My Gear – Chapter 19
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40

DMC-ZS40I knew within a week of purchasing the Panasonic DMC-FZ70 that I’d made a mistake. When the camera was not quite six days old I set out on a short road trip and used it for several of the pictures posted in that trip’s journal (It’s a Wanderful Life). It performed flawlessly and recorded some fine photos. My mistake was not in buying a bad camera but in buying the wrong camera. The FZ70’s quality seemed good and it was certainly quite capable. There was simply no slot for it in my personal arsenal.

It’s nearly as big as my Nikon D5100 and, while it is good, it’s not as good. Anytime camera size was not an issue, the Nikon would win. The only place where the Nikon did not fit and the Panasonic did was in a fanny pack and even there it was bulky and awkward to extract. Technically usable as my “concert cam”, it wasn’t nearly as convenient or discreet as the FZ8 had been.

As my buyer’s remorse grew, the Consumer Electronics Show opened in Las Vegas and with it came some new camera announcements. A pair from Panasonic caught my eye. The 20.1 MP Lumix DMC-ZS100 would list for $700 and the 18.1 MP Lumix DMC-ZS60 would list for $448. Of course pixel count wasn’t the only difference but either seemed more than capable of satisfying my desires and both were priced well above my target zone. Neither was actually available with the January 5 announcement but they were available for advance ordering on Amazon. I placed no order but did put the ZS60 on my wish list in case some money fell into my lap.

The most important thing those camera announcements did for me was make me aware of predecessors. The ZS60 was a direct replacement for the almost identically sized ZS40. There were several improvement, of course. Some were definitely desirable but none were necessary. Prices began to slowly drop on the discontinued camera and I pulled the trigger at $212 or 47% of the original $450 MSRP.

I could have had the more desirable all black model for about $40 more but could barely justify the $212. Aside from aesthetics, which can go either way, pros prefer black cameras for the same reasons snipers don’t care much for shiny gun barrels. Although the model I purchased is called silver, it is predominately black and the parts that aren’t are mostly more gray than silver. There are indeed a few bits that could create a glint but that’s hardly an issue when the area around you is likely to be filled with glowing smartphone screens.

DMC-ZS40aThis is the right camera. It’s about three times as thick as my Samsung Galaxy S4 and actually smaller in the other dimensions. Equally important to me is the eye-level viewfinder. It is electronic, of course, which means its on the course side and a little sluggish but not terribly so. In terms of speed, it’s probably a little slower than the FZ70 but significantly faster than the FZ8 and FZ5 I used for years. Yes, I would like the better low light performance of the ZS50 or ZS100 but the difference in prices makes this the right camera for me for now.

DMC-ZS40bWhen I purchased that Lumix DMC-FZ5 in 2005 it was a real change for me. To that point I had refused to own a camera, or much of anything else, that used proprietary batteries. I had also stuck with products from “camera companies”. During the previous forty-plus years of semi-serious picture taking I’d owned Olympus, Nikon, and Canon cameras. Even my 100% price driven first digital was from a company, Agfa, known for film and cameras. My concerns were considerably lessened by the Leica lens on the FZ5. As I said in the FZ5’s My Gear post, digital cameras are “made of electronics and optics” and those are fields where Panasonic and Leica excel. The FZ8 also had a Leica lens but not so the FZ70. I can’t prove that my perception of the Lumix Vario lens on the FZ70 being slightly inferior as anything more than my own prejudice but the ZS40 makes the question meaningless. My latest purchase has a Leica 30X (24-720mm) lens that somehow fits itself inside that 1.34 inch body when power is off.

Another thing that changed with the the FZ5 purchase was form factor. The Canon compacts that preceded it had been small flattish cubes when power was off and the modest zooms parked. The FZ5’s shape was more like a SLR with the long-throw lens protruding from the body even when fully retracted. With the ZS40 I’m back to a small cube that slips easily into pockets.

There are a couple of features on the Lumix DMC-ZS40 that I wasn’t looking for and would not pay extra for. One is a built in GPS receiver that supports in-camera geotagging. For some time, I’ve been geotagging my photos after-the-fact via software and the tracks recorded by a Garmin GPS. The only negative I see with the in-camera unit is reduced battery life. For that reason, I’ll likely have it turned off most of the time but I can certainly see using it for some away-from-the-car geotagging. Wi-Fi is also built in which allows using online services to store photos or post them directly to social media. I have doubts that I’ll ever use it that way but it’s possible. It also allows me to transfer pictures between the camera and my phone or laptop and that does seem like something I might have a use for someday. The camera can be used as something of a wireless SD card reader meaning I could use it to get photos from my DSLR to my smartphone. It’s not something I’ve been itching to do but having the capability does make me go hmmm.

My Gear – Chapter 18 — Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70

My Gear – Chapter 18
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70

DMC-FZ70My gear had been stable for quite some time. The most recent newcomer was a Garmin zūmo 220 in January of 2012 and the newest camera a Nikon D5100 acquired the preceding September. The way the image capturing devices in the lineup were used had developed into something a little different than what I originally anticipated but it was all good. The D5100 is small for a DSLR but it’s still pretty big. When I’m carrying it my primary intent is, more likely than not, to take pictures. On the other end of things, my mobile phone is almost always with me and can be used when I’m not planning to take pictures but an opportunity — or need — appears. In between was a Lumix DMC-FZ8 originally purchased, back in July of 2007, to be my main camera. It went into service as the “big” camera in partnership with something more pocket-able. But the FZ8 fit into a belt bag and, while too big for a jeans pocket, into jacket pockets rather easily. After a DLSR started filling the big camera “I’m definitely taking pictures” role, I came to think of the FZ8 as a smallish camera that was easy to have with me when I thought I might want to take a picture. It became the workhorse camera for concerts and presentations where I wanted to grab some decent photos but did not want to be obtrusive.

It was a comfortable situation but it couldn’t last forever. In September the FZ8 died and I immediately became painfully aware of just how much I’d come to depend on it. On one hand, improvements in technology made smartphone photos equal in quality — in certain situations — to those of the Panasonic camera. In fact, although the spec is often misleading, my Samsung Galaxy 4 has nearly twice the pixels of the FZ8, 13 MP to 7.2 MP. But in terms of usability there is no comparison. There are few things more obtrusive or less stable than a smartphone held out far enough to compose a photo on its brightly glowing screen and very little as frustrating as trying to do it in bright sunlight. I even dug out the old Nikon Coolpix 3200 just to have a small camera with an eye-level viewfinder but that was far from satisfactory. I can hardly blame the decade old Nikon, though. I had become accustomed to higher quality images and, more importantly, less shutter lag. The 3200 was usable as a stopgap but it was a rather poor one.

There was no great urgency but I did start looking about the Internet once in a while for a replacement for the dead FZ8. The problem was that low priced cameras with eye-level viewfinders were pretty much a thing of the past. Offering only LCD screens for framing photos make them closer to a smartphone than to my idea of a camera. The latest in the line of FZ8 successors was the DMC-FZ70 which originally listed for $399.99. While that was very much in line with what I had paid for my FZ8 and the FZ5 it replaced, I had bought those as primary cameras and I wasn’t comfortable paying that much now for what would, from the very beginning, be an auxiliary to a Nikon DSLR.

The camera is no longer available from Panasonic and I’ve found postings about it being discontinued dating back to July of last year. Apparently there were bunches of these in the pipeline because even today I can find plenty of them for sale on line. Prices range up to $325 despite the last price on Panasonic’s website being $299.99. Panasonic may have lowered the price around the end of November because that’s when I noticed prices from some sources starting to dip below $300. On a day in mid-December it occurred to me that some brick & mortar stores might have the camera available to look over. I quickly learned that Best Buy carried the camera but was obviously closing it out. The store nearest to me had none left but the next nearest did. The closeout price was a wallet tugging $150.

At $400 the camera specs are impressive. At $150 they are almost unbelievable. Topping the spec sheet are the 16.1 megapixel sensor and the industry leading 60x (20-1200mm) zoom lens. Other impressive numbers are the 100 to 3200 ISO range (1600-6400 High Sens mode) and 4 to 1/2000 second shutter speed. Unfortunately those aren’t the camera’s only big numbers. Its 1.34 lb weight is about twice that of the FZ8. Its 5.12 x 3.82 x 4.65 inch dimensions are 15% to nearly 50% larger than the FZ8. I feared that size would be a problem and holding the camera in my hand in the store did nothing to alleviate that fear. The bargain basement price did.

Of course what the bargain basement price really did was cloud a problem not eliminate it. The FZ70 did fit into my belt bag but getting it in and out was nowhere near as easy as popping the FZ8 in and out and getting it into any of the jacket pockets that had held the FZ8 was simply impossible. For many people, the Panasonic DMC-FZ70 would be the ideal camera. Sadly, I’m not one of them. As I write this, it remains in my possession but its spot in the rotation has already been taken by another Panasonic camera. I’d love to make someone a very good deal on a very good camera and may soon actively pursue doing that on eBay.

My Gear — Chapter 17 — Garmin zūmo 220

Road Trip Essentials Redux
A My Gear Extra

This post first appeared on June 8, 2014. It was done at the request/suggestion of a company called RelayRides. The company has changed its name to Turo and recently contacted me to request an update in the 2014 post. I made the name and URL changes then decided to reuse the post as well. Turo is a peer-to-peer car rental company. I still have not used the service so can no more rate or endorse it now than I could in 2014. What I can say is that the company seemed to honestly appreciate a mention in that original post and, unlike some other outfits, have not pounded me with additional requests since then. The current request is not only reasonable but helpful. I appreciate being given an opportunity to fix things. I will also compliment them on some very good timing.

I had already decided to queue up a “Trip Peek” for this week’s post but after rereading the original “…Essentials” post decided to reuse it instead. I like the post and everything is basically the same now as it was then. So, with only minor corrections, here it is again.


rtecolI recently received a request/suggestion for a post on “must have” road trip items. I initially blew it off but returned to it a week or so later. Since I am about to actually head out on a road trip, I need to stockpile some “dateless” (“timeless” almost, but not quite, fits) articles for posting while I travel. You know, the “Trip Peek” or “My Wheels” sort of things that have no connection to what I’m actually doing but can be posted at anytime to meet the blog’s every Sunday schedule. In the middle of generating a couple of “Trip Peeks”, I remembered the email and realized that the suggested “Road Trip Essentials” was as good a topic as any. Of course, it would take more time than a “Trip Peek” but it could be sort of a consolidated “My Gear” and it might be fun. If it also made somebody (the requester) happy, even better.

The request came from RelayRides (now Turo), a peer-to-peer car rental outfit. I’d never heard of them and naming them is not meant to endorse them but I could see that continued references to “the requester” were going to get old. Though the services offered are different, the contact from RelayRides (Turo) reminded me of a recent conversation with some friends about Uber, a person-to-person taxi service. After using Uber on several occasions in a couple of different cities, they were singing its praises. These person-to-person/peer-to-peer businesses are certainly worth keeping an eye on. The RelayRides (Turo) call was for blog posts that could tie into an upcoming “Road Trip Essentials” campaign. There is absolutely nothing in it for me except the possibility of an extra visitor or two but neither are there any restrictions or guidelines. The friendly and conversational request used playlists, caffeine, and frozen grapes as possible essentials so my list may be a little more serious than what they’re thinking. I believe everyone knows, however, that, while I take my road trips seriously, they are rarely serious trips. There was no actual suggestion that I include a collage but the word was used twice and I figured making a small one might be fun. It was.

The camera needs little explanation. If I’m on a full tilt road trip, I need pictures for the daily updates and there are other trips taken with the clear intent of using all or part of the outing in a blog entry. In addition to pictures that, if they’re not too crappy, might appear in a journal or blog entry, I use a camera to take notes. Snapping a photo of a sign or menu is a lot easier and less error prone than trying to write down what I think I might want to know later. Even when there is no advance thought of documenting any part of a trip, l want a camera near by in case some Martians land along the road or Bruce Springsteen’s car breaks down and he needs a ride.

I imagine that almost everyone now considers a GPS unit at least useful on a trip. It can keep you from reaching Tijuana instead of Vancouver and can be a great help in finding gas, food, or lodging. I do use mine to find motels and restaurants and such but I also use it in a manner that makes it truly essential. Many of my trips are on historic (i.e., imaginary) highways. They probably don’t appear on any current map or atlas and there are few, if any, signs to follow. Even if there were, I typically travel alone with no one to constantly read maps or watch for signs. What I do is plot the exact route I want to follow and load it into the GPS unit which then verbally directs me along my chosen path. Yes, it does require a fair amount of advance work and a more capable than average GPS unit.

Even with every turn programmed into the GPS, I pack guide books and maps. The GPS can fail, the situation on the ground might not match the plotted course, or my intentions might simply change. Plus, guidebooks like those in the picture provide valuable information when putting together a journal or blog entry.

The last item pictured, the cell phone, is the electronic Swiss army knife of our age. It is almost essential to everybody everyday just to talk, text, search, and email. In my case, in the context of road trips, it is also essential as a backup camera and as a voice recorder. Not too long ago, I would have included a small voice recorder in my essentials but the phone now serves to make quick notes especially while driving. I still carry a digital recorder for use when appropriate but it no longer rides on the seat beside me.

rtecabOf course, all of those accessories have their own accessories. For many years, I only bought gear that used AA batteries on the theory that I could always buy power at the corner drug store if required. I believe that happened once. I carried around a bag of nicads and the chargers to fill them in either car or motel. I eventually had to abandon that position but I still cling to the ability to recharge everything whether stopped or on the go. I now carry spare proprietary batteries and AC/DC chargers for two different cameras and a cell phone. I do not carry a spare for the GPS since I seldom operate it on battery power.

I’ll also almost always have my laptop along and some music/podcasts, and maybe, depending on departure time and length of trip, a thermos of coffee and a cooler. The cooler will have water or Gatorade and possibly a beer or two. There will probably be some carrots, or apple slices, or grapes in there, too. Next time, the grapes might even be frozen.

Road Trip Essentials
A My Gear Extra

rtecolI recently received a request/suggestion for a post on “must have” road trip items. I initially blew it off but returned to it a week or so later. Since I am about to actually head out on a road trip, I need to stockpile some “dateless” (“timeless” almost, but not quite, fits) articles for posting while I travel. You know, the “Trip Peek” or “My Wheels” sort of things that have no connection to what I’m actually doing but can be posted at anytime to meet the blog’s every Sunday schedule. In the middle of generating a couple of “Trip Peeks”, I remembered the email and realized that the suggested “Road Trip Essentials” was as good a topic as any. Of course, it would take more time than a “Trip Peek” but it could be sort of a consolidated “My Gear” and it might be fun. If it also made somebody (the requester) happy, even better.

The request came from RelayRides (now Turo), a peer-to-peer car rental outfit. I’d never heard of them and naming them is not meant to endorse them but I could see that continued references to “the requester” were going to get old. Though the services offered are different, the contact from RelayRides (now Turo) reminded me of a recent conversation with some friends about Uber, a person-to-person taxi service. After using Uber on several occasions in a couple of different cities, they were singing its praises. These person-to-person/peer-to-peer businesses are certainly worth keeping an eye on. The RelayRides (now Turo) call was for blog posts that could tie into an upcoming “Road Trip Essentials” campaign. There is absolutely nothing in it for me except the possibility of an extra visitor or two but neither are there any restrictions or guidelines. The friendly and conversational request used playlists, caffeine, and frozen grapes as possible essentials so my list may be a little more serious than what they’re thinking. I believe everyone knows, however, that, while I take my road trips seriously, they are rarely serious trips. There was no actual suggestion that I include a collage but the word was used twice and I figured making a small one might be fun. It was.

The camera needs little explanation. If I’m on a full tilt road trip, I need pictures for the daily updates and there are other trips taken with the clear intent of using all or part of the outing in a blog entry. In addition to pictures that, if they’re not too crappy, might appear in a journal or blog entry, I use a camera to take notes. Snapping a photo of a sign or menu is a lot easier and less error prone than trying to write down what I think I might want to know later. Even when there is no advance thought of documenting any part of a trip, l want a camera near by in case some Martians land along the road or Bruce Springsteen’s car breaks down and he needs a ride.

I imagine that almost everyone now considers a GPS unit at least useful on a trip. It can keep you from reaching Tijuana instead of Vancouver and can be a great help in finding gas, food, or lodging. I do use mine to find motels and restaurants and such but I also use it in a manner that makes it truly essential. Many of my trips are on historic (i.e., imaginary) highways. They probably don’t appear on any current map or atlas and there are few, if any, signs to follow. Even if there were, I typically travel alone with no one to constantly read maps or watch for signs. What I do is plot the exact route I want to follow and load it into the GPS unit which then verbally directs me along my chosen path. Yes, it does require a fair amount of advance work and a more capable than average GPS unit.

Even with every turn programmed into the GPS, I pack guide books and maps. The GPS can fail, the situation on the ground might not match the plotted course, or my intentions might simply change. Plus, guidebooks like those in the picture provide valuable information when putting together a journal or blog entry.

The last item pictured, the cell phone, is the electronic Swiss army knife of our age. It is almost essential to everybody everyday just to talk, text, search, and email. In my case, in the context of road trips, it is also essential as a backup camera and as a voice recorder. Not too long ago, I would have included a small voice recorder in my essentials but the phone now serves to make quick notes especially while driving. I still carry a digital recorder for use when appropriate but it no longer rides on the seat beside me.

rtecabOf course, all of those accessories have their own accessories. For many years, I only bought gear that used AA batteries on the theory that I could always buy power at the corner drug store if required. I believe that happened once. I carried around a bag of nicads and the chargers to fill them in either car or motel. I eventually had to abandon that position but I still cling to the ability to recharge everything whether stopped or on the go. I now carry spare proprietary batteries and AC/DC chargers for two different cameras and a cell phone. I do not carry a spare for the GPS since I seldom operate it on battery power.

I’ll also almost always have my laptop along and some music/podcasts, and maybe, depending on departure time and length of trip, a thermos of coffee and a cooler. The cooler will have water or Gatorade and possibly a beer or two. There will probably be some carrots, or apple slices, or grapes in there, too. Next time, the grapes might even be frozen.

ADDENDUM 24-Nov-2015: This post has been edited to reflect a name change from RelayRides to Turo.

My Gear – Chapter 17
Garmin zūmo 220

Garmin Zūmo® 220About eleven months and a couple of My Gear chapters ago, I described my frustrating experience with a Garmin nüvi®. When the chapter ended, I had just discovered that Garmin did still produce a line of GPS units that handled routing the way I wanted which the nüvi® line most definitely did not. I explained, to a small degree, what I meant and I’ll give an even briefer explanation here. The more capable routing of Garmin’s zūmo® line accurately follows a predefined path to a destination. The simpler nüvi® style routing provides guidance to a destination along whatever path it thinks best. Once I understood the difference, I sold (at considerable loss) the nüvi® 2460LMT and bought a zūmo®. In January of 2012, the bottom of the line zūmo® 220 cost not quite $140 more than the top of the line nüvi® 2460LMT had in April of 2011 ($447 vs. $308).

As I’ve said before, “just get me there” routing is perfectly fine for most people and most uses. It is what the majority of stand-alone GPS units provide and I believe it is what most or all units built into vehicles do although I have no experience with them. The software is simpler for a number of reasons but perhaps the most apparent is that only two points need to be dealt with at any instant rather than an entire route. Reduced complexity makes the software easier to develop or cheaper to buy which makes this the right choice for most manufacturers.

But what about Garmin? Since they are supporting the more complex multi-point routing in one line of processors, why not us it in all their products? That’s a purely rhetorical question since there are any number of reasons for maintaining two different lines of software and everyone reading this has probably already thought of half a dozen. One of the most plausible is hardware cost and, though I have no way of knowing, I’m thinking there’s a pretty good chance that the hardware required to run the more complex software is more expensive and it doesn’t take much of a cost difference in high volume components to justify some additional work.

Hardware is certainly the reason that zūmo®s cost more than nüvi®s. zūmo®s are intended for use on motorcycles and, while there may or may not be increased cost associated with more powerful processors to run the software, there is certainly increased cost associated with ruggedized components and waterproof construction. Then there is the additional hardware not shipped with automotive units. Clamps for handlebar mounting and cables for hardwiring power are packaged with every zūmo®.

So zūmo®s are more expensive, zūmo®s are what’s required to do multi-point routing, and the 220 is the least expensive of the line. Is it any good? Yes it is.

The screen is considerably smaller than the nüvi® it replaced and the unit is thicker and less pocketable. But it does exactly what I want in terms of routing. It accepts pre-planned routes from the free Garmin Basecamp program and it tracks them as they were intended to be tracked. While I really don’t feel like heaping praise on a product for doing its job in a manner that I consider proper, since this seems to be the only line of GPS receivers which do that, maybe praise is deserved.

The 220 has not been entirely trouble free. Many Garmin units come bundled with “lifetime maps”. The 220 is not one of them but I added this option when I bought mine. On about the third or fourth update, I received a message telling me that there was not enough memory in the unit to hold the latest maps. That problem was fairly easily solved by installing a microSD memory card and installing the maps on it. It wasn’t long, however, before another problem appeared.

Part way through the power up sequence, the unit would, on occasion, shut itself off and it took repeated restarts to get it up and running. At least initially, the problem seemed to occur when restarting after a normal power off but there have been occasions when the thing just shuts down after being on and running for quite some time. Because of when it first appeared and the fact that it often, but not always, happens during the “loading maps” stage, I’ve attributed the problem to bad behavior following an error reading from the microSD card. Like a hole in the roof that’s only a problem when it’s too wet to fix it, I rarely even think of the problem when I’m at home with time to research it. Maybe writing this will prompt me to do something.

I’ve spent a goodly amount of space justifying the higher prices of Garmin’s zūmo®s and it may seem like I’m resigned to paying more for “proper” routing. I am. to a certain degree, but I still feel like I’m being gouged when I’m forced to pay for handlebar mounts and the like just to get a routing function that meets my needs. It’s a fact that I know of no one in the old road crowds I’ve mingled with who uses a GPS the way I do. In fact, they’re more likely to deride the whole concept of GPS in favor of paper maps. I don’t doubt that Luddite tendencies account for a certain amount of this but I’m also confident that having someone in the passenger seat to hold and read those maps and guide books affect much of their thinking and rightly so.

If the market for proper multi-point routing in four wheeled vehicles truly is infinitesimal, then Garmin is right to ignore it. However, I find it hard to believe that I’m the only person in the country who would welcome a zūmo® that was a hundred bucks cheaper because it omitted handlebar clamps and direct wire power cabling or maybe two or three hundred bucks cheaper because its housing was not water proof.

Of course, in order to appreciate better routing at a better price, they would need to know what better routing is and Garmin’s not going to tell them. I have found nothing on Garmin’s website or in their literature that explains the difference between zūmo® routing and other routing and not much that even acknowledges it. My impression is that very few Garmin employees, and none in marketing or sales, know the difference. It falls on vendors like River Pilot Tours and MAD Maps to at least hint at a difference by pointing out that some of their products are only compatible with specific GPS models.

ALERT: At the time of writing, Spot It Out, who both River Pilot Tours and Mad Maps had partnered with to deliver their GPS based products, has ceased operation. River Pilot Tours has taken over delivery of their products although purchase of the turn-by-turn product is not directly offered through the website. Zūmo® style routing is required and the company is asking customers to contact it by email or telephone to make sure they have hardware capable of running the product before purchasing it. It is not yet known how or if MAD Maps’ turn-by-turn products can be obtained.

My Gear – Chapter 16 — Nikon D5100

Ye Olde Flex-Master
A My Gear Extra

Flex-Master cameraI am not someone who delights in using old film cameras. I can appreciate that others do and I can appreciate the phenomenal engineering and manufacturing accomplishments embodied in high-end film cameras. But I like the convenience and economy of digital photography far too much to spend my own time and money on anything else — with one exception.

That exception is the camera at right. It’s certainly old and it uses film but it is about as far from high-end as you can get. The exact same camera was sold under a variety of names with prices around three or four dollars. An uncle won this one by investing a quarter in a punch-board in 1940. I never knew him. He went off to war and never came home. My Mom, his sister, ended up with the camera. I remember it being our family camera in the early 1950s.

Flex-Master cameraFlex-Master cameraThere’s not much to it. It’s called a pseudo-TLR. TLR stands for twin lens reflex which means one lens for the photo and an identical twin for the viewfinder. I’m not sure that what feeds the viewfinder on this camera can properly be called a lens at all. It does somehow produce a dim right-side-up but reversed left-to-right image on an upward facing screen. There’s no focus or aperture control and not exactly any shutter speed control. There is a shutter release and a little lever that selects “INST.” or “TIME”. The length of an “instant” isn’t specified but I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 1/50 and 1/100 second. As you’d expect, “TIME” holds the shutter open as long as the the release is held down. The back is held in place by a thumbscrew. Remove it to thread the paper backed film onto the relocated empty spool from the previous roll then close it up tight. Turn the knob on the side to move a frame number into first one then the other red window.

Picture from Flex-Master cameraPicture from Flex-Master cameraI believe both of these pictures were taken with the Flex-Master. The first one is known to be from the winter of 1950. The other is probably from the next spring. It’s one I frequently use as an “on the road” Facebook profile picture.

I said I appreciate folks who work with film cameras and I know some, too. One in particular, Jim Grey, lives close enough that I’ve passed a few junk classic cameras his way. Jim not only gets a lot of pleasure from his cameras, he gets some very nice pictures from them, too. I recently asked Jim about the Flex-Master and he told me where I could buy film for the camera and also where to get it developed. There aren’t many choices. It’s tough enough finding processing for film from a still-in-production Canon or Nikon let alone something out of a seventy-three year old punch-board prize. Nor is it cheap. With postage, two rolls of 127 black & white film came within pennies of twenty-eight dollars. Processing, with postage but without prints (you get jpgs), is $16.50 a roll.

Picture from Flex-Master cameraPicture from Flex-Master cameraOne of the first places I tried the camera was in front of the 1886 Hayesville Opera House after Cece Otto’s American Songline concert. I managed to totally botch two of the three pictures I took of Cece by doing double exposures (Now, there’s something you don’t hear of much in the digital world, Chauncey.) and the one that did kind of turn out has a building that looks like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. I’m guessing that the film wasn’t held flat but I don’t know why. The picture of the Roebling Bridge with Cincinnati in the background doesn’t seen so distorted so maybe the film got pulled tighter later in the roll… or something. Both pictures have a pair of vertical scratches that I think line up with rails molded into the camera back which I’m guessing are there to press the film flat. Matching scratches can be seen in some of the pictures taken with the camera in the ’50s. Just remember that “far from high-end” statement near the beginning  of this article. 

If the first roll had been a complete disaster, I’d have given the other one to a friendly Hoosier camera collector and saved my self $16.50 in processing. Since the disaster was less than complete, I’m going to take the “seventy-three year old punch-board prize” along on my upcoming ride in a fifty year old car on a one hundred year old highway and see what develops.


Picture from Flex-Master cameraDoyle Bankson, that camera winning uncle, is buried at Colleville-sur-Mer in France. His parents (my grandparents) placed his name between theirs on this tombstone in Ohio. Part of me felt really silly using the camera he won as a teenager to take a picture of a stone more than four-thousand miles from his grave. Part of me didn’t.


http://www.dennygibson.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/doyle.jpgThis article is being posted on Father’s Day. That’s somewhat, but not entirely, a coincidence. Dad took quite a few pictures with the Flex-Master. He was in some, too. Here’s a picture of Dad, my sister, and me that was taken with a twelve year old punch-board prize.

My Gear – Chapter 16
Nikon D5100

Nikon D5100I didn’t need this camera. My three year old D40 was working just fine and was all the camera I really needed. But, while facts and logic may have slowed me down, they didn’t stop me. Although I can’t entirely deny the attraction of more pixels, that was not the the primary or even secondary reason I wanted this camera. The main attraction was the supposed superiority of the D5100’s CMOS sensor over the D40’s CCD. Secondly, I desired vibration reduction (VR) lenses. Yes, I could have simply bought VR lenses without the camera but I had convinced myself that putting money into lenses then attaching them to the lowly D40 was not wise. As I said, facts and logic only slow me down.

So, when finances allowed, in September of 2011, I spent right at a grand on the D5100 and a pair of lenses. One lens was simply the VR equivalent of the 18-55 mm D40 kit lens. The other was a 55-300 mm zoom that gave me some more range (300 mm vs. 200 mm) over the lens it replaced in addition to VR.

In many respects, the D5100 is just a slightly better and slightly bigger D40. It is still near the bottom of Nikon’s DLSR offerings. The higher resolution is nice and I believe that the VR lenses have helped from time to time but I’ve no hard evidence to support that. The CMOS sensor does deal with low light better than the CCD but I can’t shake the feeling that the D40 produced some brighter images in the “middle light” of an overcast day. That could certainly be an illusion and I’m really quite pleased with the D5100’s overall performance.

Not everything about the camera is just a step up in specifications over the D40. There are three obvious additions and all are related. First, the D5100 does 1080p video. Then, since you really can’t have the viewfinder mirror flapping around while recording video, a “live view” has been added which locks the mirror in the up position and puts a through-the-lens view on the rear mounted 3″ LCD screen. Both video and stills can be recorded in this mode. I’ve experimented a little with video and do use live mode occasionally for one handed shots. It’s also handy when I ask someone to take my picture who is baffled by an eye level viewfinder. Lastly, to make live view even better, the screen is fully articulated so you can record in assorted odd positions.

One subtle difference from the D40 that I’m starting to appreciate is the ability to record JPEG and RAW files simultaneously. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I just use the JPEGs as I always have but once in awhile I’ll salvage a picture with a little HDR processing using the RAW file.

My Gear – Chapter 15 — Garmin nüvi® 2460LMT

My Gear – Chapter 15
Garmin nüvi® 2460LMT

Garmin 2460This product took me to within one U-turn of abandoning Garmin completely. It replaced a Garmin Quest which was, in my opinion and for my purposes, nearly perfect. I talk about that here. I could plot routes on my computer then transfer them to the Quest where they were used to guide me along the route just as desired. I would still be using a Quest today if Garmin hadn’t stopped providing map updates around 2005. It wasn’t the roads as much as the POI (Points of Interest). A rerouted expressway or a new exit probably won’t affect any of my routes which tend to follow old roads that haven’t moved in years. But I was using the Quest to find places to eat and sleep and, as time went on, more and more of the mom ‘n’ pop establishments in its data base closed down while the Quest continued to believe them very much alive.

The wild goose chases were aggravating and not being able to depend on there being a functioning motel where the GPS reported one was even more troublesome. With a west coast trip planned for 2011, I decided early in the year to update my guidance system. I did not feel tied to Garmin but some internet searching and forum combing indicated it was still probably my best choice.

Since being able to accept and play back a pre-plotted route is critical for me, I did my best to assure that I got a unit capable of that. It turned out that my best wasn’t good enough though it was awhile before I realized that. Through internet searches, GPS forum exchanges, and email conversations with vendors and Garmin employees I came to believe the 2460LMT would do the job. This unit was at or near the top of Garmin’s line of “automotive” products and, before too long, at or near the top of the “Most Irritating Things I’ve Ever Owned” list.

I ordered directly from Garmin and soon the 2460 was in my hands. After a little playing I tried downloading one of my pre-planned routes. The unit “froze”. Cycling power brought it back and I tried again. In time I realized that the freeze would eventually end on its own and tried various sequences of power, connect, and download but none produced a route on the nüvi. Through a series of emails and phone calls I reached someone at Garmin who seemed to really care. She tried her best. She ran experiments and asked questions and passed information back and forth with untouchable engineering personnel. Her best wasn’t quite good enough either. I did manage to get a tiny test route to appear but my real routes seemed to disappear. In what I took as a lame brushoff but which turned out to be a sorry truth, the engineering folks passed along that “some routes take a really long time.” I’ll skip the rest of the gorey details and let it be known that I did eventually get all of my routes loaded but it was always hours and sometimes days before a route was processed and usable on the nüvi.

Not surprisingly, my opinion of Garmin products was pretty low at this point but it got lower. The unit seemed to work fairly well as I traveled around the area and I even used it to successfully follow a couple of short test routes. I acquired the unit at the beginning of May. In early June I set out for a Lincoln Highway Association conference near Lake Tahoe. The nüvi contained routes intended to guide me along some of the Lincoln Highway’s historic alignments. That the nüvi had flaws became apparent rather quickly but it took awhile to understand them.

The two most onerous nüvi shortcomings are the inability to turn off automatic recalculation and its treatment of each segment as an independent route. A route is a start and end point and some number of intermediate waypoints. At least that’s the way the Quest and I and most routing software sees them. nüvis, however, see routes as nothing more than a list of start and end point pairs. When one point is reached, the nüvi then calculates a path to the next. Since it is always ready to recalculate a route, it does this, not from the point just reached, but from the current position. Here is the sort of real world problem this creates:

Your pre-plotted route contains a right turn just beyond a waypoint. The nüvi guides you to the waypoint and begins calculating a path to the next one. This is hardly instantaneous and you’ve passed that planned turn before it is done. The nüvi is automatically recalculating from your current position so it simply tells you to turn right on some other road then guides you to that next point along a completely different route than the one intended.

If all you want to do is reach the nearest Starbucks as quickly as possible, this behavior is just fine. It is far from fine if you want to reach that Starbucks along a particular road — like the Lincoln Highway or Historic Route 66.

The nüvi 2460LMT is not a bad product. It and all the other members of the nüvi line do what they are intended to do quite well. They are, in fact, the right device for the vast majority of GPS users. The problem is the way Garmin classifies its products. There is a line of products that does routing properly; The way the Quest does and the way I want. But it (zūmo®) is marketed as a motorcycle line and it took someone outside of Garmin to set me straight. I replaced the nüvi® 2460LMT in less than a year. When I tell of that replacement in a future My Gear installment, I may also tell you what I really think of those silly names.

My Gear – Chapter 14 — Lenovo T400

My Gear – Chapter 14
Lenovo T400

Lenovo T400An HP Pavilion barely made it two years, a Toshiba Satellite didn’t quite make three, and both were limping during their final months of service. This post is being written on a Lenovo T400 that’s still going strong after three and a half years as my do-everything and go-everywhere computer. My computers aren’t really treated harshly but they certainly aren’t pampered. That includes the Lenovo and I’m convinced that its relative longevity is due entirely to superior design and build quality. It seems to truly be an example of “getting what you pay for”.

The T400 was not my most expensive laptop but it did buck the prevailing downward trend and was fairly high in the price range at the time I bought it. It’s almost impossible to compare 2009 electronics with 2006 electronics but the T400 was not worlds above the Toshiba it replaced. Its processor was faster and its hard disk was bigger but those are improvements that often occur for free (or less) in the realm of electronics. At $1297, the T400 cost over $400 more than the Toshiba. That price includes aftermarket hard disk and RAM. I ordered the computer with the smallest hard disk available and immediately replaced it (with the much appreciated help of co-workers who really knew their stuff) with a 320 GB drive. I also installed 4 GB of RAM before putting the machine into service. The processor is a 2.4 GHz Intel Core Duo. The OS is Microsoft Windows Vista Basic.

Maybe some of the performance improvements were a little ahead of the cost reduction curve and account for some of the price difference but I doubt it’s more than half. I’m thinking that maybe $250 of the T400’s price went into things like the ThinkVantage Active Protection System and the ThinkPad Roll Cage. These things aren’t visible and don’t show up in performance tests. They are not as easy to justify as a faster processor or a bigger hard disk. I do think they are justified, however, by the lack of cracks in the case, which I’ve seen in every other laptop I’ve owned, and the fact that the machine is still functioning well in its fourth year of riding in trunks, backseats, and foot-wells. If the HP to Toshiba timeline is scooted to start with the Lenovo purchase, the HP would have expired long ago and the Toshiba’s life would already be about half over.

I’m sure others have had better and worse experiences with each of these brands and things have not been perfect with the Lenovo. I’ve had about a half dozen panic attacks when it failed to find any boot device. Cycling power a time or two has, so far, always resolved this. It has hung several times but I’ve attributed that to a particular application or, in one case, a faulty SD card. I’ve had to replace the battery though that could be considered a good thing; Most of my laptops haven’t lasted long enough to wear out a battery.

The only thing that even resembles an existing issue is disk capacity and that’s not Lenovo’s fault. Pictures just keep getting bigger and maybe I’m taking more of them. I keep as many pictures as possible on the disk and the time period that covers keeps getting less and less. I recall that when I first got this machine, it held every digital picture I had ever taken — roughly ten years worth. Now it barely holds one year and it requires frequent attention to do even that. That is still a lot of pictures and is definitely not a justification to retire this baby. So I expect this to be the last computer described in My Gear for quite some time. I’m hoping the next one is a few years down the road and there’s a good chance that it will be a new Lenovo of some sort.

My Gear – Chapter 13 — Nikon D40

My Gear – Chapter 13
Nikon D40

Nikon D40The two Panasonics were very capable cameras. They and cameras like them were sometimes referred to as “super zooms” and sometimes as “bridge” cameras. That second name comes from the view that they “bridge the gap” between simple point-and-shoot cameras and more versatile SLRs with interchangeable lenses and such.  I guess that’s a pretty good view because that’s exactly what the FZ8 did for me. It led me straight down the road and right across the bridge to SLR land.

I had been in SLR land before. Back in the ’70s and ’80s I owned a couple of Olympus OM-1s. The second one had sat idle for awhile when it, like the first one, was stolen. I didn’t replace it. I remained camera-less for several years then decided that I needed to take some pictures while traveling in Florida. That’s when I bought the little Nikon zoom film camera that I mentioned using for “real” pictures along side my first digital.

Previous My Gear installments have told the tale of my climb (or descent) from the barely usable 0.35MP Agfa to the very usable 5.0 then 7.2MP Panasonics. Using the Panasonics reminded me a little of those OM-1 days and I started thinking about digital SLRs. One friend had recently bought a Nikon D50, another a Nikon D40x, and both had brought out a little camera envy in me. The D40 was Nikon’s entry level SLR. It came out near the beginning of 2007 and something called the D40x arrived just a few months later. I believe I even considered these cameras when I bought the FZ8 Panasonic in July of of that year but the price difference was still a bit much for me.

The D40x was a premium 10MP version of the 6MP D40 whose introduction pushed down on the price of the D40 and my visions of detachable lenses were further fueled by some of the deals being offered. Although I figured it was still a year or two in the future, I decided that my next camera would likely be an SLR. That’s about when I dropped the FZ8.

It’s for certain that I didn’t drop it on purpose but there could be some doubt about the purity of the thoughts that followed. It didn’t immediately occur to me that the damage might be covered  by warranty. Then, once it did, I had to get authorization and send the camera off to possibly be repaired. I am, of course, scanning camera ads the whole time. I had a road trip approaching and I convinced myself that I absolutely had to have a good camera for it and that the Panasonic would probably not be returned in time. I was wrong about the Panasonic. It arrived in good working order the day before I left on the trip. But I was right on the other thing. I am totally convinced that I needed the Nikon D40 that I purchased.

For $791.40, I got the D40 body, 18-55mm & 55-200mm zoom lenses, and a small flash. The Nikon was bigger and heavier than the Panasonic but not horribly so. Though I was at the very bottom of Nikon’s tall line of SLRs, I was once again in SLR land.

The little flash, a Nikon Speedlight SB-400, was also at the bottom of the Nikon line. It wasn’t as powerful as its pricier siblings but it was a bit more powerful than the D40’s popup flash (GN 21 vs. 17), sat a little further above the lens, and offered bounce capabilities. It was also small enough to fit in a pocket or into a belt bag along with an extra lens.

Today’s Digital SLR land is quite a bit different from the film SLR land I remember. In the 1980s, automatic exposure was kind of costly and not always satisfactory. Auto focus was an exotic blip on the leading edge of photography. Today these features and a lot more automatic wizardry are present in virtually every camera and cell phone made. The vast majority of situations are handled quite well by a modern camera running on full auto pilot and that includes SLRs. The manual controls are nice when you need them. You don’t need them much.

My Gear – Chapter 12 — Lumix DMC-FZ8