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. 

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Get a Grip! Review of the Olympus HLD-8

I’m a battery grip kinda guy. I love using them, and they are almost the first accessory I get when I have a camera (apart from the obligatory spare battery). Yes they add weight, and yes they add bulk – and that’s one of the reasons I like them. Up until switching to a mirrorless micro four thirds system I was of the ‘bigger and heavier is better” persuasion. It’s something I still sort of believe – to a point.

There are other reasons why I always opt for the grip. I like the portrait-orientation shutter button, the extra purchase it gives your hand, and the ability to add a second battery for extended shooting times. All things that, as a wedding photographer, I found very useful.

But I’m not a wedding photographer anymore. And I have ‘lightened’ my load by moving to the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk2. So why add a battery grip to the EM-5?

The HLD-8 comes in two sections. Genius!
For me, the addition of the HLD-8 grip for the EM-5 Mk2 makes sense for all the reasons mentioned above. It adds a portrait orientation shutter button. It adds an extra battery slot. It gives my hand more to grip onto when holding the camera, and it also adds a headphone jack for listening to audio when capturing video. The really clever design of the HLD-8 also means that you can have you cake and eat it too! Only want the extra grip portion for 90% of your shooting? Fine – just add the grip attachment (HLD-8G) section. Need more battery power (and an audio in for filming), then attach the additional battery section. Or leave the grip at home and just shoot with the camera. Lots of options. Ok, that last one you had anyway without paying for the grip – but you get what I mean.

Yet as much as I love battery grips, and always get one for whatever camera I own, it’s been almost a year with my EM-5 Mk2 and I’ve only just got the grip for it now. Why the long wait?

Mostly it was because I had convinced myself I shouldn’t get a grip for the EM-5 Mk2. With some camera decisions I make – especially if it’s a fairly costly one – I can occasionally suffer from analysis paralysis. The internet is a wonderful tool for learning and making ‘informed’ decisions about all sorts of gear – I contribute to this knowledge base myself with my blogs. But it can also subject us to information overload.

I read countless reviews on mirrorless systems, and on the Olympus EM-5 specifically, before deciding to buy one myself. And most of those reviews centred on going as light as possible and using just the body with two or three prime lenses. So that’s the way I was tempted go. Only a month or so after buying the body with 12-50mm EZ lens, I travelled to my nearest city to purchase the grip, but just couldn’t do it. I bought a 45mm f1.8 prime instead, and thought I’d done the right thing. Just me, my EM-5 Mk2, and some prime lenses against the world. Who cares about a big old grip – that’s just for DSLR users!

Trouble is, I’ve come to realise that I’m not a prime lens kinda guy. I’m a zoom lens guy. I LOVE the 12-50mm EZ lens, even if it is f6.3 at the long end. I LOVE the 40-150mm f4/5.6 as well – it’s so sharp and light (and cheap). Of course it would be great if they were faster. I would love to replace them one day with the PRO versions at a constant f2.8. But the 45mm f1.8 prime lens… not so much. I bought it, I used it once and I sold it. Same with the 17mm f2.8. I had grand delusions of being a hipster street shooter with a small camera and 17mm prime, but it’s just not me. Don’t get me wrong, they are amazing lenses. I’m just not a prime lens kinda guy. The next lens I have my eye on is the Olympus ultra-wide 9-18mm f4/5.6 lens, followed by the 75-300mm f4.8/6.7. There are rumours of a 30mm f2.8 macro coming soon – which is a prime lens that would interest me. But I’d be happy if my kit consisted entirely of zooms (with the exception of the 9mm fisheye bodycap lens).

Once I’d had this epiphany (it only took me 30 years), it freed me up to accept that the handling of my EM-5 Mk2 would be greatly improved, for me, if I added the extra grip. What tipped me over the edge was using the Olympus EM-1 recently (see my earlier post). The handling of that camera, with its large grip, was superb. With the extra grip attached, the EM-5 Mk2 looked like it would feel and handle similarly to the EM-1. So from that moment on I was sold.

So now that I have one, am I happy with it? Has it made a difference? You bet your sweet Nelly it has! My camera might be bigger and heavier now, but I don’t care. In fact, I like it better that way. It’s still nowhere near the size and weight of a 1D Mk3, or even a Canon 50D with battery grip and equivalent 24-100mm zoom lens attached. Not even close. But it has made a significant difference to the ergonomics and the handling of the EM-5 Mk2. It’s now much more comfortable (and secure) walking around carrying it one-handed (as is my want to do). The shutter button is now in a much more comfortable location – not to mention the second button for vertical shooting – and the added heft gives the camera a more stable and solid feeling when held up to the eye. Overall I’m a happy camper.

Also, with the grip attached, the cameras strap eyelet now has more room around it so my hand doesn’t rest up against it as much. This makes it far more comfortable for my hand than without the grip. Nice.

It’s not all roses though. With the grip attached, I now find accessing the function buttons on top of the camera to be a bit more awkward. Because the grip naturally moves your hand placement forward of the camera, accessing the function buttons means letting go of the grip altogether to reach them. So now it’s become very much a two-handed operation, whereas without the grip attached your shutter finger is within easy reach of these programmable buttons. A shame – but not a deal breaker. Maybe it’s something I need to get more used to?

Also, the grip completely covers the battery door at the bottom of the camera. So to change batteries in the camera you need to completely remove the grip. This isn’t hard to do of course, but just takes a little more time. To counteract this, Olympus have included an option in the menu (section K under battery options) that lets you choose which battery to use first – the one in the camera or the one in the grip. If you choose to use the one in the grip first, then once that is exhausted and it switches to the in-camera battery, just pop a fresh battery in the grip and it will start using that again. Simple.
Prime-only shooters will probably pass on the HLD-8 because of the extra weight it adds to the EM-5 Mk2. I totally get that. Maybe some should consider getting the HLD-8’G’ – just the grip portion of the unit (sans battery section)? But even that might be an unnecessary addition. If however, like me, you are more of a zoom shooter and feel that the handling of the EM-5 Mk2 could be improved if it were just a tad bigger, then the HLD-8 isn’t really an option, it’s a necessity. A beautifully made, cleverly designed and highly customisable necessity. 

Finally – just a word on what for me was the ‘elephant in the room’ so to speak – the price. At just a tad over $400NZ it certainly isn’t a cheap accessory. You can buy a 45mm f1.8 prime for that kind of money (and I did). Of course I wish it was half the price.  But after finally sucking it up and actually getting one, I’m very, very, very happy that I did.

And on that note – just a quick shout out to Hayden Himberg at Southern Cameras in Dunedin, here in New Zealand. Hayden stocks a great range of Olympus (and other) products and always seems to be able to get me what I want quickly and competitively priced. If you are looking for any kind of camera gear and live in New Zealand, give Hayden a call and see what he can do for you. Tell him I sent you :-)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Another short shoot - with a Canon 650D

I’m always keen to use different cameras when the opportunity arises. I used to review DLSR’s for a photography magazine here in New Zealand and could feed my camera addiction with a steady stream of cameras. Sadly, that stream has dried up. Now, I need to take my opportunities for using different gear any way I can. Sometimes that’s through friends who graciously loan me there cameras for a weekend. Other times it’s through things like work. One such chance presented itself recently, when I got to take a Canon 650D home for the weekend that belongs to the marketing department where I work.

I grew up on Canon gear. My first camera was a Canon T70, followed by a T90, and then on up through the various EOS lines of film and digital. The last camera I owned before switching to micro four thirds was the amazing Canon EOS 1D Mk3 – a beast (and beauty) of a camera. So I’m very at home with Canon camera equipment.

Generally, though, I’ve stayed away from the ‘Rebel’ line of cameras (although I did review a 400D for the magazine), preferring to use the more ‘advanced amateur’ or ‘semi pro’ models like the EOS 40D and full frame EOS 5D. In fact, when I made the move to digital about 10 years ago, I borrowed a Canon 350D and a Nikon D70 and tried them side by side. The 350D was horrible. Possibly the worst camera I’ve ever used. The Nikon D70 was hands-down the better camera, and so that’s what I bought. Fortunately, for Canon, their Rebel series of digital SLR’s has gotten much better. But I still wouldn’t buy one :-)

Dixon Park Band Rotunda. Canon 650D with 18-135mm STM IS f3.5/5.6 lens @ f8.
The 650D is something of a ‘limbo’ model (to my mind). It’s not a rank beginners model like the ‘thousand’ series cameras (1100D, 1200D etc), yet nor is it considered a camera for ‘serious’ photographers (like a 70 or 80D). In that sense, I’m not entirely sure who the 650D is aimed at exactly? If I owned a 1200D and found myself seriously getting into photography as a hobby, then I think I’d skip the 650D and go straight for the 80D – or even something like the 7D? In fact, this is exactly the scenario that a work colleague went through last month. She bought a 1100D to ‘get into’ photography, and has just opted for a 70D as her next camera because she didn’t see the value in ‘upgrading’ to the triple digit camera line. And neither do I quite frankly.

So for the reasons outlined above, I find it very difficult to recommend the Canon 650D (or 760D, or whatever triple digital Canon you care to name). If you’re just starting out in photography and don’t have a lot of money to spend, I’d actually recommend you go for a used Canon 40D or 50D (again, if you simply had to have a Canon).

Dixon Park Trees. Canon 650D with 18-135mm STM IS lens @ f8. Chromatic aberration and purple fringing is evident. 
Why a 40/50D instead? Three reasons. First – build quality. The 650D is of mostly plastic construction – although don’t get me wrong, it’s still well put together. Plastic cameras have more than proven themselves over the last ten years (and have come a very long way since the 350D). The 650D feels solid in the hand, and very well put together. There’s no creaking or moving of joins. But I still think that the more rugged, magnesium alloy construction of the 40 or 50D is the way to go.

Sculpture Park. Canon 650D with 18-135mm STM IS lens @ f5.6
Second – important features for photographers. When you move ‘up’ to the likes of the 50D from the 650D, then you get a faster, more responsive, weather sealed camera with a larger/brighter viewfinder. All the things that actually make a difference when taking photos. No, the 50D doesn’t have a flippy-out touch screen. So what? No, the 50D doesn’t shoot video. Who cares (unless, of course, you do)? 18MP vs 15MP. Seriously? It’s not an issue. It may be ‘older’ but in terms of picture taking, I just think the 50D is the better camera for the job. And it just gets better if you’re looking at the 60D, 70D or 80D instead (although oddly enough I think the 60D is a step backwards in terms of construction).

Cranes at the Wharf. Canon 650D
Third – ergonomics. How a camera handles when taking photos. I’ve left the best, and most important, until last. Don’t underestimate the user experience when taking a photo. It is, in fact, crucial to the enjoyment and experience of photography. If a camera works with you to create images, then you are more likely to want to use it. If it works against you…. well, you get the idea.

With my brief experience using the Canon 650D, I felt it was a camera that was working against me taking pictures. For example, the exposure compensation button is in a very bizarre, hard to reach place, and has to be held in while changing the value. A small thing maybe, but it drove me nuts! The scroll wheel on the back of a 40/50/60/70/80D is a much more intuitive and user-friendly way of changing exposure values on the fly, without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

But speaking of taking your eye away from the viewfinder – the experience of shooting with a DSLR, whatever the model, would now be enough to drive me crazy. Photographers talk about ‘chimping’ – taking a photo and immediately looking on the back of the camera to see what you’ve got. It’s a derogatory term, but if you shoot with a DLSR with an optical viewfinder, then it’s almost impossible not to chimp at least 50% of the time! Shooting digitally means we have tools like the histogram and highlight/shadow warnings at our disposal to check exposure. So you’re going to use them – right? But you get zero feedback about exposure with a DLSR when looking through the optical viewfinder. So you shoot, you chimp, and you change the exposure value. You shoot again, chimp again, and change the exposure value. You compose another image, shoot, chimp, check the exposure, change the exposure, and shoot again. Ad nauseam.

Historic Coal Wagons. Canon 650D with 18-135mm STM IS lens @f8
 If it taught me anything, shooting briefly with the Canon 650D taught me how great it truly is to shoot with a camera that uses a state-of-the-art electronic viewfinder. The day before using the Canon 650D I had shot all afternoon with my Olympus OMD EM-5 Mk2, and the user experience was night and day. Whereas my time with the 650D was very stop-start, the EM-5 Mk2 was almost never away from my eye, and I never once looked at the lcd screen on the back (it was flipped around and closed on the back of the camera). All the exposure information I needed was accessed through the EVF while the camera was up to my eye. It’s such a superior shooting experience that I can’t imagine going back now.

Greymouth History House Museum. Canon 650D with 18-135mm STM IS lens @f8
There’s nothing wrong with the images you get from the Canon 650D. With the 18-135mm STM f3.5/5.6 IS ‘kit’ lens they were sharp, colourful and contrasty. All you would want from a digital file. I just didn’t enjoy the experience of creating them.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Short Shoot with Olympus EM-1

Recently I was asked by the marketing department where I work to do a photo shoot for promotional purposes. I was very excited to do so (and a little nervous since it’s been a while). I work for a Polytechnic, so the shoot was to revolve around student life and the images needed to be generic enough to be used for various marketing material.

The photography planets must have aligned that week, because at almost exactly the same time, my local camera shop offered me the chance to take away an Olympus OMD EM-1 with Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens for an afternoon. It’s been sitting on their shelf for about a year now, and I gaze at it longingly every time I’m in the store, so I’m fairly sure they expected me to love it so much that I would buy it and not give it back!?  And it was close – so very close….

Unfortunately I can’t post any images from the actual photo shoot itself, since it was an ‘official’ job for my employer. So really, this is just going to be my impressions from using this set-up. I only had it for a few hours, but in those few hours I used the camera exclusively and intensely for a range of portrait and lifestyle images, with just the 12-40mm f2.8.

Yes, I know, I broke the cardinal rule in photography – never use new/unfamiliar gear for the first time on a ‘real’ shoot. But while the EM-1 was a new camera for me, it is also similar enough to my OMD EM-5 Mk2 that I wasn’t fumbling around looking for buttons or dials that would slow me down. No, it’s not exactly the same – but close enough. I did have a couple of hours with the EM-1 to set it up the way I wanted and to familiarise myself with its layout – which certainly helped. And the menu system is practically identical, which also helped. So using new gear straight away on a job doesn’t really phase me as much as it probably should :-)

What were my impressions of the EM-1? In a word – fantastic! I can certainly see why it’s the top of Olympus’ micro four thirds OMD line. Ergonomically I found it vastly superior to my EM-5 Mk2 – meaning that it fit my hand and balanced with the 12-40mm more comfortably, which is probably not surprising. In fact, going back to the EM-5 Mk2 after using the EM-1 was a bit disappointing, which was something I wasn’t really prepared for. In all honesty, the EM-5 Mk2 felt like a toy after using the EM-1 for the afternoon. It made me realise that the EM-5 could really use the grip attachment for better handling, even though I’ve resisted the temptation (and expense) so far.

In all other respects the EM-1 shoots similarly to the EM-5 Mk2 (and original EM-5 I’m sure). It’s quick to focus, has the same gorgeous EVF, same hi-res lcd screen (although it’s not fully articulated – something that I do prefer on the EM-5 Mk2), and produces the same 16MP files. In short, it was a joy to use and I’d have one in an instant – if I could afford one.

Alas, I had to hand the camera and lens back at the end of the day. And despite their best efforts, I didn’t put any money down on it. If I won lotto things would certainly be different. But until then, the OMD EM-5 Mk2 will (more than) suffice. I could possibly sell my EM-5 Mk2 and get enough for a second-hand EM-1 body. But there are pros and cons for both cameras. I really do prefer a fully articulated lcd screen – if for nothing else than to be able to reverse the screen into the body so as not to use the screen most of the time. That’s not possible with the EM-1, although the rumours are that the upcoming EM-1 Mk2 will have the fully articulated screen. So maybe I will hold off for the Mk2 version?

Finally, a quick word (or two) on the Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. It’s a superbly made lens, and the images that come from it are crisp and gorgeous – even at f2.8. Is it too heavy for a micro four thirds lens? Not really on the EM-1 – but possibly on the other OMD bodies? Especially naked (and by that I mean sans battery grips). The copy I used had a fairly stiff zoom ring – not as smooth as I would have liked, although I assume this would loosen up over time? And while the constant f2.8 aperture is nice to have, in the micro four thirds system this gives an equivalent depth of field as an f5.6 lens on a full frame SLR. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have a constant f2.8 aperture than not – but when you effectively double it for the purposes of producing bokeh, then the f2.8 starts to be less impressive. That’s when the 45mm f1.8 comes into its own. All that being said, there’s no doubt the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro is an exceptional walk-around lens on the EM-1 body.