Seabourn Quest Update: Mirrorless Camera Info, Polar Bears, Seabourn Quest Video Update
I’ve compiled some updated information regarding questions I had onboard our recent Seabourn Quest cruises. Numerous guests were interested in the small cameras I was shooting. Several folks wanted to know more about seeing polar bears in Churchill, and finally I have some news about the Seabourn Quest video Wolfgang and I produced for the end of the second trip. I’ll start with the information for seeing polar bears in Churchill.
Slide show of images all taken with the Panasonic Lumix GH3
Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba
The best time to see polar bears in Churchill is typically during the month of November. You can go earlier, but normally there won’t be much snow, very little to no ice and fewer bears in the general area.
In the 20+ years I’ve been going to Churchill for polar bear photography, I’ve always planned to be there for the last two trips of the season offered by Tundra Buggy Adventures (TBA). Tundra Buggy Adventures is part of Frontiers North Adventures, and they’re the only company that has a permit for the most beautiful place to photograph polar bears (Cape Churchill) where they host guests for the Legendary Cape Churchill Adventure. This year was the the first polar bear season I’ve missed in more than 20 years. I had to make a decision between polar bears or penguins which was why I was with everybody on the Seabourn Quest. I love the North, but it was great to be back in the Antarctic again.
The polar bear trip, known as the Legendary Cape Churchill Adventure, is typically November 17-25 – about one week long. The lodge you stay at is based within Wapusk National Park along the coast of Hudson Bay, and it’s here that the polar bears congregate, waiting for the ice to freeze, so they can get back out on the icepack to hunt seals. This location and time in the polar bear season offers the most photogenic backgrounds and icy looking conditions we all dream of polar bears living in. That’s the main reason I’ve always found the Legendary Cape Churchill Adventure to be the best photographically, however, be mindful this trip is at the very end of the typical polar bear season. There is always a chance the ice could freeze early and most, if not all, the bears will have moved out on to the sea ice, away from the area. That would mean few if any bears to photograph. I’ve not seen that happen within the last 10-12 years but I did hear the ice froze earlier this season than in the past ten years.
The second best time is during the trip called the Tundra Buggy Lodge Specialist Tour. This tour happens at Gordon Point which is also very beautiful this time of year but definitely different than the Legendary Cape trip. You generally get icy conditions along the coast and there is typically enough snow to make things look clean and pristine. Additionally, this trip is a little earlier so the chance of missing the bears is basically nonexistent. You’re pretty much guaranteed to get your polar bear photos but in a location that is rated in my mind as a #2 compared to the Legendary Cape Adventure which I rate as #1. Either way both adventures are without question the best times of the year and in the best places on earth to photograph polar bears up close and personal in a safe environment for you and the bears.
In summary, between the two trips you have the Legendary Cape Churchill Adventure which is the most photogenic but with a remote chance the bears could leave during the scheduled tour. That’s not likely but it can happen. Or, you have the Tundra Buggy Lodge Specialist Tour that’s still extremely beautiful with as much of a guarantee for polar bears as any wildlife tour can provide. If you have any questions you can get in touch with Frontiers North at 1-800-663-9832 in North America or 1-204-949-2050 for international calls, or you can email them using the Frontiers North Adventures contact web page.
Mirrorless Cameras I was Shooting
The Mirrorless camera presentations I’ve shared on the Seabourn Quest were extremely popular on both voyages which quite honestly doesn’t surprise me. I’ve watched the mirrorless interest grow steadily, attracting people who want a smaller, lighter option for their camera system. This topic has been covered fairly extensively on this Blog in the past and you can read more by following this link. Although I’ve seen great interest on other photo tours, I’ve never had the size of audience we had on our two Seabourn cruises. Each cruise had about 425-450 guests and each lecture attracted approximately 40-60 individuals. That’s an astounding 11-12% of the entire guests that had some interest.
Pretty solid figures that seem to dispel some of the recent negative press regarding the Micro Four Thirds line of cameras. Recently there was a report by a so-called “analyst” that predicts all camera makers except Nikon, Canon and Sony will be gone by the end of 2014. I don’t believe it. Sitting at a computer with only raw numbers on the screen doesn’t always reflect the real world actions of what people are thinking and doing. Based on our workshops, there is a lot of interest in the smaller, lighter cameras, and I’m predicting the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras are on the verge of exploding among enthusiasts photographers. I’m predicting 2014 will be the breakthrough year for the Micro Four Thirds and mirrorless cameras in general. A gentleman I know, Dan Westergren, Director of Photography at National Geographic Traveler is predicting the same.
In my two different programs I highlighted my experience with the Panasonic Lumix system I was shooting right alongside my Nikons during most of the two cruises. Many guests have expressed an interest in more details on the Lumix cameras. To that end I’ve compiled the details below.
Without a doubt, I’m convinced that mirrorless is where the camera industry is headed and I predict within five years virtually all cameras will be some sort of mirrorless model. The mirrorless camera’s most competitive advantage, at this stage in the game, is their reduced size and weight however, in future models I believe even more advanced options and ease of use will overshadow the form and weight factor that’s currently creating the most interest I see from our photography-driven guests.
Mirrorless Cameras: How to Choose What’s Right For You
To help people understand and decide if the mirrorless route is right for them, I’ve created a list of the many options I talked about in my lectures. Most of the information relates to the Panasonic Lumix Micro Four Thirds system, however, additional camera manufacturers are also joining the game, and when appropriate I’ve discussed some of their products as well.
In the mirrorless world of cameras there are a several different sensor sizes. Some camera companies have chosen to go their own separate paths, adopting different sized sensors that in many cases are unique to each vendor’s particular line of cameras. For example, the mirrorless camera with the largest sensor is currently the Full Frame Sony A7 and A7r bodies. Next is Canon’s EOS-M series of cameras that have the APS-C sized sensors with a 1.5X crop factor. This is the same size sensors in Nikon’s non full frame DX DSLR’s, such as the D7000 and D5300. The next step down is the Micro Four Thirds group, including Panasonic and Olympus. Then we have the Nikon J1 & V1 mirrorless cameras that have amazing technology but a very small sized 1 inch sensor.
Out of all the options above, so far my favorite is the Micro Four Thirds category of cameras and sensors. Why? Wouldn’t a full size sensor like the new Sony A7 and A7r be the cameras to beat? Not necessarily, let me explain.
Micro Four Thirds Category of Cameras
As I mentioned during the cruise, I’m a firm believer in the the Micro Four Thirds category of mirrorless cameras. The reason being is that I think Panasonic and Olympus have hit the critical sweet spot needed for making sure the sensor is large enough for quality images yet small enough to keep the size and weight of their lenses in check. From what I read about optical physics, a full frame sensor demands large, bulky lenses.
The new Sony A7 and A7r full frame cameras are very intriguing, but the fact they rely on a full frame sized sensor means their lenses are going to be virtually the same size and weight as all current Nikons and Canons. The new A7 and A7r mirrorless bodies are a welcome reduction in size and weight, but if the lenses can’t be downsized, you lose over 50% of the compelling reasons to have a mirrrorless camera. Maybe the size of sensor dictating lens proportions information I’ve read is wrong, but based on the size and heft of the lenses I’m seeing from Sony, the inability to downsize the lenses seems to be accurate.
This is why I think the Micro Four Thirds line of cameras is closest to a perfect compromise. They are small, light weight and produce professional quality images in most situations that most photographers shoot pictures in.
One last thing to consider when deciding whether Micro Four Thirds is right for you. Many people don’t know that when Panasonic and Olympus decided to produce this new category of camera, they did so with an agreement to share information and the ability for cross camera compatibility. What does this mean? Quite simply, all Lumix lenses work with the Olympus cameras and all Olympus lenses work with the Panasonic cameras. In other words you can buy all Lumix lenses and if the day comes when Olympus jumps out in front of Panasonic with a better camera, you can by an Olympus body and it will work with your Lumix lenses. And the same goes for someone who has a case full of Olympus lenses. Equally beneficial is the fact you now have twice as many lenses to choose from as you would if it were either Panasonic or Olympus making the lenses alone.
So that’s why you might want to consider the idea of a Micro Four Thirds camera system. Below are additional details regarding some of the gear I currently use and other items I’ve not used but wanted to make you aware of. Hopefully this will help you along in figuring out what is right for you.
Lumix GM1 (have not used)
The GM1 is the smallest camera in the Panasonic Lumix line allowing for interchangeable lenses. This is a brand new camera that I’ve not had a chance to try or even see in person. It’s part of the same Micro Four Thirds line of cameras as the other Lumix bodies I was shooting but the GM1 is a point and shoot sized camera that fits easily into a purse or briefcase and even a medium sized shirt pocket. It’s getting excellent reviews for both photo quality and video output. If you’re in the market for a great point and shoot sized camera, this could very well be the best option, however, if you do any cold weather wildlife/nature photography where gloves are a necessity, this camera would not be a good choice. It’s just too small to allow for effective handling with gloved hands.
Lumix GX1 (currently use)
This has been my favorite of all Lumix cameras since it first came out. It’s a very small though not too small. It has a great extended, rubberized grip for your right hand, includes a good number of manual controls and shoots fabulous images even up to ISO1600. I currently own two GX1 cameras and have shot tens of thousands of images through each one. They seem almost bomb proof and combined with the 14-42X lens, they fit in to my briefcase taking up no more room than a typical point and shoot. Keep in mind that this camera is often sold with the non X version of the 14-42mm zoom. I highly recommend buying this model with the 14-42X option lens. Just remember the X when selecting your lens choice.
For some folks, the one downside to this camera is that it does not have a built-in EVF (Electronic Viewfinder), however, it does have an option for adding one. Lumix sells an external EVF as an add-on. It’s a mini EVF that fits in the hot shoe or flash shoe of the camera and connects electronically to give you a viewfinder shooting option that is very helpful in bright light. Keep in mind this is a fairly pricey accessory at about $160 from B&H Photo.
Lumix GF7 (have not used)
This camera is another relatively new model that many are buying instead of my favorite GX1 mentioned above. The GX7 is small and light but larger than both the GX1 and GM1. For some, one advantage to this camera over the GX1 is its built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). Many folks who were shooting point and shoot cameras in the bright, snowy conditions of Antarctica, were often frustrated not being able to see the image they were composing due to the reflective surface of their camera’s rear LCD. This was the number one complaint I heard from people shooting the smaller cameras. The Lumix GX7 solves this problem by giving you a built-in viewfinder. The GX7 also has a much larger sensor, for better quality images, compared to the typical point and shoot. The built in EVF does add bulk and size to the camera and because of this I personally like the GX1’s ability of adding an EVF when I need one and leaving it off when I don’t.
Lumix GH3 (currently use)
This is the main camera I was shooting alongside my Nikon cameras. The GH3 is the closest version of a professional camera the Panasonic Lumix line currently offers. It looks, feels and operates in many ways like the traditional DSLRs we’re all familiar with from Canon and Nikon. This is the camera so many of the Seabourn guests were excited about due to its size, ability to change lenses and the superb image quality.
The GH3 is relatively small and lightweight, yet it’s large enough to easily access all the well designed and well placed controls, buttons, etc. One of my favorite features of this camera is the Touch Screen AF option. When set, you have the ability to move the AF sensor anywhere across the rear LCD with the touch of your finger or thumb. Even better is that same ability when the camera is placed to your eye. The GH3 has an eye sensor that detects when you are looking through the built-in EVF. When the camera is placed to your eye, the rear LCD goes black, however, you can set a custom function to keep the rear LCD active even though it goes black and looks like it’s turned off. This allows you to move the AF sensor with your right thumb as you place the camera to your eye to shoot. Below is a short video showing how easily it is to move the AF sensor on the LCD.
As much as I like what the GH3 can do, there’s a couple of things the GH3 cannot do. The number one issue is its lack of fast, predictive autofocus.
My biggest frustration with the Lumix mirrorless cameras is their inability to focus on fast moving objects, things like flying petrels, albatross and other birds. The Auto Focus is very fast at acquiring the subject, it just doesn’t follow it well. The ability to follow the subject and continually focus is known as Predictive Auto Focus. Flying bird opportunities are quite typical when crossing the Drake Passage. The albatross and petrels will often use the ship’s slip stream for added lift while soaring as they follow the ship searching for critters that are pushed to the surface by the monster propellers. Shooting off the sides and back deck is always one of my favorite photo opportunities on any Antarctic/South Georgia adventure.
On our two crossings of the Drake Passage I shot both my Lumix and Nikon cameras. Unfortunately, the Lumix bodies did not do well when it came to the soaring albatross and petrels gliding behind or next to the ship. The cape petrels were even more of an issue since they’re blown with the wind like the pods of a dandelion plant. In nearly all flying situations, the birds were just too fast for the predictive AF capabilities of the Lumix GH3. I shot hundreds and hundreds of frames with the Lumix cameras and probably less than 5% were ever properly focused. Compare that to the nearly 70-80% rate of well focused images I would get with my Nikon D600 with the 80-400mm lens attached. Flying birds are difficult for any system, but this is an issue for the GH3 that Panasonic needs to drastically improve. If the birds are soaring in one specific spot, the Lumix does fine. If I held the AF spot on the bird as it flew towards me and shot one frame, let the camera regroup, then slowly shot another frame it would work reasonably well, but never did the 4 frames per second, predicative AF, ever come close to getting an ongoing series of razor sharp images. This type of action situation is where the Nikon cameras outperform the Lumix in a dramatic way. The Nikon cameras are just far more superior.
That said, how many people shoot flying birds? I’m willing to bet it’s less than 5% of the camera toting public, but those who come to Antarctica will want to give it a try when they see how much fun it is. This is just one of a few things I would love to see Panasonic improve on. So keep this in mind if you enjoy action photography. The mirrorless cameras just aren’t there yet for fast moving subjects.
Lenses I use with the Lumix Cameras
Panasonic has a very respectable line of lenses. The ones I shoot regularly include the 7-14mm, 12-35mm, 35-100mm, 45-175mm and the 100-300mm. As I mentioned in my presentations, you have to multiply all Lumix lens numbers by two since they are part of the Micro Four Thirds category of cameras. That being the case, the 7-14mm becomes a 14-24mm, the 12-35mm becomes a 24-70mm, the 35-100mm is actually a 70-200mm and the 100-300mm is an amazing 200-600mm lens. All of the lenses mentioned are professional quality, although the 100-300mm would be considered the one most in need of better glass and design. Even so, the images I’ve shot with this lens are very good to exceptional.
My only wish for the 100-300mm lens is that it had ED (Extra Low Dispersion) glass. It was a constant F/4 aperture and it did not extend so far out when moved to the 300mm position, however, to get professional quality results from a lens that retails for $499 is nothing short of astounding. I had moderate expectations when I bought this lens but over time it’s proven that it’s a serious option for telephoto work with the Lumix cameras. Just a few tweaks and this lens will be absolutely hard to believe.
Other Lens Options
Three other lenses that I’ve heard great reviews on are the 14-140mm and the 45mm Macro. There are many folks who also love the 20mm F/1.7. I’m not a big fan of fixed focal length lenses unless I’m shooting Macro work or my Nikkor 600mm F/4. But many people love the wide aperture and shallow depth of field of the 20 F/1.7mm macro.
Be aware that Panasonic currently has two versions of the 14-140mm. The older of the two is much larger and heavier. They recently announced a much lighter and smaller 14-140mm, so if it were me that’s the one I would want. Another thing to keep in mind is the 14-140mm is a great all around town or travel type lens. It’s a 28-280mm on a normal full frame camera so it has quite a wide and useful range. It was made to compete with Canon and Nikon’s 28-200 and 28-300mm lenses that are so popular. For many people this is the only lens they may need. Just make sure you ask your sales person for the newest version.
Accessories for Lumix
The two accessories I use include an external battery grip and an external flash.
Battery Grip DMW-BGGH3
There’s not a lot to explain regarding the battery grip other than to say its best feature is it gives you a bit more camera to hold and gives you an extra battery. It also replicates the shutter button, WB, ISO & +/- controls that are located just behind the main camera shutter button, on the top deck of the GH3. I like the added size the grip adds to the camera, especially when hand holding longer lenses like the 100-300mm and 35-100mm lenses. Admittedly, a smaller form factor was my original reason for trying the GH3, but in some situations it’s good to have a bit more bulk. Even with this battery pack attached, the GH3 is still much smaller and lighter than most DSLR bodies.
External Flash DMW-FL360L
This is a wireless strobe that has a lot of options. It works great attached to the GH3 but I love the fact it’s also wireless, allowing me to shoot unattached to the camera. Up until now only Nikon, Canon and Olympus offered wireless flash. This new Panasonic FL360L offers a relatively easy to use wireless system that is very, very effective.
Wireless flash is just one of many features on the Lumix system that has made me shake my head from time to time and wonder how Panasonic figured out how to build such professional still-photography equipment in such a short period of time. I bought two of the FL360L strobes for my trip to Antarctica knowing I might have the chance to photograph situations onboard the ship. They performed beautifully and using them was as easy as any of my other wireless strobe setups. The guide number is the same as my Nikon’s though I’m not certain that’s actually true. Guide Numbers can often be unreliable based on how the manufacturer does the tests. I still plan to do more testing.
Complete All in One Compact Digital Cameras.
Another category of digital camera that many guests asked me about was what I call the All in One Compact, meaning the entire camera and lens is built as one complete unit. You can’t change the lenses but generally these cameras come with a substantial wide to long telephoto zoom range. Many guests voiced their dislike for having to change lenses so this is the next best category of camera that is better than the small point and shoot but doesn’t require additional lenses.
I have to admit, I never really gave these cameras much though until my time on the Seabourn Quest. After speaking with a lot of guests who were shooting this type of camera or wanted something that didn’t require changing lenses, I realized this is a category of camera many people are interested in. All of the well known manufactures make these all in one compacts but two of the most notable are the Nikon Coolpix P520 and Coolpix P510. Both of these cameras fall under the $500mprice tag and offer great value for a lot of camera. The biggest down side to all in one compacts is the lack of ability to change lenses and the sensor size is much smaller than the Micro Four Thirds cameras, however for many folks, this type of camera is a great option.
Panasonic also makes their own versions of the all in one compact camera which includes the Lumix FZ70. I met several people on the cruise who were using this model and gave it high praise. It’s also very affordable at under $400 and has an extremely powerful 60X Optical Zoom lens. Whichever camera you decide on, Nikon, Lumix, Canon, make sure the lens is an “Optical Zoom”. If it’s not listed as optical you won’t like the quality of the images if you have serious photography in mind. If it’s not optical zoom it’s a digital zoom. A digital zoom is nothing more than the camera zooming in on the chip, not the lens, basically cropping the photo in camera. Not a good option for quality pictures.
In summary, with all in one cameras such as the Nikon, Lumix or others: Optical Zoom good, Digital Zoom bad. I would love to offer more on this subject but quite frankly I’ve never shot any of these types of cameras. I do realize and understand why some folks would be interested in this all in one design, lightweight and affordable price.
Keep in mind you can get great reviews on all of the cameras I’ve mentioned above and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, on DPReview. This site goes over these cameras with a fine tooth comb, microscope, etc. They are my go-to site for looking into the details of a particular camera I’ve never had a chance to shoot.
A Simple List of the Small Cameras I was using on the Seabourn Quest.
Lumix GM1 with 12-32mm zoom lens
Lumix GX1 with 12-32mm zoom lens
For a moderately small and easy to carry, interchangeable lens camera you should look at:
Lumix GX7 with 12-32mm zoom lens.
Note: the 12-32mm zoom is currently only listed as an option for the new Lumix GM1 so I’m not sure you will be able to buy this lens on the GX! or GX7. If not I recommend the Lumix 14-42X lens. Make sure you mention the X version since there is another non X version I don’t like nearly as well. Also, I do not record using the larger telephoto zoom lenses on the GM1 or GX1 with out a viewfinder. These lenses are better suited for a camera with a EVF like the GH3 or GX7.
For the most professional quality, larger size than the above options but still smaller than the tradition DSLR you should look at:
Lumix GH3- 14-42mmX lens
Lumix G6- 14-42mm
Additional Lenses to consider: 7-14mm F/4 zoom, 12-35mm F/2.8 zoom, 35-100mm F/2.8 zoom, 45-175mm zoom, 100-300mm F/4-5.6 zoom. 45mm Macro.
Updated Seabourn Quest Antarctica & South Georgia Video Update
Finally, below is the slideshow Wolfgang and I produced for the second trip, the one that included Antarctic, South America and South Georgia. This is an updated version from the one that was given to all guests on a USB stick. I reworked this final version since I missed some very nice images that I thought should have been in the program, including the one of Santa Clause coming to the ship via a Zodiac 🙂 If you click on the video it will play on this web page. If you want to go to the video on my Youtube channel, follow this link to the new version that you can download for no charge. As I mentioned, this is different version than the original we handed out on the ship. The download is an HD version that you can play on an HD TV. If you have any questions just drop me an email.
That’s it for now. It was great sailing with all you folks who joined on the Seabourn Quest. Hope you had as good of a time as Tanya and I did. Be well and stay in touch.