Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A New Lens for Backpacking: Sony E 18-135 f3.5-f5.6

Sony E 18-135 with lens hood

For several years my photography setup for backpacking and hillwalking has been Sony a6000 and NEX 7 bodies with Sony E 10-18mm and 16-50mm zoom lenses. This system went on the GR5 through the Alps walk last autumn and the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk two years before that. I've found it versatile and easy to use. Two cameras, two lenses, slung across my body in padded cases. Never any need to change lenses, always accessible.

Sometimes though I've wanted a longer lens - for wildlife, to zoom in on distant features, to pick out details. I've had the Sony E 55-210mm zoom lens for many years and this often comes with me on day walks, rarely on longer ones, as I like the two cameras and lenses system and I don't want to give up either of the shorter zooms. That leaves the 55-210 in the pack, where it too often stays, forgotten.

Sony E 18-135 fully extended

I accepted this two, sometimes three, lens system as there were no compact lightweight alternative lenses to the 16-50 that had a longer reach other than an expensive Zeiss 16-70, and the extra cost and weight didn't seem worth it for a measly 20mm increase.

Then, a year ago, Sony brought out the first new lens in many years for the a6000 series cameras, the 18-135 f3.5-f5.6. Light, compact and with a 7.5x zoom as opposed to the 3x zoom of the 16-50 this interested me straight away. I then spent a year deliberating!

Of course compared with the 16-50 the 18-135 is enormous and considerably heavier - 360 grams as opposed to 127 grams. The 55-210 is 380 grams so the saving over that lens plus the 16-50 is only 147 grams. I think though that the longer reach is well worth the extra 233 grams over the 16-50.

The big benefit of the 18-135 for me is that it extends my two cameras, two lenses system considerably. 10-135mm is a big range, equivalent to 15 to 202.5mm in 35mm/full frame. This is the biggest range in two lenses I've ever had.

I've had the 18-135 for nearly two months now and I've taken 310 images with it, half of them at focal lengths over 50mm. I'm pleased with the results. Reviews - and I read quite a few - suggested the image quality was good, better than the 16-50 in fact. I'm happy with that lens so I expected to like the 18-135. It's certainly sharper than the 55-210.

I did sometimes crop images taken with the 16-50 but this does mean lower quality and, more significantly to me, I found it harder to 'see' the image. With the 18-135 I can compose much more precisely. Looking at the data (ah, the wonders of Lightroom!) I can see that I've used just about every focal length at least once.

Carrying the 18-135 hasn't felt noticeably different to the 16-50 despite the difference in size and weight. I do have a bigger case of course but I carry it the same way.

I think for now I have found an ideal combination.

Here are some 18-135 images at different focal lengths, all taken in the Cairngorms on April 5.







Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Outdoor Gear and the Environment: What's happening?

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine last year.

Not many years ago if sustainability meant anything to outdoor companies it was to have some recycled fleece in the range or wool from sheep that had been treated well or other worthy single action unrelated to the whole life-cycle of the products. Today that’s changed, and many companies now look at the environmental effects of gear from the production of raw materials to the end of life of the final product. Trade organisations work with companies too, so these developments are often not in isolation. The European Outdoor Group has a Sustainability Charter that’s been adopted by the Scandinavian Outdoor Group and the Outdoor Industries Association in the USA. This new spirit of collaboration is very positive as it both encourages individual companies to become involved and also means that information and research is shared, making working towards sustainability easier and therefore more likely.

In recent years three issues have dominated the sustainability debate: ethical down, PFC treatments, and microplastic shedding from synthetic materials. Ethical down means down from birds that are certified non-live plucked and non-force fed and otherwise well treated. Patagonia and Mountain Equipment led the industry in working towards this. Down from these, and now many other companies, is traceable back to its origins and this is independently audited. 

Taking this one step further recycled down is now available, retrieved from cushions and bedding. Patagonia are again a leader here with a range of 100% recycled 600 fill power down clothing. The European Outdoor Group has published best practise guidelines for recycled down. Re-using down is obviously an excellent idea and hopefully other companies will start using it. Mammut already is, with a hooded down jacket.

Fluorocarbon treatments (PFCs) became a big issue three years ago following a Greenpeace report, Footprints In The Snow, though Nick Brown of Nikwax and Paramo had already been warning about them for many years – neither company has ever used them. PFCs are harmful to human health and persist for a long time in the environment and in food chains. Why then are they used in outdoor clothing? The answer is because they make excellent durable water repellent treatments for synthetic items including waterproofs, windproofs, footwear, sleeping bags, and more. Many companies are now phasing out PFCs, which is good. The problem is finding an effective alternative. Whilst some companies have already dropped PFCs and are using less effective treatments that need renewing more often the biggest name in waterproof clothing, Gore-Tex, hasn’t yet done so but it is working towards achieving 85% PFC free fabrics in 2020 and 100% in 2021-23. One of the first companies to remove almost all PFCs was Fjallraven who say that ‘the compromise is that extra care is required to ensure your Eco-Shell garments retain their waterproofness’ but that ‘this is a price worth paying’. Vaude products are 100% PFC free this year and Jack Wolfskin’s 95%. 

One company that hasn’t yet stopped using PFCs is Patagonia, which says it’s first PFC free garments will come out next year. However, the company has been looking into this deeper than most, pointing out that garments with DWRs with shorter lifespans are likely to be replaced more often, an environmental problem in itself (of course renewing the DWR is one answer to this) and that it’s important that replacement DWRs don’t also have adverse environmental effects. To that end Patagonia has invested millions of dollars in Swiss company Beyond Surface Technologies, who are working to develop better alternatives. 

The latest problem to emerge is that of microplastic residues known as microfibres that are shed by synthetic clothing while being worn and, especially, when washed. These microfibres are nearly indestructible and they get everywhere – in the air, in water, in food – and are often treated with harmful chemicals and dyes. They can bond to chemical pollutants too. Ironically and sadly research suggests that garments made from recycled synthetics can shed more microfibres than ones made from new materials. Sustainability is complex.

There is as yet no solution to the microfibre problem. It’s not even certain which fabrics shed the most microfibres. Fleece is often given as this but that’s because most research has been done on it. All synthetics can shed microfibres. The worst way fibres are shed is also not known. Washing is certainly a culprit but so is wear and tear. Brushing against rocks or trees, rubbing against rucksack straps. 

Research is ongoing into manufacturing processes to see if new methods of yarn and fabric construction can make a difference. An initiative called TextileMIssion was set up last year by a group of concerned bodies including Vaude, Adidas, and Polartec, its aim being to ‘reduce micro-plastic particles release’. As well as production methods the project will look at the possibility of using biodegradable fibres as an environmentally friendly alternative. This sounds a good idea anyway. Vaude is already using biodegradable fibres, including Tencel, a wood-derived cellulose, in some products.

The European Outdoor Group has set up a Microfibre Consortium to better understand microfibre pollution and what can be done about it. The consortium has 28 members, not all of them outdoor brands (ASDA, IKEA, M&S for example).  Various projects are under way including one at Leeds University to develop a reproducible test method for measuring microfibre shedding.

Patagonia is also conducting research with two scientific studies. The first at the University of California looked at the extent of microfibres shed from Patagonia products in the wash and compared this with that from lower-quality gear, finding that the latter shed 170% more. The study also found that garments washed in top-load machines shed seven times as many microfibres as those washed in front-loaders. Patagonia’s second study, with North Carolina State University, has the goal of better understanding which characteristics of fibres and fabrics lead to microfibres being shed.

TextileMission is also looking at how to improve wastewater treatment to phase out more microfibres. In the meantime, consumers can do something about this. Not washing garments until absolutely essential is one way.  Another is to catch the fibres in the washing machine in a filter bag like the GuppyFriend, available from Patagonia. This recyclable bag has a slick inner and catches most of the microfibres which can then be removed and put in the bin. They don’t disappear of course, but this keeps them out of water sources. 

Compared with a few years ago much is being done to make the outdoor industry more sustainable. At the same time more problems are coming to light and difficulties are becoming clearer. PFCs and microfibres are not easy to solve. It’s good though that outdoor companies are working to find solutions and that they are doing this together in many cases. Praise should go to those who’ve led the way, especially Patagonia, Nikwax/Paramo, and Vaude.


Beyond Surface Technologies

European Outdoor Group Sustainability Charter

Jack Wolfskin PFC Free

Mountain Equipment Down Codex

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Deep Snow in the Cairngorms

Cairn Lochan

Finally, the snow came down on an easterly wind, filling the corries and gullies. After a winter in which the snow has been sparse and short-lived early April has brought some of the deepest snow I’ve seen in the Cairngorms for many years. 

In a week of stormy weather with much the same forecast for many days to come just one afternoon and evening promised a respite from the low cloud and fierce winds. That there would be deep snow in the mountains seemed certain. Two backpackers had been rescued from Faindouran Bothy the day before, having given up trying to walk out after struggling less than a mile in four hours through thigh-deep snow. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service reported similar depths in Coire an Lochan.  I packed skis and snowshoes in the car, leaving a decision on which to use until I reached Coire Cas. 

Arriving in the corries and seeing the white hills there was no doubt. It would be skis. Snowshoes are great when the snow cover isn’t complete – you can just walk across bare areas still wearing them – but skis are faster and more fun. 

Coire an t-Sneachda

I peeled climbing skins onto my well-used skis, donned my somewhat battered ski touring boots, and set off with the idea of climbing to the Cairngorm Plateau and skimming across the snow to Ben Macdui. Half an hour’s slogging uphill through the soft snow and I abandoned that idea. Even on skis this was really hard work! The strong gusty wind blowing down from the tops and the white clouds racing overhead didn’t encourage me to make the effort either. 

Instead I decided  to visit the two great corries that lie on the north side of the plateau, Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain. Under snow these rocky bowls scooped out of the mountainside by glaciers in the last ice age are particularly impressive and always worth visiting.

Coire an t-Sneachda

The clouds were thinning and the blue of the sky deepening as I climbed into Coire an t-Sneachda. The Corrie of the Snows was appropriately named today. The snow was deep and only at the head of the corrie had the wind stripped the snow off the boulders. Stopping to admire the huge cliffs and revel in the wild atmosphere I felt alone in a vast mountain land even though my car was less than three miles away. Here there was no sign of humanity. I’d crossed some snowshoe tracks but they turned and descended before reaching this far into the corrie.

In Coire an t-Sneachda

I wasn’t completely alone though. As I gazed at the cliffs a skier appeared on the far side of the corrie, slowly heading down, followed soon afterwards by a snowboarder. Then the corrie was  empty again. Rather than pick away through the rocks on my skis I removed them and set off towards the base of the cliffs. I didn’t get far. The snow between the rocks was deep and walking extremely slow and arduous. I wasn’t surprised no-one seemed to have ventured into the corrie on foot.

Ski tracks and boot prints. I'd never have reached here on foot!

Coire an Lochain really was empty. No tracks, no people. Just snow and rock. And wind, a strengthening wind that made progress hard. The biggest gusts knocked me sideways, one even sending me sprawling on my side. High above clouds of spindrift blew over the cliffs of Cairn Lochan. I could almost see the cornices forming. Below the crags a series of sharply defined avalanche crown walls ran across the slopes above much avalanche debris.

Cairn Lochan
Descending from the corrie I tried to link patches of wind-hardened smooth snow and avoid the areas of sastrugi (ridges of snow) and wind-scoops. I was partially successful. It wasn’t stylish skiing – the combination of wind, mixed types of snow, and rusty ski legs and skills ensured that. A series of traverses and crude turns took me out of the corrie without any painful falls. 

Wind-sculpted snow
Out to the west the sky was turning red and orange as the sun sank to the horizon. Looking back Cairn an Lochain looked placed and peaceful in the fading light. On the flat land below the corries reindeer grazed. Mountain hares darted across the slopes, their movement catching my eye.


After six hours I was back at the car. In distance I’d gone just six miles. But in spirit I’d gone into another world, an elemental place of snow and rock and wild nature. I’d reached no summits, just wandered round the corries, but in these conditions it had felt an adventure and a cleansing of the mind. Up there I’d thought about nothing other than where I was and how wonderful it was to be there.