Sony and Fujifilm released important new camera bodies the week of January 25, 2021. Both flagships, Sony’s Alpha 1 and Fujifilm’s GFX 100S, are expensive cameras that few of us will buy (although each has a market niche among LuLa readers) – but they show us something about where the market is going. Fujifilm ALSO released a second camera that may be of less interest to LuLa readers directly – but it might just be the perfect body for a beginner you know with a serious interest in photography, and it’s priced right for what it is! Apart from these cameras and a few lenses (the most interesting may be the Sigma 28-70mm f2.8 DG DN Contemporary- yes, you lose 4mm of wide-angle, but it’s an f2.8 standard zoom in the size and weight of an f4 optic), it has been a rather quiet CP+ season this year Sony has also introduced another camera worth some comment, but that will probably not be seeing much more (digital) ink here – the cinema-focused FX3. The odd thing about the FX3 is that this is the second time we’ve seen this camera from Sony. They introduced it a few months ago as the A7s III, which I have looked at and written a bit about with more to come. It is a wonderful 4K movie camera, with about the best image available short of a much clunkier, much more expensive true cinema camera. For a single-shooter video production, whether for weddings, nature, news, sports or whatever else, you can’t really do better than the A7s III/FX3 twins. The overriding question is why Sony introduced two versions of the same camera for similar prices? If they were going to introduce two of them, why not go with a full video-oriented body on one of the two? These are both spectacular movie cameras in still camera bodies – the FX3 has some more concessions to being a movie camera (ventilation, multiple mount points for accessories), but it’s still shaped like a still camera. If I were designing an even more video-oriented twin to the A7s III, I would have started either with a barrel-shaped body and a fore-and-aft grip (classic camcorder shape), or with something with a bottom handle (Bolex), or possibly something convertible between the two, either by a detachable bottom handle or a rotatable grip. Instead of a fixed finder (A7s III) or no finder at all like the FX3, what about an articulated version of the A7s III finder? Make a small, light shoulder rest that can be screwed on when that makes sense…
The camera wouldn’t have to be much greater in diameter than the E-mount itself, since the electronics and batteries could live behind the sensor instead of off to the sides. The better tally lamps and mount points from the FX3 are valuable in a movie camera. Something like this (even omit the mechanical shutter?) is pushing as far towards a pure movie camera as anything that can be credibly called a hybrid – but the other specs of the A7s III/FX3 twins already are. With that 12 MP sensor, stills capability is already minimal – there are any number of sub-$1000 cameras I would prefer to these $4000 cameras for stills, except in extremely low light (some of them made by Sony). Since the design question is “what would make the best stablemate for the existing A7s III”, not “what’s the best 12 MP hybrid if there’s only one”, the FX3 really doesn’t need much stills capability at all. Sony’s real hybrid isn’t either of these cameras – it’s the Alpha a1!
A Fujifilm X-E4 (or the recently released X-S10) is a very compact camera with the best image quality available short of full-frame, great controls and a terrific lens lineup. Unless you’re printing big, it’s all you need. The X-E4 puts these features in a classic rangefinder body with old-time Leica-style controls. The X-S10 switches out the Leica-alike design for a “baby DSLR” aesthetic and adds in-body image stabilization. Take your pick for a really great hobbyist camera – pick an X-S10 if video is important, an X-E4 for the most compact, least expensive option. Unfortunately, neither one is weather sealed and both use Fujifilm’s tired NP-W 126S battery (but almost all cameras in this range use similar “mini” batteries – Sony’s big-battery a6600 is much more expensive and competes with Fujifilm’s X-T4), but there’s not much else missing.
The competitors to Fujifilm’s twins are all, for various reasons, less appealing to many photographers. Sony’s APS-C a6xxx range are perhaps the most direct competitors, and they do offer the appealing feature of compatibility with the full-frame a7 line, giving a better upgrade path than Fujifilm offers (every camera above the X-E4 in Fujifilm’s line uses the exact same sensor and image processor, until you get to medium format). On the other hand, Sony’s APS-C lenses are much more limited than Fujifilm’s. If you’re willing to deal with the bulk and cost of full-frame lenses, why not simply start with an a7-series body – there are usually inexpensive options, especially with older bodies Sony leaves on the market?
Nikon’s Z50 may be the most appealing competitor, with its wide range of lens options. There are very few Z mount DX (APS-C) native lenses, but it accepts not only full-frame Z lenses, but also both DX and full-frame Nikon DSLR lenses. Yes, the same logic applies to Nikon as to Sony – if you’re willing to deal with full-frame lenses, why not start with a full-frame body, where the Z5 is the entry choice from Nikon. The Z50 is a much more ergonomic body than any a6xxx camera, and many people already own Nikon DSLR lenses. In both cases, watch out for image stabilization – since the full-frame bodies tend to be stabilized, many full-frame lenses aren’t (in Nikon’s case, this is only true of mirrorless lenses – full-frame DSLR lenses are generally stabilized). The APS-C bodies are unstabilized (except for a couple of the most expensive Sonys), since the APS-C lenses are stabilized. Unfortunately, this means that a full-frame lens on an APS-C body is probably unstabilzed.
Canon has the least appealing entry level line of any maker, because of the dead-end EOS-M system. There are some very nice bodies, but the lens lineup is limited to a few wide-ish primes (including an inexplicably short macro lens) and a few f6.3 zoom lenses. There is no adapter to accept the RF lenses for the full-frame EOS-R system, which is where Canon’s energy is going. There ARE adapters to Canon’s DSLR lenses, but why not use an EOS DSLR with those if none of the available mirrorless lenses are useful…
Canon’s real entry point right now is the $1000 full-frame EOS-RP, because it’s the cheapest camera that takes the desirable RF lenses. The EOS-RP is very similar in price to the Fujifilm system – but that big sensor means the rest of the camera is less well built and less fully featured. The inexpensive kit lens is not as nice as Fujifilm’s offerings, either. The Fujifilm will almost certainly have better image quality and be a nicer camera to use – plus it’s substantially more compact. On the other hand, the EOS-RP does offer an entry to the EOS-R system, where there is more room to move up the line, including to the EOS-R5 and a different level of image quality. It’s an interesting choice – getting into a full-frame system, but with a lot of compromises to get the price this low versus a highly optimized APS-C system from Fujifilm that might have better image quality, but has less opportunity to upgrade bodies if you want more…
The last option is Micro 4/3 – there is no L-mount body in anything like the $1000 price class, and few lenses that would work. Pentax would be an inexplicable choice for a new photographer, with the sole exception of someone who had Pentax lenses passed down in some way. Canon or Nikon DSLRs would be a more likely choice, but the market is moving to mirrorless – replacing a DSLR to use existing lenses could make a lot of sense, but buying one anew probably doesn’t. Micro 4/3 is not really a viable choice to start with at this point, unless video is the primary goal, and even then, there are probably better choices. It may well make sense to keep if you have it, but new investment looks bleaker by the month.
Until very recently, the other exception was long telephoto work, because there were few long lenses for other systems. A range of lens introductions in several mounts have made Micro 4/3 less unique at the long end. Both Sony and Fujifilm have a variety of long glass at a wide range of prices, ranging from well under $1000 to $5000+ exotics. Sony’s 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 offers big lens performance and handling at a midrange price ($2000, which is not expensive for something that gets to 600mm at a decent aperture). It was the 2020 Lens of the Year here, and I purchased one after reviewing it. Fujifilm released a $799 70-300mm f2-5.6 in January 2021, and, while I haven’t seen one (very few people have, and it won’t be available until March) the few people who have seem to like it. Canon has three long lenses for the RF system, although two of them are f11, and Nikon has some great choices too, although all of theirs require the FTZ adapter on Z-mount bodies. Unless you need reach in a very compact package (and, even then, the little Fujifilm 70-300mm offers 450mm equivalent in a highly portable lens), Micro 4/3 no longer has a lead at the long end, and the Same Old Sensor means that there is much less flexibility to crop than in any other system.
The two other new bodies are both at the far upper end of the market. Sony’s A1 is built for speed, with as high as a 30 fps continuous frame rate – at 50 MP. It is Sony’s take on an ultimate sports camera, and unlike its competitors the Canon EOS-1 Dx mk III and Nikon D6, it offers nearly class-leading resolution (short of medium format, only Sony’s own A7r IV offers more resolution, and at a fraction of the speed). The specifications are almost eerily similar to Canon’s EOS-R5, but Sony claims that they have much better cooling so the camera won’t overheat in the highest-end video modes, a known issue with the Canon. In addition to the cooling, Sony has left some very high-bandwidth video modes to external recording only, probably for overheating reasons (and isn’t even claiming 8K raw video, which the Canon will shoot – briefly). Sony wants $6500 for this monster, more than $2000 more than the EOS-R5, but if it is as bulletproof as they’re claiming, it’s probably going to be very popular at the Tokyo Olympics. To be worth the price, it has to hit everything on the spec sheet very well – it can’t have video modes limited by overheating or any other significant flaw. If it lives up to its specs, it will fill three needs for the busy pro.
First and foremost, it’s a high-speed sports camera, with the frame rate, durability, image transfer and focus system to prove it. The a9 series from Sony have been credible challengers to Canon and Nikon, and if the A1 continues and improves the lineage, it’s in good shape. Second, it’s a pixel monster. If the brand-new 50 MP sensor has the overall image quality of other Sony-derived high-resolution sensors, it’ll print beautifully up to 40×60” or more. Nothing else with this kind of speed can do that, with the possible exception of an EOS-R5. Third, it’s a very credible video camera, with a wide range of 4K modes (including 120 frames per second, going up to 240 fps at 1080p) and even 8K capability. All of this will require testing with a camera actually in hand, but, if it all works as advertised, Sony has combined the best of an A9 II, an A7r IV and an A7s III in one camera, with a couple of extra perks like 8K video. It needs to be less finicky than the EOS-R5 to be worth an extra couple of grand, but if it is, pros will gladly pay.
This is a new sensor with a new pixel design. Note that the resolution is not exactly the same as any previous camera, nor is it directly proportional to area like the X-T4, A7r IV and GFX 100, which all use the same basic pixel design, with the number of pixels depending on sensor area. We’ll have to wait for real-world experience to see how it performs. Yes, all previous Sony-derived high-resolution sensors have been excellent, always leading the market at their introduction and being highly credible years later. This bodes well for the new sensor, as does the fact that the A9 sensor, which uses the same stacked technology as the A1 sensor, is a good performer. All indications are that it will probably perform very well, but, as a completely new sensor design, we know much less about it than we do about most new cameras introduced, the majority of which either use an existing sensor or a modest variant of an existing sensor.
Fujifilm took a different approach with their GFX 100S – it’s all about image quality – 102 MP worth of it, to be precise. We pretty much know what the images are going to look like, as the sensor and processing pipeline are essentially lifted from the existing GFX 100. Instead of the big, unwieldy dual-grip (if you can really call the battery bulge a grip) body of the GFX 100, the 100S is slightly smaller than a Nikon D850, and about the same weight. Since it’s Fujifilm’s almost-medium format, the lenses, especially the zooms, are significantly larger than full-frame lenses. Fujifilm’s almost-medium format is very close to the obscure old superslide format (which was not generally considered medium format), but the name “superslide” doesn’t seem to have stuck to it the way the obscure APS-C film format’s name stuck to a smaller sensor size.
The image quality of the GFX 100 is incredible, and there is no reason to think the GFX 100S will be any different. Where the best APS-C cameras with a top lens can produce an image that would have required medium format film, and the full-frame pixel monsters compete with 4×5” film, the 100 MP sensor competes with 8×10” film. The only things that can outresolve this sensor are weird ultra-large formats and a few specialized films like Tech Pan – in 8×10” sheets! It’s a modern Sony sensor, with the dynamic range that implies, and it has Fujifilm’s color science and processing, which are among the best in the business.
The hope for the 100S is that it can bring GFX 100 quality to a more pleasant camera to use, for a more affordable price. It’s $6000, and the lenses are somewhat more expensive than good full-frame lenses, but not exorbitantly so. It’s actually image-stabilized, and can be shot handheld down to 1/30 second or so… Try that with an 8×10” Deardorff! Am I crazy enough to try backpacking with one of these and the little 50mm prime? I just might be!
Of course, the caveat with any camera with this kind of resolution is that you need to print BIG to see the resolution at work. In a 16×24” print, it’ll be hard to distinguish from an X-T4 with a really good lens (which shares modern Fujifilm color sensibilities). At 24×36”, a Z7 (or Z7 II) or an A7r IV will be very similar if you adjust the color to match – the difference between Nikon or Sony colors and Fujifilm colors will probably be more apparent than the resolution difference. At 40×60” and above, the GFX will shine – IF you are printing on a paper that doesn’t hide it (no canvas, please) and the viewing distance is close enough. Spectacular, but highly specialized. These are all modern Sony sensors with very similar imaging characteristics – as a matter of fact, the X-T4, A7r IV and GFX 100 sensors can pretty much be characterized as different sizes of the same sensor…
My suspicion (I’ve used a GFX 100 briefly, but not a 100S, and I wasn’t able to lug the 100 deep into the wilderness where I wanted to) is that the beauty will be in the sense of depth and involvement that a large-format print can convey. The high resolution of the Z7 or A7r IV already does this in a big print – you don’t really see the extra detail over ~24 MP so much as you feel it. I suspect the GFX will do this even more strongly. I wonder if this is the rare camera where the “double-resolution” modes on Canon’s and Epson’s recent printers make a difference? I’ve never seen a real difference, even with ordinary big files. What about with these?
I haven’t had either an A1 or a GFX 100S in hand, and I look forward to trying and reviewing both cameras. I’ll probably take the A1 birding – toss the 200-600mm on the front of it and switch back and forth between stills and video. I’ve never shot sports seriously (although trying to sneak the 200-600mm into Fenway Park this fall might be fun as part of the review), but I do shoot wildlife, and I suspect that will be a good test. For the GFX 100S, I’m hoping to take it backpacking and see what it’ll do in some classic landscape situations. I wonder if I can get ahold of a test sample of Epson’s new 44” p9570 just after the GFX? It’ll take a 44” printer to run it through its paces!
The second part of this article is three eclectic accessories I have had in for review for a while. None of them has the complexity of a camera, and unlike lenses, I haven’t had access to a group of similar items that make for a logical comparison review. Two of the three are unique enough that a group of similar items doesn’t exist. All three have become part of my photographic practice, and all three earn a highly recommended rating if you need what they do.
As a note, rather than post reviews of products that don’t merit at least a recommended rating, I tend to write privately to the manufacturers and explain the flaws if they reach my desk. I see far more products than I have time to write up, or than our readership has time to read. I rarely look at lower-end bodies and lenses, simply because the bodies perform so similarly that it is really a subjective matter of what you like in your hands, and what features you prefer. My opinion is not really valid for you – I have big hands and might not like the controls on a very petite camera intended for the Japanese market, but it might be perfect for the smaller photographer. The exception is seriously flawed products that might endanger your images, your gear, or worse yet, you. This is why I have devoted space from time to time to poor-quality batteries – they could actually be dangerous.
As far as image quality goes, modern interchangeable-lens bodies fall into three tiers (plus the GFX 100 and 100S). Micro 4/3 brings up the rear by a substantial amount – the Same Old Sensor just isn’t competitive, if it ever was. No camera with that sensor will ever earn as much as a recommended rating from me (I’m open to a Micro 4/3 camera with a significantly improved sensor, of course). If a camera has the Same Old Sensor, but other unique features, it might be eligible for a recommended with reservations – great for a specific task. The middle range, suitable for all but the most exacting photographer, is 24-30MP, either APS-C with a good lens or full-frame. The reason lower-end APS-C bodies struggle to reach this range isn’t the body, but the generally poor kit lens. All of these sensors have very good resolution and dynamic range (Canon used to lag in DR, but they have improved in the past couple of years). All of the major manufacturers now have highly credible color – rendering differs, and opinions differ on what’s best (this also interacts with your raw converter).
The high range, where I tend to focus my body reviews, is currently 45-60 MP (or lower resolution with exceptional video features), full-frame or small medium format. Image quality in this range is exceptional, and there is somewhat more variation than there is among 24-30 MP cameras. These are the various manufacturers’ state of the art offerings for the kind of work I like to do, and each of them is an exceptional tool. I own two bodies in this range (a Nikon Z7 and a Sony A7r IV), which serve both as reference points for others that come through and as testbeds for lenses and other accessories. I don’t have a Canon body or one of the medium-format Fujifilm bodies around at present, and both are high on my list to test. Noticeably above even these beasts sit the Fujifilm GFX 100 and 100S, along with a few extremely exotic body/back combinations from Hasselblad and Phase One.
With the number of lenses released each year, I try to focus on types where a group comparison is useful (the recent group of long, relatively affordable telephotos), on groups from a single manufacturer’s line (I’ve had quite a bit of Sigma DG DN glass through here recently – all impressive, some VERY impressive), or on an exceptional lens – the Otus featured in Of Zen and Zeiss. There are many worthwhile lens projects that I have neither the time nor the bodies to undertake – one that someone REALLY needs to do is all the kit lenses across mounts. From the experience I do have, the Nikon (full-frame) 24-70mm f4 for the Z series (the f2.8 is even better, but that is by no means a kit lens) and the Fujifilm 18-55mm f2.8-4 (APS-C) stand out from the pack.
The little Sony 16-50mm APS-C power zoom is especially disappointing (actually, most Sony kit lenses are – until you get to the better than decent 24-105mm f4 G). Sigma’s relatively affordable and excellent 24-70mm f2.8 DG DN Art in FE mount is a better choice than any Sony standard zoom (with the possible exception of the 24-70mm f2.8 G Master, which I haven’t used). Sony is certainly capable of making excellent lenses – I’ve used and liked quite a few G Masters, and the 200-600mm impresses more and more as I get used to it – it really does offer big lens wildlife photography in an affordable, manageable package. That’s what lives on the A7r IV much of the time now – I tend to use the Nikon for landscape and the Sony with the big lens and the impressive tracking focus for wildlife. They just haven’t paid enough attention to boring midrange zooms (most of them are old designs). I haven’t played with any Canon mirrorless kit lenses at all, so I have no idea where any of them fall.
I sometimes end up with equipment that is vital to my photographic practice, and well worth a review here, but doesn’t really fit with anything else. These three reviews are like that – I don’t know how else to put a tripod and head, a cutting plotter and a watch together.
Perhaps the most unusual of the three devices in this roundup is the YES WorldWatch V7, simply the best photographer’s watch I have seen in 20 years of looking. A watch is an indispensable tool to a photographer in my opinion, even when phones are the usual source of the time. Every time you check the time on your phone, you are giving the phone the opportunity to drag you out of your world and into its world of constant notifications. Photography is, at its heart, a contemplative pursuit about the real world – for me, it is about nature, for you, it could be about the figure, the city, or something else – but what it shares is that it lives in the real world in front of us. A smartphone is a gateway out of that world we are exploring with our cameras, and into a virtual world of profiles, bots and advertisers. I find it extremely distracting to use a phone for anything while I am photographing, and I encourage readers to set your phone on silence (or leave it behind if that is practical) while making images. For simply knowing the time, any watch will do – a $10.98 Casio or a $20,000 Rolex – choose based on your budget and personal tastes.
There are, however, three categories of watches that offer the photographer something more than the time, additional information that can assist us as we seek images. The choices for a watch more useful than the rest are either a smartwatch like the Apple Watch, a GPS watch like a Garmin Fenix or a YES Watch. Any of the three are worthy of consideration, and different photographers will choose different possibilities. I’ve worn all three at different times, and found them useful for different things. My present choice is the YES WorldWatch v7, a unique watch from a small California watch maker that gives an extraordinary amount of information about the sun and moon. It really is a different, more natural way of thinking about time. Before I get into detail about the YES Watch (my sample was sent to me by Bjorn Kartomten, the founder of YES Watch, for review), I’ll talk a little about my experience with both Garmin and Apple watches, and the pluses and minuses of each.
The seductive thing about an Apple Watch (the older version I have used is Not Recommended for the kind of photography I do (and I don’t think it’s changed), is that it will display just about any piece of information a photographer might want. Sun and moon? No problem. Tide charts? Yep… Map, complete with directions? Sure. The display is beautiful, and Apple is the absolute master of user interfaces – the Apple Watch is by far the easiest watch of its complexity to use. There are three drawbacks to the Apple Watch, two of them serious, which, to me, outweigh its advantages. The minor drawback is that its GPS is less accurate than a dedicated GPS watch – it’s still accurate enough for most purposes, but a Garmin will give a somewhat more accurate position and will be substantially more accurate in recording tracks.
The two big drawbacks are the abysmal battery life and the fact that it is constantly trying to draw you into the world of the iPhone. The Apple Watch Series 6 is rated as having 18 hours of battery life, and that is realistic under most circumstances – but not with the GPS on continuously. If you are using GPS, the most useful tool it has for photographers, it could be as little as 7 hours or less. Apple lists the battery life as “up to 7 hours outdoor workout with GPS”. There are ways to conserve a little battery from this figure (which has GPS, heart rate and several other sensors set to frequent sampling), but it still might not last an entire day hike, let alone any multi-day photographic exploration. When I used an Apple Watch, it could get through any half-day hike easily, and could be coaxed through many full-day explorations with careful settings, but it was certainly easy to run out of battery in a single day outdoors. The battery life alone is prohibitive for serious landscape photography at any significant distance from the car.
The other drawback of the Apple Watch is the constant alerting. For photographers who want to engage with the real world in front of them, rather than the virtual world, the Apple Watch defaults to notifying its wearer about e-mail, text messages and phone calls, along with app notifications. These settings can be changed, but, like a smartphone, the design philosophy of the Apple Watch is based on wanting to be a part of the virtual world at all times. If you turn too much off, it “begs” to have notifications turned back on. It is designed carefully to blend the online and offline worlds, while one of the joys of photography to me is the joy of being offline, being focused on the world of trees and mountains instead of profiles and bots. It’s also worth noting that an Apple Watch is substantially less rugged than a Garmin Fenix or a YES WorldWatch. It’s marketed as 50 meter water resistant, while both the Garmin and the YES Watch are 100 meter. Since watch water resistance is tested as a static pressure, not a realistic test (you can’t actually dive to the ~50 meter limit of recreational SCUBA with an Apple Watch, nor to 100 meters on heliox with a Garmin or a YES Watch), it’s more useful as a general measure of ruggedness. a YES or a Garmin will take most anything you can throw at them, while an Apple Watch needs a bit more care.
What I’ve worn for most of the past decade is a succession of GPS watches from Garmin (Recommended)– I’ve been partial to the Fenix series, the most rugged, most outdoor focused line they make. Garmin also makes a number of less expensive GPS watches with more of a fitness focus – I haven’t tried those, and some of them might well offer a cheaper option. The feature to check (besides ruggedness and battery life) is that they are capable of exporting GPS tracks. The Instinct series is their next most outdoor-focused line after the Fenix. In addition to time, the Garmins focus on location. They have GPS location tracking that records to a standard file that is relatively easy to add to the metadata on your photos – just make sure the clock on your camera is synchronized to the watch, and there are a couple of inexpensive programs that will match the data. Many newer Fenix models also offer a map with decent trail coverage. If you don’t use accessory maps that Garmin sells (some are also available for download from third parties), the accuracy of the trails is decent. With the best of the accessory maps, the accuracy can be very good.
Unlike an Apple Watch, a Garmin Fenix offers battery life sufficient to use GPS on a weekend backpacking trip. For a weeklong trip or a thru-hike, you’ll have to recharge the watch. The cable is tiny and light and works with USB power banks, although it draws so little current that some power banks will shut off because they think there’s nothing attached – try before you go. If you dispense with the cable for a trip of a couple of days, be careful to turn off GPS when you’re not using it – leaving it tracking overnight by mistake will drain the battery. Without GPS on, its battery life as a watch is a couple of weeks or even longer if you turn all the sensors off.
A Garmin can act as a crude smartwatch, with fairly limited information about phone calls, text messages and e-mails. Unlike an Apple Watch, display is limited and there is no way to respond. Since the smartwatch features are much less of the overall package, they are also easier not to use. A Garmin Fenix will work just fine with no phone connection at all, and it offers a lot of choice if you DO connect it about what features you do or don’t want to use. If you share my preference for no notifications from the internet while photographing, a Garmin will oblige.
The drawback to the Garmins is information about the sun and moon. It is possible to get third-party faces for a Garmin watch that convey this information, but they are generally poorly designed. Between the relatively low quality of the displays and the fact that the Garmin Connect IQ “store” offers no easy way to make money, the faces I have seen tend to be slapdash, amateur affairs. In order to save power, Garmin also restricts what a watch face can do – you can find sunrise and sunset in tiny numbers, but not in a graphical display that I have seen. I’m not sure how much of this is the Connect IQ store not having a rich community of developers, how much is that the watches are tough to develop for, and how much is power saving – but whichever it is, it means that information about light (critical to photographers) is relatively tough to find.
The third option is the YES Watch (YES WorldWatch v7, Highly Recommended), which focuses intensely on time and light. After a few months, I prefer the YES Watch over the Garmin Fenix – I have not taken it off except to charge it (once) since it arrived. Most of the time I’ve had it, I’ve been stuck largely indoors due to winter and COVID restrictions. I can’t wait to continue wearing it as spring and vaccines reopen the world, when its special features become even more useful. The YES Watch is emphatically NOT a smartwatch, offering no internet connection at all – it is manually set, not even using an atomic time receiver (which some $50 watches can do). It is not a watch that forgot to be a smartwatch, it is the philosophical opposite of, and antidote to, our hyper-real, always online world. The goal of the YES Watch, one that it succeeds admirably at, is to reconnect us with the ancient, natural rhythms and cycles of time.
In addition to analog (one 24-hour hand, which is tough for those of us who’ve gotten used to 12-hour time at first – the bottom of the face isn’t 6, it’s midnight) and digital (choice of 12 or 24 hour formats), which can be different time zones, the YES Watch offers an amazing number of pieces of time and astronomical information, all displayed in an easy to read graphical format. The most important to photographers is probably the timing of sunrise and sunset, along with twilight periods. The numbers are available at the push of a button, but more importantly, the watch face itself is a graphical display of day, night and twilight, with the 24-hour hand as indicator. A circle at the bottom of the display represents the phase of the moon, just as it does on expensive mechanical watches with a moon phase feature. Two rings around the edge of the display offer true solar noon and true midnight, along with moonrise and moonset information. One wonderful feature is an alarm that can be set to an astronomical event. Rather than setting an alarm for “5:36 AM”, it can set one for “30 minutes before sunrise”.
The YES Watch has a sophisticated database of time zones, so it will automatically change to local time if you tell it you’ve moved, and it can retain up to ten favorite locations for rapid changes between them. Its database also holds daylight savings information for each of those locations, up to date as of its manufacture. Due to its day length functions, not only your time zone, but your latitude and longitude within the time zone matter. Boston and Miami, or Seattle and San Diego, share a time zone, but their day lengths are completely different. The YES Watch has a built-in database of 650 cities around the world, and if you aren’t near any of them, you can enter a latitude and longitude along with daylight saving time information (you can also override the daylight savings time information for the built-in cities, in case DST dates change during the watch’s lifetime).
It takes a little while to learn to read it, but as you learn to read the YES Watch, you come to understand the astronomical nature of time. I have been wearing it for about four months, and I have seen the days get longer on my wrist, as the light “day” part of the watch face expands and the dark part contracts. It has been truly beautiful to see the journey to longer days unfold in this simple graphical way. Seeing the light part of the face expand since the dark days of late December and early January brings the hope of spring, even as the ground is still frozen under a foot of snow. The YES Watch marks the solstices and equinoxes, along with the more obscure “cross quarter” days – the days halfway between solstice and equinox. With a few button pushes, the exact times of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, civil, nautical and astronomical twilight are available, along with the exact percentage illumination of the moon’s face, the day of year and other more obscure information. The graphical display is beautiful, harkening back to sundials and other ways of telling time by the sun, and generally accurate enough for most photographic purposes (especially in combination with the “x minutes to sunrise or sunset” alarm), but the exact times are there if you need them. With a little practice, I can read the graphical display to about 15 minute accuracy.
Unlike an Apple Watch or even a Garmin Fenix, the YES Watch’s battery life is measured in months. It is claimed to last three months on a charge (it’s rechargeable), using all the functions – and the one I’ve been wearing bears this out. The only time you’d ever need to account for the charger on a trip is on something like a thru-hike or a round-the world bike trip. Even then, the charger is needed so infrequently that it is well worth mailing ahead instead of carrying. This is a HUGE difference from a GPS watch, where any trip over a couple of days needs the charger, and even more so from an Apple Watch, where the charger is an every day companion.
If an Apple Watch is the connected timepiece for the 21st Century, the YES WorldWatch v7 is the watch Thoreau would have worn. Instead of focusing on the numbers of time and the ever-invasive pulse of the Internet, it focuses on reconnecting its wearer to the natural cycles of time, to the daily rhythms, and to the seasonal cycles that are harder to see because they move slowly compared to our perceptions. After a few months with it, I can glance at the YES Watch and get an intuitive feel for the sun, the moon and the cycle of the seasons that I can’t get from anything else. Could I put the right apps on an Apple Watch to simulate it? Probably, but it wouldn’t be the same experience. The Apple Watch would still favor the world of texts, e-mails phone calls and social networking over the Yes Watch’s world of sun, moon, seasons and time.
It is It is a special tool – a photographers’ watch, but also a philosophers’ watch. While it is relatively expensive because it is unique (listing at $695 and up – YES Watch has extended a 25% discount to Luminous Landscape readers for the first 10 days this article is posted – mention code LULA in the order ), the only other type of watch that would come close to the same level of astronomical information displayed in a graphical format (apart from a smartwatch running several different apps) is a mechanical watch with grande complications. A few very expensive mechanical watches show the phase of the moon, and there is one that shows sunrise and sunset at any location set when the watch is built, but that costs over half a million dollars! Sunrise and sunset for a specific location set when the watch is built is slightly easier – but useless if you travel (and that’s still a custom watch costing tens of thousands of dollars or more).
Practically, there is nothing like the YES Watch – some less expensive digital watches will show similar information in numerical form (and without some of the features like the astronomical alarm), but the graphical display is both beautiful and practical. A smartwatch might do the same thing with the right app, but with a battery life measured in hours instead of months, and with constant reminders of the virtual world.
Is the YES Watch perfect? No… I wish it had GPS, but it would lose its battery life if it did. The astronomical information is valuable enough that my field kit has the YES Watch on my wrist and a Garmin GPS clipped to my pack. The standalone GPS has a better antenna, display, controls and battery life than any GPS watch, as well as a more accurate altimeter and barometer and a thermometer that is actually useful. Any thermometer worn on a wrist will uselessly measure the temperature of your wrist instead of the ambient air temperature. My particular GPS (a GPSMap 66i) also has a satellite communication function that allows me to send and receive short text messages and send a SOS if needed, and to download weather reports.
This level of communication is a valuable safety tool, and it doesn’t compromise the separation from the virtual world that I go into the woods, mountains and coasts for. There is no watch-sized device that has includes the communication function, and a communicator that lacks high-end GPS functionality is only marginally lighter than one combined with a GPS, so the only disadvantage of the combined unit is that it has to be charged more frequently (whatever device provides GPS tracking will require charging every several days – GPS is a power hog). I usually hike on extended trips with a partner who also has a GPS and some form of satellite communicator, plus we have paper maps, so our total kit contains significant redundancy. On most hiking trails in North America outside of Alaska and northern Canada, this is overkill – there are enough people around, and the trails are well enough marked, that multiple forms of navigation and communication aren’t really needed. I’d always have one source of GPS plus a map even on a long day hike, and it’s good to have a satellite device on longer or winter trips – but backups are a “belt and suspenders” approach that’s only really needed in very remote places.
The second of this collection of odd devices has been with me for over a year – it is the “Mighty Robus”, my Robus RC-5570 carbon fiber tripod (Highly Recommended, sample supplied by B&H Photo). If there’s a load the Mighty Robus can’t support, it’s not worth supporting. Robus (a B&H store brand) claims that it can support 55 lbs, and that is almost certainly an underestimate in most circumstances. I’ve tried sitting on the thing with no ill effects , although I haven’t used a ladder to get on top of it at maximum height (it can place the bottom of the head six feet above the ground). The heaviest lens I can find on B&H’s website is Sigma’s 200-500mm f2.8, at 35 lbs. No matter what camera body you attach to it, including a heavy digital cinema camera, you can’t get the “Sigmonster” over 55 lbs.
What about a large format camera? Well, a Canham 11×14” view camera weighs about 17 lbs without a lens or a film holder. No easy way to get that up to 55 lbs, although it’s a box kite and would appreciate some weight hung from the hook below the tripod apex if there’s any wind. A Canham 20×24” does weigh 55 lbs before lens and film holder. Better not extend the last set of legs with that on the tripod! It would actually work with the Canham 20×24” camera, because a 20×24” camera is so tall that it uses a relatively short tripod – the Mighty Robus is almost certainly capable of supporting 70 lbs or so with the narrower leg segments retracted.
It will even support most astronomical telescopes up to 8” in diameter, and many 9.25” telescopes, with their associated mounts. Since a large telescope tends to be used on a shorter tripod, it might support a heavier 9.25” scope, or even a relatively light 11” model, on partially extended legs. Once you get above that size, telescopes are no longer really transportable any great distance, and a 50 lb tripod with much heavier legs that look like they’re made of plumbing pipe is the best way to support them, short of a fixed pier in a dome.
The Mighty Robus is somewhat heavy, as any tripod that supports what it does would have to be. It’s about 6 lbs with no head, and any head that comes close to matching its capacity will add a couple of pounds more. The comparable Really Right Stuff TVC-34L is about a pound lighter, but more than twice as expensive ($1160 vs $549). If you have a load heavy or unwieldy enough to need a giant tripod, is the pound on the tripod really going to matter? The Robus locks extremely securely, folds and unfolds easily, and has absolutely no vibration. Is the RRS a bit smoother? Probably, although the Robus is very smooth to operate – it definitely feels like a Gitzo or a RRS, rather than an inexpensive tripod.
Many of us own a couple of tripods – something light and portable, plus a monster like the Mighty Robus to use close to the car or in the studio. Given the choice of spending for something really top-end like a RRS on the big tripod or the little one, I’d choose the little one. The Mighty Robus is really close in performance to the best 3-series tripods in the world, and I trust it implicitly. I use it for testing lenses, which requires an utterly vibration-free platform. It’s a little heavier than the absolute top-end models, but that doesn’t matter in the places where you’d tend to use a big tripod. The differences between a cheap travel tripod and something like a Gitzo Traveler or a RRS Ascend are much greater than those between the Mighty Robus and a Gitzo Systematic or RRS Versa.
It’s a pleasure to operate, with very smooth and positive leg locks and secure leg angle setting. The platform is generously sized, and will accept even the largest photo-oriented heads. Robus thoughtfully supplies a 75mm video bowl as an alternative to the flat photo platform – with a two minute changeover, it’ll accept most medium sized fluid heads with built-in leveling. Some larger fluid heads use 100mm or even 150mm bowl bases instead, which the Robus doesn’t support – but there are a wide range of options in 75mm, from inexpensive heads in the $200 range up to $2000 heads that support 30 lbs of cine equipment. Robus provides a comprehensive set of accessories with the tripod, including three sets of feet. It ships with standard rubber feet attached, but comes with both spikes for dirt surfaces and “snowshoes” (both of which the big brands charge extra for, although some of their tripods have integral spikes concealed within the feet). They also supply the allen keys needed to tighten various points (as do RRS and Gitzo). The included case is also high quality, although I’ve managed to break the zipper pulls and need to replace them with pieces of paracord. If the only low-quality bit in the entire setup is the zipper pulls, I’m glad to save hundreds of dollars and use a bit of cord…
I’ve never gotten it NEAR its load capacity, having nothing heavier or more unwieldy than the A7r IV with the 200-600mm lens around. That combination (around 7 lbs) is very light by the Mighty Robus’ standards, and the long lens doesn’t faze it. I’d easily go up to a 600mm f4 or an 800mm f5.6 with the right head (a good-sized gimbal head) – there is simply no standard still or video lens it can’t handle. I have never had access to an ultra-rare lens like the Canon 1200mm f5.6 or the Nikon 1200-1700mm zoom, but those are often mounted to fixed piers in ballparks or to very heavy vehicle mounts. I suspect the Mighty Robus could handle even a lens like that with a sufficiently heavy gimbal head, but I’d hate to put a $100,000 lens on a $700 tripod and find out I’m wrong.
I would like to try it with an astronomical telescope – I don’t own one, but would like to when I live in a permanent location with dark skies. Most tripods supplied with medium sized astronomical telescopes in the 8” range are much heavier, but no sturdier, than the Mighty Robus, because they are aluminum or even steel, and built with no regard to weight. Getting a tripod sturdy enough for a scope that is also cheap enough to be a part of a $1500 package is most easily done by making it extremely heavy, and using a medium-weight, but sturdy photo tripod could massively increase the portability of the package.
The third of my rogues’ gallery of great photo accessories that don’t really fit anywhere else is the Graphtec CE-6000 Plus cutting plotter (Highly Recommended for photographers who need what it does and don’t mind experimenting quite a bit, at the cost of some paper). Photographers will tend to use the Graphtec with ImagePrint as the driver application. There are other applications, including Graphtec’s own, that can drive the plotter, but ImagePrint is photographer-friendly and simply the highest-quality print software on the market. Pretty much anything else that drives the Graphtec would require learning an application that was really aimed at the sign market, not photography.
My sample was supplied by Canon, who sell the Graphtec in a bundle with ImagePrint and the Cut-it-Out extension that allows ImagePrint to drive the plotter. Cut-it-Out is very simple to use, with only a couple of controls, and it does its part of the job so darned well that the rest of this review will focus on the Graphtec itself. ImagePrint and Cut-it-Out do their job flawlessly, while the cutting hardware requires more experimentation.
If you don’t already own ImagePrint, the Canon bundle provides some savings with a 24” plotter, and a very substantial savings if you need the 48” size that goes with 44” printers. There are probably deals available from your favorite Canon printer dealer if you bundle a printer or other accessories with the purchase. Neither the Graphtec nor ImagePrint are exactly cheap, so the total investment is in the same price range as your wide-format printer ($2000+ for 24” 3500+ for 48”, with exact pricing depending on discounts, ImagePrint version and whether you already own any of the pieces).
Why would you want a cutting plotter? Isn’t slicing prints on a Rotatrim good enough? If all you’re doing is cutting 8×10 inch images from roll prints, it almost certainly is, and a Rotatrim is about ¼ the price of the Graphtec setup. If you’re cutting things smaller than 8x10s, or prints where precise alignment is important (for anything that folds, it’s easy to get it just far enough off on a Rotatrim to screw up the fold), the Graphtec has a significant advantage – once you get the settings right, it’s both precise and straight every time. It’s also relatively fast, especially if there are a lot of cuts to be made. For one or two cuts on a piece, a Rotatrim is at least as quick since the Graphtec can be tricky to load, but feeding the same piece into a Rotatrim ten or fifteen times gets really tedious (if cutting greeting cards, 4×6” prints or worse yet, business cards), as does feeding small pieces of paper into a roll-fed printer one at a time to avoid cutting.
What about using a smaller printer that is designed to take sheets instead of trying to cut small items down from roll paper? Unfortunately, small printers are often impractical for any serious amount of production due to tiny ink cartridges. Epson’s P5000 is the only printer that offers both a tray feed for smaller sheet paper and ink cartridges suitable for medium or large volume. Canon’s Pro-1000 comes close, but its feed is not as robust as the Epson’s, and the cartridges are smaller (although they are much larger than most competitors’).
Assuming you want to produce small items on a roll-fed printer, rather than installing a P5000 to deal with smaller prints and being limited to the papers available cut to the right size (there are several options for greeting cards, very few for anything smaller), a Graphtec offers by far the best (if expensive) way to cut these items down to size. There does not seem to be any option to print folding greeting cards on any baryta-type paper without trimming them down – pre-made greeting card papers are mostly matte surfaces, with some RC glossy options. This is partially because not all baryta papers fold well – Red River Palo Duro does, while Canson Infinity Platine does not. I found this out by experimentation, and it will be a part of future paper tests (I don’t know about other papers, because those two were the samples I had around when I tried folding paper).
The other use for a Graphtec is to cut the things a Rotatrim simply can’t. The blade on the Graphtec cutter is less than a millimeter wide, which offers three types of versatility a Rotatrim does not. First, the Graphtec can cut on a curve – pieces with rounded corners, circular and oval images, and images with complex cut borders are no problem for a Graphtec cutter. There is no easy manual way to produce these cuts – some simple curve cuts are possible, although not easy, with an X-Acto knife and a stencil, or with cutters that operate on the principle of a compass. More complex border cuts are impossible, or nearly so, without a Graphtec or a similar machine – how complex is too complex to cut manually depends on how good you are with a stencil. The Graphtec is capable of cutting an almost arbitrarily complex curve. I have never encountered an edge that I could get Photoshop to trace (creating the path for the cutter to follow) that the Graphtec can’t cut. I’ve tried sharp curves that reverse direction in the space of a few millimeters, and the Graphtec is perfectly capable of following those.
The second cut the Graphtec will make that is very difficult to make manually is an internal cut. To use a Rotatrim or any similar type of cutter, at least one end of the cut needs to be at the edge of the paper. The Graphtec can lift the blade clear of the paper, so it’s not restricted in this way – it is perfectly capable of cutting a hole in an image. The only manual way to get It can also combine a complex cut and an internal cut, allowing an arbitrarily shaped hole in a print. The third complex cut a Graphtec can make is a cut partway through the paper. Why would you want to cut only partway through? It’s incredibly useful if the paper happens to be a sticker!
One thing to remember is that the Graphtec has thickness and toughness limitations – it will cut light cardstock or heavy fine-art paper, but it won’t cut mat board, much less wood or metal. When you create an image with a complex shape, think about how it’s going to be mounted. If it’s a sticker, that’s easy. It’s more difficult to mount an unusually shaped print without an unusually shaped board to put it on. There certainly are machines that will cut various sorts of backings in any shape you want – and one possibility is to order backings, then cut the prints to fit. Another experiment I want to try is using the Graphtec to cut dye-sublimation transfers. Since the transfer on most items isn’t the same shape as the backing, that could be a great match.
Some photographers will rarely, if ever use any of the three types of complex cuts. If you’ll never do anything a Rotatrim can’t do, the Graphtec is tough to justify unless you have a high-volume business in greeting cards or small prints. If you have a significant presence at art fairs where small prints or cards sell in quantity, or a thriving Etsy shop, a Graphtec can be worth it. Even then, a P5000 or a Pro-1000 in addition to your wide-format printer is an alternative path worth considering, unless you want to use baryta papers or other media that aren’t available in card sizes. A second printer for small items is comparable in price to a Graphtec, and is much easier to set up and use (although it has many more paper restrictions, and high-quality precut paper is more expensive than cutting from a roll). Where the Graphtec comes into its own is if you’ll do complex cuts – think about custom stickers, unusually shaped prints or things with holes in them (I know some photographers who have a hole in their business card – it’s unique and memorable). These probably aren’t the majority of your print sales, but they can be great add-on items.
How much you’ll use complex cuts depends on how you sell your work – a school or wedding photographer who likes to do creative finishing might make enormous use of them, while someone with a very traditional architectural market might never find a use. Choosing between a Graphtec and a second printer should be based on whether you want any of the things a second printer won’t do – media you can’t get in the size you want or prints in different shapes (as simple as rounded corners, or as complex as a fully shaped print of a bird in flight, cut around the bird). If you are satisfied with the paper choices and print types available precut, a second printer requires much less experimentation – but if you want to go farther and are willing to experiment, a Graphtec offers much more flexibility.
Using the Graphtec with ImagePrint (which is how most photographers who aren’t also graphic designers will prefer to use it) ranges from very simple to quite complex, depending on the type of cut and the type of paper. When you buy the Graphtec from Canon, it comes with a selection of default settings for Canon papers on a sheet in the box. These settings are quite accurate, and they apply to similar papers from other manufacturers as well. The only experimentation that will be required is some adjustment of margins in ImagePrint – the Graphtec is quite picky about reading the registration marks on the paper, and moving the margins can help. The papers missing from these recommendations are the type of heavy fine-art papers a lot of us like to use. Every paper is different, but both heavy matte art papers and barytas generally require a relatively long blade length, a fairly high force value and a slowed-down cutter speed (if you have a Graphtec in front of you, these things will make sense). Slowing down the cutter speed has really helped me cut accurately on papers that befuddled me for months.
If you are cutting rectangular prints, that’s all you need to set. ImagePrint has a very simple option for rounding corners, and that works very well. Once you have your settings for a particular paper, it becomes a very simple, mechanical process – turning on cutting is literally two checkboxes in ImagePrint, plus two more settings if you want rounded corners. You’ll ruin a few prints trying to find the right settings for a given paper, but once you have your settings, it works very well (once you have a paper cutting reliably, write the settings down!).
To make complex cuts, there is an extra step – you need to give the Graphtec a path to cut. ImagePrint generates rectangles, rounded rectangles and ellipses (including circles) on its own, but can cut any shape if you give it a path. The path is a vector layer in your file with a particular name that ImagePrint recognizes as a cutting path. You can create the path in any of three ways. First, you can use any vector template file, from any source. If you want to print a picture in the shape of a snowflake, you need a vector file with the shape of the snowflake in it. Add it to your picture as a layer, getting the scale right and giving the vector layer the right name, and ImagePrint will recognize it as a cutting path. Print it, then run the printed sheet through the Graphtec by using the cut button in ImagePrint’s spooler. Remember to turn off visibility on that vector layer before printing, so the printer doesn’t draw lines on your photo…
You can create a path in the shape of your subject by selecting the subject and then converting to a path in Photoshop or any comparable software. Unless you have a really high-contrast subject, the tracing won’t be perfect, and you’ll have to clean it up a bit by hand. You can also convert text to a vector path, and that works very well with larger text. If you are good at drawing (and I’m not), the third option is to create a vector layer in your file with the pen tool or another drawing tool. Remember that the Graphtec is perfectly capable of cutting holes, and use that to your advantage!
Coupling a Graphtec and a dye-sublimation printer would allow unusually shaped transfers onto a wide variety of substrates. Dye-sublimation is getting much more affordable, with Epson’s little letter-size F170 selling for only $400 and the 24” F570 going for $2500 (I have no inside information from Epson, but wouldn’t a 13” or 17” model make sense between these two?), although a heat press or two will increase that cost. Dye-sublimation is another craft to learn, too. If you sell through art fairs or on Etsy, it’s very likely to be worth it to provide unique photo items. Hopefully face mask demand (currently a very hot product) will decline in the next several months, but everything from metal prints to shirts, keychains, mugs and mousepads provides a vehicle for art. One I am very interested in trying is kites or windsocks from an image of a bird in flight…
The Graphtec and ImagePrint’s Cut-it-Out module make the tedious job of cutting small rectangular prints such as greeting cards and promotional materials massively easier. If you do a lot of volume in these types of items, that alone could be worth it. For many of us, though, the question will come down to how often we’ll use previously impossible cut types. You can cut greeting cards and the like on a Rotatrim, and you can get someone to print them for you (although not at the quality you can do them yourself). The cuts you can’t easily make any other way are the more creative reason to have and learn to use a Graphtec. Either way, it’s a really interesting tool if you are the right user.