Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Olympus 9mm Fisheye Bodycap lens - initial review

A few days ago I was lucky enough to receive the Olympus 9mm Fisheye bodycap lens from my wife for my birthday (thanks honey).

Olympus 9mm f8 Fisheye Bodycap lens
I wanted this lens for a couple of reasons. First, it's a 'fisheye' lens, for a very reasonable price (NZ$169). I enjoy using a fisheye on the odd occasion, even pulling them out to use at a wedding every now and then. But they tend to be very specialized (and therefore very expensive) lenses, so I've only ever owned one in my career (a Tokina that was a 'fisheye' zoom).

Second, it's considered a 'fun' lens to have. Something that takes up no room, you have with you all the time, and you use on the odd occasion just for a different effect. The fisheye look can quickly become overdone, although the 9mm (18mm equivalent) Olympus bodycap fisheye has a slightly narrower 140 degree field of view (as opposed to the traditional 180 degree angle of view of a traditional fisheye lens).

As you can see from the specs, the bodycap is only 12.8mm thick, 56mm in diameter, weighs just 30 grams, but manages to fit in 5 glass lenses, 2 of which are aspherical elements for image correction (although the lens is still prone to chromatic aberration in high contrast areas).

Olympus have previously released a 15mm bodycap lens, but the image quality was not up to much, and it didn't really make sense to me since I already own the tiny 17mm f2.8 pancake. But a 9mm fisheye! That's another story. And with the inclusion of 2 aspherical lens elements, Olympus is obviously taking the IQ of the lens fairly seriously. Although having said that, the 9mm bodycap lens is not given the 'Zuiko' brand name. It's considered more of an 'accessory' rather than an actual lens. So given all that, how does it perform in real life?

Home Office. 9mm bodycap fisheye
Surprisingly well, actually. Especially for a very cheap bodycap lens. It's a fixed f8 lens, with no electronic contacts whatsoever. Mount it on the E-M5 MkII and the camera reverts to manual focus, which is controlled by a very simple lever on the front of the lens itself. The first position is lens closed (by a thin shutter), the second position is infinity focus, the third position is for general photography that will cover 90% of shooting scenarios (hyperfocal distance), while the final position is for 'close focusing' of around 20cm.

The extreme edges are a bit soft and blurry, but the rest of the image is acceptably sharp, to very sharp in the central portion. Images from the 9mm bodycap would print up to A3, and maybe even bigger with some localized sharpening applied.

The extreme edges do have some purple fringing, especially in high contrast areas, but this is easily fixed in software like Lightroom.

Coal Creek Falls. Olympus E-M5 MkII with 9mm bodycap Fisheye. F8 @ 500th sec, ISO 200
As can be seen above, the 'fisheye' look doesn't have to be extreme. The figure taking a photo at the extreme left of the image still looks fairly natural, since she wasn't too close to the camera when I took the picture. If you get up close and personal, then things will start to bend and look 'fishy', but give your landscape some breathing space, and everything looks pretty natural. This is partly due to the slightly narrower 140 degree angle of view that the 9mm captures. Colours look good, contrast is ok, and most things are pretty sharp. Overall, very impressive for an accessory :-)

Forest Interior. Olympus E-M5 MkII with 9mm bodycap fisheye. F8 @125th sec, ISO 800
Here we can start to see a little more of the fisheye effect, especially in the trees on the edges of the frame. Surprisingly though, the ferns in the foreground still look relatively natural. Sharpness is still pretty good - depending on your definition and tolerance. Pixel peepers may be disappointed, but we mere mortals should have no problems using this lens on a regular basis. I'll say it again - IQ is very good for a bodycap lens sold very cheaply as an accessory.

Flare is also well controlled.
Some reviewers have complained that the lens doesn't capture the vibrant Olympus colours that the Zuiko lenses are capable of. This may be true, but it's nothing that Lightroom or Photoshop won't fix. And without wanting to sound like a broken record - this isn't a Zuiko lens. It's a cheap, plastic, fully manual, bodycap lens.

Since it's a bodycap, there isn't any thread to attach a lens hood or filters. And with such a wide field of view, it's almost impossible not to include a portion of the sun in some of your images when shooting landscapes. Fortunately then, the 9mm fisheye bodycap controls flare extremely well, although I'd still want to avoid shooting into the sun whenever possible.

I might also try placing a square cokin filter in front of the lens while shooting, just to see if I can use filters without getting my fingers in the shot!?

The photo above shows a small amount of flare in the top of the image, but it hasn't affected the contrast too badly, and the rest of the image is perfectly exposed.

Dinosaur eggs or Fungi? Olympus E-M5 MkII and 9mm bodycap fisheye.
This last image was a bit of an experiment. I came across this patch of fungi that reminded me of dinosaur eggs from Jurassic Park. I wanted to get as close to them as possible, but I kept the lens set to the hyperfocal distance setting, and not the close focus setting. I didn't measure, but I'm pretty sure I was closer than 20cms to the fungi.

The result was exactly what I was after. The lens has kept the middle of the image nice and sharp, but getting up close has really exaggerated the fisheye effect around the edges of the frame. Pretty freaky, but also pretty cool. And a lot of fun. Which is exactly how I described this lens at the start of this post. Just plain FUN.

Maybe you shouldn't take the Olympus 9mm fisheye bodycap lens too serious? Maybe that misses the point of this accessory?

But, then again, maybe the IQ from this lens warrants a serious appraisal. It's a piece of kit that can be used to capture some seriously good images. If you're in the market for a fisheye lens that won't break the bank, you need to seriously consider the Olympus 9mm Fisheye bodycap lens.

Best birthday present ever! Thanks honey :-)

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Starting to customize the OM-D E-M5 MkII

Many say that the Olympus Menu system is overly complicated and confusing. I disagree.

I've used a lot of menu systems in my time. In fact, I've used pretty much all of them. And I don't find the Olympus menu system to be inferior or purposefully confusing at all. I do agree that it's complex - but that's not the same as complicated.

Really, what it comes down to is the fact that Olympus cameras (and many of the other mirrorless systems) are just so incredibly customizable. You can change, tweak or alter almost anything to your own preference - or not.... They don't have to be confusing. And I don't believe that they are.

But, like any piece of serious technology nowadays, it does require some effort on the part of the user to get the most out of the system. Same is true with smartphones, smart tvs etc.

If you dig deep enough, take the time to get to know your gear, and shoot with it often, you will be rewarded with a very responsive - and dare I say it, even intuitive - picture taking experience.

To help us on our way, and indeed to give us the ability to set the camera up in not just one, but several different configurations, cameras include groups of programmable 'sets' where you can store different functions and recall them quickly.

This is nothing new. The higher end DSLR's from Canon and Nikon have given us this ability for many years. But I never really saw the point in them, and never used them. There were often only a few basic functions that could be changed on these cameras anyway, and it seemed to me to be fairly easy to change them on the fly.

Now, however, with the plethora of features, switches, dials and modes that can be customized on cameras, the use of different custom 'sets' has become much more helpful. Olympus call them 'Myset' and allow for up to four different configurations for quick recall. They are very easy to set up, and even easier to switch between - especially since you can programme one of the many buttons on the camera to take you straight to the Myset screen if you so desire.

I have three of these set up at the moment - Myset 1 are my 'standard' settings that I shoot with 90% of the time. Myset 2 is a Monochrome setting for shooting Black and White (with a green filter applied). While Myset 3 is a 'fun' setting that defaults to my three favorite art filters and shoots in bracketing mode. While these are fairly easy to remember, it would have been great if Olympus could have made it so that you could name the Myset options whatever you liked, just to help you remember what you've set for each one? Maybe an option in a future firmware upgrade?

If you haven't already, then set up some different shooting styles using the Myset menu. With three or four different camera configurations within quick access, maybe the complex menu system might just become less complicated to use?

Just a quick side note:

It was my Birthday a few days ago, and beforehand my wife asked me what I would like (within reason and budget). Without hesitation I said "The Olympus 9mm Fisheye bodycap lens."

So I am now the very excited owner of the 9mm fisheye, and I can't wait to get out and take some images with it over Christmas.

My next post will be about my initial thoughts/images using the lens. Bring on the holidays!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Equipment Review: Tamrac System 2 Camera Bag

What is it with photographers and camera bags? Seriously.

The stereotypical reference to ‘over-indulging’ needlessly on frivolous things used to be about women and their shoes. I’d like to suggest that we are doing women an injustice (no surprises there). We should, instead, use the term ‘photographers and their camera bags’ for over-indulgences. We simply have too many.

So, when I purchased my Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII and started putting a kit together, I then needed a camera bag to put it all in. Of course, as I’ve just stated, I already own quite a few of them. But that’s the thing about camera bags and camera gear – you have to match them perfectly for the best ‘fit’. Just like a meal with a fine wine (ok, maybe that’s going too far – but you get the idea). Then there’s the question of what ‘type’ of camera bag are you after? Backpack or shoulder bag? Messenger style or Sling-type? Decisions, decisions.

To make matters even worse, the market has become flooded with new players in the camera bag game. It used to be reasonably simple, since you had a choice between Lowepro and Tamrac – take your pick. But now there are literally dozens of company’s making exceptionally good bags for photographers.

Peak Design Messenger Bag. Overpriced hype or camera bag nirvana?
Want an indication as to how popular camera bags are to photographers? Recently, the company Peak Design, who have made some excellent camera straps (see my previous post on the Cuff Wrist Strap), decided to enter the camera bag market. Being a reasonably small company, they opted for the crowd-funding model to kick-start the project, hoping to make about $100,000 so they could start production on a messenger style bag. Want to know how much they actually ended up with? 4.8 million! That’s right folks – 4.8 million from photographers keen to get their hands on a new camera bag! Now granted, they did have Trey Ratcliffe on-board as a spokesperson for the project (what a stroke of marketing genius), but still – 4.8 million! Shesh…..

Crumpler 6 Million Dollar Home. Stupid name, great bag.
Anyway – back to reality, and the purpose of this post. My review of the bag I actually got for my Olympus E-M5 MkII. I prefer a Messenger style bag if I’m traveling light or just going out for the day, and my bag of choice for my DSLR gear has been the Crumpler ‘6 Million Dollar Home’. Yeah, I know – stupid name, but great bag. Crumpler are actually an Australian company (almost local J) and were one of the first companies that really took the big two on in the camera bag market.

But while it’s been a great bag for my Canon 50D with two or three extra lenses and a flashgun, it’s a little too roomy for my micro four thirds kit. So I wanted something similar – but slightly smaller.

I also already own a Lowepro Nova 120 Shoulder bag, which unfortunately goes the other way, and is a little too small. The E-M5 MkII was just a little too tight to fit comfortably into the bag sideways and still give me space for extra lenses – so that was a no-go.

Tamrac System 2 Shoulder Bag
While in Christchurch recently (the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand) I decided to have a look for a camera bag, and ended up buying the Tamrac System 2 – an ideal bag for my growing micro four thirds Olympus kit. While it’s not strictly speaking a Messenger style bag, it is a shoulder style bag, and that’s really what I was looking for.

Of all the camera bag manufacturers out there, I’ll admit to liking Tamrac the most. They just have incredibly well made, no-nonsense camera bags that make sense. They tend to be well thought out, with reliable zips and straps, and unique features like their card viewing system and clear plastic sections that protect your gear extremely well, while still giving great visibility.

The bag itself only came with a couple of dividers, but this is enough to separate the camera with kit lens from the other lenses I own.

My Mirrorless configuration. 1 Body, flash and 4 lenses + extras
As it stands at the moment, the Tamrac System 2 fits the OM-D E-M5 MkII body with 12-50mm kit lens – with space for adding the extra grip in the future. Then the 40-150mm and 45mm fit lying down in the two sections, with the 17mm and E-M5’s flash placed on top of them (with cloths that I always carrying providing the necessary protection in between). A blower brush (minus the brush bit) and lens/body caps go in the top clear section of the bag; while filters, spare battery, extra SD cards and wrist strap live in the front section.

This doesn’t leave much more room for ‘extra’ bits and pieces (wallet, keys, cellphone, water bottle etc), but if I want to carry ‘everything’ then I have the Crumpler, or even my Kata backpack for long day trips with extra gear.

For every-day use, and small trips in the car (which is 90% of my photography), the Tamrac System 2 is perfect for my needs. If my lens collection grows much more (which I’m sure it will), I may have to leave one or two lenses at home and prioritise what I will take with me (which is never a bad thing anyway), although the bag does have the option of attaching extra cases to the side – which I have already begun to do. This makes it even more versatile. A small bag when I need it – a modular system if more is required. This gives me the best of all worlds, and makes the Tamrac System 2 bag a winner in my books.

An easy 4 out of 5 stars.