Friday, 8 February 2019

The new Olympus OM-D E-M1X - my thoughts.

In case you have been living under a rock for the last few months, the big buzz around the micro four thirds community (as at January 2019) has been the release of Olympus’s newest camera, the E-M1X.

It seems that everyone has a new opinion about this new camera – and the future it heralds (or destroys) for micro four thirds as a system. Most of the Olympus faithful have embraced this new addition to the family with open arms (not really surprisingly), although there has been the occasional grumble. Most of the raised eyebrows have been over one issue – its size (and therefore weight) for a micro four thirds camera. With its built-in vertical grip housing two batteries, the E-M1X looks remarkably like a Canon EOS 1DX ‘mini-me’. The comparison is only heightened with the use of the 1X moniker.

So is it too big for a micro four thirds camera? Is the comparison with the Canon EOS 1DX fair? And am I excited about the new E-M1X?

First things first; is it too big for a micro four thirds camera? At almost 147mm high and 144mm wide, and with a weight of just 3 grams shy of 1kg (with batteries and an SD card included), I guess you could argue that it’s a tad big for a ‘micro’ system. But in reality, it all depends on how you like your cameras. I have argued for a very long time that Olympus’s micro four thirds offerings have actually been too small, even for someone like me with relatively small hands. I find the Pen cameras especially difficult to use comfortably, while I always attach a battery grip to my E-M cameras. In fact, I wouldn’t buy a micro four thirds camera to use as my main body if I couldn’t attach a battery grip. It has nothing to do with battery life, and all to do with ergonomics. So for me – no, the E-M1X isn’t ‘too big’ for a camera, micro four thirds or otherwise.

Camera comparison - from camerasize.com
In terms of the weight issue, let’s also put that into perspective. If we continue the Canon EOS 1DX comparison, the Olympus is 35% lighter than the 1.5kg Canon body. But things get even more enlightening when we start adding lenses. The Olympus E-M1X is being marketed as an ideal sports and wildlife camera (more on that later). What lenses do sports and wildlife photographers use most often? That’s right – super telephoto. At the moment, the longest lens Olympus has for the E-M1X is the 300mm f4 Pro (600mm f4 full-frame equivalent field of view). This will change in 2020 with the announcement recently of a 150-400mm f4.5 lens with built in 1.25x teleconverter (to increase the field of view out to an incredible 1000mm)! But that’s for the future. For now, we have the 300mm f4 Pro.
Cameras with lenses - from camerasize.com

If we compare the Olympus with the 300mm f4 Pro, with the Canon equivalent 600mm f4 L lens, the weight/size/cost argument becomes blatantly obvious in favor of micro four thirds. The Canon 1DX II with Canon 600mm f4 L lens attached is a whopping 5.4kgs, and costs an equally eye-watering $27,500NZ (as of 8.02.2019) as a total package! Ouch! The Olympus E-M1X, in comparison, has a total weight of 2.4kgs – less than half that of the Canon equivalent – and costs $8,800NZ in total. And do we really need to mention the size advantage anymore? The Olympus combo is actually hand-holdable – comfortably – especially with Olympus’s world-leading ibis (in body image stabilization). Try hand-holding the Canon combo for half an hour and getting sharp shots with it!

Maybe we should be comparing Apples with Apples instead? Ok, let’s look at Panasonic – the other micro four thirds partner. The Panasonic GH5 – with battery grip – weighs slightly more than the E-M1X, at 1.04kgs, yet nobody complains about the size and weight of the GH5. Ok, you can shave that down to 725 grams if you take the battery grip off. But if I had the GH5, I guarantee that the battery grip would be attached 99.9% of the time (I’m not a video guy).

So what about the Canon EOS 1DX comparison? Is it a fair comparison to make in terms of matching the two cameras spec for spec? Maybe. Maybe not. But I don’t really think that’s the point of the E-M1X. Much like the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras were released for Nikon shooters looking to go mirrorless, the Olympus E-M1X was released for the Olympus faithful – not necessarily to tempt Canon (or Nikon) users away from their own systems. Despite what many camera reviewers would have you believe, there is a large section of professional photographers using Olympus micro four thirds as their main camera system. The E-M1X is the camera for them. When they get these cameras in their hands, attach the 300mm f4 Pro, and actually start using them at sports events and for shooting wildlife, that’s when people using other systems will become curious. And on that note – please trust me – the smaller sensor on the E-M1X is NOT an issue. The 20MP sensor is more than capable of producing clean images at higher ISO’s, and you CAN get blurry backgrounds using smaller sensors. Get over it people!

E-M1X with M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. Image: Olympus website.
Finally, am I excited about the new E-M1X? Does a bear you-know-what in the woods? Of course I am! I’m not a professional photographer, and I don’t shoot a lot of sports and/or wildlife. But in many, many ways, the E-M1X is the micro four thirds camera I’ve been waiting for since I got into the system. When I heard early on this it was likely to have a built-in vertical grip I wasn’t concerned or alarmed like many others – I was ecstatic!

I’m a landscape photographer (predominantly), and even for me, the E-M1X has many advantages that has me gagging to own the camera. Hand-held hi-res shot for one. When Olympus first introduced hi-res mode on the E-M5 MkII many people said ‘great, but if only it could be done hand-held’. Enter the E-M1X. The 20MP sensor, while not new, is certainly an upgrade to my E-M1’s 16MP, so I’ll take it. And for us landscape photographers, the new live ND filter simulation mode looks very exciting. To top it all off, its weather sealing is off the chart better than any other camera ever made, as is the ibis.

Yet in the end, what it all comes down to for us non-professionals is the bottom line – the cost. Alas, I feel that the E-M1X is a camera I will probably never own. At over $5,100NZ body only at time of release, it’s a camera I can neither afford, not justify affording. ‘Sigh’. And I thought the E-M1 MkII was expensive!?

Maybe, just maybe, in ten years’ time, when they are up to the E-M1X Mk3 or 4, I might find a used Mk1 that I can afford? Or maybe I’ll win the Lottery in the meantime (better buy a ticket then)? Lottery winning aside, the E-M1X is a camera that I will have to lust after from afar. And lust I will…

Monday, 28 January 2019

Waterfall photography at Coal Creek Falls

The beginning of the Coal Creek Falls walk in Runanga
I don't do a lot of waterfall photography, despite having a beautiful waterfall literally 10 minutes drive (and then a half hour walk) from my front door!

Coal Creek Falls is an impressive waterfall, situated in the small township of Runanga. It's a very easy walk, on a well maintained track, although a couple of sections of the walk are slightly steep - and if it's been raining a lot some sections can be rather muddy. But solid footwear and a little up-hill huffing and puffing will see you right.

The other well-known local waterfalls - Dorothy Falls and Carew Falls - are a little further away. About a 45 minute and an hours drive away respectively. I have photographed all three of them, but Coal Creek Falls happens to be my favourite of the three.

So why don't I shoot waterfalls more often? Well, I think there's two main reasons. First, it requires very overcast conditions to get the best out of an image - and I don't tend to shoot in overcast conditions. And second, to take a really good waterfall image requires some very specific gear. Gear I don't generally have. Namely, a high grade neutral density (ND) filter (more on that later).

Backlit Fern. E-M1 with 12-40mm Pro. 1/50th @ f2.8
Perhaps, if I'm honest, there's possibly one other reason why I have struggled shooting at Coal Creek Falls. I'm scared of it.

Seven years ago (in 2012), while on a photoshoot, I fell into the water at the falls and completely destroyed my Canon 5D and 24-105mm lens (see the post here). I was completely distraught, my home insurance didn't cover the cost of a new camera, and thus began the arduous task (for me) of searching for a new camera system. So Coal Creek Falls and I don't get on all that well. Especially since the best place to photograph them is, once again, out in the creek itself. Trust me when I say, those damn rocks are slippery!

Don't get me wrong, I have taken photos at the Coal Creek Walk often. I've just never really ever taken a good photo of the waterfall itself. But this year, I plan to change all that.

So far this year (just one month into it), I've gotten up early every Saturday morning to go out and take photos. For the first two weekends I've concentrated on medium format film with my Bronica ETRS. But last weekend (as I write this), I decided to shoot with my E-M1 and go to the Falls. A quick check on a weather app suggested that conditions would be favourable (overcast), so I was hopeful of getting my best shots ever from Coal Creek.

Tree Ferns. E-M1 with 12-40mm Pro. 1/50th @ f2.8
As mentioned, it's an easy half-hour walk through native forest to get to the falls, and there's plenty of opportunity to take some great images along the track. At certain times of the year it's a popular spot for fungi photography, as well as offering numerous flora and the occasional friendly bird. I've stopped to photograph something along the way numerous times and been joined by an inquisitive robin who will hop around very close by, unperturbed by human visitors.

Forest areas can be tricky to photograph in, since the interior lighting can be quite low. But if you look for shafts of light, and can isolate subjects and shoot wide open (at f2.8 or thereabouts), then you can get away with still shooting hand-held. Not that using a tripod isn't an option on such an easy walking track. I've set up a tripod many times and there's always plenty of room for other walkers to go around you so that you're not holding up traffic. There are also one or two places along the walk where it's safe to get away from the track and scramble down to the waters edge to take some images from the creek itself.

Macro lenses come into their own in woodland locations, even if the end-goal is a more traditional landscape waterfall shot. Densely wooded areas can feel quite overwhelming, so train yourself to pick out the small details among the vastness. A single fern frond or section of bush can often tell a more compelling story than trying to capture an entire grove of trees. To be honest, I don't actually own a macro lens (I may have to rectify that in the future), but find that I can often get 'close enough' using the 40mm end of my 12-40mm zoom lens.

Leaf Litter. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. 1/13th sec @ f2.8 (hand held). ISO 100
Zoomed right in at 40mm (80mm equivalent focal length on 35mm), and shooting wide open at f2.8, the shutter speed in the forest was still only 1/13th sec. Yes, I could have bumped up the ISO to 800 or so to increase the shutter speed - especially since I was hand-holding. But I wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible (even to the point of shooting in the extended Low ISO 100 setting on the E-M1), and I was fairly confident that the amazing ibis (in body image stabilization) of the Olympus would still give me an acceptably sharp hand-held shot at these speeds. I took three or four shots of the same image just to be sure, but I needn't of bothered - they were all sharp where I had focused (on the central leaf).

HDR Tree. E-M1 with 12-40mm f2.8. 1/25th @ f4
Another technique I tried out on the E-M1 this time around was the in-camera HDR. This is easy to access with a button press on the top left of the camera, but it's something I have rarely ever used.

Looking through the evf (electronic viewfinder) of the camera at certain scenes, I could tell that the dynamic range (range of light from dark to bright) was too great for the sensor to capture with just one image. In this scenario, taking several images with different exposures and blending them together later on in Photoshop will yield a single image that can capture all light in the scene (hence HDR - high dynamic range - photography). This has become a very popular (if not highly controversial) technique used by landscape photographers who routinely find themselves shooting scenes with a high dynamic range. There are other ways around this (using filters in certain parts of the scene to lower the contrast), but HDR photography has become so popular that it's being built right into the cameras themselves.

Traditionally, to do HDR means setting your camera on a tripod and taking several exposures of the same scene, at various exposures, so that when you 'blend' them together later on in software they all match up seamlessly. This, of course, facilitates using a tripod each and every time, and setting up the camera specifically to shoot several bracketed exposures. Quite a bit of faffing about.

With the in-camera HDR on the E-M1 (and other cameras), you can avoid all of this and hand-hold the camera as it shoots a series of exposures very quickly, and then blends them together in the camera. If you are shooting in RAW, two images will be saved on the card; the first RAW image you took, and the final camera-generated HDR Jpeg. The final result isn't perfect - the tree above still has some blocked-up shadows, and the contrast needs to be tweaked later on the computer. But the result is quite impressive given how dark the shadows were and how bright the highlights when I was capturing the scene. And all hand-held!

Fallen Log. Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. 1/13th @ f4.5. Polarising filter. ISO 200.
My end-goal on this excursion was to take the best image of the Coal Creek Falls that I had ever taken. To that end, I had worn my waders (gumboots here in NZ) so that I could walk into the creek for the best vantage points. This also meant that along the way, I was confident enough to go off the beaten track and explore some of the edges of the bank. The above image is one that I never would have taken if I had been wearing trainers and had stuck to the track.

Coal Creek Falls. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. 2.5secs @ f8. ISO 200. Variable ND
The above image is my second favourite image from the day. It's certainly one of the better ones I've taken of Coal Creek Falls, but on shooting it I came to two conclusions. First, it's really an evening location, and not a morning one. I had gone out on this particular morning because it was overcast conditions - ideal for minimising reflections in the water. However, by the time I got to the falls, the weather had brightened considerably, and the sun was up almost right on top of the waterfall. Damn. A polarising filter helped - but the glare from the sun was too much for it - as you can see above.

And second, a variable ND filter is practically useless, and don't buy one! They are a great idea in theory, and are basically two polarising filters sandwiched together. When you rotate them, they gradually decrease the amount of light going through the lens, and therefore lower the exposure. So good so far. But, when they are facing the light (as they were in this case), the more you rotate it the funkier it gets in terms of weird polarising shifts and blacked out areas of the image! When I rotated past around 3 seconds of filtration, the results were unusable. So it's back to the drawing board for ND filters.

Coal Creek Falls 2. OM-D E-M1 with Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 lens. 6 secs @ f5.6. ISO 200. Variable ND filter
This is my favourite shot of the morning - and yes, my favourite shot I've ever taken of Coal Creek Falls. But it's still not great. I've had to crop in a lot to get rid of those funky polarising effects, and done some fairly major post-processing work to get the image to where I like it. It's OK, but it's not amazing! And I know I can do much better.

Next time I'll go in the evening. Next time I won't use a variable ND filter (I'll use a dedicated slotted filter with my Cokin system instead). And next time I'll be able to shoot with a polarising filter as well, to minimise the reflection on the waters surface even more. I'm close this time - but no cigar.


Sunday, 19 August 2018

Olympus E-P3 Initial Review

Last post I discussed my purchase of the Olympus Pen E-P3 - ostensibly so I could use the 40-150mm f4/5.6 telephoto that came with it on my E-M1.

But I was also interested to see what the E-P3 would be like as a 'travel' camera. Something small and light, to use when I don't want/need to be carrying my E-M1 around with me. I was also keen to see how the Pen series had progressed - since I had owned the original E-P1, but had sold it for a number of reasons. Primarily because I had found it a bit sluggish and slow (and also a bit too 'fiddly' to use as my main camera).

Well, the E-P3 arrived this week (as I write this), and the weekend weather was looking good. I spent a night going over the camera functions and setting it up for my shooting style (enabling the Super Control Panel etc) and was ready to go on Saturday.

Brunner Bridge. E-P3 with 14-42mm II R. f5 @ 1/100th
I decided to chance my luck again and go back to the place I had tried to go for my first outing with the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro - The Brunner Mine Site. Last time I had to turn back due to intense early morning fog. This time I decided to learn from my previous visit, and go in the afternoon rather than the morning. This worked - kind of. There was definitely no fog, but there was no sun either! The valley was in complete shade, which was going to make for dull, dull photos. Aaarrgghhh!!!!

I was determined, however, to stay for an hour and take some photos. So I had to think 'outside' the box. Colour photos weren't going to look very interesting in flat, dull light - but what about black and white? And if black and white, then what about using the Grainy B&W Art Filter?

Fortunately this just happens to be my favorite of all the Art Filters built into the camera, and it's the one I had already 'pre-programmed' into the E-P3. So a quick rotation of the program wheel on top of the camera to the 'Art' mode, and bingo - Grainy B&W (Mode II) with the filmy-boarder look was set!

Historically I'm not one for using the Art Filters - in fact I don't even know why they are on the E-M1 and I may have even turned them all off. But, on the E-P3 I think they make a lot more sense. I guess I see the E-P3 as being more of a 'fun' point-and-shoot, where using pre-programmed Art Filters in Jpeg mode suits the style of the camera? And I have to say, seeing the grainy black and white image moving around on the rear lcd screen as I composed with the camera at arms length was a heck of a lot of fun. So different to my normal shooting style.

Brunner Mine Site. Olympus Pen E-P3 with 9mm Fisheye Bodycap lens. f8 @ 1/15th sec, ISO 200. 9mm
Things got a whole lot more 'funner' (is that a word?) when I place the 9mm Fisheye Bodycap lens on the E-P3 body. Gimmick lens, meet gimmick art filter. Now go and make some magic! I wrote about the 9mm Fisheye Bodycap lens in a previous blog here, and suggested that it was a fairly decent performer that shouldn't necessarily be written off as a gimmick. Still, I don't use it an awful lot, and with a fixed f8 aperture it is a fairly limited optic (no astro photography for this baby). But when you need to fit a lot into the scene like I did above, and when the use of an Art Filter means that absolute tack-sharp might not be so important, then the Fisheye Bodycap lens comes into its element.

Coke Bins, Brunner Mine. Olympus Pen E-P3, Grainy B&W II Filter, 9mm Bodycap lens. f8 @ 1/15th sec, ISO 200
With the Bodycap lens attached to the E-P3 it also makes for a small, low-profile, practically pocketable combination. Not that I would suggest using the Fisheye as the E-P3's constant and only lens choice. I'm actually considering re-visiting the Olympus 17mm f2.8 pancake lens as a companion for the Pen. Not that the 14-42mm f4/5.6 is a terrible lens - it isn't at all. But I just think that a pancake prime makes a lot of sense on such a small, compact body. And yes, the Pen E-P3 is a very small, very compact body.

Silver Fern, E-P3 with 12-42mm. F5.4 @ 1/60th, ISO 1600
Is it too small? I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes, it is. And I know that it's very much a subjective decision. The E-P3 is not the smallest Pen - the EPL series are smaller still. And some don't even have a grip attachment (the E-P3 does).

But for me, the Pen series are just a little on the 'too small' side of the scale. I'm not a fan of lcd-only viewing (I much prefer a built-in evf), since this encourages the hold-camera-out-in-front-with-both-arms style of shooting that is the least stable way to take photos imaginable! It's just as well Olympus cameras have incredible ibis (in-built image stabilisation).

The buttons on the back are also on the small side, and are a bit too close together - although the top plate has reasonable separation. I understand why this is - but again, it just hearkens back to the whole camera being just a bit too small. And I don't have large hands.

Fortunately, the touch-screen lcd screen helps to mitigate some of the small-button problems, and using the brilliant SCP (Super Control Panel) means that you won't have to access the menu structure too often. Not that I think there's a problem with the menu structure. Olympus have long been lambasted for their camera's menu's, but I actually find them very easy to navigate and quite logical. I don't use the touch screen for actually taking the photo (although you can), as I think this is even less stable of a shooting platform since you are now probably shooting one-handed. But what I do use the touch screen for is touch-to-focus. I can then steady the camera again with both hands while taking the photo with the traditional shutter button on the top of the camera.

Wheel stone. E-P3 with 9mm Bodycap Fisheye.
f8 @ 1/20th sec. ISO 200
Remember how I said at the beginning that I originally owned an E-P1 but sold it soon after for a number of reasons? Well, one of those reasons - perhaps the main reason - was that I found it too small. In the same way as I find the E-P3 too small.

I also thought the E-P1 was sluggish to autofocus, and a little too slow overall. Not so the E-P3. At its launch, Olympus claimed it used the fastest auto focus system in-the-world, of any system! Mmmm. Methinks the marketing team doth protest too much! But yes, it is quick. A lot quicker than the E-P1. In good light. With a strongly contrasted scene (it uses contrast detect auto focus). Within these parameters, it's nigh on instantaneous. Which is a marked improvement on the previous Pens. So kudos to Olympus there.

As stated earlier, I prefer to use a built-in EVF - which the Pen's lack, and have never been a big fan of using the rear lcd screen to compose the image. The SD card slots into the same chamber as the battery at the base of the camera - again not something I'm a big fan of. And my preferred shooting mode - Aperture priority, requires a two-step process (push function button and then rotate sub dial) to add any exposure compensation. Again, just a bit fiddly for my liking.

Brunner Bridge 2. Pen E-P3 with 9mm Bodycap lens. f8 @ 1/50th sec. ISO 200 
So I'll probably get rid of the E-P3 just like I did the E-P1 - right? Well not so fast. Despite all I've said above, I actually really enjoyed using the E-P3 this weekend. It was just plain fun! Despite the many 'weaknesses' I find inherent in the Pen system.

I do think it's too small - to use as my main camera. Which was what I was trying to do with the E-P1. It was the only camera I owned at the time, and as my only camera, it fell short of what I wanted in a camera. I wanted something a bit bigger (but not 1D bigger), I wanted something with an in-built evf, I wanted something that felt snappier to use, and I wanted something that felt at least somewhat SLRish. Enter the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk2 - and then the E-M1. As my main camera, they suit my shooting style and needs so much more than the Pen's do.

But... as a second, smaller, lighter, more compact travel camera - the Olympus Pen E-P3 is pretty hard to beat. The Panasonic Lumix GF and GX bodies come the closest. Which are, of course, also micro four thirds cameras.

With the Olympus E-M1 and the Pen E-P3, I have a comprehensive system. The E-M1 is my main man. My tackle anything, conquer all, 'serious' kit for anything I want to throw at it. Whereas the Pen E-P3 is my 'have fun', go light, point-and-shoot, travel recorder. A have-prime-will-travel type of kit that I'm really looking forward to taking away on holidays with me. I think it's going to record some very special family moments. And that alone makes the E-P3 worth keeping.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Anyone got a spare Pen? The Olympus E-P3.

My recent purchase of the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens for my E-M1 signals (to me at least), my commitment to the Olympus micro four thirds system. Especially when you consider that I sold every lens I had (plus some other camera gear) just to get it.

Fortunately I got an amazing deal on the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro (see last post), which means that there's some money left in the kitty. With the range of the 12-40mm, I've got 'most' bases covered. But, just occasionally, I like to have a little more telephoto reach. Not often, but every once in a while. I do like to have a telephoto zoom on-hand for just such occasions, but it also tends to be the lens that I  spend the least on. I've owned cheap Sigma's, Tamron's and manufacturer's versions in the 70 to 300mm f4/5.6 range and they've all been reasonable performers.

I've also owned Olympus's own version of this lens - the 40-150mm f4/5.6. It's a cheap, no frills (plastic mount) lens sold as a 'kit' with most of their consumer focused cameras like the Pens, and the OM-D E-M10. I owned mine when I had the E-M5 Mk2 and it was a surprisingly good lens. I did a review of the lens here and praised its sharpness up against 'L' series Canon glass!

So I decided to get another one to compliment my 12-40mm, and give me a 12 to 150mm (24 to 300mm) reach with the two lenses. No, the plastic bodied 40-150mm f4/5.6 isn't in the same league as the f2.8 Pro lens, but for the amount I'll end up using it, a couple of hundred dollars is really all I'm willing (or can afford) to spend on a telephoto lens. And as I've said almost ad-nauseam, it really is a very good performer.

Looking on Trademe (New Zealand's version of eBay), there were a couple for sale in the $200NZ range. But I thought I could do better than that. A trick many on-line auction buyers use when they want to but a lens, is to look for a cheap camera that might have a couple of lenses bundled with it. So instead of just searching for lenses, I started looking at the digital camera auctions. And bingo - there it was!

Someone was selling an Olympus Pen E-P3, with the 14-42mm and 45-150mm kit lenses, spare batteries, charger, SD card and camera bag - all must go - for $375NZ. I was already considering buying just the 40-150mm lens for $200NZ, so for another $175NZ I was getting a digital camera and extra lens!

A few quick questions to the seller confirmed that it was all in mint condition - hardly ever used (only 6000 shutter actuations), and I snapped it up using 'Buy Now'.

So now I'm not only getting the 40-150mm f4/5.6 lens that I wanted for the E-M1, but also an Olympus Pen E-P3 and a standard lens to keep on it as a perfect little walk-around everyday travel camera. I'm sure it will become our new family camera, and my wife will really enjoy using it (she currently takes a little Lumix point-and-shoot with her when she travels).

Olympus E-P3, front and rear views
I'm also looking forward to having a play with the E-P3. I owned one of the first Pens, the E-P1, but I didn't really enjoy the experience. It was too sluggish and slow for my liking, and I quickly sold it on and went back to a much more responsive DSLR. That was, however, over 10 years ago - and I haven't touched an Olympus Pen since.

I have kept up with their progress somewhat though, and it seems that Olympus got the Pen series 'right' with the E-P3. They worked very hard with the auto focus speed and accuracy on the Pen series, and by the E-P3 they were claiming it had the 'World's fastest AF System' of ANY camera system! I'm sure there would be some Canon and Nikon Pros who would laugh at this claim - and the autofocus tracking on micro four thirds still lags behind the top gear from the big two - but in day to day single point focus use, the E-P3 does look blazingly fast - and one heck of a lot faster than the E-P1 was!

It's also the first Pen to include a pop-up flash, and includes a removable grip for better ergonomics and handling. So basically, it fixes all of the things I disliked about the original E-P1.

What I did like about the original Pen, and all the Pens that have come after it, was the look of the camera. Damn it's a sexy camera! Especially in all-black. I know that some of the even smaller, paired-down Pens have been marketed squarely at women looking for a small, light, fashion-statement camera that they can slip into a large purse or small handbag. But the E-P line of top-tier Pens (E-P1, E-P2, E-P3 etc) have always been feature-rich, slightly bulkier, and designed specifically for the advanced photographer in mind. And once again - boy are they sexy!

So yes, I'm looking forward to my 'new' Pen E-P3 arriving soon. I think it will be an excellent addition to my micro-four-thirds system, and compliment the E-M1 perfectly. And if it doesn't? Well, there's always Trademe 😉

The Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro - my precious!

It's arrived - it's arrived - my precious - my precious (typing in my best Golem voice).

Just a couple of weeks after committing to sell all of my micro four thirds lenses to purchase the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro - it's in my hot little hands! I'm so excited (can you tell?) and thrilled that it's worked out even better than I imagined. How so?

I'm not going to lie - I wavered in the middle of the process for a few days. Since I already had the Panasonic 25mm f1.7, I briefly considered going to a three prime lens kit - getting the 17mm f1.8 and the 45mm f1.8 to go with it. There was even a couple of reasonably priced 17mm f1.8's come up for auction on-line, so I was sorely tempted.

But I watched a few more glowing video reviews on Youtube for the 12-40mm f2.8, took a few deep breaths, and stuck to my original plan. And then, what sold it in the end, was the amazing deal I eventually got for the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro!

With three of my lenses already sold, I still didn't have quite enough to by the lens new (from Hong Kong via a Trademe - a NZ internet auction site). There weren't any coming up second-hand for auction, so I decided to use social media to see what I could find. I belong to a couple of New Zealand Photography Buy, Sell & Trade Facebook groups. I placed a WTB (wanted to buy) advert without really expecting anything much, but the next day I received a reply.

Cobden Beach Tiphead. OM-D E-M1 with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. 1/800th @ f5.6, ISO 200
A photographer in Invercargill (lower South Island) had one that he didn't use very often (he's more of a macro shooter), and was considering selling it. Excellent condition, hardly use, etc, etc. Long story short, we struck a deal and he sold it to me that evening! I had just enough money from the sale of my lenses thus far, and so ended up saving about a third of what it would have cost me for a brand new one! Ironically, I later found out that with the money I paid him for his lens, he purchased one of the 17mm f1.8 lenses I had been considering on Trademe.

Coal River Heritage Park. E-M1 with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. 1/640th @ f3.5, ISO 200
The 12-40mm arrived two days later and I finally had my first Pro f2.8 lens for my Olympus micro four thirds system. As described, the lens is in immaculate condition, and is indeed a perfect match for the E-M1, especially with the grip attached. It looks beautiful, feels solid, and oozes quality. I couldn't be happier.

Greymouth Crane. E-M1 with 12-40mm Pro f2.8. 1/800th @ f4.5, ISO 200
But it gets even better.... 😀  As well as sending me the lens, I also received a book dedicated to using the OM-D E-M1 and a variable ND filter and a polarizing filter! All for free! That's probably $200NZ worth of free stuff, and I'm very grateful to the seller for his amazing generosity. It's great to know that there are still some generous-hearted people in the world, especially when you are the recipient of that generosity. I'm especially looking forward to giving the variable ND a try - I've never used one before, but always been curious to try them out. And now I can. Thanks Paul!

Drill Sculpture. E-M1 with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. 1/640th @ f4.5. ISO 200
All the photos in this post (except for the product photo) where taken on my first outing with the E-M1 and 12-40mm f2.8 Pro combination. It was unfortunately a disappointingly drab morning, and the location I had originally intended to photograph was covered in so much thick fog that I had to turn back. So instead I wandered around in the freezing cold and took a few 'snaps'. Not my best work, and all pretty dull, but at least I got out and started building up some muscle-memory with the gear.

Of course the lens performed as expected. The zoom ring is smooth, but with a certain amount of 'resistance'. This means there's no hint of zoom-creep, with no wobbles or looseness on the lens. Even the hood and cap feel reassuringly solid. The range is just about perfect, with 12mm about as wide as I like to shoot landscapes (24mm field of view in 35mm terms), and 40 (80mm on a full-frame DLSR) hitting the sweet spot for portraiture. I don't do a lot of portraiture now that I don't shoot weddings, although that might all be about to change with the birth of my first grandchild early next year (2019)!

Now that the 12-40mm is literally my only lens (I've finally sold all the others), I've decided I would like some sort of telephoto - just for the times when one might come in handy. The 40-150mm is the obvious choice - and no, not the f2.8 version (although there's no denying that would be sweet). An Olympus 40-150mm f4/5.6 is on its way to me as I write this. But that's not all - it comes with some other goodies. More on that next time....

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. The ultimate zoom lens for micro four thirds?

In my last post I waxed lyrical about my recent purchase of the Nikon D200 for tickling my DSLR-shooting fancy. Whenever I purchase any new (second hand) equipment, I get excited about the 'potential' other purchases that could be involved. This generally means lenses. And so I started downloading Nikon lens brochures and going giddy over the prospect of a 24-70mm f2.8 or 70-200mm f2.8 to really make the D200 shine.
Nikon's Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 Pro lens - sexy!

But then, suddenly, I had a rare moment of lucidity (hey, at least I admit it). As nice as the Nikon D200 is, I have an even better system that I really should be focusing my attention on.

I wrote in my last post that my 'main' kit is my Olympus OM-D E-M1. I've built it up into quite a comprehensive system, with zooms, primes, grips, extra batteries and external flashguns. But with my recent surgery, a rather damp winter, and focusing most of my attention on peripheral areas like film and DSLR's, the Olympus hasn't been getting a lot of love.

I'm still totally blown away with how amazingly good the OM-D E-M1 actually is. In many ways, it's more camera than I can handle, with features and controls that I will probably never ever use. As a stills photographer, I'm not really interested in its video capabilities (although I have used it for video), and the Art Filters also don't get used since I prefer to do effects myself later on in post. I've never played with Live Composite (although I would like to one day), or Silent Shutter (which again, might come in handy?). I have it set up very simply - almost like a film camera - and prefer to use single-shot, center focus point and recompose. My one concession to technology is the eye focus tracking when shooting portraits. Watching the focus point follow the subjects face as they move around the frame is just magical, and it's been consistently reliable with focus accuracy.

But.... (yes folks, there's always a but), what I've felt I've always lacked in my kit is a truly stellar lens - something similar to a Nikkor or Canon 24-70mm f2.8 professional lens. Truth be told, I've never owned the Canon or Nikon versions either - but I've always wanted to. I have owned a few Canon 'L' lenses, and without exception they were worth every penny (even second hand). So instead of dreaming about a Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 for my D200, why wasn't I dreaming about the equivalent lens for my Olympus E-M1? Why not indeed....

The title page from Olympus USA for the Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens
The 'ultimate' zoom to use as a walk-around, shoot anything, style of lens has to be the Olympus M. Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. It even says so on their website 😉

I've lusted after this lens since moving to micro four thirds. I've even shot with one - briefly - for an afternoon (see post here). That was the shoot that convinced me I wanted an E-M1 (I owned the E-M5 MkII), and of course I was also impressed with the IQ from the 12-40mm f2.8. When I eventually sold my E-M5 to get the E-M1, I didn't have a big enough budget to get the 12-40mm as well - ending up with the 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 instead. And as great as that lens is, it ain't no f2.8 Pro!

The construction of the 12-40mm f2.8 is astonishing. Equipped with a full metal body, the lens is fully sealed against dust and moisture, and is freeze-proof down to -10 degrees. It has one EDA lens, two Asperical lenses, one DSA lens, two ED lenses, two HR lenses and one HD lens (and no, please don't ask me what that all means) for 10 elements in 9 groups. It has a 7 bladed circular aperture ring, goes from f2.8 to f22, has a 62mm front filter thread, an MSC mechanism for smooth video, and Olympus's 'Zero' coating on the front element for extra dust, dirt and fingerprint resistance. This was Olympus's first professional zoom for the micro four thirds system, and as such, they threw everything they had at it!

It was released the same time the OM-D E-M1 was, as the perfect lens to pair with their first professional micro four thirds body. I guess you might even consider it to be the E-M1's 'kit' lens. And yes, that's very tongue-in-cheek, because no matter how you look at it, the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro is no kit lens.

But it is the perfect partner for the E-M1, in the same way that Canon and Nikon's 24-70mm f2.8 lenses are the perfect partner for their flagship DSLR's. At 12-40mm the Olympus has an equivalent focal range of a 24-80mm lens in full frame terms - and of course it has the constant f2.8 aperture.

Yes, we all know by now that all apertures are not created equal when it comes to creating a shallow depth-of-field. The sensor size will dictate a lenses ability to create that creamy background 'bokeh' - and a full-frame sensor is always going to give you the ability to create a shallower depth-of-field. But it's not impossible to create shallow depth of field at f2.8 on micro four thirds - and I'd rather have f2.8 at 40mm than the f5.6 I have at the moment with my other zoom. So I'm getting one - right?

Well actually yes, I am. I've decided to sell all the other lenses I own for micro four thirds - just to get the one lens: the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro. I've already sold a couple, and have a couple to go. Once they are all sold I'll have enough to buy a brand new 12-40mm lens direct from Hong Kong. It's a bit cheaper doing it that way (around $900NZ as opposed to $1300NZ from a camera store), and although I'd like to buy locally, the saving really can't be ignored. It's how I brought my 12-50mm EZ originally, and I've been very happy with it.

At some point in a photographer's career, when they start getting 'serious' about the hobby, they are told by some wise old sage to invest in glass. Camera bodies come, and camera bodies go (at an alarming rate), but good glass practically lasts forever. And can sometimes even go up in value. No photographer ever regretted buying pro-quality glass for their camera (although their bank balance may disagree).

Most reviews on the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens are positively glowing. Some even call it the best zoom lens they've ever used, on any system, period. That's impressive and exciting praise for perhaps the 'ultimate' lens for micro four thirds. I can't wait.....

Sunday, 22 July 2018

OMG - I brought a D200!

Ok, I'll admit it. I've got too many camera systems. Way too many.

For a start, I have a medium format Bronica ERTS 6x45 (with a standard and wide angle lens) for my 120 medium format film fix. As well as a Nikon F4 and F90 for my 35mm film hankerings. An IS-3000 Olympus 'Bridge' camera was a bit of a crazy purchase recently, and a Fujifilm Instax 210 Wide camera rounds out the film portion of my collection. That's quite a few film cameras.

The situation isn't much better when it comes to digital. Of course my main kit is my Olympus OM-D EM-1 micro four thirds with several lenses and accessories etc - but I also have a battered and bruised (but still working) Canon 50D with grip and several lenses, as well as a Nikon D70 that I hold on to for sentimental reasons (it was my first DSLR). So I don't need anymore cameras - right?

But who am I kidding? I established with myself a long time ago that when it comes to camera gear, it's never really about what I 'need', and much more about what I 'want'. And what I found that I 'wanted' was a fully featured 'pro' Nikon DSLR body to work in tandem with my F4 so I could swap lenses and shoot both film and digital at the same time. Why not...?

Enter the Nikon D200. A 13yr old (released in 2005), 10.2MP CCD sensor, 5fps, weather-sealed, magnesium alloy bodied, CF card shooting beast of a camera!

Many reading this in 2018 and beyond will more than likely be suffering from the 'but it's only's'. But it's only 10.2MP. But it only has one CF card slot. But it only has 11 focus points. But it's only 5fps. But it only shoots images (no video - and no live view!). But it's screen is only 230,000px. But it only shoots up to ISO1600 natively (and even then it's best not to go over 800ISO). But it's 13 years old!

I grant you every last one of those 'but it's only's', how could I not? They're all true.

BUT - in all honesty, do ANY of the points mentioned above stop this from being a drop-dead amazing image making machine? No, people - no, they do not. I don't know how many times I've written on this blog that I believe 10MP to be MORE THAN ENOUGH for 90% of the worlds photographers. Who are you shooting for that you need more? Seriously.

Maybe you regularly take photos and then crop in heavily on just a small portion of the image to blow it up to a 10x12" print. If that's you, then stop it. Seriously - stop it. Compose, frame and crop in-camera. Then you'll find that 10MP is plenty enough for an A3 sized print. I crop about 5% of my images. 95% of the images I shoot are composed and cropped in-camera. But what if, I hear you say, you can't get close enough? I have two responses to that. First - get a longer telephoto lens. That's what they're for. And second - you'll just have to be content with not getting the shot. Tuff. Here's a news flash for you - you're going to miss a lot of shots. Either because you didn't have the 'right' gear for the job, you couldn't get close enough, or you weren't quick enough. Get over it.

The rear of the D200. Ergonomic perfection
The 'old sensor' low-ISO performance complaint is another one of my pet hates (sorry - I'm  about to rant again...). I can hear it now - "the D200 is too old. Low-light performance will suck".... blah,blah, blah. Who the hell are these people? Why has being able to shoot a black cat in a coal mine 'noise'-free become a 'thing 'that concerns so many damn photographers?

Ok, maybe that's a bit extreme? Other, more measured critics might say something like "it won't be any good for weddings in low-light church environments". This argument seems to suggest that once a camera has been replaced by a 'newer' model, it instantly becomes unfit for any 'serious' photography. I have no doubt that Nikon's D500 is a 'superior' camera than the D200 in every respect. It damn well better be, since it's 12 years newer. But does that really mean that the D200 is now no longer capable of being used as a professional tool? Of course not! I shot weddings for 10 years, and started with a Nikon D70! Yes folks, I shot weddings 'professionally' with a 6MP D70 for a couple of seasons, and never, ever had a client complain - or even comment - about 'noise' in an image. Never. The only people who care about noise in a photograph are other photographers. Period.

Jessie. D200 with 18-55mm 3.5/5.6 G II. F4.5 @ 1/30th, ISO 800.
All the rest of the 'stuff' that the D200 lacks over more modern DSLR's is just 'fluff' as far as I'm concerned. No, it doesn't have Live-view. You don't need it. Millions of photographers lived without live-view before it was ever an option. It therefore doesn't shoot video. Don't get me started on that rant. You want video, buy a Go Pro. You want to make movies - buy a movie camera. Nuff said.

What I'm trying to say is that for 'most' photographers, the D200 - even at 12 years old - is more camera than most of us need - despite what we may want. I would seriously encourage anyone who may be looking at buying an 'entry-level' DSLR to consider something like a used D200 (or D80, D90, D300) instead. And on the Canon side, an older 40D, 50D or even 5D Mk1 would be a much better choice - for less money - than the latest digital Rebel.

The used D200 I just purchased was $200NZ body only. It's in immaculate condition, and has a 15,000 shutter count. That's 15% of the shutter's 100,000 shot life expectancy. The entry level D3400 with 18-55mm kit lens is $699NZ retail at the time of writing this. That's basically a $500NZ difference. For another $100NZ I also purchased a Nikkor 50mm f1.8. The D3400 has 24MP, Full HD video, Bluetooth connection etc. The D200 doesn't. And yet, with only $300 invested, I could also get an 85mm F1.8 Nikkor and have a prime lens kit that would run rings around the D3400.

When it was released all those years ago, the D200 was second-only to Nikon's D2x Pro body. In fact Nikon packed so much into the D200 that many 'pros' called it the baby D2x and used it as a back-up body. Pick one up and you will understand why. It's an ergonomic masterpiece - a joyous photography tool to handle and use. It inspires confidence and screams professionalism. It may not have Bluetooth connectivity or Live-view, but what it lacks for in techno-frippery it more than makes up for in ergonomic superiority.

I guess it's obvious how I feel about the Nikon D200. Is it a 'modern' classic? Yes, it is. Is it the cutting edge of techno-wizardry in camera technology? No it's not. But does that therefore make it an obsolete, outdated, unusable camera? Oh no. No, it does not....