2018 marks the fifth year of the Photography Show at Birmingham’s NEC. Born from the ashes of the annual Focus on Imaging event, each year offers the chance to try out all things photographic. From brands that for decades have been cornerstones of the industry to the rise of new and innovative businesses, there is something for everyone. It is not just about kit though; anyone who takes time out from the allure of trying out exotic optics or handling beautifully engineered camera bodies (this means you Hasselblad!) can spend hours attending presentations by some of the best names in the business. One thing is for sure though, whatever you do with your time at the Photography Show, you will leave feeling inspired (and possibly a little lighter in the wallet).
Previously when attending, we shortlisted several stands that are of interest to us. Typically these have been very centred on Pentax, Olympus and Leica (assuming they show), along with a scattering of suppliers of peripherals such as Manfrotto, Billingham and Paramo. Because of this, we never got around all of the stands. This time we did things differently and decided to take a look at every vendor. Typically the British weather blighted our efforts, with a heavy fall of snow that meant we couldn’t even get the car off the drive for a couple of days. Thinking that we were going to miss the whole caboodle this year, and with panic stricken effort, we took advantage in a slight thaw and cleared a way to the outside world, reconnecting with an icy trunk road late on Monday morning that saw us pitch up at the NEC a little over ninety minutes later.
Running the gauntlet of biting wind from car park to Hall 5, we found ourselves stood before the imposing Nikon stand, its location just through the entrance a triumph of strategic marketing no doubt. And what better place to start our whistle-stop tour of each stand. Having ogled some of their fine lenses and the stunningly retro Df, we decided to have a play with a D5, a behemoth of professionalism that I couldn’t help thinking would have nature subjects running for cover with its clacking high speed shutter. OK, so I would not have it switched to burst mode in such situations, but even shooting single frame, I imagined grouse fleeing Derbyshire moorland in terror, from a shutter vocabulary akin to something more murderous.
Thinking that we may have broken the D3 due to the angry noises it made, we quietly put it down and melted into the crowd only to get swept along in a strong perimeter current. Occasional sorties into the backwaters revealed some true gems, the most innovative (in our opinion) being the Adaptalux stand. I guess you need to appreciate macro photography or well engineered gadgets to appreciate their take on versatile miniature studio lighting. Completely modular and driven by LED technology, up to five coloured lamps on gooseneck arms can be attached to a base that fits either a camera hot shoe or standard tripod bush. The blend of colours makes for some interesting lighting, revealing a subjects texture through colour instead of contrast. Several colour diffusers are available to soften the light, and white light can be deployed - perfectly suited to small product photography. Building on this and, available for pre-order, were three additional effect lighting arms; UV, TIR and Laser. We were really impressed by the modular design, excellent build quality and sheer versatility of the system, and can image buying into it at some time in the near future. For anyone who is interested, more information can be found at www.adaptalux.com.
One thing that did not go unnoticed this year, particularly during our circumnavigation, was the amount of stands selling camera bags. Again I was in the market for something new, especially as I had seen Ethan using a small shoulder bag while in Mauritius. Somehow I had convinced myself of a need for one… something real small and light that would fit camera with lens attached and one other lens. While writing this I am in the middle of a staff photography project for my full time employer and do not need to transport all of my gear about. This proved to be the catalyst for taking a serious look at what the show offered and I had soon shortlisted a few offerings from ONA, Crumpler, Barber Shop and Benro. Knowing that our perimeter walk only revealed a small amount of bag vendors, I committed those seen to memory before moving on.
It was with the morbid fascination, like when passing a motoring accident, that our heads turned toward the bright lights of the the Sony stand, which lay a few aisles in from where we stood. Having only ever read about the ‘α’ series cameras, today was the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal to a system that has become hugely successful. My biggest difficulty is overcoming the brand name; I struggle to correlate a consumer electronics brand with traditional stalwart manufacturers such as Nikon, Pentax and Olympus. It would be remiss of me not to mention the purchase of Minolta by Sony in 2006, which no doubt gave them the springboard required to launch themselves into the rapidly evolving digital market. Shame they did not retain the Minolta brand (and image) in a similar way that Ricoh have done with Pentax. Minolta’s heritage remains credible and (imho) was completely squandered on extinction. But there is much more to a brand than a name and for the next half hour I let this go and spent some time handling the α7R III with an assortment of lenses.
It would be fair to say that Sony have, with the α7R III, brought an excellent camera to market; the build quality is some of the best I have held, feeling much more robust than some of the Nikon’s experienced earlier. Ergonomics left something to be desired as did the EVF (Electronic View Finder) which, for me, provided a poor representation of the scene. The stand was too busy to attract the attention of staff, as I wanted to know if the contrast and overall colour balance of the EVF could be configured to something more realistic. Under artificial light, the refresh rate seemed a bit outdated and pixelated, particularly when compared to Leica’s Q and SL EVF’s. I got the impression that overall, the camera’s functionality was impressive but a few iterations away from being a force to be reckoned with.
The accompanying lens line up is fairly comprehensive and I found more than enough options to satisfy my curiosity, and that was before looking at third party offerings. I was particularly smitten with the Sonnar T 135 f1.8 telephoto, a favourite focal length of mine back in the film days. Its fast aperture coupled with the α7R III’s 36x24 sensor size is set to deliver results I simply cannot achieve with my current system. It would be fair to say that if I brought into the α series bodies, this lens would be very high on my list.
The Sony stand had lured us into the hall’s interior so after realigning ourselves we began a second inner circuit of the stands. This quickly brought us to the Ricoh Pentax stand who were promoting the K-1 II which looks identical to the original K1. All of the changes are under the hood, transforming an already excellent camera into something truly awesome. The build, design and layout of this beast is outstanding while the viewfinder continues in the tradition of Pentax’s ability to provide a large, clear optical finder experience. Coupled with the limited 77 or 31mm lenses it is hard to image a better shooting experience. I applaud Pentax for bringing the K-1 into the 36x24 arena in the face of more established competition. Also showcased was the KP, Pentax’s latest ‘flagship’ (according to one of the team) APS-C model. As capable as the KP is, I cannot see it as an upgrade to the K3 II though. Build quality and functionality is present in spades full, but something about it detracts from the pedigree of previous single digit APS-C models. Having handled the KP again I am convinced that a real successor to the K-3 is in development.
The current line up of Pentax lenses is much smaller than much of the opposition. Having said that, most shooting requirements are catered for, and more so since the release of lenses specifically designed for the K-1. Leviathans they may be when compared to the exquisite Limited series of primes, but the optical quality is second to none. Ethan has used Pentax lenses for several years now and have given him some really impressive results. I personally think that his next upgrade will be to the K-1.
More bag stands followed, by makers such as Fig, Lowepro, Manfrotto and Billingham. Interestingly, I found nothing to add to my shortlist from these four brands so moved on.
The Olympus stand is always worth a visit and particularly so this year, now they have finalised their line up of ‘Holy Trinity’ high speed, F1.2 lenses. I have a long history with Zuiko optics so it should come as no surprise that we gravitated towards a glass case containing these three. As beautifully designed as their ability to draw an image, it is hard not to lust after one if not all of them. In my case, justification to own all would be feeble to say the least - thank God I I do not own a Micro Four Thirds body as I simply would not resist their allure.
Moving onto the Olympus camera bodies, I appreciate their diminutive size, but do feel that build quality has been compromised in an effort to include so many features and buttons. To me, this is at odds with the original OM System philosophy of ‘less is more’ and I strongly think that the designers of the system should refrain from being all things to everyone, take an evaluative step back and review the original concept. The OMD’s bear little semblance to this, other than being small. The menu system is vast and confusing while their exteriors bristle with buttons that make for a difficult user experience. This is replicated in the PEN line up - c’mon Olympus, you can do better than this…think outside of the box (or maybe a bit more like Leica like you used to). Give us something functional that brings back the simplicity of the single digit film OM’s.
But those 1.2 lenses though…wow!
It always surprises me that Paramo are in a minority when it comes to clothing stands. Yes, they are a specialist in outdoor walking gear that is suitable for those of us who enjoy photographing the great outdoors in all weather, but there are many other brands that equally fit the bill who do not have a presence at the Photography Show. Being a long time user of their products, I never miss up on a chance to check out their latest offerings. The ‘problem’ with Paramo is that their gear is virtually indestructible, therefore I rarely have a need to buy new items. I tend to get bored with wearing the same things long before they show signs of fatigue. And my rummage around the rails concluded in the same way as previous years…liking much of what I found but no real requirement to replace existing clothing.
A fortuitous collision with Tenba bags realigned my bag search in a most positive way. I have been aware of Tenba for many years but, for reasons unknown, never really paid much attention to their products. Today was different though, perhaps because my search was for something that deviates from my usual requirements. It was the small DNA 8 messenger bag that caught my attention, offering an attractive one camera and two lens solution in a very small package. Additional pockets allow storage of documents, wallet and phone. Not much else will fit but this gives me a tiny alternative when wishing to travel light. One of the really cool things about the DNA range are the magnetic locking clasps which can only be released by pushing them in one direction - really secure. There were some superb show deals on the range which sweetened the deal, resulting in me quickly becoming an owner. Once the honeymoon period is over, I will write a review of it.
If ever there was an award given to a company that practiced the phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” it would have to be Fuji. A look around their stand revealed more than a nod towards Leica design; products from their fixed and interchangeable lens cameras, through to the latest X-H1 exude more than a whiff of semblance to classic Leica contours. While the X-H1 deviates from this, it is hard not to compare the LCD monitor on the top plate with that of the Leica SL. It gives me the impression that Fuji seem to be watching Leica very closely in an effort to create a product with the elegance of M, X and SL systems at a more affordable price. However, until Fuji adopt a more minimalist approach to their products, similarity ends here as picking up any (except their gorgeous larger format models) reveals a lack of heft that, for me, throws doubt over their build quality.
Before we left the hall, I could not help thinking how the show has evolved over the years. Driven by innovation and inevitable technological shift, we have kick starter projects shoulder to shoulder with traditional brands. From drones to print technology to incredible lighting systems, a whole world of gadgets now supports a camera. And, like vinyl, some things have come full circle - I could not help but notice an increase in film stock for sale. A quick browse on the Society for Disabled Photographers stand reveals technological titans from another age. We live in exciting times as consumers, and not just where photography is concerned. Already looking forward to next years event, it will be interesting to see what piques our interest in 2019. If I was to pick one camera to walk away with today, it would be Pentax’s K-1. The build quality, beautiful design and sensible placement of controls stood head and shoulders above anything else I handled. Having said that, I did not dare linger for long at the Hasselblad stand for fear of falling in love with something well beyond my budget.
ps Leica; please attend the Photography show 2019.