Sony NEX-5N Wins My Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera Shootout

Commenter on another post asked me about mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras and I did some research to help suggest what to buy. Here’s what I found taking the approach of having a reasonable budget (under $1000) and wanting the best bang for my buck in this market segment.

Mirrorless cameras borrow from DSLRs (bigger sensors, shooting speed, lens selection) and point and shoots (small form factor, simpler controls). For the most part you get the best of both worlds without giving up too much. Yeah they don’t fit in your pocket, but they’re easier to carry around all day then some of the heavier DSLRs.

The ~$1000 market is made up by Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung, Pentax, Nikon and Sony. I was expressly interested in the smaller models that bridge the DSLR and P&S gap. Some mirrorless cameras aren’t that much smaller than DSLRs so they were excluded from my search.

I went through a very unscientific and ad-hoc elimination process where I looked at the current offerings of each manufacturer. Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung didn’t really move me or stand out as good bang for your buck cameras. I eliminated Nikon based solely on high ISO performance with their smaller sensor. Canon is coming out with their first attempt at mirrorless, but it looks slow and unpromising. Pentax and Sony have very similar offerings with APS-C sensors.

So my gut and personal preference tells me the Sony NEX-5N is the best mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for the money right now. Sony recently discounted the camera with kit lens to $500. I’m assuming this is in preperation for the release of the NEX-5R and NEX-6.

Buying right now? Sony NEX-5N for $500: Amazon or B&H Photo

Buying for Christmas 2012?

Sony NEX-5R for $750: Amazon or B&H Photo

Sony NEX-6 for $999: Amazon or B&H Photo

My Malouf Zoned Dough Memory Foam Pillow Review

I never thought I’d actually be excited enough about a pillow to post a review on the Internet about my experience. In the past I never put that much thought or research into my pillows and would end up with something filled with polyester from Target that cost $15 or $20. Six months later it would be lumpy and hard and I’d wake up with sore ears.

I was getting fed up with not being comfortable and having a hard time getting to sleep so I started doing some research and browsing on Amazon. A couple years ago I bought a 1″ latex mattress topper that we are really happy with so I started looking at latex and memory foam. Latex isn’t as popular as memory foam, but it is springier with different levels of firmness/density. Memory foam seems to be either soft where you sink right into it (leading to complains about it sleeping hot) or too firm and it just feels like hard foam. This turned me off from a lot of memory foam pillows and I had already ruled out polyester fill and down.

My research eventually led to a line of pillows from a company called Malouf. They have a couple different pillows using latex and memory foam, but one really stood out that looked like it would solve my aching ear problem: the Malouf Zoned Dough Memory Foam Pillow.

I was a little reluctant to spend more money on a pillow I couldn’t touch and see in the store, but doing that in the past hasn’t done me any good so I pulled the trigger on a King low loft firm dough pillow. It came in a massive box (seriously Amazon), but right away I knew I was going to like it.

The foam itself feels like a cross between memory foam and latex. From here on out I will just refer to it as “the dough”. You sink into the dough, but it is still fairly firm and supportive. And even though it feels firm it is still one of the softest pillows I’ve used. It is actually kind of a strange feeling at first. The zoning and ventilation probably play into this great feeling. The edge has smaller holes that provide more support for your neck while the middle has larger holes that adds the softness on your head. The result has been a very supportive and comfortable sleep.

Fast forward a month and my wife has stolen the first dough pillow. I went back to order another one and decided to try the high loft firm model. My pillows have always seemed to be a bit too short which made my spine feel like it was just slightly out of alignment (or I would compensate by laying on my side a little crooked). The high loft is definitely higher and turned out to be just right. It took about a week to get use to, but I feel like my neck is straight and supported better.

Low loft vs high loft, firm vs plush

If you are a back sleeper, have a smaller body type or have a really soft bed then the low loft is probably the better height. If you already sleep with a really high pillow (or multiple), have a bigger body type or firm bed then the high loft might be a better fit. Smaller woman might have a tough time with the high loft either way.

Both pillows I bought were the firm so I can’t compare it to the plush. Amazon reviews seem to be all over the place on the differences. The one thing I know is if my high loft pillow was any softer and I sunk down further then it might actually obstruct my breathing little. So until I get my head on one of the plush models I can’t honestly compare them. To be safe I just suggest the firm.

Amazon seems to be the only place carrying these pillows at a reasonable price.

I really can’t recommend these pillows enough. The extra cost should be offset by their longer life and getting better sleep. One hint: take the pillow out of the cover for a few days to air out as it does have a slight smell right out of the box. It didn’t bother me at all, but the wife was a little more sensitive to it.

Best Digital Cameras and DSLRs for Christmas 2011

Shopping for a digital camera shouldn’t be hard, but it is. There are hundreds and hundreds of digital camera models to choose from and it can be time consuming to wade through review after review trying to find the best camera for the money this Christmas. I’ll do some of that work for you and give you my recommendations for a few different price points and categories.

Compact Point and Shoot Under $200

This is the most crowded camera category and there’s been a lot of convergence over the years with cheaper cameras. Good cameras in this price range are going to be more alike than they are different. The biggest change here has been the inclusion of wider angle lenses. In the past most compact point and shoots started at 35mm, but now 24mm and 28mm is much more common. These wider angles are very useful and arguably more important than a really long zoom in most situations.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS | Amazon – $174

The Canon 300 HS is a nice little camera with a good set of features. It’s small, has one of the newer CMOS sensors, 24mm wide angle and fairly quick f/2.7 aperture at the wide end. All of my point and shoots have been Canon PowerShots (S400 about 8 years ago and S700 4 years ago) and they are just solid cameras for the money.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS | Amazon – $130

The 100 HS is very similar to its 300 HS sibling if price is really an issue. You lose a few bells and whistles like a smaller zoom range and being able to optically zoom during video. There might be cheaper cameras, but quality really starts to drop off if you go too much cheaper than this.

Compact Point and Shoot Over $200

The under $200 crowd are fairly similar. As you look at cameras over $200 you start to see more variation and better features. Along with the wider angles being offered really fast f/1.8 apertures are becoming the new must have feature. These faster lenses let in more light resulting in faster shutter speeds and less reliance on high ISO. Anything that keeps the ISO lower on a point and shoot is a very good thing.

Nikon Coolpix P300 | Amazon – $277

This is the main camera I’m going to recommend in this category. For normal day to day use there really isn’t anything like it. It starts at 24mm wide and has a very fast f/1.8 lens at that widest focal length. I recommended this camera for my sister after quite a bit of research and it has turned out to be fantastic. If I was in the market for a new point and shoot (I shoot my Nikon D90 almost exclusively) this is the camera I would get. That f/1.8 aperture is something only us DSLR shooters got to enjoy, but Nikon has pushed it down to point and shoot cameras at a reasonable price. This is just about the only P&S camera I can get excited about and it is reasonably priced.

Nikon Coolpix S9100 | Amazon – $239

If you need more zoom and are willing to trade it for the fast f/1.8 of the P300 then the Nikon S9100 offers a good set of features for the money. It packs a big zoom range in a small package compared to the “superzoom” point and shoots that are roughly the size of a small DSLR (and not much cheaper).

DSLR Recommendations

Point and shoots are great for pocketability, but it is very hard to match the capabilities of a DSLR. Over the years the price of low end DSLRs has dropped considerably and aren’t much more than a high-end P&S. If you are outgrowing your P&S or want to upgrade an older model then see my recommendation.

Nikon D3100 DSLR | Amazon – $549

The D3100 is just an incredible little (for a DSLR) camera for the money. Canon is very competitive with Nikon, but right now the two things that make me lean towards Nikon is their flash system and the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8. I suggested this setup to my brother and his results are just as good as my D90 and miles ahead of his old D40.

Nikon D7000 DSLR | Amazon – $1399

If you’re looking for one of the best cameras out there without completely breaking the bank then the D7000 is the ticket. This thing is a beast and nothing can really beat its bang-for-buck right now. If my D90 ever craps out or I felt the need to upgrade then I’d be looking at the D7000.

My VigLink Review – Giving Affiliates a Second Chance

I blogged back in July about California passing its law that caused Amazon to pull the plug on all their affiliates in the state (joining Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, and Rhode Island). Since then I’ve had a chance to implement VigLink on this blog and evaluate the service as a replacement for Amazon Associates. So far I’ve been very happy and encouraged by the clicks and revenue I’m seeing already. If you were dropped by Amazon or just want to expand the sites you can link to then I highly suggest signing up and giving VigLink a try.

Why VigLink?

The main reason you might be looking at VigLink is because Amazon has dropped you from their affiliate program. If you have a large pool of established links to Amazon then it probably isn’t practical to try and reroute those to different affiliate programs who may or may not be dropping affiliates for the same reason as Amazon. VigLink gives us a second chance to get back in the game and not worry about the future.

The other big plus is the broad coverage of affiliate programs makes it easier to link to other sites besides Amazon. VigLink covers about 12,000 sites and you can check coverage through their backend site. I know when I was in Associates I pretty much only linked to Amazon. Now I’m starting to link to other sites and present some price comparisons to give readers some additional links to explore.

How big of a cut does VigLink take?

VigLink takes 25% off the top. Might seem like a lot, but they also have the ability to reach higher affiliate tiers because they funnel referrals through a single account. On Amazon I would barely get into the 2nd or 3rd rate tier, but now I’m pretty much guaranteed to get the top rate. So the 25% commission definitely eats into our share, but it is potentially offset by higher payouts. For those of us dropped by Amazon, 75% is much better than 0%.

Implementing VigLink and How It Works

You install VigLink by dropping a bit of JavaScript into the template of your site. This code writes out a <script> tag that links to the JavaScript file on VigLink’s server. Their code is obfuscated so I can only guess that it goes through all external links on a page and adds an OnClick event to each one. When a link is clicked it transparently redirects it to their system to record the click, add on the needed affiliate info and then redirect the user to the modified link.

The plus side to this implementation is that links appear to be unaffiliated to the reader. This also makes it much easier to add links to posts without having to worry that it is properly formatted for a given affiliate program.

AdBlock Strikes Back

If users have JavaScript disabled then obviously none of this works, but that’s fairly rare as far as I’m concerned. What’s not so rare are readers who use the AdBlock browser extension. I use it to help keep popovers and banner ads under control; things that are just out right annoying. The AdBlock Plus filter subscription blocks the retrieval of VigLink’s JavaScript file which prevents links from being affiliated. I have no idea what percentage of people use filtering extensions like AdBlock, but it hurts knowing you might be leaving money on the table from those uncounted clicks.

I implemented a workaround that lets me serve the VigLink JavaScript from my own domain which avoids it being matched to a blacklist. You can read more about that on this post: Make VigLink Work with AdBlock Plus and Other Ad Blocking Software.

Take VigLink for a spin and see how it works for you

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Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Nikon and Canon lens Review

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX for Nikon and for Canon

Nikon’s DX zoom lenses like the 18-55mm start at 18mm (27mm after crop factor) which is just starting to get into the wide angle arena. Most of the time this gives you a wide enough field of view (FOV) and if you need to get more in then you can just back up. There are times though when you can’t or don’t want to back up. Sometimes you might want a wider FOV to get a different perspective in a shot. It’s not just about “getting it all in”, but rather looking at a shot differently and getting the composition you want.

I had never shot a DX lens wider than 17mm or one with a constant f/2.8 lens. We can see the difference in FOV between the Tokina 11-16mm, Nikon 18-200mm and Nikon 35mm:

11mm is wide, really wide. The test shots above were taken at about 5 feet from the TV. The first thing I notice in the 11mm shot is the perspective distortion, but that isn’t necessarily bad. The Nikon 18-200mm presents quite a bit of barrel distortion at 18mm. The Tokina gives nice straight lines, but going so wide starts to affect perspective. Things at the edge of the frame in this situation look stretched because of perspective distortion.

The best way I can describe perspective distortion is that the ultra-wide focal length allows you to move the camera forward into the scene. This has a large impact on the size of subjects depending on their distance from the camera. Subjects in the foreground will appear larger in size than subjects in the background. You can see this in the shot of Mt. Shasta below, the foreground right in front of my feet is balanced against the huge volcano in the distance. You have to use that foreground emphasis to your advantage and it is surprisingly hard to do. That’s about the best I can explain it, but you can read more about perspective distortion on Wikipedia.

The Tokina 11-16mm is a very interesting lens and can be considered special purpose. It’s definitely not for close up portraits as the perspective distortion can wreak havoc on your subjects’ faces if you aren’t careful. For a more distant portrait like my wife in front of Haystack Rock you can get away with it. Keeping the subject in the very middle of the frame helps avoid unflattering distortion like me with the moose in Coeur d’Alene.

The lens itself is very solid and well built. The focus ring pulls in and out to switch between autofocus and manual focus. I’m very happy with the lens and has whetted my appetite for more “pro” lenses, especially with a constant f/2.8. Overall this lens is a very good value.

For Nikon users, depending on your camera you might want to look at the comparable Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. The Tokina does not have a built in autofocus motor so it will not be able to autofocus on bodies missing the motor to drive non AF-S lenses. The lower end bodies like the D5000, D3000, D3100, D40, D50, and D60 do not have the motor so the Nikon 10-24mm becomes your best option. The D70, D80, D90, D200, D300, and D7000 are all good to go.

Canon users will run into a similar situation if your body does not include an autofocus motor then you’ll want to consider the Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. The only problem with the Nikon and Canon versions is the higher cost, slower apertures and more distortion.

The Nikon version is about $600 from Amazon and the Canon version is about $700