Monday, 26 February 2018

Sigma 60mm DN f2.8 Micro Four Thirds lens - Initial Review

Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN 'Art' lens in silver
My micro four thirds lens arsenal has been growing steadily over the last year - and I now have a total of four lenses for the E-M1. One is from Olympus - the 12-50mm EZ kit lens, two are from Panasonic (the 25mm f1.7 and the 45-200mm f4/5.6), while the final lens, and the subject of this post, is the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN 'Art' lens.

What's missing? Not much really if I'm honest. I'm not really a macro shooter, so the 'faux' macro setting on the Oly 12-50mm is all I need (and is surprisingly good). Eventually I would like a slightly wider reach for landscapes - probably the Olympus 9-18mm f4/5.6 (yes, the 7-14mm f2.8 Pro would be lovely, but I am being realistic budget-wise). But that will have to come much further down the track. At the moment, the 12mm end of the 12-50mm will have to suffice.

But this post isn't about my 'wish' list - it's about a lens I already own. A lens I purchased very cheaply about 6 months ago on a whim. And a lens that, until very recently, I hadn't even mounted on the camera!

I say I purchased it on a 'whim', and to a certain extent that's true. It was almost literally too cheap to pass up, and the fact that I haven't even touched it in the six months since buying it might prove that I didn't really need the lens to begin with? Yet at the same time, it was also a considered purchase, given that one of the lenses missing in my kit was a fast(ish) portrait lens. In fact, when I shot a wedding last year with my Canon 40D, one of the deciding factors for not using my E-M1 was that I didn't have a dedicated portrait lens. The purchase of the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN 'Art' lens has fixed that.

Tea Ceremony. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN. f2.8 @ 1/500th, ISO 400
I don't do a lot of portraiture or shoot weddings anymore (except for friends) - so investing in a dedicated, fast portrait lens is a bit of a luxury. The 'classic' lens that most Olympus users think of for portraiture on a budget is the outstanding 45mm f1.8 - a lens I've owned when I had the E-M5 MkII. It's called a 'must-have' for micro four thirds users, and having owned one I can see why. It's small, light, sharp and relatively fast at f1.8 - and can be had for very little money, even brand new. But it's a lens I also eventually ended up selling when I had the E-M5 kit, because I just never used it. I felt guilty owning it, because it was almost too good to just have sitting around in my bag not being used.

But then I get back to the dilemma of not having a portrait lens for those occasions when I do want to shoot a wedding or an event that would suit the portrait length. For me, the Sigma 60mm perfectly fills in that gap.

Calligraphy. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Sigma 60mm DN. f2.8 @ 1/2000th, ISO 400
First of all it's cheap. Cheaper even than the Olympus 45mm f1.8. And it's light - only 190 grams (although that's slightly heavier than the 45mm f1.8 at only 116 grams). The design of the lens comes in two colours - black or silver - and falls into the either love it or hate it category. It's covered in polished metal and doesn't have any ribbed or patterned surfaces for your fingers to grip onto. Some users have even suggested using a rubber band placed around the lens to give it at least some form of minimal grip.

Chinese New Year. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Sigma 60mm lens. f2.8 @ 1/2500th, ISO 400
I didn't really know what to expect when I attached it to the E-M1, because it really is unlike any other lens design I've ever used before. Mine is the silver version of the lens (I would have preferred black but the guy I purchased it from had the silver) and just looks like a tube of metal stuck to the front of the camera. I'm still trying to make my mind up whether I'm in the love it or hate it camp aesthetically. Part of me thinks it looks quite minimalist cool, and part of me thinks it's just plain odd. Practically speaking, however, I think it works just fine and I didn't have a problem with gripping the lens and using it all afternoon.

Tai Chi. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Sigma 60mm DN 'Art' lens. f2.8 @ 1/1250th, ISO 400
It is, after all, a prime lens - so there's no zooming required from the barrel. It is also an autofocus lens, so it focuses - um, automatically. The whole barrel does rotate smoothly (presumably for manual focusing), and fits snuggly in my hand in both portrait and landscape orientations. It focuses quickly, silently and accurately on the E-M1, so there's really nothing to complain about in terms of operation.

Just a side note however: when the lens is not attached to the camera it has a very audible 'rattle'. This is the case with all the Sigma DN lenses (the 19mm, 30mm and 60mm) and is due, apparently, to some floating lens elements? It's rather disconcerting, but disappears completely once the lens is attached to the camera and is in use.

Fan Dance. Olympus OM-D E-M1 and 60mm Sigma DN lens. f2.8 @ 1/1250th, ISO 400
All of the images from this post were taken with the Sigma 60mm DN 'Art' lens at f2.8 - it's widest aperture, and all are tack sharp. Wide open this lens is a fantastic performer and can be used at f2.8 without any concerns over sharpness. Many will argue that f2.8 isn't actually that 'fast', especially when you factor in the smaller sensor size. The effective depth of field is equivalent to f5.6 on a full frame sensor, and about f4 with APS-C.

Of course sensor size is only part of the depth-of-field equation. Just look at the earlier Chinese New Year image to see the bokeh that you can achieve with this lens at f2.8 when you have decent subject to background separation. Would I prefer the lens to be f1.8 or faster? Of course. But f2.8 at 60mm (120mm equivalent for full frame) is a lot faster than any other lens I've got in that focal range, and the extra depth of field gained from the micro four thirds sensor helps with the excellent sharpness you can achieve at f2.8.

Fan Dance 2. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Sigma 60mm DN lens. f2.8 @ 1/1000th, ISO 400
The photos in this post were taken at the Chinese New Year Celebrations held at the Polytech where I work. It was the ideal event to use the short telephoto for candid portraits, and it performed flawlessly. Using face-detection autofocus the images were tack sharp every time, and the lens locked on quickly, quietly and precisely. Colours from the lens are true to life and edit beautifully in Lightroom. In the Tea Ceremony photo there was some obvious chromatic aberration (purple fringing) around the white cups, but these cleaned up nicely in post. None of the other images exhibited this, so I don't think it's a flaw in the lens as such - but it will be something to watch out for in areas of strong highlight contrast.

If you come across this lens and are considering getting a mid-telephoto prime for your micro four thirds system, I would say 'go for it'. Yes, the design may be a little 'funky', and the f2.8 aperture might not be the fastest kid on the block, but the IQ and sharpness from this lens is fantastic, all for an insanely cheap price. Sigma have been making some amazing lenses over the last few years, and this just happens to be one of them.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Dual Monitor Home Office setup

My dual monitor station at work
I've always thought of a dual monitor setup as a bit of an unnecessary luxury. Throughout my design and photography career I've mostly used iMacs - with the biggest monitor size I could afford. A few years ago I had a guy try to sell me a second monitor for the iMac I was using at the time. He extolled to me the virtues of a dual monitor setup, and why I should buy his Apple monitor off him (for a horrendous price at the time). But I really got the sense that he was just trying to sell me something he didn't want, so I wasn't sold (both literally and figuratively) on a second monitor for my iMac.

Well, that was then, and this - as they say - is now. Since I started working in my present job, I've used a dual monitor PC (Windows) setup. And I have to say that I love it! Why, oh why, did it take me so long to discover the virtues of a dual monitor working environment?

My 'small' 1320 x 900mm working space
Of course when I come home, I revert back to a single monitor work station. Not the end of the world, but I definitely miss the dual monitor setup at work. So, over the Christmas holiday period, I decided to do something about it.

My son Joshua built his own gaming PC over the holidays, and wanted a computer desk to set it up on in his bedroom. The desk I was using in my 'office' (a small sun-room attached to the side of our house) was perfect for his requirements, so I said he could have it if he helped me install a purpose-built desk in my office that could accommodate two monitors.

Phase one in a dual monitor workspace, however, was getting another monitor! Fortunately I had a birthday (my 50th) just prior to Christmas. So I let it be known to the family that I'd like a new monitor to use with my exisiting Asus 20". Joshua and I had a look on-line at what was available in my price range and size, and in the end we opted for an AOC 21.5" i2280SW. At 1920x1080px it has a higher resolution than my Asus (at 1600x900px), but the Asus is a chunkier monitor, so when you place them side by side the difference in minimal and the screens themselves line-up almost perfectly. Eventually I'd like to get a second, identical AOC. But this will do in the meantime.

The 'bracing' in place for the desk top
With a second monitor purchased, all I needed now was to design the desk, purchase the wood, and have it cut to size. I opted for 18mm MDF board, and has able to get it cut to size by a work colleague in the carpentry department of the Polytech.

The design was simple - just a 1320x750mm board with a hole in the center for the computer cords, and a beveled front edge. Some bracing to hold it all in place - and with the left over boards from the sheet of MDF I designed a cube to hold the laser printer and hard drives. Easy.

I don't consider myself a 'handy man' so I kept the design as simple as possible. It really is just a board that everything sits on top of. I didn't need draws or any other fancy compartments. I just needed enough space for two monitors, keyboard, mouse and graphics tablet. Something that would maximise the available space (wall-to-wall) and give me enough working distance for comfortable viewing.

My new Dual Monitor Office space at home.
I'm thrilled with the final result, and now have my own dual monitor setup at home. My new AOC 21.5" is my main monitor on the left - where I do all the designing and Photoshop/Lightroom editing. The Asus monitor on the right is for any other documents I need open to support what I'm doing with the design and editing process. This can be anything from a full size image in Lightroom (see the first image of this blog), to a word document, web page or emails. Windows can be dragged from one monitor to the other at will, and re-size automatically according to each screens optimal resolution.

If you are a photographer, designer, or heavy multi-tasker on your computer - and you've never experienced a dual monitor setup - than I would strongly suggest you try it for yourself somehow. Find someone who has a dual monitor setup and get them to show you how it works (it's very easy). I can almost guarantee that once you try a dual monitor workstation, you'll never want to go back to working on a single monitor system again.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

50 Best Nat Geo Photos Exhibition

Exhibition Advertising at Canterbury Museum, Christchurch NZ
Living as I do in a small rural town, I don't get out much. I certainly don't get to as many international exhibitions as I would like. We do, however, go to Christchurch a few times a year to see family, and this will occasionally coincide with an exhibition or show worth seeing.

Such was the case on our last visit in early February 2018, when National Geographic's "50 Greatest Photographs" just happened to be on at the Canterbury Museum. I couldn't possibly pass up the chance to see some of my favourite images 'in the flesh'. We only had an hour before heading back to the West Coast, but I was not going to miss the opportunity to see 50 of National Geographic's most iconic images.

Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl"
Of course the most famous of them all is Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" which took pride of place at the entrance to the exhibition. It's such a simple, yet iconic portrait and it was amazing to see it printed large (about 1.5m tall) and back-lit in the darkened gallery space.

The one feature that everyone mentions in relation to the portrait are her piercing eyes. These were made even more piercing with the use of back-lighting. They practically glowed, and are so incredibly sharp (as they should be).

Steve McCurry and National Geographic are inextricably linked through this portrait - it's his modern 'Mona Lisa' - the image he will forever be known for. But, just like DaVinci, Steve McCurry has a larger body of work just as exceptional as the Afghan Girl portrait. Fortunately, other images of his were also represented in the exhibition (three in total if I counted correctly), making him the most represented National geographic photographer in the exhibition. Another of his images also happened to be my favourite in the entire show...

Steve McCurry - "Burning Oil Fields"
McCurry described his image "Burning Oil Fields" as like being in hell. Camels and other animals escaped across the Kuwait Desert through oil fields that had been set alight by retreating Iraquis - poisoning the land and the air. It's another powerful image, but for such different reasons from the "Afghan Girl" portrait.

Nick Nichols - "Jane Goodall and Jou Jou the Chimpanzee"
Another iconic image (in a room full of them), was Nick Nichols' photo of Jane Goodall's tender interaction with Jou Jou the Chimpanzee. As you can see in the shot above, many of the photos had the sequence of images taken down the side so you could get an understanding of the photographer's working of the scene that lead to the 'one' great image. The 'decisive moment' as Henri Cartier-Bresson described it. These sequences, together with the story behind the image in the photographer's own words, gave fantastic context to all the photos in the exhibition and helped bring them to life. Yes, images can, and should, be able to speak for themselves. But some background information can also be important, especially with the National Geographic's photojournalistic style where the one image itself is often part of a larger story.

Visitors to the exhibition - Canterbury Museum.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, we only had an hour to go around the whole exhibition. That wasn't really enough time to take it all in  - I could have spent three hours reading the captions, watching the videos and soaking the images in. We were there mid-afternoon on a school day, and there were still a lot of people enjoying the exhibition. I suspect because of the subject matter and the strong brand that National Geographic has, this has been an incredibly successful show that has toured all over the world. It also helps that it was free entry - although I certainly would have paid to see the exhibition.

Mitsuaki Iwago - "Brutal Fight"
The exhibition runs until February 25th 2018 at the Canterbury Museum, and is well worth a look if you are a lover of images, stories, photojournalism or photography. Basically this exhibition has something for everyone! And it's free entry! So what are you waiting for people. Go. Now...

Friday, 5 January 2018

Landscapes with the Hoya ND400

At the end of 2017 I began to play around with filters for my landscape photography. I've always been a Cokin square filter user (both the A and P styles), and so I picked up some super cheap (i.e plastic) neutral density (ND) filters to see if this was something I could/should use on a regular basis (see this post).

An ND filter is basically a 'darkening' filter. It places a dark - hopefully 'neutral' - colour over the lens which shuts out a lot of the light reaching the sensor, giving a longer shutter speed. The amount of light blocked depends on the strength of filter used, anywhere from 2 shutter stops up to 10 stops of light! Lee Filters have what they call their 'Little and Big Stopper' - cutting out 6 or 10 stops of light respectively. Many other filter companies have followed suit, offering a variety of square ND filters, made from high quality resin up to photo grade high quality glass. These are a great choice if you have already bought into the whole square filter eco-system, but can be very expensive (over $200NZ each for the Little or Big Stopper).

With Christmas coming, I was starting to get asked by my family what I would like from Santa? 😉 I decided that I would like to get a 'serious' ND filter to replace the plastic filters I had previously been using that were degrading my image and leaving a strong colour cast (see previous post). Asking for a $200NZ+ filter was probably a bit too much for our Christmas budget, so I decided to ask instead for a screw-in ND filter that would fit both my zoom lens (that share a 52mm filter thread). I was thrilled on Christmas morning when I opened a present to find a brand new Hoya ND400 52mm filter. Yay!

I've been a huge Hoya filter fan since I started in photography. Most of my protective UV filters are Hoya's, and I have always found their quality vs price point to be excellent. The ND400 is an 8 stop light-loss filter (actually 8 & 2/3rds to be exact) - so sits between the 6 and 10 stop Lee Filters. And while many photographers prefer the square filters for their versatility, I figured that if I was choosing to use an 8-stop ND filter in conjunction with a Cokin polariser, then having the ND screwed on to the front of the lens would free the filter holder up for other filters? Yesterday (Jan 4th), I got to put this to the test.

10 Mile Creek. Straight shot with no ND filter or Polariser. f5.6 @ 1/50th sec, ISO 200
We've been blessed with an amazing summer here on the West Coast this year. Sunny, hot, bright and clear days - beautiful for sunrise and sunset, not so great in the middle of the day. Fortunately this day was bright and warm - but overcast. There was still a lot of light, but it was soft. Ideal for forest and water photography - with an ND filter. I headed out to a walk I had been wanting to get back to for a while (it's an easy walk with a few places I knew I could get use to get down to the river). This first shot is straight out of camera, using the 12-50mm EZ lens. At 1/50th the movement in the water is quite distinctive, and there is quite a lot of light reflection in the water, even on an overcast day.

10 Mile Creek. With Hoya ND400 Filter. f8, @ 5 seconds. ISO 200
 With the addition of the Hoya ND400 filter, the 1/50th shutter speed has become 5 seconds (with a decrease in the aperture to f8). Now we get that classic 'smokey water' look that happens when you slow the shutter speed down with a neutral density filter. Although the first image might be more 'true' that what our eyes see when we are at the river, the second, slower shot actually seems to capture the sense of flowing water better. The image with the ND filter portrays movement of water over time and makes it seem more 'real', even though it never actually looks like this in reality.

10 Mile Creek. With Hoya ND400 and Cokin 'A' Polariser. f8 @ 15 seconds. ISO 200
With the addition of a polariser, we now not only see more of the riverbed itself (because the polariser cuts out the reflections on the water), but the green colours 'pop' - and the shutter speed has decreased 3 more stops to 15 seconds.

10 Mile Creek 2. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ lens. F5.6 @ 1/125th. ISO 200
10 Mile Creek 2. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm lens + Cokin 'A' Polariser. f5.6 @ 1/30th. ISO 200 
10 Mile Creek 2. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-50mm lens + Cokin Polariser & Hoya ND400. f8 @ 10 seconds. ISO 200
The three images above tell the same story. The first is straight out of camera and again is a fairly direct representation of the scene in front of the camera. The second adds a polariser, cutting out the reflections in the water and some of the glare on the rocks - making the colours more intense. While the third and final image adds the ND400, dropping the shutter speed to 10 seconds, blurring the water, and intensifying the colours even more. This 'may' have introduced a slight green cast to the image from the ND filter - or it could just be a result of the green light building up more over the long exposure? I'll have to do some more shooting with the ND in different lighting conditions to make any further conclusions on the introduction of colour casts.

10 Mile Creek 3. Cokin 'A' Polariser & Hoya ND400. f8 @ 5 seconds. ISO 200
Using the Hoya ND400 was a lot of fun, and I loved the final images it produced. The verdict is still out on whether it produces a colour cast to the images - but even if it does, I'm sure it's pretty easy to fix in Lightroom if you shoot RAW (and you should).

When used in conjunction with a polarizer on streams, riverbeds and waterfalls, the final results with the ND400 straight out of camera is like night and day! I had to do minimal work in Lightroom (some shadow and highlight recovery) because everything is pretty much achieved in-camera with the filters. It's taken me a very long time to get a decent ND filter for my landscape photography (over 30 years!) and I honestly don't know why it's taken so long? But now that I have the Hoya ND400 in my bag, beautiful long-exposure images are finally in my repertoire.   

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.7 G - initial thoughts

In my last post I hinted at the end that Santa had been very good to me in 2017. I've been wanting to complete my micro four thirds kit with the two missing pieces (for me) of the puzzle; a decent flashgun and a fast 50 prime lens. Mrs Clause has been listening (thanks honey), and now I finally have both - although the lens that is the subject of this post was actually a present to myself 😉

Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.7 G next to the excellent Canon 50mm f1.8 STM.
In the last few months of 2017 I shot a wedding, several portraits for work and a food assignment - all with my Canon 40D and the 50mm f1.8 (exclusively for the portraits and food photography). I enjoyed using the 40D with 50mm - it's a great piece of kit. But, having said that, I only used it because I didn't have the equivalent set-up with my E-M1.

For the wedding, I didn't have a flash - or a fast portrait lens, so I went with the Canon 40D (and borrowed a friends flash). For the portraits and food, again, I was missing that fast prime/portrait lens. On the 40D, the 50mm f1.8 has an equivalent field of view of an 80mm medium telephoto lens, ideal for portraits. Although I do often think it's just a little too 'tight' for some of my uses at 80mm?

Panny 25mm f1.7 G on the OM-D E-M1. A very nice combo.
I've had a hankering for a fast 50mm to go with my Olympus for a while - as a general purpose prime and occasional portrait lens. At 25mm, the Panasonic is bang on the 50mm field of view for micro four thirds (25mm x2 = 50mm), and at f1.7 is almost as fast as it gets. Olympus have their own 25mm's - an f1.8 that is about $200NZ more expensive than the Panasonic, and an f1.2 that is stupid, crazy expensive because its - f1.2 (and part of their 'Pro' line). For my budget the only consideration would be the f1.8. Yeah, OK, the Oly f1.8 is probably 'better' made, with a little more metal to it, but is it going to be $200 better in image quality? I think not.

At $255.00NZ leading up to Christmas with a Panasonic promotion, I just couldn't say no. But then there was the small matter of actually paying for the lens (just a minor inconvenience). With the flashgun problem solved as a Christmas present (more about that in a later post), my OM-D E-M1 kit was almost complete. So I decided to bite the bullet, and sell my Canon 40D to get the required funds to purchase the Pannny 25mm lens. A week later, with the Canon sold, the deal was done and the Panasonic arrived between Christmas and New Year (overnight from Photo & Video in Merivale, Christchurch - thanks Greg).

Fits the E-M1 like a glove. Sleek, black and gorgeous!
With the E-M1 body, 3 batteries, Olympus 12-50mm EZ lens, Panasonic 45-200mm, Panasonic 25mm f1.7, Sigma 60mm F2.8 DN (more on that later as well), and Godox TT350'O' flashgun - I now have an Olympus mirrorless kit to take on any challenge.

Initial impressions on the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 G are positive. It's a very 'handsome' lens when attached to the E-M1, and the size and weight are perfect. It's a little thinner compared to the Canon 50mm f1.8 STM, but has about the same heft in the hand (both are plastic with metal lens barrels). It's quick and quiet in operation, and the focusing barrel (which makes up almost the entire body), is silky smooth. But looks alone don't make a lens -right!? To see how it would perform as a day-to-day walk-around lens, I took it with me on a family outing to Punakaiki - as my only lens!

Punakaiki Rocks. OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic 25mm f1.7G lens. f4 @ 1/1000th. ISO 200
Many people swear by the 50mm 'standard' prime as an ideal walk-around everyday lens. I get a little nervous at the prospect of carrying a prime as my go-to kit, even though I know it's really only psychological. I've done my own tests before to see how much 'zooming with the feet' is required for a 50mm to cover the field of view of the 35 to 70mm zoom (see the post here). It was literally a case of 5 steps back, or two steps forward. And I have to say, I happily shot all afternoon with the Panny 25mm without once wishing I had another lens with me.

Pancake Rocks beach. OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.7 G lens. f4 @ 1/2000th sec. ISO 200.
There is an old saying that you 'Cut your cloth accordingly'. That's what you have to do if you are using a 50mm prime lens - cut your cloth accordingly. No, it's not an ultra-wide, so don't go looking for ultra-wide images. And no, it's not a telephoto - so don't go looking for telephoto images either. It can be used for landscapes (see the images above), and it can give the impression of a short telephoto for portraiture if you get in reasonably close to the subject and use the f1.7 aperture to blur the background. But every lens has its uses, and its limitations - and I'd rather carry a 50mm field of view with me than just an ultra-wide or just a telephoto - both of which would be more limiting than the 50mm.

Limpets on the Rocks. OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic 25mm f1.7 G lens. f4 @ 1/320th sec. ISO 200
One of the other great features of the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 is its close-focusing capabilities. At just 25cm for the closest focusing distance, you can achieve some shots approaching macro territory. And as with macro lenses, the closest you focus, the shallower the depth of field becomes - so make sure that the aperture is closed down enough for a decent depth of field. At f4 (f8 equivalent in terms of depth of field on a full frame sensor), the bottom Limpet that I focused on is sharp in the center, and starting to blur slightly along the outer edges. The Limpet itself is probably about 3cm in length - so that's not a lot of depth of field!

Initial impressions of the Panasonic Lumix 25mm f1.7 G are very positive. I want to do some more shooting wide-open at f1.7 - to see what I think about its portrait capabilities. But I'm already very happy with my post-Christmas purchase.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Merry Christmas 2017 - & Happy New 2018!

Christmas has been and gone for another year, and a new year is just around the corner. But it's not here quite yet, so I figure I can sneak in a Christmas post just before 2017 ticks over to 2018!?

Christmas Angel. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.4 @ 1/3rd sec, ISO 200.
Every year, a week out from Christmas, Greymouth holds a Christmas Tree Festival. Local businesses sponsor a tree and decorate it, and then the public give a gold coin donation to come and have a look at all the trees decorated - and to vote on their favourite. It's a local fundraiser and a very popular event. It's also an excuse every year to get the camera out and have a 'play'.

Christmas Light Painting. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f10 @ 1sec, ISO 200.
A very dark room, with very brightly lit trees, is just crying out for some long exposure experimentation. Last year I concentrated on shooting out-of-focus lights (see the post here), whereas this year I decided to go for long(ish) exposures and camera/lens movement. With the Christmas Angel I zoomed the lens out while taking the exposure. For Christmas Light Painting I simply used a 1 second exposure and moved the camera while taking the shot. Both simple, yet effective techniques that I don't do all that often.

Blue Icicle. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens in 'macro'. f6 @1/100th, ISO 640
I don't just experiment with long exposures. I also try to shoot some of the lights and decorations as they appear. The macro function on the 12-50mm EZ Zuiko lens is great for this. It allows me to get some very detailed shots - hand-held - with the aid of the amazing IBIS (in built image stabilization) that Olympus is famous for. Even at f6, ISO 640 was giving me a hand-holdable 100th of a second exposure time. Even so, the RAW file was quite dark when I opened it in Light Room. But a quick move to the left of the shadow slider and a fantastic amount of detail appeared in the shadows. And ISO 640 is pretty clean on the E-M1, so no noise reduction was necessary.

Christmas Bell. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ in 'macro'. f6 @ 1/20th sec, ISO 3200 
This ornate Christmas bell also caught my eye, but it was in a very dark corner of the display. I had to go to ISO 3200 to get this image, and even then it was only giving me 1/20th of a second shutter speed! But it's pin sharp (where it should be at the front edge of the bell), thanks again to Olympus's incredible IBIS technology. Image stabilization isn't a cure-all for everything, and is certainly not an excuse for sloppy camera technique. But when you need it, in situations like this bell in low-light, it can be a miracle worker! Hand-holding a camera in low-light, with a 100mm equivalent focal length lens, and shooting pin-sharp images at 1/20th of a second was practically impossible in the film days. IBIS technology not only makes it possible - it almost makes it easy!

Christmas Town. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ. f7.1 @ 1/10th sec, ISO 3200
In every town and city up and down the country (and indeed in any country where Christmas is celebrated), decorating your home with Christmas lights is a much loved tradition. And some people go all-out! As well as going to the Christmas Tree Festival, we also drove around to check out some of the more spectacular home displays.

Christmas House. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ. f5.9 @ 1/4 sec, ISO 3200 
Here's another great example of Olympus's superior image stabilization in action. At 1/4 of a second, hand-held, everything is still nice and sharp. The E-M1 has 5 axis image stabilisation, while the new E-M1 Mk2 has an even better IBIS system. Apparently people are hand-holding for anywhere up to 10 seconds and still getting sharp images! That's just plain crazy talk!!!

Christmas House ultimate winner. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200 
Our final stop for the night was the truly impressive 2017 Christmas House winner. There was a lot of light to shoot by, but even so I was still at ISO 3200. The RAW file needed to be opened up in the shadows to bring out some of the light, and in doing so, there was definitely some noise at ISO 3200. But dialing in some noise reduction in Light Room cleaned everything up very nicely, and I'm very happy with the final images at high ISO's from the E-M1.

Ho Ho Ho! OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200
Boosting shadows and lowering highlights has given a slight HDR quality to some of the images - especially after adding a little noise reduction and sharpening. I like the effect, since it looks very similar to what my eyes were seeing at the time. Our eyes can take all the detail in, our sensors can't (without a little help later on in software). It's a balancing act to get enough detail in the highlight so that they aren't too burnt out, but still look like points of light - and enough detail in the shadows so you can see what's there, but it still gives a sense of depth and darkness. As much as people worry about dynamic range and noise in the smaller micro four third sensors, I think the E-M1 pretty much nails it!

Santa Clause. OM-D E-M1 with 12-50mm EZ lens. f5.6 @ 1/15th sec. ISO 3200
Would a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mk3 give a 'cleaner' file at ISO 3200? Of course it would. But so what? It would have also been a lot heavier to lug around for the evening - and I may not even have bothered? Am I unhappy with the files from the E-M1? Absolutely not! In fact, I'm thrilled with them. I've owned a lot of DSLR's in my time, both full frame and cropped sensor (admittedly from a few years ago), and I wouldn't have been comfortable going past ISO 800 with any of them. The E-M1 (and E-M5 MkII I had previously) is the first camera I'd happily shoot at ISO 3200 if I needed to. The results above show why.

I hope that Christmas 2017 was good to you, and I pray that 2018 will be even better! Father Christmas was good to me this year and I managed to get quite a few photographic goodies that I will be testing, using, and blogging about very soon! I also turned 50 at the end of 2017, and my family surprised me with a new monitor for my computer! So I will also be writing about my new office space and using a dual monitor set-up at home. Looks like 2018 is getting off to a good start already! :-)

Friday, 22 December 2017

Food Photography Assignment

Let me just say right off the bat that I'm not a food photography specialist. I don't really know the first thing about 'styling' a food shoot, and don't have a studio with a wall of lights or specialist equipment. I'm just a guy, with a camera, and 25+ years experience of shooting a variety of subjects.

Coconut Pumpkin Soup with Prawn Wonton. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.5, 1/200th, ISO 200
Recently, I was asked by the marketing department at Tai Poutini Polytechnic (where I work) to photograph the Tutoro Restaurant's evening service. The Tutoro is the polytech's student restaurant, and every year the chef trainees and food & beverage service students team up to run a night service open to the public. They plan, prepare, cook and serve a three course meal to those lucky enough to book a table for a night of gastronomic delight!

Waldorf with a Twist. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM; @f2.8, 1/60th, ISO 400
The brief was simple - turn up and take photos of the food once prepared - and some of the action in the kitchen. Images that can be used later on for promotional and marketing purposes, and as teaching aids for the course tutors. Sounds easy enough. But the challenge comes with trying to achieve all of this in a working kitchen, in the middle of a real service. I had a job to do - but more importantly so did they - with paying customers. So it was important that I move fast and not get in the way, but still come away with great food images!

Tai Poutini Tartlet. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 800
I knew I was going to want to get in fairly close, use a fast lens, and create as much shallow depth of field (background blur - bokeh) as I could. As such, my newly acquired Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens was going to be perfect for the job. Attached to the 40D it gives an equivalent fov (field of view) as a 80mm short-telephoto does on a full frame camera. And the fast f1.8 aperture - even stopped down one stop to f2.8 for a touch more sharpness, was going to give me just enough light to hand-hold the camera and work quickly.

Seared Salmon Fillet. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 400
The general rule for achieving a 'sharp' image is to not use a shutter speed below the lenses focal length. With the 50mm Canon prime, this means not going below 1/50th of a second. In the artificial lights of a commecial kitchen, in the evening, at f2.8, I was there or there abouts with the shutter speed. Hovering around 1/50th and occasionally getting up into the dizzying heights of 1/100th of a second. To help with my 'keeper' rate, I shot in 'continuos low' drive mode so I could shoot a short 'burst' of shots. When you do this in low light, it's more likely that at least one of them will be in sharp focus.

Farm Raised Lamb. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 640
I also set the camera in auto ISO - to range between 400 and 800. With the 40D, ISO 800 is the top number that the auto ISO will go up to, while its 'default' is apparently ISO 400. I don't use auto ISO all that regularly - preferring instead to choose the lowest ISO I can get away with. But inside, at night, under artifical lights, I was always going to have to ramp up the ISO anyway - so why not let the camera take care of it for me? One less thing to have to worry about - right?

So how is the noise at ISO 800 I hear you ask....  and it's a good question. Noise is certainly apparent at ISO 800 - and can be quite obvious in the shadows if the image is underexposed. The 40D is, after all, a 10 year old camera! But if you get your exposure right then noise isn't a major problem, and can be controlled nicely even with the basic noise controls available in Lightroom.

BTW - the Farm Raised Lamb was what I ordered at the end of the night when I was very knidly offered a meal. And it was amazing! A Rack of Lamb served with rosemary polenta, cauliflower puree and seared asparagus. Yummmm! Delicious.

Seasoning Asparagus. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 640
I wasn't just there for food shots though. I took a lot of photos of the students themselves preparing, cooking and serving the meals. I obviously can't show these on my blog since I don't have model releases etc - but the above image is one of my favourites of the evening and gives some indication that it was truly a working kitchen in full service mode. I now also know where the saying "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" comes from!  I've never sweated while taking photos so much in my life!

Fungi O'Bean. Canon 40D with 50mm f1.8 STM lens; @f2.8, 1/50th, ISO 500
Clafoutis. f2.8, 1/100th, ISO 400
As I said at the beginning of this post - I'm no Food Photography expert (far from it). But I did know the 'look' that I wanted to go for - and the steps I needed to take to get there. I had to work fast, stay out of the way, but get close in to get the shots - all in a very hot, frenetic, working kitchen environment. So yes - I'm very please with the images of the food that I was able to take with my old Canon 40D and 50mm STM Prime lens.

Panna Cotta. f2.8, 1/60th, ISO 400
The Canon STM f1.8 is a joy to use. Fast focusing, accurate, quiet and super sharp - especially stopped down to f2.8. It's because of this lens alone that I use the 40D as much as I do. A 'fast' 50mm is a lens that is missing from my micro four thirds arsenal at the moment - but this is something I hope to rectify early in the new year.. I've got my eye on the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 - the micro four thirds version of the Canon nifty fifty. The Olympus 25mm f1.8 is also a stellar lens, but just that bit more expensive.

NZ Cheese Selection. f2.8, 1/100th, ISO 400
Overall I'm very happy with the food images I captured on the evening.  Boosting the ISO, using a fast prime and shooting RAW gave me the flexability I needed to take half-decent food shots in less than ideal conditions. Perhaps more importantly - the polytech cooking tutors were also very happy with the results. Not bad for 10 year old kit and a cheap prime lens.