you typically utilize. This means you no longer have to hunt for the “format” menu item to clear your cards.
The Battery and Grip
I own no fewer than 5 batteries for my A7II and I always make sure they are charged before serious outings. The batteries are small and I have to be cognizant of how much charge I have left. For example, I always make sure I have a fresh battery to go just before sunset or sunrise shoots as the last thing I want is to miss a shot because I have to fiddle with the battery.
The A7RII, for example, has a CIPA rating of 290 shots while the A9 clocks in at 480. This is still significantly shorter than a 5DMKIV‘s impressive 900 images per battery through the viewfinder- though it should be noted that the 5DMKIV’s battery clocks in at 300 images using LiveView while the A9 can yield 650 images per CIPA standards.
One result of the larger battery is a wider grip. I like the slightly larger form factor, but I’m sure there are those who disagree. This is largely a matter of preference. Either way, the A9 remains significantly smaller than its Canon or Nikon counterparts.
Viewfinder, Autofocus & Burst Mode
I don’t care if you shoot sloths or plain ‘ol concrete drying exclusively for your day job, nothing puts a smile on a photographer’s face like burst mode- and 20 frames per second sure does the trick! It’s a blast hitting that shutter button, daring the A9’s buffer, and letting the camera fly.
The A9’s autofocus performance is impressive and the camera is, as Sony promises, stable throughout- what this means is I didn’t get it to lock up on me. Also, having no blackout in the viewfinder is fantastic as I mentioned previously. It’s a nice-to-have when shooting slower action, but it’s a godsend when you’re trying to nail a composition during fast-action sequences.
I put the AF through its paces in three tests using a challenging subject: a hyperactive 9yr old cycling down a hill towards the camera (aka Jonah, my son). I executed 3 separate tests using the A9 coupled to a Zeiss 24-70 f/4 lens. The camera was set to AF-C and Lock-on AF: Flexible spot Medium. Two of the tests were down the same hill while the 3rd was performed in an area with tree cover and spotty light in an attempt to challenge the AF system. 20 images from each sequence were placed in the galleries below. Incidentally, I set the lens aperture to f/4 to ensure the resultant focus wasn’t due to depth of field.
AF Test 1
AF Test 2
AF Test 3
Overall the AF was solid. The keeper rate across the tests was very impressive considering the test involved a subject moving towards the camera. I did have a few shots near the end of the sequences as Jonah moved close to the camera. I believe this was due to the focus point shifting away from his face as he approached due to him being in close proximity. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable wielding the A9 for its main calling: sports and action photography.
This was a fun one. I wanted to give the A9 a challenge and also use it in the wild – not in a controlled environment. I wanted to “run and gun” with it and create a video.
Sony’s A9 setup for video with a Manfrotto monopod, shotgun mic, and headphones to monitor audio
As you might know, I’m traveling full-time across the country from Key West to Alaska over the next couple of years in an RV (I’m currently in Montana just outside of Yellowstone National Park and heading east through the summer to arrive in the northeast for the fall colors). If you’re interested in the travel side of things, you can read more about life on the road at ChaseTheSky.com. But I digress. For the A9 video test, I decided to document my wife Jenni’s first jump with SkyDive West Plains in Washington.
A bit of background on the footage: all the on-the-ground video was captured using the A9. All in-air footage utilized a GoPro Hero 4 Black. As it turns out, you can’t take along your own camera with a skydive crew without a significant number of jumps under your belt. It’s also generally not advisable to drop a $4500 camera out of an airplane with someone who’s jumping out of an airplane for the first time (consider that a pro tip!) Incidentally, Jenni and the A9 both survived the video.
Another note on the footage: I wanted to let the camera have control as I shot. With the exception of my hitting the AF button from time-to-time, I let the camera manage video capture. Additionally, I used a Rode on-camera shotgun mic for the audio (note: if you want to get the low-down on capturing audio, be sure to checkout my Microphone 101 post where I walk you through everything from using your earbud’s mic to a pro audio setup).
Alright, finally, the video is below. Be sure stick around to the end for the outtake, you’ll get a kick out of it.
You’ll notice a short bit of the camera going out of focus at 1:20. I had pressed the AF button to see what the camera would do. As you can see, it sought to refocus. I do think focus would have been fine had I left the camera alone. Would it have been better for Sony to have designed the A9 to ignore my focus request? I’ll say no. I want to be able to focus as I want, and I’m glad I was not overridden by the camera.
You’ll also notice the camera went out of focus around 4:15 as the plane rotated off the ground. This was my fault as I had set the focus point to the upper right hand corner of the viewfinder prior while waiting for the plane to taxi and I did not change the focus point during takeoff. I don’t think I would have had focus issues had I used a wider focus area. It was nice to see the A9 recover nicely and track the airplane as it moved past the camera in perfect focus.
I was also pretty impressed with the camera’s ability to focus on the two parachutes in the air against a blue sky. I expected the camera to struggle here because the subjects were small, but I was happy with the results.
Overall on the video, and keep in mind I’m a photographer not a hardcore videographer, I was impressed with the A9‘s ability to focus during video and to handle shifts in dynamic range. You’ll note several times during the in-car footage where the available light shifted, yet the A9 handled the changes well.
The Gestalt of it All
There is no doubt that the Sony A9 is an impressive camera. The AF system is a solid performer even in low-light, and the high resolution no-blackout viewfinder delivers a low-friction shooting experience.
The improvements in battery life feel almost like a return to DSLR battery longevity and the new controls and menus make the camera more intuitive to use than Sony’s A7 line.
But specs, features, button placements, and the like only tell part of the story. What really matters day-to-day is how does the camera feel. Is it in your way? Does it help you get the job done? Is it easy? Is it cumbersome?
All-in-all I’ve really enjoyed the A9 and have no hesitation recommending it- especially for wedding and sports photographers. Yes I have quibbles with the AF ON button design and placement, but overall the camera is intuitive to use and it let’s me easily go about the business of capturing images. You don’t have to work around it. It works with you to let you do what you need to do.
Where to buy:
Sony A9 at B&H
Below are edited images created specifically for this review from a couple of nights in, and around, Seattle.
Failure is an Option
I’ve been wanting to put together video reviews for a while, so I tried a quick test by shooting a chat about my DJI Phantom 3 Pro. As you can see (and hear), it did not go so well. Actually, it went significantly worse than well (arguably, it went significantly worse than bad!). The footage itself was good, but the audio left a lot to be desired.
So, audio became a quest; I wanted to capture good audio and I was going to get to the bottom of it – one way or another. This video is the result of that quest: a brief tutorial and intro for anyone asking themselves the question: how can I record good audio for video?
What’s out, What’s in
You can flat-out forget about relying on your camera’s built-in mic: whether its on your phone, iPad or mirrorless/DSLR. Built-in mics are designed to pickup everything and anything. Audio, in a sense, is similar to photography. It’s said a good photo is more about what is left out than what is included. The same applies to capturing audio: it’s what’s left out that makes good sound. You only want to hear what you want to hear – not everything else in the environment.
Mics: some options
In short, you have 3 options: lavaliers, shotguns, and boom mics.
Lavaliers are what’s commonly known as clip-on mics. They sit close to speaker’s mouth to capture the audio. This allows for the ambient noise to be left out (though a lavalier can be lowered on the wearer to allow more environmental sounds to be picked up).
Shotgun mics are mounted on top of the camera and are used commonly when you have multiple speakers talking directly at the camera. In such situations, you don’t want to capture and mix audio from multiple lavaliers. A shotgun is what you’ll go for. Keep in mind that a shotgun mic is directional: it’ll capture what’s in front of it. The better it is, the better it is at keeping the “cone” small.
Boom mics are basically highly directional shotguns on an extension pole (aka the boom). Just about any mic can be a boom mic really- the boom just gets you closer to the speaker and allows you to turn the mic sensitivity down so it picks up less of the sound in the environment. Just about every movie you’ve seen has used a boom mic for the audio. Booms are great, but not very practical for most YouTubers as booms are typically at the higher end of the price scale- not to mention you’ll also need an assistant to hold the mic and keep it pointed at you.
Let’s not forget HandHeld mics: handhelds are great because you can be right up to the speaker and eliminate ambient sound. They also allow you to a great deal of mobility and the ability to pickup audio from multiple speakers (i.e. they’re great for interviews). They suffer, however, from the disadvantage of being, well, handheld! I can never use a handheld, it would drive me insane as I am pretty animated and use my hands a lot when I speak. You’d never hear me because the mic would be everywhere except near my mouth.
What’s In the Tutorial
- Apple EarPods ($26) – Yah, the ones that came with your iPhone or iPod)
- MXL MX-160 ($59)
- Rode SmartLav+ ($79)
- Sennhesier Clip-Mic Digital ($199)
- Mic: Rode NTG3 ($699)
- Blimp: Rode Blimp ($299) – this is not a mic, but a mount and wind screen for the NTG3
I also also had a couple handhelds, most notably the Sennheiser MD-46.
Notes on the Audio
You can hear the lavaliers and shotguns in the video- be sure to check it out if you haven’t already. My two favorite mics were the Rode SmartLav+ and the Sennhesier Clip-Mic Digital (powered by Apogee). The Apple EarPods were a surprisingly passable option – just about everyone has a set and using them to capture audio is way better than just relying on your camera’s mic. If you’re the “I like life hacks” type: you now have a new trick up your sleeve!
As for shotguns, the Rode VideoMicro and VideoMic Me are basically the same mic with different mounting/connection options. They were pretty close in sound. I did prefer the Rode VideoMic Go even though it is the largest of the three. I also think the two other mics would benefit from a windsock (aka windscreen aka dead kitten) and would yield better audio if used with one. The said, the nice thing about the VideoMic Me is you don’t need a mount for it – just plug it into your phone/iPod and you’re good to go. Keep in mind you can easily use any shotgun with your phone if you use something like the iOgrapher.
As expected, the Rode NTG3 performed exceptionally well. I didn’t demonstrate this in the video, but even a small turn of the mic resulted in a change in amplitude. Be sure to correctly point the mic or your audio will peak and valley all over the place! Incidentally, the Auray ABP-47B boompole was fantastic. The built-in cable made connecting, and handling, the NTG3 a breeze.
What should you buy
This really depends on what you’re doing. If you’re just starting out, I’d say start with your earbuds and see if they meet your needs. From there, you really can’t go wrong with the Rode VideoMicro (if you want to go the shotgun route). The Clip-Mic Digital, again, would be my choice for a lavalier.
Let me know what you end up with, or just ask any questions you have below in the comments.
You’re not a filmmaker; you’re a photographer. You deal in the moment; one image is all you need to tell a story. Filmmaking, you tell yourself, is another world – one that’s separate from yours.
Then, one day, you watch a timelapse and think: “I can do that – it’s just one exposure shot over and over again to convey the passage of time. How hard can it be?” So, you setup your tripod and camera, shoot a few hundred frames, and before long find yourself in a mystical world where reality is malleable and there you are: telling a story beyond one frame.
Now you’re hooked and it doesn’t take long for you to start wondering where to go next. A tripod and camera are nice, but motion is addictive. Sure, it maybe just the motion of a few clouds that gets you at first, but you want more. You want to create more interesting shots and take it to the next level.
Enter sliders, remotes, and motion control! Forget one shot to tell a story, you’ve gone over the edge now, and so has your budget! You thought lenses were expensive and heavy? Well, buckle up!!
Do a bit of digging and you’ll see motion control setups are all about modules. You have a slider, a motion control module, a timelapse module, and that’s just the beginning. Before long you’ll soon find yourself deciding what combination of gear you want: this slider, with that remote, with this motor, with this battery pack and at this or that length (this is not to mention accessories like ND filters and all the big bags you’ll need!). It’s not hard to spend $1500 – $3000 on a motion control setup.
I don’t want to say modularization is wrong. It’s not, in fact there’s flexibility in being able to assemble a rig to meet your needs. All I’m saying is it can get real expensive real quick.
In looking over the state of timelapse, the question Syrp asked was this: what if you could have a programmable remote and motion control unit for under $900? The question wasn’t rhetorical – Syrp put together a kickstarter campaign and delivered just that with the Genie. I want to give the Genie a full-on review in the near future, so for now, trust me when I say it’s a pretty cool. HDR: it does it; Bulb ramping, yep it’s got that; the ability to create pre-programmed sequences: sure. It’s claim to fame though is its ability to pull itself along any cable. Checkout the video:
The Genie is a great, but what was missing though was the slider. Syrp initially left the slider to you, but recently came out with their vision of what one should be with the Magic Carpet.
Syrp’s vision is this: the Magic Carpet is designed for the Genie – to complete the product line, but it’s also open to allow you to use the slider with your existing gear.
The industrial design of the Magic Carpet is fantastic. Here’s just a few examples of nice touches:
- Syrp incorporated a pulley system so you can add counterweights to the track allowing you to create rising or descending track shots easily
- The carriage has a quick release mechanism allowing for quick changes from a 1/4 “ to a 3/8” pin
- The carriage also has a tension adjustment to make sure it’s nice and taut on the track
- The end caps have legs with twist-out leveling adjustments
- The tracks have distance markings on the side so you can calculate the distance you want the carriage to move (you’ll use this a lot when working with the Genie)
Syrp’s video does a good job of breaking the features down. Check it out :
My Sample Footage
The above video is what Genie says it can do. But what can it really do? Here’s a short clip is shot with the Magic Caroet at blue hour.
The Magic Carpet comes as either a 2.6’ track or a 5.2’ track. You can just buy the track, but you’ll really want to spring for the kit with the carriage and the end caps. I’m not sure why you’d want the track itself, so let’s break down the kit options.
The 2.6’ track kit is about $300 on B&H
The 5.2’ track kit is just under $370 on B&H
The combo kit with both tracks, one carriage, and end caps set will set you back a little under $490 on B&H
Both tracks will support just over 15 lbs (15.4 to be exact)
Using it: Rigidity
I didn’t have any issue with rigidity with my setup on flat ground using the legs for stability. My typical setup, by the way, is a 5DMKII mounted on top of the Genie usually with the Sigma 35 1.4 DG HSM A lens or the Canon 24-105 f/4L.
The carriage, by the way is fantastic. It’s buttery smooth and taut. It glides through easily.
I did see some flex on either end of t he short track when mounted on a tripod using only the center mounting hole. Fortunately, all the tracks have 1/4″ and 3/8″ mounting holes on both ends of the track.
While I prefer the shorter track for portability, I often go to the longer track as it allows me to get a good amount of stability while using only one tripod (you can angle the track by setting the tripod height and just letting the other end of the track sit on the ground.) It’s all a tradeoff: carry around a long track and a big tripod or a short track and two smaller tripods (if you want to work on the extreme edges of the track). There’s no ‘right answer’. It just depends on your shoot.
Should you buy it
I’m a sucker for elegant design and the Magic Carpet is beautifully designed. Syrp puts a lot of thought and effort into industrial design and it shows. Yes, you will have some flex on the shorter track, but it is quite portable and a offers a good mid-point between rigidity and weight. Combined with the Genie, it’s a great slider to own. If you spring for the combo kit, you’re looking at under $500 that, in return, will give you a good range of timelapse options.
A consumer grade camera shoulder bag or backpack may be all you need for a day running around a city or perhaps while on a short nature walk. Getting your gear to a shooting location over difficult terrain, however, brings about a set of challenges an everyday camera bag just isn’t designed for. Chief among these are weight distribution, easy access to your camera, and sufficient storage space for your lenses, as well as, all the equipment you’ll need for a day or two off the grid – not to mention all the odds and ends we all have in our camera bags. Not only would a regular camera bag’s durability be in question, but so would its ability to protect your gear and give you the room you need.
Enter the Mindshift Gear Rotation 180 Pro: a camera bag and hiking backpack all rolled into one designed specifically for the landscape photographer/adventurer. It features a unique two-compartment design comprised of a top section for storage and a belt pack to hold your camera. The belt pack, stored curiously inside the top compartment, can be rotated around to the front after unlatching a magnetic (arguably magical) latch (hence the name: Rotation 180).
Design: as a Camera Bag
The magical door latch
A rotating bag with a magnetic latch that fits inside another bag? It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it works brilliantly. Rotating out the belt pack starts with unlatching the door holding the belt pack inside the main bag. The latch is nothing short of amazing. You can unlatch the door with one hand and you don’t have to take the bag off your back to do it. All you need to do is reach around and slide the latch out. There’s no buckling/unbuckling or snapping apart or together.
Incredibly, you can close the latch back up with one hand (again while still wearing the bag). All you need to do is get the latch near the holder and it snaps back into place courtesy of the magnet incorporated into it. Not only does the latch close back up, but it’s also built in such a way that secures it together so it can’t unlatch on its own. It’s so easy I’ve even latched and unlatched the door while on the move (something you appreciate when you’re in the woods and want to put your gear away in a hurry)
Mindshift also designed the beltpack so it can even be rotated in and out even while the Rotation 180 Pro’s rain covers are on (there’s a rain cover for the main bag and one the belt pack). What all this adds up to is this: getting to your camera is easy; you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to get to it.
Careful design touches abound. The door holding the belt back in is spring loaded so you don’t have to move it out of the way after unlatching; it does so on its own. Mindshift was thoughtful enough to consider the possibility of you rotating the belt pack out without having it buckled around your waist. Without the belt back secured, it’s possible for it to fall to the ground. For this, Mindshift incorporated a safety clip-in strap connecting the main bag to the belt pack. If you do forget to have the belt pack buckled when you rotate it out, it won’t be able to fall. Also, the the straps holding all the zippers on the bag incorporate a hard plastic loop making them easier to open.
Belt Pack Capacity
Ok, the door and latch are amazing but does the Rotation 180 Pro have room for your gear? The belt pack can easily carry a pro DSLR body with a 70-200 attached providing the hood is reversed. On a recent trip, the bottom compartment held my trusty 5DMKII with the 24-105mm F/4L attached (hood reversed) in conjunction with the 17-40mm f/4L and my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A series lens. The image on the right shows my typical load-out: the 24-105 f/4L and the 17-40 f/4L.
The belt pack has a top pocket on the interior perfect for an intervalometer/shutter release and a battery. The inside of the pack has a pocket you can use to hold a polarizer and a few other odds-and-ends like memory card holder or camera strap). The front of the pack has a pocket that holds the belt pack rain cover.
If you need more gear, you can spring for the optional ($59.95) r180 Pro Photo Insert. The insert will allow you to easily carry a camera with 70-200 f/2.8 lens attached providing the hood is reversed along with several other lenses. Just keep in mind the insert goes in the top compartment. All that gear will be adding a lot of weight and you’ll lose use of the top compartment for anything else.
That said, the Rotation 180 Pro can be unzipped from the back so you can get to any additional gear in the main compartment. To get to your gear, you leave the bag on with it buckled around your waist, undo the chest strap, and rotate the bag around. The bag naturally leans forward allowing you to unzip the back open. I appreciated this feature while standing inside a muddy cave looking up at a tree. I needed to get to the main compartment for my headlight, but didn’t want to put the bag down on the ground. I just rotated it around, grabbed what I needed, and zipped it back up.
There are many bags allowing you to attach the tripod to the bottom. I’ve never liked this implementation. The weight never feels well distributed; the center of gravity always seems to be shifted to the side where the tripod head happens to be facing.
Mindshift did something unique with the Rotation 180 Pro. The bag comes with a removable sling you can use to carry your tripod. You can leave the sling at home if you’re not taking you tripod along. If you are, however, the sling attaches to the front of the bag keeping the weight close to your spine.
What’s also nice are the two small pockets on the front of the bag that open up to reveal compression straps to secure the middle and top of the tripod to the bag. Mindshift shows how all this works in the video below:
One thing about the sling: it’s designed for you to carry your tripod as you trek out. When you get to your shooting location, however, you need to be able to carry, and get to, your tripod easily. That’s not something easy to do with it strapped to your back, but the optional suspension kit ($47.50) solves this problem.
The kit consists of three straps: two shoulder harnesses you can attach to the bag and a strap you to attach around the tripod’s center column. From there, you connect the shoulder harness straps to the tripod strap. This allows you to carry the tripod without using your hands. If you’re moving around (let’s say climbing a rock, for example) you can attach the tripod legs to a bungee cord on the side of the bag allowing you to carry the tripod without using your hands. Here’s another Mindshift video showing how this works:
Design: as a Hiking Bag
At 29.63 liters of storage for the top compartment and 7.67 liters for the belt pack. The Rotation 180 Pro is designed for a 1- to 2-night trip. It weighs 5.3lbs and is 13.5″ W x 22.5″ H x 10.5″ D. I’d call it a mid-sized bag. It is larger than a typical backpack (like Canon’s deluxe backpack), but not overwhelmingly so like a mountaineering pack.
Pockets & Compartments
The pleated front of the bag camera bag has enough room for a pair of pants and a jacket which is nice- especially if you start hiking early and need to layer up. Being in Florida, though, this compartment usually stays empty – at least in the summer as the mornings here start out hot and just get hotter.
The left side of the top compartment has enough room for a 100oz (3 liter) water reservoir, which you have to purchase separately. I went with the Camelbak Antidote Milspec reservoir. It’s a bit on the wide side for the bag, but works well; the 100oz Camelbak Omega is a good option also. I liked the milspec reservoir because it is ribbed and does not misshape as it gets full like a typical reservoir. The reservoir compartment has a strap to allow you to hang the water bladder and there is a slit in the compartment for you to thread the hose through. Also on the left side is a mesh pocket which you can use to carry bug spray or whatever items you might need. The mesh pocket gets a bit tight if the water reservoir is full, but it is handy. The ride side of the top compartment has a small pocket for storage which is ideal for the rain cover.
The Top Compartment
You’re not going to get the cavernous space you normally would get from a hiking bag since the bottom of the bag is dedicated to the belt pack. However, you can carry a cookset, camping stove, propane, water filter, and some food. The compartment has two pockets for smaller items. There’s also an optional top pocket ($32.99) that can be attached to the top of the compartment if you need to carry small items like energy bars. It can even be used to attach rope or a jacket.
A quick note on accessing the top compartment: not only can you unzip the back as I mentioned earlier, you can also open it up from the top as well.
Carrying a tent/Sleeping bag
The optional Attachment Strap kit ($16.95) comes with two 16” adjustable straps and one 39” strap allowing you to attach a tent/sleeping bag/whatever else you might need to the bottom of the bag.
The Rotation 180 has the full complement of straps, and strap adjustments, one expects from a solid hiking bag. Each shoulder strap can be adjusted at the top and bottom allowing for perfect positioning and weight distribution. The sternum strap moves along a rail for easy adjustment. The shoulder straps, bag back, and the belt back straps are thickly padded and very comfortable. All the straps (with the exception of the sternum strap) have an elastic loop allowing for management of strap excess.
The belt pack strap has a side pocket to hold smaller items. If there’s one thing I would improve on the Rotation 180 Pro, it would be this pocket. It could be a bit bigger and not so far to the left. Its size and positioning makes it difficult to use and get to. That said, it’ll fit a small flashlight and memory cards if needed.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rotation 180 Pro has two. They’re both well made, but it’s a bit tricky to get the main bag’s rain cover on as it has specific attachment points inside the bag to allow for the ability to rotate the backpack in and out while the cover is on. It’s not that difficult to figure out once you’ve done it once or twice, but I’d recommend putting the main bag’s rain cover on a couple of times at home so you can do it quickly if you’re caught in a rainstorm. Putting on the belt pack’s rain cover is a breeze. Mindshift has a video showing how to put the rain cover on:
Price and Options
The Rotation 180 Pro comes in two configurations: Standard and Deluxe. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you get with each configuration:
Standard Edition ($389)
- Rain Covers
- Tripod Sling
Deluxe Edition ($499)
- Rain Covers
- Tripod Sling
- r180 Pro Insert
- Tripod Suspension Kit
- Top Pocket
- Attachment Straps.
Should you Buy It
At $389 for the Standard edition and $499 for the Deluxe, the Rotation 180 Pro is not cheap. The price is up there, and the accessories (if you go with the Standard Edition) are not cheap either. It’s not a bag you need for running around your downtown, but if you’re looking for a bag to entrust your gear to as you venture into the wild, the answer to “should you buy it” is a resounding yes – especially if you make multiple trips per year.
If you’re price conscious and are willing to carry a little less gear, you might want to consider Mindshift’s Panorama 180. It features the same rotating design and goes for $199. It’s smaller but still gives you many of the benefits of the Pro version.
The Rotation 180 Pro is comfortable to wear (even when loaded down with gear), has room for your camera and hiking gear, and makes using your camera a breeze when conditions are such that getting to your camera is not something you should have to struggle to do. The rotating design is so well implemented it’s a wonder no one thought of it before.
Why this matters
Choosing a 35mm lens used to be easy for Canon shooters. If you needed to freeze action, you bought the Canon 35 f/1.4L. If you could afford to lose a stop, you bought the Canon 35 f/2L IS and saved a significant amount of money. The 35 f/2 isn’t as fast as the 1.4L but you’d have IS.
Life couldn’t stay simple forever though; the release of the Sigma 35 f/1.4 DG HSM complicated things. It’s as fast as the 35L but doesn’t cost too much more than the 35 F/2 IS. If you’re strictly looking for a 35mm f/1.4 the decision just isn’t clear anymore. You may be thinking about the Sigma but let’s face it, it’s a Sigma and it is weighed down by the history of Sigma lenses. Will it focus? How durable is it? What’s the image quality like? Can it be as good as good a lens as the 35L? On the other hand, is the Canon L that much better than you shouldn’t even look at the Sigma?
Both lenses are well-constructed and neither feels “cheap”, though the Canon’s construction feels more robust than the Sigma’s. The Canon also has the magical L red ring that lets lets every photographer in the immediate vicinity know you’re sporting a “pro” lens. It won’t make your photos any better, but they don’t know that. Kidding aside, if your lens choice depends greatly on survivability, go with the Canon. The build quality is what you’d expect from an L Lens: solid. Another thing to factor-in here is Canon’s reputation for repairs vs. Sigma’s. Sigma has made strides to improve service, but it’s hard to beat Canon’s factory repair (especially if you’re a Canon Professional Services member)
Notwithstanding, the Sigma 35 does not come across as a cheap second-rate lens as Sigmas tend to. The lens is very well-made and its metal-plastic exterior with satin finish is well-executed. It looks, and feels, like a high-end product.
The Canon 35L is the lighter of the two weighing in at 580g or 1.28lbs. The Sigma clocks in at 665g or 23.5oz. I don’t think the weight difference is perceptible – though some may disagree. I should note I was not aware of a weight difference until I looked up the specs for this review.
Neither lens is weather sealed. If this is important to you, you may want to take a look at the 16-35 f/2.8LII. I encountered a couple of rainstorms during the testing period and I was frustrated by not being able to reach for the 35s. Luckily the 24-105 f/4L is weather sealed and I was able to reach for that.
Image Quality & Sharpness
Wide open the Sigma is significantly sharper. Take a look at the 100% RAW crop below (Canon left, Sigma right) and note the eye definition. Both images were captured with a 5DMKII at ISO 800 and imported into Lightroom without any noise reduction or sharpening.
Canon-Sigma Side-by-Side Comparison at f/1.4
The Sigma remains sharper until about f/2.8. At this point, both lenses are almost identical. In terms of vignetting, and chromatic aberrations, both lenses perform very well. Chromatic aberrations are well-controlled and barely noticeable. While vignetting is apparent at 1.4, it does subside (but does not completely disappear) at about f/2.8. Speaking of aperture, the Canon’s minimum aperture is f/22 while the Sigma’s is f/16.
Focusing speed was similar and I didn’t note a difference between the two lenses. I do think focus on both lenses is slower than typical Canon L lenses (like the 24-105 f/4L or 70-200 2.8L).
The focus rings on both lenses have a nice weighty feel. They’re both smooth enough to move but solid enough to prevent accidental movement. I was worried about slack in the Sigma, but there was none to be found.
In terms of focus lock, while focus lock is largely driven by the camera’s autofocus system, I tested it nonetheless as there is always concern with 3rd party lenses. Low-light focus was tested under two real-world conditions: a dark room similar to a wedding reception banquet hall and outdoors under dim city street lights. I performed the tests twice making sure to use both lenses each time. There was no difference between the two – neither hunted while the other locked. Low-light focus should not be considered a factor when deciding between the two lenses.
35mm lenses are not the bokeh machines 85mm lenses are. Nonetheless, one should have some idea of what bokeh is like when buying an f/1.4 lens. Below are two images shot wide open. As in the earlier comparison, the Canon is on the left while the Sigma is on the right. I believe the Canon’s Bokeh is the creamier, smoother, “butterier” (this shouldn’t be a word), (insert adjective here) of the two – especially in the shape of the “bokeh balls”. Keep in mind, I wasn’t on a tripod here and the test wasn’t completely controlled, however, I did note that bokeh was more pleasing in the canon overall on multiple occasions.
The Gestalt aka: the “living with it test”
Both lenses are top performers, but the Sigma is markedly sharper. When I wanted the shot, I reached for the Sigma. In the end, it was that simple for me. I liked the Canon L but I just couldn’t reach for it to shoot wide open. That said, the Canon is no slouch especially at f/2.8 and up. If you’re rough on your gear or are working in an environment where you need an a robust body the 35L is the way to go.
In the end, the Sigma 35 remained in my bag. Below are some of the recent shots I’ve taken with it. It’s a fantastic performer that’s hard to match wide open.
I picked the Sigma 35 F1.4 DG HSM for Canon at Photoshop World earlier today. I posted about it on Google+ and was asked how its autofocus performed in various situations.
Now, I plan on putting the lens through its paces in the next couple of days so I can’t yet give a definitive answer, but for now here are some first impressions with an album of some images I captured today. Other than some cropping, and maybe a white balance adjustment, the images are not touched/edit in any way at all.
Overall the Sigma’s AF performs well. It does focus slower than my canon Ls, but it is not so slow that I feel I’m waiting on the lens. It’s just a bit slower.
In terms of hunting in low-light, I can’t say it hunts more than my canons do. The lead image in the album is from the floor of Photoshop World. As you can see, several of the images were from the expo floor at Photoshop World. Light wasn’t great, but the lens had no issues focusing.
I also have an image later on in the album of my son sitting in a dark room. I didn’t notice the lens hunting more than my other lenses.
As for build quality, it’s excellent. The lens sports an all metal barrel and a matte finish. It feels weighty but not heavy and the focus ring is smooth. It’s a 3rd party lens that doesn’t feel 2nd rate in any way.
Finally, in terms of sharpness. It is sharp, very sharp, and I love seeing the images it captures.
More to come soon. I’m planning a head-to-head with the canon 35L in a few weeks. I’ll write more in the next couple of days after I use the lens regularly for a good amount of time.