Saturday, September 01, 2012

Trekking : Padum to Lamayuru - Day 3

Trekking from Omachu to Hanumala base camp.
Our third day of trekking proved to be not only the toughest day, but also the longest day of trekking. With the exception of few (and short) breaks for snacks and water, we walked non-stop for 12 hours.

One thing I had learned over the past 3 days was that, the combination of searing heat and the prospect of ascending steep mountains did not agree with my son at all. Since we would start our 3rd day with a steep climb (which we were supposed to do the previous evening), I decided to start off early.

I set the alarm at 5:00 a.m., and made sure our daybags were packed and ready before we went to sleep. My objective was to start off only with Shawn and complete the climb to Snertse before the sun came up. Roy would follow a bit later, and the horses and guide would take their own time to join us.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Trekking : Padum to Lamayuru - Day 2

Trekking from Hanumil to Snertse.
We were warned by our guide that today would be a tough day, as we had to scale 2 mountain passes to reach our destination in Snertse.

Up till now, I had relied on my iPhone to search for information about the trek route. But now we were in an area, where there was no cell phone reception. I was cursing myself for not carrying a printed copy of the trek route. The GPS device was giving me accurate data about our current location, elevation, and distance covered from the last point - but I had no means of cross-referencing this data with the trek route. This meant that I had absolutely no idea how far, or how high we had to walk to reach our destination. If I had this data, I could have prepared myself both physically and mentally. Without this data, I had to rely on whatever Trashi (our guide) was telling us - and truth be told, he was not the most encouraging guide I have come across.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Trekking : Padum to Lamayuru - Day 1

Trekking from Pishu to Hanumil
To start our Padum to Lamayuru trek, we checked out from our hotel in Padum, and loaded our trekking gear in a jeep that would drive us to Pishu. It was still dark outside, but we wanted to reach Pishu early, so that we could start the trek before the sun comes out in full force and makes trekking difficult.

The distance from Padum to Pishu is about 30 kilometers. Some people still trek on this route (making a pit stop in Karsha, which is on the way to Pishu). I don't like trekking on motorable roads, as it seems pointless, hence our decision to start our trek from Pishu.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Karsha Gompa, Zanskar (Ladakh).

Karsha Gompa (Monastery) in Zanskar, Ladadkh
The population of Ladakh is predominantly buddhist, and this is reflected in the landscape of the region - which is dotted with Gompas (monasteries). Most of these Gompas are imposing structures, built high on the  mountain side. The Karsha Gompa is one such imposing structures.

The village of Karsha lies 14 kilometers from Padum (which was supposed to the be starting point of our Padum-Lamayuru trek). However, we were unable to find any horseman in Padum, willing to take his horses on the difficult route we had selected. Some locals suggested that we might get lucky in Karsha. There is a motorable road from Padum to Karsha and the local jeeps charge a steep amount of Rs. 1,500/- for the return journey. Since we were already in the mood for trekking, we decided to pack our daybag with some water and snacks, and trek all the way to Karsha.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Understanding 36 mega-pixels.

I purchased the Nikon D800 more than 1 month back, and I have been really enjoying the amazing detail and colors that this camera produces.

One of the key features of the camera is its massive 36 mega-pixel full frame sensor. It is capable of capturing detail that even our eyes cannot pick up.

To understand what I mean, look at the picture below.

100% crop of a 36-megapixel image. D800 with 70-200 f2.8 VR
This is a picture of my daughter's eye. She was standing on the beach. You can clearly see the sunset and the waves, as well as my silhouette, as I stood in front of her with my camera.

This is the actual picture.

It doesn't get any more impressive than this.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Padum to Lamayuru Trek.

Padum-Lamayuru trekking route (data generated by by GPS Logger)
The Padum to Lamayuru trek has to be one of the most challenging treks in India. Cutting through the remote Zanskar region in Ladakh, the trek goes through several high mountains passes (some reaching as high as 5000 meters). It is a fantastic trekking option if you:

  1. Are physically fit.
  2. Not scared of heights.
  3. Do not suffer suffer from HAS (High Altitude Sickness).

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

World's Most Dangerous Road - The Zoji-La

The Zogi Pass (Zogi-La)
According to this CNN article, The Zogi Pass (or the Zogi-La as it is known in Kashmir), is the 5th most dangerous road in the world.

I disagree. It should be atleast number 3. The 2 other roads mentioned as more dangerous are not really that dangerous. At no. 3 is "The Highway of Death" in Iraq. Well, that's not really a dangerous road. It was just something that got bombed during the Iraq war. And the road listed at no. 2 (The Road of Death, Bolivia) is no longer an active road as there is an alternative road available for travellers there.

The Zogi-la, on the other hand, is part of National Highway 1 linking Srinagar to Leh (Ladakh), and is the lifeline connecting these 2 places in north India.

During our recent trekking trip to Ladakh, we were forced to travel on this road as there was no other alternative. My first reaction when we hit the road was "WTF?". My brothers reaction was a bit more practical - but more on that later.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Trek that almost never happened.

Padum-Lamayuru Trek.
After nearly a year of planning, we finally selected our Ladakh trek (Padum to Lamayuru), and traveled to Srinagar to commence our trek. However, the entire trip seemed like a series of misadventures, designed to ensure that we do not go ahead with our trekking plans. If we managed to do this trek, it was because of sheer determination, and a huge dose of luck.

1. The lost suitcase: When we landed in Srinagar, we found that our suitcase (containing key trekking equipment) was missing. Without the suitcase, it would be extremely difficult to proceed with the trek. Besides the trekking equipment, it also contained the Nikon D3200 camera, which I was carrying for a friend, and the money from the camera would be used to partly fund the trek.

After submitting the lost luggage report, we had to wait patiently for 1 day till Air-India located our suitcase in Delhi, and had it transferred to Srinagar. It also meant we were already 1 day behind schedule.

The Lost Suitcase.

Friday, June 22, 2012

iGotU GT-800 GPS Logger - Review

iGotU GT-800 GPS Logger
I've been experimenting with different methods of geo-tagging my photos. The last experiment I tried was with my Samsung smart-phone, plus a free application from the Google market-place. It works fine but it made me realize that for long trekking trips, it would be more advisable to have a dedicated GPS logger. After some research, I decided to go with the igotU GT-800 (yes, I know its a very strange name). Reviews were mostly positive, and the price (though not cheap), seemed reasonable. The following features attracted me to this device over others:

1. IPX 7 water-proof (1 meter underwater for 30 minutes).
2. Small size (you can wear it like a watch, with the supplied strap).
3. Motion sensor which automatically puts it to sleep when not moving - thereby conserving battery power.
4. Comes with software to geo-tag your photos, and then show them on the map.
5. Has lots of bonus features such as pedometer, current speed, compass etc.

In short, a geeky device. Just my sort of thing.

I was a little wary of the battery as it runs on a rechargeable battery. Ideally, I would have preferred a device that runs on AA batteries, so that I could carry spares with me, when it runs out of juice. The GT-800 comes with a rechargeable battery that charges via USB. This would be a problem for long treks where there is no access to electricity, but since I have resolved that problem with a Voltaic solar charger, this should no longer be an issue. In fact, when I first received the device, I charged it with the solar charger, just to make sure everything will work in the wilderness, when we go for our trek in Ladakh next month.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Solar Charging Solution

Voltaic Fuse 4W Solar Charger
As part of my preparation for our 10-day trekking trip to Ladakh (Kashmir), I have been franctically looking around for a solution to keep my Panasonic GX1 camera charged, since we would be in the wilderness for the entire duration of the trek - with no possibility of finding an electric source for charging the batteries.

I ordered 3 extra batteries, and even purchased an external viewfinder for the camera, hoping it will extend the battery power, and allow me to complete the full trek without the need for any re-charging.

But real-world usage of the camera made me come to the conclusion that there was no way that the 4 batteries would last for 10 days. These new cameras, with their reliance on LCD or electronic viewfinders for composition, and electronic systems for controlling all aspects of the camera, simply need more juice than the traiditonal dSLR cameras that use optical viewfinders, and use the battery only for triggering the shutter, and saving the resulting image to the memory card.

I had 2 options. Buy more batteries - perhaps another 4 or 5 (which I would use only once for this trek), or look for other alternatives.

The obvious choice for me was a solar-charging solution. They are reasonably affordable, and instead of worrying about just charging the camera, the solar-charging solution would charge a number of other devices (most importantly, our mobile phones). Most of the solar chargers in the market seem to be targetted for charging just mobile phones, but I found an interesting device that is geared towards trekkers like me, and has the ability to charge camera batteries.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How to Geo-Tag your Photos.

View of Kuwait City - From Dasman Block 2.
I travel a lot, and I take a lot of photos. When I start reviewing the pictures, sometimes it is difficult to remember where the photos were taken.

Some modern cameras have built-in GPS which automatically put a geo-tag (latitude, longtitude, and elevation) stamp on each picture that you take. The Nikon Coolpix AW100 is an example of a GPS-enabled camera. Other cameras (especially professional dSLRs) have support for GPS. What this means is that you can hook up a compatible GPS unit to the camera, and the camera will read the GPS data from the unit and embed that information on each picture that is taken.

But what if your camera does not have a built-in GPS or support for an external GPS? My Panasonic GX1 falls in this category. Since I want to carry this with me on my trekking trip to Kashmir, I thought it would be a cool idea to geo-tag all the pictures that I take during the trip, in order to make it easier for me to sort them out later on.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how you can geo-tag your photos.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

I am now a FX shooter.

The Nikon D800.
My journey into dSLR photography started when I first purchased the Nikon D70 about 8 years ago (June 2004 to be precise). The D70 was a 6 mega-pixel camera and cost me an arm and a leg (with the excellent 18-70 mm kit lens). It was a massive leap from the Casio QV-3000EX, a 3 mega-pixel point-and-shoot I was using at the time.

The D70 made me focus on photography, and I started learning all the technical details of photography, and took some wonderful images in the process.

As technology kept changing, I kept changing the camera bodies - upgrading first to the D200, and then eventually to the D300. I purchased some great lenses - especially the awesome Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8. I think it was this one lens that kept me from jumping to the FX format when the D700 was announced, because I was getting great results with this lens - especially when it was paired with the D300.

But there was no denying the need to jump into the FX format, and I decided to wait for the D700 successor, which everyone was expecting to be released in 2010. So I waited. And waited. Eventually, the D800 was announced. And what an announcement it was!. 36 mega-pixels, Full-HD video, 51-point AF system, etc.

Friday, June 08, 2012

SyncToy: Keep your photo backups synchronized.

Microsoft SyncToy 2.1.
Have you ever been frustrated trying to keep a backup of a large folder in a separate location? The first time, you will just copy and save the backup, but when you go and change/add some files or folders, how do you copy just the changed files or folders?

I have an extremely large folder that I use for post-processing of all my photos. When I want to make a backup of this folder, I find it extremely difficult to figure out which folder or files have changed, in order to keep the backup synchronized on an external hard drive.

I was searching for a solution, and found this nifty utility from Microsoft. The cool thing is, it is completely free.

Once you download and install the utility, you just select the 2 folders to be synchronized, and the tool does the rest.

A must have on everyone's PC running Windows 7.

Download it from here. You will need to find out if you are running the 64-bit or 32-bit version of Windows 7, and download and install the correct package from the download page.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Electronic Viewfinder for the Panasonic GX1

The Electronic Viewfinder for the GX1.
The Panasonic GX1 mirrorless camera that I purchased, specifically for my trekking trip to Ladakh (Kashmir), has one major problem. Its battery can shoot around 200 pictures before it requires to be re-charged. Since the trip will last more than 9 days without any access to electricity, my shooting options will be very limited.

To overcome this problem, I purchased 3 additional replacement batteries. Even though the replacement batteries give better results than the stock battery, real-world testing made me realize that even with the extra batteries, I would not be able to shoot for 9 days straight.

The second problem with the GX1 camera, is that all framing and composition has to be done using the rear LCD screen. While the LCD screen is fine for indoor shooting, it becomes an exercise in frustration when you try to shoot in bright outdoor conditions (exactly what I will face during the trek). The screen is literally unreadable, and shooting becomes a game of hit or miss.

To overcome these 2 problems (especially the second one), Panasonic supplies the optional electronic viewfinder (EVF), the DMW-LVF2. This viewfinder slips into the flash hot-shoe, and can replicate everything you see on the LCD. This helps framing in bright-light conditions, and also conserves battery power, as the EVF requires less power than the LCD.

The EVF is a high-grade 1.4 million dot view-finder, but it is not cheap. Amazon sells it for $230, making it a rather expensive proposition when you buy both the camera plus the viewfinder. For me, I felt I had no choice but to buy it, rather than get frustrated during the trek. I found it a bit cheaper (around $200) on eBay.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How much Memory is enough Memory?

Sandisk 64gb SD Cards
Over the last few weeks, I have been preparing myself for the upcoming trekking trip to the Himalayas, by carefully choosing the right camera gear that will allow me to shoot for around 8 days straight, without any access to civilization. This means I should not only have enough battery power to last for 8 days, but I also need to have enough memory cards to keep all those images.

Luckily for me, the Panasonic GX1 camera supports the newer (and higher capacity) SDXC cards. I found a good deal on Amazon for the Sandisk 64 GB Ultra cards, and decided to pick up 2 of them. That effectively gives me 128 GB of memory for shooting.

I just want to marvel at the sheer amount of data that is crammed into these postage sized cards. Each tiny 64 GB card has about 549,755,813,888 bits inside it. I can't even comprehend that number. Just 10 years back (when we first starting shooting digital), we would feel very good when we could get our hands on a 16MB card (that's about 4000 times less capacity that the one shown above!).

I am sure in another 10 years' time, we will laugh and remember the good old days, when a 64 GB card was considered capacious, and I am pretty sure we will be shooting images that easily take 1 GB per image (if not more). If you think about it, the current champ (excluding the medium-format system), is the Nikon D800, which easily takes around 100MB for 1 image (75 MB for RAW + 20 MB for JPEG). A 10 fold increase in image size in 10 years seems like a sure bet.

During my trip, I plan to shoot simultaneously RAW+JPEG fine. This makes it more easy for post processing. 90% of the time, I can just take the JPEG file and do some tweaks or use it as-is. For the few exceptions where some serious post processing is required, I can always revert to the RAW file.

The RAW file size on the GX1 is around 18MB, and the JPG is around 7 MB. So that's 25MB per image. This gives me the ability to shoot around 5000 images on both the cards - which is more than sufficient for 8 days of shooting. I can even shoot some high-definition video without worrying too much about it.

The only real danger I can see is if something goes wrong with the card. I will basically lose everything. Most of the newer dSLRs support dual-card slot where the camera writes to both the cards simultaneously. So even if one card fails, you can always rely on the second card as your safety backup. Unfortunately, the GX1 does not have this feature, and I will just have to trust Sandisk and their quality control to make sure something like that does not happen to me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wasabi Power Replacement Battery Review.

Wasabi Power Batteries for GX1
While preparation for my trekking trip to the Himalayas, the first thing I realized was that my new camera would require addtional batteries that should last me for 7-8 days of continuous shooting. The original battery costs $50 on Amazon, so buying a bunch of them was going to burn a big hole in my wallet.

I decided to look for alternatives, and saw this Wasabi Power batteries selling for a fraction of the cost ($13.99 to be precise). Reviews suggested that even though the battery is not decoded (i.e. it does not have the proprietory chip to communicate battery level information to the camera), it work just fine on the GX1. In fact, they have a special bundle that nets you 2 batteries plus a charger for just $28.99. Also, the charger has an additional trick up its sleeve. It comes with a car adapter, which would certainly come in handy when you want to charge the battery while on the go.

So for the price of 1 original battery, I got 3 batteries plus a charger and car kit. Not a bad deal.

Below is the summary of the differences between the Original Panasonic battery and the Wasabi Replacement Battery.

Feature Panasonic Wasabi
1. Power Rating 1010 mAh 1500 mAh (50% more)
2. Accurate Battery Level Yes No
3. Car Charging Option No Yes
4. Number of Shots 200 300 (approximate)
5. Price $49.99 $13.99

So now I have 4 batteries (1 original and 3 replacement). The big question for me is: "Will this be enough to last for 7-8 days of shooting without any access to a charging source?"

I have done some rough calculations, and it looks like this may not be enough.

Last year, when I did a 7-day trek in the Himalayas, I had carried with me the Nikon D300 and 3 batteries. At the end of the trek, I had shot around 2000 pictures (about 40 GB), and all the 3 batteries were completely drained.

But the D300 is a different beast altogether. It's battery is rated at 1000 shots, and I had disabled all battery draining featuers (for example, the LCD display was switched off and I would switch it on, only to check exposure once in a while).

Unfortunately, that cannot be done with the GX1. It's a mirrorless camera without an optical viewfinder. This means all framing has to be done with the LCD display (or an electronic viewfinder). This ensures that batteries get over very fast. Even if I take the optimistic numbers, I will get maximum of 1100 shots (900 with the 3 replacement batteries, and 200 with the original Panasonic battery).

Obviously this is not good enough. The question now is: "Should I get more batteries or look for other alternatives?".

I have to decide soon, as the trip is just one month away.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Panasonic GX1 Review

Panasonic GX1

My journey into the Micro 4/3 camera systems began when I purchased the Olympus E-P2 few months back.

After carrying my semi-professional Nikon D300 with some heavy lenses for 8 straight days (during my trekking trip in the Himalays), I had come to the rather painful realization that I needed something compact and light - but at the same time, did not compromise on image quality. The E-P2 seemed to fit that bill perfectly.

I liked the E-P2, and its abundant manual controls that allowed me to manage all aspects of the shooting without the need to dig into the menu system. The camera, however, had one main problem. It's auto-focus system was nothing to write home about. After being pampered with super-fast auto-focus systems in my Nikon dSLRs, I realized that this was just not going to work for me. I should have waited a bit longer and got the E-P3, which has resolved the auto-focus issue.

Instead, I decided to try the other Micro 4/3 alternative. The much acclaimed Panasonic GF1. I immediately fell in love with the GF1 - especially when paired with the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. The combination is perfect and I thought I had found my "no-compromise" camera option for trekking.

But then Panasonic went ahead and released the GX1. It is like a clone of GF1 except that everything that the GF1 does, the GX1 seems to do just a little better. It was too tempting to resist. I gave in to my geeky side, and purchased the body along with the new Power Zoom lens (14-42mm).

This is not a technical review of the camera. For that, you can read a very comprehensive review at dpreview, This is just my quick observations, and the features that matter to me the most.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Trekking in Ladakh : Introduction.

Ladakh, India.
It seems like only yesterday that we completed our gruelling 7-day trek in Srinagar, Kashmir. Now that July is just around the corner, it is time to start planning our next trek.

This time, our destination is the beautiful land of Leh and Ladakh. Like last year, I will be accompanied by my son Shawn, and my brother Roy.

I have not yet identified the exact route we will use, as I am still researching the best options available. My objective is to stretch ourselves a bit more than last year, by doing a trek that is around 8-9 days. Also, I want to ensure that we reach an altitude of at least 5000 meters (the highest point we reached during our Srinagar trek was 4100 meters).

Why this obsession with height, you may ask?. Well, next year, I have set my sight on the "Mount Everest Base Camp Trek". This trek lasts for nearly 15 days, and at the highest point, we would be at 5500 meters. If you find yourself suddenly at this height, there is a very good chance that you will get altitude sickness. Hopefully, the Ladadkh trek will help us gauge our readiness to tackle the bigger challenge ahead of us. Also, my son will be much bigger by then.

I have already booked our flights from Goa to Srinagar. We plan to drive from Srinagar to Leh (via Sonamarg/Kargil). The 2-day journey from Srinagar to Leh, and back to Srinagar, promises to be an adventure in itself.

Looking forward to the challenge.