March 21st heralded the start of the annual photography show held at the NEC Birmingham. For the uninitiated, the event runs for four days and includes pretty much anything to do with photography. Up until 2013, the show was badged as Focus on Imaging but changes by the organisers resulted in the show being re-launched, albeit in pretty much the same format.
Myself and Ethan make a point of attending each year, but do not tour every stand. Instead we shortlist a bunch of our favourite vendors, along with a few new ones that take our interest. We do not stick rigidly to this as there is always something that attracts our attention away from what we intended to look at. Having a shortlist really helps us plan our day to allow the best use of our time. Rarely do we take the time to visit any of the lectures or demos held on the main stages – I used to do this many years ago but found my whole day slipped by without getting my hands on any new gear.
Usually we arrive before the doors open but this year we decided to get there a little later, as we figured that time spent waiting in the queues is time better spent at home. So we delayed our drive, arriving around 40 minutes after the doors had opened. This was a much better approach as we simply walked straight in, with no queueing whatsoever.
The first thing I noticed was that the show was held in a different, larger hall (Hall 5) to that of previous years. This not only accommodated additional vendors but it allowed for more space between stands and wider aisles, resulting in a much more relaxed visitor experience. Unlike previous years, rarely did I feel crowded in or get jostled by people trying to push through. There was also plenty of seating in the refreshment section which made getting a drink a far more pleasant experience.
Our shortlist consisted of the following;
- Anything Drone Related
Once though the main doors, the first signage to catch my eye was Leica, a company whose lack of presence at previous shows always disappointed me. I was really surprised to read that they were attending this year and, being a bit of a Leica fan, was very keen to get to their stand. The beauty of their products cannot be understated and within minutes I found myself stood in front of a case containing a stunningly good looking chrome and black M Type 240. I do tend to gravitate towards this colour scheme over all black models now as I find it lends a nostalgic feel to the product which, in turn, makes me want to handle the item. I couldn’t get my hands on this one though so went across to the service desk to talk to the staff. A wide variety of M cameras and lenses were available to play with, and we wasted no time putting one of our cards into a demo 240 coupled with a Noctilux 50mm 0.95 lens. Ethan and I both share a great fondness of fast lenses and it did not get much faster than this. Our unfamiliarity with the combination showed through but we still achieved some startling results. Naturally we shot wide open to see what 0.95 properties gave to our images and were stunned at the sharpness of the main subject and the lens’ ability to separate this from foreground/background, whilst exhibiting some of the finest bokeh I have seen (see demo images attached to this article). The combination of M body and 0.95 lens is a hefty duo and goes against my philosophy regarding lightweight and small kit a little. But I would be prepared to sacrifice this for such a wonderful combination. The problem? Well with it being Leica, it is typically down to cost; I held in my hands two products with a combined price tag of a little over £12,000…maybe another year J
Staying on the Leica stand I was keen to handle the latest X model, this being the Type 113. Having owned the original X1 for a few years now, I wanted to see what improvements had been made. I was handed the silver and brown version which is beautiful to look at. It is larger than the X1 but not overly so, and fitted my hands well. One of the problems with the X1 is that it is small for my fingers, so I have the optional grip permanently attached. Size and finish apart, the 113 has a host of improvements that I found difficult to resist. Given that Leica were also discounting the price by £300 if purchased at the show, my resolve crumbled and I found myself becoming a proud owner soon after.
So, whilst pleased to see Leica finally appear at the show, I could not help thinking how much better off financially I would have been if they hadn’t…
Next up was the Olympus stand which, when we arrived, was extremely busy as people vied for a glimpse of the new OMD EM5 mk2. It was not long before we got our hands on the latest baby of the OM stable. The OM title is an affinity toward the style and size of the old OM film cameras, having nothing to do with the lens mount of course. It’s more of a conceptual tradition which, being a die-hard OM Film Camera fan, I can relate to easily.
For me the mk2 feels a much improved camera to hold. It is a little bit bigger and has a slightly larger and better sculpted grip than its predecessor. Overall it gave me a better shooting experience although I still have unfounded Luddite reservations about electronic viewfinders. Looking though the mk2’s finder I really don’t know why, as it was crisp with well-balanced colours and more shooting information than I could ever wish for. I guess I simply prefer optical viewfinders. From the enthusiasm generated by the mk2 while we were at the stand, I think it is going to be a big hit for Olympus.
For me the real reason I was stood here was to get my hands on the chrome and black version of the EM1 which was brought to market last autumn, many months after the original back one was released. Here is that nostalgia thing again…the two tone look of this model is really something and I had it in mind to pick one up at the show, but the Leica tugged on my wallet the most. The EM1 is a really capable camera that delivers superb results, looks good and can be taken most places in the world without too much worry about how harsh the environment is. And it bears more than a slight resemblance to my old OM4TI and 3Ti – what’s not to like? If Leica had not turned up trumps with such a large discount, I would be wording this paragraph very differently.
Our third stop of the day was Ricoh, not really to look at Ricoh products but the Pentax line up. When Pentax were acquired by Ricoh I was concerned that this traditional name would disappear in a similar way that Minolta did when Sony purchased them. I am pleased that this has not been the case as the Pentax brand appears to be thriving under its new parent. The line-up of K series cameras and lenses is very strong and Ethan was all over the limited lenses in an instance. It was not long before his gunmetal clad K-3 Prestige Edition had attracted the attention of three Pentax techies and for an hour or so he was in deep conversation with them. Interesting to note that none of them had seen a Prestige Edition version of the camera before.
We had a long chat about the weather sealing aspect of the K series and how excellent it really is. And Ethan can talk from experience when it comes to this; He discussed how, up on the windy summit of Etna, his camera was covered in fine silica particle volcanic dust that was blowing everywhere. I saw his camera after we descended and every nook and cranny had been exposed. An air blower and half an hour of his time saw the camera and lens retuned to its new appearance, with no detrimental effect. Similarly he used the camera to shoot the blizzard that struck New York City in January, shutting down most of the infrastructure. Never once did he protect the camera from the elements and I was witness to snow piling up on the lens barely and prism. It stayed like this for most of the day, but the K-3 and 20-40 lens performed flawlessly.
The Pentax Team were keen to hear these accounts as it vindicates their ethos when it comes to environmental sealing and how it can make all the difference to the photographers shooting experience.
Of particular interest on the Pentax stand was a mock-up model of the fabled ‘full frame’ K mount body that is currently in R&D. Finally, the project has moved from myth to reality although little public information is available concerning the final specification. Naturally this development is of much interest to Ethan as it will give him the opportunity to use his Limited lenses in a full frame environment.
The next stand to present itself to us was Benro who made it onto our short list after the introduction of a series of well-designed rucksacks a couple of years ago. Since then we have stopped by each year, threatening to purchase one but never actually doing it. This year was no different. After half an hour of ‘Oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ we left the stand empty handed.
Fuji, like last year, were mobbed by visitors and we had a lot of trouble getting to see anything at all. When the crowds did part, a gunmetal/graphite finish XT1 caught my eye so I decided to wade in and take a look. I have watched from the side-lines as the XT1 has gained in popularity and it seems to have formed a loyal following of users who enjoy using Fuji’s X mount lenses on a SLR style body. This particular incarnation of the XT1 is very eye-catching and elegant but the buttons and dials felt of an inferior quality to that of Olympus, Pentax or Leica. I put the camera down with a question mark over its durability. Having never used Fuji cameras I could be very wrong here, but there is no denying that the optical quality of Fuji’s glass is right up there with the best.
Drone vendors have certainly increased in number this year and it is no surprise given the new photographic world they open up. There are so many opportunities provided by drones, from aerial surveys of property to unique views of familiar places we take for granted. Their rise in popularity has resulted in increased legislation and there will be plenty more coming given the size of some of the machines available today. We visited vendors offering little quad copters a few inches across to those exhibiting 8 bladed behemoths capable of lifting a professional size DSLR. One that was of particular interest to Ethan is the new DJI Inspire 1 featuring a new futuristic design and a 4K gimbal-mounted camera. If only we could afford the £2700 price tag!
Ethan has longed expressed an interest in this style of photography and his quest today led him to the droneGURU (RCHeliGURU) stand who were offering the Phantom 2 drone with a gimbal mounted camera at a good price. In the time it took me to have a sneaky peek at my new camera, he had parted with his cash and was the proud owner of a Phantom 2 Vision+.
Last on our list of ‘must sees’ was Paramo. As I have mentioned in previous blogs and reviews, they are my favourite manufacturer of outdoor clothing and their style lends itself well to many activities, including photography. Over the years I have built up a collection of their jackets, fleeces, shirts and trousers all of which see regular use. The durability of their kit is something else; I am still wearing a jacket purchased ten years ago and, a few minor scuffs apart, it still looks good and does its job.
Given the amount of cash spent earlier I was not in a position to buy a new outdoor wardrobe so satisfied myself by looking at the latest range which included some photography vests, something I have not seen on the Paramo stand before.
Throughout the day we spent many hours talking to the staff at several stands and I came away with a deep respect of the knowledge shared by all individuals. In this respect the show was the best we have been to for many years. To be face to face with a person who can share views and opinions of specific items is a real treat in this day of internet forums and online reviews. While I enjoy this kind of communication, it is great to get out and talk directly to experts in their field. I was most impressed with Leica, not because I ended up buying a new camera from them, but because they had attended the NEC photography show for the first time in years. It gave me an opportunity to handle equipment not found in many shops and allowed me to dream a little. I really hope that this was not a ‘one off’ appearance and wait with some anticipation to see if their name appears on the list of vendors at The Photography Show 2016.