Saturday, 24 December 2016

Merry Christmas from NZ Digital

'Tis the season to be jolly :-)

Yes folks, it's Christmas tomorrow (as I write this) in New Zealand - the first country to wake up to Christmas Day. So I thought I'd better post something 'Christmassy'.

Greymouth Christmas Tree Festival, 2016. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 12-50mm EZ. F5.2 @ 1/8th sec, ISO 800
Every year the local theater hosts a Christmas tree festival, where businesses and other groups can decorate a tree and the public comes to see the results and vote for their favourite. It's always a lovely place to visit on the week leading up to Christmas - it has a peace and serenity that is often needed at this time of the year. And it also happens to be a lot of fun to photograph.

Reindeer Light. OM-D EM5 MkII.
The last time I shot the event was several years ago, when I had the Pen Ep-1. The camera was fairly new at the time, and I remember I had a lot of fun shooting with the art modes. The grainy black and white was my favourite (and still is). The bright lights, dark backgrounds and multi-coloured trees invite you to experiment with ISO, shutter speeds and creative techniques, which I certainly intended to do this time as well. But to begin with I started out by capturing a 'traditional' view of the scenes around me, for a while at least, to get into the 'groove' and help the creative juices flow.

I didn't take a tripod, preferring to shoot everything hand-held, even though the light is very low. This is where the IBIS (in-body image stabilisation) of the Olympus system really comes into its own. By cranking the ISO up to 800-1600, I find I can still achieve sharp shots with shutter speeds hovering around the 1/6th second mark using the Olympus 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 lens.

Christmas Bokeh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 12-50mm EZ. F5.6 @ 1/8th sec, ISO 800
This year, my 'creative inspiration' came initially from a mistake (which is often the case). I was trying to focus on the trees in the dark, and not surprisingly, the camera was hunting for focus. I took a photo while the camera was still hunting, and really liked the way the bright lights were turned into these 'bokeh balls' of light.

Bokeh Balls of Light. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII and 12-50mm EZ lens set to Macro. F5.6 @ 1/8th sec, ISO 800
I set the camera to manual focus so that I could control the degree of out-of-focus effect (I wanted very distinct looking circles of light), and also found that the best results were achieved with the lens set to macro mode. Then it was just a matter of moving around the room finding light patterns that looked interesting.

Abstraction in Blue. OM-D E-M5 MkII
Some photos worked well when the image was still vaguely tree shaped, while others worked as pure abstractions. I shot in this fashion for over an hour and thoroughly enjoyed making these abstract images. It was only when I got home and looked at them on the computer that I realised I could have taken this in so many other directions.

They would probably also work really well as zoom bursts - by zooming the lens in and out while taking the photo. This would add an extra level of dynamism in the image - if that's what you're after?

Or I could also have experimented with multiple exposures, overlaying different colours and sizes of lights to get some interesting effects?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not disappointed with the shots that I got on the night. But often we are so 'focused' (excuse the pun) on what we are doing that we don't stop to consider if there are other ways of exploring the subject we are photographing.  Some of the other ideas might not have worked, and I may have ended up liking the images I initially took anyway. But at least I would have stretched myself a bit more, and experimented with a few more techniques.

Christmas Bokeh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII
I'm still very happy with the images that I did manage to create on the night - especially the more abstract ones. They work very nicely as backgrounds, as can be seen above.

So from me, to you, Merry Christmas and a Happy 2017. If you have been a regular (or even occasional) reader of this blog, then I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I hope you've found something interesting from the last year of blogging, especially if you are new to micro four thirds and the Olympus system.

On a personal note, Blogger has informed me that my last post was number 200! I guess that's not setting the blogging world on fire, but it's something of a milestone for me at least. If you have read any of those 200 posts, I'd love to hear from you. Please do drop me a line and say 'hi'. And let me know if there is anything Olympus, micro four thirds, or just photography related that you would like me to cover in 2017? It would be my pleasure.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Tale of Two Cameras

I'm a very happy Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII owner - it's simply an amazing piece of kit, and I find it very hard not to sound like a massive Olympus fanboy (which I suppose I am).

But I also have this Jekyl and Hyde aspect to my photography. Having grown up (literally) with SLR cameras, I find the lure of the DSLR sometimes overwhelming. Muscle-memory (and actual memories) kicks-in whenever I pick up a traditional SLR styled camera, and despite myself, I have that feeling of 'coming back home' (even though I am now happily living in the 21st century). Fortunately, I usually have a couple of DSLR's floating around home that I can use to get my 'fix'.

Earlier this week I was hit by one of these 'must use a DLSR' moments, so I headed out with a Nikon D70 to a local walk that ends in a beautiful waterfall. I traveled light, with just the D70 and 18-55 'kit' lens, plus a spare battery. I also had my phone with me (don't we all), and decided to do a comparison between the two. The D70 is 6MP, while my Samsung galaxy has an 8MP sensor (and is a lot newer technology). Should be a good contest?

Samsung S3 8MP phone on left, Nikon D70 6MP DLSR on right
First up it looks pretty close. They are both resolving about the same detail, although there is more dynamic range coming from the D70. I was also able to manually set the White Balance to 'shade' on the D70 to give a truer colour representation. The file from the Samsung S3 is a little too blue/magenta, especially in the foreground.

Samsung S3 Smartphone
Things get a bit more complicated when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the limits of the small chip on the Samsung. It's done an 'ok' job, but the highlights of the water are totally blown out and unrecoverable. The phone only shoots jpegs, and I had the exposure compensation value dialed as low as it could go to try and get some detail in the water - but to no avail. To be fair,it was a very contrasty scene, and not the ideal time of the day to be shooting - but sometimes we don't get to choose these things - especially if we're traveling. I also tried a HDR shot with an app on the camera, but it was HORRIBLE, so I deleted it :-(

Nikon D70 shooting RAW
In comparison, shooting in RAW with the D70 has allowed much more detail to be retained and extracted out of the file in post-processing (no surprises there). Again, I would reiterate that it was very harsh lighting, and not ideal conditions for a great shot of the waterfall - but the result is far more usable than what came out of my smartphone.

Coal Creek Falls. Nikon D70
Don't ask me why (no, really - don't), but I've decided to get 'real' and shoot in full manual for a while. Usually my default shooting mode is A (Aperture priority) so I can control depth of field - and let the camera worry about the rest. But I enjoyed shooting in manual on the D70 (with a few caveats) and having complete control over all the settings. It really does make you fully aware of the relationship of all the factors in the exposure triangle (Aperture, Shutter and ISO).

If I wanted to shoot at a specific aperture, then I had to decide what the shutter and ISO were going to be to assure that the shot was well exposed. Shooting in the forest, this usually meant trying to keep the shutter speed high enough to hand-hold the camera and still get sharp shots - so the ISO was the control that got changed the most. Of course the higher you go with ISO the more noise you introduce, especially in the shadows, and this is certainly true of 6MP sensor on the D70. Even at ISO 200, when the shadows are lightened in post-processing some noise is evident. But then again, I'd rather have noise than a blurry image :-)

Life lines. Nikon D70
This is one of the things I missed by not using the OM-D E-M5 MkII - better high ISO performance combined with amazing image stabilisation. On several occasions I tried to shoot at 1/30th second with the D70 (at 55mm) and got blurry shots. Wouldn't have been an issue with the OM-D EM5 MkII (or any of the other Oly mirrorless cameras).

Were there other things I missed? Absolutely. How about the electronic viewfinder for one! I can't say it often enough - using an evf like the ones on the O-MD's is a life-changing experience as a photographer! I'm not joking. I used to be an evf snob - spurning this t.v style viewpoint for the more 'pure' optical viewfinder experience. Trouble was, I'd never actually used an electronic viewfinder. Certainly not one as good as the one on the OM-D E-M5 MkII. Once you have, I swear to you, there won't be any going back!

Annoyingly, the D70 doesn't show the ISO in the viewfinder or top lcd display - you only get to see what you've set when you hit the ISO button to change/modify it :-( Bummer. With the OM-D's you get all of that, and more (as much, or as little, info as you want) right in the viewfinder before you take the shot. And if you are shooting in manual and change a setting, then the exposure changes as you watch it  - real time, along with the histogram reading and any other info you have overlaid in the evf. Brilliant. Seriously, seriously brilliant.

Backlit Ferns, Nikon D70 with Nikkor 18-55mm
Did I enjoy shooting with the Nikon D70? Well, yes I did; and no, I didn't (there's that Jekyl and Hyde thing again). I really do enjoy the feel of a DLSR in my hands, and the Nikon D70 with 18-55mm kit lens isn't a heavy camera to carry around. Many people make a big thing about the weight savings when changing to mirrorless, but in terms of size and weight, the D70 with kit lens is about the same as my OM-D E-M5 MkII with battery grip attached. Things change of course if you start lugging around four or five additional lenses with a DLSR and battery grip attached - but with just a body and plastic kit lens, weight doesn't really come into the equation.

Ergonomics aside, that's about where the positives end (for me) :-)  The lack of evf, no IS (on my lens), fixed lcd screen and constant need to take my eye away from the optical viewfinder to 'chimp' the exposure or change ISO, meant that the user experience was less than smooth. I suppose the positive is that it only confirms my enjoyment of using the Olympus OM-D system.

As far as replicating the ergonomics of a DLSR on mirrorless goes, perhaps I should look at getting a Panasonic G series as a second body? It's tempting, but so is an Olympus Pen for an even smaller, carry-around-all-day style camera. It's great to have these kinds of options in the micro four thirds  ecosystem. Kudos to Olympus and Panasonic for building such a great system in such a short time.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Thoughts on the new Olympus E-M1 MkII

Pre-orders are now happening at stores like B&H for the new Olympus E-M1 MkII. Some initial (Olympus initiated) user reviews are also beginning to surface, with images that give some indication of what the camera (paired with the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro lens - more on that later) is capable of. This is not one of those reviews. Unfortunately, despite me best efforts, Olympus doesn't send me any gear to test. So I haven't had my hot little hands on a pre-production model, and can't give any genuine feedback on how it handles, what the low ISO is like, and how damn fast the autofocus system is on this thing. So what's this post for exactly?

E-M1 MkII from the front. Yummy!
Well, like many Olympus users, I've been waiting with a great deal of excitement for the release of the E-M1 MkII. The original E-M1 is a great camera, and has been a worthy flagship model for the past three years. But I have the E-M5 MkII, which in many ways is a 'better' camera than the E-M1 - so I've been eagerly awaiting the E-M1 MkII to tempt me to upgrade. And on paper, the E-M1 MkII is certainly the temptation we all hoped it would be. 15fps burst shooting at full RAW, 20MP sensor, fully articulated rear LCD screen, dual card slots, dual image processors, 4k video, and incredible dual AF 121 point (all cross type) on-chip contrast and phase detection focusing that might very well be a sports shooters dream - and the DSLR killer many thought it could be.

But then we get to the elephant in the room - and the 'other' specification on paper that it shares with a top range DSLR - the price!

The fully articulated rear LCD screen a-la the E-M5 MkII. Great to see!
Along with many other people eagerly awaiting this camera's release, my enthusiasm was severely dented when the expected price was announced - $1,999US body only ($2700NZ). In the UK it's even worse - initially expected to sell for around £1850 ($3000NZ). If you include the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro lens, it brings the total up to an eye-watering $4000NZ. And for many, many enthusiast photographers (me included), that's simply too expensive. For the body-only it's over $1000NZ more than the original E-M1 is selling for at the moment ($1600 vs $2700). Is it really a full $1000NZ better camera? $500NZ I could argue for - maybe. But $1000NZ more! C'mon Olympus - seriously?

I know there will be a few with deeper pockets than I that will simply have to have it - and so for them the money won't really be a problem. All power to them. Wish that was me - I really do. But for a very large percentage, Olympus's pricing of the E-M1 MkII has lead to a lot of head scratching, and disappointment. Even the initial chatter from Olympus-sponsored shooters and elite camera reviewers has expressed concern over the pricing for this camera.

New HLD-9 grip will add even more to the price!
Sure, the price will come down after the initial RRP has been set - but probably not by much - and certainly not by $1000NZ. Can Olympus really justify full-frame DLSR prices (it's more expensive than a Canon 6D), even with their flagship camera?

Some on the forums have suggested that Olympus are obviously drawing a very specific line in the sand with this camera. They are going after the professional shooters who would otherwise spend twice as much again on a 1Dx (etc), while making the 'enthusiast' line of E-M5's and E-M10's for us mere mortals. And this may be true - especially when you look at two of the three new lenses they released at the same time. The 'Pro' designated 12-100mm f4 and 25mm f1.2. They ain't called 'Pro' for nothing.... and also come with the price to match the quality. I suppose that for a 'Pro', quality means expensive. They expect to pay four times more for anything your average Joe would pay for their gear -as long as it also comes with pro-level build quality and IQ.

The new 12-100mm f4 IS 'Pro' lens
And while we're on the subject of lenses... I've got some concerns over the new 12-100mm f4 IS Pro - namely that f4 constant aperture. Don't get me wrong, it looks like a nice lens - both in terms of build and IQ (from what we can tell from the initial internet reviews). But when we talk about micro four thirds sensors, it's 'generally' accepted that the shallow depth of field capabilities of the lens/sensor combination is doubled when compared to traditional 35mm film cameras or full-frame digital. So a constant f4 aperture sounds great - and is 'ok' for full-frame, but actually corresponds to an f8 constant aperture on a micro four thirds system. Not really sounding so flash now, is it? I don't know of any DLSR shooter who would pay $1300US for a 24-200mm f8 lens, even with great build quality. I guess Olympus wanted to give the new E-M1 MkII users a solid walk-around 'kit' lens - but isn't that really what the popular 12-40mm f2.8 is for?

Zuiko 25mm f1.2 Pro lens - 'Excellent'
To me, the also new 25mm f1.2 Pro lens makes much more sense for the E-M1 user. For a prime it's big, and it's heavy - but it's also f1.2! Now we're talking. The lens will have bokeh to die for, and while I understand it's not always about beautiful bokeh, it's nice to be able to achieve it when you want/need to.

Personally, I'd give the 12-100mm f4 a miss, in favour of the 12-40mm f2.8 and 40-150mm f2.8 Pro - or alternatively make up a four kit system with even faster primes (like the 17mm f1.8, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8) .

Zuiko 30mm f3.5 Macro - really?
And then we come to the third new lens release, which, not surprisingly, has been somewhat overshadowed by the other big announcements. The Zuiko 30mm f3.5 Macro wasn't a surprise exactly - there had been several forum discussions around on its imminent release. But generally, the ultimate conclusion was 'why'? Did we really need a 30mm f3.5 Macro? Had you ever looked inside your camera bag and thought - 'you know, what I really need about now is a 30mm f3.5 Macro lens'? No, thought not. Me neither.

What would I have rather seen Olympus release instead? Well, since their 'affordable' primes top out at 75mm, I would like to see a 100mm f2.8 prime in their consumer line, or maybe even a 150mm f2.8 (or f4 if they must)? A more consumer based prime in the telephoto end would be great. After all, it's not just 'Pros' who enjoy shooting sports and wildlife - so a 'faster' prime alternative to the 75-300mm f4.8/6.7 would be great.

One final thought (promise).... why couldn't they just have called it the E-M2? I appreciate they've got this whole MkII thing going across the whole range of cameras - but seriously! The E-M2 is a whole lot easier to type than the E-M1 MkII. You just know it's going to get shortened to the E-M1-2 anyway. How confusing is that!? Just saying....

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

2016 Greymouth Street Races

I love the Greymouth Street Racing event held here every year at Labour weekend. I look forward to it every year - and this year was no exception. It looked good in terms of the weather (slightly overcast but no hint of rain), and my previous experience using the E-M5 MkII had me excited for more.

Go-Kart action. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
It turned out to be a strange sort of a year this year though, and I came away feeling a little frustrated. First there was an horrific accident in the very first race of the day, that sadly resulted in the death of one of the riders. It is the first fatal crash the event has had in its 27 year history, and almost ended the day before it had begun. Racing did resume, however, at 2.00pm in the afternoon (a delay of about four hours).

F1 Rider No.121. Greymouth Street Races. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
This meant that a whole days racing was now cut down to only a few hours. Understandable given the circumstances, but disappointing none-the-less. Maybe this sudden urgency made me loose my focus, or maybe it just wasn't a good year, but whatever the reason, I found myself constantly at the wrong places at the wrong times - not getting the shots I wanted.

Motorcross Rider 450, Greymouth Street Races. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm 
Because I had some time on my hands before racing got underway in the afternoon, I decided to walk around the whole track and see if there were some vantage points I could use to give me different photos than previous years. It turns out that there isn't, but unfortunately racing had gotten underway again and I was stuck in a section of the track that had no decent photo opportunities! There are several crossing areas spaced around the track for people to change sides every now and again, but because they were trying to get through the races quickly, I was stuck there for almost an hour before I was allowed to cross over to an area I actually wanted to shoot from! And this turned out to be the story of my day.

Catch me if you can.... Greymouth Street Races 2016. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
There are two or three areas on the track where the riders come around a bend at a low angle and pick up speed, and these are the areas I try to concentrate on. I focus on the bend, switch the camera to manual focus, and take a burst of images as the bikes reach the area of focus. I use a fast shutter speed to stop the action, and although this can reduce the sense of motion and speed in the image, I think it's made up for somewhat by the exaggerated angles that the riders achieve. There is still a lot of drama in the composition, and that's what I'm after.

Ahead of the pack. Greymouth Street Races, OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
I try to get as 'clean' and as uncluttered a composition as I can, which isn't easy given the number of people at the event. Sometimes feet, legs or bodies in the background can't be avoided - but I do try to whenever possible. And a little cloning later on never hurt anyone :-)

This year, I also decided that the images actually worked better in black and white. I've never converted my street racing images to black and white before, so this was a new twist this year. I converted them in Photoshop, using the high contrast red filter setting, and dialed it back just a touch if needed. This gave me punchy, high contrast images that I like - finished off with what I hope is a subtle vignette to frame the action in the center of the image.

Total concentration. Greymouth Street Race, 2016. OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm f4/5.6
Next year I'm hoping to have the use of a Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8/6.7 - either by getting one earlier, or renting one for the weekend. I'd like the 600mm reach for sports and wildlife anyway, so it would be the perfect lens for the street races. Josh has also expressed an interest in this lens - so maybe we could go halves and get it together?  That would be pretty cool....

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Spring at the Botanic Gardens

In my blog post on Josh getting his Olympus E-M5, I mentioned that we spent a morning at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens shooting flowers and other spring-type subjects. I have only just looked through the photos I took on that morning, and thought I should post a few.

Spring Cherry Blossom. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 40-150mm. f5.6 @ 1/1600th, ISO 200
As I mentioned in the earlier post, Josh was using my Zuiko 12-50mm EZ lens on his E-M5, especially the macro function, so I used my other 'kit' lens, the Zuiko 40-150mm f4.5/5.6. It's not a lens I would normally have used at the gardens, but it was a great exercise in forcing me to 'see' differently. Despite being a 'kit' lens, it's fantastically sharp, even wide open, and can still produce some decent bokeh, as can be seen in the Cherry Blossom image above.

Kayaking on the Avon. OM-D E-M5 MkII with 40-150mm. f5 @ 1/160th, ISO 200
The main issue I had with using the 40-150mm lens was not being able to go wide enough. There were some instances where I wanted to get 'more' in the frame, but couldn't move back. The above image of the family kayaking, for example, was taken standing on a bridge looking down on them as they paddled past. I was at the widest setting I could go (40mm), and while I like the image, ideally I would have given it a little more breathing space if the lens had allowed for it.

Monarch Butterfly. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 40-150mm. f5.6 @ 1/800th. ISO 200
Of course, the flip side of that is the ability to get very close to your subject at the 150mm (300mm film equivalent) end of the zoom range. The beautiful Monarch butterfly only stayed on this flower for a second or two - long enough to get three or four shots off, before it was gone again. Shooting at 150mm allowed me to maintain a good distance so I didn't scare the butterfly away, and still get a close up shot that shows all the incredible detail on the butterfly's wings.

Pied Shag. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 40-150mm. f5.6 @ 1/200th. ISO 200
Getting close to other wildlife was also possible with the 40-150mm lens. This Pied Shag was minding its own business by the side of the river, and since it's used to having lots of people around, wasn't too concerned when I got down low on the ground to photograph him. I didn't have to get too close though, and the combination of the long zoom and separation from the background has meant that the bird stands out sharply against the water.

Red Tulip. OM-D E-M5 MkII with 40-150mm. f5.6 @ 1/640th. ISO 200
I also got down low and used the far end of the zoom to isolate some of the flowers. This works really well with the long stemmed flowers like tulips. Even though the flowers were growing closely together, shooting from a distance, at 150mm, and picking out just one flower, has created a decent amount of background blur (bokeh). Even from a lens that stays at f5.6 wide open at the long end. Yes, I'm sure an f2.8 lens would have given even more subject to background separation, but I don't have an f2.8 lens - and this has worked out fine. In fact I'm very happy with the final result.

I had a great time shooting at the Botanic Gardens with the Zuiko 40-150mm f4.5/5.6. It's made me realise that we don't always have to reach for the standard lens we always go for when we find ourselves in a familiar environment. We can (and should) shake things up a bit by using a lens that we wouldn't ordinarily choose. Next time you find yourself reaching for the same lens, stop and consider shooting with something else. It will force you to think slightly differently about the images you can take - and that's never a bad thing.   

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Is 16 megapixels enough?

A few months ago I posted about my all too brief experience using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 on a photo shoot. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but I couldn't show any images from the shoot since they all belong to the Polytech I took them for (and work for).

Now, however, some of the images are beginning to appear on billboards and other promotional material in the public arena. So I guess I can re-photograph them 'in-situ' and talk about them in the context of public advertising. And the first such appearance is on a billboard outside the front of the Polytechnic.

Tai Poutini Polytechnic billboard. Samsung S3 smartphone camera.
The 'billboard' certainly isn't enormous - it's 2x1 metres in size. But that's still a fairly reasonable sized print. Especially for a camera that some might say has 'only' 16 megapixels, on a small (micro four thirds) sensor.

So how does a 16MP micro four thirds image hold up when enlarged to a metre high? One word - beautifully. In fact it looks so good, I believe it could easily handle doubling again in size, with hardly any effect on image quality!

In these days of 24+MP cameras, those of us with less megapixels (and even worse still, smaller image sensors), are made to feel somewhat inferior if we have anything less. But even if we want to print 'big', do we really need 20+ megapixels and full frame?

Billboard detail. Samsung S3 smartphone camera.
The file for the billboard was created with a resolution of 240dpi and then the image was enlarged to fit the space. It was originally shot as a vertical portrait, so the extra brick wall was added later in Photoshop (cloned from the original photo). Excuse the quality of the photo taken on my smartphone, but even so, you can see that the detail on the billboard is incredibly sharp. There's almost no visible grain or dot structure (unless you put your nose up to the print), which leads to my conclusion that it could easily handle an even more extreme enlargement.

The original images were never intended for billboard use - the brief was for no larger than A4 for an Annual Report. Yet the files from the Olympus 16MP micro four thirds sensor have no problem being enlarged to way beyond standard page layout size. I'm very impressed with the final image quality and have to conclude that for me - and I suspect probably for most of you - a 16MP micro four thirds sensor image is 'more' than enough.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Two EM-5s in the family

My son Josh is 15 and, much to my surprise, has developed a keen interest in photography over the last few months. Now I say "much to my surprise" not because I don't think he has the talent for it - he most certainly does. It's just that he's never expressed much interest in photography before, despite there always being a camera available for him to use on family outings.

It's a matter of timing I guess - and I'm certainly not complaining. It's fantastic that he's getting excited about photography, and not just because it happens to be my passion as well. I think it's very important for everyone to have some form of creative outlet. And in this digital age, photography is an important skill to have.

His older sister is also very creative - taking Visual Art and Photography at Level 2 (6th Form) at High School this year. I've seen some of her photos from earlier in the year and they're fantastic abstract studies. But Em (Emily) is a bit wary of showing Dad too much, and she's always been quite private about her art.

Master and Apprentice? Photo: Joanna Lorimer
Josh, on the other hand, is just like his old man - very interested in the gear/technology side of digital photography; almost as much as the creative side. So he's been keen to chat with me about cameras and techniques. He's been using his mother's Nikon D70 SLR for the last few months, but has also had his eye on my Olympus OM-D EM-5 MkII mirrorless. So we've often talked about the different systems and what he might go with for his own camera.

Both kids have also had part-time jobs for the last year and have managed to save some money. Josh got to the stage where he had enough to start thinking seriously about getting a second-hand camera of his own - and last week (October 2016) we spent a few days in Christchurch while the girls had a trip to Wellington.

Christchurch just happens to have one of the best camera stores in New Zealand (shout out to Matt at Photo and Video in Merivale), and they just happened to have a second-hand Olympus OM-D EM-5 body for sale for a pretty good price. Josh and I went to have a look on our first morning in Christchurch (I said he was keen), and discovered that as well as the Em-5 body, they also had the HLD-6 grip to go with it!

Seagulls. Photo by Joshua Lorimer. OM-D EM-5 MkII with 40-150mm f4-5.6. F5.6 @ 1/250th ISO 200
If not for the price of the body and grip combined, I think Josh would have walked out with them both right there and then. But together they were going to take up a large chunk of his savings, so we left the store to 'think about it' for a day.

Two Dogs. Photo by Joshua Lorimer. OM-D EM-5 MkII with 12-50mm f3.5-6.3. F4.5 @ 1/4000th ISO 400
Josh had never really used my Olympus for very long, so I gave him the opportunity to spend an afternoon shooting with the EM-5 MkII, knowing that it would be similar (yet different) to the EM-5. He used it with and without the extra grip for the whole afternoon and, to cut a long story short, loved using it in both configurations. We went back the next day and purchased the EM-5 body with the HLD-6 Grip. So now there are two EM-5 mirrorless shooters in the family!

 On our third and final day in Christchurch, we went to the Botanic Gardens (it's late Spring and the flowers are still in bloom). Since Josh's EM-5 was sold 'body-only', he didn't have a lens. So I loaned him my 12-50mm EZ kit lens for the day, while I used the 40-150mm f4-5.6. I've never seen a teenage boy more fascinated with flowers - especially after I showed him how to use the macro function on the 12-50mm lens. I had to practically tear him away from the gardens after three hours. Needless to say, he had a great time and is loving his EM-5!

Old Piano. Photo by Joshua Lorimer. OM-D EM-5 MkII with 12-50mm lens. F4 @ 1/500th ISO 200
So yes, I am thrilled that Josh has been bitten by the photography bug. I think it's a fantastic hobby for anyone - but will be even more rewarding for us as something that father and son can do together. And if I'm really lucky, we may even convince big sister to come out shooting with us on the odd occasion too?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Olympus Viewer 3 vs ACDSee Pro 9

ACDSee are a well established company in the photo management business. I can remember using a very early version of ACDSee when I first started using computers for graphic design (and that was a long time ago). They've come a long way since then and now offer a vast range of design and photography related products - as well as version 19 of the original Digital Asset Management (DAM) programme I used all those years ago.

What I'm currently interested in testing is ACDSee Pro 9. ACDSee are marketing Pro 9 as "the most complete solution for the enhancement and control of your image production". That's a fairly lofty claim. But with tools like Batch Editing, Lens Correction, Smart Collections, Non-destructive image editing, Photo Management, 4k monitor support, Photoshop plug-in support and slick metadata controls (they are DAM specialists after all), ACDSee Pro 9 really could be the perfect replacement for Adobe's Lightroom. Currently, it's also exceptional value - only $58NZ (for a limited time).

Because their suite of products is so vast, they also offer subscription-based plans where you can get a range of software for a monthly fee. I'm trying to move away from this subscription based model, so this is less appealing. But the option is there for those who like this kind of system.

To see exactly how well AC9 works as a RAW conversion programme, I will be comparing unaltered Tiffs exported from AC9 against Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff files. The original RAW files are Olympus .orf's from an OM-D E-M5 MkII.  I've already compared the same files with Adobe's Lightroom CC and Corel's AfterShot Pro 3 (see previous posts) and found the Olympus Viewer 3 (OV3) files to be superior (IMHO).

ACDSee Pro 9 Tiff on the left and Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff on the right. Not much in it really?
I have to admit, that having gone through this process with Lightroom CC and AfterShot Pro3, and not being impressed by either, I didn't really expect anything different from ACDSee Pro 9. Well, I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised. Just looking at the comparison above, you can see that there's not much in it. The OV3 file is perhaps slightly lighter and has slightly less noise. But colour-wise it's very close.

ACDSee Pro 9 Tiff on left, Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff on right.
Above is a comparison with OV3 at its default settings of '0' (which actually does apply sharpening, contrast etc). You can see that the Olympus file is sharper, but again, the colours are almost identical. The ACDSee Pro 9 file may even have a touch more detail remaining in the highlights - perhaps again due to Olympus's tendency to apply contrast for a more 'finished' result? It's really the colours that I'm more concerned about being rendered accurately though.  And in the files I'm seeing, ACDSee Pro 9 is nailing the colour perfectly.

Colour rendition with unedited 16bit Tiff files from all 4 RAW conversion programmes
I've been using a sunset photo as my critical example of colour rendition and 'accuracy' for all of the programmes. The OV3 file is my 'master' file - the one by which all other conversions are judged. Surprisingly, Adobe's Lightroom CC (version 2015.4) is the worst of all of them. It's a very flat and dull rendition as a starting point, with a complete lack of colour in the highlights. And while some may argue that RAW files are supposed to deliver flat files for post-processing, I know which files I'd rather be working with as a starting point for further editing. The less time spent having to fiddle with sliders the better.

Corel Aftershot Pro 3 is better, although still not as good as the OV3 file. The files are quite 'soft' (you can even see this from the example above), and  have a very definite red/yellow 'cast' in all the images I processed. It was as if the software struggled to get the white balance right in all the images.

Of all the RAW conversion programmes I've tested so far, ACDSee Pro 9 is the clear winner. In fact, when I compare it to the Olympus Viewer 3 'master' file, I actually think I prefer the ACDSee Pro 9 image! It has exceptional colour quality and image definition - especially considering it's a straight, unedited conversion. I'm very impressed with ACDSee Pro 9's RAW processing capabilities, far and above the likes of Adobe's Lightroom. It's also a fairly powerful, yet intuitive programme, with a very good UI.

I have about 6 months left on my 'student' subscription to Adobe's entire Creative Suite, after which the price skyrockets to beyond my budget. Besides which, I'm too old and set in my ways to want to use a subscription-based model for software. Just let me pay for it, own it, and then I'll decide when and how often I want to upgrade.

ACDSee also offer an 'Ultimate 9' version which includes the ability to work with non-destructive adjustment layers. Ultimate 9 looks like a "one-two" punch designed to become a Photoshop/Lightroom all-in-one replacement. Unfortunately, it's also almost 3x more expensive than Pro 9. I'm definitely going to download the trial version and give it a very serious look. For someone wanting to eventually jump off the Adobe subscription band-wagon, ACDSee Ultimate 9 might just be the solution I'm looking for? And in the meantime, ACDSee Pro 9 has me seriously, seriously interested.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Olympus Viewer 3 vs Corel AfterShot Pro 3

The great thing about deciding on new software is that you can usually download a fully functioning trial for a month to 'try before you buy'. In my last two posts, I pitted Olympus's free RAW conversion software - Viewer 3 (OV3), up against Adobe Lightroom CC (version 2015.4). I was, and still am, impressed with Olympus's proprietary software, and believe it gives a superior result with less effort, especially in colour accuracy.

But for all its good points, OV3 isn't the slickest software on the planet. It's reasonably intuitive, but very slow, clunky, and lacks a lot of the more refined selection and adjustment options of other products. So I wanted to try a few more options for RAW conversions before settling on my programme of choice.

I should also re-state for the record that the whole purpose of this search was to move away from being reliant on the subscription-based software plan that Adobe now enforces on users. Yes, it has its supporters. But I'm not one of them. So I would like to find something else that I can use/purchase outright. Of course the great benefit of OV3 is that it comes free with my camera. You can't get much cheaper than free - right?

At $95NZ currently for Corel's Aftershot Pro 3 (AP3), it won't break the bank for a fully featured RAW conversion solution. If I remember correctly, Corel purchased Bibble, and this formed the basis of Aftershot? Many complained that Corel didn't really do anything with the software other than repackage it, and has let it languish for quite a while. AP3, however, is a fairly new release. And may signal a serious intention by Corel to really go after Adobe in the Photography software sector?

Indeed, Corel are marketing AP3 as the world's fastest RAW photo editor - up to 4x faster than Adobe Lightroom. They also highlight its compatibility with Adobe Photoshop, as well as their own PaintShop Pro. Corel are a very respected name in the graphic industry. I started out using CorelDraw before Adobe's Illustrator and InDesign became the industry standards, and PaintShop Pro looks like a serious contender against Photoshop. So they are no slouches when it comes to software development, and I had high hopes for AfterShot Pro 3.

Corel's AfterShot Pro 3 Tiff on the left and Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff on right
The UI for AP3 is very impressive - clean, quick and fairly intuitive to use. It reminds me less of Lightroom and more of Apple's Aperture (which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned). For the purposes of this test, I simply opened the Olympus .orf RAW files in AP3 (by pointing them to the correct folder on the HDD), and then saved them out as a 16 bit Tiff file with no modifications to the file whatsoever. I then opened them in OV3's Lightbox so I could compare the AP3 file against the OV3 file side by side.

Immediately noticeable between the two files is the warmer colour cast apparent in the AfterShot Pro 3 file. I call it a 'cast' because I believe the Olympus file to be a more accurate representation of the colours in the scene. It's not horrible - just noticeably more warmer/yellow in the AP3 Tiff. This bias towards warmer, reddy/yellow colours was to continue through all the AP3 files when compared to the Olympus (and Lighroom) conversions.

AfterShot Pro 3 on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right. The 'warmer' colour cast in AP3 is evident.
The warm cast is very obvious when looking at the example above. AP3 makes it look (and feel) like it was taken on an early autumn morning, when in reality it was taken on a cold winters afternoon. The colours in OV3 are a far more accurate representation. Even the white of the boat looks 'cleaner' in the OV3 rendered file.

What's perhaps not as apparent is the lack of sharpness in the AfterShot Pro 3 files. I've already talked about the sharpness that Olympus dial into their conversions by default (see previous post), so I made sure that I was using the OV3 files that had -2 Sharpening, -2 Contrast and -2 Saturation applied. This brings the OV3 files almost exactly in-line with the Lightroom files in terms of sharpness. The AP3 files, in comparison, look very soft - almost to the point of being blurry. Now some may argue that this is exactly how an unedited Tiff should look - with absolutely no sharpening applied whatsoever. I'm sure they would sharpen up nicely in Photoshop (or in AfterShot Pro 3 itself).

AfterShot Pro 3 on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
Above is a good example of the differences between the two programmes indicated thus far. The AP3 file is leaning heavily towards the warmer colours, and is 'soft' in comparison to the Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff. Yes, I'm sure you could tweak the AfterShot settings to get the conversion looking much more like the Olympus file, but I'd rather just start there in the first place. The OV3 file is where I would want to end up eventually anyway.

AfterShot Pro 3 on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
What sold me on OV3 over Lightroom was the extra detail and 'truer' colours I was getting with Olympus in the above sunset shot. As you can see, it's an awful lot closer when we compare the AP3 colours. Although it's also not really surprising, since we've seen an obvious colour bias with AfterShot Pro 3 towards the warmer yellows and reds. I like both renditions, but I would still give the edge to OV3. There's just a bit more detail evident in the yellow highlights - although that also may be due to the lack of overall sharpness in the AP3 file.

Overall, AfterShot Pro 3 is a RAW conversion editor that I could easily live with. Especially if a profile could be saved that applied some sharpness and a touch less warmth by default. But then we'd be back to where we wanted to be with OV3 - the free programme that comes with my camera. I know I keep coming back to that, but it really is worth repeating. Check out the software that comes with your camera (whether it's Canon, Nikon, Olympus etc). It's yours, it works (albeit sometimes rather slowly), it will save you money, and it will probably even give you superior results.

The hunt for a 'better' RAW Conversion editor continues....

Friday, 22 July 2016

Olympus Viewer 3 vs Lightroom CC Part 2

Since my last post on the comparison between Olympus Viewer 3 and Lightroom CC, I've done a little more research into OV3 (Olympus Viewer 3).

It appears that Olympus are applying a decent amount of sharpening and noise reduction to the file once it's output - even if the software settings are all set to '0' or Off. Olympus's jpegs are praised by many as being some of the best out-of-camera jpegs in the industry. Sharp, contrasty, and with great colour. It would appear that the software developers for OV3 want to make sure you get these same results when outputting from an .orf  RAW file, even at the '0' or Off settings.

So I decided to repeat the comparison, but this time I dialed in -2 Sharpness, -2 Contrast, -2 Saturation, and set the Noise Reduction to 'OFF' (from 'As Shot' - even though NR in the camera is, in fact, set to 'OFF').

Lightroom CC on right, Olympus Viewer 3 on the left.
So what's the verdict now? Well, on the sharpness front, things have definitely evened out by setting OV3 to -2 Sharpness. In fact, I'd say that now the Lightroom Tiff is maybe just a 'hair' sharper - maybe. Contrast and Saturation are also now about the same. But I have to say that I still prefer the Olympus colour rendition. Once again, it looks slightly 'truer' to my eyes.

The other difference that still remains between the two is the noise - or at least the lack of it in the Olympus Viewer 3 generated Tiff. Noise is still cleaner compared to Lightroom CC's conversion, so either Olympus are ramping up Noise Reduction regardless of what you set as the user - or they really do have the secret to their own 'special sauce' contained within the .orf file. I like to think that it's the later of the two?

Lightroom CC on right, Olympus Viewer 3 on left.
But at the end of the day, it's still the colour rendition from OV3 that stands out the most. And it's the above sunset shot comparison that is still the most telling (for me at least). With most settings dialed down to their lowest (-2) in Olympus Viewer 3, Lightroom CC and OV3 Tiffs are very close - except for their colour rendition. I happen to prefer the way OV3 renders the colour from the RAW file. I think it's a truer representation of what I was actually seeing when I took the photograph.

So given that a simple 'flattening' of the OV3 Tiff file is all it takes to bring it in-line with Lightroom CC - but that I find the colours more pleasing from Olympus Viewer 3 - then I still think it's a win for Olympus.

Besides - this all assumes that I want my Tiffs to start out looking like Lightroom's slightly flatter conversion. What's wrong with starting with sharpened, noise-reduced, colourful, contrasty Tiffs from your RAW processor? I know I can always dial down all these settings if I need to. But 99% of the time it's what I want my photos to end up looking like anyway.

I've always been the kind of photographer who tries as much as possible to get it 'right' in camera. I rarely spend more than 5 minutes editing any image, and that includes cropping. I crop 'in-camera'. A sharpened, colourful, noise free Tiff suits me just fine. I only ever do very basic edits to my RAW files before saving it out to a Tiff or jpeg, so the controls available from OV3 also suit my needs perfectly. Once I have the Tiff, I'm going to do final edits in something else anyway. So the OV3/Tiff/Photoshop workflow makes a lot of sense to me personally. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

I would also finish this off by reiterating the whole purpose of this comparison. I wanted to see if Viewer 3  - the FREE software supplied with my camera - was a worthy consideration when placed up against the industry standard Adobe Lightroom. The fact that there really is hardly anything in it - and that I actually prefer the files that are coming out of OV3 - speaks volumes for the manufacturer's software. When it comes for free and the results can be this good, what's not to like?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Olympus Viewer 3 vs Lightroom CC

I used to be an Aperture 3 user on the Mac. I preferred the Aperture user experience over Adobe's Lightroom, but alas, as we all know, Aperture is no more. So I've switched to Lightroom - right?

Well no, actually. I have played around a bit in Lightroom, and I 'own' it as part of my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. But I don't actually have it installed on my computer at home - although it is installed on my machine at work.

Having been an Aperture user, I'm obviously not adverse to taking the less popular option when it comes to software. My workflow consists of Adobe Bridge and Camera Raw, with the final edits in Photoshop - all through my CC subscription. At the moment, I'm lucky enough to have the entire CC collection for a student rate. But that will end next year. And then I have some serious decisions to make. Because there's no way I'm going to pay Adobe around $50NZ a month to rent their software! No way.

I could go down to the 'Photography' package of just Photoshop and Lightroom for about the same as I'm paying monthly at the moment for the whole suite - but I really want to have InDesign, Illustrator and Premier as well - which bumps me back up into that $50 a month bracket. Damn.

So what's a man to do? Well if he's me, he starts looking around for alternatives. Cheaper (in the long run) alternatives. And they're out there. Adobe isn't the only kid on the block anymore.

When you're looking for 'cheaper' alternatives for a RAW converter, the first place you should really look is the manufacturers own software. After all, it comes with your camera. You don't get much cheaper than free folks!

Hang on though. Surely that means that it can't be very good? It'll be slow, and clunky, and produce fairly average images? If, like me, you thought that would be the case, then you'd be right - about two of those three assumptions. Yes, Olympus Viewer 3 is slow. Sometimes painfully slow. And yes, it's clunky. No UI design awards here. BUT - the images it produces... well that's where it gets very interesting.

When I was a Canon shooter I would occasionally come across a post from a photographer extolling the virtues of using Canon's own proprietary RAW processing software. But then you'd have responses from others saying things like 'slow' and 'clunky' and I'd quickly move on. I was using Aperture, was very happy with it, and saw no reason to change. But that was then....

Since I'm now in the market for a RAW processing programme, I though it might be time to look at Olympus's offering and compare it with the megalithic giant that is Adobe Lightroom. The results are very interesting.

Lightroom CC Tiff on the left, Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff on the right.
Obviously in any RAW software you can tweak and alter an image to your hearts desire. So all I did to compare "apples with apples" was to take the RAW .orf (Olympus Raw Format) file and 'process' it as a 16bit uncompressed Tiff file completely unaltered. Nothing was touched, nothing was changed, no slider was moved. I simply opened the RAW file in the respective programmes and saved them out immediately. I should also mention that I shoot my RAW images with everything in-camera set to neutral.

It may be hard to see from the internet resolution, so I'll tell you what I see on my computer monitor in the comparison above. First, the Tiff file from Olympus Viewer is much sharper that the one from Lightroom. Much sharper. Which is odd, and somewhat surprising, since I read somewhere recently that Lightroom adds about 25% sharpening by default to all its RAW conversions (since RAW images are 'softer' out of camera). So I was expecting that the Lightroom Tiffs would be sharper than Olympus's. But it just ain't the case.

Second, the colours of the Olympus rendered Tiff look more 'accurate' to me. And not just more accurate, but also more vibrant. Blues are bluer and whites are whiter, whereas the Lightroom Tiffs introduce a slight colour shift.

And third, and again surprisingly (to me at least), the Olympus images have a lot less noise apparent in the image. And I mean a lot. Noise in the blue of the water in the above magnified crop is practically non-existent in the Olympus Tiff (shot at ISO 200). Whereas the Lightroom Tiff had obvious noise.

Lightroom Tiff on left, Olympus Tiff on right.
Again, the above comparison shows the Olympus Viewer 3 Tiff to be sharper, punchier, and yet truer in colour rendition. And this was a trend that continued shot after shot.

Lightroom on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
Sometimes the differences are subtle, but they are still definitely there. Olympus Viewer 3 just produces better conversions every time. And although initially this surprised me, when you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. RAW files are unique for each manufacturer. They encode them with their own 'special sauce' (so to speak) to differentiate them from others. So who best to 'unlock' that code than the manufacturer themselves. Adobe (and other third party software developers) have to reverse-engineer the RAW codes each and every time a new camera is released, which is why it sometimes takes a while for new cameras to be added to the Lightroom catalogue. They get their own conversion algorithms close - but not perfect. Olympus, of course, gets it perfect.

Lightroom on left, Olympus Viewer 3 on right.
Of all the examples, the one above perhaps illustrates best the benefits of using Olympus Viewer 3 over Lightroom. Again, these are straight, unaltered conversions of the same .orf RAW file. The colours are almost night and day different, and the results speak for themselves. I know which one I'd rather be using as a starting point for any further editing.

Of course you could tweak the Lightroom file to look like the Olympus file - you can almost do anything you like with a RAW file - that's the point of shooting RAW. But the Olympus software saves you that initial hassle by getting it right out of the box.

Final image, processed with Olympus Viewer 3 and edited in Photoshop CC
The final image is exactly what I wanted to portray with this shot. Yes, I could have got there by using Adobe Lightroom, but it would have taken a lot longer to fix up the colour and noise issues inherent in the Lightroom file, that simply didn't exist in the Olympus rendered file. It makes me wonder what software camera reviewers use when they give an opinion about the noise of certain cameras/sensors? Looking at the Lightroom Tiffs I would have said that the OM-D E-M5 Mk2 had a fairly noisy sensor - even at ISO 200. But look at the Olympus Viewer 3 Tiffs and it disappears.

So I may have become a convert to using Olympus Viewer 3 for my RAW conversions from now on? Yes, it is slower, and yes, it is clunkier. But at the same time it is also fairly intuitive and usable. And at the end of the day, the time you save not having to tweak the images further in Lightroom probably cancels out the slowness of the software.

I have also downloaded Corel's AfterShot Pro 3 RAW conversion software, which I will try against Olympus Viewer 3 next. But I have a feeling it's going to need to be mighty impressive to knock Viewer 3 off the top of the RAW Software perch. Very interesting indeed.