ILya

Nov 162017
 

I glanced at the photography announcements and noticed that Leica has introduced a silver version of Leica Q.   It is just a styling change.  Aside from the cosmetics, the camera is the same.

As some of you may recall, I used Leica Q for about a year and took some of the best pictures I have ever taken with it.  More importantly, from the standpoint of user interfaces, Leica Q is the best camera I have ever used.  It also came with the best lens I have ever used.  The optical quality of that lens was just stunning.  The image sensor was a step behind the best of Sony, but very serviceable.  The lens, however, was beyond reproach.

Still, after using it for a year, I sold it.  Primary reason for that was that with my kids doing more sports, I need some more telephoto reach.  I do not need a whole lot, but I do need some.  Hence, the Q with its spectacular 28mm F/1.7 lens headed toward Ebay.

Since then, I have been looking at getting another camera, this time with an interchangeable lens and a full frame sensor.  I am picky about image quality, so the cameras I am considering are the new Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III.  Nikon has decent handling.  Sony still has ways to go.  However, the user interface on both of them is, to me, just atrocious.   It is full of long nested menus and a veritable army of re-programmable external buttons that are only used when I press them by accident.  Leica Q gave me all the control I needed with a couple of dials and a couple of buttons.   The only camera company that does something similar to Leica Q in terms of user interfaces is Fuji, so I am always keeping my eye on them as well.

While I am experiencing this “paralysis by analysis”, I decided to step back and hypothesize a little: “if I could go to a camera manufacturer and ask them for the ideal camera for my purposes, what would I ask for?”

The answer is not as obvious as it would seem up front, especially if I try to put my usual techno-snobbery aside.  While I find cameras interesting from a technology standpoint, from a photography standpoint, what I care about are image quality, responsiveness, user interface and portability.

In terms of image quality, while it can get tricky in some challenging conditions, I have to admit that I my standards are getting a little relaxed.  However, if I am dropping some serious coin for a standalone camera, it better be able to take high quality images in any lighting condition.  If I can see it with the naked eye, the camera has to be able to capture it with good detail and natural tones no mater how dark it is.

Responsiveness is quite good on most modern cameras, so it is difficult to make a choice based on this.  I consider autofocus speed and accuracy a part of the responsiveness which complicates things a bit.  However, for the range of cameras I am looking at, it is likely a wash.

User interface is where things start getting tricky since I consider most traditional camera user interfaces sub-optimal.  We are spoiled by how good the UI is on our phones and tablets.  Traditional camera companies have sorta figured out where to put the dials and buttons, but the rest of the UI is difficult for them (and it seems that Japanese camera companies are really behind the curve as far as software is concerned).  Weirdly, Leica is the only one that is embracing modern user interfaces for cameras.  Outside of that, I like how Olympus, Nikon and Pentax position their dials and shape their grips.  Canon does it a bit differently and it does not work with my hands.  Newer Panasonic cameras seem to be mimicking the way Canon does this, so they do not work for me either.  Fuji embraces the classic approach with several rotary dials and it is the most natural user interface for me outside of what Leica offers.

Portability is where things get even trickier.  I am really spoiled by always having my  phone with me and by how good, comparatively speaking, the camera in my Pixel phone is.  Since I sold my Leica Q, I have been experimenting with using an external lenses from Moment and I have to admit that in decent lighting you can get very reasonable image quality at a couple of additional focal lengths.  I mostly use the telephoto lens for portraits,

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but I am generally very impressed with what can be done with the tiny camera module in the cellphone and a couple of easily pocketable Moment lenses.  I will freely admit, that the image quality is nowhere near a proper full frame camera, but my cell phone is always with me and add-on lenses help with composition.

With that in mind, what kind of a camera would I want to have in an ideal world?  Well, I would like to have the image quality of a full frame DSLR in my cell phone, but it does not look like I am going to get it just yet.

If we ever get there, computational imaging will be how it happens and the first harbinger of that is a camera called Light L16.  It has a cellphone form factor and it takes pictures via 16 cell phone style camera modules of varying focal lengths, from 28mm to 150mm.  Those images are fused together in software.  I will not go into too much detail, but fundamentally, they get to have a cellphone formfactor by using a bunch of small imagers instead of one large one.  Stitching all this data together is not straightforward, but the results are promising.  It took all my willpower to abstain from pre-ordering one, but I am still on the fence.  On one hand, I do not like to be an early adopter.  On the other hand, it is already lookign kinda decent and will likely get much better with firmware.  Most critically, carrying this device with you is kinda like having a second smartphone.  That means I can have it with me almost all the time.

As far as traditional cameras go, I would really like to see something like “Leica Q Duo” with a more modern image sensor and dual focal length lens.  With the amount of cropping you can do with today’s 40+ megapixel sensors, I am do not really need a continuous zoom lens with all its complexity.  A lens with a built in doubler would be perfectly sufficient and would probably be much easier to optimize, since there are only two focal lengths to worry about.  For example, if I could get a camera with the user interface and overall image quality of Leica Q, except with a lens that switches between 28mm f/1.7 and 56mm f/2.5, I would be overjoyed and it would be sufficient for almost everything I do.

I do not think I am going to see something like that out any time soon, so I will occupy myself with keeping tabs on how Light L16 does in the field.  Perhaps, computational imaging has truly arrived.

 Posted by at 12:19 am
Nov 132017
 

Every once in a while, I sorta step out of things that are within my range of expertise and talk about other things I experiment with.  That is why every once in a while you see me talk about somewhat random things, like bags, shirts and other accessories.

Mantis X is an accessory that is a little more relevant than most.  For a little while now I have been talking about miniature red dot sights and their applications on handguns.  While I do not talk about handguns all that much, I shoot them quite a bit and go take classes once or twice per year.   With all that practice, over the last twenty years, I have become a somewhat adequate shot (not good compared to people who are truly good, but good enough to understand my limitations).   Some classes I take are shooting classes with a lot of lead heading downrange, while some are more of what I would call “thinking” classes.  For both of them, to do well, my fundamentals have to be pretty solid.  Generally, noone has ever become a worse shot by practicing the fundamentals.



With that preamble done, I stumbled onto the Mantis X rather accidentally, and about 3 seconds after learning about it, I made arrangements to get one here to play with.  Basically, it is a small device that clamps onto the rail on your gun (be it handgun, rifle or shotgun) and using a bunch of internal accelerometers and stuff, it senses what exactly happens as you pull the trigger.  Then it transmits the data to an app on your phone.  The app plots what was happening before and after a trigger press, provides some statistics on how you have done overall and makes suggestions on what could be causing some of the problems.

Mantis X works for both live fire and dry fire.

I had grand plans to use on both handguns and long guns, but so far it has been so incredibly useful for my handgun shooting that it stays put on my Glock.

This thing is awesome.  I repeat: it is freaking awesome.  It seems to pick up subtle problems just fine.  I can do some basic troubleshooting and see the differences between what I do in dry fire vs live fire.  It gives me an idea of my wobble zone.  It gives me some data to see what happens when I speed up or slow down.  It tells me if I am doing anything differently when using iron sights or a red dot.  It tells me what happens when I experiment with different ways of holding the gun.  And the list goes on.

I could not be more impressed if I tried.

 

 

 

 Posted by at 11:49 am
Nov 122017
 

written in November, 2017

A couple of links to where you can buy this sight on Adorama and Amazon are at the bottom of this post

This will be brief: I finally got the UH-1 onto a rifle and headed to the range.  The rifle in question is a comparatively light weight carbine with an ARP SOCOM profile midweight 16″ barrel with matching bolt, Brigand Arms handguard, Voodoo integral bolt carrier, Ace UL stock and an excellent TriggerTech trigger.  Naturally, the whole thing was neutered with a finned grip to make it California legal.





Together with the UH-1, this combination weighs 7.2 lbs, which is handy enough for my purposes.  The UH-1 itself, together with the an adjustable QD mount weighs in right around 12 ounces, which, while heavier than small red dot sights, is perfectly manageable.  Still, if you are trying to build a 4 pound AR, this is not the sight for you.

If you are reading this, you have probably heard of UH-1, but for the sake of being thorough…

UH-1 is Vortex’ new holographic sight.  To he best of my knowledge, it is only the third holographic sight to hit the market.  For years, EOTech has been just about the only provider of holographic sights.  Bushnell had Holosight XLP for a little bit years ago.  Now, Vortex jumped into this holographic pond with the UH-1.  Vortex’ timing is quite good since EOTech is going through all sorts of PR problems with their weapon sights and Vortex is likely to be a beneficiary of that.

I’ve owned a few EOTechs over the years and also owned Bushnell’s Holosight XLP some years ago.  I’ve always had some reservations about the way the optical system of the EOTech worked, but they have clearly done well enough with that.  Still, I have been sort of on the fence about the whole holosight business.

Compared to the more ubiquitous reflex red dot sights, holosights have some advantages in terms of reticle patterns and parallax correction, while reflex sights have a substantial advantage with battery life and size.  For combat purposes, one important feature of the UH-1 is that it has effectively zero forward light signature.  By definition, none of the red dot sights can match that.

At the heart of reflex sights is an efficient LED.  At the heart of a holographic sight is a laser.  Lasers need a lot more energy, so the battery life of the UH-1 is a few hundred hours, while battery life of a modern red dot sight like the Shield SIS, that I consider to be the best of the breed, is thousands of hours.

With that out of the way, my initial impressions of the UH-1 are very positive.  I mounted it on the rifle, set up on the bench and sighted it in at 100 yards.  To be more exact, I sighted it in to be about two inches high at 100 yards, which gave me a chance to make sure that the adjustments are reasonably accurate and the sight stays zeroed.  They are and it does.

The rest of my first shooting session with the UH-1 was spent shooting off-hand.  Since I absolutely stink at offhand shooting, I make it a point to practice.   UH-1, in this role was absolutely spectacular.  I shot at paper at 100 yards and steel plates at 200 yards.  The sight picture was extremely easy to acquire and, the fairly classic at this stage, circle/dot reticle is very quick.  Vortex added a secondary CQB aiming point to the reticle in the form of a triangle at the bottom of the circle.  Here is what the reticle looks likes (image shamelessly stolen from Vortex’ website):

I have not yet had a chance to speed up and shoot at anything closer, so I do not yet know how quick the triangle will be to pick up at speed.

I have slight astigmatism, so conventional red dot in reflex sights do not look round to me.  I’ve learned to deal with that, but the reticle in the UH-1 makes precision a little easier for me.  The reticle is slightly pixelated, but that has never bothered me before and doesn’t bother me here.  The 1 MOA (or rather, single pixel) dot allows for good precision.

I see no obvious forward light signature, so that claim seems to be true.  From what I can deduce of the internal design, it seems reasonably robust, but ultimate reliability can only be determined by time and multiple units in the field.

I will keep running the UH-1 side by side with Shield SIS and see if I can form some opinions on how what seems to be the best of the holosights compares to the best of the reflex sights.

Stay tuned.

Link to the UH-1 on Adorama

And on Amazon:

 Posted by at 1:10 am
Oct 292017
 

written in October 2017

I was talking to a friend of mine about reticles and the discussion, as is often the case, turned to reticle design.  Reticle design is important and, overall, has improved dramatically in recent years.  However, I still see some spectacularly boneheaded reticle design decisions on a regular basis (see a recent post on Styrka scopes).   One of the key factors that determines reticle design is whether the reticle is located in the Front Focal Plane (FFP) of the scope or in the Second Focal Plane (SFP) of the scope.  In this post, I will refrain from addressing specific reticle designs neyond an example or two, but rather focus on which is preferable for which application.



If I only need the reticle as an aiming point, I want some sort of a simple and visible design, likely in the Second Focal Plane.   If the reticle is intended to be used for rangefinding and holdover in addition to aiming, than I definitely prefer more complicated patterns in an FFP design.  When the reticle is placed in the Second Focal Plane, it looks the same regardless of which magnification the scope is set on.  When your turn the zoom ring, the image will either shrink or magnify; however, the reticle will appear to be the same size (although its size changes with respect to the image).  It makes for a consistent aiming point (most of the time), but reticle dimensions (compared to the image) are different at every magnification setting.  When the reticle is in FFP, it shrinks and magnifies together with the image.  Hence, reticle subtensions cover the same portion of the image regardless of magnification setting (very helpful for ranging among other things).  Also, if there are holdover points in the reticle, they will represent the same holdover values at ALL magnifications.  Holdover reticles are very popular these days in SFP scopes.  The way they work is as follows: since relative reticle dimensions change with magnification, you tweak your scope’s zoom ring until the reticle subtensions work for holdover with your cartridge at the ranges you are interested in.  Once that is determined, you are pretty much stuck using that magnification if you need to make a long shot, forcing you to use a variable power scope as a fixed power one.  I am not a big fan of that scenario.  I think that magnification setting should be chosen based on the conditions (like lighting) and holdover points should work at all magnifications. However, opinions differ.  That having been said, I am sort of “on the record” that I think holdover reticles in SFP scopes, in most cases, is a sub-optimal situation.

The are a couple of exceptions to that, of course.  The most obvious is a situation where you are only likely to use various reticle features at a magnification setting defined by a hard stop.  Excellent examples of that are various low range variable scopes commonly used on ARs: 1-4×24 and 1-6×24.  Most of these are equipped with reticles that offer some manner of holdover points of either BDC style or mrad-delineated variety.  One of the better examples out of the scopes I have seen lately is the Tactical Dot reticle in Hawke Frontier 1-6×24 scope (picture below is shamelessly copied from Hawke website):

This reticle is comparatively straightforward and the intended use for it is as follows:  Use the prominent center-dot aiming point when you need to go fast (i.e. when you are not shooting very far away).  When you need to make a longer shot, grab the magnification ring and spin it up until you get to a hard stop (which is 6x in this case).  At that magnification setting you have a mrad-based reticle that you can use for holdover, POA correction, etc.

Another exception is target shooting of all sorts where you are shooting at targets at known distances (or in case of a lot of airgun use, at distances that you will be measuring using the parallax ring of your scope; i.e. close range by the standards of a precision/tactical shooter).  Target shooters tend to shoot at very small targets and use very high magnification.  Because of that, they really benefit from SFP reticles that can be made very thin.

If you have a complex reticle in a scope where you may called upon to use holdover points at setting where there is no hard stop (and frequently under time pressure), things get a bit more complicated.  Now, it is perfectly doable and people have been using SFP scopes for years.  However, that does not mean it is the best way to go.  A fundamental problem with using SFP scopes between the maximum and minimum magnifications is that to use the reticle effectively, you have to know exactly what magnification you are at.  To know exactly what magnification you are at, you have to stop looking through the scope and look at the magnification ring.  Sometimes, that means you break your shooting position.

When using an FFP scope, the reticle subtensions mean exact same thing at all magnifications, so ultimately, I neither know no care which magnification I am at.  If I have to shoot at a target at an unknown distance that I have to find first, I will start at a comparatively low magnification where I have a wide enough field of view to locate this target.  Then, I can increase magnification a bit and make some educated guesses on how far the target is and what the conditions look like.  Then, if needed I can further tweak the magnification until I get the look I want prior to pulling the trigger.  Or might not have the time for any of that and with the target being sufficiently close, I will bump the magnification up a bit after locating the target and fire.  Or, if I am spotting for a shooting partner, I might keep the magnification as high as the conditions allow for helping him spot his shots and call out corrections.  With a FFP reticle, I do not need to know what magnification any of that is happening at.  I never have to take my eye from the target, and I never have to change my shooting position.

Similarly, if I miss and see the impact, I can immediately determine how far away from each other POI and POA are using the reticle subtensions and adjust for the next shot.

All of that is doable with SFP scopes, but unless you are setting the magnification ring at a hard stop of some sort, it is a bit more involved.

Now, onto the downsides:

-FFP reticle that looks appropriately thin at high magnification will look very thin at low magnification.

-From a manufacturing standpoint, the physical size of the reticle cell is smaller for FFP vs SFP, so it is usually more expensive to make.

-Because of that smaller size, it is often harder to make a brightly illuminated FFP reticle

In my opinion, all of these issues can be overcome with good design; however, all of that costs money.  For example, with FFP scopes, especially ones with broad magnification range, I insist on having reticle illumination.  It really helps in low light at low magnification.  Another thing that many reticle designers do it incorporate some fairly thick and visible features into the reticle that are outside the FOV when you are at high magnification.  If you need a brightly illuminated aiming point, you need sophisticated design where you may end up with an additional bright dot in the SFP combined with a ranging reticle if FFP (think Minox ZP8).

Lastly, it is worth considering which scope configurations benefit the most from having a FFP or SFP reticle.

As I mentioned above, if you have a 1-4×24 or 1-6×24 AR scope, a good SFP reticle design will save you some money and you will be using the scope at either 1x or whatever the top end magnification is 99% of the time.  However, once we get to 1-8x or 1-10x designs, I start leaning toward FFP, simply because the exit pupil gets pretty small at 8x or 10x, so I will be spending a fair amount of time using the scope at some intermediary magnification setting especially if the lighting conditions are questionable.

If you are looking at a hunting scope where you are unlikely to ever take a shot beyond MPBR of your rifle, SFP will work fine for you, although FFP in most cases will too.  If you go with a SFP design, make sure your point of aim does not change significantly with magnification.  Every SFP scope changes POA slightly with magnification, so that is something you want to check.  On quality scopes, this shift should be sufficiently small that you can not easily find it by shooting (I can virtually always see it when testing a scope in my lab).  FFP scope, by definition, do not have that issue.  These scopes are along the lines of 3-9×42, 2-10×42, 2-12×42, etc.  Now, these scopes can be extended to longer distances if need be, but for that, I will dial it up to top magnification.

If you are planning to take longer shots at the range, but the distances are always known, both FFP and SFP will work fine.  Choose what looks better to you.  I lean toward FFP, but that is mostly because I am lazy and I do not want to worry what magnification I am on.  Where I live, it gets pretty hot so mirage is a problem.  Because of that, I am seldom at top magnification of a scope.

For example, I’ve got a Leica Magnus 1.8-12×50 on my hunting rifle.  The reticle is absolutely day bright and on 1.8x it is exceptionally fast to acquire.  It is not quite like a red dot, but not far off.  However, at 12x, it is a mrad-based reticle and, for practice purposes, I have shot that rifle with that scope out to 600 yards with good results.  I will take it to 1000yards whenever an opportunity presents itself.  Of course, it does not hurt that the optomechanical quality of this scope is just superb (and it better be that good considering how much it costs).  However, even with warm conditions, I can almost always use 12x.  If this scope extended to higher magnification, this would not be so easy and I would lean toward FFP reticle designs.

The most popular configuration for PRS-style shooting is something along 5-25×56 (that includes similar configurations like 6-24×56, 4.7-28×56, 4.5-27×50, 5-30×56, etc).  This type of scopes is really well suited for FFP reticles and for tactical/precision shooting.  Personally, I use the magnification range along the lines of 3-15×50 the most and prefer it with the FFP.  The reason for that is simple: right now around 30% of my shooting practice is done either entirely unsupported or from various screwy shooting positions.  For those situation, I really prefer to have 3x available. At low magnifications, the reticle looks steadier and I am less tempted to jerk the trigger.

Once you get into very high magnification: 10-50x, 15-60x, etc, you are dealing with an entirely different shooting discipline.  Here SFP reticle rule.

 Posted by at 9:54 pm
Oct 222017
 

written in October 2017

Since I was putting together a progress report of sorts, I also realized there are several scopes I have wrapped up with, but havn’t yet written anything about.  Among them are the two Styrka S7 scopes that I looked at late in 2016.





First, a couple of words about the company.  Styrka is, apparently, a Swedish word for “strength”.  It is also a Russian word for “laundry”.  Since I do not speak Swedish, but do speak Russian, I find the name highly amusing.  If you visit Styrka website, it is positively littered with the word “strong” and its various conjugates.  However, all I can think of when when I visit their website is “strong laundry”…  That is probably my personal failing.

Since I mentioned their website (https://styrkastrong.com/), I might as well give a little background on the company.  From a marketing standpoint, they are very good.  Considering how young the Styrka brand is, they have an unusually clear and coherent message aimed at the hunting market (and it is probably quite effective since most people do not think “laundry” when they hear Styrka; OK, I will wrap up with the whole laundry business).  The reason their presentation looks so polished is that Sytrka is, apparently, Celestron’s new attempt to play in the hunting market.  With Celestron behind them, Styrka has every opportunity to do well.  I have not tested their binoculars and spotters, but I suspect they are very well worked out since Celestron has been marketing those forever and a day.  My interest was with riflescopes and their, Styrka has some work to do.

I looked at two of their higher end scopes, both from the S7 product line: 1-6×24 and 2.5-15×50.  I tested the 1-6×24 on my 10mm carbine and on a fairly conventional AR.  The 2.5-15×50 spend some time on an AR and on a 308Win bolt gun.  Neither scope came with exposed turrets, so I did not spend a whole lot of time exploring tracking.  I did a rough check and since nothing objectionable was found, I did not dig into that further.

The 1-6×24 had their plex reticle (non-illuminated), while the 2.5-15×50 had Styrka’s BDC-style reticle.

Optical quality was quite respectable and good for the money.  Both scopes, once zeroed, stayed zeroed.  However, I did not do an extremely thorough test and the reason for that is reticle design.  Best I can tell, Styrka does not have  a whole lot of people with background in sighting devices, so whoever makes the decisions there really does not understand reticles.  For the record, I explained all of that to the very nice gentleman who was my contact there during SHOT 2017.  I have not heard a peep from them since, so I can surmise that they are either hard at work re-working their reticle or they got all poochy-faced because I dared to tell them they made a few mistakes.  Either way, I am too lazy to fig into what they are up to further, so I will keep checking on them every few months to see if they did anything about their reticles.

As they are right now, their reticles are what I would call “designed to fail”.

The plex reticle in the 1-6×24 has a very wide opening and is way too thin for a low range variable.  You can’t really use the thick bars for bracketing anything and without illumination, the reticle really vanishes in low light.  On the flip side of the coin, during the day, it does not stand out either so it does not aid in speed.  If you look at a veritable horde of 1-6x scopes out there you will notice that everyone does something to aid the visibility of their reticle.  Styrka decided to go with a simple hunting reticle (it seem like they are trying to avoid the AR market like the plague, which in itself is a huge mistake), but then they sized it wrong for a scope of this type.  Illumination helps a bit, but not enough.

The reticle I looked at in the 2.5-15×50 is their SH-BDC and, comparatively speaking, it is even worse. It has a few holdover hashmarks, like many modern holdover reticle, but it skips on the thick outer bars entirely.  You can imagine what it does to low light visibility and speed of acquisition.  With all lines being about the same thickness, the eye is not naturally drawn to any spot, so it is not built for speed.  Line thickness is cleverly selected in such a way that it is too thick for precision shooting, but too think to see in low light.

I have been looking at riflescopes on a fairly consistent basis for about 20 years now.  One of the biggest differences between now and 20 years ago, is the evolution of and ever increasing sophistication in reticle design.  Styrka went ahead and soundly ignored these last twenty years of practical experience and decided to go their own way (most likely drawing on expertise of people who have never fired a gun).

All that is the bad part, and, as you may imaging, I do not think I made any friends at Styrka headquarters.  Frankly, I can live with that.  Be that as it may, there is a silver lining.

First of all, while the S7 scopes are made in China, they appear to be made exceedingly well.  Best I can tell, the S7 deisgn is related to Athlon Midas and Hawke Frontier which appear to be made by the same OEM.  That is not a bad company to be in.  If my guess on the OEM is correct, basic optomechanical quality of the S7 scopes should be quite good and my impressions from using the scopes support that.  Now, that also means if you want a scope like the S7, but with a more modern reticle design, you can go to Hawke or Athlon.  That is generally true, but not for all situations.  Athlon’s reticle designs are at their best in FFP scopes (so consider Athlon Ares if you want a more sophisticated reticle in FFP from the same OEM).  Hawke reticle in the 1-6×24 Frontier is excellent, while the LRD dot in the 2.5-15×50 Frontier is also a very good hunting reticle.  What is worth noting though, is that both Athlon and Hawke supply their 1-6×24 with fixed parallax.

The Styrka S7 1-6×24 is one of the few low range variables with adjustable parallax.  While generally adjustable focus is not necessary on low range variables, it is a pretty good idea if you want to a scope of this type for a rimfire or an airgun.  For that application, it is a very respectable option, just make sure you get the model with illuminated reticle.  I am considering one for my 10/22.

With the 2.5-15×50 S7, while the BDC reticle is basically useless, Styrka makes a version with a low tech, but very familiar classic mil-dot reticle.  To be entirely honest, I do not like complicated holdover reticles in SFP scopes.  As much as I like Athlon’s APLR in FFP Ares, I do not think the SFP Midas is a good platform for it.

Simple mrad-graduate reticle, like the classic Mil-Dot, on the other hand, is quite usable if you know what you are doing without being particularly complicated.  Also, since this reticle is pretty well established, Sytrka’s crack engineers did not go to town on it.  It is a bit old school, but it works and works well for a variety of applications.  Here is a link to the specific model on Adorama.

Considering how harshly I spoke of Styrka earlier, you are probably wondering why I am providing product links.  The answer is simple: I usually see the S7 priced lower than Athlon or Hawke offerings from the same OEM.  If you can live with the options I outlined, this is a pretty cost effective way to get your hands on a very nice scope from the standpoint of optics and basic mechanical quality.

 Posted by at 10:10 pm
Oct 192017
 

October 19, 2017.

 

I popped the safe open to do an inventory of sorts of the stuff I have on hand that still needs to be written up.
This somehow creeped up on me, but there is a lot of stuff in there. I will stop accepting new review items for a bit, until I clear this out.
Here is a rundown with some brief comments, in no particular order.




1) Leupold VX-6HD 3-18×44. I am basically done with this one. I like VX-6HD a lot and if Leupold made a version of this scope with FFP reticle and mrad adjustments for similar money, I would own at least two or three. It tracked true, the low profile turret had a good feel and optical quality is commensurate with the price.

2) Leica Magnus 1.8-12×50. This is the best general purpose hunting scope I have ever tested, bar none. Swaro Z8 is in the same league, I think, and both are really expensive. Zeiss V8 is in the same price range, but from a cursory look, Leica and Swaro are better. Anyway, the image of the Magnus really agrees with me. FOV is superb. Ballistic turret is accurate and the reticle illumination is world class. The reticle is mrad delineated, so I do not have to learn new BDC dimensions. If you want a hunting scope with no compromises, this it. It is sitting on my Tikka M695 in a McMillan stock. I took it out to 600 yards with zero issues. I’ll take it out to 1k next.

3) Leica ER5 2-10×50. Optomechanical quality seems very good. I am a bit mixed on the magnum Ballistic reticle, but I will admit I have not spent as much time with this scope as I wanted to. I got it at the same time as I did the Magnus and I have to admit, I spent more time with the Magnus than with the ER5.

4) Athlon Ares 4.5-27×50.  I’ve spent some time with this scope already and so far I like what I see.  It offers a lot for the money, but as the design is new, I want to spend some more time with it before I decide whether I will recommend it or not.

5) HiLux Phenom 5-30x56FFP.  Same general comment as on the Athlon above.  These two scopes cost about the same customer.  I like the design overall, but there is some field curvature that I need to see if I can dial out.  HiLux Phenom and Athlon Ares go directly against each other, so I am looking at them side-by-side.  These are very featured rich design for not too much money.  These are also among the most ambitious designs I have seen come out of China so far.  Naturally, they peaked my interest.

6) Hi-Lux Uni-Dial 5-30×56.   This is sort of a SFP version of the Phenom above and it is looking quite good so far.

7) Vortex Razor Gen 2 spotter.  I am done testing the variable eyepiece and I am now looking at the fixed eyepiece.  This spotter rocks and it is easily going to end up at the top of my list of recommendations.  Vortex should really get a reticle in there.

8) Leica Noctivid 8×42 binocular.  This is the best general purpose binocular I have seen to date.   Now, you can make a reasonable claim that other similarly priced designs are as good, but they all have their own character.  I have looked at Zeiss, Swaro and Leica at reasonable length and while all three are excellent, Leica agrees with my eyes the best.  It has spectacular microcontrast and the most relaxing image I have ever seen in a binocular.

10) Shield RMS miniature red dot sight.  I’ve got this thing incorporated into the slide of my Glock 43 and it is likely to become that sight of choice for my handgun use on smaller handguns.  Generally, I have been looking at a variety of miniature red dot sights recently and for handgun use, I am converging on Shield RMS and DocterSight III as my favourites.  RMS has the lowest sightline of them all, but it is not waterproof.  However, I accidentally tested that feature and it is definitely splashproof.  I will avoid going swimming with it though.  RMS easily lands on my list of recommendations that I will be updating shortly.

11) Shield SIS is to ARs, what RMS is to handguns.  I am extremely impressed and it moves to the top of my list for carbiine use.  The SIS has really impressed more than I thought it would.  There is an interesting (to me) aspect of it that I hadn’t really thought about earlier.  Everyone is trying to make red dot sights with minimal visible housing, so that all you see is a bright red dot surrounded by as little as possible.  With the SIS, at first blush, the window is comparatively small, while the housing is pretty prominent.  However, it does not seem to have slowed me down in the slightest.  However, when I did some house clearing drills, I realized that at these close ranges, that housing is really helpful.  I do not have to worry about the red dot at all.  The moment I see something that needs to be shot through that window, I can pull the trigger and hit it.  At longer ranges it works about as well as most other red dots.  I have a little astigmatism, so the dots are not terribly sharp, but I can still use the holdover reticle well enough.  I have not yet tested it to see if it works well with a magnifier, so that is next.

12) Vortex UH-1.  I will have it in my hands next week, so a First Look article is forthcoming.

13) Vortex PST Gen 2 3-15×44.  It is arriving next week.  When I looked at the new PSTs briefly earlier this year, I thought the 3-15×44 was the best one of the bunch.  We’ll see how it holds up.

14) Docter QuickSight.  This is mostly a shotgun sight, but I fashioned it to a handgun to see how a short/low window will work.  It is an interesting design, and I’ll have more to say about it shortly.

15) Vortex AMG 6-24×50.  Almost done with this one.  It is currently sitting on my 338LM and working great.  EBR7 reticle is not my favourite, but it works.  The horizontal has a bit too much happening on there for my taste, but it is undoubtedly a functional design.  The scope itself is excellent and I fully expect to buy it from Vortex when I am done.  There are a couple of tests I still need to finish, but I am really impressed with what I see so far.

16) Burris RT-6.  Almost done with this one.  This is my favorite budget 1-6x.

17) Hawke Frontier 1-6×24.  I am surprised with how much I like this scope.  Excellent reticle design and overall a very solid product.

18) Burris XTR 2 1-8×24.  I think the reticle needs a little work, but it is functional.  I suspect this the best overall 1-8x scope under $2k

19) HiLux CMR8 1-8X24.  I helped design the reticle for this one, so I like it a fair bit. The scope itself is quite respectable and seems to stay zeroed.  This is likely the best FFP low range variable to come out of China to date.

ILya

 

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Oct 132017
 

written by ILya Koshkin, October 2017

Earlier this year, I found myself heading over to Colorado to visit a customer (I do have a dayjob after all) and since it looked like I would have a couple of hours to kill, I reached out to Burris to see if I can stop by take a look at the factory.

To be honest, I fully expected that they will politely suggest I take a long walk on a short pier, so imagine my surprise when asked me what time I would like to stop by.



Armed with two things I always have with me, a camera and an attitude, I showed up on their doorstep and got a rare (for me) look at how they do things.  Considering what I do for a living, I have seen a few optical manufacturing facilities, but not too many that make riflescopes, so this was interesting.  For a variety of obvious reasons, I am not going to talk a whole lot about how they do things, but I will post a few pictures I took inside and mention a few things here and there.

Generally speaking, I liked how they go about it.  The factory is intelligently set up.  I did not see any obvious signs of negligence which is extremely rare, frankly.  The production flow made sense and people knew what they were doing.  Most importantly, I got to ask them a few questions as we walked along and, most refreshingly, no one tried to BS me.  Some things they answered; on some they were not sure what the answers were and said as much.  In a few cases, they declined to comment since it involved something proprietary to them and a couple of questions that they answered, they asked me to not talk about (and I won’t).

I had recently had a chance to use Burris’ customer service (I sent in one of my old US made Burris scopes for repair) and my experience was excellent.  However, in years past, Burris did not have a stellar service reputation.  Naturally, I brought that up.  I do not think that scored me any brownie points, but they pretty much said that mistakes were made.  However, since then, the service department has been significantly beefed up.  I had a nice chat with the gentleman who runs it and he knows what he is doing.  Naturally, I asked about support for old scopes, so they showed me this:

Spare part for old products

Spare parts for old products

Apparently, they have diligently sorted through their inventory and organized all the old parts they had (there are a couple of cabinets like this one).  When they take an old scope in that can not be repaired, they pull whatever parts they can and keep them.  I have a couple of old Burris scopes, so that made me feel a lot better.

Here is a box with a bunch of reticle cells for old scope:

Notice how in the picture below, there is a bunch of small windows in the wall on the left.  In front of each window there is base where a scope can be clamped.  Outside the window, there is an unobstructed few to targets that are, I think, about a 100 yards away.  That’s an inexpensive way to check if the scope is working and to adjust focus as necessary:

One of the assembly benches:

And another:

Here is where the scopes are purged:

And tested for leaks:

And here is a recoil testing fixture, where the scopes a clamped and tortured.

It sits inside a chamber that baffles some of the sound that this fixture makes when it slams up and down.  Here is another fixture that REALLY makes for some serious impact when it slams down.  It makes some serious noise, so they try to not use it when the building is full of people:

Final inspection area:

None of the Burris scope currently for sale in the US are made by Burris facility.  The scope that are made their are mostly Steiner products, which are higher priced and are better suited for US manufacturing costs.  However, the scopes that are made for Burris by OEMs, do go through an inspection at the US factory.  Some lines for through a complete check (XTR II, for example), while others ae spot checked.

Finally, I made my way to the warehouse where all the ready-to-ship products are:

I made a valiant effort to “accidentally” walk out with a few boxes, but they were watching me pretty carefully…

 

I usually have some parting thoughts at the end of every post and frankly, this time, I do not have much to offer.  I have been pretty happy with what I have seen from Burris lately and a walk through their factory simply confirms that.  With Beretta owning several optics brands (Burris and Steiner being most prominent), I am very curious how they plan to develop Burris further.  However, any brand development starts with solid products and Burris seems to be doing quite well in that regard.

 

 Posted by at 5:58 pm
Aug 292017
 

I looked at Leupold’s LCO and D-EVO quite some time ago and talked about them here and there.  However, I never did a formal write-up and given my schedule, I won’t for a bit.

So, I talked into the camera for a few minutes and I will add some commentary to this post later.




Here are a couple of pictures:

And here is the video:

 Posted by at 11:29 am
Aug 292017
 

I have long been a devotee of mirrorless cameras and I have sort of gone on the record saying that unless you do sports where high end DSLR autofocus is important, there is little reason to get a DSLR.

I still hold that view, by and large, but now that my daughter does gymnastics, my autofocus requirements are becoming ever more significant.  In principle, I was still planning to stick with mirrorless and get Olympus E-M1 Mark II.  With fast prime lenses it would likely work all right for me.

Then Nikon went ahead and announced the D850 and priced it lower than I expected (pre-order link here).  This has got me sufficiently interested that I am actually considering  getting one instead of the Olympus.

There are two reasons for that.  One is the autofocus system inherited from D5.  I have tried and it is the best in the business at the moment.  Another is the combination of crazy dynamic region and very high resolution.  I am not really that particular about ultra high resolution, but what I like doing is using prime lenses and cropping as necessary.

That 45 megapixel FX  sensor in the D850 gives me exactly that.  For example, if I use Nikon’s excellent and light weight 35mm F/1.8 lens and crop it to DX format, it ends up being a 50mm equivalent 20 megapixel image.  If I crop it to micro-4/3 format, it ends up being a 70mm equivalent 10 megapixel image.  For the record, for years I was using Olympus E510 DSLR and its 10 megapixel image had plenty of resolution.

More recently, I spent a lot of time with Leica Q and its 28mm prime lens.  I did the same type of cropping with it out to about 50mm equivalent and liked the images.

So, D850 got my interest peaked.  While the camera is fairly large, with the resolution it has, I can get a lot of mileage out of two compact and light prime lenses: 35mm F/1.8 and 50mm F/1.8.  The resulting travel kit is more or less the same size and weight as my planned Micro-4/3 travel kit: E-M1 Mark II with 12-100mm F/4 and 25mm F/1.2.

The D850 kit would have an advantage in basic image quality and low light, while the Micro-4/3 kit would still be a bit more flexible in terms of FOVs.

Price-wise, it works out about the same.

Had my daughter not started doing indoor sports fairly seriously, I would stick with mirrorless.

Now, I have some decisions to make.

 Posted by at 10:46 am
Jul 312017
 

Written by ILya Koshkin in August, 2017

General disclaimer: you will see a lot of links to Adorama.  I have an affiliate program with them.  I do not use it a whole lot, but if you decide to follow one of my recommendations and Adorama price is competitive, I would appreciate it if you could click on one of my links and buy it that way.  I try to to keep advertising on this website to a minimum, but I do have bills to pay.

It has been a few months since I talked about cameras and, honestly, while there were a lot of camera introductions, my recommendations have not changed a whole lot.

As far as cameras go, I am not an early adopter.  We live in a world where basic camera capabilities are so good across the board that except for some rather specific use cases, it makes almost no difference which camera within each segment you go with.

Ultimately, the photographer makes the most difference.  Between a camera and a lens, in the modern world, the camera bodies are so good, that they almost do not matter.  Get the best lens you can afford and make sure you have some quality primes for when it really matters.  As good as the modern zoom lenses are, for ultimate image quality, you should still go with primes.  If you want some more specific reading on the subject, the best discussion I have seen lately was in the Lens Rentals blog.  I do not agree with everything they say there, but they have a lot of experience and their arguments are well reasoned and well thought out.  Definitely worth considering.

Since I wrote my previous pieces on camera suggestions, I have divested most of my cameras as I look for deals on the stuff I want to get.  The most painful part of that process was selling my Leica Q (compact camera with a FF sensor and 28mm F/1.7 Leica lens).  That camera had an absolutely stunning lens, but my photography needs changed and a fixed 28mm was simply not enough.  If Leica ever makes a “Q Duo” that gives me 28mm and 50mm in one camera, I’ll buy one again.

The only camera I currently have left is a rather beat up Panasonic GX-1 that I have had for a few years.  I retained most of my Micro-4/3 lenses, although in normal use, I only use a few of them.

Before I go through my reasoning and specific recommendations on interchangeable lens cameras, here is a brief rundown of other categories.




Cell phones

If you are planning to buy a cellphone and image quality is a consideration, last several months have changed absolutely nothing for you.  A bunch of new tech is coming out with dual camera phones and all that.  All of that is interesting and none of that is ready for prime time.  Most implementations I have seen are a bit gimmicky.  I would wait.  In terms of basic image quality, My Google Pixel is still at or near the top of the list.

Compact Point-and-Shoot Cameras

If you are looking to get an inexpensive point and shoot camera… don’t.  Just don’t.  There are a couple of exceptions to that.  If you need something that is rugged and go underwater, skiing, etc, get Olympus TG-5 or one of the excellent action cams from Go Pro or YI, depending on what exactly you like doing.  If you are serious about underwater, SeaLife DC2000 is interesting.  I will likely get something along the lines of the DC2000 before I go on my next vacation.

Aside from rugged cameras, the only other viable use case for a point-and-shoot is a situation where you want the most image quality possible in a pocketable camera.  There, your options are either a compact camera with a zoom lens and a 1″ sensor or a camera with a primer lens and a larger APS-C size sensor.  For the former, I like Panasonic LX10 and for the latter the aging Ricoh GR II is still the way to go.

Bridge Style Point-and-Shoot Cameras

The landscape there has also remained largely constant.  I think the aging Panasonic FZ-1000 is a good deal.  Sony RX-10 Mark III is still a technological tour-de-force and I still do not like the user interface.

Generally, with the advent of high zoom ratio DSLR lenses, the need for bridge style point and shoot cameras is going the way of the dodo.

Now, let’s move onto Interchangeable Lens Cameras.

I have spent the last few months trying different cameras My photography needs are as follows:  I take pictures when I travel and I take pictures of my kids.  With my daughter becoming more involved in gymnastics, I am looking for something pretty fast in terms of operation and that I can put a long and bright lens on for indoor sports.  On the other hand, the system has to have excellent quality compact lenses for when I travel.  At the moment, I travel with a Panasonic GX-1 Micro 4/3 body, 14-140mm F/3.5-5.6, SLR Magic 25mm F/0.95 manual focus prime and 14mm F/2.5 pancake lens.  If I think I will need something a touch longer, I also take the absolutely diminutive (and optically excellent) 45mm F/1.8 lens with me.  This basic kit covers almost everything I may need during my travels except for extreme telephoto.

Moving forward, I fully intend to add Olympus E-M1 Mark II which also uses Micro-4/3 mount.  While not ideal for low light, E-M1 Mark II excels in high speed stuff and in terms of image quality the lens assortment is extremely well fleshed out.  One thing that is important is that Olympus makes pretty much the only superzoom lens on the market (for any system) that truly delivers top notch image quality: 12-100mm F/4.  It is not a small lens by Micro 4/3 standards, but it is optically excellent, superbly stabilized, and weather-sealed.  Going forward, I expect my travel kit to consist of E-M1 Mark II, 12-100mm F/4 zoom lens and 15mm F/1.7 prime.  Together with the Olympus’ stunning image stabilization, the 12-100mm can satisfy most of what I need and the brighter 15mm prime would work well for indoor and street photography.

That is not an inexpensive combination, but my requirements are fairly specific.  I can not get anywhere near this capability in a package of remotely similar size with any other camera system on the market right now.

However, in principle, if your requirements are a little different, you can get better image quality for similar money.  Some other requirements that I have will not be met, but those may not be important to you.

First step up in image quality, is to go up to an APS-C image sensor size and there, the system I like the most is Fuji’s X-mount.  It will not do well for sports, but it does everything else very nicely and if I did not need to photograph indoor sports and did not need the focal length range for travel, I would likely go for this one.  Both X-T2 and X-Pro2 are excellent cameras with low light performance almost a full stop better than the best of Micro 4/3 bodies.  More importantly, Fuji has a pretty good set of excellent prime lenses and an inexpensive, but compact and optically good 18-55 zoom that you can get as a kit with the camera.  For street photography, architectural, portrait, etc, the Fuji system works beautifully.  Autofocus has gotten much better as well, so for anything other than sports it works well.

If you are after even more image quality at the expense of compactness (but this gets you back into the world class autofocus capability) you should be looking at a full frame camera and it looks like Nikon is on the verge of introducing some new designs.  That means that existing cameras are steadily going down in price.  At the moment, in terms of what you get for your money, Nikon D750 is probably the best option going, ispecially in a kit with Nikon’s very respectable 24-120mm lens.

That is a very respectable zoom range for a travel camera and, naturally, Nikon system is not lacking good primes.  These lenses are appreciably larger than Micro-4/3 and Fuji X, but that is the price to pay.

 Posted by at 3:57 pm