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The Photography Show 2014

March 2nd saw us attending the annual Photography Show, housed at Birmingham’s NEC. Up until 2013 it was known as Focus on Imaging but Mary Walker Exhibitions announced that the 2013 event would be the last. As this left a huge hole in UK photographic events it was not long before Future Publishing stepped in to announce that ‘The Photography Show’ was born and scheduled to run from March 1-4th 2014.

Photography Show 2014It is not our usual policy to trawl the entire halls at events like this; we tend to be a bit more tactical, making a shortlist of suppliers stands we are interested in visiting prior to our visit. This year’s list consisted of the following vendors;

Pentax
Paramo
Fuji
Olympus
Droneflight

It seems a short list, but we like to spend a long time at interesting vendors and it is surprising how quickly the day slips away when immersed in a passionate subject. And there are always stands we get tempted into when hunting down those on our short list and this year saw us stick our noses into Hassleblad, LowePro, Manfrotto, Slik, Three Legged Thing and Giottos for a quick look around. As you can see, tripods seemed to be tempting us this year.

Back to the main list and our first port of call was Ricoh-Pentax, who occupied a section of the London Camera Exchange stand. Ethan has been steadily growing his collection of Pentax DSLR equipment over the last 18 months and was keen to have a good look at the K3 body and recently introduced 20-40 ‘Limited’ lens. Before the show we had heard comments that the K3 was a worthy successor to the K5 and getting our hands around the latest model allowed us to wholly confirm what we heard. This new flagship DSLR was indeed a beauty with a combination of heft and size that felt perfect. The autofocus was much improved in terms of speed and focussed accurately with very little hunting, even when pointed at less contrasty and shadowy subjects. Write speeds felt faster and the rear screen looked like an improvement over the old. Ethan was equally impressed and he is now considering upgrading.

Photography Show 2014 Pentax 20-40The real star of the Pentax stand (for us) was the 20-40 f2.8-4 ‘Limited’ zoom lens – the first zoom to fall into the Limited range. A lens bearing this title is not a limited edition in the Pentax range, but a mark of exceptional quality, having been manufactured from high grade materials with extra attention paid to micro tolerances and appearance. Consequently this attention to detail results in more limited production runs, which is how they get their insignia.

I have a real weak spot for beautifully engineered lenses, something I have passed to Ethan as he has shown a real appreciation for the Limited lens range recently. The 20-40 really is a stunning piece of craftsmanship that drips quality. But it is not just about fine looks…having heard many comments about the edge softness at wider apertures, we quickly reviewed some of our images and were pleasantly surprised – they were nothing like as soft as we had been led to expect.  The CA too was incredibly well controlled, no doubt helped by the internal algorithms of the camera’s software. With a price tag of around £800 could this lens be justified? From our limited time with this limited optic I could fully understand the reasons for purchasing it, and Ethan even more so. He uses a DA* 16-50 f2.8 that covers a similar focal length to this, and it is a real beauty (I don’t need much of an excuse to run off with his K5 and this for a little while!) but after seeing and using the 20-40,

his plan is to sell the 16-50 and replace it with this exquisite little gem.

As most of the Limited lens range was available for fondling, we spend some time looking at several other models, but was particularly taken with the dinky little DA 21mm f3.2. I have long appreciated the 35mm focal length and my enthusiasm has aroused Ethan’s curiosity. The 21mm has an equivalent focal length of 32mm when mounted on APS-C bodies like the K5/3 and this is the closest Pentax get to 35mm (in a prime lens). It is a tad slower than I would like, but this has resulted in a really tiny lens that is so well constructed it is difficult not to pick it up and admire closely. Pentax have really got something right with their Limited range, something that I feel is sadly lacking in most other manufacturers line-ups. These environmentally sealed wonders make me a little envious for a system I have access to, but don’t own.

After also handling the retro MX-1 and utilitarian Ricoh GR (both of which we liked for their very contrasting looks), we were handed the Pentax 645 with a stunning 90mm f2.8 macro lens attached. Here was a 40 megapixel behemoth with image quality and a enormous bright viewfinder to die for. Card write times were painfully slow and the whole ensemble was far from comfortably portable, but as a studio camera I can only image the fun that could be had with it. The 645 system remains beyond my equipment budget and does not really fit my shooting style. But it is easy to appreciate its capabilities, particularly when placed in the right hands.

Photography Show 2014 GardenThe Paramo stand appears larger than previous shows and I was very pleased to see them again. They are one of the few clothing stands to appear at the show and while they appear to have aligned themselves with the photo industry, their products are much more than this and equally at home on mountains, hill walking etc. - in fact for most outdoor activities. I have long been a user of their clothing and have yet to have one of their products fail on me.

I had my usual conversations with the staff about how hard wearing their kit is and that I only seem to buy new stuff from them because I fancy a change and not because it has worn out or broken…testament to the quality of their products I guess. I had a new Taiga fleece as a present last Christmas for the simple reason that I was so tired of the colour of my old one. There is nothing wrong with the old one, but it is several years old and I am fed up with shades of Lentil Green. Similarly, I have been using one of their shirts for around a decade; it has had soakings, been screwed up in rucksacks, slept in and taken more than its share of abuse over the years, but it still looks great.  One of the reasons I stopped by at the Paramo stand was to purchase a new shirt as I desperately need a change of colour!

The hardwearing aspect of Paraomo’s gear is not the only reason for purchase; many garments in their range are carefully thought out in terms of storage, making their fleeces, coats and shirts ideal for photography due to the abundance of large pockets with very secure fastenings. Pockets designed for maps easily swallow lenses or flashguns (or even cameras the size of the Leica X series), and the weatherproofing offers excellent protection when the weather turns bad.

If Paramo attends next year’s show, I will probably look at replacing my outdoor trousers as this is one article of their clothing I have yet to try. My Wife has been wearing their trousers for years and never had a complaint.

We visited the Fuji stand not just to look at new stuff in particular, but also for our annual ‘hands –on’ of their X- series cameras. I came very close to purchasing the X100 when it debuted a few years ago as I love the retro design and feel instilled into it. Since the X100 we have seen an excellent expansion of the X series interchangeable lens models, including the X-Pro 1, X-E2, X-E1, X-M1 and X-A1. And the lenses to support the system is gradually expanding with the addition of some real gems. The new XF56mm f1.2 appeals to me a lot and I would have liked to have taken a closer look at it. However the crowds surrounding the Fuji stand prevented us from doing so. We also never got to look at the new SLR style X-T1 which offers an alternative upon which to mount those beautiful X lenses.

Due to the massive interest shown by visitors at the Fuji stand, we spent most of our time fondling the X100s and its sibling the X20. Maybe next year we will get to the stand earlier and have a better look around.

Photography Show 2014 Olympus StandSimilar to Fuji, Olympus attracted quite a crowd. When we arrived Damian McGillicuddy had taken the stage and was delivering an excellent presentation surrounding the OMD series of cameras. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am an Olympus aficionado of three decades and still have a great fondness for the OM System, from which I have created a small system consisting of three bodies, several lenses and a few accessories. I also have and use an E-1 with a couple of original E-System lenses.

Last year we attended a launch event for the OMD E-M1, Olympus’ flagship model. Being allowed to handle the new body prior to it being available in the shops was a privilege and it also gave me an opportunity to try my existing 4/3 lenses on the body and check their performance. As I wrote previously (link) I was very impressed with the combination of old lenses and new body – focussing and speed were non-issues. Sadly missing at the launch event was the 12-40 f2.8 lens so I was keen to try it out today. Mated to the E-M1, the 12-40 balances beautifully. It is the first in a series of micro 4/3 professional grade optics that are environmentally sealed and manufactured from high quality components. The build quality reminded me a lot of the Pentax’s 20-40 ‘Limited’ lens discussed earlier. Output from the E-M1/12-40 combination was really something – the default jpg’s (always a strong point of Olympus) were richly detailed, well balanced and sharp. If I were to purchase the E-M1 it would be difficult to pass this zoom by.

Olympus haven’t been resting on their laurels; to add to their already extensive back catalogue of 4/3 and m4/3 lenses we are promised 40-150 f2.8, 7-14 f2.8 and 300 f4 pro grade lenses. Furthermore, there are also rumours of patients lodged for 12 and 14mm f1.0 lenses which would be truly awesome if they ever make it past the design phase.

Photography Show 2014 OMD E-M10After taking several shots of Damian doing his stuff, one of the Olympus Team handed me the newly released 25mm f1.8 to try out. Now this is a beautiful small optic that looks great on the E-M1. Its performance is equally as good and demonstrated beautiful bokeh, particularly when focussed closely. Its ability to separate subject from fore/background is everything I would expect a fast aperture lens to be. Given the 2 x conversion factor of the m4/3 system this 25 translates into a 50mm lens which I can easily identify with – in fact the 50mm focal length has been one of my favourites for years. One niggle I have found with m4/3 lenses is their inconsistency regarding build quality. Some of these lenses are manufactured with more use of plastic than others…some are weather sealed, some not. For example, if I were to build a system of prime lenses I would opt for the following;

12mm f2
17mm f1.8
25mm f1.8
45mm f1.8
75mm f1.8

I would expect all lenses to be of a similar build quality, but the 25 and 45 are inferior to the other three and do not feel as robust. Some, such as the 12mm also feature a focus scale, which is lacking on others. It is a shame that there is no consistency here and I feel the m4/3 lenses lack true ‘system’ status as it gives the impression that each product is developed in isolation with no overall vision. Strange really as their once mighty OM system had vision and consistency in spade-fulls, right down to the use of just two filter sizes on many of their lenses.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what Olympus are doing at the moment and am seriously considering buying back into their system. But some of their decisions seem a bit short sighted and leave me scratching my head a bit.

The new darling of the OM-D series of cameras is the E-M10, a tiny camera body that has just been released. Coupled with the new collapsible 14-42 lens, it makes for a really small fully specified SLR style camera that not only seems to perform well but looks wonderful, particularly in black and chrome. I enjoyed spending some time with the E-M10 as it reminded me a lot of my old OM1n.

Ethan has a keen interest with remote quadcopters, has one model and another on the way. Therefor it was inevitable that we visit Droneflight’s stand, who are a Richmond based company specialising in remote quadcopter products. I do not recall seeing them at the Photography show in previous years but they could have been there and I simply did not notice.

Photography Show 2014 QU4D X DroneThere is a rising popularity in drone photography that comes into its own when carrying out Ariel surveillance, be it checking for structural damage or following white water adventurers from above. Given the ease of manoeuvrability of modern drones and their ability to carry payloads that can easily accommodate a small gimbal mounted HD camera it is not hard to see why they have become popular.

Droneflight had four models on show, ranging from the Phantom 2 quadcopter to the eye wateringly expensive QU4D X that accepts a massive 8kg payload. Whilst our interests lay with the QU4D X, our bank accounts would not have got past the Phantom 2. I found myself imaging all sorts of scenarios whereby I was flying one of these things along Peak District Edges, following rivers and down limestone dales, capturing new views of well-trodden areas. I am looking forward to Ethan’s new model arriving – who knows…it could be the start of something.

After having a brief look at some of Lowepro’s latest bag range and armed with a kilo of brochures and a new shirt, we decided to end this year’s visit. As usual it has been a great event that gives me even more enthusiasm for a subject I remain passionate about. I am already looking forward to what 2015’s event will bring….a Leica stand perhaps?